When You’re Ready

6,400 words

In the morning, when the fog lies thick and heavy on the water, I sit at my workbench and seed the next simulant. It takes fourteen double-C commands to move the digital embryo into the simulation tank and begin the process. The tank thrums to life and the computer flashes the confirmation message. All of this happens in less than thirty seconds, fingers made nimble and automatic by muscle memory.

The first light of day filters in through the haze and I move to the south wall to watch as tendrils of mist are illuminated on the shore, smoky fingers reaching up through the rocks as with some unfriendly intent. By noon, when the sun is high and blinding, the seed will be fully rooted and thriving. The tank will ping to alert the new arrival and the simulation will begin in earnest. In approximately thirteen weeks, the trial will be complete.

And that’s not so very long.

I place my forehead against the window but the entire wall is dashboard glass and this only prompts Diane.

“Pardon me, but you have activated—”

I silence the dashboard and settle into the sensation of contact. The glass is cool and refreshing against my skin. I imagine it energizing me by degrees, ignoring the pulsing images in my eyelids that keep time with my heartbeat, willing away the headache building in my temples and the back of my skull. When I open my eyes and pull back, the landscape appears brighter. I check my wrist reflexively, but I’m not wearing a watch. It doesn’t matter what time it is; it’s morning on day one. The first week begins.

And thirteen weeks is not so very long. How many times have we performed this work before? How many spans of thirteen weeks in our forty-three years, for that matter?

“Fifty percent opacity,” I tell Diane. The light dims as she blanks the southern wall. In the upper-left corner of the central glass pane, the counter has begun. It reads: Day 01, 00:12.

I move through the clutter of papers on the living room floor, skirt around the table with its various hardware and blinking lights, and into the kitchen. The coffee machine is an antique drip with timer, and it delivers five shrill tones to announce a full carafe. I choose from a collection of unwashed mugs in the sink, rinse one briefly, and pour. The temperature is perfectly controlled to a steaming but potable 90 degrees Celsius.

Ninety degrees. That’s almost as many degrees as there are days in thirteen weeks. If you look carefully you can find those little connections everywhere. It’s a good number, thirteen. What’s more, it’s a strong number, lucky. Thirteen is the seventh number in the Fibonacci sequence, and seven—that’s another lucky one. Thirteen is also a prime, and there’s something undeniably beautiful about a number that can only be divided by one and itself. You might say that we’re like the prime number. Divisible only by ourselves. Who better to carve up the various pieces of our lives, to analyze them moment by moment, year by year?

For centuries, thirteen was considered taboo, but this only emboldens me. It makes no sense for numbers to be malicious, cursed, unlucky. Numbers are what hold the universe together. What make all of this possible.

I wave my arm slowly in the direction of the living room, taking care not to spill the coffee in hand, as if to emphasize the point. But the sleep debt I’ve accrued makes my thoughts disjointed and my intent hazy. Is it your simulation you speak of, or perhaps the world beyond, the endless blanket of fog that spreads to envelop everything?

“You tell me, Diane,” I respond. But we haven’t been talking and the dashboard has learned to ignore this phrase. I place my hand against the counter and lean back until my hips make contact. Raise the coffee mug and sip slowly, eyes on the dim blankness through the windows, and in the foreground, the simulation tank whirring and flashing its green indicator light in time with my heartbeat, the buzzing metronome echoing in my head, the pulsing on my skin and in my bones.

Thirteen weeks remaining.

§

The first run was a good one, but fundamentally flawed. It started out like all that would follow: gestation was smooth and finished without incident. The simulant was a healthy boy, born of the best environmental conditions: all the necessary nutrients were supplied, no sudden movements or impacts, cortisol levels low. A soothing white noise and the gentle thumping of mother’s heartbeat to lull him through those forty prenatal weeks. At automation speed this takes the computer twelve hours to simulate.

The household was built with exacting parameters: a two-story home on the coast, surrounded by trees packed tightly like neatly-trimmed code. An older brother, of course: Jeong. He was almost two when the simulant was born, and he cared for the baby, both as family to be protected and plaything for amusement. Playtime was limited to maintain optimal conditions: no throttling the newborn, hands wrapped tightly about the neck, Jeong beaming a beautiful smile, his loving intent unclear beneath the marks he always left. No, this Jeong was more careful, more doting. He loved the simulant as a parent would. He taught his younger brother the most important elements of living well: how to read, where mom hid the sugary snacks, how to swipe into the video account on the handheld for Disney cartoons.

He did not teach the toddler to turn on the stovetop glass. He did not teach him to place both hands on the surface, “like you’re playing the drums!” He did not laugh and hoot at the sounds of his brother’s screaming.

There is nuance to this, of course. It became apparent in the first dozen runs that the head injury at two years old could not be avoided. Painful though it was to watch the tiny simulant with blood pouring from his scalp and into his eyes, this would be a necessary event. It would never be clear why Jeong pushed his brother from the staircase, but the computer code requires no motivation. Removing that moment from the environmental context code would render the simulant too soft, too fragile.

Eleven days into the simulation, running at review and response speed, the first simulant was pummeled in the elementary school bathroom, a weak kindergartner taking blows from a monstrous second-grader. He had not been alert to the footsteps echoing down the hallway, ears ever pricked up for the slightest of movement. He had not been prepared when the door swung open and slammed against the bathroom wall. It did not matter that I had written the code, that I had programmed this very incident. The simulant’s response was organic; it could only be directed, not programmed.

This one was not directed carefully enough. Some preparation was lacking, some vital caution that the original Jeong had driven into his younger brother. It would have to be harnessed while leaving the fewest scars possible. Without it, there were too many hazards lying in wait to prey upon his innocence. This simulation was all downhill after kindergarten. It was scrapped in the fourth week after a suicide attempt at age fourteen.

§

There would be many like the original sim, the first branch on this sprawling, bifurcating tree. I thought of these as the first-gens, although really, they were just the first chapter: they were all about preparing for the ultimate childhood showdown. There was a balance to be struck between the relationship with Jeong and the inevitability of the bathroom incident at age five. Almost all followed a similar timeline, with occasional random deviations. The simulant often hid during the bathroom encounter in kindergarten, safe for another day, a showdown with no climax, itself a type of resolution: refusing to choose action is, in itself, a choice.

There was one unusual first-gen sim who actually stood his ground during the bathroom incident. Pretended to be washing his hands while his attacker approached from behind for the headlock. But as he reached forward, the sim grabbed him by the arm and pulled him full-force into the mirror. Shattered it to pieces and broke the boy’s nose. It was a triumph of childhood. This sim was well-indoctrinated by Jeong, but perhaps too well. At ten years old, he shone with joy as his parents brought home their very first puppy. The simulant later took it out back and opened it up from neck to groin, “out of curiosity.” The simulation was terminated in the third week.

It does not take long for the latest newborn to move through his first chapter. I watch with mild interest as he is born and goes through the first years of his life, at home in mid-coast Maine. Review and response is unnecessary at this age: the environmental code has been reworked and refined dozens of times. Mom and Dad remain invested, only a bit more than the first go-round. Too much doting has proven to fundamentally change the path of the simulant. They make sure he is cared for, Jeong beats a toughness into him that falls just on this side of abuse. He hears the second grader coming down the hall and exits the bathroom early, just in time to meet him at the doorway.

I adjust the tank speed to a crawl and scan the sim’s face, displayed in towering two-dimensions on the dashboard glass. The exact conditions of this encounter are new. With the door thrown open, he runs directly into the boy, surprising them both. The momentary loss of poise can be seen in the code of each boy, scrolling lines of text in the corner of the glass. And perhaps it’s enough to throw the attacker off his game. He pushes the sim and grimaces with anger. The sim pushes back. There’s a defiance on his face that gives the attacker pause. And then the encounter is over.

Nicely done, I muse. I blank the dashboard glass and all that remains is the counter in a soft white font against the grey haze of the world beyond. Day 11, 08:36.

§

The days that follow are the blur of the coastal fog that rests upon everything like a final, damning edict. I hover between the coffee machine and the simulation tank, amped up until the tremors are smooth and the mind blank, a zen-like present tense that feels of nothing. I toggle the dashboard, alternating between the endless lines of code and the flat, two-dimensional rendering of events in fast-forward. The moments between kindergarten and sixth grade are fairly constant lately, but there’s no telling how this new calm determination might play for the simulant. I keep the pace just above review-and-response, the editing speed that allows me to catch pitfalls in environmental code and adjust accordingly, lest the social context of the simulant’s world affect an undesirable change. The tank continues to hum and whir, the green light blinking in pace with the speed of simulation.

The tank itself is nothing more than a Rorcan-Platinum processor chip with an NVIDIA graphics card and 2 TB of RAM in titanium housing, the whole assembly submerged in distilled water to prevent burn-out. Early models were either too slow to accurately simulate events or ended explosively. The workbench bears the unfortunate results of these missteps in patches of dark, like oil on the surface of water.

Beyond the glass, the tide is out and clam diggers high-step through the mud flats, waders to their knees or torsos. The mist envelops them in turns, ghosts moving carefully across the empty plain of dark, emerging from and disappearing into nothingness. Once, in some unlikely past, there were gates at the top of the hill, metal placards warning off these hopeful entrepreneurs, nothing more than downtrodden locals with kitchens bare and no work for miles. When the plant went critical, there were two thousand residents in the five-mile fallout radius. Something like five joules of radiation took out the first half. The second would fall to unemployment and the dehydrating heat to come.

The solar array here still pumps excess back into the grid, not that anyone is drawing power anymore. The batteries are sodium-ion banks that can only store so much. There’s nothing to be done with the rest.

With my hands on the coffee pot again—cold for how many hours now?—my eyes slip briefly to the industrial food printing unit. I consider for a moment, imagine biting into something solid, the energy of chewing, of swallowing. Would it dull the stinging pain in my stomach or only add to it?

§

The awkward fumbling chapter of middle school is where we find our simulant at his most vulnerable. It is the first moment he truly knows love on a visceral, heart-crushing level. He can see now how empty and meaningless the phrase his mother always bandied about, absently chanting those three simple words with eyes glued to the dashboard glass, her media accounts churning out the pristine lives of urban mothers in their high-rise castles, all gloss and glimmer. He responded in kind, but he realizes now the crucial element that was always missing: to look in the eyes of another, direct contact with the soul, instant uplink like a satellite feed.

The simulant holds hands with the boy in the falling light of a summer evening, sun just starting to dip into the sea even at eight o’clock. I slow the simulation speed to watch as he locks eyes with the fair-haired classmate, the close friend with whom he’s spent endless hours in VR, storming enemy bases on some far-off planet. Or stolen knowing glances from across the room in detention, each boy writing out his half-hearted apology for the playful impulses of adolescence.

It lasts only a moment, but it’s the only moment that seems to matter. I relish the fourth week for this brief encounter. What does he know in this moment, his clammy hands but lines of code gripping fiercely the code of the simulation? I bump the rendering to VR and slip the goggles over my eyes, jack into the tank port, and shift vantage point to that of the fair-haired boy. Gaze deeply into the eyes of the simulant at quarter-speed, search that twelve-year-old face for some indication of the thoughts within. What does he think in this moment, what does it make him feel? Is his stomach turning over, are his arms and legs electrified, does his head spin with the giddy solution to a puzzle long elusive?

I toggle to code and try to read these things in the lines of text. The simulant seed is nothing more than DNA, the combination of his parents’ chromosomes, a digital zygote with an infinite chain of possibilities branching out from the single choice made at each fork in the road to follow. And as events in the tank change his operating protocols, the code is rewritten, future branches highlighted or invalidated.

He’s never before considered that his first love would be this boy, that he could love a boy, that such a thing might be part of his universe. You can’t read it in the lines of code, but it’s something I already know.

In the countless runs that have come before, this event has remained unchanged. On the day that he plans to ask Sophie Wright to the sixth-grade graduation dance, he sits on the rocky shore, past the woods beyond his house, pushing playfully at the boy until their hands connect and fingers interlock. He looks into Jacob’s eyes and a jolt passes through them both, unexpected fireworks within.

Through Jacob’s eyes in the VR render, I watch as the simulant’s pupils dilate and his breath catches in his throat. That’s the moment he falls in love and everything changes.

§

Could he know then the dangers of this unconditional connection, how fragile the soul when exposed to another? Did he start building the wall in this moment, or were the first bricks laid even years previously, inspired by the tortures of his older brother? It would be hard to find in the simulant’s code. The intricacies of the individual mind are not so simplistic as the AIs of the simulation tank. Programming the darker predilections of Jeong didn’t require a PhD in psychology. I don’t need to know what’s inside his head to program the actions that result.

They say our identities are a consequence of the free choices that we make. But which is more responsible for our individual choices: the response styles pre-programmed into our DNA, or the situational context in which we find ourselves?

They used to think we would find an indicator in the genome for these behavioral responses. Like computer code, expertly organized to direct each movement and desire. Or that we wouldn’t. That we could put the nature or nurture argument to rest. But as with all forks in the road, it became quickly obvious the importance of both elements. The DNA that seeds our individual experiences is only the starter pack. From the moment we’re born, the environmental context begins to reshape our decks, adds to and subtracts from the cards we’re able to play.

I adjust the environmental context code as necessary after setting the simulant’s world into motion. With each failed run, some new detail shows itself in full color, rears its head to be removed or enhanced as necessary. There is nuance, though, as I’ve said. Like a surgeon with his scalpel, the incisions must be careful, delicate. Intentional. Even the slightest error can have disastrous results. Not that the simulant would notice any of this.

For him, the events and residents of the simulation tank are the only reality he’s ever known. A total re-scripting of a friend or family member would be too much, too bizarre. It would seem like a mental break. So, the shifts happen infrequently. By degrees. And always to keep the sim on the desired path.

I watch as he moves through adolescence, adding to the bank of memories and myriad emotions experienced. The joy that Jacob brought through two years of adventure, in and out of school, along the rocky shore in their backyards, in the treehouse they built deep in the woods of Lincoln County. The heartache of Jacob’s departure when his family moved to Texas, of all places. The many other boys and girls that the sim would become infatuated with, the short but fiery relationships wherein he poured his soul out and into his partners, exacting the promises of an endless eternity.

He is a child through it all, but the trend continues into college.

The sim has a genetic makeup that marks him for topline intellectual acuity in 100% of runs, so we must assume that it is a constant in the seed code. The only way to account for this is the DNA gifted him by his parents. The drive of his mother, frenetic and focused on all the wrong things but focused nonetheless. Add to this the genius of his father, first a neurosurgeon, then an upload operator. Once human consciousness had been mapped by his Caltech team of doctors and computer scientists, neurosurgery became a thing of the past. It was just so much easier to upload the mind into a fresh body, cloned from the cells of the original. In the metro districts that still have power, I imagine the elite continue to upload with every aging body, approaching some strangely science-fictive immortality.

His father was just this type of intellectual giant who provided half of the simulant’s genetic code. It was no wonder the sim, born of this genome, would reach such heights of academic ability, of motivation. Would become such an obsessive scientist himself, reach such staggering depths of workaholism. Although perhaps you might call it devotion.

It’s the devotion he is not able to offer his partners. In the eighth week of the simulation, I watch at response speed to pick up the common tell-tales. There’s an aloofness after the first few dates, a detachment that begins too early. He abandons social events for the quiet study carrels of the university library. Hours stretch into days of work in the organic chemistry lab where he clones his first lizard, then guinea pig, then human embryo.

I rewrite his artificial partners. Perhaps a steadier hand, more encouragement, a maturity that the sim has yet to attain as doctoral student in his twenty-eighth year. They could teach him this openness, demonstrate this connection. Help to allay the deep-seated fear, to carry that load, to remove the bricks one by one. Somewhere within the actions and words of his partners, friends, and family is the key that will unlock what was once trepidation, anxiety. Has ballooned into full-blown paralysis.

This key arrives finally in his penultimate year of schooling, as he embarks on his fieldwork at Rorcan Industries, in the form of a wiry lab technician, freckled and bespectacled and a mess of red curls atop his head.

At thirty-one years old, in the ninth week of the simulation, he meets Erik Jolme.

§

He’s easy to program, Erik. The base code comes from a DNA sample and holo-photo of the original. He’s younger than the simulant by three years, two months, and twelve days, and this triggers a protective-caregiver response in him. Maybe it’s the way Erik’s sideways smirk reminds him of twelve-year-old Jacob, nearly two decades absent. Maybe it’s the sheepish way he looks over his rectangular-framed glasses from behind the microscope, stealing glances as if guilty of some puppy’s indiscretion. Or perhaps it was Jeong that developed the caretaker in this simulant, paradoxically stitching this primary directive into the young recipient of his relentless goading: as a living, breathing organism, it is your obligation to protect life at all costs.

This is how he comes to care for Erik: as protector, as support. But Erik does not need this quite so much as the simulant, who has already erected a wall of stone and iron, barbed-wiring and shards of glass and the placards emblazoned upon his stoic face: Keep Out. It’s a challenge, but not insurmountable. It is not the challenge of simulants past: those walls of towering ramparts, hot pitch ready to pour on suitors at the gate, or flaming arrows to rain down upon the enemy, seen in every passerby, acquaintance, every slinking shadow in the night. The perfect apprentice to carry Jeong’s torch, made in the undiluted image of his older brother.

No, this simulant is salvageable, but just. The balance is delicate. In the scrolling code can be read his uncertainty, his hesitation. It’s seen in blood pressure and pulse, the catching of breath, the tightening of the jaw muscles. And at the momentary locking of eyes with the young technician, smirking and blushing and turning aside, the softening of the simulant’s tension. The electrodermal responsiveness of the skin. It’s clearly visible in the code that spills across the dashboard glass, highlighted by the dense fog enveloping the house. It’s as clear as a VR render.

I throttle speed up to automation and let several months pass in the simulation tank. Erik’s code is designed to pursue the simulant and requires little on-the-ground tweaking. The simulant runs organically and can only respond to his seed code, developed behavior patterns, and environmental cues. It will not take long before they move fully into each other’s orbits.

I push back from the table and keyboard. There’s an aching stiffness in my arms that spreads throughout my trunk and into my legs. I stretch deeply and slowly get to my feet.

“Let me know when they come into physical contact,” I tell the room.

“Acknowledged,” responds Diane. She’ll be four hours before she pings me, give or take. It’s dusk or dawn, probably, judging from the ambient light through the fog. I glance at the simulation clock for a hint. It reads: Day 73, 14:37, but it doesn’t reflect the time of day. The analog in the kitchen is showing 6:45, which also doesn’t help.

I’m overcome by a need for sodium. Print a bowl of salted peanuts, beef jerky, and a glass of yellow Gatorade. I quaff the sweet and sticky drink in several gulps and take the bowl of peanuts upstairs. Two floors up in the glass-domed observatory, I’m only mildly surprised to see that the blanket of fog reaches a mere ten meters, to the second story of the house.

Beyond, a sea of gray, kilometers of nothing to the south. In the middle distance to the east is Harper’s lighthouse, reaching through the blanket of fog, empty of light these past ten years. Not even the lamp remains: electrical components were the first to go when the looting began. I can only imagine where the megawatt bulb is right now. Probably nowhere, illuminating nothing. Poking through the rubble of a derelict compound, glass shattered, filaments exposed.

Not that there’s need of a lighthouse; not many ships on the water these days.

I chew a handful of peanuts thoughtfully for several minutes, thoroughly and completely, savoring the tang and the slow, methodical muscle contractions in my face and neck. Stretch on tiptoes, twist left and right. Sit down on the rounded sofa and recline for just a moment.

§

It’s a moment that stretches on for an eternity. The light outside creates a soft glow that can be seen through the eyelids. I consider it briefly before I’m pulled under and into the dream.

The dream is not new, but the simulant is. His base seed code is drawn from the DNA of higher beings, stronger ones. His 46 chromosomes are perfectly aligned to presage a social-emotional balance heretofore unknowable. Procured from the most perfect of stock, a newborn selected from the curated donor catalogues of the IVF clinics: the sperm, a mixed-race with strong bones, incredible mental endurance, a propensity for hard work, the ability to see the best in others. The egg is young, the mother has never been sick a day in her life. The lab is sterile, the equipment state-of-the-art.

He’s born into a family with six older siblings on a farm in Newfoundland. There’s no electricity, but the weather is perfect for year-round harvest, never dropping below 20 degrees Celsius on even the coldest of winter days. There is love all around him; it is poured into this empty vessel, open and eager to integrate the life that flourishes on all sides. At two years old, he is chasing hens and learning to carefully collect their eggs each morning. By four, he is tending the milk cows and setting the table. He sleeps on a bed of straw and wool blankets, knit from the sheep they shear each spring, which he learns to do (with help from his older sisters) when he is six. His brothers teach him that it’s okay to cry after he kills his first deer. His father is doting and sings him to sleep each night. His mother is firm but exudes a warmth that wraps him up like a protective blanket. He learns the value of hard work, he learns to love his fellow man and woman. By adolescence, his personal values are already rigid as stone: the prime objective in life is to care for, and be ever mindful of, the needs of others.

When the man or woman of his dreams finally appears, he is ready.

His path along this bifurcating tree is easy to direct because the forks do not represent wildly diverging futures. His environmental context offers the best of options at each decisive moment.

At four, he narrowly avoids a fall from the hayloft and learns the value of responsible play. He takes care from then on, remembering the sickly swimming sensation in his stomach as gravity pulled him over the edge before he was grabbed by the overalls and pulled back into his sister’s firm grip.

Or: He falls from the hayloft and breaks both legs. The incident cripples him but briefly; it redoubles his fierce determination to push beyond his limits. He joins a local youth cross-country team at eight years old. They practice on the overgrown track of the derelict high school, empty these past ten years since the public grids went down. By twelve, his legs are stronger than ever; he’s the fastest boy in the surrounding villages.

When he’s fifteen, his father survives the worst influenza in a decade or more. There’s nothing to fight it with; it’s a marvel he pulls through. He’s a constant reminder of the fragility of life, the importance to make the most of every single day. A stalwart symbol of the impermanence of all things, but also the strength of his family in trying times.

Or: His father succumbs to the worst influenza in a decade or more. There’s nothing to fight it with; he draws his final breath with a resigned but warm smile, gazing into the simulant’s eyes. Forever after, he’s a constant reminder of the fragility of life. The simulant cannot help but recognize the importance of every single moment. He carries a Polaroid of his father with him for the rest of his days: a stalwart symbol of the impermanence of all things, but also of the strength of family.

There are no bad turns. Each choice is the right one, each situation offers an infinite assortment of options that lead our simulant to his destiny. There are no mishaps that cannot be turned to the positive. There are no lessons that crush his spirit or derail him. There are no predispositions to anxiety, depression, fear. There is only openness, a love for his fellow human.

It’s played out against that backdrop of haze, the overcast sky of our constant present. He’s born and lives and loves and dies in a world of warm air and warm bodies. There’s no poison in the earth or contamination in the water. There’s nothing to fear and nothing to hide. In the upper-left corner of his universe is the simulation tank counter, his days moving past the thirteen-week mark and into the triple digits, then quadruple. The simulation code is not even slotted into a cloned bio-form; there’s no reason to be.

In the moment before waking, my dream-addled brain attempts to imagine a reservoir for such a string of simulant code. What mythical, flesh-and-blood super human awaits in what expertly constructed bio-vat, ready for the ultimate upload of such a simulant? In fast-forward, I watch the germination of the bio-form, the splitting of cells and the man they become in the industry-standard three-meter tank; an enormous petri dish with its sleeping human, consciousness absent until the simulant code is ready for transfer.

As Diane pings four shrill tones throughout the house and I come back to reality, I wake with those words in my head and my throat, almost on the tip of my tongue. … the simulant code is ready for transfer …

§

It’s still day, but the light has changed.

Below, on the dashboard glass, the code scrolls elevated heart-rate and rich, life-changing revelation. The simulant is imagining some complex future scenario intricately connected to Erik Jolme. I toggle to 2D-render and watch with the ache of nostalgia in my heart. They’re sitting on a park bench in the southwest quadrant of the Rorcan Industrial complex. It’s some impossibly beautiful spring day and Erik’s hair has grown into his eyes. The simulant reaches up on nothing but instinct: no thoughts or plans or conscious direction. On autopilot, he brushes the red curls aside and lets his hand linger on Erik’s face. Their eyes meet.

Embedded in the corner of the dashboard, the code continues to scroll, an explosive double-time script that stutters and pauses and gushes forth like the pounding heart of the simulant.

“Show me their eyes,” I tell Diane. The dashboard goes split-screen and both Erik and the simulant are staring out at me. Pupils dilated, fear and longing and terror and bliss within them both. It’s a look I’ve seen a hundred times or more. On the table, the simulation tank whirs and clicks. The indicator light is blinking so rapidly it’s become a blur.

“How long until the final incident?” I ask the room.

“Two years simulation, five days real-time,” Diane responds.

“Who breaks it off?”

“There is a 100% probability that Erik Jolme ends the relationship.”

“And after? Will the simulant be ready?”

Diane pauses for so long, I’m surprised to hear her voice when she finally responds. I’m lost in this first moment, watching the scene in half-simulation speed.

“Opportunity peaks at 23%, ten years following end of relationship. The chance that the simulant is ready diminishes steadily in each following year.”

She pulls up the simulations catalogue. It scrolls and scrolls. Finally, we reach the bottom of the list and she adds the current entry.

simulant 592: 23%

In another life, two or three or five years ago, when the process was fresh and the future unwritten, this might have registered some sensation within me. I search around in my chest and my gut for some indication. There is not the characteristic crushing blow of the first thirty or forty runs. There is no gnawing despair eating its way in from the haze beyond the dashboard glass. I feel what might be the gentle stab of hunger in my stomach, or maybe an ulcer. My head is cocooned by a blanket of thick cotton. My vision is the blank blur of the outer sky, a fluffy mound of wool freshly sheared from an army of sheep, bouncing through the pastures of some imaginary Newfoundland farm.

“Please advise,” Diane says.

“Toggle to code,” I tell her. I don’t need to see this scene unfold. I don’t want to know whether the hunger pang in my gut blossoms into the cresting wave of longing, forever unsatisfied. “Run him to the end and let me know what happens.”

It will be ten days real-time before the simulation is complete, and nothing to be done in the interim. Environmental code is meaningless now. Erik is the only thing in the universe who matters, and he’s written to a completion that falls as close to perfect as is humanly possible. What matters is the 33 years of experience behind our simulant, the way his behavior has been shaped by the events of his life.

It should be easier, of course. We should be able to write the simulant’s code at any age. How much easier to program a simulant who is the strong warrior of Newfoundland, made to love and be loved and to build no walls inside or out. To live a life of connection and welcome vulnerability and acceptance of all the things he cannot be. To know the beauty within himself and all he encounters, to know the perfection of his own imperfection. To be at peace in his own skin.

We couldn’t write a full-grown being like that. There’s no way to just write the complexity of a human adult consciousness; any upload operator will agree. Still, that wouldn’t stop us from seeding the DNA of the dream-simulant or writing an environmental context code that puts him in that dream-family on some dream-farm. But it wouldn’t be the same; it wouldn’t be this simulant. It would be some other entity, someone we’ve never met. More importantly, someone Erik has never met; someone he would never recognize.

I leave Diane to run the sim and descend again to the underground, where the bio-form waits like some basement-dwelling ghost. In the dim light of the cellar, the vat rises three meters from the floor, a cylinder of glass filled with the saline-hydrogen containment solution and, within it, the floating form of a forty-three-year-old male, perfectly sculpted and oxygenated through the thin tube running into his nose. The strange sensation of staring into a mirror is no longer discomforting. We’ve been at this for a while, my clone and I.

On the desktop dashboard beside the bio-tank, vital signs are within normal range and the solar array continues to provide ample power. Pinned to the corkboard above the desk is the photo of us in those early days, before I lost Erik to my insurmountable psychic blocks. Before the walls that Jeong began cementing were completed, un-scalable. Before the fear drove me from the only man who could see my demons, who was able and willing to fight alongside me.

I can’t even remember where we took this photo, but in the distance, behind our rosy, smiling faces, snow-laden branches paint a picture of some distant past, those winters that are years long gone. On the back of the picture is Erik’s perfect script in ballpoint pen.

When you’re ready, it reads, come find me.

It was all that was left of him when I returned to our apartment that fateful day. And I knew, in that moment, somewhere deep within my being, in some voice that spoke the inescapable truth, that I would never, never be ready. I had not been built that way. The 43 years of my environmental context have made that abundantly clear. I will never be ready, no.

But he will. I put my hand against the bio-tank glass and let the coolness sink into me. He’s been growing and waiting a long time now, but soon the wait will be over.

In ten days, Diane will tell me that the simulant has failed. 23% is an impossibly low chance of success, but it leaves me encouraged. After all, 23 is a prime number, and it’s the highest percentage we’ve seen in years. The perfect simulant could be right around the corner. It could be next.

In the subdued light of morning, I wipe the simulant’s code and seed it anew, imagining what it will be like when he strikes out—in the flesh—in search of Erik. Ready, finally, after ten long years, to reunite with his one and only love.

The counter begins: Day 01, 00:01.

In thirteen weeks, he’ll be ready for upload.

 

M. Ian Bell lives in New Jersey, where he teaches English and math. He mentors adolescents during the school year and co-directs a boys’ camp in New Hampshire in the summer. His work can also be found in Shimmer Magazine, and you can follow him on Twitter at @m_ianbell.

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