Second Childhood

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
An atypical workday in a world where people don't die and clones are a part of life

Submitted: July 04, 2017

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Submitted: July 04, 2017

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I started the day short staffed. Bess, my right hand woman, who is also my best friend, rang up to say she had a family emergency. Great Uncle Ned fell out of the high chair and banged his head and great, great grandma Leila was coming down with a fever. Needless to say her husband was already out of the house on grandparent duty - one of those wonderful kindergarten trips. I sympathized; my teenage parents, 2nd gen, were now grounded after they went on a joy ride and nearly busted my brother's new car.

Bertha was already in the lab when I came in, lying on the sap-couch, immersed in the scape. I prepped myself and called Jake for backup. We don't usually go into scape unmonitored, but Jake promised to log in every few minutes and make sure we were OK. I lay down on my sap-couch and felt the electrodes dig into my ears as my body sank into the soft foam. A second later the stars were flowing through my vision and the scape introductory music, something soft with flute and harp, rang in my ears. A lemony minty scent indicated full immersion and my day's work began.

 

I ran through the list of patient check ups. I was taking on Bess's regulars as well as my own. To my consternation, Judith and Dave Cagan, were followed by Annie and Sergey Cohen, my original, 1st gen parents. I couldn’t ask Bertha to take them on. She is just out of her 8th childhood. I’m sure you heard of the Bertha and John Matthews clan where each generation has 5 or 6 Johns or Berthas, full copies of the originals and already married accordingly; well, what you probably don't know is that they get away with it because they can interface, but only with themselves. 

No one else likes to interface with them much anyway, since the couples always fully merge as soon as they enter storage. Unlike them, people like Bess and me can interface with anyone; single, merged, or even, like my parents, in partial merge. What is special about all the people in our profession, is that we can spend hours in interface with no adverse effects. Most people display symptoms after around 15 minutes and they get worse with non-family members. That's one of the reasons family centers only let people in for 10 minutes at a time, just to be on the safe side, and only let them interface with gens, or with immediate family.

Some couples divorce before going into cold storage, so they can begin their second childhood free from any extraneous ties. Others are deeply in love, and stay married into subsequent n’th generation childhoods. Those are the ones who mostly merge on entering cold storage. My parents decided to partially merge. They are very much in love; but they have many interests apart. Right now, my father  is busy writing symphonies and painting landscapes. The syndicates lap the symphonies up, and I have heard many of them on the world distribution classical stations. However, he always has time for me and my communication with the separate part of him is often without words. It goes in colors, music, and abstract ideas. My mother, who is intensely practical, runs the family tree, which is not an easy task in this day and age. Their merged part keeps up to date on the world and local news, space explorations and new scientific developments, and goes on virtual tours all over the galaxy, all the rage in the interface. My mother also has many interface friends, people she probably wouldn’t have met in the outside world. I have never looked at them as patients before – only as parents and friends, and I have only interfaced through the family center, just like everybody else, though probably more often.

 

I finished the initial biolog scans. One patient needed some insulin adjustments, which I made, but everyone else seemed to be fine. I was happy to see that my father’s cancer had actually diminished since he entered cold storage. My mother’s heart would need some work if she were woken up but since that wasn’t too likely under current circumstances, I wasn’t going to worry.  I then got going with the requests for attention. About 30% of the patients had filed some requests or other. 70% of those were requests for particular relatives to interface – I set up the appropriate family center appointments accordingly – but others were for personal calls. This is the most important part of our work in my opinion. Some people just need to know that there is someone in the outside world who really cares and who can listen to them. Others may have a particular issue they are shy to talk about remotely, and a few have special religious requests, that often need expert intervention from their own religious leaders. I only serve as liaison in such cases, but it is always interesting and satisfying to really help those who have no other available channels.

My first session was with Dafna, one of Bess's regulars, a sweet old lady who has a great imagination, but a hard time navigating through the scape. She was one of the pioneer volunteers who entered storage centuries ago, before the scape evolved to what it is today. She finds the newer neural pathways difficult and communicating in abstracts almost impossible. She clings to the boundaries provided by language and is impeded by its barriers. It makes it hard for her to communicate with the other inhabitants. Her lack of descendants means that we are the only outside contact she has. Bess has thought of getting her to wake, but after so many centuries in the scape, that would probably be harder. I tried a different tack. I introduced her to some new friends in the scape. People who would appreciate her imagination, and who retained the language skills she needed. We had a very fruitful session and I left some private notes for Bess and me to discuss when she returns.

I was in the middle of the next session with Joe Vertime, a cranky guy who spends all his sessions complaining, when the override started flashing and beeping. I sent him quick apologies and entered release mode countdown. I was down to 3 when I pulled out abruptly. Bertha was having a seizure and frothing at the mouth. 

I ran to her sap-couch and slipped my hands over her ears, touching the hot spots. I let the current flow through me  pulling me into partial interface. She was in full merge with something. I could see odd thoughts coming into focus, but most of her was in something black. No-white. No-licorice flavored. I pulled back fast. I could get swallowed by it myself if I didn't watch out.

I pinged Jake. He came running with the manual override. We attached it but it only made things worse. 

"Hook her up- we gotta get her cold" 

I didn't want to believe that was the only choice we had. 

"Shouldn't we get John?"

"No time. Never seen that this bad before"

Jake called in reinforcements. The storage bots and a slide technician called Avi.

I was sent out, ostensibly to call John, but mostly so I wouldn't interfere.  While John promised to drop everything and come immediately I wondered what Jake had meant by "Never seen that this bad before". Had this happened before? Why hadn't we heard about it?

When I got back to the room it was all over. Bertha was cold and fully immersed. "...quarantine." Said Avi. 

"Phoebe? What do you think?"

"About?"

"Is she in contact with anything dangerous? Should we quarantine her?"

I nodded. "It could have swallowed me and I was only in partial. We need to get her out."

Avi looked at Jake. "I think it's time we tried out those algorithms."

"See if John can merge and take them in as soon as he gets here."

“I will auto-code and implement them right now so they will be ready in his console.”

“What algorithms?” I asked. “Are you planning to use John as a guinea pig?”

Jake didn’t meet my eyes. “We have encountered something similar before…we would like to add precautions…it could be dangerous if we let him merge when she is in this type of a state.”

“Did you test them at all?” I knew he hadn’t.

“What did you encounter before? I need to know. I saw it. More than saw it. It almost swallowed me. It swallowed Bertha.”

“How far did you interface?”

“Only partially. I was fully awake and alert. I only used the hotspots and drew back almost immediately.”

“No residue?”

“Residue of what?”

“Log in. I want to do some preliminary diagnostics.”

“On me? Why?”

“Just to make sure you’re OK.”

I got back on to the sap-couch and re-immersed. They attached something to the console. I could feel it recording and logging all types of data. Once it finished I released.

“Am I OK?”

“You’re fine. No residue of anything unusual.”

I told them  what I had seen-tasted.

“Have you ever had a session with Bertha or any of the Clan?”

“No.”

“So we need to wait for John. Could you accompany him on the way in? Pull him out fast if necessary?”

“OK. You will both be on stand-by, right?”

They both nodded and started messing with the offline consoles. Most people still prefer to type, handle, and speak instead of direct interface with machines. I have always preferred direct interface. You can do so much more when you work in more than one direction at a time. I am one of those who can either multitask or fully focus, and when I fully focus, it is usually exclusive. I do know how to code, but I consider it a very primitive form of communication. I only code if something goes badly wrong. That only happened to me once before, but it probably saved my life.

I looked at Bertha. She lay fully relaxed and covered in an icy layer. Her eyes were closed and it seemed as if she wasn’t breathing. I knew she would breathe, but only one breath per hour. Her body had slowed down completely. Her brain was fully functional though, but I didn’t know what she was experiencing. She was probably somewhere in the black thing she had encountered.

The door opened abruptly and a big blond man came in followed by a flustered admissions woman named Katya. I assumed it must be John. We greeted him and Jake offered him Bertha’s sap-couch.

“Are you ready to go in?” He asked.

John nodded and lay down. “Anything it takes to get her back.” He said. He sounded as if he had been crying.

“Have you ever done this before?” I asked.

“Only in short sessions. I don’t have any adverse symptoms, but I am not qualified like Bertha and you.”

“So I will accompany you. Don’t go anywhere if you are not sure you can come back out. If you see or feel anything suspicious, wait for me. I have quite a lot of experience and know what could be dangerous. We can’t be too careful. We are lucky that we were able to get to Bertha immediately before any physical damage was done.”

I lay down too. Avi had finished with the console and pressed a yellow icon that started flashing. When it turned green he told us to log in.

This was not the usual interface. No soothing music. Just solid white nothingness. It took me a few seconds to realize that John was standing behind me. I turned round. He was looking back at something black. It came closer.

I pulled him away. “Don’t go there”.

“That’s Bertha. Isn’t it?”

“Somewhere in there…”

I pulled something in the fabric of surreallity. I was holding a saber of light.

“What are you going to do with that?”

“I don’t know yet. John, you love her. Right? Can you visualize your love? We need to call her somehow.”

An enormous red heart floated in front of us.

“You can do better than that. What do you really love about her? What makes you attracted to her?”

John looked blank. “I love her, but it’s more that I’m programmed to love her. You know. We are born married. We grow up together. There has never been anyone else. Just us.?

"What do you do for a living?"

"Paint"

"So you're the John Matthews? You did these?"

I brought up some of the ones I liked best. John did beautiful detailed landscapes. Each one with a twist. Some morphed into animals if you looked at them from different directions. Others turned inside out, or focused on a minor detail like a leaf which would turn into a multi storied house but stay leaf shaped on the outside. 

We had splurged on a couple at home. Michael, my husband, and I, loved them. 

"So you can visualize well. 

Which one is Bertha's favorite?"

The one he showed me was not a landscape. It was a person. Looked at from one direction it was John and from another, Bertha. They were between two mirrors and reflected almost infinite times. It scared me. I suddenly realized how much Bertha was immersed in John and Bertha, over many generations with no respite. As I realized that I sent out a questing tendril of thought towards the Black blob. It had started seething and writhing inside when John displayed the picture.

I suddenly felt suffocated and found myself in total darkness and numbness. I was still holding the saber of light. I waved it with all my strength and the darkness cleared. I saw John standing alone far away. I looked down and saw Bertha. She was stuck between two mirrors, being pulled in many different directions but going nowhere. I waved the saber again since it seemed to help. 

"Bertha! I'm here!" I shouted. 

She looked up at me. I held out my free hand and pulled a rope out of the surreality. I threw it and she caught it. John came running and helped me pull her away. She collapsed against him. I fashioned a couple of seats. One long one for them and another for me. This was something that needed to be hashed out face to face, but away from prying eyes.

The silence stretched out awkwardly.  Bertha burst into tears.

 

“I didn't realize it would come to this. I have been feeling unhappy for ages. Unfulfilled, I guess. Knowing I am just another Bertha, married to a man I love, but he’s just another John. I guess they have been getting to me too. You know. The ancestors. Always telling me how they want me to live their lives for them.

John hugged her tightly.

“I guess I wanted to escape too hard. And I just got stuck.”

I disagreed with her. “It wasn’t just getting stuck. You actually went in so deeply that you changed the interface itself. Were you in contact with anyone when it happened?”

Bertha’s tears evolved into deep, full throated sobs “I had just finished talking to my great, great, great grandmother Bertha – 2nd generation and all. She said, if she could, she’d wake up and show all of us she could do better than we can. She thinks we are preventing them from waking. She doesn’t realize she probably wouldn’t survive for long. She had terminal cancer in its last stages when they put her under. I don’t think they could cure her at all. I think she’s just tired of the interface and tired of not having a physical body. She and her husband fully merged, as  you know, but I think she has been trying to unmerge somehow.”

I had an inspiration. “You know the corporation are looking for volunteers for their new androids?”

“What?” They replied in unison.

“Bertha, haven’t you been reading your in-house mails lately?”

“Actually, I have been too depressed to do more than scan the ones marked urgent.”

“Well, they wanted us to suggest patients who might be willing to volunteer. They will then approach them personally, but they only want volunteers who will have nothing to wake up for and who are not likely to miss the interface.”

It was great to see how her face lit up.

“So I can probably suggest great, great, great grandmother Bertha, and great uncle John, and…ooh I should make a list.”

John stood up. “Let’s get out of here. You can make a list at home.”

I set off release mode for all of us.

Anyway, now you know why most of the new androids are called either Bertha or John and why they are so annoying


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