The Old Switcheroo

’Excuse me’, said Hector, slipping his mop under Nell’s legs to get beneath her desk.

She pushed her chair back to make things easier.

He’d been working as the night janitor since she joined the Institute, six months previously. They’d never talked much. Maintenance staff were instructed not to bother the faculty.

It was half past midnight.

‘How are you?’ Nell said.

‘Well… uh…’

Hector stood up. He rested his bucket on the floor. The mop handle rested against his thigh.

‘I’m good. Thank you.’

‘Excellent,’ said Nell.

They looked at each other. The only noise was the low hum of the computers.

Each waited for the other to say something. Neither did.

Hector smiled, shrugged, and picked up his bucket.

*

Nell stirred her coffee, straining her eyes at the screen.

She’d been thinking about Hector all day. He had come to mind in the shower. Eating breakfast. At the supermarket. Driving to the campus. Sitting here.

It was midnight. For once, Nell was wearing perfume. Not too much. Just enough.

The lab door swung open. Hector appeared with his mop.

‘Hola,’ said Nell, smiling at him.

‘Hola,’ said Hector.

‘How are you?’ she asked.

‘I’m well,’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘Struggling,’ said Nell. ‘I’m blocked.’

‘Ah?’ said Hector. He almost asked how he could help, but resisted. How could he help?

‘Maybe you could help,’ said Nell.

Hector posed his bucket on the floor, cautiously. He looked at her.

‘I need someone,’ said Nell.

Hector gripped his mop in both hands.

‘Need someone?’

‘What time do you finish work?’ asked Nell.

‘Two… if I hurry, one thirty.’

‘Will you go for a drink with me?’

Hector blinked, wary of a trap.

‘Yes… of course.’

‘One-thirty in the car park?’

‘OK,’ said Hector.

Nell turned back to her screen. Hector stood still for a moment, then picked up his bucket.

*

‘This is it,’ said Nell, holding open the palm of her hand. They were sat in Freddie’s Bar, the nearest late-night place to campus.  

Hector looked at it. A tiny micro-chip, a few millimetres long.

‘Where does it go?’ he asked.

‘On the cerebral cortex. Placed there ever so gently.’

‘What does it do?’

‘It transmits, in real time, the signals produced by the brain’s neural networks, to a supercomputer in the lab.’

‘It reads people’s thoughts?’

‘Thoughts, fears, hopes, desires, memories.’

Hector picked up his beer bottle. Took a long draught. Set it down.

‘Why?’ he asked.

Nell reached over and grabbed Hector’s wrist.

‘You like sports?’

‘Sure.’

‘Every man who ever lived has engaged Death in combat. Every man has lost. Death has a perfect, undefeated record.’

‘So?’

‘Imagine we could replicate your consciousness digitally. When Death came calling for your body, you could still exist.’

‘Still exist?’

‘We would download your brain data from the cloud and run it back through a different machine.’

‘What kind of machine?’

‘An android. It could be synthetic, or organic, but it would be you inside it. And it would feel great.’

Hector took another drink.

‘Sounds crazy,’ he said.

Nell squeezed his wrist.

‘What do you say? Will you help?’

Hector shook his head.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Why is it secret?’

‘This procedure… quantum respawn… is illegal. It’ll be legal one day. But that could be twenty years off.’

‘So?’

‘We can’t wait twenty years. There’s an ethical imperative to act. Don’t you think?’

‘I don’t know what I think.’

‘I need to road test it, harvest the data, and prove that it’s safe.’

Hector blew out his cheeks.

‘Man,’ he said, ‘I’m going to have to think this through.’

‘Of course,’ said Nell.

‘Eighty thousand?’

‘In cash.’

She closed her palm. They looked into each other’s eyes.

 *

‘Let me see… the scar’s healed really nicely. Are you feeling any pain?’

Hector frowned.

‘Not pain. That’s not it.’

They were sat in a booth at Freddy’s. It had been a month since the operation, performed by a neurosurgeon friend of Nell’s.

From Nell’s perspective, the whole thing was a triumph. The chip was transmitting a clear, steady stream of neural data. Running it through the lab’s equipment, she was starting to be able to unscramble it. Decode it. Interpret it.

Until now, there had been no hint of adverse side effects.

‘So… if not pain… what?’ she asked.

Hector took a drink of his beer. He was struggling to find his words.

‘Your, ah, chip sends my brain data to your computer.’

‘That’s right.’

‘The more data, the better the picture the computer has. About me.’

‘Exactly.’

‘Until one day, you have everything you need. The whole me.’

‘You got it.’

‘I think we’ve reached that stage.’

Nell studied him. Hector looked very troubled.

‘Well, I’d like to keep going a while longer,’ she said. ‘We agreed on a year.’

‘I want it out now. I’ll reimburse you.’

Hector had used the money to pay off the mortgage on his mother’s apartment.

‘Forget that. Keep the money, you deserve it. What’s wrong?’

‘I… ah… feel that I’m not just transmitting information.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m receiving it.’

‘What are you receiving?’

‘Thoughts. Opinions. Ideas. They’re coming through in the other direction.’

Nell shook her head.

‘That’s not possible. Who could be sending you information?’

‘The other me,’ said Hector. ‘The me you’ve got trapped in the lab.’

*

‘You and your big mouth.’

‘Shut up.’

‘What on earth were you thinking?’

‘I’m not listening.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that.’

Hector sighed, pulled his car over and stopped in front of a warehouse. It was three a.m. The streets were deserted.

‘Gambling with Mama’s apartment money.’

‘If you don’t shut up, I’ll pull the chip out myself.’

‘You haven’t got it in you.’

‘Will you please be quiet. Please.’

A dog was watching from behind the warehouse fence.

Hector exhaled, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, trying neither to think nor hear.

He started the engine and drove off.

The other Hector was silent. I’ve spooked him, thought Hector. He knows when the chip goes, he’s finished.

‘Wrong.’

‘Carajo!’ Hector slammed his fist into the wheel.

‘When the chip goes, as you put it, you’ll have outlived your usefulness. I, on the other hand, will be Caltech’s star attraction.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘You’re yesterday’s man, Hector. You know, perhaps it would be best if you tried to get the chip out. There are pliers in the kitchen.’

Hector parked in front of his house, got out, slammed the door behind him.

Leaning against the front door, he fumbled in his pockets for his key.

‘Let me help, Hector. I hate futile suffering. Let’s figure out a way to put you out of your misery.’

Hector finally got the key in the lock. Turned it, pushed open the door, and headed straight for the fridge.

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