He still did. Or, if he was no longer going to be human, to just be one of those bodiless brains in an electrified glass bowl from those old cartoons. Electrodes running into a machine.
“Can I help you,” the attendant asked. She was a poised, beautiful young woman of some indeterminate ethnicity, almost blandly so, except for her phosphorescent eyes. She smiled. “These are new mods,” she said, pointing to her irises. “You can get a simple DNA patch upgrade later if you don’t select them now.”
“Yes,” he said. This was only one thing people came here for, so he sat down in the chair. She walked by the screens, and the options flashed in the air behind her after she flicked her fingers.
His grandfather had a very early life model made of his grandmother, but this was later regarded as a mistake. Those were made to resemble the person, to go on living as an autonomous imitation of them. For those who believed they would miss someone after death too much to ever not see them again, these imitations of the lost one were no victory. Only a reminder death was, as yet, something that could not be conquered.
These new life models, though, were more like machines made of cells—your own cells. Think of a perfectible clone, a vessel, waiting for you to get in it—an escape ship with your face. These new bodies were meant to live in the coming environment, able to breathe the new atmosphere, drink the water, survive the superdiseases. A new kind of humanity: people living inside of bodies engineered for the world to come, which was the world arriving even now.
It reminded him most of the sign-up to a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), though. World of Warcraft, now the world. The extreme mods made him laugh: wings, tails, gills, fins. Extra arms. Where were the battle-axes? The gun arms? You could change your ethnic appearance or gender, your metabolism, your face shape. There was only one prohibition: You couldn’t choose someone whose face came up in the global face recognition database—no impersonations, celebrity or otherwise. No life-snatching.
The cost was terrifying, even for the ordinary mods chosen by most people, who engineered themselves to be thinner, more muscular, better looking, have more or less hair. He would spend everything he’d saved for a down payment on an apartment in New York, and that only covered the basics, got him into the required loan process. Not everyone could afford this. Some countries were working hard to adapt all their citizens, but not the U.S. And the countries who were doing this, they’d closed their borders to all immigration.
You could do this and live if you could afford it, but could you live with yourself after? This was the question in the headlines a few years ago, when this began.
More and more, people said yes.
Without a mod, you were given about ten more years, given the changes in the atmosphere. Climate change was no longer the term for it. Climate departure was—and it was almost here, almost complete.
His parents had said no. This life, their original bodies—this was enough. He tried to argue with them about it, but they weren’t going through with it. And then they gave him some money, if he wanted something extra.
“I can’t spend that,” he told them.
His mom shrugged, with a little smile. “We can’t either,” she said, as his father got up and walked away. And then she closed the chat window.
* * *
He had sat in the store for some time, going through the options. That old New Age myth that you chose your existence, your parents—well, maybe, but how did you choose yourself, now, after everything you had been through, now that you knew how it turned out? And yet he did. He opted for a younger, slightly taller, more sturdy version of himself, thinking it would help.
And yet it hadn’t, not yet.
After he took in the delivery, it sat in his apartment like a ghost of him, in his bed. He wasn’t used to seeing himself from outside himself, and so each time he came into the room, it was like discovering a stranger who’d fallen asleep there. Or one of his cousins from Seoul.
He didn’t think he would ever get used to the sight of himself like this, but he supposed that it didn’t matter. He wasn’t supposed to get used to it. Once he was inside it, he would go back to forgetting what he looked like, right? That was what he hoped. But then he had never been very well-adapted to this body, either.
Despite his lack of recognition, his new body really did look like him: David Kim, a thirtysomething New Yorker of Korean descent, 5’10”, 200 pounds. It had his hairline and the weird cowlick, the mole pattern on his arms he’d looked at for his whole life. The neck was smooth—no lines from a career spent crouched at a laptop.
He sent a picture of it to his parents.
“Don’t send me these,” his mom texted back.
The transfer process was a simple one—maybe too simple, really. How could he be sure it would work? What if these were just replicants? What if it was just a massive, end-of-the-world scam? There was one way to find out—he just needed to complete the transfer. And that was quickly becoming the problem.
He sat with the electrode net in his hands. Friends said it was like falling asleep in one place and waking up in another. The process had been tested and proven successful again and again. It was as simple as changing into a new coat and then getting rid of the old one.
But then, he never could get rid of his old coats.
He had a message this morning waiting for him from the company. “You haven’t made the transfer, we notice. Please let us know if you need assistance.”
The body had been delivered a week ago. All he needed to do was to walk over, place the net on his body and turn it on. It really was quite simple. The more he waited, the more it meant the mod risked needing a feeding—it sat there in a kind of sleep state, like a controlled coma, to be awakened when his consciousness moved over. He had hoped his old body would leave as quietly, but this was the hard part, maybe the hardest: His old body would live on. He would have to poison it and then send for the removal team.
The capsules were right there on the counter. All he had to do once he was moved over was to put them between his old teeth and press them together until the capsules burst.
“What happens to it?” he’d asked.
The salesperson had smiled. She knew what “it” was. “Well, we get that question a lot,” she said. “But don’t worry. For safety reasons, they are cremated. We don’t want someone hacking your body,” she said, when he hadn’t answered. “Wouldn’t be right, right?”
“Right,” he’d said and then signed the screen.
Could they hack the empty one here now, he wondered.
And what if he left his old body alive? Would he wake up in both places? Or would it live on a while, like an amnesiac twin?
His mom would take care of him, he knew. He could just drop him off.
From his window, he looked out over the Tenth Avenue midtown canal, the water gleaming like it was all opals. It was from all the jellies making patterns, but it no longer bothered him the way it had. He looked forward to being able to go down to the river park and jump in, with his new skin, adapted so he could swim among them.
This was just what had to be done. If he didn’t do it soon, he’d die. He hadn’t been able to breathe right outdoors in at least a decade. He was tired of sweating all the time. Didn’t he want to go take his new lungs out and breathe that air again? Didn’t he want to try out the new legs, without the aches of his old knees? Try out his new dick?
“Jesus,” he said out loud.
He walked over to the bed and considered opening the pants to be sure it was there, but it seemed like some previously unimagined indignity. Instead, he went over the new body with his eyes. Here was the improved him, the one who would live. Everything a little smoother, better made. But as he did, as he checked to be sure everything was here, he knew finally what bothered him. His whole life had been haunted by the idea of how it would be if someone better than him had taken his place, lived his life for him. Now that guy was here.
And if he didn’t make the transfer—if he didn’t give this guy everything—he would die.
He took off his clothes and sat down next to him, pulled the shimmery net over his head down to his toes and then picked up his new hand and held it. And then he closed his eyes and pressed send.
Alexander Chee is the author of Edinburgh. His new novel, The Queen of the Night, appears in Fall 2015. He lives in Hell’s Kitchen. Follow him on Twitter at @alexanderchee.