When Andrea told me that she was going to commit medically assisted suicide, and that next time I saw her I’d be seeing a fax, and that her parents and friends could never know the truth, and that she wanted me to give her my blessing, I felt a bit overwhelmed. I had done the same thing years ago, of course, but I wasn’t sure I had the same feelings about life and death as I did back then. I had all of Nick’s memories and ran a state of the art biochemical simulator that made me experience and interact with the world in a sufficiently accurate approximation of the original Nick, but something had been excised. “The depressive element,” doctor Norton had called it. “It’ll still be present during the first few months after the procedure, but then gradually it’ll shrink, like a tumor, and eventually you’ll just be happy. Or happy-er. If you’d be happy, people would get suspicious. Ha ha! Sorry, a little trade humor.”
“Shrink like a tumor?” I said.
There are many advantages to being a fax, one of them being the ability to make mentally binding signatures, and Andrea made me sign an NDA before she told me her plan. It was one of those fancy new NDA’s that snapshotted my memory when I signed, and, if upon learning the secret I decided I didn’t want to be bound by it, could reset me to my pre-disclosure state. It’s not really my thing though. I’ll let a secret tear me up from inside forever before I choose oblivion. Maybe it’s the last vestige of my excised “depressive element.”
The first NDA I ever signed was handed to me by Nick himself. (I prefer to refer to my biological ancestor in the third person, out of respect). I was ushered into a small room at the hospital, where I saw him lying on the bed. Nondescript room. Nondescript nurse. Nondescript bed. As you can probably tell, I generally blunder through life, feeling my way against the walls.
I had already been told who I was, which was ironic, because it’s not like I woke up with amnesia. I woke up in a box, like Buzz Lightyear at Toys R’ Us, knowing I was a real life space ranger, until doctor Norton, who I’d just seen the day before to finalize the procedure, proved beyond all shadow of a doubt that I was not human. It didn’t take much convincing. After he had me attempt to stop my heart through sheer will, and I succeeded, we were on the same side of the argument. Plus, I was happy to be convinced. Well, maybe not happy. Happy-er.
The me on the bed was smiling a beatific smile and hugging a screen. When I approached, he handed it to me and said “you know what to do.”
I did. I signed the NDA, which said that I must never reveal I wasn’t the real Nick. The first time I skimmed that NDA, or rather human Nick did, in my memory, I’d thought it reminiscent of Asimov’s first law of robotics: “a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” In my case, it was the legalese equivalent of “I will never, through action or inaction, reveal that I am a facsimile to anyone who doesn’t already know it.”
Andrea knew I was a fax from the moment she saw me. It was only a week after the procedure, and no one else had noticed, as far as I could tell. I’d had lunch with my mother the day after I got out of the box and she’d scolded me like I was a real boy.
“Shit,” Andrea said.
And I knew she knew.
I also saw from her expression that she was pissed I hadn’t consulted her.
“Fuck you, Nick. You’re a fucking asshole. I can’t believe you didn’t run it by me. How could you be so selfish?”
I shuffled from foot to foot, as unselfishly as I could.
“I couldn’t tell you. I knew that you knew that I’m a pushover. You would have stopped me.”
“You’re damn right I would have. People have been struggling with depression for thousands of years. It’s just part of who we are! You didn’t even have that low of a baseline! I knew you were in therapy, I mean who isn’t, but I never once thought you would take the easy way out. And without telling me!”
“Well, I wasn’t expecting you to ever figure it out. Doctor Norton said that half the people I know are probably faxes, but that the tech has gotten so good that no one can tell the difference without some special gadget, which is so taboo that no one would ever admit to using one. Also, I didn’t know you were smart, you never told me. So both of us have been keeping secrets.”
Andrea shook her head, then pulled me in for a rough hug, then put a hand on my cheek and stared deeply into my eyes. Her hand was warm and dry, and her eyes were brimming with melancholy. I wished, not for the first time, that a moment like this could be savored longer without everyone getting self-conscious.
Andrea broke eye contact, punched me on the shoulder, and wiped her eyes surreptitiously while I was rubbing at it. It hurt like I was made of meat.
“That still hurts you know!”
“I’ve heard, but somehow I don’t feel as bad about it now. Call it a perk.”
“Seriously, have you been working out? Can I feel your butt?”
(Twenty-fourth century inside joke, sorry.)
Fast forward three hundred years, give or take, and the roles have reversed. I knew I didn’t stand a chance of convincing her of anything, but I thought I’d ask anyway.
“But why?” I asked. “What changed?”
“Nothing changed. I’m sure if I gave it a couple of months, I’d change my mind again, and think I was crazy for almost doing it. But over the last fifty years or so, I’ve been considering it more and more often. I think maybe I’m just doing it so I no longer have the option of doing it, you know?”
“What do you mean? Faxes can still die.”
“Yeah, but you’d need a tragic hydraulic press accident, or a nuclear blast or something.”
“If I have a tragic hydraulic press accident, you’ll stop this nonsense?”
“Very funny, but you know you can’t. You’ve got safety rails now. And even if you do, dying doesn’t really mean anything anymore, not like it does for meat.”
“Yes, but for you it does. You’re meat. You only get to hit the off switch once.”
“Maybe it’s the only thing I haven’t done yet.”
“Hmm. Your reasons are kind of lame.”
“Agreed. Can’t put it into words I guess, but I’m still doing it. Now that I’ve won the argument, let’s move on.”
“Hold on. Are you sure you want to leave a fax behind? I mean, if you’re dying, why bother?”
“What do you mean why bother? Cause I fucking earned it.”
“Totally agree. I think you deserve a whole legion of replicas of yourself. But what’s the point? You won’t be there to benefit from it.”
“What? You mean cause I got one, you have to? I’m a hypocrite, and I was depressed, and I was weak. Am weak. I didn’t want mom getting angry at me. Or you getting angry at me.”
“Well I want you to have a friend when I’m dead, how’s that for a reason?”
“Well…when you put it that way, I’m not sure why I was arguing in the first place.”
“The Gambinis love to argue.”
“They live to argue!”
(Twentieth century inside joke.)
I saw Andrea later that week. I saw her fax, rather, and it was a little weird, precisely because she acted exactly like she normally did. I found myself designing all these little tests for her. I’d set up an inside joke and be downcast when she delivered the punchline. I’d look at her arms and try to remember if the freckles made the right constellations, but I couldn’t of course. My own memory was designed to be fallible to preserve the authenticity of my experience of being Nick. We went to get a drink, because I thought she might reveal herself by ordering something wrong, or ordering it in the wrong way, or crossing her legs at the knee instead of the ankle, or sitting down with her knee joints bending in the wrong direction, at which point I’d triumphantly proclaim her a shabby copy, and then proceed to be a little bit sadder for the rest of my life, having lost a dear friend.
I was on a wild goose chase, of course. I’m honestly a little surprised I didn’t find some spurious evidence, motivated that I was, but there was nothing to be found. At least nothing within my approximating-human powers. Eventually I forgot about the whole thing. It was just another weird part of the new circle of life. You lived, you died, you became a fax, and you lived again, forever this time. And you got to keep it all to yourself. The “no one can ever know, except maybe one or two confidants who can be trusted to only tell people that can be trusted with a secret” tradition was one of the very few everyone in the world observed religiously. The government knew, of course, so there was always the chance that you’d be sitting at the dinner table with your parents and there’s be a news flash about the latest data silo compromise, which leaked the human/fax transition information for a billion people, or even just the latest statistics, and you’d all look at each other across the table and do the Larry David eyebrow interrogation.
(Twenty-first century inside joke, with a brief resurgence in the twenty-fourth. Sometimes I think all that’s left is pop culture.)
When I was seven hundred years old, plus or minus fifty, I decided it was time to pass the reins again, from this Nick to the next Nick. This time, I decided to run it by Andrea first. We hadn’t talked in years, but ours wasn’t the kind of friendship that needed constant maintenance and oil changes. It ran smoothly in the background, like a daemon process on the universe’s mainframe.
“Nick! I’m so happy to see you! Before you say anything, let me see if I can guess why you’re calling.”
I grinned. Why did I need to see her face in order to remember how much I enjoyed her company? My long life had taught me very little it seemed, and still it kept serving up the old lessons with the patience of a saint. Or an alarm clock, as Andrea would say. She was allergic to sentimentality.
“I have an extra ticket to see Paul McCartney next week, and I was hoping you’d keep me company.”
“Wrong. And it doesn’t count if you guess for me. You know what? I think I only need one guess. You’re finally ready to die again, and you’ve decided to do me the courtesy of asking for my blessing this time. But do you also happen to have tickets to McCartney?”
And why did I need her to surprise me in order to remember how good she was at it?
“No, I don’t even know if he’s still touring.”
“I think he took a break at some point…eh, who can keep track. It’s been so long. Unbelievable. Remember how big music was?”
“Yes…it still is.”
“Haha, I know, I was kidding. Nothing changes. But I want to be able to say that some day, ‘remember how big music was?’ and sound like a total geezer.”
“Right. I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. I think we’ve pretty much boxed ourselves in with faxes. Or boxed out evolution, as that one guy says.”
“For better or for worse.”
“I take it from your cheerful disposition that you have no objections to my decision?”
“You take it correctly. But let me return the favor of being annoying and ask you. Why?”
“Ha. When have you not returned that particular favor? I think on some level, the answer is the same as last time. Last time I was trying to shed something, what my transition doctor called a ‘depressive element.’ That mumbo jumbo turned out to be total bullshit, I’m sure you heard, as mumbo jumbo usually does. I think the human mind is just designed to die. And as long as you give it what it wants every once in a while, you can reset its expectations and get right back to living forever. It’s weird. And it’s amazing that this particular design flaw, or design feature, made it into the fax. I wish I was curious enough about how faxes really work to understand this better.”
“Yes, I wish I was a hard-working woman so I could work harder too.”
“Mm. I see we’ve been getting brainwashed by the same books.”
“What’s a book?”
“Haha, yes! Thank you for not making me wait a million years for my geezer moment.”
“So that’s it?”
“That’s it. That’s my ‘why.’ Just need a reset, I guess.”
“You guess correctly. Welcome to the club.”
“Thank you. Oh. You mean you’ve done it too since the first time?”
“More than a few times.”
“Wow. Huh. That makes perfect sense. You must think I’m pretty naive for my seven hundred years.”
“Very. But I like that about you.”
“Thanks? So…as an insider of this most exclusive of clubs, maybe you can tell me. Does it work?”
“Yes. For a while.”
“You’re welcome. By the way, while you were philosophizing, I checked, and McCartney is indeed back on tour. Want to see him at the MSG next Friday at 8 PM? My treat.”
“Oh cool. I’ve never actually seen him live. I’m kind of excited!”
“Yes yes. The only question is, do you want to die before or after?”
“Hm. You know, it’s funny, I’ve made my decision, and yet there’s some competing design flaw or design feature in me that makes it so tempting to say ‘after.’”
“There really is. So why don’t I book the tickets, and I’ll see if I can tell you what you decided when we meet at the show.”
“I would expect nothing less. See you there!”