A Glimpse is Never Enough, part 1

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The road to technological advancement is paved with corpses. It is an uncomfortable, but unavoidable, truth. As humankind continues to reach for the stars which birthed us, every desperate stretch forces us to endure, and subsequently manage, loss. Loss of lives. Loss of livelihoods. But never loss of purpose. Purpose is what impels us to keep reaching, dreaming about the one day we will be lucky enough to burn our hands. As the bodies pile underneath us, we’ve learned to use them to climb and reach ever higher. Those sacrifices, we tell ourselves, are essential. Now, as a result, at the inflection of science and technology and philosophy, we celebrate, rather than shield our eyes from this fact: the cutting edge must always drip with blood.

My professor and mentor, Dr. Arthur Johannsen, lapped the drops from the blade.

Dr. Johannsen was an expert materials scientist, but also well versed in biology, physics, and philosophy. A self-labeled transhumanist, Dr. Johannsen believed, with every fiber of his being, the combined efforts of scientists around the world would eventually allow humankind to conquer physical death. As he grew older, however, and death still loomed like the titanic waterfalls at the edges of a flat Earth, Dr. Johannsen realized he must take the reins and guide scientific progress toward the goal he believed was most important.

When I met Dr. Johannsen, I was studying at a major scientific and industrial university in China. The university was one of the few chosen by China to be at the forefront of the country’s effort to lead the world in technological advancement, for reasons of both national prestige and military strategy. Rumors of subterranean research labs and labyrinthine tunnel systems circulated throughout the student body and even some professors, despite being told not to give credence to such talk, would sometimes hint about a city hidden far below our feet.

It didn’t take long for me to learn the truth behind the rumors. Dr. Johannsen, long-sought by the Chinese to oversee their national scientific projects, had begun his stint in the country a few months earlier. He taught one course, “Advanced Materials and Applications,” and I was lucky enough to be one of the few students accepted into it. At this point, I’d only heard of the doctor by his academic and industry reputation. I knew next to nothing about his personality; only that he was ambitious and driven.

The course was spectacular, and, to my surprise, I excelled. Something about Dr. Johannsen’s instruction style meshed with my learning style and frequently I would discuss topics with him while the rest of the class sat in an uncomprehending stupor.

Months later, following the course examination, my expectations for high marks were firmly entrenched in my mind. When my final paper was returned to me, however, it was ungraded. The only thing that indicated it had even been read was a single, handwritten bit of information on the last page: a date, a time, and an address.

At 10pm on February 9th, 2016, I entered Dr. Arthur Johannsen’s home.

The doctor lived alone in a small, well-furnished apartment on the edge of the sprawling campus. He sat me down after a hasty greeting and began to talk. And talk. And talk.

Dr. Johannsen lectured without stopping for over an hour. He expounded on human life extension, substrate-independent cognition, and the failure of the scientific community to dedicate time and money toward the management of senescence and the ultimate elimination of physical death. He spoke with great enthusiasm about Chinese culture and his admiration of how they recognize the importance of progress at any price.

As he pontificated, I wondered why he was telling me all of this. Part of me hoped he’d ask me to help him author something for a science journal or even invite me to be his assistant for an upcoming course. When he offered me an actual job, though, I could hardly contain my glee.

I made a show of considering the offer for a moment or two. I asked him what my responsibilities would be and whether I would be allowed enough time to focus on my studies. Dr. Johannsen informed me I’d be his research assistant and would be responsible for helping him with his experiments. He didn’t go into detail, but he said I would have more than enough time to study in the evenings and my work would be fairly compensated.

After another minute, I accepted his offer. He produced a briefcase, opened it, and handed me a document to sign. It was a government-issued non-disclosure form. The words “treason” and “penalty of death” were mentioned more than once. I signed. The doctor thanked me and told me to come back in eight hours. I thanked him, said goodnight, and left.

The next morning, I arrived at Dr. Johannsen’s home to find him sitting on the steps outside. He gestured for me to sit beside him, so I did.

“Just give them another few minutes,” he told me. “They’re always a little late.”

Sure enough, five minutes later, a car pulled up to the curb.

“Time for our commute,” he said, and we got in. The driver pulled away.

We exited the campus via a small access road. It wound around the wooded area around the campus toward the large hill or small mountain which the university abutted. Both sides of the road had thick shrubbery blocking our view out and anyone else’s view in. I had a feeling I’d be learning the accuracy of those rumors soon.

The road curved left and we started down a decline. The sunlight disappeared and was replaced by something artificial and fluorescent. The shrubbery gave way to solid rock. We were inside the mountain and going ever deeper.

Ten minutes later, we arrived in a cavernous parking facility that was fed by roads coming from multiple bore holes in the rock walls.

“There are entrances all around the city, all underground,” Dr. Johannsen informed me. “On a busy day, there may be 10,000 people in the facility.”

I was amazed, but I kept a straight face. I didn’t want to come across as too eager or too easy to please. My expression remained locked in what I hoped was one of scientific curiosity and emotional dispassion.

We exited the vehicle and walked into the entrance of the facility. I was struck by the modernity and clean sterility of the place. I’d always considered the science buildings at the university to be cutting edge, but this place seemed even more advanced. At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on why.

Dr. Johannsen told me he’d give me a tour later, but first, we were to go to his main lab.

“I want you to get an idea of the type of things you’ll be working with,” I was informed.

The words carried an element of foreboding portent I found difficult to shake. Dr. Johannsen and I walked up a narrow staircase built into the rock walls until we reached an elevator. We stepped inside and headed down.

After a three minute descent, we reached the level housing the doctor’s main lab. The elevator door opened to an expansive, pristine hallway, brightly lit and festooned with colorful plants. It was quite unlike the dank, video-game inspired representation of a subterranean lab I’d anticipated.

Glass-walled rooms lined the corridor and, behind them, scientists of all sorts worked with obvious diligence on whatever tasks they had. The few people who passed us in the hallway smiled at Dr. Johannsen as we walked by. I felt my nervousness begin a slow process of evaporation as I became increasingly comfortable with the surroundings.

At the end of the hall, we took a left. The windowed labs gave way to blank white walls on our left and solid granite on our right. This hallway was far longer than the other, and with nothing but white and gray on either side until we reached the very end. A wide set of windowless double doors were built directly into the stone. Dr. Johannsen waved his wristband at the security box. I heard a dull whirring sound from a locking mechanism deep inside the doors. They opened.

We stood in the doorway of the largest room I’d ever seen in my life. Its dimensions resembled a cube, with each side at least half a mile long. While the size of the room was shocking, what it contained was borderline disorienting.

At the center of the room stood a colossal machine. It reminded me of the experimental tokamak fusion reactors I’d seen online, but not similar enough to convince me it was the same thing. Three toroidal constructs were stacked atop one another, while a thicker, vertically-positioned torus encircled the three. Hundreds of cables as thick as school busses connected the horizontal toruses to the vertical one at points all over its topology.

The room was filled with the hum of electricity. I followed the doctor along the catwalk toward a staircase leading up to a room overlooking the machine.

“My lab is right over there,” he told me, and gestured toward the top of the stairs.

Once inside the lab, I had a better view of the machine, as well as the area behind it. All four toruses were connected by more mammoth cables to a bulbous, entirely unidentifiable piece of machinery. A single pipe ran from it, across the room, to a black, glassy box jutting out from the side of the rock face.  

“Xiu Ying, what do you know about brane cosmology?”

I was so invested in up my survey of the mechanical colossi in the room that Dr. Johannsen’s question caught me off guard. Knowing nothing about any type of cosmology, I just shook my head to indicate my ignorance.

“How about substrate-independent cognition?”

That was more like it. “Yes, last year I was part of a research team with a small group of neuroscientists and computer engineers. Dr. Metzinger advised remotely from Germany at the University of Mainz.”

“What were your findings?” The doctor’s question couldn’t have been actual curiosity; he knew about all the research I’d done over the years. The question was rhetorical, but I couldn’t figure out why he’d bother asking. I played along.

“We determined we were still 40 years away from 100% transfer and simulation. Even after those achievements, subjective divergence and all the associated ethical issues involving personhood and identity would preclude deeper investigation and discovery. Anyone who wanted to go further would be committing murder, as the subjective divergence problem can only be solved by the destruction of the original consciousness. Any and all research in this field would, by necessity, need to be kept secret.”

As I spoke the last sentence, I realized what I’d gotten into. 

“Have you figured out how to perform the consciousness transfer?,” I asked with unintentional breathlessness – partly from my excitement, but also partly out of fear.

The doctor smirked.

“But what does that have to do with brane cosmology?,” I wondered aloud – deeply confused and growing embarrassed. I felt like I was in over my head for the first time in my life.

“I’ll fill you in on that in a minute,” he told me. “But first, I’ll ask you one more thing: how familiar are you with my work on the negation of senescence?”

I knew Dr. Johannsen had been working with the anti-aging community for the last few years, but there was little-to-no paper trail of journal articles or published research detailing his contributions. “Not very familiar, sir.”

“But you know I’ve been working on it, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Then Xiu Ying, I want you to use your imagination for a moment here. Forget you’re a scientist and throw away whatever epistemological constraints you have. What happens when you combine brane cosmology, substrate-independent cognition, and anti-aging research? Look around at these goliath machines and feel the electricity permeating the air. What does it all mean to you?”

A deep, churning sense of dread rose in a peristaltic wave within my gut. I wracked my brain and tried to come up with some reasonable answer, but two of those three fields were so far beyond my expertise that I simply couldn’t synthesize them with what I knew. Again, I felt like I was drowning.

As if sensing my struggle, Dr. Johannsen told me it was okay. “Do you want to know exactly what I’m doing here?,” he asked, staring into my eyes with a penetrating, patriarchal authority.

I nodded.

The doctor took a clipboard from the shelf and handed it to me. The header looked similar to the governmental non-disclosure forms I’d signed the other day, but instead of body text, there was blank space. At the bottom was a line for a signature.

“If you sign it, you’ll learn everything. But there’s no going back.”

I met his stare and thought for a moment. Behind him, a shimmer of blue electricity danced around the three toruses and I felt the hair on my neck stand at attention. I pulled a pen from my pocket and signed the blank contract. The doctor smiled.

“Welcome to the team, Xiu Ying,” he told me.

There was a door on the other side of the lab similar to the one we’d used to enter the massive room: enormous and thick and profoundly strong. Dr. Johannsen waved his wristband over the reader and the door slid open to reveal a series of rooms lining a long hallway. We headed forward.

It was apparent our entrance to the area wasn’t the only one, as teams of scientists and doctors were working intently. I saw biological specimens on tables undergoing necropsies and dissections. I was unfazed by this, having had quite a bit of experience with animal testing during my cognitive neurobiological research. We turned down many, many hallways and the population of workers thinned as we went. Just like earlier, we came to another heavy door. The doctor opened it with his wristband.

It was dark inside.

“The government’s facility manager wanted all the lights in the facility to be motion activated to save energy,” Dr. Johannsen laughed, “but don’t mention to her how much energy the bulk negator uses – she might have a stroke.”

“Bulk negator,” I thought to myself. I couldn’t figure out what that combination of words could possibly mean. Before I could ask, though, Dr. Johannsen stepped into the room, activating the lights. Before I could stop myself, I gasped and stepped back.

The room was lined with what looked like upright, transparent coffins filled with some kind of clear liquid. They were numbered 0-100. Each one was occupied by a person with a terrible head injury. But the injury wasn’t what caused me to react. Each person looked exactly like Dr. Johannsen. The numbers 0-100, as I got closer, had to be the age of the person inside before he died.

I looked at Dr. Johannsen, who was studying me. I turned back toward the bodies. These weren’t merely lookalikes; these were Dr. Johannsen. I didn’t know how, but despite minor differences in their appearances, like small scars or the slight bump of a once-broken nose, I was entirely certain these people were the same as the doctor. And the same as one another.

The next glaring similarity between them was their head injury. The top of their heads had been removed and their brains had been extracted. Their skulls were as empty as their expressions.

Something buzzed on the other side of the wall. “Come,” said Dr. Johannsen. I obeyed and followed him through a small, unlocked door. Another row of transparent boxes stood, also numbered 0-100. The hum was louder in there. We approached box number 44. Across the room, a door opened and two scientists joined us. They opened the top of the box and a cable attached to something that looked like a showerhead descended from the ceiling.

“What are -” I started to speak, but was cut off by a clapping sound that reminded me of an electrical discharge. In an instant, the box had an occupant. He was alive. He looked around with obvious surprise and disorientation. When he saw Dr. Johannsen, a man who looked exactly like him only about 15 years older, he started to shout.

The box began to fill with liquid from a source in the floor. The man screamed and I started to get a panicky feeling. When I started to protest, Dr. Johannsen shushed me and told me it was okay; that I shouldn’t worry.

But I did worry. And to this day, I wished I’d done something. That was my point of no return.

The fluid rose and covered the man. The four of us watched him drown. His last breath, which he held for nearly two minutes, exploded from his mouth in a torrent of bubbles as he clawed at the glass. I watched him inhale the liquid and his face contorted in a grimace of agony as his lungs filled with fluid. His clawing slowed. Then stopped.

My mind was reeling. I’d just watched a man appear out of nowhere. I’d watched him drown. And he looked exactly like the man standing next to me.

“You can start the excision and husk viability assessments,” the doctor told the two scientists. They nodded.

We left the room and headed back down the labyrinth of halls toward his main lab. When my shock had diminished sufficiently for me to speak, I simply asked, “why?”

Dr. Johannsen sighed. “Because suicide is my right. And because no matter who they are over there, when they’re here, they’re me. And it’s my responsibility to dedicate myself to this cause.”

My question about brane cosmology was answered. “Is that what that bulk negator does?”

He nodded. I imagined an infant Dr. Johannsen disappearing from his crib and being forced to drown as his older, parallel self and other scientists looked on.

“I still don’t understand why. Why do you need to kill them? What happens to the brains?” My tone was growing frantic and I had to calm myself before continuing. I stopped walking and hissed, “what is the point to all of this?”

Dr. Johannsen stopped and stared at me. “It means, Xiu Ying, that I will never, ever die.” He began to walk again. I blinked a few times, then hurried to catch up. When I reached him and matched his stride, he turned to me and added, “and neither will you.”

As a sensation of enthralled shock dotted my skin with gooseflesh, the doctor grinned. “I think it’s time for you to learn about Black God.”

Click for part 2.

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