“Have you heard about this lately? Have you heard about this?” the podcasters chimed through Lou’s earbuds. The only thing he could hear were their voices and breathing – not the commotion of students commuting between classes or the audible anxiety of shuffling papers or frantic smacking against keyboards. It was just as he liked it. “Apparently, scientists think that in the near future we will be able to upload our minds into a digitized format.”
“Upload our –” the other one responded, obviously dumbfounded.
“Yeah crazy, isn’t it? Talk about some Matrix-type shit.”
“What do you mean by upload our minds?”
“So – so – so basically, they’d be able to make an exact copy of your brain –”
“Like a clone?”
“Yeah exactly. Well, something like that. They’d make a copy of your brain and upload it to this virtual reality world so you could have an exact avatar version of you living in this virtual world. So, like imagine playing Dungeons and Dragons, Runescape…”
“Yeah, Second Life, anything like that. But instead of a character, it’s you.”
“How would that work?”
“Allegedly you would be able to tap into it at any time and control your character through your thoughts alone. Some versions even have you being in that virtual space full time. I don’t know the specifics, but apparently it’ll be available by the end of 2025 and we are seeing trials starting as early as…well right now.”
The Science Today podcast never failed to get Lou grinning, laughing, imaging, or a combination of all three. But that day, the episode got him dreaming in a boyish way. Lou had always been a fan of science fiction from Star Wars to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to Alien to Ex Machina. If it fell into the science fiction genre, it was a good bet Lou Henry had seen or read it. And it recently wasn’t such a bad time to be a science fiction fan: with each passing day, the world of lightsabers and time travel was getting closer and closer. But a mental upload – now that was a dream come true. He couldn’t imagine a more exciting topic. Mental uploading would allow him to experience a whole new world – a world in which Lou Henry didn’t have to be Lou Henry anymore. He could be whoever he wanted. But as Lou got closer to class, his day only got better.
Just before the lecture hall doors, a bulletin board was covered at least two or three times over with various postings ranging from fraternity rush events to new student clubs to political campaigns. And he would have completely ignored the board as he usually did if not for the sci-fi themed posting staring back at him. It was a colored piece of printer paper, 9.5×11, that featured a large robot looking like a grinning version of those Terminator metallic-skulled abominations. It was gazing at Lou no matter where he was in relation to the poster: a modern Mona Lisa. Lou stopped for a moment and popped one earbud out and the podcast paused. He then read the thick white lettering across the center of the robot:
SANTA BARBARA RESEARCH STUDY
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN BEING A BETA USER FOR OUR CONSCIOUSNESS UPLOAD TRIAL?
COMPLETE A BRIEF SURVEY
WORK WITH INDUSTRY LEADING SCIENTISTS
BE A PART OF THE FUTURE
TAKE A NUMBER
EARN UP TO $200
Lou rubbed his eyes and read the poster again. He couldn’t believe the coincidence. Here he was listening to a podcast about mental uploading and right before him was a chance to be one of the first people ever to partake in an experiment toward that future. “Be a part of the future,” he read aloud, fantasizing about his potentially heroic contributions. He laughed to himself about that two-hundred-dollar figure; he was a broke college student, so sure he’d take the money, but he would have done it for free. Lou ripped a slip from the bottom of the poster, shoved it into his pocket, and headed through the classroom doors.
Lou couldn’t call that number fast enough. He’d hardly paid any attention in class – couldn’t tell you a word of what the professor had said. All he could think about was that one-lined proposition: be a part of the future. He slammed his dorm door shut and whipped out his phone with shaking hands. He dialed the number, almost salivating while he did so. 555-637-UPLD. He took a deep breath, read the number back to himself, then pressed dial. He brought the phone to his ear and waited. There was one ring, then two, then three. And then something peculiar happened. The dials turned to a staticky tone that seemed to drag out longer than a dial tone. Then a sweet automated voice took over. “Thank you for calling the Santa Barbara Research Hotline. Your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Please stay on the line until your requested party is available.” The phone rang again. Then again. The automated voice then repeated itself but sounded different this time. It came through in a sort of high-pitched, twangy tone. And Lou could have sworn he heard something behind the robotic voice this time: a soft but desperate scream crying out to him that was covered by the loudening voice.
“Hello?” Lou said cautiously. The phone then beeped four times and the call dropped. Of course it did. Lou knew it was all too good to be true. He thought of all the possibilities it could have actually been – a fraternal initiation dare, a couple of mean-spirited friends, or even just a dead-end prank looking to reel in any nerd that would fall for such a trick. “Figures,” Lou said shaking his head. Such a good thing wouldn’t happen to a guy like –
Lou spun around toward the door: a loud knocking rang out. Had his roommate forgotten his key? Unlikely: that had never happened before. “Who is it?” Lou said. Nobody answered, at least not verbally. Four more pounds came at the wooden door. Something about the knocking unnerved Lou. He couldn’t tell if it was the force alone of the knocks, or maybe the awkward spacing of each knock that felt like they were meant to scare him. It’s probably just the second leg of this stupid prank, Lou thought. The knocking came again. “Coming,” Lou said with a touch of annoyance.
Lou pressed his fingertips against the door and leaned in, almost touching his eyeball against the peephole. He squinted because he didn’t believe what he saw, or rather, what he didn’t see; there was nobody there. Nonetheless, the knocking came again. With his curiosity piqued, Lou backed away from the door and swung it open, almost not caring what was on the other side. It could have been a murderer or a thief for all he cared, but he needed to face his mysterious guest.
Lou’s eyes dropped downward to see the visitor – it was a short and slender man wearing a pinstriped suit that seemed to have been tailored for a slightly large doll. The man was no more than three and a half feet tall, but commanded a certain professional respect by his posture alone. “Hello,” the man said in a surprisingly deep voice. “My name is Frank Baxter and I am looking for a student who lives here by the name of Lou Henry.”
Lou nodded and extended his right hand. “That’s me.”
The man kept his hands together with his fingers crisscrossing one another into the handle of a small black briefcase. Mr. Baxter didn’t even bother looking in the general vicinity of Lou’s offered handshake. “Very good. May I come in?” Frank said. Before Lou could agree, Frank bowled past him into the room and pushed the door shut on his way in. “Lock the door.”
Lou did as he was told, still shocked by the encounter. “I’m sorry – why are you here?”
Frank’s eyes darted around the dorm – everywhere except at Lou. It was as if he was frantically looking for something, but wouldn’t say what. “I am with the Santa Barbara Research Facility and am conducting a study of the utmost importance.”
“You’re him,” Lou said, pointing at the man rather rudely. “You’re the guy doing that beta test experiment. Consciousness upload.”
“Yes,” Frank said dismissively, as if unimpressed by his own work. He spotted Lou’s desk as if it had alluded him before, approached it, then brushed off the stacks of disorderly papers which rattled through the air and glided to the tile floor.
“Hey!” Lou said.
Frank ignored him. He raised the briefcase almost as high as he could and slapped it onto the now bare desk. He flicked open the metallic buckle holding it shut, then popped the lid open to reveal a screen on the inside of the upper half. It was a laptop, but not just any laptop. It was fitted with a number of wires that were hastily shoved inside and tangled among each other. Lou pulled the cables out like a clump of hair from a drain and let them dangle over the edges of the briefcase. “I’m a busy man with a lot of experiments to conduct. I apologize for the speedy at which I must do this, but I haven’t the time to explain. Do you understand?”
Lou nodded. He didn’t know how Frank got there or how any of this had come to be, but no explanation was needed. He didn’t need to see credentials or identification or anything of the like. All he needed was to be part of the fantastical future that silly little poster had promised. It wasn’t only the money he didn’t care about – it was most of the event. It was, after all, too good to be true, and Lou wanted to throw the opportunity into jeopardy as little as possible. “Be a part of the future,” he recited in his head.
“Have a seat,” Frank said. Lou shimmied around Mr. Baxter and quickly sat in the wooden desk chair. He fidgeted with his hand under the desk, eagerly awaiting Frank’s next command. Frank grabbed Lou’s twirling fingers and placed them flat atop the cool desk. “Don’t move,” he said. “I am going to attach these electrodes to your head and the back of your neck. They will feel sticky and maybe a little itchy, but do not touch them. Once I start the procedure, you may experience a slight shock through the electrodes. It shouldn’t last long, but I will need you to pay careful attention to every sensation of the procedure you experience. Everything you feel – everything you see will be vital to this study. You understand? Vital.”
Lou nodded. “Yes,” he said.
One by one, Frank peeled and stuck the electrodes to Lou’s head: two on his forehead, one on either temple, and three on the nape of Lou’s neck in a triangular pattern. Once the seven electrodes were secured and patted down, Frank worked his way around Lou and turned the computer to the side. Frank typed in a few commands Lou couldn’t see, grimaced with vague frustration, then shook his head and tossed a flippant hand at the screen as if to say “whatever”. He then began speaking again in monotone, reading off the screen. “By participating in this phase of the trial you do not hold the University of Santa Barbara now or in the future liable to any degree of results of this procedure. You also agree to the experimental upload of your consciousness to our test servers for the beta trials specified on the posted advertisements for this trial. You agree to all of this in exchange for a one-time, direct-deposited compensation of two hundred dollars. Please provide your confirmation you agree to all aforementioned terms and conditions.”
“Verbal confirmation, Mr. Henry.”
“Yes. Yes, I do,” Lou said.
“Good,” Frank nodded. His little fingers glided across the keyboard and pounded in a few more commands. Lou took a deep breath and then a wide grin overtook his cheeks. His mind raced almost faster than he could keep up with, pouring over the possibilities. “Okay. You will feel the shock in three…two…one.”
Just as Frank had said, the shock zipped across Lou’s skull, but it felt nothing like Lou expected. It was fast and short, but didn’t feel like a static pulse you get from touching a car door or even the tender zap one might feel putting their finger too close to an electrical outlet. It was more of a mental twang – one he could see and observe break like lightning across his mind, but one that came with no physical sensation at all. It had forced Lou to close his eyes for a moment and when he opened them, something very different was before him. There was no white-painted dorm brick or cheap wooden desk, or even the wired laptop in a briefcase before him. Not even Frank in his tiny stature was anywhere to be seen. Lou would have thought the zap had made him blind if not for the whizzing green lines racing by his head like hypersonic neon mosquitos. But besides those dashes, everything was black. Lou tried to say something, but when he moved his lips he felt nothing and heard nothing come out. He felt like a blank slate – not too different from what he imagined a paralyzed comatose patient would feel. And then he began to panic. But when he panicked, he couldn’t even feel his chest rise and fall with each gasping breath. He felt like he was suffocating.
Suddenly, a loud overbearing ringing broke out followed by a deep and recently familiar voice: Frank. “Can you hear me?” the voice asked. Frank’s voice and breathing were bellowing like he had his lips pressed against a microphone.
For some reason, Lou could speak this time, but it seemed to only be possible when he was spoken to. “Yes,” Lou said.
Then the ringing came again and a gigantic green wall of text appeared before Lou. “Read that back to me.”
Lou stared up at it in both awe and fear, taken aback by its sheer size. He recognized the script as something dictated to him not long ago. He felt an inner compulsion to read it – not only because he was told to, but because it was within his nature. As if he were programmed to do so. “Thank you for calling the Santa Barbara Research Hotline. Your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes. Please stay on the line until your requested party is available.” He tried to scream, but nothing came out.