Forever is a Long Time

“You live with the decisions you make,” Shirley said, taking a sip of her tea, “or die.”

“I know what you mean,” said the technician.

“A thousand years ago, I decided I didn’t want to die, so it made sense to have my consciousness put into a machine. Live forever, they said. And so far it has been true. I never grow old, never get sick and am free to do what I want and go anywhere. Oh, the things I’ve seen over the years.” Shirley set her cup down and looked out the small window at the empty beach.

A vague memory of playing at the beach with a grandchild washed over her. That was almost 900 years ago and she remembered thinking how great it was that she was 100 years old and splashing in the waves like a school girl.

“That sounds good,” said the technician. The technical robots had been programmed to respond to people so they felt more comfortable, but they didn’t understand what they were saying, it was all based on a programmed response. Shirley knew this, but the response made her feel better. At least she had someone to talk to.

Shirley used to love talking with people. Over the years, she had met people from many countries and learned so much, but now she had no one to share it with.

“Mrs. Robertson,” said the technician, “I have your test results. Your central energy grid is only functioning at 35%.”

Shirley had been feeling run down recently, so she was not surprised. The advantage of being a mechanical person is that they can just pop one part out and put a new one in, and you’re on your way. “And how long will that take to fix?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” said the technician, “that part is no longer available.”

“What do you mean?” said Shirley.

”I mean that you cannot be fixed,” said the technician. “Your central processing function will shut down in approximately four days.”

“And will I be transferred to a new unit?” Shirley asked.

“There are no more units,” said the technician. “Since the humans have left, the system keeps functioning, but is only concerned with maintaining and growing the mining and shipping infrastructure. Any parts that are not being used are repurposed to support those operations.”

“And?” Shirley had not thought about her life ending. She was offered eternal life.

“You will cease to exist and your usable parts will be used to maintain the system.”

The response did not register with Shirley at first. She had not thought about death in a very long time and she was not ready. “So, what are my options?” she asked.

The technician was programmed to be sympathetic, but it did not understand the concept of death. There was functioning or needing repair. When repair was not possible, functioning stopped. “There are no options. Your body will stop functioning and you will be repurposed.”

“But there must be options,” Shirley said. “Can’t you make a new part?”

“I’m sorry,” said the technician, quickly scanning down a video screen. “With models your age, it is not cost effective to fabricate new parts. You need to be repurposed while your other parts are still viable. It is for the good of the grid.”

“No, that can’t be right!” said Shirley, her breeding keeping her from screaming at the machine. “There must be something I can do, someone I can talk with.”

“I see that you are upset,” said the technician. “If you are unhappy with my service, you may report your concerns to the Repair Function office in Room 3-H.”

An hour and a half later, the functionary in the Repair Function office turned away from the screen and said, “I have reviewed the technical work, and the technician was correct, your central processing function is failing. What exactly is your concern?”

“My concern is that I am dying, and you’re telling me there’s nothing you can do about it.” Shirley had been talking very loudly to the functionary, but suddenly realized that the extra energy might be draining her energy store, reducing the time she had left, and she sat back quietly in her seat.

The functionary in the Repair office was programmed to be more compassionate than the technician, but did not understand the concern about dying. “All systems die eventually,” said the functionary, “And then they become a part of the bigger system.

“I am not a system, I am a person – and I was told I would live forever. I’m not ready to go yet, and I want to talk with someone. I only have a few days left, and I need to talk with someone now!” Shirley realized it would not do any good to yell at the functionary, who was just doing what she was programmed to do. “Is there a person I can talk with?”

The functionary referred to her computer screen, wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to Shirley. The functionary didn’t understand why, but it seemed to make people, even mechanical ones, feel better when they had something to hold onto.

Shirley looked down at the electronic message address written on the small slip of paper. “You can send an electronic message to this address and you will receive a prompt response,” said the functionary.

Bob Zimmer heard the ping from his computer telling him there was an incoming message. He didn’t get many messages any more. As the only human assigned to Earth, his job was to respond to those issues that the machines were not programmed to handle. Since the last humans left the planet, several years ago, only mechanical people were left and there was very little need for his service.

As he read the message, he was torn between compassion for the person writing it and contempt for someone who had outlived their lifespan and now was upset that they didn’t have more time. His wife had died 30 years ago, and he missed her more every day.

Dear Administrator - My name is Shirley Robertson, and I am currently living in a Golden Age 2000 mechanical body, which I purchased in 2065. I have recently begun feeling tired and was told that my central processing function is worn out and is going to shut down. I do not want to die and I need your help in finding a replacement part, or a new body. This is extremely important as I have only a short time left before my body stops functioning and is repurposed. This is totally unacceptable as I paid for eternal life and I don’t consider even a thousand years “eternal”. I expect your company to honor your pledge.

Zimmer’s response was sent the same day, and Shirley read it with great satisfaction.

Dear Mrs. Morrison –

Thank you for your continued patronage. While it is true that there is no replacement for the Golden Age 2000, we are pleased to offer you a transfer to a newer unit that will allow you to continue your existence indefinitely. Please report to the ComStar office on Powell for the transfer.

Shirley was at the Comstar office early the next morning. She showed the technician the electronic message from Zimmer and was led to a small room filled with wires and readout screens.

“Good morning, Mrs. Robertson,” said the technician cheerily. “I see we are doing a transfer this morning. Please have a seat in the chair and just relax while I prepare you for the transfer.”

Shirley settled into the chair and the technician hooked her up to a small box that looked like an old desktop computer. She let out a relaxing sigh, knowing that her life was going to continue. Over the years, her fear of dying had only increased as she watched loved ones, friends and a acquaintances pass away until she was the only one left, and she was not ready to die.

“You know, I am over a thousand years old,” she told the technician. “But it’s my goal to live forever.”

“Forever is a long time,” said the technician, adjusting some dials and checking numbers against a readout screen. “Are you ready?”

“Ready,” said Shirley as she faded into sleep. Whatever they gave her worked quickly, but she felt disoriented as she woke up and couldn’t feel the connections with her body. It was dark and she couldn’t hear anything. Something must have gone wrong with the transfer. Her heart didn’t seem to be racing, but she could feel her anxiety growing. She pushed back the panic by telling herself that the technician was working on it and she would be fine any minute.

Bob Zimmer’s directions, which were his last official action before he was removed from his Administrator position due to declining mental faculties and increasingly erratic behavior, were very clear: Insert consciousness into continuous loop in subsector 11 of server x2564-4B.

Shirley sensed movement and was excited that she was going to continue living. Her thoughts were interrupted by a bright light, a sharp pain and a scurry of activity. She felt herself scream and heard a deep voice, from off in the distance say, “It’s a girl, and she’s got a good set of lungs.”

You wanted eternal life, Mrs. Robertson, thought Zimmer as he was escorted from his office. Your life is now endless. I hope you like it as much as you did the first time.