Nick and Edison took a seat at one of many tables in the wide low-ceilinged room. It wasn’t very close to the windows, those seats filled quickly it seemed, but they could still see the bright blue of the planet below since Philo’s was at a slight cant to the rest of the station. The neon-filled restaurant always had a view of the bright blue oceans and green-carpeted continents below. After seemingly endless years travelling near the speed of light, it was a welcome sight to the pair.
“I can’t believe you…” Edison kept mumbling, shaking his head. Edison was the older of the two, his hair trimmed short, and a neatly kept Van Dyke framing his perpetually pinched, sour-looking mouth. Nick thought, and not for the first time, about stabbing him with a fork. All of his hair had turned grey during the trip across space, so now he looked old, although not as old as he really was in relation to the rest of humanity.
Nick had aged more gracefully, his hair still mostly black with only some salt-and-peppering, and kept a few inches long and perpetually gelled up, giving him the look that he was a permanently shocked cartoon character. Their looks fit their personalities, Edison was dour and serious while Nick was excitable and enthusiastic. They had spent 5 waking years on their ship, the Wardenclyffe, performing experiments, but the years were broken into six month chunks, spread out over many more years spent in suspended animation. It was an attempt to send a pair of living humans to a star system twenty light years away from an outpost on Mars. Due to some miscalculations, the trip, which should have taken twenty years (ship time) took, in fact, a century. On Mars, a hundred and ten years had passed, and some sweeping changes had taken place.
Nick and Edison were supposed to settle into orbit around one of the planets in the system, send back a message, and then live out the rest of their lives performing experiments and enjoying old movies. They were both incredibly shocked to discover that A) a century had passed and that B) in that century (plus decade) technologies like teleportation and faster-than-light travel had been perfected. Colonies had been set up on several planets, including their destination. So instead of orbiting an uninhabited ball of rock that they were not sure would be habitable, they ended up on a space station a century in the future from what they knew, with a fast growing near celebrity to their names.
Edison had reacted with his typical bitterness, almost immediately complaining that his favorite microbrew from low-Earth orbit had apparently become a very popular brand in the past fifty years and was now everywhere, its logo on t-shirts and hats all over the place. Nick, on the other hand, felt like he’d gotten a “get out of technological stagnation free” card, and was loving every minute of their arrival. He mused briefly that the only human being he had spoken to for (relatively)five years was Edison; why in Hell was he having lunch with him when there were literally a million other people on the station that were probably better company? He decided he would explore that later, now was time to eat!
Nick was overwhelmed, not sure of where to begin. “I thought you were a vegan, Nikola.” Edison grumbled. Part of the reason they had been chosen was their eating habits; producing plant-based food was much easier and cheaper than than trying to preserve or pack half a decade’s worth of meat, and keeping livestock was out of the question. But Nick’s plate was loaded with meat.
“I had a moral objection to the poor treatment livestock received, that is true, but this is different.”
“How?” Edison asked, exasperatedly. He’d grabbed a salad and a side of pancakes with mycoprotein sausage, not a single molecule of animal product in it.
“Because this was not taken from a horribly abused, tortured animal. The animals this all came from died decades ago of old age.” Nick stated.
“How do you know that?” Edison asked sharply, then stuffed a cherry tomato in his mouth. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he was thinking how good Nick’s plate looked, and thought about how sick of his exact meal he had become in five years of little to no variety.
“I talked to Albert from the welcome crew. The meat is produced in a matter replicator. This piece of meat” Nick stabbed and lifted a chunk of ham he’d sliced off “Was produced out of thin air, literally. A device rearranged the protons and electrons of the matter available into a perfect copy of a ham that was digitally recorded decades ago. Down to the orbits of the electrons. It is in every way indistinguishable from that original piece.”
Edison grimaced. “Still, they had to kill a pig to copy it. How is that not just as bad?”
“Is it, though?” Nick asked. “This matter here never belonged to a pig. In fact, the air on this station is processed air from the planet below. It never belonged to anything other than a gas cloud and a planetary atmosphere. The pattern of the subatomic particles was once pig, but this is just rearranged air. I have no moral objection to breathing, so why would I object to this?”
Edison started so say something in protest, but Nick cut him off. “But still an animal died for all this?”
“Yes.” Edison, stated, not willing to relinquish his point.
“Ah, but they have that covered, too.” He grinned and ate the ham from his fork. Edison glowered as Nick’s eyes rolled back in apparent ecstasy. “I suppose they have an excuse you’ve latched on to. What else do you have there? Is that foie gras?!”
Nick patted the air in front of him. “Yes, calm down. And veal. And some lobster. I hear there is a french restaurant that serves ortolan, too.” He was grinning as he finished his sentence, because Edison looked like he was going to explode with rage. “Here’s how it worked; the people who originally decided to use matter replicators for food production knew there would be concerns about how the meat was handled. They wanted to reach as broad a base as they could, including people who were moral vegans and vegetarians. So, animals from all over Earth were scanned into the database. The entire, living animals, everything from English eels to Kobe beef cows.”
Nick bit into a piece of bacon. He spoke through his chewing. “All of this is available for you to look up, you should really take advantage of that “Internet” thing. It’s only been around for hundreds of years. Anyway, the digital copies were then modified, so when the creature was reconstructed as it were, it would have to be immediately hooked up to life support or die. Most just died, which was fine. It saved them having to ram a bolt into their head. The ones for veal, foie gras, things like that, were hooked up and groomed to produce the right kind of meat, then unplugged. “
Edison was still glaring. “That’s barbaric.”
Nick shrugged. “It is a bit grim, I’ll hand you that. But it’s no more barbaric than tilling a field once the crop has been harvested. These weren’t feeling creatures. Think of them as being fruit trees made out of meat. They were picked, chopped down and made into furniture, in a manner of speaking.” Edison seemed to calm down a little. “Only even better, because they didn’t kill something like a functioning healthy tree, they used a lifeform that was entirely un-alive. The carcasses were then made into cuts, rescanned, then those cuts were cooked into a wide variety of dishes by world class chefs, and scanned.”
Nick had somehow managed to fit half his plate into his mouth between sentences. “So this:” he held up a pan-seared piece of foie gras “is just air, again, rearranged to perfectly resemble some copied goose liver from the better part of a century ago. The bird it originated from had goslings, flew free and died of birdy old age while we were shooting through interstellar space and ninety nine percent the speed of light.” He ate the whole piece in one bite and savored it. “It lived a better life than we have so far. So no, my moral objection to eating this is non-existent.”
Edison sighed. The vegetables in his salad had been replicated exactly like Nick’s plate of carnage, every piece of vegetable matter scanned at it’s absolute nadir of perfection. He was so sick of them though, they tasted like ash. Not consciously, he seemed determined to bring down Nick’s glowing mood since he was not enjoying his meal.
“But what about the fat content. And sodium. And cholesterol.” Edison was getting himself worked up in the way people do when they think they have an airtight argument and victory is almost assured. Nick nodded and wiped his mouth with his napkin. “Valid concerns, all of them. But they won’t be tomorrow. Albert informed me of something called the “NanoHealth® Hemo-Infusion© Wellness Kit™.” I’m getting it tomorrow.”
“What the hell is that?” Edison took a bite of his veggie sausage, then looked at the link with disgust and set the rest down on his plate.
Nick smiled wide and lifted his drink to his lips. Edison’s jaw dropped open. “Is that beer? Where did you get that?” Edison’s voice had an edge of desperation. Nick couldn’t believe the man had actually missed the beer taps, but most likely he was so used to the vitamin rich smoothies and water they’d lived off of for half a decade that he’d simply forgotten it was an option. Beer had been the one thing Edison had truly lamented leaving behind.
Nick opened his mouth to tell him where to go, but Edison had already left the table and was looking around like a lost child trying to find his mother. Nick waited a little bit for his companion to return, staring at his mostly empty plate forlornly. He decided the remaining lobster tail, bacon and collective juices looked lonely, so he restocked at the buffet, selecting some eggs over easy and buttered wheat toast. And a biscuit. And a pile of waffle fries.
Less than a minute after sitting down to resume tucking in, Edison returned with a look Nick had never seen on him before; a look of almost frantic anticipation. On a tray in front of him, Edison carried several glasses filled with what appeared to be a cloudy weizen, an amber IPA and a dark porter or stout, along with two whiskey glasses with what he assumed were filled with Jack Daniels and single malt scotch, if he parsed the man’s ramblings accurately,
“Am I going to have to carry you out of here?” Edison lifted one of the whiskey glasses to his nose and inhaled deeply. “Shut up.” As he took a long sip, he motioned for Nick to continue speaking. “Oh, I have his majesty’s permission to speak?”
Edison flipped him off. Nick chuckled and mopped up some yolk with toast. “It’s a system of injected nanomachines. They monitor your intake of fat, protein, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins, etc. Based on an assessment of what is optimal for your body, it then rearranges whatever you consume into what you need. If you are, for example, eating nothing but cheese and never get any sunlight, it will turn the fat, lactose, salt, whatever into healthy proteins, vitamin C, vitamin D, whatever. Anything that is considered “excess” is used as raw materials to build any machines that you might have passed when you went to the bathroom, or into glucose fuel for the machines.”
He took a piece of lobster and dunked it in clarified butter. “With the system in place, any meal is a healthy meal. Literally.”
Edison took a long pull of his weizen. “Where’s the discipline in that?”
“There isn’t any. That energy can be redirected toward some other pursuit. Like rock climbing, or maybe programming or something.”
“Seems silly. It makes life too soft, it’s cheating.” Edison’s eyes never left the array of glasses in front of him. He’d apparently forgotten his meal and had decided on a liquid lunch instead.
“Technology is cheating. It always has been.” Nick stated. “Think about it; as animals go, humans pretty much suck at everything. Every other animal is faster, has better eyesight, can breath underwater, produces some magical material from its own body or can jump farther than we could hope to. So what did we do? We used the one thing nature gave us, our brain, to cheat the system. We developed tools to manufacture what evolution didn’t bless us with.”
“Think about it. We can’t fly, so we invented planes. That’s like a cheat-code for life. We added an extra dimension to our world. We can’t hold our breath very long, so we invented SCUBA. Every predator out there was better equipped than us from birth, so we started with spears and eventually wound up with high powered rifles. We don’t even have to be near our food to kill it. How is that not cheating? Also, how do you think we got here, if not by a cheat? Naturally speaking, we should have died fifty or so years ago. But here we are. Don’t pick and choose what you consider to be “okay” technology or not. Well, obviously if we’re not talking nuclear weapons or nerve gas. But a technology’s “morality” isn’t based on your comfort level with it.”
Nick laughed a little and drank some of his own beer. “Unless you’ve decided to become some sort of weird, new-age Amish person, where some arbitrary state of technology was “right” and everything that came after it was wrong.”
Edison snorted. “Jesus you talk a lot.” He shook his head and looked at Nick. “It makes people soft. Look at how fat and lazy the average twenty first century American was compared to the settlers just two hundred years before.”
“You think there were no fat colonists? Have you seen a picture of Ben Franklin?” Nick laughed. “By your reasoning, half the people in this room should be too obese to walk here, but look…” He scanned the room. “Everyone looks better than what we would call average in our time. Seventy percent of the population in this sector have the augmentation. They eat what they want and as long as they keep active, they’re fit as a fiddle.”
“As long as they’re active. That’s the key. And if they are, why do they need the silly kit? Just so they can eat crap?”
“Well, sort of. The system only ensures that you receive proper nutrition no matter what. It’s up to you to exercise it into healthy muscle, or sit on your butt and let it be weak. It’s improved lives beyond just those of us that want to be hedonists without consequences. Did you know there is not a single case of type one diabetes on this station or the planet below? The kit regulates the blood sugar, so even though people are still born with the disease, the nanobots effectively compensate for the imbalance, allowing them to live normal lives. Is that immoral?”
“Well, no. Of course not. But isn’t that like using heart medication for erectile disfunction?”
Nick laughed. “It is pretty much the exact same thing, but why not? It’s not like they are taking it away from people who need to give to people who want it. The law of supply and demand has made sure there is plenty for both.”
Edison didn’t want to let it go. “But isn’t that similar to elective surgery? Like getting a nose job or a boob job?”
Nodded slowly. “Perhaps…” He said slowly. “But I guess I’m not getting your point. Are you saying elective surgery is morally wrong?”
Edison shrugged, “It’s not?”
Nick looked genuinely surprised by the response. “That’s incredibly odd of you to say. You realize procedures like fixing a deviated septum, or removing excess skin on someone who has lost a great deal of weight, or even breast reductions are both elective and capable of doing significant good in a person’s life, yes? Or is that cheating? I ask as one man artificially kept alive for well over a century to another.” Edison nodded, but did so looking over to the side, a frustrated “of course you would say that” look on his face.
Edison quietly acquiesced, and the two ate in relative peace for several minutes. “I will grant you the atmosphere here is much better than the damn Wardenclyffe. Five damn years of nothing but black and some stars out the window.”
Nick nodded. “I agree. And with the teleporters they use these days, no one has to endure the mind-numbing boredom of space travel.”
“It still seems too easy to me.” Edison grumbled.
Nick was shaking his head. “No way! It’s fascinating.”
“But it isn’t really them. The people that are teleported. It’s a copy.”
Nick felt another soliloquy building inside of him. “You’d think…”
“Yes, I would.” Edison quipped.
“Here we go…”
“It’s not that simple. Even with all our progress, we barely understand what consciousness truly is. Plus, the way the transporters work is beyond amazing.”
Edison snickered. “Did Albert explain it to you?”
Nick shook his head. “Again, them internets. It all started with a matter replicator. They built the first teleporter, complete with a collection of roughly a septillion particles ripe for entanglement. Each one ready for a partner. Then they replicated the machine and sent it to another planet, and “turned on” one entangled pair. That represents the connection between those two teleporters.”
Edison found he was, for once, actually quite interested in what Nick was saying. “That connection is a sort of key, for lack of a better word, and ensures that information in one teleporter, when locked to another specific teleporter, shares information with it instantly by entangling literally trillions and trillions of other particles at the same time.”
“So, like a large quantum computer?” Edison asked.
“Exactly! Only in their case, the transfer of data is instant, literally faster than the speed of light.” Nick was beaming, the scientist in him almost erupting in excitement over the possibilities of what he’d learned.
Edison was curious, but he maintained his contradictory attitude. As far as he was concerned it was a win-win. “But how does this resolve the issue of whether everyone is a copy or not?” Nick held up a finger as he took a long pull of his beer. He let out a satisfied burp before continuing. “Excuse me. okay, here’s the really cool part. Once the connection is established, the teleporter begins a deep scan of the object or objects in question. It uses a ridiculous amount of computing power, but it can scan an object in three dimensions the size of a blue whale in a fraction of a second, recording the exact spin and position of every particle in them.”
Nick started to stand in his excitement, but realized what he was doing and sat back down. “Meanwhile, in the other teleporter, it is doing the same thing with an equal volume of matter in the destination. Once the scan is done, the information is instantly transferred and the matter in both locations is for all intents and purposes, ‘swapped’. In reality, it’s just been repurposed like the air from the replicator. So instead of destroying the ‘original’, the ‘it’, ‘they’ or whatever just switched places, like flipping a bit.”
Edison nodded absorbing what Nick had said. He was extremely impressed, and knew the man sitting opposite him well enough to know he didn’t just believe whatever information that was fed to him, that he did follow up research on everything, but he had to find a hole in it. He wanted to be right. But what if the destination has harmful bacteria or a poisonous atmosphere?”
Nick chuckled. “They probably know that ahead of time and he’d be wearing a suit.”
“No, I mean the ‘sender’ would be in trouble. Suddenly the ‘swapped’ air could poison or infect the people there.”
“Oh they thought of that.”
Edison threw up his hands. “Of course they did.”
“The matter from the destination is always sanitized. Always. Regardless of its components beforehand, it is converted to a nice mixture of helium, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. It smells like fresh air and the helium is captured for industrial purposes. Blimps and balloons and so on. Likewise, the network contains a catalog of things like viruses, bacteria and protozoans. Pretty much any pathogen. If any infections are found in the body, they are converted to water. You could literally be cured of ebola by being teleported.”
Edison sucked down half a glass of Jack. He grimaced for a moment, then smiled as the warmth of the Tennessee whiskey spread through him. “It still all feels wrong.”
“That’s because you’re old, Ed.” Edison glared across the table. Nick grinned and shrugged. “It’s a new world. This is normal now. Most everyone here is going to live well past a century. We’re old by comparison in a lot of ways, but we don’t have to stay that way. I intend to be around for a very long time. There are so many worlds to see.”
“That’s another problem.” Edison had one more argument up his sleeve. For some reason, he just couldn’t accept this new way of living, his brain seemed to be actively rejecting it. Maybe it was just because Nick seemed so happy with it. Nick motioned to him “Go on…”
“They find these habitable planets and then colonize them. How do they avoid destroying existing ecosystems?”
“Before a new planet is colonized, they send probes. They actively search for signs of life, even bacterial life. If any is found, they leave it alone. And there have been a few.” Nick grinned. “Just think of it, proven extraterrestrial life, that isn’t us! Anyway, international and planetary law forbids interfering. In fact, most inhabited worlds are actually dead planets that have been terraformed.”
“How can they do that so quickly? Shouldn’t that take centuries?”
“Nope, decades. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you can redirect comets and convert matter from one type into any other type.” Nick sat back and rubbed his now-bulging stomach. “That was amazing. I think I’m going to get some dessert and then take a nap. I have a date tonight.”
“Yep. Pretty girl, seems very interesting. Similar personality and interests.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the same service that is giving me my kit scanned my brain and built an android perfectly suited to what I’m looking for in a woman.”
Edison’s jaw dropped open. “I would love, LOVE, to hear your justification for that.”
Nick leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. He never stopped smiling. “What was one of the major issues plaguing humanity when we left? Why did we colonize Mars in the first place?” Edison started to respond and Nick continued over him. “Overpopulation. That was one of the major reasons they were sending two men on a one way trip to find a habitable planet. Clearly the human race has an issue with expanding our numbers before our horizons.”
“Okay, I understand that, but we have new planets now.”
“Hey, you asked, so hang on a few minutes. So while we have the ability to spread far and wide, we also have a population that still requires some consumable resources and has a seriously lengthened lifespan. If we continue reproducing at the old ‘normal’ rate, we’ll have an ever expanding population that will quickly overpopulate any home they colonize necessitating a never-ending struggle to acquire more habitable space. We’d be like mice that only rarely died.”
Edison sat tapping his foot with his arms crossed over his chest and his look as sour as ever.
“I am not a young man, mentally or physically, and I have no interest in raising a family. So a perfect partner for me would be a woman who shares my interests and soon to be acquired longevity, but is not only not interested in children, but fundamentally immune to having them.”
“But she’s a machine.”
“So are we.”
“But, her personality isn’t real.”
“How real is yours? What constitutes consciousness? These are things we still haven’t defined because they are too nebulous. One thing I do know is that she will be very human in many ways, down to being constructed of cells and having at least simulations of biological functions, and the brain is a neural net that will grow and learn. So a machine, yes. A construct, but only in the simplest and most basic terms. Within minutes of her ‘birth’, she begins developing a unique personality based on her environment. So I get to have my cake and eat it, too. Rather than slogging through messy relationships with possibly incompatible people, wasting time and suffering from heartbreak, I get to skip the crap and go right to spending time with someone who compliments me perfectly.”
Nick was getting up to clear his plate and head back to his apartment. Edison was moping. “But she has no soul.”
Nick winked as he started to walk off. “You let me know when there’s a good definition of what that is and we’ll look into it. I’m going to get some sleep and do some more reading. I suggest you do the same.”
Over his shoulder he said “Who knows? You might smile. And if that breaks your face, they can fix it. They have the technology.”
Edison waited until Nick was gone, then he did smile. It occurred to him that his favorite movies might be available for free along with a bottle or four of Philo’s wonderful beers. Despite his misgivings, maybe all of this progress was not such a bad thing.