Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
This book is classic military science fiction set in a future where humanity has spread out across a hostile universe. On Earth: John Perry is an old man who just turned 75, which means he’s finally reached the right age to join the Colonial Defense Force. Taken offworld with hundreds of other recruits, John and his friends are promised a new lease on life in the army, but are never given details of how elderly humans can make a difference in the fight. They are run through a battery of mental, emotional, and physical tests, then one day finally assigned an appointment with their ship’s doctor for “final physical improvements”…
My appointment was neither sooner nor later; at 0900 my PDA alerted me, and at 0915 there was a sharp rap at my door and a man’s voice calling my name. I opened the door to find two Colonials on the other side. I received permission from them to make a quick rest-room stop, and then followed them from my deck, back to the waiting room of Dr. Russell. I waited briefly before I was allowed entrance into his examination room.
“Mr. Perry, good to see you again,” he said, extending his hand. The Colonials who accompanied me left through the far door. “Please step up to the crèche.”
“The last time I did, you jackhammered several thousand bits of metal into my head,” I said. “Forgive me if I’m not entirely enthusiastic about climbing in again.”
“I understand,” Dr. Russell said. “However, today is going to be pain-free. And we are under something of a time constraint, so, if you please.” He motioned to the crèche.
I reluctantly stepped in. “If I feel so much as a twinge, I’m going to hit you,” I warned.
“Fair enough,” Dr. Russell said as he closed the crèche door. I noted that unlike the last time, Dr. Russell bolted down the door to the crèche; maybe he was taking the threat seriously. I didn’t mind. “Tell me, Mr. Perry,” he said as he bolted the door, “what do you think of the last couple of days?”
“They were confusing and irritating,” I said. “If I knew I was going to be treated like a preschooler, I probably wouldn’t have signed up.”
“That’s pretty much what everyone says,” Dr. Russell said. “So let me explain a little bit about what we’ve been trying to do. We put in the sensor array for two reasons. First, as you may have guessed, we’re monitoring your brain activity while you perform various basic functions and experience certain primal emotions. Every human’s brain processes information and experience in more or less the same way, but at the same time each person uses certain pathways and processes unique to them. It’s a little like how every human hand has five fingers, but each human being has his own set of fingerprints. What we’ve been trying to do is isolate your mental ‘fingerprint.’ Make sense?”
“Good. So now you know why we had you doing ridiculous and stupid things for two days.”
“Like talking to a naked woman about my seventh birthday party,” I said.
“We get a lot of really useful information from that one,” Dr. Russell said.
“I don’t see how,” I said.
“It’s technical,” Dr. Russell assured me. “In any event, the last couple days give us a good idea of how your brain uses neural pathways and processes all sorts of stimuli, and that’s information we can use as a template.”
Before I could ask, A template for what, Dr. Russell continued. “Second, the sensor array does more than record what your brain is doing. It can also transmit a real-time representation of the activity in your brain. Or to put it another way, it can broadcast your consciousness. This is important, because unlike specific mental processes, consciousness can’t be recorded. It has to be live if it’s going to make the transfer.”
“The transfer,” I said.
“That’s right,” Dr. Russell said.
“Do you mind if I ask you what the hell you’re talking about?” I said.
Dr. Russell smiled. “Mr. Perry, when you signed up to join the army, you thought we’d make you young again, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Everybody does. You can’t fight a war with old people, yet you recruit them. You have to have some way to make them young again.”
“How do you think we do it?” Dr. Russell asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Gene therapy. Cloned replacement parts. You’d swap out old parts somehow and put in new ones.”
“You’re half right,” Dr. Russell said. “We do use gene therapy and cloned replacements. But we don’t ‘swap out’ anything, except you.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. I felt very cold, like reality was being tugged out from under my feet.
“Your body is old, Mr. Perry. It’s old and it won’t work for much longer. There’s no point in trying to save it or upgrade it. It’s not something that gains value when it ages or has replaceable parts that keep it running like new. All a human body does when it gets older is get old. So we’re going to get rid of it. We’re getting rid of it all. The only part of you that we’re going to save is the only part of you that hasn’t decayed—your mind, your consciousness, your sense of self.”
Dr. Russell walked over to the far door, where the Colonials had exited, and rapped on it. Then he turned back to me. “Take a good look at your body, Mr. Perry,” he said. “Because you’re about to say good-bye to it. You’re going somewhere else.”
“Where am I going, Dr. Russell?” I asked. I could barely make enough spit to talk.
“You’re going here,” he said, and opened the door.
From the other side, the Colonials came back in. One of them was pushing a wheelchair with someone in it. I craned my head to take a look. And I began to shake.
It was me.
Fifty years ago.
“Now, I want you to relax,” Dr. Russell said to me.
The Colonials had wheeled the younger me to the other crèche and were in the process of placing the body into it. It or he or I or whatever offered no resistance; they might as well have been moving someone in a coma. Or a corpse. I was fascinated. And horrified. A small little voice in my brain told me it was good I had gone to the bathroom before I came in, or otherwise I’d be peeing down my leg.
“How—” I began, and I choked. My mouth was too dry to talk. Dr. Russell spoke to one of the Colonials, who left and returned with a small cup of water. Dr. Russell held the cup as he gave the water to me, which was good, because I don’t think I could have managed to grip it. He spoke to me as I drank.
“‘How’ is usually attached to one of two questions,” he said. “The first is, How did you make a younger version of me? The answer to that is that ten years ago we took a genetic sample and used that to make your new body.” He took the cup away.
“A clone,” I said, finally.
“No,” Dr. Russell said. “Not exactly. The DNA has been heavily modified. You can see the most obvious difference—your new body’s skin.”
I looked back over and realized that in the shock of seeing a younger version of me, I missed a rather obvious and glaring difference.
“He’s green,” I said.
“You’re green, you mean,” Dr. Russell said. “Or will be in about five minutes. So that’s one ‘how’ question. The second one is, How do you get me into there?” He pointed to my green-skinned doppelganger. “And the answer to that is, we’re transferring your consciousness.”
“How?” I asked.
“We take the representation of brain activity that’s tracked by your sensor array and send it—and you—over there,” Dr. Russell said. “We’ve taken the brain pattern information we’ve collected over the last couple of days and used it to prepare your new brain for your consciousness, so when we send you over, things will look familiar. I’m giving you the simplified version of things, obviously; it’s vastly more complicated. But it’ll do for right now. Now, let’s get you plugged in.”
Dr. Russell reached up and began to maneuver the crèche’s arm over my head. I started to move my head away, so he stopped. “We’re not putting anything in this time, Mr. Perry,” he said. “The injector cap has been replaced with a signal amplifier. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Sorry,” I said, and moved my head back into position.
“Don’t be,” Dr. Russell said, and fit the cap over my skull. “You’re taking this better than most recruits. The guy before you screamed like a pig and fainted. We had to transfer him over unconscious. He’s going to wake up young and green and very, very disturbed. Trust me, you’re a doll.”
I smiled, and glanced over to the body that would soon be me. “Where’s his cap?” I asked.
“Doesn’t need one,” Dr. Russell said, and began tapping his PDA. “Like I said, this body’s been heavily modified.”
“That sounds ominous,” I said.
“You’ll feel differently once you’re inside.” Dr. Russell finished playing with his PDA and turned back to me. “Okay, we’re ready. Let me tell you what’s going to happen next.”
“Please,” I said.
He turned the PDA around. “When I press this button”—he indicated a button on the screen—”your sensor array will begin transmitting your brain activity into the amplifier. Once your brain activity is sufficiently mapped, I’ll connect this crèche to a specialized computer bank. At the same time, a similar connection will be opened to your new brain over there. When the connections check out, we’ll broadcast your consciousness into your new brain. When the brain activity takes hold in your new brain, we’ll sever the connection, and there you are, in your new brain and body. Any questions?”
“Does this procedure ever fail?” I asked.
“You would ask that question,” Dr. Russell said. “The answer is yes. On rare occasions something can go wrong. However, it’s extremely rare. I’ve been doing this for twenty years—thousands of transfers—and I’ve lost someone only once. The woman had a massive stroke during the transfer process. Her brain patterns became chaotic and consciousness didn’t transfer. Everyone else made it through fine.”
“So as long as I don’t actually die, I’ll live,” I said.
“An interesting way to put it. But yes, that’s about right.”
“How do you know when consciousness has transferred?”
“We’ll know it through here”—Dr. Russell tapped the side of his PDA—”and we’ll know it because you’ll tell us. Trust me, you’ll know when you’ve made the transfer.”
“How do you know?” I asked. “Have you ever done this? Been transferred?”
Dr. Russell smiled. “Actually, yes,” he said. “Twice, in fact.”
“But you’re not green,” I said.
“That’s the second transfer. You don’t have to stay green forever,” he said, almost wistfully. Then he blinked and looked at his PDA again. “I’m afraid we have to cut the questions short now, Mr. Perry, since I have several more recruits to transfer after you. Are you ready to begin?”
“Hell no, I’m not ready,” I said. “I’m so scared my bowels are about to cut out.”
“Then let me rephrase,” Dr. Russell said. “Are you ready to get it over with?”
“God, yes,” I said.
“Then let’s get to it,” Dr. Russell said, and tapped the screen of his PDA.
The crèche gave a slight thunk as something physically switched on inside it. I glanced over to Dr. Russell. “The amplifier,” he said. “This part will take about a minute.”
I grunted acknowledgment and looked over to my new me. It was cradled in the crèche, motionless, like a wax figurine that someone had spilled green coloring into during the casting process. It looked like I did so long ago—better than I did, actually. I wasn’t the most athletic young adult on the block. This version of me looked like he was muscled like a competitive swimmer. And it had a great head of hair.
I couldn’t even imagine being in that body.
“We’re at full resolution,” Dr. Russell said. “Opening connection.” He tapped his PDA.
There was a slight jolt, and then it suddenly felt like there was a big, echoey room in my brain. “Whoa,” I said.
“Echo chamber?” Dr. Russell asked. I nodded. “That’s the computer bank,” he said. “Your consciousness is perceiving the small time lag between there and here. It’s nothing to worry about. Okay, opening connection between the new body and the computer bank.” Another PDA tap.
From across the room, the new me opened his eyes.
“I did that,” Dr. Russell said.
“He’s got cat’s eyes,” I said.
“You’ve got cat’s eyes,” Dr. Russell said. “Both connections are clear and noise-free. I’m going to start the transfer now. You’re going to feel a little disoriented.” A PDA tap—
—and I fell
(and felt like I was being pressed hard through a fine mesh mattress)
and all the memories I ever had hit me in the face like a runaway brick wall
one clear flash of standing at the altar
watching kathy walk down the aisle
seeing her foot catch the front of her gown
a small stutter in her step
then she corrected beautifully
smiled up at me as if to say
yeah like that’s going to stop me
*another flash of kathy where the hell did i put the vanilla and then the clatter of the mixing bowl hitting kitchen tile*
(god damn it kathy)
And then I’m me again, staring into Dr. Russell’s room feeling dizzy and looking straight at Dr. Russell’s face and also the back of his head and thinking to myself, Damn, that’s a neat trick, and it seems like I just had that thought in stereo.
And it hits me. I’m in two places at the same time.
I smile and see the old me and the new me smile simultaneously.
“I’m breaking the laws of physics,” I say to Dr. Russell from two mouths.
And he says, “You’re in.”
And then he taps that goddamned PDA of his.
And there’s just one of me again.
The other me. I can tell because I’m no longer staring at the new me anymore, I’m looking at the old me.
And it stares at me like it knows something truly strange has just happened.
And then the stare seems to say, I’m no longer needed.
And then it closes its eyes.
“Mr. Perry,” Dr. Russell said, and then repeated it, and then lightly slapped me on the cheek.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m here. Sorry.”
“What’s your full name, Mr. Perry?”
I thought about it for a second. Then, “John Nicholas Perry.”
“What’s your birthday?”
“What was the name of your second-grade teacher?”
I looked directly at Dr. Russell. “Christ, man. I couldn’t even remember that when I was in my old body.”
Dr. Russell smiled. “Welcome to your new life, Mr. Perry. You made it through with flying colors.” He unlatched the door to the crèche and opened it wide. “Come out of there, please.”
I placed my hands—my green hands—on the side of the crèche and pushed outward. I placed my right foot forward and staggered a little bit. Dr. Russell came up beside me and steadied me. “Careful,” he said. “You’ve been an older man for a while. It’s going to take you a little bit of time to remember how to be in a young body.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Well,” he said. “For one thing, you can straighten up.”
He was right. I was stooped slightly (kids, drink your milk). I straightened up, and took another step forward. And another. Good news, I remembered how to walk. I cracked a grin like a schoolboy as I paced in the room.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Russell asked.
“I feel young,” I said, only a little joyously.
“You should,” Dr. Russell said. “This body has a biological age of twenty. It’s actually younger than that, but we can grow them fast these days.”
I jumped experimentally and felt like I bounced halfway back to Earth. “I’m not even old enough to drink anymore,” I said.
“You’re still seventy-five inside,” Dr. Russell said.
At that I stopped my little jumping and walked over to my old body, resting in the crèche. It looked sad and sagged, like an old suitcase. I reached out to touch my old face. It was warm, and I felt breath. I recoiled.
“It’s still alive,” I said, backing away.
“It’s brain dead,” Dr. Russell said quickly. “All your cognitive functions made the transfer. Once they had, I shut down this brain. It’s running on autopilot—breathing and pumping blood, but nothing more and that only provisionally. Left on its own, it’ll be dead within a few days.”
I crept back to my old body. “What’s going to happen to it?” I asked.
“We’ll store it in the short term,” Dr. Russell said. “Mr. Perry, I hate to rush you, but it’s time for you to return to your quarters so I can continue my work with other recruits. We have quite a few to get through before noon.”
“I have some questions about this body,” I said.
“We have a brochure,” Dr. Russell said. “I’ll have it downloaded into your PDA.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said.
“Not at all,” Dr. Russell said, and nodded toward the Colonials. “These men will escort you back to your quarters. Congratulations again.”
I walked over to the Colonials, and we turned to go. Then I stopped. “Wait,” I said. “I forgot something.” I walked over to my old body again, still in the crèche. I looked over to Dr. Russell and pointed to the door. “I need to unlock this,” I said. Dr. Russell nodded. I unlocked it, opened it, and took my old body’s left hand. On the ring finger was a simple gold band. I slipped it off and slipped it on my ring finger. Then I cupped my old face with my new hands.
“Thank you,” I said to me. “Thank you for everything.”
Then I went out with the Colonials.