Jenkins took a deep breath, drawing in the cool, ozonated lobby air. It was a pleasant change from the outside world, which the building’s sealed domes did a good job of keeping out. In addition to things smelling sweeter, the decor and color scheme was much improved; the functional combination of metal and concrete replaced with a fine array of tinted light, organic contours and eye-popping visuals.
It was a pleasant distraction for the new arrivals, a way to feel better about the many legal and social barriers they could look forward to now that they were back on solid land. At least for those traveling from the farthest reaches. For those moving about the globe, one terminal was much like the rest – a conjunction of high security, fast business, and the crush of humanity.
The armed men peppered about the facility was something else transport authorities liked to distract people from, he knew. As always, travel was a complicated and messy business, but one that the world continued to rely on.
From above, he heard a finely-pitched voice welcoming people with its melodic, Queen’s English accent. It quickly cycled through multiple languages and dialects, beginning in English and making its way through various other tongues one could expect to hear spoke within the Union:
“Welcome to Heathrow International. Heathrow Uluslararası Hoşgeldiniz. Bienvenue a Heathrow Aeronautique International. Bienvenido a Heathrow International. Willkommen in Heathrow Internationale.
His display contacts actively translated each message for him, projecting it in the lower right portion of his field of vision. He ignored it but didn’t bother to deactivate the application. Whenever the wearables got too busy, it was just easier to filter it out than to bother with altering their settings. And like most people, he had become so accustomed to them that it really didn’t distract him much.
Passing along the bay windows, he walked by many individuals who had taken a seat and were recharging their devices on the window. The clouds had cleared to the point where sunshine was actually shining in again and could be taken advantage of. He passed a young man who wore what appeared to be a wearable with charge patches on the shoulders. Pulling the coverings off, he exposed the patches to the incoming sun and switched on the coat’s projector, using his exposed arm as the display surface to scroll through his emails.
Another youth, this one clearly hailing from the Maghreb region, chose to take advantage of the light by slapping a small pod on the window and plugging her device into it. Her lap became the projection surface as she posted her latest thoughts to whatever utility the kids were using these days. She snickered as she scanned the updates from her friends and peers and quickly posted some replies. No doubt a flame war or an inane conversation consisting of many acronyms would ensue.
Jenkins passed them by and uttered a silent prayer for the youth of today, not to mention their bewildered parents.
“I’m regret that the Crown Court has had to become involved.”
They walked together down the side hallway that led to the detention area. The white walls reflected the overhead lighting, giving everything an intense, sterile glow. Jenkins shoes made loud slapping noises as they clopped along the tiled floors, every step bringing them close to the cell that had been set aside for their special guest. As they walked, Jenkins caught up on the relevant details of their detainee, the various facts about his life and the events leading up to his decision to live beyond the scope of English law.
He also quickly processed information about the custom’s officer who was escorting him, a native Londoner named Richard Walters, according to his file.
“We certainly would not have troubled you, but I’m afraid this is a bit beyond the usual range of customs enforcement.”
Jenkins smiled benevolently and replied politely: “Well, it’s what we do when a former national returns to us, asking to be given a chance to become a citizen again.”
“Yes, but this man…” said Walters. “I can’t imagine anyone like him just showing up out of the blue like this. He had to wonder what would become of him once he reached the surface.”
“Indeed,” said Jenkins. The only situation he could think of that would be comparable was an international terrorist or criminal seeking to publicly surrender themselves to authorities. But even they seemed to prefer more subtle measures. Wandering into an international aerospace facility seemed awkward and uncouth for anyone with a high profile.
And as the CCEW’s files indicated, the detainee had few passports to his name anymore. Aside from a general ID that allowed him access to any of the Hubs in the Distributed Territories, the only countries still open to him were either undeveloped or politically neutral. In such places, the law was either behind the times or not interested in legislating human enhancement. How easy would it would have been for him to simply fly into Zurich, Oslo, or possibly Jakarta or Lagos?
But the UK, which was nonetheless the land of his birth, simply did not recognize him as a naturalized citizen anymore. Flying into London could therefore be seen as nothing short of deliberate and meant to elicit a specific reaction. What that reaction was, though, remained to be seen.
“Has he said anything to you? Made any statements as to what his intentions are?”
“No, sir,” said Walters, shaking his head. “As soon as we removed him for processing, he said barely two words. Mainly, he has said multiple times that he understands his situation, and that we are doing what is required by law. He also seemed to express approval when he said a representative of the Crown Court of England and Wales would be coming to meet with him.”
“Interesting.” Jenkins answered, thoughtfully. “And he asked for nothing else? Not an advocate to apprise him of his rights or a journalist to take down a statement?”
“No, sir. Not even for a bite of food or a cup of tea.”
Jenkins scowled. He could not see the logic in any of this. It was well known that individuals like this one were of augmented abilities, which included their capacity to think and remember. It was hard to fathom that any of them would do something by accident, let alone not realize the full consequences of their actions. That, in addition to his professed approval of Jenkin’s arrival, would seem to suggest he was not truly aware of his actions; or perhaps aware of something the rest of them were not.
Jenkins shook off the thought and finished reading through the last of his file. Shortly thereafter, they reached the detention area and Walters gained access for them. This consisted of passing through multiple doors with biometric locks, the first two requiring a DNA scan and the final one requiring him to punch in an access code. This last one opened the cell door, and revealed a single man sitting at a table, flanked by two guards.
Jenkins nodded to Walters to leave them and took a seat at the opposite end of the table. He sat down, placing his satchel next to his chair and his jacket over the back. When he was comfortably sitting, he produced his Stele, placed it before him and bent the edge to activate it. With all that ready, he looked across the table at his charge for the day and began mouthing the information he had been reading moments before.
“Mr. Albrecht Neilson, born 1977, Lisbon, Portugal to Wanda and Stephen Neilson. Became a naturalized citizen upon their return from vacation. In 1982, diagnosed with epilepsy and sought multiple treatments for it over the years. Studied at Oxford, computer science and biology. Graduated Suma Cum Laude in 1999, founded Project Borg a year beforehand. Became a leading advocate for human augmentation through cybernetics in the early 21st century…” Jenkins paused and waited for a reaction. None appeared to be forthcoming, so he continued. “Over the next ten years, you underwent numerous procedures popularly known as ‘biohacking’, designed to correct for your neurological impairment. Succeeded in 2017 with the addition of a revolutionary new neurlogical implant that was designed with the assistance of your own Project Borg. Known as the ASNG. or ‘Anti-Seizure Neural Graft’.” He paused yet again, waiting for some sign of life. “How long has it been since you had a seizure, Mr. Neilson?”
To his surprise, Neilson responded. Making eye contact, he answered truthfully. “Almost thirty years.”
Jenkins nodded. “And since that time, you have taken part in numerous enhancement procedures as soon as they became available. In 2018, you had one eye surgically removed and replaced with a bionic version, as well as your right arm the following year. And then, when it became available, you corrected for a heart condition by having piezoelectric grafts placed in your chest. Medimachines followed through the 2020’s, until finally, you ran into various legal barriers and relocated. In fact, you did so several times before taking up residence in orbit amonsgt the Distributees.” He paused one last time. “Have I forgotten anything, Mr. Neilson?”
“Just one,” he said. “During my time in orbit, I underwent numerous more enhancements, most of which are heavily regulated on the surface.”
Jenkins waved his hand over his Stele, a QWERTY projection appeared on the table before him. “Mind if I list them for the record?”
Neilson spread his hands wide and then pointed to his eyes. “Not much that would be deemed illegal. Mostly, I finished what I started vis a vis my ocular and manual enhancements. Though I imagine you would consider the Loom I carry in my head to be something of a legal impediment.”
Oh dear, Jenkins thought, and typed it in. There had been rumors that Hab facilities in orbit were very accommodating of the procedure, even more so than the biohacking clinics located in Rio and Bangkok. And given the promise of enhanced cognitive function, memory, and the elimination of any and all neural disorders, there were plenty of people on Earth willing to pay it. Provided they didn’t find the idea of having their entire neurological structure reinforced by billions of tiny filaments.
“Well then,” Jenkins said finally. “That just leaves the issue of why you are here.”
“That is very simple,” replied Neilson. “I’ve come home to die.”
Jenkins hands paused in midair, his fingers poised above the waiting virtual keys. “I beg your pardon?”
“I have come home to die,” Neilson repeated. “I wish to do so with the ground beneath my feet. And I wish to do it in the land of my birth.”
Jenkins watched as, on the screen, Kaladah read through the notes he had been forwarded and considered all he’d been told. His reaction was quite apparent. Even the passage of time and the extensive wear of so many years of jurisprudence couldn’t conceal his surprise.
“So if I understand you correctly,” he said, “this nation’s first recognized post-human is asking for permission to die a natural death?”
“Yes, sir,” Jenkins replied. “He was quite clear on the fact that he does not intend to commit suicide. Just that he would like to allow for the slow passage of time to take him.”
Khaladan ran a hand over his face and slumped back in his chair. “Any indication of how long that might be?”
“No telling, sir. Who can be sure how long one of his kind can live once they have all their medimachines removed?”
Kaladah nodded. “And I assume you told him of the legal difficulties in having those removed from his system?”
“Yes, sir. He is aware of the fact that exposing any strains unauthorized nanomachinery to open air is a criminal offense, and that he would be required to undergo the procedure in a sealed, secured laboratory. He also understands that he would need to have key parts of his anatomy replaced – both of his hands and eyes – in order for a biometric ID to be assigned to him.”
“But of course, we can’t allow him to pass onto British soil so long as he remains in possession of these.” Kaladah said these last words sourly, as they encompassed the full weight of their legal dilemma. “What made him decide to do this?”
Jenkins shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. I’ve been over this with him a few times and all he will say is it is his right to decide where and how he wishes to die.”
“Yes, it certainly is.” Kaladah shook his head. When it came to life and death, the two extremes for which there could be no ambiguity, the law was quite clear. Every citizen of the realm was entitled to live, and to choose when and how they wished to cease to do so. But that which fell in between, that was subject to interpretation, committees, legalities and complications, the result being that there was no single, consistent rule about what a person could do with their biology.
And when the issue was pressed, which was something that Neilson’s seemed intent on doing, the best anyone could do was say that the human mind and body were sacred, unless one tampered with their mortality. Somehow, death was the deciding factor, the line between the sacred and the profane, the spiritual and the mundane.
Kaladah quickly moved on, hoping to suggest a solution. Unfortunately, all he could think of was additional problems:
“Even if we could bring a disposal team to him, we could not ensure secure conditions. Not in a detention facility, surely.”
“Agreed. And an international airport is no place to be conducting such a procedure. The PR alone would be a nightmare for the Justice System. Everyone would be demanding to know why we simply didn’t arrest him.”
“For which we can’t, unless we want to incur the wrath of the Human Rights Committee and the European Commission.”
Not to mention every liberal and civil rights advocate on the planet, thought Jenkins. Even the Purists would feel awkward standing behind such a move. Given the rash of attacks attributed to them, not to mention all the discrimination suits filed by registered Cyborgs, they would want to distance themselves from any overt case of legal persecution.
“So the question remains… what do we do with him?”
“Indeed. He’s put us in quite the predicament. If I were a more cynical man, I would say -” Jenkins stopped in mid-sentence. What had felt like a sardonic joke in his mind suddenly didn’t seem so peevish once uttered. “Dear God… why didn’t I see it before?”
On the screen, Kaladah suddenly looked worried. “Jenkins? What’s going on?”
Death is the deciding factor, he thought. Why hadn’t he seen it? Why hadn’t he considered that it could work both ways?
“Jenkins?” Kaladah repeated.
“I have to stop him!”
“Stop what?!” Jenkins could hear protesting as he deactivated the Stele and slipped it into his pocket. He was off at a running pace, heading back down the hallway towards the detention cell. He fumbled to enter the code quickly, and shoved the door open as soon as the lock disengaged. Inside, the two guards stood with their weapons raised; his forceful entry causing them to go into defensive posture. They relaxed a little when they saw him, and then pointed their weapons at Neilson.
Mr. Neilson, for his part, looked intensely calm. His eyes had taken on a distant quality, and his mouth was twisted up into a crooked smile. Jenkins came running around to his side and grabbed hold of his right arm, pulling at it as he pleaded with him.
“Mr. Neilson! Don’t do it!”
“It’s too late…” he whispered. “The instructions were already given while I was in transit. All that was needed was final approval from me.”
Jenkins pulled his face around and looked into his eyes. No trace of emotion registered in his biomimetic globes, the irises lined with a thin gunmetal-grey filament. And yet, he couldn’t help but feel like they conveyed a terrible sense of joy – what he imagined they would look like were they flesh and blood equivalents.
“What have you done?” he asked.
“Beta blockers first… followed by a hefty dose of endorphin precursor.” Neilson’s head began to feel heavy in Jenkins hands, and his eyelids began to look heavy. The next words trickled out of his mouth and were just audibly. “Sodium thiopental… pancuronium bromide… potassium chloride… everything stops.”
Jenkins looked up at the guards with a start. “Have you notified the EMTs?!”
“Yes, sir!” said the one, pointing to the bead in his ear. “They say they need at least sixty seconds to get here.”
“There’s no time!” He looked back to Neilson, who now slumped over the table. He had to kneel down to look into his eyes now. The bionic units continued to glow with life, but what was behind them appeared to be fading fast. There wasn’t enough time to save him, but he was determined to ask the obvious questions.
“Why, Mr. Neilson? Why now?”
“Death…” he began. “It’s something we all wanted to cheat. But we forgot… death is needed… for change.”
“But why you? Why here? WHY NOW?!”
Neilson drew in a long, strained breath. It seemed to retreat from him only slowly, and with incredible effort. No reply came, on a fond word of farewell.
His head touched down on the table. Within seconds, his back ceased to rise and fall with the taking of breath. In time, Jenkins could hear the clip-clopping of boots rushing down the hallway, and saw the colorful uniforms of two bodies appear in the doorway.
“It’s too late,” he muttered. “He was gone before you got here.”
That didn’t stop the EMTs from rushing to the table and placing Neilson’s now lifeless body on top of it. Opening his shirt, they began to attach sensors and stimulators to both his chest and his temples. What followed was a futile effort to restart his heart and maintain oxygen flow to his brain. Jenkins could not watch, and slipped out into the hall.
He put his right hand to the pocket in the left breast of his jacket. He knew he would have to notify Kaladah and the Ministry before long. Certainly, they would need to know what had happened and would want time to prepare a statement. There was no way this would remain secret, and they would want to get a chance to get ahead of the story before the public heard about out it from outside sources.
But even with some lead time, Jenkins knew they would be hard pressed to explain this. How were they to go about conveying why Mr. Albrecht Neilson, Britain’s first post-human man, had chosen to forgo the dream of immortality? It really didn’t matter in the end. People would find their own interpretations and spins and go with them.
He could imagine it without much difficulty. Some would say he martyred himself to teach people about tolerance. Others would say he chose to die because he had seen the error of his ways and chosen to recant. Some more would condemn the justice system and say this was a lesson in humanity, from a man who no longer considered himself human.
Despite all he felt, he was forced to smile at that last one. He could only imagine that was what Neilson himself had wanted. No doubt, his augmented mind had appreciated the irony of it far more than Jenkins, with his original neurons still intact, ever could…
This story is part of my soon-to-be released anthology entitled Flash Forward, a collection of science fiction shorts that deals with the coming Singularity. For some time, I have wanted to do a piece that deals with the emergence of cyborgs and post-humans, how such people will be received by society, and how the law is likely to address the issue of augmentation and enhancement. How will we, as a species, address the likelihood of a “post-human” future?
This story was inspired by multiple sources, including Neil Harbisson (Britain’s first legally recognized cyborg) and the “Eyeborg”, Kevin Warwick and Project Cyborg, recent backlashes against Google Glass wearers, Steve Mann’s reported assault in Paris, the growth in bionic and mind-controlled prosthetics, and the many stories of biohacking and DIY enhancement that are taking place all over the globe.