CHAPTER 1

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September 2080

New York

The Church of the Transmigration promised an eternity of bliss in the Higher Plane of the virtual universe, unchained from the bondage and pain of earthly life. It was strange, the rationalizers admitted, but stranger than becoming one with Brahma or sitting at the right hand of God, stranger than Nirvana or Heaven? Hardly.

And where other religions only made promises about becoming one with Brahma or sitting at the right hand of God, this heaven was one you could see and taste and touch in Vir. This was a heaven whose workings you could understand, a scientific heaven in place of the mysteries of an earlier god. They uploaded you into the computer, not just a consciousness but all of you, but you couldn't scan an object so completely and leave it perfectly intact. The process was literally deadly, it fried your synapses and destroyed your body. But then bodily death (and strictly speaking, they did not consider it that, "transmigration" was the word they always used) had always been the price of admission to heaven. And history had known no shortage of Crusaders ready to lay down their lives in the belief that they would go to paradise the instant they fell. Unlike their paradise, this heaven let you hear the testimonials of those before you, for those who had transmigrated were still there in Vir to be seen and spoken to.

Not surprisingly the Church had found adherents. Three hundred million had made the journey so far, and they said that hundreds of millions more, perhaps billions more, were on the waiting lists. (Fifty times a Holocaust their opponents cried!) Yet it had all seemed so distant to Bobbie until two weeks ago, when Pyrce told her that he would be doing it, too, and that he wanted her to be there with him, holding his hand during the ceremony . . .

Pyrce Godwin was that most enduring of nineteenth century Romantic cliches, the alienated and anguished artist. Pyrce was a young painter of unconventional illusions, moderate talent, modest background and no connections, leaving him without access to the circles in which he could have hoped for something like success, or the comforts that softened the edges of such realities. Much like his finances his health had never been good. He was no cripple, and he may have had a long life ahead of him, but his physical frailties added to his existential ennui, further isolating him from the world. Pyrce had never got along easily with others, nor they with him, which was, perhaps, how she came to be here with him; he so often seemed to be within his own little world, just as she was. And here the Church came, offering him a vision of a beautiful world, where everything would be as it should be, and nothing would ever hurt.

Sitting here alongside the scanner bed in the softly lit, rectory-like hospital room, silent but for the hum of the machinery, she remembered the objections of the rejectionists. The myriad religious and humanistic activists who firmly believed Transmigration to be murder, and the consciousnesses inside the Church's data banks to be nothing more than elaborate computer programs. Computers and robots can never be called alive, they said. They lack the essence of experience, merely collecting and retaining data, they said. Machines are never born, linked to the rest of the living universe through parents and their parents and their parents back to the very beginnings of life, and gestated in a process where they recapitulated their species' whole evolution, but are made whole, in a single piece. And where even a single cell comes into existence alive, indeed is alive when it is mere potentiality, the most complex machine does not even function until it is started up, dead until someone plugged it into the wall. The machine-men and machine-women are organized, not organic; synthetic, not natural.

It was all metaphysical babble to the sort of hard-core rationalist, materialistic thinking Bobbie had been brought up with. What is experience but data, the materialists asked? And what are living things but nature's inventions? What are we all but information encoded in carbon? She didn't feel so sure of that now, and she thought of how no one had ever been translated back from the machine – if maybe the rejectionists were right that life could not be so readily transferred, that the laws of thermodynamics held for the soul, and something was lost in every conversion of matter and energy, and something of Pyrce would be lost in the process. Something essential.

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