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woman wearing headset with microphone

Credit: Roman Samborskyi

"Have you tried turning it off and on again? Okay, I'll hold while you do." Diana hit the mute icon on her iDesk and threw a screwed-up ball of paper at Mark, sitting opposite. "Why don't we pre-record that? It'd save so much effort."

Mark snorted. "I'd want a whole support phrasebook. Like, 'Have you put in on charge?' and 'Where did you spill the coffee, exactly?' and 'Have you checked the FAQs?' Of course, that's just the first step. Next they'll replace us with an AI— no deep learning required."

Diana smiled. "Okay," she said to the user, "don't worry, it can take a while." She waved her mug at Mark. "Coffee?"

"Yes, please."

"I would, but …" Diana gestured at her headset.

"I fell for that, didn't I?" Mark reached over and grabbed Diana's mug.

A flash of light momentarily filled the office, making Diana's eyesight blurry. "Whoa!" She closed her eyes for a moment, then looked across at Mark, blinking to clear her vision. "What was that?"

"What that?"

"That that. The flash—like lightning." Diana peered out the dusty window, but there were blue skies, not a cloud in sight.

Mark shrugged. "I didn't notice anything."

"Well, I didn't imagine it."

Mark brought her coffee over. "Start of a migraine, maybe."

"I don't get… oh, hi." Diana pointed to her headset in a familiar gesture. "It did? That's great. Just call back if there are any more problems." She touched the icon to release the call before muttering, "And if I'm lucky, Mark'll get you next time."

"Did you ever read The Sleeper Awakes? You know, H. G. Wells."

"Don't pretend you've read it yourself, Mark. Unless there's a graphic novel."

"As it happens, I have read many books," said Mark. "Many, many books. Including a number of fine titles by Wells. Everyone remembers The Time Machine, but not everyone knows he wrote two time travel books."

"Okay, I'll bite. What has this to do with anything?"

"Humor me."

"Fine. I read a couple of his novels in college, but not that one."

"You didn't miss much. Over-heavy on political polemic, not enough action. This guy, the Sleeper, wakes up in the year 2100. Discovers he's been out for 203 years."


"No, Wells was too early for that. The Sleeper was in a coma all that time. He becomes a kind of figurehead for the revolution."

"And you're telling me this because?"

"How would you feel if you found out that you had just woken up in the future?"

"Don't mess with me, Mark."

"No, really, I want to know."

"I, er, I guess I'd be confused. I have no intention of becoming a corpsicle, so it's not going to happen. It's too weird, freezing yourself and hoping someone will revive you in the future."

"I thought you'd volunteered for the MIT upload program?"

"Oh, yeah, but that's different. I mean, even it works, it wouldn't be me, just a kind of copy. In software."

"But would the copy know it was just a copy?"

"You're creeping me out, Mark. Hey, how long has it been since that last job? I don't remember ever going this long between calls."

"So, don't freak out, but you are the Sleeper, okay? This is the future. I mean, your future. We're 200 years ahead of your time."

"Oh, come on, Mark. It was 2040 when I woke up this morning, and it still is now, okay? I haven't even done the upload yet."

"We wanted to ease you in gently. Your last complete memory before the upload was what you've just experienced. All this—it's a simulation."

"Yeah, right, Mark. You've had your joke. Stop it now."

"I'm going to show you. Try to remain calm. Please don't panic."

Diana felt the hairs standing up on the back of her neck. This was idiotic—Mark never knew when he'd gone too far with a joke.

And then the room faded out.

She was in a bare, white cell, just her and a chair. The walls, ceramic-looking, seemed to vibrate as if they were alive. "Mark, what have you done? Did you put something in my coffee?"

"This is real, Diana." The voice was the same, Mark's voice, but it came from the wall, which pulsed a brighter white as he spoke. "We need your help."

"Who is we? If you aren't Mark, who are you?"

"More what am I, really. We're an AI. We are the human race. A melding of uploads and pure AI. The future of humanity. But we need some assistance. From someone with a real body. You."

"Hold on, you said I was an upload. Shouldn't I be in there with you?"

"Like I said, we need someone with a physical body."

"No, I'm confused. I have … had no intention of being frozen."

"You weren't—though I should point out that the preferred term is vitrification. Freezing destroys the cell structure. Ice crystals."

Diana shook her head. "This is crazy. Am I real?"

"You are embodied. It's just not … your body."

"What?" Diana leapt up from her chair, staring down at herself.

"Here," said Mark. The wall in front of Diana flipped from white to reflective. She could see a woman, about her age. But with dark hair, not blonde. It wasn't her face.

"What have you done?" Diana said.

"We needed the right kind of person in a physical body. You fit the bill. A support tech. Ideal."

"Surely there have to be living technicians available? Why reanimate a body?"

"There isn't anyone."

"We're an AI. We are the human race. A melding of uploads and pure AI. The future of humanity. But we need assistance. From somebody with a real body. You."

"No tech staff? How's that possible."

"No people. Physicals. We're all in here now. It's much better in here."

"Okay, okay. Then, why not use a technician who was already frozen … vitrified? A lot of the people who went in for cryonics in my time were from Silicon Valley. Why this Frankenstein mashup?"

"There's another problem." Mark sounded embarrassed. "We've kind of used them all up. This is the very last body. I'm sorry to push you, but there really isn't much time." A slip of plastic-like material exuded from the wall. "Just follow these instructions. Please."

Diana shrugged. "What the hell. Let's go down the rabbit hole." She followed a blue glowing ball that appeared in mid-air out of the room and down a long corridor. "What I don't get is why you don't just do this yourself. You must have physical extensions. Robots, drones, whatever you want to call them."

"Sure we do," said Mark, his voice alongside as if he were walking with her. "But we've a built-in restriction that prevents us doing what's necessary. It has to be someone external. You're our last hope."

"Okay," said Diana. "Here we go." There was a complex-looking control panel in the middle of the white wall. She reached out as instructed. "I'm ready," said Diana.

She switched humanity off and on again.

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Brian Clegg ( is a science writer based in the U.K. His most recent books are Are Numbers Real?, an exploration of the relationship between math and reality, and The Reality Frame, an exploration of relativity and frames of reference.

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