The next six days passed in a blur as the remaining six of us enjoyed the comforts of our home for the previous two months with mounting apprehension. Doomsday arrived.
I woke to the customary knock at the door, but when I dressed and opened my door, the employee handed me a glass of some greenish juice.
"Drink all of it," he commanded. "You're going to need it."
"Don't I get breakfast?" I complained.
"No," he said flatly. "You won't want food in your stomach. Follow me."
I drank the foul-tasting juice in one gulp, shuddered at the bitterness, and followed him.
He led me to a previously restricted part of the building and to a large concrete and steel room. The other five, Landon, Andi, Jon, Quentin, and Beth, were sitting in metal folding chair near the back. Dominating the center of the room was an examining table with several leather restraining straps. Next to this stood a smaller table with a complex tangle of wires around a small metal box and six glass vials about the size and shape of test tubes. They were each filled three quarters of the way with a silvery liquid reminiscent of mercury. Near the far wall, several employees stood next to six hospital stretchers. As I took a seat next to Landon, Lisa entered and stopped next to the examining table. She gazed at us for an uncomfortable moment, then began to speak.
"Now is the pivotal moment when your lives change forever. I have talked with each of you over the past couple of weeks, made special considerations, and I have decided on the positions you will hold as 'artificial intelligence,' if you do not refuse it."
She lifted the vials and approached Jon, handing one to him.
"You will control security at a hidden military base and vault." She turned to Andi and gave her a vial.
"You will be at another base, in charge of statistical analysis and strategy."
I began to get a sinking feeling. Jon and Andi looked happy enough, but those jobs sounded exactly like what I didn't want.
Lisa then gave vials to Beth and Quentin.
"You both will be involved in government espionage and spy activity."
My eyebrows rose. Espionage sounded more up my alley. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad.
Lisa approached Landon and I with the last two vials. She handed one to me first.
"Troy, you will be a warship."
I looked up in confusion as I took the vial.
"A warship?" A dismal vision of a dull gray boat charging through the water formed in my mind.
"You will be part of the next wave of space exploration. You will be equipped with the latest weapons technology in preparation for any eventuality."
A grin split my face and the boat in my mind changed to a sleek spaceship.
Lisa turned to Landon to give him the last vial.
"And you will be Troy's scout ship, smaller, faster, and with less weaponry. You two will work together."
As Lisa stepped back to the table, Landon smiled confidentially at me.
"I told you I can do anything," he whispered.
I just shook my head in amazement.
This is your last chance to leave if you want to," Lisa told us gravely.
"Why would we want to?" Beth spoke up. "You told us all the risks and we're still here."
Lisa hesitated for a moment.
"I haven't told you all of it. The process will be… painful. A pain unlike any you have encountered, and it will most likely be more pain than any you have experienced. I can tell you no more beyond that, since this procedure has never before been attempted. I want to stress that this is completely voluntary, and no one will blame you should you decide to back out."
A silence descended on the room as we contemplated this new information. After a moment, Lisa spoke softly.
"We can begin whenever you are ready. Who will go first?"
I studied the contents of my vial, wondering if we were supposed to drink it, when Beth stood.
"It can't be any more painful than my divorce," she remarked with a nervous laugh.
Lisa gestured mutely to the examination table. When Beth stood next to it, the commander held out her hand for the vial.
"I'll take that. Please lie down."
Beth climbed onto the table and lay on her back while an assistant strapped her in. Wires were attached to her forehead, neck, and behind the ears. Lisa placed the vial into the metal box. She then stepped up to Beth and spoke to her in a low voice, presumably making sure that she wanted to do this, because Beth nodded resolutely, and Lisa made a gesture to a nearby assistant. The assistant fiddled with some things on the table and the room was filled with a low humming vibration. I could see Beth shut her eyes and clench her jaw. Then the humming grew louder and her eyes flew open. She struggled against her bonds as she screamed. The screams echoed on the concrete walls, doubling back on themselves, giving then an unearthly quality. The five of us shifted uncomfortably, listening to Beth's anguish and knowing that the same awaited us. Lisa stood with her fists clenched. Suddenly, the screaming stopped. I looked up at Beth with my heart in my throat, half expecting her to be dead. I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw her chest heave.
"Man, you weren't kidding when you said it would hurt!"
I glanced quickly to the table where a foot tall version of Beth was standing.
"Whoa, where… what?" The little Beth turned to look at herself on the table.
Lisa smiled as assistants gently unstrapped Beth's body and carried it to one of the waiting stretchers.
"It was a success. You are now a hologram generated by your computer complex. In time, when you get more accustomed to your new abilities and processes, you can change your appearance and size, but for now this is your default." Lisa turned to us. "Who will be next?"
I swallowed hard. I had come too far to back down now. I stood, turning to Landon.
"See you on the other side, buddy?"
"Don't worry. I'll be there."
I walked solemnly up to Lisa and handed her my vial. She replaced Beth's with mine while I climbed onto the table. I was strapped in and the machine was started. I braced myself as I heard the humming. My breathing slowed and I closed my eyes.
Suddenly my mind blanked as my world exploded in pain. I couldn't think, could only try to endure as the fire burned through my veins. Every nerve convulsed in agony. My head pounded as if something was clawing it's way out. My throat burned and my ears were filled with an echoing roar that I gradually recognized as my own screams. The pain was not in any specific part of my body, but rather it invaded every cell with an undefinable suffering. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the pain stopped. I expected to feel aftershocks, but I felt nothing. I opened my eyes.
I was greeted by Lisa 5.417 times larger than me. She smiled with relief.
"You also were a success." She turned to the others, seeming more confident. "Next?"
I watched in wonder as assistants took my body away, placing it on the stretcher next to Beth's. I could see my chest moving in shallow breaths, my muscles twitching in the aftereffects of pain I could no longer feel.
Landon stepped up to the table and I looked down at my holographic self, then to Beth 14.3 centimeters away. I was not breathing, but I didn't need to. What was more, to my amazement, my mind was expanded. I knew things I hadn't before. I could determine any measurement instantly, automatically, just by looking at it. I could look at any surface and make a reasonably accurate guess as to the chemical make-up. There were so many words, facts, and processes available that I'd never known, and I knew that this was the least of my new abilities.
I looked up when I heard the screams, then immediately looked away. I didn't want to think about what Landon was going through. In a moment it was over, and Landon's hologram stood next to me.
"Freaky…" he muttered.
I didn't say anything, letting him get used to his new knowledge. Landon was soon followed by Jon and Quentin. The five of us stood on the table and watched Andi hand her vial to Lisa. She turned to us.
"I'm… sorry guys. I just can't… I can't do this." She took off her badge and handed it to Lisa, running from the room before anyone could say anything.
"Andi!" I protested, but it was too late. She had made her choice and gone.
"She has made her decision," Lisa commented. "This is obviously not for everyone." She took a deep breath and looked around. "You will be given some time to become accustomed to your new abilities. This is totally new ground, so unfortunately, I won't be able to give you instruction. You will just have to experiment by yourselves."
"Hey," Landon said, waving his hand through his vial of silver liquid. "What're these for?"
"Let me show you." She picked up the vial and uncorked it. Holding out her arm, she poured the liquid onto her wrist. The viscous substance seemed to cling to her skin and wrapped around her wrist instead of dripping to the floor. Within seconds, it had created a seamless silver bracelet exactly two centimeters wide.
"We come with our own accessories!" I quipped.
Lisa gave me an exasperated smile.
"Not quite. This is something like a personal computer. This is where you actually are. Your essence is inside these computers. Of course, these aren't the full computers you will eventually be connected to, but they contain most of your basic functions. These computers allow your operators to call on your help anyplace at any time." She abruptly tapped the bracelet with one finger, and Landon suddenly appeared on her hand.
"Whoa. How'd you do that?" he questioned.
"That is one of the few direct commands that we have programmed into you," Lisa explained. "A tap will summon your default hologram. Most functions, however, are voluntary." She tapped the underside of the band and it became liquid again, peeling off her skin. With two fingers, she lifted the thick substance that continued to stretch downward but not separate, and she placed it with care back in its vial. At a gesture, five of her staff approached, each taking a vial. "They will return you to your rooms. I suggest you get some sleep before you begin experimenting. Trying new things can take extraordinary energy."
"Wait a minute," Jon spoke up. "If we're computers now, why do we need sleep?"
"Rest re-energizes the body; sleep re-energizes the mind, and your mind is very much still active. Granted, you won't need nearly as much sleep now, usually only after extreme duress, but I'm sure you'll agree that recent events fall under the category of duress."
"Ya think?" Quentin muttered.
"I will check on your progress later," Lisa told us as the employees began to walk away with our vials. She jerked her head towards them. "If you don't follow, your holograms will disappear when they get out of range."
The rest of them started out the door, but I sat down, curious what it would be like without a body, even a holographic one. Before long, the room began to fade, and then it blinked out entirely.