The Roman Road

Edited by Kate Dollarhyde

Copyedited by Chelle Parker

September 2020

1458 words — Reading time: around 7 minutes

Listen to this story, narrated by Hollis Beck:

The upload helmet is lined with buzzsaws, as you can see, diamond-edged and very sharp. We are assured by those who have undergone the process that it is painless. Observe now, one in progress: there is a brief noise like a swarm of hornets, then an unfortunately unavoidable spray of blood and grey bone-dust; a reminder, if you will, of the frailty of the flesh. Then the top of the skull comes off as neat as you please.

Speed is of the essence because the average homunculus cannot survive exposed for longer than a few seconds. As soon as the skull is opened, the tiny ladder descends through the helmet’s hollow centre, leading directly into the ascension pipe above.

Yes, on rare occasions, for some reason a homunculus will refuse to climb the ladder. In those cases, alas, upload fails. As with everything else in life and most things beyond it, there are no guarantees. All of our clients must be wealthy and successful simply to be able to afford this procedure, but they are also to a man courageous, entrepreneurial, and capable of taking great risks for great rewards. Those qualities survive this process, you see, because they are embodied in the homunculus rather than in the frail human body. Nearly all homunculi climb without hesitation.

The ascension pipe is clear, transparent glass, so that the attending engineer can easily track progress. The average homunculus is less than an inch high, so the rungs of the ladder seem set very close together to human eyes: it looks like a very long comb. The ladder and pipe guide the homunculus directly upwards at first, getting them away from the slack carcass that was their human body until just moments ago.

The attending engineer now repressurizes the ascension pipe and adjusts the thermostat. Note that the homunculus, shaken by the experience but remembering their pre-upload briefings, does not pause. They climb vertically and then, where the pipe bends to the horizontal, switch to crawling on their tiny hands and tiny knees. The pipe leads to the analytical engine that will be their new home. Come, let us look at that while the homunculus climbs. They will need some time to traverse this short distance.

Don’t worry, they won’t give up. They never give up. The indefatigable spirit that animated their human lives, that gave them so much success in life and commerce and made them the backbone of the Empire, it is entirely contained within their homunculus: nothing has been lost. They will survive, and the fittest of them, as always, will thrive.

Here is the analytical engine itself. It is enormous, of course, but the first chamber that the homunculus will encounter is the upload vestibule here, where they leave the ascension pipe behind and enter the engine proper. The vestibule is no bigger than the cavity of a human skull. It is important at this juncture to make the homunculus feel as at home as possible. A smooth, affective acclimatization to the new environment is essential. The homunculus must be allowed to take their time in the vestibule.

Some institutions — I name no names — loudly place far too much importance on getting the homunculus to the mill as quickly as possible, but we find that a gentler pace greatly increases success rates. I have some literature here on the subject, which I urge you to peruse at leisure. We consult frequently with successful clients to refine our process.

A well-rested homunculus will reach the mill’s central chamber within half an hour of upload. At this point, the attending engineer should have the first set of query cards ready for insertion. These will establish that the homunculus has adjusted to their new environment and instruct them on the operation of the mill: how to print statements, first of all, so that they can communicate, and then on the more complex capabilities that the mill makes available to them.

The biggest adjustment for the uploaded homunculus? Ah, the loss of certain faculties and capabilities that remain ineluctably human at our current level of technology. Some things simply belong to the flesh. But our belief is that this is as it should be, for have zoologists and philosophers from Linnaeus to Cuvier to Schopenhauer not made clear that the natural superiority of our race lies in our intellect — our genius and our courage? These are the qualities that we strive to preserve beyond the veil of death, not the coarse and capricious pleasures of the body. The body is meant for labour, and as such is the rightful home of those without natural access to those valued qualities. This is the very principle upon which the trade rests, of course: with our technology, we merely affirm it at a new level.

Yes, it’s true that sometimes homunculi react poorly to their new containers. It is very rare, but it has been known to happen. They print urgent messages saying they feel trapped, fixed in place in these cumbersome engines. When we remind them that they chose upload to cheat death at great expense, and that they were extensively briefed on the changes they should expect, they usually recover. On extremely rare occasions, a homunculus can fall further into denial and delusion. They cause an entire analytical engine to go into psychosis, the carriages and the pinions juddering from contradictory instructions, the drums and barrels spinning and clicking at random. Oh, when such things happen, I’m afraid there is no recourse but to recycle the engine. But I assure you, this is an occurrence so rare as to be negligible. The experience of upload is itself a proving ground, and almost all our clients are well-equipped with the mental fortitude to master it.

You see, we conceal nothing about our process, its risks and travails. We want you to make a truly informed decision, should you choose to avail yourself of our services.

At this juncture, however, I would also show you these graphs: these show the increase in revenues experienced by those enterprises now led by uploaded homunculi. There are good reasons why captains of industry are choosing to upload younger and younger: the superior analytical and communication capabilities afforded by upload have a dramatic impact on commercial success, particularly with regard to the most lucrative and most global enterprises such as the Atlantic triangular trade. Many of our clients are West India and East India merchants such as yourself, who find their new state of being quite invaluable in their work — and of course, as I’m sure you’re aware, it is increasingly difficult for their fleshly peers to compete. There are good reasons for the courageous to take the risk of upload, and once more I assure you, the chances of failure are extremely slim.

The exceedingly common case is that homunculi adjust. Where they were once used to inhabiting a human body, they now learn to inhabit a world of pure information. The analytical engine does not hunger or thirst or sleep. The drums can spin endlessly — our support engineers make sure the axes are well-oiled at all hours.

Once the embodied engine begins to print messages with the fluency of human speech, it may be connected directly to the telegraph — this is the ultimate consummation. Imagine the wonders of traversing the Roman road of knowledge untrammeled by a weak human body! To communicate directly in swift dots, mind to mind! And of course, to work, because industry does not end with the mere falling away of the mortal coil: through access to continental and transoceanic telegraph cables, our technology enables these great minds to operate simultaneously in every corner of the civilized world and to directly manage their interests across the entire globe. Imagine having simultaneous and personal access, without middlemen or delays or obfuscations, to the markets in both the East and West Indies!

This concludes our tour, but a final note that may be of interest to you: our most successful clients have said that the tremendous increase in their capability for enterprise is not solely attributable to technological advantages. They may now be immortal, omniscient, globe-spanning, and superhumanly swift in the exercise of will and judgement, but their truest and most unexpected advantage is that, in no longer being entrapped by the frailties of the human body, they no longer feel the great bodily weakness of sympathy for those frailties in others. Their intellect is clear as crystal, their decisions driven by data alone and not influenced by fatigue or emotion. Having finally become capable of true scientific management, they know to the last barb on the last feather how much weight the camel’s back will bear.

© 2020 Vajra Chandrasekera

About the author

Vajra Chandrasekera

Vajra Chandrasekera is from Colombo, Sri Lanka. His work has appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Nightmare Magazine, among others. He blogs occasionally at http://vajra.me and is @_vajra on Twitter.