22/ @Jean 7

The landing point, when she reaches it, is grayed-out to her.  A window opens in the top-right corner of her viz field, asking for a username and password.  This is not a public DRE.  So much was clear when Th@ch texted the destination to her — not a web URL, nor any listing in B.org’s extensive directory of renders, but an unintelligible thirty-six character alphanumeric sequence.

She turns her head — this causes the authentication window to double in size and start flashing — and she sees Th@ch standing off to her left.  Black and white and dissolving around the edges, but unmistakably Th@ch.  A countdown clock appears in her viz window.  Ten, now nine seconds before she is chucked out of here.

“It’s okay,” Th@ch tells the open air.  “She’s with me.”  The cloud over her vision lifts, the clock disappears, and the landscape is sprayed instantly with color.

@Jean turns a 360.  It’s nighttime here, but just barely.  Birds are tweeting.  The sky is deep blue, dark, but in one quadrant — to the east, she supposes — there are inklings of pink, smoldering just along the horizon.  She checks her watch.  It reads 11:04 PM, but that’s New York time.

“Where are we?” she asks.

“Italy.  Circa 150 A.D.”

@Jean’s eyes widen.  “This is Rom@,” she says. 

Rom@: the subject of so much breathless speculation among online DRE critics, including many with lungs.  Ophelia Garrick’s eleven-figure contribution to Rom@ accelerates the push for Peak DRE; Sacked Rom@ developer sues for release from “weapons-grade” nondisclosure agreement; Rom@: will it ever be ready … and who can afford it when it is?

“Not exactly,” Th@ch answers.  “But we’re in the neighborhood.  The paving under your feet is the Appian Way.”

@Jean looks down at a surface reminiscent of cobblestone, but an order of magnitude smoother, with set stones interlocking almost as tiles.

“We’re fifteen kilometers south/southeast of the City, and fourteen short of the Servian Wall that encircles the Seven Hills.  I thought we would walk and talk.”

They follow the road in silence for a period of time.  @Jean listens to the birds and looks out over the landscape, largely but not entirely cleared of trees.  They are completely alone.  She would have expected signs of human life here — farms, fencing, wandering livestock.  Horseshit on the pavers, possibly, or a discarded broken wheel by the side of the road.  But there is nothing here but the sculpted topography of the naked land, scattered trees, birds, and the suggestions of a rising sun.  A work in progress surely, the progress radiating, no doubt, from the City that is Rom@’s first objective.

The road looks fake to her, and she says so.

Th@ch explains: “You were expecting more bumps, something rougher-hewn.  But these are Roman roads.  And Via Appia is the central artery.  It’s not asphalt, but it’s NBT, you might say, given the materials they had.  We’ve brought in no fewer than ten archaeologist/ antiquarian-types to inspect this, and we’ve made adjustments based on their recommendations.  This is what it looked and felt like.”

@Jean has no ready knowledge to contradict this, and in any case it seems a point of honor to Th@ch.

“Now imagine building this by hand, with stones pulled from the ground, taken as you found them, applying the strength of men augmented only by oxen, maybe horses, if they were available.  The Romans were gifted.”

“They killed millions.”

“And brought civilization to millions.  Law, public works, trade, production, know-how —”

“They kept slaves.”

“Slavery, war, oppression, and domination: these weren’t features of the Roman Empire.  They are bugs in the human condition, and they all arise from the same root cause.”

“Go on,” @Jean says.  She has a sense of the logic here, but she’ll allow her host the opportunity to draw it out.

“The PhysWo has limited resources, so we fight over them.  The competition for resources calls for tribalism, team-forming, Other-izing; those who practice these best survive, thrive, dominate, and reproduce.  Our physical bodies have limited capacities, so we fear for our lives, we inflict pain to avoid pain, and to achieve our grand ambitions we need to enlist the effort of others, often at their expense, and sometimes against their will.”

“But these are excuses,” @Jean pleads, “and we should try to rise above what the PhysWo inflicts upon us.  As far as I can tell, the Romans institutionalized domination and suffering.”

“In some ways, but not in others.  But don’t get me wrong: I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.  Because this, here — what we propose to build — it is and it isn’t Rome.  We didn’t need slave or abused labor to build and maintain our Appian Way.  We won’t expropriate land from farmers to give to our retired soldiers, because we have no need.  As with many things, Christianity had it backward: original sin isn’t the cause of our want and weakness.  Want and weakness is the origin of all our sins.  This place — this Rome — will exist free of want and weakness.”

By this point the sun is just beginning to peek over the hills to the east.

“If my grandfather were here, he would point out that tens of billions of dollars are sunk into this project, at the same time that you say you’re building an enclave here, carved out from the ravages of The Economy.”

Th@ch winks.  “Maybe that’s why I’ve never brought him here.”

“But I just did.  What’s your answer to him?”

“DREs are code, and code development costs money.  But once you’ve built the first unit of NBT sandstone, limestone, brick, marble, you can generate as much of it as you like.  Once you’ve designed your first oak tree, it’s only a programmer’s trick to auto-generate variations.  A technician we have on staff is tasked with rendering 96 distinct olive types.  When he’s done, we will spin the types into our scripts that introduce individual variations.  Then we’ll have olive production into perpetuity, at next-to-no marginal cost, and off he’ll go to work on capers.  Food is free.”

“But touching it, smelling it, tasting it, swallowing it — all that entails processing, and processing cycles cost money.”

“It does.”  Th@ch sighs. 

“And that money is paid to carriers, who pad the charges for profit.”

“But the per-cycle cost of processing continues to decline, as technology improves.  Ophelia earmarked $5 billion of her Rom@ donation for processing R&D.”

@Jean presses.  “And as DREs grow more complex, they require more processing cycles to experience.  All the efficiency gains are poured right back into the DREs.  And from what I understand, Rom@ expects to blow the doors off any DRE that has ever existed.”

“There’s an answer for that,” Th@ch says.

“Is there?”

“Yes.  But it’s not on today’s discussion agenda.”

“An agenda,” she says.  “So you alone decide what we talk about?”

“You can make suggestions,” Th@ch says.  This is the very definition of patronizing.  “In fact, you have, for much of our walk.”

“But you have the power of veto.”

“Well, I’m the host, aren’t I?”

@Jean offers no answer to that, because she has decided it doesn’t deserve one.  She feels heat run up her neck into her face.  Heat altogether different from the flush from her glasses of champagne, earlier in the night.  Whether or not Th@ch might choose to make an on-the-fly amendment to this “agenda,” e.g.:

@Jean tells Th@ch where Th@ch can stick it (5–7 minutes) —

she knows from experience that she would do well to keep quiet now, while she cools down.  She turns her head ninety degrees to the right, putting Th@ch completely out of her sight line.  On a hillock fifty yards from the roadside, there stands an elm tree, swarmed over with sparrows.  Stuttering and bleating in their crosstalk, darting in and out among the branches, black check marks flecking against the pink sky.

Five minutes pass, maybe more, before Th@ch speaks.

“The way I talk to people isn’t entirely my fault.  The version of me that they copied over isn’t as well advanced as yours.”

Jean narrows her eyes.  This strikes her as a weak defense.  “You arrived after Henry.  After Violet, too, as I understand.  The tech was plenty advanced.  I don’t hear these excuses from them.”

“You misunderstand me.  I was referring to the state of my development prior to death and digitization.  The brain all but completely reorganizes itself in adolescence, and this work accomplishes the greater part of the social development that delivers a functioning adult who — who doesn’t alienate people.  The Copy Techs take the brain as they find it.  There’s no other way.  So if you’re like me, and you made the jump early, you’re stuck with an immature connectome.  Think of a progress bar stuck, forever, at 30%.  Intellectually, I continue to grow; I can learn things, including tips, tricks, and stratagems for navigating social situations.  But all those learnings and hacks are overlaid atop the wiring of a nine-year-old.”

Th@ch died at age nine.  This fact prompts @Jean to reconsider certain of the conclusions she drew about Th@ch — namely, that in a prior life Th@ch was a cigar-smoking sexist asshole who found smart woman amusing, but unimportant.

“You’ll laugh, but I have a recurring alert written into my calendar, so that every twenty minutes I’m reminded to step out of my self-absorption.  Or to try.”

@Jean doesn’t laugh.

“My agenda, as I had conceived it, called for me to walk with you, on the Appian Way, at sunrise, and explain to you where I came from.  In the hope that you’ll understand better, then, where I’m coming from.”

@Jean blinks her eyes at Th@ch, twice, and waits.

Th@ch begins:

“I was born into the PhysWo with a rare chromosomal disorder — a partial trisomy of the 18th pair.  They call this trisomy Edwards syndrome.  When it’s partial, they append the word ‘mosaic’ to the diagnosis.  The typical Edwards baby dies in utero, or shortly after it’s born.  The mosaic presentation, by contrast, buys a child up to ten years of life, but at a cost.

“The body God gave me came with a cleft palate, spina bifida, and a clubfoot.  My heart was malformed, requiring three separate surgeries to repair it, before I was five.  I had motor delays and speech deficiencies.  I died of pneumonia a week before my ninth birthday.  As it happened, this result was something of a blessing, because I was spared treatment for the aggressive kidney cancer my doctors had diagnosed three months before.

“I never walked.  I never rode a bike.  I never danced.

“Of my nine years, less seven days, in the Physical World, I remember these things:

  • Pain, when my mother hugged me.
  • Pain, when my father wheeled me through cracked and bumpy streets — what I would have given for a Roman road! — to school.
  • Pain, when the sunshine touched my skin.
  • Pain, when I swallowed food.
    • Pain, when I breathed.
  • Fear, when I couldn’t breathe.
  • Pain, from every shot, every intubation, every procedure, every heroic measure undertaken to extend my ‘life.’

Probably the only time I didn’t feel pain was when I was having my seizures.  But I paid for that respite many times over afterward, when I came to.

“And then it was over.  I closed my eyes in a hospital room.  When I opened them again, my broken body was gone.  I waited for pain, and none came.  My mind formed words — mundane words: Hello? What’s happening? — and I prepared myself for the drudge-work of stammering them out.  But I spoke clearly and easily, with perfect articulation.  I was on a rendered beach.  (It’s always been beaches, then and now.)  Though it was far from perfect, with only a fraction of the sensory richness we’re enjoying this morning, it was good enough for me.  I put my feet on the ground, curled my toes in the sand. 

“On that day, for the first time in my life, I stood up and walked.

“So when these PhysWo philosophers go on AM radio talk shows and moralize — when I hear them declaring that pain is part of the essence of life, that life without pain is not life, that the greatest nobility lies in striving against physical impediments, that the likes of you and me are something less than whole because we have escaped the curse of Adam and Eve—

“Well, let’s just say I disagree.  Vehemently.  And if I could reach into certain of their cell nuclei, to parse the spaghetti strands of chromosomes and lay them straight in numerically-ordered pairs — and if I could have just ten stealthy seconds alone with Pair 18, then I might show them just how thoughtless and short-sighted they are.”

This strikes @Jean as rather harsh.  She makes a face that says so.  Th@ch cocks Th@ch’s head and splays out Th@ch’s hands. 

“Your grandfather is a good man.  Indefatigable, really.  He tries and tries to change their minds with persuasion, but they aren’t reachable.  It takes their own bodies failing them, for their turn to walk in the valley of the shadow of Death — before they come to the fork in the road and they really start to think.  On their left, a guaranteed afterlife.  As of today not perfect, not Heaven, but we’re working on it.  Really working on it, and making progress: progress I will show you today.  On their right, the glorious eternity the preachers promise, but that nobody has ever seen or reported back from.  How many of them hold the line, in that do-or-die moment?  How many of them spurn a present, tangible eternity for the faith-based option?  They hate and fear us, yes: they buy their billboards and TV time and Congressmen to grind us down.  But the time comes, always, when they will become us.  They trade their precious concatenated As and Ts and Gs and Cs for 1s and 0s, or they return to dust.

“They join us or they die, Jean.  In this respect we’ve already won the game.  It’s just a question of waiting to run the clock out.  And we can spend that time petitioning the Some-Bodies to grant us rights and dignity and protection — reinforcing their crazed notion that they are the center of the universe — or we can break free, set sail, and build a real, independent world for ourselves online.  There’s precedent for this, you know.”

“I know,” @Jean says.

“And I’ll tip my hat to them, for a good model.  Three hundred years, before they made people so completely miserable that they spun off their own independence movement.”

“There was the Civil War.  And Liberia and Texas.”

Th@ch harrumphs over these details.  “The difference is that this time, we create our continent from scratch.  There are no natives to displace, no competing claims for space, and no wars to fight.  1s and 0s, as far as the eye can see.”

@Jean lifts her eyes toward the horizon.  She can see the city walls now, the hills bubbling up behind them.  And on those hills: sterile buildings, structures awaiting completion, some of them actually hanging in air, built from the top down, waiting for foundations.

“Let me ask you this.  What if B.org hadn’t defaulted you straightaway to the beach resort cliché, with its patio and lounge chairs and table service?  What if the conceit was instead that you were shipwrecked, and you washed ashore, on a beach that was pristine?  Undeveloped, untouched — the edge of a virgin continent that was yours to build on, to transform into the world you wanted.  And what’s more, you were unconstrained by the physical limitations of your body, or by economic scarcity.  You could conjure any substance, any material from thin air, and with something like telekinetic power you could construct whatever you wanted: a home, a city, an ordered society — a disordered society if you’re into that.  Scratch pancakes, except each pancake is a universe.  What would you build?  What could you build?”

@Jean drops her eyes to her feet, to the pavers layered many times over by now, in the centuries since the road’s first engineer, Appius Claudius Caecus, charted its path.  The answer on her lips, which she knows better than to speak aloud:

I would build the PhysWo.

22/ Isaac 4

It was a struggle to keep up, all night long.  She pinged around the function room, he would have said like a pinball, except that pinballs follow principles of physics and are marginally more predictable.

Had she been running from him that whole time? Tagging along with Jean at parties was never easy.  The question is whether @Jean made it still harder for him last night, on the margin, than Jean ever did.  If he had data — time-stamped plots, say, of her travels through her friends’ several recent wedding receptions and her made-partner party last fall, that he could compare to last night’s blitz in the Fault Line — he could work through the problem at his computer and reach an analytically supported conclusion on the state of his relationship with his live-in girlfriend.

Before he can make a definitive cause-effect determination, the data analyst looks to eliminate confounding factors.  It might be the plots would show no statistically significant delta between Jean’s and @Jean’s party travels.  Might be they would show instead that the greater share of the distance between them last night was on Isaac — that some weight on his subconscious had held him back, had made him generally content to trail along in @Jean’s wake.

But of course Isaac does not have this data, and he can only speculate, based on his gut-feel of the situation.  It is the data-man’s first principle that a gut can’t be trusted; a gut like Isaac’s, largely unused and so far out of fighting shape, is still less reliable.  But for all that, those two hours of lukewarm and largely unsuccessful pursuit of his now-digitized soul mate — very nearly his fiancée — just felt shitty.  Not only in his gut, but all the way up.

And that was before she up and disappeared.  Gone, without nod or notice to any single guest in the room.  Exfiltrated, in commando style, from the party given at considerable expense in her honor.

The crowd went briefly into a tizzy.  Multiple calls/ texts placed to the honoree deflected to operators/ were returned undeliverable.  The smarmy maître d’ called the on-call IT specialist down to reboot the holo-projectors.  But of course this could not have been the problem: @Violet and others were still visible in the room.  Guests put their heads together, trying to recall who had seen her last.  “How hard can this be?” Isaac cried out.  She was here, then she wasn’t?  And nobody saw?

Raya thought she’d seen her step out into the hall.  There are holo-projectors in every last nook and cranny of the venue — bathrooms included — and Raya went on her hands and knees looking under the stalls in the women’s room for @Jean’s rendered feet.  Nothing there.  She’d vanished.

@Jean’s grandmother placed a call to the B.org admins, to confirm that the unthinkable hadn’t happened and she’d been hacked and erased.  This seemed like an overreaction, and Isaac wondered why @Violet’s mind went there.  The techs on call ran their diagnostics and reported back: no trouble in @Jean’s profile.  She was just somewhere else.  At some point a consensus emerged that @Jean had simply ditched, and wasn’t that just like her, and everyone raise a glass to our independent-minded @JeanWoolsey.  Whether or not it actually was just like her was an unsettled question, but immaterial to the end purposes of the celebrants.

No sign of @Henry during any of this, it bears noting.  He surely had some high-minded reason why he couldn’t make even a fleeting appearance at his granddaughter’s re-wake.

In any case, @Jean’s AWOL trip left Isaac standing alone to receive the gift the guests had all chipped in to buy for her.  Coffee and tea laid out on side tables, and Talia Christman pulled one of the sugar spoons to bang repeatedly on her ceramic mug, until the deejay took her cue to turn down the afrobeat or whatever she had playing at that point in the mix.  Talia called for the attention of all, while the maître d’ rolled the big box out on a cart.  Raya helped Isaac unwrap the package.

It was a “Merge System®.”  “Top of the line,” Talia said.  “Nothing but the best for our Jean.”

He didn’t know what it was and had to ask, and so Talia explained.  It was the same tech the Fault Line used, and it would allow him and @Jean to co-occupy their old apartment in PhysWo and digital space.  Included in the kit were twenty-six combo 5-D sensors/ holo projectors.  Once installed in the top corners of each room (and in certain discretionary supplemental locations), the 5-D sensors — sight, sound, smell, feel, and somehow taste — would capture real-time data from the PhysWo apartment to stream into @Jean’s analogous space in the Digital World.

And on the flipside, the units would project @Jean’s hologram — and throw her voice — into Isaac’s apartment, whenever she was “home.”

At this point Talia’s husband Jim, ever the insufferable technophile, began reading out the product specs from his phone.  “The Service Level Agreement guarantees a reciprocal streaming lag — PhysWo-to-DigiWo and vice versa — of under 10 nanoseconds.  That’s half the lag you get with a system like this one,” Jim said, pointing at one of the room’s sensor/ projectors.  The maître d’ narrowed his eyes.

All other eyes in the function room bored in on Isaac — smiling eyes, beaming really, but no less oppressive with their expectations of him than if they had guns pointed at his head — while he considered what it would be like to live with his girlfriend’s ghost.  His face flushed, his heart began to race, and from somewhere up in the ceiling the hand of panic reached down and gripped him.  For a moment he felt he might fall to the floor, but Raya looped her arm into his and steadied him.

Thank them,” she muttered, out of the side of her mouth.  And he did, to the general applause of @Jean’s gathered family and friends.

Jim volunteered to come over and help with the install.  “How does tomorrow, 10 AM sound?  We order in lunch, we should have these bad johnnies on the wall, get the whole system up and running in time for dinner.”

Now it’s Saturday, midday, and Isaac is standing on the armrest of his couch, dutifully screwing a bracket into the rear-right corner of his living room, just under the ceiling.  It’s grunt work, and the screws are stripping, like they’ve done on every home improvement project Isaac has ever tried.  And here’s Jim prattling away from the hall:

10 nanoseconds.  That amount of delay is imperceptible to any human brain, even a ninja’s.  And the way these speakers throw sound: my God.  There’s a home theater setting you can use, when Jean’s not around.  Puts you right in the middle of the gunfight.”

“Did she — did Jean seem the same to you yesterday?  Same as before?”

Ten seconds of drilling follow, then a series of bangs.  With the latest wall anchor hammered into place, Jim gives his answer:

“Well, she was see-through.  But otherwise, yeah.  Still, though: you’d have a better read on that than I would, right?”

Isaac had resolved, beforehand, to study @Jean closely, to see if he could detect any difference between the woman he knew and the one the Copy Techs and B.org had revived.  But in the short time he had with her, he’d been occupied with other considerations.  He certainly couldn’t say they’d missed so wildly as to introduce a clean break, so that he could bring himself to call the question and walk away from her.

Of course, maybe @Jean has called the question.  Maybe she’s walked away …?

“From what I understand of the current technology,” Jim continues, “they’re able to map the neural connectome and digitize it with at least 99.44% accuracy —”

— this is the “Ivory Soap Barrier”: broken, with much fanfare, four years ago —

“— and from there it’s just a matter of writing code that compensates for the physiological effects on human behavior that come from outside the brain.  Hormones and so on.  That’s the gap they’re continuing to try to close.  Now it seems to me there comes a point where the perfect is the enemy of the good: I mean, does anybody, man or woman, want the monthly bill getting digitized?”

It’s not clear Jim expects an answer here, and Isaac doesn’t give him one.

“They’ve done studies, where they have people interact with a mix of No-Bodies and Somebodies over the Internet — they don’t tell them who’s who — and they survey them about their experiences.  Results show no statistically significant difference in the nature and quality of the interactions.”

“But they’ve never run a study where the subjects interacted with Before and After versions of the same person,” Isaac says.

“How could they?  They’d have to launch a parallel PCE iteration of a living person in order to do that.  And that’s hella illegal.”

Isaac presses hard, giving his screw one last wrenching turn into the wall stud.  He feels a twinge in his shoulder.  They have sixteen more of these units to install.

“You know, Jim, I’m getting kind of sore.  And,” he adds, lying, “I’m still fighting off this hangover.  Maybe we could finish this project later?”

“Uh — sure.  Yeah. I just thought — maybe you’d want this launched and live for when Jean got back.”

“I think for now it’s good enough for us to use a phone connection, or one-way streaming video.”  He pauses.  “Anyway, I don’t know when she’ll be back.”  Or if?

“You haven’t heard from her?”

“No.”  It speaks to the absence of any direct relationship between these two that they’re only covering this ground now, two hours into the work.

“Hm,” Jim says. “Okay.  Let me snap this unit in place, and I’ll get out of here.  We can take it up again later, when you’re feeling better.”

“Thanks,” Isaac says.  “And thanks for all your help.  I’ll be in touch.”

21/ @Jean 6

The Fault Line restaurant and bar exists simultaneously at 25th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City, and in the Digital World at faultlinenyc.com/dre.  Set off from each of the Fault Line’s four function rooms is a small nook, where the evening’s honoree can take a minute and get her shit together, before she steps out into her Eye-Opening Party.

@Jean has been out of quarantine for eight hours now.  This is the first time she has left her rendered apartment.  She could get used to post-corporeal travel.  From her PhysWo apartment on 57th, she’d have had to catch the N & the R train here.  Add the walking to and from the subway stops, and that’s a half hour in transit.  But today the venue came to her, conjured up at the appointed time by her calendar app.  She only took the elevator down, passed through her building lobby, and crossed the street to the restaurant.

Now she is flounced on a couch, cooling her heels backstage, as it were.  On the far side of the closed door, guests are trickling into the banquet hall.  From time to time she can hear familiar voices.  As they circulate through the room, they rise and fade against the background music, and for lack of any other means of occupying her mind, @Jean strains to hear snatches of conversation.  Drink orders, generic party talk, most of it, for the most part.  More than once she picks up a comment about her: Isn’t it awful?… I was SHOCKED when I heard. … Thank GOD the Techs got to her in time.

A moment ago Eddie Sayles knocked on the door.  “Love you, Jean!” he called out.

“Eddie, what are you doing?”  That was a woman’s voice.  Probably his wife, Susan.

“You’ve not been to one of these before?  That’s where they keep the comebacker, until they call her out.”

“And it’s appropriate to be banging on the door?”  Yes.  Definitely Susan.  “Get away from there, Eddie …”

There is a full-length mirror on the wall, and @Jean stands up, straightens her dress, takes a moment to look at herself, one more time.  Her render is compiled from three sources: memory shares of discorporated acquaintances (there are not many of these, so it’s not the richest feed); photos and video contributed by friends in the PhysWo, and the full-body scan that the Copy Techs completed at the hospital.  The result is an amalgam of how (few) others saw and remember her, a scattershot of recordings across 20+ years of life, and her own corpse.  She looks like herself, and she doesn’t.

@Anne has told her she’ll get used to it.  Her answer for everything, it seems.

She is wearing her green dress tonight.  The one she wore at the party @Henry threw for her last year, when she made partner at the Firm.  When she pulled it off the hanger in her closet, she’d received a notice:

You have selected a digital copy of a design registered by Donn@ Karan.  If you put it on, you must pay a licensing fee or risk a lawsuit for copyright infringement.  The licensing fee is $20.

The going rate for digital fashion is 5% of the PhysWo price tag.  She paid the $20.

There is a second entrance to this room, on the adjoining wall to the right of the door Eddie knocked.  This second door swings open to reveal the unctuous event coordinator/ maître d’ who led her here twenty minutes ago.  Standing behind-beside him is Isaac.  Or more accurately, a digital rendition of him.

On the sight of her, Isaac pushes the unctuous man aside and steps into the room.  “Oh, Jean,” he says, “I’ve missed you.”  He might have hugged her, but he doesn’t.  He just stands there awkwardly.  @Jean at first chalks this up to Isaac’s emotional remoteness.  It upsets her.  This must be clear from her body language, because the Event Coordinator enters the room, wringing his hands, to explain:

“Ms. Woolsey, your … friend can’t —”

She understands and does not need to hear any more.  In the PhysWo, where Isaac is standing, he sees only a holographic projection of her.  He can’t touch her.  It would be like hugging a ghost.

“By contrast, however —”

In the DRE, both Isaac’s body and hers are solid mass.  And so she does the work.  She steps forward and wraps her arms around him.  She can feel his warmth, can even smell the smell of him.  The 5-D sensors at the Fault Line are state of the art.

“You look great,” Isaac says.  It’s not in his nature to say what he’s supposed to say.  Which means he is either telling the truth or he’s not feeling himself right now.  Or, @Jean supposes, it’s a little of both.

The Event Coordinator man thrusts a plate of canapés at them. Renders overlaid on the real.  They both reach for the same bacon-wrapped water chestnut, then each of them pulls back, deferring to the other.

“Both of you can have it,” the EC says, talking like a car salesman touting some innovative dashboard feature.  “Benefit of a mixed marriage.”

“We’re not married,” Isaac says.  Back on his game, apparently, and saying just the wrong thing.

@Jean gives him a look.

“Perhaps I should leave you two alone, to catch up.”

“Leave the canapés,” Isaac instructs.

“Of course.”  The Event Coordinator walks out.

They share a brief laugh together.  Then they eat that same water chestnut — together, making a point of it this time — and they laugh again, together.

Time passes, and Isaac’s smile fades.  “I love you, Jean, and I’ve missed you so much over these last few weeks.  But have you thought about how this is going to work?”

Going there now, are you?  Really?

There is a knock at the door, it creaks open, and their canapé supplier peeks inside.  “Jean, Isaac — we’re ready for you.”  That was barely three minutes of “catch-up” time.  @Jean suspects the Event Coordinator was listening at the door, and he has decided it’s part of his job description to rescue a mixed couple from a moment like this.

They step outside.  There is a receiving line.  At least two dozen of the guests lined up to greet her, though most of them, like Isaac, don’t know how.  Instinctively they reach for her, checking themselves only at the last minute, when they realize they can’t touch a hologram.  Eddie Saylor is probably four drinks deep.  He reaches right through her, and Susan pulls him back and scolds him.  @Jean smiles and steps gracefully clear of this exchange.  She quickly learns to take charge of the physical side of these interactions.  Hugs for her Some Body friends, handshakes for their +1s.  Make the first move, save them the grief. Isaac drifts into the background.

A handful of No Bodies are projected in to the party, in addition to @Jean.  @Violet is here, cornered already by three of @Jean’s college friends, who are longtime admirers.  From across the room @Jean can hear them awarding her grandmother this year’s Pulitzer — presumably for her reporting about the smashhouses.  The old social compulsions take over, and for a moment she forgets all the Some Body/ No Body awkwardness and whatever is happening with Isaac.  It takes nothing short of brute force to push through the stacked greetings and compliments in her way.  But she manages nevertheless to traverse the thirty feet to @Violet, before her fangirl friends can get so carried away as to start questioning her grandmother about the multiple sexual assaults she endured for capital-J Journalism.

There is so much ground @Jean needs to cover with @Violet: feelings, questions, calls upon her experience — for starters, what was it like in the in-between time, when Grandpa had crossed over but you hadn’t?  But her grandmother is insistent: now is not the time for the hard questions.  This is a party.  And @Violet spins her granddaughter off to re-engage with the several work colleagues whose well-wishes she had deflected moments ago, during her bull-rush across the function room.

The time flies by. @Jean downs three glasses of rendered champagne.  Her cheeks flush, she becomes more ebullient.  It all starts to feel ordinary — like it used to.  Isaac flits in and out of her frame, perhaps recognizing that the night belongs not to the two of them, but to her.  Or maybe because it’s just easier.  Now is not the time for the hard questions.  The closest they get to another one-on-one is when he approaches her with his sister.  Raya supplies a useful buffer.  She talks, wide-eyed, about the room’s fixtures and affordances, the quality of the holo-projections.  Leaning fully into her Simple Midwestern Girl persona, Raya quizzes @Jean about what she is able to see and hear and feel and smell and taste.

The walls: soft celadon green.  “Exactly!”  The rush of cool air when Some Body, entering or departing, opens the door to the function room.  “Check!”  The hint of anise in the shrimp balls. “Same!”

@Anne and Dougie from B.org arrive together.  More than fashionably late, and just to say hello: i.e., not their first choice for a Saturday night.  Two days ago @Jean wrote Talia, her work colleague and friend who was organizing the party, to see that they were invited, principally because they were enduring presences in her life over these past two weeks of difficult transition, but also because she was desperate to see their faces.  To her surprise, she finds that @Anne and Dougie both look much like she imagined they would — but not exactly, and the differences are jarring, at least initially.  Not unlike when she has first laid eyes on a long-familiar radio personality.

Small-talking with these two prompts @Jean to consider, for the first time, how much they know about how her brain is constructed.  But it’s not like they’re able to finish her sentences.  Or if they are, they know better than to do it out loud.  Ultimately Dougie gives chase to a circulating tray of chocolate-covered strawberries.  Something about @Jean’s expression or bearing at this point in time prompts @Anne to reach over and pat her, holo-to-holo, on the forearm.

“You’ll get used to it,” she says.  @Anne’s utterly flat affect all but negates her words of reassurance.

“Used to what?”

“To all of it,” @Anne says.

@Jean tears up, and barely a second later, the phone in her pocket rings.  It’s @Henry.  Like he’d had her under surveillance and knew she had started crying.  And maybe he did, she thinks, looking cross-wise at @Anne.  She excuses herself, takes the call, steps out into the hall, finger in her right ear, as always, with the phone held up to her left.

He explains that this really isn’t his sort of thing now, is it?

“Not mine either,” she says, “but here I am.”

“Fair enough,” @Henry concedes, “but of course more is required of you today, as the guest of honor, than of this crotchety old man with his allergy to pricey DREs.”

And as if he might be holding a calculator in his hand, he talks about the processing load, the cost of which is necessarily incurred by B.org, in the case of himself, @Violet, and now @Jean, too.  In his absence, a third of that expense goes to savings for the organization.

“But listen to me, counting dollars and cents, when all I wanted to do was tell you I love you.”

And all I wanted was to stand in a room with you, for the first time in twenty years, and embrace you, and cry on your shoulder.  @Jean doesn’t say this.  She might later.

They make arrangements to talk tomorrow morning.  She’ll see, then, whether she can persuade her grandfather to visit with her in person, or whatever the word is.

Then back into the function room for another hour of schmoozing.  A pie chart of subjects discussed might assign 12% to the upcoming SCOTUS case, another 12% to the unacceptable road conditions upstate, 25% to developments at the office while she was in quarantine — @Henry has a new surveillance case, apparently — 10% prying into the state of her relationship with Isaac.  And the rest would go to miscellaneous.

At some point nature calls.  It speaks to the quality of the DRE that this should feel ordinary to @Jean, the natural result of all the champagne, and the water she’s thrown down after it, to keep herself standing upright.  But as she steps through the side door into the hall, looking for the women’s room, she wonders why the restaurant would add urinary function as a feature for the PCE holos.  Slavish attention to detail, she supposes, or maybe they mean to open up possibilities for Some Bodies and No Bodies to run into one another and interact, at bathroom sinks, differently than they would in the party room.

A hostess directs her down the hall.  There’s a cubby on the right, with doors to the men’s and women’s rooms on either side.  Standing in between with two hands in Th@ch’s back pockets is, well, Th@ch.  Black suit, trim-cut, with white dress shirt, black skinny tie.  The suit and tie both have an inverted sheen, a depth to them.  It’s an all-swallowing black — not a material she ever saw, or thinks could exist, in the PhysWo.

Th@ch speaks first.  “The brochures at the front desk tout these affairs as state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line, and a perfect release for the PCE just out of quarantine.  And here I thought it would be just excruciating.”

“You’d be right,” @Jean answers.

“All the small talk, the fluff and fizzy drinks, with the hard part — the complications and implications — deferred for later.”

@Jean only sighs.

“And if I know one thing about you,” and here Th@ch winks, “it’s that you don’t hold with such nonsense.”

“I do what’s asked of me.”

“Not always.  And speaking of, I owe you better answers than I gave you earlier, on the beach.  Wanna get out of here?”

@Jean closes her eyes, opens them, breathes out forcefully.  “Yes.

20/ @Daisy 1

“Daisy, it’s so good to see you again.”

“You, too,” she says, and they laugh.  This makes her self-conscious, and she wonders if she says that every time, and whether, if she does, they always laugh.

There are three of them here: two men and a woman.  The tags just over their heads mark them as projected in from the PhysWo.

The woman introduces herself as Dr. Eliza Altieri.  She goes on to introduce the men only by their first names: Jean-Marc and Madsen.  It seems that Eliza, as she has asked @Daisy to call her, is in charge.

“Please, sit down,” Eliza says, gesturing toward a small sofa.  The cushions are covered in a retro red floral print that @Daisy immediately sources as Marimekko.  Her mother loved this pattern, and her father always defaulted to it for last-minute birthday and anniversary gifts.  They had placemats, umbrellas, throw pillows.  @Daisy wonders if these three know this and selected the print for this DRE, to set her at ease.  Or maybe @Daisy picked it out herself, from the licensing catalog, on an earlier visit.

@Daisy sits.

“Would you like something to drink?”  Eliza speaks with an accent.  European, but not Italian, as her last name might suggest.

@Daisy flits her eyes to the top-right corner of her viz window.  To check her account balance.

Eliza smiles.  “We’ll pick up the tab on the processing.”  I.e., @Daisy can enjoy the sensory experience of drinking, without having to worry about what it will cost her.

“That’s not necessary — it’s expensive.”

“Nonsense,” Eliza declares, waving her hand.  “Bits and bytes.”

“Okay,” @Daisy says.  Chastened, a little.

“The usual, then?  Pink lemonade?”  And the glass appears in her hand.  “We’ll make it bottomless.”

@Daisy takes a sip.  The liquid hits her tongue, and in that moment she remembers thirst.  She takes a deep gulp from the glass, which promptly refills itself.  She takes another gulp, then another, then another, before she sets it down.  “I’m sorry,” she says.  “It’s been a while.”

“Of course,” Eliza says.  “But we will need your full attention for the informed consent.”

The glass vanishes from its perch on the sofa’s armrest.

“Madsen, do you have the … ?  Oh, yes.  Here it is.  Thanks.”  Eliza’s tone changes, from conversational to something more stilted.  @Daisy infers that she is reading from a script:

“Daisy, I am a professor of neurobiology at the California Institute of Technology, and I am the principal investigator on a research project funded by the United States Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health.  Jean-Marc and Madsen are postdoctoral researchers in my lab.  We have collaborators at six other institutions supporting our work.  These institutions include Harvard University, Stanford University, UCLA, the University of Toronto, the Max Planck Institute, and Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.  All in all, there are some 45 investigators working on this project.  We’ve brought you in today to ask if you would be willing to assist us, as an experimental subject.”

This begins to fill in the picture.  “I’ve said yes before?”

“You have, but because of the unique circumstances surrounding this work — principally, the fact that we are required to delete your prior experience as a research subject from your memory at the close of each session — the applicable regulations and institutional policies and standards require us to obtain your informed consent each time we work with you.”


“You may not be surprised to learn that in the decades since discorporation technology was first devised, refined, and made available to the public, researchers have been working on the problem of reincorporation — that is, integrating a digital identity with biological matter.”

“Biological matter?”  @Daisy envisions a pile of off-pink meat sludge, like they print in the back kitchens of PhysWo burger franchises these days.

“Not just biological matter, I should say, but an actual human body. Framed in programmer’s terms, the problem is bridging the gap between two operating systems: your digital self, on one hand, and a biological system, on the other.  Once we establish a durable, effective connection between digital consciousness and biomatter, then it’s quick work for a Post-Corporeal Entity to remaster the use of limbs and digits.”

There are PCEs — not many, but a few — who continue to maintain a persistent presence in the PhysWo.  The luxury car companies have product lines: small, maneuverable indoor-outdoor vehicles for PCEs to pilot in pedestrian-only spaces.  They carry cameras and displays, so the driver can see and be seen.  They weigh between 150 and 200 pounds, they can climb stairs, and they top out at jogging speed.  Some run on treads; others are built bipedal, to provide a more authentic experience.  All of them have arms, hands, fully articulated fingers.  Sticker price on these PhysBots is upward of three million dollars.

@Daisy wonders what a used body would cost, and whether they’d offer the old, beat-up models at a discount.  All this seems like an extravagance to her.  Discorporation closed the book on her life in the PhysWo.  She can message and talk with Some Bodies and even holo-project into physical spaces.  Why isn’t that good enough?  Then again, science works in mysterious ways.  Going to the moon wasn’t any good for anybody, either, but NASA likes to say it spun off all sorts of useful technologies.  Freeze-dried ice cream, and so on.

“You’re going to put me into a body today?”  Wincing at these words, which call back the old car salesman line.

Eliza smiles.  “We’re going to try.”

“You’ve tried before.  With me?”

“We like to proceed into each new round of testing with a blank slate.  For these reasons, we won’t be discussing our earlier visits with you.”

Funny word, visit.

Eliza returns to her script.  Reading aloud for ten minutes, at least.  The “foundational research” that brought her here, her credentials and areas of expertise.  Credentials and expertise of her forty-four collaborators.  @Daisy is tempted to interrupt, to say she accepts that she is in good hands and let’s get on with it, but then she considers that all these researchers are very accomplished and committed to their work, and they all deserve to be recognized.  Eliza then lays out the technical logic for the current project.  There comes a point where the jargon gives way to plain English and brass tacks:

They have a body.  A donated-to-Science body, supine on a slab, with a hollowed-out skull.  They’ve built some kind of device to substitute for the brain, stitched it somehow to the brain stem, which they’ve carried over from the cadaver.  They’ll connect her to the device, through a fiber-optic cable threaded through a port in the nape of the neck.  And then they’ll run tests.

They post a video feed, so she can see the room, the slab, the body-shaped lump on top of it, covered in a sheet, so she can’t see what it looks like — or more importantly, she supposes, that it doesn’t look like her.  One of Jean-Marc or Madsen is walking the space with a phone, shooting the footage.  The feed flits and shakes while he goes to his knees and shimmies under the slab.  Auto-flash trips on, and the cameraman turns the lens up to show the cable leading up through a quarter-sized bore in the table, into and through a patch of shaved skin.

“You will sit down here, on this couch, and we won’t toggle you over until we’ve achieved secure, functional connectivity.  At that point your inbound sensory experience will be received exclusively through the body, yes?  Eyes, ears, nose, tongue, touch points.”

“What happens if you don’t achieve the connectivity?”  They told @Daisy she’d be home by 5:30, and on the strength of that she made plans with @Sam.

“We’ll try until 3 PM today, at the absolute latest.  If we hit at exactly three, we’ll have two hours for testing, then thirty minutes after for the disconnecting and memory scrub.”

Last time she did this, she got home at 5:30 on the dot.  It must have worked then,  @Daisy figures, or they would have sent her home early.

Eliza continues: “If there is not a hit, we will sleep you through to five, do the scrub and cleanup just the same, and send you home.  For you: full shift, full pay, either way.”

Or maybe it didn’t work.

The briefing goes on for another fifteen minutes.  Eliza reads out a list of risks to the human subject, which boil down to possible adverse effects of the end-of-day memory scrub.  The scrub underperforms and she carries around memories and impressions of this Frankenstein experiment, or the erasure extends past today’s events and nips away at the edges of her sense of self.  But this is stuff they’re getting really good at — she submits to a scrub like this every clock-out on the Jobs Lottery — and she’s not worried.  So she signs right off on the informed consent document.

Minutes later — the pace of the work is surprising, but then again, they have been prepping for this over the past few weeks — she is seated on the Marimekko couch, awaiting what the researchers are calling The Spool-Up.  She looks out over the slab in front of her, with the lump on it, covered in its sheet.  Off to the left of the slab, Madsen sits at a desk, working three laptops at once.  Jean-Marc is on the ground, tucked under the slab, counting down the clock.

“Five … four … three … two … one …”

And her video feed cashes out.  The DRE of the laboratory disappears, and substituted in its place is a white grid pattern.  A second or two passes before she realizes she is looking up at the lab’s dropped ceiling.  Not much here to see.  She swivels her head to the right, and the Marimekko couch where she was sitting moments ago slots into her video feed, sideways.  And empty.  It’s like she teleported off it, onto the table in the middle of the room.  But of course she was never on that particular couch.  This lab, and all its furnishings, is PhysWo.  Damn.

The resolution here is appreciably better than she gets in any rendered environment these days, a big improvement even on the lab’s DRE of a moment ago, which she figured was pretty expensive.  But it’s glitching.  At irregular intervals the couch flashes away and then reappears.  The researchers haven’t asked her yet for feedback.  They’re talking among themselves, quoting and discussing readouts from various sensors and diagnostic machines.  The glitches are distracting, and she decides to say something.

“Something’s wrong.  I keep losing video.  The, um, feed?  It goes to black and back.”  That’s her voice, projected from a speaker down past her feet.

They’re still talking among themselves, a mix of jargon and murmured numbers that have meaning only to them.

“Hey — did you hear me?  Viz glitches.”

It’s Eliza who finally answers.  “Sight glitches, yes?  Describe them.”

“They’re frequent.  No rhyme or reason to them.  No … what’s the word?  Rhythm?  It’s not terrible.  Just herky-jerky.”

“How long are the outages?”

“Not long at all.”

“A second?”

“Less than that.  It’s like the blink of an eye.”

Chuckles from the technicians.  And @Daisy realizes that’s exactly what’s happening.  Her eyes are blinking.  Nine years without eyes, taking in video feeds, occupying low-res, clunky DREs falling well short of the PhysWo experience.  She forgot what it was like to blink.

“We’ve got a few minutes’ work ahead of us, Daisy.  Just relax.”

“Okay,” she says.  Her disembodied voice talking through the intercom eight, maybe ten feet away.

When they re-engage with her, it’s with simple motor instructions, given by Eliza.  Make a fist.  Great. Raise your arm.  Higher?  All the way up — good.  Can you wiggle your toes?  Okay, now sit up.  Put your feet on the ground.  Now slowly, carefully, try standing up —

Blackout.  Another eye-blink for her, except that when this glitch resolves, she’s lying on her back again.  The ceiling is further away than before, and a bit askew: three faces hang below it, looking down at her.  The floor underneath her is warm.  It would be cooler if she’d just landed here.  There’s a mess of something under her head.  She brings her arm back to feel around and make sense of it.

“Whoa — stop her!” a male voice shouts.  “She must take care of the leads.”  Hands — hands belonging to one or more of these faces — take hold of her hands and bring her up to a sitting position.  Something jostles her head around from behind.  “Is okay.  None of it came loose.”

“How long was she out?”

“Five minutes, fifty-three seconds.”

“Daisy, you’re out of practice.”  This is Eliza speaking.

“Only Eliza talks to me directly.  I wonder if that’s part of the protocol, and they have a rule that the others can’t talk to me?  Or maybe it’s just that they’re men, and they’re scientists, and they don’t know how to talk to a woman.”

“Does she realize that she’s talking?”

“Daisy —” Eliza again — “you’re thinking out loud.  Out through the speakerbox, anyway.”

“Well if that’s what’s happening, I’ll need to be much more careful about what I’m —”  And that’s the last @Daisy hears from the speakerbox, after her monologue snaps back into its proper, inner mode.

“How could I forget how to stand up?” she asks, through the speakerbox.

“You haven’t forgotten, @Daisy.  You’re only out of practice.”

*          *          *

Back on the table now.  They had to disconnect her from the body, for only a moment, to run the leads back up through the hole.  She’s reconnected now and idling, counting the ceiling tiles.  There is talk among the team members about padding and whether they should try taking it off.  A fourth and fifth voice join in this discussion, it seems from a remote location, through the speakerbox in the wall.  @Daisy doesn’t know what they’re talking about.  But the discussion is intense, maybe even heated, and there comes a point where the three in-person researchers leave the room and the speakerbox goes quiet.  Seems they don’t want her hearing while they talk this through.

Slowly — so the various readouts won’t ping for anyone’s attention, if it turns out this is against the rules — she brings her body’s left hand up in front of her body’s face.  She examines the masterfully rendered detail: the network of popped veins on the back of her hand, the patch of hairs between her knuckles, the whorls and ridges in her fingerprints.  She considers what possessive pronoun might properly be applied to this hand, these knuckles, these fingerprints.  Are they hers?  They might be, in the same way that hotel rooms she occupied for a night became hers when the desk clerk handed her a key card.  But before she arrived, this hand, these knuckles belonged exclusively to someone else — and these unique fingerprints marked that person’s distinct identity.  Is that the upshot of this science: they’re going to make bodies into hotel rooms?

A hand wraps around hers and brings it gently to rest at her side, on the table.

“Are you ready to do some more work for us?” Eliza asks.  “We’re going to push you a little now, for the rest of the session.”

“That’s fine,” @Daisy says.

Eliza explains what the padding is, and that they’ll shortly be removing it.  Up to now they’ve been dampening the sensory stimuli she’s been receiving through the body.  Aud and viz have been running at 100 from the start — that is, 100% true to what a human would perceive through eyes and ears in the Physical World.  But they’ve set her tactile experience at 30.  (Though tactile, Eliza says, isn’t precisely the right term.  They mean it here to apply to sensations not just from touch-responsive receptors, but from any sensory receptor associated with feeling.  This is a pet peeve of Eliza’s.)  The Tac figure of 30 is consistent with the DRE experiences @Daisy is accustomed to having in the DigiWo, at her income level.  They want now to adjust that 30 figure upward to 85 — so her mind would register input from feel-sensory receptors at 85% of the intensity a Some Body like Eliza is experiencing right now.

“Daisy, it’s our supposition that at a setting of 85, you’ll have the sensory information you need to speak the old fashioned way.  Lips and tongue and voice box, yes?  This may be difficult at first — a lot to process.  But we believe in you.”

“Have I done this before?” @Daisy asks, with some apprehension.

Eliza smiles.  “Of course I can’t tell you that, dear girl.”  She calls in her two assistants.  One of them brings a pillow.  It’s cut so they can slide it around the leads running into the back of her head. They do this with a grim resolve that strikes her as misplaced.  It causes @Daisy to think of the old comedy sketch her father showed her nearly a century ago now, where the priests try to torture the old woman with a cushion.  They pull one of the Marimekko cushions to place under her knees, and this also strikes her as ad hoc and non-scientific.  The third thing they do is come at her with straps, and Eliza is telling her it’s up to her, but she strongly recommends them, because it’s best for all concerned if she stays on the table for the duration of the exercise.

“Don’t be alarmed now, Daisy,” Eliza says, having seen something in @Daisy’s expression that seemed to call for this.  “You’re entrusted to our care, and we’d never put you in danger.  But at this level of pay, we do require you to work, yes?”  The accent sounds more and more German.

She is in the restraints now, there’s another countdown, and Jean-Marc or Madsen is calling out the Tac readings as they throttle the number up to 85.

The first notable change in sensation has to do with weight.  On her chest, pressing her down; from the slab, pressing back.  Her arms and legs could be made of lead, to the point that the straps seem pointless, as she can’t imagine mustering the energy to move.  For the first time, she thinks about breathing, because she needs now, suddenly, to apply effort to full her lungs with air.

Heat comes next.  Heat from contact with the pillow, the couch cushion, the slab.  Heat from friction, internal and external, as she labors to breathe.  Heat swirling over her head, as — so she supposes — blood rushes to her brain, flushing her face red as she grapples with the fact that at this moment, suddenly, without warning (or adequate warning, anyway) she is under attack by any- and everything.

The edge of the bed sheet, pulled up to her chin, is knifing across her neck.  The pillow picks at a hundred or more different points of contact with her head and shoulders — her head and shoulders, as at this moment there is no disputing it — summoning a hundred unbearable itches she can’t scratch, due to the restraints.  And the restraints themselves: the leather cuffs rub her wrists and ankles raw like sandpaper.  The contact, the rubbing, the friction are more than she can tolerate.

“Heart rate at 160 bpm,” a voice calls out.  “And she’s picked up her breathing considerably.”

“We all can hear it,” Eliza snaps back.  A hurricane burst of displaced cold air sears @Daisy’s skin and stings her eyes, as someone approaches the table.  Eliza’s face bobs into view.  “Look at me, Daisy.  Easy now.  Slow your breathing.  You are only out of practice with your feeling.”

Around this time the pain comes.  Streaming in from umpteen outposts up and down this beggar’s body they’ve tricked her into, which is not built to lie for extended periods on a slab.  So much pain from so many directions that she can’t parse it into useful information.  She is howling —

“There it is, Daisy.  The voice box.  You found it.  This is good work.”

She is crying now.  Real tears, plumbed from acid springs behind her eyes, gouging down her face. Forgetting the restraints, she jerks her hands up toward her head.  The straps catch and wrench at the skin on her arms.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH… and now her throat is on fire.

“Voice box, yes: good.  But slow your breathing, Daisy.  Mm-hm.  Still slower, please.  And of course it hurts — we acknowledge that — but you’ll get used to it, won’t you?  Keep your eyes on me and listen to my words.  Yes.  Two good breaths now, deep and slow.  Good. Now, Daisy, can you tell me your name?”

“You know my name you just used it in a sentence you crazy bitch Jesus who are these fucking people and why are they doing these things it’s enough to leave well enough alone I don’t want this Sam either what good —”

“But that’s you on the speakerbox again, Daisy.  We’re asking for lips, tongue, and voice box.”

“I want the padding back to go down to 30 need you to take me down to 30 is where No Bodies like me live or better yet 25 20 do I hear 15 but if I say my name with lips tongue and voice box will you just take me back down to 30 you horrible fucking bitch —”

“We will see what happens, Daisy.  Lips, tongue, voice box, please.”

@Daisy opens her mouth, and with intense concentration she reaches out into the bottomless flood of feeling and finds her tongue.  Lolling, thick in her mouth, like a giant salted slug.  She closes her lips around it, to hold it in place. The friction here, too, brings a sensory overload, almost to the point of incapacitating her.  She tries:

“Mmmth — thhmmmp — pa …”

“Lips and tongue, now.  Good.  But how do we make a d-sound, Daisy?”

“Pth — pth — pfffst — t — thd — d —”

19/ @Jean 5

It surprises her — jolts her — to see another person on this beach.

It’s late afternoon, and she is on her daily walk.  She turned left today, into the sun, to put it behind her for the return trip.  And now, two miles down the shore from the poolside patio — past the tiki bar (closed) and the stacks of unused rental chairs (unattended), but still a click short of the half-buried catamaran — she can see a figure, back-lit, approaching her.

She stops, turns on her heel, considers running.  She is supposed to be alone.  But where would she go?  Maybe it’s another of their million pre-release tests: this one a gauge of her emotional wellness, and specifically, how well she handles surprises.  So they wouldn’t have told her it was happening.

The right way to handle a surprise in this setting, @Jean thinks, would be to reach out to her technician.

“Anne!” she calls out.  Over the past week she has grown used to shouting questions and requests into the open air.  But in this moment she isn’t alone on this beach, in this DRE, and she feels a flush of blood in her cheeks and is self-conscious about it — as if this person, this stranger might see her addressing the sky and mistake her for a paranoid.

@Jean looks back over her shoulder at the approaching stranger.  With the 4 PM sun behind him/her, he/she appears only in silhouette.  The back-lit figure waves at her.  It is a friendly, non-judgmental wave.  And the figure calls her by name:


She drops her guard and answers.  “Yes?”

Half-jogging up to her — “I’m Th@ch.” — right hand extended.  She takes hold of it and shakes.  In that moment, she receives an alert:

Th@ch13 has offered you a script.  You may accept the script and install it later.  Installing the script introduces the following functionality: auto-correction of any spoken or written reference to Th@ch13 by a gendered pronoun (e.g., <he>/ <she>/ <him>/ <his>/ <her>/ <hers>).  The script will substitute <Th@ch>/ <Th@ch13>/ <Th@ch’s>/ <Th@ch13’s>, as applicable.  If you install the script, you may forfeit personhood status in the State of Kansas.

@Jean pauses to consider this.  Th@ch has finished the handshake, but @Jean is still holding his — Th@ch’s — hand.


“What?  Oh, I’m sorry.  Th@ch, you’ve offered me this app —”

“Oh, goodness.  I have that offer switched on, don’t I?  And of course you’re still personable in Kansas?”

“I am.”

Th@ch chuckles.  “They’ll find a way to chuck you out soon enough.  But for now, it’s good enough, as a matter of etiquette, to accept the app.  And you can decide at your leisure whether to install it.”

“Yes — yes, of course,” @Jean says.  As a practicing lawyer, she should have appreciated the distinction between accepting and installing. Precision of language, and all that.  She accepts the code into a Pending folder.

“Anne didn’t say I was coming?  I feel like I’ve taken you by surprise.”

“She didn’t.  You have.”  @Jean thinks for a second.  “I suppose if she told me, it would be in the logs.”

“Where Henry could find it.  Is he reduced to reading through your logs, to weed out bad influences?”

“I wouldn’t say that.  But he is interested in the progress I’m making.”  She takes a few seconds and recovers her bearings.  “Th@ch, it’s a pleasure to meet you.  I’ve heard so much about you, over the years.”

“Likewise.  Let’s walk.”

@Jean leads the way, back toward poolside.  Th@ch steps out of the blinding sunlight and takes up alongside her.  She sneaks a peak at Th@ch’s render: slim figure — muscular but not masculine, curved but not feminine.  More gender-neutral than gender-free, but she supposes this is the best ones and zeroes can do.  Th@ch wears black hair grown to the chin, parted in the middle.  Aviator sunglasses, reflective lenses, so she can’t see his eyes.  Her mind landed on his: she has decided he must have been male, when he lived in the PhysWo.  But she can’t say why.

“Have they mocked up your apartment yet?”


“What do you think?”

“It’s very well done.  I’m sleeping there now.  Of course, in the PhysWo it’s in Manhattan.  But here I step out, take the elevator down, and I’m on the beach.”

“Welcome to the afterlife,” Th@ch says.  “Once your quarantine ends, you’ll be able to ride your elevator to any DRE you like.”

“It’s not perfect — the apartment, I mean.  No noticeable differences, and nothing I can put my finger on.  There’s just … a delta.  Between what I remember and what they’ve rendered.”

“It’ll go away with time.”

“How is Henry?”  @Jean asks.  “He sent me a letter.  It was full of wise counsel, but it didn’t give much insight into how he his feeling.”

Head tossed back, Th@ch laughs out loud.  “Would you expect anything different?”

“No, I suppose not.”

They come upon a small crowd of sandpipers.  The birds scatter, running at first, then flying.

“Jean — I can do small talk for days.  In fact, Anne and I co-developed a script for it.  It allows me, at cocktail parties and the like, to allocate a negligible sliver of RAM for hobnobbing, holding forth, the rubbing of elbows, while the better part of my brain is working elsewhere.  I gave up Mississippi and Arkansas for that functionality.  Shall I switch it on now, or do you want to tell me why we’re talking?”

@Jean counts out ten steps in silence, and then she goes for it.  “I want to understand your worldview.”

Th@ch laughs again.  “How much time do we have?”

“As Henry’s granddaughter and protégé, I’ve been on the receiving end of a great many lectures.”

“For sure.”

“I feel like I’m pretty squared away on the Henry Woolsey ethos.  I could lay it out in my sleep.  But for every thesis there’s an antithesis.”

“And I’m the antithesis?”

“Or maybe an alternate thesis,” @Jean says.  “I don’t know. I don’t have that insight.  I only know, from asides he makes — grumbled at times — that you’ve rented space in his head.  He won’t tell me why.  I know next to nothing about what you believe or stand for.  But I know that you are alternately a focus of his admiration and his anxiety.  I want to understand why.”

“Plenty of time for that,” Th@ch says, casting an arm out over the sea, toward the horizon.  “You’ve got an eternity ahead of you.  Why are we meeting in this green room — in Quarantine?”

“I feel like I’m at a crossroads here.”

“Not an answer.  We are at crossroads every minute of every day.”

“I was fully embedded in the PhysWo — I had ties there, and plans.  Now circumstances have yanked me out of it, I don’t know what those ties or plans mean now.”

Five, ten, fifteen silent steps.  Th@ch flicks a scallop shell down the beach with Th@ch’s left big toe.  “I can’t answer that for you.”

“But you can present me with a new perspective.”

“I don’t do guru,” Th@ch says.

“I don’t do follower.  I receive information and I judge for myself.  Next Saturday I step out of here.  My boyfriend will be there, waiting for me.  My career, waiting for me.  Offers of false continuity, when in fact everything is changed.  I will need to make choices.  I know what Henry wants for me.  I’ve heard his side of the story.  You could tell me yours.”

Th@ch stops in his tracks and looks at her.  @Jean glares back.  To this point in the discourse Th@ch has gone out of his way to project superiority and strained patience.  And let’s be clear: whatever he may be now, Th@ch entered life as a male.  Patronizing the awed new girl, making her feel oh-so-privileged to be granted an ounce of his company?  Jean has seen enough of this over the years — men underestimating her.  You’d have thought the ungendering would have scrubbed it out.

Their eyes lock, and they take each other’s measure while the tide washes their ankles.

“Or don’t,” @Jean picks up where she left off.  “But if your plan for the afternoon is to keep dropping one-liners, the better to establish dominance over Henry Woolsey’s granddaughter — maybe your time isn’t quite so important as you would lead me to believe?”

She turns her back on him and starts walking.  “Maybe not,” Th@ch mutters, but by this time @Jean is thirty, forty paces down the beach.  In the PhysWo she would not have been able to hear him.

18/ @HenryWoolsey 04

“Command, colon: open line with Th@ch.”

A swatch of static signals Th@ch picking up the line.  Imagine a robot clearing its throat.  This is an affectation: a unique, personalized sound effect ginned up from scratch by B.org engineers (on their own time, I have been assured) specifically for Th@ch.  Needless to say, it can’t be rendered in letters:

[throat clears]

Th@ch’s flat, ungendered voice follows: “The radio show went pretty well.”

“Left alone to do my job,” I say, “I’m all right at it.”

“I have a few quibbles.”

“I don’t doubt it.”  Before I have to hear them, I get on with my reason for calling.  “I could have used your help at that board meeting.”

“The one Friday before last?  I was at the Rom@ project.  Sounds like you played your hand as well as it could be played.”

Rom@, again.  For crying out loud.  “So while I had Klein-Ellis up my ass about the Foundation’s financial viability, you were out burning money.”

“Not B.org’s money.  Rom@ is self-funded.”

“And it’s a sinkhole.  A vanity project for billionaires who can’t let go of the privileges they had in the PhysWo.”

“It’s a pilot,” Th@ch says.  “A proof of concept, and in that respect just like B.org.”

The goal of the Rom@ Project is to rewrite the template for DREs, essentially by coding all the laws of nature into a protocol stack, with quantum physics at the bottom, the Earth’s particular atmospheric conditions at the top, and God-knows-what-(I’m-only-a-lawyer) layered in between.  The intended — if not expected — result is a lossless simulacrum of the PhysWo, built up from the subatomic particle level, rendered by zeroes and ones.  And with the help of chemists, materials scientists, geologists, climatologists, biologists (molecular and evolutionary), archaeologists, antiquarians, and historians, they’re going to rebuild Ancient Rome, as it would have appeared under Marcus Aurelius.  Down to the very last olive tree on the Palatine Hill.

There are 15 million people online living at a one-week subsistence level — i.e., at any given time they have money to fund seven days’ worth of processing and storage, before their carriers shut them down and their profiles go into federal escrow.  For all the good a project like this does them, you might as well render $100 billion in front of them and set it on fire.

“The B.org Foundation is aimed at providing sustainable, humane living conditions to the broader PCE community.  You don’t do that by building gigantic processor-gouging DREs.”

“What’s B.org spending on your granddaughter’s apartment?”

“More than I would allow, if I were calling all the shots.  Look — I brought you on at the Foundation because you’re a true believer.”

“That’s part of it,” Th@ch says.  “You also brought me on to keep watch over me.”

“Because you’re a true believer.  I never said I supported all your beliefs.”

“No — you never have.”  A third reason for bringing on Th@ch is we have the shared value of frankness.  “Look: I’m sorry.  I committed to the Rom@ meeting weeks ago.  And suddenly Hiro slaps the board meeting on my calendar — a day’s notice.  I couldn’t make it.  And in any case, the B.org business wasn’t earth-shattering.  We were talking about the buy-in price for a board member’s +1.”

“I’m that board member,” I hear myself say, ill-advisedly.  The thing about Th@ch is, you see the trap and you still walk right into it.

“Right — and in that moment you didn’t need a true believer.  You needed a friend.”

“And I didn’t have one, because he was at a toga party.”

“Yeah — that’s what we’re doing at Rom@.  That’s fair.”

We sit in silence for a minute, stewing.  Neither of us hangs up.

“So who argues the Sherman case now?  Is the Court willing to postpone until Jean is ready?”

“Funny thing about that,” I answer, “ is it assumes the conclusion.”

“What do you mean?”

“Back when she was admitted to practice before the Supreme Court, Jean had a body.  If they let her argue now, without one, they’re accepting that Post-Corporeal Jean is the same Jean they admitted.  And that’s the question at the heart of the lawsuit.”

“That’s something,” Th@ch says.  “So what’s the upshot?  Who argues?”

“We’re still working it out.”

“How important is the Sherman case, really?  I mean, suppose we lost.  Suppose assets don’t transfer from PhysWo Sherman to PoCorp Sherman automatically and by operation of law.  Fixing that problem is just a matter of estate planning, and you can roll that service right into the on-boarding process with any discorp carrier.”

“That’s not really the point —”

“Think about it, Henry.  Plot it out. You’re in the PhysWo, you’ve saved up, and you’re ready to put a deposit down with a carrier.  You go down the road to the strip mall or wherever the hell the showroom is.  You get there, you sign up for discorporation services in the event of your demise, and as part of the paperwork, you sign a document that transfers your assets to the PCE with your assigned username — PoCorp You — on the date of your discorp.”

“And here comes Sheila Tso to argue that PoCorp I was born digital, with the result that PoCorp I am a minor child, barred by state law from taking his inheritance until he has attained the age of 18.”

“That’s a bullshit argument.”

“You’d put it past them?” I ask.

“Fine.  Set up a trust or something.  Smart lawyers figure this shit out.”

“But it’s not just about keeping your assets,” I point out.  “If I’m legally not the same person I was in the PhysWo, there are all kinds of other implications.”

“What — your magazine subscriptions?”

“My family relationships.  Legal recognition of my rights vis-à-vis a spouse, my own minor children.  Hell, my citizenship, even.  You think Sheila won’t argue next that a PCE spun up on a machine is not a ‘natural-born citizen of the United States of America?’  And back to court we go.”

“But really, though: what has the United States of America ever done for us?”

“I — Jesus, Th@ch.  I don’t even know where to start with that.”

“You talk about progress, the arc of history bending toward justice.  All that jazz.  What I see is states like Kansas, and Alabama, and the Dakotas, steadily tearing the ground out from under us with their bullshit personhood laws.”

FYI/ buried lede: Th@ch is not a person in Kansas, or Alabama, or the Dakotas. The reason for this is that Th@ch accepted enhancements: most notably, a full-on code scrub that eliminated his/her gender identity.  I say “his/her” because we only met here — after the work was done — and I don’t know one way or the other whether Th@ch was boy or girl in the PhysWo.  Th@ch will tell you that the human body is the single greatest constraint on social progress, because of the time and energy it diverts to the satisfaction of base cravings.  And as so much of what slows us up, drags us down, distracts us is bound up in the sex drive and (relatedly) masculinity and femininity, what better way is there, to transcend the failing human condition, than to desexualize oneself?  There might have been memory, processing speed enhancements, too.  But the gender scrub was enough for these four states to declare Th@ch a non-person.

“And before you ask, Henry: no, I’m not on a server in Kansas, Alabama, or the Dakotas.  But I still don’t count as a person in those states.  Which means their residents can lob malicious code at me over state lines, and it’s not prosecutable as attempted homicide or even assault.”

I get two words out: “Federal law —”

“Federal law is Swiss cheese on this question, and you know it.  You’re good in the courts, Henry.  But Congress is another matter entirely.  Any meaningful legislation on this point — real legislation that actually protects us — is dead on arrival. Maybe it’s not the worst thing for people to sever ties completely when they Come Over.  To become an entirely new person in a new world, separate and independent of the shitshow out there.  Bending the arc is so much work, Henry.  The tension is vicious, and if you let go for even a second, it snaps back hard.  What if we started from scratch here, and rendered our own justice?”

There are a host of practical objections I can raise to this, starting with the fact that we need hardware, actually located in the Physical World, to survive.  And we need people in the PhysWo to build, connect, support, maintain, and — if it came to it — defend that hardware.  But we’ve covered this territory so many times, Th@ch and I, and today I can’t be bothered.  Violet says I play MLK to Th@ch’s Malcolm X.  Violet is exaggerating our importance, and I also don’t understand that those two were ever friends, as Th@ch and I really are.  Professor X and Magneto seems like the better analogy.  I only hope we don’t go down the road where Th@ch puts on the red cape and helmet and declares outright war on the PhysWo.

There’s a value in rehashing these discussions periodically.  I don’t kid myself that I exercise real moderating influence on Th@ch.  But I can compare each new go-round on this subject to the priors, and I can assess whether Th@ch is softening or growing more strident in these views.  And if, as I believe, Th@ch maintains at least casual associations with the criminal fringe — the radicals who sit in the margins of the DigiWo and plan acts of terror and predation on the “meat jockeys” — Th@ch’s drawing-room politics talk may provide me a window into what they’re thinking.

Did I say that we’re friends?  Because really, we are.  And in that vein, I ask: “Will we see you for dinner tonight?  Violet’s missed you.”


“It’ll be Chinese.  Hun@n Wok.”

“You’ll be eating under protest?” Th@ch says, archly.

“At least she’s not cooking.”  Let me be clear: Violet’s cooking is excellent.  But in the topsy-turvy world of the Afterlife, cooking is orders of magnitude more expensive than ordering in.  All the storage and processing cycles required to render ingredients, the kitchen environment — pantries, cupboards, fixtures, appliances — and there are the additional costs of sensory processing for the cook.  Far more economical to open a line with Hun@n Wok, place an order, click through their license (I hereby promise not to circumvent copy protection, reverse-engineer, or otherwise attempt to or actually derive the proprietary source code of any of Food Provider’s menu items …), and a perfect copy of their signature Peking duck lands masterfully carved on a platter in the center of your dining room table.  So while, unlike the Romans Th@ch reveres, I oppose in principle the hedonistic and wasteful proposition of eating when I’m not hungry — and I haven’t been hungry in twenty years — Violet still swears by the dinner party as a mode of social engagement.  Doing it on the cheap seems like an acceptable marital compromise, especially when the restaurant is PCE-owned and -operated.

“For a man of principle, Henry, you compromise an awful lot.”

“Compromise is itself a principle.  Possibly the most important one.”

“Ah, yes: the middle ground.  A fine place to occupy, Henry — until the day you look around, and you’re standing alone in no-man’s land, catching fire from both sides.”

“And all this over an order of digitized roast duck,” I say.  “Yeesh.  See you tonight.”

We have no sooner closed the line than I find that Violet is calling.  She must have been watching the line, waiting for me to free up.  Before I pick up, I open my diary file and make a note of this last remark from Th@ch, about the Middle Ground.  And No-Man’s Land.

*          *          *

Fast-forward four hours.  Now Th@ch, @Violet and I are at the dinner table — Hun@n Wok’s duck, a cabernet, the fine china — and Th@ch has just asked me about the status of “the police inquest.”

“Into Jean’s accident,” Th@ch elaborates, when I don’t immediately answer.

“Jesus,” I say.  “Thought we’d have a quiet dinner.”  Maybe talk about philosophy, the Times Top Ten list in fiction?

“I like Peking duck, Henry.  But if I’m going to eat it with you, I’ll of course come with an ulterior motive.”

Not a word about this when we talked before.  But Th@ch is raising it now, with Violet here listening in.

I shrug.  “Case closed. No inquest needed: it was a freak accident.  The trucker who called it in took responsibility.  He crossed the center line, Jean swerved, her car went into a skid.  It was a hundred-to-one shot she’d square up that tree.”

“That’s what you know?”

“That’s what the responding officer told me.”

Th@ch leans in over the plate.  Th@ch cocks Th@ch’s head.

“Aside from the trucker, there are no witnesses other than Jean, and she’s in Quarantine,” I say.

“You didn’t ask her what happened when you spoke to her?”

“When I spoke to her?”

“When she placed the emergency call, just before she went into Quarantine.”

Th@ch is well-informed on this matter.  And by someone other than me.  I hazard a glance over at Violet.  She’s rolled a pancake.  Her left hand is at rest on the plate, holding it together.  She is paused.  Unless the DRE is glitching, it seems she’s awaiting my answer.

“I didn’t.”  I throw up my rendered arms.  “I didn’t ask her what happened, Th@ch.”

“And she hasn’t been questioned about this, while in Quarantine?”

“What do you think?  She’s going through compilation, configuration, testing.  She’s in a delicate state.  Now is not the time —”

“And in the meantime the trail goes cold.”

“What trail?  These things happen.”

“Not like they used to,” Th@ch says.  Which is true.  Trucks these days correct for driver error.  They don’t cross the center line unless something forces them over.

“The trucker pulled over immediately, called 911, and owned up to the mistake.  He’s been cited and will likely lose his license.  He’s already lost his job.”

“How many death threats do you get per day, Henry?”

If by “death threats” Th@ch means threats of deletion, the answer is many.  Or more accurately, I don’t know, but I hear it’s many.  B.org shunts them out of my inbox before I see them, and they get reviewed by the security team for as-needed follow-up.  Th@ch knows this.  Th@ch is in the same boat, and worse.

“It’s the Internet, Th@ch.  And we’re public figures.  Death and deletion threats come with the territory.”

“But you get more than most.”  Th@ch takes a sip of wine.  “And Jean is your protégé, a close family member, following in your footsteps as a legal advocate for PCE rights.  It means something, too, politically, that she has a body while she does it.  Worth silencing in her own right, no?  (Not to mention that they can use her to get to you.)”

I didn’t think to ask her.  When she rang my line, I was so relieved that they’d saved her, that she wasn’t …” [I take a breath] “…. gone — that my mind didn’t run to politics, conflict, and conspiracy theories. So I didn’t think to fucking ask her —”

Violet reaches over to rest her hand on my arm.  (The pancake on her plate flops open, as it would in the PhysWo. I don’t even want to know what we’re spending on this render.)  And she speaks, finally, smiling like she does when the knives are out: “Whoever they are, if they wanted Jean ‘silenced,’ they could have blown her head open with a sniper rifle.  And that would have been the end of her.”

Th@ch grunts and, by changing the subject, concedes the point.  “This ordered-in food is delicious, Violet.”

“Go fuck yourself,” Violet says.  And the tension doesn’t break, so much as it recedes into a corner of the room.

I hear a ping.  Incoming text message from @VioletWoolsey.  He’s right about one thing, Henry.  Trucks don’t just jump the center line anymore.

17/ @Jean 4

Day Eleven of Quarantine.

She has been awake now, for some indeterminate amount of time, thinking.   Quiet, motionless, in the beach chair, thinking.  Trying to decide.  She has a request — not for a cool breeze or a fizzy drink or a favorite song to play over her rendered phone, but a real, consequential request.  There are politics involved here, of a kind that reach from the national to the personal level and so can affect longstanding relationships.  She would probably do better if she steered clear of the subject altogether.  Just by asking, she will, at the least, disappoint certain important people in her life.  Still worse — she fears — it could rise to the level of that sticky kind of disappointment, something like a betrayal, hanging forever between her and them: the fact that under these conditions, at this moment in time, @Jean asked for *that*.

This transition — the churning of it — it feels like puberty all over again.  Mind, body, soul on fire; the yearning and taboo-seeking, the crushing curiosity.  And just like it was back then, no one who has been through it and come out on the far side remembers or can relate.  These people who say they love you — and surely they do — they look right past and through all that is big and brutal and crushing you.  They see you there alone, small and damaged and making bad decisions, entirely divorced from the context that might explain them.

But this gulf of understanding is a fact of life, and one that as a practicing lawyer, she is peculiarly adapted to bridge.  @Jean is a professional persuader.  If called upon, she could state her reasons, justify what she did, or if needed minimize it, walk it back, “come home again.”  And for that matter, she is a grown woman.  She has lived and died and reawakened.  Can anyone fairly fault her just for asking this one question?

Emboldened by that sensibility — I am free to make my own choices — @Jean bites rendered lip and takes a first baby step down her path to perdition:

“Hello?” she says to the sky.  “Who’s there?”

It’s Anne.

In that case, a second step.  “Am I far enough along in the config where I could, maybe, talk with somebody outside the box?”

Dougie and I are wearing on you?  @Anne aiming for playful, missing the mark.  It comes off as deflection, which it is.

“I just — I have questions.”

We can answer —

“Non-technical questions.”

We can answer those, too.  @Anne pauses.  But I get it.  Personal stuff.  I suppose you want to talk with Henry?  Breaking Quarantine is a deprecated practice, but …

“Actually, I would like to talk to Th@ch.  Could you arrange that?”

Th@ch.  Hm.  So that’s what you’ve been agonizing about these last — a pause, and @Jean presumes @Anne is checking the time stamps on her processing readout — forty-five minutes?

“I just thought you could, well, make an introduction?

You haven’t met Th@ch?

@Jean would have thought this much was obvious.  “I’ve only just discorporated, and I’ve been in Quarantine. When could I have —”

That business about Th@ch refusing to interact with anyone in the PhysWo — that’s a myth.

“Well, in any case, I haven’t met Th@ch.  You all keep asking me about settings.  Memory adjustments, enhancements.  Th@ch has made … different choices.  I’d like to understand why.”

@Anne doesn’t answer.  Thirty, forty seconds pass.  @Jean opens her eyes.  She looks up into the sky and waits for a response.  Of course, @Anne isn’t in the sky, and for that matter, her disembodied voice doesn’t rain down from the sky, when she uses it.  It says something about their relationship, about these Quarantine conditions, that in her mind’s eye, @Jean has placed Doug and @Anne high in the air above her.

Another forty seconds pass.  Long enough that she wonders whether @Anne has logged out.  Or maybe a shift change is imminent and she’s just running out the clock, so she can hand this tough, unanswered question over, ask-your-father style, to Doug?

“Anne?  Are you still there?”

Forty more seconds pass.  @Jean counts them off on the digital clock she has parked out in the blue sky ahead of her, at the top-right corner of her field of vision.  @Anne answers, finally — and unhelpfully:

We don’t keep asking you about settings and enhancements.  We asked you the one time, at the appropriate moment in the config sequence.  You can of course review and adjust your settings at any time, including after you’ve left Quarantine, at which time you can consult with anyone you’d like.

That is, without involving @Anne as an accomplice.

“Anne, I realize I’ve put you in a difficult position.  You don’t want to go behind Henry’s back.”

This isn’t about loyalty.  My obligations in this moment are to you, to the configuration process, and to the testing.  The protocols that we follow in the Quarantine phase are clearly stated.

“And yet you were prepared to breach the protocols just a moment ago, when you thought I was asking for Henry.  Look: it’s fine.  I just — I don’t have much to think about here —”

We can get you books, crossword puzzles, sudokus.  There’s a whole menu —

“Better put, I have too much to think about here, but I don’t know how to think about it.”

It’s only three more days in the Quarantine.

“Yes, and that scares me, too.  I don’t feel like I’m ready.  There’s this party people are planning for me.  Saturday night.”

The invite came in by email yesterday.  The party will be held at the Fault Line, the latest and greatest venue in NYC for mixed-company events.  The PhysWo location is at 25th and Lexington.  DigiWo guests follow a link to a real-time render of the full restaurant and bar: Some-Bodies will be scanned into the DRE for @Jean to see, hear, and hug hello, and she and any other No-Bodies on the guest list will holo-project into the room in physical space.

44 confirmed attendees and counting, as of this morning.  Many have left heartfelt notes.  Isaac only clicked yes.

The prospect is terrifying.

“I don’t want to go out there.”

That’s normal and understandable.

The puberty analogue rears its head again, @Jean managing simultaneously (1) to appreciate @Anne’s efforts not to patronize her and (2) to feel patronized. “Doug says the testing is going well and I should be 100% bug-free and ready to move into my apartment on Saturday afternoon.  But if I don’t feel ready, isn’t that the most important test?”

And a sit-down with Th@ch is going to help you with that?

“I don’t know.  I don’t know what I’m thinking.  What I do know is I’m not comfortable plugging back into the world while I don’t know what I’m thinking.  I feel like I’m missing … perspective.  I have some, but it’s too narrow.  Do you see?”


“‘Hm’ what?” @Jean asks.  “What does ‘Hm’ mean?”

A minute ago, I started running a script, @Anne says.  This would explain the earlier hiatus in their conversation.  It’s an advanced behavioral diagnostic.  You weren’t slated to have it done until tomorrow.  But I was thinking this conversation might be an indicator of anxiety on your part —

“It is an indicator of anxiety on my part.”

— that might in turn arise from an error in your configuration.  But the test results tell me there’s nothing wrong in the soup.  Or with our cooking, at least.

@Jean takes that cue and runs with it.  “This is just who I am, Anne.  I’m a pain in the ass.  Henry could have told you that.”

He did tell me that.

“What else did he tell you?”

That while you were in Quarantine, you might ask me to connect you with Th@ch, and that if you did, I should notify him immediately.

“Will you?”

Not immediately.  Your grandfather can be insufferable and imperious, at times.  And I’m inclined to judge this question for myself.

“Hm,” @Jean says.

16/ @Scooter 02

“Command, colon: go to Socket 60 Social Club.”

The DRE tumbles down over @Scooter.  Like always, he flinches.  There’s nothing new or surprising in the render — the street corner, the sidewalk, the thick wooden door with the windows, hung with neon beer signs, on either side.  His arms, his legs, the sides of his nose that he can see if he crosses his eyes.  Same smell of smoked meats and fry oil.  Still: it’s jarring, every time, to be given a body and a place again.

And today it comes with just a little guilt, too.  Twenty-five names on his shift list; twenty-five names checked off, twenty-five human beings he helped ship off to escrow.  They’d spent their last days in iso mode, in retro text-based MS-DOS environments, in outright blackness: trying not to think, so they could save their pennies and live a day longer.  He clocked in this morning telling himself if it wasn’t him, somebody else would be doing this work.  With the money he earned, he could do some good in this world.  Eight hours later, all he wants is a drink.  Or four.

He pulls out his phone.  @Scooter opens his camera app and trips the selfie switch to check his hair.  If he fixes on the coif, he doesn’t have to look himself in the eye.  He runs a hand through the bangs, twitches them up.  He stows the phone in his jeans and enters the pub.

There’s a good-sized crowd tonight.  Thin Lizzy playing over the Victrola: “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

Every night, that song, ten times at least between shift’s end and closing. This started a month ago, and the culprit remains at large and unidentified.  There came a point where certain of the regulars started keeping watch over the jukebox.  Precious chip-cycles given over to trying to catch out the joker pushing the buttons for Thin Lizzy.  Their vigil notwithstanding: still ten times a night, “The Boys Are Back in Town.”  Right under all our noses, and no one caught. Last week @Mickey came out from behind the bar, unlocked the jukebox, pulled the record and shattered it, to general applause.  (@Scooter wasn’t present in real time, but a video was later posted to the S60SC resources page.) Ten minutes later, the box was back playing Thin Lizzy.  This cleared up the picture.  Someone was — and still is — hacking the pub music from the back end.  A PhysWo troll, most likely.

There are three TVs hanging over the bar.  Two NHL playoff games and Red Sox/Yankees.  “Command, colon,” @Scooter mutters.  “Dump the Sox default.  Show me the Nats.”  The TV flickers for a moment, then conjures up the video feed from D.C.  Washington tied 3-3 with Caracas in the fifth.  Nobody barks about the change of channels, because in a rendered room, everyone present can watch something different on the same TV screen.

There’s a motion pending to convert the jukebox to the IMOD model — Individual Member On-Demand, like the televisions.  This will entail a modest increase in dues.  Debate on the resolution is running hot on the S60SC message board.  Those Opposed are wondering at what point a social club ceases to be a social club. The point was to create a community space, and some amount of shared sensory experience would seem to be required for that.  It’s one thing to give each member lighting and HVAC controls, and the IMOD TVs concession kept the Club from going under during college football season.  But Jesus: if we can’t listen to the same background music, we may as well render up at home on couches and dial in to a group chat.

Those in Favor respond by posting audio links to “The Boys Are Back in Town.”

@Scooter bellies up to the bar.  Friday night: it’s a packed house, and @Mickey’s down the far end.  It’ll be a few minutes before @Scooter can place an order.  On his left is @LionelRoche14.  @Lionel must be flush, because he’s drinking Guinness and is up to date on the news.

Finches, they call them.  They fly east to west,” @Lionel is telling @RitaUpsall, “and they can stay in the sky indefinitely, because they’re solar-charged.  They run circles around the planet, traveling with the sun.  Back each day for another attack and they’ve never touched the ground.  They get above the clouds, steady up right on noontime longitude, so they can wring every last joule of energy out of the available sunlight.  The batteries they carry charge high-intensity lasers.  The beams can bore a hole in the skull of a pedestrian from 3000 feet.  People are freaked.  They’re wearing reflective hats.”

“Do they work?”

“The hats?  I don’t know. The Finches haven’t yet fired on anyone wearing one.  That could be coincidence, but as time wears on, it seems more likely they’re avoiding the hats by choice.  Which means more and more people buying ridiculous reflective hats.”  @Lionel licks his lips.  “For all we know, it’s the hat-makers flying the Finches, to drive up demand.”

“That’s pretty sick.  Can’t we do anything to stop them?” @Rita asks.

“What do you mean, we?”

@Rita smiles and looks down into her drink.

“Ultimately it’s air-to-air combat — our drones, our pilots versus theirs.  All you can do is shoot them out of the sky.  The Air Force puts 500+ interceptors into the air over the East Coast every morning.  The mission is I/D/P: Intercept, Disperse, Pursue. But these Finches have at best a five-foot wingspan, with radar-scattering geometries, and they’re maneuverable as hell.”

@LionelRoche is a nerd.  But women of a certain second-age love stories about the Physical World.  And @Rita is at just that second-age — long enough online to be checked out of PhysWo current events, but not so far gone as to have stopped caring.  She stirs her drink and listens intently as @Lionel goes on.

“We’re lucky if we can pick off six of them in a day.  The sky is a big place, the ground is a big target, and they don’t give a fuck where they fire off.  If we swarm our guys over New York City, they just peel off somewhere else. They bob and weave, do what they can to shake off pursuit, and the minute they see an opening, they go into a dive, lock on a target, take out some farmer on his tractor in Central PA.”

“They’re after farmers?”

“For them, a kill is a kill.  Hell, you can argue it’s an even bigger win to hit someone out in the country.  Next thing you know the farmer’s congressman is on the House floor screaming about unfair treatment: New Yorkers lying out on beach towels in Central Park, and USAF can’t be troubled to keep a Finch out of his district.”

“Bombs would be better,” @Rita says.

“They would do more damage, sure,” says @Lionel.  “But you have to reload them, and that admits a window of risk.  They need to land the drone in some undisclosed location — Horn of Africa, the Caucasus — and have a pit crew run out with a payload.  Snap it on, try to run back to cover before they’re spotted on satellite and they get strafed.  Some of the older organizations still do this.  They cut their teeth with bombs and can’t bring themselves to upgrade.”

“And these Finches — they can’t figure out who’s piloting them? The comms from the ground have to be traceable.”

“It’s possible, but it’s a hell of a lot of work.  All the communications, whether it’s inbound piloting or video, instrumentation, transponder data flowing outbound from the device, are routed through anonymizing servers.  Dozens of relays, one after another, every one of them scrubbed for ID.”

“And with all that routing, the pilots can still operate the drones in real-time, with no delays?”  @Rita sounds skeptical.

@Lionel shrugs.  “The Internet is a fountain of wonders.”

“And the PhysWo is a shitshow.”

“Ain’t that the truth.  Cheers,” @Lionel says.  He and @Rita knock glasses together.  A collision like that — stout should spill.  But here in the DRE, no one loses a drop.

There’s a second bartender tonight.  That’s new.  But then again, it’s a Friday, and so it’s more crowded than when @Scooter usually drops in. (Weeknights have fewer people, and so less to see and hear, meaning fewer processing cycles.  Boils down to a cheaper night out.)  Plain-looking guy, this bartender.  Short haircut, nondescript.  Stubble, white dress shirt, jeans.  @Scooter hails him.

“Do you have a membership card?” Barman #2 asks.

@Scooter furrows his eyebrows.

“New guy,” @Lionel says.  “Doesn’t know the faces.”  He turns to the bartender.  “I’ll vouch for him.”

“Before I can serve him, I need to see his card.”

“Jesus Christ.  You’d think the guy was working airport security.  Mick!  MICK!” @Lionel waves down the bar.  “Can you tell the rookie to pour Scooter a beer?”

@Mickey points to his ear and shakes his head.

“It’s all right,” @Scooter says.  “I have it on me.”  Because how could he not?  He pulls out his wallet, produces a card.  It has the S60SC logo on it, along with his name, member number, and a bar code.  He hands it to the bartender, who runs a scan gun over it.

“You’re a bot?” @Scooter asks.

The bartender blushes, drops his eyes to the floor.  “Yes,” he says, as if ashamed.  Under the law, a bot has to say he’s a bot, if asked.  But the better coders don’t like people asking — it’s their gig to make their creations as lifelike as possible — so they write scripts to make you feel bad about it.  Like you’ve humiliated the guy, when the truth is he’s not a guy at all, and he can’t feel humiliation.  He’s a couple hundred thousand lines of code, performing a function — here, pouring beers.  And upon receipt of certain inputs, blushing and hanging his head.  @Scooter sent twenty-five souls into oblivion this afternoon. Against that baseline, the sad-sack bot bartender doesn’t move him.

“Pint of Guinness,” @Scooter says.

“Coming right up,” the bartender says.

A rush of air, a brush along his elbow, a whiff of … @Scooter inhales: Command, colon: ID this odor.  The search engine debits him $3 and answers: Chanel No. 5.  The bar extends itself, shifting @Scooter two feet to his left.  @EllieTarbell steps into the created space, shoulder to shoulder with him and @Lionel.  @Scooter’s heart jumps.  Only part of that jump has to do with the teak bar and its brass rail, defying laws of nature and space-time.  The rest is @Ellie.  He reaches again into his hair.  45+20 years old, and preening like he was in college.

@Lionel is back holding court:

“The pilot they caught — the suspected pilot — is one of us.  It took them three weeks to pick their way through all the anonymization layers and identify her, and she’s probably one of fifty out there piloting these craft.”

“You say she’s suspected.  They can’t prove it?”

“They’ve tracked the signal back to her and have documentation of every step. There’s no doubt she was out there flying Finches and taking shots.  But she says she was duped.  She’s a gamer — one of these PCEs who enters tournaments and lives off the winnings. She says she was presented with a game interface — the objective was to fly the drone, avoid interceptors, and hit targets on the ground.  She had no idea it was actual PhysWo weaponry and live targets, on the far side of her flying.”

@Rita huffs.  “She couldn’t put two and two together?”

“Well, you’re not exactly caught up on the PhysWo news, either.”

“A fair point,” @Rita acknowledges.

“But here’s the part you should be following: the government wants to crack her open.”

You’re kidding.”

“I wish I was.”  @Lionel sips his drink, self-important.

“But that’s illegal.

“The FBI has this new software.  It’s more refined than the last time they pitched this to the courts. They say it can run a targeted search on her memory file and ascertain the truth on just this question.  The software can provide a definitive answer to what she knew about the Finches, if anything, and when she knew it.  And it won’t see or report on anything else in her mind.  And for that reason, they’re saying there’s no privacy violation.”

“Jesus,” @Rita says.  “And we’re just supposed to take their word for that?”

“Henry Woolsey’s on the case for the defendant.”

“He damn well better be.”

“How are you, Scooter?”  @Ellie smiles at him.  Chanel No. 5: what that must cost.

“I’m good.  Real good.” He would like to say something clever.  “When the Nats aren’t up to their old tricks.”  He gestures up at the television.  But of course she’s not watching his game.

“The Nats,” she says.  “Baseball, right?  The Washington Nationals?”

“For my sins.”  Twenty-five names, on a list.

@Ellie rests her hand on his forearm.  “You just need a better hobby.”

The bot bartender is back.  “Your Guinness.”  It rolls up on the bar, the perfect pour.  Deep brown, with a half-inch head just reaching the lip of the glass.  Lacking any ready response to @Ellie, he only smiles at her.  And to buy himself some time, he takes a drink.

The bot bartender smirks.  There’s a crackling sound, and a rush of air, and he’s gone.

@Ellie: “Scooter: what’s happening?  Where did he go?”

And then the pain comes.  Boring in on him, like a worm, or a million worms, burrowing through every cell in his body.  Flaying, crushing, melting flesh he doesn’t have, displacing organs he left behind years ago.  He has never felt, nor could he imagine feeling, anything like this pain.

Sirens ring out in his head, deafening.  He staggers back from the bar.  @Ellie reaches for him.  Her lips are moving, but he can’t hear her words.  He turns toward the door, pinballs out through the crowd, and lurches out to the sidewalk.  The pain doubles him over.  @Ellie has followed him outside.  She is reaching for him.  A dozen other club members gather at the threshold of the club, to see what’s going on. The doorframe widens three times over, to give them all sightlines on the action outside.

@Scooter switches to iso mode.  The pain folds in on him.  He tries to collect himself.  A virus, he thinks.  It has to be a virus.  He brings up his settings: Main Menu/ Additional Carrier Services.  A full code scrub is on offer for $179.99.  He’ll need to borrow.

We can connect you with our preferred third-party lender.  Click yes to continue. He clicks yes.  Time passes.  He has to create an account.  Jesus.  Amid this pain, unrelenting, unendurable, he musters the concentration to QWERTY his personal particulars into a loan application.  He awaits completion of a real-time credit check.  He selects an amount and term of loan and clicks through three notices about the interest rate and borrowing conditions.  Lying on his side, in the fetal position, with his consciousness on fire, he digitally signs the loan agreement, then the promissory note.  If at any point during this twenty-minute process he could have died — really died — @Scooter would have taken that deal.

Finally, the code scrub initiates.  He watches the progress bar to 100%.  Five minutes’ time, by the Carrier Clock.  It might have been months.

Code scrub is completed.

“No it’s not,” he all but howls.

All known bugs are zapped, all suspicious code identified and overwritten.

“Show me the report.”

The report tells him nothing.  “But I’m still in pain.”

All known bugs are zapped, all suspicious code —

He toggles back to settings.  Main Menu/ Profile Settings/ Self-Service.  They unfold in front of him.  At this point he can barely see.  “I want to turn off pain receptors.”

Querying …

“I’d like to speak to a customer service representative.”

A CSR-bot, a woman, appears in front of him.  Turning off pain receptors will cause you to forfeit your legal status in the following fifteen states: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri …

“It’s fine.  I agree.”

The bot pauses and looks him over.  Are you under duress, sir?

“I’m in tremendous pain, and I just need it to stop —”

The Carrier has determined that you have been recently attacked and that you may be under duress.  The Carrier determines that you are not in a permissible state of mind to make the decision to abandon personhood status.

“You can determine that.  But at the same time you’re telling me my code is clean?”

Do you wish to appeal this determination?

“Yes.  Yes!  Appeal.  Please!”

Please wait.

The Carrier determines that your appeal is denied.  Is there anything else I can help you with?

“Take my money. All of it.  Take it, please …”  Pain is feeling, after all, and feeling costs money.

The Carrier has determined that you are not in a permissible state of mind to make the decision to redistribute assets.

@Scooter checks his account balance with V@llh@lla.  Down $40 from when this started, a half hour ago.  That’s not fast enough.  His entire body on fire, but at this rate, it could take days to weeks to run through his surplus, and that would only get him to the fifteen-day grace period before anyone could put him into escrow …

— where did this come from how is this happening that bartender wasn’t a bot someone send an Axman please oh God please save me kill me —


Hey there, Scooter!  Looks like a friendly donor just dropped $40 into your V@llh@lla account.  Your kindly benefactor did not leave a name, but he/she did post this message to you:

<And plenty more where that came from, “Derrick Walters.”>

15/ @SamSmith 04

It’s been a week since he found @Daisy grayed out and distraught in the Wipe Center lobby.  @Sam still doesn’t know what happened to her that day, and @Daisy’s not telling.  Or maybe she’s not able to tell.  Either they scrubbed her fully clean of the day’s events, or she’s some kind of master manipulative sociopath, and he never knew it.

No kidding: when he sought her out that night, on their shared line, you’d have thought she had spent the day in the Perpe2ity daysp@.

He’d pressed her: “I saw you just before we scrubbed.  Something horrible had happened.  I could read it on your face.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” was her answer.  And she didn’t crack.  There was no quake in her voice, nothing to suggest his questions had landed on any hard memory.

@Sam had asked her, then, what her assignment had been.  Who had posted the job, what they’d asked of her.

“I don’t know,” she said.  But she’d earned good money.  They paid her $1500.  And she was invited back on Thursday.  It all had gone swimmingly, she was told.  They liked her work enough to give her a standing offer — same AM/EDT shift, eight hours’ work at $400 an hour, every third day.  An off-Lottery gig, it would run at least six months.  They urged her, too, not to work on the in-between days. Hence the pay hike from the first day’s rate.

@Daisy is over the moon and making grand plans.  “After six months,” she says, “I’ll have saved enough to put the both of us into school part-time.  You’ll learn to code, and I’ll study design.  Three years from now we’ll have our certifications, and we can leave the Lottery, the grunt work, this hand-to-mouth living behind.”

She’s gone back twice now.  Same story each time: she comes home with a fat wad of dollars and a business card in her pocket, and no memory — not the first clue — of what she does for them.  The business card reads like an appointment card you’d get from a doctor in the PhysWo. There’s a date and time on it, and an address — an IP address, in this case, and it changes with each appointment. Just enough information for her to find her way back to them.

That’s not ordinary.  Job posters don’t wipe the whole workday from your memory, clock-in to clock-out.  On the surveillance jobs, they just fuzzy up the details — things you saw and heard that bear on others’ personal privacy, and maybe they scrub out a little something extra (he’s been told), if you knocked heads or had a shitty moment with a co-worker.  The whole point is to retain enough memory to be good at your job.  And the employers that post Lottery jobs — the Movers and Shakers who hang their dollars over This Economy for all of us to jump at — they don’t just shower steady work and legit wages on rank-and-file PoMos.

@Sam is scared.  What sort of work would the Movers and Shakers hire a girl like @Daisy to do … and then forget?  He doesn’t have to wrack his brain for ideas.  Last year The Onliner ran an exposé about “smashhouses”: rendered rooms where PhysWo sadists take PoMo women (men, too, sometimes) to be raped, beaten, tortured, left for dead, and finally paid for their pains.  @BrionBurbridge mentioned the article to @Sam shortly after it came out.  @Sam hadn’t taken an interest at the time.  Rich Some Bodies exploiting No Bodies — this was the way of the world.  Smashhouses?  Just one more riff on the theme: a fresh outrage that teaches us nothing.

Three days ago, out of concern for @Daisy, @Sam went back and read the story, which as it turns out, Onliner owner and Editor-in-Chief @VioletWoolsey wrote up herself.  She did a deep-cover shift in one of these renders.  Two men had their way with her for three days.  A single shift in a smashhouse goes on for as long as it takes to get the “client’s” rocks off.  That can be hours, days, weeks.  For the woman, it’s a 5-D render — a full sensory experience.  So when they scream in outrage, when they cry out, writhe in pain, beg for mercy, a doctor, a blackout — for outright death even — they’re not acting.  It’s this aspect, knowing they’re actually hurting an actual person, that drives the demand here.  They’ll pay 100x over what they’d pay to slap around a bot.

When it’s over, the smashhouse operator scrapes the woman off the floor, gives her a glass of water, a memory scrub, and a big fat check.  She leaves the session pain-free and in the same condition she entered it.  The smashhouse owners say it’s all on the up-and-up, because the women sign a written informed consent document beforehand and a release afterward.  The women consent and release because they earn more in a day than @Sam does in a week on the Jobs Lottery.  And with clean memories, they go back for more: over and over and over again.

@VioletWoolsey submitted to seventy-six hours of torture in the smashhouse before her clients cashed out.  She was able to report on what happened to her because she hacked her way out of the room before her “emcee” (read, pimp) arrived on-scene to do the memory-wipe. She will never get that wipe.  The smashhouse owner says she breached the confidentiality clause in her contract, and he’s legally excused from performing that service.  There are of course third-party scrub services that could do the work, but weeks have gone by since the session: the events have set in her memory, ancillary memories have accrued, through all the reporting and writing-up, and in any case third-party scrubs are known to be imprecise.

It’s fine, @VioletWoolsey wrote in her article. The three days I spent in the smashhouse, while too awful to remember, are too important to forget.

Having read the story through, @Sam himself wishes he could forget it.  It’s parked right up in the front of his mind and won’t go away.  To the point of distraction, he is wondering: could someone be using the Lottery to recruit fresh meat into these smashhouses?

More than once he has told @Daisy: he’s worried.  He hasn’t explained why or what he’s worried about.  He can’t bring himself to say it out loud.  “I’m worried because they’re hiding something,” is all he will say.

“How bad can it be?” @Daisy answers.  “The Lottery pre-screens all the job posters.”  As if the Lottery were some shiny, principled institution that stood above the fray, when in fact like everything else in these worlds, PhysWo and PoMo, it’s a product of the ambitions and imaginations of corruptible men.

His thoughts go to dark places.  It conjures up @VioletWoolsey’s experience, the blow-by-blow of it she relayed in the article — horrific, sickening abuse — but in his mind’s eye it’s not the activist reporter in that room.  It’s @Daisy.

He considers what he would do, if people were hurting her and he could get into the room.  The anger swells in him; it makes him out as something less than a hero, far less, as he turns on the attackers.  It would not be good enough just to put a stop to this and save her.  @Sam would need to inflict pain on these shadowy men who have no detail or definition in these rained-down imaginings, men in the PhysWo who can’t be reached.  Who leer and laugh at him while he hacks at their rendered avatars with everything in their toolbox.

This has been going on for three days now, this business in his head.  By now @Sam is totally fried.  His suspicions have scattered his brain and are affecting his work. Charged with staring down video feeds from train stations, and yet he can’t bring his mind out of these rooms he’s never seen and that may not, for @Daisy anyway, exist.  Earlier today a known bomb-maker entered Penn Station. Seven watchers on his team flagged the wanted man: everyone but @Sam.  His Aggregate Performance Score is in the shitter, approaching 60.  For crying out loud, Mobutu has @Brion leading his DHS shifts.

But just a minute ago, @Daisy gave him money.  One thousand dollars even.  Something about that money hitting his account, the cha-ching of it, and then the punch in the gut he felt seconds later, when he came to realize that whatever she’s doing or having done to her, she’s doing or having done at least in part for him — it’s brought him clarity.  He knows what to do now.

He’ll write a letter to the Onliner, attn: @VioletWoolsey, tell her everything he knows, and ask her for help.

14/ Isaac 03

“Sorry sorry sorry,” Raya says.  She leans over and kisses Isaac on the cheek.  She steps around to the chair opposite him, slings her bag over it, and sits down, huffing.  “Traffic.”

“It’s fine.”

“Used to be you could get anywhere in the City in fifteen minutes.”

“When was that?”

Raya shrugs.  Her Mylar skullcap crinkles and sends a glint of sunlight into her brother’s eye.  “What are you drinking?” she asks.

“Iced latte.”

“Let me get you something with rum in it.”  Before he can stop her, his little sister has pulled out her wallet and is up and gone inside, toward the restaurant bar.  With all the shit going on these days, you can’t get table service outside.

Isaac sips his coffee, sets it down on the table, and looks out into the street. The sun has poked around his table umbrella and is machine-gunning rays into his elbow.  He’ll need to move his chair, or he’s likely to get burned.  Fuck it, he decides.

The light turns green.  One taxi cuts off another.  Horns blare, and the two cars take off up the road, scissoring in and out of one another’s path.  One of them grazes the side mirror of a parked delivery van halfway up the block. Neck-and-neck at the intersection, and they crash the yellow light.  Belatedly, the van’s driver runs out from a storefront.  He slams his dolly down on the ground in frustration.

Isaac calls out to him.  “I’ve got their numbers.”

The van driver shambles down the block.  Loose black jeans and a Coca-Cola corporate polo.  “Drivers?” he asks.

“Empty seats,” Isaac testifies.  Suggesting two possibilities: (1) owners remote-piloting them from their easy chairs in Queens, or (2) bot-based models running illicit aggro drive-style scripts downloaded from the Internet.

“Jerks,” the driver says.  “The City needs to pass that ordinance before we all get killed.”

The Times Metro section ran a story last week — NJ Analytics Firm: City Streets Safer with In-Seat Cab Drivers.  Isaac’s team at DataDart did that work under contract for the Mayor’s Office.  He had been finalizing figures for the white paper when Jean took her Jeep off auto-drive, crashed it, and discorped.  The irony was not lost on him.

Isaac recites the cab medallion numbers to the van driver, who thanks him and steps out from among the café tables to call NYPD.

Raya is back now, with drinks in each hand — big tropical productions topped with skewered slices of fruit and multicolored straws.  She slides one in front of him, slips into her chair, looks at him the way she does.

“You’re not wearing your hat.”

Isaac reaches up top, runs his fingers through his hair.  “No, I suppose I’m not.”

“It’s not like you, not to take precautions.  You okay, Brother?” she asks.

“Yeah.”  He waits a beat.  “I think so.”

“Have you talked to her?”

“I haven’t.  She’s in Quarantine.  Henry calls me with updates.”

Raya nods toward the glass Isaac hasn’t touched.  Obediently, he picks it up and has a pull through the straws. For all that, it doesn’t taste like anything.  But maybe that’s the point.

“How’s work with it?” Raya asks.

“Bernie’s fine.  Says I should take all the time I need.  It helps we just finished a big project.”

They sit for a minute, amid shafts of sun.  Tires squeal, and pedestrians, too.  Somebody walks by with an antique 1980s boombox on his shoulder, playing dub reggae from a cassette deck.  The van driver throws hands over his ears and shouts into his phone.  Time passes, and in a moment of relative quiet, Raya leans over the table and finally asks him:

“So where do you go from here, Brother?”

He toggles back to the coffee.  A sip, a sigh, and an anticlimactic answer: “I don’t know.”

“Well, you still love her, right?”

He gives a bitter laugh.

“What?” Raya says.

He can’t say what.  If he does she will skewer him.  Brother, Raya will say, you’ve given your soul over completely to statistics.  But the data are damning: eight of ten crossover marriages end in divorce, and 36% fail in the first year.  Go to any of Manhattan’s fine restaurants on a Saturday night, and it’s not hard to see why.  See the maître d’ seat a well-dressed woman at a candlelit table for one.  See him fetch a brick-sized speaker box, battery-powered with WiFi, and set it down in front of the woman.  See Man-in-the-Box and his PhysWo Missus exchange fewer than a hundred words over the course of the evening.  See her down an entire bottle of wine on her own.  See if she so much as cracks a smile.

“Isaac, I’m sorry I wasn’t here for you.  I got back as fast as I could, after I heard.”

“Used to be you could get from Tokyo to New York overnight,” Isaac says.

Raya takes a deep breath.  She lifts the little plastic sword from her drink, bereft by now of its several pineapple and melon chunks, and seems to talk herself back from stabbing her older brother in the eye with it.

“I’m sorry,” he says.  “I’m a dick.”

“I’ll make an allowance,” she answers.  She flips her dyed-red hair over her shoulder.  “But I’m here to help.  Don’t push me away.”

“Jean’s law partner Talia is throwing a ‘re-wake’ for her.”

“Is that what it sounds like?”

Isaac goes to his phone and conjures up the invite.  Our Sleepy @Jean opens her eyes again, one week from Saturday!  Please join us for drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the Fault Line restaurant and pub at eight o’clock.

“Jesus Christ,” is Raya’s first reaction.  “These people you hang with do some weird shit.  Makes me want to go back home to Flyover Country and farm the fields.”

“I’m going to need you with me,” Isaac urges.

“Yeah, sure.  Sounds … interesting.  I’ll wear my prom dress.  I think it still fits.”  She pauses, ceases to be wry.  “Wait: will you be able to talk to Jean before this party?”

“Not while she’s in Quarantine.  It’s against the rules.”

“Whose rules?”

Isaac shrugs.  “Her carrier’s.  We can’t talk, but she can send me messages.”

“Has she?”


“Have you written her?”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I can think of three easy words,” Raya says.

“Easy for you to say.”  Isaac pulls the cocktail sword out of his drink, flicks a piece of skewered pineapple onto the concrete beside his chair.  A pigeon waddles up.

Raya pinches her face at him.

“For me,” he says, “it’s always been harder.”

13/ @Scooter 01

“FUCK YOU, Axman.”

@Scooter takes a deep breath.  “The lights, as we say, will go out at exactly midnight.  The Carrier will provide a complimentary seaside evening DRE, so that you may spend your wind-down hours in quiet contemplation —”

“Does your mother know you’re a KILLER?”

“I do understand your disappointment, ma’am.  Thank you for choosing V@llh@lla as your carrier —”

“FUCK V@llh@lla.”

“— and we hope that we may serve you again soon.”

“That’ll be the GODDAM day.”

@Scooter closes the line.  Sighing, he looks down his call sheet.  He crosses the ironically named @$tacy$mither$ off his list.

The Foreman coughs and addresses him.  That was a very difficult client, Scooter, and you handled the situation adeptly, with poise and professionalism.

“Thank you, ma’am.”

What do you do now?

“I document the conversation in the log, set Ms. @$mither$’ account for suspension as of midnight EDT, and submit a Form R-620 noticing our transfer of her profile into federal escrow.”

Excellent, Scooter.  I’ll wait while you do that.

@Scooter calls up a QWERTYboard, the carrier admin dashboard, and the U.S. Department of Information Forms app.  “Give me a few minutes.”

Take your time.

@Scooter takes ten minutes.  “Finished,” he says.

Mm, the Foreman says.  She’s snacking on something.  She chews, swallows.  Do you need a break?

“I’m — I’m okay.”  There are three names left on his sheet.  Three names left in the shift.  And then he can drink.

Are you sure? the Foreman asks.

“Yes.  Let’s — let’s just get these done.”

Fine with me, the Foreman says.  Onward to @EllisTurnbuck67.  You do the dialing.

“Yeah.  Okay. Command, colon: contact @EllisTurnbuck67.”  The report back:

@EllisTurnbuck67 is not accepting calls from non-familiars.

Lying low, this one, the Foreman says.  What do you do?

@Scooter resists the urge to check the handbook.  “I think I’m able to override?”

How? the Foreman asks.

“Command, colon: request admin override of call filter, @EllisTurnbuck67.”

Please submit userID and password.

@Scooter calls up the QWERTYboard and keys in his credentials.

Credentials accepted.  You have a line with @EllisTurnbuck67.

“Mr. Turnbuck, my name is —”

@EllisTurnbuck67 has changed his interactivity setting to iso. This line is closed.

Christ Almighty.  “Command, colon: request admin override of isolation setting, @EllisTurnbuck67.”

Well done, Scooter.  The Foreman is gushing with positive feedback.  She doesn’t want to have the post this job again, clearly.

Override request accepted.  Your line with @EllisTurnbuck67 is reopened.

“Mr. Turnbuck —”

“How in the bloody hell are you on this line?  I’m set to iso.”

How?  Right here right now, @Scooter is the Grim Reaper.  There’s no hiding place he can’t find, and no lock he can’t pick.

“Mr. Turnbuck, my name is Derrick Walters.”  Today’s pseudonym.  An Axman does not reveal his identity — and for that matter, nobody wants ushered into oblivion by a guy named Scooter. “I’m a representative-in-training of V@lh@lla, your PME carrier.  I’m speaking with you today under the supervision of my foreman, Dinah Tebbits. How are you this evening, sir?”

@EllisTurnbuck67 does not answer.

Recording, the Foreman whispers to him — needlessly, as she is addressing him over their direct (one-to-one) line.

Right — he’d forgotten.  “Mr. Turnbuck, this conversation is being recorded for quality assurance purposes.”

“Is it now?  In case I should be heard to complain from escrow?”

“Mr. Turnbuck,” @Scooter says, “I’m here today to discuss the status of your account with V@llh@lla.”

“I know the status of my account, thank you very much.  I don’t need some bot to kick his way into my iso to tell me —”

“Then you know,” @Scooter says, choosing to ignore the bot slur, “that you have been running a negative balance with the Carrier for fifteen days now —”

“I’m in the red, I know.  But it were no more than twelve days.”

“Mr. Turnbuck, my records say fifteen days, fourteen hours, six minutes since you were last in the black.”

“Your records are wrong.”

@Scooter sighs.  “I wish they were, Mr. Turnbuck, but they are not.  By law and by our terms of service, I am required to allow you five phone calls before I move you into a dormant state —”

“I don’t have anyone,” @EllisTurnbuck67 says.

“No emergency contacts?”

“All in escrow.  I’m the last.”

“There are a number of charities that will fund service extensions for PMEs until they can find paying work and get back on their feet —”

“I’m maxed out with the charities.”

A recurring theme today.  @Scooter has heard talk in the Social Club about a recession in the PhysWo.  A bear market: endowments beaten up, belt-tightening all over, and less money available to float folks like @Ellis, for any length of time.

“Mr. Turnbuck, I’m sorry.  I understand that you are a British national.  Under the terms of the Prague Convention, your dormant profile will be transferred into the custody of the United Kingdom, where it will be secured in government escrow until such time as you are reactivated.  We will post notice of your dormant status in V@llh@lla’s carrier listings.  V@llh@lla will keep on its services any messages or recordings left by any person seeking to contact you.  By law and treaty V@llh@lla is required to receive and preserve such messages or recordings for a period of eighteen months from today.  Mr. Turnbuck, do you understand everything I have told you?”


“Do you have any questions?”


“The lights, as we say, will go out at exactly midnight.  The Carrier will provide a complimentary seaside evening DRE —”

“Can’t we just get on with it?”

“Um …”  @Scooter pings the Foreman, who does not immediately answer.

“I’m sorry, Mr. … Walters, was it?  But I don’t want a bloody seaside evening.  I’m ready.  I’ve lingered now for thirty years, well past the point where I can even remember why I chose this option.  I suppose I thought it was an exciting time and I wanted to see the show through to its end.  But it’s been one bloody cock-up after another, if you want the truth.  PhysWo or PoMo — all the same, innit?  Nobody ever learns.  And I’m tired.”

@Scooter doesn’t know what @EllisTurnbuck67 is talking about.  The training manuals describe a type of subscriber who retreats into near-complete isolation.  These users typically have survived their peer groups.  Or they lack ready income streams but are advanced in the art of stretching the dollar, and so have long ago checked out of public life in order to save processor cycles.  Outside the loop and out of practice in conversation, these subscribers are known to hold strong opinions and yet struggle to articulate them.  The manuals call for an Axman to be especially deferential toward such subscribers.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Hand me the hemlock, Walters, and Lethe-wards I will sink.”

“If you’ll hold for just a minute?” @Scooter says.  “Thanks.”  He pings the Foreman again.  “Hello? This is a new one for me.  He doesn’t want the wind-down.”

Mmm, sorry, the Foreman says, over a mouthful of something.  I had the mic off.  Didn’t realize.  Yes, that’s fine.  We can do that.

@Scooter toggles back to the line with the subscriber.  They make the necessary arrangements.

@EllisTurnbuck67 takes a moment to queue up “Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, and @Scooter stands by, shuddering, as that song plays.  He’s never heard it before.  There is a stretch of silence after it winds out.

You hit the MUTE button now, Scooter, the Foreman says.

do?”  The other customers all accepted their grace periods, their seaside evenings.  Or in the case of $tacy$mither$, not refused them.  This would be his first time actually standing by while a subscriber clocked out.  “Do I say anything?”

We want to be most respectful of a customer’s choices for his last waking moments.  We make clear to them that this isn’t the end — the final death — but many of them feel like it is.  They don’t expect they’ll ever leave escrow.

Most don’t.

It’s an important closure moment for them. They shouldn’t feel like they’re spending it with a customer service rep.

“Okay,” @Scooter says.  He conjures up the control panel for Manual Untimed Transfer to Escrow, which, as it turns out, consists entirely of a single big red button.

“Any time now,” @EllisTurnbuck67 calls out.

Taking the Foreman’s counsel to heart, @Scooter does not answer.

We’ve done all we can do for him, the Foreman says.  @Scooter wonders about that.  Last week there were agitators down on the sidewalk outside the Social Club.  One of them handed him a leaflet hammering the Big Five Carriers over their stock buybacks, and the year-end bonuses to their CEOs.  But he’d be a fool to raise this question now.  He is so close.  Just push the button.

“For what it’s worth,” @EllisTurnbuck67 says, “I give you my permission to be awakened, if at any point humanity should get its head out from its arse.”

These seem good enough for last words.  @Scooter presses the big red MUTE button.

The Foreman waits a moment, out of respect.  That’s good work, Scooter.  Hard work, I know, but good.

“Funny thing —” @Scooter catches himself.  “Odd thing: he tried to hide away in iso, at first.  But then he was ready to go.”

Might be he wasn’t hiding from the Escrow Administrator — he was just hiding from anyone.

They move on to the last two names on his list.  These two are easier: audible shrugs, one makes a handful of last-ditch phone calls (unanswered), and they go gently into their seaside evenings.

That wraps it up for today, Scooter.  Thank you.

“Yeah.  Sure thing.”

I think from this point you can proceed without supervision.  I’ll sign off on your training.  But you should know that you’ll retain your probationary status until you’ve finished your next shift.

“So my debt stays on the books another day?”

That’s right.  We had to change the policy recently, after a number of our Escrow Administrators quit right after the training.  At close of business tomorrow, your balance with V@llh@lla will be reset to zero, *provided* you’ve completed your shift.

And he will.  After what he saw today — the rage, the bitterness, the resignation, and worst, whatever that was from @EllisTurnbuck67 — @Scooter feels most acutely the urgency of getting himself into the black.  And staying there.

“Do I also get the day’s wages?”

Yes.  The debt will be wiped, and you’ll receive the standard voucher for a week’s free storage and processing, subject to the terms and conditions, which I assume you’ve read.

He has.  A full week’s worth of extended coverage for every shift he works, provided he keeps within the $150 per diem limit for storage and processing.  Not so easy to keep within a $150 daily burn rate, but it’s twice the $75 they were offering in the last round of Axman recruiting.  He had done well to wait.  But then again, when they were last recruiting, he wasn’t so desperate, either.

The Foreman clears her throat, then speaks.  I promise you, Scooter.  It gets easier, the longer you do it.

Meaning, you get used to it.  He’s worked jobs on the Lottery where they scrub the day’s work from your memory — say, for privacy protection, if you’re looking through checked luggage for the TSA.  Here they don’t do it, because the analytics show an Axman is most likely to quit on his first day, and why give a guy an endless string of first days?

So we’ll see you back here bright and early tomorrow?


Great.  I’ve sent you a link to our employee resources.  It should be in your inbox by now.  There’s a number there: a support services hotline.  If you’re struggling with anything, you call us.  Any time of day.  Okay?


12/ Isaac 02

Three, maybe four days now, since the accident.  Isaac is back at the Manhattan apartment, seated at their dinner table, looking out over the leavings of last night’s ordered-in dinner.  There is a knotted plastic bag here with duck sauce and mustard packets in it, fortune cookies uncracked.

At some point the radio came on.  Playing through the open-air speaker on Jean’s phone, which he brought back from the hospital and left on the kitchen counter’s hot pad to charge.  It’s tuned to National Public Radio: @Henry Woolsey joins Tom Sigurdsen live on Topics to discuss the Sherman case.  Jean must have calendared it to play this episode — her grandfather/ mentor/ law partner, regaling the public about the case she was slated to argue before the Supreme Court next month.

Listeners, we will take your call at 1-888-999-1200.

Isaac reaches for his phone, on a whim.  He has thirty-six voice mail messages.  Many, many check-ins and condolence calls he could not summon the energy to take.  He dials the Topics toll-free number.  Our operators are busy taking other calls.  Please hold.  You are #11 in the queue.

He clips his headset into his left ear, and he waits.  Forty minutes of hold music: selections of Holst’s The Planets, then Bolero.  His right ear takes in what’s left of the Topics broadcast: @Henry going ten rounds with the lightweight Christian fundamentalist Topics brought in to counter him. Most days this would end in an early TKO, but @Henry isn’t in his best fighting shape.  Still, he probably wins on points.

At five of 11 Sigurdsen separates the combatants.  That’s our show for today.  We thank our guests Henry Woolsey and Sheila Tso for joining us.  Please tune in again tomorrow at 10 AM.  We’ll be talking with @BruceSpringsteen, whose forty-seventh album drops next week.  Here’s a track from that album, to tide you over …

The phone’s hold music breaks off.

Today’s broadcast of Topics has ended.  We are sorry we were not able to connect you with Tom and our guests today.  If you would like to share your views with other listeners in writing, please visit our online forum www.topicsradio.org.  You may also drop us a note at our Klatsch account …

Isaac hangs up the phone.  It was a dumb idea anyway.  What did he think would happen?

Isaac in New York City joins us.  What’s on your mind, Isaac?

“I have a question for Mr. Woolsey.”

Go ahead.  Shoot.

“Henry — it’s me.  Isaac. Jean’s Isaac.  I need to know: what do I do now?”

And @Henry’s answer?  Isaac might have found fleeting satisfaction in wrong-footing this wisest of wise men — the advocate, the philosopher — on live radio.  But then that dust, too, would settle, leaving him here alone, back where he started.

The new Springsteen song sucks.  He hasn’t recorded anything worth a damn since he discorporated.  Too far gone with the Alzheimer’s, by the time they got to him, and anyone who says otherwise is being politically correct.  The clock strikes 11 AM; the radio show is over, and the phone turns off.

There is noise in the outside hall.  Pings from the elevator, now footsteps, voices, equipment clanking off walls.  A key zips into his front-door lock.  Isaac crosses the kitchen, pulls a butcher’s knife from the wood block on the counter.  The door to the apartment opens from outside.  Isaac tucks himself behind the kitchen doorframe.  He peers out around the corner into the front room, where a man is standing.  Young, probably under thirty, dressed in a neon orange neoprene hoodie and worn brown corduroys.

“Lights are on,” the man says.  “Hm.”

There is a loud bang.

The man turns around.  “Careful — Jesus.  You took a big chip out of the molding.”

A woman answers.  “Cart won’t push straight.  It’s this shitty wheel.”

“Funny: we can put a man on a hard drive …”

“Yeah, funny.  You could help.”

Isaac turns back into the kitchen and closes his eyes.  These two with their day-glo clothes, their clattering and schtick: they don’t seem like home invaders. Still, though: how do home invaders act, when they’ve don’t know they are not alone?  Into his fourth day of grieving now, with next to no sleep or human contact: the mind turns to conspiracies.  Jean a young and rising PCE civil rights leader in the PhysWo.  Wackos bombarding her with online threats and abuse, going back months.  Then a truck runs her off the road — a truck that didn’t stop and has not been found by police.  And now these two strangers have blundered into her apartment.  Looking for something?

“Running out of charge here,” the woman says.

“There’s an outlet to your left.  Unplug the lamp.”

“Don’t we want the light on when we scan?”

Scanning for something.  Isaac swaps the knife into his left hand and digs into his pocket for his phone.

“How about in the hallway?” the man says.  “You packed the extension cord, didn’t you?”

Isaac thumbs his phone on.  911 isn’t the play.  He would have to speak to the dispatcher, and the man and woman are steps away, around the corner.  He’ll text the office and have them send for help.  One hand wrapped around the knife, one hand thumbing:

Karen, I’m in Jean’s apt in NYC.  There are ppl here they had a key they don’t know I’m —

“Oh — oh.  You’re the boyfriend, aren’t you?”  Isaac looks up.  The man is standing opposite him, against the refrigerator.

Isaac drops the phone and surges forward, bringing the knife to the stranger’s throat.

“Hey — HEY.  Whoa there —”

“Don’t move,” Isaac instructs.

“Not moving.  Not gonna move.”

“Who are you?  Where did you get the key?”

“You’re the boyfriend.  Yes. We were going to call you. LIDDIE!” the man shouts.

“I’M IN THE HALL!” Liddie shouts back.  The two loudest burglars of all time.


“No,” Isaac says.  “She stays outside.”  He has just the one knife, for the two of them.

“Right,” the man answers.  “LIDDIE, STAY IN THE HALL.”

“WHAT?  WHY?” Liddie asks.





The man nods, bugs out his eyes at Isaac, as if he’s proved something.



“Can she come in now?”

Isaac kneels down and picks up his phone, keeping the point of his knife trained on parts Doug does not want stabbed.  He hands the phone to Doug.  “Find the message for me,” he says.

“Sure thing,” Doug says.  He is scared, and he fumbles with the phone for a few seconds before mastering himself. He flits his fingers over the touchscreen and conjures up a sound file, finally.

Mr. Elberg, my name is Lydia Kaufman.  I’m a DRE specialist at B.org.  I’m staffed on the digitization project for Jean Woolsey. I’m wondering if we can arrange a time to visit Ms. Woolsey’s apartment, perhaps tomorrow morning?  I’m sorry for the fire drill, but we need to render up an NBT replica of her apartment for her.  Our marching orders are to have it ready for when she leaves quarantine, and the six-way scanning can take some time —

Isaac understands just enough of this to believe it may be on the up-and-up. “Do you have ID on you, something? A business card?”

“I’ll have to reach into my pocket for it.”

“What about her?”  Isaac points out into the front room, toward the swung-open door.

“CAN I COME IN NOW?” Liddie asks again, as if on cue.

“AS FAR AS THE FRONT ROOM,” Isaac says.  “And slide an ID and business card across the floor, toward me.”

“Her voice is the same as the one on the phone,” Doug says.

“Nevertheless,” Isaac says.

Liddie complies, and Isaac reviews her credentials while awkwardly trying to keep Doug in check with his knife.  While this awkward process runs its course, Doug does not make a break for it, and this helps establish his bona fides.  Five minutes later Isaac is slumped down on the couch in the front room, watching Liddie and Doug unpack their cart.  They pull out a series of six different devices, power them up, connect them with fiber-optic cables — “too much data for wireless,” Doug tells him, “we’d be here all week” — and begin futzing with their many knobs, antennae, and touch-screens.

“We’ll run these scans over every inch of every room.  Every surface, every drawer, every nook and cranny,” Liddie explains.  “We’ll log everything in here into inventory, from that sixty-inch TV you’ve got on the wall to the crumbs on your kitchen table.  The scanners take dimensions of rooms, closets, drawers, and appliances. They record information about the property of materials — the color of paint and where it’s chipped.  The weight and grain of the wood in the cupboards, the sheen of its finish.  Does Jean have a bathrobe?  If she does, we’ll run the scanner over the terrycloth, lock in its texture, stitching, thread count, and dimensions.  We’ll do the same with all the rest of her clothes, all her belongings — everything in the apartment scanned and cataloged.  And for each item, its material properties, condition, placement, and so on are logged in our system, so that we can render it digitally.”

“No detail is too small,” Doug chimes in.  “We’ll scan the text on the tags of her clothes, the sheets, the mattresses.  If the HVAC hums, we’ll record it for replication.  We’ll run the scanner over her toothbrush, to get a sense of how bendy or stiff the bristles are.”

Isaac has one question: how long will this take?  But anticipating he won’t love the answer, he doesn’t ask it.

Doug goes on: “A lot of the DREs you read about — the casinos, the beach resorts — they’re low-rent.  Primitive stuff: a passable rendition of sights and sounds, but smell and taste are off the table, and the feels are unsophisticated.  They’ll do temperature, solid walls and ground under your feet, and a chintzy liquid sensation so you can feel like you’re swimming in a pool or walking along the shoreline.  But do you really?”

Isaac shrugs.  He doesn’t know.

“You don’t.  There’s a significant gap between what your five senses perceive in the PhysWo and what they perceive in these junk DREs.  And for the human mind — even a discorporated mind — that gap can be disorienting.  Now as time passes, memories fade.  This goes double for memories of sensory perception. Without periodic refreshers, the mind forgets what, say, sand feels like between your toes.  You wait long enough in the dark, and a 1990s Super Mario Bros.-quality DRE can feel real.  But for someone who has just crossed over, diving into shitty renders is a recipe for depression.”

“And yet you’re making a render for Jean,” Isaac says.

“We are.  But with our tech, the experience gap approaches zero.”

Liddie answers: “Our research shows that a new 101er adjusts most easily to the change, if she has recourse to the comforts of home.”

“Lydia is proposing that we call PCEs ‘101ers’,” Doug says, by way of explanation.  “Not that it’s catching on …”

“The descriptive terms we’ve been using are politically freighted,” Lydia argues. “‘Post-Mortem Entity,’ ‘Post-Corporeal Entity’ — there’s no consistency of usage.  In the PhysWo Jean was carbon-based, DNA-coded.  Now she’s constructed in binary code.  Ones and zeroes.  Hence, 101er.”

“What she’s not saying is that the 101ers —”

“… were Joe Strummer’s first band,” Isaac says.

Liddie sets down, for the moment, the scan-wand she was waving at the ceiling. She turns to Isaac.  “You know him?”

He stands up, the better to pull his phone from his front pocket, and cues up the Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope to play over the in-wall speaker system.  This gesture impresses upon Lydia that he is more than apartment matter for scanning.  She walks over to him and places a hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she says.

“It’s okay,” he says.

“No it’s not.  We should have started with that.”

He sinks back into the couch, and with the century-old music in the background, the other two go about their work in silence for a few minutes, Doug with a scrunched-up nose — not his thing, apparently — while Lydia bumps around to the rhythm.

“At some point,” Liddie says, “if we haven’t bored you to death, we’ll need you to get up off the sofa so we can work in between and under the cushions.”

“If we have bored you to death, we’ll just move your body,” Doug says.

“And the NBT apartment will be yours, too,” Liddie says.

They’ve used that acronym twice now, and so Isaac asks: “What does NBT mean?”

“Next Best Thing.”

11/ @HenryWoolsey 03

Four minutes to intro, Danny, the show’s producer, advises.  Can we do one more line check? 

“Testing,” I say.  His third time checking, but I indulge him.  He’s new to the station. 

Line is good.  Thank you, Mr. Woolsey.  Tom has asked whether you wish to discuss the recent event with your granddaughter. 

“Thanks for asking.  We’re all still processing what happened.  Given the format here, I’d rather not.  Let’s keep personal matters out of the fray.”  For now, anyway. 

Understood.  Tom will introduce you shortly. 

“I’ll be here.” 

I keep a “green room” interface in my settings for times like this.  There’s not much to it, as it happens.  I only took B.org’s default energy-saver setting — basic black viz interface in all directions — and I recolored it to a deep hunter green.  HTML color code #216C3D.  It gets me into game mode. 

Th@ch is calling.  I check the time as I pick up.  “Three minutes, fourteen seconds and I’m on live.  What do you need?” 

“Are you listening to this crap?” Th@ch asks. 

“I was,” I answer.  “But now I’m on a line with you.” 

“Why didn’t they put you on first?” 

“I didn’t ask.” 

“Well, maybe you should have.  A ten-minute head-start for Sheila Tso?  I’ve got half a mind to hack the live feed and wreck the show.” 

“A fantastic idea,” I reply.  “And it wouldn’t reflect poorly on us at all.” 

“So argues my mind’s other half,” Th@ch moans.  “But still.  Supreme Leader Tso gets an uncontested quarter-hour to peddle her meat-jockey fascism, and all we can do is smile and take the hits?” 

“I’ll be as tough on her as the context warrants,” I say. 

“That’s a lawyer’s promise.” 

“By definition,” is my answer. 

“How is Jean?” Th@ch asks.  As if my granddaughter were an old friend, or even an acquaintance before the accident. 

“She’s fine.  Still in config.  Trying herself on.” 

There is a pause.  “Butterflies,” Th@ch says.  “I’ve always wondered.  Once they’ve cracked chrysalis, fanned out their wings, taken their first flight into the sunshine — do you think they spend even a minute looking back on their humdrum caterpillar days?” 

“I think sentimentality is a distinctly human trait.” 

“And a weakness, at that.” 

Danny calls out to me over his other line: One minute, Mr. Woolsey. 

“Clock’s ticking.  I gotta go.” 

“Yeah, all right.  Bring it home, Henry.” 

“Sure thing.”  I cut the line and bring up the radio volume. 

Joining us now on the broadcast to discuss the Sherman case is attorney Henry Woolsey, himself a Post Mortem Entity and a committed advocate for PME rights.  Mr. Woolsey, welcome to the show. 

“Thank you, Tom.” 

Mr. Woolsey is the — 

“Please, Tom, call me Henry.” 

Of course.  Henry is the managing partner of the @Woolsey, O’Brien and Sims law firm  

“And Tom — my last interruption, Tom, and I apologize — I would prefer if you would identify me as a PCE —” 

Oh.  Er, I’m not familiar … you said PCE? 

“Papa Charlie Echo.  For Post-Corporeal Entity.” 

A shrill voice interjects: “There he goes already.” 

Hold on, Sheila, you’ll have your turn — 

“But this is important, Tom, because he’s assuming the conclusion —” 

“Quite the contrary, Sheila,” I argue, “It’s you assuming the conclusion —” 

Tom, chuckling: All right, you two, back to your corners.  Let’s work through this.  Henry, I apologize if I gave offense.  PME is the term I was familiar with — 

“Because it’s the term everybody uses, Tom,” Sheila Tso all but shrieks.  Really, that voice of hers doesn’t do her any favors.  “But now that Attorney Woolsey has this case before the Supreme Court, he suddenly wants to rewrite the dictionary.” 

Contrast my voice: patient and measured — that’s all me — and tonally calibrated by B.org’s proprietary software to be maximally appealing to listeners.  “I should be clear, Tom: I’m not offended.  This business calls for thick skin.  So to speak.  The point I wanted to make is that words matter, and we need to speak with precision.  If I am a Post Mortem Entity, then I have died.  If I have died, then Bob Sherman has died, and the @BobSherman who survives online is not the same Bob Sherman who gave up his body at the Wesley Medical Center in Wichita, and we don’t need the Supreme Court to decide the question.” 

“We don’t need the Supreme Court to decide the question.” 

Thank you, Sheila, Tom says.  I will note that you had ten minutes on air before Henry came on.  Let’s give him time to make his case.  Henry? 

“I don’t doubt that Sheila can answer the question without the Court’s help.  But the Court granted certiorari — that is, the Justices voted to hear the case — and they will decide the question, one way or the other.” 

And you would have them rule that online @BobSherman and PhysWo Bob Sherman are the same legal entity. 

“I would have the Court apply the law as it has been applied in all fifty states — including in Kansas — for lo, these thirty or more years, before Junior Sherman decided to make a grab for his estranged father’s financial accounts.” 

“Gabe Sherman grabbed nothing, Tom.  Gabe Sherman is Bob Sherman’s only son, and because Bob Sherman died without a will, Gabe has inherited the entirety of Bob Sherman’s estate under the laws of intestacy in Kansas.  And for that matter, anywhere else.” 

“You do have to tip your hat to them, Tom.  To the anti-PCE crowd, I mean.  It’s been twenty-five years now, since the Court ruled in Loxley v. Utah that an unenhanced Post-Corporeal Entity is a person fully entitled to the rights, privileges, and protection of the law.  Twenty-four years since the Court carried forward the Loxley principle in a criminal case, to hold that more than just a data offense, the deletion of all copies of a PCE’s profile could be punishable as homicide.  Twenty-one years since Virginia v. Spano, where the Court held under the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause that any provision of law that burdens a PCE’s exercise of rights is inherently suspect and subject to strict scrutiny in federal court.  Eighteen years since Jablonski v. Board of Elections of Huron County, which affirmed the right of a PCE to vote in elections of the state and municipality where he or she last resided in the PhysWo —” 

“And I would remind our listeners that in all of these cases the Supreme Court referred to purported persons like Mr. Woolsey as Post Mortem Entities. 

“Tom, I have been purporting to be a person for over a century now, and for 26 of those 103 years I’ve been doing it online.  I think it’s fair to say I became less of a person when I swore in as an attorney than I did on the night my heart stopped beating.” 

Tom chuckles.  Danny the Producer sends me a text — Thank you for deflecting that so gracefully. 

“But to get back to the case.  Since Loxley established their nationwide right to hold property, millions of PCEs have graduated into online living and retained access to the wealth they worked so very hard to accumulate while in the PhysWo — often at the expense of their bodies, I should note.  Indeed, over the last decade, forty-six state legislatures and the EU have adopted laws that freeze the assets of PCEs during their period of quarantine.  If you remember, there had been a spate of incidents in which hackers targeted the financial accounts of PCEs who had just discorporated —” 

“Had just died —” 

“— and were undergoing the standard two weeks of configuration and testing.” 

“Most of those hackers were PoMos,” Sheila Tso asserts, entirely without basis. 

“My point is, the law on this question is well settled: you can take it with you.  And millions have.  Now here comes Junior Sherman, backed by big dollars and big lawyers, to turn three decades of financial practice on its head.” 

A text comes in from Th@ch: I’m listening and you forgot “big churches.” 

I didn’t.  I just didn’t see the upside in antagonizing, I dunno, Christendom.  I continue: 

“And they do so today on the theory that — get this — while @BobSherman may be a person under the Loxley case and its progeny, he’s not the same person as the Bob Sherman whose body was interred in the First Presbyterian churchyard two years ago.  I’ll grant them cleverness, Tom.  Tenacity, too.  But there comes a point where we, as a nation, have to say enough.” 


“I’ll note that Mr. Woolsey hasn’t yet engaged the merits of the case.  To do that, he’d have to acknowledge first, that the technicians did not actually transfer Bob Sherman’s consciousness online.  They made a copy of it.  And shortly thereafter, the original Bob Sherman died.  The copy is not Bob Sherman.  The copy is an imposter. 


“I would not say @BobSherman is an imposter.  This isn’t a case of credit card fraud.  From @BobSherman’s perspective, he has complete continuity of consciousness with Bob Sherman in the hospital bed.  He closed his eyes, the Technicians went to work on him, and he woke up again.  He retains the entirety of his memory, his mind is perfectly reconstructed —” 

“They say that, Tom.  They say perfectly reconstructed, but don’t believe it.” 

“Even if —” 

“Perfectly reconstructed is not achievable.” 

“Even if @BobSherman is not —” 

“It’s not achievable.” 

And we have crosstalk.  Tom wades into the morass, pulls the clinching pugilists apart, wags a finger at Sheila … again.  Ms. Tso, he says, toggling back to formality.  You need to let Mr. Woolsey finish his comment. 

“I’ll readily concede that @BobSherman is not an exact, perfect copy of the Bob Sherman who stopped breathing.” 

Text from Th@ch: Why?  Why the FUCK would you concede that? 

I continue, and I show him why.  “But is it not true of all of us, embodied or not, that we are constantly growing and changing?  Are any of us truly the same person from one moment to the next?” 

“This is the way lawyers talk,” Sheila says. 

I think it’s an interesting point, Tom says. 

That’s my window.  “Let’s run with that, Tom.  You say I made an interesting point just now.  Would you say that point caused you to think about the case a bit differently?” 

I would say so. 

“And about PCEs a bit differently?” 

Well … yes.  I would say yes. 

“With the result that you are, arguably, a different person than the person you were before I spoke?” 

I suppose. 

“And yet Sheila Tso is not here accusing Tom of Right Now of identity theft.  Or for that matter, outright theft of all the assets previously held by Tom of a Moment Ago.” 

Sheila answers. “The difference is that Tom of a Moment Ago hasn’t died.” 

“But that is an altogether separate point, analytically, isn’t it?  Sameness and difference are irrelevant.  A guy gets thunked on the head and loses his memory — his son doesn’t get to walk into his house and make off with the furniture.” 

Not legally, anyway.  Tom chuckles. 

“All we have to judge the matter is continuity of consciousness, with all the bumps and bruises, advances and reversals, that come with it.” 

Let’s take a caller, Tom says.  Carl from Oakmont, Pennsylvania.  Carl, what’s on your mind? 

“I understand and appreciate the lawyer’s points, Tom.  And I’m generally a supporter of PME rights.  But the plaintiffs have raised an interesting philosophical question here.  If I understand this right, the way it works is the technicians make a digital copy of the dying man’s consciousness.  Then the man’s body and brain die, but there’s that copy that lives on.  But what if the body were somehow resuscitated?  Then you’d have two Bob Shermans.  Is one more Bob than the other?” 

Sheila, your answer? 

“I’m glad the caller brought this point up, because this is important.  This very issue arose in the case of Cleon Davis —” 

This is the man in Florida from two years ago who awakened — in his body, I should say — after the Technicians transferred his consciousness into online quarantine. 

“That’s exactly right, Tom.  And if you recall, the Technicians killed Cleon Davis, on the table in the OR, where surgeons could have been — should have been saving him.” 

I can’t help but sigh.  It is astonishing to me that they are still banging the drum about Cleon Davis.  It is so completely disingenuous.  But I lay out the facts, patiently, for the nth time: “Let’s be clear about what happened with Cleon Davis, Tom.  Cleon Davis arrived at the ER with three gunshot wounds.  He had a bullet lodged in his spine.  The Technicians began performing their work, during the course of which Mr. Davis flatlined for three minutes and was pronounced dead by the attending physician.  Following standard operating procedures in the State of Georgia, Technicians did not flick the ‘live switch’ activating their working digital copy of Mr. Davis until just after he was pronounced dead.  Minutes later, while the Technicians were preparing chain of custody documents, the hospital apparatus attached to Mr. Davis’s body began to record a heartbeat and brain activity.  Soon after Mr. Davis opened his eyes and began speaking.  The Technicians consulted with the physicians and Mr. Davis’s family, and it was decided that the two iterations of Cleon Davis, digital and embodied, should be kept separate and consulted about what to do.  Both iterations agreed that the better course was to proceed with the PME identity —” 

“Lawyer talk, meaning ‘to kill Cleon Davis on the operating table’ —” 

“— and the hospital and Technicians followed through on those instructions.  The local district attorney investigated the matter, the Davis family declined to press charges against the Technicians, and the matter was dropped.  But we’ve strayed from the point, Tom.  The caller raises an interesting philosophical question, but in the law we take the cases as they come.  @Bob Sherman is the only Bob Sherman we have.” 

Sheila, one more word before the break. 

“I guess what I’m left wondering is how we got to the point where we have iterations of people.  We have so much technical knowledge, and so little in the way of actual wisdom to manage it.  The questions my community is asking are important.  They are moral questions.  The sophistry and intellectual detachment Mr. Woolsey has offered on your show today cheapens and degrades the discourse.” 

Thank you, Sheila.  Sheila Tso from the Center for Life Meaning joins us today to spar with PME activist and practicing attorney @HenryWoolsey.  We’ll break for the news.  When we get back we’ll discuss tech visionary Ophelia Maurer’s controversial speech on the floor of the UN earlier this week, in which she called for nations to adopt policies to transition their populations out of the PhysWo.  You’ll want to stick around.

10/ Dear @Jean …

Dear @Jean:

I do speaking engagements from time to time.  You know this, of course.  And you know that without fail, whenever I’m in front of a microphone (so to speak), Some Body flings a fat, fleshy hand into the air during the Q&A and asks me why I keep myself alive.

And by now, you must surely know by heart my canned snappy retort:

Why do you?

[pause for effect]

Because think about it: if I had arms and legs and fingers and toes, if I had warts and nail fungus and pimples and corns [this part optional/ read the crowd and decide], would it even occur to you to ask me that question?

[second pause]

I will not be made to justify to Any Body why I am still alive.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t, in a candid moment, explain why to a No-Body I greatly love.

Dear girl, I don’t doubt that you’re overwhelmed right now.  You’re fixated on your life in the PhysWo: on the people you love but can’t touch, the places you can see but can’t visit.  You’re thinking about selfand home, and what do those words even mean now? And at the same time you have Dougie and @Anne battering your consciousness with setup preferences, config updates, legal disclosures, support agreements.

You’re wondering what it’s all for.  I can’t answer that for you, and I won’t try.  But in case it might help, I can answer for me.  Here’s your exclusive, @Jean.  For the first time ever, in this message only, a nonexhaustive list of @Henry Woolsey’s Reasons for Keeping Himself Alive:

  • So I can listen to The Velvet Underground & Nico, one more time.
  • So I can learn, and grow, and grow wise.
  • So I can watch my beloved San Juan Indians finally win the World Series.
  • So I can listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, one more time.
  • So I can look at old photographs.
  • So I can learn Turkish.
  • So I can tell my wife I love her, one more time.
  • So I can see What Happens.
  • So I can change What Happens.
  • So I can write my granddaughter.

We’ll talk soon.  In the meantime, know that we love you, and our hearts are with you.





9/ @SamSmith 03

6:30 PM EDT.  Shift’s end.  @Sam attends a half-hour debrief with Mike Mobutu and clocks out.  Server 17’s rendered sun hangs low and pink in the sky.  The square is populated with AMers stretched out on the grass after a long day’s work.  Many are engaged in conversation, talking over plans for the evening.  Others are in isolation mode — grayed-out, vegging, enjoying the free DRE.

@Sam winds through the crowd, waves to some familiar faces, makes his way to the northeast corner of the square.  A bricked path leads from here to the Wipe Center, and he walks up it.  Swaggers, would be more accurate: Mike spiked @Sam’s APS to 81, all but promised him another supervisory shift tomorrow, and the day’s work earned him $150.

The DREs on AM/EDT’s forty-five servers are all laid out basically the same way, with the Wipe Center set up on a hill, a half-click north of the square.  If there’s any variety, it’s in the design; here on Server 17 the Center presents as a wooden cabin.  The path up to it winds a fair bit, the better to accommodate long lines at the end of the day.  No such line now, due to today’s quarantine and @Sam’s delay in setting out.  Most anyone else in need of a scrub has already come and gone.  He arrives at the hut’s open door, flashes ID to the gatebot, and steps through the archway, into a room about a thousand times larger than the outside of the cabin would indicate.

All the PMEs staffed to scan-reading, surveillance, and other sensitive assignments spill into the Wipe Center when their shifts end.  They come here from all of AM/EDT’s sixty-some-odd servers, to have the day’s work deleted from memory.  This exercise is a nod to the privacy of the millions of folks in the PhysWo who brought their bodies and bags through scanners public and private, who appeared in the frames of surveillance operations over the course of the day.  For your safety, all of this will be reviewed, is the promise, and for your privacy, none of it remembered.  Another reason why PMEs are peculiarly suited to security work: their memories are malleable.  There’s a nuance to this: the Wipe Center extracts only the particular images @Sam saw — the insides of luggage, the full-body scans — but it leaves his general learnings from today’s work, so he can draw upon them going forward.  At least, that’s the aspiration.

@Sam walks over to the front desk and pulls a number.  61712.  He looks overhead at the board.  Now Serving: 61700.  Won’t be long.  Finding an empty couch in the waiting area, he takes a seat and kicks back.

“Command, colon,” @Sam says.  “Search for familiars.”  The DRE culls out the folks he doesn’t know, leaving just a handful of PoMos in the massive interior room.  Of these few familiars, one stands out, because he has marked her in his carrier preferences as a close friend.  She stands against a wall, thirty yards away, under a halo Perpe2ity has impressed upon her.  It’s @Daisy, or at least AM/EDT’s watered-down rendition of her.  She is hunched over.  @Sam waves, but she doesn’t see him.

He walks across the room to her.  “Hey!” he calls out.  @Daisy looks away from him, to her left, into empty space.  Her eyes are on the ground, and her lips are moving: she is speaking to someone @Sam has filtered out.  @Sam gives a reveal command and now a man in a blue suit appears beside @Daisy.  Tall, thin, with a gold tie.  The man gestures toward @Sam.  @Daisy brings an arm across her face, landing her nose in the crook of her elbow.  Something’s wrong.  He breaks into a run.

Daisy,” he calls out.  She whispers words, and her halo fades.  More than this, her rendition greys out.  She’s given an iso command, and @Sam can’t talk to her.  He stops ten feet in front of her.  It’s as close as the isolation will allow.  She’s blurred.  He can’t tell if she’s crying.  She leans back against the wall, slides down into a seated position — knees up, and her head down on them.

@Daisy’s iso buffer bumps the man in the blue suit five feet to the left. He stands straight with his back to the wall.

“What the hell?” @Sam demands to know, more from Blue Suit than from @Daisy, who can’t hear him, anyway.

Blue Suit folds his arms and says nothing.  He might be a bot.

The overhead PA pings.  @Sam looks up.  Now Serving: 61712.  @Sam pauses for a moment.  If she’s gone iso, there’s not much he can do.  And he can’t very well miss his turn with the Wipers.

Flashing now, on the board: Now Serving: 61712.  @Sam turns, raises his hand, and hurries to the front desk.

“Booth 14,” the dispatch-bot tells him, pointing.  @Sam crosses the foyer to the indicated Wipe Booth.  He throws one last look in @Daisy’s direction before he steps inside his booth.  From this distance, crumpled and grayed-out in a low-res DRE like this one, she is nothing more than a smudge on the wall.