“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.
“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.”
“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 —”