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.”

“Okay.”

“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:

“Jean?”

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.

“Jean?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Sure.”

“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.

“‘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 —

Cha-ching!

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.”>