Authors: Robin Wasserman
“Where’s she staying?”
“Still in rehab,” Quinn said. “The luxurious accommodations where you and I began our own beautiful friendship.”
“So have you … talked to her?”
There was a pause. Long enough for me to imagine a whole series of unanswered calls and texts, unheard apologies, aborted visits. But maybe I was giving her too much credit.
“Ani’s old news,” Quinn said. “I’ve got better things to do. And that goes for this conversation, too.”
She hung up.
“Sure you don’t want me to come in with you?” Riley asked.
We stared up at the cement monolith.
I shook my head. “I’ll be fine.” Some lies were necessary, even kind.
The download and rehab facility sat at the heart of a hundred acres of carefully cultivated wilderness, hidden from prying org eyes and nosy BioMax investors alike. Its location wasn’t secret—but it was sixty miles away from the complex that housed BioMax’s corporate headquarters. That was a sculpted swirl of glass and steel molded into the corp logo, but its existence was largely symbolic, a concrete manifestation of BioMax’s presence in the world, to prove to anyone who saw it—on the network, at least—exactly how much power the corp wielded.
building, the faceless stone fortress, was the power itself. All the labs, the devices, the networks, the
brains that made BioMax the second largest biotech corp in the world, were here.
Also here: an icy storage room of lifeless, broken bodies awaiting disposal, their grinning skulls hollow as jack-o’-lanterns, their brains scooped out, sliced, scanned, tossed away. Down the hall a new machine, its eyes fluttering behind closed lids, its body rigid, wires feeding in and out of its exposed skull, monitors flashing, a family standing by, worrying, waiting. Or maybe no family, no visitors, just the
, about to wake up and discover what it meant to no longer be human. To be an it.
To be a skinner.
The thirteenth floor would be filled with them—though not as full as it had been a year ago, before public sentiment had turned so sharply against us. Download was now exclusively for the desperate. But I supposed those were in constant supply. Accident victims, sufferers of incurable diseases, they’d all be there,
, defective husk of a body traded for a model in full working condition. Twitchy mechs with spasmodic limbs, their brains learning to control the machine, their tongues learning to maneuver around porcelain teeth, their fake lungs forcing air through a fake larynx, mechs learning to walk and speak and pretend to smile. Every mech needed rehab, although it was a much shorter hell if you’d been there before and your downloaded brain had already formed the pathways needed to control a mechanical body. I hadn’t been back for more than a year, since I’d walked out, stiff and new but hopeful—
Expecting things to be like they’d been before.
I could understand why Riley wanted to wait outside.
“I shouldn’t blame her,” he said.
I didn’t argue, or agree. I could tell he was working up to something.
“But I guess I do,” he continued, after a long pause. “I get that she was mad, but to turn on him like that? After everything?”
Jude and Riley had met Ani in BioMax’s experimental facility when the three of them were selected for the first download procedures. The first
procedures, Jude would have reminded me. I could only imagine what he thought of me helping BioMax. Riley claimed to understand—that I was doing what was necessary. That you didn’t always get to choose your allies. But I hadn’t been there with the three of them; I didn’t know what had happened, or what BioMax had done to them. So I knew only what little I’d been told, and what I could guess from the unspoken promises and debts that had bound them together. Until Jude slept with Quinn and blew the whole thing apart.
“It wasn’t everything,” I reminded him. “It was after one specific thing.”
Riley scanned the distant windows, as if he could find Ani through the shaded glass. “One thing,” he said. “One time. It shouldn’t be the only thing that matters.”
There was a muffled sound, something that could have been “Come in,” so I did.
It wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Ani was sitting up, wearing normal clothes—which I took as a sign that she was past the days when a perky caretaker would roll her over every morning and dump her into shapeless BioMax sweats, maneuvering rigid limbs through armholes and legholes, resolutely ignoring any and all bare skin. She’d gotten enough control of her body to dress herself. When she saw me, her face didn’t move. Which meant either she hadn’t remastered her emotional responses—or she was choosing to keep them to herself.
“Who told you I was here?” she said.
“Quinn.” I waited for a wince that never came. Her face was empty.
“I didn’t want anyone to come,” she said. But she nodded at the bed. “You’re here. Might as well stay. Sit down.”
The room looked exactly like the one I’d had. Featureless white walls, but Ani had posted no pics to remind her of the people waiting for her in the outside world. Before, she’d been one of the most avid zoneheads I knew, taking pics of everything, posting them to all of our zones and guilting us into pretending we cared. But now there wasn’t even a ViM screen in sight. It was just the bed, the chair, the desk, and her. She sat so still, she could have been another piece of furniture.
“So, are you … doing okay?” I didn’t know what to say. But stupid seemed better than silent.
“Would you be?” she asked dully.
“For, you know. All this.”
“Why do people do that?”
“Apologize for crap they didn’t do. I’m the one who should be sorry, right?”
When I’d found her in the hidden lab, she’d been stretched out on a gurney, naked, her skull peeled back, her eyes staring at nothing, her lips forming a constant stream of nonsense syllables. Sloane and the others had been in the same condition—because of
, I reminded myself—but they’d long since been downloaded into new bodies. Only Ani had stayed trapped in the strange digital limbo, a fugue state that call-me-Ben had assured me was painless. Probably.
“So … how bad was it?” I asked. “Did it hurt?”
“Which part?” Her face twisted into a scornful un-Ani-like expression she could only have picked up from Quinn. “The Brotherhood experimenting on my brain? Or BioMax experimenting on my brain? Or dying all over again and coming back to life?”
“Any of it,” I said lamely. “All of it.”
“None of it,” Ani said. “Unfortunately.”
I didn’t ask what that meant.
“Last time I uploaded a backup was at Quinn’s estate,” she said, and I knew what
meant, at least: that when they’d rebooted her in a new body, they’d used Ani’s last stored memory. One
she’d uploaded before the ambush at the Brotherhood. “But they told me what happened. And I saw some stuff on the network.” Stuff like archived vids of Savona preaching while Sloane, Ty, and Brahm hung limply from wooden posts. While the camera flashed to Ani in the audience, Savona’s pet skinner.
“It’s weird,” she said. “Knowing you’ve done things that you can’t remember. It’s like,
I’d never do that—
but I did it. Didn’t I?”
“Yeah. You did.”
“Except it wasn’t me,” Ani said. “Just a copy of me. And now I’m a copy of a copy.”
“Don’t,” I warned her. If she started spouting Savona’s crap about how we were nothing more than computer programs deluded into thinking we were real, I didn’t know what I’d do, but it would end with her shutting up.
“It doesn’t matter.” Then, the ghost of a tentative smile, almost like the old days. A little shy, more than a little playful. “I watched your vidlife. It was … different.”
“The same, you mean,” I said. “As ridiculous as the rest of them.”
“I meant, different for you.”
“That was the point, I guess. Show the orgs we could be the same as them.”
“Acting something out doesn’t make it real.”
“We’re hoping the people who watch vidlifes are too dumb to figure that out.”
“I figured it out,” Ani said.
“Well … you know me.”
“Do I?” The last trace of the smile faded away. “I saw you with him.”
“Riley? He’s waiting outside, but he can come in if you want to see him—”
I knew she didn’t mean Riley.
“Have you heard from him?” I asked.
Ani shook her head. “What did he whisper to you?”
I shrugged. “Same old Jude. Everything’s need-to-know, right? And I guess I didn’t need to know anything.”
“Didn’t look that way,” she said.
“He said: ‘When you want to find me, I’ll be a mile past human sorrow, where nature rises again.’ Mean anything to you?”
“No. But then nothing he says means anything to me.”
I knew better than to antagonize her when I needed her help, but there was only so long I could keep pretending that Ani was the wronged party. “Look, I know he screwed up, but—”
“If you’re going to tell me it doesn’t matter, and it was a long time ago,
. Long time for you, maybe. For me it’s been a week.”
“No. I was going to tell you that if you wanted to get back at him, you should have done it. To
Sloane, the others, they didn’t do anything to you.”
There was a long silence. I waited to see what would come next, anger or acceptance. I suspected she didn’t know either, until she spoke.
“It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” she said, with a weak smile. “That’s what I said, when they told me. I thought they were lying. Then they showed me the vids.”
“They weren’t lying.”
“I remember wanting to hurt him,” she said. “And I knew how to do it. He doesn’t care about what happens to him. You can’t
anything to him that someone hasn’t already done. I needed something that would … I don’t know.”
Make him feel responsible.
Make him feel deceived. Betrayed. Lost.
Make him give up on trusting anyone, including himself.
She was right; she did know him.
“It was just an idea,” Ani said. “I didn’t think I would actually do it.”
I couldn’t imagine how strange it must be to wake up and learn you’d become a different person, somewhere in that dark space between one memory and the next. That you’d done the unthinkable, and you would never remember enough to know why.
Then again, maybe she was lucky: She got to forget.
“I’m not sorry,” she said.
I didn’t know how I was supposed to respond.
“You can’t be sorry for something you didn’t do,” she added.
“Not me,” she said. “Not really.”
I wondered whether she actually believed it. I could understand why she wanted to.
“Do you know what you’re going to do, when they let
you out of here?” I said. Small talk seemed the best defensive maneuver.
“Throw a party?” she said dryly.
“I mean, do you have anywhere to go? Because you could stay with me… .” I tried to picture that, Ani bunking in the doily-draped guest room Zo used as a dump site for discarded junk, the three of us gaming, shopping, giggling like it was a fifth-grade sleepover. “Or Riley has some space, and I know he’d—”
“I’m going back to the Brotherhood.”
She spoke slowly, enunciating for my benefit. “When I leave here, I’m going back to the Brotherhood of Man. Auden has agreed to take me back.”
“You’ve talked to—” I stopped myself. Auden was beside the point. “You can’t.”
“Actually, I can.”
us,” I told her. “They’re against our very existence. They’re trapped in an archaic, delusional, Dark Ages philosophy and can’t accept the fact that consciousness is transferable, humanity is fluid, that life isn’t defined by flesh and blood, it’s defined by our
, and our nature is human. They think—”
“Spare me the speech,” Ani said. “I’ve seen you on the network. I get it. But you don’t understand what the Brotherhood is about.”
“Oh, really? It’s not about ripping your head open and trying
to find a way to get rid of us? Because I was there, and I know what I saw. What they did to you.”
“That was Savona,” Ani said. “Auden’s in charge now, and he’s different. You, of all people, should know that.”
different,” I agreed. “
You, of all people,
should know that things change.”
“And the Brotherhood has,” she said, with a serenity I could only assume masked insanity, or at least severe delusion. “So have I.”
“Okay, tell me. What does this new and improved Brotherhood have to offer, besides self-hatred?”
“The Brotherhood of Man celebrates humanity in all its forms and services those who have been overlooked or forgotten by—”
the speech. I’ve seen the press release. What’s it got for
“I don’t know.” Ani wouldn’t look at me. “Maybe … absolution.”
“Everyone belongs somewhere,” she said. “They have to.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“So when is this joyous reunion taking place?” I asked finally.
“They say I can get out of here in another week.” She smiled. “You should go. I don’t want to fight. Not with you.”
I stood up. “Fine. But I’m coming back.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said, but she didn’t tell me not to, and that was at least a start.
I was almost out the door when she called my name, so softly that I almost thought I’d imagined it.
“I lied,” she said, louder. “Jude’s been texting. Once a day. I don’t write back.”
“But I don’t delete them.”
“One of the texts was for you,” she said. “If you ever showed up. I don’t know what made him think I would even read it.”
Maybe because he knows you, as much as you know him.
“It’s a zone,” she said, then scribbled something on a scrap of paper and gave it to me. It was nothing but a random scramble of letters and digits. “He says when you’re ready to see him, drop a text and he’ll meet you there.”