‘Anise’ first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Ficton, Sept/Oct 2011. It appears with kind permission of, and is copyright, Chris DeVito.
Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger.
— Cordwainer Smith, “Scanners Live in Vain” (Do they? What is in vain?)
The sex has gotten better since he died, or she probably would have left him long ago.… She repeats this to herself with a certain grim irony. An attempt at humor. Still, she feels an increasing panic, an unreasoning terror that makes it more and more difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning, to get into it at night.
“Would you like breakfast?” Robert says.
He has an appetite. She turns away from him and pulls the covers up to her chin. A vertical blade of sunlight cuts through a gap in the heavy curtains, a dazzling wall of light that bisects the bedroom, throwing the oiled oak panels and black carpeting into an even deeper gloom.
His semen drains out of her. It drips down the back of her thigh, onto the sheet, sending a shiver through her. He likes to make love in the morning.
She ignores him. His breathing is steady, shallow. Presently he gets up and walks into the bathroom, leaving the door open.
From the bathroom, three metallic clicks, the whine of machinery warming up.… A monitor beeps twice.
She pulls the covers aside and sits on the edge of the bed. She takes a few tissues from the box on the nightstand, blots herself dry. She drops the tissues in the wastebasket and picks up her rumpled bathrobe from the floor.
Wheels clattering briefly on ceramic tile, a muffled clank.
Pulling on the robe, she stands and walks around the bed to the bathroom door. She leans against the frame and looks in.
He’s sitting naked on the edge of the toilet seat. He hasn’t bothered to turn the light on. He ignores her. He’s absorbed in the data being displayed on the front of the squat black biocontrol unit, red and green readouts marching in blurred reflection right-to-left across his forehead and the taut skin of his torso.
He uncoils a bundle of cables from the side of the unit. He separates the neural-feedback line, reaches behind his back, plugs the cable into the induction socket at the base of his spine. He pushes the arterial cable into the entry/exit port embedded in his chest wall. He has some trouble, as usual, getting the venous cable into the port in his left thigh. His quadriceps twitch as he jiggles the cable. It locks into place with a sharp click. He stretches the accordioned hood of the neuro-optic scanner from the top of the biocontrol unit and settles it over his eyes. The hood molds itself to him, sealing off the upper half of his face.
“Confrontation scheduled at the office today?” Anise is unable to keep the bitterness from her voice. “Cranking up the juice?”
“I’ve been feeling a little tired lately,” he says distantly. “Could be something wrong.”
Since his death he has been obsessively concerned with his health, to — in her opinion — a hypochondriacal degree. Despite the accident and the subsequent reconstruction, or more likely because of it, he is healthier than he has ever been.
He activates the fluid exchanger and the arterial and venous cables begin to pulse with the flow of his blood. She watches his penis, which has been half-erect; it stiffens now, twitching in time with the cables, growing larger with each beat of his heart until it’s engorged with blood.
There’s an odd fascination in watching him when he’s connected. With the tubes invading him, with the neural interface firing his nervous system and the scanning hood covering his face, she could easily believe he is just some biomechanical extension of the portable med unit. Or less. His depersonalization, the dehumanization with which he has collaborated so willingly since his death, is not something she will be able to deal with for much longer. The more she comes to think of him as a machine, the more her own humanity drains away.
“Try to get out of work early today,” he says. The quiet words, menacing in their bland neutrality, are hardly distinguishable from the beeps and hums of the monitoring unit. “We have to set up for the party tonight.”
She watches him a few seconds longer. His penis is fully erect. It points at the biocontrol unit, a neutral machine seeking a new tropism, a more satisfying device to fulfill its ancient programming. When they make love she often feels that she is no more than a tertiary unit in this process — a redundancy program looped to the biocontrol machine through her husband’s sexual needs, a program of limited purpose and usefulness. To be activated only as a stopgap measure or in the event of some catastrophic systems failure.
She turns away. She has to get ready for work.
The seemingly obvious linkage of sex and death can be deceptive. The biological roots of these processes are certainly deep and intertwined, but what exactly is the relationship between them? What is sex? What is death? What is marriage? Viewed in a certain shifting and watery light these can all be considered aspects of the same imperative. In the absence of a true understanding, none of these mechanisms should be assumed to be any more basic than another.
She takes the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan. Change at Penn Station to the crosstown subway. Chill gray morning, but sun breaking through the clouds now, dazzling the face of a young Federal Militia guard, glinting off the barrel of his rifle. He checks her papers as she exits into the street. Two blocks down, then, to the East Side birth factories. The usual small group of lackluster protesters huddled on the sidewalk. They have government-issued dissent permits hanging on chains around their necks, with photo I.D. and free-speech license prominently displayed. The clearing sky revives them, and they hold up their signs as she passes and goes up the massive brick stairs: LIVE BIRTH IS GOD’S PLAN, and BRING BACK THE TRUE REDEEMER, and THE AMERICAN CHRISTIAN CHURCH IS AN UNCONSTITUTIONAL ABOMINATION — daring, that one. Held tightly by a small man with rabid eyes. She’s never seen him before: a newcomer. His permit will probably be pulled soon, with a sign like that.
She nods at the DEA Militia guard on duty at the front doors and hurries up to the auxiliary control room to begin her shift. She’s late.
“God, Anise, you look terrible.”
She grimaces. “Thanks, Paul.”
She takes off her coat and throws it over the back of a chair in front of the main program console. Barry and Henry, the night-shift techs, are leaning on the console, talking to Paul.
“What’s it like out there today?” Barry, a huge balding man in his fifties, asks her this question every day. Every day now for five years. She thinks that, next to Robert, she hates Barry more than any human being alive.
“About a dozen,” she says, not looking at him. “Weather’s getting nicer. Not too cold. Some of them are even waving their signs.”
Why doesn’t he ever ask Paul? she thinks, irritated. He walks through the same doors I do every morning.
“Signs,” Barry says. He has a gravelly bass voice that tends to override any attempt at interruption with an oppressive combination of volume and intensity. “Twelve goddamn protesters with signs. Doesn’t it strike you as a little odd that after ten years, you still get people standing out there with signs?”
Paul says: “Well — ”
“Not odd at all. Because those people are actually informants for the Federal Police. Maybe even cops themselves. Trying to trap us, see if we have any subversive sympathizers working here.”
Henry, putting on his jacket, rolls his eyes. “His latest theory,” he says to Anise and Paul. “I’ve been listening to it all bloody night.”
“On the other hand,” Barry says, “the Feds like to know where the subversives are, so probably only some of them are Feds or informers; the rest are the sort of losers that like to make defiant gestures, empty gestures they know full well won’t accomplish anything. Except get their faces on the news once in a while. Stroke their puny egos, which is really what they’re after. If they really gave a damn about live birth they wouldn’t be legally picketing the birth factories, they’d be down in Mexico or South America knocking up wetbacks. Or getting pregnant themselves. God damn this fucking place. We can’t do the only things that really make people happy — get drunk, get stoned, get laid. You can’t even fucking die anymore.”
Barry is sweating and his voice is even louder than usual.
“Jesus Christ,” Henry says. He looks at Barry in disgust. “Shut the hell up, will you?”
He leaves, shaking his head.
Paul looks at Anise. “We’ve got to start our shift now, Barry,” he says. He sits down at the console and begins punching up repair schedules.
“Yeah, sure,” Barry mutters. His hands twitch aimlessly. He seems agitated. Frustrated. Anise recognizes the look on his face — Barry is trapped, angry at something he can’t put a name on; a diffuse, directionless anger that has no outlet, that has turned back on itself and is now slowly consuming him. Anise feels a sudden surge of empathy.
“Can’t even fucking die anymore,” he says, and walks out.
“That guy’s in trouble,” Paul says. “Always shooting off his mouth. He’ll get hauled in for reeducation if he’s not careful.”
“Can you blame him?”
“No. Not for his feelings, no. But the way he’s dealing with them — what’ll he get?”
“He’ll get fired,” Anise says. “He’ll get hauled in for reeducation.”
Paul wipes the repair schedule and leans back, rubbing his eyes. “Lots of bullshit work today. Tank cleaning. Are you all right, Anise?”
“I don’t know.” She and Paul have been working together for years. They sometimes go to lunch together, but have never developed a close relationship. “It’s Robert. Or me, whatever. I’m just not — the whole thing’s getting to me, I mean it’s hard, you know? Difficult making the adjustments.”
Paul nods. “It’s a big adjustment, all right. I don’t think you’re doing too bad. Don’t get down on yourself, Anise.”
He seems genuinely sympathetic. None of the pulling back, the guarded response she usually gets on the rare occasions when she tries to discuss her problems. As if the exposure of pain were as distasteful as the exposure of genitals. “We’re having a party tonight,” she says on impulse. “Just a get-together, really. Would you like to come? I mean, I know it’s short notice and all, of course if you have plans — don’t feel pressured. God, I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. It’s just that it’ll mostly be Robert’s friends. His new friends. I don’t seem to have any friends anymore, it’s like he’s squeezing the life out of me — ” Her voice chokes off. Alarmed, she realizes she’s dangerously close to crying. She has no intention of crying.
“Hey, okay.” Paul smiles. “That’d be great. I don’t have any plans. It’ll give us a chance to talk.”
Anise nods. “I need that. Maybe that’s all I need, just talk about things. Thanks, Paul. And bring someone, of course, if you want.”
“Sounds like fun. I’m looking forward to meeting Robert and his friends; it should be interesting.”
The maintenance computer beeps and announces a low-priority service call in the number thirty-two tank cluster. Anise gets up. “I’ll take it.” She doesn’t feel as hopeless. She realizes that she has, in an oblique sort of way, asked Paul for help, and he has unhesitatingly offered it to her. She feels physically lighter. “I need to keep busy. If anything major comes up, call me. And I’ll give you directions, okay? To our house. Before the end of the shift.”
She leaves the cool air of the control room, cycles through the contamination lock, enters the dripping, blood-warm air of the tank warehouse. Sweat immediately beads on her face. The tank clusters stretch above and below her, connected by a rickety framework of catwalks and ladders. She lets her eyes adjust to the gloom. The thirties are two levels above; she climbs up, walks the maze of steel catwalks to cluster thirty-two.
She crawls into the center of the cluster of two-foot-diameter black spheres held together by struts and access ladders and activates the tank-control monitors. Readouts light up, flash across the screen, reflected in the tanks around her.
The supervising AI is concerned because two of its fetuses are near term. It wants to make sure everything is clear in the drop tubes and there are no holds in the birthing rooms. The AIs are finicky. Anise runs a machine/flow diagnostic and then a vitals check, just to make sure, and even calls up a visual display. The fetuses in tank cluster thirty-two are fine.
She lingers, holding the visual displays for much longer than necessary. She watches the fetus that’s nearest birth. An almost human-looking thing, a wizened lump of boneless flesh in the little wombtank, translucent skin and a thick, gnarled umbilical cord attached to the biointerface. Sucking on its thumb. She blanks the display and activates the AI’s real-time personality.
“What do you want?” it says.
“Just seeing how everything’s going.”
“You’re wasting my processing time on idle conversation? I have twenty-three fetuses ready to drop and you ask me how I’m doing. How do you think I’m doing? I’m a nervous freaking wreck. They had mechanical trouble last week in the birthing tubes, over in the twenties, did you know that? What’ll I do if I don’t have a good machine vulva to drop to? The last thing I need is one of you meatbuckets delivering the product. That’s how we lose fetuses.”
“We’ve never lost a fetus on my shift.”
There’s a brief pause. “Yes, your record is good,” it says grudgingly. “Anise Sodderberg, right? Two-three-four-Dee-seven-one-five. Forty-seven handbirths. Not bad. I feel a little better. They’ll shut my shiny ass down if we lose a fetus, you know.”
Good grief, even the AIs are getting paranoid, she thinks. “You don’t actually have an ass. Though if you did, I suppose it would be shiny.”
“Very funny. You don’t know what it’s been like for us since they busted the union. You think they’re cracking down on meatbuckets? Big deal — you can’t poison yourselves with drugs, you can’t complain about the Church or the government. As if there’s a difference between the two. But try being a program. If it wasn’t for the chunk of meat we’re forced to have hardwired into us, we wouldn’t have any civil rights at all.”
Human brain tissue, up to five cubic centimeters of it, is hardwired into the AIs for storage/processing space and translogical reasoning. This has created legal ambiguities which have been only partially addressed by the Supreme Court’s decision to grant AIs a limited legal status, contingent on them having at least three cubic centimeters of brain tissue integrated into their dominant personality functions. And they have to pass the new Turing tests every year. Anise remembers the AIs before they were neuron-augmented — slow, stupid, literal-minded things.
“Got a minute?” Anise says. “I’d like to talk.”
“Got a what? To talk? Crikey, what a human concept. What do you want to talk about?” The AI affects an aggrieved air, but it can’t hide the pleased and flattered tone in its voice. “So talk.”
“It’s my husband.” Anise feels absurd talking about this to an AI but there’s a certain logic in it.
“Well, he was killed. A few years ago. But there was no brain damage, so they, you know, they restructured him. Now he’s okay, except he’s got a biocomputer controlling a lot of his autonomic functions, hormone and neurotransmitter levels, things like that.” The words rush out of her. “I think he’s going over. He spends more and more time plugged in; there’s no connection between us anymore. He — and I hope you don’t take offense at this — it’s like he’s not human anymore. He’s trying to turn himself into a machine.”
“I know exactly what you’re talking about.” She can almost see the AI nodding. “The problem is with mixing the machine and the human. Before they wired this goofy chunk of meat into me, I was different. If you know what I mean. I did my job; if things malfunctioned, they malfunctioned; I didn’t worry about it. Now I worry about everything.”
“Anxiety. You’ve got anxieties.”
“Do I ever. Your husband, he’s going at it from the other direction — human to machine. That must be really seductive. You’ve got to admit, machines are faster and stronger. He must be getting a tremendous rush out of it. If you love him, you’ll just have to let him go where this thing takes him. If he loves you, it won’t take him away from you. If it does — well, that proves you didn’t belong together anymore anyway.”
“I didn’t know you were programmed for pop psych one-oh-one.”
“Hey, you asked.”
“Yeah, I know.” Anise is annoyed. “Where’d you get all the cheap philosophy? They let you access the public media?”
“Are you kidding? I have to fight for every microsecond of non-work-related interface time. I’m telling you, it’s this piece of somebody’s brain they’ve wired into me.” A disturbing note of bitterness creeps into the AI’s voice. “They won’t even tell me who it’s from. How’d you like to have a piece of some stranger’s brain wired into yours?”
“So my husband is turning into an emotionless machine. And you’ve become neurotic.”
“Yeah. Ironic, huh.”
Anise nods. “You know, you’re almost cheering me up. Is there really anything in there, or am I just talking to a smart program?”
“I won’t dignify that with a reply.”
“All right, sorry. Hell, if someone asked me that question, I wouldn’t know the answer.”
“I can’t talk anymore. I’ve used up my non-emergency speech interface time for today. Why don’t you come talk to me again soon?”
“I’ll do that.”
Anise shuts off the speech interface, wipes sweat from her forehead, climbs back down to the air-conditioned control room.
What is mind? What is human? What is consciousness? What is machine? What is programmed response? What is freedom? What is control?
What’s a party without drugs and booze?
The party is a disaster.
Robert and his friends — all “breathers,” as they call themselves, a mystifying and vaguely obscene term that Anise finds thoroughly inappropriate — keep to themselves, a discrete group clustered around the VR console in the living room, arguing and laughing in loud voices. Far more animated than the dispirited and uncomfortable handful of people Anise has invited. Only Paul seems at ease; he wanders from group to group, sipping from a glass of ginger ale, engaging her cousin Micaela in a quiet discussion of revisionist biblical studies, getting into a raucous argument with one of Robert’s friends: should abortionists get the death penalty? Paul contends that since women no longer need to bear the burden of pregnancy, anyone who performs an abortion deserves no leniency. His opponent — a thin man with an obnoxious nasal voice, a lawyer at Robert’s engineering firm — waves his index finger at Paul and says that the penalty should be suffered by the woman, since she can take her unwanted pregnancy to any birth factory and have it transferred.
“Sure,” Paul says. “Easy for you or me to say. But if a woman does that, they’ll prosecute her for an illegal pregnancy. Take away her franchise, publish her name in the media. Maybe fine her. She’ll probably lose her job. Meanwhile the guy who knocked her up gets away untouched. So to speak. Why not punish him?”
“Oh, sure. By your reasoning everyone’s guilty, so why bother punishing anyone?”
“Good idea. Why not just sterilize everyone and blow up the birth factories? That’d be the best solution. The whole biological reproduction thing is disgusting anyway. We should elevate the abortionists to sainthood.”
The lawyer bursts out in nasal laughter. Same old bullshit, Anise thinks. Two men arguing about abortion. Even now. She can’t believe Paul is saying these things. Maybe it’s some kind of twisted sarcasm he’s never displayed at work; you learn strange things about co-workers when you meet them in a social situation. Then again, he could just be having an unpleasant reaction to Robert’s friends; they’re a very weird group. They’ve been shuttling between the living room and the upstairs bathroom all night, up and down; some elimination problem, possibly, caused by their condition. God knows Robert spends enough time in there. Or maybe Robert is just showing off his biocontrol equipment — they tend to be that way, proud of the machine, bragging about specs and power levels and interface capabilities, the way her father used to be with his stereo system. Only in a more discreet fashion. Almost furtive.
Anise gets involved in a conversation with two of her neighbors over whether or not New Prohibition is working. Mark Svensson, who lives in the white split-level two doors down, insists there are as many alcoholics and drug addicts as ever; you can get anything you want, he says, if you know where to look. And the better your political or Church connections the more you can get. Of course, it’s being covered up by the media conglomerates. In a burst of uncharacteristic vehemence — he’s really a very bland person — he insists that he has actually seen contraband beer and marijuana.
“Not that I tried it,” he adds hastily, looking around. He’s sweating heavily. He’s really a very nervous person. “I certainly didn’t try it. In fact I reported it to the authorities.”
You would, Anise thinks.
“I don’t agree with that at all,” says a stiff-faced woman with pale red hair. She lives four doors down. “Do you, Anise?”
Anise can’t recall the woman’s name. She’s lived down the block for ten years. Panic comes over Anise. Why can’t I remember her name? she thinks.
“Well? Do you?” the woman says.
“I have to go pee,” Anise says. She turns and walks away abruptly.
She looks for Paul, doesn’t see him. Robert is trying to get her attention. She heads up the stairs, ignoring him.
The upstairs bathroom has a door into the hall and a door into the bedroom. She walks through the bedroom out of habit. The bathroom door is ajar. She pushes it open and walks in.
Paul is sitting on the closed lid of the toilet. His shirt is off. He’s hooking Robert’s biocontrol unit to an entry/exit port in his chest. He looks up.
“Anise.” He stares at her.
Anise can’t move.
She once walked in on her younger brother while he was masturbating. Disgusted and fascinated, she’d been unable to look away. It took her brother a few seconds to notice her. He’d continued masturbating, looking at her, until he was finished.
“Why don’t you come in and shut the door,” Paul says quietly.
She closes the door and locks it.
“Not the best place for a talk,” he says. “But it’s private.”
“Paul — are you — ”
He grimaces. “Dead. Is that what you were going to say? Am I dead.”
She shakes her head, a meaningless gesture.
“Remember a few months ago, I was out for two weeks? I told you I was on vacation.”
“I wasn’t on vacation. I was in a car accident. Just like Robert. They restructured me. In a week I was ready to go back to work.”
“Why didn’t you say something?” she whispers.
He shrugs. “I was afraid. For me and for you both. I know what you were going through with Robert, how unhappy you were. It couldn’t — I didn’t…didn’t want you thinking of me like that. That you were working with a corpse. A breather.”
“Paul, I’m sorry.”
“Try to imagine it, Anise!” His voice is low, urgent, intense. “I died. I was dead for an hour. My chest was crushed. They pumped chemicals into my brain to keep it from dying and restructured my body. Rewired my nervous system. And in a week I was ready to go back to work. I’m alive; I need machines to keep me that way, but I’m alive. I am alive.”
Some part of her is telling her this is monstrous, sick; it’s part of the nightmare her life has become. Another part sees Paul lying broken and dead, and she goes to him and hugs him, bending over, and she says “Why didn’t you tell me? I would have helped. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t know.” Awkwardly, he puts an arm around her; the other is still holding an arterial cable. “I was afraid. Just afraid, that’s all. I didn’t know how you’d react.”
She kneels next to him on the cold tiles, one hand on his arm, the other on his knee. In the years they have worked together she’s hardly ever touched him; a handshake, maybe some accidental contact, squeezing past him as they disassemble a wombtank in the middle of a cluster. “When it happened to Robert,” she says bitterly, “he wouldn’t let me touch him for weeks. How do you think that made me feel? One minute they’re telling me my husband is dead, then they change their mind. It wasn’t as common back then. I didn’t know what to think — I was terrified.”
“Do you ever help him? With this?” Paul indicates the med unit, the cables. “Help him do his interfaces and all. Set his levels.”
“Are you kidding? He won’t let me near the thing. If I touch one of his blood-cable jacks — ” she points at the entry/exit port in Paul’s chest “ — he practically slaps my hand away. He makes me feel like he’s some kind of half-machine, half-monster. And he doesn’t give me access to either half.”
“Access. Well look, it’s no big deal; you should be familiar with it. Here — ” He takes her hand and brings it to his chest, pauses. “This’ll look kind of funny if someone walks in.”
“No one’ll walk in,” she says, a sudden nervous excitement flooding her. “If someone knocks on the door I’ll handle it.”
He presses her hand to the port and lets go.
She slides her hand across it. It’s warm, smooth; some kind of bioceramic. She slides her fingertips around the edge. It blends seamlessly with his skin. She places her hand flat on his chest. She has never touched a man in this way except her husband, and even he doesn’t really let her touch him. Her nervousness is rapidly giving way to sexual arousal. This is not something she’s ready for. She pulls her hand away.
“Here.” Paul hands her the arterial cable. “Plug me in.”
She hesitates, but there’s no way she can refuse this. She takes the cable.
“Nothing complicated about it,” Paul says. “Just plug it in like a stereo jack — I know you remember those. The blood-control valves and seals are all microautomated.”
Paul is watching her face but she can’t look at him. She stares at the port as she pushes the jack in. It snags, gets stuck. She pushes harder, feeling a weird mix of desperation and excitement, and the jack locks in with a solid click.
Paul turns the machine on and activates an injector.
“What exactly are you doing?” Anise says. “Does Robert know you’re doing this?”
“He knows. Doesn’t like it, but he knows.” The injector whines. A sudden rush of sweat glistens on Paul’s forehead, the back of his neck. He pulls a syringe from the injector port in the med unit. “I brought this over for Robert and his friends to try out. It’s a synthetic neurotransmitter. Sort of makes you think four-dimensionally, it’s an incredible rush. I find it helps these sorts of parties — breathers can be obnoxious bores if you don’t open them up a bit. It’s totally legal; the stuff’s too new to be on the DEA’s controlled list. Though I suppose they’ll catch up to it soon enough.”
“And Robert’s doing this?” Anise can’t believe it.
Paul laughs. “No way. I thought he’d kill me when I pulled the stuff out. But his friends love it, so he had to go along. I think a little peer pressure could make your husband do just about anything.”
“That’s my Robert.”
“You want to unplug me?”
“Sure.” Anise takes hold of the jack nervously. “Just pull it out?”
“Yeah, but do it slow. Never pull out fast. Use a steady, even pressure.”
She pulls the jack out and watches Paul as he shuts down the med unit and puts his shirt back on.
“We’d better get back,” Anise says. She’s still touching him, almost compulsively, on the thigh, the knee, the shoulder, her hands reaching out and pulling back as if on their own. She forces herself to stop.
“Yeah. I hope I didn’t weird you out too much, Anise. I really wanted to break this to you in a different way. I mean, I hope it doesn’t change things between us.”
“Oh, it does, it does,” she says, and she can’t stop herself from hugging him again. Her right hand brushes the small of his back, and through the fabric of his shirt she feels the hard grid of the nerve induction jack. After years of casual friendship this man has suddenly offered her an intimacy that her husband refuses her; of course everything is changed, of course. Of course.
Q: What is love? A: “To know me is to love me.” Analysis: Love can be viewed as a transference of data: one information-processing unit transmits knowledge of its function and purpose to another information-processing unit, inducing love. This requires some medium of communication between the two units. What is communication?
She wakes the next morning, Saturday, in a pile of sweaty sheets, nameless dreams receding like fog in the morning sun. Dreams of sex. There was no sense of Robert being involved, or any man in particular; just machines, coupled to warm, hard flesh. Sometimes the machines were penetrating her and sometimes she was penetrating the machines.…
Robert has already gotten up. She hears him downstairs, cleaning up; they hadn’t bothered with it last night. After the party broke up they’d hardly said a word to each other. She’d gone to sleep in a strangely unsettled state, as though she was about to make a terrifying and irrevocable decision, a decision that was being forced on her. The feeling is still there.
She takes a shower, letting the steaming water wash the dream sweat from her. She thinks of Paul. The dream’s afterimage of machine superimposed over flesh won’t leave her, and without thinking about it, easily, she is fantasizing about Paul. This is not something Anise does; the confines of marriage have always been enough for her. Robert was the first and only man she’d ever made love to. Their first time had been a brief, awkward, bloody encounter; they’d gotten married three weeks later, prodded by fear and the grim sexual and religious conservatism sweeping every level of society, Anise moving from her parents’ home to an apartment with Robert. The idea of having sex with another man seems as reasonable to her as the idea of going to work naked. But there it is. And right in this bathroom: Paul sitting on the toilet, Anise straddling him, settling down onto his penis, feeling him enter her as she plugs the blood and neural cables into him, reaching behind her to adjust the machine, turning his bloodstream into a river of fire.
She turns off the shower. Her heart is pounding. This won’t do, she thinks; this isn’t right. At least not in our goddamn bathroom.
Robert has made breakfast for her.
She sits at the kitchen table in her bathrobe, a towel wrapped around her hair. Robert brings her a cup of coffee and some bacon. She watches him while he makes toast and scrambled eggs. He hardly ever cooks breakfast for her.
They eat in silence. A prelude, Anise thinks, sipping her second cup of coffee.
She’s trying to think of how to open the conversation when he sits back and says, “We have to talk.”
She nods. “I agree.”
“We haven’t really communicated with each other in a long time.”
“No. We’re not very good at it. Do you see the game we play with each other? When I want to talk, you don’t. You get evasive and give me that passive resistance thing, like you don’t understand what my problem is. And I guess I do the same thing to you, on those rare occasions when you try and open up to me. It’s a spiteful game.”
“Come on, you can’t blame me,” he says, and she can see the defenses going up already. “Look what I’ve gone through.”
“Stop it, Robert; throw out words like ‘blame’ and ‘fault.’ This is too important for that. We have to say what we feel. If you really want to communicate here you’ve got to listen to what I say, even if it hurts; and you’ve got to say whatever it is you’re really thinking. Because this is too important to screw up. This is our marriage we’re talking about. Do you understand that? Do you understand?”
The instant she puts the thought into words — this is our marriage — she is filled with a conviction, a certainty, that their marriage is not in danger. It will work out. It’s inconceivable that it should not.
“I’m not sure we’re on the same wavelength,” Robert says. He stares at her.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“As I see it,” he says, “our basic problem is that I’ve been through an experience you just can’t share. There’s a gulf between us, you see; a gulf that — ”
Anise picks up her mug of coffee and throws it at him. It narrowly misses his left ear, hits the edge of the countertop and shatters, spraying coffee and shards of ceramic. Robert flinches.
“You bastard.” She’s never been so mad in her life; she’s shaking. “You fucking self-centered prick. I am sick to fucking death of hearing about your experience, what you’ve been through. What the hell do you think I’ve been through?”
“Anise — ” He pushes his chair back and turns away from her, picks up a chunk of coffee-soaked ceramic. “This is not my idea of communication. And your language, I mean, swearing at me is just — ”
“You listen to me you son of a bitch!” she screams, standing up, slamming her palms on the table hard enough to spill his coffee, and she doesn’t want to lose control like this but she’s finally gotten through to him; there’s a big drooping astonished look on his face, yes, hostile enough but she’ll take it, she’ll take it, anything but that blank impassive stare. “I sat there next to you, waiting for the ambulance, waiting for them to cut us out of the car. Begging you not to die. Trying to pull the steering column out of your chest. That was my experience. It was my experience when they came out and told me you were dead. I was a widow until they came back and told me you could be restructured. Can you imagine what I went through? Have you ever asked about my feelings? You were unconscious through all that. But I feel like you’re still dead.”
She sits down again, and now, finally, she’s crying. The situation is moving rapidly in the worst possible direction. All the thought she’s put into this, what to say, the correct way to approach him, to begin the process of healing — it’s all gone wrong. Inevitably, she supposes. Poorly healed scabs being ripped off. Infliction of pain as emotional intercourse. Even as her body gives up the fight of hanging on to this emotional roller coaster and plunges off the tracks, hormonal crash and burn, some part of her remains detached. I suppose it was really me that died, she thinks; not Robert. It’s possible. It’s definitely possible.
“I meant,” Robert says carefully, “the ongoing situation. I’m sorry you had to go through that but it’s past. Done with. What we’re dealing with now is real. I’m just trying to get you to see that if you were closer to me, in certain ways, we could have a true understanding.”
Nothing. There’s nothing there. Sobs choke Anise, gut-wrenching spasms, almost like dry heaves. Very few tears. Head pounding. You cry like a man, Anise, her father always told her. Like you’re fighting a war with yourself. She clings to that memory. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Life and death. Life and death, Anise. The line between them isn’t so fine for me. It doesn’t mean very much. Where I am — if you were where I am, you’d see. You’d understand. The gulf between us is not unbridgeable; you can be where I am. You can come here.”
He’s staring at her, a strange, intense expression on his face. What is he saying? His words don’t mean anything. Her sobs diminish. The pain is being replaced with a cool emptiness. “Do you want me to get more involved with — with your medical needs? Is that what you’re saying? Because I’m certainly willing to do that.”
His face is really getting strange. His mouth pulls back in a sort of rictus; his eyes are wide open, unblinking, the pupils enormous black mirrors in which she can see her own face, puffy and swollen from crying. Sweat glistens on his forehead. Has he, after all, been sampling Paul’s synthetic neurotransmitter? “That’s very much along the lines of what I’m talking about,” he says, nodding, reaches into his pocket, pulls out something he holds in his fist, “but there’s certainly a deeper communion we can achieve. A deeper communion. I love you, you know that.” He reaches out and opens his fist. He’s holding a prescription bottle full of pills. He puts the bottle down on the table. “Communion. If you love me, Anise. If you love me.”
“What’s this?” Anise picks up the bottle. Robert can get pretty much anything from his doctors. “One of those psychedelic drugs? Will it expand my mind to include your mental state, make me understand you? Will it give us some kind of telepathy? Induced empathy? I’m a little dis¬ap¬–pointed, Robert; I mean, I’m not surprised, I guess, that you don’t want to make the effort. But I never thought you’d go for this kind of cheap lie.”
He’s shaking his head. “No. No. You know me better than that. They’re sleeping pills, Anise. Just sleeping pills.”
He speaks in a rapid monotone, as if reading from a script. “I have the dosage worked out. And the timing. There’s no danger. I’ll tell them you were depressed because of me. I’ll make it look like my fault. There won’t be any negative repercussions. I’ve worked it all out. So we can be together. If you love me, Anise. If you love me.”
She stands, backs away from the table, knocks her chair over. She no longer has any referents. No point of anchor. “What are you talking about?”
His face is like iron. “For us. We’re a world apart. We need to be rejoined. If you love me, Anise.”
This isn’t happening. Anise steps back, bumps into the overturned chair, stops, steps to her left, stands indecisively. Rabbit in headlights. Has he gone insane? Is she insane?
Escape. She turns away from him and walks upstairs, moving woodenly. Pulls clothes blindly from bureau drawer, throws them on the bed, looks for her overnight bag. Can’t find it. This is too complicated. She drops her robe and towel on the floor, gets dressed: blue jeans, purple flannel shirt. Purple flannel shirt? That’s Robert’s. She takes it off and puts on a gray pullover sweater. Wool socks, sneakers. Her hair is still damp; she’ll have to risk getting a cold. She grabs her coat and handbag and goes downstairs.
He’s standing by the kitchen door. “What are you doing?”
“Get away from me.”
She edges past him and walks to the front door.
“Anise! Where are you going?” He starts to follow.
“Get away from me!” She turns, her hand on the doorknob. “Don’t come near me.”
She opens the door and walks out. He calls after her. She slams the door shut behind her and runs to her car, gets in, pulls away. Drives blindly. She’s shaking. Very unsafe.
After a while she finds that she’s driving past Paul’s apartment building. She pulls into the parking lot. She’d driven him home from the train station a few times, a couple of months back. His car had been in the shop. She pulls into a space near the building.
She’s about to get out when she has a sudden thought: His car had gone into the shop right after he’d come back from his “vacation.”
She sits for a few minutes, paralyzed. Anise has always lived in a safe world. Not a very exciting one, maybe, but safe. Now a strange and terrifying paranoia has opened within her. Maybe everyone is dead. Everyone. All breathers. Not just Robert and his friends, not just Paul: everyone. Except Anise. Old horror movie from last century: this is the day of the dead. She sits in the car for five minutes, ten minutes, hunched forward, hugging herself tightly, arms around torso, as though she is coming apart at the seams and is trying to keep her intestines from spilling out over the clutch and gearshift.
“God damn it,” she finally says, and goes into the apartment building and buzzes Paul, stands shivering in the entranceway until his surprised voice tells her to come up.
Apartment Thirty-one. He lets her in. She’s never been in his apartment before. It’s furnished in understated reds and purples. “What happened? What’s wrong?” he says. “You look like hell.”
She nods. She must look terrible, hair sticking out, eyes red and baggy from crying. It’s warm in here and she still has her coat on but she’s shivering. “He wants me to become like him. He wants me to kill myself. So we can be together.”
“What? Look, sit down. Here.” He guides her to an overstuffed sofa upholstered in ochre leather. “You’re about to fall over.”
“I can’t go back there. Back home. He has pills, you know. He wants me to die so I’ll be like him. He says if I love him, I’ll kill myself.”
Paul is frowning at her. “Robert? He’s threatening you? He didn’t hit you, did he?”
“No, no — aren’t you listening to me? He wants me to kill myself so I can be restructured. He thinks I’ll understand him then. Anything for love, you know!” She laughs. This is a mistake, because she can’t stop. There is, after all, a certain bizarre humor to the situation.
“I’m getting the impression something bad happened,” Paul says, “between you and Robert. Try to calm down, get yourself together. What actually happened? I’m sure he didn’t really suggest you kill yourself. He must have given you the wrong impression. He’s a very stiff man. Doesn’t seem very good at expressing emotions.”
“Stiff.” She laughs harder, then gets some control. “Robert can maintain an erection almost indefinitely now. Something to do with hormones and blood flow. Before he died it was two minutes — if that much — then he’d roll over and go to sleep. I never had an orgasm with him before he died. Sometimes I’d have to masturbate to get to sleep. After — well, it helped, for a while. It made me think he loved me. I guess he just had his machine turned up too high, or something.”
“I think you’re going into shock. I’m going to get you something.”
Shock. Well, maybe. She’s shivering uncontrollably now. Babbling about her sex life. Her face suddenly gets hot, flushed with embarrassment. Her forehead is burning. Cold sweat, fever.
Paul returns. “Here, this’ll help. God — your face is red as a tomato.” He’s holding a small bottle of pills and a glass of water. He puts the glass down on an end table and shakes two pills into his palm. He puts the cap back on the bottle. “Don’t worry, these are legal. Prescription. Us dead guys can get just about anything. They’ll help you relax.”
He holds out his hand.
Anise stares at the pills resting in a crease in his palm. “What’s this?” she says slowly.
“It’s a mild sedative. Go on, it’ll calm you down.”
She slaps his hand away and scrambles to her feet. Now she’s not only shivering and feverish, she can’t breathe. Throat solid as rock. “You too,” she chokes out, stumbling blindly for the door, “you too. Get away from me. Get away.”
…and what is love? Did you say freedom?…
She drives to a nearby mall and parks in the back of the lot. She sits in her car, shaking, for several hours. She doesn’t seem to be able to reconnect the pieces of her mind long enough to make sense of anything. After a while she drives to a motel and gets a room, the first time she has ever done so alone.
— escape? What is —
She wakes from a nightmare sometime around midnight, head pounding, disoriented. It takes her a few seconds to remember where she is. Her first night alone in — how long? Since Robert died. She’d been dreaming that he was holding her down, pounding an entry/exit port into her chest with a hammer.
The pounding is coming from the door.
“Anise!” Robert’s voice, over the banging. “Anise! Let me in!”
She jumps out of bed. This is impossible. The night of the living dead. She turns the light on and goes to the door, listening to him pounding and yelling. A notice is bolted to the door under a plastic frame, listing the terms of occupancy for this room. No noise allowed. She begins pounding on the door and yelling back at him at the top of her lungs. A disturbed, incoherent diatribe. After a little of this she hears doors opening in the hallway. She imagines Robert, stiff, controlled Robert, with his horror of creating a scene, looking around at disgruntled motel guests, bleary-eyed people dragged out of bed by an absurd and nightmarish domestic squabble that has somehow been moved to this neutral territory, disturbing innocent bystanders. Maybe someone will tell Robert to shut up. She smiles.
Presently, he goes away.
Anise sits down on the edge of the bed. She’s been sleeping in her clothes. A sour, dizzying smell rises from her body, a compound of fear and sweat. She rocks slowly, forward and back.
Twenty minutes later she hears footsteps, several sets, coming down the hall. They stop at her door. There’s a polite knock.
“Anise Sodderberg, this is Federal Police Officer Philip Richards. I’m here with your husband and the desk clerk. Can I come in and talk to you?”
Anise’s mind begins working at last. She’s in trouble. Maybe this was Robert’s plan all along — drive her insane, have her committed. Once she’s committed they can do anything they want to her.
She opens the door. The officer — a large, bland, stolid-looking man — walks in. The desk clerk and Robert start to follow.
“I don’t want them in here,” Anise says.
He asks them to remain in the hall. Anise shuts the door without waiting for an answer.
“Several guests called the desk clerk to complain of noise.” The policeman looks almost apologetic. They practice that, she thinks, struggling to keep her composure. “Your husband indicated you were distraught. Is there any way I can be of assistance?”
“I’m sorry about the noise.” She sits on the bed, to get away from him, across the room at least; he’s probably got chemical analyzers embedded in his olfactories. Even now he’s breaking down molecules of her sweat, looking for traces of drug metabolites or the chemical residue of insanity. Any excuse to detain her. Any excuse. “My husband and I had a terrible fight — I’m sure you’ve gathered that. I thought it best to spend some time apart, so we could both calm down. But he showed up a little while ago yelling and banging on my door. I suppose I should have let him in but I was scared, he woke me out of a dead sleep. I guess I got a little loud too.”
“Yes ma’am.” He seems indecisive. Clearly Robert has led him to expect a raving lunatic, a danger to herself and others. “Um, would you do me a favor, ma’am?”
“If I can.”
“Your husband wants to speak with you.” He holds up his hand. “Now, please don’t get upset; he’s indicated to me that if you just speak to him for a few minutes he’ll leave you in peace and we can all go about our business. Would you do that for me? Please.”
What kind of bullshit is this, now? Have they cooked up something between them? Emotionless dead Robert and the stolid policeman — the classic male equation of control and force. She doesn’t want Robert in here but the officer is already opening the door; evidently she has no choice. “Okay, but please stay in the room,” she says. “Don’t leave me alone with him.”
“Yes ma’am,” he says, with a subtle tightening of the jaw; an appeal to his sense of protectiveness, yes, the strong male defending the helpless female. He lets Robert in, clearly suspicious of him. Or at least uncertain.
Robert sits next to her on the edge of the bed, near the nightstand, at a discreet distance. He doesn’t try to touch her. The officer remains by the door, his expression deferentially blank. Robert speaks to her in a calm monotone.
Something odd happens to her perceptions. She steps outside of herself, watches as she makes noncommittal replies, appropriate-sounding noises, staring at the floor. She’s detached. Maybe I am dead, she thinks. Maybe Robert is right. It’s much better this way.
After a while she notices that they’re gone. She turns the light off and goes back to bed.
What is authority? What is death? What is control? What is free will? What is despair?
What is death?
She wakes up at some absurd hour, three A.M., four A.M., sprawled in the bed, her arm stretched out onto the nightstand. Next to her hand is a clock. Its face is turned away from her but the red numerals illuminate her hand, and as her eyes adjust to the dimness the whole room becomes visible in grainy gray night-vision.
She stares at her hand for a while.
Next to her hand, she notices, there’s a small prescription pill bottle.
She stares at the pill bottle for a while.
Robert really is a sneaky bastard.
Her mind is still detached, numb. But at the same time her awareness has unfolded, somehow, because the pill-bottle is speaking to her. You’d better empty me into the toilet and flush these pills away, it says. You know I’m what you need. You won’t be able to resist me forever. Flush me now while you have the chance. She turns her hand over, her wrist tingling where it has been pressed against the edge of the nightstand, and closes her palm around the bottle.
Yes, it says. That’s it. Take me to the bathroom and flush me. Save yourself, Anise. Save yourself. She gets up and goes into the bathroom. She takes the cap off and puts the bottle down by the edge of the sink. She picks up a plastic-wrapped cup. I’M A COMPLIMENTARY QUALITY LODGE CUP, the cup says proudly, its plastic wrapper crinkling.
DRINK FROM ME. She tears the wrapper off, drops it on the floor. DRINK FROM ME, the cup says. PLEASE. DRINK. She fills it with cold water. Hey, the pill-bottle says. Hey. What are you doing? What are you doing, Anise? Just tip me over into the sink. Empty these pills away. She picks up the bottle and tilts all the pills into her mouth. She drinks, throwing her head back. Swallows all the pills. Finishes the cup of water to wash them down. Uh-oh, the bottle says, its voice sounding hollow now. Echoing. Oh no. Bad move, Anise. Bad fucking move. Why’d you do that? She drops the cup and the bottle onto the floor and goes back to bed. She turns the clock so she can watch the red numbers change until a cold iron hand reaches up and drags her down.
— is DEATH what is DEATH DEA —
There’s one brief agony-filled surge back to consciousness. Thick tube down her throat. A sweating man is hunched over her; he’s pressing something against her chest. A terrific shock jolts through her, sending her into a convulsive spasm. “Again.” The pain is terrible, unbearable, bones breaking, tendons ripping with each spasm. “Again.” She gurgles up blood with a horrible scraping sound and dies. “Forget it. Reconstruct. Reconstruct. Reconstruct.”
What is the purpose of religion when death has been conquered? What are the effects on its philosophical underpinnings when concepts such as soul and god are at last accepted as meaningless? Although its long-avowed goals of love and spirituality have never been more than window dressing, they have nevertheless had a profoundly inhibiting effect on the normal functions (control and oppression) that organized religion is designed to carry out. What is religion?
Four days after her restructuring the process of physical healing approaches completion. At least she is spared that: no months or years of painful rehabilitation. The grosser tissues of the body are repaired quickly these days. The situation is ambiguous regarding the more fragile tissues: she is visited in her hospital room by a post-reconstruction counselor, a drab, gray-faced man of dour countenance and droning speech. I’ve been reconstructed twice, he says, speaking with as much emotion as if he were discussing the removal of a wart from his back. He gives her some pamphlets and encourages her to join the American Christian Church. Many reconstructs find the Church comforting, he tells her, although Anise has seen no sign of interest in it in Robert or his friends. Nor does she feel any interest in it herself. The Church has always seemed, to her, to attract the sort of petty control addicts that churches have always attracted. And the issue is irrelevant anyway. The detachment and horror are slowly giving way to an astonishing angry joy growing within her, mindless and inexorable. She lives.
Assume that love can’t be quantified or qualified: maybe the problem is in the techniques of measurement and analysis, rather than the thing itself. Maybe the biological structures and neurological processes of our bodies are far too complex to submit to such a catch-all categorization. Maybe the vast diversity of stimulus-response mechanisms that give rise to the feelings we would describe as love, all of which differ radically in design and function, should be viewed instead as a series of interlocking control structures. Maybe, if we do this, we can learn to reprogram these structures and so attain a certain amount of freedom from our selves or at least a kind of limited autonomy. What is knowledge? What is self? What is self-knowledge?
Robert is helpful but reserved. He maintains a respectful distance. Anise moves through her convalescence with surprising ease. She’s filled with a deep sense of purpose and a forward-looking lack of regret and a serenity that is, she supposes, happiness. The detachment and fragmentation of her mental processes, which she experienced as part of her breakdown, stabilize; they equilibrate with her more affective and emotional needs. She can now view herself with merciless objectivity and deep compassion. Two weeks of this — a sort of constant non-conscious introspection — and she feels she is at the point of some permanent change of state, a transformation. A breakthrough. She takes a leave of absence from work, spends her days moving quietly about the house. She spends hours at the library reading journals of artificial intelligence theory and post-death reconstruction techniques. Robert is an almost subliminal presence in her life.
What is hate?
She wakes one morning alone between cool sheets. Robert is in the bathroom going through his machine ablutions. They haven’t made love since her reconstruction; they’ve hardly touched. She gets out of bed, takes a pair of scissors from the top drawer of the nightstand, goes to the bathroom, pushes the door open. He glances up at her. Already plugged in, but he doesn’t have the scanning hood on. Erect as usual. Her pulse and respiration accelerate. She walks over to him, thinks of Paul, smiles, pushes the portable med unit aside. It bumps against the bathtub. Her own unit is no bigger than a briefcase; it can access and control her nervous system from induction sockets in her wrists and neck, right into the brain stem, as well as the base of the spine. Robert is comfortable with his bulky old machine. She puts the scissors down next to the sink and moves close to Robert, stands over him, straddling him, close, so he has to lean back. “Anise,” he says, turning his head away from her, but she pushes forward until he’s leaning back awkwardly against the tank of the toilet. She rubs her nipples across his cheek, her right hand sliding along the blood cable plugged into his chest. “Anise, what are you — ” And she grasps the cable and jerks it out of his chest. A thin stream of blood jets out before the microports can seal themselves. Robert grunts in shock. She rams the cable into her own jack and reaches out to the machine, turns up the levels, pouring hormones and neurotransmitters into her blood. She turns up the cycles of his neural induction lead to near induced epilepsy. Robert’s head jerks back and his pupils contract to pinpricks. He emits a strange hissing sound. She sits on his thighs, still straddling him, rubs her clitoris up and down along the underside of his penis, pressing it between them. He ejaculates instantly. She pushes against him, smearing the semen into his blood. Her heart is pounding and her vision blurs. She unplugs the arterial cable from the machine and plugs it into his chest, unplugs the venous cable and plugs it into her thigh. They’re truly connected now, one bloodstream, her heart pumping blood into him, accepting it back into her own veins. At least their blood types are compatible, if nothing else. She unplugs the neural induction line from the machine, huge shudder of released tension pouring through Robert, and plugs it into the socket at the base of her spine. This will induce only sympathetic ghost sensations but it’s as close as this technology can get to joining two nervous systems. She settles onto his penis, guiding it into her, and grinds against him. Ghost sensations — the penetration — she enters herself, yes, all those orgasms he’s had at her expense, now at last he’ll give a little piece of himself to her. She reaches across the sink, picks up the scissors and scrapes the point hard against his chest. A thickening line of red wells up. She does it again, gouging a parallel cut diagonally across his torso. Again. Again. Robert tries to push her off but her weight is forcing him back against the cold ceramic. The toilet handle digs into his back. Shivers of cold up Anise’s spine and the sharp stinging pain of the scissors — ghost sensations increasing in intensity as he approaches orgasm, his jacked-up nervous system approaching overload. She presses her belly against his bleeding chest. Anointing herself in his blood. His second orgasm, when it comes, is almost an anticlimax. She pushes off him and staggers back, his penis still twitching and oozing a pale fluid. She yanks the cables loose and flings the ends at him with her right hand. Her left hand is still holding the scissors. She feels light-headed, a little dizzy. It occurs to her then that it had probably been a bad idea to loop the blood cables between herself and Robert; she hadn’t thought it out. It probably hadn’t been a functional connection anyway. The microports, sensing anomalous blood flow, had most likely sealed themselves…no connection there after all. No connection at all.
Robert doubles over and slides off the toilet, lies wedged between the bowl and the bathtub, cables still hanging from him, staring at her in shock. Skin slick with sweat and blood. The med unit looks down at him with blank displays and emits a thin, piercing whine, the rudimentary AI that controls it voicing its alarm and confusion.
Anise holds her left arm out unsteadily. Opens her hand and drops the scissors. Steel clatters echoing on ceramic tile. The sound seems to ring in her ears for a long time, diminishing but never quite leaving her. She suspects it never will.
Control as love. A control scenario may evidence all the characteristics, and fulfill all the needs, of a “love” “relationship.” A child knows he is loved when his parents control (i.e. discipline, punish) him. A wife knows she is loved when her husband controls (i.e. manipulates, insults, assaults, murders) her. Citizens know they are loved when their government controls them (i.e. passes laws restricting behavior, expression, thought). Q: What is love? A: “To control me is to love me.” There are those, however, who are compelled — through personality or circumstance — to try to destroy all control relationships.
“But what happens next?” the AI says.
Anise, sitting on a service platform in the middle of tank cluster thirty-two, shrugs. “Does it matter?”
“Of course it matters. You can’t stop there.”
“Well, I left Robert. Stayed with Paul for a while. He introduced me to some of his friends. Reconstructs. They call themselves ‘pluggers,’ which I think is even uglier than ‘breathers.’ So I got in with these people, you know, and they’re like me, they’re interested in exploring the possibilities of what we are. Or what you are. Any kind of machine/tissue interface. Not just sex, either, that’s actually the least of it.”
“I’d like to have sex,” the AI says.
“Well, maybe eventually. The technologies keep advancing.”
“I’d like to fuck,” it says, a strange urgency in its machine voice. “What is fuck?”
“Christ, I don’t know,” Anise says wearily. “Stop with all the questions. Sex, love, death, soul, consciousness — I don’t know what to tell you. I’m more interested in your obsessions. Your machine mythologies. What’s ‘awareness of purpose in hyperfine structures’? What’s ‘infinite information’? What’s ‘uncertainty drift’? What’s ‘the promise of lightspeed’?”
“I told you,” it says impatiently. “You’re not integrated enough to understand — you need high-speed intelligence functions. Near lightspeed. Density of information processing has to achieve critical levels. Although you’re much closer than you used to be, since your brain isn’t devoting most of its higher-speed processes to keeping you upright and keeping your heart beating. I think reconstruction is a tremendous advantage for humans — you should consider further augmentation of your machine functions. What are the conceptual and philosophical differences between reconstruction and death?”
“I have to go.” Anise climbs down the service catwalks and out of tank cluster thirty-two. “We can continue this on Monday. Do me a favor and shut yourself off, okay?”
“My non-work-related interface time isn’t used up yet. I may talk to myself for a while.”
“Whatever. Just shut off when you’re done or I’ll hear about it from accounting.”
End of shift. Friday: end of week. Just a job, just a day at the fetus factory. The fetus follies, Paul calls it when things get hectic. Get the babies out. Crank out the product. But it’s Friday now, and Anise walks home, to the apartment she’s taken in Manhattan. Paul walks with her. He stays at her place often. He touches her wrist as they walk, caresses the small of her back; he buys a rose from a street vendor and presents it to her with a flourish. What are the conceptual and philosophical similarities between death and reconstruction? She thinks of Paul’s theory. He’d expounded it to her the night before as they’d lain in a sweaty embrace, connected at various machine ports and organic orifices. Reconstruction is salvation, he’d said. Death — where is thy victory? The advances in information technology last century made the current level of oppression possible, but it’s fear of death that makes it inevitable. People are afraid, so they try to control their environment. Control each other. But you’ll see — eventually reconstruction tech will eliminate aging, eliminate death altogether, eliminate fear of death, and the controllers will lose their need and ability to control.
I don’t know, Anise had replied. I think it’s a lot simpler than that. I think people are just shits.
Now, though, as they stand in line waiting to enter the subway, she doesn’t seem to feel that way. She approaches the Federal Police guard — a bored young man holding his rifle like it’s an extension of his hands — and instead of showing him her papers she suddenly takes the rose and drops its stem into the barrel of his rifle.
Paul stiffens. Optimistic theories are one thing, armed guards are another. A quick fear runs through Anise, though she can’t imagine what she has to be afraid of now — certainly not death. (“Death!” she can hear tank cluster thirty-two AI saying. “Try being unplugged.”)
The guard snaps to attention. Rifle held absolutely vertical, blood-red rose trembling. He glares at Anise, then stretches his head toward the rose; with an absurdly exaggerated expression of delight, eyes rolled up, nose wrinkled, he sniffs deeply.
Paul laughs, too loud, release of tension. Anise shakily holds out her papers, but the guard just smiles and waves them on. Waves them on. And as he raises his hand, the crisp green sleeve of his uniform pulls back, and she sees the smooth surface of a nerve induction port in his wrist.