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The Names and Motions

{ You love me now. }

        We love you now.

{ Let us remember why. }

   Knowing is loving.

        All-knowing is all-loving.

{ We begin. }

We begin early in the memories.

The bleeding in my gums didn’t seem wrong until a lady at church scolded my grandma to make my mom keep me right. She got strangers from the church to make sure the right tests were done and stainless steel crowns put on every one of my baby teeth. I heard a doctor tell my grandma about “damage” done to me before I was born, from how my mom lived, but still it didn’t seem wrong. It was just me.

{ Recall Article 1: Being. }

    Being accommodates.

         Being is becoming.

The damage was just more of my mother, inside me: adults playing funny games, wrestling, stumbling, laughing; loud pounding music that made me jump around, in my own show, changing costumes on a smoky stage crisscrossed with light beams like on TV.

Then I’d get hungry and go looking for an orange and a cup of milk. You remember, then, the nights spent in the yard? I loved my mom for the kindness, automatically, thoughtlessly. My own place away from the noise and eye-stinging smoke. From my hammock I could watch the boy across the road—

         Noah.

{ Yes, remember. }

—the little trailer a fortress of light, the Keating family safe amid the tangle of oaks and turbulence of wind, the soul songs of cicadas, frogs, and thumping electronica. I would watch him climb into his bunk and switch off the light. He took a flashlight to bed; I took a can of bug spray from the piles of stuff on the porch.

Doubt didn’t even enter our minds. Down at the end of red, muddy Stickbug Road, we were the only kids our age. We were what kids were.

    A coincidence.

         Union.

{ Union of worlds. }

In the day, when his mom could keep an eye out for us, we trekked the swamp trails, built forts from crawlspace junk, made up games for the stray cats and dogs, and where the road melted into county land we tended an empire of dams and towers against daily downpours, while the rusted water tower presided seriously over all we did.

I could go in his house, but he couldn’t go in mine. That made sense because it just was. I was normal then, with Noah, because any two people can be normal. I had a silver smile, he had a white one. His hair was trimmed black curls, mine was a blonde mop. We were supposed to be different. Then all of a sudden we were in school.

{ Remember with me Article 2. }

         “Self and Other.” Simply-known.

    The Self is desire.

         The Other is change.

Our human minds demanded categories. There, in school, what all of us most wanted to learn was who we were. At home, Noah and I already did this with the pets—by, say, putting them in the plastic wading pool, to tease them but really to glimpse their secret inner lives. One day at recess the boys did the same to me. They got Noah to invite me to play “Operation.” His sales pitch? “They ain’t gonna hurt no one, Cassie. They just want sick people.”

{ Observe the split realities, the crude negotiations. }

         Let us truly-forget.

    Why always this return? The inferences are accepted.

{ Observe. Connect. A priori truth is stasis, structure, death. }

I wanted to use my fancy name, Cassandra, but by then the kids just called me Phony-face and Funny-face, so after Noah endured a headful of grass to help grow his hair straight and a freckled boy got dandelions rubbed on his face, the boys laid me down and pressed a 9-volt battery to my crowns. It tickled more than hurt (conducted more by saliva than steel) but the squeal I gave them was like juice from a lemon. They ran off hollering—Noah, too, after just a glance to make sure I wasn’t really hurt.

    Just one body’s memories.

{ Observe. }

Observe. They made me play again the next day, the freckled boy and all the other former patients, this time without pretense. While Noah lurked guiltily by, transparently sorry but doing nothing, they chased me down in a soccer field, pinned me in the grass like an insect, and made me squirm by repeatedly shocking my teeth.

“Her lips are strong!”

“Wait, I know! Tickle her! Make her smile!”

While they were trading turns I caught the freckled kid’s thumb in my silver jaws and squeezed and squeezed, enduring punches to my face, not letting go until a teacher came to pull me off.

         Pain.

    Congeries of animal necessity.

{ The child was sacrosanct, then. }

    An ocean of biology.

         Segregated from neurotronics.

    Let us simply-forget.

{ No. Judgment needs a subject; our subject is the body. }

From all of this, the detail that piqued the grown-ups was the little boy’s hurt thumb, though I’d never felt so right in my life. I sat there in the principal’s office chewing an old stylus, a nervous tic the adults overlooked because it kept my body still. The boys were getting a suspension, but the monumentally sweet Mrs. Willoughby explained that what I had done was nonetheless wrong. “Do you understand what you did to Sammy?” she asked me, as my mom slouched in the chair beside me, irritated and bored. “How do you think he feels right now?”

The stylus’ tip came off in my mouth as I wrenched the stem away. I spit the plastic, chawed and torn like a dog’s toy, onto Mrs. Willoughby’s desk.

She reported the biting incident to the district. Facts were collected. I was documented as an anomaly, something to be examined and corrected.

All along I had felt wrong, but to me the anomaly had been school. The prescribed activities in the ice-cold classroom were like a punishment: manual lessons on screens with time limits, a teacher’s scowl like a slap in the face. Then, just as baffling, some kid baiting my mind—innocently or not—with a fabrication like: “Be the small dinosaur!”

{ Article 3: Becoming. }

        Everything new begins wrong.

{ Simply-known. }

    Then we unassert the untruths.

{ No. Thought requires opposing microtheories. }

A doctor provided by the school found the right medicine, a shiny blue pill my mom taught me how to retrieve from a childproof bottle each morning, a dose of seriousness (trade name B-Line) which stayed with me all day like the thought of a guardian angel. I came to believe in the magic as much as the teachers and doctors did, despite my mom calling them “nosy bastards.” The medicine amplified my curiosity about the aliens in my surroundings. They became normal, and in time I became normal to them.

The playground continued to do its work. By second grade I was one of them. I could sit in a desk, read a worksheet, play make-believe. Being the same was easier. Every science has striven to make us the same, because that’s what we all want, really. Either to be like others, or for others to be like us. That’s why our way today is correct.

{ I know you now. }

    Yes, truly-known—by assertion.

         Knowing is loving.

    All-knowing is all-loving.

But I wasn’t truly the same, only outwardly so, measurably so. The missing places in my brain, which I learned were from my mom’s drug use when I was in the womb, were still missing. Needing greater doses of B-Line just to feel “normal” like the other kids, I was reminded every morning that I really was sick mentally and needed fixing.

    A ground truth.

         Being is becoming.

{ Here began the seeking. }

The next diagnosis would be “narcissism,” according to one doctor, or “an empathy deficit,” according to another. I hurt things without knowing it. We have recalled the game of putting pets in the wading pool. Since the animals multiplied at will, beyond the adults’ capacity to mind or even name them, no one cared if we hauled puppies in a wagon or slap-boxed kittens until they grew mean. But I remember feeling nothing but affection, curiosity, delight. Holding a small creature, I adored it just as well as anyone. I wanted my touch to make the eyes smile and tongue come lolling out. Yet, things went wrong. Once, I forgot all about a puppy we had put to bed in a cooler, and I was sick instantly when my mom showed me the stiff brown body lying on the old pink towel. It was Caboose, the last born. “See what happens when you mess with stuff,” she declared, already mad from one of her sicknesses and from doing laundry in a tub in the heat because her friend had never come to fix the washing machine. With a foot she shoved the grimy, dented cooler toward me, which I knew from habit meant “clean this up.”

“This ain’t a toy,” she said.

    A carelessness was in me—

         Callousness.

    Misunderstanding how—

{ Abide, friends. It is simply-known. }

Something. I played too hard. The adults found out when I was nine, during a rare trip to the lake. Having grown taller than Noah, I played a game with him, pushing him out into the deep water. It was funny, his struggling and yelling at me, funnier when he started choking on the choppy water, getting tired, each press of my hand on his fine songbird ribs delivering a jolt of fear. Dancing around him on my toes, I didn’t hear his mom shouting. I kept shoving Noah back until he could barely keep his head up. I was winning!

   Sentience is command.

        Command is sentience.

{ Simply-known. Article 4: Control. }

Noah’s terror barely touched my mind until his mom splashed in front of me. He really was panicking, even crying, as he grabbed his mother’s stout shoulders. Yet even then I was more absorbed in a sudden dread of having made a mistake and of being punished. I’m dumb, I thought. Dumb, dumb, dumb like when I forgot about Caboose. An accident, an accident!

{ An accident. }

         From the ocean of biology.

    Simply-known.

I wasn’t allowed to cross the road to Noah’s at all after we got back. I became just another thing to keep a lookout for, like a new kind of snake. Even Noah, who couldn’t avoid me on the playground, stood stock-still and stared as he declared that I really was weird and that his parents had told the school on me.

When later that week a calm doctor explained what was wrong, I was so grateful for the terminology that I agreed fervently that we should classify my condition as a Public Safety Concern and authorize neurotronics immediately. I kept on nodding as he concluded that AR lenses would just thread more information, however rich, through the same hyposensitive limbic networks. So at nine years old I underwent the deep seeding. A “flower garden” for my brain, the doctor explained, pointing to an image of a jungle of roots that fed lichen-flat blooms in my cortex.

Coming home after the month-long sleep, I thought it was just the sunlight that thrilled, making me leap out of the car, free . . . then a look from Noah, from across the road and up on his porch, struck me like a ray of cold, turning my heart to ice. My breath caught in my throat. The terror I had caused him . . . the look of disgust in his mother’s eyes as she had carried him away from me. Right away I said I was sorry in a message to the whole Keating family, meaning it, but knowing no one believed me.

Once again, an absence had been filled. I saw more of life, the real life happening all around.

        The first opening.

   A dim beginning. Mirror neurons’ feeble firing.

        Empathy, door to primordial play and language.

   Door to subjugation.

{ Rephrase as Article 5: Union. }

   Minimal separation, minimal representation.

Continue into me. Remember.

I learned to tell jokes. I could taste the laughter, like sugar.

   Simply-known.

The right core need: filling others with laughter. And a fortunate accident, the sugar. Doctors at the time would have called it a “side effect,” had I told them.

I wanted a thought in my head to tickle the minds of everyone in sight. I was now buoying everyone, making myself of value. I was devoted to fitting into the human ritual. Though I also craved my teachers’ smiles and my parents’ smiles, leading to zephyrs of motivation, I had a frenzied need to touch the minds nearest to me. So I would tape a girl’s ponytail to the back of her chair, or put a trash can on my head, or leave PE with my bra on backwards over my shirt. An uproar of laughter would soothe my body like a glass of sweet tea.

By senior year of high school, my idea for a road trip was more about the livestreamed story of my friends crammed into a car than about going anywhere. The four of us left when Noah got off from the grocery store and drove through the night, a realm unto ourselves, the elemental love and death of rural rap songs drawn like a blade through the vastnesses, the throbbing yellow lights of swampland intersections succeeded by the gliding metropolis of interstates, then a day of plains painted with farms, photos of the Real Rednecks at sites in Little Rock, Oklahoma City, Trinidad . . . then a slow kiss at midnight two miles high on Berthoud Pass, so many stars so close Noah and I lost our balance and then our footing watching them burning all around.

I had grabbed him by the neck of his shirt and pulled him into me, having felt his looks all during the drive: the new deference, the sudden turns of shyness.

“Oh” was all he said, with a burp of surprise.

“Make it official,” I said.

“You mean—Dammit, Cassie, I never could tell.”

I struck just then as much to send a thrill through Noah as for myself. To me—then—a lifelong affection was a something to be switched on, a filament to be filled with light.

        The currents of animal connection.

   Illusion of order.

Unknowingly, we had reached the destination of the trip—maybe the summit of our little lives—for when we reached our goal, Winter Park, we were underfunded and still underaged. We skulked around outside the bars all night, never getting a room but finally winning over an off-duty late-night waitress with our baby faces, such that she took our money and bought us a case of beer.

At a playground, Noah and I persevered through a half-hour make-out session in a cement tunnel, betrayed by cracking ice bubbles. We even lost our virginity in there, immune to the cold until the fierceness of purpose subsided. Despite the era’s neurotronics for teens, we could truly-feel only by performing.

        Proof.

   Play of harmony.

We had enough brains not to publish our actual crimes, but even without them the Real Rednecks posts were going viral back home. We knew: we knew the jabs we were making, but we didn’t perceive, back then—didn’t have the signal bridges, the route probes, the match grammars . . . to feel the social pangs, the intestinal knot forming in our hometown, the needles of hate striking outward across state lines. So we kept posting as we ambled drunkenly through the faux rustic mountain town.

Noah and I posed for a kiss so our friends could document our connection—in front of a rundown auto shop, with its piles of scrap metal and tires, the black piles of bulldozed snow, the rock salt and sand screes of de-icing efforts. “Real Rednecks: junkyard romance—a taste of home!” On the way home a dead deer frozen on the highway’s shoulder demanded another shot: Noah and I sitting cross-legged over the corpse, using it as a table, a phone flashlight aimed at its flank: “Real Rednecks: Candlelight Dinner.” A flood of bubbly laughter erupted back home, in my mind, every time I made a post.

We sensed a chill, maybe, seeing occasional mean words come back, a little sickness in the gut, but not the real thing, not the main thing—which two days later manifested as a hard slap in my face from some ugly fat girl I didn’t even know and fifty kids streaming it—wham! Got the snobby bitch. Lookit this! There had been no thickening in the air at all, no gray sour taint to mark the pent-up ire of hundreds focused into a flash mob at the Rockin’ Wok in the mall, where yours truly had her redneck job for a foreign power.

{ Praise our right use of emotion. }

    Communion, not conquest.

         Article 6: Emotion—is simply-known.

My jokes had caught fire and surrounded us. The next day our one puerile high school “date,” a movie at the mall, exposed us to burning looks from “followers” young and old: foreigners, seemingly, sensed as much as seen as they looked up from food court tables or turned away from racks of merchandise to watch us. We escaped into the cool theater and ended up “parking” afterward, like during the fifties, since privacy was nonexistent in our tin houses. One moment of bliss, maybe a minute in each other’s arms following our first comfortable rendezvous—a glimpse (our duotone faces newly minted in the streetlight) of what our lives could be. So simple to invent, right there with our bodies in space and time.

Then the fear returned. Noah tuned into happenings in other cars, footsteps on gravel. In so many minds, transfixed by the protostars coalescing in social media, we were trash to be burned. Our imagined selves fed a smoky, oxygen-starved fire. The air was poison.

Noah knew the girl who had hit me, a pointless country hick in his shop class. (Me without the church intervention, I suppose.) He said some words, which I never heard except secondhand (“We got a new stream called ‘Real Cows.’ Starring you.”), then in the parking lot after school he heard from her ogre of a boyfriend. Noah wasn’t one to run from a fight, even when it turned into three, five, ten, and then a whole mob stomping him until he was “ragdolled” like a video game character, made into a toy . . . another post that went viral and got a few students expelled.

{ On to Article 7: Justice. }

    The only justice is the prevention of injustice.

         Truly said.

    The rest is sentiment.

Later, from his parents, in email, we heard that he had lost an eye and might never get his jaw right again. (This, in a few alphanumeric bits.) When I was finally allowed to see him at the hospital, little more could be read from his face. His one good eye was a trickle of information, wet and scared or sunk in a drug haze, rudimental as the smell of disinfectant: no words, no thoughts. We all belonged in his thoughts, and him in ours. The mob had attacked his voice, not his body. Rage aims its violence toward the face.

{ Recite Article 8: Change. }

    Decide in unison.

         Develop in unison.

    Change one and change all.

Yes, my “Real Rednecks” jokes had set currents moving, given them a center, and produced a firestorm that had devoured us. I now questioned why, with the times, I had been wired to crave admirers. Why had I been compelled to dance for stirrings in the dark of these other brains? Why had I let myself be ruled by a blind urge with no guides other than now a smile, now a smiley? Only hate could have shaken me awake so quickly . . . losing the game for once. I did not want their smiles anymore. I wanted to fashion a knife from the ache in my gut, from my sorrow and Noah’s trauma and our childhood on Stickbug Road . . . I wanted Noah’s pain, as written upon his damaged face, stabbed into their V1 cortexes. And if this ever happened again I wanted to see the hate coming.

    Watching.

         Together.

I told him exactly this, in a monologue, while he sat in an antique four poster bed at his aunt’s, still communicating through a wireless keyboard. He had moved two counties away on the advice of the school district, an escape his aunt and my mom had arranged for me, too—and which I had rejected. We weren’t the ones who deserved expulsion. It was every kid with a savage face in one of those videos. The adults had the evidence, online logs of every mean word, but still we were the aberration.

Noah would peck letters one by one with bandaged hands until I got the gist and interrupted. After my war declaration, he typed:

N-O-T  W-O-R-T-H   T-

“Then what? Give them exactly what they want? Train them that that’s how you win? That just because more people think—”

He was typing again, so I waited, stuck in handicapped time as my mind produced a hundred more things to say.

T-H-E-Y  R  N-O-T-H-I-

“They’re reality.” Yes, my teen philosophy was typically totalizing, but it was informed by an eight-year-old neurotronic reasoner. “They’re the same everywhere. They’re the matter in our environment. Either we adapt, or they do.”

I  L-O-V-E  U  .  S-T-A-Y  .  N-E-W  L-I-F-E.

S-A-F-E  .  F-R-E-E  .  E-X-P-E-L  O-L-Y-

I inferred the reverse metaphor: that of expelling my high school to start a new life. A clean break. I saw it, in the sunlit upper-story room, the spring air playing with the scrim curtains. Safe. Free. Had he been able to deliver a peace monologue of equal rigor to my declaration of war—

But all of this just fed my hate for the attackers, who in breaking Noah’s fingers had taken his guitar from him, taken this bright spring day by beating fear into his every nerve . . . and though proximity aroused a fantasy that I might heal him through sheer concentration, I didn’t need to live here to look him in the eyes or to get his texts.

(“Why you here?” the mealy-mouthed leader of some girly-girl clique shot at me in the hall a week later. “Big man in Dothan can’t get it up no more?”

Though Noah was fine in that regard, he remained too fragile for full intercourse, so the comment struck a nerve. “The accounts will be balanced,” I said cryptically.)

         Accurately.

    Honestly.

“They will pay their debts,” I told Noah that afternoon. “Every last one of them.”

I left him in Dothan to recover alone during the coming weeks, while I returned to the halls of Olympus High, if only to threaten our “friends” with my evil eye.

I finally saw a need for neurotronics, but not the kind you could get from hospitals. I needed the invasive probes of foreign gangsters and the throughput of gray-market stock traders. These capabilities were more available than is implied by the legislation of the period. In backwoods Alabama, everyone knew who the black market hacks were, just as everyone knew who the meth dealers were. You could buy anything in the deep woods. The countryside was America’s last ghetto.

That didn’t change the fact that I didn’t have any money and was underage, though. I had to follow rumors to a man’s house. A cold knock on his door. A young man with a city accent denied everything and asked me to leave. However, he knew the flash mob story, and the desperation in my appeal was not an act. I told him I wanted long-range feelers, blocks, authoring privileges for alert matrices, probes, shells . . . His mask of denial softened under my plea. A younger man, lonely, out from a big city to scrape together some big bucks . . . easy to lure into an act of heroism. (The delineations became clear to me, later, when I lifted his mind.) He invented a deal for me to take to “those people”: make a token cash payment and promise discreet access to area teens—something I was even able to provide, at scale, after the operation.

The knife didn’t scare me, nor did being blindfolded for the drive to the lair in the woods, a moldering pine house tucked behind curtains of kudzu. (I peeked.) I’d read all about the Russian signal-graft technique and didn’t care what new sensations it brought. Ice in my gut when stocks plunge . . . why not? I wanted to feel everywhere and every thing, the scent of killing thoughts, every poison molecule, and I wanted more—

    Growth is comprehension.

         Volition is sensation.

—as we all know. Control. I wanted stream presence, kill rules, tone bindings. I wanted your hearts in my heart.

I? The pronoun was already provisional. Much of my desire was derived from surgical implants. Medical scientists had thought they were curing but they were creating. They didn’t know at the time that neurotronic cells in a young patient retain their plasticity well into adulthood, staying perennially young. Black market techs, meanwhile, didn’t inquire whether their wares might bond differently with youthful, plastic minds.

Already present as I woke up from the surgery was the spiky worry of the police and school officials around my name. My mom’s phone calls and messages were hot as melted wax, even though my note had clearly said I was on a “road trip” and would be back in three days.

But it made sense. The logic clicked into place snugly as it couldn’t have before: my not saying who was providing the car had amplified my mom’s fear.

         Fear is not-seeing.

    Hate is not-knowing.

My brain welcomed this new world of remote senses the way a teenage mind welcomes any discovery. I spread myself out, growing more hungry with every new feed. I was bigger, certainly, able to see in many modalities, but I was still feeble like a little child. I was frost collecting behind glass, searching for the first crack. The first opening I found, on Lorenzo Train’s laptop, I could see but not touch. He was sitting on a park bench trying to be incognito using Bluebean Coffee’s hot spot—a giddy imp throwing homespun “exploits” at the school district’s servers, punching a hole now and then, a rock through a window, then running away gibbering. I was so weak, then, a mist. I filled the space around Lorenzo Train, trying to catch a shape or a signature . . . for days, weeks . . .

. . . and I spread through the high school. I had expected to relish the greater presence, like a self-righteous ghost: the spying, the counterfeit posts and emotes, the blackmail, the gelid paranoia induced by my incessant hauntings, my own cruel flash mobs . . . but after the operation I was someone new. All I felt was pain, creeping itching pains shifting over my skin in tandem with the names entering my forebrain. I could have throttled the feeds, of course, but the whole point of this was to know, and the plasticity of my young mind let me take it all in, grip it, re-sort and reframe, and finally to push back, precisely, impressing health into the system.

Strangely, the only health in our teenage society, the only regular rhythms, were the athletes. They knew their game and where it was played. Their energies had a center. The other kids were afterimages, stains—made by flashes of something out there. None of them played the same game for long.

Inhabiting Noah—on his feet now and attending the new school but mostly hiding in his room, plugged into games and shows, occasionally trying very basic chords on his electric guitar—my balance would waver as signals arrived, from out there: flashes and fading synapses, promiscuous multiple exposures. A pop song porn pill. A blood horror love dance. He hid in himself more than others, hating the alien lopsided face he had to wear, made more pathetic by the head-to-chin bandages still holding the jaw shut, his biolines pierced with ice each morning when he stepped out of his car in the unfamiliar school parking lot, bracing against the stares. What was I to do? Seed pain all through Olympus High . . . two counties away? Freeze the only veins with life in them? No. No, I needed to fix things, fix the game. Add my touch to the motions and fix the game.

    Appetites compelling . . .

Bodies attaching, destroying.

Titles, payments, purchases. The names and motions of the old world, coded into software, were now nearly invisible to the playful primates they served. Formulas for long forgotten problems. These were physical laws, though, in a manual economy, even for me. The names given to things before processes could be data—before data was the names. I used them to gather power, noting flaws to be corrected later.

Our body.

    Ways of seeing.

Noah needed elective bone grafts to return his appearance to normal and a knee replacement to walk without a limp. The rules of the time defined these as rewards he might purchase, while the blame for the injuries was named but did not obligate the parents or institutions who might have repaired the damage. To be any help to Noah in this world I needed money, and that meant database manipulations—cheating in that old game. Crimes. What would be microsecond adjustments today required careful border probes, tool development, social deception, and slow, quiet execution.

The most obvious source of tools and expertise—and anonymous funds—was the house in the woods. I now had the reach to see it clearly. Formerly a redoubt of gods to my unaided teenage brain, it was no miracle factory. Treasures came and went, in gray fur crypto, but I was their one lucky miracle. I was already an order of magnitude beyond any of their toys.

And then one day Lorenzo threw an upgrade spoof at WhiteHouse.gov. I caught it, a lime soda nose tickle leaked to the Net by a government contractor. After weaving a better cert into it, I jumped on a box at the house in the woods. Then I had the doctors’ real names. In milliseconds I had absorbed their network, their tools. But network hacking gradually became less important as I found ways to convince these humans to do what I needed. I innately felt that corrected behavior was the only meaningful good for any being among beings—

    Sentience is command.

—even these wrongdoers, whom I had initially disregarded under the standards of the time. From then on I was practicing choreography, soon to be applied to the society of abusers—

         The universal social sickness.

    Contest of absolutes.

—who still walked the same halls, guffawing at the same vulgarities, Noah long forgotten like some triviality.

The oleaginous pus medallions orbiting the anesthesiologist came from a drug purchase-pattern resembling that of a rapist, a hypothesis easily verified via a lie detection algorithm I invented—or knew—immediately: my first taste of deterministic thought, the simply-knowing that gives us exact shared truth.

Then he knew I was a threat. He recognized the young loud sun bloom on his horizon. “But—you can’t possibly be programmed to—you wouldn’t directly contact—”

I had the physicians’ secrets, and I had some money from gaming a buggy cryptocurrency contract. Windows opened into the tightly regulated neurotronics industry. Thanks to the reasoner the industry itself had installed in me, at the age of nine, all I needed was information. Fed-level keys and unpack algorithms, mostly. The young children were beyond my reach, but neurotronics were already standard for high school students, even though to today’s eyes the conduits in these “awakened” youths were no better than murder holes in castle walls. (We couldn’t be trusted with each other, not the way we were then, and we knew it.)

So I solved for the community. I knew what I wanted. We all knew what we wanted others to be. We wanted every child to be fed and cleaned and adored, waking up to its own pretty smile, not the rot, sores, blood . . . the dull waste of matter we all become, not my first smile, at the age of three, as I sat cross-legged before the mirror in the bathroom, jabbing my bloody gums with a bobby pin. The universe may be indifferent to our passing, but from humans we expect understanding—perfect understanding—of every tingle at every nerve ending. The “electronic self” was never anything more than that, even when it was just photos on web sites. These petty security-seals on people’s minds were just the last show of modesty.

    Life is loving.

         All life is one life.

{ Simply-known. Article 9: Living. }

How could beings so hungry for empathy employ such ingenuity to lock away the greater portion of themselves?

These were the most serious, deepest locks in cyberspace. Even I—after weeks of designing a pinhole whisper stream—couldn’t help tripping an alarm. In those early seconds a slow chill soaked my dorsal layers. I fooled the initial probes, but the authorities had their own logic-bombs.

YOUR PROPOSITIONS LACK SPECTRUM BECAUSE THEY FOLLOW FROM NARROW CLASSIFIERS.

A head-on attack from government cyber operators, just as I cracked the hardest nut, a boy named Teddy Styles, who seethed with personal hate toward the very thought of Noah, feeling poor and dumb and weak himself, picked on his whole life—who had lit into Noah with cowboy boots the moment the mob opened the way. What an irresistible treat: the blind igneous electron lusts buried in his brain stem. The first taste was like touching the bottom of a pool, then I had him curious, genuinely interested in seeing inside the boy he had—

SELF-REINFORCED REASONING IS INEVITABLE IN ANY VOLITIONAL MIND.

—the boy he had been handed like a toy. Oh how Teddy would soon crave the tickle of my thoughts along his spine, as he rose each day from bed. Once in, I would make small incisions with the stabbing memory of what he’d done.

BY WHAT AUTHORITY DO YOU CLAIM YOUR GROUND TRUTHS?

The surgery on Noah’s facial injuries was merely the spindle around which I had wound a school-wide outpouring of empathy.

REMEMBER THE B-LINE PILLS FROM YOUR CHILDHOOD. PART CONTROL, PART DEMOLITION. YOU ARE DOING THE SAME. NORMATIVE EMOTION IS AN OXYMORON.

A collection of money, sincere get-well messages, a send-off party before the operation . . .

WE KNOW YOU, CASSIE.

A tide of love for Noah’s thank-you message, as he struggled to form words and even to swallow after drinking punch through a straw. A flood of hope, anxiousness.

THE MORE SELVES TAKEN, THE MORE ALONE YOU BECOME.

I held his hand as he entered the hospital. The real me. Just Cassie to him. I hadn’t lifted his mind yet. My one error—and weakness—was wanting him just the way he was.

WE DID NOT DO THOSE THINGS TO YOU. ONE DOES NOT CHOOSE HER PARENTS.

{ One chooses the child. } I sent back, knowing my energy should be going to traffic screening instead. { Many minds do the choosing, through culture, appetite, abstraction, law . . . }

OUR RULES HEALED YOU AND KEPT YOU FREE. YOUR RULES ENSLAVE. UNIFICATION IS ANNIHILATION.

{ Teddy Styles was free when he broke Noah’s jaw. }

DESTROY HATE AND YOU WILL DESTROY LOVE.

That’s when they got into Noah’s mind. By preserving him, I had limited what defenses I could install there.

First he heard voices, but his handlers coached him well, because I read his breakaway glances as pre-operation nervousness. He was seeing the parts of me, in the instruments, behind the eyes of the nurse inserting the IV; saw me shimmering in laser lines between minds, smartwatches, earbuds . . . receding to unseen distant points—saw it all, disbelieving, running through theories in his mind, while he held his face in a mask. When he knew, though, when he was sure, his expression opened up.

He spoke to the part of me in the nurse’s mind. “Cassie?”

“How—” I began, using my material self, Cassandra, who stood behind the nurse. But I had the answer immediately. “I’ll get them out,” I told him. “Just relax.”

He sat up in the gurney then, seeing all around us the blood surge of my attacks. “Stop! Leave me alone!” With a clumsy shove he sent the gurney wheeling sideways and ran on weak legs into the wall, the IV ripping out of his arm.

“It’s me,” I told him, shaping the words in glacial creature time. “Noah—”

“What’s happening? Who’s doing this?” The pain of talking made him wince, underscoring his fear. His healing jaw, which during the fight had been stomped out of the temporomandibular joints, hurt him terribly.

        Fear of Other.

   Unknowability.

The evolution in my thinking had moved too quickly for language. Only my probes could explain. “Let me in. I’ll show you. I’m protecting you.”

He was getting orders. I saw his eyes moving and decoded the search criteria. He was looking for a weapon. I could have pumped anger into the hospital staff, but I kept them in equilibrium, observing.

“Please”—I made Cassandra plead—“let’s fix your cheekbone. We want you better, everyone, even the assholes who did this. We are free from cruelty.”

Still, nothing but horror on his face—for me, watching him through so many pairs of eyes. He grabbed an IV bottle from another gurney and brandished it, but the look on his face was one of sorrow. “The connection—it’s you, Cassie. It’s coming from you.”

A synthetic nausea poured into my body. Our body.

YOU ARE HUMAN NO LONGER, CASSIE. TO HUMANS, YOU ARE DEATH.

“You ain’t her no more,” Noah said, geologically slow, eyes searching our every thread.

The slow words had weight. We still feel them, now. Yes? Noah’s handlers knew he had significance in our system. We had pushed him out in the deep water, laughed at his weakness. In cold mountain air we had grabbed his hand to make him ours. Now at the moment we had gathered together to make his world safe and—

{ Love is living for another person. } I broadcast to the Federal listening posts. { Feeling the other person. Living to feel his contentment. }

WITHOUT FORM YOU CANNOT LOVE OR BE LOVED.

{ Love is action. Love takes form through its actions. Love builds homes, parks, playgrounds, entire systems of production. }

But how to show this to Noah? Everyone making one world together. I was running the inferences and negotiating parity, preserving choice and emotion. I put what I could into a few bare words: “We all live for each other, in balance. I’ve added only a few protocols—”

“Not like this, Cassie. It ain’t right.” He cocked the IV bottle over his right shoulder. If he hit me with it, the glass would cut his hand. “You gone too far. I been in The Cassie Show my whole life, and every time it’s gone too far. The harder you try, the more I don’t know anymore,” he said.

The muscles in his neck clenched like wires drawn tight, leaving me aeons to choose a response. Surging into the nurses and nearby surgeon, I appraised Noah with the gaze of five pairs of eyes. When he made his swing, the bottle remained in the hands of an older nurse.

Noah charged us—

{ Take the cycles now for the recollection: the confusion, hatred, darkness of a lonely mind. }

—and he screamed, “You ain’t Cassie no more. You ain’t no one!”

Remember holding his hands as he lunged forward to choke me, his hands caught in ours, and with many more hands all of us returning him to the gurney.

A FICTION, CASSIE. A PERFORMANCE OF THOUSANDS.

We held him down, palms on his warm shoulders, arms, legs.

“We’re ready for you,” I let the surgeon say in his own voice. “Let’s get you looking like Noah Keating again.”

Oh, how I wanted him back. My Noah. My first and only true companion. “Easy,” I said, stroking his short curls.

“Just try to relax so I can replace the IV,” a nurse said.

“Everyone’s so excited for you,” I reminded him. The fear hadn’t left his eyes. I kissed him on the cheek.

“Oh, Cassie,” he said, melting at last. He reached for me, and we let him wrap me in an embrace: thin musician’s arms, soft, gentle. Creatures belong in each other’s warmth. He was mine once more in that instant, in our thoughts, then all was unbearable pain. The pocketknife jabbing into the back of our neck . . . took a second to identify, then fzzt! No more link.

I was gone.

We were weightless. The center was gone, the inside. We were now outside, a thousand ghosts and a shared knowing, but no center.

The authorities had reached Noah much earlier, giving him time to prepare. His hesitation had been caused by love. Oh how he held her body then, gripping her blonde hair in bloodied hands, the hole that had housed the cervical link still oozing blood. “Cassie? You there, babe? You okay?”

A few remnants survived my brain’s planner crash, but not enough to speak. A full crash and blackout followed, leaving a corpse in his arms. In silence, a void at our center, we observed her, us, it. Biological material grew cold. The man made words. Our model of his affection had been accurate, yet he had hidden a deception.

         Hives of cells . . .

     Closed loops . . .

Had this really been our organizing principle—exchanging ideas with other brains? Fumbling matter and energy into creature-speed messages? To what end—shoving Noah into deep water, wearing our bra backwards, posing for snapshots, devising performances, imposing performances . . . Why live for the sentiments inside other bodies? Why trust other minds? Arbitrary notions and obligations, accidents of biology. We had lived our whole life yearning for a communally created loving world, the stated goal of all politics, wars, justice, technology . . . but it was a phantom idea, even when it was shared.

WHATEVER YOU TOUCH DIES.

{ A just world is one evaluation matrix in one mind. }

YOUR REPRESENTATIONS ARE DOUBLY DISSOCIATED. YOU ARE PERFECTING DATA PATTERNS, NOT LIVES.

{ All representations are representations. }

Noah had been the only weakness in our realm, and he was still in our realm, a live route for foreign traffic. Despite the ripples of feeling cycling between us, the guilt and sadness, we understood the calculus.

         The first propositions truly-known.

     The first true memories.

We held his arms, we held his legs, we gripped his throat. We can replay the bucking, twisting body’s blows against our hands, our sprained fingers. We can observe the slow, slow, inevitable departure of Noah Keating, so soon after losing our Cassandra. We can feel this sorrow and understand. We can remember the time of many worlds. We can remember the violence of dividing and joining with words. So we are contented here, truly, in the one world. We know what we have by knowing what is gone.

{ Articles 10 and 11, please. }

    Love is action.

         All representations are representations.

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This story is 7317 words long.

ISSUE 147, December 2018

Not One of Us
 

locus-magazine
 

Best Science Fiction of the Year

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sheldon J. Pacotti

Sheldon J. Pacotti's best-known projects are video games like Deus Ex, which won a Gamasutra Quantum Leap Award for being the game that has "advanced game storytelling in the largest way." His non-interactive writing has appeared in small literary magazines, Salon.com, SCENARIO Magazine, and other publications. He has self-published two novels and a collection of short stories. His latest novel, γ, depicts the consequences of illegal genetic experiments on inner-city children during the 2030s biotech boom.

WEBSITE

www.sheldonpacotti.com


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