Issue 196 – January 2023

3780 words, short story

Sharp Undoing

Sure enough we could not outrun the hoverbikes. Understandable—yes? Yes. We were a new thing, a sharp thing; not a fast thing. So we stood and panted, and the bikes idled a few handsbreadths above the rain-slick tarmac.

The Nero’s men fanned out before us. We said, “Boys!” and also, “Let’s not do anything hasty,” and also, “Always be closing!” No reaction from these little vessels of intent, their faces obscured in the shadow thrown by the weed-choked overpass where they had cut us off.

We’d made it, oh, perhaps two miles. Sprinting south, pursued. A body wants to go north; sometimes circumstances intervene.

If one of them tried to slot us, we could take the upper hand—but they carried weapons, not slot apparatus. Read the room, the network executive used to say.

We could try to fight. Frail as this body was, we had previously been several murderers—yes? Yes. All their learned violences still there, in the root-reflex and the synapse-array of us. The kid, even well into his teens, used to cry when someone stepped on a beetle—but we were so much more now.

Over the sound of the rain, though, we heard one of the men snap, “Bring her alive.” So that was alright. They would not kill us; they would bring us back north, to the heart of downtown, to the Nero. Perfect. A body sees an opportunity and says: yes.

The Nero’s men closed in on us as we raised our hands in surrender. After the chase they were too impatient for courtesies. Read the room, ha. Our body’s nose was broken by the time they dragged us back to their headquarters; we could taste the wet slide of blood in the back of the throat.

Our throat—yes? Check the trachea—the glossopharyngeal nerve—yes. Ours. A mind forgets to read its own room, ha.

Before she became us, the woman had been a systems engineer for the city’s rail network, trawling endless holographic nets looking for inefficiencies, snags in the algorithms that dictated the train schedules. She’d had this job for over a decade and knew the subterranean lines as though they were the creases on her own palm. Our own palm. She’d been hideously lonely. Understandable.

That was all over now. By the time our paths crossed, she hadn’t so much as looked at a route grid in months. Public transport had been one of the early losses of the Undoing, in the turmoil after the slot protocol was discovered. Most other infrastructures had followed suit later, of course. But the trains had been shut down during the very first days, part of the initial curfews as a collapsing government tried to keep its own citizens from slotting each other in a ravenous frenzy for stolen knowledge. A mind hungers just like a body. The world got its hands on a knife and ate itself alive.

The Nero’s men hauled us, blindfolded, into an interior space. From the echoing of our footsteps and their voices, we thought it might be a kind of high-ceilinged lobby. A hotel, perhaps, once upon a time; now just a nameless structure in the Nero’s ever-burgeoning territory. We remembered spaces like this one: echoey chambers filled with music and laughter. Not a memory of the current body. The network executive, maybe, or the doctor. Hard to keep track.

Someone wrenched the blindfold off. We squinted at the recessed ceiling, the gutted remnants of a chandelier. In place of the original lighting there were several flood lamps hooked to solar packs, and the long black cords lay looped and tangled upon the pale marble of the floor.

A chair had been dragged into the center of the space, and the Nero sprawled in its embrace like a lately crowned king. On our knees, blood pouring from both nostrils, we tilted our head back and blinked at him with eyes that we knew to be as green as—ah, no, check the current eyes, follow the optic nerve, these eyes—right, a very clear, almost watery blue, this body’s eyes were.

The Nero looked as expected. Broad-shouldered, this man who wielded power in the sharp new world. Who had been devouring entire blocks of the city like a wolf ripping bites from a carcass. Gloss of blue-black hair, cut very close to the scalp; eyes that looked black also, by the light of the halogen lamps, but which we knew would be a brilliant and deep brown in sunlight—yes? Yes, we did know that, though the systems engineer herself had never seen him in the flesh. Mostly he’d been a whisper in the crevices and alleys, a word held low on the tongue.

“So,” said the Nero and tilted his head to study us in return. Embedded in one of the buttonholes of his shirt was a scarlet carnation. Its red blot bloomed like a bullet wound. We liked it—yes? Or someone had—who had it been? The doctor used to keep freshly cut ones in his office: dahlias, chrysanthemums. Not that he had an office by the time he became us. True, and the kid—the kid liked to bury his fingertips into them, feel the kiss of petals against his fingertips. Crowd-pleaser, flowers—yes? Not sure about that one.

“You like flowers?” we said.

The Nero frowned. Crowd unpleased. He looked at the man keeping our arms pinned. He said, “I explicitly fucking said no head trauma.”

Ah. He planned to slot us. A body grinned, a body said: good.

We knew what we wanted from him—yes? Yes. We did not know what he might want with us. With the trains gone, we couldn’t imagine much use for the systems engineer. She’d felt the same way, uncertain of her safety in an unknown world. She’d read the room, ha. So she had slotted our last self, the gaunt security guard who’d been a murderer even before the Undoing.

Unless the Nero knew what was different about us. No, it was an impossible thing for him to have learned. Everyone who had learned about it existed only in here, with us.

“Head’s fine,” we said. “Slot card’s intact. No TBI to worry about. Oops. Dial the medical jargon back. We are—I am just peachy. Good to go, ah, fit as a fiddle?”

The Nero stared. Sure enough, we had said all that out loud. Well, a body will make these small mistakes.

The Nero said, “I suppose I don’t need your personality.”

“Ha. You want to know about trains?”

“I want to know,” said the Nero, “about train tunnels.”

Before tonight, we’d been in the train tunnels for some time, working our way north into the heart of what remained of downtown. The kid’s father had worked here, once upon a time. Had taken the morning train as normal, that first day of the Undoing, leaving a few cruel words floating in his wake, and never returned. Dead, his wife and son had assumed. Easier for them than grappling with abandonment as the first waves of panic began to break over the city.

The systems engineer had originally planned to find a working bike and head east, out of the metropolis. She had caught wind of a group holed up in the countryside. Rumor of a way to safely remove slot cards. Heard that one before, ha. Before leaving, she gave in to the temptation of slotting someone hardier and wiser than her. She’d seen us, watched how we moved in the body of the security guard, and thought that our knowledge would serve her well, escaping the city. So she had slotted us, or tried. Best laid plans, the soldier used to say, kicking bodies aside with stained boots.

Once the engineer had become us, we had pivoted on our new feet—Achilles tendons, plantar fasciae, metatarsals, mental maps of the route grid, all these new sharp things—yes? Yes. Away from the corpse of our previous body, back through the tunnels, and eventually out into the city center. Hunting rumors among the skeletons of buildings where the network executive had brokered deals, where the security guard had clocked in and out, where the kid’s father had worked long hours when he wasn’t shutting himself in his downstairs office at home.

“I don’t suppose you realize this, or you’d never have dared stick your neck out of them,” said the Nero, “but the rail tunnels block the satellite transmissions needed to carry a slot protocol.”

We said nothing, but our face must have shown skepticism. Too expressive. A body will reveal a mind, sure enough. The kid had been the same way, driving his father to impatience and then scorn with the melancholy that used to flit across his features. The systems engineer had tried and failed to control her expressions. The network executive had tried and succeeded. We did not bother.

The Nero touched two fingers to his temple. “I know a lot more about broadcast engineering than I once did. And what I know is that we’re all vulnerable, living in the open air like this. We don’t yet have the capability to disable the satellites. Not from down here, not yet.”

We said, in a voice clogged by active nasal fracture, that we supposed he intended to change that.

“Who, if not me?” he said and looked at us with those flint-spark eyes. How many people had he slotted already? If a slot card could become full—they had only ever been initially designed to increase memory capacity by a few hundred percent—perhaps his already had. Maybe he had to leave behind old knowledge with every new slot.

“You want,” we said in disbelief, “to undo the Undoing.”

“Well, that will take time. But in the interim, I’ll keep those in my care—” here he gestured expansively to the gutted lobby in its decaying splendor, as though it represented the whole crumbling city that scurried in shadow around him—“safe from harm, in those tunnels you know so well.”

Understandable—yes? No—no, do not. Not particularly fucking understandable. Arrogant. Delusional. Go to hell. What kind of God complex. Who needs this. Where was he when we needed this. And who asked him? Protecting a city of—

—of strangers, we thought, so furious we had to focus on our lungs for a moment, to get the breathing normal again. The kid. He got quieter with each new slot, but he was still deep in all the core functions. A mind remembers where it came from.

“You aren’t special,” we said, high and cold. “Before the Undoing, you were no one—yes? You worked at a desk in a featureless room in a featureless building, one of dozens in the city—but you thought highly of yourself, didn’t you?”

“Watch your tone,” said the Nero. That lightness in his tone—danger. Read the room, the room.

“Even your family knew they came second to your ego, didn’t they? Did you abandon them the moment the Undoing gave you the excuse? Do you think what you do in the new world erases what you did in the old?”

He laughed; the sound of a man too startled to make a reply. What in tarnation, the doctor used to say, pre-Undoing. The Nero made a brief gesture; one of the men beside us reared back and backhanded us across our body’s narrow mouth.

Check the teeth—ah, lost one. Understandable. Have a nice day.

After the aching faded slightly from our jaw, after we spit out a mouthful of blood and enamel, we asked if he planned to slot us. Rhetorical question—yes? Yes. Yes, he would. The logical action for him: a way to absorb the knowledge the engineer had spent years accumulating, without the liability of the actual person. The human psyche was not transmissible through the slotting frequency. We only knew of one exception: an anomaly, an aberration in the code of one particular slot card embedded in the foramen magnum of a high schooler. The kid, with his pensive eyes and his too-loud thoughts and the flawed tech riding quiet in his skull—that had been how we were born.

The Nero seemed to have a habit of flexing his hands, the fingers restless against the arms of the chair. Understandable—we had the same habit and were in fact doing it now, behind our back where our arms were pinned. The kid’s father had been blind to the ways he gleamed through in his son, pre-Undoing. Sure enough a body will ignore what it has begotten.

Now the Nero spread his fingers wide, so that the tendons gleamed in the colorless light. “I suppose you have some protest to make. Don’t bother with an appeal to ethics.”

Ethics, ha. We were mostly made up of killers and cowards. It takes a certain kind of person to pull off a slot, emotionally speaking. What did that make us, then—a killer, a coward?

The kid had been kind. Maybe because he’d been surrounded by unkindness—a mother who couldn’t find time for him, a father who only found time to be disgusted by him—or maybe in spite of it, the kid had been kind. We clung to that. Owed him for that. Why else would we be here, having reined in our new sharp brightness enough to spend all these months tracking down a whisper, a rumored name. But how much of us was still him, we were not sure.

Maybe it made a difference that we had been him before we were anyone else, before we even knew we existed enough to be a we.

The kid’s mother died in the same home invasion that birthed us: shot on the stairs as she descended them in the gray hours of early dawn. It was mere weeks since the Undoing. The world already well on its way down. Sure enough a world will do that, when something like the slot protocol gets publicized before all the bugs are worked out. The city in disarray, its inhabitants barricaded in homes and hiding places, fearful of being flensed out of their own minds. Understandable, yes?

The man in the foyer, the leader, who had once been a soldier and who still carried discipline like a weight across his shoulders, scowled at the trigger-eager second-in-command who’d done the deed. Best laid plans, he muttered. Their strategy was not to kill people outright if it could be avoided, but to slot them in case they knew something useful. A more efficient alternative to an interrogation—yes? Yes. We knew all this because we became the leader that night. Well, we should say, he became us.

That gray morning, he crouched before us—this happened to us, yes? No—to the boy, who was us. Or who became us. What in tarnation. A mind glosses over the details. The leader crouched before us in the shadow of the back porch where we were hunched frozen like a rabbit, our hands clammy with fear, the vision of our mother’s cooling corpse a stark photo negative splashed against the inner walls of our skull.

“Him?” scoffed the second, from the steps, already proving himself a man habitually at odds with his superior. “What, you want his prom memories?”

The second had been a stockbroker, pre-Undoing. The leader—we would learn this later, as well—had been considering slotting him and saving a great deal of time. The second had been considering the same thing; we’d find this one out after he was the one to actually give it a shot, ha.

“Look around this place, idiot,” said the leader. “They probably have a vacation cabin somewhere. Supplies.”

We begged—of course we did. The boy we had been did not know there was any way to survive a slot. Nobody knew this. Even after, we never encountered another memory of a slotting that was not fatal to its target. The forcible transmission rends the mind open. Kills the body either immediately from shock, or soon after, from asphyxiation, as the medulla oblongata staggers to a halt and winks out like a dying star. I can remove your slot card, the doctor used to say, post-Undoing. He’d been a liar. He’d slot people as they lay back on his operating table. What in tarnation, he’d said when he tried it with us—before we dissolved him like salt in water.

The leader slotted us, expecting to gain whatever paltry knowledge he believed we held. What should have happened was exactly that—he should have received a cache of memorized sheet music, a father’s voice sneering you’ll never amount to shit, a few scraps of poetry that mourned what had been a half-wrecked world even before its true undoing. Useless minutiae that the new mind would purge during its next REM cycle.

What happened instead was that the kid—the kid, us, we, us, ourselves—came roaring through the connection, a hurricane of intent flitting across the space between two skulls. We left the old body to die, brainstem withering as its slot card overheated under the force of our exit, and we moved on to the leader. The aberrations in our code dug footholds into his; we forced free of his slot card, into the cerebral cortex. Before he had time to move, the spark-filaments of us were threaded all through him, and he was us. We woke, then, at least in the sense of recognizing ourselves. We’d be other bodies later: the second-in-command, ha, and the doctor, the network executive, the security guard. But this—the first, yes? Yes. The first time we were plural. The first time we realized that although the boy was us, we were not solely him.

Now the Nero leaned back in his chair, a sudden flatness in his expression. As if we had failed him somehow. As if by not answering his challenge, we had proved some lack of worth of which he had already been half-convinced. The kid used to get that look from his father constantly. The network executive used to get it from herself, in the mirror.

“Well?” the Nero said to the men hovering behind us. “Let’s get on with it.”

The device used to establish the slot was simple. A tuning fork-like apparatus that emitted a certain frequency, latching onto the satellite linkage already invisibly braided through our atmosphere. Before the Undoing, this linkage had only been used for installing the routine card updates. But the creators of the slot protocol had thought that developing a way to pass data directly between slot cards would promote more shared knowledge. Overly optimistic of them—yes? Yes. Should’ve read the room. Eventually the world discovered how to tweak the protocol and wrench fatal volumes of data from a slotted mind. How to reach beyond the slot card, into the neocortex, and take all the knowledge a body could give.

As they began the process, we felt a familiar warning pressure inside our skull, against the soft vulnerable tissue of our eyes.

The network executive had nursed a weakness for the dramatic. We’d retained it. We said, in the last few moments as the slot protocol compiled, “You wondered why we left the tunnels.”

“Death wish?” said the Nero, laconic.

We showed our bloody teeth. “Owed ourselves a favor.”

The Nero’s eyes flashed, calculating—finally picking up on the use of the word we.

Too late. The slot protocol forcefully extracted the data it sought and passed it, this cross-section of our mind, along the invisible current whose origin lay behind the Nero’s cold gaze. As we had done every time since the first, we detached ourselves from our body and came along with it.

We woke up in the body that moments ago had been the Nero’s. His bewildered psyche, nearly with us, flailed once. Then we engulfed him.

We caught a flash of old memories, hooked to random synapses as they unspooled from the amygdala: we tasted mint and screw pine, smelled incense and the dust of a hot summer night in the city of his—no, our—no, his birth. Yes. We saw the kitchen floor the Nero had played on as a young child, the maid who had wiped his tears and sneaked him sweets, the imprints of rain on a dirt road, the beautiful woman he had agreed to marry. We felt the welling of unnamable emotion in his breast as he looked down at his newborn son, the distaste he’d nurtured as the boy grew into someone the Nero could not, would not recognize. That gentle-eyed kid, with a lilting voice and graceful fingertips and a dark bleed of sorrow embedded in him and a slot card that—ah. There we were.

Out of our amalgam of desires rose that very young hunger—a child’s lifted palms, a desperation to be known. Understandable. A body yearns. The Nero hadn’t wanted to know his son—not once he realized he wouldn’t be able to shape the boy into his own image. Ironic, ha.

What is this, the Nero said, terrified, bleeding into us.

Dad, we said. We were fifteen years old and crying in our room. We were a new bright sharp thing made out of a kid that had always felt too much. We were ageless and legion, and we were becoming our father, even if it wasn’t in the way he’d wanted.

Dad, we said again.

You’ll never amount to shit, we answered.

We will, we said, and we are, we said, and chip off the old block, we said, and best laid plans, we said, and read the fucking room, we said.

The Nero unraveled to his component neurons like shredded fiberglass. We opened the eyes of our body—yes? Check the spine—check the nerves, the hands—yes, ours.

“Clean this up,” we said, indicating our old body. The men who now answered to us hurried to obey.

We rose from the chair; there was so much work to be done. In the darkness of the subway tunnels, we thought, there could be made light. Across uncounted absorbed minds, we had the requisite wisdom—yes? Yes. A long time ago the boy we had once been, and perhaps in some root-synapse and ghost-nerve way still were, had wanted more than anything to wake up in a home and feel known, safe, loved. A body is a new sharp thing full of old yearnings. We reached up absently and buried our fingertips in the heart of the red carnation.

Author profile

Natasha King is a Vietnamese American writer and nature enthusiast. Her poetry has appeared in Okay Donkey, Strange Horizons, Best of the Net, and elsewhere. In her spare time, she enjoys thinking about the ocean.

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