There was no warning, no comprehension, no fear or even surprise; only the blinding pain of a body incinerated from the inside out, echoing between us all as Anando died and fell silent. Caught up in the trauma, in the shock and the confusion, we could not react. We could not make the split-second decisions that were needed, that our bond had always made so much easier but now rendered impossible. Again and again the burning agony tore into us and we felt ourselves feel it, and the terror and the mad grief echoed and built like a wave threatening to drown us in each other’s pain. We died one by one, as the beam of a stray microwave power transmitter sliced down the shaft of Eternity Station, reducing body after body to ash and steam and molten silicon. Like hammer-blows our deaths came one after another, Carena and Tandi and Mora and Falion and Percival and Halden and Ryx, and so many others; all gone within barely a centasecond, screaming and praying and begging us not to let ourselves die. We felt every second of it; every thought, every emotion, every last particle of agony, and felt our minds and consciousnesses degrade and slip away into oblivion. Though we did not die, we died; again and again and again we died, and felt ourselves die. It was too much to bear; in the end we retreated into the cold comfort of catatonia, unable to continue to face the pain of ourselves ripped away and burned to ashes.
— # —
When one is One, one can barely imagine going back to singularity again. The very forms of address, the pronouns and cases, grow stale from lack of use. It is difficult, even now, to think in terms of oneself, alone; but it’s something that we—that I had best get used to. I woke, in the fullness of time, in a psychosurgical hospital on Hyperion Station, that having been the closest hab with the necessary facilities. I woke, expecting as always to feel the comforting murmur of my co-selves’ thoughts in my head. And yet such a description is like sacrilege, in the way it renders the magnificence of the experience down to banality, to mere mechanical telepathy. We had been many, and yet One. Our selves, our minds, our feelings, our every sensation were intertwined to the point of near indistinguishability; and yet still we each retained our own unique perspective—though it was a thing that most of us rarely ever regarded or attended to, so intoxicating was our transcendent communion with the whole. We each spent our days bathed constantly in a warm sea of us, sharing the most casual thoughts and intimate details, the slightest sensations and most life-altering epiphanies.
Eternity station was our home, where the majority of us spent the bulk of our time, yet we were tied together by instantaneous quantum-ansible neurolinks. They connected us no matter where we went, how fast or how far. I was out near the rings of Saturn negotiating the purchase of water ices; Violaine was on Earth, visiting family to wrap up certain legalities. And so, in that single eternal moment of death and destruction, we were reduced to two; a symphony cut down to a duet singing across the solar system. And one of us was discordant, disharmonious, mad; confused and terrified and in terrible pain, uncomprehending and incomprehensible. At first, I found it difficult to understand that it wasn’t me.
The utter and total intimacy of the link was suddenly no longer enough. I needed urgently to see my co-self, to care for her and hold her in my arms. I needed to find out what had gone wrong with her recovery and set it right; and I could hardly do that from across the solar system, no matter how closely connected were our minds. The surgeons protested and warned; but after all, our bodies belong to us and none other. So I drew deeply on our collective capital account, flush with insurance payments extracted by our legal software from the maker of the deadly microwave transmitter. I purchased a light one-body whipshuttle, and I set off immediately for Earth, the cradle of humanity. I had never been there, and neither had I harbored any intention of going; but Violaine had constantly pushed us to visit in person, though we could see perfectly well all of its wonders through our—through her memories and eyes.
In the final hours of my journey, Violaine’s presence in my mind was torn roughly away, and I felt again, for the first time in nearly half a gigasecond, what it was to be alone.
— # —
On reaching Earth orbit I found out again that I would not be allowed immediately to attend to Violaine. I had known it, of course, because she had known it as she knew intimately all of the customs and mores of the place where she had been born and raised; being told again was like hearing something learned long ago and half-forgotten, an inconvenient fact one wished heartily to pretend one had not known. The Earth is still divided into a patchwork of terror-age nation-states, and each of them jealously guards their borders and the right to determine who can cross them; the culture of the region is zealously genetic-fundamentalist, and the government of Violaine’s place of origin practices particularly extreme bio-conservative policies. I landed instead in a neighbouring polity, one with more relaxed ingress controls, and stayed there while each and every one of my numerous genetic and cybernetic modifications were endlessly examined and debated by a horde of petty bureaucrats. They forced me to shut down a wide swath of my integrated technology before I would be allowed even to enter their territory—everything from my blood-borne repair nanomeds to my formal logic co-processor to my integral weaponry. I spent days fighting and begging to obtain an exemption for my neurochemical stabilizer, on the basis that I would go insane if it stopped functioning for any significant length of time. The borganizing neurolink was left untouched.
A lifetime in zero gravity, my blood oxygenated directly by nanofeed rather than inelegant and dangerous physical respiration, has left me ill-adapted to travel the planet surface. I need to wear an exoskeletal muscular prosthesis in order to stand, walk, and move my arms; a valve and ventilator pumps the soupy terrestrial air into my atrophied lungs (and thank the heavens I never bothered to have the things removed) while a cocktail of drug drips stimulates them to draw oxygen from it into my bloodstream. Though the rig, on top of my basic servomuscular augments, made me stronger than any of the unreconstructed primals I was surrounded by, I was left feeling constantly weak and short of breath, always gagging on the tubes stuck through my nose and down my throat. Strapping the things on every morning is a harassment; it is as if the planet itself rejects my presence.
After a humiliating 7-hour physical examination to ensure that I was free of ‘unauthorized unnecessary prosthetic devices’, I was finally allowed through customs and into the city of Violaine’s birth. The surroundings were squalid and primitive, like some historical costume drama virtuality come to life; dumb, dingy, crumbling old turn-of-the-millennium buildings and half-smart pavements plied by chemical fuel-burning motorized transports that barrelled along guided by merely human brains and hands. The network coverage was spotty at best, plagued by bottlenecks and incompatible protocols and firewalled patches blacked out by government fiat—and it was costing me hundreds of credits an hour just to maintain a barely adequate degree of access and neurosensory integration; the daemons, deep databanks and contextual overlays commonly available out in the colonies were beyond even my significant inheritance, services reserved by the local monopoly markets for the richest of the rich. Without the comforting hum of information I was accustomed to feeling sleet through my mind, any desired fact available to be picked up and examined on a whim, I was ever disoriented and mentally fatigued by the mere act of trying to find the knowledge I wanted on their network’s clunky search engines. The air and the water and even the food were interlaced with toxins, forcing my environmental samplers and blood scrubbers to work overtime; radiation from unsecured power transmission lines (wires, by all that is beautiful) tickled constantly at my electromagnetic sensors, and half-heard broadcast radionic transmissions leaked into my head until I was almost willing to kill for a little peace and quiet. But more than any of the myriad physical discomforts and mental annoyances, it was the people who continually brought back to me just how far from my home a mere trip from orbit to surface had brought me. Their emotions were plain as perihelion in their body stance and eye movements, though many of them at least made an effort to hide it: the fear, the disgust, the anger. They hated me, almost to a one; hated the very fact of my existence. I was an alien intrusion into their carefully preserved world of ancient primal-human dominance. I was most emphatically not welcome on Earth.
My next challenge, after clearing customs, was to gain access to the hospital where Violaine was being treated. Their society, permitting no possibility of borganization, contains no recognition of it whatsoever in their legal structure. Their courts recognize neither the Law of Space, nor the network of standardized private contractual arrangements that has grown up around it; for the execution of estates and consent in absentia, they rely primarily on genetic relationships and a kind of crude half sexual liason, half business co-op they call a ‘marriage’. To them, to their society, there is simply no legally recognized relationship between Violaine and myself; and nobody but family was permitted to visit the hospital bed. I was only her co-self, only closer to her than any mother or father or sister or brother or sexual partner or child could ever be. I was not her kin. And the family had made it abundantly clear that I was not to be treated as such.
I engaged a lawyer—not a daemon, but a slightly senescent Primal gentleman named Sanford Hall with a thoroughly memorized and well-experienced knowledge regarding his specialty. He was sympathetic, having read of the destruction of Eternity Station, and willing to assist me; and assist me he did, more ably than any daemon I could have accessed for the price. I felt frequent guilt at employing another intelligent being to do drudge research that even a simple expert system could handle; of course, I intimated nothing of this sentiment to him, as I was certain the man wouldn’t appreciate hearing a profession he had spent his life learning referred to as machine work. He quickly dug up all the relevant documentation and set to work planning out several lines of attack.
I am not proud to say that I used every advantage I had, including their fear of me. I demanded meeting after meeting; imposed endlessly on the time of the family, the doctors, the hospital administrators, and the various bureaucrats involved. I brought up mountains of facts and documents, which I could access to my consciousness at will while they had to physically read and comprehend each piece like an already overstuffed restaurant patron choking down plate after plate of food. I loomed; carelessly lifted heavy objects; hissed and roared and made thinly veiled threats. I became their worst nightmare, to the extent that my conscience would allow me: I was there, I was heavily augmented, and they had best get used to me.
I wore them down bit by bit. First I forced the doctors to grudgingly admit that there was no physical reason why I should not be allowed to visit. Then, I began plying her brothers and sisters with drugs and expensive food. I waxed eloquent to them about my deep and abiding love for their sister; I heavily implied that we had been sexually intimate, declining to reveal the irrelevant fact that we had never physically coupled our specific bodies, and only rarely physically occupied the same room since I was formally inducted into the Archwell Borganization. They could have no conception of the extent of the intimacies that I had shared with Violaine. I knew her family as if they were my own, though I saw them through the eyes of a stranger and not those of the woman who loved and cared for them; and I used this knowledge as a tool to coldly manipulate them, turn them to my side, make them feel as if maybe I wasn’t all that bad…for a cyborg. Nikoli, her father, was not particularly difficult to handle; he was, after all, little more than an alpha male ape. I simply dominated him, physically and intellectually and in the arts of subtle social manipulation, until he gave way and acknowledged me his superior. In fact, once the moment had passed when he couldn’t possibly imagine himself to be anything but my inferior, he became something almost like an ally—defending and apologizing for me as I stormed about the offices of the various apparatchiks and nomenklatura, smoothing ruffled feathers, unconsciously playing good cop to my bad. Her mother, Atasha, remained the lone holdout, and no matter how I barked and wheedled and roared, I couldn’t turn her; she finally had her baby back from the clutches of the things that humans had become when they left the Earth behind, and there was no way under all the heavens she was letting us come in and steal her away again. Never once did she show me anything but loathing.
Luckily, once the rest of the family had fallen into line, her objections lost considerable force, even as they grew ever more forceful and abusive. Master Hall and I went before a magistrate to plead my petition; he refused it, of course, and looked on me with distaste, but seemed taken aback by the efforts Nikoli made to quiet his mate as she poured slanders and insults against me and my kind out before the court. I barged into a family meeting with the hospital administrator to demand my rights, and was immensely gratified to hear Demeter, Violaine’s youngest sister, actually take my side. I went to local press outlets, which had become interested in the scandal and drama surrounding my quest, in an attempt to publicly shame and embarrass anyone involved into complicity. The stories released were, as I expected, quite tawdry and salacious - “Comatose Spacer Trollop Caught in Sex Scandal with Cyborg Lover” was among the least disgusting titles; but they included quotes and interviews with several of Violaine’s siblings, most of whom spoke of me with a degree of sympathy and several of whom hinted that they would not object to allowing me to see their sister, if for no other reason than to have the sordid business over with.
It took weeks. It took a small fortune. It took a hundred nightmares and a thousand guilt-soaked hours of emotional agony. But in the end, I succeeded; I won. I strode into the hospital braced for yet another futile shouting match, and was instead met by Nikoli, the hospital administrator, and a psychiatrist who introduced himself as Dr. Xian. Violaine’s mother was conspicuously absent. As they escorted me through the building’s maze-like dumb corridors, the doctor did his level best to impress on me the severity of Violaine’s delicate condition, the poor odds that she would regain consciousness, and the urgent necessity of trying to avoid exposing her to anything confusing or upsetting. I barely paid attention; my heart soared as it slowly sunk in that at last, at long last I was going to see my co-self. To actually set eyes on her. To stand in her presence; to breathe the same air she was breathing. I experienced an unexpected and unfamiliar sensation: my lungs, beneath the patina of steroids and through the cold stimulation of the mechanical respirator, were struggling to breathe of their own accord. Slightly alarmed, I accessed information about the phenomenon through the dilapidated local search architecture, and found that it was a common reaction in natural breathers to extreme emotion, a normal accompaniment to the pounding of my still-human heart.
We reached yet another set of doors, and Dr. Xian stopped, turned, and took my hand. I was quite startled; it was the first time one of the Primals had voluntarily touched me in all of the months I had been here. He looked directly into my eyes and spoke with what my subtextual heuristics assured me was genuine compassion. “I need you to understand,” he said, “that your…friend…is not as she was when last you saw her. The family has insisted on total normalization. The sight may be shocking to you. Please be assured that we are doing everything in our power to ensure that she is comfortable, that she is not in any pain, and that the transition goes as smoothly as possible.” He looked away from me then, his posture indicating no little amount of shame. “It’s better for her this way. You are being permitted one visit, to say goodbye to her. Then you should go back to your space stations and get on with your life. If the healing process is to continue effectively, she has to be protected from disruptive stimuli. You cannot be allowed to visit her again after this. It would be far too traumatic.”
Of course I should have paid more attention to what he was saying, but I was so close; to delay even a moment longer was intolerable. I pushed roughly past him and through the doors, into a small room with a deep bed set against one wall. I looked around; for a moment, I did not quite comprehend what I was seeing, and asked them, “Where is she? Where is Violaine?”. There was, of course, only one person in the room; the one lying in the bed, surrounded by bulky medical devices obsolete by generations.
She had no arms or legs. The prosthetics she had once had them replaced with, the sleek and beautiful biomechanics with 360-degree joint rotation, prehensile feet, integrated rockets and weapons and tools, were all gone; her shoulders and hips were flanked with tanks of bionutrient gel in which tiny organic limbs twitched and quivered. The airtight carapace which had once protected her body from vacuum and radiation had been ripped off, every one of the billions of nanohooks torn from her living flesh; her body was plastered in thick slabs of synthskin to protect the raw muscle tissue beneath. Shockingly large holes had been drilled in her skull and scooped out of her chest; thick cables snaked from them, connected, no doubt, to crude machines that mimicked the functions of a primal human heart, lungs, spleen, gut, liver, and endocrine glands. And that was hardly the worst of it; that was only the damage I could see. In a terrible instant I understood what the doctor had meant. Normalization. Every cybernetic implant she had ever chosen to have grafted into her body had been surgically removed—every servomotor and processor and wire. She was being turned back into a Primal again.
I walked to her bedside and raised a trembling hand to her cheek; she had always kept her original face, beneath a bubble-shell lifemask, and so her face, at least, remained intact—the only part of her these animals felt was worth keeping. “Violaine,” I whispered to her, “my Self. What have they done to you? Oh, what have they done?”
Her eyelids fluttered. They slid open, and her pupils slowly focused on me. “Richter?” she whispered hoarsely. “I had a dream…felt them all screaming…I can’t feel my legs…my arms…I can’t feel my selves…or you…” Her eyes widened, and a look of subtle horror stole over her face; tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. “Help me, Richter…Please…Something is wrong with me…I can’t feel my mind…”
Dr. Xian walked up behind me and touched my shoulder. “That’s enough,” he started to say. I didn’t even let him finish a second word; I spun around, swatting him like an insect, the prosthetics lending my arm strength enough to throw him several meters down the hall. My neurochemical stabilizer’s imbalance alarms were shrieking in my head as my adrenaline and acetylcholine levels spiked far beyond the redline. The hospital administrator rushed forward babbling something, and I picked him up and shook him so hard his neck nearly snapped, screaming out some half-wordless cry of indignation and rage. They had ripped everything that did not fit their pathetically narrow definition of ‘Normal Human’ out of the woman who had become my Self. They had violated her—violated me, just as surely as if it was my own flesh gone under the knife. In that moment, I could have killed them all.
Luckily for them, and doubtless for me as well, my desperately overcompensating neurochemical stabilizer hit me with a massive dose of sedatives. I folded gently to the floor; the last thing I remember before blacking out was uniformed officers of law enforcement arriving and dumping thousands of volts of electricity through my body.
— # —
I woke in solitary confinement.
My muscular prosthesis had been removed; I lay in a hospital bed, barely able to lift my arms or raise my head. I was in a wireless coldspot; none of my connection protocols could detect so much as a whisper of network chatter, and my attempts grew fewer and farther between as I came to understand just how thoroughly they had isolated me. My confinement was to be solitary indeed. Throughout my life—even in the womb—I had been separated from solitude by the constant soothing whispers of the network; doubly so when I had joined the borganization and been relieved even of the burden of individuality. For the first time, I was alone—truly, completely alone.
I was visited occasionally by Sanford Hall, who had shifted effortlessly from pursuing my suit against the hospital to defending me on charges of assault causing bodily harm. He informed me in cold clinical detail of the injuries I had dealt to Dr. Xian, who had suffered several broken bones, and to Esmer Frall, the hospital administrator, who was being treated for whiplash and brain damage. He then laid out the legal options available to us. There was of course no question of my being allowed to interact with the general prison population or given back the power of the prosthetics, but I could perhaps be allowed a very restricted and highly supervised degree of network access. It was, he claimed, actually a point in our favour that I was so heavily augmented. The case could be made that I had suffered a kind of temporary insanity, exacerbated by the drugs my neurochemical stabilizer had been feeding me. I acquiesced to this avenue of attack, then thanked Master Hall profusely for standing by me. At this, he gave me a curious look. “Master Archwell,” he replied, “you have been hard done by, you and your lover both. I can hardly imagine what seeing her in such a condition must have been for you, who trod the stars and planets with her hand in hand. Your reaction that day was entirely understandable, and I could not have lived with myself had I abandoned you; it is no more or less than simple human decency.”
I spent many hours turning these words over in my mind as I lay, crippled and disconnected, in a cell that was but an afterthought in my confinement. I grew famished for company, and fawned desperately on the guards and medical technicians who maintained the equipment that kept me fed and breathing, who renewed the drug and nutrient packs and removed the voided waste, basking in their plain fear and contempt, grateful for once that these primals rarely used robots to accomplish such simple tasks. I would have done anything to escape the emptiness inside, the echoing cavern of my own mind and the things it reflected back at me.
Could not have lived with myself. I had done the unforgivable. I had struck other people in anger, people over whom I enjoyed a vast gap in physical prowess; possibly maimed them for life. For all their flaws, their shortcomings, their disabilities and deliberate backwardness, they were just as human as I. Dr. Xian had even showed me a degree of sympathy and kindness, complicit as he was in what had been done to Violaine. Your reaction was entirely understandable. My reaction had not been that of a civilized man; it had been that of a beast. I called these people ‘primal’, as if I was more, better, higher than they. I had treated them like yapping dogs, like flies to be brushed away, so focused on my objective that I had barely even seen them; and given the opportunity, I had lowered myself below the level even of the most disagreeable of them. Yet Sanford Hall, who had been no more than a tradesman in my employ, had thought nothing of coming to my aid. Simple human decency. Below all of it, and above and around and interpenetrated through, was the sight of my Self, my Violaine, on that bed, barely anything remaining of her; and the black rage I felt at the thought of it, the unthinkable violence I now knew I could unleash on those responsible, was hard to bear.
I was unused to such a catastrophic weight of introspection, and pathetically relieved when Master Hall informed me that he had secured me access to the walled garden of the prison’s social network and library stack. But even once I regained my ability to connect with the world outside my skull, even though the tedious and laborious construction of letter-by-letter messages and search queries occupied every ounce of my mental focus, the guilt and the anger and the nagging questions remained.
— # —
At last the day came when I was allowed before a magistrate to plead my case. I lay immobile on an upright slab, displayed publicly like a cut of meat, through the interminable legal technicalities, the testimony of doctors as to the injury I had caused, of Violaine’s family about my actions and demeanour leading up to the fateful meeting, of psychiatric ‘experts’ discussing what a neurochemical stabilizer might or might not do to a person’s state of mind. Finally, I was wheeled up to the witness stand and swore on some ritualistic relic to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Sanford Hall ran through my perspective on the events which had occurred, and then asked me the one question on which the tide of the trial would turn: “What did you feel when you saw your lover lying there, in the state in which you found her; all of her augmentations removed, barely able to recognize her, pleading with you for help?”
I had rehearsed my simple answer many times, yet I still had trouble giving voice to it.
“Imagine,” my words crackled forth from my voice synthesizer. “Imagine someone you love dearly has been in a terrible accident. Imagine that it happened on one of the colonies, out in space, among my kind. Imagine that you had gone through hell and high water to try and see them. And imagine, when you did, that all kinds of cybernetic implants had been grafted into their body without their authorization or consent. Imagine that they no longer looked remotely like the person you had come to know and love. Imagine what you would do to the person who did that to them, if you could. Imagine this and you may begin to understand what I felt in that moment.”
— # —
After considerable deliberation, the judge chose to acquit me of the charges facing me by reason of temporary insanity, provided I agreed to leave the planet immediately and trouble Violane’s family no further.
During the time of my incarceration, Violaine had died. The trauma had been too much for her. I was not permitted to attend the funeral.
I saw Violaine’s mother and father one last time, just as I was about to board a shuttle to take me back into orbit. It had finally dawned on them, now that they no longer had to protect their darling daughter from me, that I had gained a vast fortune from the accident that had claimed our lives, and ultimately her life. Her mother demanded that I hand over Violaine’s share of that fortune to her family.
For a moment, for two, I considered it. Were they not human, like me? Had I not ill-treated them? Were they not also bereaved? Had they not done merely what they thought was right?
Then, like a specter, the image rose before me of Violaine, of what they had made of her, of the expression on her still-perfect face when I had seen her for the last time, of her dying alone, without even the comfort of the neurolink to soothe her.
I laughed in their faces.
“You have made it abundantly clear,” I told them as I was being wheeled on to the ship, “that you do not consider me to have had any real relationship to Violaine. And as far as I am concerned, neither did you.”
© 2022 Xauri’EL Zwaan
About the Author
Xauri’EL Zwaan is a mendicant artist in search of meaning, fame and fortune, or pie (where available); a Genderqueer Bisexual, a Socialist Solarpunk, and a Satanist Goth. Zie lives and writes in a little hobbit hole in Saskatoon, Canada on Treaty 6 territory with zir life partner and a multitude of cats.