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I saw the machines. And they were real.
The “effect of cognitive deficiencies on consciousness” was, apparently, severe. Strip away a brain’s memory, speech, and emotion functions, everything that made a person a person, and you were left with a machine. A machine that, if you programmed it right, would do anything you told it to.
“Tell me I’m understanding this wrong,” I said.
“Our uploaded neural patterns can’t be accessed by them—by anyone—not while we’re still functioning,” I said, because that’s what I had been told. It was the foundation of the download technology. As long as our brains were active, our functioning neural networks released a signal that prevented the resurrection of any other brain with the same neural pattern. Only one Lia Kahn at a time, that was the hard-and-fast rule. But the neural patterns they were playing with down here were altered, weren’t they? Deficient. Which made the signal—and their promises—useless.
Zo still didn’t say anything.
I couldn’t stop watching the machine, the one stumbling on its iron feet.
I couldn’t stop wondering whether it remembered its name.
“You can’t search for yourself,” Zo said quietly. “I tried. Everything’s indexed by some kind of ID number, not name. If I had more time, probably … but maybe it’s better?”
Maybe it was better I didn’t know whether they’d taken a computer program that, under the right circumstances, called itself Lia Kahn, and crammed it into a steel tank? Maybe it was better I not think about what it would mean, what I would be, if my “significant personality markers” were stripped away, along with “superior cognitive function” and “emotive control.” If I was lobotomized, with only an animal intelligence left behind.
I’d flown in an AI plane. I’d looked out the window, wondering at the technology that allowed it to decide for itself how fast to fly, where to land. I’d seen the headlines on the news zones: the lives that had been saved by the new AI surrogates, compliant mechanical fighters that shot and crushed and bombed and burned on command, that were smart enough to strategize, pliant enough to follow every command. I’d never given much thought to it, how they’d suddenly, magically, breached the artificial intelligence barrier. Because it had nothing to do with me. I was artificial, I was intelligent, I was a machine, yes. But I was different. I was a remnant of something human; I had started life as something else. They were things; they had always been machines.
That’s what I’d thought.
Because, again, that’s what I’d been told.
“Why do they need so many?” I asked dully. According to the records, they’d downloaded more than a hundred of us into various prototypes. Why not lobotomize one brain and download it into everything? More efficient—still evil.
“I think …” Zo hesitated, as if understanding it somehow made her complicit. “I think it increases the chances of success. Different neural patterns adjust better to different machines. Some don’t work at all.”
“So this is their testing ground.” I turned back to the video feeds of the padded cells, watching the stumbling machine and remembering what it had been like for me at the beginning, learning to walk. Training my brain to control the artificial body. They’d scared us into cooperating with the tedious rehabilitation process, making it all too clear what would happen if our neural patterns failed to adapt. We’d be frozen, unable to move or speak or see, trapped inside a head with no window to the world, no control. Buried alive inside a mechanical corpse.
“They let them learn,” Zo said, “give them commands, see what happens, and when they find a neural pattern that works—”
“Payday.” I backed away. “Can you deal with this?” I asked. “Download whatever you can to your zone, get some pics, evidence, whatever—”
“I got it,” Zo said. She didn’t ask what I’d be doing while she got stuck with all the work.
I returned to the corridor. To the cells. I stood at one of the windows, watching a miniature tank ram itself into a wall, over and over again. I tapped at the glass, but nothing happened. I don’t know what I was expecting—it wasn’t an animal.
It. I was thinking like them.
But it wasn’t an it.
It was, had been, a he. Or a she.
Maybe it had been someone I knew, maybe even—
Maybe it didn’t matter. It wasn’t a person inside that tank. It was electronic data, some of which happened to resemble the data inside our heads. It was bytes of information, flickers of light. Nothing more. It didn’t have any effect on us. Its existence was irrelevant.
But if it was nothing, just an imperfect copy, just data, then so was I. And if I was a person, a someone, then maybe so was it. Thinking and feeling at some primal level, dumb and mute and trapped, a slave to a stranger’s commands.
Zo came up beside me. She didn’t speak, and knew better than to touch me. We stood side by side. “I don’t know what to do,” I said.
“We were supposed to be a fairy tale.”
Jude didn’t believe it, not at first. We had to show him the files we’d hacked and the vids we’d taken, and even then, I could tell, he wanted to think we’d somehow gotten ourselves turned around, stumbled into an alternate realm with no bearing on the real world. It was the first time I’d ever seen him underestimate the boundaries of org depravity.
On its surface this was less brutal than the antiskinner attacks and lynchings, less bloody than the corp’s initial foray into the download technology, its path littered with the corpses of unwilling “volunteers.” But I thought I understood Jude’s uncertainty and—though he never would have admitted it—his panic. Because this was coordinated and systemic. For all we knew, it was the reason BioMax had pursued the download technology to begin with. Certainly, supplying the military industrial complex paid better than a semihumanitarian mission to heal the broken children of the wealthy. Not to mention the domestic-sector applications, which we’d all seen. Which we’d all—the self-revulsion at this thought was overwhelming—used without a second thought.
“How could I be this stupid?” Jude said, as we huddled in his car and told him everything.
“How were you supposed to know?” I asked. “I worked there, and I didn’t.”
I wasn’t going to fight with him, even if it would have been easier. “You’re right. We were stupid. Now what?”
“You’re asking him?” Zo said.
“I should be asking you?”
“Since when do you ask anyone?”
I wouldn’t have thought I had to remind her that things changed.
“Bossy big sister doesn’t exactly translate into fearless leader,” Jude said.
“Asshole. I got us this far, didn’t I?”
“With my plan,” he pointed out.
“Congratulations,” Zo said. “You’re both equally useless.”
“This doesn’t have to change anything,” I said. “We can still sell the info to Aikida.”
Jude frowned. “And let them do the same thing?”
“So we go public,” I suggested. “This has to be illegal.”
“Not if they don’t want it to be,” Jude said.
“So what’s your brilliant idea?”
He didn’t answer. That was the worst part. Jude, the one person who shouldn’t have been surprised, had somehow failed to question the fundamental truth of our existence. That we were the only copies. That each of us existed as a unique unit, a single person, our identities protected and sacrosanct. It was the lie that allowed us to be human, wasn’t it? Because how could I be Lia Kahn if there was a second Lia Kahn wandering the earth, a third, a fourth, a hundredth—how could I be Lia Kahn if there was a battlefield of Lia Kahns, tanks and planes and, for all I knew, vacuum cleaners, all of them somehow, not quite, but mostly me? If BioMax could lie abo
ut this, they could lie about anything. They could put a copy of my brain into another body, awaken as many Lia Kahns as they liked.
Stripped-down personalities were still personalities; lobotomized brains could still think. Artificial intelligence dictated intelligence. So what made us people and them machines?
Nothing, I thought. To BioMax, we’re all just things.
There’s no sin in lying to a thing.
“So we’re screwed,” Zo said.
“We’re screwed,” I said. “You’re …”
“Not involved. Right. Somehow I forgot.”
I couldn’t stop saying the wrong thing. “Let’s just go home,” I said. Then, because someone had to, even if it was a lie: “We’ll figure something out.”
The real problem: This wasn’t a flaw in the system. This was the system itself. This was the corp that owned us, body and mind. This wasn’t something we could fight. But we were going to have to.
I dumped Zo and Jude at Riley’s place. Zo lunged for the shower, as if eager to wash off the day. I understood the impulse. Jude was more than happy to ensconce himself on Riley’s turf to keep an eye on Sari—the two of them circled each other warily like rival alley cats, and I half expected one to start peeing to mark the territory. True to form, Riley didn’t ask questions.
“Let’s go somewhere,” I told him.
“It’s the middle of the night.”
“I don’t care. Please.”
He gave in.
Only one problem: I didn’t know where I wanted to go. So we drove aimlessly, watching the muddy browns and grays stream by the window, the river of concrete and mud and smog. The water, that’s what I thought of first, the dead city beneath the sea. Our place, with its silent buildings and frozen cars, our city of algae and coral and darkness. It was the first place Riley had taken me, the first place he’d kissed me, back when we’d fit with jigsaw perfection. But we’d gone back too often these last few months, neither of us admitting what we were trying to do. It was a way of going backward. Beyond that fence nothing existed except us. We didn’t talk there, not like we used to. We ducked beneath the water and held hands and let the current carry us wherever it wanted to go. We hid.
It was too quiet there; it was too easy. Too still. After everything that had happened, I needed something else—not just the relief of Riley’s arms around me, but the relief of adrenaline and fear and forgetting. And then the answer was obvious.
It wasn’t our place; it wasn’t my place. It had belonged to Jude, once; it had belonged to all of us. I hadn’t been back there in nearly a year, because I had been too afraid. It was the place to start over again, because it was the place where things had gone wrong.
I keyed in the coordinates. Recognizing them, Riley tugged me toward him, and we curled up in the front seat as the car veered to the right, taking us west, off the highway, into the country, away.
The waterfall was tamer than I remembered. But it was wild enough.
Riley looked uncertain. “Why here?”
He knew how I felt about the waterfall. “I want us to jump,” I said.
“I thought you wanted to talk.”
I led him to the water. We took off our shoes, peeled off our clothes, and waded out to the edge of the precipice, buffeted by wind. The water roared. I could have shouted all my secrets and let the wind carry the words away.
I held out my hand. He grabbed it, squeezed, then let go.
There was no point in counting down. No point in being afraid. I’d leaped from planes. I’d leaped from cliffs. This was no different. If anything went wrong, my brain, my self, was safely copied and stored. Whatever happened to this body, BioMax had Lia Kahn, to do with whatever they wanted. She was their toy. I belonged to them.
I closed my eyes. Lifted my arms to the sky.
It was everything I needed. It was mindless, breathless, timeless, twisting and flailing and falling. The pleasure of the flight met the pain of the rocks. The water carried me down, carried me away. Sucked me under the falls, into a churning storm, the surface lit by a sheet of white water, the river cycloning around me, driving me down, dragging me up, then down and up again, like a bobbing cork, like a doll, like a body.
It was the moment that my brain kicked in, that I thought, Auden, and remembered his body sailing over the lower falls, floating at the bottom, facedown, breathless.
I kicked furiously, fought off the storm, and broke free to the surface of the icy river. I floated, ears submerged, eyes to the gray sky.
That’s when I saw Riley, his form a shadow against the sun, standing at the edge of the falls, looking down.
“So, you didn’t jump.”
“I didn’t jump.”
We sat cross-legged on the riverbank. Water gushed down from above, its spray misting the air.
“That’s okay,” I said.
“I know it’s okay.” He was angry. At himself, for freezing? At me, for dragging him here?
At me, for jumping, and leaving him behind?
There was a long pause. “Go ahead,” he finally said, sullen. “Ask.”
“Fine. Why didn’t you?”
He hunched his shoulders, scraping his knuckles against each other. “You know why Jude started this?”
“To remind ourselves of what it means to be a mech,” I recited, the familiar words strange in my mouth. It wasn’t so long ago that I’d given this speech on a daily basis. “With absolute control must come absolute release. Release from gravity, release from fear.”
“Release from death.”
Right. I’d left out the most important one, the bright line dividing mech and org. The absence that defined us. No end of the line, no period on our sentence. Endless days and years of downloading from one body to the next. We jumped from the waterfall because we could, because we could do anything. The drop wasn’t steep enough to permanently damage our bodies—they were too well constructed for that—but we jumped because it didn’t matter. If something went wrong, if the body were crushed or drowned or torn apart, we would remain intact. We jumped to defy death, as we defied it every day, by living on, far past our sell-by date.
“I bought it,” Riley said. “But since the fire …”
I waited him out. With Riley it was the only way.
“It’s not the same,” he finally said. “Now that I know what it’s like.”
I understood, or thought I did, but only because I’d become an expert at translating Riley’s begrudging admissions of inner life. So, spitting in the face of death was less fun once you’d died yourself.
Not org death—we’d all been through that. But mech death. Waking up yet again in the BioMax lab, with no memory of how you’d ended up there, with a gap in the story of your life. Knowing yourself to be a copy of a copy. It was fear of that moment that prevented me from downloading into a new, custom-made body that would look like the Lia I used to be. It was the fear that gripped me every time I stood on a ledge, the fear I needed, if the leap was going to mean anything. It was one thing to know you couldn’t die; it was another thing to believe it.
Maybe now Riley didn’t.
Since the fire, I’d spent so much time trying to convince myself he wasn’t a different person. I hadn’t thought to convince him. Even though every time he looked in the mirror, he saw someone different staring back at him. Because of me. Because I’d given him back something I thought he wanted, without bothering to ask.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “We shouldn’t have come.”
He shook his head. “I’m just being stupid.”
“Jude’s right, you know. They have the power. If something happens, and they don’t want to put you into a new body, they don’t have to. They can do anything they want. They always do.”
I wondered if “they” meant BioMax, or if “they” meant everyone with more power, with more credit, everyone who’d ever used him as a tool or a
toy, just because they could. It was nothing new for him; it was status quo.
Maybe that’s why, when I put my hands over his and told him what we’d found at BioMax and what the corp was doing to our friends, maybe to us, he wasn’t surprised. “Of course” was all he said. “Of course they would.”
I’d wanted outrage and shock. Maybe I’d even wanted violence: Riley throwing me off, leaping to his feet, out for blood. But this was more of what I’d gotten when I told him about my father: resigned acknowledgment that he’d been right about the world all along. Surprise that I hadn’t seen it coming.
“I know I promised I wouldn’t do anything,” I said, when he didn’t ask any follow-up questions. “But I had to.” And you made me lie to you.
“I know,” Riley said. “I get it. I figured you would.”
“That’s why you went to Jude behind my back?”
Riley issued a hard laugh. “Not like he listened.”
“You should have trusted me.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You were lying.”
“No, I mean you should have trusted me to decide for myself.”
A pause. “Maybe.”
But that’s what we did: We decided for each other. We lied; I lied. Maybe that was why I’d brought him here, because last time we’d been in this place, we’d been strangers. This was a place for a fresh start. No more lies.
First I kissed him. He closed his eyes, but I kept mine open, sweeping my gaze across his skin, trying to memorize the angle of his cheekbones, the crinkles at the edges of his eye, the way the skin shallowly dimpled below his ear.
“What was that for?” he asked, when I finally pulled back. “Not that I’m complaining.”