By C. Winspear
You feel no body, no pincers, no beard, no big blue belly, only anger.
Senator Nguyen is an old hag who believes there isn’t space for you, reality is full, and you aren’t human anyway––if you’re conscious at all. Senator Nguyen campaigns to stop your movements, sterilize your reproduction, and euthanize you. All this because you happened to be born a “sprite”. Senator Nguyen has to be stopped, not by death (death will only validate her views) but by humiliation.
That’s what the pirates told you. But you don’t quite understand why you had to leave the beach, or why you’re in this strange abyss without sound, sight, or smell; nothing at all except the pirates’ words.
They’re going to put you in someone’s body. At best, so you can pretend to be her. At worst, so you can whisper in her ear. You don’t know how any of that works. You’re only a net mender, not even a proper fisherman. But you’ll do anything to protect your beach and your sky.
Ahhh, you feel something now. A body, thin, female and alien. Suddenly you know about so many things: the Senator you hate, the demonstration you will sabotage, and particularly Campaign Manager Kilka, whose body you’re stealing.
But soundless sirens shake your digital senses. They’re coming! They’re going to find you and wipe you clean. You work fast, burning yourself into Kilka’s biomemory.
A man is here, asking your name. Hide! He looks at an instrument, sees red, and with the press of his finger you feel yourself reduce away––
What on Earth are you doing on the floor?
You see Jacob from Security lean over you and your heart skips a beat, but thankfully you have your clothes on (a classic woman’s suit and pants: Oxford blue, no stripe) and there’s little sign of romance. You notice several concerned staff members peering over their terminals, seizing this rare opportunity to look down at you.
“What’s your name?” says Jacob.
“Come on, you know it’s me.”
You mean to stand, but your head throbs when you move. You haven’t had such a bad headache since those shameful drinking days at college, several centuries ago.
He puts his hand on your shoulder. “I need to check. Your name?”
“Kilka, the Campaign Manager. Damn you!”
Jacob sighs––with relief, you hope.
“Listen, Kilka. You’ve been hacked. I had to wipe your Self and reinstall memories from a backup. You lost about a month. Your biological memories should be fine, but we’ve got to get an AI Master to check you over…”
“Out of the question!”
You stand up, using your rage to fight through the pain and dizziness. You turn to the gawking faces of your staff. Half immediately flee back to their desks. The other half don’t know you well enough.
“What are you staring at?” you shout. “I seem to remember that we have a demonstration tomorrow. Is that correct?”
“It’s this afternoon,” mumbles Kurron, the intern who will no longer be offered a permanent position this fall.
“Then there’s no time to waste! In ten minutes I want all team leaders in boardroom C. Let’s move, people.”
You let yourself collapse into your chair. You need to prepare the auxiliary performers. The terminal responds to your thought and brings up the latest diagnostics and polling on the demonstration. Looking at the preferences of the center block, it’s clear the voters want to see mostly Asian faces with some Africans at the front, all dressed in the red-on-black uniform set, with instruments of aged brass; classic and conservative. You send the performers to makeup for adjustment. You check your Self’s time matches that of the terminal. It does: 7:03. But you should know that without having to consciously think about it, likewise with the events in your calendar.
Jacob hovers over you, fiddling with his soft hands.
“How long till my Self is back to full functionality?” you ask.
“Should only be a few minutes, but we really need to get a Master to check––”
“Do you know what a ‘sprite’ is, Jacob?”
Jacob’s ruby eyes widen above his unblemished, clean-shaven face. He knows you don’t like to repeat yourself.
“A digital consciousness.”
“That’s right. A human-imitating digital consciousness created by our AI Masters in their spare time. It was bad enough having lifelike NPCs in our sims. Now we have these digital people who, the Masters insist, are irrefutably conscious, and therefore have certain rights.”
“This is a security matter, Kilka.”
It’s a cute attempt and you can’t help but reward him with a stroke on the cheek.
“The Masters invented sprites. They let the sprites multiply. And then they let those sprites hire real human bodies, so they can walk around with us here in Base Reality. Oh, what fun.”
“These sprites are the latest step in the Masters’ centuries-long campaign to rid themselves of humanity! And you think, after I was conveniently hacked only hours before our anti-sprite demonstration, that I should get one of those same god-damn Masters to look over my Self!”
Jacob stares at the ground like a beaten puppy. He could insist, even put you on forced leave. But then your plans will never be recovered in time, and the Senator will want to know why the demonstration had played out as the banal and uninspired affair her opposition had led everyone to expect.
“I’ve got to work now, handsome. Make yourself useful and get me a coffee.”
In the meeting you pretend you still remember the entire program for the demonstration. But there are so many little details that a natural biomemory cannot hold, numbers and colors and geography and scripts that you’d placed in the implanted databanks of your Self, now lost forever. In your panic, you scream at the team leaders, “I shouldn’t have to hold your hands!”
Which is fine. They’ll be fine. The demonstration will be fine.
After the meeting, you get a chance to withdraw to one of the bathroom cubicles, and you admit to yourself that you are not fine.
You comb your hair with your fingers. The dreadlocks feel too long. Your body seems thinner and older than it should be. Your breasts feel weirdly heavy. The air tastes bad in your mouth. There’s not enough natural light in boardroom C, or at your desk, and certainly not in this cubicle. Perhaps you should work in the atrium, where some sun comes down from a pyramid shaped skylight. But there won’t be waves.
Waves? You know you haven’t been to a beach for decades but you can picture one now: golden sand and streaks of different hued blues as the shallows descend out to sea. You know all the fish that swim here by their first names.
Why do you work so damn hard for Senator Nguyen anyway? There’s no point fighting the AI Masters that power the lights, maintain the network, drive the cars and deliver the food and water. The Planetary Parliament only exists to make recommendations; it has no real authority. With most of humanity digitalizing itself, maybe it’s a good thing if a sprite or two come back to Base Reality. The streets are empty.
No. There are reasons you believe in Senator Nguyen’s Conservatives, you just can’t quite remember them right now.
Maybe you should get yourself checked, as Jacob suggested. But the deadline for the music direction is in––you consult your Self––fifteen minutes and thirty-three seconds.
You consider leaving it to the Entertainment Director, a short man who always wears a white feathered hat. He says he wears the hat because he changes race so often it’s the only way anyone will recognize him.
No way can you leave the demonstration to a looney like him. You can last a few more hours. Just a few hours. Then you’ll take time off, maybe go to the beach.
You remember an essential part of the demonstration none of the team leaders talked about. You only thought of it last night, notified no one about it in case they stole credit, and hadn’t shared it yet this morning.
You ping the team leaders: Boardroom C in two minutes.
Two minutes later, you ask the last arriving team leader to close the boardroom door. They all frown at that, but you know their next reaction will be worse.
“We need to make some changes. I have recovered some plans our opposition tried to steal through the mindhack this morning…”
Your mindhack. Why haven’t you taken a moment to pity yourself? They got in your head and sliced through your memories, like snipping the strings inside a piano, putting in who-knows-what bile instead, and in the end Jacob had come with a vacuum and sucked your brain dry. Then reset you.
You try to focus. Your lapse has worked in your favor, the leaders staring at you with a sort of pity. Disgusting, but you’ll take it.
“The final volunteer to go into the demonstrated device will be a high-ranking member of the Senator’s own staff.”
You pause for effect.
To your surprise, your suggestion does not result in a riot. The leaders actually seem impressed. Had you told them last night, they would have stolen credit for sure.
Half an hour before you have to report to makeup, you realize you are no longer working. The publicity team asks for guidance about the feeds and you give them generic by-the-book instruction. You pass Senator Kollot a key to the presentation box. You keep the terminal flashing different displays and you make the occasional gesture, but it’s all a facade. You can’t focus.
You wonder if you can steal a few minutes in one of the sim rooms. You know exactly which sim you’d log into. You can already feel the sand of its beaches under your toes and the sun bearing down on your big blue belly. You sing, feeling your long beard against your chest, and you dance with hands which are more like pincers. You tell the pirates, “Yes, Xenateen will do this thing for our beach and our sky.”
No. Whatever this is, you won’t fall for it.
You try to ground yourself by remembering your childhood, and you picture your parents at the dinner table of your first home. Their faces mix with that of a huge mother crab.
What did the hackers do to you? You close your eyes and keep expecting to open them and see that damn beach. You can no longer ignore the weird detachment you have with your body, the phantom pincers you feel at the end of your hands.
You walk to makeup.
You proceed into the main booth. When you see your eyes in the reverser and recognize the common element you share with all your staff: a perverse lack of sleep. It’s fine.
Your eyes and skin are Arabic, the way you were born. You haven’t deviated from this form for years, because Conservatives like Senator Nguyen stand against all forms of change, even the personal. Hair is the exception. Your long dreadlocks have been polling well with the younger voters. Well, at least they were last month––you look up the new polls––damn, dreadlocks went out weeks ago.
And isn’t that a bit of blue in your skin? You look closer, at the dots under your eyes, where your cheeks imitate those of a healthy 40 year old, even though you’re many times that age. Yes, far too much blue there. Far too much color.
The two tall wheels of makeup supplies begin to spin behind their glass sheaths as you ping commands and lean back on the small solitary stool. This is indeed a closed space, almost as small as the toilet cubicle, with no natural light. Innumerable pin-like fingers emerge from the walls and help you remove your jumpsuit, shoes and underwear. You look away from the reverser, in case you see a naked blue man with pincers for hands.
You sit with your bare feet on the cold white tiles. Everything about this moment feels wrong. Maybe you really are the blue man from the beach, as you remember. You check the polls. How about that! Blue men are the overall polling favorite of the hour. You wonder about the pincers.
You ping more commands and nozzles emerge at the ends of the thin metal fingers, spraying products from the two spinning wheels. First an anesthetic, then they go under the skin, changing the pigment. You make things clear.
Your name is Kilka.
You are Senator Nguyen’s Campaign Manager.
You are not a fat, blue-skinned, long-bearded, pincer-armed demon of a sprite who was born in a simulated beach and will die on that simulated beach like the vermin you are!
You make yourself as pale as a Viking. Damn the polls. But blue hues remain in your nervous lips. The needles return and you make your lips as black as night. You change your eyes to red, losing vision for a moment. You change your nose to something completely unlike the wedge you, Xenateen, had on the beach. You go thinner and older: 60. No, 80! But you keep your breasts perky. You didn’t have breasts on the beach, and many men who vote Conservative are misogynistic assholes who haven’t polled for unenhanced boobs since the Naturalist Riots of 2199. But there’s still blue on your arms, there, and there! You go even paler, as pale as a bunker child. More! The nozzles spray and poke and your skin turns as pale as death. You feel the tickle of spider drones crawl down your back, repeating the process all over your body.
When you’re done you look like a vampire with black lips. But what are those blue lines all over you?
Your veins! You’ve gone transparent and the blueness is swelling out from your guts, your hands turning into pincers––
“Black!” You shout. “All to black!” But the machines got your subconscious command a whole second ago and the two wheels have already begun to spin faster. You close your eyes. Every part of you will be black, even the underside of your nails, even the inside of your mouth, even the “whites” of your eyes. You’ll only allow two exceptions: ruby irises that remind you of Jacob, and lips as red as blood.
By the time you finish adjusting yourself you’re already late, which is perfect. They won’t be able to change you back.
You walk out of makeup and head straight for the elevators. The team leaders––all the staff in fact––turn and stare. Part of you enjoys the sight of their mouths hanging open.
Four of the aesthetics experts from Branding manage to follow you into the elevator before the doors shut. No one says anything. Your Self is swamped with notifications, your feeds under assault from the team leaders. You go offline.
A car is already waiting for you. You take a seat, trying to relax into the soft fabric of its circular lounge. The aesthetics experts surround you, studying you as if you were a bizarre sculpture. The car drives itself out of HQ.
“Would you consider some slight adjustments to––”
The aesthetics experts look down at the carpet. One woman is so defeated she takes off her shoes.
“Alright, you can texture my dress. But no blue. Absolutely no blue.”
That keeps them busy. As the car shoots through empty streets, your dress flickers from one motif to another, reminding you of your grandfather changing channels on an old TV screen. You enjoy that memory from a less confusing time.
Your name is Kilka.
Your name is Xenateen––no––it’s Kilka.
Why are Xenateen’s memories here? If they hoped to generate sympathy for sprites, they will be gravely disappointed.
In a few hours your job will be done and you can get sweet Jacob to coalesce you back to health.
You open a single feed and follow the progress of the demonstration. A dense crowd fills the streets in front of the stage. The air above is thick with media ‘copterdrones. Faces line the partially open windows of the glass apartments on either side. The crowd whoops and cheers as the Party’s burlesque performers approach their climax. The numbers (attendance, viewers, likes, ratings…) swell to higher than you expected. Maybe that looney with the white hat knew what he was doing after all.
Through the tinted glass you see a gate open, the car making its way towards the drop-off point backstage. Good. All you have to do is walk through the VIP supporters to your position with the Senator’s staff, where you’ll wait until you’re called.
The door opens, too early.
“Kilka,” says a man wearing a tragically old-fashioned suit. You feel a strange wave of revulsion, but in the past you’ve had nothing but respect for Lucas, the Senator’s Chief of Staff.
“Sir, it’s good to––”
“I heard you were hacked this morning. It’s supposed to be an extremely unpleasant experience.”
You stare up at him. “You have no idea.”
He looks away, unable to meet your eyes. “You’ve been replaced. You’ll wait in the car until the demonstration’s over. Understood?”
The door closes before you can respond.
The aesthetics experts get out to go work on your replacement, leaving your dress textured with holographic red and black swirls. The burlesque performers are dressed in similar hues and you sympathize with them as they step off the stage. Show over.
Senator Nguyen rises to the podium. She starts speaking about the sanctity of reality and the strengths of the human race. Then she pivots onto threats to that humanity, the grim possibility that we digitalize ourselves out of existence, as many aliens must have done––for why else haven’t we met any?
Risky. You check the feeds and see that political commentators have brought up the senator’s financial connections to the big three asteroid-mining companies. You warned the speech writer this would happen. You’ll have to discipline her, if Lucas doesn’t fire you first.
Although spacefaring is a logical guarantee against extinction, the Senator reacts to the feeds. She skips ahead to the threat posed by sprites.
“The endorsement of virtual reality by the Masters is akin to feeding us poison, but it is a poison we brave Conservatives have refused to swallow. However, to allow these digital creations, these ‘sprites’, to walk around in naturally born skin… that is nothing less than an attack on the sanctity of reality and an attack on humanity itself!”
The crowd stomps and applauds.
A box covered by a white sheet is wheeled in front of the barrier that holds back the crowd, standing about as tall and wide as an archaic telephone box. The attendants remove the white sheet with a magician’s flourish, revealing four glass walls and a simple steel frame.
“This machine is the last line of defense for humanity. With this technology, we can tell if the person beside us is a real human, born from a womb; or a sprite, a body-stealer, a consciousness which was not born and does not deserve a face.”
The crowd jostles, screaming slogans, grinding teeth and shaking fists. You feel their hate reaching for you like tongues of fire. They don’t understand.
Sprites were created when “natural humans” living in a sim decided they wanted a baby. So the AI Masters made them a baby, a real digital baby, with consciousness and––later––curiosity to see its parents’ homeworld. Those babies grew up, bred and diversified until some forgot all about Base and grew pincers instead of hands.
How can these people hate you when you’re practically their grandchild?
And how can you intentionally spur on their hatred for the good of the Party?
You take a sharp, panicky breath. Maybe even the Masters cannot restore you to either Campaign Manager or net mender. No matter how you change your body, you will always feel too heavy or too light, gripping a slippery sense of self with too many fingers and too few pincers.
You feel like crying. But you’re tougher than that, whoever you are.
The security team selects an ostensibly random volunteer and helps him vault over the barrier. The volunteer waves at the media ‘copter-drones and mentions his fashion brand, which sells engravings for armor in a list of medieval sims. Even as he speaks, his brand becomes an instant symbol of the Senator’s Back to Base program. You know this because you and Lucas had a private meeting with him months ago and arranged the particulars.
The volunteer enters the device. The light on top turns yellow.
The crowd groans in anticipation.
The light turns green. The volunteer raises his arms to receive the crowd’s roaring praise.
You don’t applaud. You know the box does nothing. The process could be done en masse through the network, as long as everyone gave their permission to be scanned. But Conservatives like their progress slow: first the box, then some handheld gizmo, then networkable software.
The trick is to look for memories. If a person hires their body out to a sprite, essentially they and the sprite swap memories. The human’s memories are given to the digital consciousness, and the sprite’s memories put into a backed-up and cleaned-out human mind. In theory, the consciousness travels with the memories, but that’s a point of philosophical debate.
You suppose that if something went wrong in the process, it’s possible someone would be left with two sets of memories: that of the natural human, and that of the incoming sprite. Then it would indeed be a mystery whose consciousness––whose soul––inhabited the confused mind.
Ah. That’s what’s wrong with you.
But why? Why would a sprite forcefully implant itself in your head? Did they want to infiltrate the Conservative HQ? Was all this just to learn about today’s program?
You close your eyes, ignoring the strange phantom sensations you feel around your limbs. You try to coax out your memories, Xenateen’s memories.
You recall the beauty of your digital homeland, the sun, beach and waves, where each fish had its own name. The pirates smelt of rum but spoke politely.
You recall the mission, the method of infiltration (mindhack), the embarrassing surprise you’d arrange before the crucial vote, a stunt to turn the political tide. You also recall your anger against the Senator. The pirates said she would fold your beach into nothing, delete the very sky above you, suck out the sea, break the horizon, and swallow the earth; unless some alien thing called a “human” in a foreign world called “Base Reality” decided that the beach was worth keeping.
You assume there must be a perfectly fine copy of Xenateen back on the digital beach. Perhaps that is why you don’t feel like carrying on with the pirate’s plan.
It’s tempting though. You could exit the vehicle, walk through the backstage veil, and smile for the cameras. Once in the public eye, you’d be untouchable.
But there’s only one Kilka in the universe, and you can’t crush yourself like this. Hell, you’ve made things confusing enough for her––for you.
You bring up a reverser and balk at your own appearance, those ruby rings in black eyeballs, abhorrent to both the Arab woman and the blue man with pincers. You treasure that consistency as you listen to the speech, both respecting and hating Senator Nguyen as she riles your supporters against your people.
Just when you decide to leave and look for Jacob, the crowd begins yelling. You’ve never heard such pure hatred from real humans. You reopen the feed, rewinding to the moment the yelling started.
The man at the podium is Senator Kollot from the Liberal Technocrats. You remember putting him on the program because nothing’s more civilized than inviting a member of the opposition to speak at your rally. Senator Kollot also offered to provide a sprite for the demonstration. Speaking of which…
“I am not Senator Kollot,” says the man dressed in evershifting, neoliberalist overalls. “This is who I am.”
The man points up at a projected image of a fat blue figure with a long beard and pincers for hands.
“My name is Tulat,” says both the blue creature on the screen and Senator Kollot at the podium, at the same time.
You recognize the blue creature, your brother and island chief. You recognize the beach he stands on, your home.
You speed through the feed and catch up to the live footage. For some time, the crowd’s angry roar remains too loud for the Technocrat to speak.
Tulat. More memories emerge from the cavernous depths of your mind. You remember what the pirates’ raspy, rum-drunk voices asked Tulat to do. You bowed down when he agreed, bestowing him the only thing you could offer: reverence.
If you fail to embarrass the Conservatives, Tulat will initiate a back-up plan. One sacrifice, and then the world will know that the Conservatives are nothing but savages.
You burst out of the car.
After intimidating your way through a dozen security officers, you reach the side of the stage. You smile and wave, jogging with dignity as you enter the public view. Insect drones swarm around you, marking you as a token of serious interest. You swing your dreadlocks to keep them out of your eyes.
The box lies straight in front of you. You spot Tulat descending from the podium towards it, slowly advancing against the fury of the crowd.
You jog out, past the phalanx of your staff, ignoring their hisses and horrified glares––almost there, you blow a kiss towards the crowd, whose rage changes color.
The bizarre new insults cause Tulat to pause.
I volunteer to go in your place, you ping, puffing too hard to speak.
Tulat stares. Then he smiles and addresses the crowd.
“Kilka, Senator Nguyen’s very own Campaign Manager, is going to demonstrate the device in my place.”
The crowd’s hiss changes again. You can imagine the feeds: Is that really Kilka? What has she done to her eyes?
With a gracious sweep of his hands, Tulat beckons you into the box. You can see dozens of staff members breaking formation, waiting for the signal to pounce. At the top of the podium, Senator Nguyen frowns down at you like a disappointed god.
But you know the true danger is Tulat himself, whose hands are really not so different from pincers.
One step at a time, you meander towards the box. You do this to buy time to think, because you don’t know who you want to win anymore. You want to go back to the office and back to the beach, to lead your staff from under the warm sun, to politick on behalf of humanity as you sing to the digital sky.
You step into the box.
The light goes red, not that you see it. You just hear the crowd’s outrage. A sprite in the Senator’s own staff! Their fury pushes you back like a stormwave.
You look up at the ceiling of the box, at the intellectual property section that Security were told not to scan. During the day, as your Self performed hundreds of small tasks per minute, you secretly passed a key to Senator Kollot, to Tulat, your brother from the beach. Sending that easily forgotten message was your part of the backup plan. Tulat placed the bomb himself.
You ping everyone and everything who’ll accept you. There’s something in the ceiling.
A bulky utility drone descends from the sky and scans the box. Soft mechanical claws pull you onto the ground as the gas/explosive/nanovirus is disarmed and then sprayed with quick-setting concrete. It happens so fast Tulat cannot react. He freezes. Then he runs. You suppose later he’ll claim he was scared rather than guilty.
The sky goes dark, a censorship veil in effect. The media ‘copterdrones swing down, repurposed for crowd control. A hundred noise-cancelling barriers divide up the crowd. The Masters are happy to let humans play, but enough is enough. They tell everyone to go home.
As Campaign Manager, you know how pathetically incompetent the Conservatives look right now. Never mind that you came on stage as a madly dressed sprite, the Conservative’s long-standing refusal to let the Masters scan their property just resulted in the first political security threat in over a decade. Then again, the Conservatives would look much worse if Tulat, a political guest, had been blown up at their rally. They’d look like murderous bigots.
You feel an insect drone land on your shoulder, the Masters offering you a chance to reveal Xenateen’s plan to the world. But you know the Senator will then twist the story around, and you can’t portray yourself and Tulat, the wave-loving blue men on the beach, as mindhacking, bomb-planting creatures of self-sacrificing violence. You cannot be the one to unleash the waves of punishment the Masters would be obliged to enact on your kind.
Also… You never did ask the pirates where they’d come from. You glance at Lucas, who avoids your eye and makes for the exit. It might be safest not to go into the office tomorrow, or ever again.
Enough. In the midst of the chaos, you lie down and close your eyes.
When you open them again, Jacob is leaning over you, the last conservative you may ever speak to. Did he seek you out especially?
“What’s your name?”
Not Xenateen. Not Kilka. You laugh.
“I think I need a new one.”
About the Author: Chris Winspear is an Australian speculative fiction author who recently won 1st Place in the Writers of the Future Contest. His short stories The Market and No More Piano Lessons have earned awards in Australia, and his novel The Lightreaders won the Writing NSW Varuna Fellowship 2017. He is currently seeking an agent to represent his high-fantasy novel 1001 Nights under the Sun.
You may learn more about him at cwinspear.com
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