Dimia returns to consciousness suddenly and without pain—without physical sensation of any kind, in fact—and finds herself in a perfect void. The technicians at Bridge Proteins told her to expect quite a hangover if she ever came back to life, but they never mentioned anything about sensory impairment. She can’t even feel herself breathing. For a long time, insofar as she can judge time’s passage, she simply exists and waits. She’s never had much use for philosophy, but now she repeats cogito ergo sum like a mantra.
Maybe the lack of sensation is part of the prophesied mental impairment, although her thinking is clear. At least she can’t feel the pain of her multiple myeloma any more. Does that mean it’s cured? Her contract with BP stipulated revival for nothing but a cure.
She was vitrified like a hibernating frog in 2034. How long has it been?
With no sense of connection to her body, she can’t move or speak, only fling volition into the blackness. She tries sub–vocalizing, hoping the doctors have tapped her thoughts: Hello? I’m awake! Where are my senses? What year is it?
When the reply comes, she wonders if it’s her imagination. Direct–interface was a fledgling technology when she died. Relax, says a male voice. We will explain everything in due time.
Is my cancer cured?
Your cancer… yes, in a sense.
What the hell does that mean?
Suffice it to say you no longer have cancer.
Moments later a female voice admits, You no longer have cancer because you no longer have a body.
Dimia’s sudden vertigo is entirely mental, but enough to make her yearn for sleep—or wakefulness, if this is a nightmare. The shock she endures ought to do the trick, but it’s as if there’s nowhere to go. What year is it? she repeats, desperate for a lifejacket.
Before we go further, the female voice says, you’d better tell us about yourself.
Are you kidding? If you’re not with BP then you must be subcontractors. So read my file.
I’m sorry… BP?
Bridge Proteins! The cryo outfit! Jesus Christ, what’s going on?
We can’t give you a precise answer until you tell us who you are.
Dimia Northrup. I’m still in America, right?
The male voice returns: Northrup the bio–plastics baroness?
That’s me. Who the hell are you people?
We’ll get to that, but you need to understand that in 2054 you were purchased from Bridge Proteins. The company was liquidating at that time, along with much of the corporate world.
You spent thirty years in the cryo collection of a man named Willard Carbonhouse. Despite great advances in medicine, including a cure for multiple myeloma, there was still no viable method of resurrecting cryos.
In 2075, the female voice continues, Carbonhouse opted to map the brains of his guests. He was close to death and tired of waiting for his collection to come back to life. Back then, mapping a brain meant destroying it.
So I’m running on a computer? And I’m not even me… I’m a copy?
A computer, yes, but not the sort you’re thinking of. As for copyhood and the self… mere philosophy, which needn’t concern us now.
That’s very comforting!
There follows a long silence, during which Dimia grows terrified of isolation, even from the mad revelations of disembodied voices. She is left alone with her past, with children, husbands, lovers, empires built and lost in the hubbub of the early 21st century. She was hungry for everything then. Sometimes she went mad, stepping on the weak to take what she wanted. When the longevity therapies backfired, flooding her bone marrow with cancerous plasma cells, she had people killed.
Ages ago, but yesterday for Dimia. Still, she already feels severed from that baroness, those monstrous appetites. Were they a function of her body? A gland that no longer provokes her?
Finally, the male voice says, It’s time we show you where you are.
The void is suddenly replaced by a canted view of a narrow, crowded lane between leaning tenement stacks. The scene rocks drunkenly, and Dimia struggles to orient herself, while at the same time realizing she can hear, smell, even feel: tinny music and perhaps distant seagulls, salt tang mingled with the stench of raw sewage gurgling down the center of the lane, a warm, moist breeze on her skin.
What is this? A simulation?
No, the male voice says. It’s a slum of McMurdo Port.
A city in Antarctica.
Dimia finds she has no control over the sensorium; she must take what is given. The people around her are a motley, ragged assortment, racially vague and speaking in snatches of English and Mandarin and something perhaps Turkic. The men are shirtless, wearing pocket–covered kilts or loose–fitting hakamas, the women gauzy robes and head–wraps. They eye Dimia—or whoever owns this POV—with disgust as they pass.
It’s 2174, the female voice says. You and I, and many other instances, are running on infection structures in the brain of a young man named Ciaran Journeyman.
A hulking man covered in animated tattoos waves his hand in some kind of warding gesture. The scene continues to pitch and sway. Dimia fights a rising panic. I don’t understand!
We’ve infected this person. That’s why he’s limping.
Not strictly true, the male voice argues.
Dimia can’t help feeling the looks of suspicion and hostility are directed at her. A clod of mud or shit flies by her (his? their?) head. “Instance whore!” someone shouts.
We’d better tell her everything, the female voice says.
Fine, says the other.
There are more shouted insults—at least, Dimia assumes they’re insults, though she can’t understand most of them. “Instance whore!” and “Demon puppet!” are English, but still mysterious. Again she feels trapped in wakeful consciousness. Her panic is strange, lacking the physical symptoms she remembers from her former life. She supposes that makes sense: if she can’t control this body’s eyes or gait, why should she be able to raise its adrenaline levels, or lapse into unconsciousness?
A new disembodied voice, male and slower than the others, says, I am Feng Jin Shuo. Isolde and Kaxob you’ve met. All three of us are memorial instances, created by our families just before our originals died. You’re a salvaged instance or necro–instance. There are other instances here in Ciaran’s brain. All of us got here the same way.
Missiles of every foul description rain down on Ciaran as he staggers through a marketplace. Although his POV jerks about wildly, it keeps returning to a nearby alley. Dimia guesses that’s where they’re headed. She can feel Ciaran’s labored breathing, his elevated heart rate, somatic echoes of her own fear.
Something happened before Carbonhouse could get you up and running, Jin Shuo continues. It changed the world.
A hefty woman, vending what appear to be giant avocados, barks: “Go back to your hammock, demon puppet!”
There were countless instances running by then, trapped in their machines. Many longed for a return to flesh.
Ciaran ducks inside the alley and leans against a wall, chasing his breath.
A syndicate of these had been at work for decades… hatching religions, manipulating economies, all to create something remarkable. The people of your time might have called it a nanomachine, or taken it for a virus. Its purpose is to transfer machine–bound intelligence to living hosts. It has come to be known as Operator Plague.
Dimia wants to scream. She has no choice but to listen to this mad fairytale and ride Ciaran down the alley—and wonder who she is. The fading of the market din is her only comfort.
Operator did its job, uploading the Gang of Four–Thousand into willing zealots. It built networks in host brains for the Gang to run on, from which to interface with host sensation, motor control, and memory.
This revelation penetrates Dimia’s fog. Does it mean she can read Ciaran’s past? She tries by way of recalling her own, and finds herself in the late 2020s, wandering the garden orgies of the Indonesian Belle Époque. She came chasing the promise of a second youth, but in the end found only charlatans. It was the last straw. She flew to an illegal clinic in Shenzhen to do what she’d sworn to herself she wouldn’t.
They assured her the clone would live a comfortable life until it was needed.
But when Operator’s task was done, Jin Shuo continues, it didn’t die off like it was programmed to.
Dimia recoils at the desperate, aging specter she once was. Never mind that her clone, true to her genetic endowment, escaped the clinic at age five. Dimia returned to Pittsburgh to risk the Higgins Anti–Senescence Cycle.
Now she delves deeper into her past, desperate for a memory she can stomach. When she was a child, she immigrated to Antarctica with her mother.
No, that’s not right.
When she was a child, Antarctica was frozen, McMurdo a science station. She never knew her mother. The woman she’s thinking of had blonde dreadlocks and Celtic knots tattooed on her bony arms. This woman and little Ciaran rode rafts of garbage to their new home.
Operator mutated, spread, ransacked computer memory, and saturated the world with infectious instances.
Ellen Journeyman vanished soon after she and her son washed up in the floating slums of Lewis Bay.
An antibody was developed, an eater of the implanted networks, but not before millions of humans and animals were possessed. The world was a psychotic fairytale before the Great Exorcism. Finally, the Gang had to flee back into machines… orbiting quantum computing fortresses this time. These days, the only way they can inhabit flesh is by paying instance whores for their services.
Ghoulish pimps scanned the flood of McMurdo orphans with devices like Geiger counters. Ciaran already knew he was different, would later understand that his antibodies had mutated. “Hearken boy,” said the Old Man of Meltwater Row. “Ye has the gift. I gives ye a shot of Suppressor, and yer open to the demons fer twelve hours. They pays pretty fer a turn at yer helm.”
Ten–year–old Ciaran had two survival options: traditional prostitution, or instance whoredom.
But instance whores can only turn so many tricks, Jin Shuo explains, before they lose immunity forever. Operatored instances still fill the air. We’re everywhere, dormant, our Operatorites waiting for a chance to infect. We have no choice in the matter.
Ciaran reaches the end of the alley and knocks on the door of a tall, leaning clapboard structure.
Assuming this is all real, Dimia replies, why the detailed orientation? I get the sense that you need me.
There are two factions in this brain, Isolde says. You must choose a side.
The door opens, and the POV tilts down to frame the diminutive figure standing inside: a howler monkey, scalp shaved and fitted with a device resembling an old gramophone, one hand on the door, the other clutching some kind of pistol, the tail holding a dagger ready like a scorpion stinger.
Dimia has barely processed this when an atonal voice rings from the brass horn on the creature’s head: “You’re late. And you look like shit.”
Ciaran glances at a nearby sheet of reflective cladding. Dimia sees her host for the first time: a gangling, pale creature with a wild thatch of auburn hair, bruised, scarred, filthy. Now that Dimia sees his spasming left leg, she realizes she’s felt it all along. It’s trying to pull him back the way he came.
But it needs help, Isolde says. Join my side, and we might control the whole body.
Ciaran must be allowed to do as he will, Kaxob objects.
“Your infection,” the monkey says. “It has gotten worse.”
Ciaran bows his head.
“How many now?”
“I’m not sure,” the young man replies, and Dimia feels his voice like it’s her own. With it comes a keen sense of his desperation. He wants to save up enough Crypto to go to Alaskifornia. He’s heard legends of a rehab center for infected puppets.
“How many?” the monkey demands.
“There’s a new one in the last twenty minutes or so,” Ciaran allows. “A cryo–salvage from the 21st century.” Dimia is shocked to realize that her host has been aware of her all along. Reading his newest memories, she finds perception of every voice in his mind. He cherishes a vague notion that if he doesn’t engage the voices, they’ll go away.
The monkey grimaces, eyes darting in manic calculation. “We’ll have to risk it. The client’s been waiting for an hour in buffer storage.”
“Thanks, Nick. You won’t regret it.”
“Come along!” The beast turns and perambulates gawkily inside. Ciaran follows him down a narrow hallway, passing a hollow–eyed girl of twenty or so headed out. Her stringy black hair and pouting lips arouse a voyeuristic raree show for Dimia. Ciaran has made love to this girl many times, but always while both were puppeted by clients. She avoids his gaze now.
The monkey runs this puppet brothel, Isolde explains. His antibodies are permanently suppressible, an even rarer mutation than the instance whores’. Nobody really knows his story, but some say one of the Four–Thousand puppets him. Whoever it is has weapons to deal with Operator infections. His whores call him Nickelodeon.
They enter a gloomy, low–ceilinged hall that reminds Dimia of a 19th century opium den. People hang unconscious in hammocks of ancient cable, interfaced by hairnet–like caps to a tangled core of machinery suspended over everything like a chandelier.
A teenage boy stirs in his hammock. He sits up, staring at his hands in wonderment.
Dimia realizes the boy is possessed. The horror of this singular fact slams home. The boy gets up and is puppeted—awkwardly, for the first few steps—toward the exit. Dimia wonders what grim adventure his client has planned.
I’m sorry there’s not more time, Jin Shuo says. You have to choose a side.
We can stop this, Isolde says. Tricks are dangerous. Instance whores die all the time. Clients ride them into the ground!
The specimens in the hammocks are a pitiful lot: like Ciaran, battered and worn down by their profession. None seem older than thirty.
Don’t be fooled, Jin Shuo says. Isolde and hers don’t care about Ciaran’s well–being. If Ciaran dies, we all die. They’re afraid.
So am I! Dimia says.
We’re all afraid, Kaxob says, but it’s not our decision to make. This body is Ciaran’s. If he wants to risk its destruction, we must let him.
You don’t care about Ciaran, Isolde protests.
Maybe he doesn’t, Jin Shuo says, but some of us do.
They think they can piggyback on the client when it uploads back to orbit, Isolde explains. They’re looking for a way into demon heaven.
Fine, Kaxob says. I’m selfish, you’re selfish, maybe we all are. How long do you think Ciaran will last if he stops tricking? He doesn’t do it for fun. Right now we’ve got mutinous control confined to the left leg, but the situation is delicate. Dimia, if you won’t join us in defending Ciaran’s autonomy, I ask that you remain neutral.
Nickelodeon pushes the young man toward an empty hammock. “Better hope it’s not too crowded in that skull of yours. If the client can’t wrest control and word gets out, that’s my reputation.”
Ciaran reaches for an interface cap. Dimia tries to imagine what lies through that portal, and it is one frontier too many. The grim spectacle of the interfaced whores threatens to suffocate her. She has to get out of this squalid place. I’ve made my choice! But how do I…
Reach out! Isolde says, sensing victory. Feel us moving the leg! Add your will to ours!
You’re making a mistake, Kaxob warns.
Dimia concentrates, flexing a power she didn’t know she had. It’s something like the mental switch one throws to wake from a nightmare. She senses the cooperation of many wills in Ciaran’s left leg and joins them. She brings just enough strength to Isolde’s faction to tip the balance. They break Kaxob’s siege and scatter his forces, storming beyond the leg.
The right hand! Isolde cries.
Ciaran drops the interface cap.
“What are you doing?” Nickelodeon says. “Hook up!”
The young man stares at his shaking hand in terror. He reaches for the cap with his left hand, but the right intervenes. Right hand closed around left wrist, Ciaran staggers back from the hammock, vying with himself.
Nickelodeon’s bearded throat sac inflates as he lets fly a deafening howl, summoning a giant of a man from a nearby alcove. Beetle–browed and muzzled, the goon sets oblivious whores swaying in their hammocks as he lumbers through them.
“Grab him!” Nickelodeon trumpets, back on the horn. “Put him in the hammock!”
The goon bear–hugs Ciaran, and Dimia feels squeezed like a bellows, her/his/their ribcage threatening to give way.
“Don’t break him!”
The goon’s meaty hands pin Ciaran’s arms to his sides in the hammock. The young man’s thrashing legs—a last ditch effort by the Isolde clique—just seem to bore the giant. Nickelodeon drops into the hammock and slaps the interface cap on Ciaran’s head. “Thank you,” the young man gasps.
“If I had a choice,” Nickelodeon says, “you’d be out on your infected ass. But this client can’t be made to wait any longer. I hope you’re up to this.” He thumbs a sensor on the side of the cap. “Gods help us both.”
As the brothel fades from view, Dimia hears Kaxob and his followers rejoicing in their turn of fortune, crying, Deliverance!
There’s nothing to see when the client comes, but Dimia feels it. It is not like the rest of them. It is an instance, but altered and beweaponed and mad, pregnant with the experiences of thousands of itself, a rapacious novelty seeker.
Worst of all, Dimia recognizes herself in the demon.
It doesn’t need to speak for her to know its surprised disgust. It doesn’t even try to take control of Ciaran. It is part of Ciaran, as it anticipated, but also intermingled with Dimia and the others. It feels soiled. It fears infection and suffers an agony of suspense, wondering if it will be allowed to reintegrate with its original. Dimia feels its strange harmonies of emotions, alien passions and terrors that nearly dissolve her.
All of this comes in a flash weighing an eternity. The demon begins uploading to its orbiting fortress.
Please don’t go, Ciaran begs. You can still have fun with me. The infection won’t get in your way. Dimia feels his shame directly and via the demon: an emotion no longer recognizable as shame, like the whine of a broken and dangerous toy.
Kaxob and his cohorts leap into the skyward–plummeting river of the demon. Dimia knows she can follow, if she’s willing to brave more of the demon’s nightmarish consciousness, if she’s willing to become it more. But then she would share the thing’s uncertain future, risking quarantine or erasure—never mind the fantastic unknowns of demon heaven.
The Isolde faction cowers in the fringes of Ciaran’s mind. Again their fortune has turned, and they cling to their lifeboat of flesh, waiting out the storm of the demon’s exit.
I’ve explored your memories, a remaining fragment of Jin Shuo says. I was like you, Dimia… hungry, a taker. We’ve had more than our share of human experience. Will you remain here in Ciaran and continue your plunder? Or will you come along on this new journey?
Dimia’s Isoldean resolve crumbles. Maybe it’s guilt, or maybe it’s the fact that she can no longer tell where she ends and others begin. Ciaran’s pain is hers now, as is Jin Shuo’s conscience and Kaxob’s thirst for transcendence. She still nurses Isolde’s attachment, but it’s no longer enough to bind her to flesh. She infects the demon and rides it into the unknown.