“Spider Without a Web”
by Daryl Nash
Umbilicus cut with the World, Syr was little better than a human. Her unaided eyes could make out nothing but vague shapes in the dim light. She uncurled from the padded couch on which she had grown to adulthood and stretched her thin legs. Bionutrient tubes loosed from her veins swayed in the thin air like living creatures.
Syr swam across a garden of flesh, neman with closed eyelids fluttering in perpetual REM. The pale white and brown bodies of her kin stretched across the floor and ceiling of the flattened spheroid chamber. Their skin was smooth and hairless, tended by an army of invisible nanomachines. Floating above them, Syr was disturbed to notice their sexual organs clearly visible. Never did she think of her family members as male or female while they studied and played and worked in the World. They were neman, and neman were not humans chained to messy biology.
Syr floated into contact with the wall, and the surface undulated to carry her around to an indentation that pulsed faintly blue. The wall enwrapped her in a skinsuit and spat her into the cold vacuum of space. She floated away from the neman satellite, a series of loosely connected spheroids twisted into a helix, like beads of water on a string. The data spike extended into the port on her neck, and Syr’s senses erupted in a cascade of welcome information. Bionutrient tendrils slithered into her veinports, oxygen and other nutrients rushed into her bloodstream. Though she could only connect wirelessly, Syr felt a palpable sense of relief to be free of the suffocating lack of information.
With the gentle nudging of her will, she activated the tiny jets of the skinsuit to vent fractions of its air in bursts to orient her toward the elevator platform. She was about to be plunged into the terrible mass of humanity, thrust into close proximity with the epicureans, miners, and tourists riding the tether to Earth. She collided with the wall of the platform and it absorbed her, dispersing her momentum into a shallow wave across the smart metal. The floor of the corridor gripped the feet of her skinsuit as she walked toward the elevator shaft. Few satellites other than the neman’s orbited at this level, mostly maintenance, power, and communications, so the dock was empty except for her. The climber was not scheduled to arrive for twenty-four minutes, thirty-seven seconds. She trembled with anticipation, her weak flesh already betraying her with its uncontrollable biochemical reactions. She tried to calm her nerves by running through simple calculus problems. She had managed to distract herself enough that the arrival of the lift nearly three minutes ahead of schedule startled her.
The lift doors hissed open. Syr stood transfixed, staring into the interior of the climber for several long moments, thinking of sweat and mucus and feces and hair. She wanted to flee for the safety of the calming sanctuary of the World. The doors to the climber chimed loudly to indicate that she had seconds before they closed. Her body jerked involuntarily in surprise and stepped forward, the skinsuit smoothly translating her movement into action and carrying her into the passenger cabin before her mind could further delay.
Instructions from Syr pressed her skinsuit to walk quickly past a pair of stinking human miners to the back of the cabin, though it meant she would be last off when they reached earth. She fastened herself into a seat as the all clear sounded and the elevator lurched into descent. G-forces pressed her into the seatbelt. She was weak and helpless–a master blacksmith in a land without fire. Syr gripped the armrests tightly, and told herself not to overreact. She would simply have to think faster than the human animals.
The climber shuddered as it braked for the next platform, pushing her into the seat. Tourists poured into the cabin, returning to Earth after vacations on the orbital theme parks, mostly normals except for one blue-skinned mod who garnered nearly as many curious and outright hostile glances as Syr, and one artifan servant that followed its mistress like a pet on a leash. A meatsack breeder carried the screaming progeny of its loins. Syr lowered the volume on her mikes.
A female child sat next to her and looked at Syr curiously. The skinsuit was completely opaque to avoid such stares, so she looked like a black plastic statue strapped into the seat. The little girl poked her and said, “Are you a robot?”
The old word for artifans was crude to Syr. “You are closer to a robot than I, little meatbag,” she murmured.
The walking womb next to the hairy little creature put her arm around her spawn and said, “Don’t talk to the spider, Ashlin.” The woman glared at Syr.
She caught herself before the emotions flaring within her alien flesh caused her to snap at them both. The little girl’s tears mollified her somewhat. But the child continued to glance out of the corner of her watery gelatinous eyes at Syr through the next half dozen lurching dock stops. Syr stared back at her, but of course the girl could not see her through the skinsuit.
The calm and measured voice on the intercom announced that they were about to enter freefall and to please make sure that all seatbelts were fastened. Syr ignored the announcer’s incorrect use of the term “freefall,” waved away the meaningless descent data crossing her HUD, and watched the little girl hide her face in her mother’s sagging breastsacks. Ashlin. Not that long since humans could be nothing more than these fascinating specimens, unconnected to the outside world except through weak eyesight and touch, unable to communicate except by the slow and imprecise method of vibrations across the vocal cords and tongue and received by forever failing eardrums. Now they were anachronisms without even realizing it. Syr was peering into a bygone century, and she would have been more interested if the Elders hadn’t sent her into the zoo’s cages with the apes.
Wrapped up in her thoughts, Syr was caught unawares when the climber loosed its breaks and dropped. Her empty stomach leapt into her throat. The pressure on her body increased to three gees, skin stretched taut against bone, and her eyes watered. She was again a prisoner to gravity, the cruel forces of Earth reaching out to crush her before she could even touch its surface.
The descent seemed to last for an eternity, though it was barely more than an hour. She imagined the tether snapping and sending the climber skipping across Earth’s atmosphere. And nothing would be waiting for her on the other side of death. Though the primitive humans consoled themselves with thoughts of heaven, Syr had no patience for fairy tales. Her only hope for eternal life was to be uploaded into the World and to be translated into a bitbrain. But the Elders had shown her the dead algorithms that had been uploaded so far. They were not alive any more than a smart AI was. Something was missing. Though they turned out perfect Turing answers, they left a chill in Syr’s mind when she interfaced with them. They were zombies rather than spirits, empty rather than numinous.
Thus the Elders had punished her, kicked her out of the true heaven of the World, and sent her to recover a human that they claimed held the secret to eternal life, the secret of bringing the dead bitbrains to life. Syr did not believe any meatsack was capable of such a miracle, but years of regarding the Elders as divine would not allow her to disobey their commands. So she descended into Hell at their insistence and prayed that she would return to heaven before death.
Near the end of the plummet, air flaps popped open on the sides of the climber, shaking the cabin as drag increased, imperceptibly slowing their fall. The ridiculously sedate voice announced ten minutes to splashdown. Five minutes. One minute. The HUD displayed Syr’s heartbeat at 165 beats per minute. She felt as though her chest were about to explode.
The compartment shuddered violently as the climber plunged into the water, dispersing the last of its velocity into the seas of Earth. Ashlin shrieked next to her, and Syr could not prevent a sharp gasp from escaping her own lips.
“Please remain seated for final docking.”
Syr thought the climber was rising into the air again, but quickly surmised that she was not moving–only trapped under the constant weight of Earth’s normal gravity. She let loose a tiny homesick sigh and steeled herself to complete her mission.
“Dock achieved. We hope you have enjoyed your interorbital experience with MicroTrans, a division of the MSA Collective. Welcome to Earth. Have a pleasant stay.”
The humans began unbuckling themselves and standing even before the all clear was given. The climber trembled and the airlock hissed and melted away to reveal a corridor guarded on either side by shimmery artifans with arm-mounted rifles. They beeped as humans walked past them, giving quick approval to each one’s identification by scanning embedded chips, or cards in the case of children.
When Syr approached the artifans, they motioned their arm-weapons at her. “Please step aside,” they said in unison, in the same placid voice that had announced the lift’s descent.
Ashlin and her mother walked past Syr. The little girl said, “Is the black robot in trouble?”
“Looks like it.”
“Good,” said Ashlin.
With a sudden overwhelming urge to rip the little girl limb from limb, Syr stepped forward and shouted, “Meatbag!”
“Please stay where you are,” said the artifans, pointing their arms at her.
“But did you hear what the little mammal called you?”
The artifans ignored her. Of course the Collective wouldn’t put self-aware machines in control of security. Too much risk. And if Syr had not been distracted by her own uncomfortable biomass pressed unrelentingly by the constant force of gravity, she would have thought of that before the words had erupted from her. Separated from the World, she was nothing more than a bundle of instincts and outbursts.
When the climber’s cabin was empty, the artifans turned their attention to her again. “Please follow us.” They led her through a series of corridors and halted before a wooden door. “Please enter.” Syr turned the handle and entered.
The office was decorated in such a manner as might have been popular a hundred years ago, with bookshelves and paper books, a monitor attached by cord to a black computer box, even a keyboard, probably an old QWERTY. Most fascinating was the television, apparently an antique cathode ray model, quietly whispering a soothing undercurrent of static. On the wall behind the desk was a framed thousand dollar bill from the former United States of America. The room was intended to convey a sense of Old World wealth in a world where money was meaningless.
The artifans closed the door behind her and the large leather desk chair rotated to reveal a man with tousled blonde hair and piercing blue eyes. Aryan mods were popular with some groups, but one never knew if it was irony or seriousness without more information. Or perhaps he was born that way. “Greetings,” he said. “Your Elders have spoken well of you.”
“You have me at a disadvantage.” She didn’t know if he was a human or a conglomerate.
“Call me John.”
“Doe or Smith?” The gravity was hard on Syr’s lungs, and every word was a wheeze.
“This never happened?”
“If you wish.”
“You cannot detain me.” She stepped closer to the desk, her wireless antennae searching for some purchase in this shielded room. “I have rights.”
“A spider would not be missed by Earthers. I could crush you like the bug you are and no tears would be shed.”
She could see no wires leading into his weak flesh, and the air was dead of signals. So-called John was either a human or a simple bio-mod. Syr reached across the desk and wrapped her skinsuit’s hands around the smug man’s neck. “Who can crush who?” The irony: to feel so weak and to have such strength at her command. He struggled and twitched in her grasp, his face turning blue, and she thought he might begin some routine of instinctual martial arts hard-wired into his modded brain, but he simply flailed like a desperate obsolescent human.
One of his flailing arms triggered the opening of his office door, and welcome bandwidth flooded through. Syr quickly handshook with the base station, as she should have done at touchdown. The artifan were squeezing into the room as her suit loosed John’s neck and launched her out of the way of potential gunfire. A series of whistles tracing into the meatsack behind the desk rewarded her caution. The human shivered and dropped to the floor, foaming at the mouth. Some kind of incapacitant. Not even real bullets.
Syr faced the artifan and they fired at her. The capsules burst harmlessly on the synthetic skin of her suit, a quick sample confirming it was a neurotoxin, but by this point she was inside the tiny brains of the automatons–little more than insects–and she shut them down.
More were coming. She needed to get out of the base station quickly. The heavy-duty security artifan were sure to be better firewalled than these, not to mention smarter. But how to get out of there? The floating tether was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She could hop a FastRail a few miles away but her cumbersome and heavy suit would not float even if she knew how to swim.
Emergency sirens roared through the corridor, adding to her already throbbing headache, making her astral journey through the base station’s network that much more difficult. She sliced through firewalls and plunged into the critical systems like a fish swimming upstream. Perhaps their security would be sufficient for meat, but not for a neman who breathed data. She cut the main power supply for the station, and the alarms faded into silence and darkness. In a distant hallway, humans screamed.
Rushing into the hallway, Syr activated an exit hatch with its manual handle and it swung out over the ocean. An escape craft hovered below, and she dropped into it. The raft’s motor grumbled to life as soon as it hit the ocean, steering her toward the FastRail station, while screaming out a wireless beacon to all rescue vessels in the area. She braced her back against the hard plastic bench of the raft and kicked the motor. It spluttered and whined. The reverberation of the impact shook Syr’s thin frame sickenly within her suit. She kicked again, harder, and with a wrenching shudder that she feared would capsize the boat, the motor broke from its bolts and sank into the depths, the rescue beacon fading as it descended.
Syr detached the emergency oars from the sides of the raft, and began to row for shore. She saw several ships, mostly ocean liners, but a few Collective navy vessels as well. None of them neared her. Syr was confident that she could disrupt their guidance systems, but she would rather not bother. The power outage in the tether station should keep them busy for a while without causing any permanent damage. Unless the humans and their “artificial” intelligences were less competent than she imagined, there should be no problems with the climbers.
She rowed for over an hour, her arms aching with the exertion, though her skinsuit did most of the pulling. The humans at the crowded private docks stared at her with open curiosity as Syr abandoned the raft and made her way toward the FastRail station. She passed under a faded and rusting arch that declared she was entering the Glorious Post-Modern Political Construct of China, a relic of the Second Cultural Revolution. An endless herd of humanity stamped before her, arriving and departing from the FastRail station, a building that resembled a twentieth century train station with decaying stonework.
Syr shuddered as she contemplated the sea of humanity between her and the entrance. She waded through the midst of trembling bodies, respiring like the animals they were, chests rising and falling in the instinctual processes of mechanical meat. The first few on the edge of the ebb and flow fell away from her in fear or disgust or respect, she cared not which, but then she was into the surf and over her head and drowning in the primitive fetid air of their seething biology. They brushed against her and one another as if nothing could be more normal. She thanked the Elders for her skinsuit, for if her fragile body had not been crushed by gravity, it surely would have been crushed by this press of stinking humanity.
A bored clerk sat behind the ticket window, his meaningless job protected by the Employment Protection Proclamation of 2072 prohibiting the use of artifan or computers if it would put a human out of work. Rather than treating their own kind like intelligences, the humans valued productivity over creativity. It would be like running base level operating subroutines in the brains of the neophyte neman. It was barbaric, but nothing more than she expected from humans.
The clerk perked up as Syr came to the front of the line. “What are you?” he asked.
She allowed the suit’s head to fade to transparent, revealing her pale delicate features with smooth unblemished skin that had been cared for by nanobots since her inception. “A neman.”
He gasped. “You… you are bonita.”
The monitors of her suit registered a capillary response. Syr blushed.
“You are zhi zhu? Spider? I have never seen one of you before. Mods and mutants and artifan, we get all kinds, but no spiders.”
Syr sighed. “We prefer nemans.”
“Ne… mans.” He sniffed a laugh. “I understand. But spiders are beautiful and graceful. You should not be embarrassed.”
Syr wanted to tell him that she was not embarrassed, she was angry, but her involuntary blush belied her thoughts. She realized that she had never seen a living spider before.
“Saharan Africa,” said Syr.
“I need to buy a ticket for transport. With a private cabin.”
“Oh, yes.” He touched a screen and said, “That route is only available with four transfers, and a layover of twelve hours in Baghdad. Four million dollars, please.”
“You accept Virt.”
“A fourteen percent conversion fee.”
The funds were transferred from the almost limitless accounts of the neman. He handed her a plastic card. How quaint.
“It was lovely to meet you.” His smile was confusing. Perhaps sexual? The thought of meat sex made her shudder and she walked away without another word so that he would not see her blush again.
Syr boarded the train and made her way to the cabin. She fell into the seat and it shook with the weight of her suit. With a sigh, she lay uncomfortably on her side and longed for the freedom of space, the absence of the terrible pressure of gravity. She wished for the cool steel of the World pipe to slide into her port, to connect her with her family, with the dreams that were her reality. Syr compared the hard surface of the train’s bench to the soft comforting couches of the neman satellites, and she felt that this was a nightmare from which she wished to awaken.
After a time, her eyes closed and she dreamt as a human, with the wireless networks buzzing in her brain.
The light of the Saharan sun always startled Union Makepeace awake. He blinked. The room was blurry through his sticky eyes. The pressure of his morning erection was painful. He wondered how old he had to get before his dick stopped being a daily item of concern. His hand touched the soft sweaty flank of a tanned woman. His wife of thirty years. Sarah of the long beautiful grey hair. Her skin had been pale white until they moved under this damnable sun. He still couldn’t believe someone had married him. For this long, even. Union climbed atop his wife and kissed the soft salty crook of her neck. She smiled slightly and her eyes opened a crack. As he pressed slowly forward, her mouth opened into an oh of surprise, and as the friction between them slickened, her tongue poked through her lips. He grunted and she said yes.
…what the hell?…
“Good morning.” The curve of her body under his was pleasant, his weight pressing him into her. “Hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Mmmm. Still asleep. Good dream though.” Sarah licked her lips. “Would’ya turn off the lights?”
Union crawled from the bed, sweat covering his brown skin, his penis still swollen and wet, back sore, back always sore these days, and now his knees were beginning to creak as well. He padded on bare feet across the sticky plastic floor to the bath. Anticipating his approach, warm water spilled from the shower head into the tub. He stepped under the flow and allowed his piss to spatter forth, washed away with the sweat and semen down the drain.
…am I feeling okay?…
His wife shouted at him before he could relax under the shower. “Makepeace! That artifan of yours won’t shut up.”
The water shut off as Union got out, wrapped a towel around himself and went to check on Bartleby.
“You didn’t dry off. You’re leaving wet footprints everywhere, aren’t you?”
He cleared his throat. Yes, he couldn’t believe he’d been married this long. To the same woman even. Bartleby was standing at the foot of the stairs, repeating his name, not monotonously, but in varying tones, the way a flesh and blood human would. But Bartleby never seemed to get frustrated at the repetition. So was he more stupid than a human, or more patient? “Mr. Makepeace, Mr. Makepeace, Mr. Makepeace, Mr. M…”
“Yes, Bartleby?” Was his dear artifan a silicon person or a very fancy machine? Union Makepeace knew the answer, but then so did a billion other less knowledgeable persons.
“Did you have a pleasant night’s sleep?”
“Until the sun woke me.”
“But you did enjoy having sex with your wife after you woke?”
“Do you have to watch everything I do?” Union shuffled out into the scorching sunlight in search of breakfast. Surely the tribe would have cooked up some eggs for him.
“As you request.” Bartleby followed, his respirator hissing in the morning stillness.
“Do you ever wish you could experience sex?”
“Oh, but I have. The emotional responses of humans have been mapped, and are easily accessible for one with the proper facilities.” The irises of Bartelby’s biotechnical eyes expanded. “You are not as complicated a machine as you think.”
“All too true.” Union rapped his knuckle against the soft forehead of his friend. “But neither are you.”
“You didn’t annoy my wife merely to add to my inferiority complex for being merely human, did you?”
“Not only that, no.” Bartleby said. “Someone is here to see you.”
“A cipher. I know someone is coming by their absence.”
Union’s stomach dropped. “Why didn’t you say so to begin with?” He turned back toward the house, alarmed thoughts racing through his mind as adrenaline entered his veins. He had moved here years ago, to grow plants from abused soil rather than growing brains for megalomaniacs. He had only wanted to help. Help the people who shared his ancestry, who were still being ignored by the powers that be. Was the tribe in danger because of him? And Sarah? Sarah was alone. What had he done with his gun? Why hadn’t he listened to Bartleby to begin with? –he had come to think of the biomachine as a friend rather than as a defense system–he had gotten careless–you can’t just drop out of the business world and go back to a normal life like you’d never been a corporate stooge–God protect Sarah–
Bartleby gurgled and his two hundred kilo mass thudded against the moist earth.
Union turned and met his fate. A humanoid in a skin-tight suit with a haze of nanoparticles whirring soundlessly about like a localized sandstorm. It stepped over the inert body of the artifan and approached Union slowly. “I am here on behalf of the MSA Collective to retrieve our intellectual property.”
“I quit. You bastards have all my data. Go shove it up your ass.”
“I have a court order from the North American Global Oversight Committee authorizing extreme measures to secure the property of MSA.” The cipher’s voice was as breathy and raspy as the hiss of a snake.
“American law hasn’t been enforceable for fifty years. Don’t pretend to be anything but a cheap goon.” Union was trying to stall. If he could stay alive long enough, the tribe would get the alarm that Bartleby was incapacitated, and be here in–how long was enough?–how long did he have to live?
“As you wish.” The cipher raised its arm, particles spiraling around it like a quickly moving phantom snake. “Come with me, or I will take the MSA’s property by force.”
“Fuck you. I gave you everything.”
“The data is meaningless without the proper algorithm.”
No more time to wait for rescue, Union thought and ran for the house. I knew there was no way out of the corporate prison. I knew there was no exit, and still I ran. God forgive me. Sarah….
His heart exploded in his chest. He watched his own blood expelled from his body before stumbling. But they don’t want my heart. Rocks scrapped his legs and buttocks and crotch as the towel was torn away from him. He struggled to get his hands underneath himself. They want my brain.
[So do I.]
As if he were a disembodied spirit, Union saw himself lying facedown on the ground, a red ragged hole in his back, his bare ass sticking up in the air.
[I didn’t intend to kill you.]
The cipher flickered in the morning light, more like a desert mirage than a living creature. Dropping its arm, the dust cloud flowed over the surface of the ground toward his prone body.
I have a big fucking hole in me. How do you expect me to live through this?
[I didn’t do that to you.]
Who are you? What the hell are you talking about?
[Calm down. I’m trying to help you.]
Syr was standing behind the cipher, camouflaged from his sensors. She exhaled the breath of God and the nanoparticles dropped from the air like a calm descending on the plain. The meatbag underneath was wrapped in a white mesh bodysuit. She cut his uplinks like an experienced knife fighter slicing the carotid artery of a novice. He was already dead though his meatbrain didn’t know it. The former cipher, now only a man in tights, spun on his attacker and brought his primitive projectile weapon to bear on her massive form. Long microseconds before he could aim, she disrupted his hybrid eyes, filling his optic nerves with noise. He dropped and clutched his face. She reprogrammed his nanomeds to eat him from the inside out.
That’s you. You can save me.
[This is memory.]
She stepped past the writhing dying man to stand over the dark-skinned body of Union, and Syr saw herself through his eyes. A smooth shell not much larger than an ordinary human, with no apparent joints, nor markings of any kind. The surface had a sheen as though it were wet. She knelt over him, blocking the morning sun behind her black skinsuit, and he could see her face through the transparent visor. The skin was pale and thin enough to see the blood vessels tracing underneath. Her eyes were milky and unfocused, as much vestigial organs as the rest of her body. Her senses came from the net, a spider in her web sensing the movements of silken threads surrounding her. The expression on her face was something like fear, or perhaps loss, as though she had been plucked from her web and flushed down a toilet.
You can get me to a hospital. Or just the NanoGen…. Sarah….
[I will save your meat… your body if possible. Or I can upload you.]
Oh God. Am I already dead?
Syr felt herself pick up Union. Gore from his wound was slick and red on her black skinsuit. She ran for his house. The trembling of his body made him so cold. The sky above was blue and speckled with wispy white clouds. A contrail traced an arc between two clouds, connecting one insubstantial body with another. Union closed his eyes, and the heat from the distant sun warmed his lids.
Can I sleep now?
His back came to rest on a hard surface, and his wife screamed from far away. Through slits he saw her standing over him, still naked, still beautiful. He yearned for her arms around him to warm the cold place within.
I love you…
“Stand aside. I will explain, but he will die. Get out of my way, old woman.” Harsh words from a weak voice hovering over him. Coming from inside him?
[The sound of my meatbody’s voice is so thin.]
Are you . . . ? Is it too late?
[This has already happened.]
Tell my wife I love her.
[curiosity at a thing never experienced]
Something warm and wet lodged in his chest, tightening and ripping through his lungs, pulling his ribs apart.
“What the hell?” Sarah asked. “Our NanoMed is only programmed for basic medical.”
“Shut up,” Syr said forcefully.
Who is Syr?
Something tickled in the back of his neck. The dataport, unused for ten years, flared painfully and overwhelmed his senses with information.
Union heard the black digits of the skinsuit pressed into his chest, a heavy dirge. The chattering of his wife was a red fading into purple. The cloned heart growing and beating in his chest tasted salty. His pallid skin seemed to be all around them, covering the walls of the room.
Is this now?
“I am not a doctor, and this is not a hospital. The God damn meatsack is rejecting the tissue.”
Union shivered in blue and in a drum-laden military march.
His wife pounded on the back of Syr’s skinsuit and it registered in his/her HUD as a flashing notice of physical contact. “Don’t let him die,” Sarah screamed, her words exploding in red and yellow. “I don’t know what you did, but if you let him die…”
“I can save him.”
You don’t believe it. You are just saying that to calm Sarah. You are going to kill me.
[You are already dead. I can upload you, save your information.]
I am not information.
The synesthesia was fading, his senses adjusting to the unfamiliar influx of alien data through the nerve port on his neck. She was inside his mind, the spider in the big black suit who had saved him from the agent of the MSA. He moved his lips to tell his wife that he loved her. They crackled and popped with the motion, but no sound came out. His arms and legs were heavy weights, pressed down by a gravity which he had never been so acutely aware of. Through the spider’s eyes he could see the bloody sack the size of a fist in his open chest cavity flexing futilely, fibrous tentacles growing from the cloned heart in an attempt to connect with his blood vessels.
How long do I have?
[I am not a doctor. Minutes. Perhaps less.]
You have your goddamn uplinks. What does your web tell you, spider?
[annoyance… Five minutes. Approximately. You were shot through the chest three point eight minutes ago. It is possible that your oxygen-starved brain could be resuscitated with proper medical treatment within twenty to thirty minutes.]
The world was growing smaller, collapsing in upon him through an expanding darkness.
What do I lose if you upload my information? It’s just a copy….
[Then you consent?]
If you agree to try your damnedest to get me to a hospital, you fucking spider.
[elation… I will forgive your insult.]
The last word he thought as sight disappeared through his human eyes was unkind. He heard their movement, and his wife’s indistinct words for some time longer.
The ambulance sped away across the grasslands, hovering over the green budding from unforgiving soil. Syr had summoned the medics as soon as she had found the information that the meatsack might still live. She had begun downloading the structures of his brain as soon as she’d plugged into his disused dataport. Though she had not had time for a complete mental scrub, she was confident that all of the higher functions had been saved.
A host of natural humans gathered around her and stared after their departing leader. A man with dreadlocks and no shirt turned to her and asked in heavily accented English, “What happened to Union? Is he going to be alright?”
Syr pointed to the dead body of the MSA agent several meters away. “He was attacked.”
“Who are you?” asked the man.
“A spider,” she said.
Syr smiled. Her cheeks ached with the foreign movement.
“Did the attacker kill Bartleby, too?”
“Yes.” She was surprised to hear the norm refer to an artifan as having been killed—most would have said “disabled.” Perhaps the Elders had been wise to send her to copy this human’s brain.
“Did Union invite you here?”
“No, I dropped by for a visit. Sadly, I may have been too late.” Several of the humans had turned to look at her curiously. She would be relieved to again be nestled safely in the neman satellite jacked into the World, to no longer have old world human animals staring at her.
“You’re welcome to stay and have breakfast with us.”
Syr imagined the cooked animal flesh and fibrous plant tissue that undoubtedly passed for breakfast among humans and fought back her gag reflex. “No, thank you.”
“Okay.” He bowed at the waist to her, and said, “God bless you.”
She nearly dismissed the human’s invocation of God without thought, but recalling her mission here, she considered that perhaps the flesh was naturally superstitious. The Elders had merely transfigured their yearning for a higher power into the belief that a soul rested within the brain which could be translated into bytes without loss. Perhaps as long as the flesh endured, it would seek the supernatural.
“Farewell,” Syr said, and walked through their midst, past the fallen body of the artifan, and past the corpse of the MSA agent. Her rear sensors watched as the humans stared after her for some time, discussing whether they should attempt to hold her to confirm that she was not responsible for the attack on Union. The man who had spoken to her said that they could not hold her if they wanted to, and he left for one of the nearby buildings. After a few seconds, the remaining humans turned to follow him.
As she walked, Syr loaded the Union Makepeace copy and ran it through the cognition algorithm that the neman Elders had developed for the bitbrains. She could feel his disorientation—that was standard for a newly booted bitbrain, but she had never directly felt the presence of an AI coming online. His confusion bled over into her own thoughts, flashes of memory from his human life. A child playing with a dog. A marriage ceremony. An awards banquet. An exposed human mammary gland, muscle striations on a piece of cooked meat, a cool breeze across sweaty skin under blinding sunlight. His processes were sluggish. Though her suit had the capacity to store several human brains’ worth of higher cognitive functions, running them was a different matter.
Am I dead?
[You are saved.] She amused herself with her pun.
I am dead. And I am in hell.
[You are a copy of Union Makepeace. His higher brain functions at any rate. Hopefully, you won’t have a phantom bladder giving you the urge to piss.]
This is a joke to you.
[No.] Her head was swimming with the processes of his brain injecting themselves through her dataport. The sensation was unlike that of being immersed in the World, where she had firewalls to prevent intrusions. Interfacing with a bitbrain was an all or nothing connection: she could not sequester the troublesome parts of his memory. Syr briefly considered unmounting his bitbrain to shut up his endless parade of alien human thoughts, but decided against it. The Elders had chosen her to retrieve this human and she would judge for herself whether his data had been worth the effort.
The Union bitbrain was lost in thought, reliving the last moments of its life, firing occasional images like a macabre montage into her visual cortex. At last, it sent her an organized thought: You were sent to kill me.
Give me a fucking break. What are the odds that you just happened to show up one minute after an MSA agent blew a goddamn hole in my chest?
Syr wondered why she felt compelled to explain herself to a computer simulation. Or was it equivalent to the Union meatsack as the Elders would have them believe?
[I followed the MSA agent to you. His cloud of nanomachines screamed radio waves at me. He couldn’t disappear from a spider. His every movement shook my web.] Syr was proud of her metaphor. Perhaps “spider” wasn’t such a pejorative term after all.
You let him do your dirty work for you?
[I didn’t think he would kill you.] She was not feeling well. A tree about two point five meters in front of her cast a ring of shade upon its roots. She increased the flow of oxygen into her bloodstream, adjusted the levels of micronutrients the skinsuit was feeding her, and sat down underneath the tree’s sheltering branches.
What did you think?
[It was the MSA. They usually follow all the dead governmental laws like robots. Murder and brain rape carry death sentences in the United North American States and in the European Union. I thought perhaps the agent would negotiate with you, and then I could take the brain scan from him without ever having to come into direct contact with your meatsack.]
Whether you meant to or not, you killed me. You or your fucking spider masters–whoever’s bright idea it was to come after me.
[No. We are not murderers. We only want to know how to live forever.] The nausea churning in her disused stomach continued to increase, no matter how she adjusted the chemicals of her physical system.
The MSA sent an agent after me because you came after me. They probably didn’t even know what you wanted me for, but they knew if the spiders were after something then they should get a piece of that action.
[That… We…] Syr was sweating although the cooling systems of her skinsuit were functioning normally. [The Elders never would have done that.]
You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
Syr did not know what the bitbrain was talking about, and she could not focus enough to do a net search to find out. She felt like she was suffocating and without thinking, she told the skinsuit to let her out. The shimmering black surface cracked and split down the middle, exposing Syr’s naked flesh to the hot dry air of the Sahara. Even through the shade of the tree, she could feel the ultraviolet light of the sun burning her fair skin.
As if a babe newly born, she gasped and inhaled a lungful of morning air, hot and uncomfortable rushing down her trachea. Warning lights flashed on the skinsuit’s bifurcated HUD, blinking in the peripheral vision of her weak animal eyes.
You want to know how to create life from information.
How can you create life when you have never lived?
Syr’s adrenaline spiked. With a strength she did not know she had, she lifted her head from the cushion that cradled her dataport. The spike slid smoothly from her spinal pathway. Silence descended upon her. The skinsuit’s HUD turned a bright and angry red; its speakers screamed audible warnings. Syr pushed against the suffocating force of earth’s gravity and sat up.
Sitting in a silence more profound than the emptiness of space, Syr breathed deeply and rapidly. She forced herself to slow her respiration. It would do no good to hyperventilate. After the burning pain had passed, the air tasted good in her nose and mouth. Her stomach pitched like the gimbaling of a pod in a spacecraft. She ripped the nutrient tubes from her veinports and crawled from the protection of the skinsuit.
Her body rolled like an animal of its own accord, her stomach contracting in painful spasms, and her mouth opening round to expel nothing but air from her empty innards. After an interminable period of being consumed by dry heaves, Syr collapsed against the rough bark of the tree.
The grass was cool and sharp on her naked legs. Her flesh began to itch. She reached a tentative hand, fighting against the press of gravity, and scratched the hairless skin. A red blotch rose as blood rushed to the surface. She fell back against the tree, exhausted. The bark was uncomfortable against her back.
Syr gazed into the sky. Lumpy clouds gathered overhead, shielding her from some of the sun’s radiation. The boughs of the tree reached out from its trunk, covered in an explosion of deep green leaves. She squinted her weak eyes. Stretched between two limbs was a tracery of thin lines, with a small black speck in its center. She wished for her suit’s magnification.
She placed one hand firmly on the ground on either side of her and tensed every muscle in her thin frame and pressed her back against the tree for leverage, scraping her tender skin again rough bark, and slowly, centimeter by centimeter, pushed herself to her feet. Though she braced herself with one hand against the trunk, Syr wobbled unsteadily on her weak legs.
The clouds broke, and a mist of rain fell from the sky. The spider web, less than ten centimeters from her face now, was decorated in droplets that shimmered in the diffuse sunlight. Rushing from the center of her web, the tiny black-shelled arachnid clung to the nearest tree branch as the wind and rain tore apart her web.
Cold rain washed across her skin, and cool unfiltered air inflated her lungs. Soon, she would return to the neman satellite and to the Elders hungry for information and immortality. Syr would return to the comforting womb of the World, her home. But for the duration of the rainstorm, she felt the discomfort and pain of being human. Fluid seeped from her eyes and something like wracking coughs shook her. It took her a moment to recognize this new ailment as “crying.”
The rain shower passed quickly, though for Syr it might have lasted an eternity. She slid carefully to the ground, ignoring the pain of her irritated flesh, and crawled back into her skinsuit. The red flashing warning lights and alarms ceased as she re-connected to the data spike. A protective seal encased her. Calming drugs pumped into her veins and nanosalve coated her skin. Distant wireless connections filled her mind with information, but something was missing now.
The Union copy was still online. It repeated something the meatsack had said, I am not information.
Syr unmounted the bitbrain. “Yes you are,” she said aloud.
Daryl Nash owns and manages a couple of small businesses with his wife (and they work really well together because they very rarely attempt to kill one another). Many years ago, he got a degree in English from the University of Tennessee Knoxville (in his four years there, he never went to a football game, which is heresy to the natives). He’s been scribbling in one form or another since he could hold a pen. His first book is available self-pubbed. His latest novel is unpublished. For now.