“Memory of Touch”
by Karen Swanberg
It was supposed to make me orders of magnitude more intelligent. Everyone said thought processes and communication would be instantaneous, sex would be extraordinary, life would be faster, better, more intense. They said I would be immortal. Some of that was true.
They said I would be crazy not to do it.
They said no one ever regretted it.
They said nothing ever went wrong.
That was a lie.
The cool, aromatic air of the coffee shop wafted over me as I pushed open the creaky door. As I released the handle, the rough wood scratched my hand. I walked up to the counter, sucking on a scraped forefinger.
“Last time that will happen to you, Leeds my man,” said Jahnsvolde, setting a clay mug full of Sulawesi coffee on the counter. “Do you suppose you’ll still have such a weakness for coffee after the switch?”
“Yes, I should think so.” I said. “Don’t see why that would change. Here, I brought a new piece to replace that one we sold last week. What do you think?”
I put my parcel up onto the counter, careful not to disturb the coffee mug. Jahnsvolde smiled and removed the wrapping, revealing a small soapstone sculpture.
“What is it with you and these contorted figures?” Jahns raised his eyebrows, giving his blunt face a comic look. “Is she dancing or having a seizure?”
I shrugged. Most of my pieces were of human figures striving towards something, often in odd postures. Privately, I referred to them as my “yearning through obstacles” series. I looked around with dissatisfaction at my other pieces displayed on various shelves. I would never be a master sculptor, but people seemed to like them. That would have to be enough, I supposed. I turned back to Jahns.
“I just thought I’d bring one more down before my switch,” I said, distracted. My switch appointment was not for another four hours. I didn’t have to work today, so what to do?
“Sure. I’ll display it as soon as I get a chance.” He tapped his news screen. “Hey, did you hear about that mutilation case over in Hazelton? No evidence, again. Crazy, man. I’m starting to think they’re not trying to catch these guys.”
I sighed. Jahns’ gruesome fascination with such things was tiresome after awhile. He always tried to fill me in on all the latest rumors.
“Thanks for the coffee.” I made my way over to my favorite table, in the corner by the windows. I activated the embedded screen and started to read as I wrapped both hands around my mug, enjoying the heat seeping through the clay into my arthritic fingers. I would not miss the aging of my joints, that much was sure.
The door scraped open, and a breeze ran up my arms. I looked up and caught the eye of the man who had just come in. He was oddly familiar. He looked like he was even older than I was, at 174. He should have switched long ago… Oh, no. Stanzan. I ducked my head. I didn’t need this today.
“Wern Leeds. Fancy meeting you here.”
I looked up, carefully keeping a neutral expression on my face.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Stanzan?” And can you make it quick?
“You’re looking pretty old, there, Leeds. You not been taking your youth juice?” His face collapsed into wrinkles as he sneered and tugged at what was left of his hair.
“Anti–agapic,” I corrected, annoyed. “And, if I may say so, my health is none of your business, sir. Please leave me to my coffee.” I looked down at the newsfeeds.
“You’re about to switch, aren’t you?” I could barely hear his whispy voice.
I looked up. His expression was a combination of disgust and horror. I would have thought that an organic of his age would have gotten over this. We’d last had this conversation over ten years ago.
“Leeds, don’t you know what you’re doing to yourself? The youth juice corrupts your mind and your body, detaching you from the natural cycles of your life. The switch is an abomination!” Stanzan’s voice rose to a mosquito–like whine, punctuated by his fists punching the air around him. I pushed back from the table, hoping he wouldn’t hit me.
“Putting a human consciousness into a machine body! It will tear out your soul!” He leaned over the table towards me until I could smell his wretched breath. He lowered his voice to a whisper. “And if anything goes wrong, they’ll mind-rip you. Turn you into a smiley. Save yourself before-”
Jahnsvolde caught Stanzan as he collapsed onto the table, a bead of blood forming around a pinprick on the side of his neck. Jahns laid him out on the floor, and stood up, scowling.
With dismay I looked at the unconscious body, and tried to calm my frantic heart. Today of all days to be confronted by such a person.
“How could he believe all that soul–stealing, silicate rejection crap?” asked Jahns. “He must be really cracked, eh? Look, man, I’m sorry.” Jahns rubbed his hands against his pants. “He comes in here every once in a while, but I had no idea he was one of those… people. I’ve never seen a person who wouldn’t switch before. I thought they were all dead. Man.” I took a deep breath, and placed my hand on the wood windowsill. The sill was comforting and warm. Calming.
“I can’t believe he’s still running around loose,” Jahns continued, as he leaned down to open Stanzan’s collar. “I would have thought some therapist or sociology student would have recovered him long ago.”
“Don’t worry, Jahnsvolde. You couldn’t have known. He’s been arrested before.” I kneeled down painfully next to Stanzan to check his pulse. Strong and slow. “He must be nearly one hundred by now, if he’s not taking the anti-agapic. Perhaps they didn’t think he was worth recovering.”
Jahnsvolde stood up and held out an arm. “Well, this time they will for sure. Imagine, coming into my place and harassing my customers!” I grabbed the proffered arm and the table, and leveraged myself back up. Jahnsvolde kept talking as he steadied me. “I can’t imagine choosing to die after one natural lifespan. How sick is that? But to try to convince others….” Jahns shuddered, and I let go.
Stanzan had believed this, as far as I could determine, for the entire span of his natural life. What could prompt such bizarre, passionate conviction? It was sad, really. Despite all of our medical advances, there were still some throwbacks. Well, from the looks of him, he would get his wish for a natural death soon enough.
The door opened to admit a pair of blue-toned med cops. The first rolled in on all-terrain wheels, and held a pair of restraint guns. One gun was pointed at Jahns and me, and the second pointed down at Stanzan. The second med cop was a walker. She turned towards us, and approached cautiously.
Jahns nodded, straightened his shoulders, and pointed to Stanzan. “Here’s the offender, sir. Proprietor–use of a sed–stick will be filed immediately. Two units of sedative administered at 0824.” I thought he was going to salute.
The silicate nodded and asked her companion to put away the restraint gun pointed at Stanzan. “Noted. I will remove the offender now. Thank you for your prompt and proper actions, Mr. Jahnsvolde. A note will be made in your record.”
“Thank you, sir,” answered Jahns, and he trooped back behind the counter. I watched him go, amused by his change in mannerisms in the face of authority.
The walker turned to me. “Identify yourself, please, and state your connection to this case.”
I eyed the gun still pointed at me. “My name is Wern Leeds, and I worked with him, sir, in the Department of Data Acquisition, where I am still employed.” A bead of sweat threaded its way down my spine, and I continued, “He was fired because he refused to stop proselytizing the ‘natural death’ creed. I have not seen him since. I’m surprised he remembered me.”
“I see you are a citizen in good standing, Mr. Leeds.” The first med cop lowered the restraint gun.
“I doubt any more information will be required of you,” continued the walker, “But if there is, where may we contact you for the rest of the day?”
“By PCD until 1200.” I gestured to my chair, and she nodded, so I sat back down.
“Your Personal Communication Device number?” she asked.
“Thank you, sir. And after 1200?”
“I will be at Switching Station 275.”
She stared at me. “Is there any reason Mr. Stanzan would have known that you were switching today?”
Why would the med cop ask that? “No, as I said, I haven’t seen him in years. Unless he has been keeping track of former associates to try to convince them before their switches?”
I swallowed, thinking that through.
“Unlikely. Such a pattern of behavior would have been noticed.”
“What will happen to him now?” I couldn’t help wondering.
The med cop knelt down and took some readings on Stanzan, and then removed a litter from her arm. It unfolded to its full size, and curved over and enclosed Stanzan.
“I am unsure. He is probably too old for recovery, especially since he won’t switch. I would guess that he will be admonished, and then given a behavior modification implant to prevent this from happening again. He will then be monitored until his death.”
She rose from the floor, accompanied by the litter, and started for the door. The wheeled silicate backed up to open the door for the litter, stopped to squirt some lubricant into the hinge, and then followed the litter through. The walker paused at the threshold.
“I am sorry this happened to you on the day of your switch, Mr. Leeds. I can only say that the rest of your day should be much better.” She turned towards Jahns, still watching from behind the counter. “This case has been designated ND7–45AI Omega. Thank you for your current and future cooperation.”
As the door closed behind her, Jahns emerged from behind the counter, and came over to my table. He refilled my coffee, which had gotten cold during the fracas.
“Omega. That’s a Switch Board code, Leeds.”
Silicate Switch Advisory Board, I corrected in my head. But I didn’t say it out loud, as it usually annoyed people. They liked the pun, although very few remembered what a “switchboard” had been.
“Not too surprising, since I’m switching today.”
Jahns nodded, and started to fiddle with the coffee pot in his hands.
“About that, Leeds. You are going to continue to come here, aren’t you? You don’t see too many silicates around here, eh?”
I smiled, warmed that he had asked. “Of course, Jahns. You have the best coffee in this section, and besides, I still want to display my art here. It pays for my coffee, you know. I can’t have you cutting me off, now can I?”
His face lit up. “Yeah, that’s right. Well, have a good switch, my man.”
I nodded, and went back to reading the newsfeeds, relieved that the incident was over.
Toward noon, I made my way through a light rain to the Switching Station. As I crossed a park, the whisper of the rain dripping from the leaves stopped me. I lifted my face, mouth open, towards the mist and let the drops tickle their way down my face. The cool liquid pooled on my eyelids and softly splashed onto my tongue. City water never tasted quite as good. My PCD beeped, reminding me that the appointed time approached. I took a deep breath through my nose, enjoying the smell of the decomposing leaves peeking out from under the last of the snow, and sneezed. Spring. I loved it, but the pollen and mold still triggered my allergies.
I sighed, and started again across the park, and entered the lobby of Switching Station 275, where a dehumidifier dried me instantly. I ran my hand through my hair. The dehumidifiers always messed it up.
“May I help you, sir?”
A screen lit up on a near wall, showing a Guide.
“Yes, I’m Wern Leeds, I have an appointment for 1200.”
“DNA ID please.”
I placed my palm on the pad under the screen, and watched as a beam of light lit up the interior structure of my hand. A cool tingling spread from my hand up my arm. I grinned. It tickled.
“Identification verified. Binding legal agreement is on file that you have been fully informed of and understand the legal and physical ramifications of the switch. There is an infinitesimal chance that you will suffer adverse affects from the switch. The process is not reversible. If you should decide at any point beyond here not to go through with the switch, there will be legal consequences.”
“Yes, I understand,” I said, wondering what Stanzan would make of that statement?
“Thank you. Please follow the wall guide.”
I turned to follow a blinking light embedded in the wall. It led me to a long, low-ceilinged room with pewter walls and recessed lighting. The guide moved to the floor and zipped between the tiles, leading me through a maze of a few hundred tanks partially surrounded by privacy partitions. The others in the room, following their own lights or entering cubicles, seemed so young. I had heard that people were switching earlier every year, but I hadn’t realized some were doing it in their fourth or fifth decade. My excitement faded.
I found the partition displaying my name. Inside a technician waited for me, nodded, and handed me a glass full of a clear, glittering liquid. I drank it down, and grimaced. It tasted like someone was pinching my arm. Hard. Startled, I asked him about it, and he gave a small smile.
“Did it taste blue or like a violin solo?”
I frowned. “Actually, it tasted like a pinch. What does that mean? And what would it have meant if it tasted blue?”
“A pinch? Interesting. That indicates that you are more attuned to tactile stimuli than visual or auditory. Almost everyone is either visual or auditory. It’s been awhile since I had a tactile.” He entered a few commands on a console. “The liquid contains a few chemicals that ready your brain for the switch, plus a sedative. If you will just undress and step into the organic sensory inundation chamber….” He pointed at a set of directions posted on the wall, gave me a slight bow, and left.
Bemused at the rapid-fire information, I followed the instructions. I stripped, placed my belongings in a carry-all hanging on a peg, and opened the door in the top of the tank. The tank was filled with gel with a human-sized depression in the center. The surface looked wet, but to my surprise, it felt fuzzy. Reassured, I entered the tank and lowered the door. I found myself completely enclosed by the soft gel, which pulsated slightly as it pressed against me. I enjoyed the slight, comforting pressure against my spine. A muted, neuter voice told me to relax, then electrodes shot into the base of my skull, down along my spine, and into the ends of my fingers and toes. The sting was mild and instantaneous; the air in the tank contained an anesthetic. Nonetheless, tendrils of apprehension curled into my stomach, and I began to shiver.
My vision fogged out, and flashes of light danced behind my eyelids. My limbs twitched, and I started to panic. With an intense thunk my entire body spasmed, my mind blanked, and all sensation ceased. I was unable even to count the seconds; it was if all of my mental capacity had disappeared. Then, slowly, with a faint tickle, warmth seeped into my limbs again, and my mind came back into focus. The apprehension was gone, replaced by the sweet languor I felt after making love.
I lay there, relaxed, and waited for whatever came next. The neuter voice came back.
“You will be put to sleep again, and when you awake, you will be switched.” The air around me thickened, and just before I fell asleep, everything thunked again.
I became aware eighteen hours, thirty–four minutes and seventeen seconds later, in my new silicate body. I could sense very little, and looked around, panicked.
“It’s okay. Your sensors have been dampened to prevent sensory overload.”
I was lying on a cot, in a stark, white room. The voice had come from a tall woman standing in the center of the room, a control–wand in her hand.
“My name is Tahay Lin, and I will be your adjuster, assisting you in your silicate sensory transition. I have control of your sensors at the moment, and I will be overseeing your sensory integration.”
“You have control over my sensors right now, sir? How do you have access?”
“Please, call me Tahay. Your silicate body is given default access codes upon creation.” She crossed the room to stand near my cot. “Once this integration is over, you will be given control, and you can change the access codes to whatever you want. However, adjusting your own sensors is strongly discouraged. We’ll go over that in a few minutes.”
She smiled at me, and adjusted something on the wand. My hearing gradually sharpened, as if someone were pulling cotton out of my ears. I became aware of the buzzing of the lights in the room, the sound of my breathing, her breathing, and then the slight rubbing of the wand as she adjusted it.
“Shall I continue?”
My hearing range and sensitivity increased to where I could hear her heartbeat. I heard a hiss behind the walls, and I realized I was hearing the electric conduits within them. Then I heard a low susurration punctuated by something that sounded like a coffeepot percolating. It took me a moment to identify the blood running through her veins, and her digestive system at work.
“From the look on your face, I suspect you can now hear my innards processing breakfast?” I nodded. “Okay, let’s start dialing up your sight.”
Again, she fiddled with the wand. Suddenly the room was full of brightly colored plumes swirling around, concentrated around her face.
“Fascinating! What is that?”
“You can now see temperature gradients. Your visual range includes near and far infrared, as well as ultraviolet.” She paced to the side wall and turned to me. “You can choose to extend it beyond UV as well, but we won’t do that today. Your visual acuity is also greatly increased, although it is tougher to demonstrate that in this room. How many whiskers do I have on my chin?”
“Do you really want me to answer that?”
Tahay laughed and shook her head.
“If you sit up, I’ll introduce you to some of your enhanced sensors.”
As I sat up, she rolled a table covered in beakers and canisters table over to the bed, and directed me to test each one with the sensors in my hands. I found I could detect and measure temperature, pH, salinity, pressure and more. My sensors were customizable, she told me. There were modules I could add for just about anything measurable. Then we tested the sensors on some other parts of my body. It was fascinating to learn that I could detect her pulse with my elbow, if I had to, but the whole experience seemed strange.
“Tahay, all of this feels oddly artificial. Even with the enhancements, shouldn’t this feel natural?” I held up my hand. “It is my own body, now, after all.”
“Hmmm. It’s probably just that your mind hasn’t adjusted to the digital input from the sensors. Give it a few days, and if it still bothers you, or if it doesn’t go away, let the Board know. They can run some further tests.”
I nodded, and waved her to continue.
“We won’t run through smell or taste much. Most new silicates enjoy their first meal too much for us to ruin it with institutional paste. But most silicates, unless they’re food connoisseurs, just go with the carb/enzyme diet, it’s simpler. Now, why don’t you try to stand up and walk around a bit?”
I stood slowly. The floor was made of concrete. Startled, I examined my feet. I could analyze with them as well?
I took an experimental step, and then with long strides circled the room. Much to my surprise, I didn’t find this difficult or strange. I felt… powerful… flexible. Invincible. I stretched my arms above my head, and then down to the floor. No joint pain!
Tahay pointed to a door in the far wall, and we went through to a room full of work-out equipment, along with sports balls, metal bars, and various other items.
Tahay picked up a barbell and handed it to me.
“Are you serious?” She nodded, so I started to slowly exert pressure against the tempered steel. To my surprise, the bar started to bend after I had put about half of my effort behind it. Amazing. I twisted it into a pig–tail and handed it back, ambivalent about my new strength.
“Good. Now throw this at the target on the far wall.” She handed me a weighted, off-center cotton ball six centimeters in diameter. She pointed to a ten centimeter diameter spot on the far wall three point six meters away and asked me to hit it. I weighed the ball in my hand, calculating what it would take to aim it. The cotton would decrease the aerodynamics, the weight would make it wobble – the ball wasn’t soft. It was merely cotton. I shook my head and threw the ball. It hit dead center.
“That’s a bit disturbing,” I commented.
“Yeah. You’ll want to spend some time over the next few days exploring your strength and reflexes a bit more. Be extremely careful until you’re completely comfortable with your new abilities. Let’s start on these,” she said, motioned at the equipment around us. I spent ninety minutes lifting, bending, manipulating, throwing and analyzing objects, until I had a good feel for my new abilities. Tahay monitored from the center of the room. While I was working out, a door opened to admit a silicate driving a cart. She resembled a series of complex knots tied in a rope. Her surface was bright white, even after I expanded my visual range into the infrared and ultraviolet. I nodded a greeting and kept practicing with my new body.
When I was finished, Tahay came over, trailed by the new silicate.
“This is Consultant Rae Yu. She specializes in communication and security.”
Unsure how silicates greeted each other, I just nodded.
“Have you had a chance to explore your new communications abilities yet?” asked Yu.
I shook my head. “We were pretty busy with my sensors.”
Yu made a throat-clearing sound and said, “Your access to the communications net is much more enhanced than it was when you were an organic. Instead of only being able to send data, silicates have access to an emotion-based sub channel, or ESC. Let’s work with that for a few minutes.”
She sent me a ‘ping,’ an introductory data packet asking for information. To my surprise, I sent one back, without thinking about it. The skill must have been part of my silicate skill set. She had a clean, pure, humorous data stream. Even with the partially shielded link we had in the room, I could sense vast dimensions of the net that I’d never been able to visualize as an organic.
The subchannel was fascinating. On a basic level, it simply plugged into my emotions and transmitted them to the other person through the PCD, but which emotions were transmitted, and how strongly, was somewhat under my control. Combining it with the upper levels of data, Yu taught me to build virtual realities and interact within them.
This is amazing, I sent to Yu.
She sent back a feeling of humorous agreement. Because your whole system is digital, Yu added, you’re not constrained by the interface between an organic brain and the PCD. And, since you have significantly more processing power, communications can, of course, be much faster and more in-depth.
This was definitely going to take some getting used to. Yu and I spent 25.3 minutes exploring the different levels of the net, and teaching me different ways of using the ESC.
She brought us back and said, “Now, let’s talk personal silicate security. As you’ve seen, the strength of the sensors is adjustable. Within certain limits, it’s safe and simple for a silicate to adjust themselves.” Her voice sharpened. “But beyond those ranges, it’s easy to make a mistake. When you reach the edge of the safe range, your system will warn you. We highly recommend that you heed those warnings.”
“Why? What could happen?” I wondered.
“If you make a mistake while adjusting yourself, and no one else has your access codes, you can end up trapped in your own body. It can get ugly. We strongly recommend that you escrow your codes, or give your codes to someone you trust completely, preferably a licensed adjuster.
“Remember, your access codes give another complete control over your silicate body. There really isn’t a parallel in organic experience. If someone gets access to you, that person controls everything. They can even shut down your brain by depriving it of power. Your backup power supply will not last long. So only let licensed adjusters access your codes.”
I grimaced. “Why was such a system set up? When it has such potential for abuse?” I asked.
Yu chuckled. “Many methods were tried. You are welcome to look up the history and we can always change the system. If you think of a better way, by all means, suggest it to OSSAB.”
“Oshab?” I asked.
“The Organic Silicate Switch Advisory Board.”
“Right.” I paused to think. “Can I be hacked? Are there back doors into my systems, or can others guess my codes?” Visions of legions of silicates marching along like zombies or something out of an old 2-D flick filled my mind.
“Your codes are very secure. However, we can spend a few minutes doing some basic attack and defense, if you like. But there hasn’t been such a recorded incident since the first years of the switch.”
“Really? I would think-”
“Mr. Leeds, information is free. Any attack methods are immediately deconstructed and defenses created. And the penalties for attacks are severe. Don’t worry about it.”
Tahay joined us from the other side of the room. “This is where we get off. Here are your access codes.” Tahay pulled a data pod out of the wand and handed it to me.
“Okay, you’re done. Have a good life as a silicate, Mr. Leeds. Your personal effects are in the next room, and then beyond that is the exit. Have a nice day.” They left.
I stood there, nonplussed by their abrupt departure. But then, they must have many other clients waiting. I started taking a mental inventory. I felt great, capable and powerful, but my senses still felt cold, artificial. Well, Tahay did say it might take a few days, so I inserted the data pod, read in the codes, and changed them. Then I made my way into the next room, wishing the feeling of strangeness would go away.
I found my carry–all in a room full of other new silicates. My sensors were dazzled by the wide variety of shapes and colors I saw in the newsils: there was a neon yellow walker with four arms; a blood-red ball which rolled about in all directions, talking up a storm; and a glittering blue spider-form, resting on a bench, singing an aria at the top of her silicate lungs. Overwhelmed, I grabbed my carry-all from its peg, swung it over my shoulder, and left.
The door to the street slid open, and cool, humid air enveloped me. I stumbled as my new processors clogged with data. 157 raindrops, averaging 2.7mm in diameter, splattered on my face as the outside humidity spiked to 100%. The air temperature averaged 15.4°C, with the air just next to the water droplets a few tenths of a degree cooler. The water was almost pure, but contained a trace of sulfuric acid.
I could see tiny motes of dust and pollen dancing in complex patterns as the inner and outer air swirled together. I tensed up, waiting for a sneeze, but none came. No allergies!
I took a deep breath, cataloging mold spores, a whiff of fungus, some bacteria reproducing in stale water. What was that? Oh, decomposing leaves in the park. I used to enjoy that scent.
I stood there, thinking for a moment. Now what? I had a few days to get used to being a silicate before returning to work, but I didn’t feel like returning to my apartment quite yet. Perhaps a cup of coffee? I suddenly wanted to see Jahns, so I turned and made my way back across the park.
I felt exposed without any clothes, but silicates rarely wore them. I hitched the carry-all higher, but the strap kept sliding down my smooth shoulder. I paused, and used clavicle servos to adjust the slope into a slightly concave shape with a rougher surface. Ah, that was better.
The miasma of sounds and the smells wafting into the park from the surrounding streets nearly overwhelmed me as I attempted to locate, sort and identify them. Baking rye bread, a pleading child, peanut oil from an Asian restaurant on the corner. I glanced at the sign, and found I could read the Zipu characters as well as the Latin. Hmm. I hadn’t asked for translation modules. They must have been part of the standard set. How bizarre to be able to read Chinese.
I smelled Jahns’ coffee shop a full two blocks before I reached the front door. He must have been roasting that morning. As I approached, I tried to identify each of the different varieties of beans. I opened the door, but was distracted by the content in the handle. A pine knob covered by an old varnish. The pine had almost completely dehydrated, even with the varnish covering.
“Hey, you comin’ or goin’?” Jahns called. I let go of the handle with a jerk and made my way to the counter.
“Uh, Leeds? Is that you?” He paused in folding some napkins.
“Yes. Good morning.”
“Leeds! Great to see you! Hey, I’m liking the choice of silicate bodies. Nice, basic walker.” He came out from behind the counter and circled me. “Pretty similar to your organic body, nothing fancy or too colorful. You gotta wonder about the choices of some silicates these days, eh?”
That was a relief. Perhaps I had been correct in choosing a standard walker body. The bizarre crowd of newsils had me wondering.
“Indeed. I was by far the most ‘normal’ of those I saw at the station.”
“How did it go? I’ve heard it stings a bit.” He peered up into my face.
I didn’t know if I should tell him how strange everything felt. How artificial. I decided to give it a few days.
“There are some moments of mild unpleasantness, but in fact the process is fascinating. How about a mug of coffee?” I asked.
“Of course, I’m sorry, man. I’m just so surprised you actually came back down here!” Jahns said over his shoulder as he turned to pour a fresh mug.
“Really? I did tell you I’d come back.”
He put the steaming coffee mug down on the counter. “Yes, of course you did, but didn’t you ever notice how the tastes of silicates differ from organics?”
“Right. Corn syrup and enzyme pills, mixed with oxygen. I haven’t tried that yet, I’d like to see how I react to normal food first.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen silicates chugging corn syrup, and it about makes me heave. Not to mention those high-fallutin’ ‘lipid lounges.’ Yuck.”
“It is a more efficient way to power our fuel cells.”
He made a face at me, and I grinned, and nodded towards my table. He nodded back, and headed back behind the counter to wipe the coffee makers down. I picked up the mug, careful not to crack the handle, and walked over to my favorite table. I sat down, and set my PCD to high-speed download my personalized news. As it started, I leaned back in the chair, closed my eyes and started scanning, periodically sipping the coffee.
Much to my disgust, instead of tasting the wonderful, sweet, bitter warm taste of the coffee, I noted that it was 82.4°C. It was a medium roast, with 61 mg of quinic acid, 70 mg of trigonelline, 35 mg of citric acid, 125 mg of caffeine – stop it, dammit. I sat back up and instead of drinking it, inhaled the aroma, which I had so loved before. Guaiacol, 2-furfurylthiol, diacetyl, vanillin. Vanillin! Not rich, earthy vanilla. Frustrated, I took another sip while scanning the news at speed. Perhaps if I distracted myself, I could taste the coffee, instead of analyzing it.
I read an article reporting that the agricultural prices were going up, due to a drought in central Asia, where the switch happened on average much later in life, and they were still growing their organic food crops outside. That was followed by a story on a brutal murder on Mars, and then one reporting on the latest mechanical problems with the space elevator. Apparently, the ozone in the upper atmosphere was eating away at the tether. I was a bit surprised Jahns hadn’t told me about the Mars murder. Those gruesome cases were just the thing that caught his curiosity, especially since they were becoming so common.
As I neared the bottom of the coffee cup, the ratios of chemicals gradually changed. Dammit, still analyzing. Tahay had said most silicates enjoy food. Why didn’t it just taste like coffee, instead of a series of chemicals? Frustrated and angry, I guzzled the last of the coffee; got up, returned the mug to the empty counter and left.
I stepped out of the doorway of the coffee shop, and decided to return to my apartment. Perhaps such a familiar place would be easier to deal with. I started down the street and nearly got run over by a kid on a scooter. I leaped out of the way, bouncing off a tree trunk. The kid waved and kept going as I sprang to my feet. I stood there, taking stock. I felt like my heart should be beating rapidly, loud in my ears, and my limbs should be shaking. Standard adrenaline reaction. But there was nothing. My sensors accurately reported the minor damage done to my surface, and the self–repair circuits initialized, but those were the only reactions I seemed to be having. I was angry with the child, but it felt empty, disconnected.
As I walked, puzzling over the incident, the catalog of what my sensors were telling me rapidly filled my mind. Smells, sounds, even the changing composition of the concrete under my feet. I didn’t understand. As an organic, it was easy to filter out familiar sensations. Everyone did it every day. It was relatively easy to listen to music or a specific conversation in a loud room. After a few moments the feeling of the daily clothing would go away. Even rank smells. Why hadn’t I habituated to any of my silicate sensors yet? It had been hours, now. Granted, I had the processing power to take it all in and identify it, but who wants to identify the smell of pigeon shit?
The rest of the way home, I experimented on ways to ignore the extraneous information. But I couldn’t figure out a way that didn’t involve a drastic change in the sensitivity of my sensors, which, thanks to Tahay’s reminder, I knew better than to do.
I arrived home, thankful to be off the street. The apartment was cool and quiet, a respite from the chaotic sensory input of outside. Even placing my hands over my ears hadn’t helped. The barrage of sensory input had given me an almost claustrophobic feeling, making it difficult to walk, and not run, back home. I went straight to the bathroom, and drew myself a bath, careful to keep the water the same temperature as my surface. When the tub was filled, I turned off the light, and carefully climbed in. Unlike my organic body, the silicate body sank immediately to the bottom of the tub. I had plentiful oxygen reserves, so I remained there.
It took only a split second to process all of the sensory information available under the water. The chemical make-up of the water, endlessly recycled in the city, was limited. The plastic of the tub surface, the muted sounds being projected along the plastic pipes, the slowly cooling fluid surrounding me. Access to the net was extremely slow and limited through the water, so I turned off my PCD.
What a relief. I stayed under the water for 2.9 hours, sitting up every 30 minutes or so to take another breath. The tub worked admirably well as a homemade sensory deprivation tank.
Vaguely ashamed for having retreated so quickly on my first day as a silicate, I watched the water slurp down the drain as the dehumidifier quickly dried my surface. Both were familiar, and I stretched, relaxed for the first time since the switch. I decided to spend a few hours reorganizing my apartment to reflect the needs of a silicate body, and then I would go out for the evening and explore some of the “traditional” newsil activities.
Most of the accoutrement of an organic life were unnecessary for a silicate, so I sent a large portion of my belongings back into the communal pool. I kept a few favorite things, like a jacket that would still be appropriate for a silicate to wear on formal occasions. Also a couch and a chair, for my rare, and mostly organic, visitors. Re-arranging as a silicate was so much easier than as an organic. I only broke one lamp and accidentally kicked the leg off of one side table.
When I was done with the apartment, it felt Spartan, spacious, and airy. Art pieces (mostly mine, a few by others), some electronics, and a few chairs and tables were all that were left. Finally, I cleaned up a bit in my study, where I sculpted. But I normally sculpted while standing up, so the room needed very little alteration.
When I was satisfied with the apartment, I reactivated my PCD, and checked to see if there were any newsil parties in the immediate neighborhood. I didn’t want to have to travel too far away from my apartment, in case I became overwhelmed again. Excellent. I found a party two buildings over, advertised as a calm gathering suitable for the newest of newsils. Hopefully there would be others there who were having the same sensor issues, and I could talk to them in a relatively tranquil environment. I cached the location, and left.
On my way over, I stopped at a skywalk vendor and picked up a half-liter of carb juice and a small supply of enzyme pills. I popped one of the pills and chased it with the carb juice. The juice was thick, leaving a film on my teeth, but my fuel cells started converting immediately, replenishing my reserves. I finished the juice, and stored the rest of the pills in my left arm compartment. The chemical makeup of both the juice and the pill were simple, and didn’t distract me with complex analyses. I decided that I liked the undemanding juice.
The trip to the party building was pleasant, enclosed as the route was. I was nearly alone in the skywalk. The air was clean, nearly odorless, and of a constant temperature. With soundproof walls on the buildings, my hearing wasn’t being overwhelmed. I tapped into a newsfeed, and listened to a forecast of more nasty storms in a few days. That was followed by a sociologist theorizing on the increasingly common sadistic crimes being committed around the solar system. Sadistic in the original sense, she was careful to point out; the crimes were rarely sexual in nature. Rather these incidents were brutal, apparently for viciousness sake. She started to speculate on what could be causing the upsurge in crime. What aspects of modern society pressured organics to that point? Annoyed, I switched the feed off.
As I walked, I found the carpet annoying. It was a riot of color, each containing a different mix of chemicals. But with only one sense in analytical overdrive, I found I could handle the input.
All that changed when I knocked on the door of the party, and it opened into a pulsating cacophony of music, moans and shouted conversation. I started to pull back, retreat down the hall, but a walker standing next to the door grabbed my arm and pinged me with his PCD. I sent back an ID packet before I could stop myself.
“Hey, another newsil!” he cried. “Everyone welcome Wern Leeds to our little party!”
A cheer rose above the din. I jerked my arm from his grasp. “How rude. Didn’t you learn any manners before your switch?”
“Hey, relax, man. We’re all friends here.” He sent back his own ID packet: Lithel Meyaneaux, switched five days ago. “You’re new, you’ll learn. Just wait ’til you grok what we can do now.” He led me further into the crowd.
Around the edges of the room, small groups of silicates huddled close, their heads (if they had them) or their bodies usually touching. They sat or stood like statues, no movement or sound. I caught Lithel’s attention and jerked my chin towards them.
“What are they up to?” I shouted.
They’re in fugue. Lithel sent back over the PCD. Old–timers.
A swirl of crowd enveloped us, mostly newsils dotted by a few organics. We joined a clump of four others near the center of the room. Lithel reached for an organic, and his hands started roaming. I turned away, and made eye contact with a female newsil. She didn’t bother to send me an I.D. ping; she grabbed my head and pulled it up to hers, and wrapped a leg around behind my thighs. I leaned into the kiss for a brief second, but then pulled away. I might as well have been licking the inside of a plastic cup.
Disappointed, I smiled at the newsil and gently pushed her towards one of the organics. I leaned towards the other organic, and pulled him closer. His hands wrapped around my neck, and I could identify every whorl and ridge of his fingerprints. I couldn’t help but measure the pressure his palm exerted against my nape. How could I appreciate a caress while analyzing the parameters of the contact?
As our mouths touched, my sensors flooded. The pH of his saliva, a trace of orange juice, with a sliver of pulp still stuck in his front teeth. For lunch he had eaten a tofu mango salad. The metabolites still lingered.
I jerked my head away, disgusted. He gasped, and thrust me away. I stumbled backwards into another group of people. They caught me, laughing, and set me back on my feet. I couldn’t help wiping my mouth. The organic sneered at me and dove back into the crowd. I sighed. I hadn’t meant to hurt him.
One of my saviors tapped me on the shoulder. I’m Simuë. Shall we try a fugue? she sent.
I smiled uncertainly, and sent back Wern Leeds. Sure, but let’s go slowly. I haven’t done it before.
She acked, acknowledged, and I followed her deeper into the apartment. She opened a small door to reveal the pantry. We both barely fit, but she pulled me close and shut the door, muffling the sounds of the party.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s take this slow. Let’s start with some basic ID packets, an introduction, and work from there.”
I nodded, and locked my joints. I had no idea how much processing power this would take. I closed my eyes, and sent her the information. We exchanged the basics: age, where we had grown up, our education, where we worked. Then she started to gently request access to my emotional sub-channel.
I poked a hole in my firewall, and she sent sexual curiosity over the ESC. What kind of things did I like and not like, what was my experience, and what I wanted to try. I replied, asking her the same, but tagged on I don’t know what I like as a silicate.
She sent back, humor–wrapped, That’s okay, we’re here to find that out. It’s just like organic sex, half the fun is figuring out what you like.
I built up a scenario and invited her in. I stood suspended in mid-air, surrounded by swirling colors and sounds. I represented myself in my old organic body. She manifested as a ghost-like, insubstantial figure, and took my hand. She turned into me, so we stood spoon-like, my arms wrapped around her stomach.
Feel this, she sent, and my skin started to prickle, although she hadn’t moved. Sensation started to flicker in patterns around my skin, then sank deeper, gravitating towards my ears, my feet, my groin. Then I felt something deeper. It shot past my projected body and lanced right into my mind to the pleasure center.
I gasped in surprise, expecting my knees to go weak, but my body didn’t move. She continued, but after that first surprising pulse, it felt… disconnected. I could feel the pleasure, but it didn’t engage me. It reminded me of an old, weak memory, drained of all significance.
We traded sensations. Tickling, burning, deep massage, straight, pure pleasure. Through the ESC, her mind sang; a spiral of woven pleasure, higher and higher.
Simuë wafted down, her ESC sparkling with joy, and I heard a deep, mental sigh. That was good, especially for a newsil. Thanks, Wern. Let me try you, again.
You’re welcome, I returned, shyly. I felt a wisp of concern from Simuë, and the feelings around me intensified. I tried to relax and enjoy her ministrations. She started with a gentle touch, cycling from slow and deep pressure to flickering, light tingles. Aching, yearning, she tried them all. I was awash in sensual pleasure, but I felt as if I were wearing a wetsuit, insulated from my sensations.
Frustration flashed through her ESC. What’s wrong? she asked. Why aren’t you enjoying this? What should I try?
Confused, I sent back incomprehension. I don’t understand what’s going on, Simuë. All of my sensory input since the switch has felt artificial, disconnected.
Really? How odd. My sensors are incredible, I never dreamed that life, that sensations, could be this intense. Do you know why you feel this way?
No. I groaned. And I have no idea how to fix it. I mentioned it to my switch adjuster, but she thought it would go away after a few days, after my brain got used to the new input.
Strange, she replied, and dropped the sub-channel.
I surfaced back into my silicate body. She was staring at me, concerned. “Have you thought about contacting a private adjuster? Or the Switching Station?”
“Yes, but I’ve been switched less than a day. I thought I’d give it a day or two. I was hoping to see if anyone else here was having the same problem.”
“You’re the first I’ve met. You really should go get some help.” She gave me a brief nod, and opened the pantry door. A wave of sound rolled in, and I flinched. She didn’t look back. I took a moment to compose myself, and then exited the pantry, preparing myself for making my way across the crowded apartment to the exit.
I started across, trying to avoid as much physical contact as possible. Ducking and twisting, I almost didn’t see Lithel leaning towards the wall near the doorway to the hall. He and an organic woman were wrapped around each other. Even over the music I could hear them groaning. Lithel was, among other things, blowing brief spurts of air from various locations on his body against her, in places where an organic would enjoy them. Different pressures, temperatures and patterns. She rubbed against him harder, and started to shudder.
I made it to the door, and left the apartment as fast as I could. The air from outside blasted into the room, rapidly chilling my surface. Grateful for once that it wasn’t cold, only data, I closed the door behind me and made my way back to my apartment. It was all too much, yet it felt so false. So much for silicate sex.
During the night (not sleeping would take some getting used to), I explored the net, looking for other things that newsils traditionally tried. Early in the morning, a flying company caught my attention. With a few quick, simple modifications, most silicates could be fitted with wings. I made my way to the launch port and rented wings and a ‘tail’ that attached to my feet. I spent a wonderful day flying free in the mountains, soaring with the birds.
Flying required intense analytical concentration: measuring velocity; kPA against the control surfaces; experimenting with curving the wings this way while twisting the tail that way; anticipating thermals. Somersaults, dives, tailspins. The data processing required was intense. I reveled in the experience, the control. It mimicked an adrenaline rush, in the mind instead of the stomach and legs.
Encouraged by my flying experience, and my time in the bathtub, I attached a sub suit and tried to dive to the mid-ocean ridges, to swim among the eyeless, blood-red creatures that lived off the hydrothermal vents. I didn’t even make it half way down. Being constricted by the sub suit, combined with the overwhelming analysis all of the data coming in from its sensors: varying chemical compositions, currents, temperature and pressure differentials, was too much. The chaos of the sea gave me an intense feeling of claustrophobia completely different than what I felt in the bath. When I surfaced, and was hauled onto the tour boat, I could barely speak. The crew looked puzzled when I requested that I be left alone in a chair on the prow of the boat, face to the wind.
The submarine and party experiences convinced me that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for the hedonism that normally followed a switch. I decided, given how much I enjoyed the flying experience, I should return to work in Data Acquisitions. Perhaps working for a few days in an environment where the sensory input was restricted to one or two senses would help assuage the apprehension that had been slowly building. I didn’t want to admit that I thought there might be something deeply wrong.
After a workshift I contacted the Switching Station. An organic answered the call.
“Greetings. I am Wern Leeds, and I was switched at your station six days ago. I would like to speak to either Adjuster Tahay Lin or Consultant Yu, please.”
“Mr. Leeds. Yes, I see your records here. Access to our employees is restricted. May I ask why you feel you need to contact them?”
Restricted? Neither Tahay nor Yu had said anything about that.
“I see. So, what are my options?”
“For what reason do you want to contact Adjuster Tahay or Dr. Yu?”
“Mr. Leeds, if you are already jaded and need an adjustment, please contact a licensed Adjuster. If you have questions about the switch itself, or silicate policy, please contact the Organic Silicate Switch Advisory Board.”
“No, thank you. I just had a question to ask. It’s not a big deal. Thank you for your time.” Jaded? I wasn’t jaded. The organic nodded, and I finned the connection. Perhaps I was anti-jaded. I didn’t want more sensation; I wanted less.
I was beginning to crave, to yearn for my old sense of touch. It did make some sense, though, that newsils wouldn’t be given access to those who worked at the Switching Station, otherwise the Station might be swamped. That was what licensed adjusters were for. I decided to ignore the creeping uncertainty and asked the net who the closest licensed adjuster was, and to put in a request for communication.
“You want to what? Decrease your sensitivity? Whatever for?”
The silicate who answered the call had chosen a dull, gray, androgynous walker form. She also refused the sub-channel. Even after a few days I found the lack of the ESC disconcerting.
“Yes, Adjuster. I am finding the level of stimulation difficult to deal with. It feels too artificial. Is it possible to adjust them to mimic an organic’s senses?”
“I’m sorry, Mr., errr…, Leeds. I specialize in hyper-sensitivity and in adding in extra modules. Perhaps you should contact the Switch Board.”
“Why would I contact the Board?”
“They keep information and statistics on this sort of thing,” she said shortly. “They might be able to help you.”
“This sort of thing?” I repeated. “What do you mean?”
“Those who can’t adjust properly. Please, Mr. Leeds, I must go. I have a client waiting.” She finned the connection.
My confusion and apprehension spiked. ‘Can’t adjust properly?’ Isn’t that what licensed adjusters were for? Hoping that I had just contacted an incompetent adjuster, I tried again, but this time I did a bit of research and found an adjuster who advertised a wider range of adjustments.
“Decrease you? Are you kidding? How long have you been switched?”
“Well then. You obviously haven’t taken full advantage of your situation yet.” The sub-channel from this silicate was pulsating coarse pleasure, with an added leer overlaying the last sentence.
“Excuse me. I have. I don’t want more sensation, I want less.”
“Ha! You obviously haven’t gone far enough. Contact me again when you want to really feel what a silicate can experience!” He send along a fin packet with contact information, and directions to a club to which he belonged. I shuddered and disconnected, disgusted. Wider range, indeed!
I had a little better luck with my third contact. This time I searched for an organic adjuster.
“Mr. Leeds, the Switching Stations generally adjust newsils to fairly low sensitivity levels, to prevent overload. Only very rarely do they send someone out overloaded, and they never make it a week. Your situation doesn’t really make sense.”
“I don’t feel overloaded, I can deal with all of the stimuli. It just feels… wrong. Too artificial.”
“Hmmm. Have you been to a silicate sensory inundation tank, to see if experiencing organic senses occasionally might help?”
“A silicate can do that?” So many things I didn’t know.
“Of course. There aren’t a lot, but there are a few artists who make scenarios for silicates that mimic organic senses. Some silicates become nostalgic. Perhaps you just became nostalgic a bit early.”
“After a week?” I was getting more and more confused.
“This really is bothering you, isn’t it? Listen, you should go see an adjustment therapist. If you are sincerely having problems, they can help. A tweaking of your sensors is not what you need. Names of therapists are available through the Switch Board.”
That made me pause. Was I foolish to ignore that advice? Wasn’t what I was experiencing exactly what adjustment therapists were for? Was I really willing to be miserable yearning for organic touch while being essentially immortal? But I couldn’t bring myself to go to a therapist.
That’s when I realized I wanted to go back. I was tired of being a silicate, constantly overwhelmed by minutia. I wanted to be organic again.
Yet the idea of re-visiting the inundation tanks was a good one. Maybe I could calm my cravings there, and continue as a functional silicate.
“Perhaps I will seek out a therapist. Thank you for your time, Adjuster.”
He nodded, and we disconnected.
It took almost two weeks to get into a regulated silicate inundation tank. During that time, I quietly began to investigate the possibility of switching back to an organic body.
I wasn’t able to find much, and most of what I did find was buried deep in the old archives. Back then, despite the Organic Silicate Switch Advisory Board’s official line, there were hints of some pressure in both the organic and silicate communities for technology to make a reverse-switch possible, despite the obvious benefits of a resource-light, immune to sickness, long-lived and highly-trained population. Five hundred years ago, when the switch was still relatively new, and society was foundering from resource depletion and pollution, every few decades someone announced a breakthrough, and that soon, very soon, the reverse-switch would be possible. But then, after the news flurry which followed each announcement, silence. And then little for four hundred years.
Out on the fringes of the net, I found some strange chunks of data, garbled and confused. Some seemed to indicate that people were going to attempt reverse switches, but there was never any follow-up. Others presented like the ravings of a lunatic. I wondered if Stanzan or someone like him had created these odd little fictions. On the other hand, the net had always had corners where the user realities didn’t match the rest of society.
Finally, my reservation for the tanks came up. I attached some newly purchased wings, and started over to the Inundation Tank Center. As I was swooping between the strato–spires and tropo–domes, a peculiar urge came over me. What if I dove into one of the buildings? Would that bring surcease? I pulled up hard and landed on a helipad. Where had that come from? I did a quick diagnostic, but there didn’t appear to be anything wrong. I quickly programmed the wings to autopilot me to my appointment, and spent the rest of the trip searching for the origin of that errant thought.
By the time I landed at the Center, self-destructive impulses were overtaking me. I fairly sprinted in for my session, hoping it would help. I entered the room to find a young technician, perhaps in his fifties, waiting for me. He tapped a console.
“Please, register here.”
I moved up beside him, and pinged the console with my ID. It accepted my codes, and unlocked for the session.
“So, what can I do for you today, Mr. Leeds?”
Curbing my impatience, I said, “I’ve heard that there are scenarios which mimic organic sensory input. I’d like one of those, please.”
The technician glanced up at me, his pupils dilated, heartbeat slightly elevated. He nodded slightly, and nudged me towards the tank.
Inside, more fuzzy gel danced with color. I carefully climbed in, expecting the same warm, comforting feeling as before. But no. My sensors cataloged all of the physical and chemical properties of the gel, but it wasn’t comfortable.
The tank closed, and the electrodes insinuated themselves through my external contacts and into my internals. The first scenarios the technician chose were overwhelming, but stale: a silicate probe diving into a gaseous planet, a fugue orgy, being part of a world-spanning multimind. I kept insisting on organic experiences. Eventually, he complied. I went under again, and found myself in a natatorium.
The tile is warm and wet under my feet. I tense, and dive in. The water closes over my head and down my body. I arch my back to bring me back to the surface, and exhale through my nose. The fluid rushes past my body, and the bubbles released from my nose stream down past my mouth and impact on my chest. I reach the surface, exhale, and start to do the crawl. Rotate head, swing arm around and back into the water, rotate, breath in as my face emerges, kick, kick. The water/air interface undulated around my body as my actions and the waves destabilized it. Reaching the end of the lane, I clenched my stomach muscles, somersaulted, kicked off, reached the surface and started to stroke again. It was invigorating, and exactly what I needed. My desperation drained from my body into the pool, the frantic skitterings in my mind calming down.
I surfaced, exhilarated, and asked the technician for another. Skydiving. Angrily I quit that one and asked for another simple one. He put in another scenario with a sigh.
I find myself gardening. It’s the same body as in the pool. I’m kneeling in the grass at the edge of a garden, pulling weeds and manually turning over the soil. I feel the sun against my back and my neck, burning the backs of my legs. A hat shades my face, and a trickle of sweat works its way down my spine and between my breasts. My knees are slightly sore, and I feel the blades of grass pressing into them. My hands are digging in the soil, the gritty loam working its way underneath my fingernails. I throw another weed into the pile destined for the compost heap, and wave away the small bugs hovering near my head. I lean back onto my heels and reach over for the tall glass of iced tea next to me, wet with condensation. I have to grip it hard to prevent it from slipping from my grasp. I nearly gasp as the cold liquid slides down my throat. How strange. During the few times I had gardened as an organic, I hated it. Now, I could think of nothing else I would rather be doing. I garden until the sun goes down.
The technician pulled me back into my silicate reality. I lay there in the open tank, completely relaxed, and reluctant to remove myself. The technician came over and sat on the edge.
“You need to get help. Very few silicates ask for those programs, and most of those who do…” He stopped, and shook his head.
“What do you mean?” What had I gotten myself into?
“Remember in the legal disclaimer, there was a section on ‘an infinitesimal chance something might go wrong’? That’s there for a reason. Silicate rejection.”
I snorted. “I don’t believe you. Silicate rejection is an urban legend. It hasn’t happened since the first years of the switch, centuries ago.”
“It’s extremely rare. Officially, it hasn’t happened in over three centuries. OSSAB found that if they told organics about rejection before the switch, many more experience it. A kind of psychosomatic reaction, apparently.” A shadow passed across his face. “Usually tests indicate the possibility of the reaction. When they do, we warn the person, so they can choose whether or not to go through with the switch.”
“They get to choose? Isn’t it dangerous? And why wasn’t I offered this choice?” How badly had they messed up?
“It’s usually not dangerous. If they switch anyway, we encourage people to choose a silicate life with such a different role than their organic life, one so out of context, that they rapidly forget their organic experiences. That usually works. I don’t know why you didn’t show up on the tests.”
“Okay, so what happens to the others, the ones who aren’t detected?” Like me? And what expertise did this tech have?
“Usually, not much. Adjustment therapists can deal with almost all of the cases. In rare cases that can’t be treated, the silicate is recovered by a silicate adjuster.” A mind ripper, I filled in.
“Do they show up in one of these public inundation tank centers? Or how are they found?”
“The severe rejection cases exhibit extreme paranoia, or depression. They seek out help, or someone else notices and tries to help them. You need to get adjustment therapy right away.”
“No. I want to go back.”
“Into the tank?”
“No. Back to an organic body.”
He sighed. “You can’t go back. The process is one-way. You were told that during your silicate briefing.”
“Listen. It’s against regulations, but I’ll give you the name of the artist whose experiences I just gave you. She’s a licensed therapist, and she can help you, explain your options, and help you through them. Without reporting to the Switch Board. Please, for your own sake, see her.”
“Report to the Organic Silicate Switch Advisory Board?”
“Yes. Officially, those who don’t adjust well must be reported to the Board.”
He shook his head. “I haven’t been able to find out, but I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Why do you care? About any of this? You’re just a technician. You don’t even know me. And you’re an organic, at that.”
“Ah, well. I lost someone I cared about deeply to silicate rejection. Here, I can hopefully catch a few others like you and her, before they’re lost.”
I looked at this stranger carefully. His respiration, his pupils, his skin temperature were again normal. As far as I could tell, he was not lying. However, he dealt with silicates every day; maybe he had learned to control most of those involuntary reactions. But what would he gain from lying to me about something like this? He had given me what sounded like the most honest information I had received since this whole farce began. So I nodded, and he smiled slightly. He then pulled a small data pod out of an inner pocket and handed it to me.
“Here is the information on Nothe Ihar, the artist/therapist. Tell her I sent you.”
“Who are you?”
“Her son. We lost my sister to silicate rejection.”
Dr. Ihar’s office was located far from the city, on a plateau deep in the mountains. As I landed, folded and detached my wings, I realized I knew this place. There was the garden I had weeded back in the inundation tank. Beyond the house was a large enclosed lap pool. My attention was drawn by a women walking towards me dressed in loose pants, a light shirt and a bright shawl. Her tanned face was tracked with experience; crows feet near her eyes, deep vertical lines on either side of her mouth. Shoulder-length dreadlocks cascaded out from behind a tribal scarf.
“Mr. Leeds?” At my nod, she continued, “Welcome. My son told me to expect you. Please come in.”
She was silent as she guided me up to the house, through a beautifully chaotic, but well-maintained garden. I indicated the greenery around us and asked, “How do you have the time to maintain all this by hand?”
“I consider it part of my own therapy, and recording the experiences is useful for others, as you know. And while I’m organic, I intend to fully appreciate it.”
I nodded in understanding and faint hope. Maybe I had come to the right place after all. We entered the house, and turned into a workroom decorated like an old-style living room, complete with real wood antiques. No one had made furniture from wood in hundreds of years, but these looked almost new. I put my hand down on the surface of a table to analyze the moisture content of the wood and the chemical make up of the finish. Dr. Ihar laughed, and I jerked my hand away.
“No, no, don’t worry about it. Most people haven’t ever seen wooden furniture. Your reaction isn’t unusual.”
She gestured for me to sit down on the sofa and walked over to a desk, where she picked up a control wand. She then crossed over and sat across from me in a high-backed armchair.
“How long have you been a silicate?”
She nodded and tapped the wand. “And how old were you when you switched?”
“One hundred seventy four.” Why would she want to know that?
“Quite late, even for an organic of your generation. Why did you wait?”
That made me pause. “I don’t know. It just never seemed the right time, until the aches and pains of old age became an active nuisance.”
She gave a small smile and tapped again on the wand. I put my chin forward, trying to see what was on the small screen. “Why are you entering data? Surely this is available in public records, and you are recording the conversation, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that is standard procedure. I’m making notes of my thoughts. Does it bother you?”
“I guess not.” I leaned back and crossed my arms. Her eyes flicked to them, and I uncrossed them quickly. Nothing like so obvious a defensive move to get us on the wrong track.
“Most healthy people these days switch soon after they reach the legal age. Yet you waited over a century, without the usual reasons; holding elected office, kids, a relationship or marriage, a job which is traditionally organic. Others must have asked you this before. What answer did you give them?”
“That I just wasn’t ready.” I was getting uncomfortable. What difference did it make?
“Yes, but why? Even with the anti-agapic, the older you grew the better chance there was of accidental death. You were risking your immortality.” Her voice was steady, professional.
“I wasn’t doing a dangerous job, I rarely left the city, and I was careful. There was not that much risk.”
“Mr. Leeds,” she said reproachfully. “I can’t help you if you don’t help me understand where you’re coming from.”
I sighed, and rubbed at my concave shoulder. “I guess… I guess it had something to do with the fact that when I was young, people were strongly encouraged to wait before switching. Because people should experience as much as they can as an organic before the switch.”
She narrowed her eyes, and glanced down at the control wand’s screen, and tapped for a second.
“You didn’t exactly lead the life of a daredevil; you hardly had any adventures at all, Mr. Leeds. Are you being honest with yourself?”
I got up, uneasy, and walked over to a window overlooking the garden. I crossed my arms, I couldn’t help it, and massaged my elbow. It had been one of the more painful joints as I grew older. I heard a slight snick behind me, and the sound of water pouring. I turned, and saw Dr. Ihar pouring some tea. The house must have delivered it. The house’s fields were silent, I hadn’t heard their hum.
She saw me watching her, and asked “Would you like some?”
“No thanks. Organic food doesn’t do anything for me any more, I’m afraid.”
“Really? Why not?”
“I can’t taste it for what it is, I just end up analyzing it.” I turned back to the view outside, and watched a spider encasing something it had trapped in its web.
“Is that true for your other senses as well?”
“Yes.” Tap, tap.
“And that bothers you?”
I turned back around, surprised.
“‘Does that bother me?’ Bother me? That’s why I’m here. Didn’t your son tell you that?”
“No. Of course not. He just told me that you needed my help. He is not a therapist, and I would not discuss a patient, or a potential patient, with him anyway.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to imply-”
“It’s okay, Mr. Leeds. So you’re having sensory integration problems?”
I returned to the couch, and settled down, one foot tucked under me, and examined the pattern of the stitches in the embroidery of a nearby pillow.
“Well, I’m not sure that’s how I would describe it. The sensors work just fine, I’m not having any trouble running them, or interpreting the information they are sending to me. It all just feels… unnatural. Artificial. And incessant.”
“I can’t turn it off. I can’t not pay attention to every detail around me. I’m constantly analyzing everything. It’s distracting, and exhausting. I can’t concentrate on one thing anymore.”
She exhaled, and I raised my eyes to hers.
“You haven’t habituated to the sensors?”
I shook my head. “No.”
“Okay. You also said everything feels artificial. Is this true beyond the lack of habituation?”
“Yes. Like the food, as I said. I can’t taste sweetness anymore. I can identify the presence and concentration of fructose and sucrose, and analyze it, but I can’t taste sweetness. Or bitterness. Or feel softness. Anything like that.”
“You’ve lost the ability to interpret, and can only analyze and identify.”
“Hmmm.” She tapped further on the control wand. “How does that make you feel?”
I couldn’t help it, I laughed. She smiled, and I realized that she was just trying to lighten the mood.
“It feels bland. I feel like I’m living in a bubble, being told what I should be feeling by an outside source. I feel disconnected from myself, my emotions, and those around me.” I stopped, startled by what I had just said.
“Have you found anything that helps?” she asked.
I hesitated in answering. What should I tell her? Could I trust her? I really knew nothing about this woman. Maybe just a bit…
“I find that immersing myself in my bathtub helps. After a quick analysis, it doesn’t bother me as much.”
“How much time have you spent in the bathtub? Say, how long each day?”
“I’ve never kept track.”
“Mr. Leeds, silicates have eidetic memory. You can count right now.”
“Well, then, I’d have to say… three to four hours a day.” I couldn’t meet her eyes.
A few more taps on the control wand.
“And what else helps?”
“Flying.” I still couldn’t look up. I had just found out what shame felt like as a silicate. My brain was filled with conflicting thoughts of denial, a blizzard of self-recrimination. I shook my head, as if that would help.
“Mr. Leeds, are you all right?”
I shook my head, closed my eyes and raised my hands to my ears. That didn’t help; I began to squeeze. I heard Dr. Ihar jump up, the control wand hit the floor, and then she tried to pull my hands away from my head.
“House, restrain his hands,” she snapped.
I felt gentle fields encircle my hands and arms, and then, inexorably, they moved away from my head. I fought the fields for a split second, and then stopped resisting. My hands met in my lap, and I clasped them, signaling defeat.
“House. Let him go.”
The fields disappeared, but I left my hands where they were.
Dr. Ihar leaned over to pick up the wand. Then she sat back down and waited. The silence started to make me nervous, but I didn’t know what to say. She sat in her chair, her hand relaxed along the chair arm, and just looked at me.
I got up again, and returned to the window. The spider had finished encasing dinner, and had retreated out of my sight. The silence continued, and I reached up and traced the outline of the mountains on the window. The glass was cool, 4° cooler then the ambient room temperature.
“The other day, I nearly flew into a building. The impulse was almost uncontrollable, and it scared me.” I continued to trace on the window.
“You’ve never tried to hurt yourself, or commit suicide, before?”
I shook my head, both in answer, and to try to shut up the round of recriminations that had started up again.
“Do you think you’ll try again?”
I turned back to her, and rubbed my hands together. “I don’t know. The flying incident, and what just happened, they both took me by surprise. I don’t want to die. I just….”
“I just need to feel again.” My hand sensors registered intense pressure, and I looked down. I was clenching them so hard my palms were starting to collapse. She just watched.
“You’re not going to stop me?”
“No. Squeezing your head might do severe damage. Your hands are replaceable, and you must work this out for yourself.”
Wow. I blinked a few times. And spread out my hands. The self–repair circuits kicked in, and my palms reshaped themselves.
“Now, my simulations help you, because you are finding the artificiality of silicate sensors unbearable. Is that accurate?”
I nodded, still watching my hands.
“And what do you want do it about it?”
I didn’t answer immediately, still unsure if I could trust her.
“Isn’t there any way to tune my sensors so they more closely mimic what I experienced as an organic?”
“Your sensors can be turned down, but the way sensory input is carried to and interpreted by your brain has changed fundamentally on every level. There’s no way to accurately mimic organic sensation in a silicate outside of a tank.”
“What makes a tank different?” I asked eagerly. Perhaps there was something there I could exploit.
“It’s the origin of the sensory data that is different. When experiencing simulations created by silicates, didn’t it feel as artificial as your current life?”
I nodded. That was true. My hopes began to fall. I thought I could see where she was going with this.
“When in a tank, the input is placed directly into your brain regardless of whether you’re organic or silicate. It bypasses all of your own sensors, and much of the sensory interpretation. It’s placed directly into your reality.”
“So… if I had experienced a silicate tank simulation while still an organic, I would have felt this… artificialness?” I asked, horrified. So simple a thing could have spared me this?
“Perhaps. But the tanks don’t bypass all of your sensory interpretation, not all of it. Nor do silicate sensors. That’s one of the reasons emotions don’t disappear entirely for the first few weeks after a switch. Some of that interpretation is left. Almost everyone quickly learns to ‘interpret’ their silicate sensory input as they did their organic, and everything quickly feels natural, but enhanced. Sensations, emotions, everything.”
I stared at her, stunned.
“How? But… why?”
“I don’t know. No one does. The human brain is an amazing thing. Simulations recorded by organics would feel strange, muted, to a properly adjusted silicate. It’s only those like you who have had something go wrong that experience those simulations as if they were normal. Some silicates like that muted feeling, it makes them feel empowered, strong. But for you it’s a reminder of what you used to feel.”
“So now what?” I asked, “I’m ‘wrong?’ Can I be fixed?” A feeling of detachment was coming over me, as if I were viewing this session through a translucent screen.
Dr. Ihar closed her eyes, a pained look on her face.
“I’m sorry, ‘wrong’ is not the correct term. You’re not ‘wrong,’ we just have to figure out a way to properly adjust you, to help your mind make this transition. For you it will probably just take longer, but you will adjust.”
“Like your daughter did?”
Ihar gasped, and the detachment snapped. I felt terrible. I raised my hands, palms up and out, asking for forgiveness.
“I’m so sorry, Dr. Ihar. I have no idea why I said that. It was completely inappropriate.”
As I spoke, she covered her eyes with one hand, and clenched the other. I watched as she took three deep breaths, and then removed her hand from her face, which was calm again.
“I can help you, if you let me.”
I nodded. There was no doubt in my mind any longer that I needed help, and a lot of it. I’d spent plenty of time being a self-absorbed, insensitive clod, but never actively cruel. There was something going on that I didn’t understand, and I felt Dr. Ihar could help.
“What do I need to do?”
“We’ll start you in the tank, here, with organic scenarios. During your time in the tank, I’ll adjust your sensors down a bit during each session, until they’re roughly as sensitive as an organics. But they still won’t feel organic.”
I nodded. “And then what?”
“We’ll start to introduce silicate sensations into the scenarios, slowly, while bringing your sensors back up to their current strength. I’ll adjust this process carefully, and never give you more than you can handle. Okay?”
I nodded again, but this time with some hope. This actually sounded like it might work.
“What else helps you deal with this feeling of artificialness? Besides your bathtub and flying?”
“I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine that sculpting would help. I do it alone, and there are only a few inputs to deal with. It’s such a mental activity.”
Just saying it made me want to get rock dust all over my hands, feel the stone under my fingers, and create from my inner core. How would my pieces be different now?
“Good. That’s good. But these are all solitary pursuits. How about activities with other people?”
I smiled, a bit more relaxed. Touché, of course my social life would come into this.
“Well. I have a few friends at work, and Jahnsvolde, he runs the coffee shop where I used to hang out when I was organic. I sell my pieces there.”
“Used to hang out?”
“I don’t like coffee anymore. Taste, remember?”
“Ah, of course. Perhaps you could convince him to serve something a bit more suitable for you?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know whether Jahns would be insulted or grateful that I would still want to spend time there, but not drink his coffee.
“Okay. So here’s how I see us proceeding. You’ll have a session in the tank before you leave today, and I’ll adjust your sensors down just a bit. This week, continue spending time in your coping activities as needed. But each time, ask your self, ‘Do I need to do this? Can I cope without it?’ Just be aware. You don’t need to start cutting back now. You might even need to increase your coping times. That’s normal at this stage. How does that sound?”
I nodded. I thought I could handle that. It sounded quite do-able, in fact, now that I was more aware of what was going on.
“I’m still a bit worried about these desires to hurt yourself, though. What would you say to me flagging the rest of your medical record with a privacy flag? This session is private, of course. Then, if you feel as if you are going to hurt yourself, you can call for help immediately, and you’ll get it. But those records won’t be available to anyone else, so it won’t reflect badly on you at work or anywhere else.”
I nodded, relieved. I definitely didn’t want “suicide attempt” on my public record.
“Don’t hesitate to call, if you need it. You’ve worked too hard today to throw it away.” She rose from her chair, and said, “Okay, why don’t you go into the inundation tank in the next room. While you’re in there, I’ll adjust you down, and when you emerge, we can make sure you’re functioning correctly.”
I nodded and stood. She held out the control wand; I grasped the end and copied my access codes into it. She waved me into the next room, and I walked over to climb into the tank. Ihar input my codes into the panel, and typed in her overrides.
I’m hiking in the mountains surrounding Dr. Ihar’s house, cresting a ridge. As I do so, the cold wind strikes my body. I nearly duck back down into the wind shadow from which I had emerged, to put on a jacket and care for my blisters, but the view stops me. Spread out below me is a beautiful U-shaped valley, with a large, powder-blue lake resting up against a glacial moraine. A waterfall on the far side of the valley crashes down from a glacier above, and to my delight, I can’t measure how far it is falling. I relax into the program, and spend a subjective afternoon exploring the valley for huckleberries.
When I emerged from the program, Dr. Ihar was waiting next to the tank.
“I’ve damped you down a degree. Can you tell?”
I examined her and found that I could not quite see her as well. I could no longer count her pores. The feeling was still artificial, but yes, I could tell. So I nodded.
I climbed out of the tank, and she transferred my codes back to me. As I verified deletion in her system, she continued, “Good. Try this level for a week, and come back then for an evaluation. If it becomes too tough, you can contact me earlier. But, the more you do that, the more you will become reliant on the tank and me,” she warned sternly. “It will make it much easier for you in the long run if you can hold out as long as you can.”
My first attempt at sculpting was a disaster. As soon as I returned home, I went into the study and pulled out a cobble of marble and placed it on the scarred, chipped table in the center of the room. I gathered my implements, a laser cutter, chisels, brushes, rasps, and laid them out. I preferred to work in natural light, because the shadings in the stone were important to me. Even though the light was fading, I could still get a fair amount of work done. The beginning of any piece was cutting away larger chunks of rock with the laser cutter, getting the basic outline of the sculpture revealed before the more delicate work began.
I picked up the cutter, and a thin beam bounced back and forth between the projector and the reflector, sparkling on the dust in the air. Then I started to cut. Or tried to. All I could do was stand there looking at the cobble. Nothing came to me, my mind felt bereft of all creative force. I’d had this problem before, so I went and put on some music, something with a soft, eastern-Mediterranean beat. Back at the table, I tried again. Nothing. Just put the blade on the stone, Wern. I started to cut, but all that came out were geometric shapes. First I trimmed it down to an ovoid, then an egg–shape. I inverted it and tried again, but that end ended up resembling a thick drill bit.
Frustrated, I put down the laser and felt the stone with my hands, looking for textural differences and weaknesses in the marble. The analysis of the surface and the composition of the rock filled my mind, goading, distracting, teasing. Calcium carbonate, with races of iron, magnesium, and manganese adding wisps of color. I washed off my hands, and turned to the rows of my previous sculptures on shelves against the far wall. I examined them: abstract shapes, flowing figures, even a few visual puns to work on technique. I turned back towards the table, and saw a piece that looked like it came from a First School art class, and ached to be able to sculpt like I could before.
Disgusted, I tried striking the stone with a hammer, hoping it would break in unique, unexpected ways. This was always a good technique to get the creative juices flowing, but I had not bargained with my silicate reflexes. All of the spalls ended up in near perfect lines or curves, the dimples uniform in size or symmetric in shape. I couldn’t believe it, and took a closer look. Yes, it looked machine-made. It was machine-made. That was as much as I could take. I cleaned up, and retreated into the bathtub.
I took two sculptures with me to my next appointment with Dr. Ihar. In the first, one of my old favorites, a human figure oozed from a wall fissure. A series of complex geometrical shapes twisted around each other in the second, a 3–D rendering that reminded me of a mathematical modeling program. It was the best I could do.
“How much sculpting did you do this week?” she asked, examining them.
“I tried every day. Sometimes I could do it for an hour or so, but sometimes I had to stop after just a few minutes.” I shook my hands. “There’s nothing here anymore. I can’t see inside like I could before. It feels dead.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. It’s only been a week. And this piece,” she fondled the geometric folly, “is quite beautiful. Perhaps your artistic vision has changed, and you just need to get used to it.”
“Used to it? Like everything else? My sculpting was supposed to help me cope, not make the problem worse. This thing,” I grabbed the sculpture, ‘looks machine made.” I smashed it to the floor. Shards ricocheted. “It was machine made.”
I strode over the pieces, my emotions propelling me to the window. Behind me, Ihar cleared her throat. I heard the shards scrape and chime as the house disposed of them.
“Sculpting was going to be just one way of dealing with your difficulty,” she said, her voice steady. “If it didn’t work, we’ll try something else. Have you been flying?”
“Not as much as I’d like, in these storms,” I dared to turn and look at her. Her composure was intact, the floor spotless.
“And the bathtub?”
Ah, the bathtub. “A fair amount.”
“What is a fair amount?” she asked. She had picked up her control wand from the side table, and was tapping on it again. I found myself perversely annoyed by the sound. I turned back to the window and cross my arms. Only a remnant of the spider web remained, entangled around the branches and windowsill.
“Okay, Leeds. What is a fair amount?”
I sighed. I knew she’d get it out of me eventually.
“All night, most nights.”
The tapping sped up. “I couldn’t sculpt. I can only spend so many hours at work, and I couldn’t fly in the storms. You said I should cope.”
“Yes, I did. I’m not angry. You made it through the week, that’s the important thing.” Her voice was encouraging, so I returned to the couch and sat down, but I still couldn’t look her in the face.
Concern colored her voice, but I still wasn’t sure I could trust her. Much of my trust had faded as I was failing to sculpt. But if not her, who? How much longer could I continue as I was? Gathering my courage, I continued, “I want to go back. I want to be organic again.”
I looked up, but she was silent, a stony look on her face. The control wand lay in her lap. When she spoke, her voiced cracked.
“What do you know about the work that has been done to move a silicate intelligence back into an organic mind?”
“I’ve done a fair amount of research on it since I realized I wanted to go back. When the switch was still new, every ten or twenty years a biotech company would announce a breakthrough. There would be a media frenzy, and then nothing. It’s as if there were a news blackout on the subject.”
“What happened after that wasn’t pretty. I suspect the information was being suppressed by the Board.”
She picked up the control wand and activated a data projector in the ceiling. The projection filled the space between us with an image of a caged mouse. The mouse lay in the corner, twitching. The view switched to show a series of twitching or convulsing mice, and a few that were dead. A wave of revulsion roiled through me. I paused to analyze it; it was a feeling much more organic than most I had experienced in my silicate body.
“Organic brains grow and change in response to the experiences of the intelligence in it, especially while the intelligence is young. Every brain is different, not only for genetic reasons, but because no one has the same experiences. It’s fairly easy to map that structure and mimic it in a silicate brain. Since a silicate brain has a larger capacity than an organic, there is room to expand and find alternative pathways, if necessary. But we can’t grow viable organic brains. Even though we can grow them with specific structures on a micro scale, there’s something on the quantum scale that we haven’t mastered yet. Trying to switch an intelligence back almost always results in something… unpleasant.”
The view in the projection changed to a newer cage, in an updated lab. Here, a rat was running frantically around the edges of the cage, and then would stop abruptly and chew on its limbs. There was blood trickling down its back legs. It would then jump up and start sprinting around the cage again.
“This was one of the more successful reverse switches.”
We watched the rat sprinting around the cage for a few more seconds. It stopped at one end of the cage, shook its head, and ran headlong into the cage wall on the other side and dropped. It had snapped its own neck. I turned away, sickened.
“Various methods were tried, from using immature mice and rats, to cloning them at various stages in their development. There were a few successes, but when the experiments were repeated, they would fail.”
“How did they get permission to do these experiments?”
“The biotechnical research companies at the time were powerful in political circles. They pressured the government to make exceptions to the laws against animal experimentation because true organic intelligences were needed to test the procedure. From what I’ve learned, it wasn’t hard to get permission. It might mean immortality, after all. Remember how short the average human life was at the time, not to mention the problems society was facing. The switch mitigated a lot of that. We tend to forget how bad things were back then.”
She stopped and looked at me. “Are you sure you want to know this?”
“Yes, I must know.” I paused to get a handle on my emotions, and thought for a moment. “Mice are small, instinctual creatures. Perhaps they weren’t flexible enough to handle the changes. Were human trials done?”
“Oh, yes. Never sanctioned by any type of ethical or governing body, quite often behind closed corporate R&D doors, but there are always humans willing to try something like this. You’ve probably heard of some of the results, even if you don’t realize it.”
Dr. Ihar manipulated the control wand, and the image in the projection changed to headlines, some of which were familiar. There was the strange case of a millionaire playgirl who had disappeared for a few months about sixty years ago. Everyone had assumed she had been kidnapped, even though no ransom demands were ever publicized. She showed up again, only to brutally kill her family.
“She was one of the most successful trials. She was only silicate for a few days. She could function as a human, even if she was a psychopath. Most either die in the reverse switch, or end up catatonic.”
A hospital ward showed up in the data projection: a woman restrained, convulsing. Another man was in an old–fashioned padded room, in a restraining field, self–inflicted wounds covering his face and arms.
“You can’t go back,” she said sadly. “I’ve been able to find little evidence that any research continues. Realistically, it will be decades, if not centuries, before this problem is solved. You can either find a way to survive as you are and learn to thrive as a silicate, you can find a way to function until this problem is solved, you can turn down your sensors and retreat into the inundation tanks, or you can give up.”
She stopped, and simply looked at me. I felt trapped and confused. The images she had shown me, especially the last of the man who had damaged himself so badly, flashed repeatedly before my eyes, as if caught in a loop. I did a quick diagnostic, but no, everything was ‘functioning normally.’
“Can I…, uh, can you…” I stopped, unsure how to continue. She continued to gaze at me, her expression unchanged. “I can’t go on as I am. Do you think that dampening my sensors further will help? Can you do that?” A flash of disappointment crossed her face, and she nodded.
“Yes, I can do that.”
“And can I access your tank programs?”
Again she nodded.
“What we will continue to do is slowly turn down your sensors until you reach a level with which you are comfortable, and then let you stay at that level for a period of time. But then, I want to slowly try to ramp the levels back up. Those who damp their sensors and stay that way become quite depressed, because they’re neither organic nor a fully functional silicate. But most, if not all, of those who choose your course find that they can eventually return to full function. I won’t continue unless you agree to at least try that in the future.”
Miserable and frustrated, I nodded. If that was as good as I could get, then so be it.
“Do you swear not to adjust yourself during this time?”
Again I nodded. How sick did she think I was? There was no way I’d do that and chance cutting myself off entirely. The only worse thing than my current existence would be to be trapped in my silicate body.
“Okay, why don’t you go settle yourself into the tank?”
I got up, gave her my codes, made my way into the tank. This time the scenario is dancing, in a much younger body. I can tell the recording is older, and not as precise as the newer ones, but the dancing is so kinetic, music throbbing in my bones, that it doesn’t matter. I dance for hours, and only occasionally think about how surprising it is that Dr. Ihar ever danced like this.
Afterwards, I felt as good as any time since the switch. My sensors were slightly less sensitive, and I felt more grounded than I had before. We agreed to meet again the following week, and that I would try to find some other coping techniques.
The damped sensors did help, but I could still feel the aching in the dank corners of my mind. I made it through the week, however, and went back. Another session in the tank, swimming laps again, and another slight decrease in my sensitivity. This cycle had gone on for roughly a month, when, after I emerged from the tank and regained my codes, I realized how small the adjustment had been during this session. I got angry.
“Why so slow? This is agony!”
“Leeds, adjusting a silicate’s sensors must be done slowly, because the danger of going too low is very real. Sensory deprivation is just as dangerous to a silicate as it is to an organic. More so, even.”
“Let me finish. These craving of yours are like an addiction. To wean you of them, we must limit your time in the tank. You’ve been doing fine; you just need to be strong, and take it one day, one hour, at a time. Just like for any other addiction.”
Defeated, I agreed, and she reiterated some of the coping mechanisms.
I nodded along, a cheerful look on my face. But I had heard it all before, and none of it helped. Everything I did reminded me of my enhanced abilities. I couldn’t pick up a spoon without analyzing its mass and chemical make–up. I couldn’t turn it off.
Yet, somehow, I was able to continue at Dr. Ihar’s for six months of weekly tank sessions and desensitization. Each time, it helped for a few days, and then the cravings, and the skitterings of something wrong came back.
Finally, I couldn’t stand going an entire week without a session in a tank. I thought about contacting Dr. Ihar, but I knew what her reaction would be. Besides, I doubted her motivations and abilities. I had been existing like this for seven months!
I made a standing reservation at a public inundation tank for a weekly session, which would occur four days after my visits to Dr. Ihar. Sometimes I kept the reservation, sometimes I didn’t. I quickly became a connoisseur of organic tank simulations.
In addition, I tried to find anyone working on reversing the switch. The data Dr. Ihar had shown me was old. I wondered if she was stringing me along to keep me dependent on her.
I also began a search for others like me. I dropped a hint here, a word there, to see if anyone would pick up on my situation and admit they were the same. There were a few tentative responses, but the first real break I got was on the identity of one of the artists whose work I was accessing in the public tanks. His scenarios mostly centered around organic food experiences, so it was a complete surprise to find out, from a casual comment made by a tank tech, that the artist was a well-known silicate. I immediately searched out his PDC number and put in request for a connection.
The request was not honored for 3.6 hours. What could he be doing? Might he disconnect while working on his scenarios? I couldn’t remember the last time a connection from a silicate had taken so long. Finally, the request was honored. I sat down for the conversation, as an organic would have done. The silicate who answered had chosen for himself a long, quadruped, ectomorphic body. The emotions coming over the sub-channel were curious but reserved. My own control over the sub-channel was not as advanced as I would like, especially since I had been damped, but I seemed to be sending eagerness to meet him, and not much more.
“Greetings, Artist Jeraab. I wanted to contact you and tell you how much I appreciate your artistic scenarios. Your reconstructions of roasted corn are absolutely authentic.”
“Why, thank you. What can I do for you?”
“I was hoping to speak to you about why you chose to recreate organic experiences.”
Jeraab didn’t respond immediately, and on the sub-channel I detected a pulse of fear before he shut down his emanations completely.
“You are a very new silicate. Too new to be nostalgic. Are you having trouble adjusting to the switch? Because my scenarios are intended only for the nostalgic and for occasional use in therapy. They should not be used by tank-addicts or for other purposes. I am not responsible for their abuse.”
A prepared speech? Maybe I wasn’t the first in my condition to contact him. “No, of course I’m not having problems adjusting. I just missed the organic taste of food. Since I was a bit of an art collector when organic, I was seeing what different art forms were accessible to silicates.” I sent reassurance down the sub-channel.
“I see. My apologies.” He reactivated his sub-channel, and I could feel cautious optimism and curiosity. “How did you find my work?”
“I was sampling at a public tank center, looking for organic experiences, and your work stood out. I was wondering if you created scenarios on a contract basis?”
“I have, and do, once I’m convinced that the work will not be misused.”
“Misused? I don’t understand.”
Jeraab paused and looked at me. His uncertainty at my motivations was coming over clearly, as was his knowledge that I could feel his uncertainty. I sent what I hoped was a naïve confusion.
“Let’s just say, those who seek out my work in order to misuse it usually don’t last long. But you seem genuine. What sort of scenario did you have in mind?”
Before I could stop it, hope flared. Some of my yearning punched past my control and shot down the sub–channel. I tried to shut it off, but Jeraab leaped back and shut down the connection. His last words barely made it through: “You fool! Get help before you lose it! The Silicate Board will come for you!”
I collapsed against the couch, stunned. ‘Lose it? Come for me?’ Why? Why was the Switch Board involved in something like this? Dr. Ihar’s son had said it collected reports on those who were having trouble adjusting. Was silicate rejection a common problem after all? What did they do to those suffering from it? And why hadn’t Dr. Ihar warned me?
After that contact, I searched out a communications anonymizer. There was one more tentative contact I had to track down, but now I couldn’t risk getting caught. At least until I knew what they would do to me. The anonymizer, for a hefty fee, arranged the connection request, this time to the silicate in control of the life support on Mars. The communication was brief and to the point.
“I’ve contacted you because you have displayed some interest in abnormal sensory integration-”
“Shut it down, you nitwit! If you can’t control, they’ll kill you and come for the rest of us!” The connection was severed.
Terrified, I canceled my weekly trip to the public tanks and discontinued all but the most critical net communications. I continued to go to work, but couldn’t concentrate. I wondered if they were watching me, and held on, barely, until my next appointment with Dr. Ihar. Even if she was stringing me along, at least she hadn’t turned me in.
She refused to desensitize me any further. I stared at her, unable to believe what I had heard.
“But it’s helping, I’m learning to cope!” I wailed.
“OSSAB called. Dammit, Leeds! I called in a good many favors to prevent them from picking you up. Plus, you’re making yourself more reliant upon the tanks. Why didn’t you believe me?”
I shook my head, confused. “You won’t dial me further down? You won’t allow me to use your tank?”
“Not any more,” she answered, regret coloring her voice. “You’re beyond my skills. Dr. Snow, at Walson General, will see you at 1300. He’s a silicate, and he’ll try to recover you.”
My mind blanked, then a frisson of anger shot up my spine. A mind ripper? She was sending me to a mind ripper? A hollow feeling burst through my torso and shot through my limbs: dread. I grabbed at her control wand.
She flinched and started to call for help. I changed the trajectory of my hands from the wand to her head. I connected. I squeezed her mouth shut with one hand and her throat with the other. Her nostrils flared in a vain attempt to breathe, and her hands clawed at mine.
Deep in my body, where my organic bones had been, I felt a burning glow move outwards, driving out the hollowness. Where it intersected my skin, it sizzled and spread, creating throbbing interference patterns. I moaned. I closed my eyes and savored the sensation, the return of pleasure. It felt so intense, so immediate. The first real pleasure I had felt since the switch. I squeezed harder, and gasped as the feeling increased.
Ihar stopped clawing at me, and slapped my face just before she lost consciousness. Startled, I snapped my eyes open and dropped her. She jerked to a stop halfway to the floor as a restraining field enclosed her.
My arms were still raised, fingers curved around the space Dr. Ihar had filled. I looked at Ihar, hanging in mid-air; I could see her shallow breathing. A lattice of welts crossed her face and throat.
I could still feel the curve of her neck, her hair tangled in my fingers. My hands tingled. Instinctively I reached out again.
I couldn’t move.
“House, let me go!”
“You have committed assault. You will remain immobilized until the authorities arrive. Do not try to resist.”
The restraining field only held Ihar, yet I couldn’t move. The heat in my body withered, draining away, leaving behind the deadening detachment which had haunted me since my switch. I desperately wanted to feel the intensity again, but…
“The doctor needs help! Let me go to her!” Maybe I could reason with the house.
“This unit is maintaining Dr. Ihar. The appropriate authorities have been contacted. You will remain immobilized.”
The house had my access codes.
My dread came roaring back. “House, who gave you that authority?”
“The Organic Silicate Switch Advisory Board ordered you detained.”
OSSAB? I knew I had erased my codes from Dr. Ihar’s wand at the end of every session. Had she secreted a copy with the house? Did OSSAB have back door codes?
Panic bubbled up from my gut, making me almost glad that my body was being externally supported. I struggled to find a way around the codes, or another option. I couldn’t detect the house trying to access me or my emotional sub-channel. My mind, my access to the net, seemed unhindered.
I checked the net to see the progress of the Board, and a trickle of fear sliced through the panic and crashed into my stomach, as I realized. My attack on Ihar had started as a defensive reflex, but had grown into something cruel. Was this what had happened in Hazelton? Did this explain the crimes on Mars? An oily, foul sensation rolled over me, making me nauseous. Did OSSAB know?
I could not continue sense–dead, or go through ‘recovery.’ But I refused to be one of the silicates committing sadistic crimes to feel again.
I created a data packet containing all I had learned or guessed about the Board, and infused it with my desperation, my hatred of becoming a silicate. They lied to me. They said I would be crazy not to do it.
I injected it all out onto the net, wide dispersion. I targeted media outlets, government agencies, and my friends: Jahns, Simuë, and Jeraab. The house snapped my connection, but not before the package got out.
Removed from the net, I lost track of the Board. I didn’t care. I had solved my problem. My data packet would go too far to be squelched by the Board. I hoped.
With one last look at the gruesome tableau of Dr. Ihar’s body, still floating in mid-air in front of me, I retreated into my mind. The skitterings were quiet. I reached down into the depths to where they would never be able to reach me, to adjust myself… off.
Karen Swanberg’s first memory is of sitting with her two sisters, listening to Dad reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in their entirety, before she turned four. She hasn’t been the same since. She’s lived in Montana, Minnesota, Italy, Montana, Arizona, and Minnesota, in that order, while pursuing two geology degrees. In the process, she spent the night atop two active volcanos, and learned a bit about rock climbing and spelunking. She currently lives in Minneapolis with three ferrets and two snow shovels, and gets paid to make computers behave. This is her first paid sale.
Story © 2007 Karen Swanberg. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish