Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Deep End

The pool was supposed to be like freespace. Enough like it, anyway, to help Wayna acclimate to her download. She went in first thing every “morning,” as soon as Dr. Ops, the ship’s mind, awakened her. Too bad it wasn’t scheduled for later; all the slow, meat-based activities afterwards were a literal drag.

The voices of the pool’s other occupants boomed back and forth in an odd, uncontrolled manner, steel-born echoes muffling and exposing what was said. The temperature varied irregularly, warm intake jets competing with cold currents and, Wayna suspected, illicitly released urine. Overhead lights speckled the wall, the ceiling, the water, with a shifting, uneven glare.

Psyche Moth was a prison ship. Like all those on board, Wayna was an upload of a criminal’s mind. The process of uploading her mind had destroyed her physical body. Punishment. Then the ship, with Wayna and 248,961 other prisoners, set off on a long voyage to another star. During that voyage the prisoners’ minds had been cycled through consciousness: one year on, four years off. Of the eighty-seven years en route, Wayna had only lived through seventeen. Now she spent most of her time as meat.

Wayna’s jaw ached. She’d been clenching it, trying to amp up her sensory inputs. She paddled toward the deep end, consciously relaxing her useless facial muscles. When Psyche Moth had reached its goal and verified that the world it called Amends was colonizable, her group was the second downloaded into empty clones, right after the trustees. One of those had told her it was typical to translocate missing freespace controls to their meat analogs.

She swirled her arms back and forth, creating waves, making them run into one another.

Then the pain hit.

White! Heat! There, then gone—the lash of a whip.

Wayna stopped moving. Her suit held her up. She floated, waiting. Nothing else happened. Tentatively, she kicked and stroked her way to the steps rising from the pool’s shallows, nodding to those she passed. At the door to the showers, it hit her again: a shock of electricity slicing from right shoulder to left hip. She caught her breath and continued in.

The showers were empty. Wayna was the first one from her hour out of the pool, and it was too soon for the next hour to wake up. She turned on the water and stood in its welcome warmth. What was going on? She’d never felt anything like this, not that she could remember—and surely she wouldn’t have forgotten something so intense . . . She stripped off her suit and hung it to dry. Instead of dressing in her overall and reporting to the laundry, her next assignment, she retreated into her locker and linked with Dr. Ops.

In the sphere of freespace, his office always hovered in the northwest quadrant, about halfway up from the horizon. Doe, Wayna’s honeywoman, disliked this placement. Why pretend he was anything other than central to the whole setup, she asked. Why not put himself smack dab in the middle where he belonged? Doe distrusted Dr. Ops and everything about Psyche Moth. Wayna understood why. But there was nothing else. Not for eight light-years in any direction. According to Dr. Ops.

She swam into his pink-walled waiting room and eased her icon into a chair. That registered as a request for the AI’s attention. A couple of other prisoners were there ahead of her; one disappeared soon after she sat. A few more minutes by objective measure, and the other was gone as well. Then it was Wayna’s turn.

Dr. Ops presented as a lean-faced Caucasian man with a shock of mixed brown and blond hair. He wore an anachronistic headlamp and stethoscope and a gentle, kindly persona. “I have your readouts, of course, but why don’t you tell me what’s going on in your own words?”

He looked like he was listening. When she finished, he sat silent for a few seconds—much more time than he needed to consider what she’d said. Making an ostentatious display of his concern.

“There’s no sign of nerve damage,” he told her. “Nothing wrong with your spine or any of your articulation or musculature.”

“So then how come—”

“It’s probably nothing,” the AI said, interrupting her. “But just in case, let’s give you the rest of the day off. Take it easy—outside your locker, of course. I’ll clear your bunkroom for the next twenty-five hours. Lie down. Put in some face time with your friends.”

“‘Probably?’”

“I’ll let you know for sure tomorrow morning. Right now, relax. Doctor’s orders.” He smiled and logged her out. He could do that. It was his system.

Wayna tongued open her locker; no use staying in there without access to freespace. She put on her overall and walked up the corridor to her bunkroom. Fellow prisoners passed her heading the other way to the pool: no one she’d known back on Earth, no one she had gotten to know that well in freespace or since the download. Plenty of time for that onplanet. The woman with the curly red hair was called Robeson, she was pretty sure. They smiled at each other. Robeson walked hand in hand with a slender man whose mischievous smile reminded Wayna of Thad. It wasn’t him. Thad was scheduled for later download. Wayna was lucky to have Doe with her.

Another pain. Not so strong, this time. Strong enough, though. Sweat dampened her skin. She kept going, almost there.

There. Through the doorless opening she saw the mirror she hated, ordered up by one of the two women she timeshared with. It was only partly obscured by the genetics charts the other woman taped everywhere. Immersion learning. Even Wayna was absorbing something from it.

But not now. She lay on the bunk without looking at anything, eyes open. What was wrong with her?

Probably nothing.

Relax.

She did her body awareness exercises, tensing and loosening different muscle groups. She’d gotten as far as her knees when Doe walked in. Stood over her till Wayna focused on her honeywoman’s new face. “Sweetheart,” Doe said. Her pale fingers stroked Wayna’s face. “Dr. Ops told a trustee you wanted me.”

“No—I mean yes, but I didn’t ask—” Doe’s expression froze, flickered, froze again. “Don’t be—it’s so hard, can’t you just—” Wayna reached for and found both of Doe’s hands and held them. They felt cool and small and dry. She pressed them against her overall’s open V-neck and slid them beneath the fabric, forcing them to stroke her shoulders.

Making love to Doe in her download seemed like cheating. Wayna wondered what Thad’s clone would look like, and if they’d be able to travel to his group’s settlement to see him.

Anticipating agony, Wayna found herself hung up, nowhere near ecstasy. Doe pulled back and looked down at her, expecting an explanation. So Wayna had to tell her what little she knew.

“You! You weren’t going to say anything! Just let me hurt you—” Doe had zero tolerance for accidentally inflicting pain, the legacy of her marriage to a closeted masochist.

“It wouldn’t be anything you did! And I don’t know if—”

Doe tore aside the paper they had taped across the doorway for privacy. From her bunk, Wayna heard her raging along the corridor, slapping the walls.

Face time was over.

• • •

Taken off of her normal schedule, Wayna had no idea how to spend the rest of her day. Not lying down alone. Not after that. She tried, but she couldn’t.

Relax.

Ordinarily when her laundry shift was over, she was supposed to show up in the cafeteria and eat. Never one of her favorite activities, even back on Earth. She went there early, though, surveying the occupied tables. The same glaring lights hung from the ceiling here as in the pool, glinting off plastic plates and water glasses. The same confused noise, the sound of overlapping conversations. No sign of Doe.

She stood in line. The trustee in charge started to give her a hard time about not waiting for her usual lunch hour. He shut up suddenly; Dr. Ops must have tipped him a clue. Trustees were in constant contact with the ship’s mind—part of why Wayna hadn’t volunteered to be one.

Mashed potatoes. Honey mustard nuggets. Slaw. All freshly factured, filled with nutrients and the proper amount of fiber for this stage of her digestive tract’s maturation.

She sat at a table near the disposal dump. The redhead, Robeson, was there too, and a man—a different one than Wayna had seen her with before. Wayna introduced herself. She didn’t feel like talking, but listening was fine. The topic was the latest virch from the settlement site. She hadn’t done it yet.

This installment had been recorded by a botanist; lots of information on grass analogs and pollinating insects. “We know more about Jubilee than Psyche Moth,” Robeson said.

“Well, sure,” said the man. His name was Jawann. “Jubilee is where we’re going to live.”

Psyche Moth is where we live now, where we’ve lived for the last eighty-seven years. We don’t know jack about this ship. Because Dr. Ops doesn’t want us to.”

“We know enough to realize we’d look stupid trying to attack him,” Wayna said. Even Doe admitted that. Dr. Ops’ hardware lay in Psyche Moth’s central section, along with the drive engine. A tether almost two kilometers long separated their living quarters from the AI’s physical components and any other mission-critical equipment they might damage. At the end of the tether, Wayna and the rest of the downloads swung faster and faster. They were like sand in a bucket, centrifugal force mimicking gravity and gradually building up to the level they’d experience on Amend’s surface, in Jubilee.

That was all they knew. All Dr. Ops thought they needed to know.

“Who said anything about an attack?” Robeson frowned.

“No one.” Wayna was suddenly sorry she’d spoken. “All I mean is, his only motive in telling us anything was to prevent that from happening.” She spooned some nuggets onto her mashed potatoes and shoved them into her mouth so she wouldn’t say any more.

“You think he’s lying?” Jawann asked. Wayna shook her head no.

“He could if he wanted. How would we find out?”

The slaw was too sweet; not enough contrast with the nuggets. Not peppery, like what Aunt Nono used to make.

“Why would we want to find out? We’ll be on our own ground, in Jubilee, soon enough.” Four weeks; twenty days by Psyche Moth’s rationalized calendar.

“With trustees to watch us all the time, everywhere we go, and this ship hanging in orbit right over our heads.” Robeson sounded as suspicious as Doe; Jawann as placatory as Wayna tried to be in their identical arguments. Thad usually came across as neutral, controlled, the way you could be out of your meat.

“So? They’re not going to hurt us after they brought us all this way. At least, they won’t want to hurt our bodies.”

Because their bodies came from, were copies of, the people they’d rebelled against. The rich. The politically powerful.

But Wayna’s body was hers. No one else owned it, no matter who her clone’s cells started off with. Hers, no matter how different it looked from the one she was born with. How white.

Hers to take care of. Early on in her training she’d decided that. How else could she be serious about her exercises? Why else would she bother?

This was her body. She’d earned it.

Jawann and Robeson were done; they’d started eating before her and now they were leaving. She swallowed quickly. “Wait—I wanted to ask—” They stopped and she stood up to follow them, taking her half-full plate. “Either of you have any medical training?”

They knew someone, a man called Unique, a nurse when he’d lived on Earth. Here he worked in the factury, quality control. Wayna would have to go back to her bunkroom until he got off and could come see her. She left Doe a message on the board by the cafeteria’s entrance, an apology. Faceup on her bed, Wayna concentrated fiercely on the muscle groups she’d skipped earlier. A trustee came by to check on her and seemed satisfied to find her lying down, everything in line with her remote readings. He acted as if she should be flattered by the extra attention. “Dr. Ops will be in touch first thing tomorrow,” he promised as he left.

“Ooo baby,” she said softly to herself, and went on with what she’d been doing.

A little later, for no reason she knew of, she looked up at her doorway. The man that had held Robeson’s hand that morning stood there as if this was where he’d always been. “Hi. Do I have the right place? You’re Wayna?”

“Unique?”

“Yeah.”

“Come on in.” She swung her feet to the floor and patted a place beside her on the bed. He sat closer than she’d expected, closer than she was used to. Maybe that meant he’d been born Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Or maybe not.

“Robeson said you had some sort of problem to ask me about. So—of course I don’t have any equipment, but if I can help in any way, I will.”

She told him what had happened, feeling foolish all of a sudden. There’d only been those three times, nothing more since seeing Dr. Ops.

“Lie on your stomach,” he said. Through the fabric, firm fingers pressed on either side of her spine, from midback to her skull, then down again to her tailbone. “Turn over, please. Bend your knees. All right if I take off your shoes?” He stroked the soles of her feet, had her push them against his hands in different directions. His touch, his resistance to her pressure, reassured her. What she was going through was real. It mattered.

He asked her how she slept, what she massed, if she was always thirsty, other things. He finished his questions and walked back and forth in her room, glancing often in her direction. She sat again, hugging herself. If Doe came in now, she’d know Wayna wanted him.

Unique quit his pacing and faced her, his eyes steady. “I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” he said. “You’re not the only one, though. There’s a hundred and fifty others that I’ve seen or heard of experiencing major problems—circulatory, muscular, digestive. Some even have the same symptoms you do.”

“What is it?” Wayna asked stupidly.

“Honestly, I don’t know,” he repeated. “If I had a lab—I’ll set one up in Jubilee—call it neuropathy, but I don’t know for sure what’s causing it.”

“Neuropathy?”

“Means nerve problems.”

“But Dr. Ops told me my nerves were fine . . .” No response to that.

“If we were on Earth, what would you think?”

He compressed his already thin lips. “Most likely possibility, some kind of thyroid problem. Or—but what it would be elsewhere, that’s irrelevant. You’re here, and it’s the numbers involved that concern me, though superficially the cases seem unrelated.

“One hundred and fifty of you out of the Jubilee group with what might be germ plasm disorders; one hundred fifty out of 20,000. At least one hundred fifty; take under-reporting into account and there’s probably more. Too many. They would have screened foetuses for irregularities before shipping them out.”

“Well, what should I do then?”

“Get Dr. Ops to give you a new clone.”

“But—”

“This one’s damaged. If you train intensely, you’ll make up the lost time and go down to Jubilee with the rest of us.”

Or she might be able to delay and wind up part of Thad’s settlement instead.

As if he’d heard her thought, Unique added “I wouldn’t wait, if I were you. I’d ask for—no, demand another body—now. Soon as you can.”

“Because?”

“Because your chances of a decent one will just get worse, if this is a radiation-induced mutation. Which I have absolutely no proof of. But if it is.”

• • •

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and there we wept . . .” The pool reflected music, voices vaulting upward off the water, outward to the walls of white-painted steel. Unlike yesterday, the words were clear, because everyone was saying the same thing. Singing the same thing. “For the wicked carried us away . . .” Wayna wondered why the trustee in charge had chosen this song. Of course he was a prisoner, too.

The impromptu choir sounded more soulful than it looked. If the personalities of these clones’ originals had been in charge, what would they be singing now? The “Doxology”? “Bringing in the Sheaves”? Did Episcopalians even have hymns?

Focusing on the physical, Wayna scanned her body for symptoms. So far this morning, she’d felt nothing unusual. Carefully, slowly, she swept the satiny surface with her arms, raising a tapering wave. She worked her legs, shooting backwards like a squid, away from the shallows and most of the other swimmers. Would sex underwater be as good as it was in freespace? No; you’d be constantly coming up for breath. Instead of constantly coming . . . Last night, Doe had forgiven her, and they’d gone to Thad together. And everything was fine until they started fighting again. It hadn’t been her fault. Or Doe’s, either.

They told Thad about Wayna’s pains, and how Unique thought she should ask for another clone. “Why do you want to download at all?” he asked. “Stay in here with me.”

“Until you do? But if—”

“Until I don’t. I wasn’t sure I wanted to anyway. Now it sounds so much more inviting. ‘Defective body?’ ‘Don’t mind if I do.’” Thad’s icon got up from their bed to mimic unctuous host and vivacious guest. “‘And, oh, you’re serving that on a totally unexplored and no doubt dangerous new planet? I just adore totally—’”

“Stop it!” Wayna hated it when he acted that way, faking that he was a flamer. She hooked him by one knee and pulled him down, putting her hand over his mouth. She meant it as a joke; they ought to have ended up wrestling, rolling around, having fun, having more sex. Thad didn’t respond, though. Not even when Wayna tickled him under his arms. He had amped down his input.

“Look,” he said. “I went through our ‘voluntary agreement.’ We did our part by letting them bring us here.”

Doe propped herself up on both elbows. She had huge nipples, not like the ones on her clone’s breasts. “You’re really serious.”

“Yes. I really am.”

“Why?” asked Wayna. She answered herself: “Dr. Ops won’t let you download into a woman. Will he.”

“Probably not. I haven’t even asked.”

Doe said “Then what is it? We were going to be together, at least on the same world. All we went through and you’re just throwing it away—”

“Together to do what? To bear our enemies’ children, that’s what, we nothing but a bunch of glorified mammies, girl, don’t you get it? Remote-control units for their immortality investments, protection for their precious genetic material. Cheaper than your average AI, no benefits, no union, no personnel manager. Mammies.

“Not mammies,” Doe said slowly. “I see what you’re saying, but we’re more like incubators, if you think about it. Or petri dishes—inoculated with their DNA. Except they’re back on Earth; they won’t be around to see the results of their experiment.”

“Don’t need to be. They got Dr. Ops to report back.”

“Once we’re on Amends,” Wayna said, “no one can make us have kids or do anything we don’t want.”

“You think. Besides, they won’t have to make people reproduce. It’s a basic drive.”

“Of the meat.” Doe nodded. “Okay. Point granted, Wayna?” She sank down again, resting her head on her crossed arms.

No one said anything for awhile. The jazz Thad liked to listen to filled the silence: smooth horns, rough drums, discreet bass.

“Well, what’ll you do if you stay in here?” Doe asked. “What’ll Dr. Ops do? Turn you off? Log you out permanently? Put your processors on half power?”

“Don’t think so. He’s an AI. He’ll stick to the rules.”

“Whatever those are,” said Wayna.

“I’ll find out.”

She had logged off then, withdrawn to sleep in her bunkroom, expecting Doe to join her. She’d wakened alone, a note from Dr. Ops on the mirror, which normally she would have missed. Normally she avoided the mirror, but not this morning. She’d studied her face, noting the narrow nose, the light, stubby lashes around eyes an indeterminate color she guessed could be called grey. Whose face had this been? A senator’s? A favorite secretary’s?

Hers, now. For how long?

Floating upright in the deep end, she glanced at her arms. They were covered with blond hairs that the water washed into rippled patterns. Her small breasts mounded high here in the pool, buoyant with fat.

Would the replacement be better-looking, or worse?

Wayna turned to see the clock on the wall behind her. Ten. Time to get out and get ready for her appointment.

• • •

“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Wayna.” Dr. Ops looked harassed and faintly ashamed. He hadn’t been able to tell her anything about the pains. He acted like they weren’t important; he’d even hinted she might be making them up just to get a different body. “You’re not the first to ask, you know. One per person, that’s all. That’s it.”

Thad’s right, Wayna thought to herself. AIs stick to the rules. He could improvise, but he won’t.

“Why?” Always a good question.

“We didn’t bring a bunch of extra bodies, Wayna,” Dr. Ops said.

“Well, why not?” Another excellent question. “You should have,” she went on. “What if there was an emergency, an epidemic?”

“There’s enough for that—”

“I know someone who’s not going to use theirs. Give it to me.”

“You must mean Thad.” Dr. Ops frowned. “That would be a man’s body. Our charter doesn’t allow transgender downloads.”

Wayna counted in twelves under her breath, closing her eyes so long she almost logged off.

“Who’s to know?” Her voice was too loud, and her jaw hurt. She’d been clenching it tight, forgetting it would amp up her inputs. Download settings had apparently become her default overnight.

“Never mind. You’re not going to give me a second body. I can’t make you.”

“I thought you’d understand.” He smiled and hunched his shoulders. “I am sorry.”

Swimming through freespace to her locker, she was sure Dr. Ops didn’t know what sorry was. She wondered if he ever would.

Meanwhile.

• • •

She never saw Doe again outside freespace. There’d still be two of them together—just not the two they’d assumed.

She had other attacks, some mild, some much stronger than the first. Massage helped, and keeping still, and moving. She met prisoners who had similar symptoms, and they traded tips and theories about what was wrong with them.

Doe kept telling her that if she wanted to be without pain, she should simply stay in freespace. After awhile, Wayna did more and more virches and spent less and less time with her lovers.

Jubilee lay in Amends’ Northern latitudes, high on a curving peninsula, in the rain shadow of old, gentle mountains. Bright-skinned, tree-dwelling amphibians inhabited the mountain passes, their trilling cries rising and falling like loud orgasms whenever Wayna took her favorite tour.

And then there were the instructional virches, building on what they’d learned in their freespace classes. Her specialty, fiber tech, became suddenly fascinating: baskets, nets, ropes, cloth, paper—so much to learn, so little time.

The day before planetfall, she went for one last swim in the pool. It was deserted, awaiting the next settlement group. It would never be as full of prisoners again; Thad and Doe weren’t the only ones opting out of their downloads.

There was plenty of open freshwater on Amends: a large lake not far from Jubilee, and rivers even closer. She peered down past her dangling feet at the pool’s white bottom. Nothing to see there. Never had been; never would be.

She had lunch with Robeson, Unique, and Jawann. As Dr. Ops recommended, they skipped dinner.

She didn’t try to say goodbye. She didn’t sleep alone.

And then it was morning and they were walking into one of Psyche Moth’s landing units, underbuckets held to the pool’s bottom, to its outside, by retractable bolts, and Dr. Ops unlocked them and they were free, flying, falling, down, down, down, out of the black and into the blue, the green, the thousand colors of their new home.

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Nisi Shawl

Hewlett-PackardNisi Shawl’s collection Filter House was a 2009 James Tiptree, Jr., Award winner; her stories have been published at Strange Horizons, in Asimov’s SF Magazine, and in anthologies including The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror and both volumes of the Dark Matter series.  She was the 2011 Guest of Honor at the feminist SF convention WisCon and will be a 2014 co-Guest of Honor for the Science Fiction Research Association.  She co-authored the renowned Writing the Other: A Practical Approach with Cynthia Ward, and co-edited the nonfiction anthology Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler.  Shawl’s Belgian Congo steampunk novel Everfair is forthcoming in 2015 from Tor Books.  Her website is nisishawl.com.