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Fiction

Rates Of Change

Diana hasn’t seen her son naked before. He floats now in the clear gel bath of the medical bay, the black ceramic casing that holds his brain, the long articulated tail of his spinal column. Like a tadpole, she thinks. Like something young. In all, he hardly masses more than he did as a baby. She has a brief, horrifying image of holding him on her lap, cradling the braincase to her breast, the whip of his spine curling around her.

The thin white filaments of interface neurons hang in the translucent gel, too thin to see except in aggregate. Silvery artificial blood runs into the casing ports and back out in tubes more slender than her pinky finger. She thought, when they called her in, that she’d be able to see the damage. That there would be a scratch on the carapace, a wound, something to show where the violence had been done to him. There is nothing there. Not so much as a scuff mark. No evidence.

The architecture of the medical center is designed to reassure her. The walls curve around her in warm colors. The air recyclers hum a low, consonant chord. Nothing helps. Her own body—her third—is flushed with adrenaline, her heart aches and her hands squeeze into fists. Her fight or flight reaction has no outlet, so it speeds around her body, looking for a way to escape. The chair tilts too easily under her, responding to shifts in her balance and weight that she isn’t aware of making. She hates it. The café au lait that the nurse brought congeals, ignored, on the little table.

Diana stares at the curve and sweep of Stefan’s bodiless nervous system as if by watching him now she can stave off the accident that has already happened. Closing the barn door, she thinks, after the horses are gone. The physician ghosts in behind her, footsteps quiet as a cat’s, his body announcing his presence only in how he blocks the light.

“Mrs. Dalkin,” he says. “How are you feeling?”

“How is he?” she demands instead of saying hello.

The physician is a large man, handsome, with a low warm voice like flannel fresh from the dryer. She wonders if it is his original body or if he’s chosen the combination of strength and softness just to make this part of his work easier. “Active. We’re seeing metabolic activity over most of his brain the way we would hope. Now that he’s here, the inflammation is under control.”

“So he’s going to be all right?”

He hesitates. “We’re still a little concerned about the interface. There was some bruising that may have impaired his ability to integrate with a new body, but we can’t really know the extent of that yet.”

Diana leans forward, her gut aching. Stefan is there, only inches from her. Awake, trapped in darkness, aware only of himself and the contents of his own mind. He doesn’t even know she is watching him. If she picked him up, he wouldn’t know she was doing it. If she shouted, he wouldn’t hear. What if he is trapped that way forever? What if he has fallen into a darkness she can never bring him out from?

“Is he scared?”

“We are seeing some activity in his amygdala, yes,” the physician says. “We’re addressing that chemically, but we don’t want to depress his neural activity too much right now.”

“You want him scared, then.”

“We want him active,” the physician says. “Once we can establish some communication with him and let him know that we’re here and where he is and that we’re taking action on his behalf, I expect most of his agitation will resolve.”

“So he doesn’t even know he’s here.”

“The body he was in didn’t survive the initial accident. He was extracted in situ before transport.” He says it so gently, it sounds like an apology. An offer of consolation. She feels a spike of hatred and rage for the man run through her like an electric shock, but she hides it.

“What happened?”

“Excuse me?” the physician asks.

“I said, what happened? How did he get hurt? Who did this?”

“He was brought from the coast by emergency services. I understood it was an accident. Someone ran into him, or he ran into something, but apart from that it was a blunt force injury, we didn’t . . .”

Diana lifts her hand, and the physician falls silent. “Can you fix him? You can make him all right.”

“We have a variety of interventions at our disposal,” he says, relieved to be back on territory he knows. “It’s really going to depend on the nature of the damage he’s sustained.”

“What’s the worst case?”

“The worst case is that he won’t be able to interface with a new body at all.”

She turns to look into the physician’s eyes. The dark brown that looks back at her doesn’t show anything of the cruelty or horror of what he’s just said. “How likely is that?” Diana says, angry at her voice for shaking.

“Possible. But Stefan is young. His tissue is resilient. The casing wasn’t breached, and the constriction site on his spine didn’t buckle. I’d say his chances are respectable, but we won’t know for a few days.”

Diana drops her head into her hands, the tips of her fingers digging into her temples. Something violent bubbles in her chest, and a harsh laughter presses at the back of her throat like vomit.

“All right,” she says. “All . . . right.”

She hears Karlo’s footsteps, recognizing their cadence the way she would have known his cough or the sound of his yawn. Even across bodies, there is a constancy about Karlo. She both clings to it now and resents it. The ridiculous muscle-bound body he bought himself for retirement tips into the doorway, darkening the room.

“I came when I heard,” he says.

“Fuck you,” Diana says, and then the tears come and won’t stop.

He puts his arms around her. The doctor walks softly away.

• • • •

It is a year earlier, and Karlo says, “He’s a grown man. There’s no reason he shouldn’t.”

The house looks out over the hot concrete of Dallas. It is smaller than the one they’d shared in Quebec, the kitchen thinner, the couch less comfortable. They way they live in it is different, too. Before, when they’d had a big family room, they would all stretch out together on long evenings. Stefan talking to his friends and playing games, Karlo building puzzles or doing office work, Diana watching old films and taking meetings with work groups in Europe and Asia. They’d been a family then—husband, wife, child. For all their tensions and half-buried resentments, they’d still been a unit, the three of them. But they live in the Dallas house like it is a dormitory, coming back to sleep and leaving again when they wake. Even her.

She hates the place, and what it says about her. About Karlo. About Stefan. She hates wondering whether Karlo’s new body had been chosen based on some other woman’s tastes. Or some other man’s. That her son isn’t a child.

“I stayed in my body until I was thirty,” she says. “He’s twenty-one. He doesn’t need it for work. He’s not some kind of laborer.”

“It isn’t the same now as it was when we were young,” Karlo says. “It isn’t just medical or work.”

Cosmetic,” Diana says, stalking out of the bedroom. Karlo follows her like a leaf pulled along by a breeze.

“Or adventure. Exploration. It’s what people do these days.”

“He should wait.”

Her own body—the one she’d been born in—had failed her young. Ovarian cancer that had spread to her hip before she’d noticed a thing. The way she remembered it, the whole process hadn’t taken more than a few days. Symptom, diagnosis, discussion of treatment options. Her doctor had been adamant—get out before the metastases reached her central nervous system. The ship of her flesh was sinking, and she needed to get into the lifeboat now. The technology had been developed for people working in vacuum or deep ocean, and it was as safe as a decade and a half of labor law could make it. And anyway, there wasn’t a viable choice.

She’d agreed in a haze of fear and confusion. At the medical center, Karlo had undressed her for the last time, helped her into her gown, kissed her, and promised that everything was going to be all right. She still remembered being on the table, the anaesthesiologist telling her to unclasp her hands. In a sense, it had been the last thing she’d ever heard.

She’d hated her second body. Even though it had been built to look as much like her original as it could, she knew better. Everything about it was subtly wrong—the way her elbow fit against her side, the way her voice resonated when she spoke, the shape of her hands. The physicians had talked about rehabilitation anxiety and the uncanny valley. They said it would become more familiar, except that it didn’t. She tried antidepressant therapy. Identity therapy. Karlo had volunteered to swap out his own body, partly as a way, he said, to understand better what she was going through. That hadn’t worked at all. He’d woken up in his new flesh like he’d had a long nap and loved everything about his new self. Five years in, she still hadn’t felt comfortable in her new skin.

Her third body had been an attempt to address that. Instead of trying to mimic her old, dead flesh, it would be something new. Where she’d been petite before, she would be taller and broader now. Instead of being long-waisted, she would be leggy. Her skin tone would be darker, the texture of her hair would be different. Her eyes could be designed in unnatural colors, her fingernails growing in iridescent swirls. Instead of pretending that her body wasn’t a prosthetic, she could design one as a piece of art. It is the mask that she faces in every mirror, and most days she feels more reconciled than trapped.

And then there are bad days when she longs for the first body, the real body, and worse than that, the woman she’d been when she was still in it. She wonders whether it was the same longing that other women felt about youth. And now Stefan wants to leave his body—the body she’d given him, the one that had grown within her—in order to . . . what? Have an adventure with his friends?

Sitting at the thin, discolored breakfast bar, she laces large, dark fingers together, enjoying the ache of knuckle against knuckle. Karlo drifts past in his massive flesh, taking a muscle shirt from the dryer and pulling it over his head with a vagueness that leaves Diana lonesome.

“Why would he want to?” she says, wiping her eye with the back of one hand.

Karlo sighs, hums to himself. He draws a glass of orange juice from the refrigerator and adds vodka from the freezer. He drinks deep and bares his teeth after. His third body has bright white tombstones of teeth. His first body had been slight and compact. Almost androgynous. By the time he speaks, she’s forgotten that she even asked a question.

“Do you mean you don’t think he wants it, or you don’t think he should want it?”

“He doesn’t understand what he’s giving up,” she says.

“Do you?”

She scowled at him. The conversation is making her uncomfortably aware that the experience of him—of seeing Karlo, hearing his voice, smelling the bite of the orange and alcohol—is all phantoms of charged ions and neurochemistry in a brain, in a casing, in a body. Neurons that fire in a pattern that somehow, unknowably, is her experiencing these things. She crosses her arms like she is driving a car, and hates being aware of it. Karlo finishes his drink, puts the glass in the washer. He doesn’t look straight into her eyes. “All his friends are doing it. If he doesn’t he’ll be left behind.”

“It’s his body,” she says.

“It’s his body,” Karlo says, his eyes already shifting toward the door. Away from her. “And anyway, that doesn’t mean what it did when we were kids.” He leaves without saying goodbye. Without kissing her, not that she would have welcomed him. She checks her messages. There are a dozen queued. Something dramatic has happened at the Apulia office, and she hunches over the display and tries to tease out exactly what it was.

She never does give her permission. She only doesn’t withhold it.

• • • •

The footage of the accident plays on a little wall monitor in the medical center. The actual water had been too deep for natural light to find them, so the images have been enhanced, green and aquamarine added, shafts of brightness put in where a human eye—if it hadn’t been crushed by the pressure—would have seen only darkness. The image capture has been done by a companion submarine to document the months-long trek, and either it was a calm day in the deep water or image processing has steadied it. Diana can imagine herself floating in the endless expanse of an ocean so vast it is like looking up at the stars. Karlo sits beside her, his hands knotted together, his eyes on the screen. The contrast between the squalid, tiny world of the medical center and the vast beauty on the screen disorients her.

The first of them swim into sight. A ray with wide gray wings, sloping through the saltwater. With nothing to give a sense of scale, it could be larger than a whale or hardly bigger than a human. There is no bump to show where the carapace holding a human brain and spine might have slotted into it. There is no scar to mark an insertion point. Another of the creatures passes by the camera, curving up the deep tides with grace and power. Then another. Then a dozen more. A school of rays. And one of them—she can’t begin to guess which—her son. In some other context, it might have been beautiful.

“It’s all right,” Karlo says, and she doesn’t know what he means by it. That the violence she is about to see had already happened, that she ought not be disturbed by the alien body that Stefan had chosen over his own, that her anger now won’t help. The words could carry anything.

A disturbance strikes the rays, a shock moving through the group. The smooth cohesion breaks, and they whirl, turning one way and then the other. Their distress is unmistakable.

“What happened?” Karlo says. “Was that it?”

“Be quiet,” Diana says. She leans forward, filling her view with the small screen like she might be able to dive through it. There in the center of the group, down below the camera, two of the rays swirl around each other, one great body butting into the other. A fight or a dance. She can’t read the intent in the movements. One breaks off, skimming wildly up, speeding through the gloom and the darkness. The other follows, and the floating camera turns to track them. As they chase each other, another shape slides into the frame, also high above. Another group of three alien bodies moving together, unaware of the chase rising up from below. The impact seems comical. The lead ray bumps into the belly of the middle of the three. The little camera loses focus, finds it again. Four rays swimming in a tight circle around one that lists on its side, its wings stilled and drifting.

That is my son, she thinks. That is Stefan. No emotions rise at the idea. It is absurd. Like seeing a rock cracked under a hammer or a car bent by a wreck: the symbol of a tragedy, but not the thing itself. It is some sea animal, something that belongs to the same world as sharks and anglerfish. Inhuman. She knows it is her boy floating there, being pulled toward the surface by the emergency services pods, but she cannot make herself feel it.

“They attacked him,” she says, testing the words. Hoping that they will carry the outrage she wants to feel. “They attacked him, and they left him for dead.”

“They were playing and there was an accident,” Karlo says. “They didn’t leave him for dead.”

“Then where are they? His friends, if that’s what you call them? I don’t see them here.”

“They can’t breathe air,” Karlo says, as if that excuses everything. “They’ll come once the trip is over. Or, when he gets better, he can go back to them.”

Her breath leaves her. She turns to stare at him. His eyes, so unlike the ones she’d known when they had been married, cut to her and away again.

“Go back to them?” she says.

“If he wants. Some people find living that way very calming. Pleasant.”

“They aren’t human.” Now there is rage. Real rage. It lifts her up out of herself and fills her ears with a sound like bees. “You want to see your son among these animals? That’s fine with you? They could have killed him. We don’t know that they didn’t. You’d send him back?”

“They aren’t animals,” Karlo says. “They’re just different. And I would do what Stefan wants. I’d let him choose.”

“Of course you would.”

They are quiet for a moment. The feed on the display ends, drops back to the medical center’s logo and a prompt. Karlo sighs again. She hates the way his sighs sound now—deep and rumbling. Nothing like his first body, except in the timing of it, the patience in it. Nothing the same except that it is the same. “You know you can’t tell him how to live his life.”

“I don’t want to have this conversation.”

“It’s always been like this. Every generation finds its own way to show that it isn’t like the one before. Too much risk, too much sex, terrible music, not enough respect for the old ways. This is no different. It was an accident.”

“I don’t want to have this conversation.”

“All right,” Karlo says. “Another time.”

• • • •

Before the cancer, she worked in an office with people, a desk of her own, conversations over butter tarts and tea in a breakroom with an old couch and half a dozen bamboo chairs. When she came back in her second body, the junior partners threw a little party for her to celebrate the happy conclusion of her brush with death. She remembers being touched and a little embarrassed at the time. And grateful.

It was only later, as she tried to get back into her old routine, that her subterranean distress began to bloom. She found herself timing her trips to the bathroom and break room to avoid brushing past anyone or being touched. She avoided the bakery at the end of the street that she’d frequented before. At home, her marriage became essentially sexless.

She tried not to notice it at first, then told herself that it was temporary, and then that it was normal. Over weeks, a quiet shame gnawed at her. She bathed at night with a grim, angry focus, resenting her skin for gathering smudges and sweat, her hair for growing oily and repulsive. She ate too much or not enough. Shitting or pissing or getting her period filled her with a deep disgust, like she was having to watch and clean and tend to someone else.

She found reasons to work remotely, to talk to Karlo and Stefan while she was somewhere else. Simply having a physicality irritated her, and she leaned away from it. When the junior partners asked whether she was still using her office or if they could repurpose the space, she’d cried without knowing quite why she was crying. She’d told them they could have it and scheduled a consultation with her doctor. Rehabilitation anxiety. Uncanny valley. It would pass.

Now, she sits in the medical center cafeteria, going through her messages with her attention scattered, listening to the same one three or four or five times, and still not able to focus her attention long enough to parse what exactly it was her co-worker was asking of her. The smell of antiseptic and overheated food presses her. The lights seem both too bright and unable to dispel the shadows, and she wonders whether it might be the beginning of a migraine. Karlo has found himself someplace else to be, and she is resentful that he’s abandoned her and relieved to be left to herself.

At the next table, a woman in scrubs laughs acidly and the man she is with responds with something in French. Diana finds her attention drifting to them: wondering at them, about them. The woman has a beautiful cascade of black hair flowing down her shoulders: Had she been born with it? Is she as young as she seems, or was the brain under those raven locks an old woman’s? Or an old man’s? Or a child’s as young as Stefan? Even in a carapace, a brain still wears out, still lives out its eight or nine decades. Or seven. Or two. But without the other signs of age and infirmity, what does it mean?

She remembers her own mother’s hair going from auburn to gray to white to a weird sickly yellow. The changes meant something, gave Diana a way to anticipate the changes in her own life, her own body. There are no old people now. No one crippled and infirm. Everything is a lie of health and permanence, of youth permanently extended. All around her, everyone is wrapped in a mask of flesh. Everything is a masquerade of itself, everyone in disguise. And even the few who aren’t, might be. There is no way to know.

Her hands tremble. She closes her eyes, and has to fight not to cover her ears, too. If she does, someone might come and talk to her, ask her whether she is all right. She doesn’t know how she would answer that, and she doesn’t want to find out.

For a moment, she envies Stefan, locked away from the world, alone with only himself, and then immediately condemns herself for thinking it. He is hurt. Her baby is injured and afraid and beyond any place she can reach him. Only a monster would wish for that.

But . . .

Perhaps she can let herself want to change places with him. If she had to shed her body—all her bodies—to bring him back into the light, she’d do it in a heartbeat. Put that way, she can tell herself it would be an act of love.

Someone touches her shoulder. She startles, her eyes flying open. The physician with his uncertain smile, like she might bite him. She forces herself to nod, reflexively picturing the black casing behind the chocolate brown eyes and gently graying hair.

“We were trying to reach you, Mrs. Dalkin.”

She looks at her message queue. Half a dozen from the medical center’s system, from Karlo. She feels the blush in her cheeks. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I was distracted.”

“No need to apologize,” he says. “I thought you’d want to know. We’ve made contact with Stefan.”

• • • •

The interface is minimal. One of the thin silvery faux-neuronal leads has adhered to a matching bundle of nerve clusters that runs to a casing like the insulation on a wire, and from there into a simple medical deck. A resonance imager wraps around Stefan’s brain like a scarf and focuses on his visual neocortex, reading the patterns there and extrapolating the images that Stefan is imagining from them. Reading his mind and showing it on a grainy display.

“He is experiencing the interface as a coldness on his right arm,” the physician says. “You have to be slow, but he’s been able to follow us with surprising clarity. It’s a very good sign.”

“Oh good,” Diana says, and wishes there had been less dread in the words. She sits at the deck, her fingers over the keyboard layout, suddenly unsure what she is supposed to say. She smiles at the physician nervously. “Does his father know?”

“Yes. Mr. Dalkin was here earlier.”

“Oh good,” she says again. She types slowly, one letter at a time. The deck translates her words into impulses down the neuronal wire, the interface translates the impulses into the false experience of an unreal cold in an abandoned arm, and Stefan—her Stefan, her son—reads the switching impulses as the Morse-code-like pulses that he’s trained in.

This is your mother. I am right here.

• • • •

She turns to the display, waiting. Biting her lips with her teeth until she tastes a little blood. The display shifts. There is only black and gray, fuzzy as a child drawing in the dirt with a stick, but she sees the cartoonish smiling face. Then a heart. Then, slowly, H then I then M then O then M. She sobs once, and it hurts her throat.

Are you okay in there?

P-E-A-C-H-Y

“Fuck you,” she says. “Fuck you, you flippant little shit.” She doesn’t look at the physician, the technicians. Let them think whatever they want. She doesn’t care now.

I love you.

Stefan visualizes a heart. The physician hands Diana a tissue, and she wipes her tears away first and then blows her nose.

It is going to be okay.

I-K-N-O-W and another cartoon smiling face. Then T-E-L-L-K-I-R-A-I-A-M-G-O-D.

God?

The display goes chaotic for a moment, as her son thinks of something else, not visual. It comes back with something like an infinity sign, two linking circles. No, a double o.

Good?

The smiling face. Tell Kira I am good. As if it were true. As if whatever girl had sloughed off her own body and put her mind in one of those monsters deserves to be comforted for whatever role she’d had in making her son into this. No one deserved to be forgiven. No one.

I will.

“His anxiety has gone down considerably since we made contact,” the physician says. “And with the interface starting to bounce back, I think we can start administering some medication to reduce his distress. It will still be some time before we can know how extensive the permanent damage is, but I think it’s very likely he will be able to integrate into a body again.”

“That’s good,” Diana hears herself say.

“I don’t want to oversell the situation. He may be blinded. He may have reduced motor function. There is still a long, long way to go before we can really say he’s clear. But his responses so far show that he’s very much cognitively intact, and he’s got a great sense of humor and a real bravery. That’s more important now than anything else.”

“That’s good,” she says again. Her body rises, presumably because she wants it to. “Excuse me.”

She walks down the hall, out the metal door, into the bright and unforgiving summer sunlight. She’s forgotten her things in Stefan’s room, but she doesn’t want to go back for them. They’ll be there when she returns or else they won’t. On the streets, autocabs hiss their tires along the tracks. Above her, a flock of birds wheels. She finds a little stretch of grass, an artifact of the sidewalk and the street, useless for anything and so left alone. She lowers herself to it, crosses her latest set of legs and pulls off her shoes to look at some unreal woman’s feet, running her fingertips along the arches.

None of it is real. The heat of the sun is only neurons in her brain firing in a certain pattern. The dampness of the grass that cools her thighs and darkens her pants. The half-ticklish feeling of her feet. Her grief. Her anger. Her confusion. All of it is a hallucination created in tissue locked in a lightless box of bone. Patterns in a complication of nerves.

She talked with her son. He talked back. Whatever happens to him, it already isn’t the worst. It will only get better, even if better doesn’t make it all the way back to where it started from. Even if the best it ever is is worse than what it was. She waits for the relief to come. It doesn’t.

Instead, there is Karlo.

He strides down the walk, swinging beefy arms, wide and masculine and sure of himself. She can tell when he sees her. The way he holds himself changes, narrows. Curls in, like he is protecting himself. That is just nerves firing, too. The patterns in the brain she’d loved once expressing something through his costume of flesh. She wonders what it would be like to be stripped out of her body with him, their interface neurons linked one to another. There had been a time, hadn’t there, when he had felt like her whole universe? Is that what the kids would be doing a generation from now? No more deep-sea rays. No more human bodies. Carapaces set so that they become flocks of birds or buildings or traffic patterns or each other. When they can become anything, they will. Anything but real.

He grunts as he eases himself to the grass beside her, shading his eyes from the sun with a hand and a grimace.

“He’s doing better,” Karlo says.

“I know. We passed notes.”

“Really? That’s more than I got out of him. He’s improving.”

“He gave me a message for Kira.”

“That’s his girlfriend.”

“I don’t care.”

Karlo nods and heaves a wide, gentle sigh. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“Everything.”

“You didn’t do everything.”

“No,” he says. “Just what I could.”

Diana lets her head sink to her knees. She wonders, if her first body had survived, would she have been able to? Or would the decades have stiffened her joints the way they had her mother’s, dimmed her eyesight the way they had her father’s. The way they might never for anyone again. “What happened?” she says. “When did we stop being human? When did we decide it was okay?”

“When did we start?” Karlo says.

“What?”

“When did we start being human and stop being . . . I don’t know. Cavemen? Apes? When did we start being mammals? Every generation has been different than the one before. It’s only that the rate of change was slow enough that we always recognized the one before and the one after as being like us. Enough like us. Close. Being human isn’t a physical quality like being heavy or having green eyes. It’s the idea that they’re like we are. That nothing fundamental has changed. It’s the story we tell about our parents and our children. “

“Our lovers,” she says. “Our selves.”

Karlo’s body tightens. “Yes, those, too,” he says. And then, a moment later, “Stefan’s going to come through. Whatever happens, he’ll be all right.”

“Will I?” she says.

She waits for an answer.

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James S.A. Corey

James S.A. Corey by Elf (CC BY-SA 3.0)

James S.A. Corey is the pen name used by collaborators Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. They are best known for The Expanse series of novels. Leviathan Wakes, the first in the series, was nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards, while the fourth book, Abbadon’s Gate, won the Locus award. The series has been adapted for television by the Syfy network.

They have also collaborated on short fiction and a Star Wars novel, Honor Among Thieves. They live in New Mexico.