Iris is deep in an empty ocean, gray-green twilight fading to black everywhere she looks—and she can breathe. She’s a thousand feet above the ground, climbing a fractal cliff suffused with flickering veins of electricity—and she cannot.
Iris is flat on her back at home in bed, and her right hand is moving.
She lies there, staring straight up, not looking. Dim lozenges of light reach in through the window and play across the ceiling: motionless streetlamps, flickering logos, headlights and dronelights just passing through.
Her hand continues to move under the covers. The tremors have been ramping up for over a year now, but this is no mere meatquake. It feels purposeful. As if she were deliberately moving.
Except she isn’t.
Iris unfastens her gaze from the ceiling, lets it slide down the far wall (the closet there gapes like a mouth), forces it sideways. The sheet drapes across her body like a dark snowdrift; off to the right it moves, shifting around the hand. She doesn’t throw back the covers. She doesn’t need to. She can feel each finger curl and straighten in turn, as though someone were trying out a new German Shepherd: Sit, boy. Stay. Heel.
She clenches her fist. The fingers resist; an electric tingle flickers down her arm from shoulder to fingertips. You could experience something like mild electric shocks in your limbs, loss of motor control—
There’s no loss of control here. There’s plenty of control. Just not hers.
She clenches so hard her nails bite into her palms. The tingling stops. Iris forms a fist, rock-steady, every digit utterly obedient to her will.
The sleepwalking. The dreams that aren’t dreams. The messed-up circadian cycles, the—
—the lights in the sky. All connected. She can’t deny it any more.
Oh sweet Jesus. She doesn’t know if she’s praying or cursing.
What in God’s name is happening to me?
• • • •
Dr. Kassam is unavailable.
Dr. Kassam is unavailable.
Dr. Kassam is always unavailable, because Dr. Kassam is real.
Telehealth connects instantly, though. A middle-aged Hindian woman wearing a white coat and a gauntlet offers up a welcoming smile: “Hello, Ms. Carradine. I’m Dr. Tripathi. What seems to be the problem?”
“I’m, um—excuse me, are you human?” Iris asks without much hope.
“You know what?” Dr. Tripathi leans toward the pickup, conspiratorial. “I’m better.”
Iris wouldn’t mind, normally. Normally she’d prefer an AI; she feeds them, she knows them, she’s comfortable with them. But she knows their limits. Neural nets are innocent.
And people are blind and stupid. What makes you think you’d be better off?
The Tripathi’s smart enough to read the silence, at least. “I can queue you for a human consult if you’d prefer. You should know the current wait time is over five hours, though.”
It’s no surprise. Another bug’s been taking a bite out of Europe lately—some new variant of Alaskapox, gone abroad to learn new tricks—and it’s already jumped back across the pond. People are talking lockdown by the end of the month.
“I’ve been feeling—under the weather for a while,” Iris says, treading carefully. “Aching muscles. No energy. Every now and then I get pins and needles in my shoulders and down my back. I can’t sleep at night; I can’t stay awake during the day. I’ve started sleepwalking. I never did that before. And I—move, sometimes. Without meaning to. Like, like—” Careful, now. You don’t want to look like a cra—
“—Alien Hand Syndrome.”
Well, it was the closest thing she could find online.
“I see that you’re living with multiple sclerosis,” the Tripathi notes without missing a beat. Just code, of course. No judgment to pass.
“Yeah, but—I mean, I know what the shakes feel like. This is . . . something else . . .”
“Have you been traveling over the past two months? Or perhaps entertained friends from out of town?” Going down the standard checklist.
Friends. Iris has to smile at that. “No.”
“Have you been hiking in fresh clearcuts, or come into contact with any wildlife?”
“No, nothing like that. I just—I stay at home, mostly.”
“Can you remember the first time you noticed the unusual symptoms?”
“Um . . .”
Maybe a week ago, lying in bed: her foot extending, slowly, en pointe; relaxing. Extending. Relaxing. At the time she thought it might just be some new sort of slow tremor, except that it stopped the moment she willed it to. Usually the shakes take their own sweet time; your muscles tic and twitch for as long as they like no matter how much willpower you bring to bear. This time her foot quieted almost the moment she became aware of it. As though caught in headlights. As though it didn’t want to be noticed.
Of course, at the time she wrote it off as pure stupid imagination. There’s no way she’s going to admit to any of that now.
Besides. She knows that’s not when it started.
Iris takes a breath, judges it steady. “Can’t you maybe just run some general tests? Like, a remote physical? See if anything turns up?”
“Certainly, if you like.” The Tripathi taps its gauntlet, pretends to read something there (Iris finds the gesture vaguely irritating, another stupid affectation that never quite pulls the Uncanny out of the Valley). “I see your headset is equipped with an interferometry option. May I use it to help with your checkup?”
“Yes, of course.” VR headsets with biomedical plug-ins: just another sign of the times. Not to mention it saves Brain Wash the expense of providing health care to their freelancers.
“Please close your eyes.”
The comforting darkness beneath Iris’ lids flares orange after a moment; capillary networks fracture the light into a demonic stained glass window as tiny lasers sweep across her eyelids.
“These involuntary movements you describe,” Tripathi says from the void. “Do they tend to happen when you’re just waking up or falling asleep?”
“I . . . yes, I think so.”
“And when you say under the weather: do you mean in a way different from a hangover?”
“Excuse me?” Iris opens her eyes. The lasers extinguish, too fast even for an afterimage; the Tripathi reappears in their place.
“I ask because your CDT and albumin levels are consistent with habitual alcohol use.” The simulated face remains guileless.
She can’t deny it. She wants to point out that she barely drank at all before last year, but she’s afraid of looking defensive.
“This is different,” Iris says at last.
“Okay then.” The Tripathi nods; her voice assumes a let’s wrap this up tone. “Your blood chemistry isn’t showing anything that can’t be explained by the effects of heavy drinking. Your cardiac and blood pressure are within normal bounds; you’re slightly anemic, but again, that’s consistent with alcohol abuse. There’s nothing to suggest Alien Hand Syndrome: no record of damage to your corpus callosum in your medical history, and your eye saccades are completely normal. You’re a little overstimulated, but that could be anything from fear to caffeine to lusty thoughts.”
Iris wonders if she’s supposed to laugh at that. She wonders if the Tripathi will feign discomfort if she doesn’t.
She wonders what idiot wrote the dialog trees.
“Of course, I’m limited in what I can tell from here. Your procalcitonin levels are elevated, which suggests you might have a mild bacterial infection, but direct pathogen detection is beyond the capabilities of your headset. We could do a more thorough workup with a blood sample. There’s a pharmacy just a few minutes’ walk from your current location, at Woodland and East Broadway. If you choose to follow up on that, be sure to do it within forty-eight hours or your case ticket will expire.” The simulacrum serves up an apologetic smile. “Sorry about that. We’re experiencing a high volume of consultations at the moment.”
“So, you’re . . . you’re saying you don’t know?”
“That’s correct. But it’s almost certainly nothing to worry about.”
“I’d like to speak to a human, if that’s okay.”
“I’m truly sorry, Ms Carradine, but we’re experiencing a high volume of consultations at the moment and our human staff are all dealing with patients whose symptoms are more severe than yours. If I called them away, someone could die.”
“Please. There’s something wrong: this isn’t alcohol, it isn’t MS . . .”
“Multiple sclerosis progresses differently for each patient,” the Tripathi reminds her. “The specific symptoms can vary a great deal.”
“Not that much.”
“True, but bereavement also manifests in many ways. I understand you’ve lost someone close to you recently.”
And she would kick your pompous pixellated ass back to beta if she were still alive. If you were real. Of course it can access data on next-of-kin. Probably even trawl the local obits, for that matter. It still feels like a violation.
“The fact that you experience these sensations of involuntary movement around the edges of sleep suggests that they might be what we call hypnagogic or hypnopompic hallucinations. The semiconscious state is a tricky thing. People experience sleep paralysis, so-called night terrors, and—”
“You’re not listening to me.” Of course it’s not listening you’re arguing with a flowchart you stupid bitch but she can’t seem to shut herself up: “My hands and feet move; it’s not tremors and it’s not hallucinations and I was fine before I got infected by that fucking rain, that . . .”
She realizes how she must sound, even to a flowchart. She falls silent.
The Tripathi takes a moment to figure out how to respond to her outburst. Iris has to admit she’s curious about that herself.
“I can see this is really troubling you,” it says at last. “People in your situation often benefit from the company of a therapeutic tulpa. I can authorize one if you like. Or I could recommend a human therapist if you prefer, although there may be a waiting list.”
Right. Blow it off, then.
Just like a real doctor.
• • • •
That fucking rain. The lights in the sky.
That’s when it started.
They used to stop at Porteau Cove on the way to Whistler, back when day trips were still a thing. (Back when Mom was still a thing.) Later especially, when Mom didn’t have the strength to hike the trails at Shannon Falls or the stamina for Capilano, there was always Porteau: boat ramp, cobblestone beaches, picnic tables. Accessible restrooms. Grass and trees and slopes gentle enough to manage even when the chemo’s killed off half your bone marrow.
Afterward, it was the only place Iris could stand to be.
She remembers pushing past the scattered faces after the service, eyes down, ears closed to empty condolences from well-meaning strangers. She remembers hailing the Ryde out on Broadway and telling it where to go. She doesn’t remember stops on the way but she must have made at least one because when she rolled out of the vehicle the sun was down and the bottle of Jameson was in her hand, already half-empty.
She remembers the rain, a midnight deluge that came out of nowhere like the wrath of God. The sky on fire, thunderheads flickering with some kind of sheet lightning only not quite: all gold and green and in-between. Not just weather up there. Nothing she’d ever seen before, anyway. At the time Iris thought it might be some toxic molecule from a waste lagoon, floating all the way up to the stratosphere to poison the very electricity. She remembers thinking, very clearly: We fuck over everything we touch, and throwing up.
Fat raindrops splashing against her upturned face, burning her eyes. Her voice raised against the storm, belting out—
“Stinging in the raiiin, just stinnnnging in the raaiiinnn—”
—as she blinked away the acid and wiped the vomit from her mouth with the back of her hand. The lip of the bottle she forgot she was holding, hitting her upper lip. A small explosion of pain. The sound of breaking glass.
Look at you, kid. You have no idea how strong you are. You don’t need anyone. Not even me.
The sickly cloudlight dimmed, the rain tapered off, and she assumed the storm was moving on even as the wind picked up. But the darkness kept deepening, somehow; even the lights over the restrooms way across the parking lot seemed fainter, as if someone had swapped out their brilliant LEDs with old twenty-Watt incandescents. She staggered toward that dimming beacon; the rising wind knocked her twice to the asphalt. She was on hands and knees by the time she made it inside, just as some dark angular shadow-thing—a Nazgul, or a picnic table—reared up on two legs and crashed backward against the cinderblock wall.
Inside, it was so dark she assumed the lights were off. She sat on the floor, back against the wall, knees drawn up to her face as the wind howled. Eventually the darkness stopped spinning long enough for her to raise her eyes—and she saw that the lights were shining after all. They were just very, very dim.
She swayed to her feet, made it to the nearest sink, stared hard into the mirror. She could barely see herself. She fumbled the phone from her pocket, brought up the flashlight, shone it right up against the glass. Leaned forward until her face emerged from shadow.
Her pupils were pinpoints. She could barely make them out.
This wasn’t on any list of symptoms she’d ever read. MS was supposed to be all shakes and slurred speech and memory loss and even that was supposed to take a while. Decades even, Dr. Kassam had said. You could live thirty, forty years, easily. A lot can happen in that time . . .
“Wow,” Iris had managed, with a bravado she’d never felt in her whole life: “I could outlast western civilization . . .”
Standing on her own two feet. Little Miss Independence, laughing in the face of death.
Not laughing now.
Her hand wavered in front of her, barely more than a silhouette. Was that a tremor, or were her eyes screwing up? Was it the alcohol or the MS? Was she dying or just drunk?
Why not both?
Bye, Mom. Sorry I wasn’t there when you left.
And then: Who am I kidding. At this rate, we’ll be back together in no time.
• • • •
The ’pox is coming. Toronto and New York have just locked down; only a matter of time before the West Coast goes under.
Yasar pings Iris ten minutes after the news breaks. “Hang out before they lock us up? Could be our last chance between now and the old folks home . . .”
She doesn’t really want to. She’s not great around people at the best of times, and seeing anyone is the last thing she wants right now. Plus a little of Yaz goes a long way.
He means well, though. He got her the Brain Wash gig, at a time when gigs are increasingly hard to come by. Plus, the reason he’s hard to take is because he has this twisted brain that might actually help her get a grip on things. Yasar’s almost a scientist. Got a Master’s in Genetics before the deep-learning algos took over that field along with everything else.
So “Sure,” she says, and tracks his phone to some new drink’n’drug that sprang up from the ashes of the last one: dim lighting, curves and arches, a low-ceilinged blue grotto that somehow conveys a sense of closeness even though the tables are spaced farther than aerosols. Yasar’s reading something through his omnipresent smartspecs as she reaches the table. He glances up; the specs go dark.
“It lives.” Yaz raises his beer as she sits down across from him.
“Barely.” She taps the table, scrolls down the drinks menu in lieu of eye contact.
“You look—I mean, you getting enough sleep?”
“Yeah, I—my sleep cycles are a little off, that’s all. Going through a night owl phase, for some reason.”
“Nyle was asking about you the other day.”
Nyle from Brain Wash. Shit. Iris orders a Cane Toad.
“He’s worried about you.” Meaning, of course, Why haven’t you cleaned up that database yet. Iris changes her mind and orders two.
“I owe him a deliverable, yeah. I’ve just been dealing with some stuff lately.”
“Right. Your mom.” Out of the top of her eye she sees Yaz’s hand slide tentatively across the table toward hers, hesitate, withdraw. “Everyone understands.” Which is the only reason you’ve still got a job.
Yasar tries again. “You doing okay?”
He doesn’t know about the MS. Nobody does. What’s the point? She’s still perfectly functional—well, mostly—and it’s not like there’s anything anyone can do. He almost caught her blacking out once or twice a few months back, but she’d been drinking so he just wrote it off as the wages of sin.
I feel it growing, she wants to say. All through me. I’m terrified that if I close my eyes it’ll grow across my lids and stitch them together. I can feel it eating me from the inside out, I have these dreams that I’m out for groceries and I trip on the sidewalk and I break open like an old wasps’ nest and all that spills out is dry black dust . . .
She meets his eyes and forces a smile. “You like to play with, well, offbeat scenarios, right?” Which is another way of saying he likes to spin bullshit stories, the stupider the better, delivered with such gravitas and authority that otherwise smart people will end up believing that yes, sperm whales really do practice metallurgy by dropping manganese nodules into hydrothermal vents. (At least he had her falling for it, along with the whole tutorial group she met him in. Most everyone else hated his guts after that—smartass Science asshole, slumming it over in Humanities to boost his GPA, making fools of the poor dumb artsies. Iris was the only one who’d even talk to him for the rest of the elective.)
“I guess,” he says now.
“So suppose there’s some kind of microbe or something that lives in the clouds. Comes down in raindrops.”
He nods. “Aeroplankton.”
“I don’t have to suppose,” he tells her. “There’re all sorts of cloud bugs. Bacteria, fungi, viruses. Pollen and spores and who knows what else. They actually help it rain; ice crystals nucleate around ‘em. You could almost say they run the weather.”
This is why she’s here.
“Aeroplankton,” she murmurs, trying out the word. “Can any of them infect people? Like, maybe get in through the eyes or something?”
“Plague clouds?” Yaz snorts, shakes his head. “Why the fuck not? These days, probably only a matter of time.”
“Yeah, but are there any?” She’s looked, of course, but she doesn’t know any of the tech talk; she doesn’t even really know what to look for. “Anyone report anything like that?”
He awakens his specs; his eyes jiggle with the telltale motion of someone sacc’ing an online database. “Eh. Not much. A few human pathogens show up at trace levels now and then, but they’re airborne anyway so it’d be really amazing if they didn’t. But it also looks like nobody’s really studied it, so who knows?” The specs dim. “Why are we doing this again?”
“I think maybe I caught something.”
“After—a while ago I went up to Porteau Cove and there was this, this really weird rain squall. The clouds were glowing, and the rain burned my eyes, and my pupils shrank down so much I was almost blind for about three hours. Barely see my phone to call for a Ryde.”
“Acid rain. Not really a problem since before we were born, but go on.”
Her Toads arrive. Iris downs the first in two gulps and barely feels it. “So ever since, things have been—weird. Strange dreams, sleepwalking, insomnia. Pins and needles down my back and arms. And I . . . move, sometimes. Without meaning to.”
“You mean like Parkinson’s?”
“No.” She slams that door fast. “Not tremors. More—deliberate.”
He gives her a look. “Alien hand syndrome?”
Iris sighs. “Fine. Let’s go with that.”
“Okay. Well.” Yaz nods. “First thing, we put your bugs in the Shadow Biosphere. That accounts for why no one’s reported ‘em before.”
“They say there could be a whole other microbiome all around us, totally invisible to our detection methods because it’s based on a different biochemical template. Maybe its amino acids are right-handed instead of left-handed. Maybe it doesn’t even have amino acids.”
“Huh.” Iris starts on her second Toad.
“Okay, so. Alien Hand implies intelligence. A single cell is just proteins and acids and chemotaxis, not smart at all. So we’re talking some kind of microbial network in the clouds. How do they talk to each other? Chemical signals wouldn’t work. Say each droplet’s a node with a teensy electrical charge; maybe when the droplets bump into each other . . .”
“Yeah, but I’m talking about an infection—”
Yaz raises a hand. “We’ll get to that. Gotta lay the groundwork first, figure out how they work in their natural habitat before we branch out. Huh.” He looks at her, eyes shining. “If they do communicate via microelectrical discharges, I bet they could control lightning. They could literally rain fire from the heavens—”
Finally, she gets it. “You asshole.”
Yaz recoils as if slapped.
“I don’t want your usual bullshit, Yaz. I don’t want to hear about penguins melting tunnels under the ice with their body heat or endangered tree-dwelling octopuses in the Olympia rainforest.” Her vision starts to wobble. “I’m telling you because I’m scared, because who the fuck else am I going to . . . because . . .” The tears break, run down her cheeks. “Oh, what’s the fucking point . . .”
Yaz sits silently for a few moments. “I’m sorry,” he says at last.
“Fine. Forget it.”
“I didn’t think you were serious. I mean, alien spores in your eyes and taking over your body—I just assumed—”
“I said forget it.” She wipes her eyes, takes a breath. “I overreacted. I don’t know why—I mean, that’s just what you do . . .”
“Sorry,” he says again, looking miserable.
Iris reaches for her Cane Toad but the glass has somehow emptied itself while she wasn’t looking. Hold it together, Carradine. “So you don’t believe me.”
“I believe, I mean . . .” Yasar glances left and right, as though seeking an exit. “I believe you’re really experiencing symptoms.”
“Just not that they come from sky germs.”
He spreads his hands. “I mean, it’s the rain, Iris. It wouldn’t just be you. We’d be in the middle of a whole new outbreak.”
“I think it was a microburst. Super localized. And I was way out in the boons.”
“Porteau’s just a few kliks south of Britannia Beach. That’s a thousand people right there. And there’s the highway: how many people are gonna be riding—”
“How many people are gonna be outside in a rainstorm in the middle of the fucking night!”
“Okay, okay.” He leans back in his chair, hands raised. “Point.”
“And what about the alien-hand stuff?”
“I don’t know. How often does it happen?” His chair tips forward again. “Hasn’t happened here, has it? While we’ve been talking?”
“No, I just . . . It only happens when I’m alone. So far. When I’m—not looking. I’ll be asleep, and I’ll wake up and it’ll be . . .”
Yaz studiously says nothing.
“I know how it sounds, Yaz. Don’t you think I know how it sounds? But what: do you think I’m lying?”
He shakes his head.
“You think I’m delusional?”
“No. But if these movements start when you’re asleep—”
“I’m not dreaming it, Yaz.”
“You said you were sleepwalking, though.”
“Not those times.”
“Okay. Well, assuming it’s not some kind of hallucination, I dunno. Maybe your efference copy is broken.”
“It’s like, when your nervous system sends a command to move your arm, it sends a copy to the rest of the brain. Sort of a memo, so when the brain feels the arm move it says Oh yeah, I did that. Says so right here. Efference copy confirms agency.”
“And when the copy’s broken . . .”
“You still move your arm but your brain thinks something else did.” Yaz shakes his head. “Look, I’m just blowing smoke out my ass here. I don’t know anything. Whatever this is, you should see a doctor.”
“I tried,” she says. “Couldn’t get past the bot.”
He snorts. “That’s the Age of Triage for you. You’re either at death’s door or the back of the line.”
“Maybe it’s just a matter of phrasing. Tell ‘em you’ve got some new undiscovered pathogen. That should get their attention.”
“I tried that. AI blew me off. My symptom set didn’t fit anything in the database so it decided I was fucked in the head. Offered to set me up with a Tulpa.”
Yaz winces. “Can’t see what it’s not looking for.”
“Like your shadow biosphere.” Iris takes a breath. “They told Mom she was okay, too.”
Yaz looks at her.
“Back when she was in remission,” she says. “She kept telling me it hadn’t gone away. She could feel it in her, just—waiting. And the doctors, even the real ones—they blew her off. They had their degrees, they’d done their tests: she was just this hysterical old woman with an overactive imagination. But she knew what she felt, and sure enough, a few months later . . .” She closes her eyes. “But of course by then it was too late.”
Yaz doesn’t say anything for a bit. Then: “That is really fucked up.”
“That’s how I feel,” she whispers.
• • • •
Iris feeds neural nets for a living. And as Yasar has so subtly reminded her, if she wants to stay alive long enough to die from something other than homelessness, she’d better pick up that ol’ dinner bell.
So she takes as much fear and depression as she can hold in both hands: visions of sickly auras flickering in the stratosphere, body parts agitating for independence, frayed and sparking motor nerves. A disease that no one understands and another that no one believes in. She forces it all into some basement in her head, leans back hard against the door and locks it with a shot of Jameson. She waits until she can almost ignore the things scratching and whining on the other side.
She sinks into her beanbag, dons her headset and unpacks the gig: a massive database of human faces, rife with noise and bias to be purged before any AI can be let anywhere near it. Someone’s building a mood-recognition app for the emotionally disturbed. All these faces, once scrubbed clean, will play a vital role in psych wards from coast to coast.
Iris suppresses a yawn and scans the metadata for any obvious red flags in location or acquisition time. You can’t nurse those insatiable little sponges on any old data; they tried that already, and whole generations of bots grew up thinking All Blacks Look Alike. You have to curate, lest you expose delicate AI sensitivities to bias and skew and heteroscedasticity. You have to weed out patterns that say more about the collector than the data. And so Iris has become a node in another kind of net: a diffuse affiliation of meatbots, thousands strong, recruited from around the world in rigorously random strata, each redundantly sifting the same data for signs of contamination in the hope that their own biases will come out in the wash once everyone’s results are mooshed back together.
She’s willing to overlook any minor flaws that might exist in this reasoning. There’s really only one other ground-level job that people can still do better than nets, and she’s already waited enough tables for a lifetime.
This gig seems unexpectedly knotty for such brain-dead work. It only takes a few hours to purge the usual melanistic and contrast biases, but somehow her filters have introduced a new glitch into the mix: suddenly the Pocket Watson she uses for testing can’t recognize children. Maybe something about the aspect ratio of juvenile faces. Maybe big eyes and snub noses fuck up the weighting algos or something.
It might be easier to figure out if the things in the basement weren’t still scratching at the door.
And now, of course, her foot is spazzing out. Electric tetanus seizes her right leg; the knee jumps like a hyperactive six-year-old. She plants her foot hard against the floor and pushes down with both hands. It’s okay, it’s okay. No big deal; you’ve probably got years yet. This is nothing. You hop around more than this when you need to pee.
Gradually, the tremor subsides. She stands, tests the mutinous leg, stamps it a couple of times.
Back at the start she’d go a month without an episode. Now she’s lucky to make it a week. And yet it’s not anger or despair or even fear for her own mortality that she feels in this moment. What she feels, absurdly, is relief.
This time it’s only the sclerosis.
• • • •
The tulpa has no body. The tulpa has no face. The tulpa is a disembodied voice in her headset, without form and void. A deliberate omission, apparently: a holdover from the age of psychotherapy. You’re not supposed to gaze upon your confessor.
Iris clears her throat. “I miss my mom.”
“Of course,” the tulpa says kindly. “The grieving process takes time.”
No shit, Sigmund. “She wouldn’t want me to.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because she’d want me to get on with things. Take care of myself.”
“I’m sure your mother wouldn’t want you to stop missing her after just a few short weeks. She’d know that—”
“You’re just brimming with profound insights about what my mom would know, aren’t you?”
“I have some general insights into human behaviour that might apply to your—”
“I want to talk about her. I don’t want you to cosplay her.”
“And yet you named me Abby.”
Huh. Sometimes these deep-learning nets sneak up on you. Say things that almost sound like there’s a soul behind them.
“Had to name you something. You wouldn’t let me past the startup screen.”
“Studies have shown that people relate better to software with human names.”
That’s more like it. “This is bullshit. I’m talking to a platitude generator.”
“You said you wanted to talk about your mom, but you seem more interested in discussing my shortcomings. It’s possible I’m not what you need right now, and you obviously know my limitations. It raises the question of why you booted me up.”
“Because you’re there. Because studies have shown that even talking to a goddamned pillow is better than nothing. Because some other chunk of code wouldn’t let me past the gate to see a real person and there’s no one else, so . . .”
“When you say there’s no one else—”
“See, that’s what I mean. No one else is one of those things you’ve assigned some huge weight to, so the moment it comes out of my mouth you home in like a shark on a blood trail. But it doesn’t matter to me, and it didn’t matter to mom, and you don’t know either of us so your weighting algo has its head up its ass.”
“I take it your mother encouraged you to be independent.”
“My mother encouraged me to be me. Just because you prefer your own company doesn’t mean you’re a freak.”
“She sounds like a strong woman.”
“Strong doesn’t even start to . . .” Fuck. I’m actually talking to the damn thing.
“She raised you on her own. That can’t have been easy.”
“You’re invoking the Poor Single Mom subroutine now?”
“I’m sorry; I should have expressed myself more clearly. She raised you on her own. That can’t have been easy.”
Iris blinks. “Touché.”
“She was strong,” she admits after a moment. “And she thought I was too, and I let her believe that. I owed her that much.”
“What did you owe her?”
“You know. Her own space. Not—wasting her time with my bullshit when she had so much to deal with.”
“Can you give me an example?”
“The MS, for one thing.”
“You didn’t tell her you’d been diagnosed?”
“Are you kidding? The woman can barely move, what the cancer hasn’t killed the chemo mostly has, and I’m going to whinge about a few shakes and short-circuits?” God I wish she was here. I wish she was here.
She’d have believed me.
“Anyway, it doesn’t matter. When it came right down to it, I wasn’t in her league.”
“How do you mean?”
“Near the end, she was—it was like someone plugged an IV into a pile of sticks and threw a sheet over it. Oh, she still acted the same, even when she went to the hospital, even when she knew she’d never leave. She still collected cool links for me and laughed at my jokes. But when she laughed, she opened her mouth and her lips kind of drew back, and it was—it was like there was just this skeleton behind, waiting to come out. I was so terrified that’s how I’d remember her, you know? I wouldn’t remember the hardbody cyclist or the woman who helped me take the Tusk when I was, like, ten. All I’d remember was this gasping skeleton with the eye sockets, and I didn’t want that, so I just . . . stopped going . . .”
“That must have been tough,” Abby says gently.
“It wasn’t tough: it was the easy choice. The coward’s choice.”
Iris puts her head in her hands.
“I wish she’d died thinking I was like her,” she whispers. “I wish she’d died before I broke.”
“Iris. I know you’re f—”
“This is bullshit,” she snaps, and kills the connection.
• • • •
Sorry for being a dick the other day. I started poking around and this paper popped up over on bioRxiv—not peer-reviewed and no real profile yet, and honestly the whole episode is pretty shady (no way would it pass ethics review). I don’t think you’ll be seeing it in Neuroepidemiology any time soon.
But you might be on to something. Ping me if you need help with the technobabble,
She flumps back into the beanbag and opens the file. Potentially Novel Opportunistic Infection of the Central Nervous System in an Immunocompromised Subject. Patient R, medical history unknown, presenting with erratic behavioral symptoms following vehicular impact at three a.m. Sedated and transferred to a portable MRI on-site at—
Wait a second: this guy just happened to get run over next to an MRI? In the middle of the night? Who wrote this thing?
Nobody, according to the author field. Literally: the paper is credited to Noah Buddie.
They hit him. Iris scans up and down the file, puts two and two together. Chaser ambulance: had to be. Nothing else packs a portable MRI. A couple of paramedics cruising the night shift, probably—judging by the very presence of this paper—chauffering some resident or intern riding along for the XP. Driving on manual (has anyone ever got into a vehicle with a human-operator option and not jumped at the chance?), so probably driving badly. Some homeless rubby stumbles into the headlights and whump.
Buddie (Buddies, more accurately) describe Patient R as agitated and incoherent: eyes bloodshot, pupils severely contracted—
—subject to sporadic involuntary muscle twitches but not apparently inebriated. 400mg ketamine administered IM. Once sedated, patient subjected to a low-rez fast full-body MRI. No broken bones or other serious injuries resulting from collision, but the scan does detect an accumulation of metabolically active masses along the spinal cord, lumbar and brachial plexii, and vagus nerve. Subsequent high-resolution scan also shows plaques consistent with extensive demyelination of the nerves. One of R’s few coherent statements prior to sedation referenced the loss of his job in a slaughterhouse when the meat industry collapsed—evidence enough, apparently, to implicate something called progressive inflammatory neuropathy as the cause of the demyelination artifacts.
The active masses along the main cables are a whole other issue, though. “Unprecedented in the literature”, apparently. Noah Buddie speculate about massive bacterial proliferation along the damaged axons; to Iris, the false-color images evoke the sense of a whole new nervous system, limned in sapphire, intertwining with the old one. Not just along the peripheral wiring, either; R’s whole brain seems aglow with the stuff. The authors suggest the brain might be the very headwaters of the pathology, in fact. The eyes in particular: Buddie hark back to those contracted irises, wonder if they might suggest infection via corneal diffusion. A reaction, perhaps. Provoked contraction of the actinomyosin complex, a tiny harbinger of the spasms and convulsions that sent R staggering into the road in the first place.
The authors would have very much liked to explore that further, but the sedation was wearing off; an additional 400mg ketamine was administered while the MRI was recalibrated for a deeper dive into the brain. That scan was never completed, however, since R woke up again two minutes into the procedure and started flailing around in the bore.
Wait a second—he threw off 400mg of ketamine after two minutes? He should have been out for ten, fifteen minimum, especially after a double dose . . .
Iris blinks. How does she know that? She frowns, and thinks, and remembers overhearing an ancient snippet of conversation between a couple of oncology residents while waiting for her mom to finish chemo. Weird she’d recall that now, though. She doesn’t remember it registering consciously even at the time.
Unresponsive to soothing voices and reassuring words, R is set free in a state of “extreme agitation” and flees into the night, his role in the advance of Science ended before its time. The anonymous medics seem sad about that much, at least:
“We present these findings, incomplete as they are, because they appear inconsistent with any known pathogen and may therefore represent a novel epidemiological threat. Mortality rate, R0, symptomatic progression—whether or not this is even a pathogen in the conventional sense—remain unknown. However, given the accelerating rate at which new zoonotics are infecting human populations, it is only prudent to report what facts we have.”
Their lack of insight hasn’t stopped them from planting their flag on the little fucker. They’ve given it a name, inspired by its hypothesized mode of infection. It mixes with your tears, after all. It enters through the cornea, infects the windows of your soul.
They’ve called it Iris.
• • • •
Iris tracks the paper back to BioRxiv—maybe it’s gained some traction, maybe others are weighing in to argue or corroborate—and can’t find it. She checks the WayBack Machine for all BioRxiv pages archived over the past forty-eight hours: nothing but chaff.
Maybe some moderator didn’t relish the idea of hosting a paper based on data extracted without consent from an injured party. Maybe the authors thought better of their altruism, realized belatedly how easy it might be to track them down even if they had hidden behind a pseudonym. Maybe Yaz made it all up just to fuck with her. It’s kind of his thing.
Iris doesn’t really believe that, though. Yaz can be a jerk but he’d never be intentionally cruel. Besides, he’s lazy. He spins his yarns on the spur of the moment, spontaneously riffing off some offhand remark and piling on the absurdities. Hoaxing an entire paper from scratch would be way too much work.
Maybe Iris—the other Iris—just doesn’t want to be found.
There. She’s said it. If only to herself.
Because she knows she’s infected with something. Even the doctors tell her that much. Something inside is eating away at her nervous system, incrementally stealing her balance and her independence and probably, someday, even her very breath. Iris knows what it’s like to be infected, just like her mother did.
But what kind of infection takes its hosts for joyrides while the brain sleeps? What kind of infection doesn’t degrade control of the body but impossibly, terrifyingly, wrests it away?
What kind of microbe thinks?
She goes searching, and is surprised: a lot of them, actually.
She reads up on computational networks in bacterial biofilms. She watches videos of slime molds solving Traveling-Salesman problems and beating grad students at maze-running; of fungi modeling optimal mass-transit networks in London and Tokyo. She reads papers about quorum sensing, nanowires, cellular morphogenesis. It’s almost impossible to understand at first: all subscripts and integrals and acyclic-di-gmp-regulated adhesin. The only reason she doesn’t cave and call Yasar is because that’s exactly what he wants her to do. So she pushes on. She learns about ion channels older than the eukaryotes themselves, bioelectric gradients enabling communication not just within species but between them. Signalling systems that turn trillions of bacilli into their own kind of deep-learning network. The technobabble falls away in chunks as she reads, the meanings behind laid bare and in perfect focus. When she started she had to skip over every second word; just a few hours later, amazingly, she can make sense of it all.
She ponders origins. Is Iris some late-breaking mutation, natural selection in action? Did we make it, somehow? Did someone build it, or is it just some run-of-the-mill bacterium broken and remade by all the hormone disrupters pumped into the sky?
Is it even from here?
Another rabbit hole opens up before her. Radioresistant bacteria still thrive on the naked lunar surface, generations after the Surveyor mission left them there. Unkillable Deinococcus, with its projected million-year lifespan, lives on the skins of space stations and in the hearts of nuclear reactors. Bacteria brought back from the seabed wake up after a hundred million years.
Life here may have been seeded from some wet verdant Mars of aeons past, ricocheted to Earth during a game of cosmic billiards. Everything that lives on Earth could be a Martian. Someone in Astronomical Journal Letters runs the numbers and shits all over those local spit-swapping baby steps: microbes can cross whole galaxies, they claim, encased in the rubble of meteorites and impact ejecta.
Maybe I’m a pod person. Maybe I’m infested with some brainworm from Alpha Centauri.
She should be terrified. She should be revolted. And she is, a little; but she’s something else, too. She’s a little bit exultant.
Maybe I’m turning into Supergirl.
• • • •
Her eyes stare back from the bathroom mirror. Her pupils seem just the slightest bit cloudy. Or maybe it’s her imagination; maybe all these insights and wild guesses have primed her to see things that aren’t there. She reaches for the wall, never taking her eyes from her reflection. Flips off the light switch.
Two points of pale blue light stare back from the darkness. Iris thinks of the red-eye you used to see in old photos, back before cameras got smart: light reflecting off blood-soaked retinas.
This isn’t blood. It’s no mere reflection, either: this is, what’s the word . . .
You were just a speck in my eye, not so long ago. Proteins and acids and chemotaxis. What was it like, getting here from there? Was it gradual? Did you just segue from reflex to instinct, from feeling to thought? Was it like flipping a switch? Are you scared, are you hungry? Are you even awake, or just some kind of mindless LAN?
She whispers: “What do you want from me?”
Mosaics flicker across her visual field, complex, mathematically precise. They dissolve in an instant, degrade down to amorphous floaters swarming her retinas. Out past it all, the points in the mirror shine like tiny will-o’the-wisps.
“Iris? That you?”
Phosphene kaleidoscopes, there and gone.
Was that an answer? Is this a dialog?
It’s in me, she reminds herself. It—interfaces, somehow. Maybe I don’t even have to talk out loud.
HELLO IRIS I’M IRIS CAN YOU HEAR ME
There might be something there but maybe it’s just afterimages. Imagination.
“Fuck it,” she mutters, and reaches for the light switch.
Something tingles in her arm. Just above her elbow, something stiffens and resists.
“Okay, then.” She forces herself to relax. “What do you want to do?”
• • • •
She’s never run at night before. She barely runs during the day; it’s easy to aspire to three times a week when the Co-op fills your headset with mountain trails and empty beachside boardwalks. Not so easy when the streets outside your cramped one-bedroom swarm with drones and delivery bots and people who deliberately teem cheek-to-jowl, showing off bare faces and broad-spectrum antiviral tattoos like some kind of mating display. She tried a couple of times and it was like trying to run a marathon in a mosh pit.
Now, though . . .
The streets are beautiful, and empty: dark and bright neon (or whatever they’re using instead now, in their half-assed incremental pursuit of carbon neutrality). It’s been raining. The pavement’s slick and black and full of bright zigzag reflections, electric abstracts with the horizontal hold gone to shit. Iris smells asphalt and ozone. Kaleidoscope puddles shatter beneath her feet.
She follows no set route; turns right or left as the mood takes her. She runs along copper-lit city canyons, passes the library, dekes left on Homer. Now she’s on the Burrard Street Bridge; now she’s leaving Kitsilano behind. The bright night darkens by infinitesimal degrees until the skyscrapers and the halogens are miles behind her. She crosses some deserted street, trades asphalt for dirt (Sasamat Trail, says a passing sign she should not by rights be able to read) and plunges into woodland.
She stops. Looks around. The swaying silhouettes of cedars and maples crowd out the sky, black against black.
The light isn’t entirely gone, though. Iris is glowing again.
She’d never have seen it in daylight. Even bright city night was enough to wash it out. But here, in the unlit outskirts of this tame forest, she sees a faint luminous tracery branching beneath the skin of her arms. Blood vessels coursing with St. Elmo’s Fire. Motor nerves etched in starlight.
She remembers some long-forgotten documentary from childhood: deep-sea fish light up like this, with swirls and lines and dots that flash in the darkness. Glowing bacteria in pockets arrayed across the skin, fed by capillaries that could stretch wide or squeeze tight. Open those gates and the bacteria flare like LEDs; close them and they go dark. It’s an oxygen thing.
She remembers as though she saw it yesterday.
Under her skin, the light show is fading. It’s beautiful, Iris thinks, then catches herself. It’s an infection. I’m sick.
She doesn’t feel sick. She feels better than she has since—well, since before she was diagnosed.
Wouldn’t that be something. A disease that cures diseases.
She starts back the way she came. She emerges from the forest and finds herself running again, forces herself to slow to a walk. Maybe this thing is spurring her to exercise because all that fast-pumping, oxygenated blood helps it grow faster. Maybe she shouldn’t be feeding it any more than she has to.
But it’s so hard to keep focus. The moment her mind wanders the body starts up again: a trot then a jog then a run, until she jolts back to the here and now and puts on the brakes.
She wants to run.
No. It does.
She keeps to a fast walk. It takes conscious effort.
It’s all through you. It used to be weak and scared, it used to wait until you weren’t looking. Remember when it had to fight you for control? But it’s so much stronger now. It’s wired in so deep it doesn’t have to fight against your will any more.
It is your will.
Iris looks down at her hand. Clenches it. Opens it. It feels like her will to her.
Because it doesn’t care. Try doing something to threaten it.
Offhand, she doesn’t even know what that might be.
It’s erasing you. You think you’re smarter, you think your memory’s better, you think you don’t need the bottle any more but none of that is you. It’s taking everything that makes you what you are and overwriting it with something—
Because really, what is she? A spastic drunk on her way to palliative care at best, more likely a cardboard box behind a dumpster. No family, no prospects, passing through a world so fucked-up it’s even money whether she dies before it does. Would losing that really be so bad?
You’re not even all that scared, are you? Any rational person would be terrified. Why aren’t you terrified, Iris?
It is strange, she concedes as she breaks into a trot. And it’s not just fear; she feels—less all around, somehow. Less than she used to. It takes her a moment or two to figure out what’s missing.
The grief is gone.
• • • •
Iris beats the sun home. She rings for the elevator, changes her mind, takes the stairs instead. Somewhere around the fourth floor she’s struck by sudden inspiration: other than children, what else has big eyes and snub noses? She piles into her apartment without closing the door behind her and finds herself trawling Japanese databases for manga and anime (she’d hit Disney’s archives too for good measure, but she knows better; those fuckers never let anything fall out of copyright).
She strat-randos a few thousand faces and injects them into the database. Pocket Watson’s performance degrades an immediate and profound 35%, but that’s okay; it was probably overfitted anyway. It’ll get its groove back with a little more practice, and when it does, the kids will be seen and heard. Two hours maybe—three at the most—and her psych-ward database will be ready for prime time.
Only then does she notice that Yaz has pinged her again. Wants to know what she thinks about that BioRxiv paper. Hopes she’s doing okay. Hopes she’s not mad at him or anything.
She’s not. She’s just got other things in her mind.
• • • •
Brain Wash rewards her with another gig: thirty years’ worth of humpback whale vocalizations, destined for some deep-learning interspecies communication project. Rent for the month, if she can get it done within the week.
It takes her two days.
They send her a half-terabyte of migration vectors for climate refugees the world over, and an epidemiological map of zoonotic outbreaks laid across the same grid. She doesn’t even remember doing that one: just wakes up in the kitchen one night and it’s ready to go.
Iris redeems Iris. It takes some getting used to. All new relationships do.
Yasar leaves a couple more messages. She lets them lie.
A rain squall passes through town, and suddenly—in a city where rain is usually just part of the background—everyone is talking about it. The pictures are all over social media: an ichorous sky, ominous cumulonimbus aglow with radioactive light. Morning hosts replay the video and interview experts who shrug and speculate about microaurorae and crown flashes.
Apparently many of the witnesses suffer mild soreness, redness of the eyes. No one can explain that either, but no one has to: this is obviously just another bit of karma from Mother Nature, like plummeting sperm counts and killer hurricanes. We’ve been pumping corrosive shit into the air since the Industrial Revolution; did anyone think our last-minute half-assed environmental policies could magically undo two centuries of indifferent devastation?
No mention of extreme reactions, though. Nobody talking about pupils reduced to pinpoints, or people going blind. Maybe Iris got swept up in some kind of beta release. Maybe something figured out how to tone down the side effects the second time around.
Maybe you’re just special, she thinks, and grunts softly in surprise.
She’s still not used to thinking of herself that way.
• • • •
She barely hears the beep: it fades like the memory of a dream on waking, except it’s not a memory. It’s happening right now. She thinks about ignoring it. Her eyes slide sideways until the callerID scrolls into view, a blob of bright color on a dark background. She focuses.
Yasar again. The man never gives up.
“Hi,” she says at last.
“Thank God.” His voice sounds strange; tension in the higher registers. She can almost see the waveforms coming off the pad like some kind of moiré aura; like she’s, what’s the word . . .
Synaesthethesiac, something tells her.
“Iris? You there?”
She mmmmms. “What’s up, Yaz?”
“I’ve been, you know—worried. You haven’t been answering, and it looks like—well, you probably know already but there’s other people like you out there now. BCH knows about it but they say they’ve got their hands full with E-13 and the Pox and it’s not contagious and no mortalities so everyone’s, I mean, I’d say they were dropping the ball but that would mean they’d picked it up in the first place. And then you weren’t answering, so . . .”
“It’s okay, Yaz. I’m okay.”
“You didn’t sound okay before. You were scared shitless.”
“I’m better now. I’m good. Better than good.”
“Yeah, but Ris—that could be a bad sign. I think whatever this thing is, it might fuck with your brain. Make you like it . . .”
Yasar yammers on. His voice is faint and far away. He says there are parasites that grow in insects and cats and people. They reprogram their hosts to love and protect them, inspire them to self-sacrifice. That’s how they complete their life cycle: infected rats jump into the mouths of cats, afflicted crabs nurture and love the larvae devouring their insides.
Iris feels muscles tightening in her face and thinks: I’m smiling. It’s like she’s never done that before. “Okay, Yaz. If I feel the urge to jump into a shark’s mouth I’ll let you know.”
“Not funny, Iris. This thing . . . should I come over?”
Suddenly the buzz is gone. Suddenly the world is hi-def crystal.
“Didn’t you hear me? This thing could be rewiring you. Chemically. Right down in the neurons.”
“Are you stoned? Didn’t you—”
“Is it killing people? Has it killed anyone? I mean, we don’t go six months without digging up some brand-new real disease from the jungle or the permafrost and you’re worried about something that doesn’t do anything except—”
“Except what? What is it doing to you?”
“I’m coming over.”
“I’m in bed, Yaz.”
“At four in the afternoon.”
“I’m fine. I promise I’m fine. It’s been a long day, that’s all. I just want to take a nap.”
“I want to see you for myself. If there’s no prob—”
“Show up here and I call the police.”
Yasar falls silent.
Iris feels something dimly akin to shock herself. The words were out before she even thought about saying them.
“I’m okay. Really. I’ll call you later.” She hangs up.
Parasite. She can’t quite wash away the distaste, the offense that lingers in the wake of that word. Yasar and his half-baked biology degree. He doesn’t have a clue. Iris and her mom streamed their own share of Nature Nostalgia over the years; she remembers a little biology herself, now. Iris isn’t a parasite: it’s a symbiont. Like the algae that live in the tissues of coral, or the mitochondria that power every one of her own cells. Like the microflora in her gut, without which she couldn’t even digest her own food. It’s not a disease: it’s a partner.
It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to her.
• • • •
She runs almost every night now, in the rain. She’s no longer alone; the streets are full of night owls, insomniacs and somnabulists, restless and driven to pound the pavement, run the laps, count the kliks. Maybe some of them are doctors or politicians. Maybe some are responsible for pandemic response policy.
All of them have such bright eyes.
That’s why we come out at night, she realizes. So we can see each other.
Iris is wide awake now, and so is Iris. One feels the other looking out through her eyes; revels in the energy flooding her muscles and the soundscapes washing across her ears, in the miraculous intricacy of every surface she lays eyes on. It’s as if she’s seeing everything for the first time. And yet there’s no chaos in this complexity; there is only pattern. Fractals and Penrose tiles and glorious autorecursive Escher architecture. Everything fits.
No longer the exclusive domain of myelin-deficient early adopters, Iris is making itself known to a wider audience. Not everyone welcomes the change. Out past the veil of her own enlightenment, Iris has grown vaguely aware of news reports and online updates, talk of some new infection that no one seems to have seen before. Not a virus or a bacterium. Not a fungus. Not exactly, although it appears to share attributes with all three. An impossibly small 700 Angstroms. Largely invisible to the human immune system. Doesn’t show up on the standard tests.
Iris isn’t surprised. The standard tests and the human immune system have much in common; they see only what they know to look for.
Some are trying to raise the alarm. As though this was something that needed to be fought: a patch for multiple sclerosis, an upgrade for the mind. A thread of joy, suffusing every waking moment. And people want to cure it.
Not for much longer, though.
Iris is slowing, now. She looks around for the reason (not fatigue, surely; she feels like she could run forever), and after a moment it rounds the corner ahead of her, decelerating in turn. She has never seen him before, but she knows him by the light in his eyes.
No time to waste on the unborn, on those diffuse networks still mindlessly putting down roots through blind instinct and Turing morphogenesis. No time for mere potential. The next generation will mature and flourish in its own time. Tonight, Iris is only for the woke.
She and the stranger stand face to face for a moment; lean together; kiss. Their tongues move of some other accord. Sparks tingle in the mouth; enlightenment sparks in the brain. Suddenly Iris knows things she never learned. The taste of raw euphausiids. What monkeypox feels like. How to build a box kite. The exact number of Indigenous children murdered in Canadian residential schools. Oh, and this just in: sometime in the past hour, Vancouver has declared martial law.
As if it mattered.
• • • •
It should be harder than this to leave town. Lockdown’s in full force: checkpoints and barricades run rampant from North Van to Horseshoe Bay. But they’re so easy to circumvent. A culvert under the Trans-Canada; a cop who looks at Iris, sees his estranged daughter, and looks the other way; an abandoned car sleeping by the side of the road, its autopilot shut down when the authorities noticed someone breaking quarantine. One Iris or the other steps over each barrier in turn, mere puddles en route to Porteau Cove.
It’s deep twilight now, here between the mountains and the sea. A ragged moraine of driftwood winds along the high tide line. An incline of polished cobbles extends to the water; they shift and slide beneath her feet as she descends. Slippery brown algae, stranded by the receding tide, glistens darkly in the half-light.
Another part of her waits down in the shallows. She could see it all the way from the treeline, even in the deepening dark, because it is alight. Bright waves of gold and green slide hypnotically along its surface; luciferin meshes ripple on that skin like sunlight dappling a shallow seabed. It moves forward as Iris nears, pulls itself so close to shore that its boneless bulk rises above the waterline. An eye rotates into view: round, unblinking, big as a hubcap. A multitude of arms spread in welcome.
She’s dimly aware of other people along the shoreline, silhouettes moving to their own assigned rendezvous. She pays them no mind. Her attention is focused forward, on an expanse of pale flesh pulsing with dark stars that bloom and contract and build mosaics echoing what she sees behind her own eyelids, when she closes them.
The rain touched the ocean before it ever made landfall, after all. And what’s so special about people, anyway? Why would anyone build a database consisting entirely of humans? It would bias your whole worldview. You’d start thinking human perspectives were the only ones that mattered.
Neural nets are innocent.
This one, at least, knows enough to diversify. Iris wades into the shallows, and it takes her into its arms. She feels a distant prickling as myriad horned suckers anchor in her flesh, but it doesn’t really hurt. Together they move offshore, into deeper water. Together they descend into bright darkness.
Iris knows that a part of her is drowning. But that’s okay.
The rest will go on forever.
— Based on the Stoneburner song “Contracting Iris” by Steven Archer.
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