Still, he always tried to pretend. Really, it could do everything a neural interface could do, so what's the difference? He could plug in and read the news in milliseconds. Sure, he couldn't parse it anywhere near that fast but the plain-text would be there in memory if he wanted it, for a couple of hours at least. He could experience the fully immersive entertainment packages which catered almost exclusively to the jet set. Reasonably so of course; the only other demographic which commonly forked out the unthinkable sum that an N/I operation cost were hackers. The next-to-best N/I coders generated over half a million lines of code a day. The very best used meme-instruction languages and generated a few thousand lines of code which did the work of over a million lines in a more traditional language. He had been meaning to learn a coding language for months, but the days were just so short.
His surgery had been performed by the country's top surgeon; it was certainly no hack job. His brain had tested as 170% of normal for direct computation. The hospital technician was quick to inform him smugly that computation rating and intelligence were not proven to be correlated in any way. The company hired the best doctors for those with the best brains; they wanted to make sure the job was done right and it also gave them that much more of a financial hold over the employee. Of course the employee could always request a cheaper operation, but somehow no-one ever did. The doctor, a young prodigy named Hyatt, had said with pride when he was finished: "The scar will be gone in a week. People won't believe it's real."
"It's the best job I've ever seen," the nurse had agreed, "no chance of rejection".
The girl snatched up her form fitting sensi-lite shirt from off his floor. The same one that had caught his attention at the bar in the first place, changing color in time with the bass line of the live band. It flickered only very slightly now, in response to her voice, as she put her shoes on the wrong feet and continued to swear at him. Her skirt was still hiked up when she slammed the door behind her, repeating "freak" as she left. So much for no chance of rejection.
He stood up slowly and sadly, crossed his apartment in six long strides, and picked up her purse. He stopped to re-button his jeans, but didn't bother with a shirt before stepping out into the hallway. He opened the door just as she realized. She spun angrily and stomped back towards him, the color of her breasts pulsing slightly with every heel click. Her shoes were still on the wrong feet and she twisted her ankle when a heel slipped out from under her. He extended one arm towards her, holding her purse. She glared wordlessly into his eyes as she took it from him. He watched her limp all the way down the hallway and into the stairwell. When he turned around Mrs. Kellahan, his seventy year old widow of a neighbor, had her door open and was staring openly at him, her hand clamped unconsciously over the back of her own neck.
"Enn-Eye," he said resignedly and she disappeared back into her apartment. He heard the dead-bolt click into place.
Lying face down in his bed he plugged in. If you looked closely at the back of his neck, you could see the spiderweb of discoloration surrounding the interface where the wires snaked off in every direction, digging their claws into his brain-stem. Anyone watching his face would have noticed his pupils dilate wildly and his eyes then glaze over and close. Remembering to close your eyes was very important, otherwise they would be dry and sore for days. He called up the entertainment menu. Fortunately, the filthy rich had extremely varied and decadent tastes in pornography.
At eight a.m. the next morning he was on the subway on his way to work. It was a short train ride: five stops east to Yonge, three stops north to St. Clair. He was dressed, as usual, in jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt with the hood up. He was wearing a pair of earphones which ran to the personal computer sitting in the kangaroo pocket of his sweater. He didn't feel like listening to music this morning and in fact there was nothing coming out of the earphones. But he also didn't feel like talking to strangers, and the earphone cable running from his hood to his pocket ensured that not even the most friendly of strangers would try to strike up conversation about the war, the weather or the state of the god-damned dollar. That was also the reason he didn't own wireless earphones.
When he walked into the lobby of the building, Alice was already waiting for the elevator. She hadn't noticed him; her sharp features were intently fixed on the light above the elevator as it worked its way down from sixty. He took out his earphones and pulled down his hood. His coarse black hair stuck up haphazardly in all directions. He had grown it out to maximum allowable length, so it got pretty good clearance from his head. Alice kept her head meticulously shaved and it looked good on her. Remembering the events of the previous night, he suddenly felt embarrassed. Is it obvious, he wondered, is it pathetically obvious that my hair is precisely at max and my hoodies always have stiff enough hoods to obscure the port, even when down?
It was a warm day so Alice was wearing a black tank top with thin straps. Her port stood out unabashedly at the base of her neck. Her installation had been done pretty well, but not as perfectly as his. There was a fine white scar which extended in a straight line a few inches above and below the port, where they had exposed her spinal column and brain-stem. Alice had a tattoo of a green and black dragon on her back. Only its upper body extended above her top, its wings stretched out across her shoulder blades. He had noticed it before and been impressed. The detail was intricate and if you looked very closely you could see that every line was in fact made up of tiny ones and zeros; the ASCII code, apparently, for the Cyborg Manifesto written by Donna Haraway way back in 1991 and ending with the line: "I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess."
"Morning," he said as he walked up behind her, his confidence returning as he decided to get a hair cut that evening after work. Alice reached up as she turned around and fingered a tiny dial behind her left ear. She had been listening to music, an implant connected directly to her aural nerve, or more likely to the hub at her brain-stem. "Hey there," she said just as the elevator doors opened. They stepped in together.
"Forty-fifth," she commanded to the air. The elevator began upwards, accelerating slowly so as not to jar them but quickly enough reaching a speed that kept their feet glued firmly to the floor.
"Tell me about Donna Haraway," he found himself saying before he even knew he was going to say it. Alice smiled at him as they passed the twenty-second story and started to feel lighter.
"She's a scientist-philosopher from California," Alice said, "she grew up in the sixties and was the first one to actually understand what was going on. While Steve Mann was trying desperately to turn himself into a cyborg at MIT and then later here in Toronto, she had the realization that we were all cyborgs already..."
She was obviously willing to keep talking about the subject, but just then the elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open. He stepped out into the office, with its minimalist layout and antiseptic feel. The walls were all painted white and the floor was silver tile with a wood texture, some upscale decorator's idea of a joke. Along one wall were a row of twenty-four large padded leather reclining chairs with status monitors suspended above them and shiny interface devices between the back-rest and head-rest. Sixteen of the seats were already filled by people of all sizes, descriptions and ages. Some chatted idly amongst themselves, others sat silently with their eyes closed. Along another wall were a tremendous bank of computers where half a dozen technicians twisted dials, danced fingers across keyboards and stared with permanent frowns at all varieties of displays. Sometimes he wondered who it was he was actually working for. The easy answer was that he worked for Human Network Solutions, Incorporated, but he had no idea who they contracted out to. Realistically, it was probably the military. Who else needs that much computing power?
The third wall sported a door (to the washroom) and a buffet of breakfast foods: bacon, eggs, fruits of all kinds. It also had about a million varieties of vitamins, energy bars and protein drinks neatly arrayed. He glanced at the clock: eleven minutes past eight. Shit, he only had four minutes.
Noticing his slight distress, Alice squeezed his arm lightly, smiled, and made her way over towards the chairs. He rushed over to the buffet, where a half dozen others were just finishing up breakfast, and shoved four pieces of bacon into his mouth. He chewed the bare minimum number of times to make swallowing possible and washed it down with orange juice. He ran his eyes over the energy bars. All the best ones were gone, but there were still two chocolate- hazelnuts left. He grabbed them and looked again at the clock: eight-thirteen. No time for the washroom. His bladder didn't feel full, but he had just had that cup of orange juice. Oh well, nothing for it. He started over towards the chairs thinking (as he had many times before) that he really should start getting up earlier.
Alice was sitting in the second from last seat in the row and fiddling with her I.V. The I.V. was an eminently sensible thing, but he had never been comfortable with it. As he watched, he suddenly felt like a child compared to her. Alice was two years younger than him, but she'd been working this job nearly twice as long as he had. She looked up: "I saved a seat for you."
He settled into the empty chair and tore open one of the energy bars. He wanted to get as many calories into his system as fast as possible, but restrained himself from wolfing the bar down in two bites because he could feel Alice watching him. He took a small bite and looked over at her.
"She's still alive you know," Alice said as he chewed, "Donna Haraway, I mean. She's in her late eighties and lives by herself in a cabin in the Rockies. She doesn't even have a..."
"Eight-fifteen, " one of the technicians interrupted over the speaker system, "prepare for connection."
He barely had time to swallow and close his eyes before he felt a quick prick at the back of his neck.
A moment later he opened his eyes and his bladder was on the verge of bursting. Both energy bars had been removed by the technicians, the half-eaten one and the one he hadn't touched. Dinner was hot on the buffet and the clock read five o'clock.
"...telephone," Alice finished.
He leapt up from the chair and ran the ten steps to the washroom door. He beat another co-worker, Isaac, there by half a step. Isaac flipped him both middle fingers and grinned. He grinned back and pulled the door shut behind him. When he stepped back out and let Isaac in behind him, he felt completely calm and everything seemed much less urgent, although he was rather hungry.
"Good job today guys," one of the technicians said, "we got a lot of numbers crunched. More than usual."
Alice was still reclining in her chair. Usually she was the first one gone at the end of the day. Looking at her sitting there, casual and confident, he was shocked to think that he had ever thought her plain looking. Is she waiting for me, he wondered suddenly. Walking over to her, he asked with uncharacteristic confidence: "Want to get out of here and get some real dinner?"
"I'm full thanks," she said, patting the band-aid where her I.V. had been, "but I'll come have a few drinks and watch you eat."
Alice was on her third glass of sake by the time his sushi arrived. She had sent back the one ounce sake glass they brought to her at first and insisted that they serve it to her in pint glasses, five hundred milliliters at a time.
"I like the summer, " he said as he looked out the window at the rush hour traffic on Bloor street, "because we still get some daylight. In the winter it feels like I never see the sun."
"I don't miss it," Alice said as she threw back another couple of fingers of sake, "makes my skin all tanned and ugly."
"Don't you ever wonder what happens during the day though?" he asked, feeling stupid even as he asked it. It was one of those questions that people always asked him when they found out what he did for a living; one of those questions he was sick of answering. Alice however didn't skip a beat.
"I know what happens during the day," she said, "everybody but us spends eight hours slaving away at jobs they hate and gets paid less then a quarter of what we do. Except for the kids; they get teased by their classmates to the point where one in ten jumps off a balcony. Like I said, I don't miss it."
He shrugged and picked up another piece of Futo Maki with his chopsticks, trying to think of an easy way to change the subject so he didn't look like too much of an idiot. Alice, on the other hand, did not seem the least bit interested in changing the subject.
"I read a fairy tale once," she continued, "I don't remember what it was called, I think it might have been one of the Grimm ones. Anyway, there was this boy who hated school so much that he wanted to die. One day when things were really bad, he ran off into the woods and wasn't ever going to go back. He stayed out in the woods until midnight, then he collapsed against a tree and started crying. Just then a magic fairy or genie or something showed up and asked him why he was crying. 'My life sucks,' the little boy said, or something like that. So then the genie says 'little boy, I will give you one wish'. The boy thinks for a minute and then says 'I wish that I could skip over all the bad times and have only the good times'. So the genie says, 'let it be so' or some other crap and gives the boy a magic machine with a string coming out of it. From that day on, whenever the boy pulled the string, he skipped over time. The time still passed, his body still did all the things it needed to, but his consciousness skipped ahead. Don't you see? We have the magic machines. And we get paid for using them."
"Yes," he said nodding, "we get paid for our time, like anyone else." He placed the last piece of sushi in his mouth. Alice's glass was empty again.
"Waiter-san," she called out half drunkenly, "Sake futatsu kudasai!"
A moment later the waiter was at their table with two pint glasses filled to just shy of the brim with sake.
"Doumo," Alice said. The waiter rolled his eyes. "I like you," she continued after the waiter had left the table, "have a drink with me."
Alice picked up one of the glasses of sake and waited for him to do the same. "To us, the cyborgs," she said loudly when he finally raised his glass. She clinked her glass against his and proceeded to down the entire thing. His eyes darted left and right quickly to see if they were making a scene, to see if the other patrons were all staring at Alice's implant. He barely managed to restrain himself from reaching up to make sure his hood was covering his own. He managed to keep his composure and take a long pull from the glass. He tried to finish it in one steady go, as Alice had done, but he was forced to stop to gasp for breath about halfway through. Alice raised her eyebrows and glanced at the empty glass in front of her. A slight patronizing smile started to tug at the edges of her mouth. He smiled wide and downed the rest of his sake.
"Alright cowboy," Alice said suddenly, jumping up out of her seat, "let's get outta this hell-hole and have some fun."
When he stood up, his head unexpectedly floated a few extra feet above his shoulders and the sushi bar tilted about twenty degrees to the left. He put his hand on the back of the chair.
"Feeling alright there, lightweight?" Alice asked smirking as she slapped a hundred dollar bill down on the table. He gave her a thumbs up with the hand he wasn't using to stop himself from falling over and with a quick mental calculation realized she was leaving almost a hundred and fifty percent tip. He reached into his pocket.
"No no," she said, "my treat."
And she led him out into the drunken Bloor Street dusk. The sun starting it's lazy way down in the west, blinding the drivers heading home late from Yonge.
Five hours later they burst rowdily into the hallway of his apartment singing the chorus of Billy Idol's "Shock to the System", a forty year old song that wasn't even popular in its day. Mrs. Kellahan's door was open ten centimeters and she peered through the crack, underneath the chain which was still latched to the door-frame. Alice yelled "Hello" at her and the door snapped shut.
Alice had taken him out to a little bar in the market he hadn't even known existed where a power-noise band called Never Look Away assaulted their eardrums as she ordered them round after round of drinks. He was drunk, but not too drunk. He strongly suspected that Alice had told the bartender to keep his drinks light after the first couple of rounds. He was a little embarrassed if that was the case, but more so he was thankful.
Inside his apartment, Alice grabbed him immediately and threw him up against the wall. She kicked the door shut and pressed herself against him, kissing him like he hadn't been kissed since high school.
"Wait," she said after a few wet moments, putting two fingers against his lips. She started to dig into her backpack and pulled out a wireless signal adapter. It had one unit with a conventional 6mm connector and two others with the larger 35mm connector.
"Where can we plug in?" Alice asked. He pointed to the console by the bed.
"Perfect," she said, tossing him one of the larger units. A little reluctantly, he plugged in. Alice was on the bed now, playing with the console. Suddenly the world was replaced with the entertainment interface. Reflexively, he closed his eyes.
"Set alpha channel to thirty percent," he could hear Alice's voice saying. The menu dimmed to less than a third of it's brightness. He opened his eyes and could see Alice sitting cross-legged on his bed through an overlay of the entertainment menu. The menu started to change as new options were selected and levels were traversed, but he wasn't doing anything, Alice was driving. He was disoriented at first, but it passed quickly. She selected a tame girl-on-girl piece and activated it. Immediately another room with another girl was superimposed on his room with Alice in it. None of the corners matched and the ceilings were at different heights. He felt dizzy and started to fall over. He reached out for something to steady himself on, but grabbed at a counter that existed only in the imaginary world.
"Tactile only," Alice said quickly and he was back in his own room alone with her. His body felt different though. The weight on his chest felt like thirty percent of a pair of breasts, not to mention all the craziness going on between his legs.
"Now come here," Alice said in a way which made him want to have her children. He started over towards the bed, but halfway there he was stopped by thirty percent of a kiss and thirty percent of a hand in the small of his back. Alice winked at him.
By the end of the night he was starting to think that maybe multiple personality disorder wouldn't be so bad after all. Alice had fallen asleep on her stomach, still plugged in though the program was long over. He looked at her tattoo, able to appreciate the entire work for the first time. The detail was mind blowing. It made him want one of his own. But maybe, he thought unexpectedly, I'll get mine done by a person. I wonder if there are any human tattooists left.
Idly he activated his console and called up a beginner's how-to on meme-instruction languages. He set it as a bookmark to read later and looked back over at Alice's sleeping figure, sprawled naked and careless across his bed. He was overcome by an urge to run his fingers along the edge of her interface. Would she even feel it? He reached back and touched his own. He had touched it many times before but somehow couldn't remember what it felt like. At the slightest touch he could feel an intimate pressure in his neck which seemed to run halfway down his spine before it faded away. It felt different from being touched on the skin, yet closer to that than to being touched through clothing. It was definitely a part of him. His other hand had unconsciously reached out toward Alice's neck; he pulled it back.
S/S, that was the proper name for it: Ess-Ess, Somatic Signaller, Soul Stealer. Staring intently at Alice's interface, with the receiver of the signal splitter still pugged into it, he tried to imagine a soul being stolen. He was not entirely confident that he had ever had one. He used to laugh it off when people expanded the acronym to soul stealer. "If I even have a soul", he would say, "it certainly doesn't reside in the temporary activation patterns of my temporal and parietal lobes". Now, he couldn't help but wonder if he had missed the point. What is the soul? The only answer he could come up with is that it is whatever is left if you take the body away. And what is it that's left? Your experiences, the things you have done with your time.
Turning back to the console, he called up his bank balance: just over fifty thousand. Not enough he thought, nowhere near enough. Just to remind himself of what he already knew, he also called up the amount owed by him to HNS, Inc: five hundred and twenty thousand, four hundred and thirty six dollars, twenty five cents. It was the exact price of his operation, no interest accumulated so long as he worked for HNS. He hadn't paid a single penny of it back; no-one ever did. After all, HNS had a policy of completely forgiving the sum after twenty years employment. Of course, they hadn't been around long enough for anyone to claim that yet, but they did good business and, one could only assume, made enough money that they could afford to honor their word. Twenty years... he had been working there for four. On a sudden impulse, he transferred twenty-one thousand dollars from his account into the HNS Inc repayable account. The figure dropped below half a million and somehow seemed less intimidating. He looked once again at Alice's sleeping form, unplugged his connector, placed it on the night stand and went to sleep wondering if he would rather be a cyborg or a goddess.
He awoke at seven thirty to the sound of Alice getting dressed.
"Hurry up lazy-ass," she said, "or you'll miss your precious solid breakfast."
He sat up and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. She really is beautiful, he realized as he watched her shove her things back into her backpack, glance in the mirror and run her hand over the millimeter and a half of stubble on her head. I never did get that haircut.
"How does the story end?" he asked. Alice looked at him and made a quizzical sound.
"The fairy tale," he elaborated, "with the little boy."
"Oh," she said, "he uses the machine to skip over all the bad parts of the rest of his life. As he gets older, he uses it to skip over bigger and bigger chunks. Then, just before he dies the genie comes back to him and offers to grant him one more wish."
"And what does he ask for?"
"He wishes to go back in time to when the genie gave him the machine and live his life over again without it."
"I thought as much."
"It's a fairy tale," Alice said, "that's how they all end. The hero gets what he wants and then realizes that it isn't actually what he wanted. The difference is we aren't little kids. We know what we want."
He nodded and didn't say anything. After a minute or so of silence, Alice slung her backpack over her shoulder and asked "Are you coming, or what?"
"Go ahead without me," he said, "I'll catch up."
"Suit yourself." She started out the door.
"Alice," he said suddenly.
She leaned back into the apartment: "yeah?"
"I think I want another wish."
She smiled and disappeared out the door.