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I decided to be brave, and plus it was extremely hot on the beach and I was tired of wearing my massive, special, extra-wide, steel-toed boots.
I slowly unlaced them as my co-workers stared at me, gawking and grinning.
I kicked them off and stretched my enormous webbed feet, burrowing my three-knuckled toes into the hot sand and finally relaxing for the first time in months.
It wasn’t my idea to come to the beach for a springtime work-party, but I was damned if I was going to sit here staring at the water like a hungry dog, not swimming because I was afraid of what people might think of my hands, feet, and pale hairless body.
It was supposed to be a staff picnic at the beach to celebrate successfully cubing our 1000th client. As Emily Rohan (“Emro,” to her friends) had predicted, we were growing in all vectors, despite all the lawsuits and investigations still pending against us. The lawsuits had only increased our notoriety.
Emro was the founder and CEO of Memorializer. She was even younger than me, but she was an incredibly sensitive and canny boss. She paid for this surprise trip to the beach out of her own pocket, sensing that her employees were growing restless while cooped up in the office during the first days of Spring.
We were about to open up a second Memorializer office in London and we had been working early mornings to staff the new office and set up the infrastructure there, many of us arriving at work before dawn on account of the time difference. As a result of the expansion, we were all getting bonuses and stock options and quiet promotions.
Those of who had joined Memorializer early were a strange bunch, but we had become something of a family, or maybe more like a charismatic cult. Even still, I always wore gloves and boots when I was working. It wasn’t a policy that everyone had to wear black like Emro while working at the Memorializer offices, but most of us wore black anyway, including black sunglasses.
It felt right for the job. Plus, the clients liked it.
Because of this daily fashion choice, most of my co-workers had never actually seen my webbed fingers and toes, though they all knew about my situation.
However, as I undressed, Emro didn’t even look up from her laptop. She was busy. When she was deep into a project, it was impossible to lead her astray. As usual, she was wearing a black leather jacket and black leather pants, sitting on a white beach towel and smoking a cigar.
We were perhaps the palest group of people ever to come to this particular beach, and most of us were sitting under umbrellas on blankets. Some of the interns from accounting wore black-and-white striped bloomers as a joke.
“I’m going to swim,” I said, loudly and clearly, loud enough so that Emro could hear me.
I was pretty much in love with Emily Rohan, which was why I had stuck around at Memorializer so long, even though I had never lasted longer than six months at any other job. When she recruited me, she only had to stare at me for a few moments with her furious brown eyes before I was pinned to my chair, signing a good contract, agreeing to be the chief project manager at Memorializer for the next two years.
I understood the software she had written, I understood the project, and I genuinely wanted to help. Though I typed very slowly because of my fingers (even with my special extra-wide big-board), my glaring disability and unsuitableness for the job only intensified my desire to get work done quickly and correctly.
My team saw my frustrations and doubled their efforts, trying to keep pace with my own thwarted ambitions as a programmer, wanting desperately to become the wizards that I would never be. I encouraged them from afar, offering praise and criticism when necessary. These days, however, I spent most of my time alone, trying to solve the more metaphysical problem of cubes that turned into “screamers.”
But not today. Today, I was here at this beach to relax and avoid thinking about work for an afternoon.
Now that my shoes were off, I peeled my gloves from my hands and waved to my team of coders who were all gawking and clapping.
I stretched my fingers and toes, enjoying the feel of the warm sun on my skin so pale that it was almost translucent.
I took off my glasses and put them on top of my gloves and boots.
My fingers were webbed from the tips all the way to my wrist. I only had three functional fingers, and then there was something bent and stubby on the end that controlled the flanges between my fingers. In my mind, it was something like a lever, but my Grandma taught me to call it a thumb. I was able to grab simple objects as long as they weren’t too tiny or precious. I could swing a bat, for instance, and I could grip a steering wheel.
But most fine motor skills were lost to me.
The webbing was gross to look at. It was veiny and thick, and it squished like a spongy ear when I expanded and retracted it. It was cartilege and it was frequently red and raw, because I didn’t let it breathe very often.
Here in the sun, I enjoyed flexing it and feeling the breeze, even though I knew everyone was looking at me.
I ran over to the water, wanting to be hidden by the waves as soon as possible. I loved swimming, but I didn’t come to the beach very often. I mostly kept to my own gym in the city, where I was usually the only person in the pool room after midnight.
Now, however, I felt safe. I was surrounded by my friends and co-workers. All day long, I watched my coders do what they were good at. All I could do was offer suggestions, make sure we did everything on time, and correct their mistakes.
Now I would make them watch me in my element.
I plunged into the water. The thick cataracts that narrowed my vision into a blurry pinholes were protective in the salt water and I could see everything much more clearly than on land. I also didn’t feel any stinging from the salt and I could keep my eyes open as wide and as long as I wanted.
When I wore my gloves and boots, I looked completely normal, if only a little bit smaller and more slender than other men. But here, nearly naked, my differences were palpable. I felt like I was meant for some other time and planet.
Amphibians are never meant for much success. We are clumsy in the water and clumsy on the land. Our evolutionary strength is that we can run back and forth from one to the other, never really thriving, always staying one step ahead of the predators who own the shore and the shoals.
I went deep, grabbing the water with my hands and feet, wrenching myself forward in the pull of the tides. I saw how other people tried to swim, slapping the water, or else cutting through it with tiny kicks like a motorboat. I pitied them.
I could grab the water and climb it, pushing it behind me as if I were scrambling up a staircase. I could move almost five times as fast as other people.
I scraped along the bottom. I watched the crabs play in the shallows, and then I followed a school of fish into the deeper water until they became afraid of me and dispersed in a thousand different directions.
I saw flounder shuddering in the dirt past the first tidal shelf, and I hovered over them, riling them up, stirring up a cloud of silt. There were jellies everywhere, and I avoided them like floating mines. When I surfaced, I could see everyone on the beach standing up near the breakers, looking for me.
Maybe they were afraid that I would never come back. I considered it, but where would I go?
Instead of drifting out to sea, I grabbed the biggest, most lurid conch that I could find on the ocean floor.
I swam with the conch until I was tired and a little bored, and then I made my way back to the beach.
I trudged back up the beach, instantly wishing I was back in the water as soon as I was out of it. The sun was too hot. The sand covered my big, floppy feet like a sugar cookie.
Emro was still on her laptop, but she was staring at me now. I sat down on the white towel next to her. She took a big, nervous puff from her cigar. I set my prize conch down beside her.
“I love the beach,” I said, not bothering to hide my massive clown hands. “What are you working on?”
“Nothing, really,” she said, closing the lid on her laptop as if she didn’t want me to see.
“No, I’m curious,” I said. “What do you do with your private time on vacation?”
“I was just looking something up,” she said. She stared at me, trying to charm me away from my curiosity with a lopsided grin.
I grabbed her laptop and threatened to open it.
“How come you don’t have a girlfriend?” she asked, paralyzing me.
“Too busy cramming people’s souls into neat little cubes,” I said.
“I’m serious,” said Emily. “You were really sexy out there swimming in the waves like you don’t give a fuck.”
“Out there,” I said, leaning forward. “I don’t give a fuck.”
“Do you ever use the Darknet?” Emily asked me, squinting.
“The Darknet,” I said. “Isn’t that for socially retarded, paranoid, lonely people who hate the world even more than most lonely, paranoid, socially retarded people?”
“There are lots of interesting sites on the Darknet,” said Emily.
I knew how the Darknet worked, but I didn’t personally know any “passes.” Passes were the elaborate search protocols, elaborate posting legerdemain, and private, personal cookie settings that allowed you to access specific websites that were hidden from the rest of the world’s internet users.
The Darknet had first started as a place for people to access porn in totalitarian countries, but like the idea of samizdat, the Darknet had also spread to the American underground. It was more accurate to say there were”darknets” rather than one big connected clearinghouse. These Darknets were networks of computers that were cut off from the rest of the internet. A digital underground. Now you could now find anything you wanted there. On the Darknet, it wasn’t a matter of where to look, but how. A Darknet was the internet equivalent of a speakeasy.
For awhile, everybody wanted to be found on the internet and to proudly display their affiliations, likes, and dislikes.
And then, all of a sudden, they didn’t want that anymore at all. They wanted to go to exclusive places and only hang out with like-minded weirdos and see exclusive content only meant for them.
“I don’t know how to put this delicately, and I wouldn’t even bring it up if I didn’t have an account myself, but have you ever been to Mutamate?” she asked me.
“No,” I said, hoping this wasn’t going to be another in a series of long lectures by female friends on what I was doing wrong when it came to attracting ladies. What I was doing wrong was being myself. I had to make a choice a long time ago between being happy and being alone, and I chose being happy, which meant leaving the “real world” that people seemed to love so much, full of shitty television shows and dinners in restaurants, full of basic lies about basic reality, full of fraudulent basic logical disconnects about politics, religion, class, and dreams.
Making this choice meant that I could spend all of my time with people that I actually cared about, who were all unfortunately people that I wasn’t attracted to, or who weren’t attracted to me.
I suppose I was lonely. But I knew that if I didn’t have such peculiar physical deformities, nobody would ever try to fix me up as hard as they did.
“Do you know how the Darknet works?” asked Emily.
“In theory,” I said, sighing. The conch came alive and tried to crawl away. I grabbed it and the tendrils retreated into the shell.
“It isn’t all just porn,” she said. “I know how you don’t like internet porn. It is weird and troubling that you don’t like internet porn, but we won’t even talk about that.”
I was one of the only people I knew my own age who still went to porn shops instead of surfing the internet for masturbation material.
The god I worshiped was female, and all the churches I had ever been to were covered in pictures of men. A porn shop was a temple of the female form. You could even find the incarnated female god strapped to a crossbeam and penetrated in every holy orifice, if that was your thing. I liked to go and browse and say little prayers.
“The Darknet is mainly metanetworking,” said Emily. “For instance, in order to get to Mutamate, you have to post an animated gif of an exploding pumpkin at this forum for NASCAR fans. “
She showed me the page.
“When you do that, you immediately get a pop-up ad that warns you that a virus is about to begin wiping your hard drive.”
She showed me the virus.
“It asks you if you want this to happen, and you have to say “yes.”
She clicked yes.
“Once you do that, your next move is to open your email program and send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You have to send the same .gif of the same exploding pumpkin you posted to the NASCAR forum. This is how they make sure you are the same person. Then, you should get an email with a picture of the Toxic Avenger. If you download the picture and open it as a text file instead of as a picture, you will find a time sensitive link to Mutamate. There is a countdown. If you click on it as soon as the countdown reaches zero, it will put a shortcut on your desktop, and after that you will always be able to access Mutamate forever without any hassle.”
She told me all this stuff quickly and calmly, knowing that I was memorizing everything, even if I didn’t want to be.
She opened the page for Mutamate, clicking the link on her own desktop.
“It is just a dating website,” I said, recognizing the telltale signs. The page was full of smiling people trying to coerce you into thinking that that they were not 48-year-old dudes in stained underwater eating Doritos while semen dried on their thighs.
“Well, not really,” said Emro. “Like I said, I have an account on Mutamate. It’s more social-networking with an emphasis on, um, well, genetic creativity.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Are you some kind of secret racist?”
“No!” she said. “All the accounts are for people who have some kind of incredible human mutation. There aren’t a lot of users, actually. Under a thousand.”
I tried to care. I tried not to be offended, but she could sense my hostility and reluctance.
“Look at this guy, for instance,” she said, clicking on one of the profiles at the top. The guy looked completely normal. Just a smiling Korean chap in a ballcap with eye-wrinkles who was flashing the “peace sign.
“He is completely resistant to electricity,” she said. “His body itself is the exact right level of resistivity to ground electricity, no matter how many volts. You can watch videos of of him running electricity through his arm and starting small fires. He is at one end of an incredible spectrum that allows him to do crazy shit like this. Evidently, his mom and dad were both minorly electrically resistant.”
She scrolled through profiles, pointing out more strange mutations on display.
“Some people have photographic memories, other people are inhumanly strong or inhumanly big. There is a whole section for tinies, who are people under 2 feet tall. Check out this guy: he is immune to cold. He climbed Mt. Everest in his underwear.”
“I don’t quite understand the appeal,” I said. “Of finding somebody like that to date.”
“It is the bleeding edge of identity politics,” said Emro. “These tinies, for instance. They are trying to breed smaller and smaller people. They don’t want to be “corrected.” They have their own culture,their own habits, their own argot. They are using Mutamate to take their genetic destiny into their own hands.”
“You said you have a profile,” I said. “How come?”
“It’s complicated,” said Emro.
I held up my big floppy hands.
“I was born with a tail,” she said. “Most of the time, they cut them off you when you are born, but both my parents had tails, so.”
“Freaky,” I said. “What is the advantage of having a tail?”
“It is sensitive,” muttered Emro. She shut her eyes. “It is sexually sensitive. At this point, I don’t know if I could be with anybody who doesn’t also have one. Also, I have an extraordinarily high IQ, and I would like to meet somebody who is synaesthetic. Maybe we could breed the next Picasso or David Lynch.”
I fell so in love with Emily right then that I almost had a panic attack and was almost battered to death by my own breaking heart. I felt my heart shatter into a hundred thousand pieces. I sighed deeply to stay ahead of the onrushing tide of despair chemicals that flooded my brain.
Like mercury, however, the pieces of my heart didn’t stay in discrete shattered units, but immediately glommed back together when I turned my head and saw one of the pictures on the Mutamate website. My heart was like a bungee diver, rescued from oblivion in one single moment by an elastic thread.
The profile showed a beautiful woman with dark skin and dark hair, but that wasn’t what got me. She was grinning, and you could tell that she had taken the picture herself. She was underwater, sitting placidly on the bottom of a lake. There were fish swimming around her arms, and her hair billowed out above her in a black crown.
“Promise me you will at least check Mutamate out,” said Emro. “I like it. I think you will like it.”
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t stop staring at the picture of the woman that was open on Emro’s laptop. The picture was healing me somehow from the despair that Emro had induced inside me with her little lecture. I realized that the sun was blisteringly hot. I dried myself off, put on my t-shirt, and put my boots and gloves back on before I even realized that I was ashamed.
Memorializer got so many lawsuits because sometimes — only sometimes — the procedure didn’t work at all.
When a cube turned into a screamer, it was pretty horrifying, no matter how often we warned the family members that it was a possibility.
We would show them an example screamer to warn them, but they would always be nonchalant about it. But when the cube was emitting screams from their own beloved dead relative, it was a whole different matter altogether.
I spent a good part of my day trying to solve the problem of screamers, trying to figure out how to lower the rate of screamers or stop the problem altogether.
I knew it was a computer science problem, but it seemed metaphysical to me. I tried to tackle the problem from both angles, but it had been a year since Memorializer had gone public and I hadn’t made much progress in either direction.
Our clients were often wealthy atheist types, old or with terminal diseases, who were charmed by the promise of what we did. They always had a much better sense of humor about the possibility of a screamer than their family members. But the families were the ones we had to deal with when something went wrong.
Our clients came in smiling, making jokes, authorizing us full rights over their brains. They came into our office and we did a full scan, creating a complete neural map along with a pattern of associations, a complete voiceprint, and a total predictive behavior algorithm, much more than what we needed for a novelty item. We were trying our best to make a real mind print. A mind in a music box.
When our clients died, we released the cube that contained this complete digital identity to their relatives. If you plugged headphones and a microphone into the cube, you could hear the voice of the dead and ask it questions.
We called the cubes “screamers” when all they did was nothing but scream. You plugged in the headphones, and all you heard was the screams of the dead person, yelling like they were burning alive, incoherently babbling as if they were in blood-curdling agony.
If the client was still alive when their cube went screamer, we could just make another one. If they died before it happened, however, a cube that turned into a screamer was extremely traumatic for the family.
Several families had sued us for delivering screamers to them, even though we had warned them it could happen, and even though there was nothing we could do about it.
We didn’t understand why it happened. There was a randomness to it that was much more upsetting than mere questions of heaven and hell.
Lately, I had been examining these mind prints data packet by data packet, searching for incongruities, inconsistencies, and defragmentation in the metonymic process.
I hated screamers. We had a policy never to delete data once it was cubed, and so I had a whole laundry basket full of them on my desk, including screamers that family members had given back to us.
We only had a few of these returns.
Most of the time when a cube went screamer, the family just bashed it into pieces with a hammer or tossed it into a fireplace to make the screaming stop.
I have been very well balanced and happy since I was about twenty-two, when I realized that we live in hell, or we might as well be living in hell, and that there isn’t much difference between the two observations.
This hell is also a kind of heaven. It is at least perfect freedom.
Everything you could possibly imagine about hell is true about the reality we occupy, except for one thing:
The most important thing:
All this is only temporary.
We all die. We all get out. Nobody has to stay here forever. We all do our time and we all go free. If you think about this the right way, it turns life from a process of infinite pain into a process of infinite joy.
Nothing much matters very much.
This is what old people mean when they talk about mercy, but they will never explain themselves, because if you think about this fact too long and too hard, too many glaring and psychotic opportunities present themselves.
Does this mean murder “frees people” from suffering? Does this mean that the best possible thing would be the annihilation of all human beings at the same time?
These are difficult questions, best not even contemplated until one is too infirm and tired to act on the answers one generates.
The trick is to try every single thing that life has to offer first, in order to see why it is bad.
Even though I am perfectly comfortable with death, I’ve never had much of a desire to end a human life. I think it is because I am lazy.
Somebody once told me that true sadists are never, ever killers because life itself is torture and because true sadists like to watch life happen to people, watching them slowly age, watching them slowly thwarted in all of their goals and dreams, watching them slowly lose everything, including their minds and health, no matter what they try to do.
The idea that I am not a killer because I like watching human beings struggle keeps me up at night sometimes, I guess.
Emro didn’t bring up the Darknet again, but after about a week, I broke down and made myself a Mutamate profile.
My profile name was “LockeCole,” named after the bespectacled thief in Final Fantasy 6, probably my favorite literary character of all time.
As soon as I made my profile – even before I filled in my own information — I looked for the girl from the picture I saw on Emro’s laptop at the beach.
She wasn’t hard to find. There weren’t that many people on Mutamate, and there were far fewer women than men. I scanned through profiles of people who never slept, people who had eyeballs running down their spine like buttons on jackets, people who could channel electromagnetic waves through their teeth and become living radios and television sets.
It didn’t take me long to find her, once I narrowed my search down to the word “underwater.”
Her profile name was “StopMotion.”
Her profile was extremely classy.
The Mutamate profiles were all modular and you could code them any way you wanted. They were more like a livejournal or a tumblr than a typical dating profile. There were no likes or dislikes, no heights or occupations, no sexual preferences, hair colors, or tattoos. There was only blank space to fill in with whatever you wanted.
The girl named “StopMotion” had filled her profile with videos taken from under the ocean. They were camcorder videos of fish and sharks and passing boats.
She would turn the camera on herself, smiling and waving, bubbles leaving her lips in erotic cascades.
Her thing was: she could breathe underwater.
This was what made her genetically special.
My face broke out in a cold sweat. My mouth went dry.
All my life, being able to breathe underwater was the one thing I had always wanted. I wanted to stay down there forever, to make a life down there and never leave the ocean. I wanted to be something other than human, if people were going to treat me that way.
But “StopMotion” didn’t have my physical problems. She looked perfectly normal. I wanted to know more about her talent. Maybe she wanted to know more about mine.
I closed my eyes, prayed to the god of this hell, and sent her a message, using the proprietary messaging system of the dating website.
“The only reason I got a profile on this website was to meet you,” I wrote. “I want to date you under the water., in a bed of seaweed, while the oysters watch.”
You couldn’t really understand the modern world unless you knew that “date” was a euphemism for fuck, just like marriage was a euphemism for BDSM.
I put a picture of myself on my profile page.
It was a picture of me from my high school swim team. I was sitting in the deep end of the pool with a bunch of medals around my neck, my hands and feet spread open wide. I didn’t want her to be surprised by my webbing.
I changed the color of the background on my profile to the navy-brown of the ocean, and I made the picture very small in the center of the page.
Over the past few months, I had stopped trying to keep screamers from happening, and was more focused on trying to figure out patterns in why they happened at all. I wanted to know what kind of a person became a screamer, so that we could screen people for the possibility and give them statistics about the likelihood.
If we couldn’t solve the problem, then at least we could manage the damage.
I knew there was a pattern in the chaos somehow. I had an instinct about it, like how you know there is a mosquito buzzing around even if you can’t see it.
You keep flinching and you don’t know why.
Why were some people, given infinite space and eternal time, destined to fill the void with their own torment?
Were they just jerks?
“StopMotion” did not keep me waiting long. Within an hour, she sent me a message suggesting that we meet at a seafood restaurant along the shore.
The restaurant didn’t have an address, but it was right next to something she called “Heck’s Shed,” which she told me I would recognize.
“Just walk along the beach until you see “Hecks Shed,” she wrote to me. “The restaurant doesn’t have a name that you can Google, but the restaurant is right next door to this other place. You have to wait until the sun goes down to even see “Hecks Shed,” so let’s meet there around 9.”
I agreed immediately and I didn’t even ask for clarification, though I was utterly confused. I decided to utterly trust her.
We exchanged phone numbers, and then she told me her real name: Felicia.
When the day arrived, I waited all day for her to cancel, but she never did.
“Hecks Shed” turned out to be a check cashing place where the neon lights were busted.
During daylight hours, the building still proudly proclaimed that CHECKS were CASHED, but at night, it was a different story.
Felicia was waiting for me in the restaurant next door, which I never would have noticed if I hadn’t been looking for it. It was a tiny place with only a few tables. Most of the customers got their orders to go from behind the counter, and we were the only ones sitting down.
“So what do you do for a living?” I asked her as we sat across from each other at one of the tables.
“I am a photographer,” she said. “I make money lots of different ways, but mostly I take photographs of fish and salvage. Magazines pay me for the fish pictures. Insurance companies pay me for the salvage pictures. I also do a little welding on submarines and battleships when I am strapped for cash.”
“You do this because you can breathe underwater,” I said.
She stared at the tablecloth. We both had a moment of embarrassment where we realized what we were doing here.
“Mutamate is America,” said Felicia. “People come here, escaping their own boring countries, to find other oddities. A website like Mutamate used to be called the freak show, or the carnival circuit. That’s where my parents met. They were both trick divers at postmodern European carnivals. My mom could hold her breath for fifteen minutes. My dad could breathe underwater like me, but he could only do it when he was asleep or in a catatonic state.”
“Did they work in the same show?”
“No,” laughed Felicia. “They hated each other for years. And then one day he followed her into the sea, chasing after her because she insisted that he wouldn’t do it. He was afraid of deep water. Then once they were all alone down there, they realized that they were madly in love with each other, obviously.”
“That’s a beautiful story,” I said.
“How did your parents meet?” she asked, more out of politeness than curiosity.
“I was raised by my grandparents. My mom would never talk about my dad. She remarried when I was young, but I didn’t go with her when she moved to Japan. My grandparents said I could stay with them here in the city. I think my mom was relieved not to have to deal with me anymore.”
Felicia put her hand on my glove. I smiled.
“How do you make your money?” she asked me. “Do you work?”
“My job is kind of strange,” I admitted. “I take scans of people’s brains and I cram them into little cubes so that people’s families will be able to remember them.”
“I see,” she said.
“It’s a company called Memorializer,” I said.
“I think I read an article about it. I’ve definitely heard of them.”
“In England, during the reign of Queen Victoria, people used to make death masks of their loved ones. They would smear plaster on the faces of corpses and then hang the peaceful images of the dead on their walls.”
“They also used to bell their graves, to keep from getting buried alive,” said Felicia.
“We make a death mask of a person’s mind. We take an imprint of a resting mental state, which might as well be a soul.”
“That is very disturbing,” Felicia said, smiling.
“You don’t look disturbed,” I said.
“What do people do with these cubes? Why would they want them in the first place?”
“There are all kinds of reasons,” I said. “You can hook up speakers and a microphone to them and have simple conversations with a person’s fifth-tier automatic response generator, grafted to their first tier consciousness. It is pretty convincing small-talk. For some people, this is like communicating with the dead and this can be very comforting. Other people think that in the future we will be able to resurrect the minds of the departed from these mind prints and put them into new bodies. These are the same people who used to be into cryogenics, before that whole thing was revealed as a total scam. We don’t offer immortality, but we do offer what looks like a save point for the video game of life.”
“It sounds extremely creepy,” she said wrinkling her nose. Then she smiled: “I like it,” she said.
My heart leaped.
“There are problems,” I said.
“What kind of problems?”
“Sometimes they start screaming,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Something like ten percent of every cube that we makes becomes a screamer,” I said. “You plug in earphones and all you can hear is screaming from the client. It sounds like they are being tortured.”
“That’s awful,” she said. “That is very upsetting.”
“You don’t look upset,” I said.
“It must be hard on the families,” she said.
“It is a huge problem,” I agreed. “I can’t figure out why it happens. That’s my job right now, trying to keep people from becoming screamers.”
“What have you tried already?” she asked, rolling up a piece of shrimp in a piece of fried fish and then eating it, squirting lemon juice everywhere.
“My first thought was that it had something to do with the way the consciousness was located in space,” I said. “My first thought was that people in the cube were lonely. There is no body, so there can be no pain. First, I tried pairing minds with other consciousnesses, even with loved ones, so that the mind wouldn’t be alone in digital space. But this didn’t work at all. If I put another person in there, the cube became a screamer three times as often.”
“So adding another person just made things worse,” she said.
“Exactly,” I said. “And the more people I crammed into the cube, the more likely it was that the cube went screamer. I put a hundred different voices in there once, turning it into an unholy chorus of demonic voices that vibrated with a hundred different tones of pure pain. I couldn’t stand it. It was awful. I crushed the cube with my boot before I even knew what I was doing, even though they are very expensive and can be reused.”
“What else did you try?” she asked.
“Next, I thought the problem was context,” I said. “I tried making scenarios for the minds in the cubes. Games, world puzzles, infinite loops of joy and pleasure. This didn’t help at all. The mind broke even faster if there was any stimulation. No matter which scenario I tried, infinite blankness got the best results. “
“What do the people talk about when you ask them questions?” she asked. “In the cubes?”
“They ramble,” I said. “They tell stories that go nowhere. They ask questions and don’t listen to the answers. They laugh. They sing. They tell jokes. We try to simulate, as closely as possible, the state of extreme joy that comes with an overload of all the pleasure centers, such as during a direct intravenous injection of morphine. We make this state permanent. If we are going to keep a digital mind alive forever in a plastic cube, we might as well make sure the mind is in paradise. When the family gets in touch with their loved one, they hear them happier than they have ever been before. It is comforting.”
“But some of the minds in the cubes can’t take it,” she said.
“No,” I said. “No, some can’t take it at all. 10% seem to end up in hell instead of heaven. It is completely random. It isn’t the mind, either. We make other copies and some are perfectly fine when we try again. Because of screamers, any time we make a mind-print, there is always a chance that we will end up with a lawsuit on our hands. The families claim we are torturing their dead family members. The legal status of these cubes is still completely up in the air, though.”
“What do you think?” she asked. “Are they people?”
“I hope not,” I said. “I think they are nothing more than photographs, or movies. Screamers are the equivalent of red eyes in a bad photograph, or a movie with the camera lens on. But I am inventing this process. I want to be able to take perfect mind-photographs.”
She leaned back and belched, grinning at me.
“That was delicious,” she said. “You want to go for a swim? I want to show you something.”
“Sure,” I said. “It is dark, though, isn’t it?”
“That’s okay,” she said. “I will protect you. Come on.”
We were both filled with the feeling of sudden spontaneity that you only get on first dates, where you know that the person sitting across from you does not know anything about you and you can reinvent yourself any way you want, not by crude lies but by structuring information to create new context.
Most people find this thrilling, to become an entirely new person and see if this person is somehow more worthy of love.
But I can’t really become a new person. I’ve got these fucked-up hands. And these fucked-up feet. That’s who I am, and I have worked hard to become comfortable with this. I feel good about myself in a world full of boring people who might as well go through life-changing love experiences all the time, because they are all already so interchangeable anyway.
I hated the first stirrings of romantic hope that made me want to do anything to please this other person. I tried to fight it.
I followed her out the door anyway.
“I have a little apartment in this neighborhood, “ she said. “But I never sleep there. I like to sleep underwater.”
She stripped off her clothes, standing alone with me on the beach in the late night air. I watched her, nervously. Her brown skin was shiny and smooth in the light of the crescent moon.
She already knew about my deformity, but I was still shy.
It wasn’t only that I had webbed fingers and toes. I was also completely hairless. I had a good head shape, so I looked more like a soccer hooligan than a cancer patient, but that was when I was wearing clothes.
When I was a teenager, I used to steal Rogaine foam from old men at my grandfather’s health club, where he went to ride an exercise bike every morning.
I rubbed the Rogaine on my head, on my arms and legs, on my balls, and on my chin and cheeks. But I never grew so much as a wisp of hair anywhere.
As always with someone new, I was so nervous about my own body that I forgot to pay attention to how beautiful Felicia was.
And then some kind of strange instinct took over as I watched the reflection of the moon on her face, and I smelled death and putrefaction mixed with the salt of the beach.
The beach was where all the dead things in the sea washed up on the shore. A shiver ran up my spine. I was not dead yet. I had full reign over my own flesh castle in god’s hell.
She walked into the water, not even turning around to see if I would follow. I was drawn to her. I ran after her, catching her shoulders in the big waves. She dove under and I followed her.
Underwater, something changed between us. We saw each other as if for the first time. This was her private space and this was my private space. It was like being telepathic.
At first we went slowly.
She never had to come up for air, but she was a painfully slow swimmer. Her body was slight and tiny, and she could barely cut through the water. I watched her flounder for awhile, moving along slowly, pinwheeling through the water
I could always find her again whenever I surfaced for air because she couldn’t get very far away from me.
Finally, emboldened by the night air, I grabbed her and started kicking my legs. She intertwined her arms with mine, and then we rocketed forward, spiraling into the darkness.
She directed me by tapping on my arms and legs, steering by wriggling her body against mine.
I surfaced, gulping a deep breath like a whale, and then we went down deep, scraping the seaweed in the dark depths.
She pulled a powerful lamp out of her pocket that she used to illuminate everything. She shined it past the second shelf of sand, past the last remnants of the human beach, into the deep ocean where all was still and clear.
I saw where she was directing me. She had built a house here.
It was a ramshackle place, more of a lean-to than an actual habitation. I surfaced again, and then dove deep for it. I dropped her off here, but she held me down, playfully stepping on my massive feet. She came out with respirator hidden here for me, and an oxygen tank. She started up a generator and green lights flashed all around borders of her underwater plantation.
She smiled at me, fitting the respirator over my face. My lungs filled with oxygen and I took shallow, even breaths, staring at her in wonder.
All around her underwater shack, there were underwater video cameras set up, and machines that she had scrounged from underwater scrap – rusted iron anchors, broken containers fallen from ships, parts of downed boats.
She had twisted this scrap into strange humanlike automata.
Here there were massive statues of men and women posed in reflective calm. The statues were cunningly designed so that she could rotate them at will. Though they were massive, they were also malleable and she could swing them and move them along tracks and pulleys.
There were cameras set up all around these statues. When she turned on the generator, the monitors started to showed grey static.
Stop motion. StopMotion. This was a woman who knew about time and infinity and being alone.
She sat down on the ocean floor, dragging me to her. She lifted my respirator away from my mouth and I kissed her. I slipped my arm around her waist and bent her down, feeling her quicken against me. I felt excited and strong.
I put the respirator back in my mouth as I felt myself stiffen. There was nothing mutated or strange about my sex drive.
She smiled at me and grabbed my hand, leading me into her house.
She showed me a bed made from kelp and mylar pillows. She slept under warm silver blankets made from the thinnest possible metal.
There was a television here also showing grey static.
She worked it by pressing a series of big colored buttons beneath it that triggered the digital display. We explored each others bodies as her stop motion film began to play.
It was a dance. The creatures she made were dancing in slow patterns under the sea, as the bank of sand behind them grew and faded, and as strands of kelp climbed the wall and fell backwards.
I heard her voice echo in my mind. Were we sharing thoughts? Was I getting enough oxygen? I heard words, but I couldn’t make them out. She smiled, swam away, and returned with a length of metal rebar, putting it to my ear. She shouted along the rebar and I heard the vibrations of her voice.
“Put the same consciousness in the same cube twice,” she said. “Soul and its reflection.”
I shouted at this perfect solution, looking at her as if she had slapped me. My scream was silent.
But who is soul and who is reflection, I wondered?
I shut my eyes, trying to figure out what was happening to me.
I opened them again and grabbed the piece of rebar, hoping to use it to respond to her. She took the rebar away from me and tossed it through the water. A trail of bubbles followed it out the door of her underwater shack.
I grabbed her instead. There was only one other way for me to respond.
The hardest part was keeping my breath even as she grabbed my shoulders, bubbles leaving her lips in regular intervals as she pressed her toes against my big webbed feet.
When I came, my vision started to blur.
This new creature Felicia took me to the surface, and we treaded water together, staring at the moon, not even the slightest bit cold in each other’s arms, both worrying — worrying furiously — about what it all meant, love.