Book One: Re-
Chapter One: Re-Awakening
I woke up as sick as it was humanly possible to be. The only reason everything within five feet wasn't covered in noxious fluids was my GI tract was, mercifully, already empty. Even given all of that, somewhat more concerning was the discovery that my legs ended mid-thigh. Thinking about that used up enough of my cognitive resources that I didn't even try to figure out how concerned I should be that I was hallucinating a pink-furred rabbit-woman puttering around at the head of my bed, and was barely able to pay enough attention to the fact that she was naked to try to remember the more aesthetic details when I could properly appreciate them…
The bed shook. At first I thought it was from my twitching, but a sheet of see-through plastic extended itself over the bed, sealing me in a bubble — just in time for the whole room to shake, and a cloud of dust to billow in through the door. Followed by someone who, as far as I could tell without my glasses, was wearing a rather bad Darth Vader costume. (Or, at least, a black bodysuit, cape, and insectile gasmask.)
Darth Idiot transformed himself into Darth Don't-Piss-Him-Off by raising a very realistic gun and pointing it in my direction. He barked out a few words that were completely incomprehensible. I did what seemed the sensible thing; I raised my arms and said, “Please don't shoot me.”
There were more incomprehensible words, which were overlapped with, “English? Identify yourself!”
I said my name, following it up with, “Civilian. Innocent amputee? Sick and confused?” I repeated, “Please don't shoot,” for good measure. That's as far as I got before my stomach tried to empty itself of its nothingness again, forcing me to curl up in pain. And with everything else going on, that seemed to be my body's limit, and I knew no more.
I woke up feeling as sick as it was humanly possible to be, but in somewhat different ways than before. My stomach wasn't trying to escape through any available orifice anymore, but the whole world was kind of wobbly.
Also, my wrists were strapped to the side of the bed, and my waist and neck were similarly immobilized, which seemed kind of overkill, given my lack of lower limbs. There was a cat on my bed, between my left hip and my hand; its fur looked bright blue, but I scritched its head anyway. A pair of tubes were taped to the inside of my elbow, reaching above my head to where I couldn't see.
Peering as best I could around the room, I noted the walls were a lighter shade of gray, and were differently shaped. Also, Harveyette the pink rabbit now had her own bed, just like mine, with the addition of an extra pair of straps for her legs. I squinted at those — they weren't human-shaped, but weren't really rabbit-shaped, either. For one, rabbits had fur covering all their paws, while she seemed to have a set of dog-like pads on the bottoms of her feet…
A not-so-delicate cough brought my attention from imaginary anatomy to a chair next to me, in which was sitting a man. Oriental, hairless, smooth-skinned; wearing black from the neck down, a pocketwatch hung from around his neck, a clipboard rested on crossed legs, a cane against the side of the chair. He opened his mouth and spoke, but the movements didn't match what I heard. “You speak English, yes?”
My eyes blinked rapidly a few times, and then I nodded. As my head came back against my pillow, I noticed yet another detail I'd missed in all the fuss — I didn't have any more hair than he did. Looking down at myself, I realized that applied everywhere. I also realized I didn't have a sheet, or even one of those backless hospital gowns. There simply wasn't anything I could do about that, so I tried to ignore the flushing of my face as I said, “What time is it? How long have I been out?”
“We're trying to work that out. Can you tell me the last things you remember? Were you ill, or injured?”
“Ah.” I reshuffled my thoughts — given the general awful aches and illnesses, it seemed I was in some sort of hospital. Since what remained of my legs were smooth stumps, I had to have been under medical care for some time. Since I didn't remember losing my legs, and given the hallucinations and restraints, there seemed a good chance I was in a psych ward. Whatever was wrong with my noggin, the most likely way to get it fixed was to be reasonably honest with whoever was doing the fixing. So I answered, “I was riding my bike. Bicycle, not motorcycle. Someone opened a car door just in front of me. I got knocked into traffic — I think I bounced off a moving minivan… and that's about it.”
“Do you recall the date?”
“Just after Victoria Day.” He waved a hand in a circle, which I guessed was an indication to expand. “May, Tuesday, the… um, the tenth was a Saturday, so it must have been the twentieth. Twenty fourteen?”
He nodded calmly. “Very well. I need to inform you that some medical decisions need to be made regarding you, but you are currently not competent to make them.” I started to nod slowly, but he continued, “Among other issues, you are drunk off your gourd.”
“No I'm not,” I riposted.
“Why do you say that?”
“Can't be drunk. I'm a teetotaler. Never touched alcohol, or any other mind-affecting substance, in my life.”
“Ah. Well, be that as it may, you're drunk.”
“‘Why do you say that?’,” I repeated back to him.
“You are suffering from ethylene glycol poisoning. Part of the treatment is to filter it out of your blood. Another part is to block a certain metabolic pathway which creates even worse toxins. One of the best chemicals to do that is simple alcohol. You are drunk because if you weren't, your kidneys would have already failed.”
“… Oh. I'd say ‘that sucks’ but that seems kind of an understatement. So — medical decisions?”
“Indeed. Even with the treatment, you are going to have kidney damage. Your heart has a reasonable chance of failing. As you have no doubt noticed, you have lost your legs. And other issues, minor in comparison. In short, standard treatment is going to require a number of expensive transplants and prosthetics.”
“You're really not one for softening the blows, are you?”
“Time is a factor. I have been assigned to manage your case. I will be making the decisions. I have a short time to learn what your preferences are, to consider taking them into account.”
“Um. Well — if you want to know my preferences instead of arguing about them, that's pretty simple. I'm going to live forever or die trying.”
“What about the afterlife?”
“Randi's offered a million-dollar prize for even a decent hint of the supernatural. Nobody's won it. I seem to have misplaced my necklace and bracelet, but I've made arrangements to have my body cryonically preserved after I die. It costs less than cable — a hundred fifty bucks a year for membership, about the same for insurance to pay for it. I figure there's only around a five percent chance it'll work, but if something does kill me, five percent is a lot better odds than zero.”
“I see. Assuming that you do live — what would you want to do while you're alive?”
“I expect you've already got it written in your notes, but I'm schizoid — not schizophrenic — which just means I'm happy in my own company. I'd make a good lighthouse keeper, if they were still hiring those. And I seem to be rambling a lot more than I'm used to, which I'm going to guess is because I'm drunk. I don't think I like being drunk. Anyway — I like reading, and hiking, and… thinking. I really like figuring out ideas I hadn't worked out before, but that doesn't happen nearly as much as I like. I don't know what sort of prosthetic legs my insurance covers, so I'm just kind of hoping they'll be ones that let me enjoy walking for miles next to old canals, or the like. If that can't work… then I guess I'd make do with sitting in a library, with a good internet connection, and stuffing my head full of as much as I can. Um, I'm kind of losing my train of thought here. Is there anything else I can say to help you?”
He grabbed his cane, and used it to push himself to his feet. “Probably not. I believe I have enough information to do what is necessary, as soon as certain test results come in.” He poked at the top of my bed.
“Okay, then,” I said, then frowned. “Ethylene glycol? How'd I get poisoned with that?”
“You mean, you don't know?”
“I don't even remember what it is.”
“Antifreeze. Your tissues were suffused with several litres of it, along with dimethyl sulfoxide, which helped it pass through cellular membranes.”
“Wait. That sounds like… how long have I been out?”
“I'm not authorized to give you that information.” He left my bed, and went to poke around at the head of the other bed. “Mostly due to the existence of your lapine friend here.”
“Wait — what?” My speech was really starting to slur, and I tried to say, “You can see her — she's real?”, but didn't quite get anything out before the world spun away again.
They say happiness is a warm puppy — but waking up to a sudden lack of pain and nausea has to be a close approximation. Sure, there was a slight headache, but compared to how I'd been feeling, I was raring to go, from head to feet…
Before I even opened my eyes, I wiggled my toes, and smiled. And then frowned. While I was feeling, if not like a million bucks, at least like a short-buy order that would turn into a million at the right time, I was getting all sorts of sensations that didn't quite add up.
I opened my eyes. I looked down at myself.
I saw a whole lot of pink fur.
I closed my eyes.
I was dreaming something about that short-buy order getting exchanged for Bitcoins, which were used to buy derivatives of Chinese rare-earths based on a prediction of war, when a sharp sting in my thigh woke me up. I yelped, twitched against the restraints, and opened my eyes. The same watch-necklaced, cane-using bald fellow in black was standing over me, withdrawing a syringe full of red.
“Okay,” I said, “What th- ow!” My tongue scraped against sharp teeth when I tried to make the ‘th’ sound. I made a couple of other attempts, equally painful, then gritted my teeth for a moment as I worked out a temporary solution. “I tend to swear less van once a year, so please understand the full depf of what I mean when I say: What. Ve. Fuck.”
“Full speech — or near enough — already. Rather impressive. Further evidence that the rabbitoid body was designed specifically for your nervous system to be implanted.” He set the syringe on a tray, and pulled another, empty. He poked it into my arm, and as it filled, said, “The interior of the skull is shaped exactly to match the contours of your brain — and didn't have a central nervous system. The skeleton carries a good deal of computational hardware, which is connected to the nervous system, and let it move around under its own control. I'll be curious to see if it takes control of your body at any point, or remains dormant.”
“Do I need to repeat ve question?”
“Very well.” He set the syringe down. “According to all the evidence, you've been dead for some decades.” I could have told him that — when I'd died, it was just barely possible to 3D print a few cells of muscle tissue onto a framework, nevermind creating a functional tail, nevermind a whole functioning not-quite-human body. “Much to our surprise, we found you during a standard scouting mission around the Detroit city-computer.” There were so many assumptions in that sentence that I'd barely started working through what their implications entailed before he continued, and added even more to the pile I had to try to think through. “It would take at least fifteen years to educate you sufficiently to where you could participate in life as a citizen, as well as a number of expensive medical procedures. So I took the less expensive option, and had you placed in the body that had been prepared for you. The undeciphered software of your skeletal system means that you will not be allowed into the city proper — but there are other ways you can contribute to society, and repay the debts incurred by the surgery and your treatment. We have a few days to pin down the details.”
“Debts? Wait — if you hadn't come barging in to where you found me, then if vis body was already being prepared for a brain transplant… wouldn't I already be in vis situation, wifout owing you a thing? How does that put me in ‘debt’?”
“The fact that I have the legal authority, and physical power, to lock you away permanently for non-payment of debts, and perform whatever analysis is necessary to determine if there is any hazard in your skeleton's software. Which would involve dicing it.”
“… Slavery it is, ven. … I feel like I should want to punch you.”
“But you don't.”
“But I don't. Sedatives?”
“When do I get my own emotions back?”
“Probably around when you stop feeling like you should want to punch me.”
“I fought you said you only had a few days.”
Quarantined and Infodumped
I asked for, and was given, a pair of trekking poles to help me get back onto my feet. Turned out I didn't need them. Even though my legs were now digitigrade like a dog's instead of plantigrade like a human's, and I felt like I was walking on tip-toes all the time, I had no more trouble keeping my balance than before my brain transplant. However, I decided that it might be better if the Technovillians underestimated me a bit, and that I was probably under constant surveillance, so I carefully fell flat onto my face. Repeatedly. And used the poles to hobble around wherever I went, gradually ‘improving’.
I tested my body's flexibility, and discovered I could tie myself into a pretzel.
I asked for clothes, but discovered that they, quite literally, rubbed my fur the wrong way. I ended up compromising with a sports bra and shorts modified for my tail, and tried to get used to more modest apparel.
My guardian — for lack of an actual name — provided me with a couple of pieces of electronics. One was a read-only ebook reader (which could also read aloud, play music, play videos, and similar tricks)… which he'd carefully limited to only containing subject-matter published before my death. The other was a pocket-watch on a necklace like his, which turned out to be a computer built to translate languages. (It also kept track of time and location, did math, sensed temperature, humidity, and pressure, and had a camera and microphone.) After searching for a few items in the former, I concluded that its contents were heavily slanted in whatever direction Technoville had deemed was propagandistically best; and that both were stuffed to the gills with spyware. Unfortunately, since there wasn't any information on Technoville's native language (other than ‘a descendant of Lojban’), it was either use the spyware-ridden translator or not understand anything. Just like it was either live in a body with a skeleton full of mysterious computer that might take control of my actions at any time, or do without any body at all. There were no good options, just ‘bad’ and ‘really really bad’ ones.
No, I didn't investigate my new gender, any more than I needed to in order to use the plumbing. Constant surveillance, remember?
Between familiarizing myself with my new body, and suffering through various tests, I had various pieces of conversation. Exchanges of words, at least.
“It would be trivial for you to simply walk away. Your body has a number of post-human tweaks, including being able to digest cellulose. We also have no records of biological constructions such as your body dying of old age. If I can't get you to want to contribute to human progress, then you could walk into the forest and spend, well, for all I know, centuries wandering around and nibbling on trees and grass.”
I tried grass. Tasted just about what I expected grass to taste like. Random leaves weren't much better. Hay was bland enough to tolerate.
I got a report on my new biology. My eyes were still my nearsighted originals, carried along with my brain; it took a couple of days for glasses built to fit my new head to appear. My DNA was based on human, but with almost all the junk DNA trimmed. That meant I'd be unable to reproduce with baseline humans, or anyone who didn't have a near-identical set of tweaks — not that I was planning on doing so. Ever. Given the hormone levels they measured over time, it seemed I wouldn't have to worry about menstruating monthly — maybe once a year. I wasn't looking forward to that, either; my ovaries were, I was told, swollen noticeably larger than my genetics alone would indicate, which could imply rather strong hormonal flux. Some of the genetic tweaks matched up to things the Technovillians already had in their databases — an immune system pre-programmed with just about every known disease, muscles that got enough exercise from everyday activity, and, I was informed, limbs that would regenerate like a lizard's. I had no intention of testing that one out.
“Even without citizenship, or security clearance, there are plenty of employment opportunities. We actually do have lighthouses with keepers. Farmers. Smiths. Couriers. Scouts.”
“What happened to my body?”
“Non-viable, not even good for providing transplants. Other than some samples, incinerated.”
I winced. So much for ever getting back to normal.
“Um… how's the space program doing?”
“Kessler syndrome. We haven't got the spare resources to clear the debris for a launch.”
“Technically an infinite number of them, but it's impossible to communicate with or travel to them.”
“Physically impossible. Planck-scale physics runs on a much smaller-scale cellular automata system, which is mostly obscured by quantum effects, but there really isn't any way for the cells to switch their neighbours on and off any faster than lightspeed.”
“Space-time doesn't bend that way.”
“Hm… Dark matter?”
“The gravitational shadow of alternate universes that shared our Big Bang.”
“We tend not to die in a way that leaves a viable corpse. And with limited resources during the State of Emergency, the infrastructure for it doesn't exist.”
“Gone. The city-computers are full of AIs that will instantly hack any computer connected to a communications device they have access to, use it to run incomprehensible programs for inscrutable purposes, and leave in an unusable state.”
“Happened around 2050 AD.” ‘Welp’, I thought, ‘guess that means Star Trek's been lost to zeerust as a prediction of the future’. He continued, “Pretty much every human who could get to a city got sucked into it. Superstimuli, at the least.” That wasn't quite how I'd heard it was predicted to happen, but of course, I had missed out on thirty-five years of pre-Singularity predictions about that. “We humans who managed to stay away during the critical week aren't quite sure what happened to them, other than they're not there anymore.” Now wasn't that just creepy. “Just about every urban area got turned into a giant computer, not particularly hospitable to human life — chemical outgassing, radiation, and worse. The smaller city-comps seem to have died off. The rest — about eighty in North America — seem to do things so fast, that if there's any human-level intelligences left in them, a half-second pause in a conversation would feel like a ten minute break. No communication or exchange is possible. The city-computers occasionally emit various pieces of data, or robots, or biological organisms, or stranger things.”
“… How many people are vere?”
“We have extremely limited information outside our sphere of influence. The primary zone of control of Technoville — on the site of what used to be Ann Arbor — is around one to two hundred kilometers radius. About thirty thousand citizens, and two hundred thousand non-citizens. Our main allied polity has another two hundred fifty thousand. Outside that?” He shrugged. “Could be thousands, could be millions.”
“A major hassle when the methane clathrates got loose. All sorts of geo-engineering projects. The most important one is probably the sun-shield at L1. Fortunately, somebody cut off its communications systems before the apocalypse, so it's running on its pre-written program and keeping the overall temperature relatively steady.”
“Sources of information over van you?”
“You're still under quarantine. Including information quarantine, in case your skeleton contains information that would destabilize Technoville's systems.”
Eventually, while jogging on a treadmill, I said, “I've got a thought.” As long as I paid close attention, I could avoid both infantile speech patterns and slicing my tongue on my rodent-like incisors.
“However long this body lasts… one way or another, it's going to die. And when it does, I doubt there'll be another one waiting for another brain transplant. I want to hedge my bets.”
“Cryonics again? I told you, we don't do that. You would need… years of training to even begin to understand the economics behind how to fund it yourself.”
“That's not my thought. You only have concrete data on a small fraction of the continent, let alone the world. How much do you know about Phoenix, Arizona?”
“That it's probably an active city-comp.”
“And if there was a colony of people living near it who did practice cryonics? I've been reading, and it requires a surprisingly small tech base. Blacksmithing seems to be enough to put together machine tools, once you know they exist, which should be enough to build the pumps and such to liquefy air and make dry ice. Nineteenth-century chemistry seems to be enough to create cryoprotectant.”
“You want to go looking for cryonicists?”
“Or, at least, a group willing and able to adopt the practice. I'm living proof that someone who was vitrified can be brought back to life — even if it did take a brain transplant to keep me alive.”
“Hm. We generally don't like wasting resources and manpower on long-term scouting missions; we lose too much of both dealing with the Detroit city-comp.”
“Then let me put it this way. I may have spent my first few years on a farm… but do you really think I'm going to milk cows for Technoville's benefit, for however long I happen to live?”
“I'll run some numbers and get back to you.”
“You still want to go exploring dangerous, deadly wilderness?”
I unfolded myself from my cross-legged meditation position. “In a nutshell.”
“Our best prediction is that for every thousand kilometers you travel, the odds of your surviving halve.”
“If I die in a week or in a hundred years, I'll still end up dead. I'd rather do what I can while I can.”
“We predicted you'd say something of the sort. If you don't change your mind, I've been authorized with a small budget to outfit you. Mainly in the form of assigning you a courier's motorized bicycle and trailer, a few supplies, and an analog radio to inform us of whatever you find before you're killed. And some time to bring you up to speed on conditions outside the quarantine facility.”
“You're all heart. Still, beats getting diced.”
“Here's a map of the surrounding area. You will note it is covered in bright colors. These indicate how dangerous any given zone is.
“Not on this particular map, are white zones. They are unexplored. We are letting you go kill yourself so that your reports will let us fill in some white zones.
“Green zone: No significant dangers. Mostly harmless. May still have wild beasts, bandits, ordinary toxic plants, and similar pre-Singularity annoyances.
“Blue: Mild danger to life and limb, of sorts which can be treated medically. Toxic spills and wandering kill-bots lead to blue zones.
“Yellow: Moderate danger of permanent alteration to persons, which does not significantly affect victims' economic capacity. For example, involuntary brain transplants, loss of one or maybe two limbs, physical age-regression to 2 years old with mind intact, or minor loss of memory or personality change.
“Red: Significant danger of being changed in ways which eliminate most of victims' economic capacity. Forcible transformation into animal shape, loss of three or four limbs, or physical regression to minus one month old, or significant loss of memory or personality change.
“Black: Extreme danger of death, or fates worse than death. Transformation into aware but immobile objects, regression to minus nine months old, complete loss of mind.
“Zoning is at the discretion of the discovering scout/agent. When a farming community was hit with a biological agent which rewrote the locals, so that people gave birth to foals and horses gave birth to infants, the agent could have chosen to arrange exported food to be sterilized and classify the region as Yellow, or quarantined it entirely and classified it Red, or decided to call in air-strike to kill everything and classify it Black.”
“… I notice you're using the past tense for that example instead of the hypothetical.”
“In your time's idiom, I know you think that I am something of a son of a bitch. Let's just say that that's not quite accurate.”