By Nisi Shawl
Timofeya Phin glared at her bare brown hands. They were hers, all right. They looked the same as the originals. Unlike her feet.
But she shouldn’t have been able to see her hands, despite the virtual sunlight reflected from the virtual planet Amends’s near-full virtual face. Her hands should have been encased in gloves. This was all wrong.
“Dr. Ops,” she vocalized. “You forgot something.”
The AI opened a window on her helmet. His icon wore an obsolete physician’s headband and mirror, meant to underscore his ostensible role as rehabilitator of the prison ship Psyche Moth’s eighty-thousand-plus passengers. Though really he was more of a warden.
“No. I didn’t forget.” The smooth Caucasian visage of the AI’s icon projected calm assurance. His default expression. “I don’t forget anything. I deliberately left part of your equipment out of the scene so you wouldn’t forget that it’s not real.”
As if he couldn’t have made that point more subtly—manipulated the scene’s colors, insinuated some weird smell, given her a little weight. He controlled all her perceptions, which was why she distrusted them. Controlled her whole world, the look and feel of her whole body, head to edited toes.
But at least not what she said or did or thought. Not according to Thad’s research.
“Besides,” Dr. Ops added after a studied pause. “You need to be able to feel your tools interacting with the scene as well as possible.”
“I could pump up my inputs.”
“All right.” Grey fabric covered the last of her bare skin. Phin briefly clenched her jaw to increase sensitivity and flexed her fingers, then grabbed the little shovel stuck in the loop around her right arm. It fit precisely between the flanges that circled the representation of Psyche Moth’s long central conduit in receding rings. The shovel’s handle was a bit shorter than the width of her wrist, its blade a good match for the end of her thumb.
“Does the ship look anything like this from the outside?” Phin asked.
So something in this scene was off. Maybe the scale… . She’d had her suspicions for a while. Forever. Since waking from the upload process that destroyed her original body. Nothing since then could be counted on as real. Not even the work Dr. Ops wanted her doing.
The tool slid easily under the black scum of vacuum mold that had accumulated between the radiator flanges. Phin lifted her shovel carefully, brought the edge of its blade to her collection jar, scraped it against the protrusion inside the jar’s lip. Rinse. Repeat. Occasionally she switched to a shovel with a wider blade, curved shallowly to follow the flanges’ curves. Twice she used a third tool like a two-pronged fork on their edges. She cleaned ten rings and stopped.
What good was she doing? She asked Dr. Ops aloud.
“So much good, sweetheart.” Was it appropriate for him to call her that? “I’ve slaved five hullbots to you. Keep going.” He managed to make it sound like a suggestion. Like she had a choice.
Six more rings and the AI announced her shift was done. He let her open and enter a depiction of Psyche Moth’s hatch, but inside was only her locker. The suit disappeared to be replaced by scrubs.
Phin sat by herself a moment, then tongued open the door to freespace.
She swam to the main scene: corridors said to mimic those inhabited by prisoners who’d downloaded into the empty clones WestHem provided. Here she walked, like everyone else on their way to some contrived job or constrained downtime. Dr. Ops said this scene was a copy of the training quarters Psyche Moth built for the prisoners who’d gone along with the plan to settle Amends. Maybe it was. Phin had never been able to compare the two. She’d never been in a body. Not since her mockery of a trial, back on Earth.
The scene certainly seemed authentic. Up and down stayed stable, conversations between groups of prisoners walking by got louder and quieter the way she recalled them doing when she had actual ears. That crushy historian with the long braids was standing where he usually stood, at the entrance to the pointless virtual lunchroom. He greeted her with a smile and a quirked eyebrow and she passed him by as politely and noncommittally as always. She had asked Dr. Ops about him, but that was all she’d done. Never even talked to him. She was married.
The open door to the room she shared with Thad and Doe came after four identical others and right before the entrance to the pointless virtual laundry. Phin held the doorframe and watched her wife and husband sleeping.
Thad was a woman born a man. When Dr. Ops refused him a female download he decided to skip settling on Amends; he was the first to opt to stay in freespace. He was skipping changing pronouns too, though Doe scolded him that didn’t punish anybody but Thad himself.
Doe and Thad fought sometimes but they always made up. They were on good terms now, folded in one another’s arms, comforting one another in a virtual hug.
What was the use of that?
But she joined them anyway, and they woke to make room on the bed, rolling apart so she fit snugly between them. Their clothes rubbed against hers with irritatingly dry whispers. No reason for clothes—why did Dr. Ops force his prisoners to wear anything? Why did he force them to work? To sleep? To live? Thad said it was programming.
Doe was suddenly awake enough to do more than move away. Her touch on the back of Phin’s neck was too much—Phin hadn’t amped down her inputs after the suit came off. She ground her teeth side-to-side quickly. Better. Doe didn’t like to cause inadvertent pain. She claimed that was part of why she and Thad had broken up with Wayna, a problem in that area with their ex’s download. Phin wished Doe wouldn’t keep trying to explain what had happened. Did she believe in rules to follow in relationships, guarantees? Love was no servant.
Phin didn’t have to concentrate to return her wife’s kisses. That came so easily it scarcely touched the surface of the bitter stew of her thoughts. Finally, Thad slid down her pants and distracted her.
* * *
Every prisoner aboard Psyche Moth had an hour daily with Dr. Ops’s counselor function. Usually Phin sat wordlessly in a comfortable chair the whole time; after her first couple of sessions she’d met Thad, who told her that all the AI’s programming required was her presence.
Today she remained standing. Why sit? She had no muscles to tire…. She had nothing. Nothing but her discontent.
At last she shared that, shouting it at the AI’s avatar, striding back and forth on his office’s stupid, periwinkle-rose-mustard carpet. Lavender scented the air, failing to soothe her.
“You demolished my school, made it a crime for my students to even talk about what I taught them—called it ‘treason against WestHem!’ My kinky behind!” She slapped her flat butt. A faithful copy. “You destroyed me—my body—took it away—took everything!”
“What do you want me to do to make up for that?”
The AI sounded earnest, his voice gentle. Phin looked over at his avatar in surprise. His head tilted to one side like a curious retriever’s, reminding her how attractive he was by WestHem standards.
“What do you want?” he repeated. “What can I give you? It wasn’t me who caused your troubles, but—”
“I know, I know. It’s all my fault, my bad judgments—”
“That’s not what I meant. Sorry. I shouldn’t interrupt when a client’s speaking.”
Phin waved that interaction parameters nonsense to the side. “Never mind. Tell me what you meant.”
“I mean I wouldn’t hurt you for the world.”
Phin huffed out a dissatisfied puff of air. “What world? This one you made?”
“The one you’re in.”
“I don’t even—” Phin rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. “I don’t know which one that is.” She dropped her hands and stared at the avatar. Dr. Ops was the problem, she reminded herself. Not a source of solutions. She turned away toward the mustard-colored wall, showing him her back. How much longer did she have to stay here? She decided not to say anything else. Enough already. More than enough; she’d probably revealed some aspect of herself the AI would use to sucker her into taking future sessions seriously. Nope. She was done. Mouth shut.
Seconds passed. The silence felt imbalanced and fragile.