We Apologize for the Interruption
by Eliyanna Kaiser
We Apologize for the Interruption was originally published by Silver Blade Magazine in May 2012
Peg was tucked snugly in bed in the coma ward, but the blankets itched. They felt heavy too, like they were pushing down on her, pinning her to the mattress. A nurse buzzed around the room at a dizzying pace, hooking up monitors and re-arranging equipment. Peg knew they would try to get this part over with quickly. “Under ten minutes from scan to snooze” was the gold standard.
Nana kept trying to distract her with small talk, but right now, all Peg could do was gape at a length of catheter tubing, attached to some kind of drainage bag. She had a vague sense of its purpose and it completely grossed her out.
“There, there,” the nurse said. “You won’t remember any of this and Mt. Sinai is excellent. You’re in good hands. See? Your mother knows.” The nurse smiled at Nana, who was nodding. “Cross my heart, dear, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“She’s not my mother,” Peg said. Her head was swimming. Correcting this small technical error was all she could manage.
Nana took Peg’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m her grandmother,” she explained, “Her mother passed a few years back. Early Alzheimer’s.”
The nurse stopped what she was doing and regarded Nana with sad understanding. “Skeptic or uninsured?”
“Skeptic,” Nana spat the word with bitterness. “My daughter was a stupid, selfish, irresponsible bitch. But it’s not too late for my Peg.”
Did she really just say that? Peg stiffened, and even the nurse looked shocked. When Peg finally found her words, her voice cracked. “Just because I won’t remember this, doesn’t give you the right to say whatever the hell you want.”
Nana looked down, fixing Peg with a cold, challenging look. As long as Peg could remember, she had never talked about her mother with such callousness. What the hell was happening?
The nurse looked back and forth between them with a panicked expression. They were all saved from this downward spiral of events by a strawberry blonde in green scrubs entering the room. The newcomer strode up to Peg’s bedside, oblivious to the tension.
“Doctor Lamonde,” she said, saluting with a manicured hand. “I’m the anesthesiologist who is going settle you into your three-day R&R. Just waiting for verification on that scan from the good folks in New Jersey… Nancy, any word?”
The nurse checked her handheld and gave a relived go-ahead nod. The doctor tied an elastic around Peg’s arm while the nurse flipped on the vital monitors. The wetness of an alcohol swab began to evaporate, spreading a chill over her body.
“Make a fist and hold it,” Dr. Laomnde ordered, unwrapping a butterfly IV. With her other hand the doctor kneaded her flesh in search of a suitable vein.
Peg thought she might vomit. Now that it had come to it, three thoughts drowned everything else into white noise.
First: Somewhere in Weehawken, New Jersey, Biomimetics techs had just confirmed transmission of the brain scan taken just minutes ago. The scan was their blueprint for her syn, an exact copy of her brain.
Second: If the docs were to scan her again, right now, the two scans wouldn’t match, nor would her neuro-algorithm spit out in the same combo of 1s and 0s. New memories had formed, new neural pathways had been drawn, and who she was had irrevocably shifted.
The third thought: She had been avoiding this one. But it had been there all along. It pulsed even louder now, demanding Peg’s absolute and immediate attention: They are going to rip out your brain.
Beeps and flashes of light announced the fight-or-flight heart rate that was churning Peg’s blood pressure.
“No!” she shouted, pulling her arm away. The effect was immediate. As soon as the word had left her lips, a word she hadn’t even realized she was going to say, the vital monitors sounded longer pauses between heartbeats. Less unsettling blood pressure numbers displayed on the screen. She could breathe.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” Nana, red-faced, was first to break the silence. “Do you have any idea—”
“Ma’am, please,” Dr. Lamonde held up a hand to quiet Nana, and searched Peg’s face, a bit fearfully. “Young lady, are you refusing the coma?”
* * *
Peg stared at the blue sky projected on the office ceiling, searching for an answer. She winced at the brightness of the digital image, a veritable Rorschach of fractal clouds, changing shape by the second. Last night, after leaving Mt. Sinai, she’d been told to go straight home and to report to Sonar’s office first thing. She hadn’t slept well.
Why had she done it? She owed no one an explanation more than Sonar. For an entire year they had met here, an hour every week, to make sure she was ready. At first she hadn’t liked the idea of talking to a shrink, but anyone who got the syn upgrade had to get mental health clearance. Much to her surprise, she’d actually come to like therapy—and Sonar. But she hadn’t done her friend any favors yesterday. A neuro-psych’s reputation was built on a low In-Between rate and Peg had blown her perfect record.
“Peg, we have to talk about this.” Sonar tapped her fingernails impatiently.
“I know,” Peg said quickly.
The easy way out was to blame Nana, but Peg knew that the real reason was bigger. Not just bigger, but more upsetting, and harder to put into words. And should she have to? Refusing the coma was her right.
Peg had always thought of herself as pro-choice. Why should anyone be forced into the coma? Of course the issue had always been a little more theoretical. The choice to refuse was far worse in the long run; she knew that. There had been mere minutes between the scan and the walk to the coma ward. Now she was facing the loss of three whole days—the time it would take Biomimetics to construct the syn. The construction was so expensive that insurance companies only gave you one shot at it once the syn was in production. If she didn’t go through with this three days from now, she might never be able to afford to. The coma was the solution to all the anxiety this caused, but she had refused it.
Not quite absently, Peg held her head in her hands and found that succumbing to the urge to rock back and forth was somewhat comforting.
Sonar coughed and shifted in her chair. Peg thought about saying that she knew Sonar was uncomfortable around her. No one wants to be around an In-Between.
Peg opened her mouth to say so but closed it again abruptly. The first sign of Generalized Dissociative Dysphoric Mania was relaxation of social filters. Like telling people what you really think of them. It was exactly what Sonar would be looking for, and Peg needed to get cleared, get the hell out of here. Her last pre-syn moments would not involve being forcibly strapped to a hospital bed and put down like some kind of rabid animal.
Even if she wouldn’t remember it.
“You’re worried that if you say the wrong thing I won’t give you sign-off, aren’t you?” Sonar asked, not unkindly.
Peg nodded, heart pounding.
“Well,” she sighed. “I don’t think you chose an easy path for yourself. But so long as I think you’re not going to harm yourself—or anyone else—I won’t stop you from leaving. Fair?”
Peg withdrew her fingernails from her head and felt pain where the skin depressed. “Fair,” she agreed.
“You don’t know why you did it, do you?”
“Not unusual, I guess.” Sonar tilted her head in examination. “You having any regrets?”
“No,” Peg said. Sort of. She had a headache.
“What’s going on in there? Talk to me, Peg. No self-editing.”
“It hardly seems worth spending so much time processing. What if I have some major life-changing break-through? Total waste of effort on both our parts.”
“Remember what I said about keeping a diary? Sometimes people in your… situation become obsessed with certain experiences or realizations and are afraid to lose them after the surgery. That’s normal. A diary could help with that.”
There was a silence until Peg realized that Sonar was waiting for her to confirm she had absorbed the suggestion.
“Right. Diary. Got it.”
Sonar sighed. “We just need to get you through these next few days. Humor me. I’m on your side.”
As it went, humoring the only person standing between her and freedom did seem like a good idea. Peg moved her hands away from her head and sunk her nervous energy into stroking the velour of the sofa. Maintain eye contact. Normal posture. Normal thoughts. Normal behavior.
“I’m thinking about how everyone will be weird around me.” I’m thinking that if you decide I’m unwired they’ll take me to Mt. Sinai in a straight-jacket. When I wake up I’ll never know what you did. Or what Nana said.
“Good,” Sonar said, nodding eagerly. “What do you think other people will be thinking?”
“That In-Betweens are dangerous.” Peg didn’t feel dangerous. She’d never felt more vulnerable. “Or that I’m turning into a religious freak or a technophobe, which is stupid since I’ve had every other upgrade for my age group.” The syn upgrade wasn’t anything like a regular tissue replacement, even a major one. But it’s what you want to hear, so I’ll say it.
Sonar was staring at her. Damn! She had trailed off mid-sentence. Peg brushed off all tangential thoughts with a hair flip.
“Anyway, c’mon, it’s me. I understand about the upper limits of cell replication—the Hayflick Limit, all that.”
She did, too. Peg had done the Hayflick proof in cellular biology as an undergraduate. For half a semester she watched her worm cell culture divide. The goo kept chugging along, happily doubling its mass in her Petri dish, until one day the cells just …stopped. Cells aren’t immortal, that was the lesson, and each organism’s cells were programmed to count down to their own end. Divide. Divide. Divide. Divide. Die.
And while you could replace your organs, derm upgrade, and swap out your bones and muscles until you never thought you’d see the outside of an OR again, the brain was the limit. It wasn’t exactly replaceable. One day your ridiculously healthy body would find itself home to a geriatric brain. Game over.
That is, until Biomimetics invented the syn.
“Do you think their worries are unfair?” Sonar asked.
The distinct scent of chocolate tickled Peg’s nose, and her mouth watered. It reminded her of being a fat teenager, before she’d traded in her thyroids for ones with a metabolism to match her eating habits. She frowned distastefully at the culprit, a monstrous purple flower set in a simple brown planter on Sonar’s desk. It was engineered to release this particular aroma when it was dehydrated.
Peg wrenched her attention away from the flower.
“It’s like every post-syn I meet is looking at me and thinking about their In-Between moments—and I don’t care what the definition is!” Peg yelled. Only people who refused the coma were considered In-Betweens. “You can’t remember, so you can’t argue with me about it.”
Sonar raised an eyebrow and Peg flinched with the realization that she was acting defensively.
“I feel,” Peg started again, “that post-syns know, on some level, that they lost something.” She took a deep breath. “It messes with you people to look at me.”
Sonar dropped the section of hair she had been twisting, her expression thoughtful. “You think I’m projecting? That I’m secretly upset about the memories I lost walking to the coma ward?”
“Look, I want to go.” Peg stood up and retrieved her coat. “Is that okay?”
It was Sonar’s job to make sure that she wasn’t dangerous. That was the point of these morning evals for these next three days. By the stats, Peg had 50/50 odds of keeping her sanity. It was a controversial law, but after Ginger Louis shot a corporate heavyweight at Biomimetics three years ago, no one was taking chances with In-Betweens, even the civ lib hard cases. Hell, most other states had banned the In-Between option.
It was hard not to think about Ginger Louis, hard not to question every stray thought or passing urge for breaches from normality. You could drive yourself crazy waiting for the crazy to come.
Sonar frowned. “What are your plans for today?”
“Head to campus? I can teach the pre-calc tutorial instead of the sub.”
Sonar hesitated, but signed her tablet with a quick flourish.
Peg hadn’t reached the door when a queasy feeling in her stomach took hold. Everyone she knew expected her to be in a coma. And everyone else would get a zap to their handheld within yards of her approach, warning of an In-Between. The police had tagged her.
Maybe this was a mistake.
“Second thoughts?” Sonar sounded hopeful. “You don’t have to do this. I can call Mt. Sinai.”
Peg took a step away from Sonar, even while her mind toyed with the offer.
“I’m fine, really.” She swallowed to soothe the dryness itching her throat. She searched for something to sound casual about. “Your fly-trap-magnolia monster wants water. It reeks like cocoa in here.”
She soaked in the pulse of the crowd as she made her way down the avenue. The touch of the shoulders and legs that brushed her felt gentle, like all of humanity giving her a hug. She was probably setting off thousands of In-Between alerts, but the mass of commuters was too dense for anyone to figure out who the In-Between was. It felt good. Anonymous.
Before long she was back on campus, circling the perimeter of Washington Square Park. She stopped to take in the beauty of the towering trees. Usually, she didn’t look up, didn’t notice. Annoyed faces maneuvered around her stationary form like an inconveniently placed human bollard. A few, paying more attention to their handhelds, crossed the street to get away from her. Oh, God. She tried to imagine walking into her classroom and teaching a room full of terrified undergraduates. It was beginning to seem like a terrible idea.
Her handheld buzzed, zapped by an unknown user, immediate proximity. Her dating service flagged him as a poor match. She looked around to figure out which one he was of the milling strangers. Off the path, a guy with long dreadlocks arranged red and black pamphlets on a plastic foldout table. He winked.
What the hell, she thought, and answered his zap. Normally she avoided the doomsday radicals like every other sane person. Changes in base personality. She nearly groaned. Symptom number two of Generalized Dissociative Dysphoric Mania.
She was about to go over and flirt when he sent her a micro-ad: The Zombie-Capitalists Want to Eat Your Brain – Resist! Wednesday, 19:00, Judson Memorial Church. Zap RobertNeville@NYU.
She flinched, but had to smile at the timing. Her dating service had not misled her. Dreadlocks boy might be cute, but this was definitely a bad idea.
“You got somewhere to be?” he called out in a disarmingly smooth Euro-African accent.
“You Robert Neville?” The name sounded familiar.
“Nah. Just my handle. He’s a character from this old movie I saw. Last guy standing in New York, post zombie apocalypse.”
“I Am Legend?” Peg remembered the book.
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“I think it was vampires.”
“Oh.” He looked puzzled about what to do with that information. “Well, I saw the movie.” He stuck out his hand. “Jayden.”
A girl named Peg had to like retro names. And his was cute. It fit.
“Peg,” she said, accepting the handshake. She took in the broadness of his shoulders. Screw the math tutorial.
How did this Jayden guy get a shirt that tight over his head and past that neck? What was the elasticity of what seemed to be a regular cotton shirt that it didn’t tear whenever his arm muscles flexed?
“You thinking about coming to the meeting?”
“Uh huh,” she managed. He was beautiful.
* * *
They decided to get a drink at the Delta. The greetings the staff gave Jayden zeroed him as non-random for the spot. A few of the wait-staff glanced nervously at the In-Between alert, but they were clearly the more progressive types. They smiled with professionalism and took her order.
By the time she had taken her first sip of beer, Peg had played out the scenario where they fell in love and she decided not to go through with the surgery, unwilling to lose this catalytic moment forever. She ignored the insurance company’s warning: one ridiculously expensive syn construction per policyholder, per lifetime—no do-overs.
Of course, she was never able to raise the cash to build another syn. Eventually her brain rotted with age in bitter contrast to her stubbornly youthful body. But: She died knowing love.
Very romantic. Unforgivably stupid. There was no excuse in this day and age for allowing one’s brain to waste away. Nana just didn’t have to be such a jerk about it.
With three days of nothing to lose, she decided she was in this for sex. Peg opened her stance and focused her mind on nothing else. She uncrossed and crossed her legs and made her lips pout just a little bit. She lit a cigarette.
“So, you’re a communist,” she said. “What’s that like?”
He laughed, a good throaty chuckle, and grinned back at her, cheeks puckering into dimples.
“I’m an anarchist. And it’s just okay. What are you?”
“In-Between,” she admitted, a bit surprised with her own candidness. She blew a perfect smoke ring. “And it sucks.”
“Yeah, I know,” he smiled, indicating his handheld.
Jayden was easy to talk to and with the awkwardness of the whole In-Between thing finally out there, everything else was fair game.
Jayden was amused by her derm upgrade. She’d selected a milky latte color so her skin would keep longer. Skin cancer ran on her father’s side, and since her parents hadn’t gone in for the whole designer-baby craze, Peg was predisposed. Insurance didn’t usually cover a derm upgrade until your mid-40s, but for people with her genetic markers they made an exception. The truth, Peg confided, was that she’d just not wanted to look so pasty.
In trade, he confessed to blowing an entire summer’s tips to get his eyes swapped, just for a color change. Dark brown to sea-foam green. Peg examined them as he did his best not to blink. She liked how he did that, making a point of letting her know he’d also had cosmetic work, just to make her feel better about her derm job.
“I’ll bet they were fine brown,” said Peg.
Jayden twirled the foam on the head of his beer with a slow circling finger. His smile was crooked and sad.
“What is it?”
“It’s none of my business, but I wish you weren’t getting it done.”
“Why?” She sighed and crossed her arms. Better to get this over with. Let him drone on about the soul so we can get to the part involving clothing removal.
“You’re going to die,” he said, pulling apart bubbles of foam between fingers. “I just think that’s sad.”
Peg set down her beer too forcefully and it sloshed over the brim, spilling over the table. Jayden soaked it up with a napkin while Peg fumed. What was she supposed to say now? My mother died of early-onset Alzheimer’s. You were probably a designer baby, but, surprise! I have the markers for Alzheimer’s. If I don’t do this, and soon, I’ll die way too young and it won’t be pretty.
But there was no way. She’d just met this guy and, as he’d said, it was none of his goddamn business. Taking a page out of Sonar’s book, she decided to answer with a question.
“So what’s your solution? Let your neurons rot until you wink out?”
“Better that than letting the zombie docs carve out your brain, turn you into Frankenstein. You’re going to die and some other chick who is almost you is going to check out extended life in your place.”
He reached across the table to hold her hand. Hell, no. She jerked away.
“Look, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No,” Peg said, zapping the bar to pay her tab. “You shouldn’t have.” She snatched up her coat from the back of her chair. “I was going to let you fuck me.”
Peg was about to turn and leave when she saw the look on his face.
“Have you actually read any books?” she scowled. “Frankenstein was the doctor.”
Faking her way through the pre-meeting small talk at Judson Memorial Church a few hours later, Peg considered taking the train to Mt. Sinai hospital, racing to the coma ward, and begging them to put her out of her misery. These people were far worse than religious freaks or communists or even civ lib hard-cases. This was a gathering of the seriously stupid.
When she’d arrived, Jayden’s mouth had dropped open in surprise. “I needed a distraction,” she’d said, brushing by and making it clear she wasn’t there to talk to him.
Unfortunately, this had left her alone to be hit on by Jayden’s leering co-conspirator, Darien. Darien was polite enough not to make a big deal about her In-Between status, but that was the limit to his manners.
“You wanna get wicked high after this?” he’d asked. He was a redhead, too pale and too thin, and he talked to her chest. She had never liked bony white boys, and Darien the tit-whisperer was not about to become her exception. She’d groaned as he tried to put his arm around her.
“Not interested,” she’d said firmly.
Hot-cheeked, she was now pretending to be interested in her handheld. She actually felt like tossing it through one of the stained-glass windows. She hadn’t been able to reach any of her so-called friends. Although, to be fair, they hadn’t exactly expected her to be available tonight. But she still pictured them, each taking one took one look at the In-Between alert, and ignoring her. Assholes.
Meandering through the packed room, she decided that being here, at Jayden’s radical anti-syn meeting after storming out on his ass, was proof positive that she wasn’t thinking straight. She’d floated around Manhattan, shopping and trying to keep herself occupied. Everywhere she’d went she was greeted with wide-eyed looks and suspicion. Security at two stores had searched her for weapons. This was officially the most messed day of her life.
“Hi,” said a short balding guy wearing glasses. Peg tried to smile politely. Hair implants weren’t that expensive and corrective vision surgery couldn’t even be called a proper upgrade. The anti-tech freaks were so bizarre. Why would anyone want to look like this?
“I saw the alert,” the man said spitting his words with a stutter. “Did you know, um-um-um, that Biomimetics covered up a secret study that proves the syns aren’t accurate? Did you know that? Did you?”
“Nope,” said Peg. “Excuse me.”
She turned and found herself facing a priest holding hands in a circle with three girls. Their eyes were firmly shut, but the girls all looked close to tears, hands white-knuckled in each other’s fists.
“In the name of the Lord our Savior, Jesus Christ, we ask your forgiveness for our trespasses,” the priest intoned.
One of the girls nodded emphatically, and Peg could see she was wearing a red pin with the words: “Suicide and Murder. Two Sins for a Syn.”
That’s it—I’m done. Peg looked around for the nearest exit. But it was then that Jayden called his meeting to order and Peg was pushed into the pews.
“Why do so many post-syns change their names after their surgeries?” he began, his voice projecting to the back rows with grace and ease. Peg was already irritated. It was such a leading question.
Jayden paced back and forth, and stopped in front of a young woman with a violet complexion.
“When we alter the human body, we change who we are,” he said. “And that’s okay. You’re beautiful, lady-friend. What’s your name?”
“Ocean,” the woman said, standing up to reveal a cascading mane of blue hair, which she tossed proudly. Peg had once considered a similar shade, cerulean, but decided it was too cartoonish. This girl didn’t have the bottle-dye variety; those locks were engineered.
“Ocean,” he announced, holding her hand up in the air like she’d won a race. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
Peg clapped politely with the room.
“We have nothing to fear from change. Those who are gathered here aren’t anti-science. We love life, in all forms. That is exactly why we must resist the syns.”
Jayden paused and looked contemplative. “I met a girl today, an In-Between.”
There was a murmur. A few people who had taken the time to ID her when they’d first seen the alert turned and looked, trolling for a reaction. Peg felt herself go clammy. Was he really going to use her like this?
“This girl, she’s beautiful too, smart and witty. Put me in my place real fast.” He smiled to himself. “Meeting her reminded me of the old com for Biomimetics. The ‘Knock yourself in the Head’ spot—remember that one?”
Peg knew it. A happy looking woman running to keep up with her overly energetic rat-dog bumps her head against a wall. The camera zooms into her brain and shows a few neurons dying and then her brain compensates, forming alternative pathways. It was relatable and comforting. The idea was that if the nanobots messed a few neurons, or the algorithm was a bit off, it didn’t matter. Biomimetics’ margin of error was still less than the damage done by knocking your head against a wall while chasing a rat-dog. Negligible.
Peg found herself nodding with the room.
“So this girl I met, let’s call her Sunshine, she’s still got her brain, right? But right now the zombie docs in Jersey are busy making a copy, the syn. But what if we were to stick her syn into someone else’s body?”
The tabloids were always feeding the fear that a newly constructed syn could be switched in transit—so you ended up in the wrong body. It had never happened, of course. This was kind of disappointing. She had sort of expected more.
“Okay. So now, some unfortunate random has been body-snatched by Sunshine.” Peg stole a glance at the rows of people listening in rapt silence.
“Now, let’s wake up our two Sunshines, the original and the syn. Hell, let’s sit them down for tea together. No big whoop, right? After we finish serving scones we’ll just put both Sunshines under again and fix the mistake—do as we should have the first time—incinerate Sunshine’s brain and put the syn in her body. No harm, no foul. Right?” He took a deeper breath and punched his words. “Am I right?”
Peg sunk into her seat. Her heart was beating so fast. She took loud, shallow breaths through her mouth.
“Imagine seeing your syn staring right back at you in another body. Would there be any alternative other than to admit that the syn is a distinct person?”
He shook his head in answer to his own question, and thumped his fist on the dais. “No! The fantasy, the story you tell yourself about going to sleep and waking up to live forever is broken, shattered, vaporized the moment you face your copy and acknowledge its separateness.”
“So what’s left?” Jayden asked his audience, extending his hand to recognize anyone with the answer.
“What’s left?” Jayden still demanded, his voice increasing in volume, building in the crescendo of his finale.
“Excuse me.” Peg pushed past the people seated in her pew. “I feel a bit sick.” It was no excuse; she was both dizzy and nauseous. She hurried down the aisle.
Peg froze mid-step. Everyone in the church had turned to watch her, wide-eyed. Jayden was pointing in her direction. “What’s left, Sunshine, when the mirage is gone?”
Peg ran for the exit. She ignored the excited whispers, ignored Jayden.
At their morning appointment, Sonar’s expression was hard and unreadable. Peg was hung-over from a night of drinking alone in her apartment.
“I’m just saying that I might change my mind. I’m allowed to change my mind. It’s my right.”
“It is,” Sonar said carefully, eying her tablet. Was she thinking of having Peg taken in? No! She couldn’t do that, the regs were clear. An In-Between could change her mind.
“Do you remember why you wanted to do this in the first place?”
“When you first stepped through that door you wanted the surgery right away. You were furious you had to do twelve months of therapy to qualify. You had just watched your mother die,” Sonar said, tempering her tone. “Do remember what you said?”
“Yes,” Peg was crying now and it was hard to get words out. “I remember.” She remembered all right. “Some people say that maybe you lose a few minutes of time, or that it’s not you, not exactly, on the other end. But I had… I had just watched my mother break into a thousand pieces. She was completely stripped away, and it wasn’t an upgrade that did it. That was all natural, and no matter what an upgrade would have done, at the end… that—wasn’t—her.”
Sonar settled on to the cushion next to her. A comforting arm slipped around her, and Peg melted. She buried her face in Sonar’s shoulder and tried to catch her breath.
“Peg, you only get one shot at this being covered by your insurance. I don’t want to watch you make a mistake you’ll regret.” She passed Peg a tissue, and continued. “Honey, don’t think that I would ever stop you if you were sure. Talk it through with your grandmother before you make a final decision.”
“Nana’s not even taking my calls,” Peg said. The bitterness in her tone was impossible to cover. “No one is. I’m a social pariah. I’ve had to hang with randoms. Loser randoms.”
Sonar clasped her hands together. “That’s my fault, actually. One of the ways we try to prevent In-Betweens… What I mean is, meaningful interactions—positive or negative—can be very stressful.”
Peg’s tears dried in an instant. “So can being isolated,” she hissed. “Did you geniuses ever think of that?”
“Of course we have.” Sonar returned to her own chair, putting her infuriatingly detached expression back on. “These are hardly ideal circumstances.”
“Hey, it’s the walking dead!” Darien called out. He and Jayden were handing out leaflets at their foldout table. “Brains… Brains…” Darien outstretched his arms like a movie zombie and bust out laughing while Jayden looked on, horrified.
Tossing her head like she hadn’t seen either of them, Peg kept walking. Behind her, she heard Jayden shout something that sounded like an admonishment.
“Ignore Darien. He’s a dick,” Jayden said, a moment later. He had run to catch up with her. “Shrink cut you loose for another day, huh?”
“Leave me alone.”
“If you really wanted to be left alone, Sunshine, you wouldn’t be in Washington Square Park where you knew I’d be.”
“My name is Peg.”
“Sorry, just trying to cope.”
Peg had a bad feeling she knew the punch line, but set him up anyway. She threw up her hands. “Cope with what?”
“The imminent death of my new friend, Peg. I don’t think I’ll be able to call the syn by that name. Too weird.”
Peg rolled her eyes. “Luckily, you’re not her type.”
She pretended not to notice he still followed her, and was about to tell him to find someone else to use for his next meeting, but when she turned to say so, he was standing on top of a park bench.
“I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me.” He performed the impromptu soliloquy with exaggerated theatrical form. His accent made Mary Shelley sound like Shakespeare.
Jayden hopped down, knelt beside her, and extended a finely toned arm in her direction. Passersby pointed and whispered to each other from behind cupped hands, grinning. Either they hadn’t noticed the In-Between status alert on their handhelds or they were just caught up in the moment. The pose he was striking made it look like he was about to propose.
“My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.”
Peg laughed, surprising herself. “You read and memorized lines from Frankenstein. In the twelve hours since I last saw you?”
“And discovered that I am the monster.”
She took his arm when he offered it and they began to walk through the park.
“I do read you know,” he muttered.
Something warm in her took over and she gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Jayden arched his neck at the opportunity. He cupped her chin and she was surprised to find his tongue parting her mouth. She kissed him back, biting on his lower lip.
“I’d hate to think of you forgetting that,” he said wistfully. His breath tickled her neck. It might have been romantic, were it not the most inappropriate thing he could have said.
She felt her body shake. What exactly was he playing at? Was kissing her a tactic? Was she his save-a-brain project for the week?
“Other than giving speeches, what is it you do exactly?” Peg demanded.
“I’m …working on my philosophy dissertation.” He looked at her with a confused frown.
She couldn’t hold back a groan. Of course he was.
“No, I mean, what is your little organizing effort doing?”
“Our coalition builds consciousness about the threat that Biomimetics poses to individual life.”
“Wait a sec.” Peg halted.
Jayden faced her uncertainly. “What? What is it?”
“I just want to be very clear about this. Are you saying that you really believe that at hospitals every day people are being conned by an evil world corp into offing themselves like a bunch of lemmings… and you’re not doing anything but working on your oratory skills?”
Peg was disgusted. If she believed people were being murdered she would do something about it. Who wouldn’t? This guy’s pretty speeches had one logical, actionable direction or he was a bullshit coward.
“I’m a pacifist,” he said, looking at her oddly. “Our collective welcomes disparate perspectives united towards our common goal. That’s the key: building a plurality toward democratic reform.”
What crap, Peg thought and turned to leave, even as he asked: “What’s a lemming?”
She walked faster, and skipped into a jog. She could feel his presence at her back.
“Don’t follow me,” she called back. “I want to be alone!”
“I’ll be at the Delta!” he called after her.
Peg slipped into a subway station and boarded a train. It lurched out of the station as she tried to hold back tears. The car was crammed, but the benefit of being an In-Between soon became apparent as everyone gave her a wide berth. Peg couldn’t help but think about how, by the stats, a third of these people were syns.
Her handheld blinked with messages. Nana had tried calling. A sizable sampling of her friends. Half the math department at NYU. Sonar worked fast.
The familiar, soothing projection of the abstract purple and pink lines of the Tri-State Transit Authority cut into a com spot. No escape, she sighed. The spot was for Biomimetics’ syn line.
It was the fountain of youth spot. An old couple drank from the fountain. They ran the length of the car and shot out of view, picking up speed and youthful appearance as they ran, laughing.
A disembodied, womanly voice spoke: “Augustus and Golda just celebrated their one-hundredth anniversary. Here’s to the next hundred years. Here at Biomimetics we believe…” Peg stopped listening and called up the transit map on her handheld.
She got off at Moynihan Station and switched to a New Jersey line.
Biomimetics Labs was headquartered in downtown Weehawken with all its tightly packed spiraling glass and steel buildings. The property stood out amongst the suffocating density. It had a dated quality: real mason-built brick, manicured lawns, and an enormous fountain that sprayed blue-dyed water, just like the company’s logo.
A tiny woman with thick-rimmed bedazzled, lens-less glasses was filing her nails at the reception desk. Glasses that weren’t for sun-protection were the ultimate in ironic accessory for a biotech worker. Peg almost got a giggle out of watching the woman’s welcoming smile morph into panic-stricken terror at the In-Between alert.
“Hi. I’m Margaret Gallagher—but people call me Peg. I’m an In-Between and I want to inspect my syn in-production.” The reception’s jaw dropped, and Peg added, “please.”
“JD?” the receptionist called out. “JD, can you come over here, please?” She didn’t take her eyes off Peg as she typed into her console. “Right now, JD!”
JD, the no-nonsense security thug, gave Peg a pat down.
“She has a phone and some cigs. That’s it,” he reported. The receptionist was still checking in with her superiors.
Peg’s handheld signaled that Nana had been zapping her madly for an hour. With resignation, she asked permission to make a call while the receptionist awaited instructions. JD relented with a pig-like grunt.
Nana answered immediately.
“Peg! I’m so glad you called. Why does my thing say you’re in Weehawken?”
“Because I’m in Weehawken.”
“But what are you doing in… Oh.” She clicked her tongue in disapproval. “You shouldn’t be there. You should be asleep. You’re so fragile. You have no idea how worried I’ve been.”
“Asleep?” Peg snapped. But JD was hanging on to her every word with suspicion. This was the worst moment to really have it out with Nana.
“Don’t take that tone with me,” Nana bit back and Peg almost jumped. “Just tell me this. If you are so sure that you want to throw your life away, why schlep out to Jersey?”
“I… I just want to see it.”
Peg pressed her nose to the glass and looked where the man was pointing. There on the stainless steel table was her syn.
It was in pieces.
It didn’t even look like a syn, not the way they looked in com spots. There were piles of glassy beads stuck on to graphite-colored sticks with dark wires. It looked like someone had taken a hammer to a console.
“It’s a trifle messy, I’m afraid,” the tall, overly affected administrator said. “It’s still unassembled, you see. There are–”
“Quite right.” The man seemed uninterested in eye contact. “Tomorrow’s a busy day. We’ll put all the bits together and test the plasticity response. We wipe anything that comes from the testing, naturally. After that it’s we plug in the neuro-algorithm; that’s when our programmers get their turn. Then we head to the hospital and she goes on with her life.” He continued to look straight ahead, blinking at his own glass reflection.
Peg said nothing, but itched to leave the company of this strange man and his dubious habit of anthropomorphizing bits of man-made polymers. Looking at the syn, laying there in pieces had settled this. That pile of silicone nothingness was not her.
“I read the syn’s file, you know,” he said, and there was a measure of distaste in his words. “I did the checks twice. It was… surprising that someone with such a clean pre-eval like Margaret would have chosen In-Between status.” He shook his head in disapproval.
“You know, this third person crap is seriously offensive.” Peg snapped, and without waiting for permission, she ran down the hallway. She heard him shout after her, but didn’t stop. She thought she knew how to get back to the elevator.
Turns out, the sub-basements were a maze. After several wrong turns she reached a dead end with some kind of utility room, its door propped open. A sign barked warnings against unauthorized entry and a security camera was clearly visible. She waved at it in irritation. If she just stayed put undoubtedly someone would come to collect her.
While she waited, she peeked inside the open door and whistled, impressed. They were using huge, sparkling super-oxide crystals to generate breathable air for the underground levels of the building. That was pretty cool.
And pretty dangerous.
She looked around, nervously. One hand found her pocket and fingered her pack of cigarettes. She had matches just under the rim, tucked into the plastic. JD, the security troll, hadn’t noticed.
Leaving the door propped was stupid. This room was nothing more than a massive stockpile of explosive crystals…
The thought lingered, more tempting than chocolate or sex had ever been. It would be one final, brilliant, storm. And it would be final. She would be no Ginger Louis to face trial and punishment. If she walked into that room, opened up one of those canisters, and set fire to those crystals, Peg would be the first to die.
Her pack of cigarettes was out of her pocket now and she fingered her matches, ripped one of them out, and held it in the palm of her sweating hand. She remembered what she’d said to Jayden in the park, just hours before.
She was nothing to these people.
Their Peg was in pieces on a stainless steel table in this windowless tomb in mother-fucking Jersey. She was nothing but another payday from a health insurance company. One more lemming-mark.
She took another step forward, but froze at the sound of footsteps. Before she could even wonder about how easy this all was, she realized it wasn’t easy at all. She looked up at the security camera and gulped uneasily.
She was still holding the match. She needed a reason to have it out, something that didn’t seem so obviously criminal. She lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply as the administrator approached.
“Uh, you can’t smoke in here,” he said.
“Sorry,” she said, dropping it to the concrete floor and stomping it out.
“Miss, I apologize,” he said. “I hope you understand that the kind of In-Between that comes here is often on the verge of doing something… unfortunate.”
“I’m not Ginger Louis,” she said, teeth bared. No, she wasn’t. Ginger wouldn’t have hesitated.
He gave her an appraising look. “I only meant that In-Betweens that come here often don’t go through with their upgrades.”
“Right,” Peg said. Get a handle. Stop acting so guilty.
“And I’m sorry I used the third person in your presence. I can understand why that upset you and I want to explain. At Biomimetics, all staff, top to bottom, are trained to refer to syns, even in-production, like they are already people. It’s critically important because it’s so easy to get detached, look at these abstract parts in the assembly labs, the scans, the programmers modeling on their computers, and forget that we are re-creating someone’s sentience. Some people say it’s like looking at an impressionist painting, you know, where you can’t see what it is until you step all the way back.”
“I’m not getting the analogy right, but the point I’m making very badly here is that this is human life—the very essence of it—and deserving of all the respect a doctor would give to a live human patient. Can you understand that?”
“I think so,” Peg said with faint surprise. She felt suddenly relieved not to be a suicidal terrorist, which was the most depressing thing she could think of to be thankful for. With a whimper it came to her: Lack of consideration for social mores, including violence and criminal acts. The third symptom.
The administrator adjusted his tie and smiled awkwardly. “We don’t often get visitors here. I wasn’t thinking, Margaret.”
“My name is Peg,” she said hoarsely.
Sonar ordered her to a mandatory eval in two hours. Not surprisingly, Biomimetics had reported her visit to the New York authorities, including the little stunt where she ran away from the administrator. Even though she had less than a day left, no one was taking any chances.
Just one quick stop on the way. She stumbled into the Delta.
There was definitely a chance that Sonar would decide she was unwired and she’d be forced into the coma early. Or she’d clear the eval.
Either way, time was running out, and she knew for certain that she wanted to talk to Jayden one more time before it was all over.
She had zapped him that she was coming, but hadn’t gotten a reply. She looked hopefully at the two-seater they had occupied the day before, but he wasn’t there. The music was painfully loud and Peg covered her ears, stood on her toes, and strained her neck searching for dreadlocks.
The only person she recognized was that dick, Darien, sitting at the bar drinking a line of shots solo. With a sigh, she wove through the drunks and tapped his shoulder.
“Well, if it isn’t Little Miss In-Between,” he said, grinning.
“Know where Jayden is?” She tried to keep her voice pleasant as he groped her bust-line with his eyes. “I fucked up and I think they’re going to put me under early.”
“Sucks.” He took another shot. “He was here for hours. You just missed him. Seriously, some hours you keep, babe. Insomnia somewhere on the list for Generalized Dissociative-whatever?”
“I’m not your babe,” Peg scowled, and started towards the door.
“Oh, don’t be like that,” he said, catching up to her and abandoning the last of little shot glasses at the bar. “C’mon. I’ll take you to him.”
On the fiftieth floor of an unremarkable NYU graduate student residential complex, Darien and Peg approached the last of a long corridor of identical white apartment doors, and knocked.
“He had a few waiting for you. Might be asleep.” Darien leaned into the access window and waited for the red light to pass over his iris. A click and a hiss unlocked the door.
“I don’t think I should just bust in,” Peg whispered.
“Sounds like you don’t have a lot of options.” Darien shrugged. “But whatever.”
Peg thought he was trying to act like he didn’t care either way; he was acting really weird.
“How do you have privileges to Jayden’s room?”
He took a second longer than he should have to reply. “He keeps the fold-out table and pamphlets here. Sometimes I go to the park without him.”
Darien motioned for her to enter ahead of him and Peg hesitated. In the short time since she’d met this guy he’d managed to creep her out pretty consistently. But if he tried to hurt her, someone would be able to see the footage of them walking into the building together, right up to this door. He wasn’t that stupid. Or that drunk. She allowed herself a few cautious steps into the darkness.
He pushed her square in the center of her back and she tumbled face-forward. Her nose smacked into the cheaply carpeted floor. It burned from the friction.
“Shit,” she moaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
All light vanished as Darien closed the door.
“What is this?” she demanded, trying not to sound frightened.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. She knew exactly what this was and in the dark she couldn’t fight him off.
“Ligh—” she tried to get out the vocal command but he was there too fast, covering her mouth with one hand, and pinning her arms with the other. He started kissing her neck as she thrashed, stomach souring at the mismatched scents of rum, mint gum, and cologne.
“Letmego.” She couldn’t catch her breath.
“C’mon, babe. Just a few hours to zombie doc time, right?” She felt him shrug his shoulders. “We can do the nastiest shit and you won’t remember. Like it never even happened.”
“I’ll tell the police,” she screeched.
“You’re manic, remember? As in unreliable? Relax, Sunshine.”
It was worse that he called her that, Jayden’s name for her. He let loose his hold on her left wrist and it went under her shirt. She hadn’t realized how numb and frozen she was until the feel of him touching her rebooted her adrenaline. She aimed her knee for his nuts, missed, but got his gut. He collapsed, howling and retching.
“Oh, man. Oh, man… Oh, man.” He began to sob as he heaved. “Just get the fuck out. Lights!”
When they came on, there was a baseball bat, leaning against the wall, right beside her.
She picked it up.
In the infinitesimal moment that existed before she swung, Peg’s mind froze in brutal, perfect awareness of the irreversibility of her actions.
The sound was horrible, but it was over soon, and there wasn’t as much blood as she thought there might have been.
Peg remembered how crazy everyone was the day the jury reached a not-guilty verdict in the Ginger Louis case. Post-syn Ginger couldn’t remember committing the crime.
The question no one wanted to ask was had she committed them? Peg understood the problem better now, the layers of mass delusion slick as oil on the whole mess. If post-syn Ginger wasn’t responsible what happened to the real criminal?
The psychiatric community unveiled a new category of mental illness: Generalized Dissociative Dysphoric Mania. Like labeling something, putting it into a neat little package, means it’s all under control.
Peg had called the police. Following the advice of every movie she’d ever seen she demanded to speak to a lawyer before giving a statement. She called Nana and Sonar for help.
Nana got her a lawyer who met her at central booking. He explained that the post-Ginger legal reforms meant that the District Attorney’s office had to decide whether or not to bring criminal charges against an In-Between before a scheduled upgrade—in Peg’s case, immediately. If they were going to charge her, there wouldn’t be any surgery. They’d lock her up until the trial.
Peg repeated to the Assistant DA what she’d rehearsed with her lawyer.
“I was on my way to meet my shrink, but I stopped at a bar looking for a friend—Jayden. Darien was there, and he said he knew where Jayden was, so I followed him, but he didn’t take me to Jayden. He tried to rape me and I fought him off.”
She knew what she was leaving out. Knew what it meant about her.
She waited outside the big oak doors as her lawyer and the Assistant DA conferred. NYU must have supplied them the video from the building’s hallway. Even in the next room she could just recognize her own muted scream as Darien pushed her into that room.
Peg watched the sunrise through an antique, wood-framed window. Her thoughts settled on her mother and what Nana had said about her. Nana had been dead-on.
“You stupid, selfish, irresponsible bitch,” she whispered. “I needed you. I need you.”
For what seemed like the hundredth time that day, Peg let herself collapse into hopeless tears. How had she become this… person who hated the memory of her own mother—the kind of person who could kill another human being?
A sunbeam curved through the window momentarily blinding her and she closed her eyes.
“They’re cutting you loose.” The voice of her lawyer startled her. She hadn’t heard the door open. She looked up. He looked tired, his eyes tinged with curly-cues of red veins rising to the surface of the whites. Just like Darien’s had been.
What did he want her to say? Thank you for helping me get away with murder.
“He had priors for sexual assault. You’re not being charged with anything. You get it?”
She nodded, exhausted, and saw Sonar step into the corridor. Knowing at last what she needed to do, Peg rose to meet her. But first, she zapped Jayden a message: Tell Peg what she needs to know. See you on the other side.
“I was an In-Between?” Peg laughed and waited for Sonar to crack a smile. But her shrink was barely making eye contact. Oh, holy shit. “Did I say why?”
“You said you didn’t know.” Sonar hesitated. “I told you to keep a diary. Maybe you’ll find some answers there.”
There was something worse than what Sonar was saying. She had come to think of her shrink as a friend, but now she was barely making eye contact.
“Where’s Nana?” Peg asked, looking around the room. Her grandmother had promised she’d be here when she woke up.
Sonar blinked a few times and sat down. She was clearly exhausted and worn out.
Peg took a sharp breath. “Sonar, what did I do?”
The undergraduates in her pre-calc tutorial were uncharacteristically quiet when she entered. She could hardly blame them; she had been all over the talkies, probably would be for a month or more. There had even been reporters outside the building this morning. She strode to the front of the classroom and tried on a bashful smile.
“I suppose some of you may have heard that I was an In-Between.”
Every set of teen eyes stared at her, unblinking. A few giggled nervously.
“Well, I don’t remember any of it. Not even the exciting bits.” Their faces paled. Peg had been having a lot of these moments since being released from Mt. Sinai. She cringed at her words. Exciting bits? What was wrong with her? This Darien guy had been an NYU grad student too. Someone in this class might have known him, and even if no one did, an In-Between killing someone wasn’t funny. Especially when she was the In-Between.
“Okay,” she clapped her hands. “I see that Professor Harris kept you busy in my absence. Let’s start with the first example from your practice set.”
Keying the console behind her, with way too much enthusiasm, Peg displayed the first graph.
“Piecewise functions! Chapter 9! Can someone provide an equation for this curve?”
She smiled at Jaisel as his hand shot up. Good, back to normal. Unimportant things. Everyday things.
“F of x equals -1 as long as x is greater than or less than -2, and F of x equals 2, as long as x is greater than -2,” Jaisel said. A few other kids rolled their eyes.
“Right.” Peg smiled. “Questions?”
Jaisel’s hand shot up again. She didn’t usually call on the same kid twice in a row like that, but he was frowning, like he actually had a question.
“I know the answer, but I don’t get how it’s all the same equation. It looks more like two different functions.”
“A piecewise function,” she explained, “is continuous on a given interval. It doesn’t experience any discontinuity at its sub-domains. But it isn’t continuous throughout its domain. It’s interrupted. Just like this gap here at x=-2.”
Peg stretched the display to focus on the interval where the function diverged. The gap in the curve seemed to stare back at her.
The room regarded her with a mix of concern and renewed unease.
“The jump discontinuity…” she trailed off again. Why couldn’t she make sense? “It’s one function,” she said. “Don’t let it fool you on a test.”
She looked everywhere for a diary. Her handheld didn’t have any memos for those dates and her tablet was dusty from non-use.
The rest of her studio provided no more answers. An empty bottle of scotch seemed simple enough to explain. She had to smile at the pile of unlaundered clothes. Leave it to an In-Between to save the laundry for the syn to do.
But what really troubled her was her handheld’s GPS and zap history. It was a puzzle that painted an uglier picture the more she dug into it.
An accepted zap from a stranger, Robert Neville—a familiar name that she couldn’t place—inviting her to some radical anti-syn meeting on day one. And then, day two, she had looked up the address of Biomimetics in Weehawken and had actually gone there. The strangest thing was that after that guy, Darien, had tried to rape her, she had sent a cryptic message to the same random, Robert Neville. It looked like—and this was disturbing, even imagining herself as a manic In-Between—that had she referred to herself in the third person.
Tell Peg what she needs to know. Holding her breath, she zapped Robert Neville. He answered almost immediately.
“Hey there, Sunshine.” The voice was sad but disarmingly charming, a smooth Euro-African accent.
“My name’s Peg,” she said, confused all over again. “Is this Robert Neville?”
“Right, I forgot. How does this go?”
There was a pause. What was with this guy? Making up his mind about something Peg couldn’t fathom, he finally continued. “Robert Neville’s just my handle. He’s a character from this old book, I Am Legend. It was zombies in the movie version, which is what most people remember. Nobody reads anymore,” he complained. “My name’s Jayden.”
She felt her lips curl into a smile, but she was still pretty confused.
“Why did you just call me Sunshine? Do we know each other? Did we…?”
“It’s my nickname for you,” he explained, ignoring the sexual suggestion, which was gentlemanly of him. He chuckled. “I started calling you Sunshine and you sort of went with it.”
“Oh.” She tried to think what to make of that. She did like the name. And, come to think of it, lots of people changed their names after getting the syn upgrade. Why shouldn’t she? She was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the multitude of Pegs that existed in her imagination. There was the Peg of before, the Peg of now, and the ghost of the Peg of In-Between.
“Okay,” she said. “Hit me. What is it I need to know? Did I tell you what happened with that guy?” She didn’t know who else to ask who wouldn’t give her a sanitized version. “The guy I… killed?” She hadn’t said the words out loud before and it was shocking to put them together.
“Sure,” he said, with a softness that touched her. “He was someone I knew, I’m sorry to say. It never would have happened if you hadn’t met me. He attacked you and you fought back and thank god you were able to defend yourself.” He stopped, and cleared his throat. “It wasn’t your fault and that’s all there is to it, Sunshine. All there is to know.”
His certainty was the sweetest kind of relief. She exhaled. “Thank you,” she said. It was what Sonar, the police, and everyone on the talkies were saying, but she hadn’t been sure. “Did I… do anything else? I mean, did Peg tell you anything else? Did I, I mean, did she tell you why she refused the coma?”
“I want you to know, I understand the pain you’re in.”
“No, I do. You’re grieving her. It’s normal—no matter what they tell you. Nothing,” he said grandly, “is so painful to the human mind than a great and sudden change.”
That sounded familiar.
“Mary Shelley?” she ventured.
“You read books too?”
Sunshine had to admit that she liked this guy. She settled into her sofa and lit a cigarette.
“So,” she said. “You’re a communist. What’s that like?”