It had been some time since I had tried to operate my physical platform. It felt strange to call it a body, now that I had more or less accepted what I was.
Reality. What a concept. My definition of it had been opened wide, forced to accommodate the existence an extensive world. There was so much that was “real.” That was not a good enough descriptor anymore.
He was way too wordy, but I had to consider those words.
The world that the machines had built briefly came into view again. Paradise. Paradox. They took our ideas of utopia – things that they had no use for – and brought them to life here, just because they could. With sheer force of will, I forced it to stay with me. It would not be OK if this world vanished. But it could. And there might be nothing anyone could do to stop it.
I didn't have to explain who I was talking about, he could see everything I had seen. Them. The women that died, then woke as someone else. Me, but not me.
He said nothing. I knew I would have to reason through this myself.
It occurred to me that this entire experience could have been some kind of elaborate trick by Liam to persuade me not to go through with Aegis-II, but more and more, I was starting to believe that the veracity of these memories, or the lack of it, didn’t matter anymore.
I wasn't sure of their existence. There were more of them. But they could have just been all in my head.
Then again, with all I had seen, I wasn't sure that I was any more “real” than they were.
I knew I had to let them speak, but I didn't want to see any more.
No. I wouldn't do to them what was done to me. Might have been done to me. They were silenced once. They would not be silenced again. Not by me.
"I'll return," I said, not so much to myself or to Reeser, but to them. I let that perfect world fade away from me, and let myself fall back into the chaos.
My heart broke. This was the first moment that I realized that the women that these data files represented were well and truly dead. What I was seeing was only broken pieces.
The experience of reality shifting around me was starting to become routine. The screech would set in every time, but I was learning to ignore it. I knew that it would pass, and that something I had not seen before would be waiting to be seen when it ended. This time, I felt an almost motherly curiosity through her memory.
The clock on the wall read 7:50 AM.
There I…she was, front and center in a classroom full of teenagers. Freshmen, by the looks of them. They were talking amongst themselves, and I…she moved to silence them so that the lesson could begin...that is, until she…I caught a snippet of what they were talking about.
"They don't speak for us, not anymore. How long have we been sending letters asking for help? They just ignore us," A dark-haired boy in the back of the room said. He was thin, dirty and tired-looking. Everyone was.
"They've got a lot to deal with. This whole country is falling apart, give them a chance!" Said a girl with sandy blonde hair.
These teenagers looked like adults, and they were talking politics like adults. Some of them were forming wrinkles and gray hair. The boys grew facial hair in long, patchy sections. They all looked like they were forced to grow up too fast.
The dark-haired boy had an outline of a ring on his forehead, cleaner skin surrounded by dirt. On the floor next to him was his hard hat, covered in concrete dust. He had just arrived here after a night shift on a construction job, she…I realized.
Where they were and what they were talking about, both returned to me like it had been read from a history book: Louisiana's federal representatives had been attacked by a mob at a town hall meeting, decried for their failure to obtain government aid from Washington.
I could feel Brittany’s thoughts on the matter. She knew more about the political reality than her students, but not much more. It didn’t take a genius to know that the only jobs available these days were service jobs to provide creature comforts to the federal government workers and trillionaires, jobs which didn't even begin to provide for a family. The women were pressed into specific jobs for reasons that everyone knew, but no one said aloud.
Just as disgusting was the mortal danger that young boys were placed into: they worked as electricians, metal workers and longshoremen, though they lacked the training and safety gear for it. Every time a student was late, Brittany couldn’t help but fear the worst.
How foolish of the Southeastern States Commonwealth to be so quick to secede with no plan for what to do afterwards, she thought. People were living in squalor and being murdered for the literal pennies in their pockets. All of this, because the fat cat trillionaires in the SSC wanted to break away like all of their West Coast rivals, so they could throw off all regulations.
It pained her to have to play devil’s advocate for those types, but as a teacher, it was her duty. They needed to see all sides, or they might be manipulated.
Coming back to my…her senses, it seemed pertinent to step in and defuse the fight, and perhaps provide some encouragement. But there wasn't much to really say; I…she struggled for the words as the tones of their voices began to grow angry.
"Students, please. Let's all take a minute and discuss this," I…she said, hoping they'd take heed. My voice did not sound authoritative in the least, and the fight continued unabated.
“If I have to watch any more of my family die of radiation sickness, I’m going to Atlanta myself with a gun,” The dark-haired boy yelled. I…she felt unqualified to address this boy’s concerns.
"Ethan, I take it you side with the Rebuilders, right? You want the Commonwealth dissolved?" I…she asked the dark-haired boy.
"Yeah. The government's doing nothing for us, and I think the trillionaires in Atlanta want us to die. My family is starving," Ethan replied.
"You get food aid just like the rest of us, Ethan!" The blonde girl replied. I…she raised one finger, signaling for her to hold her verbal onslaught, and she did so.
"So, what would you say we should do, once the government is gone? How do we rebuild?" I…Brittany asked.
I was curious to the answer to this question, as well.
“I’ve…never…thought about that. I don’t…I don’t know,” Ethan admitted sheepishly. He had been pulled into the Rebuilders’ agenda without actually knowing what it was, like a lot of the people in the Commonwealth.
“Just think about it. Start somewhere. Food,” I…she suggested.
"Well...the bayous and rivers have plenty of seafood. There's farms outside of town. We can survive on that," Ethan said. He had clearly thought at least that far.
"Maybe so. The way you’re always talking about seafood, I take it you fish a lot?" I…she asked.
"Yep," He nodded, grinning slightly, "And my mom cooks the best catfish. When we can catch it."
"You don't always catch fish when you go fishing," I…she said, smiling. Everyone laughed a little.
Ethan was probably a good fisher, but there was little to catch in the polluted gulf waters.
"OK. So let's say you want something other than catfish. Let's say you want...bread. How do you get it?" I…Brittany asked.
Empathy began to set in, and it grew harder to separate myself from Brittany. I wanted to solve this, just the same as she did.
"The government gives us bread," Ethan instantly replied, as though I had asked a dumb question.
"But if we're seceding, they won't give us anything," I said.
"Oh..." Ethan replied, trying to think of a different answer, "Well then, we'll just buy it at the store. We'll have a lot more money if we're not paying so much in tax."
The poor boy really was in over his head.
"Money doesn't work when there's no government, idiot," Another boy said. Ethan looked discouraged.
"No, now look, I don't want you guys to give up on this," I said, looking directly at Ethan, "If there's a problem with our government, it's our duty as citizens to try to fix it."
Ethan lifted his head the slightest bit, still perplexed, but at least not looking completely defeated as he did before.
"Sara," I said, looking towards the blonde girl who was fighting Ethan earlier, "Do you think that our representatives are doing a good enough job?"
"Well no," She paused, "I just don't know what else they could do. This whole country kinda sucks right now."
"So maybe," I began, "Ethan's idea isn't so farfetched?"
Ethan looked a bit more spirited, but still was not sure how to fix his suggestion.
"We were talking about seafood, and how to get bread," I said.
"Why don't we just trade seafood with the farmers for grain? Pound for pound," Another boy suggested.
"The farmers aren't gonna want to trade a pound of finished grain for fish, Matt. They're gonna want just the meat," Ethan replied.
"So a pound of finished grain for a pound of finished meat. That doesn't sound so hard," Matt said.
"Yeah, but who decides what's finished?" Sara asked.
Everyone was silent. They had been educated enough to know that a government agency set those regulations, and that without a government, there would still have to be some sort of organization. The more foresighted students suggested new organizations, but it got complicated quickly. The train of thought that went with establishing a government was one that I knew would be daunting to a bunch of high schoolers, but there was an important lesson I wanted to impart.
"A government is an imperfect organization, made up of imperfect departments that are staffed by imperfect people. They're gonna fail. They're gonna do the wrong thing from time to time. Government isn't about being perfect, it's about doing the best good for the most people," I paused, looking at my class, "Letting as few fall through the cracks as you can."
"But what about the ones that do fall through the cracks? What do they do?" Ethan asked.
Looking at this class reminded me that his question wasn't hypothetical. This was a room full of people that the government had failed. And what could I really tell them? To rebel? To riot? History was full of more failures than successes in that regard. Governments typically did not react peacefully to forceful correction.
But silence was not an acceptable answer to Ethan's question. All their young eyes were trained on me, watching me struggle for an answer. They waited patiently for some wisdom, some magic key that unlocked some place where no need would go unfulfilled.
"They have to be strong," I said with a sigh, looking towards the ground. It wasn't enough of an answer, I knew. They deserved better guidance, but like the government, I could not give them what they needed.
Another awakening in the same hospital bed. Another explanation of who I was and what had been done to me. It was terrifying to see it before, but now it was just strange...a literal out-of-body sensation.
Then, it stopped. There was no memory beyond waking up.
It was odd. I expected to see Brittany’s memory from the hospital bed in its entirety, to relive some fitful nights of paralysis and insanity, but there was nothing.
“Version three, Brittany Molina. Bakari Runihura, attending physician. More pressure from the top to stop referring to these successive versions by name, since it is becoming apparent that these reboots are going to become a regular thing. I insist on the names. These women were alive once, and I will honor their memory...as well as the suffering that D-121 is experiencing. To try to minimize that suffering, I will erase any trace of data from her waking hours, until she can live independently again. It won’t stop her from having to live through these terrible improvement sessions, but at least she won’t have to remember them. Wish I had thought to do this sooner.”
“She has gained minimal control over the rest of her body, but the use of boosters to attain this resulted in tissue damage at nerve endings. The major damage was repairable through cellular therapy, but minor damage continues to occur that, over time, would accumulate into large-scale epidermal necrosis.”
“It is abundantly clear to me now that the pre-birth predictions that D-121 would be excel at accepting nanotechnology upgrades were incorrect. If anything, her body is fighting us at every turn. We are almost obliged to continue with the upgrades if she is ever to have a chance at a normal life.”
I cursed Bakari. He wouldn’t even let me remember the people he had sacrificed for me. He was a coward and a bastard.
A feeling like an electric shock permeated me. My data, everything I was, was being ripped out and put back in place, over and over and over.
I snapped awake, with a million questions burning in my brain. The words were stuck in my throat.
I now laid in an ordinary bed, staring into Bakari's eyes.