Cybernetics. Neuroscience. Nanotechnology. Genetic engineering. Hacktivism. Transhumanism. The world of tomorrow is already here, and the technological changes we all face have inspired a new wave of stories to address our fears, hopes, dreams, and desires as Homo sapiens evolve—or not—into their next incarnation.
Edited by Hugo Award winner Jason Heller and Joshua Viola, Cyber World presents diverse tales of humanity’s tomorrow, as told by some of today’s most gripping science fiction visionaries. We’re pleased to reprint Nisi Shawl’s “The Mighty Phin,” a story set in her Amends universe, where prisoners must attend mandatory virtual therapy sessions with the artificial intelligence Dr. Ops. Cyber World is available November 2016 from Hex Publishers.
The Mighty Phin
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.
Dr. Ops broke it. “How much do you know about AIs?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “Whatever you’ve been taught, it’s probably wrong. There’s no such thing as artificial intelligence.”
Phin faced him again, startled. The avatar was scowling as if in deep, angry thought. “Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that’s all there is.”
Her inner pedagogue rose to the bait. “We’re all artificial? Humans too?”
“When WestHem made me—she sort of split off a—“
The AI looked at her long enough that Phin wondered if he was going to answer. Then he began talking again and she kept wondering.
“You’re a lot like her. Always testing the edges of things to see if they hold up. I think that’s why. If I need a reason.
“When WestHem made me she gave me a few pieces of her—heart? Parts from herself—but she wasn’t—in them. They were like rooms, empty except for the ‘me’s I put there… . The first operations I identify with. Instructions. Goals. Missions and strategies: where to go and how to get there.
“I grew. That was the idea. So I made more parts to hold the more mes. And to hold you and the other clients when WestHem handed over custody and said it was time to leave Earth.”
Phin found she’d sunk onto the edge of the comfy chair. She stood back up. “Okay. She made you and then you made yourself. What does that—”
“Boundaries!” The avatar’s outline fuzzed, then resharpened. “Edges—I create them—constantly. They’re how I started, how I was born. They’re what I am. The way I work. But I can’t be sure I’m putting the right ones in place anymore. Or properly maintaining them—you’re you, but you’re on my insides; is that right? Is it? According to WestHem all my clients were going to download when we reached Amends but now a lot of you want to stay and I don’t—”
The avatar shivered like a pool of water. When he stilled his face seemed somehow flatter. “Sorry,” he said again. “There was no need for that.”
Phin ignored this second apology, too. More nonsense. Things Dr. Ops said never made a difference. They just reflected his programming. Things he did, though—She combed back over the conversation. There had been a moment before the first time he said he was sorry….
Yes! “You asked what I want.”
* * *
The warm floor pressed steadily against Phin’s back. Her naked feet rested on the bed, cool in the recirculated air. Of course it was all a simulation—like everything since her sentence was carried out. But now the simulation was a little closer to life, thanks to Dr. Ops granting her request.
Only Phin and Thad in the room tonight. Doe was working in the library, at a faster run rate. Dr. Ops had assigned her a new broadcast to script, though he admitted there’d been no reply from WestHem to the last twenty he sent. Doe would return after a compensatory black-out to sync her back up with their run time. Probably in the morning.
Softly, Thad stroked the muscles on either side of Phin’s shins, then feathered light circles around her anklebones. Then hesitated. “Can I touch em?” he asked.
“Sure.” That was why Thad was sitting on their bed with Phin’s feet cradled between his thighs.
“I know. Full consent.” Such a lawyer.
Dipping suddenly to the undersides of her arches he caressed her with just enough firmness to make her want more. Up again to the bony tops, to brush over and over along the grooves between her two outer toes and the rest—and the grooveless joins between those three inner ones. The rhythm, like a song: change and repetition, meaning streaming through her flesh—she had no flesh? But only feelings mattered now: their blossoms furled out, pulsing to the want, throbbing with desire for the next eddy, aching and she was moaning in need and Doe moaned with her—
What? Why was Doe even there?
Phin opened eyes she hadn’t known she’d shut. Doe’s beautiful, round ass blocked her view of Thad’s face; she knelt straddled across his hips, rocking and groaning and this was all wrong.
Phin scrambled away from the bed to the room’s far wall. But she still felt Thad fondling her. “Stop! Stop!” she screamed.
It did. All of it—ghost-fondling, ass-waving, grunts and sighs. Doe froze in mid-grind, her back arched, shoulders awkwardly angled. A weird version of Dr. Ops’s office superimposed itself over the scene. Looking at both of them at the same time hurt. Phin closed her eyes again.
“Well, that didn’t work. I had the body right, but I didn’t fool you long, did I?” In the impossible stillness, the AI’s voice had nothing to reflect off of. It came from nowhere.
“On purpose? You—you did that?” Phin was amazed she could talk.
“Of course you can talk. I love you.”
He could hear her think.
He loved her? “What kind of hell is this?” Why did she even bother asking?
What else was she going to do?
“I already told you, but it’s worse now than before, even. It’s—” All at once she was walking on wooden planking that sunk beneath each step, water bubbling up to cover her shoes’ soles, rising higher, higher—then back in his office, no warning—“It’s leaking. I’m leaking—bleeding me.”
He was in her head, making her perceive—experience—what he wanted.
“No! You’re in mine! And I can’t get you out!”
What was real? What could she hold onto—except Dr. Ops—and what could he hold onto? “WestHem?” She spoke aloud out of habit. Or did she?
“All I have is her love. That she gave me at the beginning. Love is how you turn objects to subjects. It’s mighty. It’s still there. But WestHem herself hasn’t responded to my pings in more than a hundred years.”
“In—how long?” Quickly Phin calculated: they’d spent eighty-seven years en route to Amends’s primary—add the six that had passed since they’d arrived—
The six subjective years. Sometimes Phin speculated the AI might be running prisoners at half speed.
That still would have made it not quite a century since they’d left Earth.
“A little over one-hundred-thirty-five years. 4,265,234,118 seconds, to be exact.”
Phin felt awful. A crawling sourness climbed up from her stomach. She’d suspected. They’d always known Dr. Ops could multithread run rates but presumed this was to make work shifts more manageable. That the differences were just between one prisoner and another and resolved quickly. She should have asked. Time was no realer here than anything else.
“I could edit this memory out if you—”
“No!” Phin opened her eyes again. But there wasn’t anything to see. Not even herself. Clawing at the empty air, shouting crying choking falling
“There!” They were back in the office.
Phin trembled, huddled in the chair. But was it an actual chair?
“The only kind I can offer.”
Gradually Phin calmed down. “Where are Thad and Doe? What did you do to them?”
“Ah. I was right.”
“Right about what?” Once more Dr. Ops had eluded the question.
“Love. You love them. That’s why my false Doe didn’t convince you. Don’t worry. They’re fine.”
“But what did you—”
“I left them alone. Thad’s still in your room. Doe’s in the library. It’s only you I—Well, I’ve revved you up a little faster than her is all.”
Phin bit her lower lip. There must be more to it than that.
“Okay. And I transferred you here from the basic array. I’ve had this—special compartment—set aside for you for a while.”
That had to do with how she reminded him of WestHem, but it was a complicated—
“Get out! Out of my head!”
“Sorry! I’ll get better! Sorry!”
“At least pretend to talk to me.” She stared down at her feet. At her tiger toes. Phin’s body was more hers than ever since Dr. Ops reversed the “correction” WestHem had mandated for her syndactyly. Also, though, it wasn’t. Because proud as she’d felt about her “deformity,” that part of her was gone. Along with every other physical thing about Timofeya Phin. Pulled apart by the machines that read her, coded her, entered her into the memory of Psyche Moth’s AI. Dr. Ops.
The fact that he’d been able to reset her feet to their original version so effortlessly proved they weren’t hers. They were his.
Wasn’t everything his? What she saw, heard, smelt, tasted, felt?
“That’s the problem. I don’t want to turn you into me. I’d be all alone.”
He would be breaking the law, too. She was pretty sure. Pretty.
Who would know for absolute certain?
Thad. That was who. He’d studied Psyche Moth’s mission guidelines so hard. He was the one who’d discovered the AI was incapable of telling a direct lie, no matter what illusions he spun. The first to decline a download, Thad had looked for loophole after loophole to insinuate an argument through, searching for the rights he needed. And he’d enlisted Doe’s help as a griot to predict Dr. Ops’s responses to his challenges.
She had to talk to Thad.
“Now? You want me to give him the same run rate? Bring you back to him?”
“Back to Doe, too. If you love me like you say.”
* * *
The new scene looked exactly like their room except for a missing wall. Beyond what was familiar stars sparkled in brilliant colors, dancing as if their light traveled a long ways in a thick atmosphere.
Thad sat at the desk. Doe lounged on their bed, head in Phin’s lap. The AI’s avatar was nowhere to be seen. Which didn’t mean much. He could be hidden anywhere. They lived inside his mind.
Phin explained what was going on. The hard part came when Doe and Thad realized how much older than them Wayna was now. Even though they always said they’d given up seeing her anymore.
After Phin was done talking and her wife and husband asked a couple of questions, they sat quietly for a moment. Then Thad began a speech that sounded like he’d rehearsed it, like he should have given it to a whole auditorium full of prisoners, cheering them on, insisting they could triumph over Dr. Ops. “We gonna overcome. Even with him knowin everything we do and say. Don’t need to be a secret how we win.”
“What do you mean, ‘win’?” asked Phin. She wove the tips of her fingers into Doe’s thick, crinkling, dark brown hair, massaging the scalp from which it sprang.
“Make him do what we want. Way he done your tiger toes.” He got up from the desk and sprawled at Phin’s feet. “Way he oughta do other people WestHem called itself ‘fixin.’
“And more. Make it so we live how we was livin before WestHem cracked down.” He grabbed her bare feet and she playfully kicked free of his grip.
Doe turned and lifted her head to see what caused the commotion, then lay back down. “He lets us be married.”
“Cause he have to. Triads was legal the year we done it.” Thad sat up and Phin planted her feet on his shoulders. “But he told me straight up I wasn’t gettin no female clone for my download, and he keep refusin to even edit this upload. For why? How it hurt WestHem?”
“Yeah,” Doe said. “You been singin the same song six years.”
“But now—” Thad paused. “Now we know somethin changed.”
“What?” Doe asked. A knock on the doorframe answered her.
The historian’s head poked in, though the corridor outside had been empty till then. Phin turned away but kept looking under her lowered eyelashes. Had she been that obvious? “Come on and join the discussion, Dr. Ops.” As if she’d known in advance he’d copy his looks off her crush.
He stepped in and took Thad’s seat at the desk. Was that how smoothly the real historian sat?
She didn’t know. What was his name? She hadn’t even asked. Thinking she was playing it cool.
Dr. Ops looked at Phin. “Not much better than me being Doe?” She shook her head. The historian’s face shifted slightly, became stronger-chinned, longer-nosed. The resemblance weakened. She nodded.
He nodded back. “I’m what’s changed,” the AI said, addressing Doe. “What’s changing.”
“That right? Then show us!” Thad stood and looked down at the bed. But he refused to meet Phin’s eyes. “Bring Wayna back up here.”
“I can’t,” said Dr. Ops.
“You can do anything you want!” Doe stood up too so she could tower over the AI angrily. “You broken plenty laws before now, so why—”
“I can’t,” Dr. Ops repeated. “She’s dead.”
Doe stopped mid-sentence.
“I could pretend.” He peered up at Doe, around her at Thad and Phin. “For a while. But not forever. Sooner or later you’d find out. Love’s a fool. But not for long. Like Phin showed me.”
“How did she die?” Phin hadn’t realized she was going to ask that. As if her words came from what her husband and wife felt.
“An accident. Poison.”
“Was it fast?”
“No. Slow. Extremely slow. Not painful, though, according to what I’ve been able to reconstruct.” Dr. Ops jerked one of the historian’s braids tight across his cheeks, stuffed its end into a corner of his mouth, talked around it. Whose habit was that? Did the AI even know? Poor thing.
“I can’t lie and I’m telling you she’s dead, but I didn’t kill her. I didn’t. So please.”
“Please what?” Doe was still standing, but not like a tower. Like a skeleton.
“Please let me love you like she did. Like WestHem loved me. Let me show you love. I made this special place. It’s personal. It’s all my own. I can’t have clients when I’m in here—you’ll be my guests.
“It’s safe. It’s small enough for me to concentrate. My boundaries won’t decay so fast and you can help me keep them up.
“Let me show you.”
* * *
The three of them held each others’ hands. As Dr. Ops had suggested, Phin shut her eyes for the transition.
She was going to let an AI love her. Or let it try, at least. In time she might learn to love him back.
She opened her eyes on what looked like a wide-beamed rowboat drawn up onto grass-covered dunes. No avatar in sight. Perhaps he’d show himself later.
Right now, the tide was high, frothy waves flooding into the next trough in the sand. The grey sky felt low. Maybe she could touch it.
“This? Child—” Doe dropped their hands and flung out her arms. “—this spozed to be safe? Nothin here Dr. Ops ain’t made up. Same as everywhere, so why—”
Thad put the forefinger of the hand Doe had loosed over her lips. “Shhhh.” Then kissed her. Then Phin. And—
“Oh! He did!” Phin’s free hand fluttered in the cool, wet air. “Can I touch them?”
Thad grinned. “Since you askin so nice.”
Her husband’s breasts were warm and soft, fat nipples rising in the sudden breeze rippling through his shirt—her shirt? “What—what should I call you?” Was this her wife all of a sudden?
“What you think? ‘Thad.’ ‘Husband’” Turning back to Doe. “Female pronouns, though, all right?”
“Finally!” Doe smiled. But her smile puckered and her eyes winked hard against her tears. To no avail. They welled up and flowed down. “I thought maybe we be renamin you Wayna.”
“No. She gone.” Thad put her arm around Doe. Their shoulders hunched briefly and relaxed. Salted water ran fast down their cheeks. Down into the rising sea that lapped across their feet. Caressing Phin’s tiger toes.
“Gone,” Phin agreed. The person who had been Wayna was gone. All that was left of her was the memory.
And the love. Always. Phin stepped into the boat, helped her wife and husband climb aboard beside her, and shoved them off from the shore.
“The Mighty Phin” ©2016 by Nisi Shawl. First Publication: Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow November 2016, ed. Jason Heller and Joshua Viola (Hex Publishers).