Inside a barn in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a scientist searching for an Alzheimer’s cure throws a switch—and finds herself mysteriously transported into her husband’s body. What begins as a botched experiment will change her life—and the world—forever…
Over two decades later, all across the planet, “flash” technology allows individuals the ability to transfer their consciousness into other bodies for specified periods, paid, registered and legal. Society has been utterly transformed by the process, from travel to warfare to entertainment; “Be anyone with Anyone” the tagline of the company offering this ultimate out-of-body experience. But beyond the reach of the law and government regulators is a sordid black market called the darkshare, where desperate “vessels” anonymously rent out their bodies, no questions asked for any purpose—sex, drugs, crime… or worse.
Charles Soule’s Anyone takes us to a world where identity, morality, and technology collide—available December 3rd from Harper Perennial. In exciting news, Carnival Films and NBCUniversal recently acquired the rights to Anyone for a planned television adaptation, with Soule acting as executive producer.
Gabby tapped a few keys on her control board, and the overheads went out. Her gear was now providing the only illumination in the barn. The lights danced over the arched roof and the support beams like a planetarium laser show, its soundtrack the pulsing whine of the apparatus.
Gabrielle watched, delighted despite everything.
She wished someone else were there, maybe even Paul, because what was the point of seeing something lovely if the only other beings that saw it were Alzheimer’s-afflicted rats?
A little glint at the corner of her vision—light reflecting off the framed photo next to her laptop.
The Kitten, Gabby thought. Oh, Kat would love
She was back inside the house, upstairs, holding her baby, looking right into her eyes. She looked into them and saw her own.
The shade they shared was nothing special—dark brown, sometimes deepening to near black, depending on the light—but it wasn’t the color. It was the life. The bright desire to see, to know, to wrest understanding from everything there was to understand. She had it, and so did her daughter.
The first time Gabrielle had seen this reflection in and of herself, a rush of emotion had flooded through her—a bucket of joy upended above her head. A recognition that someone else out there saw the world as she did, or at least a hope. She would never have thought it would matter so much, the idea that she wasn’t alone in her world and the way she perceived it and what she wanted from it—but it did.
The Kitten was dangling over her crib, held gently in Gabby’s hands, a smile lighting up her chubby infant face.
So… either she had just lifted the baby up from her crib, or she was placing her gently back down after a feeding or a diaper change or perhaps just a few minutes of holding, of connection.
Gabby had absolutely no idea which it was. She couldn’t remember. In fact, she couldn’t remember leaving the barn to walk back to the house. She couldn’t remember coming upstairs to the baby’s room. She couldn’t remember anything at all after the barn.
The barn… and the lights.
This was wrong. It was completely wrong.
Gabrielle’s hands clenched, and the baby’s eyes—her big eyes, in the little face—widened in surprise.
Gabby’s hands. Were they, in fact, hers? They were thicker, larger than they should be.… Whose hands were they, then? That was a question.
She let go of her daughter, and her daughter fell. Not far, a foot or eighteen inches, and she landed on the double padding of her diaper and the crib’s bedding, barely an impact at all—but still—Gabrielle had dropped her child.
A moment of stunned surprise as they looked at each other— and even though Kat wasn’t hurt, couldn’t possibly be hurt, she was definitely shocked, and then, justifiably, outraged.
A lusty, wounded wail poured up from the crib, and Gabby gripped its railing, curling her too-thick, too-big fingers between the slats, specifically designed to prevent even the most curious infants from slipping their vulnerable necks between them.
She turned away from the crib, slowly, hearing her daughter’s crying kick into a higher gear. She could feel the thickness, the bigness across her entire body.
On the dresser, her latest knitting project, a thickly woven blue-and-red tassel hat she would put up on her Etsy store once it was done, part of an ongoing effort to bring in extra cash. Next to it, the big navy-blue mug with a bright yellow M on it, a University of Michigan logo item. But she didn’t remember bringing it up here, and whatever was in it was still hot. She could see the steam.
Gabrielle completed her rotation and saw her husband, looking at her, wide-eyed. He looked stunned, like when she’d told him she was pregnant.
“Paul?” she said, and heard his voice say the word, and saw her husband open his mouth and say the word, but it wasn’t coming from him. It was coming from her, but she wasn’t herself.
Gabby lifted her hand to her face. Paul, staring at her, did the same thing. She touched her cheek, felt the little scratch of stubble there, completely alien, repulsive, but also not—a sensation familiar from weekends when he wouldn’t bother to shave unless they were planning to go out, or, it seemed more likely than not, that they’d be having sex that night. She watched Paul mirror this movement too.
This made sense, she realized, because she was looking in a mirror, the mirror mounted above the dresser in her daughter’s room, decorated with little blue musical notes painted on its frame by the hand she now somehow possessed but had no real right to.
She wasn’t looking at Paul. She was looking at herself. And she was him.
“What the shit?” she said. Her thought, her words, his voice.
A moan escaped Gabrielle’s throat, a low note mixing with the higher-pitched cries still coming from the baby, now tinged with desperate, outraged intensity that her mother had not yet picked her up to comfort her.
Her father. Her mother. Her…
Gabrielle became aware of a taste—rancid, scummy. Decay, old food, old coffee. She recognized it—the taste of a mouth that hadn’t yet brushed its teeth after breakfast, or before bed after a day of ordinary life. Not unfamiliar, she’d even tasted this particular flavor when they kissed, but it wasn’t her mouth. It was his. She was tasting the remnants of his day, his decisions.
Her head swam, her gorge rose. Gabrielle’s hand instinctively moved up, to push back her hair, keep it out of harm’s way. She grasped nothing but the short dark hair on Paul’s head.
She threw up all over the floor, a good portion of the puke hitting the panda-shaped rug with a wet smack. The taste in her mouth took a significant downturn, stomach acids boiling up into her sinuses.
A glass of water stood on the dresser below the mirror. She hadn’t put it there—maybe Paul had, before… before all of this.
Gabby took a step toward it, but the effort of lifting her foot was so different, so strange, the thud of its impact landing on the floor so new, the way she was used to walking not the way this odd body walked… that she stumbled. She took a second quick step to correct, and her heel slipped in the puddle she had just created.
She fell, hard, unable to figure out how to protect herself in the moment between slip and impact. Her head cracked against the hard boards of the floor, and with the pain came a quick snap into focus.
Gabrielle lay on the floor, feeling the remains of Paul’s last meal soaking into Paul’s pants.
She didn’t understand what was happening to her, but understanding would have to wait. Her daughter was crying, and that had to be addressed.
Levering herself painfully to her feet, she took a cautious step toward the crib. A throbbing pain in her head from the prior fall warned strongly against moving too quickly before she understood how to walk in this body.
Gabrielle picked up a pacifier from the little table next to the crib. She and Paul had agreed to use the thing in moderation, a conclusion reached after reading mommy blogs and the like warning against stunted emotional development, dental problems, and, of course, all the perils associated with plastics. But this seemed like an occasion that warranted a little pacification. She gave the baby the little nub of silicone, and she immediately calmed, looking at her father with her big, wide eyes, full of life and curiosity, as always.
“It’s all right, kiddo,” Gabby said, using the term Paul used, not knowing if it would matter or if the baby recognized words at all— one of the biggest mysteries of human development was what infants actually gleaned from the world around them—but not wanting to give her any additional clues that anything was amiss.
“I’ll be back in a minute, okay? Just enjoy that pacifier, and I’ll be right back.”
Gabrielle reached out to touch her baby’s head, then realized her hand was covered in sick and pulled it back.
“Everything’s okay,” she said.
Gabby turned and left the room, getting better at using Paul’s body with every step.
It felt like a video game, like a first-person video game, like Skyrim. That was her only basis for comparison. She was looking out through Paul’s eyes, but she wasn’t Paul. She was still Gabrielle. She hoped.
She made her way to the bathroom and stripped off Paul’s vomit-soaked shirt. She rinsed out her mouth, avoiding looking at herself/him in the mirror, then brushed her teeth after a moment of indecision about whose toothbrush to use.
She chose his.
Gabby threw on clean clothes, then returned to the baby’s room, to see that she was already asleep, contented, the pacifier moving gently in a slow, smooth rhythm. She put her hand on her daughter’s cheek, letting it rest there for a moment, feeling the softness against Paul’s palm.
Gabrielle flipped on the baby monitor, then went downstairs, out the back door, and across the lawn toward the barn.
If she was in Paul, where was he? And what had happened to her? The real, actual her?
She began to run, still not completely comfortable with the jarring weight of Paul’s feet as they hammered the ground.
What had happened to her?
The barn door yawned open ahead, darkness inside, just shadows. Yes. She had turned off the lights so she could watch the plaque-inhibition sequence play out across the inside of the barn. Like a laser show.
The memory of the lights danced through her head again, and Gabrielle’s vision momentarily doubled. She slowed to a walk, both to pull herself together and because she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to see what was waiting inside the barn.
But there was nowhere else to go, and she had to know.
Gabby stepped inside and immediately saw herself lying on the plank floor of the barn exactly where she had been standing when she activated the sequence. A bit of blood was pooling below her head—possibly she had fallen when the shift happened and knocked her head against the lab table.
Her mind seized.
Paul had become Gabrielle, but as far as she could tell, Gabrielle had not become Paul.
As far as she could tell, Gabrielle was dead.
Chinatown, New York
Twenty-five Years From Now
This is The Thing you do noT do, Annami thought.
This is shooting up heroin. This is hooking up with your sister’s husband. This is cutting your wrists and swimming with sharks.
She was lying on a flash couch in a darkshare den, about to let a stranger occupy her mind. This would last for two hours. During that time, Annami would be unaware, and her rider could use her body for whatever he or she wanted, anything at all. Drugs, sex, crime… anything. Traffic on the darkshare was unregistered, so no one would know Annami was not in her prime while these things occurred. If her rider murdered someone during the share, that landed on her. She would never know who the client was, and the client would never know anything about her.
That was the darkshare.
Annami was young, healthy, strong, beautiful. This was her first run, and her rate was five thousand dollars per hour. Over time, perhaps that number would go down, depending on what darksharing did to her.
She glanced at Mama Run, the darkshare den’s proprietor, standing next to the couch.
“You ready?” Mama said. “Client is good to go.”
Annami thought about the life she had created for herself. She had an apartment on Staten Island; she had a good job; she had friends. She had an uncracked pint of lemon gelato in her freezer. Or, hell, it was Saturday night. She could stand up from the flash couch, leave, message Bea or Gilbert or anyone, really, and meet up and let tonight just drift away, a near miss.
But created really was the word for what she had. The apartment, the job, the friends—all fiction; a careful, layered composition Annami had constructed over many years. It was both a smokescreen—to hide from Hauser, Bleeder, and anyone else who might be hunting her—and a means to gather intelligence on her enemies. She was a spy, a saboteur, a deep-cover agent alone behind enemy lines.
Her whole life was a story. It was time to write the ending. But to do that, she needed to make half a million dollars—at least—in a little over a month. The darkshare was the only way.
Mama Run’s smile faded just a bit—the woman was getting impatient. She knew it was Annami’s first darkshare and was considerate of that fact, to a point, but she was, after all, running a business.
Annami set aside the costume of her life, the happy, smart woman in her twenties who worked hard and fit into the world around her. She let her true self rise to the surface: one of the few people who knew the truth behind the lie of the world, and the only one who seemed to want to make it right.
She could do anything. Whatever it took. From this moment on, she was steel. She was tough as hell.
“I’m ready,” Annami said. “Go ahead.”
Mama Run nodded, her smile resurfacing. She lowered the hood over Annami’s head.
“Okay,” she said. “Client’s in the queue. Just be a minute. Remember: three purple peacocks—”
“In a pinnace,” Annami said. “I remember.”
“Only just in case,” Mama’s voice said. “You won’t need it. Everything will be fine.”
Annami stared at the interior of the flash hood, its holo-panels glowing with the dull green of standby mode. The darkshare ran on its own closed-loop networks—necessary to guarantee anonymity on both sides. Not like the lightshare, which registered everything, from flash patterns to transfer duration to names of traveler and vessel. That’s why it was safe. Why it made the world go ’round.
She took a breath, held it. When she was little, she’d gone to an amusement park in Ohio called Cedar Point. They had a roller coaster called the Magnum, the tallest in that part of the country. It began with a steep, slow climb, what seemed like a mile in the air, before a fall so intense, so fast… she’d held her father’s hand the whole time, clutching so hard it hurt her, never mind what it must have done to her poor dad.
She had no one’s hand to hold now, so she held her own.
For you, she thought. I’m doing this for/
Annami opened her eyes. She saw a wall about eight feet away, mottled and stained, with a spherical light fixture sticking straight out from it, pointing directly at her. It was swaying a bit, just the tiniest bit, like a long-stemmed flower moving in a faint breeze. The light was…
No. She was not looking at a wall. A ceiling.
Annami was lying on her back, on something hard. Which, if she was looking at a ceiling, was most likely a floor. She tried to breathe, to move, to begin the physical inventory that would tell her if she was still herself.
But she was afraid, because if things had gone as planned, she wouldn’t be lying on a floor. She’d be resting on a returner couch at Mama Run’s, with soft, calming music playing in her ears, a mug of steaming tea on the little tray to the left of the couch, and ten thousand dollars waiting to be deposited in a hidden e-count of her choice. Mama Run didn’t have to do these things for her runners, but she did, and little touches like that were why Annami had selected Mama’s establishment for this idiotic fucking idea in the first place.
You are you, she thought, she reminded.
Lack of oxygen tightened her chest, basic biology competing with Annami’s desire to remain suspended in a Schrödinger’s cat–style cocoon of unobserved self, and she took a breath. Her body returned to her.
Some pain—a touch, at the back of her head, and some in her ankle—perhaps she had fallen badly when her runner left her body. Her legs, present. Her feet, also present, at the end of her legs, which seemed like the right place for them. Her arms and hands and fingers, all there… but wet.
Annami lifted her hand. It was red, as if she were wearing a slick, crimson glove. Blood.
Scenarios ran through her head, all the warnings she’d heard about the way darksharing could end—bodies harvested for organs, people being used as proxies by masochists who wanted to experience pain but didn’t want to use up their own flesh, so many other nightmares large and small.
Annami had blood on her hands, and her continuing personal inventory had informed her that her back was wet from scapula to sacrum, which suggested that she was also lying in a pool of the stuff. So, yes, she had awoken from her very first darkshare in a nightmare. The size remained to be seen.
She thought about the blood. It didn’t seem like it was hers, because her head was clear—relatively speaking—and she didn’t feel weak. If she had lost as much as the puddle beneath her suggested, she probably wouldn’t have woken up at all.
So… perhaps this particular nightmare was small. Maybe. This was the uncertainty of the darkshare; this was the price
you paid in order to get paid. Before Annami had pulled the trigger on actually going through with it, she made a little list of resulting scenarios in order of horror. The possibilities were endless.
Endless, and waking up in a pool of someone else’s blood was definitely on the list. Far from the worst, though. It was like… eleventh, she decided.
She was not: (1) dead; (2) missing any parts of her body (as far as she could tell); (3) in the middle of having sex with someone she hadn’t chosen; (4) aware that she had recently had sex with someone she hadn’t chosen; (5) chained or otherwise restrained; (6) sick/poisoned (as far as she could tell); (7) falling from a great height; (8) underwater; (9) buried; or (10) lying in a pool of her own blood.
Annami pushed herself up on one elbow and continued to take stock. Still no real pain other than the barely noticeable twinge in her ankle. That was good. The change in perspective also gave her the source of the blood on the floor: a dead man lying about six feet away.
They were in a small, barely furnished apartment, constructed in a style that was still called prewar despite the century that had passed since the end of the Second World War. Crown moldings, hardwood floors with a pronounced warp that wouldn’t be helped by the blood soaking into them, a steam radiator for heat she couldn’t imagine still worked. The room was neglected, dirty. Little piles of discarded paper, wrappers and vials washed up in the corners.
Another detail worth noting—a gun on the floor between Annami and the dead man, a little closer to her than him, presumably the source of the hole in the man’s head.
Annami got to her feet, wiping her hands on her pants, front and back, trying to scrape off the sheen of blood. She stepped toward the corpse, looking for explanations of what had happened here, how her darkshare runner had used her body, why the dead man was dead.
He was Asian, possibly Chinese, although she wouldn’t put money on it, given the warping of his features by the hole in his forehead. Olive pants, dark hoodie, boots with deeply worn, thick rubber soles. On the young side, about twenty-five. Shaved head covered with stubble. Skinny. If he were alive, she’d have said he seemed desperate. He looked like, on balance, the kind of person who made their money by renting themselves out for darkshares, no questions asked and no explanations given.
Don’t judge, she thought. As of today, lady, you’re that kind of person too.
So—no answers from the corpse. Corpses, really. Two people had died here today, at exactly the same moment—the Asian man she was looking at and whoever had been using him as a vessel for his darkshare. That was how it worked.
If one died, both died. The most fundamental rule of flash technology, whether dark or light.
Annami knew she should leave. Right away, right then. But she wanted to know. She’d always wanted to know, anything and everything she could, despite all the things it had cost her.
She squatted next to the corpse and steeled herself to search it for ID or any other clues she knew would almost certainly not be there. Not for someone who died during a darkshare. The whole point was anonymity, on both sides. You didn’t know who you were renting, they didn’t know who you were—you just paid, did what you wanted or needed while using someone else’s flesh, and then it was over.
The apartment door burst open: a crack of splintering wood followed by a hammer blow as the door whipped around and slammed into the wall.
A man half fell into the room, the momentum of the kick that had shattered the door pulling him forward. He had a gun in his hand, a small, dark pistol. He stumbled a little, regaining his balance, then saw Annami, crouched next to the corpse, her bloody hand still outstretched. This new person looked architectural, like he’d been designed to withstand enormous physical forces. A load-bearing man. He snarled something in an angular language.
Annami lunged forward, over the corpse, toward a square archway with more of the apartment visible through it. She didn’t know where it led, just that it was away.
A whipcrack noise. Not much of a sound at all. A hole appeared in the wall to the side of the archway as she passed through it. A small puff of vaporized plaster and paint and most likely some trace amounts of lead, given the building’s age—all expelled violently as the bullet entered.
Silencer? Annami thought.
That was good, or at least a small victory in the larger calculus of someone trying to shoot her. This new killer wanted to conduct a quiet murder. That probably, hopefully meant that this old apartment was located in some part of New York City with people around, possibly even police.
Not that Annami was looking forward to dealing with police after participating in a darkshare that had resulted in the death of at least one person—two if her hunch was right and the dead Chinese man also had a runner inside him when he died. Still, better the cops than her own bullet in the head.
The next room was just an empty rectangle, with a small, time-ravaged kitchen visible off to one side through an alcove, outlines against the peeling paint where appliances had once stood. Nothing that would help her. No exit, no back door.
But a window.
She sprinted to it, a filthy, double-hung, ancient thing in a warped metal frame, about three feet wide. A desperate tug on its bottom edge told her nothing short of the jaws of life would get the thing open. It was too old and covered in too many layers of paint and city soot. It had fossilized.
Annami glanced behind her, to see if the killer had followed. Not yet—maybe he’d stopped to check on the status of the Chinese man before coming after her. But then, there he was, looming in the archway, filling it, gun raised.
Five more of those whipcracks, as Annami made a sort of flailing sideways lunge. Nothing elegant or planned, just a cringe born of pure survival instinct, like someone jerking their steering wheel after looking up to see the truck that’s crossed the dividing lane, far too late.
But somehow, enough. The rounds hit the window and passed through it, creating a spidered pattern in the safety glass. They did not hit Annami.
She and the killer looked at each other, each taking a moment to note the improbability of the fact that Annami was still alive. In another context, they would have smiled, maybe exchanged rueful, amazed headshakes. Crazy old world. You see that? Holy shit.
Instead, the killer lifted his weapon and pressed some button or latch on the side that ejected a magazine from its grip so he could reload.
Annami spun back toward the window, lifted her boot, and kicked, hard, the newly holed glass shattering outward under her heel.
She dove through the empty frame, landing on the fire escape outside, feeling curls of rust scrape her palms. The structure vibrated, and for a moment she thought this was it. The whole thing would just crumble into a mist of old steel and down she would go.
But it held, and Annami got to her feet. She looked below, and cursed. Her landing was about four stories off the ground, and the stairs leading down ended in sharp spikes of flaking metal before they reached the third. The lower portion of the stairway had collapsed at some earlier point in the elderly building’s history. The fire escape was not an escape, and she maybe would have laughed at that if it didn’t mean she was probably about to die.
Annami ran the only direction she could. Up.
The steps shuddered and jangled as she moved. She could see the fire escape pulling free of whatever ancient, dutiful bolts still moored it to the building’s facade. She moved faster, taking the stairs two at a time. A shout from below her in a familiar, sharply angled tongue. Through the grating of the steps, Annami could see the killer’s head poking through the window, neck twisted, looking up at her. He didn’t have a clean line of fire, not with the fire escape in the way.
It was only two stories to the roof, and Annami lunged out onto the nasty, tar-paper-and-bird-shit-covered surface, falling onto her hands and knees. She spun, put her hands down to brace herself, and kicked out at the rungs of the ladder she had just climbed.
She connected, and kicked again, harder, feeling a sharp spike of pain in her ankle, the one she had possibly injured when her darkshare runner left her back in the apartment. The ladder was loosening, though; she could feel it. Annami kicked again, with everything she had, and the fire escape snapped free from the building, yawning out about four feet.
That final indignity was as much as the old structure could take. Annami heard a loud screech of metal on stone, and then a tearing noise, followed, finally by a snapping, crackling crunch from farther below.
None of those sounds were precisely what she had been hoping to hear: a scream, suddenly cut short. If the killer had followed her out the window, he’d be dead now, entangled and entombed by the collapsed fire escape. The man was, apparently and unfortunately, too smart for that.
Annami forced herself to her feet, drawing in big, gasping breaths, looking around, seeing what she had to work with. The roof was littered with trash, ducts and pumping systems for the building’s HVAC system, weathered lawn chairs for desperate, green-starved New Yorkers willing to resort to this distorted, meager version of outdoor space… and a small hut-type structure with a door built into it—access from the lower floors for maintenance.
The HVAC ductwork meant the building had once been renovated decades before, probably at some point in the 2010s, when everyone in the world had been convinced that the seas were shortly to rise and engulf coastal regions, and buildings in those parts of New York most likely to be flooded were required by law to put their essential mechanical systems on the roof. That was before a company called NeOnet Global released the technology that allowed the transfer of human consciousness from one body to another. These days, most people called the company Anyone, and the tech it gave the world was the flash.
Among other things, widespread adoption of the flash reduced overall energy consumption on the planet by a third, enough of an edge that alternative power sources and a concerted effort to reduce carbon output had, literally, saved the world.
Annami took a single step toward the maintenance access door, her way out, feeling a twinge in her injured ankle. One step, and then the door was shoved open, exploding outward with that same violence she’d seen in the apartment two floors below. The killer stepped out, looking across the roof, looking for her.
Of course. He was smart.
Smart but unlucky. He’d missed her with his gun down below, and he missed her with his eyes here too, turning his head the wrong direction when he came out of the door, scanning the side of the roof she was not on.
This gave her an opportunity, a one-second head start, and
Annami used it. Again, she ran.
She was good at running. She had been good at running for a very long time.
Annami pushed past the hurt in her ankle and sprinted toward the roof ’s edge, keeping the doorway and the HVAC ducts and anything else she could between herself and the killer, hearing those little peppery whipcrack sounds again, seeing holes appear in things she passed. She reassessed this man again.
He was smart, unlucky, and, thank god, a terrible shot. She reached the edge of the roof and leaped.
A Laboratory in a Barn
Gabrielle squatted down next to the body—her own familiar body, which she was not currently occupying, lying on the barn floor, blood seeping from its head. Her own blood. The body looked so tiny. She never felt small when she was inside it, never let herself or let anyone make her feel that way, but now… she was just a little thing in a concert tee, all skinny legs and arms and frizz of hair wrestled into an untidy braid, speared in the bright overhead lights like a specimen on a slide.
She felt Paul’s knees click in a strange, alarming way as they bent, a weird, crackling release of pressure, and let that distract her, shift her mind from the horror of staring at her corpse to the experience of being in her husband’s body. Were ratchet-wrench knees something to be alarmed about, or just normal functioning? Paul had never mentioned having bad knees—maybe they’d clicked for so long that he no longer noticed. Or maybe it was the other way around, and her knees—smooth-moving, easy, painless—were the exception, and every human being on earth had rickety-rack joints except her.
An itch spiked behind one ear, and she reached up to scratch it in a way she realized she’d seen Paul do a thousand times. She’d thought it was just one of his tics, an odd thing he did, but no. It was a specific response to a physical stimulus wired into his system. Some little wonky nerve ending back there that itched from time to time.
Gabby liked to think of herself as an empathetic person. She tried to look outside herself, consider the worldview and experiences of anyone she was dealing with, walk miles in strange moccasins. Now, all of that, every single time she’d ever tried to understand another person’s perspective—it seemed clumsy, ludicrous.
This experience, being literally inside another person’s body… this was understanding.
She was a cognitive scientist. She had spent her entire professional career thinking about the way people’s behaviors were steered by their conscious and unconscious minds. But even after only ten minutes inside another physical self, it was obvious to her that a great deal of human experience had nothing to do with the brain. It was the body. Each parcel of flesh and its particular configuration of plusses and minuses created a unique reality.
In other words, it wasn’t just the software—it was the hardware, too.
The squatting position Gabby had adopted, a posture she could have endured indefinitely in her own body, was beginning to ache. Those crackling knees she was borrowing didn’t like the pressure, and the small of Paul’s back wasn’t too happy either.
She wanted to stand, but she couldn’t, not yet. Her own bundle of hardware, the body that, until very recently, was everything Gabrielle White had ever been, needed to tell her something. Until Gabby had that information, she couldn’t even begin to process her situation, or consider ways she might fix it.
But she was very afraid, because what she did not know was this: whether her original body was now dead.
“Man the hell up,” she said, trying to make herself laugh. It didn’t work.
Gabrielle reached out, hesitated, then touched her body’s neck. It felt warm—reassuring, but not conclusive. Bodies didn’t cool all at once after death. Algor mortis was a slow process—hours—and it had only been what, ten minutes since the shift into Paul’s body? No. Not conclusive.
She could feel panic beginning to rise and sought refuge in her scientist brain, asking it to build a wall around the fear, using bricks made of observation and analysis. She had already begun, almost by reflex, to catalog any differences she could note between experiences in her own body versus Paul’s. There were plenty—just being about eight inches taller brought its own laundry list of new perspectives. Now, she considered the texture of her own skin under her husband’s fingertips. If his sensory system detected anything new in the feel of her skin, she couldn’t tell. She felt like she felt.
Or perhaps whatever part of her consciousness was her—her essential Gabrielleness—interpreted the sensation at her fingertips as the one she was familiar with, overlaying her template for reality atop what was actually there. The brain was a liar. It lied all the time.
Reality was what the brain decided it would be. It took in sensory input and swirled it all together into a picture of reality, filling in gaps and cutting out inconvenient contradictions. Every human being had a blind spot in their vision where the optic nerve attached to the back of the retina—the brain just plugged that up with what it figured should be there. Or, if it decided sheidl was actually shield, then that’s what you read, unless you paid very close attention.
So: the reality Gabby was currently experiencing might be hers, or maybe some odd new version of it created by Paul’s brain. What would she notice or understand about her current situation that her original body wouldn’t, because the mind she was borrowing was a music professor’s instead of a cognitive scientist’s?
She could feel herself spinning down a thought vortex, trying to find immediate answers to questions she knew she would be considering for the rest of her life.
Gabrielle took in a quick breath, a snap of air.
“It’s too big,” she said, talking to her body, convincing herself. “You need to science this. Break it down; turn the big questions into small questions. Answer those. Do that long enough, it’ll add up, and eventually, you’ll understand. Science.”
In front of her, lying on the floor: the first of those questions. A very small question, which was also the biggest question.
Was she dead?
Gabrielle moved her fingers on the warm, still body, putting pressure on its neck just to one side of the windpipe, feeling, waiting… and there. A slow, steady rhythm. A pulse.
The relief was so strong that she fell backward, landing on her ass—her unpleasantly bony, masculine ass—on the wood floor of the barn.
I’m alive, she thought, and felt her mind click over into a new mode. This was no longer a horror movie—it was a problem to be solved, and that, Gabby White knew how to do.
Her first instinct was to call for an ambulance. She even reached for her back pocket for her phone, before realizing that it wasn’t there—Paul kept his phone in his front pocket, because that’s where men kept them, their clothing being engineered differently than women’s, with front pockets large enough to actually hold things. That generated a moment of annoyance, which lasted just long enough for a touch of rationality to sneak in.
The settling of the alive-or-dead question, the escape from that basic panic, had freed Gabby’s mind to consider larger things.
What she had here might not be an error. Not a lab accident. Not a tragic mistake.
It might be an invention.
Excerpted from Anyone, copyright © 2019 by Charles Soule.