She’s All Light
LaShawn M. Wanak
Inevitably one—as an editor—will often get several stories using the same concept (and possibly even more so when one edits a themed anthology). Yet, as the saying goes: ‘it’s not the idea (or concept) that counts, but what you do with it.’ This is almost literally so with personality uploads: if (some would say when) they work: what are we going to do with them? In “Fembot” the military application has some surprisingly humane consequences, while here in “She’s All Light” our protagonist questions the humane consequences of the commercial application.
Also, the story, like life itself, is full of paradoxes. For one: the more connected we are, the more self-centred we seem to become: the idea being that the world should not come closer to you, but you should come closer to the world.
Another paradox: as the real world becomes more enhanced, and the virtual world becomes more real, one would expect that the transition between the two would be easier. But, as “She’s All Light” but all too aptly demonstrates, it depends…
You have 4 new messages in your mailbox. Two are labeled ‘Urgent’.
There are no appointments in your calendar.
There are no high priority items in your tasklist.
You have 4,327 users logged onto your site. Your Ranking Score is 52,288.
The soft, disembodied voice of the StatAlarm tugs you out of a dream of warm mud and sticky jello. You struggle to recapture it, but it’s gone, baby, gone, so you command the SensoBlinds to rise up, flooding light into the studio.
The old Asian lady doing tai chi in her apartment gives you a solemn nod as you head towards the shower. You used to have a camera trained on her window across the alley; her pursed lips at your nakedness always brought in a few snarky comments. She’s used to it now, just like everyone else. You only do it nowadays to keep your rankings in the mid-range.
After the shower, you dig in your closet for a polyester shirt, tight bellbottoms and black leather pumps. A popsicle-orange boa drapes around your neck for effect—Neicy thinks it’s all retrofad, but even she admits you can pull it off. You pick your hair out to a thistledown puff, apply some silver and green eyeshadow, then strike a pose.
>Rocco: Ah yeah thats whut I talkin BOUT!!!
>Pixie22: dose colours dont match. lose the boa
>Peggy95: you look nice. You’re not going to wear the beret then?
The comments flit at the edge of your vision as you gulp down oatmeal and chase it with java. As your mug refills for a second shot, you pull up a NETNEWS infopane and scan the latest headlines:
“BILL TO INCREASE SERVER CAPACITY BECOMES LAW (NN)
Today the bill to increase the beleaguered server capacity nationwide was ratified by both houses despite last month’s veto from President Sanchez. This increase comes as the controversial practice of scaping gains more popularity…”
>URGENT MESSAGE! URGENT MESSAGE! PLEASE RESPOND!<
The red traffic-light text splashes across the article. You swear and shut your eyes. Stupid move. The message alert continues flashing, made brighter from the pitch blackness of your eyelids.
“Open message!” you snap, knowing full well who’s it from.
Got s/t import 2 tell u. Vinos, corner table, noonish. Bthere!
You swear, you’re gonna kill her. Everything with her is always ‘important’ or ‘urgent’. What’s her hype now? She and Jamal back together? Coral nail polish went on sale at Booster’s? Maybe you shouldn’t go. What do the chatbuddies think?
>sxy~sweet: whady’a think? should I go?
>Rocco: Ah gawn w/yr badass self. U look goooood….
>Pixie22: i say GO 4 IT!
>Peggy95: Variety is the spice of life. And Neicy is the epitome of variety.
>BlueZig: Neiciy boobs r d ziggetyZAM! Go up 1 to 5 space short!
Poll Results: Yes 55% No 29%, Undecided 16% Total votes: 581
Vino’s is in that part of Downtown where hole-in-the-wall dives rub shoulders with upscale boutiques. The food there is greasy, chock full of transfats, but thanks to your daddy’s DNA and the cholesterol pills, you can eat anything and still slip into size-3 jeans. Neicy doesn’t have that luxury; then again, she never cared what she looked like.
When you arrive, she’s at an outside table, taking a bread roll from a basket. “Took you long enough. I was gonna order without you.”
“Never stopped you before.” You take in her white tube-top stretched tight across her chest. The brown leather mini-skirt you glimpse before you sit. The tiny red bowler hat perched atop her head. She looks like a butterscotch sundae.
>sxy~sweet: she stepped out wearing that?!!! godd … what her rank?
>Peggy95: It’s 293,027,992. Pretty low, even for her.
You text a quick thanks as you grab a menu, pretty much knowing what you’re gonna get: turkey sandwich, extra mayo, cottage fries, diet Coke. “So, Neice, what’s the drama this time? You and Jamal back together or what?”
Neicy doesn’t say anything. You look up to see her turning her roll in small circles on the table. It puts you on instant alert. A fresh-baked roll with real butter, and Neicy’s only playing with it? Less flippant, you ask, “Whaddup, Neice?”
She takes a deep breath and looks up. “I’m gonna scape this Saturday. Wanna be my prox?”
At first, you’re not sure you heard it right. Neicy? Scaping? What the hell? Maybe it’s a joke. You glance up at the cams circling the patio. “Yeah, good one. What show are we on? Punk Da Funk? Steve & Earl’s Camshitedy Show?”
But Neicy ain’t laughing, ain’t smirking, ain’t doing anything Neicy-normal. She just sits there, watching you.
“Oh, god,” you say, “for real?”
>Pixie22: You here that? Neicy’s gonna scape!
>Rocco: OH Hell no! Betcha she won go thru wi it
>BlueZig: Integrity interface? Wicha wicha bad tricity…
You shake your head, partly in shock, mostly to shut off the chatbuddies’ comments. “But why? Scaping’s not … unless … you not sick, are you?”
“Naw, I ain’t sick.”
“You got some mental disease in the head or something?”
“It ain’t—” you lean forward, lowering your voice, “It ain’t Jamal, is it?”
“Wilcox offered me a promotion. Net only. Looked real good. The more I thought about it, the more I thought, why not? I could use a change.”
You stare at her. “A change? Change is that time you dyed your hair orange. Change is when you joined the Blue Moon MegaChurch. What you’re talking about, Neice, it’s — it’s suicide!”
“Oh please,” Neicy rolls her eyes. “Look. It’s not like I’m gonna kill myself. I’m just trading my body in for a virtual one, that’s all. It’s all legit. They hook me up to a machine, flip a switch, and BOOM! Whole new body job.”
“But—” You break off as the waiter approaches. Grinning, Neicy goes all out: triple cheeseburger deluxe with bacon and avocado, double order of garlic parmesan fries, extra large root beer float and two slices of chocolate mousse pie with extra whipped cream. You just shake your head, not hungry anymore. The waiter leaves. “How we gonna hang if you ain’t here no more? Just sit in chat rooms all day long?”
“Who says we can’t hang? Just plug me in one of them external cameras, and heyyy, here I am, Instant Neicy, ready to party!” She rocks back and forth, snapping her fingers. “Wilcox gonna set me up good. Got a custom-made full-body avatar, personal homesite on MyScape, 500 petabytes of storage space. Man, it’s gonna be live—”
“The hell it is! What we’re doing now, that’s live. That waiter over there, that’s live. That roll in your hand. Live, live, all live! The Net’s all images. You can’t do anything real in there.”
“Says you.” As if she’s forgotten about the roll in her hands, she tears a piece off and pops it in her mouth. “Wilcox is working on refining the sensory input program for scapers. They wanna make sure when they do something, it’ll be just like they’re in the regular world.” She winks at you. “I get to be part of the team that works on the sense of taste. Think of it; I eat all virtual burgers I want and they won’t go straight to my thighs. But I gotta make sure they all taste like burgers, not chicken.” She cracks up at that, leaning back and slapping her bare leg to make it jiggle like jello.
You are not impressed. “Are they gonna make you pee and shit on the Net too, or is that considered too ‘realistic’?”
Neicy’s laughter fades. “Aw, come on, Til. Why you hatin’ all of a sudden?”
“Why I — Neice, listen to yourself. You’re acting like you’re going to some resort conference in San Diego. Scapin’ ain’t like that; it’s permanent. Once you’re in, you can never come out. You’ll be just like them holograms on Star Trek.”
“So what? It’s not like I’m dead. It’ll still be me. I’ll just be in a different form … that’s all.”
“Different form, nothing!” Your voice starts to rise. “Bad things can happen to you online! The server could shut down for days, or someone unleashes a virus. Hell, someone could hack you, turn you into a whole different person. Or something can happen during the scaping, upload you with only half your brains. And for what? For a damn promotion?”
“It’s not just that.” Neicy’s voice gets that petulant edge you know by heart. It’s the edge she gets whenever she tells you a crazy scheme that she knows is gonna work, no matter how stupid you think it is. “It’s a chance to get in on something big. I mean, really, really big. It’s something I get to be part of, something that puts all my skills to use.”
“What skills?” You snap back. “Getting drunk at 3am? Partying until you pass out?”
Neicy stares at you for a long time. “Well damn, girl, if you don’t wanna be my prox, all you had to say was no.” Neicy’s chair makes a harsh rasp on the patio as she stands up. “Least you can do is show up on Saturday. ‘Til then, you keep all that negativity to yourself.”
She winds her way off the patio, her heels an offended staccato on the concrete. You watch her, too stunned to call her back. As she disappears in the crowded street, the waiter places her food in front of you with a genteel smile.
The music playing on the outdoor speakers abruptly stutter, then fall silent. On the sidewalk in front of you, a pink Chihuahua being walked by a woman vanishes, leash and all. The woman glances up at the external cameras on the lightpost, then continues walking, unperturbed by the sudden disappearance of her pet.
Rolling blackouts have become such a part of daily life, people barely notice them anymore. You didn’t either. Not until now.
The first thing you do when you get home is put your place in “Homesite Enhanced Mode”.
The SensoBlinds roll down, blocking out the alley and the surrounding apartments. Ceiling cameras project your wallpaper: a calm beachfront drenched in moonlight. The wall opposite the blinds stream your favorite videos from GoogTube. The afternoon antics of Dr. Drisco and the Drive-By Team switch from your inner speakers to the outer ones hidden behind your furniture.
Peggy95, Rocco and BlueZig pixel late into being at different areas of the room. As chatbuddies, they have the privilege to appear as full-bodied avatars. All others send their call-outs in text, swarms of fluorescent beetles across the hardwood floor:
>Jake2972: welcome home, Tilda — texme!
>nerdhi: WAAAAATUUUUUP?CHECK OUT MY HOMESITE AT JAKE’SPALACE.HOM
>jyzgola: Hey Til, next time you see Neicy, tell her she left her sweater at O’Tooles. I got it if she wants it
>freidshow: sxy~SW33T, show me yr 8008s!!!!!!!!!!
You ignore the floorshow as you address your buddies. “All right, y’all. Out it for me. Neicy flippin or what?”
“Don’t be so hard on her, dear,” Peggy95 speaks from the kitchenette counter. Today, she’s a gray cartoon mouse filing its tiny paws. “Give her a chance to calm down.”
“Pfffft. She won’t do it.” Sprawled on the futon, Rocco’s avatar resembles his real-life form — dark, slightly muscular, thin locs spilling over his shoulders. “Remember when she bought tickets to Malibu from a scammer and nearly spent her vacation in jail? She’s just being crazy, as usual.”
BlueZig just vibrates above the coffeetable, a splotch of neon blue.
You plop down on the futon, right through Rocco’s legs. His image wavers a bit as you pull out Neicy’s lunch. “Naw. Usually I can tell when she’s being crazy, but this time, I think she means it.”
A giant sunflower with a smiley face poofs next to Peggy95. “Hiya! Neicy still serious about scaping?”
Peggy95 smiles up at the flower. “Hello, Pixie22. Yes, she is. Don’t mind Tilda — she’s a little upset.”
“No, I’m not,” you mumble through the burger.
The sunflower sheds tinkly sparkles. “That’s so cooooool!”
“Scapers are the pay.” Rocco says. “They rake in more money than real-life folk. They don’t sleep or go to bathroom. And the way they multitask, shooooot! I knew a scaper who did security surveillance, controlled a cab and was a level 750 mage on WOW5000.”
You eye Rocco. “Know a lot of scapers, huh.”
“Ever had sex with one? The best orgasms are in ones and zeros, baby.” He gives a sly smile. “Though, personally, give me ones and ones … ”
“Ewwwwww!” Pixie22 shudders and curls her leaves around her stem. You move to the kitchen counter while Peggy95 gives her a comforting hug.
“I just don’t get why Neicy wants to do it. Whenever she gets together, she always bitch and moans on how Wilcox makes her work. She never gave a damn about scaping before. How come she’s all fangirlish about it now?”
“Perhaps she sees this promotion as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Peggy95 places a paw on your forearm. “The best you can do is be happy for her.” She pauses. “Granted, there are a few who upload with less than stellar results … ”
Everyone turns to look at BlueZig. “14% override,” He fizzles to you. “Nether, code 535, upside from the stit. Dig?”
“Oh god.” You put your head in your hands.
Good afternoon. Today is Wednesday, June 23, 2049. The time is 6:07pm. Weather is mostly cloudy in the lower 70s.
You have no new messages in your mailbox.
There are no appointments in your calendar.
Your fiscal report is due in your tasklist.
You have 6,289 users logged onto your site.
Your Rank Score is 74,269.
You waste a day at work trying to contact Neicy. Flooding her inbox. Checking her home cams. Texting her in caps and exclamation points all in a row. It galls you to sink to her frantic level of communication. Naturally, Neicy doesn’t send a single word back.
Her online status shows an ambiguous one-liner: ‘getting ready for the party Saturday, y’all!’ It doesn’t say where she is or what she’s doing. It’s like she’s already scaped and is hiding in some corner of the Net, laughing at you.
You need reinforcements.
“Oooh, the Transcendental Cafe!” Rocco bounces in delight when you get home to the chatbuddies. “Mind if I tag along?”
“Knock yourself out.”
Peggy95 twitches her bunny nose. “I don’t know if Jamal’s the right person to help. Their break-up ended so badly—”
“Look, I don’t like it either, but who else knows how to talk sense to Neicy?” You settle into an overstuffed armchair. “You can come with, if you like.”
“‘Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread’.” She winks a eye, flicks a long, gray ear and vanishes.
Rocco grumbles. “There she goes with the weird quotes again. Why you let her stick around this long?”
“Aw, she ain’t so bad.” You pull up a mini-version of your avatar and start fiddling with it. “She’s got that antique vibe I like. Caught her arguing with one of Jamal’s girls a few months back. She looked so cute, all prim and proper, I had to rescue her before she got kicked out. Probably one of those old 4K pension ladies, holed up at some condo with only real cats to talk to.”
“Wiggedly, squiggedity, Peggy95 go the obscure hey-hey route. Chow?”
“Sure, BlueZig. Whatever you say.” You spend a few moments making your avatar slimmer and darker. Not that you care or anything, but this is Jamal’s club. When you’re satisfied, you input the clubsite address. “All right, let’s hit it.”
“Bebop time,” BlueZig hums as the studio dissolves into kaleidoscopic light.
The Transcendental Groove Online Café and Club was coded to resemble the inside of a dark, swirling nebula. Twinkling stars pulse to the beat, traversing the canvas of black mist. Avatars of all types dance above you, below you, upside down, perpendicular. There are no floors, no ceiling, no walls — space is truly relative here.
“Yeeeeah! That’s what I’m talkin about!” Rocco yells from somewhere beneath you. You look down to see him eyeing a group of dwarfs in a circle. He winks up at you before drifting off in their direction. Above and to your right, BlueZig flings parts of himself at a column of colored lights. You can’t tell if it’s another avatar or a prop.
You adjust your sense equalizer so you can feel the bodies jostling around you. It’s not real body contact — just a program faking on your nerves — but it’s close. Oh, so close.
Jamal’s in the ‘Control Center’, an enormous J-shaped hot tub filled with pink bubbly champagne. His avatar is close to his real-life self, even down to the pimples on his forehead and cheeks. With the Café ranking #3 among online clubsites, he can afford to look nerdy.
“Tilda!” He calls. “Whassup?! Got room for one more.”
You eye the women of various boobage splashing in the tub. “Naw, I’m cool. Listen, Neicy’s scaping on Saturday—”
Jamal nods his head. Then nods it again. He’s not even looking at you. He’s got his eyes on the water, watching something visible only to him. You step into the tub to wave your hand in front of his face. “Hellooooo?”
“Yo, Til. What—”
“Neicy. Is. Scaping. On. Saturday.”
He blinks and focuses. “Yeah? So?”
“So?” If it weren’t for his girls, you’d slap him. He’s being way too glib about this. “Ain’t it obvious? Go talk some sense into her.”
Jamal flicks his hand. Crystalline drops scatter, forming cursive letters that spell out his name before bursting apart. Showoff. “No can do. I’m the entertainment tonight. You know how much time I gotta put in just to code the music for this place?”
“Oh, that’s great. No wonder Neicy dumped your ass. If you put all that work into you and Neicy’s relationship, maybe she wouldn’t be scaping herself—”
“Aw, Clinton H. Christ,” Jamal pulls his hair back from his forehead in an offline gesture. “Look, don’t go blaming me, awight? She’s been planning this long before I came on the scene.”
“That’s bullshit. If that’s the case, how come I didn’t hear about it until now?”
Jamal mumbles something that makes the floozy next to him titter. You glare at her and she shuts up. “Wanna up the volume on that?” You ask Jamal.
“Look, what do you want me to do? You know Neicy. Once she sets her sights on something, she never lets it go. How you think she and I hung all these years?” He gives an odd shake of his shoulders, as if trying to throw something off his back. “Neicy was my queen. I treated her like I did all my girls. When she told me to get to steppin’, though, I wasn’t real surprised. Sometimes, she said things that went a little too deep, you know?”
You shake your head. “So you just gonna sit there. Let her scape herself, no questions asked. Am I the only one who thinks this whole thing is stupid?”
“Aw, go easy on the girl, Til. She might surprise you.” Jamal goes back to fiddling with his hands in the tub. “She sure as hell surprised me. Who knows, maybe this whole scaping thing will do her good, you know?”
For a moment you wonder: he ain’t regretting her, is he? Then he snakes his arm around the floozy next to him, cupping her breast as an automatic reflex. You shake your head. “With all the time you spend in here, I’m surprised you haven’t done it yourself.”
Jamal smiles and snaps his fingers. The champagne surrounding you swirls upward, coalescing into a gigantic, watery-pink version of himself. The music changes to a rock-island beat as the liquid-Jamal begins to dance. It jerks its arms. It rolls its head. It kicks and pops and locks in midair.
The rest of the club floats over as the girls in the tub squeal with delight. Surrounded by clapping, cheering avatars, the real Jamal gives you a smug smile. “Be no such thing as scaping if you can do that in real life,” he says.
Good afternoon. Today is Thursday, June 24, 2049. The time is 5:15pm. Weather is mostly cloudy in the upper 60s with a rain shower expected later this evening.
You have no new messages in your mailbox.
There are no appointments—
You jerk your head, shutting off your stats. “Where the hell is she?”
Today you’ve been to her apartment, the bar down the street, Vino’s, the mall, back to her apartment, even Wilcox Enterprises (because lord knows when Neicy ever shows up there). The receptionist with the bun on her head told you what a coincidence, Shanice Jones was just there ten minutes ago. You just happened to miss her. So sorry about that …
You stormed out before she could finish. Coincidence your ass — Neicy’s avoiding you. She’s probably holed up in some bar somewhere, howling on the floor as she watches you on Netcam.
So here you are, back at your place, hacking into sidewalk cams for any trace of her. Pathetic.
“Here’s one from this morning,” Pixie22 says. “It shows her at Wells Fargo bank. Looks like she cashed in some MP9 bonds. I didn’t know Neicy was into investing.”
“Yeah, for a person who likes to spend money, she sure knows how to rack it in. Trace the numbers, Pix, see if she spent it anywhere out of the ordinary.”
“Don’t you think you’re going a little overboard?” Peggy95 frowns from the arm of your overstuffed chair. Today she’s a squat Polish granny, complete with floral babushka, knitting with needles that extend past her elbows. There’s no yarn between them, but she waves and bends the needles almost as if she’s knitting air. “To go through such lengths—”
“Look, I’ve been keeping an eye on Neicy ever since her mama died,” you snap. “If she want to play games, fine. I’ll treat her like a goddamn kid. But one way or another, she and I are gonna talk.”
“I don’t think Neicy is looking for a mother right now,” Peggy95 sighs. She and Pixie22 are the only chatbuddies helping you out. Rocco’s at work and BlueZig is … somewhere … ” Seriously, dear. Let her be for a couple of days. I’m sure she’ll come to you when she’s good and ready—”
“By then it will be too late!” You sweep away the infopane to glare at her. “Peg, the girl — don’t — think! She just does what she wants, damn the consequences. Every new fad, every new opportunity, she jumps in with both feet without checking out the details first. She’s about to make this huge mistake—”
Peggy95 breaks in. “And what makes you think scaping is a mistake?”
You blink at that. “I didn’t say that. I just want her to stop and think for once—”
“Are you afraid she might die from this?”
“What? No. No. Of course not — look, I’m not against scaping, okay? I just don’t see how someone could shut down their body, put themselves on the net, and expect to be the same person.”
Peggy95 shrugs. “The human brain is composed of electric impulses going through gray matter. Scaping simply transfers those impulses to digital rather than organic.”
“But Neicy’s more than just a bunch of electric impulses. I’m talking about what makes Neicy Neicy—”
“Ah. You mean her soul.”
Pixie22 gives up pretending to work. Her leaves remain on the infopanes as she watches you and Peggy95.
“Soul, mind, heart, whatever. It can’t be uploaded like software! Look how it turned out for BlueZig.”
Peggy95 smiles at her needles. “BlueZig looks perfectly fine to me.”
“You didn’t know him when he had an actual body. Back in college, yeah, he was still a weirdo, but at least when he talked, he made sense. Now look at him. He’s an ‘it’. A blobish, babbling ‘it’.”
Click, clickety, click goes the needles. “And have you considered that he might prefer it that way?”
You snort. “BlueZig’s a spaz. Neicy’s different. She’s never been into that scifi shit.”
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it ‘scifi’. Do you know how scaping originally came about? It was intended as a temporary solution for terminally-ill patients to remain with their families just a little longer. Scientists thought that, without a body to sustain them, their minds and personalities would disintegrate. They were wrong. Not only did those patients remain intact, they gained new abilities that we’ve only just begun to explore.” Peggy95 gives a small smile, “ If you think about it, scaping can be considered our next evolutionary step.”
You stare at Peggy95. “But, that’s bullshit! No one can live like that, it’s not real. None of it’s real. This—” You smack the arm of the chair. “This is real!” You wave your hand through her needles. They warp and bend. “This is not!”
Peggy95 pauses, waits for you to withdraw your hand. Then, she turns around one of the needles and jams the pointed end into her finger, hard. You flinch back — Pixie22 gives a tiny shriek — as Peggy95 yanks the needle out, her small face drawn tight as if in pain. She holds up her finger. Fat red drops trickle down, pooling in the curled well of her hand.
“Tell that,” she says softly, “to someone suffering from cancer.”
You stare at her, speechless. Pixie22 swivels her head between the two of you, her cheerful face subdued to a pale yellow. In the uncomfortable silence, a text from BlueZig breaks in:
>BlueZig: Yo! Yo! Letdown on the downlow. Neice-Neice going upscale Pure as Heaven Salon and Spa. Betta catch ‘em all, yo.
You scramble for the infopane. Sure enough, there she is, heading through the spa’s door. She’s got her hair pulled back under a scarf, and she’s wearing dark sunglasses, but it’s definitely her. “Keep an eye on her, Zig,” you say aloud. “I’m on my way.”
Is it just your imagination or did BlueZig just swear at you?
Pixie22 vanishes, without saying her usual goodbye. Peggy95 takes a little longer to leave. Moving slowly, as if her hand still hurts, she places her needles in a long, thin case. It’s something she always does; you used to chalk it up to another one of her idiosyncracies.
“Peg? You’re a scaper, aren’t you?”
Peggy95 places her hands gingerly on the needle case. The wrinkles coded on her cheeks and forehead appear deeper, more careworn. She turns to give you a long look, then without answering, she vanishes.
The cab maneuvers down Beacon Avenue. You’re the only person inside. The scaper controlling the cab makes light chit-chat from the speakers set in the dashboard. He — you assume it’s a he — talks about his physical wife back in Jersey, raising their twin 5-year-old sons. Their favorite name for him is “Invisible Daddy”, because sometimes they turn the cameras off but still leave the speakers on so he can talk to them. Better to save electricity that way.
You can’t stop thinking about the knitting needle plunging into Peggy95’s finger. So you try to think about other things. Shot glasses. Shoes. Shopping. Two little boys chasing a deep, disembodied voice in a dark hall.
No way are you gonna let Neicy do this.
The cab pulls up to the Pure as Heaven Salon and Spa. You press your thumb against the pay window and dash out, ignoring the scaper’s warning to look out for passing cars. There’s no windows in the salon building, so Neicy doesn’t see you until you burst through the front door. She jerks her head up from a mag-screen and the look on her face is priceless.
“We need to talk. Now.”
She zips her eyes around. She’s the only one in the reception area, so no one can help her. “Shit, how did you—”
“You are going back to Wilcox. You’re telling them you’ve changed your mind and you don’t want the promotion.”
“Oh, hell no!” Neicy tosses the mag-screen aside and jumps up. “I knew it, I knew it! Why can’t you let me live my life for goddamn once?!”
“Cause you don’t know what the fuck you’re getting into, that’s why! I know you. This ain’t gonna work. You’re gonna drop this just like you dropped Jamal. I am not going to sit here and watch you throw your life away on every damn fucking whim that comes to that damn fucking head of yours!”
Neicy opens her mouth, then shuts it quick. She looks at you — really looks at you — before saying, “Oh. I get it. I see what’s goin on. This ain’t about me. It’s about you.”
You blink. “The fuck you talking about? This has nothing to do with me—”
“Bullshit! It’s always about you! Ever since we were kids, it’s always ‘Tilda’s the smart one, Neicy’s the crazy one’. Now that I’m scaping myself, there’s no one else to make you look good. And that scares you shitless.”
“You got some nerve. I’ve been busting my ass dragging you out of your crazy messes for years. If it weren’t for me, you’d be out trampin it up somewhere, or even dead, you ungrateful bitch!”
“So I did some stupid shit. Big-fucking-whoop. But I also did shit that was off the wall pay, and you ain’t never said a single word about it. Why? ‘Cause you don’t care. You ain’t never cared about what I do.”
“You’re talking out your ass. Of course I care—”
“What’s my job position at Wilcox? When’s the last time you read one of the articles I wrote there? There’s a whole side of me you don’t know about. Whenever I tried, you go ‘that shit’s boring, Neice’ or ‘why you wanna do something like that?’ All you want to do is go clubbing and shopping and hang out at bars. All the stuff you want to do.”
That takes you by surprise. “Ain’t it a little late to say you hate all that stuff?”
“I don’t hate it. But it’s all we do. Nothing else. Remember when I wanted to camping on Mt. Rainer? You were like ‘Naw, girl, let’s stay in the city.’ That time I wanted to go to Vegas, you didn’t wanna spend any money. I send you links and things to do all the time, but you always delete it or don’t even look. You don’t take risks. You don’t step out. You don’t even date. Least me and Jamal had five years; What you got? Couple of one night stands and a hand-job in a bathroom stall.”
“All you care about is your ratings. Hundreds of faceless people watching you scratch your ass. It’s boring. You’re boring. Get your eyes off your own damn self and put them on something else for a change. It ain’t all about you.”
The inner door to the reception area opens. A blond woman pokes her head in, looks nervously at the two of you and calls for Neicy. As she moves forward, you say, “Well, shit, Neice, if that’s how you really feel, then go on. Scape yourself. Least I’ll still be alive.”
“Yeah, but at least I’ll have a life.”
Ouch. That hurt. That really hurt. And because you give back as good as you get, you pull out your last insult. “Let me guess. As one of Jamal’s girls? Maybe you can create the perfect avatar to keep him for good this time.”
Neicy pauses at the door. Her voice is flat as stone. “Fuck you.” She vanishes through the door, the salonist glancing at you before rushing to follow her.
What else can you do? You shake your head slowly, then head out to get piss-stink drunk.
Good morning. Today is Friday, June 25, 2049. The time is 11:45am. Weather today is rain, with temperatures in the mid-50s.
You have 21,942 new messages in your mailbox.
There are no appointments in your calendar.
Your fiscal report is overdue.
You have 1,366,249 users logged onto your site.
Your Rank Score is 17.
A deep bassline of pain is pulsing through your head. You roll out of your futon and stumble to the bathroom to gulp down some aspirin. Some memories emerge from the murky innards of your mind: sticky warmth around you, cherry jello shots, a grinding pelvis (you can’t recall if clothes were involved or not). One startling-clear image of puking in a toilet…
As you shuffle towards the kitchenette, blearily you realize your rank score has shot the highest it’s ever been. The thought of logging on makes your head spin like a Tilt-a-whirl. But what is it that Peggy95 always says — routine is the opiate of masses, or something like that. You nuke some coffee, straight black, and slouch against the counter to slurp it up as you ease yourself online.
The mug drops to the floor, splattering hot coffee over your bare feet. You dance in place, staring as the email numbers climb.
22,080 messages. 22,087—
Frantic, you check your firewall for viruses. Nope, these messages are all legit. You send a quick text to Rocco.
>Rocco: Girl! Where U Been?!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
>sxy~sweet: What’s goin on?
>Rocco: Forgot to set ur privacy block, din’t U? Check out googtube.com/watch?v=j7258M
You tap on the link and, shit, there you are, seen from the cams in the salon’s ceiling. Rocco’s right — you did forget to set yourself on privacy mode. Now everyone can see you and Neicy shrill at each other like two cats on a porch stoop in the middle of the night.
You check the video stats. Shit on a stick, it’s gone viral. The comments below it go wild:
>maliboo: DAMN! BITCHFEST! W00T!
>valelintine23: see this is why scapin wrong. it pulls lesbos apart.
>dindynamic: who won? who won?
>MissCongeliatiy: Tall one laid the smackdown on fatso. And all fatso could say was FU.
>higg182: Don’t anyone see how this further perpetuates black women stereotypes? This video is racist!
>Dil69do: I’d like to see her ‘scratch her ass’!
You glance through the emails. Some are from talk shows wanting you to discuss scaping, some ask if you’re going to cut off your Afro in protest. In the midst of this, an urgent text from Peggy95 pops up before you:
>Peggy95: Tilda? Do you need anything? You haven’t logged on all day. Please, please, please let’s talk…
You shut off the Net and head back to the futon.
Good afternoon. Today is Saturday, June 26. The time is now 1:00pm. Weather is 78 degrees and sunny.
You have 382,489 new messages in your mailbox.
There is one appointment in your calendar.
Your fiscal report is overdue.
You have 2,506,244 users logged onto your site.
Your Rank Score is 4.
So it has come down to this: you, in the dark, in your pajamas, an empty pint of Ben & Jerry’s Obama Mocha Swirl at your feet, chat status disabled, completely offline, deleting every link and shortcut Neicy ever sent you.
You haven’t spoken to any chatbuddies, ignored all talk requests. You just want to be alone as you erase Neicy from your life. Turns out, it’s just that easy. Fuck you, she said? Well, fuck her. Fuck her with her selfish, uncaring ass.
There’s a lot of junk in these folders. Stuff you’ve been meaning to clear out for ages. Old chat logs. Links to online clubs. Hundreds of 3-D images of black pumps during her ‘finding the perfect pair’ phase. Any link that bears Neicy’s signature gets swept into the opaque trashcan hovering by your right hand.
All this shit Neicy sent you. Joke emails. Memes. Surveys. It’s good you’re cleaning this out. You never cared about it anyway. Starting over would be like a clean slate. Less clutter in your life. Questionnaires. Lolcat pics. Status reports from Wilcox.
You never understood why Neicy sent you those. They’re just videos of boring white men droning on about how great the company is. You never really cared, so you always deleted them. This one, however, got a comment from Neicy: Hey chk this: HAWT! in her tell-tale shorthand. You start to toss it, but then you think, why not? Maybe it’s some cute guy that caught her eye.
You bring up the link and up pops Neicy.
Well, it looks like Neicy. She’s got her hair pulled back, and she’s decked out in a soft gray business suit. She’s standing with a bunch of others, hands clasped behind her like she’s in the military. In front of her is a guy standing at a podium. After a moment, he speaks, “Welcome to Wilcox Enterprises.”
He then goes into the company’s history. It gets old pretty quick, so you watch Neicy instead. You expect her to fidget or get that vacant stare of online surfing — that’s what you usually do in mind-numbing meetings — but she doesn’t. She just stands there watching the man, as if she’s interested in what he’s saying.
Then you realize: she really is interested in what he’s saying.
“Spearheading the project will be Shanice Jones.” There is polite applause as Neicy comes forward. When she reaches the podium, she looks directly at you.
“Our new software sharpens sensory input, restoring what scapers have lost through the uploading process,” she says, her voice crisp as paper. “ It will enable scapers to return to as normal a life they had outside the Net.”
Someone in the unseen audience asks, “And what actually constitutes a ‘normal life’ for a scaper?”
Neicy replies, “Physical interaction. Touch. Feel. Taste. Things we take for granted. But it goes beyond that. No longer will they be looked at as programs or data. They will be people, real people, with their own community and culture. We have the opportunity to provide the means for that, but have also been invited to become part of this new society.”
Then, out of the blue, she grins. It’s the same grin she got when she came to college with you. The same grin she wore strutting home after bagging Jamal. The crazy-ass grin. The shit-eating grin. The Cheshire Cat got the Dormouse and is now gonna raze the hell outta Wonderland grin. The Neicy grin.
“There’s a new world being formed without the barriers of sex, race, or genetics. And we get to be its pioneers.”
She steps back and an chunky Asian steps up next, but you don’t want to hear him. You shut off the video.
All this time, Neicy’s been telling you what she was going to do. You just never bothered to look.
“Dammit,” you swear.
“Dammit.” You pull on a shirt and jeans, jam your feet into gymshoes.
“Dammit, dammit, dammit.” You rush out the apartment, hailing a cab. You jump online to download the quickest route to Neicy’s, then grab the strap above you as the cab lurches forward.
Like disembodied paparazzi, a surge of texts fly through your head, your chatbuddies at the forefront:
>Rocco: Heyhey! Youre back!
>Peggy95: Oh Thank goodness! I was getting so worried.
>Pixie22: Hooray! I nu u woun’t let Neice down!
>BlueZig: Bizbop on the freeway! Charge it nothing rare!
>Peggy95: You better hurry! They’re going to start in half an hour!
You cling to the strap and swear furiously, gloriously, because Neicy’s right. You’re selfish. You only think about yourself. You’re boring and lazy and don’t care too much about other people. But if Neicy knew all that and still asked you to be her prox, then you owe it to her to be there. This isn’t about you. It never was.
Last time you were at Neicy’s apartment, it had been in its normal chaotic state: clothes all over the floor; dishes piled in the sink. This time, when you burst through her front door, everything’s gone. No furniture. No clothes. No posters of J-Rod and the BOYZ on the walls. Not like she’ll need it where she’s going, but still, it’s gone, baby. All gone.
You move, ghostlike, through the space Neicy’s couch used to sit, gymshoes thunking echoes on the hardwood floor. You thought there’d be more people here; certainly there are thousands watching online through your ports and the cameras built into the rooms. But the only physical people around are a couple of older ladies from Neicy’s job. And leaning against the kitchen counter…
He ducks his head down and smiles. You don’t know why, but something feels off with him. Maybe it’s because he’s a foot shorter than you in real life, or … then it hits you. “Where’s your girls?”
“Thought I go solo on this. Figured Neicy would’ve liked it that way.” He laughs sheepishly. You’re disturbed at his use of past tense.
“So where is she?”
He tilts his head towards the hallway that leads to Neicy’s bedroom. “They ain’t letting no one in.”
You turn to go, then pause. “Hey. How come you never scaped? Seems you’d be better off running the club as a scaper than logging on all the time.”
Jamal shrugs and laughs again. It sounds nice — deep, almost self-conscious. “Dunno. Guess I like having a body too much.”
“Yeah,” you say, thinking back to Neicy’s comment about pioneers. For all the talk on history, it don’t mention the people who choose to stay behind.
As you near Neicy’s bedroom, you hear a whirr of machinery and a “whoosh-whoosh-whoosh” that’s unrecognizable. Two men stand in front of the door, dressed in white shirts, white pants and glasses, wires and thin metal spikes looped around the frames. The one on the right holds up his hand. “Sorry. Family and proxies only.”
You give him the quintessential ‘don’t-mess-with-me’ look. “I … am … family,” you grate, punctuating each word with a jerk of your head.
The men shift subtly. The one on the left taps a wire on his glasses, then after a moment, nods. “Go on in.” You sidestep past them and open the door.
Neicy’s bedroom furniture is gone, replaced by hulking boxes of steel: humming, blinking, zipping, pinging. In front of the machines stand several men in lab coats, corralling invisible data with flicks and swats of their hands. In the center of the room is a twisted monstrosity of a chair, cables and wires and tubes snaking from it.
Sitting in the chair is Neicy.
She has no hair.
Out of all the shocks you’ve had, this one nearly breaks you. You may not know Neicy like you thought, but you know her hair — how she spends hundreds of dollars heating and slathering it into smooth submission. You’ve seen it go from black chestnut to honey blonde to cherry blush (and day-glo orange that one time). She would kick anyone’s ass who got water near it. When it did get wet, she’d touch it up with a hotcomb — the smell of burnt hair wafting through the kitchen as she pulled the comb through, frizz melting, succumbing to heat, becoming bone straight.
Now, not a strand remains. White sensors have been applied all over the shiny brown dome of her head. More sensors sprout over her naked body, attacking her flesh, almost swallowing it up. An oxygen mask covers her nose and mouth, connected to a ventilator, the source of the strange ‘whooshing’. Sitting there, exposed to the men who barely look her way, Neicy appears small, almost lost, a lump of organic meat caught in a tangled spaghetti web.
You must’ve made a sound, because her eyes fly open and hone in right on you. You try to text her, but you can’t get through; looks like they shut her ports down. Unable to communicate, unable to move, she can only watch as you ease over the cords and tubes running across the floor. You reach out for her hand, careful to not disturb the sensors taped to it.
“I’m here,” you say softly.
Tears well up in Neicy’s eyes.
All the things you were going to say, they melt, melt like snowpowder, melt like butter. Your chatbuddies are tumbling over each other, giving you stats on the machines, the number of people watching. Peggy’s asking you to tell Neicy it will be okay, they’re rooting for her, blah, blah, clichés galore. Neicy’s hand is ice-cold. Her eyes are fixed upon you, a drowning swimmer staring at a life-saver high on the surface of the water.
“Excuse me … Miss?” Another lab guy — good-looking in a geeky sort of way — taps you on the shoulder. “We’ve finished the memory files and the backup data. All that’s left is to do the transfer. If you wish, you can wait outside with the rest until she comes online.”
You’re annoyed he’s even telling you this. “I’m her prox. I’m staying.”
He nods and pulls you aside as a couple more men do some last minute adjustments to Neicy’s sensors. “There will be a brief fluctuation when we perform the transfer. Once the body shuts down, we will be working to bring her online. You can still hold her hand, but it’s crucial that you don’t touch any of the sensors, no matter what happens. Understand?”
Neicy’s eyes dart around. The ventilator begins pumping harder, as if her body suddenly realized what’s about to happen and is sucking up as much air as it can. “Calm down, Neice,” you say, stepping forward to take her hand again. “It’s gonna be all right. See? It’s gonna be all right—”
“Commencing,” the cute geeky guy says, his hand sketching delicate arcs in the air. “Putting her under.”
Neicy’s eyes flutter. After a moment, they droop shut.
“Shutting down body systems.”
The ventilator pump slows, the pauses growing longer and longer. Neicy lies still except for her chest, which lifts and sinks. You keep telling her it’s gonna be all right, mostly for your own sake, holding on tight to her cold, pallid hand. The ventilator whooshes. Her chest lifts. Pauses. It sinks.
A long pause.
A longer pause.
You wait … and you wait. The men stop moving, all their concentration focused on the machines and the data hanging in midair. Everything has been put on pause — you, Neicy, the men, your chatbuddies, everyone. Nothing moves.
Then you notice Neicy’s chest going down. No sound to accompany it. Just a gradual slump, a long, silent sigh, the last bit of air escaping a collapsed balloon. It sinks and doesn’t rise again.
“Body shutdown complete.”
The men burst into action, their hands sweeping long, exaggerated arcs, working feverishly to get Neicy uploaded. Though you know she can’t feel it anymore, you squeeze her hand. You log onto MyScape, searching for any sign of her — a new homesite, a fragment of a text message. But nothing comes up.
Minutes crawl by. The men’s hands jerk and scoop. You wait and search, coming up blank, your breath as motionless as the silent ventilator.
An outside force overtakes your vision, redirecting you to a virtual homesite. After a bit of disorientation, you recognize the layout of Neicy’s living room. Crystal chandeliers hang now from the sky-high ceilings. The floor changes color like an everlasting mood ring. Her kitchen area is now a game room with poker tables and pool widgets. One window shows an beach stretching out to nowhere, the other a Brazilian street at the height of Carnivale: feathered, bikini-clad women mixing it up with masked, bongo-pounding dancers.
In the center of the room stands Neicy — undeniable Neicy, but also just as changed. Luxurious black hair crowns her head in loops and swirls before spilling in a silky, lacquered pool at her feet. She has retained her skin’s butterscotch color, but her body is sleek like a well-formed vase. In her white-sequined gown, she sweeps a perfectly shaped arm, diamond sparkles trailing from her fingertips.
Music pounds, and suddenly Neicy’s online apartment is filled with avatars, people from all over the Net coming to congratulate the newest scaper. Celebratory text messages fly through the air, crawl up and down walls, land on avatars’ heads, scramble through their feet. The walls expand, or everyone shrinks — it’s hard to tell.
Jamal’s down shaking it with his girls on the beach. Rocco leads Pixie22 to the Carnivale, her petals swishing like a ruffled skirt; Peggy95 dabs at her eyes and nods at you before going to talk to Neicy’s co-workers. Above it all, BlueZig bounces, a giddy spastic ball.
The private text slips past your eyes and you turn to Neicy. Not a pixel of her perfect grin is out of place. She reaches for your hand — your virtual one — and gives it a squeeze.
>NJBornAgain27: told u itll be ok.
Just like that. No apology. No cussing. Just an electrical impulse sending a message of pressure to your brain, conveying it to your physical hand still clinging to the slumping body in the chair. You even think you can feel a faint quiver, the lifeless hand attempting to execute a command of an owner who’s no longer there.
Real versus Unreal. Virtual versus Physical. You hold the hands of both and can’t tell one from the other.
In the physical world, the labmen start the painstaking process of removing all the sensors and wires from the lump of meat that is Neicy’s husk. You are handed papers showing you witnessed the proceedings.
As you sign in the required spots, online you watch the energy particles made up of Neicy start to dance. She waves her arms. She shakes her ass. She stomps and turns like a crazy-ass fool. She’s pure brainwave and impulse, neurochemical changed to electricity. She’s all light — hell, Neicy’s her own reality.
Welcome to the SkyCity Restaurant.
Today is Saturday July 3, 2049. The time is 9:15pm.
We pride ourselves on giving you the best of everything Seattle has to offer: our food, our service and our wonderful skyline view.
Today’s Catch is Seared Alaskan Halibut with Verjus Butter and Abalone Mushrooms.
We show that you have reservations for two, one physical, one virtual. Please follow the blinking beacon to your table. A waiter will be with you shortly.
Please enjoy your stay.
You never did liked heights.
It’s not something you tell other people because it’s stupid. Tall girl like you, getting reduced to a twitching mess just from one little elevator ride up the Needle. At least the view is nice; long as you don’t think of the 500 feet between your feet and the pavement, you’re fine.
A soft chime pings in your ear. You look up to see a woman, a white one, sitting across from you. She looks towards the windows on the far side of the room. “My, I’ve almost forgotten how pretty the city looks at night.”
You take in her short mousy-brown hair, her slim hands folded calmly on the table. “I suppose back in your time, they didn’t have as many skyscrapers, did they, Peg?”
“Oh come now. I’m not that old.” She waves her hand at the windows. “I’ve been here many times in the daytime. I like looking out on the harbor.”
“So even scapers can get bored of the Net.”
“Only for those who’ve been around for a long time.”
“But you just said you’re not that old.”
Peggy only flashes an enigmatic smile. It’s weird, looking her directly in the eye. As far as you know, it’s never been just you and her. You’ve always had the other chatbuddies to talk to, or someone from the net chiming in their two bytes. Being alone with just her feels … weird.
As if she can sense your thoughts, Peggy asks, “So how’s Neicy doing?”
“Oh, great. Having a freaking ball—” Neicy’s been dragging you everywhere, both online and off — parties, chatrooms, the mall, virtual beaches, Downtown. She’s even trying to talk you into going to Mt. Rainier tomorrow. It’s always another place to go, another site to see, never letting you catch your breath, always trying this, now that, here … there … no there…
“It’s horrible,” you conclude. “I haven’t gotten a decent night sleep all week!”
“There, there. That’s how all newbies act. It takes a while for them to settle down.” Peggy wrinkles her nose as if she had whiskers to twitch. “Give her a few weeks. She’ll be her normal self again.”
You hope so. This new Neicy is ten thousand times worse than the old one.
The waiter comes and you order a glass of Chardonnay. Peggy also orders a glass and it instantly materializes in front of her. As she picks it up, you look at her slender hand. Unmarked. Unscarred. “You never did answer my question.”
“What question, dear?”
“Ah.” She takes a sip and smiles. You wonder if she’s using Wilcox’s new software to experience its taste. Or is there a some other element to it, something only she can experience and you can’t? “Let me ask you a question. Does it matter?”
“I—I guess not. I don’t know.” Uncomfortable, you look away.
Peggy smiles into her wineglass. “‘All this vast majesty of creation — it had to mean something.” She speaks, her voice hushed and reverent. “And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest — I meant something, too. To—’”
Her image flickers, then cuts out. A second later, so do the lights. The floor faintly shudders as the restaurant rolls to a stop.
You sit in total darkness, sixty stories off the ground. No chatbuddies to talk to. No music to comfort you. No one can see you gripping the table with your fingers. It’s just you, all alone, with the harshness of your breath and your heart thudding against your ribs.
Was this how Neicy felt? Trapped, unable to move, unable to speak. How did she manage it, only being able to watch with her eyes as her body failed? How did she face that fear?
You get up.
Bumping into chairs and tables, you make your way over to the windows. The lights of few ferries in the bay, the few cars on the streets that are still manual-powered, are mere pinpoints, overwhelmed by the abyss of darkness that had enveloped the city.
You reach out your hand. At first you panic when all you feel is air. You have to lean forward slightly to feel the window sloping away at an angle. The glass feel cool, smooth and surprisingly thick. You can’t really see it, but you know it’s there.
You take a deep breath. Hold it. Picture the slowing of the ventilator. The coldness of her hand. The blackness, spreading out, growing darker, deeper. You hold your breath and wait.
It starts from near the southeast part of the city, a sudden flare of lights blaring to life. It spreads out like fire, like a blossoming flower; hundreds, thousands, millions of lights blinking into view, flashing up the buildings downtown, illuminating the darkened streets. The ferries and the manual cars chime in their own chorus, no longer separate, but a single entity in the twinkling neon universe, each window ablaze with its own symphony of light.
The dim ambient light above you flicker back on. The floor shifts and starts moving again. A text floats across your view:
>NJBornAgain27: Hey, found the cutest pair of shoes. U gotta come now, cause Porgo J’s comes online at 11…
Neicy, a shining star along with countless others, creating her own nebula in the abyss of the Net. She’s gonna be alright.
You release your breath.
Behind you, Peggy continues as if she had not been interrupted. “‘To God, there is no zero. I still exist’.”
- Lenticular Clouds: via non-famous (originally Scott Sistek via Komonews);
- Seattle partly cloudy: via Tom Ryan;
- Gino’s Vino via IgoUgo;
- Black Woman at Restaurant: via My Majic DC;
- Virtual Avatar 1: via New World Notes;
- Virtual Avatar 2: via New World Notes;
- Green Cab Seattle via Banquet Event;
- Spiral Galaxies in Collision: via Astronomy Picture of the Day;
- Angry Black Woman: via Black Cynic America;
- Empty Apartment 1: via MorgueFile;
- transcendental 1 (candles): via When Love Comes to Town blogspot;
- Sky City: via travelpod;
LaShawn M. Wanak wrote “She’s All Light” in the midst of a tumultuous move from Chicago to Madison, WI. All that stress paid off as it became her first professional sale.
Her speculative fiction has appeared in markets such as Ideomancer and Kaleidotrope. Someday, she plans to win the Writers of the Future contest—until then, she continues to work on her first fantasy novel, as well as turning her husband and son into huge anime geeks. To learn more about her works, visit her blog The Cafe in the Woods.