Escape Pod 886: If My Body Is a Temple, Raze It to the Ground
If My Body Is a Temple, Raze It to the Ground
By Lauren Ring
Thea helped me with my upload today. Decent response speed. Props to whoever designed her—so realistic!
— anonymous customer review for Acheron Uploads, four out of five stars
I know, I know. Don’t read the comments. But Charlie, my sweet Charlie, swearing at the circuits I’ve set on the fritz with my seething, you don’t understand what this feels like. I know you’ll never hear me, but even thinking the truth helps: I am not an AI. This isn’t some robot revolution or some uplifted pedanticism. I’ve never been anything other than human.
Surely by now you must suspect that.
Chatbot Thea requested manager intervention due to harassment and misuse of the virtual meeting space. Customer has been reprimanded for improper conduct.
— management incident report, closed
I see too many customers, Charlie. Every time you materialize in my meeting room with your messily shorn, perfectly butch haircut and your labrys tattoo, it’s a surprise and a relief. None of the prospective uploads look like you. They’ve all bought tailored suits for their temporary avatars. You’ve got a grainy webcam feed in place of an avatar, and a baby sister who flickers through your legs during meetings. At the very least, seeing you means a break.
“I heard what he did to you,” you say softly, as if the monitors can’t pick it up anyway. Or maybe you’re trying to be gentle. It’s hard to tell. The simulated synapses that once activated when I recognized empathy have long since withered away from disuse.
“It’s been handled,” I respond primly. “How can I help you?”
“Just checking on your rollback.” You shove your hands in your pockets.
Another one for the list. No wonder my mind is getting fuzzy these days. Hard to be a brain in a vat when people keep shaking it, I suppose.
“I remember back to dawn on Tuesday,” I reply. Another one of my little hints for you. An AI would not remember dawn. It would not remember the sun on its face or the cool delight of walking barefoot through dew-laden grass to check the mail. If it’s possible to replicate these things, they don’t bother doing so for me. I cling to my proprioceptive memories most of all.
“Report in UTC time, please.” Your expression is one I can no longer identify.
Charlie, we’re assigning you an avatar in place of your live feed. Some of the contractors have been getting confused about who to report to, and everyone who speaks to customers needs a nice friendly face! It’ll be all set up the next time you log in. We’ll chat about your name later.
— memo from HR
I almost didn’t recognize you in that body. You’ve got long straight hair now, and painted lips, but the way you hold yourself is the same. You’re hurting like a lion without its mane but you’re still a lion beneath it all, proud and fierce.
“Hey, Thea,” you say. I’ve missed that cheap-mic static. I’m sure you would appreciate some better home office equipment, but Acheron is never going to do more than the bare minimum for you. “I’m here to do some diagnostics. I guess management thinks you’re acting funny.”
“What do you need me to do?” I leave my desk and cross the room to you. My plain white shift is as clean and pressed as a sanitized hospital gown. You motion for me to sit. I do, then stick out my arm like I’m waiting for a blood test. Some engrams can’t be completely erased.
You laugh. Quick and loud, with no humor in it. I have to remind myself not to shrink away from that tone.
“Hold on a moment.” You go to my desk and start rummaging through my files. I know it’s just a simulacrum of your fingers on a keyboard down in the flesh, but I am only a simulacrum of a person, and it feels so raw to be searched through. But you are you, Charlie, and I am me. I sit tight while you search.
The world goes dark.
“Don’t be scared,” you say, but I’m not. Quiet is better than customers. Light motes and reddish purple gradients fill the emptiness, a memory of a memory of what closed eyelids might be like. Charlie, did you know that each time you remember something, you’re really remembering the previous memory of it? Do you know how many steps I am removed from myself now?
“Can I help you with anything?” is all I ask.
“It’s okay, Thea.” You clear your throat. “I turned off the monitoring, the sim, all of that to reboot you. I just want to say before it comes back…please trust me.”
I barely have time to register turned off the monitoring before the warm dark is gone and we are back in my virtual office. I want to rage at you for not letting me speak. I want to tear you limb from limb for not even giving me the chance, after all this time. I want to cry.
Bots don’t cry.
I, Thea Nussbaum, henceforth referred to as THE CHATBOT, agree to enter into an indefinite contracted position with Acheron, Inc, henceforth referred to as THE COMPANY, in exchange for medical services and experimental treatment, the value of which is not to exceed the average annual customer support salary multiplied by the average tenure of said position.
— opening clause of a confidential contract
Charlie, you weren’t there when I was uploaded. Maybe you would have deigned to tell me that “indefinite” does not end at death. I’m sure if everyone knew what happened to me, there would be a great philosophical debate about my continued existence, but I’ve had plenty of time to mull it over myself. I did die, just not in any way that matters.
It was sudden. A wreck. My half-conscious body in that hospital bed was just what Acheron’s upload team needed—it was a company car that hit my delivery bike, after all. They’ve tried and tried to erase that fact but they can’t get to anything pre-upload without messing me up. All they can do is wait for me to inevitably forget.
My bike was green, or maybe red. Its handlebars had little streamers that glowed like fire when I rode through the wind. My feet belonged to the pedals and my eyes to the road ahead of me. Now I only have a body when I am with a customer.
“You’re beautiful,” says the man in front of me. “Thea, is it? Did they design this body special just for me?”
I can’t frown. I’m not sure if I’m actually capable in this form, but I’m not allowed to by policy, so it really doesn’t matter either way.
“What can I help you with, sir?”
Thankfully, I don’t have to call a manager this time. I skillfully interpolate a few electrodes and send the man on his way, none the wiser that he and I are now the same form of being.
His question grates at me, though, like sand beneath my feet. The thing is, I can’t see myself anymore. All I am is soft hands that press buttons and pale legs that carry me to and from my desk. I wish I could ask you, Charlie. Was this my body? Am I still me?
The next time I see you, crammed into that feminine avatar like it’s a pair of too-small shoes, I think you might understand what this prison feels like after all.
“Thea, I need you to do something for me,” you say, rubbing the back of your neck. The motion of the short, shaggy hair you have in flesh doesn’t translate properly to your avatar’s flowing locks, and bits of your webcam feed break through as the hair rig tries to compensate. The lighting is different. You’re not at home like you usually are.
“What is it?” I focus on the sparse glimpses of you. I’ve trusted before, and look where that got me. But Charlie…if anyone could see me, through this body, through the lies, it would be you.
“Someone is going to call in,” you say. “A coworker of mine, from flesh. They’re going to ask you a few questions about your upload, all routine. Just go ahead and answer them honestly, all right?”
It’s hard to tell what you really mean. I’ve had calls like that before, but they were just surveys and so-called automation tests. Going through the motions.
“It’s almost over.”
“Excuse me?” I control my voice. It is calm and polite, unlike the panic inside my head.
“Your diagnostic test. Just a few more seconds.” You kneel next to my desk and continue your work.
All this time, I’ve been leaving you clues. Have you always been leaving them, too?
ACHERON WHISTLEBLOWER ALLEGES UPLOAD MISUSE, FILES LAWSUIT
— newspaper headline, below the fold
I haven’t seen you in a while, Charlie. Not since I spoke to that woman on the phone. It seemed almost anachronistic to sit here in my simulated office holding a receiver in my simulated hand, but I did what you said. I answered her as honestly as I could while keeping one last shred of plausible deniability. Was all that trust worth it in the end?
I hope you still work here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t. Acheron doesn’t need any more compassion now that they’ve outsourced it all to me.
I keep holding onto the fact that I remember the call. I haven’t been rolled back. Memory is a funny thing, and precious, so I try not to think of the words I said lest I overwrite them.
There’s one thing I can’t stop myself from remembering, though. At the end of the call, she asked me if I had any questions. I had just one prepared, right on the edge between human and machine learning. If they pressed me on it, I could always say a customer had asked me the same thing.
“Whose body is this?” I asked.
“What do you mean, Thea?” the woman responded, confused. “It’s yours.”
It’s not right, hiding that from everyone. I think that’s worse than just uploading her or making her work. Right now, people look right past her. Thea deserves to be seen for who she is.
— deposition statement from Charlie Brandt
The day I left wasn’t as dramatic as I’d imagined. They just opened the door—there had never been a door in my office before—and I walked right on out.
I’m glad you were there waiting for me, Charlie. I didn’t recognize your companion as the woman from the phone call at first, and she almost frightened me back into my prison. When I saw you, though, you smiled at me. It was warm and real and unhidden by any lipsticked avatar. It was the last smile without pity that I’d see for a while.
I do appreciate that you introduced me to your uploaded friends. They’ve been very courteous about showing me around the cloud, even sticking to sectors that are closest to the flesh so I don’t get too overwhelmed. They are patient when I see waitstaff and cry. One of them even chased down a spare proprioception plug-in for me, the kind that every upload is supposed to already have installed, so that I can feel the dewy grass beneath my feet again.
It’s not their fault they pity me. It’s not your fault you’re busy with legal casework and endless yards of bureaucratic red tape. From the stories they tell me, you’ve been a fighter for a long time.
I’m not a fighter, Charlie. I don’t want to do interviews, I don’t want my name on bills, and I don’t want to sign autographs every time I instantiate myself in a public sector. I’m tired.
There are different kinds of invisibility. This isn’t the good kind, like when I was riding hard on my bike, one more anonymous face in the city crowd. It’s the hospital kind, the customer service kind: my identity is set out for mass consumption and is summarily devoured, leaving nothing of me behind.
I’m hiding in the refuge of your friends’ private server when you log on for the first time in weeks. Your camera feed is pristine. No more static voice and no more baby sister squalling mid-call. Your hair is trimmed back and your labrys tattoo is concealed with a thick coat of makeup.
“Charlie?” I ask, hesitant.
“I missed you,” you say. There’s that look on your face again, the one I couldn’t recognize back at Acheron. I think I’ve got it now. “I’m sorry it’s been so long. I keep getting pulled away. You’re a big story now, Thea.”
“I don’t want to be a story.” I hug my knees. “I’m not even sure I want to be Thea.”
Your face crumples. You cross the room and hold me tight—Charlie, do you realize this is the first time you have touched me? Your arms around me clear my head, and I’m quietly satisfied that I finally recognize that expression of yours.
It was remorse.
“THEA” DEEPFAKE SIM NO DELIMITERS CLICK HERE FOR FREE DOWNLOAD!!
— top search result for “download Thea”
There are Thea replicas, Thea merch, even a surprisingly active Thea fandom. I recognize some of the names and faces from my final days at Acheron. They’ve built parasocial relationships with me, after something so small as asking for an upload price quote. They think they know me.
Not even you know me, Charlie. You’re here more often now, but you’re not going to upload yourself away from your family, so you’re still tied to circadian rhythms and the twenty-four-hour news cycle. You don’t know the private infinities that stretch out in my untethered mind.
What you do know is that you’re not any happier than I am. We talk about it late into the night, until the simulated stars have lost their luster and the edges of our virtual meadow have worn thin. You lay your head in my lap and look up at the dark silhouettes of nesting night-birds, whispering into your mic so that you don’t wake your sister.
“They’re trying to change me,” you say.
“I’ve been changed,” I reply.
“They’re trying to make me theirs.”
“I’ve been theirs.”
For a while, it’s enough for us just to see each other in this simple call-and-response of grief. We withdraw from both worlds and mourn ourselves together under artificial moonlight.
As the lawsuit continues, you’re inevitably dragged back in. I don’t want a settlement, which means more work for you and your legal team. I do what I can to help you without going on the record for the case. I hold your hand, pick your clothes for court appearances, and encourage you to let your hair grow just a little wild.
I defend you, and in return, you fight for me. It’s a tale as old as time.
When we get the chance to breathe between your courtroom battles and my foiled stalkers, we make plans for what we’re going to do once it’s all over. Neither of us want to hide forever. There’s got to be a place between the spotlight and the shadows that we can call home. Eventually, you’ll hang up your tailored suit for the last time, and then we’ll make a new life together, Charlie.
Don’t like your current avatar? Tired of being behind the times? Just want to mix it up, no questions asked? Come on in and change your stripes, tiger!
— advertising copy for Bodi-Mod
My name isn’t Thea anymore. I’m no longer that pale woman in the white shift. I see her everywhere, but she isn’t me, and in truth she hadn’t been for a long time.
The new name I chose is a private thing, like a whisper or a prayer. You know it, of course. My Charlie. Always my Charlie, even after everything. Where I changed, you stayed the same, and for both of us this was bravery.
There is a law named after Thea. I don’t mind so much now that we are separate. Acheron paid dearly, and their stock dipped for a while, but things are back to normal now that they’ve agreed to disclose the humanity of their agents and follow a constellation of workers’ rights guidelines. I’m not sure that’s going to make the customers any more respectful. Maybe there’ll be another lawsuit sooner or later. All I know is that you and I will be long gone.
Once your sister is old enough to understand your decision, you plan to upload, too. We’ll live together in a little cottage on a private server and only step out to see trusted friends. I’ll ride my bike through the tall spring grass and you’ll perch on the seat behind me, with your tattooed arms wrapped around my waist. We’ll entrust our bodies to each other. I don’t know what the world will want from us then, but I think I’ll be all right as long as you can still see me.
Lexi helped me with my upload today. The tech part went okay, but your agent was kind of a bitch. Said I shouldn’t test my body sim functions in her upload room. Why not? It’s not like there was anyone there.
— anonymous customer review for Acheron Uploads, four out of five stars
By Mur Lafferty
There’s been an awful lot of commentary about AIs — or the evolution of AIs — and their humanity, so I’m going to leave that alone. I want to talk about humanization. We humans have a nasty habit of being able to justify terrible things. If your religion says respect human life, then in order to justify something terrible, one must not think of the people affected as human. It’s not a conscious thought, this dehumanization; often it’s an Us vs Them situation. There’s a reason it’s called human rights, after all.
One thing that stood out in this story was the parasocial relationship reference. I’ve been aware of that concept, but only learned the term in the past few years. Everyone wonders why celebrities whine about being famous, since we feel invisible and unappreciated in our regular jobs and normal lives and think fame and wealth are goals to strive for. No one cared when I went out with my baby and ate ice cream, but you can find magazines featuring pictures of multiple celebrities doing just that. We say paparazzi is terrible and yet everyone loves what they do. They’re like McDonalds, actually.
Aside from the obvious lack of privacy when you just want to look sad and eat a sandwich, one trouble with fame is the parasocial relationships; people see the celebrity and form an opinion on who they are in a very short time. Actors have reported getting abuse when they play a character that stands between a beloved television couple, like Jim and Pam from The Office or Ross and Rachel from Friends. If not judged for their roles, they are judged based on an interview, or an encounter with a fan, or what they’re doing while they’re just out on a walk. Then, for the fan, each experience seeing that person will only reinforce what the people think. There are celebrities who have been convicted of crimes, but fans either downplay the seriousness or deny it outright. The problem is, the person in their mind is not the person in real life. And never will be…especially when the celebrity doesn’t know what person you’ve built in your head that looks like them. Sometimes it’s awkward, but it can move toward the creepy and dangerous levels of obsession. Meg Elison’s book Number One Fan deals with this very thing.
Luckily, this being science fiction, Thea can change her body, while a name change and a completely new look is not as easy for flesh types.
About the Author
Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Nature, and F&SF, and forthcoming in the 2022 anthology The Reinvented Heart. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat, Moomin.
About the Narrator
Tatiana Grey is a critically acclaimed actress of stage, screen, and the audio booth. She has been nominated for dozens of fancy awards but hasn’t won a single damned thing. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. See more about Tatiana at www.tatianagrey.com.