This story contains elements of body horror and nonconsensual medical experimentation, as well as references to intimate partner violence.
I’m still damp from my hasty shower as I clamber back into the Sack, and the feedback suit sticks uncomfortably to my bare skin, but the countdown to my next session is at :23 on the display when I settle my face into the mocap mask. I’ll air-dry. I haven’t had a reserved block in weeks, just got whatever came up in the queue, and if someone’s paying the premium to book me, then I can’t disappoint them.
The screen flashes up the intertwined hands of the Closeness logo, and a little thrill makes my stomach quiver. I wonder whose face I’m about to be looking into, and compose my own — receptive and slightly sultry, lips freshly licked and parted.
Their video feed is dark. That’s fine. Some people like the dark.
They can see me. I shift towards the camera just a little, mostly to resettle the suit, but it looks like a friendly sway.
“Hello,” I breathe. “This is Druzy. I’m glad you came to join me.”
I’m too professional to let my eyes narrow, but they want to. “It’s Druzy, honey, but that’s okay.”
I know this voice. Why do I—
And then the video feed lights up.
Seven years haven’t been kind to him. His face has narrowed and sagged, with dark shadows in the eye sockets. His head’s still shaved. He’s wearing boxers, but he’s bared a torso gone thin and sinewy; his top-surgery scars have faded, and there’s a grey smudge on his left pec where my name used to be. That’s nice, but it doesn’t mollify me enough to keep my customer face on.
“What are you doing here? It can’t be the obvious.” If he just wanted to virtually fuck his ex, there are cheaper, easier ways of doing it than Closeness. Of course, I wouldn’t let him within six feet of me without the rig, and when he raises a haptic-gloved hand and my suit places his touch on my shoulder, I can’t help it — I flinch.
“Druzy, listen,” he says, in that voice that is and isn’t what I remember. He sounds hoarse. The touch disappears from my shoulder. “I’m sorry. I— I didn’t want to do this.”
“You’re paying a lot of money for something you didn’t want to do,” I snap. “So what is this, are we roleplaying that night in Portland? ‘Oh, I have to test the new dick out, the hydraulics—’”
“No, please, tell me.” My cheeks are heating, and I know the sensors in the mask are giving my avatar a fiery blush. “You bought three hours, Harris. I’m yours. We can do whatever you want.”
Those words hang there with their consonants dripping into the silence. He swallows, and it looks like it hurts, but he doesn’t have his feedback bands on his throat and without the reciprocals on, I can’t tell. But I do feel a sharp spasm from his left arm.
“Dru, listen.” He inhales on a wince. “I’m. I’m in trouble.”
“Some trouble, if you’re coming to me.” The instant I say it, I hear the truth in it, and a weight settles in my belly.
“Look.” He twists to the left, until I can’t see his face anymore.
What I can see, at first, I don’t understand: a dark, spreading blotch behind his ear.
“I’m a Dreamer,” he says, muffled and defeated. “Got it three months ago.”
“You got a Mockingbird?” My jaw goes slack. “After they fired me, and I told you what data they were collecting—” I hadn’t even told him the half of what happened there, and I still can’t believe him. “Harris, you fuckwit, why?”
“Needed the money. I lost my job. Everybody lost their job.”
I don’t say anything. I don’t need to. The Closeness interface says it for me: Finally, we’re even.
“I was with Zennews a few years, and it was Hutchinson-owned, which was bad enough, but then we got too big and Pagecorp bought us. Anyone with an actual opinion doesn’t last now. It’s just typing. I couldn’t fucking stand it.”
“You told them so.” This isn’t a question. I know him.
“Out loud. Got marched out in five minutes flat. And nobody else was hiring journalists — or hiring me, anyway.” He turns back to the camera, helpless rage in his eyes. “I figured, if I was blacklisted as long as my eyes were open, at least I could get paid to sleep.”
I shake my head. “Barely. Two cents an ad.” In thirty-second blocks, back-to-back, all night, no off-switch but waking up. At least I get to get out of the Sack.
“Yeah, well, it was that or starve. I sold everything. The car, the furniture—” He bites the sentence off. “Moved into a pod and— I thought if I could just job-hunt when places were open, sleep enough to keep up the rent, maybe save a little….”
That math doesn’t add up. “What were you doing, eight hours?”
My avatar must show my disbelief.
“I used hypnosis,” he says defensively. “To keep myself under. I could get two-fifty a week. And I did, I was, except.” His breathing’s getting faster, and his arm twitches again. “It started to get to me. I felt like… like I couldn’t wake up at all anymore. You know that— That fucking, what is it, a marmoset? Sells insurance. I was seeing that bastard everywhere. Caught myself speaking with that stupid accent, even.” He laughs, once, strained and bitter. “But I just needed a few more weeks to have enough saved to get back home. And then! They offered me an upgrade! Little popup box in my dreams. Couldn’t believe it.”
“What kind of upgrade?”
“Oh, I was using too much processing power, the chip’s interface wasn’t built for that much engagement, my activity logs flagged something in a database somewhere, I don’t know. They said they could juice it up and I wouldn’t feel the lag anymore. So I joined the ‘Elite Tier’.” He pronounces these words like picking up a dead rat with bare hands. “Woke up to a nosebleed so bad my pillow squelched, and an email warning me I might ‘experience some adjustments’ and not to worry. But my dreams sure were in HD. Great, right?” He pumps his right fist, but his mouth is a lipless line. “Day three, I sneezed, and I fucking passed out. Blackholed — no ads. Woke up with pink shit oozing out my nose and my left arm asleep. Stayed like that for a couple of days.”
“Days— You just left it?” I sound parentally horrified; I hate it.
He does too, from the glare he gives me. “I said, I needed money. It got better. Then it happened again, and this time I was out getting food, and I must have hit my head on the way down. Black eye, migraines, arm keeps spasming….” He swallows again; I’m glad the haptics can’t convey nausea. No wonder he’s not wearing the throat band.
Inside my chest, something I thought was dead twinges like the haptics from his arm. “Harris.”
“I don’t even care about that. The problem is—” He lifts his hand, but doesn’t quite touch the thing behind his ear. “I think hitting my head did something to the chip, because it’s fucked. It’s still feeding me ads, but the visual feed is fried, and the audio is just….” He shudders. “It’s like it’s… screaming. It never stops.”
Again he swallows. “So I sent an email to the support team asking them to reflash it.” The noise he makes is definitely not a laugh, even if it wants to be. Then he tries to grin, which is somehow even worse. “Got a canned reply saying any unforeseen issues were my assumed risk as per the contract. Sent them back some choice thoughts on their contract. It bounced. Every email I sent after that. They don’t wanna know me. And I can’t fucking turn it off.”
“So….” The words come slowly as my brain tries to force the facts to line up in any other way. “I don’t think I can reprogram it. I wasn’t in that division, I was in the implementation engineering team—”
“I know. I do know what you did for a living, and I know you were fucking good, and—” He reaches for something the camera can’t see. “I need you to take it out.”
All Sacks have warm, friendly amberish lighting, but the blade of the scalpel still glints a vicious silver-white through its plastic package, and my heart stutters in my chest like it wants to kick its way out.
“That’s why I’m here. That’s why it’s you. I need your hands.”
I recoil hard enough to bump the back wall of the Sack. “You need a surgeon.”
His laugh’s as sharp as the blade. “With what money? I don’t have enough to prepay any hospital. But I have enough for this. And I know you have the skills.”
My stomach flips. “No. I— I can’t, Harris, I can’t.”
“You can. Your waivers cover you; I looked. If I die, all you have to prove is I consented and you hit the help button.” Finally he looks straight at me, and I can see the glint of tears at his lash line. “Dru, I can’t take this.” He closes his eyes. “I haven’t slept in five days. I can’t eat. I’m running a fever. And my rent is due in a week. If you can’t do this, I’m… going to do it myself.”
“You idiot.” My heartbeat is in my throat. “You can’t do surgery on the back of your own head.”
He grins like a snarling dog. “Not well.”
“You don’t have any anaesthetic. Is anything even sterilised?”
“Every inch of this thing,” he says, with undisguised triumph. “I wiped everything down with alcohol. Myself, too. Stung like hell.”
My hands tremble, but I concentrate, and they still.
Seven years ago, I might have let him die. But we’re here now.
He wouldn’t be if he had any other choice but to trust me.
“If we’re doing this,” I say, knowing already from the thumping weight in my chest that it’s not if, “I need you to put on the rest of the feedback suit.”
I watch closely as he wriggles gracelessly into the suit and gets the haptics and the sensors aligned. He’s hurting enough to be clumsy with it, and I don’t have to turn the reciprocals on to know he’s breathing too hard, too carefully, for that not to hurt too.
Still, when I do switch them on, it hits me like an electric shock. My suit haptics shove, and for a second, until I catch Harris’ rhythm, I can’t get air. Numb-fingered, I fumble at the controls, gasping, and turn him down and my own proprio receptors up.
Once I have hands again, I roll my shoulders, and I try to steady myself as I lean forward into the presence rig and let its harness take my weight — across my ribs, above my elbows, under my wrists. My fingers slide into their little cups, and I reach out, and the presence rig in front of Harris puts out my hand and takes the handful of wrapped tools he’s brought. Two scalpels. Two forceps. A pair of tweezers that narrow to a watchmaker’s point. Gauze. A tube of cheap cyanoacrylate glue. Some tape. It’ll have to do.
“Okay. Roll over for me. Get comfy.”
Harris snorts, but does, and I look down, lean in so the camera lets me get closer, and zoom in on the black blotch.
It looks evil, up close — deep black bruising around the chipsite and a radiating halo of purple-red veins, badly inflamed. It must hurt.
I reach past the blotch and slide my left hand over the stubble at the back of Harris’ skull.
I know him. No matter how much I’ve tried to forget him, I know, and I make little circles with my fingertips, and he breathes out, half sigh and half sob. “Shit, Dru.”
I wonder how long it’s been — if I was the last person to do this.
But the haptics tell me he’s relaxing, getting used to my touch. His heartbeat is slowing.
His lips shape words the mics can’t pick up.
“You ready?” I ask.
“I’m… putting myself under, a little.” He shivers. “Not all the way. Just enough to not feel it so much.”
“Fine, but I’m going to need you to talk so I know you’re alive.”
“Okay.” His eyes close.
“How do you do it? The hypnosis.”
I’m listening for an answer, but mainly I’m trying to find the old scarring the implantation would have left, so at first, when he starts singing, I think I’ve missed something.
“Hush, little baby, don’t say a word / Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird….”
“Oh my God,” I blurt. “Did they— Did they teach you that? That sounds like fucking Naomi. That’s the shit Marketing would have just eaten up.”
He gives me half a smile. “It works.”
It’s my turn to shudder. “Singing their own ads. Christ. Shameless, soulless motherfuckers.”
“Don’t remember you minding when they were paying you.”
That burns in my sinuses like capsaicin. “Don’t remember you sticking around once they weren’t.”
The half-smile disappears and the snarl comes back. “Just do it, all right? Stick the knife in like you want to. I’m here, I’m the asshole who left you because things got hard and I got a better offer, fine. I was a shithead. I’m still a shithead. Now you get to make me bleed for it.”
The reciprocals are giving me jagged tension, and the tendons in his neck are standing out.
We can’t work like this.
I take a deep breath and let my anger go. “You are a shithead. But I’m not making you bleed for that. That’s just because you’re paying me to.”
He almost laughs. “I sure am. So do it.”
I engage the servos that give me extra hands, to hold all but one scalpel. The presence rig is as deft at unwrapping it as my own fingers, but I have to imagine the cold of the metal handle as I settle it into my palm.
Harris swallows and starts singing again: “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word….”
I count to seven and draw the tip of the blade over the spot with the small knot of scar tissue twice in a quick X.
Dark, sludgy, clotted blood oozes from the fresh incision. Gently, I press in with the blade. It’s just dermis; they’ve removed a little square of his skull to get access straight into the cortex. The chip should be sitting right in the middle of that.
He’s still singing. Little tremors run through him, but he’s holding on.
He’s not my ex. He’s just a candidate on my table in the Mockingbird lab. I never threw a coffee cup at the head I’m cutting into right now. I never loved him.
The scalpel catches; the reciprocals kick me in the ribs, and we both gasp.
There shouldn’t be anything in there strong enough to stop a new blade.
I hand the scalpel off to a servo and take the two pairs of forceps. “Harris,” I say, as I wiggle one into the incision. “Talk to me.”
“Hurts,” he says indistinctly. “S’okay. What… you wanna talk about?”
With the bruised skin pulled back a little, the blood is welling faster and fresher, but there’s a dark thread — not tissue.
“Tell me your favourite memory of us.” Go somewhere else. Somewhere nice.
“Us?” He breathes for a minute. I take the tweezers from the servo and pinch at the dark thread.
It twitches away.
It can’t— They didn’t. They didn’t.
I grab the scalpel, widen the incision, and make my eyes focus on what they don’t want to see.
Past scalp and flesh and the edges of pink-white bone, a nest of black tendrils leads back to the grey chip snuggled into the plump folds of Harris’ brain.
My upper lip curls involuntarily.
We’d tested regrowth protocols, root and branch network self-construction: If the chip could build on itself, it could handle uses the base model could never support and programs the base model couldn’t run — profits the base model couldn’t deliver. But we’d never been able to control it precisely enough. It anchored wherever it liked, as it spread on its own algorithmic instructions, and there’d been no way to safely enable it. What I’m looking at, I last saw spiderwebbing a cadaver brain, tugging its lifeless lobes into a new and sickening shape.
I didn’t get fired for refusing to test it any further. They found out I knew about their user database first.
I should have told him.
“You used to sing,” Harris mumbles. “Before.”
I force my voice and my breathing into calmness; this isn’t a cadaver test (not yet, not on my watch, please no), and I have more to keep track of than just the horror in his head. “I did. What was your favourite song?”
The tendril I nicked tries to recoil in towards the chip. I grab it at the edge of the chip with my tweezers and twist sharply. It snaps off.
Quickly, I scoop up one of the empty packets, stuff the tendril into it, and stick the adhesive flap down. I’m not finding out what they’ll do loose in the circuits of the Sack.
“I….” Harris trails off. “I don’t know. I don’t remember.”
I have to move fast. Scalp wounds bleed too much. My left hand is coated with his blood, the silicone of the presence rig’s outer shell uselessly slick. I wipe it on his shorts, the only fabric in the Sack, but he feels the touch at his hip and shifts away. “No. Not….”
“It’s okay. I’m not getting distracted.” I wish I could. All I can see is the chip, and the root-system spread of the tendrils, like a weed. “What if you sang me one?”
I grab another tendril and snap it. This one peels out more easily, not embedded so deep, but it twitches like the first as I shove it into a packet, and it keeps twitching as I pull another out to join it.
“I’m… not sure.” Harris sounds dizzy. “I’m sorry. I… can’t think.”
Between the pain, the hypnosis, and the blood loss, I can’t blame him. The reciprocals are getting fainter, but my heartbeat is rushing in my ears as I grab and snap, grab and snap, working along the long edge of the chip.
“Dru,” he whispers. “I’m scared.”
The thing in my chest that isn’t dead at all lashes out like one of Harris’s tendrils and wraps around my throat.
I can’t be. But I am.
Grab, snap, grab, snap. The packet is full of angry, writhing threads.
I have to do something.
It’s the only thing my brain has space for. I start to sing. “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word / Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird….”
A tear slides over the bridge of Harris’ nose. But his lips move with mine.
“And if that mockingbird don’t sing / Papa’s gonna buy you a diamond ring.”
Grab, snap. A long one almost breaks in half; Harris whines and stops singing.
This isn’t working.
The words to the inane, hypercapitalist nursery rhyme fall out of my head. All I can see is the shape of his profile, the little bump in the bridge of his nose — the way it looks in the dim light, the way I remember it on the pillow next to mine.
He’s awfully still.
I go still, too, without meaning to.
How bottomless and sharp-edged and stunningly unfair, after all the ways I could have and did lose him and wanted him gone, that it’s now, and real, and this.
In the back of my mind, into the empty space of looking at him, tumbles a single line of music: Hey baby, look my way / give me a smile for a sunny day / Come on over here and sit by me.
I want to slap at my brain like a mosquito landed on it. I hate that fucking song.
Harris loved it. And that whole summer, it was everywhere we went, and I couldn’t pull it apart from him after he left, and I… remember every word.
My hands come back to me like a system rebooting. I reach back into his head and grab another tendril, and I sing the line out loud, and the next part too.
“When you’re here, it’s always summertime / sipping on drinks in the bright sunshine / Make it perfect, just you wait and see.”
It’s hollow nonsense, worsened with age. Who’s been outside in the last five years? But annoyance distracts me from horror, and I’ve got the chip clear on three sides.
“Running down the beach together, blue-sky eyes in new love weather / Can’t buy a love that’s ever been so free….”
How much of me is bought and paid for?
How much have I given him, now?
Bigger problems. There’s a taproot-looking tendril coming out the bottom of the chip, but Harris is grey and barely breathing, and I can’t wait. I grab the chip with my fingertips and slowly, steadily, ease it up and out, singing to cover the sound of wire dragging through flesh.
“Not a thought, not a thing, not a worry/We got forever, baby don’t hurry….”
All at once, the chip comes loose. I nearly fumble it, then hastily cram it into the last empty packet. My skin crawls, and my voice wobbles, but I don’t stop.
“Every day’s good but the best is yet to be….”
Quickly, quickly, the glue on the edges of the incision.
“It’s gonna be… good times, good times…. Gonna be… good times, good times….”
Gauze and tape, and the wound is covered.
“It’s gonna be… good times, good times….”
The chorus loops, and I come slowly back to myself, and Harris… is breathing. I can feel his heartbeat, weak but steady.
I’ll show him what Mockingbird put inside his head. I know him. He’ll know who to tell.
I hang in my presence harness, needing him to wake up and start to help me make this make sense; and over and over, like a stim or maybe a prayer, I whisper-sing that chorus: “Gonna be… good times, good times….”
It’s a low-calorie, artificially sweetened, candy-coloured phrase, but in my fear-parched mouth, it tastes almost like hope.