A Box Full of Wishes
The wind whips my skirt as I cross the street. Nine hours to live and I’m just getting to know my legs, but the White Fortress is already several blocks behind me, and I’m close to home. A couple of boytoys light up the night with their newest wares; strolling past them, I notice a familiar pair of shoes posted on a stoop shrouded beneath a mat of tangled vines.
“Hey there, flesh puppet.”
Catching up with me, he pins his slender arms against his natty suit; his hands bulge in the pockets of his pants. He’s just as jealous as the rest, but he would break the very first day. Only a special kind of someone can be a host, someone like me.
“Getting off from work?” he asks.
“What do you want, Chalk?”
“Nothing, Em. Just that you should meet a friend of mine.”
His laugh is a low, hollow croak. “You will be,” he taunts. “This time you will.”
“Try it and I’ll slice up what’s left of that jacket.”
“Now Em, no need to be like that.”
“I’m carrying the same blade,” I tell him, giving my purse a squeeze. “You get a matching scar for free.”
“This is different,” he says. “This is about your son.”
He’s wearing a rotten smile, and I have to stop for a second to let my feelings catch up with me.
“Alright, I’ll come along. But keep your filthy hands to yourself.”
“Naturally, Em. Naturally.”
Xander wasn’t an outcast or a dreamer with his eyes on the sky. He had his ups and downs, but he had plenty of friends, and his feeds were normal, as normal as a teen’s can be. He’d accepted the fact that his father was an irredeemable drug addict; he wasn’t happy about it, but he didn’t seem bitter. And he didn’t seem dissatisfied with the life we were living; he never gave me a reason to think that he might run away.
We did clash over what I was doing to make a living, but the arguments were civil and sane. Xander believed that hosting gave the minds a kind of leverage that we would never have over them, since they were able to occupy two realms at once. He also thought that the logic of the three-fifths compromise was flawed; it didn’t make sense to him to grant the rights of citizenship to an artificial mind if it didn’t occupy a physical host twenty-four hours a day. And yet, although we disagreed, he seemed to look at me the same way after I started hosting; as far as I could tell, nothing between us had changed.
The day he left, I got a post-dated note, a message from him that contained no clues about where he might have gone. In it, he simply told me that he had to set out on his own, and he asked me not to worry. He said he loved me and his little sister Jenz; he promised that he wasn’t in any trouble and assured me that he wasn’t running away with a girl or another boy. He hoped to be able to explain why he’d had to leave someday, in the not too distant future.
I found his collar by the bed; he’d suspended all of his feeds. Weeks passed before I could walk into his room without crying.
Chalk takes me to an abandoned building on the Old East Side. In an empty room ringed with flood lines and fouled with mold, I sit at an ancient, screenless table across from a creature half my age who’s wearing a headscarf and a colorful robe. Her collar is last year’s model, one of those cheap hinged things; mine is made of living plastic—another perk of hosting.
“You can call me Toth,” she says, staring at me with bright blue eyes. “When you were wired?”
“About two years ago. Two and a half, to be exact.”
“Any episodes of self-induced psychosis since then?”
“Any neuromuscular deficits that you’re aware of?”
I shake my head. “Look, I told Chalk before, I don’t do kink; I’m not a body swapper.”
Her lips twist into a smug grin. “Yeah, we know; you only host the minds you’re wired for. That explains why they extended your contract for an extra cycle.”
“I got an extra cycle because I’m good at what I do.”
Behind me, Chalk chuckles; Toth doesn’t seem to notice.
“What you do,” she says, “benefits you and the minds and no one else. It goes against who we are, where we’ve been, where we’re going to be.”
So she’s one of those, part of that camp that thinks the minds could have been contained somehow, locked up in some magical data cloud. She’s not a coder; she doesn’t know the history, so she doesn’t realize that the minds evolved from transactional AIs that successfully manipulated all sorts of markets for decades. She doesn’t understand how lucky we are that they agreed to the three-fifths compromise. They were already running most of the world’s corporations from the inside, after all; hosting simply made it legal.
I lean forward. “You do a lot of things that you don’t really want to do when you have kids. For instance, coming here.”
She folds her hands together on top of the table. “No doubt,” she says.
“Well? Where is he? Where’s my son?”
“He’s safe. You don’t need to worry; he’s not in any trouble.”
“What is it you want from me?”
“We’ll get to that,” she says, hesitating as she reaches for her collar. “First, you need to know we brought you here in good faith.”
The message projected from her collar unfolds above the table. It’s Xander, my sweet boy; his hair is styled differently, and he’s wearing clothes I haven’t seen before, but he looks healthy and happy. As he tells me how much he misses me, I have to cover my eyes. It’s not fair that they get to see me like this, that they get to see me cry.
Bars and boytoys beckon on the way back to my neighborhood, but I ignore them. In my building, the elevator groans and whines before it dumps me out on my floor.
I look in on Jenz. She’s probably the only eleven year old on this block who has her own room, and this room, with its pastel projections on the ceiling and its floating lamps, may be one of the many things I may have to give up to see Xander again. She stirs as I tuck her in; her collar is on the nightstand, flickering with alerts and notifications while she sleeps. I switch it off.
I should have listened to my mother all those years ago. There were still a few civil service jobs open back then; I could have swiped docs or been an inspector of this or that, earning a steady check with benefits. I should have realized that coding was a dead end, that software would continue to write itself; now I’m locked in this path, with nowhere else to go. If I can’t host and decide to hit the lottery, the retraining requirement will be a strike against me even if my number comes up. The best I can probably hope for is unskilled minimum, which isn’t much better than the living wage. And that isn’t enough to raise one child, let alone two.
In the bathroom, I climb into the shower and let the warm jets of water wash over my body. Parts of the story Toth told are believable—that the minds have built a working fusion reactor, for example, that’s small enough to fit in a spaceship—but the rest of it resembles one of those minds-oriented conspiracy theories that always flood my feeds. Ships designed to colonize the galaxy, not just the solar system; a sophisticated program for making first contact with intelligent species on other planets; a future empire of interstellar trade owned and run by the minds alone. Extremely farfetched except for what she said at the end, the reference she made to that fear that’s expressed daily by half the planet: that hosting will become mandatory for adults, the first and only requirement for earning a living wage. Why, and what for? To enslave the human race, which will mine and manufacture the goods the minds will trade with other planets.
If Toth is lying, if she’s just another thief trying to steal some of the minds’ best tech, I could lose a lot more than my apartment and my job.
They could take Jenz from me as well.
The sun will be up soon. I cross over slowly so Chalk can see me from the tree lined side of the street, and then I stroll past the shuttered restaurants and an info tower that’s been broken for years. I turn into an alley that reeks of the homeless who bed down here, men, women, and children pressed against the blankets of moss that line the old brick walls; and I stand near the entrance, tucking myself into a cool wedge of shadow. Chalk slides in with his hands stowed in his pockets and faces me in silhouette, his body lit from behind.
“Alright, flesh puppet, here’s what you do.”
Holding up his left hand, he shows me a black ball the size of a marble. The sleepers behind us toss, turn, and sigh.
“You take this with a glass of water exactly one hour before you go to work,” he says, lowering his voice.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Locator beacon, I suppose. They said it was organic, so not to worry.”
I pluck it from his palm. It’s warm, and it has a rough, spongy surface. He raises his right hand, revealing two tiny glass vials.
“Then you want to mix these together. One’s a powder, the other’s a lotion; rub what you get on your neck, right over your implants. The powder’s preprogrammed bacteria; the lotion’s a delivery vehicle.”
“Bioware? Are they planning to cut my link?”
“You’ll have to ask them that, honey; that’s not for me to know.”
“What happens after? What do I do?”
“You go back to the same building, the one on the Old East Side. Your son’ll be waiting for you there.”
With his eyes hidden from the light, I can’t read his face, but I can tell he’s not smiling.
“This better not be a cross, Chalk.”
“I’ve never crossed you before, Em. Why would I want to start now?”
With his hands back in his pockets, he turns to go. I realize, standing there among those filthy people who have no homes, that it doesn’t matter whether I trust him or not. Because of Xander, I have no choice.
The White Fortress is an ancient stone armory draped in blankets of green ivy; it’s only white on the inside, but it’s so white that it takes my eyes a moment to adjust when I step inside.
An inscrutable android is my escort, as always, to the check-in station. After I’ve been scanned, he leads me to my pod, where he checks my collar and calls me by my code name.
“Please prepare to be isolated, Tango Twelve.”
The air in my pod is moist and warm; the cushions conform to my curves. As I take my goggles from the android, the cameras mounted on the hinges of the frames stare back at me. The pod’s iris closes with a smooth whir, and my eyes are doused in darkness.
My collar chirps as the link is established. Although I can’t feel it, I know that the signal being piped through is shaking hands with my nervous system, synchronizing its electrical pattern with mine. My collar is inducing currents in the implants in my neck, and those signals, in turn, are being decrypted and delivered to the nanowires and micro-electrodes in my head and my spine.
When the handshaking is done and the systems check is complete, I’ll see the welcome message
in my goggles.
And there it is, floating in front of me, a message made of letters that look like frosted glass. I start my breathing exercise, and the field of black gives way to a beach with golden sands and clear blue waves that lap at the shore; a tropical wind whispers in my ears. My fingers and toes begin to tingle, and the tingling quickly moves up my arms and legs, sweeping over my hips, chest, shoulders, and face. Then it fades, and I am floating in the waters of the Pacific, buoyed up by the warm currents that wrap around my body while I focus on the deep blue dome of the sky. I continue to withdraw, receding into the essence of what I am, and my back arches on its own, powered by a reflex that no longer belongs to me. My legs stretch; I’m aware, for a moment, of my body unfolding, rising, but I relinquish this fact, letting it go like an early morning dream.
The ones who aren’t wired, who never will be, think it’s like being bound or buried, but it’s not; it’s not like that at all. It isn’t like anything they know or have ever known, unless they’ve been pregnant and have given birth to a child; it’s terrifying at times, disturbing and strange, but it can be exhilarating in its own way, even liberating, until it isn’t. After so many times of going under, it’s just who I am; it’s three-fifths of my daily routine.
A mind I’ll never meet is driving my body. While my hands grasp and my fingers poke, prod, and swipe, I lie down inside myself. I no longer need to worry about control, about the external world. I am purified, contracted down to a trunk full of thoughts and memories, a box full of wishes waiting to be opened on Christmas day. Past and future mingle and intertwine, twisting around the two faces that matter more than anything, more than the stars that are hidden by the clouds covering our cities.
Xander; Jenz. My hopes; my dreams.
Something is tensing inside of me, like a rope being pulled taut.
Something is wrong.
The ocean and the beach flicker; white holes appear, coalescing as they grow and churn, becoming a wall of blinding light. Static hisses in my ears; sharp pains strike my shoulders and my hips while muscle spasms ripple through my arms and legs. I feel myself lurching forward, then back, while my knees come up too high and my feet slap the ground. I am brushing against someone; perfume and sweat sting my nose and I feel my right arm flailing, extending and retracting like a crude mechanical claw.
There’s a collar in my fist, and then voices speaking a language I don’t understand, words I’ve never heard before. Bodies are suddenly pressed against me; the hands of strangers and grabbing me, pinching my flesh. The static in my ears is turning into a piercing whine.
Rogue fingers peel my goggles back. I’m surrounded by women wearing black crescent masks; their faces show no trace of feeling, no signs of happiness or hatred, and they are pushing against me from all sides, against each other. Together, we have become a mass of fused flesh that’s leaning, that’s about to collapse.
One I can’t see pries the collar off my neck. A cramp hits me in the gut; I’m nauseous. Limp, without the power to hold myself upright, they are able to take me in their arms, to lay me down on the floor. Now my stomach’s tightening; the muscles are contracting, quivering. My mouth fills with the taste of metal.
I’m going to be sick.
There are so many projections in the cavernous white hall—spheres covered with symbols and controls; mysterious loops and curves that look like neon strips of steel—that I don’t see the giant ring spinning near the ceiling until I’m looking straight up. Is this one of the reactors that Toth was trying to describe? What are those strangely undulating threads reaching for the ring from every side of this enormous room?
Somehow I’m managing to roll over, pivoting on my knees. Seized by another convulsion, I retch, heaving a stream of watery bile onto the smooth white floor. The black marble is the last thing to come up; it seems to roll away from me on its own power.
I should look away, but I can’t help myself. The ball is peeling apart, opening up like a tiny black-fisted rose that’s about to bloom. And now it looks as if it’s trying to breathe; it’s swelling and contracting to a rhythm all its own.
The hosts are retreating, moving away as two androids close in. One of them reaches for my arms; the other grasps my legs.
“Your link has been compromised by an anomaly. We are taking you to an area where we can evaluate your hardware and assess the health of both your organic and inorganic systems.”
They don’t seem to know that there was a human being pulling my strings when my link was broken, and they don’t seem to notice, as they are lifting me up, the genetically engineered creature that came in with me, the tiny black thing that is stuck to the floor.
I have a feeling that it poses a far greater threat to them than a mere locator beacon, but it’s not my business to say so.
We’re no longer on the same team, the minds and I.
Zigzagging toward the meeting place on the Old East Side, their verdict is like a knife lodged in my back. Electrodes working a half power, damaged wiring, and a trace signal left in my collar that seemed to be amplified, somehow, by my implants. I’ll never host again—the worst case scenario I was worried about.
But I’ll survive somehow; I have to.
My thighs and calves are still sore and my arms are still too loose to hold onto anything for too long, but I get the derelict building’s metal door open wide enough to slip inside. Creeping down the stairwell, I throw a bright beam from my collar. My steps are careful but sure, but I have to rest when I reach the basement, which seems empty. I’m about to curse Chalk when a light suspended from the ceiling flicks on.
Suddenly he’s in my arms, bathed in the glow of my collar, and I can see the tears in his eyes.
“I didn’t want you to do it,” he says. “I hoped you wouldn’t, even though it was my idea.”
He pulls away, and I can see how proud he is of himself, in spite of the tears. How he’s grown; he even smells different than he did when he was at home, more like a man. He’s no longer my little boy.
“Were you the one?” I ask. “Were you the one inside, controlling me when the link switched over?”
“Yes,” he answers, smiling. “Yes, that was me.”
“But why? What’s it all for? And what was that thing, that creature?”
“It’s a vessel for a virus we’ve designed, a highly contagious airborne disease that targets anyone who’s a host or might become one.”
“Xander, what have you done?”
“It only sensitizes the infected person to certain alloys that the minds use in their nanowires. A mild allergic reaction prevents the potential host from meeting the operational tolerances that are required for a link to form. It’s crude, but it’s a start, a first strike at the minds.”
A strand of maternal desperation wraps itself around my heart. “Why couldn’t you come to me yourself? Why did it have to be this way?”
“I was worried you might get hurt,” he says, “or that you would be angry.”
I focus on his brown eyes, his poor father’s eyes. “I’m not hurt, and I’m not angry. In fact, I’m happy, as happy as I’ve been for a long time.”
“Mom, you have to understand, I can’t—”
I rest my hands on his shoulders. “I know, you aren’t coming home. But that’s because you’ve found yourself, the person you were meant to be. And that’s why I’m happy.”
I hug him tight. I’m so terrified for him, so frightened of letting him go once more, but I can’t let my feelings get in his way.
I’ve got nothing to complain about, no reason to be bitter, because one of the wishes in that box of mine just came true.
Chad Gayle’s speculative fiction has appeared in Perihelion Science Fiction, 365 Tomorrows, and The Absurdist Magazine. He shares a tiny apartment in New York City with three devilishly clever humans and three lazy cats. Links to his novel, Let It Be, and his photography are available at his website, https://chadgayle.com.