The Marks of Aegis
(First published in Third Point Press)
The first nice thing I ever did to my body was tear it open.
Before then, my standard cruelty to myself was taking things in that hurt and holding them there. I said yes when I meant no: at work, at dinner, in parked cars. I tried to annihilate myself through abundance, absorbing and sloshing and wallowing along. I wanted to be swollen with misery.
When I couldn’t make enough of my own troubles I took on other people’s. I swallowed or inserted or injected some friend’s wretched situation and the accessories of their wretchedness, and in there they stayed, building up in the junkyard of abuse under my smooth young skin. God, I had great skin.
It got to be that one day I was tired. I could not tell want from habit. There weren’t friends left to take on troubles from, and the work was done, the plate empty, the cars driven home and tucked away in roomy garages beneath sleeping families.
Well, I’m practical when I’m nothing else. I got out my box cutter and I started making ways out. I sliced along the planes of my skin and squeezed until everything on the inside that ought not to have been there was on the outside again. I expected to recognize each individual trouble, but everything had melded together into a civilization of its own.
I cleaned it up with my best detergents, slowly and methodically. A whole city emerged. All the people I had used had formed alliances with one another, built striking homes from the rough materials I’d left them with. Their culture may have started in filth but it had changed and grown. Their buildings floated and spun in slow orbit of one another. Every wall was a doorway and every stair a hall and every window a skylight or escape hatch depending on the rotation of the structure at given moment.
I called it Aegis and admired it, and thought about maybe putting it back inside me to keep forever. It was a really beautiful place with so many inhabitants who deserved that beauty. I thought I deserved a little beauty, too. But when it started to float higher and away I saw that it didn’t need me anymore, and I decided to end our association on more gentle terms that it had begun. I opened the window and sent it on its away, crying as it swept into the breeze. Aegis is still out there, thriving I think.
Then it was done, so I closed myself back up. When I ran through the first aid kit I used the sewing kit and when I ran through that I used the soldering iron. Then I took a very long, very hot shower.
Some people see my stitched and bandaged gashes and my cauterized holes and say, there goes a bitch who has really fucked herself up for good. There goes a real mess. They think they’ve seen a tragedy. But these people don’t know the first thing about scars. They’ll never understand how I could be so proud.
My Noise Will Keep the Record
(First published in Paper Darts)
My home is a witch’s lung or a giant’s heart. Puckered cracks of plaster snake up the walls from a half-century-old renovation. It palpitates from the constant drum of the interstate highway just beyond a courtesy swamp once planted, then neglected, as a sort of apology for the highway. The swamp thrives, reclaims detritus for the realm of bioorganisms, while I am increasingly cybertronic.
I can tell who a structure is for without signs or directions; I feel it by gut instinct, in the motors where I once had guts. In my home, I understand my environment as myself. Most of this city is not for me, and would rather I not visit or approach, even the building I work in. I discern this without a single word of law or custom, although I press my employee badge to the fob reader and am permitted inside. A body knows these kinds of things from experience. Eventually, even Pavlov found that when he heard a bell he had the overwhelming urge to feed a dog.
I can see my house, a faint dark spot on the horizon, from the top floor of the high-rise where my job is headquartered. It’s a bulbous wand of brushed steel and tinted fiberglass, carving a shadow out of the sunlight on the surrounding blocks, standing for progress. Progress looks like Godzilla’s vibrator.
I’m standing before the south-facing conference room window and looking for calm in the river that bisects the city. It’s a rainy afternoon and there’s only a dedicated few joggers along the riverside walkways, some of them wearing the personal assistant devices that we manufacture. It looks like a necklace―a collar, really, but officially a “token” on a “smart strap”―but you train it to your speech patterns and can ask it anything, give it a name, and it tracks your vitals and sleep and finances and shopping preferences, things like that. Lots of other companies make similar products. Full-flesh people buy them at great cost and wear them around, voluntarily, and their stats come to me and the hundreds of other temps who process it.
I am going to lose my job. I’ve taken too much sick time and our contracts have terms, even though the project seems to have no deadline. I asked one of the data scientists―the real employees with advanced degrees―how long it would take to use all the information we’ve received since the launch, if we all worked our hardest on it, and he laughed and said four thousand years and counting.
My supervisor enters the conference room behind me and closes the door. Her engagement ring catches the light and I can’t look away from it even when she starts talking. It’s a princess-cut Martian diamond. It’s not even that beautiful, but it is distinct, and cannot be mistaken for an easier, commoner, or more earthly stone.
My supervisor cornered me on my first day and said that we had to stick together as “diversity hires.” She gently uptalks as she enumerates my failures to stay healthy, so that I cannot refute them without seeming like a hothead or a liar.
In general, I say that I love difficult people. I am protective of us and will rationalize our survival tactics. It seems very subversive until I’m beneath it.
Now she is asking me if I understand the finality of the terms and conditions. I say yes, I do, and I thank her for her time, and leave the conference room to return to my workstation.
There, I dip my hands beneath a laser switch and my stenotype hums and flickers to standby. I set to work on my transcription queue, already behind because of the meeting. I clamp the audiochaw between my teeth and minute-long sound clips play off the server and resonate inside my skull with perfect clarity. Some are silence or background noise and I mark them as such in the metadata. What interests the company most is human speech. I listen to shards of conversations, arguments, bedtime stories, foreplay and climax. I transcribe them verbatim, with screenplay notes for tone. Each hand-tailored recalibration improves the software’s algorithm. Our devices are always, always listening to their users.
The raw files are chopped and shuffled in the queue to limit our investment and knowledge of their origin. Schizophonia in lieu of eavesdropping. I type the words but I barely comprehend them. The process is half automatic, like a polite conversation or a prayer or a pledge of allegiance.
At the end of this day I come home to a handwritten letter from my landlady, inviting me to her unit for her eighty-fifth birthday, and to let me know she’s retiring. The house is for sale.
I will attend the party. I will even bake the cake. She let me stay after my parents were gone, after my accidents and augments; welcomed my friends and lovers as they became my roommates, never asked when there was turnover. I will feel grateful to have been permitted to remain for so long. I’ll wish I could love her in a vacuum where that sentiment exists apart from the facts of ownership and non-ownership.
Suppose the new management company is polite and offers me dibs after the demolish and renewal, three times the most money I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ll ask if I can pay in my remaining organs until I’m an appliance with a face and they won’t find that very funny. Full flesh never do. They’ll skip straight to the terse legalese. I’ll keep telling jokes because my grief is all dried up. I’ll even say my grief has been replaced with a synthetic and they’ll see me out the door to the sidewalk where the whole block is turning inside out. A pair of full flesh will move into the new building with their personal assistant devices. No matter how vulgar their throat strings, their voices produce valuable data while my own just makes noise.
The body is plastic, remembers long after it’s grown, severed, augmented. You can have that phantom sensation for a whole neighborhood. A cityzen is one who keeps the memory of a specific place long after it’s been demolished for high rises. My noise will keep the record, with nowhere else to go.
Julian K. Jarboe is the author of the collection, Everyone on the Moon is Essential Personnel. They live in Salem, Massachusetts.
Music by Catlofe
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