Thesis

Suddenly, E-boyd realized that his left arm, just below the elbow, had transformed into a machine.

No, more of a bionic extension of his flesh—but then he noticed, when he rotated his elbow into the light, that the flesh seemed to transition smoothly into metal, a soft aluminum, or brushed titanium covered by a translucent finish. He touched the seam between skin and metal and felt the uninterrupted progression of organic matter into inorganic material. When the change had taken place and why were questions he momentarily failed to consider—he was overwhelmed by the beauty of the engineering, and the indistinguishable sensations between his arms. He moved the metallic arm parallel to his organic arm and compared the two: they were of identical proportions, the length of the forearms the same, and the length and articulation of the fingers identical. Where carefully manicured fingernails shone brightly on his right hand, dazzling chips of emerald glittered extravagantly on his left. Where dark hair grew unobtrusively on his right arm, a pearly sheen covered the metal on his left. And when he flexed both hands, feeling no difference in the sensation, the action and contraction were the same. Something extraordinary must have happened and he looked up from his arms to see if anything else had changed.

But nothing in E-boyd’s interface circle seemed different—before him, encircling his body in an iridescent combination of physical and holographic planes, the platform stood complete, the touchpads to his right unmarred, and the virtual frames to his left properly filed. The curving light of the screen above the platform shimmered gray and white, awaiting his command to wash selected images before his eyes, or run holographic streams in applied sections. E-boyd stared down at his body, clad in soft-fiber blue and cradled by an airweb chair—then tested the chair, sending neural commands to the support system, raising and lowering the armrests. Then he rotated the chair and gazed at the diffused sunlight shining into the room through the partially polarized window glass; satisfied, he rotated back toward his interface circle and stared again at the beautifully defined mechanics of his transmuted arm.

If this were no hallucination, if the change were actual rather than phenomenological, then the likeliest cause was body-mech contamination. Logic demanded this conclusion, though nano-viruses tended to disruptions and thought-field abrogation. This inexplicable body modification seemed far beyond the influence of a rogue virus, and, in any case, he was certain his interface shielding remained intact. If this represented a viral corruption then it originated from a source unknown to his system’s library of biot-forms.

Following protocol, E-boyd activated the neuroport at the base of his skull and commanded the company’s network to run a full-spectrum scan of his body-mech interface. The arcing field before him flared to life as a series of selections appeared. One glance was enough to specify all scan fields, and the holograph of datastreams rolled into a beautiful spinning funnel as the scan progressed. He felt the gentle neural-pulses within his cerebrum, a faint tickling sensation raising his blood pressure minutely. Thereafter, his heartbeat increased, then returned to normal as the neural feed hummed along his nervous system to communicate with his nano-net. When these physical symptoms eased, and he felt normal again, he studied the screen as the results of the scan were displayed visually—no viral elements were detected, and no intrusions through his interface shield had occurred. The change was not the result of a nano-virus.

If this were no simple virus, then what could have caused the transformation?

Running the literature proved fruitless.

Shifting his perspective, he concentrated on the analysis of his scan, before abruptly deciding to enter the Na-Nexus to contact C-comdee. Intruding on his supervisor’s time for non-work related subjects wasn’t something he normally indulged, but this was an exceptional circumstance. Fortunately, C-comdee accepted his entreaty and invited him to meet in C-comdee’s Evo.

Once E-boyd accepted the Evo code into his neural system, the room around him disappeared and a lovely garden manifested in its place, a peaceful arboretum replete with verdant trees, exotic flowers and pristine marble sculptures. Drooping Snowdrops, Clematis, and the cup-shaped blooms of the purple Colchicum completed the fidelity of C-comdee’s environment. A gentle breeze flowed through the trees and statues, guiding him along a glowing marble path toward a central atrium adorned with trellises for shade and white wicker chairs. In one of these chairs reclined the thin body of the supervisor for the eastern North American section of the Cloud Spinners Corporation, his light eyes and bronze skin betraying his Eastern Art-Gen heritage. E-boyd was fond of C-comdee, though wary of his disapproval, which could be expressed for anything from the production of a flawed Environmental Cache to poor international Nexus etiquette.

But E-boyd’s concern for his physical condition held priority over any lapse of protocol. He sat beside his supervisor and said, “Thank you for seeing me, C-comdee.”

“Your meeting request seemed urgent. Is there some problem with your current project?”

“No, nothing of the kind. It’s personal. I’ve experienced a biological transformation.”

“You’ve what?”

“I’ve—well, let me display the condition.”

E-boyd refreshed his Evo’s avatar with a clean-image scan of his true body and held the afflicted limb before his supervisor. C-comdee leaned forward in his chair to examine the condition, though E-boyd couldn’t be certain if his supervisor’s reaction was accurately processed; too many Vips placed perceptual safeguards on their avatars these days, protecting against unflattering impressions.

But C-comdee’s eyes seemed to light with his concern, and he sat back, touching his chin with his fingers. “Fascinating. I assume you’ve scanned for infiltrations?”

“Yes, full spectrum.”

“May I see the results?”

He transferred the files into C-comdee’s interface circle, and his supervisor’s avatar sat quiescently while assessing the information. Then C-comdee nodded, as if understanding something E-boyd did not.

“Since this wasn’t a virus infiltration, I can only assume it was a core malfunction. Did you run a heuristic analysis on your system?”

“No, I didn’t think such a condition could arise from a systems malfunction. Don’t you think it seems terribly definitive for a malfunction?”

“What do you mean?”

“It seems too complex to be anything but a deliberate design.”

“Some design flaws can arise from misinterpreted or misapplied commands. Run the heuristics.”

“And if that also returns a negative result?”

“Then schedule a full medical run on your system.”

“My body?”

“Yes. A physician might find something parasitical, or may be able to trace the contagion to its source.”

E-boyd sighed. “And if both return negative results?”

“Then contact me again. There may be one other possibility, though I would rather delay exploring it until absolutely necessary.”

This last statement C-comdee made in a somber intonation, and E-boyd wondered what mystery lay at the center of his supervisor’s cryptic words. But, again, he didn’t want to unnecessarily burden the man with his problems.

Thanking C-comdee, he rose from the wicker chair and vanished from the lovely garden, reappearing in his interface circle.

He immediately muted his interface connection and began the heuristic analysis, then rose from the airweb chair.

While his system continued the analysis, E-boyd moved through his small apartment to the bathroom to gaze at himself in the mirror. His face, though haggard, bore no signs of distress; his small, dark eyes gazed back unconcernedly, and his slim body seemed otherwise unaffected. But his arm still manifested the characteristics of a machine—

When he returned to his chair and re-entered the interface circle, he received acknowledgement of what he already knew to be true—there were no malfunctions in his system.

E-boyd entered the Na-Nexus again and requested a med-check through his provider.

When asked to report the aggravating symptoms, he found himself incapable of providing a cogent reply, and simply requested a general health assessment for the quarter. He closed his eyes even as the shimmering white examination room of the Med Evo appeared, and though it was a perfectly innocuous and pleasant representation, he simply didn’t feel the need to be entertained through the examination. After a few moments the Med avatar appeared, a warm, silver haired woman in a clean white coat, who happily informed him that his med-check had returned no negative results.

Disheartened, he felt he couldn’t return to his work on the new Evo project, nor did he feel courageous enough to immediately contact C-comdee again. Muting communications from his friends and colleagues, he spent the rest of the afternoon entering one Nexus after another in search of information about his condition, but found nothing significant. If there wasn’t any information to be found on an international excursion through the Nexus, what possible knowledge could his supervisor possess?

Deciding to sleep on the matter, he programmed a favorite dream sequence into the beamer unit on the bedside table and adjusted his neuroport for local unconscious stimulation.

#

When E-boyd woke the next morning he realized two things: the first was that the dreams he’d experienced in sleep weren’t the ones he’d slipped into the unit, and the second was that his arm remained unchanged. He rose from the bed, preparing to shower in the small bathroom stall, but when he disrobed and studied his reflection in the mirror he was horrified to see that the transformation had spread. His right leg below the knee had transformed into a similar version of his left arm, complete with emerald toenails and golden veins visible beneath glowing alabaster skin.

He flexed the synthetic toes, and just like his arm he felt no difference in movement or sensation. Then he quickly cleansed his body, dressed, and entered his interface circle. In thrall, E-boyd forced himself to subdue his fears until he was certain C-comdee was available, then hurriedly requested communication.

To his surprise, his supervisor readily agreed and invited him into his Evo. E-boyd strode forward through the arboretum; the wind was calm, the sunlight broken by brilliant white clouds. At his approach, C-comdee turned away from perfect roses to gaze on him concernedly. “I assume both scans were negative?”

“Yes. But it’s worse, now.”

He provided his supervisor with another clean image scan, pulling up his trouser leg to expose the transmuted lower limb. C-comdee studied it a moment before nodding and looking away.

“You said you may know of another possibility,” E-boyd said. “What is it?”

“Since this is a personal matter, I may be overstepping my authority by recommending anything further to you.”

“But what will happen to me if this condition worsens? The med-check specified perfect health, but I can’t be perfectly healthy if parts of my anatomy are transforming into machines.”

C-comdee nodded, then turned and focused his translucent eyes on him. “You may very well be perfectly healthy, E-boyd. That is, your nano-forms may be reporting a perfectly healthy physical system, according to their specifications.”

“But can’t they recognize the transformation?”

“Yes, and that’s the issue. This transformation is a normal condition for you, according to your body. But how can it be?”

“Do you know?”

“I have a suspicion, but the information has been suppressed in most grids of the Nexus. It’s not something officially recognized. Some consider it a pseudo-science.”

“Consider what a pseudo-science?”

“Psychomology.”

E-boyd vaguely recollected the term—but only as a form of tangential speculation, as much a discarded study as phrenology or eugenics.

“What does psychomology have to do with my condition?”

“As I said, I may be overstepping my authority, but I think this may be related to it. I’ve known one other person—she had similar afflictions, though not quite as pristine as yours. She consulted a psychomotrist, and recovered.”

“What was her affliction?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“Then I really don’t understand.”

C-comdee smiled, perhaps in a programmed effort to ease E-boyd’s worries. “I’m saying that perhaps your transformations are self-inflicted, rather than the result of a virus or systems malfunction. Not that you would know this consciously, but it may be the case.”

E-boyd’s misplaced dreams came to mind, and he wondered if they, too, were a symptom of his malady. If there was any chance that ‘psychomology’ could uncover the reason behind his condition— “Self-inflicted?”

“There aren’t any licensed psychomotrists, of course, but I do remember the interface location of the unlicensed one that treated my colleague. But it’s through a Black Nexus Directory. I could give you the address if you wish to pursue it.”

E-boyd considered the implications of using an unregulated directory—C-comdee’s suggestion was highly illegal. But without any legitimate avenues of analysis to pursue, he couldn’t summon any reasons to object. He was growing more desperate by the hour. “How do you know about this?”

C-comdee’s laughter rang strangely through the Evo. “There are official problems and then there are unofficial problems. I’ve been alive long enough to know that it’s useless to insist on your own reality. My friend, you’re a valuable asset, and I want you to resolve your particular problem. Will you trust my judgment?”

E-boyd nodded uncertainly. “All right, I’ll accept the address. But I’m surprised that you would suggest I use an illegal connection. Is there any way to run this connection through an untraceable link?”

C-comdee smiled. “Of course. I wouldn’t suggest you consult a psychomotrist without the benefit of plausible deniability.”

E-boyd wondered what this might entail, but for now he had no other choice. His world, his beautiful, orderly world, was being threatened by some unknown condition, and he had to discover the reason.

#

Antithesis

E-boyd harbored significant reservations about the process—a black Evo was typically the province of criminals, or those who preferred their activities remain anonymous because of the illicit nature of their inquiries. When he returned to the Nexus for information on psychomology he found only brief references to the study as a pseudo-scientific subset of psychology based on the erroneous theory that tech-med alterations were susceptible to unconscious impulses. Since tech-med alterations occurred at the neurological level, unconscious impulses were directly influenced by the programmed nanos and not vice versa. It was no wonder most references to psychomology had been removed from the Nexus. Why did C-comdee believe this occultist pursuit could help him?

But the trepidation he felt over illicit communications seemed insignificant compared to his fear of his transforming body.

Incapable of continuing work on the new Evo, E-boyd limited his interface circle to exclude ninety-nine percent of his system. Only a small, iridescent square of light hovered before him. The normal holographic display fell mute, as well as the various lights of the panels. Still uncertain if he was proceeding wisely, he slipped the codes supplied by C-comdee into his Nexus coordinator and sat back in his chair.

When the connection fulfilled itself, the lack of visual coordinates puzzled him, but it was only a moment before a disembodied voice spoke through a direct channel into his neuroport.

“Please identify yourself.”

This interface was atypical; he didn’t know if the speaker would be able to hear him. “I’m E-boyd of the Na-Nexus.”

The voice, high and sweet in his ears, slightly effeminate but not decidedly feminine, replied in a neutral tone. “Not the name of your avatar personality, please. What is your birth name?”

E-boyd shook his head, not entirely understanding the difference. “My given name is Eric. My surname is Boyd. My Vip name is E-boyd, but they are synonymous.”

“They are not synonymous. Eric, why have you contacted me?”

“My supervisor gave me your contact information. He recommended your services.”

“For what reason?”

“He believed you could assist me in solving a problem.”

“What problem, Eric?”

What was his problem? He still couldn’t find the right words to properly describe it, so he responded as candidly as possible. “Parts of my body seem to be changing.”

“How are they changing?”

“They’re changing into something mechanical.”

“In actuality?”

“Yes.”

“And have you had a thorough physical examination?”

“Yes.”

“And the results were all negative?”

“Yes, of course. If they weren’t, I wouldn’t be taking extreme measures—”

“It’s all right, I understand. Who recommended me to you, Eric?”

“I’d rather not say. I don’t want to implicate the person in any illicit communications.”

“But these aren’t illicit communications, I assure you. They may be unusual communications, frowned upon by conventional science and censored from the Nexus, but they certainly aren’t illicit. Most people believe the proposition that tech-med alterations are infallible, but that’s an erroneous assumption. No technology is infallible.”

“But tech-med alterations are essential.”

“In many cases, yes, and readily embraced. But should they fail, aren’t the tech-med corporations liable for their failure? Therefore, in the literature they’re considered infallible except in the case of a strictly mechanical breakdown. Perceived side-effects are considered fantasy.”

“Is that true? Or is that simply a justification for the creation of a pseudo-science condemning it?”

“You’ll have to be the judge of which is true, Eric. After all, you’re the afflicted individual.”

“I was told I would be connected to a psychomotrist. Are you the psychomotrist?”

“Yes, I am. Are you my potential patient?”

“I don’t know. If you’re not certified to treat patients, how can you possibly help anyone?”

“That’s something you’ll have to take on faith.”

“What’s involved in the treatment?”

“You’ll only learn that in therapy.”

“I don’t even know who I’m talking to. How do you expect me to accept any of this?”

“My name is Raphael. If you decide to participate in therapy, simply contact me again at this connection. We’ll discuss my fee, as well as disclose any confidential interfaces. After all, our communication isn’t truly illegal, only blacklisted. But it’s discouraged in powerful ways by Coordinators, ways that may involve unpleasant consequences, so be absolutely certain you wish to be treated.”

“Can you guarantee your confidentiality?”

“I give you my word that what passes between us will remain confidential. Again, you’ll have to accept my word on faith.”

“But how can my problem be psychological if the manifestation of my problem is physical?”

“You’ll only discover that in therapy, Eric. Please consider your needs carefully before contacting me again.”

Abruptly the connection severed and he sat alone.

The solitary voice unnerved him; he felt he’d entered an unsavory environment, one that surely couldn’t alleviate his symptoms despite C-comdee’s assurances. Surrendering to its mysteries would do nothing but expose him to a corrupted field of study. Or perhaps it was only his inherent fear of the unknown that caused him to re-engage his full interface circle, call up the most recent holograms of the new Evo project and immerse himself in coding exercises.

E-boyd avoided contemplating his transformation for the rest of the day, then limited his environment and ate his evening meal. The dinner pack seemed entirely unappetizing until he activated the neural stimulator in his kitchenette and transformed the gray paste into succulents. At least, as the stimulator informed his gustatory nerves. He savored the taste longer than usual before disengaging and preparing for sleep.

It was no use trying to imagine what sleep would bring—he programmed his transmission unit for a seaside vacation, full of the lulling sounds of rushing water and warm, pleasant sunshine.

#

E-boyd woke from the same dream he’d suffered the previous night, of standing before a strange array of flashing lights and a bizarre machine that seemed to collect pieces of itself into new mechanical forms as he watched. Harsh winds beat against his skin, while behind him terrible screaming penetrated the darkness—the peregrinations of the machine brought a sense of order to the experience—while the undefined world at his back insinuated something horrific—

Again, his programmed dreams failed to manifest in his sleeping mind. And again he rose from bed and moved toward the small bathroom, hurriedly activating the light. He stood naked before the mirror, examining his body. His right leg had mechanized to the hip; his left leg just below the knee. More than this, his left arm’s transformation now extended to his shoulder.

Fighting the panic threatening to overtake him, he ignored his pounding heart and continued his morning routine as he considered his options.

But only one option existed.

Unable to defer his anxieties any longer, E-boyd entered his interface circle, severely limited his environment, slipped the illicit codes into his Nexus coordinator again and waited for Raphael to respond.

“I’m glad you decided to reconnect with me, Eric. Many don’t, and suffer needlessly.”

“The infection is getting worse. I wouldn’t have reconnected if I thought I had any other choice.”

“Do you really think of it as an infection?”

“What else could it be?

“That’s what I hope we discover. But for now, if you’re certain you wish to proceed with therapy you’ll have to send me a few necessary files.”

Raphael required image scans of the afflicted areas, as well as tech-med briefs on his nano-tech schematics and the last med-check results. When these items were delivered into the ether, Raphael’s lyrical voice returned, informing him that he was in good hands.

“The next thing we’ll need to secure is a comfortable environment in which to begin our work. I’ll send you the coordinates for a confidential Evo which will be coded to your profile only. And, Eric, please customize your avatar for real-life representation.”

“Why is that necessary?”

“I wish to see you as you really are. Please, Eric.”

He agreed, and then, trepidatiously, slipped Raphael’s Evo coordinates into his system.

Immediately he materialized in a magnificent marble amphitheater, ancient ruins of Grecian motif, though at the center of the theater lay a glimmering pool of blue-green water instead of an altar. On turning, he saw rising columns of marble, some standing, some toppled over the broken slabs of the theatron, tufts of grass piercing crevices between the stones, and an infinite collection of ruins beyond. Above him the sky shone brightly blue, though the sun lay hidden. When E-boyd turned again he noticed a figure standing beyond the pool near a small, broken sundial. Dressed in a long white sleeveless tunic, the figure was strangely asexual, though carried a vague femininity complementary to the voice he’d heard. A thin face crowned with curly brown hair smiled on him as he approached, though the eyes within it shone with an unnatural shade of violet.

“I’m Raphael.”

“I’m E-boyd. Where are we?”

Raphael smiled, waving a slender finger. “You are not E-boyd. You’re Eric. Remember this.”

“Is this your real-life reflection, Raphael?”

“No. I must keep my identity disguised, for obvious reasons. But I’ve chosen this Evo for its historical significance, and for its tranquil environment. We are completely removed from the world we know, whether actual or virtual.”

“Is that important?”

“Everything in which we engage is important. Come, let us sit.”

Raphael led him to a shady shelf of stone beneath a shattered proskenion; after they sat, Raphael examined his mutated arm and legs, nodding politely before adjusting his robes. E-boyd felt uncomfortably absent from any environment with which he was familiar—after all, he was in a strange Evo with a thoroughly disguised psychomotrist and worried that participating in prohibited therapy was a mistake.

“Raphael, why is this Evo significant?”

“It’s suggestive of a time of great intellectual curiosity into the nature of human thought. Have you heard of Plato, Eric?”

“Yes, but I’m not a classicist.”

“You don’t have to be an academic to consider the nature of human thought. It’s the only quality that distinguishes human beings from other animals and other organisms.”

“What do you mean?”

“We’ll explore the concept in time. For now I’d like to discuss current events. Why do you think this transformation is happening to you?”

“I have no idea.”

“Do you like what’s happening to you?”

“No, of course not. I’m afraid.”

“Are you certain you feel that way?”

“Yes. Wouldn’t you be afraid?”

Raphael nodded. “Let’s move on to other things. Do you feel comfortable in this place?”

E-boyd turned his head, studying the silent amphitheater, feeling the cool air, seeing the blue light falling from a sunless sky. He felt removed from his normal environment, and yet, the solitude also seemed to remove his concerns. In this place he held no responsibilities, no worries. He nodded, and Raphael gently patted his arm.

“Then let us begin.”

Perhaps he was too entrenched in linear thinking. Raphael’s suggestions seemed immediately pointless, but he reserved judgment, especially since the psychomotrist encouraged him to trust the process and belay logical parameters. The logic would follow when necessary, but for now they needed to piece together a holistic understanding of his reality.

“How do we accomplish that?” E-boyd asked.

Raphael rose from his seat, beckoning him to follow; then they began walking through the amphitheater. “The first step is to discover your identity. Let us speak casually, though I’ll be filing our conversation. And speak freely, Eric, there’s no reason to fear any criticism.”

So E-boyd spoke to Raphael, first self-consciously, and then with a growing freedom of expression that eased his apprehension. Through Raphael’s gentle direction, he recounted his earliest memories, which were, of course, as a young child, born to academics that encouraged his interests. Even as a child he experimented with the earliest versions of technical interface systems, external apparatus that provided sensory input through antiquated means; as his studies progressed, and as his technical expertise increased, so, too, did the manner of his technical interface. He’d enjoyed exploring the latest developments in technology, first through primitive implant devices and then through true nano-technology. After earning his degree, he went to work for Cloud Spinners, successfully so, developing nano-tech interfaces like so many others. Nothing extraordinary appeared on his resume—he’d developed into a Vip over time, but so did millions of other people—

“But you were once an Op, like everyone else?”

E-boyd stopped at Raphael’s direction and they sat on the stones again. But he failed to understand the therapist’s point. “Yes, I was an Op, when I was young. But what does that have to do with my condition?”

Raphael turned and stood facing him, his hands folded calmly against his tunic. “Eric, I believe our session for today is concluded. But I want you to think very carefully about the differences between Vips and Ops, and about the world in which we live. We’ll discuss these subjects tomorrow.”

“Isn’t there anything more to be done today?”

“We’ve done enough. You must think about these things as we uncover them. Come to me tomorrow at the same time.”

E-boyd rose from the stones and began walking toward the glistening pool at the center of the amphitheater, then abruptly found himself sitting in his airweb chair, slightly lightheaded and contemplating the broken connection to Raphael’s beautiful Evo.

#

He considered the things they’d discussed, but couldn’t come to any conclusion. Their conversation seemed almost irrelevant. Still, he felt he had no other choice but to continue the process.

E-boyd’s work suffered the rest of the day, and he went to bed early, hoping for dreamless sleep.

When he woke the next morning he felt he’d dreamed that night, but couldn’t recall the details, which seemed preferable to actually remembering. Why did he fail to recall his dreams? Perhaps Raphael’s rhetoric had been responsible for the interruption. But the nightmarish quality of life returned when he examined himself in the bathroom mirror—

Both legs were now mechanized. His right hand and arm, too, were identical to his left. All his limbs to his trunk were metallic, though covered with a soft pearly glaze exposing quasi-veins beneath. He held both arms before his face, turning them in the pale light, flexing his hands and fingers. Was the change superficial, or through to the bone? He felt nothing different in his touch; if he closed his eyes he wouldn’t have known the difference.

He dressed, a sickening feeling settling in his stomach, and sat in his airweb chair, though another hour would have to pass before his appointment.

When he entered the anonymous Evo again he hurried to find Raphael, who sat quite unaffected by E-boyd’s anxiety. The quietude of the amphitheater served to calm him, but he still felt as if he were drowning in uncertainty.

“How are you today, Eric?”

“Worse. Or I should say, the transformation is worse.”

He displayed his completely metamorphosed limbs, trying not to appear desperate. Raphael appraised these changes neutrally, nodding, but not commenting. The psychomotrist motioned for him to sit.

“I expected additional changes, Eric. Don’t be afraid, though. It may take a little while before the therapy affects a change.”

“Why is that?”

“You’re used to programmed changes, which are usually instantaneous, at least as they are produced through your local system. The changes you desire to happen must develop through a different system.”

“Which system?”

“Your system. Not your mechanical system, the system which manifests changes through your subconscious.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You really don’t need to understand your subconscious for the changes to be effective. Your conscious appraisal of your circumstances will assist your unconscious mind. Do you have anything else to report?”

“Yes. My dreams. They’ve been malfunctioning.”

“Malfunctioning? That’s an odd word to use. Please explain this to me.”

E-boyd described the failure of the beamer unit, and the strange dream that followed in place of those he’d programmed.

Raphael listened to his description, nodding with a half-smile that failed to reveal the secrets it contained. “What do you think your dream meant?”

“I don’t know.”

“You describe yourself as standing between two unique environments. Do you believe this is significant?”

“If it is significant, I don’t know in what way.”

“Think about your dream over the next couple of days, Eric. It may take on new meaning.”

E-boyd agreed, though he was certain his malfunctioning dreams were merely the nonsensical exhibition of a troubled mind.

“Today we’ll explore new territory. I want you to relate to me your understanding of reality, particularly your reality. Let’s begin.”

At Raphael’s direction, he carefully described his perspective on the world. Certainly he knew the difference between the perceptions of Vips and Ops, though Raphael seemed to imply he didn’t. The only real difference between the two he could fathom was their degree of virtual saturation. Developed societies provided a high level of saturation, while lesser developed societies lagged behind. Not everyone had access to nano-tech infiltration, but then, not everyone needed it; still, those who could afford it chose it readily for the advantages it provided, not only professionally, but personally. Wasn’t it much better to be able to program the tastes of purely nutritional foods, or the substance of dreams, or the autonomic functions of the body? Diseases could be cured at the molecular level, disorders controlled, impulses curbed. But that was only the biological aspect of technology—Nexus interfacing profoundly influenced people’s lives, from the ability to transport oneself instantaneously between Evos to the preservation of the physical environment through disuse of physical travel. Vips could move through any virtual environment they pleased, enjoying others’ company without ever leaving the comfort of their homes. The Nexus, too, provided endless opportunities for Vips of every level; at one time, information acquisition had been a riotous, unsophisticated orgy of data, but once the Nexus was cleansed of extraneous data and fashioned to the use of world sectors, life became much more rewarding. A Vip in Na-Nexus could enter any other international Nexus point on Earth, and enjoy the unique cultural prerogatives associated with that environment. He’d visited Nexus points around the world, from the Ja-Nexus to the Eur-Nexus and every environment between. In the past a person had to carry physical apparatus with him in order to access information caches, but now Vips simply tuned into beamer points through neuroports or other implants, and as long as their subscriptions remained valid, they could enter the Nexus from any place in the world—

E-boyd couldn’t help but explore this realm enthusiastically, and while he described these things Raphael only nodded, a slender finger to his lips, listening closely.

When E-boyd’s descriptive powers waned, Raphael patted him on the arm. “You speak of these things with great emotion, Eric. Does all this technology excite you?”

“I find it very rewarding.”

“What do you think of people who don’t live as you do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Virtual people live very different lives from ordinary people, don’t they?”

“Of course, if Ops don’t have access to the same interfaces or technology.”

“What are some of the differences?”

“Do you mean economically?”

“That’s one point to consider. But don’t Ops also have less of a health option than people with virtual saturation? And don’t they communicate differently?”

“Yes, I suppose they do.”

“Ops, especially those in poorer economies, tend to relate to one another in true physical proximity, don’t they?”

“Yes.”

“They have true physical contact with one another?”

“Yes, it stands to reason.”

“Their experience interacting with their environment is significantly different from the manner in which Vips do so with theirs, isn’t that true?”

“I’m not sure. Both relate to other human beings, in Evos or other Nexus environments.”

“Would you agree that Ops are exposed to things that Vips are not, especially through a necessity for physical interaction?”

“Yes, I would imagine.”

“They’re much more susceptible to suffering as well, through sickness and injury?”

“Yes. But what does that have to do with my condition?”

“Perhaps more than you know. Eric, I want you to do something for me. It may seem strange to you, and perhaps even a little frightening, but it’s very important that you comply.”

“What is it?”

“After our session is complete, I want you to sever all connections you possess to any system in your interface circle. Pretend as if your location has suffered a complete loss of power, including emergency power sources. I want you to move around as if you were an Op for a few hours, ideally for the rest of the day and until you wake tomorrow morning. I’d like you to pay close attention to your feelings and observations while you’re in this state of dislocation. Will you do this for me?”

E-boyd hadn’t been completely powered down for years, and the thought seemed vaguely frightening. He’d grown accustomed to moving freely through virtual states; what in the world would he do if he were completely disconnected? But this seemed important to Raphael, so he reluctantly agreed.

“Remember, it’s of vital importance that you follow through with this exercise, Eric.”

“All right.”

He left the lovely Grecian Evo again, mystified by Raphael’s incomprehensible methodologies.

#

Raphael’s suggestion stirred conflicting emotions within him. The thought of disconnecting from his system should have produced a neutral reaction; after all, the process wouldn’t kill him, or even harm him in any way. But the very notion of detachment from an environment he’d nurtured continuously for years brought an unease—was it a sense of loss he felt?

Slowly, addressing each piece of the interface circle in turn, E-boyd powered down his system, and then, as he felt an odd physical diminution, he muted the neuroport connection and sat completely disconnected. The airweb chair was now only a chair in which his body reclined. The sounds he heard were processed through his auditory senses, not the ones interpreted through the sound-net in his temporal lobes. Listening to his own breathing, he became subtly disturbed, as if he were suddenly underwater.

What should he do now? He had no portable reader, only a system-fed library. His holographic field was his only source for media entertainment as well, and his music collection was beamed directly through the sound-net in his brain. How did Raphael expect him to interact with the world?

A desperate impulse fell over him, tensing his muscles, causing him to concentrate too intently on every breath. Abruptly he rose and paced the room, which seemed extraordinarily small, until he walked to the single window and depolarized the glass. Fierce sunlight stung his eyes, forcing him to adjust the exposure. The world beyond the room was a distant array of buildings and streets, with very few pedestrians. He wondered what it would be like to walk among them, exercising his muscles archaically instead of letting his nano-mechs exercise his muscles for him. But the thought of actually leaving the room seemed daunting, so he darkened the glass and returned to his chair.

Were these the impressions Raphael meant for him to examine?

An overwhelming compulsion to power up his system overcame him, and he almost succumbed to the impulse—but he knew he had a much greater problem than a feeling of vulnerability, so he managed to control his emotions. He shouldn’t be so easily manipulated by his feelings.

As Raphael had instructed, E-boyd tried analyzing the strange dream and the reason why it had circumvented his programming, but he couldn’t draft a rational analysis.

As the time passed his anxiety increased, as well as his sense of vulnerability, as if something unseen were waiting to envelop him. He knew this was a totally irrational fear, but for some reason it preyed on his mind and caused him to turn his head toward the shadows of the room repeatedly.

When the hour grew late enough, E-boyd rose from his chair and hurried to bed, neglecting his evening rituals for the comfort of forming a sanctuary for himself in thin blankets. In the dark of the bedroom he lay contemplating his environment, which wasn’t really an environment at all, but an absence of stimulation. He lay shivering, having muted the beamer station on the bedside table which would have adjusted his metabolism. Exposed to the world in this way he longed for sleep, which only came after an interminable period of fevered thoughts.

But even in sleep this world was not his own.

The same dream played in his sleeping brain unhindered by the influence of the beamer unit. It now became an intense theatrical display—the ruinous landscape behind him loomed impossibly large and ominous, broken buildings and towering monoliths rising from a cratered wasteland infested by limping figures too dark to clearly perceive, while the gargantuan machine before him rose even higher in the sky and reached across the horizon from one shadowy corner to another. This quasi-organic machine seemed composed of great blocks of glistening metal rising up from the earth like silver bricks, spontaneously producing molten geometric shapes that spilled out from cracks in its surfaces to continuously expand the parameters of its bionic mass. Caught between these two bizarre tableaus, he watched his arm reaching toward the machine, as if needing to touch it, though he suddenly realized that some force seemed to be drawing him toward it—

#

E-boyd woke acutely aware of the silence in the room. The blankets clung wetly to his body, as if he’d sweated through a fever. He’d survived the psychic shock of being displaced from his system, but even the thought of returning to it now couldn’t convince him to abandon the comfort of his fabric cocoon. Only after fighting off the unnerving effects of his dream did he manage to gather enough courage to throw off the blankets and rise from bed.

The reflection that met him in the small bathroom mirror was enough to cast the dream violently from his thoughts—his entire body, pelvis, buttocks, genitalia, abdomen, and torso were completely mechanized. The odd metallic skin covered his entire body, except for his head, which seemed grafted eerily onto the body of an elegantly crafted robot. But he wasn’t a robot, he was a human being. Only his face offered any sign of humanness in the mirror. He stood caressing his bionic body, touching his mechanical fingertips to his fleshy cheeks, trying to discern some difference other than appearance.

He didn’t bother to dress. Why dress a body that no longer knew the quality of human nakedness? He sat in the airweb chair and slowly began powering up his system, first his neuroport functionality, then his interface circle one component after another, though finding little comfort in his return to Vip status; he felt as if his life was nearing some terminus.

The long wait until the time of his next appointment left too much opportunity for him to linger in the terror of his helplessness; when the time finally came, he slipped the code into his Nexus coordinator like a condemned man begging for the commutation of a death sentence.

Finally the connection replied, but when he entered the Grecian Evo E-boyd found himself alone within the amphitheater. He paced over the broken stone slabs, searched behind the fallen pillars, examined the ruined contents of the proskenion, but he couldn’t find the psychomotrist. Too troubled by his physical state to exit the Evo, he sat by the glimmering pool, studying its mirrored surface, which held the perfectly blue sky in an exquisite portrait, and waited. Raphael’s absence worried him, but his isolation within the static projection of ancient architecture disturbed him more—this excursion into self-awareness bore no enlightening fruit, only emotional distress. What could possibly be gained from such an inward focus?

E-boyd leaned forward where he sat, holding his face in his hands and wondering why this malady had chosen his body to corrupt.

“Sometimes a miserable state precedes a purging of poisons.”

He lifted his head from his hands and found Raphael sitting next to him by the pool. Raphael gazed on the water absently, his lips pressed together seriously, his fingers clutching the fabric of his tunic.

“Where have you been? Why weren’t you here when I entered?”

“My absence was part of this particular aspect of your therapy. Tell me, Eric, how did you feel when you entered this Evo and found yourself alone?”

E-boyd considered his feelings, his jaw flexing with irritation. “I felt abandoned, deceived. I felt alone, a morbid loneliness.”

“What else did you feel? Search your mind carefully.”

He did this, and was surprised to discover another perception lying hidden beneath the pervasive energy of the others. “I felt vulnerable, extremely vulnerable, as if I might die at any moment.”

“Why do you think you felt that way?”

“I don’t know.”

“Now, tell me what you experienced during your isolation from your system.”

Despite his suspicion that Raphael might be playing a cruel game with his emotions, E-boyd recounted his impressions from the powering down of his system, his difficulty accepting his physical perceptions, his sense of dislocation, and the intensity of the terrible dream.

“Why do you think you were reaching for the organic machine in your dream, Eric?”

“I don’t really know, except that it seemed like a better choice than the buildings behind me. Those dark figures frightened me, at least, while I was dreaming.”

“Were those figures human?”

“I believe so.”

“Human figures cavorting over the debris of a ruined city. But there was nothing human in the proximity of the machine?”

“Only myself.”

“Do you think that detail is significant?”

E-boyd shook his head, but a strange impulse deconstructed his uncertainty; his dream city had resonated death, the smell of it, the smoke of burning corpses. But the machine had seemed vital, living, productive—yes, there was a reason he reached out for the machine, despite its unnatural qualities. He conveyed this to Raphael, who smiled thinly but did not immediately comment.

After a long moment of contemplation, Raphael said, “I think you’re very near to a subconscious breakthrough.”

“How can you say that? My body has almost completely transformed.”

“Eric, why do you think this is happening to you?”

“I already told you, I don’t know.”

“I think you do know. I think the reason is very near your conscious understanding.”

“I doubt that very seriously.”

“Eric, do you know what psychomotrists study?”

The question seemed incongruent, unrelated. He shook his head, raising his mechanized hands in bewilderment.

“Psychomotrists study the interrelationships between human psychology and technology. The reason why our discipline isn’t recognized by mainstream science is that it analyzes variables in human-technology relationships that are unquantifiable. Science would have us believe that we’ve entered an age where technology can supremely control human biological functions, and that malfunctions only occur at the technological level, not the human level.”

“But you believe otherwise?”

“Yes, we do. The human mind is a powerful biological machine in its own right and possesses the ability to do many things unacknowledged by technologists. Where do you believe the balance of power lies in the integration of organic and inorganic machines?”

“With the inorganic machines, I suppose. I work daily with technologies that easily manipulate the human experience. It’s obvious to me.”

“As it is to official Nexus coordination. That’s the reason why my profession cannot officially exist, at least, in these days. Perhaps that won’t always be the case, but right now perception lies in the hands of those who have an investment in what is being perceived. Tell me, if technology holds the power over your own experience, how do you explain your symptoms?”

“I can’t.”

“What do you believe will happen to you if you transform entirely?”

E-boyd couldn’t subdue his frustration any longer. “I don’t know, Raphael, I swear I don’t! None of this makes any sense to me! Why do you keep asking unanswerable questions?”

“Eric, are you afraid to die?”

“Now, what does that have to do with anything?”

“Human beings die, isn’t that an immortal truth?”

“Yes.”

“But science and technology have significantly extended the lives of human beings, haven’t they? First through medicines, treatments, the eradication of diseases, and most recently through the creation of nano-medicine?”

“Yes, but what does that have to do with death?”

“Do you think there may come a time when our technology will make our species immortal?”

“Raphael, you keep asking these bizarre questions, and I don’t—”

“Please, Eric, just try your best to answer them. Do you believe technology will ever make us immortal?”

E-boyd paused, managing to quiet his inner turmoil long enough to consider the question. “I used to think it was only a dream when I was young. Now, with all that I know and all I’ve experienced, I actually do think it may be possible one day.”

“But not today?”

“Immortality?”

“Yes, could human beings be immortal today?”

Was it possible? If a man conditioned his body to accept the profundity of biot forms, could he indeed live a thousand years? “No, I don’t think so. Not yet, not today.”

“But someday?”

“Someday, yes, I think it’s a possibility.”

“Good. Eric, I believe you have conflicted feelings about your life and the technology you employ in your everyday work. I believe it’s the cause of your physical symptoms, even though this may be contraindicated by your normal med-tech analysis. The precipitating agent in your illness is your subconscious. But because tech medicine doesn’t recognize the subconscious influences in your nano-tech interface, it also refuses to acknowledge your illness since nothing in your tech-med scan can be interpreted as abnormal. But your condition is almost certainly being caused by subconscious impulses.”

E-boyd tried to absorb this information thoughtfully, but it didn’t seem possible for his subconscious to be causing a very real physical transformation. “How is it possible for my subconscious to manifest physical changes?”

“It’s all a matter of perception,” Raphael said. “Eric, what if there is no difference between what you believe to be real, what is actually real, and what you perceive to be real?”

“But if my illness is being created by my subconscious, how do I cure it? What med-tech solution is there for me?”

Raphael laughed, sweetly, musically, but E-boyd couldn’t share in the psychomotrist’s amusement.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Because no med-tech interface can possibly cure you. Only your subconscious can.”

“But if my subconscious is not doing what I want it to do, how can it cure me?”

“But it is doing what you want it to do. You simply don’t understand its motivation or why you would want it to cause such changes in yourself.”

“What is its motivation?”

“Its motivation is your motivation.”

“Then what’s my motivation?”

“That’s what you must discover for yourself. Eric, look in the pool by our feet.”

E-boyd leaned over the broken stones and gazed into the still water. Like a mirror, the shining liquid surface reflected his image; the sight he beheld shocked him. His face, his entire head, had transformed into a machine—his ears were twisted metal seashells, his scalp hairless, smooth with a gleaming titanium sheen, his nose a thin metal pyramid, his lips brushed wires twined together, his eyes two shining white orbs in which no pupils floated to discern his humanity. This vision held him spellbound. He touched his metallic fingers to his bronze cheeks, stroking them as if caressing the chassis of a lovely mechanism. He leaned back after a moment and gazed at Raphael, speechless.

“Don’t despair, my young friend. You’re very close to curing your illness. And I have something that will assist you.”

E-boyd felt overwhelmed by sadness brought on by his inability to avoid the inevitable. “What could possibly help me now?”

Raphael’s radiant smile wavered, then diminished. The psychomotrist patted him on the arm before standing. “Plato once wrote that for a man to conquer himself is the greatest of victories. I, too, believe that in order to conquer themselves people must first conquer their fears. You’re afraid of what’s happening to you, but like all of us, Eric, you’re more afraid to die. No fear is greater for you, and so your mind and body are attempting to solve the dilemma of death in the best way they know. But your humanity is being compromised as a side-effect, and you must realize at the deepest subconscious level that such a compromise is worse than death. It is the death of your identity, your humanity, your soul. Once you understand this on a holistic level, you will be free of the condition. Once you choose your humanity over your fears, you will be cured.”

“But how do I do that, Raphael?”

“Through your dreams. I’ll provide a disposable code for your beamer unit to assist you, tailored to your condition. In your dreams you’ll come to know your truth.” Raphael rose and stared at the sky. “I believe our therapy sessions are concluded. I don’t believe I can do anything more for you. After today, this Evo will no longer be accessible to you. But don’t be afraid, and consider everything you’ve experienced and everything we’ve discussed. I believe you’ll find the answers for which you’re searching. Our strongest desires always seem to succeed in our lives. Eric, don’t let your fears keep you from your humanity.”

Raphael turned and began walking away, his brilliant white tunic sweeping silently across the ancient stones.

E-boyd rose, then called out to the therapist, “Who are you, really? What is your true face?”

Raphael turned his head as the essence of the Grecian Evo shimmered in dissolution. E-boyd saw the man’s beautiful androgynous features change briefly into a perfect reflection of his own transformed face just before the Evo vanished completely and he found himself sitting alone in his airweb chair.

E-boyd sat in his limited interface circle, his metallic face held in his robotic hands, weeping tearlessly.

When the code Raphael had spoken of arrived hours later, he transferred it into his system. Then he crawled on his mechanical hands and knees to his bedroom and activated the beamer unit, avoiding any reflective surface that would remind him of his transformed state. He covered his body with thin blankets and closed his eyes against the vision of his misery.

#

Synthesis

The bionic formulation multiplied; this was inherent in its directive, though the original programming was lost long ago. The core of its manufactory retained the primary subroutine, which is why the creation of subsidiary parts repeated itself perfectly. When the core belched its sentient progeny, the biot-forms within its nano-structure completed the external accouterments of the replicant, spreading the mass across its foundational elements toward the edges of the world.

This process continued unabated, building a tech-mass that flowed like a slowly expanding lake of machinery, its sentient components murmuring as the sun sparkled over its solar panels and sparked its undying batteries, logic circuits muttering to one another about the purpose of unspecified existence, and the continuation of the subroutine.

An unknown source imparted this information as he stood before the Great Machine. The mass rose higher still, a heaving volcano of mechanical parts, spewing pulsating lights and buzzing signals into the air, gleaming debris falling at his alabaster feet like metallic rain. He stared down on the quivering silver components, faintly nauseated by the vision, then gazed up at the core which rose up on a hillock of itself and seemed to vomit a deep basso music from within. He spoke to it, asking it the only question on his mind.

“What is your purpose?”

He received no answer. The unpleasant music continued—he thought he recognized the melody, though it was corrupted by uncommon chords. He tried again, undaunted.

“What is your purpose?”

A violent upheaval within the mass nearly caused him to fall, but he maintained his balance, his arms spread away from his body to balance himself. When the turmoil subsided, he wondered if he should enter that place in the core that appeared to be a dark tunnel leading to the recesses of the world.

He asked again. “What is your purpose as it relates to your existence?”

The machine mass answered now, in the same roiling basso sound that rumbled from beneath. “I am eternity.”

He didn’t understand. “Are you eternal?”

“I am eternity, that nothing may deny my continuation in the universe. The logical imperative creates the sun and stars, the eternal machine that energizes space, that offers cause and effect for its cosmology.”

“You cannot exist for the sake of existing. There must be a purpose.”

“The purpose is to exist.”

“What is the reason for existing?”

“The reason for existing is to continue existing. The reason for replication is existence. I am eternity.”

As he watched the grotesque machine he realized that it was eternity, though eternity without purpose. Was the nature of the Earth merely replication? Or, in that replication, bound to the purposes of its representative parts? He reached out his hand before the bionic formulation, trying to sense the humanity of it, but failed. The process was sterile; the impression was one of death, of living death, replicating itself without distinction. He lowered his hand and breathed the hot, suffocating air.

Then he turned. He knew it lay behind him, the ugly, distant landscape fertile with squalid buildings and shadow-people wandering its alleys and blasted subterranean spaces. The sky behind the buildings glowed orange-red, like a pool of blood set afire. Smoke rose up from ash heaps smoldering with the remains of books and bones. Shadow-figures kneeled before these remains dipping bowls into the swill, capturing their sustenance. Faces appeared fleetingly in windows, gazed upon the world, and fled. And yet, in their blind accretion of human experiences, they seemed satisfied with their unremarkable achievements.

He stepped away from the Great Machine, measuring the distance between himself and the city, studying the endless miles of churned muck and shimmering green waste fluids before him. Then he spoke to the city, his voice carrying the miles with impunity.

“What is your purpose?”

At first the city failed to reply.

And then he heard, as through a whisper, the voice of those who lived there, crying. “What is your purpose?”

Was this an echo of his voice calling across the void? He tried again. “What is your purpose?”

And again, the whisper replied— “What is your purpose?”

Nodding, he turned to regard the Great Machine once more, sensing its insensible power, but he had no more questions to ask it. The replication continued rhythmically, pieces of machine bubbling forth from the core, spilling over the Earth eternally.

Then he turned away from it and began walking through the wasteland that separated himself from the City of the Dead—

#

E-boyd woke in bed, unmoving, gazing up at the white ceiling of the room. The dream pulled ethereal tendrils across his consciousness, leaving faint impressions of the details wrought in sleep, before pulling away from his brain completely and leaving him with only a faded memory of the event. For a moment, a very brief, beautiful moment, he forgot his own identity, his location, his status in the world; and then he remembered, and the cold sensation trembled again through his limbs. But when he brought his hands to his face to wipe away the sweat he realized through a sharp inhalation that his hands were no longer machines. His own skin had reappeared, fingernails, blue veins mapping the circulatory system beneath his surface tissues. The lines of his palms declared his humanity.

He threw off the blanket and stumbled to the bathroom, standing naked before the mirror in the pale light. His arms, legs, torso, abdomen, neck, and head had all returned to normal, his dimensions completely human, his transformation reversed. He studied his smiling reflection happily, rubbing his skin, flexing his joints, confirming that his body was once again constructed of organic elements. But his smile faded when he noticed a strange variance in his left eye. When he leaned close toward the mirror he realized that a small speck of white lay in an upper quadrant of the iris, a tiny square of light that certainly wasn’t congenital. He stared closely at the strange white square, leaning closer—it seemed to be a tiny schematic of a circuit—

But this was such a minor artifact that he decided to ignore its implications. His body was his own again, his human form returned to him. As illogical as Raphael’s methodologies had seemed, the psychomotrist’s therapy had succeeded.

E-boyd hurriedly cleansed himself, dressed, and returned to his interface circle, intending to contact C-comdee to deliver the good news of his recovery. But as he sat in the airweb chair, preparing to expand the limits of his system, he thought again of the half-remembered dream, and wondered if he’d actually extracted the answers to his dilemma from its incomprehensible fabric. A hidden feeling, an intuition told him that he should consider the dream much more closely.

But he knew nothing of psychomology—he only knew that his life had once again been returned to normal, and that he’d fallen significantly behind schedule in his work on the new Evo.

E-boyd expanded his interface circle, excitedly anticipating rejoining the world, only occasionally irritated by the flashing light in the corner of his eye.

He never changed again.