Tanjel stood on a small metal square in open space, squinting to see if the ship was in sight yet. With her own eyes, she would have been able to zoom the view, but this humanblank body she had to wear was woefully underequipped. Beside her, MackMACK shifted his weight from one foot to the other and grumbled about the oppressiveness of feet.
She tugged at the cuffs of her old-fashioned jacket with fingers that felt too short, and knew she was stalling. With an anticipatory wince, she opened up her mind to the streams.
*Ship decelerating.* / Ping Tanjel? It Noriko. You noshow last night at Cooley wrap. You K? / “And in other news, three more relativity ships are due to be intercepted this week alone, which will bring the total up to one hundred ninety seven. HumaniCo is, as usual, not releasing any details, but promises a spectacular show once the travelers are settled.” / MaPa’s up my rack again, Tanj. You lucky nono grow like that back when. / HumaniCo-fascism can’ keep past from us! WePe demand entertainment! Right right! Rally now! / Ping Tanj? Z’you on private feed? Body look buckysilly. / *Intercept in 230 seconds.*
Tanjel turned off everything but her official work channel before the headache set in.
Damn. Too late.
She reached stubby fingers up to her smooth forehead and dug them in, trying to dissipate the pain before it had a chance to take root and blossom. She’d never gotten the hang of paying attention to so many streams at once. Her brain wasn’t laid out to handle so much chatter, and this humanblank body seemed to be designed to burst into pain at the slightest provocation.
She commanded the ship to form a solid exterior. The nanomachines started spinning a hull around them, with a bridge surrounding the spot where they stood. Appearance was important for humanblanks.
When’s this— she started to ask through the streams, but then caught herself and spoke aloud instead. She needed to get into the habit. “Do we have an estimate yet on when this ship is from?” she asked her sole fleshform shipmate.
MackMACK kicked one foot with another one. “Stupid feet. Ow. The ship’s from -212.”
Tanjel ran the number through a stream. These travelers would call it 2097. “That’s the earliest one yet.”
His plain tan face drew up into a scowl. “There’s no way these people are going anywhere other than a mercytank. I don’t know why HumaniCo’s bothering.”
She shrugged. “Everyone gets a chance. Those are the rules.”
“I don’t see why we should waste our time on this bunch. We’re never going to be able to rehabilitate them. Let’s just recommend that they be tanked instantly and get out of these stupid bodies, okay?”
“Absolutely not. Everyone gets a chance. Even them.”
MackMACK held up his hands. “Far be it from me to get in the way of good entertainment. At least if we tank them now, we spare them that.”
“Maybe not, but they’ll never know.”
She didn’t care. It wasn’t right to tank someone.
Her fleshform body shivered, even though it was sufficiently warm.
No, she wasn’t going to think about the tanks right now, no matter how much they frightened her. She wasn’t going to think about the one time she’d been put in one so she’d understand how it worked, and the persistent fear she’d harbored since then that she’d never really—
She didn’t care. It wasn’t right to tank someone.
Tanjel’s stomach fluttered at the thought of them. So strange, these humanblank bodies and their visceral reactions to emotional stimuli. So distracting. “We don’t have time for this. They’re about to finish their decel. Get ready. We’re contacting them now.”
In Mandarin, Spanish, Russian, English, Korean, and Urdu, the streams broadcast: *Unidentified ship, please respond.*
It took nearly a minute for the ship to open a channel. Tanjel faced the front of the bridge and had the reply displayed on a mock screen. A warm brown face stared at her, and she stared back, enthralled at the pure humanblank features. It was a study in imperfections: short, black hair in skinny ropes of haphazard lengths and thicknesses; a nose that splayed crookedly across the face; skin of uneven color and texture, tiny scars scattered across its surface; eyes with slightly different iris patterns. It looked male, but Tanjel had learned not to assume. People from that far back were essentially alien.
The person on-screen began to speak, the words strangely bland and flat to Tanjel’s ears.
*Male, thirty-seven years old. English-speaking. Accent from the southern United States, most likely Georgia. Switching on -3rd century English vocabulary. Replaying translation.*
“This is the Serendipity. But…how did you get here? No one launched before us. No one was even close.”
It was time for the speech. In the perfect historical English provided by the streams, Tanjel said, “Welcome to the year +271. By your calendar, this is the year 2579. We restarted our calendar in the year 2268 when we discovered faster-than-light travel that didn’t bend time. My name is Tanjel Rio3567, this is MackMACK, and we’ve been sent here by HumaniCo to meet your ship.”
The brown man paled almost imperceptibly. With her true eyes, it would have been so much easier to notice. She would have been able to zoom to the capillary level and watch the blood drain from his tissues. “We didn’t…I suppose we should have anticipated that this could be a possibility, but our scientists said—”
*Extreme fear reaction, heart rate increasing.*
“They couldn’t have known,” Tanjel said with what the historical databanks identified as a sympathetic smile.
“Why don’t you tell me your name?”
The man let out a deep breath. *Heart rate lowering.* “Terrance McKnight.”
*Use only the first half of the name when addressing him.* “I’m very pleased to meet you, Terrance. And I’d like to welcome your crew to my ship to begin your orientation to our century.”
“Five hundred years. We should have — we never thought…” He blinked hard, then shook his head. “Yes. Orientation. That sounds like a good idea.”
*Thirty-one crewmembers: fourteen female, sixteen male, one herm.*
This was the earliest herm that Tanjel had met. Interesting. Pure herm, or gender-flavored?
*Pure herm. Female external genitalia with grossly enlarged clitoris, internal sexual organs of both polar genders, secondary sexual characteristics of both.*
Doubt se’s out about ser status, MackMACK sent. Not from that far back.
We’ll treat that one carefully. Out loud, she said, “It looks like your shuttle should be able to carry everyone. So if you could please bring your entire crew over to our ship, we’ll begin your orientation.”
“You mean now?” Terrance asked.
“Well, the sooner the better, but if you’d like a little time to get used to the idea, we’ll understand.”
Terrance drew his thick lips into a hard line. “You make it sound like we have no choice.”
Tanjel shook her head and shot him another sympathetic smile. “I’m afraid you don’t. It’s the law. We can’t have you trying to interact with modern society without mandatory reeducation. You’ve missed nearly five hundred years. A lot’s happened to the human race since then.”
“Well…I suppose that makes sense. I just…this is very distressing. We thought we’d be setting up a colony on some uninhabited world, and instead…” He gestured to the screen. “You’re here, and you’ve been here for centuries, and we’re just a bunch of backwater hicks to you, I’m sure.” *Heart rate rising again.*
Time to focus Terrance on the smaller picture. “So, how many women and men do you have? I’d like to prepare appropriate berths for them on my ship.”
It seemed to work. He blinked, brows drawn tight, then looked square at the screen. “Sixteen men, fifteen women.”
Our herm is passing as female, MackMACK sent. You’ll have to handle ser.
No problem. “We’ll have rooms ready.”
“What will happen to our ship?”
Museum, she sent automatically, grateful that the new arrivals weren’t brainstreamed. It must have been so much easier for these humanblanks to lie. “That’s part of what we need to discuss. Technology has marched on dramatically while you’ve been traveling, and once you get used to what the present has to offer, I’m sure you won’t spare your ship a second thought.”
“But, what about all the frozen embryos we have on board? And the seeds? Some of the embryos are human. We can’t just throw them away.”
“Nothing will be done to your ship without your consent,” she said, knowing as the words came out of her mouth that they were lies. “Please, I’d love to show you all of the wonderful progress we’ve made since your time, but to do that, I need you to bring your people to our ship.”
He nodded, his skin slowly darkening back to its original color. She took that as a good sign. The streams agreed. “You’re right. At least, I think you are. But we’re a democracy, and I have to talk this over with everyone else before giving you an answer.”
“That’s fine. We’ll be here. Call when you’re ready.”
The connection closed.
MackMACK had the ship grow a seat and plunked down on it. “Wonder how long it’ll take them to realize they should just get it over with and abandon ship?”
“A group of people smart enough to build a relativistic ship back in -212? Not long.”
He gave her a long look, then shook his head and sighed. “Fine. We’ll try it your way. I still think it’s cruel to tease them like this when we both know they’ll never make it.”
*people demand entertainment / you provide / entertainment contract on record / valuable service / ratings will be high / you provide / contract solid*
The HumaniCo board had spoken.
MackMACK glared at the ceiling and hissed, “I didn’t sign an entertainment contract. I signed a counseling contract.”
Tanjel rested a hand on his arm, a gesture that would have felt natural even in her real body. “It’s not worth it. Let’s just do the best we can, all right? The better we do, the less entertainment those poor travelers will provide.”
They set the ship to creating rooms for thirty-one with amenities from the -3rd century that included just enough future flair to remind their new arrivals that they were truly far from home. Then all they could do was wait. Tanjel still wasn’t sure how HumaniCo thought she’d be able to usher these people into the +3rd century. It was times like this when she agreed with the decision to call the holotanks “mercytanks.” If tanked, these people would think they were living real lives in +271 and never realize they were each confined in a tiny private tank, interacting with an artificial world until they reached the point of natural death.
It was no way for a person to live.
Tanks. She shuddered. But really, with the ability to stream and bank minds, did they need actual physical tanks—
It was no way for a person to live.
Tanjel had sworn that she’d never give up an intercept to the tanks if she could possibly help it. But she’d never had to fight MackMACK on one before.
Her stomach fluttered again, and she pressed her hands against it to try to make it stop. Her own body would be so much more comforting right now. These reflexes were just too strange.
“Countdown to SunDiver festival, stay on this wave for live streams straight from the Divers.” / Tanj, nowhen I see you next? Body-no ’s checkcheck either. / “Speculation is running rampant about the new ship. When is it from? Will the travelers be displayed to the public? Is it true that the travelers are from a time when breeding was left to chance?” / WePe demand oldnew now! HumaniCo must show or we riot! / *Status report due at noonteen.*
Tanjel rubbed her temples and sent back, You’re not going to release footage from the status report, are you? These people need a chance to adjust. It’s just not ethical to put their first day on the streams.
There was no reply. She hadn’t expected one.
MackMACK sent, The people demand entertainment. All hail the entertainment-based economy of the future.
You’re not helping.
I’m not trying to.
Tanjel had the ship construct a hallway behind them and a door in front of them. The door dissolved open, and she and MackMACK stepped into the ship’s conference room. The first thing that hit her, as always, was the smell. Humanblanks produced so many secretions and gasses that no matter how often they washed, there was always this…this reek of antiquity whenever they gathered in groups. They made the present seem depressingly antiseptic. She stared out at the sea of brown and beige faces, took a deep breath to fill her lungs with their scent, and started in on the preliminaries.
Life in +271 was nothing like what they had known. Space could now be effortlessly and inexpensively folded, and people traveled vast distances in the blink of an eye. Human bodies had been endlessly modified for efficiency, safety, and aesthetics, letting people live unencumbered in a variety of habitats on planets all over the galaxy. Genetic engineering was used to wire brains in utero, hooking everyone up to enormous information and communication streams. Minds could be streamed from body to body with the same ease with which humanblanks changed outfits. And when a person decided it was time to give up flesh, they went on to become hollowcores with nearly all the rights of the fleshform, streaming their consciousnesses freely, or putting it into shared or artificial bodies when they wanted to have a physical presence.
“I know this seems like a lot to absorb,” Tanjel said, gazing at a room full of bewildered faces. “I know this because I was recently in your position. A little over a hundred years ago, when the first relativity ships started emerging in colonized space, it was decided that counselors would be more empathetic if they were able to identify with the passengers. So about a dozen counselors were sent on relativistic journeys of their own, including MackMACK and myself. We voluntarily displaced ourselves into the future so we could be better relativity counselors. Believe us when we say that we understand what you’re going through. It’s incredible how much things have changed in the past hundred years, never mind the past five hundred.”
“How so?” the herm asked. Se looked young.
*The herm is 1.23 decs old. Se thinks of serself as fourteen.*
MackMACK sent, Se’s young enough that se might actually avoid the tanks. And se’s the only one who doesn’t look freaked. Hope se’s willing to say goodbye to everyone se knows.
“Good question,” Tanjel said. “When I come from, we didn’t stream nearly so young. Brainstreams were molded at puberty, not at conception. So we only listened to one stream at a time, and were able to shut them off easier. And we didn’t switch bodies.”
“Is that your actual body?” the herm asked.
Another good one, Tanjel sent. You’re right, se’s showing definite promise. “No. No one looks like this anymore, except for a few deliberately aboriginal populations on Earth, like—” she dipped into the stream for examples from their hemisphere “—the Amish and the Yanomamo.”
MackMACK said, “Here’s holos of what we look like normally.”
A gasp filled the room as the holos materialized next to Tanjel and MackMACK’s fleshform bodies. Tanjel tried not to stare wistfully at her real self — tall and reedy, with bright green chlorophyll ropes streaming from the top of her head and similar chlorophyll patches winding in spirals across her multihued jewel-toned skin. Her face was delicately boned, nostrils flat against her face and tapering into beautiful, perfectly symmetrical whorls; fingers long and thin, with four joints per finger and three per thumb. Nothing about her genetics had been left to chance. It would have been unthinkable. Criminal, even.
She suspected that MackMACK’s ribbon-like aquatic body was causing the travelers even more consternation. She found it highly elegant, perfect for the water world he’d grown up on. But it looked even less humanblank than her own, and more like the strange mythical creatures that archaic humans used to tell stories about.
A pale, spindly man turned even paler and clutched the arm of the darkest man in the room. “Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god,” he murmured, and touched himself on the forehead, breastbone, and each shoulder. “They’re demons. Oh god, Reverend, they’re demons.”
A woman with a luxurious head of curly brown hair glared across the room at him. “Oh, no. We are not going there. We left that superstitious mumbo-jumbo behind us back on Earth.”
The dark-skinned man took the thin man’s hand and said, “These are god’s children, just like you and I. We should be marveling at the wonders that our god-given intelligence has wrought in this future, not fearing them.”
Terrance extended one shaky finger at the holos. “Will — will we need to do that?”
“No,” Tanjel said. She switched the holos off. “You’ll get to keep your own bodies. You have to. Your brains can’t handle switching. Ours barely can, and we were first streamed when we were about eleven Earth Solar Years old.” She turned to the herm and added, “Although at your age, your brain might still be malleable enough to handle it.”
Ser face lit up.
The curly-haired woman stood. “Tanjel, right?”
“My name’s Rebekah. Look, the bodies aren’t what are scaring me the most. It’s the streaming. How the hell are we supposed to know what thoughts are ours if outside thoughts keep shooting into our heads?”
Tanjel looked over at MackMACK, hoping he’d answer a question for once.
She resisted the urge to send a stream of curses to him and said, “It’s obvious which ones are yours and which are from outside. We’ll start you off with just one at a time, nice and easy. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll adjust.”
“And what if we don’t?” Terrance asked. “What if we can’t stream, or change bodies? What then?”
Too damned smart, MackMACK sent.
Thirty-one pairs of eyes locked on Tanjel.
“If you really have trouble, we’ll set aside a place for you to live in seclusion.” It didn’t get more secluded than a tank. “But I’ve never seen that happen.”
Not yet, anyway, MackMACK said.
An older woman raised her hand. “I’m Holly. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but there’s two other ships coming right behind ours. One’ll be here in five months, another in ten. Can we just set up our colony like we’d planned and get used to this century from there?”
MackMACK’s face lit up. “That might not be a bad idea.”
Tanjel streamed him a nudge in the ribs. “We’d have to specially petition HumaniCo. We’ve never had to do anything like that before. Everyone else MackMACK and I have intercepted has successfully acclimatized to our culture.”
“But you just said we could live somewhere on our own,” Holly said.
“Only if you can’t acclimatize. It’s really in everyone’s best interest if you do.”
“We should try,” Rebekah said. “We didn’t leave Earth because we were timid. Come on, let’s give it a try.”
The herm sat up straight in ser chair and beamed. “Yeah. Let’s try.”
MackMACK glared over at Tanjel, then turned back to the travelers with a more pleasant expression. “That’s enough new information for one night.”
Sick of taking to them?
Sick of lying to them. MackMACK showed them how to get the wall to replicate mouthmeals and how to find their rooms when they were ready for bed. “We’ll talk again in the morning when you’re rested and have had time to think things over.”
MackMACK immediately ducked out the door, but Terrance intercepted Tanjel before she could leave. “I’m sorry about Sully,” he said. “That was uncalled for.”
“You know, the man who called you demons.”
“Oh, him. That’s fine. We’ve been called worse.”
Terrance shook his head, his thin ropes of hair swinging. “No, it’s not fine. We left Earth so we could create a progressive colony. Things were getting pretty conservative back there, and now here he is, spouting that same old—” He sighed. “It’s disheartening.”
“I’m sure he’ll adjust given time. Look, I’m sure you all have a lot to discuss. Let me just leave so you can talk privately as a group.” And she meant it. Even if this evening was later streamed to the public, she wouldn’t ride the stream. She’d come from a century where privacy still had some meaning, and she was going to let these people have a semblance of it for themselves.
She turned for the door, but Terrance clasped Tanjel’s arm with a surprisingly strong hand. “I want to talk to you about my daughter,” he murmured.
“Is se the herm?” Tanjel asked, gently loosening his fingers from her bicep.
“Herm? Oh, hermaphrodite. Yes.” His skin paled to ashes. “So you know.”
Tanjel squeezed his hand before letting it drop. “You seem upset. Does it bother you that se’s different?”
“No. I love my daughter exactly how she is. It’s just… Well, most people in my time didn’t.”
Tanjel smiled, the expression sitting easier on her face the more she tried it. “Don’t worry, that’s not an issue here. Most people nowadays choose to express more complex gender identities than you’re used to. MackMACK and I both have mildly mixed genders. My natural body appears traditionally female, and I’m usually referred to with feminine pronouns, but I have some male physical characteristics. MackMACK is just the opposite. We also have pure herms like your child, and andros, and neuts, and genders like mine that we can’t put names to in your language. Your child will fit in just fine here.”
Terrance sagged, and Tanjel nearly reached out to catch him before she realized it was relief and not an impending faint. “I’m so glad to hear you say that. The doctors wanted to butcher her, and so did her mother. That’s why I signed on to captain one of the ships, so we could leave the planet and let her keep her natural body. But her mother…” He clasped his hands together so tightly that the knuckles went gray. “She’s on one of the other ships. She’ll be here in just a few months. She’ll…” He trailed off, looking over his shoulder at his child, who was staring in amazement at the computer that had extruded from the formerly blank wall. “I want Alicia to decide for herself what to do with her body. I need to keep her from her mother.”
“Don’t worry,” Tanjel said. “There’s not a fleshshaper alive who’d do that procedure against your child’s will. Se’s old enough to legally control the appearance of ser body.”
He turned back, his eyes expressing an emotion that Tanjel couldn’t identify. Humanblank eyes could be so hard to read. “I know it’s probably too late for most of us, but do you really think she’ll be able to fit in to this century? Will she be able to stream, and jump bodies, and all those things?”
Ah, so it was hope. “It’s certainly a possibility. Se’s young enough that ser brain is still malleable.”
“Good.” He nodded. “Good. This future looks like it has so many possibilities. I just want what’s best for my daughter.”
“Don’t worry. I’m going to do everything I can to make sure you acclimatize.” Even if Alicia’s the only one who actually has a chance.
From outside, MackMACK sent, If we tank the rest of them now, we can concentrate on ser.
I’m not giving up that easily. Besides, do you really think HumaniCo will let us? This could be the ratings bonanza they’ve been waiting for. By the way, that’s sarcasm, just in case you missed it.
Is it wrong of me to want to go back in time and tell myself not to sign that damned contract?
Terrance clasped Tanjel’s hands, jerking her back to his world. “If you could talk to her—”
“Of course. First thing tomorrow.”
“Thank you so much.”
When the door solidified behind her, Tanjel sagged against it. Was it worth saving one young traveler, only to have ser watch all the adults from ser ship get placed in the tanks? And if Tanjel, who was used to holograms and replicated matter, was horrified by the tanks, how would this young herm from the past react to ser father getting put in one?
Stick that in your report, MackMACK sent. Let HumaniCo decide. They decide everything else. Might as well let them do the heavy lifting.
Words failed her, so she sent back a sigh.
Noonteen came. The status report hit Tanjel right as she’d finished putting fuel in her primitive pipes.
*membank scan / herm possible / olders meatbound mindstuck / pulserates highhigh / take one test run stream / notest not now / tank / tank / sickle cell save for genebank / fullpull*
As HumaniCo did a fullpull on her stream-stored memories of the day, the fuel came right back of her pipes.
When it was over, she lay on the floor in a puddle of acrid, half-digested mouthmeal, trying to pick her own thoughts from the overpowering brainstreams coursing through her torn-open mind.
“HumaniCo has promised to release streams from the new relativity ship once they’ve had a chance to evaluate the material for its entertainment value.” / Tanj? Ping? Where you? Reply SVP. Lonely here. / Riot now! RIOT RIOT RIOT! / “To place a bet on whether all the passengers on the latest ship will be mercytanked, simply think ‘bet.’ To bet on the herm – RIOT—’herm.’” / RIOT RIOT RIOT / “In other news — RIOT RIOT RIOT — being taken over by consumer rioters — RIOT RIOT — Stream nannies are trying to quell—”
She slammed her head against the floor, once, twice, three times. There, there she was. She tugged together the threads of her own consciousness and sent, I keep telling you, my outdated brain can’t handle a fullpull.
Like always, there was no reply.
The floor slowly absorbed the liquids and her stained clothes, leaving her naked and clean in her awkwardly humanblank body. The body breathed, taking comfort from full lungs. Two votes for the tanks already; one for trying to test brainstreams on a random traveler, one vote against.
One young herm from the distant past who’d soon need to come to terms with the fact that everyone se knew would soon be living a virtual life while se flung serself headlong into the future.
Or would se insist on staying with them? Would se turn ser back on the future and voluntarily walk into a tank? Tanjel had heard stories of travelers doing just that, but had never seen it with her own eyes, real or replicated.
This body was cold.
The floor started spinning a new fabric wrap around her. She couldn’t bear the thought of moving, so she had the floor extrude a bed directly beneath her, the comfort a concession to this finicky humanblank body. But she wouldn’t sleep. She couldn’t anymore. Not since she’d gotten to this century and been shown how the tanks worked first-hand. The holo itself had been pleasant enough, but there’d been no escape switch, no visible seams. The effect was so thorough and perfect and utterly inescapable that Tanjel had collapsed to the floor, shivering, until they finally let her out. She’d had nightmares for months that she was still trapped in the tanks. They’d only gone away when she’d had herself reshaped to no longer require sleep. But were they really nightmares? Didn’t she have every right to wonder, to fear, if she was still trapped? She felt her breath coming hard, the nightmare images crowding in—
But she wouldn’t sleep. She couldn’t anymore. So she lay there silently, letting the streams wash over her, watching, but not paying attention, as the strangeness of the century she’d voluntarily stranded herself in poured through her brain.
“Three divers burned up today in the SunDiver festival. One of them is quoted as saying that se’d been in the market for a new body anyway. Millions have streamed the download of ser final seconds to experience it for themselves.” / Tanj? Build virtuverse tonight. SoMMy say we collide with his tomorrow. You watch? BuckyFun. / Tank newold so WePe can visit. Tank newold so WePe can watch all the time. / “Change your body and your life. Visit BoxyWaveShapers today. New designs are coming in every day. This week’s special: gaseous amoeboids.”
Before the travelers were due to assemble for breakfast, Tanjel checked the streams to make sure Alicia was alone in ser room. To MackMACK, she said, I’m going to talk to the herm.
In return, she heard giggles in a timber quite different from the one she usually associated with MackMACK.
Her insides felt like they were groaning. For all she knew, they were. You’re not alone in there, are you?
Just a little body sharing, he said. Just giving someone the ride of her life.
The other voice said, Defecation was fun. I want to use your other plumbing now.
Soon as I’m done talking to my colleague here, you can use it all you want.
I can’t believe you, Tanjel sent. We’re on duty!
Completely pointless duty. HumaniCo wouldn’t have let me invite someone in if they didn’t agree. Besides, have you checked out the streams lately?
No. The riot gives me a headache.
She could feel him grin. No more riot.
No more — oh no. She balled her hands into fists and opened herself to the streams. There, in all its glory, was their ship-to-ship conversation with Terrance and the initial orientation session.
Despite her better judgment, she looked at the commentary.
Born like that? So plain. / How they live so? How they let genes combine all chaos? / laughlaughlaugh too funny / try so hard never fit in so plucky and cute and silly / Poor MackMACK. Poor Tanjel. / like little pets cute little humanblank pets
She shut them off, her anger burning on her face. How could they do this?
MackMACK sent back a chuckle. The only way to stop the riots was to make the consumers happy. You should just be glad they didn’t see fit to release the private footage from these people’s rooms. Yet. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have someone in my brain who wants to stroke my genitals.
Tanjel slammed her connection shut and tried to get her breathing under control as her body secreted an oily stench of stress. Damned primitive body and its autonomic responses. Why would anyone want to ride in one of these?
She pressed her hands against her hot face and breathed deeply.
That was better.
Time to talk to Alicia. The ship folded Tanjel to ser door, and she knocked and waited.
The door dissolved. Tanjel stepped through and was struck immediately by the reconfig Alicia had done on the room. The walls were a textured weave of primary colors, accented with glimmering five-pointed stars hovering just below the ceiling.
Tanjel streamed a peek at the other travelers’ rooms. They were all still white and completely undifferentiated. Alicia had figured this out on ser own.
This was definitely promising.
Alicia picked up the room interface tablet and made the floor extrude two comfortable sack chairs on either side of a low black table. Se collapsed in one, and Tanjel sat down in the other.
“I really love the future,” Alicia said, ser warm brown face breaking into a huge smile. Se gestured to the room and said, “This is just too cool. I had no idea things would be like this at the end of the trip. I mean, I thought it would just be us alone on some weird planet somewhere, waiting for the other ships to arrive and living in metal huts breathing out of canisters or something.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Tanjel said. “I was really hoping you’d like it here. You’re going to love the rest of what we have to show you.”
Tanjel leaned forward, resting elbows on knees, taking a mental note not to keep this position for very long so as not to cut off circulation to her legs. The things she had to remember in this body. “Your father wanted me to talk to you.”
Alicia shifted in ser chair, ser skinny limbs sprawled akimbo. Tanjel could see small breasts under Alicia’s shirt, a bulge between ser legs, the faint wisp of an adolescent beard. “Yeah, he told me. It’s because I’m different, right? Only not so different out here, right?”
“Exactly.” Tanjel smiled. “Today’s genders are very fluid and varied. Your body’s gender expression isn’t at all unusual for us. In fact, it’s rather ordinary.”
Alicia leaned forward, brown eyes flashing. “So will I really get to try on other bodies?”
“If your brain can handle streaming, then it’s possible. But you can also stay in your current body and no one will be bothered by the fact that it’s a gendered mix.”
“How long until I can try?”
“I don’t know. We’ll probably let you sim it before everyone else. But you have to realize, there’s a good chance your brain won’t be able to handle it.” Disappointment flashed across Alicia’s face, but vanished as Tanjel continued, “But even then, you’ll be able to go to the fleshshapers and get your body changed however you want, however often you want.”
“Wow. I’ve always wanted to see what it would be like to be a girl with a regular body. Or to have a real penis instead of—” Se darted a quick glance at Tanjel, red simmering under the brown of ser cheeks, then ducked ser head. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. Talk like that is completely natural for us. Experiment all you want. We’ll be happy to make all of those fantasies possible, and more.”
Alicia’s slow, shy smile was the most incredible thing that Tanjel had seen in a very long time.
The next group meeting didn’t go very smoothly at all.
“Look, all we’re asking for is some land to settle,” said a tawny-skinned man. “We don’t need all this fancy future stuff. Just give us some space and leave us alone.”
“Porfirio doesn’t talk for all of us,” Rebekah said. “I want to hear more about this so-called ‘fancy future stuff’ that he finds so scary.”
“It’s not scary, it’s just not human,” Porfirio said.
Reverend Otis stood up and said, “People, please. God loves them as much as he loves you.”
“Have you even heard them mention god once?” Porfirio asked.
Reverend Otis raised his eyebrows and turned to face MackMACK. “Porfirio raises a good point. Do any of you follow god?”
“Uh…” MackMACK looked over at Tanjel and shrugged. “Are you talking some kind of monarchy, or perhaps a product? I’ve read about the cola wars from back in your time, so I know that you had a product-based feudal system.”
Tanjel ignored the gasps and the laughs and ran “god” through the streams. “MackMACK, I think they’re talking about a male deity, like Huitzilopochtli or Enki.”
“Oh, religion. Right. So which god was yours?”
Reverend Otis fell back into his chair, stunned. “Well, perhaps I’ve been sent here to minister unto you instead of unto my shipmates.”
Rebekah groaned. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m an atheist Jew. Jallie here is Buddhist, Tam and Holly are Wiccan—”
Terrance stood and held his hands high. “People! People! We’ve only been here one day. Can we please just listen to what Tanjel and MackMACK have to tell us before we ruin everything we’ve worked for with petty squabbling?” He turned slowly, taking in the entire room, then sat back down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Please, we need to know more. Help us understand.”
So they described the near-infinite amount of information available in the streams, and the complete accessibility that everyone had to it. They tried to convey the openness of brain-to-brain contact. They showed more modern body configurations, and described how easily bodies could be modified according to the user’s whim. They explained how nanomachines spun themselves into hollowcore constructs that were just as solid as conventional matter. And they introduced the travelers to the concept of an entertainment economy, where fresh experiences were highly prized, and people took the few jobs that couldn’t be automated simply for the entertainment value.
Alicia raised ser hand. “We’re novel experiences, aren’t we?”
MackMACK nodded. “I’m afraid so. And so were we when we got here one hundred years ago.”
Porfirio’s mouth fell open. “Are you saying—”
“That the people of the present want to see you?” MackMACK asked. “Yes. Yes they do.”
“Wait, how do you make an economy out of entertainment?” Terrance asked. “You said that all information is freely available. So how is it bartered or sold?”
“All information is free once it’s been released,” Tanjel said. “‘Economy’ isn’t really the best word for it, but it’s the closest your language has.” And hers, for that matter.
“So whoever controls the new experiences controls the populace.”
“Sometimes. But sometimes it’s the other way around. For instance, if a company is thought to be withholding experiences, the populace can riot over the streams and interrupt other information flows.”
“Explain this HumaniCo to me, then,” he said.
She always hated this part. “HumaniCo was formed back in our time to intercept and counsel people emerging from long relativity voyages. In the past hundred years, it has managed to stay in business by providing entertainment as well as orientation.”
“In other words, us,” Rebekah said.
Tanjel nodded. “Yes, but I assure you, MackMACK and I have your welfare as our sole motivation.”
“Are they watching us right now?”
Tanjel dipped into the company stream to see if they were passively recording rather than actively watching. It was the former. So she technically wasn’t lying when she said, “No, they’re not.”
“So our jobs in this future will be to provide ourselves as new experiences?” Terrance asked. “Is that what we have to do to pay off our debt to HumaniCo?”
“For starters, you have no debt,” Tanjel said. “Debt no longer exists. And you’re not the only ones being streamed for entertainment. Everyone is at one time or another. It’s just how our society works.”
Rebekah sucked a sharp breath in through her teeth. “I don’t like it. What about privacy?”
“This is why we need our own place to live,” Porfirio grumbled.
“Hush, everyone,” Terrance said. “Look, what are we supposed to do with ourselves in this future of yours?”
Tanjel smiled. “Whatever you want. You could spend a lifetime just learning about the five hundred years that you missed when you were traveling. Or you could ride other people’s streams to sample modern life one person at a time, or have your bodies reshaped so you can travel to planets all over the galaxy. Anything’s possible. It’s all up to you.”
“We want our colony,” Porfirio said. “We can’t just lie around all day letting our brains float off into cyberspace. We need work to do. We know there’s a habitable planet in this solar system. Can’t we have a little space on it?”
“I hate to say this, but I think I agree,” Rebekah said. “Yes, many of us would like to try to live in your century, but we also need a plot of land to work so we can have something that’s tangible and ours. If we can be self-sufficient, can we opt out of this entertainment economy of yours? Or maybe we could just have a religion hour once a week to keep folks entertained enough to leave us alone the rest of the time. Would that work?”
“Yesterday, you said you’d set aside a place for us to live in seclusion if we didn’t fit in,” Sully said. “We all heard you say it.”
Yeah, in a tank, MackMACK sent.
Terrance stood again, hands on his hips. “Let’s wait before we start making demands. It’s too early. Give these people a chance.”
“You’re only saying that because of Alicia,” Porfirio said.
Alicia’s cheeks flushed red, and se crossed ser arms tightly over ser small breasts.
Terrence’s entire body went rigid. He took a threatening step towards Porfirio, but Reverend Otis stepped between the two men and grabbed Terrance by the shoulders. “It’s all right,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a person in this room that faults you for wanting your daughter to live in a world where she’ll be accepted for who she is.” The reverend shot a pointed look at Porfirio, who mumbled an apology and slouched down in his seat.
“However,” the reverend continued, “Sully’s right. You did promise that we could have a plot of land if we couldn’t acclimatize. And we will hold you to that. It’s a promise that many of us have heard before, and we’re not looking to be disappointed again.”
There were murmurs of assent all across the room, especially among the darker-skinned colonists.
Tanjel and MackMACK exchanged a glance. She could tell even without streaming that he also knew this would be a long day.
That night, Tanjel was hit by another fullpull status report. Thankfully, she hadn’t eaten recently, but other pipes leaked from the stress.
*tank / alltank / herm maybe no wait see try / too primitive / still early keep try / tank / notank no yet no*
She had the room dissolve her clothes and clean her of her wastes. It was times like this that she envied the travelers for not being streamed. The whispers of the rest of her brainstreams started to creep up into a roar, and she lay back, overwhelmed.
“Earlier today, HumaniCo released the contents of the relativity ship’s databanks.” / Tanj, yougo wrap the experience thisnight lastnight? / Quiet the riot til the next ship. Quiet the riot to stop and listen. / *Asteroid approaching ship, de-rezzing to let it pass through.* / “Billions of users have streamed the music and moving pictures from this ship, dubbing them ‘Fresh Primitive.’” / Tanjel? Tanjel? Hey, are you all right?
I saw the latest vote.
You’re here to gloat?
No, just to see if you’re okay.
Just you? Or do you have a tourist in your head?
We’re on duty, MackMACK.
No we’re not. We’re on entertainment patrol. All we need to do is stir these travelers up every so often so they’ll make for more amusing viewing. The sooner we give up, the sooner they go to the mercytanks.
Some mercy they were. She wrapped her arms tightly around herself, trying to force back the creeping fear that she was still trapped—
The sooner we give up, the sooner they go to the mercytanks.
I’m not giving up.
And have you told young Alicia that se’s the only one from ser ship that’ll get a chance to live in the real world? Have you told ser that se’ll have to say goodbye to ser father and never let him know the lie that his life is about to become?
Not yet, but se’ll adjust.
Don’t be too sure.
Three days later, she told ser.
“You’re going to put Daddy in a computer?”
“Something like that, yes.”
Alicia paced the back wall of ser room, a wall now decorated with fluorescent swirls and flying fantasy animals. “So you’ve been lying to us.”
“I’ve been trying to give you hope.”
Alicia snapped around to face Tanjel. “You told us you’d give us some land. You promised.”
Tanjel’s guts knotted, and she pressed her hands against them in a futile attempt to make them stop. “We’ll make them think that they have land. They’ll never know.”
“Why can’t you give us a real place to live? Why can’t you just leave us alone? We don’t want your stupid future!”
“What about you? What about what you want?”
Alicia sniffed wetly and collapsed into a chair. “I want everybody to be happy.”
“And they’ll be happy in the mercytanks.”
“Not if I tell them.”
Se leaned forward, eyes flashing under furrowed brows. “I’ll tell them, and then you’ll be forced to give us a real place to live!”
“I can’t. There’s no spare land left to give away.”
“But the galaxy is huge!”
“And we’ve already filled all the spaces where your people could live comfortably, never mind the spaces that your bodies can’t handle. There’s nothing left.”
Alicia slumped in ser chair. “Why did you lie?” se whimpered.
“Because I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this.”
“I don’t know if I can leave him.”
“He’ll never know. None of them will. It’ll be for the best.” Desperation crept into her voice, making it squeak, and she hated it.
Alicia swiped a sleeve over ser glistening eyes, then asked, “Can Daddy stay out? Can he stay with me?”
“I don’t know. He’s not adjusting very well.”
Alicia surged forward and grabbed Tanjel’s hands. “I’ll help him. I’ll tell him what’s going to happen, and I’ll help him.”
“Don’t.” Panic tightened the knots in her already tied-up guts, and she feared her latest mouthmeal would soon be lost.
“But if he knows, he’ll try harder.”
Tanjel shook her head. “All you’ll do is scare him, and then he’ll scare the others, and then people will watch it for entertainment. It’s better to let everyone keep their dignity, even if it means putting them in an artificial world without them knowing it.”
Alicia tore ser hands from Tanjel’s and resumed pacing. “It’s not fair. They should know.”
“If we tell them, and still end up having to tank them, then they’ll know they’re not living in the real world and they’ll never be happy.”
Alicia shot Tanjel a red-rimmed glare.
“The tanks will be a mercy for them,” Tanjel said, hating every word of it. “Trust me. And they won’t be alone in there. They’ll have plenty of company.”
“The colonists from the other ships?”
“Yes, and others. Some are artificial, but many are like what you’d call actors. They stream their consciousness into hollowcore bodies and enter the tanked world to help populate it.” More members of the entertainment economy, taking jobs so long as they remained fun, then quitting the moment they got bored.
“So…he really won’t know the difference?
“No. He won’t.”
Alicia stopped pacing and huddled back into one of the corners of the room. Ser lower lip wobbled, and se sucked it into her mouth. “Will…will I ever get to see him?”
“Of course. You can be one of those actors any time you want. But believe me when I say that we’ll only put them in the tanks if there’s no chance they’ll be able to adapt. You’ve seen how different the modern universe is. We just want to do what’s best for them; what’ll be most comfortable for them.”
“Oh.” Alicia looked to be on the verge of open tears. “Maybe I should just go in there with him.”
Tanjel stood and took a hesitant step towards the trembling youngster. “Do you really want to live in a fake world? I wouldn’t have told you about it if I didn’t think you could handle the real one.”
Staring down at the floor, Alicia whispered, “No.”
“Good,” Tanjel said. “Because you’re really going to love it here. I can tell.”
“The tank.” Alicia looked up with gleaming wet eyes. “Is it…is it all pretty in there?”
“It’s kind,” Tanjel said softly. “We give them just enough of a taste of what the present really is like to keep them challenged, but not so much that they’re overwhelmed. Trust me, they’ll be fine in there, and they’ll never know the difference. Now, can I trust you to keep this a secret?”
Alicia swiped ser eyes dry on the backs of ser hands. “I just want everybody to be happy. I want Daddy to be happy.”
And now se knew.
Tanjel would have to keep watch to see how well se handled the knowledge.
Thankfully, se seemed to handle it well enough, along with everything else about the +3rd century.
Too bad Tanjel couldn’t say the same about the rest of the travelers.
The factions only grew as time went on. One group, led by Terrance and Rebekah, tried so hard to adjust. But she could see the panic in their eyes when they were submitted to a single-stream simulator, or when they were given a small taste of the breakneck pace of modern life. Then there was Sully and his small group, who were so terrified of everything they were shown that they’d stopped coming out of their rooms for Tanjel and MackMACK’s sessions. But by far, the largest group was Porfirio’s, made up of those who either didn’t want to adjust, or who’d tried and given up. That group was growing by the day. Even Rebekah seemed on the verge of joining it.
Alicia, on the other hand, was adapting even quicker than Tanjel had expected. Se wore ser streamcap constantly. It only allowed access to non-critical ship functions and a history library, but se was clearly thrilled by it.
“You’ll have the real thing soon enough, baby,” ser father said. He smiled, but his eyes looked so sad. He had to know that he’d be losing ser to a future he couldn’t adjust to.
And so did HumaniCo. They took only seventeen days to decide.
*tank / tank / tank*
It was unanimous.
Tanjel felt her eyes welling up with tears. But what about Alicia?
She wiped her eyes on a flap of wall and let out a shuddering sigh.
You tried, MackMACK sent. Now we can get the hell out of here.
What about Alicia?
Se’s all yours. I quit. There’s got to be some way out of this stupid contract, and I’m going to find it. MackMACK’s body dissolved, and he vanished into the streams.
Tanjel glared at the moist spot his body had left behind on the floor, a spot that was quickly absorbed by the ship, and then called the travelers into the conference room. When they were all assembled, she started the talk that she hoped she’d never have to give. “I know that most of you are still having a lot of trouble adjusting to the future.”
“It’s the future that’s the trouble,” Porfirio said. “You’ve abandoned anything even vaguely natural and created a universe devoid of real humanity.” There were murmurs of assent from the group clustered around him.
She gestured towards them and said, “That just proves my point. It’s clear we’re not the people to help you through your orientation, so we’re going to have you moved to a new counseling center. It’s on a planet with near-Earth gravity, so you should feel right at home. We’re even looking for a good place for you to set up your planned colony.”
Alicia caught Tanjel’s eye and cast her a panicked look.
It’s all right, Tanjel sent reflexively, then remembered that Alicia’s cap didn’t let ser receive streamed messages and tried to look appropriately comforting.
“Will you be coming with us?” Terrance asked.
She shook her head. “No. You’ll get new counselors. Hopefully, they’ll do a better job than we have.”
“Well, speaking for myself, I appreciate the effort you’ve put into educating us these past few weeks. You’ve been patient, and kind, and I thank you for it.” There were murmurs of assent throughout the room, even from many of the people who’d fought her every step of the way.
Such pleasant talk from a man about to be consigned to a tank, lined up with countless others in a warehouse, each containing a pampered captive in an invisible prison. She wouldn’t wish it on a criminal, and yet she’d condemned these people just for the crime of being from the past. She felt squeezed, like she was trapped in her own tiny tank, and struggled to breathe.
*Separate the herm.*
Tanjel scrubbed her hands over her face, letting the rough warmth of skin on skin shock her back to herself and this strange body. She took Terrance and Alicia aside and said, “Terrance, your child won’t be coming with you right away. Se’s doing so well that we’d like to go ahead and stream ser now.”
“You mean she’s doing so well that she doesn’t have to go into virtual reality like the rest of us,” he murmured.
Tanjel gaped, and she stared at Alicia in astonishment. “I thought you—”
Alicia clung to Terrence’s arm and said, “I only told Daddy.”
“And I told no one. And I never will,” Terrence said. He cupped his child’s cheek in his hand, and as ser tears spilled over it, said, “She’s my baby. She didn’t want to see me get hurt. But I’ll be okay, just as long as you visit me like you said you would. Promise?”
Alicia’s voice shook. “I promise, Daddy.”
Terrance beamed. “I’m so proud of you. You’re going to do so well out here.”
Tanjel turned away as they hugged. She couldn’t bear to watch. He was walking voluntarily into a tank for the sake of his daughter, sacrificing his freedom for her future. She’d never seen anything so heartbreaking. Heartbreaking — she’d never really understood that term before. But standing there in an obsolete body, her brain tied firmly to its physiology, she was all too achingly aware of what it really meant. She didn’t think her heart would survive this day.
Alicia managed to hold back ser sobs until the shuttle left.
Tanjel cradled Alicia in her arms, crooning words that the streams told her would be soothing, and wishing she could burst into tears along with ser. But she needed to be strong. This child needed her. And right now, Tanjel needed to be needed, if only by one traveler.
Alicia snuffled and pressed ser face into Tanjel’s shoulder. “Are you sure they’ll be happy when they get tanked?”
“They’re already in their tanks,” Tanjel said. “The moment they stepped onto the shuttle, they were in the virtuworld.”
Alicia raised ser head, forehead wrinkled above bloodshot eyes.
Tanjel smiled. “Watch.” Reconfigure to original shape.
The hollowcore ship around them folded and shrank down to a small metal platform hanging in empty space.
“Oh my god!” Alicia shrieked. “There’s no walls!”
Tanjel squeezed Alicia’s trembling form. “Relax. We’re just as safe now as we were when it looked like there was a ship around us.”
Alicia’s gaze darted in every direction, terror and awe jockeying for position on her face. “I just…ever since I was a little girl on that spaceship, they told me that we needed the walls to stay alive—”
“It’s different here.”
“Yeah.” Se wrapped ser arms around ser knees and stared out at the stars surrounding them, then turned to face the gaseous blue planet hanging nearby. “So they’re gone.”
“Will they be able to eat? I mean, will someone be hooking them up to tubes and stuff?”
“We don’t need ‘tubes and stuff’ anymore. They’ll be fine. The tanks will take care of their bodies, keep them fed and clean, and remove their wastes.”
“No tubes,” Alicia murmured. “There’s so much to learn. Wait, where’s MackMACK?”
“On the shuttle?”
“No, he streamed his mind back to the depot to switch into his own fleshform body. His job’s over. But I won’t be done for a while. You and me, we’re sticking together.”
Alicia smiled weakly. “I like that. I just…my brain hurts from trying to cram so much in it.”
Tanjel brushed her fingers across the herm’s forehead. “I know.”
“I just hope Daddy and everyone are happy. I mean, I guess they’ll have to be. If you can do this—” Se swept ser hand through the empty air.
“I swear to you, they’ll never know that they’re not living in the real world.”
Alicia cocked ser head to the side and shot Tanjel a quizzical look. “If holos are so solid and so real, then how can you even tell that you’re in the real world? I mean, couldn’t all of this just be a big tank?”
“No, of course not. Well, technically, I suppose it could, but no.” Tanjel shook her head, as much to convince herself as Alicia. No, they wouldn’t have. They’d just been nightmares. They weren’t real.
*wait / ratings good*
“You said they’d be challenged in there, right?” Alicia asked.
“Right, but not given much more than they can handle.” Just like she hadn’t been given much more than she could handle. Really, with the pace of change since during Tanjel’s own pre-jump lifetime, wasn’t it odd that she’d been able to adjust so quickly to the +3rd century? Yes, it was difficult, but—
*no / look at streams*
Watchwatch Tanjel stream. / NewAliciaHerm smart scrap. / Bestshow allshow save watch again. / She-se figure out? She-se actual understand? / Listen Tanjel thoughts. / She think big now. She see picture.
*hold reset / keep viewers*
“So when I go in to visit them,” Alicia asked, “how will I know when I’ve actually left the tank?”
“It’ll be obvious.” Unless when Tanjel had walked into the tank to see what it was like, she’d never actually walked out. Was Alicia a hollowcore person, put here to keep her occupied in her own mercytanked environment? Had Tanjel failed to adjust to the +3rd century? Was she living a fantasy life, floating naked in a tank? Had she ever really been living in the +3rd century?
*viewers high / ratings best / Tanjel too close / no / viewers highest ever / can get closer*
Tanjel rested her fingers on her mouth and murmured, “But tanks don’t make sense.”
“What do you mean?
Tanjel stood and peered over the edge of the small square. “I mean, if we live in a future where I can hang safely in space on a tiny piece of metal, then why would they even have tanks at all? And if we can stream our minds from one place to another, why not just bank them and dispose of the bodies?”
Alicia hugged ser knees tightly to ser chest. “You’re scaring me.”
“I’m scaring myself. I feel like I’ve been here before, like these aren’t new thoughts.” She narrowed her eyes. “It’s slowly making sense.”
“I don’t get it.”
so close / poor traveler / can’t watch / she know / can’t watch / you cancan Tanjel / connect pieces, figure out / can’t watch hurts hurts too smart don’t do to her / best show ever
*gaining more / wait / no reset*
Tanjel looked over her shoulder at the young herm and shook her head. “None of this is real. You’re not real. Maybe your mind is, but your body isn’t. My mind was yanked from my body the moment I arrived here. One hundred years. How could we have been so naïve? Of course I’d never be able to fit in.”
Alicia shook ser head, ser brown eyes wide.
“Don’t you understand?” Tanjel found herself laughing. “Things change so fast. My parents’ brains were never streamed. They just had the caps. I was streamed as a teenager, and the moment it happened, it was like my parents and everyone of their generation had become members of a more primitive species. And by the time I left, they were streaming eight-year-olds. I didn’t even know how to talk to them. They were so far ahead of me, I’d become the primitive species.” Tanjel felt as if a blanket were being lifted from her thoughts, that her mind was her own for the first time since she’d jumped to this strange, new future. “If they’re really streaming people in utero nowadays, then there’s no way I could successfully interact with this world. But what with how quickly things were progressing, they were probably streaming in utero only a few years after I left. So they should have gone beyond that by now.”
*too close / will lose them if we don’t reset now*
*ratings too high / wait / wait*
Tanjel nodded slowly. Oh yes, it was all coming together, the pieces slotting into orderly patterns that she should have recognized ages ago. “Beyond. As in, no bodies. If they can make virtuworlds, and people can live beyond death, then why would anyone bother with a biological body anymore? It all makes sense now. None of this is real. There’s no such thing as real anymore. And those of us who remember life with bodies are the only ones who don’t get the joke.”
YES / she gets it / what now? / can’t look can’t look / YESYESYES / this is too much / poor Tanjel / want bring her out show her she right so smart so smart / can’t look / painpain bad no please stop poor Tanjel / peek what now?
Tanjel inched closer to the edge the square, her toes hanging over into the void.
Alicia reached out a shaky hand and touched ser fingers to the back of Tanjel’s calf. “What are you doing?”
She smiled. “Stepping out of the sanitarium.” She turned away, closed her eyes, and stepped off of the platform and into empty space.
The streams screamed.
Tanjel and Alicia’s world froze.
*some want riot / some want boycott / all say we cruel and no watch no more*
*nofolk want watch Tanjel hurt*
*comeback if we reset?*
“I just hope Daddy and everyone are happy. I mean, I guess they’ll have to be. If you can do this—” Se swept ser hand through the empty air.
“I swear to you, they’ll never know that they’re not living in the real world.”
“That’s good,” Alicia said, and curled up in Tanjel’s arms again.
At least she’d saved one of them. And that was something she could feel good about.
“Come on,” Tanjel said. “Time to introduce you to the real world.”