- by Davian Aw -
The light in Chris’ room is red. “It’s good for photographs,” she once explained in that vague way of hers, though Jan’s never known her friend to be into photography, and as her eyes adapt to the transmitted feed, the room looks less like a darkroom and more like a hovel abandoned in the light of a dying sun. The blinds on the windows are closed. Harsh light seeps in around the edges. In the background, Jan hears the quiet rush of air-conditioning, and her own skin aches for its relief.
“Dude, we really need to talk about your ad campaign,” Chris says. Her voice resonates in Jan’s head as though it were her own, lips moving just out of view, and Jan feels the usual reflexive stab of panic that someone has taken control of her body.
“What’s wrong with it?” Jan asks. She never gets used to this—hearing her words with Chris’ ears, tinny and distant from a speaker.
“Seriously? Look . . .”
Jan closes her eyes as Chris stands and the image shifts in a wave of almost-nausea. When she next opens them, it’s to see Chris’ spam wall, her slim forearm—so foreign yet familiar—moving into the visual field to gesture at the scrolling text, each new arrival pushing the rest down toward the deletion line:
// Does your small measurement threatens your relationships? Special means are needed . . . // // I am leaving soon, and you will forgive me if I speak bluntly . . . // // Woman form queue, when you got as much night energy as this Don Juan maker! // // congratulatons you have won the mircosoft lottery send detail like name, sex, address,creditcard number, ect to . . . //
“I saw our ad in there,” Chris says.
“It’s free. Everyone with a netcon gets it.”
“Yeah, and no one’s going to take it seriously.”
“At least you saw it, right?”
Chris brushes her words aside. “We need better demographic targeting. Go look for some taitai who can’t be bothered with gym.”
“Why don’t you do it?”
Chris pauses. “I don’t want to leave too many tracks. I’m just the tech.”
Chris claps her hands together. “Great. Find us someone by tomorrow.”
The feed cuts off.
+ Chris has ended the conversation > end / new conversation / upgrade to Premium Chat for just $9.95/month! > end
Jan thinks maybe it’s a sign the two of them are growing up, or maybe it’s just a desire to cling to what little they have left of traditional identity; regardless, on net chats they now go simply by their first names. As a teenager, Chris favoured the display name “I’ll Sleep When I Sleep.”
“I thought it’s supposed to be ‘I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’,” Jan asked, the first time she saw it.
“When I’m dead I won’t be sleeping,” Chris pointed out. “I’d be dead. I’ll sleep when I sleep.”
“So . . . when will you sleep?” Jan asked.
“I don’t know. It changes every day. I don’t want to limit myself.”
It’s just “Chris”, now.
“We’re all prisoners of our brains,” Chris once said in one of her frequent random monologues as they waited at the bus stop in front of their school, other students standing with their heads buried in phones, notes, or mindless chatter, dead to every world but their own. “If someone hacks into my brain and tells it there’s a velociraptor in front of me, to me it’ll be as real as anything else. Except no one else would see it. They’d all think I’m crazy. But if their brains get fed the same thing, then everyone sees it and no one is crazy. Sanity is just . . . aligning yourself with consensual reality.”
“Like the one that says we’re standing at a bus stop?” Jan asked.
“Yeah. But maybe we’re just brains in vats.” Chris paused, and then, dropping into sudden, absurd gravity: “And I don’t dare to take the red pill.”
Then Jan’s bus arrived.
Their first client is a pleasant, forty-something woman named Ms. Lee, who eagerly invites them into her spacious District 10 bungalow and offers them expensive chocolates from her recent trip around Europe. Jan takes a couple and thanks her. Chris politely declines.
“Right!” Ms. Lee says, settling down on the sofa. Behind her, high windows frame a rare glimpse of forest. “So, how does this work?”
“It’s simple,” Chris says. “Everyone knows that headsets can both get output from your brain and deliver input into it. That’s how the POVCam tech works. It gets the audiovisual input from your correspondent’s brain and delivers it straight to yours, overriding the signals from your optic and auditory nerves so that instead you see and hear the same things they do. It’s the same with the POVTouch, Smell, and Taste.
“And then there are those apps that let you record your movements and play them back. They send those same nerve impulses through your spinal cord, where they override the real-time signals so you do the exact same thing all over again. Which was fun at first, but then you had people stuck dancing while their house burnt down, plus you had all those dodgy recordings that made them jump off buildings or striptease in church and stuff. So they banned them. But it was all open source and the code is still out there. And basically—” Chris takes a breath “—I wrote an app combining everything.”
Ms. Lee looks slightly nervous. “So you're going to force—”
“No, no, no. We can’t make people pay for that. We do the whole thing. A complete, virtual switch-over. You won’t just see and hear and feel and whatever that the other person does, you’ll be able to control them as well. Instead of a recording, it’s a real-time sync. So you’ll get all the sensory input that Jan gets. You’ll see what her eyes see, and so on. At the same time you’ll be able to provide your own output, right into her brain. So when you try to move your arm, your arm won’t move, but hers will. And since you’re getting her sensory input, you’ll feel her arm move as though it were your own. And vice versa. It feels exactly like a body swap, though it’s just a trick of the brain.”
“And she’ll exercise for me?” Ms. Lee asks.
Chris nods. “That’s right. For just three hundred dollars an hour.”
“We also have a monthly package for ten thousand that comes with a full nutrition plan,” Jan adds. “The workouts are two hours a day, three days a week, and we’ll handle all your meals. You’ll never feel better.”
“Yeah. So you can just relax while Jan works out on your behalf, and I’ll swap you two at scheduled mealtimes, so your body eats healthy while you don’t have to. You’ll never find a better gym deal, promise. You’ll just have to cover equipment costs.”
“It’s completely safe,” Jan says. “We’ve tested it out. The core components have been around for years. And if you ever want to stop the sync, you can just turn off your headset—my headset—and it’ll end.”
“We just need you to try and keep it secret,” Chris says. “I don’t really want this to get out there yet. There’s too much potential for abuse, and besides . . . this way you’ll get to impress all your friends.”
“What’s Chris short for?” people always asked.
“You know what’s weird? IRL it’s always, ‘Is that Christina or Christine or Christal?’ But online, they just assume it’s Christopher. Rule Thirty, see. No girls on the Internet. It works on the same principle that makes everyone an overweight neckbeard fedora living in their mum’s basement, even if they don’t have a mum.”
“So, what’s Chris short for?”
Chris grinned, not looking at Jan, in what might have been shyness or pride. “That’s a secret.”
“I’m your friend.”
“I doubt there’s anything in the Official Human Manual that says you’ve got to tell your friends what your name stands for.”
“The Official Human Manual,” Chris said wistfully. “It’s what I call that book that everyone else seemed to get when they were born. They left me out, but I’m onto you guys. It’s got all that useful stuff in it, you know—like the maximum length of time to make eye contact with people if you don’t want them to freak out and start calling the cops on you. Or why you get in trouble for not following instructions but still get in trouble even when you do. Or why everyone never even seems to question the rule that says you have to eat and drink or you’ll die. I mean, that’s sinister stuff, but no one seems to notice, so maybe they have a reason for it that no one told me. I figured maybe they read it in a manual somewhere.”
Chris fiddled with a pen, her eyes taking on that far-off gaze that Jan had come to recognise.
“Did you get the Manual?” Chris asked flatly, still looking at the pen in furrowed concentration, her expression tinged with a strange sadness.
Chris nodded, slowly, and then her mind escaped through the twirling pen into another world, and she didn’t seem to hear anything Jan said after that.
Sometimes, Jan feels an intense urge to grab Chris around the neck and scream at her until she breaks out of her stupid little bubble to recognize that there’s a world out here, with people in it, living and dying outside of her distant, mildly-baffled observation.
But people aren’t supposed to do that to their friends.
Seven more clients come their way, four with the food plan until they stop offering it to new clients and reduce their monthly fee to $7k. Jan could not bear to keep eating the same bland meals over and over again.
Her days blend into a haze of non-stop exercise and travel, trying to salvage as much sleep as she can lest clients complain that her body is always tired. Chris drives her from one home to the next and spends the two hours with Jan’s body. Watching it. Keeping it safe.
The money piles up in their accounts. Jan gets a double share, and the growing monthly statements provide comfort in those times when she thinks she might want to quit—despairing at the rapidly deteriorating state of her health, weathering the judgemental stares and snide comments from friends and family, tolerating the whispers, the pitiful head shakes, her doctor’s concerns.
“What’s going on, Jan?” her doctor asks. “You’ve always been such a health nut. Is everything all right?”
Jan shrugs. “It’s just work,” she says truthfully, and leaves it at that.
Yet the face that greets her each morning in the bathroom mirror is increasingly that of a stranger, one of the two young women she’s become used to seeing flit in and out of the rooms where she works out, or lazing comfortably in a corner, smiling to see her struggling efforts, unspoken taunts sparkling in those eyes.
It becomes a relief each day to escape herself. Her hard work pays off in the other bodies she inhabits: losing their fat and building their muscles, watching them slowly transform from day to day. She falls in love with their increasingly toned physiques, the healthy ease of their movements, their growing strength and energy, that pervasive sense of wellness and peace. She sees some of those same bodies appear on magazine covers and TV, mingling with the rest of society’s elites, gushingly praised for how good they look these days (“What’s your secret?” tabloid reporters beg to know), and feels an uncommon pride.
Client 5 requests jogs around the neighbourhood. One day, halfway through a lap, Jan finds herself slowing his body to a breathless stop in the twilight. The street ahead lies straight and empty, flanked by an eternity of white terraced houses steady and calm beneath the greying evening sky. Luxury cars sit parked in broad driveways, bicycles safe behind gates, leaning by koi ponds.
Jan feels the sudden urge to run wildly down that road. Something inside her screams for freedom—for escape—to keep running until she runs out of breath and exhaustion drives red to cloud her vision, to keep running until even the all-reaching grasp of the Internet fails at last and throws her rudely from this burdensome cage of flesh out into the weightless ether; because only then maybe, finally, she will find herself.
Jan raises Client 5’s hands to Client 5’s eyes. She wonders what it is that makes these hands any less hers than her own.
“Oh shit,” Chris said.
It was the first time Jan had ever heard her swear. But it was with Jan’s voice, and it was her own face that Jan saw lit up in awestruck excitement on the other side of the bedroom, holding her hands before her face and turning them back and forth. “This is it. This is the real deal. Jan!”
It was the 59th test. The last few attempts had failed in many small ways: one-sided transfers, syncs that lagged and disrupted that crucial sense of presence, mis-mapped senses that turned vision into smell and taste into music in synaesthetic incoherence, and that frightening time all her senses winked out and left her in an insensible void panicking and desperately hoping the same hadn’t happened to Chris and trapped them both in nothingness. But with this test, the final test, Jan knew they had succeeded the moment the program executed and Chris’ body became her own, feeling as natural as though she had been born with it. For the first time, the illusion was flawless.
It should not have felt this normal, seeing her body call her name and bound over with a delighted grin on its face to grab her in a hug. Even Chris had never been that exuberant, but the success and the freedom of another body seemed to have liberated her.
“Great,” Jan said with a weak smile, hearing Chris’ voice as she spoke. She was unsettled by the sight of her own neck, her waves of long black hair tickling her nose, her strong arms wrapped around her in Chris’ smaller body and squeezing her against herself. The shape of her teeth against her tongue was distractedly unfamiliar; everything was unfamiliar, from the short mess of hair on her head to the retro band T-shirt and skinny jeans on her legs. Her disoriented mind fixated on that: she was wearing Chris’ clothes, and that didn’t make sense because Jan was taller, stronger, bigger, and they would never fit. But here she was.
“We should go somewhere. Hang out for a while. See if the sync holds up,” Chris rambled, releasing her abruptly from the hug, that distant gaze looking so wrong on her face. “We need to check for any long-term effects. See if any of our friends thinks we’re acting strange. . . We should go before my dad gets back.”
Jan barely heard what Chris was saying, staring at her body as it talked, feeling uncomfortably like a stranger to herself. Numbly, she made her way to the other side of the room, every sensation new and strange. In the bedroom mirror, Chris’ reflection looked curiously back at her. Her face turned when she did, but her eyes were no more readable than before.
How many times had she wondered what really went on in that head? Now, staring out from behind those eyes, she was just as lost as before.
“When do we stop?” Jan asks Chris one night as they drive back to Jan’s apartment from the day’s last client.
“When we’ve earned two million dollars. You’ll have most of it, but I’m cool with that. You deserve it so much.”
+ programs > accessories > calculator Input: (4 x 10000 + 3 x 7000) x 12 Result: 732000 Input: 2000000 / 732000 Result: 2.732240437 > exit
“Three years,” Jan says.
“Yeah, about there.”
The red lights turn green and Chris guns the accelerator. They pass through tree-lined streets dividing tall rows of HDB apartment blocks shading them from the stars.
“I’m tired,” Jan says quietly.
“I thought that last client napped all the way through.”
“No, mentally. I don’t know how much longer I can do this.” Jan stares out the window. “Some days I don’t even know who I am anymore.”
“Why not?” Chris asks.
“I spend too much time being other people.”
“It’s just their bodies. You’re still you.”
Billboards flash at them as they drive. Jan wonders what it would be like to have the bodies in those ads. They look so happy. They are so beautiful. But then, so is she for several hours a day, model-worthy frame clad in designer sportswear, using top-of-the-line equipment, walking through expansive homes, surrounded by all the trappings of the rich and sometimes famous.
“You know, I always assumed we’d be splitting the job. You were so excited that first time the swap worked. What gives?”
They turn into the car park and into a parking lot. Chris kills the engine. They sit there quietly, staring out the windshield past their reflections to the night-lit street.
“I’ll do it,” Chris says eventually. “I’ll take half, you take half. Same for the cash. We’ll take turns with the car.”
Jan nods. “Deal.”
Chris unlocks the doors. “I’ll take first shift tomorrow. Sleep well.”
“Thanks, Chris. You too.”
Chris gazes after Jan’s receding reflection in the windshield. “I’ll sleep when I sleep.”
They have the app downloaded into each of their headsets and executable at a mental touch of a button. They split up each day to work, taking on six clients each, and rescheduling the four meal plans between them so they’ll always know where their bodies are. It’s easiest when they’re already at the client’s house and can have a meal together, though Jan can never quite stave off the jealousy of watching her body stuff itself with junk food while she makes her way through salads and granola bars.
+ programs > accessories > calculator Input: (4 x 10000 + 6 x 7000) x 12 Result: 1056000 Input: 2000000 / 576000 Result: 1.893939394 > close program With both of them working, they’d hit two million in under two years.
+ Instant Chat request from Jan > accept / deny > accept + Jan: Client 3 asks if we'll do exams for her kid. + Chris: That's cheating. + Jan: $1k for Maths PSLE. Double if we get A*. + Chris: Ok can. + Jan: Cool. + Jan has ended the conversation > end / new conversation / upgrade to Premium Chat for just $9.95/month! > end
Jan gets the phone call two and a half months later.
The long-unheard ring is initially unfamiliar to her. Too much time spent conversing through the headset in various degrees of immersion has rendered analogue telephones half-forgotten mysteries of the past, and there’s something foreboding in the measured, repeated shrills that pierce her apartment just before midnight.
She goes into the kitchenette, takes the receiver off the hook on the wall, and puts it to her ear.
“Jan. It’s me.”
Chris’ voice is unusually quiet.
“You’re on a phone,” Jan says.
“I killed someone.”
Jan finds Chris sitting on the bench at a bus stop outside Newton MRT Station, head bowed and hands clasped together, cutting a lone still figure in the night. Jan pulls up in the bus bay and rolls down the window.
She raises her head at Jan’s voice. The once perpetually-present headset is gone.
Chris hesitates, then gets up and goes to the car. She pulls open the door and crawls onto the backseat.
Jan rolls the window back up and drives off slowly.
“Client 7,” Chris says after a while. “He said he had work to do and left me to the job. I went to get water, heard noises. I saw myself naked in his room; I mean, they probably do that all the time now, but . . . well. I’d never had to see it before. And . . . this one had a webcam. So I committed suicide on his behalf. Now he’s dead.”
They drive on in silence.
It hadn’t been much of a surprise. Chris wasn’t even sure if she cared. She had, from childhood, developed a safe distance from her body and the world; that’s how one stayed safe, stayed sane, no matter what happened. If you stayed apart from the world, it couldn’t hurt you, even if it tried. She had learnt that lesson long ago. But too many injustices went neglected in this world.
She saw the look of fearful surprise and guilty anger on her face as she strode over in his body, her gaze fixed on his, and for a disoriented moment she felt completely wrong, a large man bearing down on a scared girl.
“I . . . I wasn’t . . .” he started, stumbling up and backing into the wall.
“No,” Chris said softly. She closed his open laptop, and heard muted cries of disappointment.
+ Chris’ Files > programs > Control 4.2 > open > settings > Client7
“You didn’t see anything,” Chris said.
+ input > visual > off
Client 7 screamed at the sudden blindness, flailing wildly, crashing a stack of books to the ground and screaming again as one hit his foot.
“You didn’t feel anything,” Chris continued, grabbing him roughly by the shoulder before he fell and further damaged her body.
+ input > SELECT somatosensory | vestibular | interoception | olfactory | gustatory > off
Client 7 felt a tremor pass through him, and then there was nothing: no feeling in the darkness, no sense of physical existence, his hands opening and closing in the air, grabbing at his neck, shoulders, chest, terror spreading on his sightless face and emerging in another scream as he tried desperately to feel something, anything—
Chris held his hands still. “It’s over.”
+ input > SELECT ALL > off + output > SELECT ALL > off
The screaming cut out. Client 7 collapsed into her borrowed arms, Chris’ body limp and deactivated, rogue limbs knocking over a lamp on the nightstand.
Chris took a deep breath and shut her eyes. Five . . . four . . . three . . . two . . . one. Calm.
The weight of her body was surreally light in Client 7’s arms. She laid it gently on his bed. She put its clothes back on with a detached tenderness. She thought about its consciousness, booted out of its physical prison into the horrors of full liberty. Perhaps that was true reality. Existence without manipulation.
Chris considered her options. She could take over Client 7’s life and force hers on him, but it would be a matter of time before he reported her. She could undo the blocks and unswitch them—hope he’d learnt his lesson. But he might come after her. Even if she got away today, he would always be out there, waiting. She might never feel safe again. She had lived too long that way.
She wondered how many people had seen her body.
She felt so tired.
Chris left the bedroom and stood for a moment in Client 7’s living room. Everything was so quiet.
She could leave him insensible. But, no, that would be beyond cruel.
And there was one more option.
She found his keys and unlocked the main door. She walked back into the living room and over to the balcony. She pushed its glass door open with his hand, feeling the cool metal of the handles against his palm, and stepped out.
A breeze was blowing. Chris closed his eyes and felt it rush through his hair.
She climbed over the edge of the railing, grasping the metal rails, wondering why she was holding on so tight.
How do you die as someone else? the whispered thought sped through her mind. The flail of limbs that aren’t your own, the desperate instinct to survive, protect strange flesh and alien bone; the pounding heart still forcing blood through veins protesting with each thud, the urgent gulps of speeding air, regret, despair, half-uttered prayer, eyes opened wide, no time to cry, when you're not you, how do you d—
Chris opened her eyes. She was back on Client 7’s bed.
She turned off her headset.
She got off the bed and left the apartment, and went to find a payphone to call Jan.
A low drizzle spatters the windows. Jan activates the windshield wipers.
Jan almost pities her. Chris wasn't ready for this. Not Chris. Naïve, innocent, idealistic Chris, who spends all her time in inconceivable worlds carved out of abstract philosophies and hypotheticals and profound discourses on the nature of existence, who can find and exploit loopholes in complex computer programs but fail to account for the realities of human curiosity, to whom the human condition is a surreal, odd thing to be studied, not lived, not survived.
And if the truth were otherwise, Jan wouldn’t know. There are some things you don’t have to tell your friends.
“We need to call this off,” Chris says. “They . . . they might find me if I go online again. Arrest me for homicide. If they investigate they’ll find our business transactions in his email. I forgot to erase them before I jumped.”
Jan signals a left turn and steers the car down a side road.
“We’ve got enough cash,” Chris continues, her voice growing steadier with planning, that protective shield rebuilding itself on cold logic and reason, letting her escape into a place where there’s no vulnerability and no pain. “We can be invisible for a while. Ditch the headsets. That way they might forget we exist. Stay off the radar, rebuild our lives. Reclaim our . . . our identities we lost. The kind that will always stay with us.”
Chris falls back into the seat and lapses into silence, watching the wipers sweep the water off the windshield in their regulated rhythm. Back and forth. Back and forth.
One hand on the steering wheel, Jan raises the other and turns her headset off. That subtle sense of global connection dies. It’s just her, once again, in the quiet left behind by the device that had given her a window into so many other lives. It’s just her, guiding the car through rain-veiled streets with the dark outlines of people shuffling along on unknown paths, strangers living strange lives, strangers that could be turned substitute selves in a moment. What would it be like to be them? Truly be them?
But perhaps some things were best left alone.
“You used to asked me what my name was short for,” Chris says quietly, gazing past the water-streaked glass into the midnight street. “It’s not short for anything. It’s just Chris. Chris K. Tang.”
And Jan thinks about asking what the K stands for, but at the next red light when she’s free to turn around, she sees Chris’ eyes closed shut where she sits: one hand clutching the bottom of the seatbelt, her head resting against the side of the door, lost, at last, in the steady tranquillity of sleep.
Jan drives her home.
© 2018 by Davian Aw
Davian Aw is a Singaporean writer and Rhysling Award nominee whose fiction and poetry have appeared in Augur, Mysterion, The Future Fire, Strange Horizons, and Diabolical Plots, among others. He is a co-founder of TransgenderSG.com, and his first published book, Whatever Commandment There May Be, was released in July 2018. Some of Davian's writing can be found at https://davianaw.wordpress.com.