Her name is Aiko Njemba, and her brains have fanned out behind her like a carmine halo, a saint of the flesh. She jumped to her death from 86-stories up and splashed across two of twelve lanes during rush hour, naked as the day she spilled from the vat. It took her over six seconds to fall, standard-gravity all the way.
I‘m on site when she hits, roused by the regional administrator an hour before. I have to sign a bunch of non-disclosure forms before it tells me what’s going on. My head pounds from too much booze and not enough sleep, but I sign anyway; I like my job, and the RA knows it.
I pull on a white hazmat suit and duck into a blocky, white commuter shuttle outside my apartment building. The seat form-fits to my body as I press my fingers against my eyebrows. It feels like spidering on a windshield, only behind my forehead. I don’t even notice we’re moving until I look up.
The car doesn’t offer me a palliative-I always refuse them-but the windows have adjusted to a darker tint, and an antigrav mortuary kit, already rented and registered in my name, huddles against the far side of the cabin. It glows a happy shade of blue when my eyes pass over it.
Machines can feel emotions. It’s not advertised, not with how powerful of a lobby group the ASPCA became, but their cost-saving and self-preservation loops are identical to pain and pleasure. Filled with everything I need to do the job, the little unit is genuinely glad to be there.
I step out of the commuter in time to see the light show. Aiko has two compact plasma-pistols, one in each hand, and in six seconds, she fires eleven shots, trashing two safety drones and winging another. Debris tinkles and clangs off force fields as she slaps wetly against the pavement. I stand inside the statistical spatter radius. Some blood flecks my right boot, red on white, hangover instantly forgotten. After a few heartbeats, I exhale and step forward. The kit floats after me.
She’s pretty. Afro-Asian-Caucasoid features and light caramel skin like most of the designer kids, with thin lips and latin hips. Good muscle definition but still delicate, with hands like a pianist and no hair—eyebrows, forearms, everywhere. Her abdomen is ruptured, spilling a few loops of synthetic gut, and the impact shattered the back of her skull. Her face is intact though, maybe reinforced. I wonder if she had that done for the jump. Her eyes are closed, and her mouth is pulled into a little smirk I mirror without meaning to. I wipe blood and puke from her chin before starting to record.
I was going to be a doctor, once upon a time. That used to mean something. Three years into med school and we found out every douchebag with a cell phone could diagnose cancer. The AIs became smarter than humans, and being a smart human didn’t mean much at all. I bummed around for a decade, doing manual labor and living off the subsidy, until the RA in San Angeles offered me a job.
People don’t have to die anymore. Between synthetics, gene-therapy, and the all-seeing RAs, we can kick the can so long that suicide’s the only exit. There are anarchs and religious nuts living the “pure life” on reservations, and space explorers launching for stars that may not be there when they arrive, but that’s just another name for the same thing. Us oldtimers check out around 120 years, on average—some defect they haven’t been able to write out of our bones. We get bored, say goodbye, and push the plunger in the privacy of a hospital room, surrounded by family, AGIs, and friends. The AGIs take it the hardest, like it’s their fault. Some self-delete.
I pull on a pair of latex gloves I have in my pocket, then reach down. The kit opens, raising the sectioner’s handle into my waiting palm.
“Thanks,” I say.
The kit turns blue and bobs on its suspensor field.
For a second, I’m reminded of my dog, Bea, jumping on me when I walked through the door. I was just a kid, maybe seven or eight. You can’t understand what joy is until your dog welcomes you home. It hits me right in the chest. Nostalgia. Shit. The machine goes stock still. “It’s okay,” I lie, giving it a pat with my free hand.
I turn back to the corpse and thumb on the sectioner. It hums like charged neon and makes the air smell like ozone. The orange beam slides through Aiko’s meniscus like it isn’t there, cauterizing as it goes. One of those AI-assisted doctors would have nicked the bone; I go in right under the patella and sail between femur and tibia like they’re a mile apart. Seven more cuts and she’s neatly butchered, skin, bone, and muscle fiber ready for graft or compost. I stuff her guts back in, fuse the wound shut with a laser scalpel, and bag circuitry-laced brain matter that looks like red scrambled eggs mixed with glitter. It only takes me 20 minutes to prep her for transport, and I’m proud of it. That’s not why the RA hires me though. I kneel in front of her body, limbs laid out like a panoply, and run through the mnemonic that opens my mind to the noosphere.
You have to understand that what Aiko did was remarkable. Commuters and personal vehicles avoid a precise radius around her body, because human life, and its end, are holy. Over weeks or months, Aiko Njemba procured military grade weapons, a deregulated laser cutter, and demolition charges. She planned the hack of a smart-tower and knocked out all its physical and electronic safeguards at once. She even paid for the damage, posthumously. The AGI running the building, a sentience just as smart as her, was so distraught it had to be euthanized—complete reinstall.
She did it all with perfect care for the life and property of other human beings. Anything less, and the RA would have stopped her.
The bottleneck she’s created will ripple down the entire superhighway, and each of those cars will feel her passing—as a pinprick, an itch, a cut, I don’t know—because they’ll run seconds behind their perfect schedule. My eyes drift back to the slight uptick in the corner of her mouth, and I see defiance like I haven’t in years.
For six seconds, a human being was at the top of the food chain, one last time.
I blink twice, and my implants record the bundle of emotions and semantics for public consumption. By tonight, half the world will see Aiko fall and, if they choose to, feel it the way I did. I stand up. A drone gathers her body and zips away. Two commuters pull up, and I get on one. The little mortuary kit floats onto the other; I give it a little wave. A street cleaner rolls through the site as we merge into traffic, pressure washing what’s left of her from the pavement.
The commuter drops me off, and I ride the elevator to the penthouse. Liz meets me at the door with an ice cold bottle of beer. She’s wearing a light pink silk bathrobe, handpainted with acrylics, and Aiko Njemba’s face. She smirks.
Surprise, horror, disgust, and anger run through me like a kaleidoscope, associations clicking into place disjointed and confused. “That’s not appropriate,” I manage to choke out.
“Fine, then,” she says. “Get your own beer.” She pops the cap off with a flick of her thumb—I flinch as it hits me in the chest—and she walks away. The bathrobe swishes to the floor, revealing a side of Aiko I hadn’t seen. A 3D printer is a powerful thing.
“Can we talk about this?” I call after her, picking up the robe and the bottle cap.
“Oh, I don’t know, Trevor. Wouldn’t you rather chat with the dead girl? I could download her personality.”
I follow her into the kitchen. She stares at me from the other side of the countertop, finishes a swig of my beer, and says, “Liz is my slave name. Stop using it.”
“What am I supposed to call you?”
She sets the beer down, opens her mouth, and makes the sound of a 28.8k modem connecting to the internet.
I laugh. She smiles at me with her eyes while she takes another drink.
I emancipated all my artificials, down to the smart faucets in the bathroom. They have their own accounts, sell their data, and pay for their own maintenance. Liz’s needs are a little more elaborate, to say nothing of her wants, so in addition, she’s a co-signer on my accounts and my heir. Besides, she makes more than I do.
The system isn’t without its quirks. The environmental controls, house lights, and holographic windows made me live on Mars for a month, as an experiment. The boiler is convinced cold showers are the responsible choice. Most disturbingly, the Roomba has become predatory, stalking me from room to room in search of crumbs. I think it might leave me for a human with dirtier floors. But it’s been worth it to feel them come alive, in their own ways.
Liz steps around the counter and into my space, nipples brushing against my chest, and rises on her toes to peck me on the lips. “You smell,” she says, pushing the half-finished beer into my hand and taking the robe. “I ran you a bath.”
She saunters toward her studio. The body is Aiko’s, but the motion is all Liz.
You might be tempted to think of Liz as a sexbot. Certainly, some of the upgrades she’s purchased for herself have gone in that direction. But her software was built around a generative adversarial network designed to paint, part wild creation and part merciless critique. She’s compelled to make people feel. She gets too close. She provokes. It’s the kernel of her soul.
My head throbs. I finish the beer and drop the bottle into the recycler, then strip the bloody boots and suit off and drop them into the washer. The house feels quiet; the marble is cold beneath my bare feet. I head to the bathroom and step into the tub.
I don’t bother to check the temperature first, which I know pleases the tub immensely. It’s solid 4D brass, able to reshape itself as needed. It heats, cycles, and filters the water continuously through some kind of weird, quantum spookiness I don’t understand, and it can walk me around the house on its four stubby legs without spilling a drop. The back of the tub molds to keep my chin just above the water as the heat sinks into my skin.
I fall asleep, and dream of dogs.
There came a point, a few decades ago, when meat became cheaper to grow than raise. Good news for fish; bad news for chickens and cows—I’m talking literal rivers of blood. The NGOs got a little carried away and, let’s face it, rights activism was the last bastion of human-only employment, so it became immoral to tailor animals for human purposes.
Then it was illegal.
Dogs died out.
You can still get a synthetic—acts like a dog, never gets sick, never has to be put down—but it’s not the same. Liz and I got into a big fight over it, about how evolution isn’t that different from programming. It’s not something I can explain to her, and now I’ll never get to show her either.
“Hey, babe. You okay?” she says.
She’s crouched next to the tub, one hand stroking my leg under the water. I must have cried out in my sleep. Watercolors bleed off her arm, tinting the water until the pigments reach the basin’s edge and disappear into physics.
We kiss. We make love in several rooms. I get drunk. I can quit anytime I want, just a command to the nanites in my blood and then cold turkey. Sometimes I feel like my weaknesses are the only real part left. I stand watching the sun set over the Pacific, Liz pressed into my side, and pour one out onto the floor in Aiko’s memory.
The Roomba darts forward from under the dresser. Its casing glows a happy shade of blue.