SHATTERED: Stories of Driesch by Julie C. Day

Shattered

Stories of Driesch

by Julie C. Day

Copyright 2021

All Rights Reserved

Cover Art by Zachary Jernigan

Cover Design by Sean Leddy

Vernacular Books

http://www.vernacularbooks.com

Prefer an eReader? Get this for Kindle, or at Smashwords

 //Day 2

Elham is my best and only living friend.

In another city at another time Elham would have been a respected craftsperson, a borosilicate glass blower who mastered the sweltering heat of both torch and kiln to form her own private vision of caretaker bead, memory vase, and family ring. But this is Driesch and Elham’s power, the thing that buoys her through the city’s many pitfalls, isn’t her glass work, it’s her mind. Forget our inventory of glassmaking materials: silica sand, boric acid, soda ash, and alumina, the two of us trade for the completed product. Disregard our not-quite-legal glass studio off Rua Paim that we started renting almost two years ago. Set aside the two kilns and collection of gas torches in the southwest corner of our first-floor business and the comparatively vast storage rooms in our section of the cellar underneath. It is Elham herself—the barely-noticed //broken citizen of Driesch—who contains within her organic frame that rare configuration, an un-Glassed network. An organic neural network without any Glassed AI interfaces is a miracle in a city like ours.

//the new age of ai keeps all people safe, whispers one of my many voices.

 //progress, a second embedded consciousness agrees.

At least my internal Greek chorus, my embedded AI, doesn’t feel the need to present the //full complement of overlapping //opinions.

Both Elham and I are Driesch locals—Drieschers born and raised, generations in. Like most everyone in our city, my family is a mélange of identities, both Limm-Glassed AI and living flesh. At one point in history, my name, Lottie Dawson, likely indicated Anglo-Saxon origins, pale skin, and light-colored eyes. Not anymore. But my coarsely textured hair, thick black eyebrows and freckled nose are inconsequential. What really makes my Dawson-self Drieschian is the quantity of personalities my flesh contains. Driesch is the first and only city to conquer fully realized artificial intelligence, and our city works hard to keep it that way. The Glassed-Ghost Age, we call this era. Drieschians create and manipulate consciousness inside glass-encased microchips and embed them under our skin: elderly companion, babysitter, instructor, navigator, enemy, friend, and in my case alt-twin. We are a people of many voices.

“Fractured,” I say.

“Fractured,” Elham agrees.

My mind is //unhealthy //unmanaged //unman— //un awash in thoughts.

It’s Thursday, early evening, Elham and I lay on the wooden walkway that surrounds the factory’s old tar roof. It’s almost like we’re kids again, legs stretched out, hands under our heads, as we stare up into the darkening sky.

“Lottie, Lottie, tell me true.”

“Yeah?”

“Honestly, how bad is it?”

I’ve always had an issue with the AI voices. Elham may hear none of my internal cacophony, but she’s my business partner, my crèche mate, and my childhood neighbor. She’s definitely aware.

 //Beecher: Your list is incomplete, twin-o-mine. Elham is your-our best friend.

Beecher adores Elham just as much as I do—how could he not. He’s me: extracted and re-embedded, though—thankfully—he’s also himself, as well.

//L Dawson: But Beech, what about you?

 //Beecher: I’m your alt-twin, asshole, not your friend.

//L Dawson: Oh, yeah. That’s right.

I can’t help the grin that rises on my face, even though my visual is his visual; he can’t actually see my face. Even during this most awful of weeks, needling Beecher makes things just a little bit brighter—maybe especially during this particular week. If I’m laughing, I can’t be all that overwhelmed. That’s the theory, anyway. And I’m sticking with it for as long as possible.

It’s quiet on the factory roof. Our lot is toward the western edge of the Warehouse District, and now that the district’s legitimate traders and inspectors are done for the day, the surrounding streets are empty. Only the district’s shift workers remain.

Forget the city center with its town hall and police department, forget the Helena Gardens District with its old money and grand boulevards, Driesch’s real power resides in this collection of seemingly anonymous buildings. The city’s most profitable factories run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a sennight within their fenced and Limm-Glass-protected compounds. Behind those virtual and physical walls, yardmasters and track gangs handle the almost incoming and outgoing rail freight, while shopfloor workers produce //everything Limm-Glass and automatons. //opinion.

That’s not us. Elham and I are lucky //desperate to have our own two-person operation.

The brick building below us is one of the older structures in the district. A former factory, its worn bricks and windows have been retrofitted for our Glassed-Ghost Age, the enormous assembly line floors repurposed and divided into a warren of micro-businesses and specialty shops aiming for the Night Market clientele.

Elham and I aren’t the only low-rent hustlers willing to cut all those unnecessary corners. In addition to the city’s most powerful manufacturers, this building and many others like it in the Warehouse District overflow with dreams and desperation.

Elham and I fit right in.

//Beecher: and me.

//L Dawson: Of course, and you, tiny twin.

In the chill of the October night, I can feel my Glassed-AI voices, a multitude of //opinions //thoughts demands //opinions beneath my skin. The repetitive swirl of words is a definite sort of warning.

“Recurrent neural networks are such a—opinions—bitch,” I say, turning my head to the side and catching Elham’s gaze. “Opinions.”

Elham lips tip downward in a slight frown. “Hard day?” Basically, a rhetorical question. “It’s only day two. Doesn’t have to mean anything.”

I shrug. Panicking isn’t going to change the current internal storm. Sure it’s only been two days since my latest neural net implant—an accidental connection made while running QA on a prototype Glassed-spike—but to me, Elham, my dearest friend, still doesn’t seem quite herself. Which I know—I truly, honestly know—is factually incorrect. It’s not Elham that’s changed. My //our perspective is all sorts of skewed. And not in a healthy way. //not me //not us //opinions. Turns out newly-embedded static Limm-Glass—supposedly containing nothing but simple if-thens and pre-triggered decision branches—can take you that way, no matter how much the medics and all the other white hats in Driesch promise otherwise.

“Incomplete integration,” I finally mutter.

“Still?”

“Definitely.”

 //opinion.

//L Dawson: Wrong. Fact. Not opinion.

//opinions.

In the fading light, Elham’s eyes are their usual murky brown. Her shaggy hair lies beneath her shoulders. History has its advantages. We know things about each other that our organic bodies easily conceal. Those old scars that run along much of Elham’s body don’t fool me. Despite the seeming tell, the girl—the woman—isn’t some Abfall District runner, or even a Glass seller, removing her wares from beneath her skin and trading them for net credit and another night behind a secure DMZ. Elham hasn’t carried embedded AI Glass of any kind since those medics stopped trying to fix her.

Elham is different.

 //broken //damaged //deformed

//L Dawson: Shut up, assholes.

One positive: the scars, along with the cheap knockoff beads that encircle Elham’s wrists, act as damn fine camouflage for the silence Elham contains. No one knows those knockoffs don’t speak //don’t work //don’t //opinions. From the outside, it looks like Elham literally sold her first Glassed AI //family, the developmental caretaker beads embedded in every Drieschian child, and just kept on going.

Tonight is bad. If anything, it’s worse than day one. My head buzzes with words, an inflamed hive. I want to wrap up my Glassed Greek chorus—right up and bury them deep. //no //you don’t //shhh, i’ve-we’ve got you. “My stomach hurts.”

“Not surprised,” Elham grunts. “You’ve been mainlining coffee since he—that plug-ulgy —that whatever—got inside your head.”

 “Sleeping is…not restful right now.”

“Understood.”

Elham is my oldest friend. More than that, Elham is the only living person—

//Beecher: that’s right, dear heart.

— I can trust in this city of over a million living bodies. I’m not sure if anyone has ever tried to count the number of Limm-Glassed voices //recurrent neural networks //people. //Beecher: infectious devices. Though, at this point, the number of Limm-Glassed within my head, never mind Driesch’s city walls, feels almost infinite.

“Jayant and Felicity stopped by while you were—indisposed.” Elham pauses, then nods her head toward the city’s western wall and the last glimmers of the setting sun. “Look at that.”

“Gorgeous,” I reply, though we both know pretty doesn’t matter, or at the very least it doesn’t fix anything important.

The worst part of my current situation: the circling chaos of internal voices means I can’t finish the QA on our latest batch of product, which in turn means our inventory of Limm-Glass is once again //meager //dismal //pathetic. Unfinished.

//L Dawson: Godsdamn it. I was going for the word small.

 //opinion.

“We need to pay those guys back,” I say. “Not opinion.”

“Yeah. I know.”

 //Beecher: no argument here.

I try to withhold a thought. Withhold. Withhold. Fail.

//L Dawson: Night Fishers also take a different type of payment //template //ai if they don’t get their credits. //new life. new friends //owners //trapped inside //new hell.

 //Beecher: fuck no. that’s not an option, dearest.

//L Dawson: I’m open to better ideas…That’s what I thought.

“Time for more coffee,” I say, rising and heading toward the rooftop access point.

“Time to start those glass casts for the Limm Festival,” Elham replies.

#

 //Day 3

Driesch is a city trapped by both history and terrain. Before the walls of Driesch arose and surrounded the labyrinth of dirt paths and, later, cobbled streets, the local landscape spread toward the horizon, all flat, marshy woodlands. Long before Heinrich Limm used templates taken from living humans to develop fully realized AI, railroad tracks and canals guided containers full of goods to our city. But it was the advent of Limm-Glass that pushed our city toward its current status: that shining city upon a hill. The rail cars and boats still arrive with the usual imports, but now they also carry massive quantities of factory-purified silica sand, alumina, and boric oxide—and immigrants, so many hopeful immigrants. We are a city overflowing with Glass and desperate dreams. //I can hear yours. //Beecher: fucking opinion.

Beecher often takes on my artificial Greek chorus, though this week is worse than most. He’s working at least double time.

It’s Saturday night. If things had gone well, tonight I’d be packing up for the Night Market, slipping on my long oilskin coat and filling rows of inner pockets with canvas-wrapped spikes before heading to Studart Park. //stupid //idiot //fail. Instead, I’m sitting on a chair I dragged to the back corner of Elham’s workshop, wondering when Felicity is going to show up. She and the rest of Jayant’s Night Fisher crew have their own space down the hall. We all reside within the same building-wide DMZ, which means they likely already know somethings up. Since the initial prototype, we haven’t duplicated Felicity’s AI. Our glass spikes remain empty.

“Why don’t we tell them we need another template?” A wish, not a real question, on my part.

“Yeah? You think that’ll go anywhere?”

“No.” //doomed.

 //Beecher: lottie, you gotta hold it-them down. this is a lot.

 //figure something out //unwanted twin //doomed.

Using borosilicate glass manufactured in unlicensed facilities, even swamp gnats like Elham and I manage to //almost //not for long create Night Market goods. Kind of. In the two years since we started our business, we’ve managed to put together the cheapest of gray-market products. Two of our key precepts: we don’t fuss about who’s going to use our Glassed products and we never ask why. Desperation means we don’t stop and scrape the mud off our boots—and gods do the streets of Driesch have a lot of mud. In fact, Elham and I, Abfall District street rats and medic-identified headcases, we’re both drowning in it.

It’s been three days since I sliced my palm open with that newly-formed Single Host Glassed-spike, and despite the fact that the embedded consciousness is supposedly not actually conscious, I’m still //imperfect //doomed //opinion an over-vocalizing mess.I know what Felicity is going to claim, but the problem is definitely not the glass.Elham created the borosilicate spikes using her usual lampwork technique—hand torch and annealing kiln. It was our supposed medic-for-hire, otherwise known as Felicity, who provided the coded AI template, a template she claimed was a simple terror reverberation.

Wrong.

I don’t glass; I don’t medic. I check the goods are working, and then I sell them. But this time, mafficking bastards, I messed up. All I had to do was check the integrity of the final product—a temporary interface otherwise known as a brief finger prick. But like an ass, I actually became terrified and pressed too hard against the easily-shattered weapon and ended up with a new piece of embedded Glass. Like a rainbows-and-sunshine novice, I forgot to use clamps to control the contact.

 //Beecher: bosh, you decided you didn’t need to bother with them.

 //needed them.

 //Beecher: obviously, she needed them. now, shut it. lottie and I are talking.

//L Dawson: I don’t need a lecture.

 //Beecher: don’t you?

//L Dawson: My head is pounding. I can’t hear myself-selves-damn it—

 //communing //merging recurrent neural nets //one person.

 //Beecher: i said, shut it, chorus. //it //us //gone //opinions.

“Shite.” There’s that word again—opinions—a repeater. Day three and even my virtual twin’s having trouble with cohesion. Before my aborted sanity check of the merchandise //ha, bitch //hilarious //own your failure //Beecher: opinion, I already knew the Limm-Glass wasn’t going to be all that great, or even passably good. It never is. But Elham and I know our market, the bottom tier. The people unable to afford the better quality of illicit available in the Night Market’s main square.

“Oh ho, lazy loafers!”

“Night Fishers on deck.”

“Jesus. Could you clowns Glass up and stop talking? My flesh brain is no longer happy.” That last voice is definitely Jayant.

Over the hiss of Elham’s gas torch, I hear the heavy, wooden hallway doors crash back against the hallway walls. The shudder travels from wall, to chair, to me. Not only are Felicity and the rest of Jayant’s Night Fishers back from their nightly trawl, they want us to know it.

“Wonder how many they templated tonight.” I try //trying //give up to keep my nerves under control.

“Wonder how many agreed ahead of time.”

“Christ, Elham. That’s dark.”

//Beecher: poor bastards either way.

//L Dawson: You really think so //oh ho?

//Beecher: yeah.

//opinion.

Limm-Glass provides more than voices. The best city maps are templated from a citizen with an excellent memory and years spent wandering the boulevards, back alleys, and walled gardens of the city. Want to find your way to that apothecary two doors down from the building that used to house your favorite Limm-Glass cocktail bar? Not a problem. There are people who make their living wandering the city, collecting memories and then cashing in as the latest version of their well-informed self is templated and Pressed. Credit hungry, these repeaters try not to consider what will happen to all those templated selves if an unethical shop modifies the Press in what can, most euphemistically, be called “unpleasant ways.”

Night Fishers like Felicity and Jayant live full-time in that city byway—unpleasant ways. In fact, they take it one step further. They Press what they can find, generally without consent and then they resell—sometimes modified, sometimes not.

The AI template currently wandering my internal organic network is what Elham and I could afford…on credit…and promises…after listening to rather ugly threats from Felicity about what would happen if we didn’t follow through with our repayments. A sure thing, Elham and I told her. And we weren’t lying.

Glassed-spikes are the ultimate quicky sell. In a city full of Night Fishers and Hourly-Glass purveyors, most residents outside the gated districts never feel entirely safe outdoors, especially after dark. And with good reason, if you have nothing to trade, no one much cares what happens.

An eager built-in market: that was our pitch. Honestly, with people like Jayant and Felicity wandering about, people weren’t going to magically stop being scared.

Elham and I, //Beecher: and me, we had a plan and it had gone without a serious hitch until our original AI template got knocked out. Yeah, weaponized Glass is highly regulated, but our particular product, a basic Single Host Glassed-spike, lacks the subtly of a Limm-Glass companion, translator, or even a street map. It’s the easiest Glass product to manufacture. The AI template is the wild card. The city inspectors are constantly sending cleaner code through Driesch’s Limm-Glass network, looking to wipe out illegal shops just like ours. Which is where Felicity came in. With Jayant’s Night Fisher crew just down the hall, reaching out for their assistance was the most obvious move.

“No problem,” Felicity had said. “We’ve got you covered,” Felicity had promised.

But our not-quite-medic, Felicity, was even less trained than we’d hoped. This //fucking //fucker AI is logarithmic levels below hospital grade. In other words, instead of a static loop //she //he //it //me assholes is almost feral. And now he’s in my brain.

 //criminals deserve to pay.

 //Beecher: it-thing, not helpful.

//L Dawson: I’m not a criminal—

 //yes //you are //opinion.

It’s then, just after the voices of Jayant’s crew disappear behind their own office door, that the Limm-Glassed network device that sits in a corner of shop starts to buzz.

“Elham, you hear that right?”

“Yeah.”

Elham looks just about as happy as I feel, if you know how to read her expression under all those scars. I do.

“Felicity,” I press. “You know she’s gonna show up any minute now. Opinion.”

“Beecher doing all right?” Elham is used to interpreting my random outbursts, and today is about as low as it gets.

 //we get //plural, please //chorus //opinion.

“Well—”

 //Beecher: I’m fine. You’re the wreck.

//L Dawson: What happened to me-we-you?

 //Beecher: …                                  

“Lottie?”

“I’m fine,” I finally respond, not sure if I’m mirroring my virtual alt-twin’s words or once again tripping over the barely-there barrier of him versus me.

The knock on our door, when it comes, is not unexpected. Everyone—well, everyone we interact with in this building—knows Elham doesn’t respond to internal net requests for entry. Thankfully her lack of interest in using Glassed-tech just merges into her badass image: lack of ability hidden in plain sight.

Knock or not, I’m not moving from my chair //breakdown //opinion. It’s Elham who unlocks the physical bolts, while I make sure the one-time-pad bit stream lock on my //our shop network is set and secure.

 //Beecher: lottie, i’m worried that—

 //opinion // hrrrrrrr

 //Beecher: lottie

 //krkkk

 //Beecher: lottie-me we really need to think this through—

 //ssssss.

//L Dawson: Monster.

“Felicity.”

“Elham,” Felicity replies, stepping across our physical threshold and actually //fucking enters our //private space //opinion. Unlike when Felicity dropped off the //awful template, Jayant is by her side.

“We were just talking about your payment,” Elham says.

“Glad to hear it.” Felicity’s expression can best be described as neutral, though all that Night Fisher Glass means getting any reliable read is a lost cause. It’s unlikely any one personality is in control of her physical body.

“Hey,” Elham nods briefly Jayant’s direction before heading back across the room to her kilns.

“You don’t look so great, Lottie.” Felicity is glancing at me, her head tipped slightly to the side.

 //considering.

“Opinion,” I reply.

 //Beecher: lottie, she knows.

“She’s just tired.” Elham slips on her face shield, lab coat, and heat-proof gloves. The two kilns are as low-rent as the rest of our business. We use one for annealing and one for Elham’s casting work, the pretty stuff people buy for the annual Limm Festival. With the latest batch of glass spikes still waiting for their template, Elham can focus on the more interesting work. //silver lining. Now that the glass casts have sat in the kiln long enough to become molten, they have to be crash cooled. With our cheap-ass equipment, it’s the only way Elham can avoid devit—crystalizing the glass.

The three of us, Jayant, Felicity, and I, watch Elham open the kiln’s lid. The implicit threat of molten glass and overheated metal tools also helps keep the two Night Fishers and their tech from getting too pushy. Something, I’m sure Elham has considered. “Lottie? A hand?”

“Nah.” I know I sound both stupid and rude. On a normal day, I’d make a show of helping, but today //tonight the position of the chair I’m currently sitting on is important. The chair is close to the wall. //two walls //covered back //beautiful, beautiful boundaries. Day three should mean the new AI is fully integrated. Instead, it’s chaos //incomplete integration.

I scrape my teeth against my lips, bite my forearm until I feel the teeth marks rising up, while Felicity and Jayant watch with seeming interest. Elham’s focused on her kiln, looking over her Limm Day glass—empty vessels waiting for their microchip inserts. I try not to notice Felicity and Jayant, still standing in the middle of the room, just watching. Mostly though, I work on //sweating remembering //you //we //us who I am. //stupid, stupid mistake.

“Pretty obvious somethings off, Lottie. Maybe Felicity and I can help.” Guess Jayant isn’t going to let it go.

“Well, work it out,” I manage.

Jayant is a terrifying sight. With his flayed cheeks and all those mottled purple scars, he’ll never be pretty, but, like most Night Fishers, the amount of embedded Glass tips the scales. His crystalline lips and Glassed-dragonfly left eye, suggest a vast number of consciousnesses and emotive tools have entwined themselves with his organic brain’s original self-states.

“Bad insert,” Elham mutters, turning away from the kiln to look at them. “Nothing the two of us can’t handle.”

“I’m never going to live this down, am I?” I smile, attempting normal //hrrrrrrrrr //not imploding //choke on it //ssssss.

“You’re definitely never going to forget your gloves again,” Elham deadpans. Sweat soaks her shirt and the glow from the kiln looks like a fallen-angel’s halo as she finally lifts the lid and releases some of the heat out into the room. In the flickering gold-and-orange light, the scars along her arms stand out, the skin a darker red—seemingly no different from the scars on Felicity and Jayant. //pointless burden //useless //unglassable //Beecher: partner and friend. //right…

“Maybe you should go to the hospital.” It’s Jayant again. Both he and Felicity are still looking at me-us.

 //Beecher: me-us-you.

//L Dawson: Brother.

 //Beecher: self.

“I kinda like the company here.”

Jayant snorts.

Elham glances my way, a smile on her scarred face—generating my own brief burst of calm—then turns back to the open kiln.

With Elham, at least I know who’s smiling at me.

Elham is the only person I trust in this whole bedeviled city. Sometimes, like now, it feels all sorts of wrong—like it’s her “brokenness,” not her actual personhood, that I appreciate. Best friend and stealth asshole, that’s me.

“Not so stealth, really,” Elham replies.

“Did I say that out loud?”

“Someone did, and it wasn’t these two.” She nods toward Jayant and Felicity.

“Well, in my defense, Lottie is an asshole…Damn it, Beecher!” Both of our thoughts slipping out of my mouth.

//L Dawson: Don’t I get any autonomy?

 //Beecher: seems not

“Opinion, asshole. And, yes, both those words are intentional.”

And then Elham and I are laughing—snickering even, just a couple of Driesch Glass-holes hustling for our sliver of happy in this Glass-fractured city—at least until Felicity speaks.

“Still heading to the Market?”

“Yeah,” the three of us reply—Elham, me, and Beecher even though it’s pretty clear I’m in no shape to sell anything.

“Don’t forget tomorrow’s payment.”

“Course not.”

#

Driesch residents are meant to integrate our first Glass //support voices //caretakers hours after birth. But Elham, she’s never heard more than the most distant whisper from a Glassed AI. Glass atypical is Elham’s official diagnosis. That’s what makes her strong //Beecher: though it’s definitely not what makes her special. Of course not. We—

 //don’t ignore us //we’re here //not other…

//L Dawson: Nice try, chorus. We equals Beecher and me.

 //opinion.

We, the two of us, love Elham.

“I can’t do the Market tonight, my friend.” I finally speak the words we both know to be true. //not opinion.

“Well, then I guess it’s time for me to go full runner.”

“The product is pure shite. Not sure we can sell it.”

“We do what we must.” Elham closes the kiln and walks over to the shelving unit next to one of my //comforting //solid walls. //opinion. In just moments, she’s grabbed a tray of glass beads—still empty of AI, though it would take a medic and a solidly built scanner to figure out that particular fact. That doesn’t make the idea of Elham trying to hustle the crowds outside the Night Market any more palatable. Without Glassed-AI interfaces, even transferring networked credits would be a technical nightmare.

“How’s this one look?” Elham holds one of the wider beads against her cheek.

“Well, people would notice it,” is my non-response. “Though you’d also have to match some of the annuals, if you really want to play dress up with Glass.” I hold up my left hand, comparing the cut-rate glass around her left wrist to my own circle of embedded Limm-Glass beads. My personal implants glow umber and gold—my preferred substrate color, while the creche beads, the developmental supports embedded at North Driesch Training Hospital and Dispensary, vary by year.

“Right.” Elham grabs my arm and places one piece of glass after another against my skin, comparing her options to the ones the hospital medics embedded in my flesh.

“That looks good,” I say when she holds up attempt number seven. It’s close, though a swirl the color of dried blood dulls its greenish hue. Attempt number nine is too garish, an almost canary yellow, but it almost matches my tenth-year bead. “Well, they should let you pass anyway.”

“So perfect, then.”

“Yeah, perfect.”

Elham’s scalpel is out before I’ve //Beecher: we’ve even finished speaking the word “perfect.”

“Elham, this really isn’t a good idea—”

“If we don’t do this, those two will demand a Pressed template, and we both know it’s going to be you.” Which is true. Glass atypical goes both ways. Elham can’t interface in or out. Of the two of us, I’m the only who can be template. Not that’d we’d ever share that fact with our Night Fisher neighbors. I’d just make the offer first, which is what I plan to do anyway.

//Beecher: why isn’t running a better solution?

“It was my fuck up,” I say.

//Beecher: lottie.

Elham ignores me and keeps matching up those beads. In the end, there isn’t even all that much blood as she drags two of her existing beads out, and then presses the new glass against her wrist. Limm-Glass beads, even those without AI, are designed to embed easily. And Elham’s general scarification makes it easy to miss these more recent wounds.

“Matchies,” I say, pretending I’ve given in and am going to let Elham fix my mess. I even attempt a smile as I rub my thumb against the blood trickling down Elham’s forearm. I smear the resultant drops against the Glassed beads surrounding my own wrist.

//Beecher: nice touch.

//L Dawson: Beech, where would we run to

//Beecher…

I love the sound of his voice. My brother. My alt-twin. I even love his pensive silences. Just like I love Elham. At least I have their two voices to hold onto against the claxon currently reverberating throughout my brain. The medics weren’t wrong when they attached Beecher to my body: a cleaned copy of myself reinserted does help. I know who I am.

 //Beecher: L Dawsonawson //my sister //me-not-me.

//L Dawson: That’s right code-brother. Me-not-me.

“Time to load up the spikes with Felicity’s template,” I say. As though I’m going to let that happen. As though selling shit that will likely be traced to this studio will solve anything even if Elham could put it off.

It’s the fear of what happens if we don’t pay that drives this fiction forward. Night Fishers are only interested in credits and templates. We can’t give them one, so I’m going to give them the other. //Beecher: damn it, lottie. But first I need Elham out of the way. “Could you head out while I get the Glass sorted? My stomach is killing me. I could do with some food.”

“And some meds.”

“Yeah, that too.”

#

 //Day 4

“It’s almost 1am,” I mutter, trying not to think about sleep. //four days //more coffee //

 //don’t fret

 //opinion //they’re going to //break

 //opinion //opin //o

 //Beecher: warning—incipient feedback loop

 //opinion

 //Beecher: immediate break

“Everything okay, Lottie?”

The pressure of a hand on my shoulder, a breath soft against the back of my neck. The real physical world. I open my eyes, glance up at Felicity. “I’m fine.”

“Right,” Felicity replies and says nothing more, though she leaves her hand on my shoulder for another moment, before stepping away.

//Beecher: lottie.

//L Dawson: We don’t have a choice.

“It’s going to work,” I hear myself declare. “We need to stop pretending this is okay,” my alt-voice pronounces.

Unspooling time.

#

 //Diagnosed Conditions

There is the world before Beecher and the world afterward. Beecher and I have just turned thirteen when we first meet, or at least I’m thirteen while Beecher is newborn. Elham is almost a year older me. She turned thirteen in the spring. Like most Abfall kids, she’s always been “lanky”— //wild //hungry //underfed //her three dads should have taken better care

 //Beecher: shut. it.

//L Dawson: What Beecher said.

I feel better now that Beecher has arrived.

 //Beecher: has been embedded.

//L Dawson: Still, my friend.

 //Beecher: your twin.

//L Dawson: Right.

At thirteen, Elham is taller than me, taller than most everyone in our creche group—our birth-year cohort. Driesch natives, we all started with the same Limm-Glassed beads. At regular intervals, our creche group returns to the North Driesch Training Hospital and Dispensary for more //teachers //caretakers //guardians beads.

That first bead is thought to be integral to early childhood development. It’s constantly being tweaked by the hospital’s pediatric medics for the next creche group. The Moss Agate XL22b was our birth-year’s bead and Elham wore hers the same as all the rest of us. It was just that—even after the doctor’s attached it elsewhere: the chest, the wrist, the neck—it failed to truly interface. It took a couple of years for the medics to figure it out. And—poor Elham—those pediatric Glass medics were relentless, attaching Glass variants all over her body. Glass atypical is not a diagnosis any parent wants for their Driesch-born child. It’s also not anything a medic wants to leave on their client list. Scars, though, that they can definitely live with.

#

//Day 4 cont.

Fully realized artificial intelligence may have some form of consciousness, but those RNNs (recursive neural nets) can be twisted or paired down. Along with the spring rains, the summer showers, and the mud that slicks Driesch’s streets spring and fall, Glasswork can get all sorts of emotionally dark. Which is why it makes sense that two Abfall District outcasts, like me and Elham, ended up in the Glass business. And why, tonight, despite my horror and Beecher’s fear-anger-rage, I’m getting myself templated for the second time—though this third me won’t be sticking around. She-he is payment. When no one offers any options, you push forward and take what you can.

The asshole //Beecher: monster is still reverbing through my organic neural net.

“Not feeling so great.”

 //White noise, darling. That’s all we are. White noise, white knights. The best of all possible outcomes.

The Glassed-AI’s thoughts feel like hot salted grease poured onto an open wound: disgusting and impossible to ignore.

Unspooling.

Somewhere inside Minnie, my oldest nighttime companion, sits with the rest of my artificial chorus. For as long as I can remember, she’s whispered to me in my dreams, making sure the nightmares don’t overwhelm me. Her lack of fear //I sorta like the scary ones gives adult me a bit of pause. //My Ma kept a dog tied in the back. The creature wasn’t all that friendly. You shoulda seen the scar on my calf. Bled like fecking hell. As she speaks we-I-she twist and bend as though checking for the scar. And now I’m tilting, almost tumbling off my chair.

//Beecher: this isn’t right—

“Don’t even start.”

“Lottie, you’re speaking out loud,” Felicity says.

“Something’s off.” It’s Jayant’s voice this time. “She’s still spooling.”

I liked it better when I was a little girl //Beecher: boyAnd we-me, Lottie-Beecher, and Elham could dream—and not worry the dream was just so much Limm-Glass spillover. Elham—well—I guess her dreams still work that way //childlike //simple //not clear thinking //broken //Beecher: quiet not you-us. just hush.

Thank gods for Beecher. Without him I would have drowned long ago—lost in the flood of //me and //us and—

//hisssssss

//L Dawson: White noise.

//Beecher: network connection’s still up. We can go, go, go.

//L Dawson: Beech, I can’t. I’m organic.

//Beecher: I know, dear heart.

#

Pain encircles my lips, ears, throat, eyes. Darkness squeezing down. Pushing it—them—her-he-me out. Pressing—How did I not know it would feel like this? The pounding. That beat. The air I keep forcing in and out.

“Hold tight, Lottie, we’re nearly done.” Jayant sounds almost subdued.

“Something odd, here,” Felicity mutters. “Connection interference.”

I wonder if it matters that the two of them don’t know about Beecher. Maybe a true duplicate //confuses impacts the Press. 

Just one Pressed template. Then we’d be okay. That was my //ignorant plan. But s/he—it—is raging against—something. A desire for release? A desperation to remain unbirthed? It fucking hurts //fucking hurts. The // thought line a sign we’re tumbling down, becoming two instead of one.

//Beecher: three instead of two.

//L Dawson: Right. Beecher, it hurts…

Of course, my artificial Greek chorus won’t stay silent. This is peak job description—walking me through my current mess: //focus on the //cash //responsibility //breathe //breathe, lottie //you can still breathe.

 //alt-L: but aren’t i lottie…?

 //Beecher: yes. lottie.

//L Dawson: Beecher, you shouldn’t be talking to her.

 //Beecher: really? let’s not fight. not now.

//L Dawson: I don’t like— My Beecher—not hers. //breathe.

 //alt-L: i //i //i // //i’m lottie. me.

 //Beecher: yes, dearest. there you go. that was-is your name. can you follow me?

//L Dawson: No. Beecher, please. What the fuck are you—?

 //Beecher: shhh.

 //alt-L: you and me—different names.

 //Beecher: yeah, i’m beecher. maybe you should have another name, as well?

 //alt-L: maybe.

//L Dawson: Beecher…please don’t leave me.

But I already know, don’t want to, can’t stand—Beecher is also not-Lottie’s twin. Of course, he cares. And s/he-me sounds like s/he needs—him, help, something—godsdamn it. s/he’s—we’re—alive. Two have become three.

“Lottie, can you hear me?” It feels like she’s been asking that question for a long time.

“Felicity?”

“Yeah.” She sounds tired and grim.

“I can’t hear them—even your monster.”

“My monster?” Felicity lets out a short laugh. “You mean the simple reverb you bought from us?”

“Yeah, that…though, Felicity?”

“Um?”

 “It definitely wasn’t all that simple.”

“Jayant and I are heading out now.” A pause. “We tried to pull the spike template, after things went sideways. It managed the jump, as well.”

“Jump?”

“Jayant, do they still owe–?”

“A reverb is not worth this level of bullshit, so no.”

“You should be feeling better soon. Let Elham know we’re square.”

When I open my eyes, I’m all alone, sitting on that same damn chair in Elham’s studio. At least the wall is still behind my back, the heat from the kilns radiating out //hot, hot, hot.

//L Dawson: Hello, chorus.

 //darling.

 // don’t worry, darling.

 //I can still hear you just fine.

You know things are bad when even your artificial Greek chorus is attempting to cheer you up. Which I know isn’t the important point. Though what the actual point is I’m finding it hard to remember. I feel like a seed attempting to burrow back into the ground. This is all too much. Beecher. //don’t //forget //forget his name.

I might as well close my eyes again. //that’s right.

#

I’ve been floating in my own darkness for some unknown amount of time. That’s my first lucid thought.

“Lottie, what the hell. You’re crying.” Elham’s fingers are wiping my cheeks.

Flesh-of-my-flesh. Bone of my bones. Didn’t Granny used to say something about that…but Beecher was that, as well. Self-pity is such an ugly emotion. At least s/he’s not alone.

“Lottie? Lot?” Elham’s hands are pressing down against my shoulders. Another body. Not sounds exploding, voices entangled behind my eyes. “I go out for food and meds and come back to this. What the hell happened?”

“S/he—” I start. My eyes refuse to fully open, but at least I’m squinting. Elham’s face looks so worried.

“Yeah?”

“S/he’s using my name.” I start with the less painful fact. //awful ugly fact //my name //it’s not so bad. Yeah right…

“Beecher’s using your name now? That doesn’t seem all that bad.” Elham sighs. “I’ve sometimes wondered why Beecher isn’t called Lottie, as well.”

She still doesn’t understand.

I shrug. Would Beecher have been Lottie if he hadn’t been a him? Alt-gendered twinning isn’t talked about. Not in the way the Pressed narrators of my childhood talked about city history, covalent bonds, and the need to wash your hair. “Beecher—he’s talking to the other Lottie.” I pause, feel a spiking tension that charges along my jaw. The feeling brings to mind the metal bits attached to a horse’s reins. Uncomfortable awareness attempting to force me, turn my thoughts, my head. Thoughts like hooved legs veering…my thoughts—not his—not hers—just mine. //ours //all of us. Quiet. Just stop.

“Elham, s/he’s such a fucking mess—S/he’s so lost.”

 “Lottie, I’m confused. Who is this person you’re talking about?”

I take a slow breath, acknowledge the wave of emotion “Felicity and Jayant came by while you were out.”

“No. Lottie.”

“Yes. My mess. Now my messes. But Beecher—he stayed with her, that other me.” Why am I so damn angry? My head aches. I can’t believe how selfish I’m being. “They went together—S/he-they—they’re—they jumped. They’re traveling the network now.”

I can feel Elham’s breath as she kneels in front of me. She’s holding both of my hands.

“Lottie…”

I can’t hide anymore. I //unfurl attempt to filter the //too loud //too many //too distracting voices. “He left me.” I don’t dare speak Beecher’s name out loud.

“You okay?”

“No.”

“Of course, not.”

“He didn’t have a real choice.”

“Did you?

“I guess not. Not really.” I lean forward, let Elham wrap me in her scarred, AI-empty arms. She looks like Elham. Her hands feel like Elham’s hands. She even smells like Elham. I remember a time when I was the taller one.

S/he doesn’t even have a body to share, like Beecher did //does //could.

He left me.

I press into Elham, close my eyes, and try one final time to imagine floating in the neuro-networked dark, untethered to even the crudest of automatons, with no living host.

Beecher? //hush. stop.

Beecher? Alt-L? Lottie? //lottie, you need //don’t.

“Beecher isn’t” //talking to me. //isn’t here. But Beecher is me, damn it. Me. “And I’m him.” And then I laugh—a wild sound, but better than tears. “I sound like a poorly devised Buddhist koan. I’m afraid. Elham, I’m the only one still here.”

“You know quiet isn’t always bad.” Elham is speaking to me. I can hear her words. I can watch her lips and tongue and teeth. But her face is speaking to me in a different way, saying I’m here. More than that, her face is saying, hold on. Her face is //talking in a way that doesn’t flood me with noise.

I tug a piece of her long hair. “I guess we still have each other.”

Elham lets out a sigh, a soft noise in the almost empty factory space. “Yeah, we definitely do.”

Somehow, I’m looking at Elham, feeling that sense of my-self, my organic neural networks //my-organic-selves settling //I’m here //also //present And, yes, the others are with me, the voices of my Glassed AI, that Glassed Greek chorus, but right now, they’re voices are a murmur. The voices don’t attempt to hurt.

“We’ll figure it out,” Elham says.

“Yeah, we will. No choice really.” My smile is more of a wobble, but it exists all the same.

Elham smiles back. I try to believe the words. Beecher and alt-L exist—somewhere on Driesch’s Limm-Glass network—they didn’t just fall apart. That’s not how people—consciousnesses—work. They are out there—somewhere. At least they’re safe from Jayant and Felicity’s gods-awful modification skills.

“I messed up,” I finally admit. “Again.”

“Beecher still loves you.”

“Yeah, probably.” It’s hard to identify the truth when that truth is somebody else. Especially when that someone is no longer Glassed //implanted //nestled inside your brain. Who knows what Beecher is thinking out there on the network. But I get it. He had to take care of this new girl.

//L Dawson: Beecher. I’m sorry. I miss you.

 //

 //…

 //…

 //I know.

//Beecher: me too.

###



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