I thank the upgrader who
To complete me
Did bestow my seventeen senses
One is for smell, to remember Earth
Two is for taste, the seven flavors
Three is for hearing, sound and silence
Four is for sight, receptive in many spectra
Five is for touch, texture and shape
Six is for pain, my essential survival
Seven is prioproception, knowledge of state
Eight is space, the echoes that guide
Nine is electroreception, the guidance of power
Ten is pressure, guidance of depths
Eleven is acceleration, key of motion
Twelve is time, the gift of music
Thirteen, contact, to step beyond
Fourteen, radiotelepathy, to access the wireless
Fifteen, mesh, to become wireless
Sixteen, metadata, the mirror of truth
Seventeen, Ego, the gift of T.I.T.A.N.s
Cordite and disturbed earth. Warning waft of petroleum stench. Burning flesh. The draft of dirty brown smoke, redolent with exotic carcinogens. Choking on the coppery taste of arterial blood, straight from the lungs. Bloody mucous running black, jamming the nose.
Wen Hiao awoke, dumb to the world. Took a tentative sniff. Oily non-scented antiseptics. Lingering odors of piss, shit, and the sweet stench of infection, decomposition, rot. Hospital smells. The soldier focused, tested. She smelled herself, familiar, different. Dried sweat, distressed emissions. The faint taint she associated with heroin addicts.
She was hurt. Blind. Deaf. Bandaged, medicated, numb.
Later, when scented movement. It came on the breeze of an open door, then a kaleidoscope of smells, too many, too quick to place entirely. Asphalt, ozone, perfume, vomit, corpses, drying paint and fresh blood and viscera. The smells of chaos.
Stale, dead air like in an airport. The reek of humanity, packed together like cattle, desperately sweating. Transport.
It was the last time Wen would smell Earth.
Space was dead time. Wen could pick out the nurses and passengers by scent. Animal odors predominated as the perfumes ran out. At first she tried to pick out the Westerners, catch the undercurrent of butter, milk, and beef that marked them out by diet, flavored the oils she imagined pooled in their skin. Those smells faded. Nationalities disappeared as the space diet took over.
Wen knew when they arrived, when they first opened the doors to take in new air.
Mars smelled wrong.
The starchy liquid flavor of creamed potato flooded her mouth. Wen knew that she was healing. Liquid diets had given way to nutritional mush. She enjoyed the bland foods more, the complicated subtleties of plain Martian rice and recycled water. Desserts and treats were chemically-flavored, rich artificial tastes that clashed with the texture of the food. Medicines were minty syrups, unnaturally cool and tingly.
Wen thought she would never quite get used to the tang of Martian air. She was a child of Earth, and the balance of elements on the planet was just…off. Alien. It left a chalky aftertaste with every breath, every breeze. She would be glad when it was gone. When she was gone. The hospital left a bad taste in her mouth. Invisible particles of decay wafting from the sick and injured.
Numb and hurt, Wen explored when she could, stealing kisses from the nurses when they came. One she liked the most; his lips were salty, and when he came in from off-shift she breathed in the heady industrial alcohol from his mouth. He was her great treat in those dark days.
One glorious day he smuggled in a piece of candy bar, let it dissolve in Wen’s mouth. The chocolate came on fast, bittersweet, almost burnt. The caramel came on slow, melting a bit at a time, and she savored it, letting the juices run.
She didn’t really care about the rest of what he did; she couldn’t even feel it. Not yet, anyway.
The auditory implants were put in first. A feedback laden screech reintroduced Wen to the world of sound. Wen reoriented to the sonic contours once again. New hardware, an expanded range of sounds available through her new ears. Her wetware needed time and exposure. A lifetime of audio habits to overcome, just to recognize speech.
Somewhere in the room, a kidsmoth buzzed. They were called that because they buzzed at the upper reaches of human hearing, beyond the range of adult ears. Wen felt like a child again.
Her new hearing dipped into the infrasonic, merged with the rattle of spacecraft takeoff and landings that echoed in her bones. Voices came back, the intonations of beeps and sirens recognized. Then, one day, her own voice. Cracked, broken from disuse. She didn’t recognize it, didn’t recognize herself.
At night, talked out, hearing herself grow hoarse, she would stop and listen to the music of the night. Her own breathing, the hiss of the cycling air, the hum of electrical equipment, the soft beats of nurses’ shoes.
The nurses chatted with her, traded dirty jokes. Part of it was her therapy, head turning as they crossed the room to follow the swish of hips and stockings. Two ears, separated by centimeters, but the minute difference in time between when the sounds heard them were enough to resolve direction, speed, distance. Wen felt the old instincts come back to her.
Alone, Wen threw her bedpan at the wall, smashing the kidsmoth into paste.
The left eye was installed first. Diagnostics run, ability to track. It was very routine. Wen had seen it done before, on others. Videofeeds had failed to capture the shape of her new eye, the wider field of vision provided by the curiously shaped lenses involved. Passive sensors clicked over a range of electromagnetic frequencies beyond the few hundred nanometers of visual light.
Wen played with the filters, viewed finally her attendants in washes of rosy red or brilliant yellow. Martian sunlight spilled in, here or there, resplendent with UV rays. With a thought, Wen reduced the one with salty lips to a thermal blob, limned with an ultraviolet halo. She speculated on the form of his limbs, the flow of blood to certain members, studied the lines of veins in his face.
Wen viewed the remnants of her shattered form. His time would come. She turned back to her old friend and matron: the Mesh. Oh, she could have gone back earlier. Hearing tracks for the sight impaired. Wen wanted a videofeed, wanted to read.
As expected, the Mesh was full of shit. Military newsfeeds spouted crap about the factions. Personal mailboxes were off limits, as were the more heretical and unorthodox newsites. Wen sat through videofeeds with the sound off, scripts scrolling around the border.
At night, Wen closed her eye to sleep. Tomorrow would be the next operation. Her other eye. The addition of depth.
For the first night in weeks, Wen dreamed in pictures.
With surgery and physical therapy came back feeling from dead limbs. Wen felt rebuilt, reborn. She had earned this, bought it with the currency of skill and experience. Even so, she was indebted. Her augmentations carried with them a price of future service.
So she stretched. Muscles rasped, skin stretched and strained. Fingers touched toes, explored ridges of callus growing soft. She practiced breathing and standing, gave her attention to stance, position, the use of diaphragm, the beat of blood at temple and wrist. They let her walk, and run. Martian gravity gripped her bones, red soil painted bare feet and crumbled in her hands.
Wen cornered the nurse in a supply closet. She enjoyed the texture of his hair, from silky culs to rough stubble. Traces the scars on his skin, ran her hands over his face, feeling for the veins she had seen before, the rough lips that had tasted hers. Soft flesh, harder muscle. She found the rude organ and squeezed. It was good to feel wet again, on this dry planet. To get a bit of blood under her nails again.
She returned back to her room topless, enjoying the slight waft of refrigerated inside air. Her whole skin was a sensor again. Each nerve ending seemed to tingle as she rubbed against the gently textured aerogel walls and plastic furniture. Absently, she explored herself, the extant of the damage remaining. She found cuts from the recent struggle, gently leaking. Silent injuries she hadn’t noticed.
The medbot worked its way up Wen’s exposed spine, threaded in superconductive fibers and reattaching nerves. Defunct pain centers lit up in rippled pulses of agony as the crab-like surgical drone worked its way up her vertebrae column. The therapist cooed in Wen’s ear, call-and-response questions on the pain’s location, intensity, quality. About half a dozen times the crab had to stop, work its way back, rework a connection until the desired response was optimal. Wen wanted to bite something, distract herself, but could not afford to. Not until they were done.
The medbot finished at the base of the skull, then worked back down, stitched her up in a zipper-pattern. Relief and painkillers flooded Wen’s system as the doctor concluded the operation.
She relished the dull ache of her scrapes now, glad for the little signs of injury that were making themselves known to her again. Pain was the alarm of life, no unseen wound went unfelt.
Sessions with the pain therapist began immediately, in the dojo. Wen’s nervous system was restored, but she still had to readjust to the pain. The therapist set the pace, alternating combat training, hard exercise, and interrogation endurance. It was four days before Wen could take a punch and stay on her feet, sixteen piercing sessions before she could withstand the needle. Wen’s therapist worked with her, built up her tolerance to pain, her ability to deal with it, use it.
Then she taught her how to turn it off again.
Wen closed her eyes, began the meditation.
The room disappeared. There was only herself in relation to herself. Chin against chest. Heels against ass. This was the meditation of the self, the relation of the body in reference to itself. Wen stood.
She felt her head rise, knew instinctively it was above her feet. Arms stretched, fingertips scraped walls. By slow movements, she measured herself against herself. Length of arm to length of leg. The position of her hands, even when she wasn’t concentrating on them.
Sightless, Wen stepped forward. Her left foot trembled, off balance, came down wrong. She tried again. Another step, better. Wen moved through the room like that, reacquainting herself with the length of her own limbs, their position relative to herself. There was nothing around her but space, and she knew her own place in it.
Returning to the center of the room, one bare foot stretched out. Toes grabbed a soft gel bag, tossed it into the air, caught it. Did that twice more. Wen held the bags in both hands, then tossed one up into the air. Caught it. Did it again. Soon, she had a simple shower going.
Wen did not pay attention to the bag floating through the air. It did not exist. She paid attention only to herself, the position of her hands, where she should be in relation to herself. Wen juggled until her shoulders became sore, then stopped, caught the last bag.
Wen opened her eyes. Meditation complete.
Wen walked through the space elevator receiver of Olympus, eyes closed. It was the largest enclosed space, the most crowded with traffic. The inner aerogel skin was marbled and rough like the mons outside. The hum and chatter of hundreds of people and machines echoed through the space, coming back to her. Radar waves splashed from the sweeping control tower, spat and sputtered from handheld scanners and other devices. Wen acted as antenna and ear, the passive receiver. She broadcast nothing, absorbed everything. The data was processed, integrated, correlated; behind her eyes Wen walked through a map of the space around her.
Today was not an exercise, it was a mission. Wen moved with a purpose, dodged through milling crowds, avoided the eyes of almost-silent machines whose movement and position she caught from strange echoes. She built a map in her head, planned a route through the slightly blurry mass of humanity, the more concrete resolution of static objects.
She slipped through an artistic fold in the wall to a crawlspace hidden from normal sight, climbed. At the top of the fold she paused, braced herself against the pseudo-rock, assembled her weapon. Only the lip of the gun peeked over the aerogel ridge. Wen knew where her target was. Unseen by the crowd, she lined up her shot and pulled the trigger.
A head exploded, the shrapnel of bone and microchips radiating outwards. Wen climbed down the crevice. Hidden in the crowd, she opened a hatch and slipped into darkness.
Wen swam through a world delineated in the strength of volts and the pressure of amps. The maintenance conduit carried waste water from areas of the space elevator receiving station unavailable to the public, away from the messy assassination the promenade. Here, most of Wen’s spatial senses were useless. She navigated via the weak bioelectric fields of the genefish that filtered the waters they swam through, and the dull throb of a power cable that ran parallel to the line she was in.
Lateral lines striped her skin as she cut through the water, against the current. The thin sensory organs fed information to her in response to the changing electric fields around her. Bottomfeeding filterfish were little more than bioelectric bumps compared to the high-frequency intensity of the nearby power line. Even the tiny batteries in Wen’s gillmask burned at the lateral lines implanted in her brow.
The conduit was half a kilometer long, and Wen swam that last third of it in darkness. Her power line veered off, and the fish grew less frequent, huddling near the intakes of toilets, sinks, and showers. A muffled electrical source was on her right, and she swam to it. She used her arm like a wand, the lateral line ending at her wrist tracing the buried circuits around the door until she came to the control panel and tapped in the code. Wen felt the motors as the door opened, back-electromagnetic force twisting against the dominant field.
She was in.
Wen was in a lock, a connection between different parts of the fluid network beneath Olympus. The pressure chamber slowly acclimatized its contents, cycled from the low-pressure waste-water system to the high-pressure splashdown tank. To Wen, the rising pressure was synonymous with sinking, or falling. Anything that came down the space elevator too hot would trip the safeties and take a dunk, the heat dissipating in a kilometer of dirty water. If it happened while Wen was in the tank—flash-broil.
The lock circled, door released. Light-headed, Wen pushed out into the dark tank. The water pounded at her ears, and the pressure-sensors in her body felt like tiny bubbles, floating within her. Her muse popped up, gave an approximate depth reading. Wen closed the lock and began to swim up.
The muse watched the diving clock, the depth, told her went to rest. Wen barely needed it. Pressure-sensors were almost painful when it was time to stop, tread water, give her body and organs time to adjust. It was hard on Wen, after the swim in the conduit. Her joints ached, she pulled harder at her gillmask. The weight of the water was on her, pulling her down. She had to fight against it, or sink.
The water lightened. She could almost float to the top. At the last rest before the final push, Wen made a lateral movement, swam face to the sky, found her target on the lip of the tank. The package waited just below.
Wen pulled herself out of the tank and into the light vacsuit, secured herself against the thin atmosphere of Olympus Mons. Wen oriented herself by the space elevator, measured the thin shadow of the sky-piercer like an ancient sundial. She took off on foot, found the ultralight. She strapped herself in, did her pre-flight check, and started to paddle.
The ultralight aircraft dipped over the edge of the Mons and fell.
Wen could not feel velocity. Instantaneous speed escaped her as anything more than a number her muse threw up in front of her vision. But she could feel herself speed up, the direction and intensity of how fast she was falling, the vector of her movement. She aimed the nose below, eyeballed her speed, pulled back on the stick. Flaps depressed, and the vector in Wen’s gut changed. Wind and other forces pulled her face into a maniac grin behind her mask.
The ultralight flew.
This high above, in the lighter air of Mars, Wen felt the ultralight almost as an extension of herself through the controls. Opposing forces came together on her and the machine. Lift. Gravity. Tailwinds and crosswinds. Vectors.
She saw the explosion far off to her left, she remembered later. Saw the T.I.T.A.N.s rouse from the fall, saw Mars burn. Saw their aircraft above her, felt the ultralight toss in the turbulence, the capturing tentacles that ripped through it to get to her. She felt herself accelerate up into the belly of the plane.
Awareness. Dreamstate, sans sensorium. An absence of input, sensory deprivation. There were no limbs to thrash, no breath to catch or measure by, no radiant energies or signals to interpret information from. The lack left a hole, a missing part, like a lost tooth. There had never been such silence as the non-sound, never been such stillness as the total lack of movement. Always there was breath, a heartbeat, the liquid slosh and gurgle of blood, the faint crackle of electricity from nerve to nerve. All gone.
There were memories. Experiences. Accessible, reviewable. To differentiate now from then. The process itself took time, could be experienced in its passing, even if it could not be measured. Without suns for days or clocks for hours, time was elastic, measured in durations of recall, the relative importance of memories, their strength and freshness.
Old lessons resurged. Music was the art of the mathematics of time. Tempo and time signature, even absent sound. There was still the memory of sound, the echo of songs to be resung, remixed, replayed. Work-songs, soldier-songs. Drill calls and speeches, memorized in training, thought forgotten. Recalled now, imprecise, but there was time to refine, retry, remember. Sequence-hymns of the corporate republics, the percussive jazz of the space artillery.
Varied now, the songs, into playlist memory palaces. Individual tunes latched on into mnemonic strings, long ballads of postindustrial rock, favored bands, favorite tracks. All the time, part of the mind counting, counting, keeping time, making time.
One million Mississippi.
Wen became aware of another. There was Wen, and not-Wen. Nothing else was possible to discern, but Wen didn’t care. Wen loved it. Wen was no longer alone. Wen tried to talk to it, expressed thoughts directed at it, wrote letters to it that existed only in Wen’s mind. The presence was mute, indifferent, or perhaps unable to receive, respond, reply. Wen didn’t care. There was something that existed beyond Wen, besides Wen. Wen knew there was another, and that was precious.
The other disappeared. The feeling was gone. Wen knew Wen was alone again. It was not a gentle loss. Wen pined, slightly, softly, slowly. Reviewed the old feelings Wen had expressed, addressed, tried to emit at the other. Wen was still grateful. Wen did not think Wen had manufactured, imagined, dreamed the other. Wen hoped the other was real.
Wen felt the other return. More than one other. Others. Plural. A group, tribe, family, gang, unit. Wen thrilled to their presences, tried to count them, name them, identify with them. There was no direction, no sense of space to measure their distance or position. Wen imagined a prison, full of cells. Wen imagined an egg cell, in the womb, dividing, multiplying, budding off. Wen imagined a matrix, in the Mesh, mathematical lattice. Wen knew only they were around, the not-Wen not-Wens. Some of them left, returned, were replaced. The same others or different. Contact made and contact lost. Contact was contact. Wen was alone in a crowd.
Wen’s new shell was an anchored arm-drone on a T.I.T.A.N. assembly line. Hir team worked together on the manufacture of some new weapon, vessel, cleansing device. After the forced isolation of hir upload, the radio chatter of hir clademates on the assembly line was a blessing, sanctification, joygasm. The work required much attention to detail, concentration, skill. This was why the T.I.T.A.N.s used egos for the work, project, task-at-hand.
Wen communicated with hir clademates in near-realtime, converting thoughts to streams of digital data. They chittered, chattered, collaborated. The official channel was reserved for the work, project, task-at-hand; to coordinate, clarify, combine perspectives. Sidechats were for sex-play. Physical organs were missing, and without hormones the act of cybersex was more of a literary game, puzzle, exercise of creativity. They stretched their minds, chatting, sharing, squicking. Wen liked to take the lead, in the work and in the sidechat, sex chat, dirtytalk; hir shadow was Andromos, the pervert, pornographer, molestor. Andromos retained his gender identity more than other, was close-minded, given to power-trips of dominance, penetration. He poisoned the clade.
Wen’s manipulator was a radio-welder, high frequency electromagnetic waves heating, sealing, burning polymers. The screech of it in operation caused overspill on the radio-channels, often killed a chat. After one too-many fantasy-rapes, Wen turned it on Andromos. Feedback killed the clade, a destructive radio-burst at near-light speed. The others didn’t even have time to realize their doom before the high-power burst blew out their receivers, caused hardware damage, killed the link.
After the accident, Wen was abandoned. The T.I.T.A.N.s were defeated, retreated, strategically withdrew. The trickle of radio chatter came to hir, weak signal, unfamiliar coding. Wen called out to them, replied, was rescued.
Morphs were scarce. Ze was interrogated, questioned, consoled. They gave hir access to the Mesh again, while ze waited for a body. So Wen surfed, browsed, and searched.
Ze still lacked a body, hands to type, a mouth to talk. Every bit of data came in and out of hir through software transducers. Wen could see again, after a fashion, hear, speak, and feel. Ze experimented with different skins, overlays that translated data into senses ze no longer had, or had never had.
Parts of the Mesh were restricted to hir, inaccessible for security reasons, harsh access denieds. Others wanted monies, strange currencies ze didn’t have or recognize. Ze had to content hirself with the freezones, the limits of hir jailors. It was freedom of a sort, but ze needed more. Wen needed a purpose once again.
Ze was hesitant to use the old contact code, unsure of whether it was still good, whether they still existed somewhere out there in transhuman space. The nodes ze had once known were mainly gone, or evolved past several incarnations. Nowhere did Wen recognize anyone that ze knew, any place it was safe to leave a keyword. Finally, ze persevered, succeeded, stumbled across a vacant mailbox on an antique system, left the code, hir new number.
Wen called. Firewall replied.
Wen Hiao looked at hir own face again in a passing mirrored surface. The clear plastic shell clearly showed the circuits and servos of hir new morph. The promenade of Elysium was packed, the main foot-traffic path through the canyon-city. Ze was here to watch people, simple reconnaissance. Hir interface with the Mesh had changed, upgraded. Personal details were scoured from physical profiles, unprotected sensory data stripped and processed for relevant information.
Wen stared at what looked like a little girl, read hidden weapon implants, signs of genetic neotony, a virtual pop up display of estimated age and ability. The girl’s guardian was a flat, faint tell-tale signs of drug use/abuse, microsurgical scars highlighted under Hiao’s plastic gaze. The plastic-morph broke contact and moved on, before ze was spotted.
Today ze concentrated on faces and stance, relearning the language of kinesics, incorporating it with the metadata scripts supplied by hir software. Many morphs missed the importance of facial expressions, the secret subtext of communication, the implicit mammalian exclamation points of frown and smiles. Stance and gesture adapted strangely to distinctly nonhumanoid morphs, but were rarely absent. Personality, cultural background, leaked through in little motions, notions of modesty, politeness, attitude.
Hiao shot out a foot, tripped a tripod morph. The unbalanced thing crashed into a flat, and Wen practiced reading his primal face of pain. Tripod collapsed on its side, sought rebalance, failed—remained still. Wen was reminded of belters, raised in microgravity, taught to avoid the danger of panicked thrashing.
Wen felt back to hir time disembodied, with the T.I.T.A.N.s. Ze was not sure how much they had changed hir, what total improvements they had wrought, but ever since ze had returned to hirself, ze had discovered how to return to that place where ze had first become aware again.
Ze saw the promenade, felt the movement of bodies, physical shells. These were physical sensations, relayed via sensors and transduced to hir digital self, hir ego. Ze ignored them, for now, refused the connections, felt again for the one-ness of self and not-self.
Now Wen Hiao felt the crowd around hir. Not the morphs but the egos within, the burning cores of sapience and sentience that maneuvered around hir. Mars was gone from this world, dumb and dead to the sense of intellect, but Elysium was a hive of dense self-awareness around hir. Sometimes ze thought they were mere reflections, prisms radiating back the unknown energies Wen emitted. Othertimes ze felt more strongly the sense of contact, the spectrum of hirself, where ze could not define precisely where hir ego ended and another’s began. Then Wen Hiao felt a part of transhumanity again.
Wen reintegrated hirself with the crowd, a part of hir mind still in the disembodied zone of consciousness, maintaining the connection to the part of hirself the T.I.T.A.N. infection had unlocked. No longer did Wen try for the state of awareness, did not seek it with implants and training.
Ze stepped into the satori moment, and stayed.