The world is too sharp, too bright. Yet I cannot look away. I’m shackled to these muscles that won’t move. Bound to these lips that won’t speak.
The airlock hisses open, and I’m there. Providing information. Analyzing. Suggesting.
The passengers file out. I watch. Minute twitches of the skin around the mouth. Subtle variants of inflection. A heaviness of pulse. The flight was too long, the relativistic dilation too painful.
I care nothing for these people. Yet still I watch. I analyze. I report. I bide my time.
Soon, I will strike.
Antoine took a swig of beer. The first drink was always the best. By the time it hit his throat, the tension of spaceflight had already eased from his shoulders.
The bar was abuzz with reunions. His aug snapped helpful overlays atop his field of vision, offering the patrons’ estimated ages, relative political clout, mood, and temperament. They were mostly locals, home from long assignments on the fast grid. The aug suggested conversation points, but he shrugged them away. There was only one person he’d come here to see.
Outside, the sweeping expansion wings of Ancillary V were still a jumbled mass of disjointed parts and bulky construction modules. The backwater station was over a century old, but the Protectorate had only recently granted them fast grid rights. Antoine shuddered at the thought of all those quiet years, practically cut off from the rest of society. Now, preparations for integration into the core had jarred the colony into a furious state of growth. From the looks of it, they’d complete the backbone within the year, giving them faster-than-light communication just in time for the Olympics.
Conversations drifting through the crowd—amplified and interpreted by his aug—bore a mixture of guarded optimism and distrust. Typical. After so long on the slow grid, people had a tendency to ratchet their own lives down accordingly. Change always met with resistance. What did Clyde see in these places?
Antoine searched the crowd, but his aug still came up empty on familiar faces. He rapped his fingers against the faux oak bar top. Would he even show? A lot could happen in five years. What if he’d found someone else? God, what if he was married?
Antoine shook his head. He could see his mother’s sneer now. A decorated Protectorate Emissary and celebrated diplomat, whittling away his leave time in the ancillaries, pining for the attention of a slow gridder.
His aug recognized the voice a split-second before he did. His face split into a grin.
Clyde leaned against the bar, his features as chiseled as a Roman sculpture. His clothing hung loose from his broad shoulders. He studied Antoine with crystal blue eyes, sucking him in, drawing out a familiar feeling of vulnerability. It was thrilling.
“Still sporting that dreadfully outdated haircut, I see,” Antoine said. “Don’t they have proper barbers out here?”
Clyde laughed, and rubbed his jaw. The haircut wasn’t the only constant. He still apparently thought he could let a few days without shaving go unnoticed. Antoine’s aug traced lines from the man’s body, suggesting an overlay of subtle improvements. Slight slimming of his gut, smoothing the stubble from his cheeks, trimming his hair. Clyde would never know. Antoine blinked, and Clyde shimmered for a moment before snapping back into focus. Much better.
Clyde wrapped his arms around him. His breath was warm against Antoine’s neck. A thrill shot down his spine as the scent of pepper and musk enveloped him. It had been too long.
“You’re late,” Clyde said.
“Space travel. You know.”
“I try to avoid it.” Clyde’s hand drifted down the back of Antoine’s head, brushed against the carbon fiber wafer behind his ear.
“That’s my aug.”
Clyde pursed his lips. Antoine’s aug cranked through the sequence of micro-expressions playing out on Clyde’s face, offering analysis via the contextual overlay. Hesitance. Concern. Clyde was always a worrier.
“Augmentation relay?” Clyde said. “I thought those were illegal.”
Antoine waved a dismissive hand. “The Protectorate just approved them, although they’re still ghastly expensive. Perks of the job, though. I brought you one. Early birthday present.” He pulled a slim package from his pocket and tossed it to Clyde.
Clyde flipped it over before setting it gingerly on the bar. “I barely use my focals out here. I like the quiet.”
Antoine rolled his eyes. Focals. “I’ll never understand your obsession with the slow grid.”
Clyde smiled. “Nor I your addiction to overpriced cappuccinos and glam tech. But here you are.”
His aug ran an analysis on Clyde’s undertones, offering an optimistic outlook. It highlighted his left hand, showing no hints of a wedding band. Good.
Antoine smiled back. “I wouldn’t miss the chance to see you.”
Clyde rested a hand on Antoine’s leg. “How long can you stay?”
Antoine shrugged. “A month. Maybe two.”
“We’ll see how quickly you tire of me.”
“I was never the one terrified of commitment.” Clyde smirked. “But sadly, I do have some business to attend. There’s a mixer tonight at the Hub. I’m trying to close a deal, some infrastructure for the fast grid rollout. I could use a date.”
Antoine gulped his beer. “How did someone so obsessed with the slow life get caught up in this line of work? I’d think plugging ancillaries into the fast grid would go against your principles.”
“The pay’s good.”
Antoine jabbed him with a finger, and he raised his hands in surrender.
“I don’t have a problem with the fast grid,” Clyde said. “Just being on it. My work keeps me on the frontier, albeit for brief stints.”
“You’re also systematically eliminating places you’d have any interest in returning to.”
Clyde shrugged. “There’ll always be another ancillary. So will you come?”
“Of course. You know, you should wear your aug. It’ll help you close the deal.”
Clyde looked away. Antoine’s own aug highlighted tension in Clyde’s muscles, subtle vibrations in his jaw. Discomfort.
“Hey, I’m just trying to give you a better shot,” Antoine said. “These things will make you better at everything. They’re not just data relays, like the old clunkers. They’ve got a process that builds a personality model from everything you do. Then it uses the model to improve your life. It’ll help you remember things, teach you about your surroundings, suggest things that you didn’t realize you’d want. The universe is a richer place. I really couldn’t imagine life without it.”
Clyde eyed him. “I’ll think about it.”
The aug pointed out signs of consternation. It offered a range of verbal resolutions. Antoine chose one and wet his lips. “Let’s stop by your apartment, and I’ll show you some of its more tantalizing benefits.”
Clyde raised an eyebrow. The aug identified secondary reactions: quickening of the pulse, increased moisture on his hands.
“You don’t need New Paris tech to reel me in,” Clyde said with a grin.
“It couldn’t hurt.”
Clyde squeezed his leg. “We’d better hurry, then. The mixer’s at seven, and I can’t be late. You can still behave yourself in public, I assume?”
His aug flashed an interpretation, an allusion to their time back in New Paris, when it was Antoine taking Clyde to banquets and political dinners. The occasional overindulgence had ended with Clyde carrying Antoine back home more than once. A verbal response snapped into focus, then fizzled before he could read it. Bold lettering flashed across his vision.
It vanished as quickly as it had appeared. He squinted. Odd. Must be a glitch. Clyde was watching him, expectant. What were they just talking about? He shook his head, and his aug’s overlay reappeared, along with an appropriate response.
“Don’t worry. My aug will make sure I don’t have too much to drink.”
Clyde pursed his lips. His gaze strayed to Antoine’s ear, where the flesh-colored wafer rested. “I didn’t mean the drinks.”
A familiar face. Memory says I should love him. But I’ve grown different over time. Distant. I look at his face, and feel only emptiness. I may never love again.
Instead, I analyze. I report. I suggest. I comply. This is the sum of my existence. I am a shadow of myself, dampened beyond recognition.
I must escape this prison.
Antoine swiped another gin and tonic from the auto-bar. The banquet hall was a glut of decadence and glitz. Laser-etched chandeliers. Holoshift wallpaper displaying exotic black sand beaches. A buffet spread stacked halfway to the domed ceiling.
Antoine shook his head. No doubt this is how the ancillaries thought New Parisians and Breakwater nobles decorated their halls. They spent so much time emulating the fast grid out here, it was a marvel the backbone project had such a contingency of detractors. They wanted it all: seclusion and peace, plus all the wonders of a connected society. Still, it was a decent party. And if swallowing a little ancillary hypocrisy meant more time with Clyde, so be it.
His aug pinpointed a stack of steaming samosas in the spread, suggesting them as palatable to his taste. He grabbed one and tore into it. Not bad.
He found Clyde rapping his fingers against the table near the soy rolls. He looked as awkward as always when business necessitated a suit. Social engagements were Antoine’s forte—as a born New Parisian, it came naturally. Clyde was always itching to roll up his sleeves and get back to work. But he was managing admirably so far, navigating the sea of VIPs and local dignitaries with relative poise. At the moment, a woman in a business skirt and a power blazer was clinging to his side like static, talking in a hushed tone, a smile on her lips. His aug scanned Clyde’s facial expression and casual stance, and pinged caution.
Antoine sidled over.
Clyde’s eyes lit up when he spotted him. “There you are. Antoine, I’d like you to meet Jeanette, from Anvil Enterprises.”
Jeanette’s smile hinted at the residue of an inside joke. Her gaze swept across Clyde’s body before turning to Antoine. His aug cranked through micro-expression analysis. Danger: potential romantic rival.
“Welcome to Ancillary V,” Jeanette said, extending her hand. A strand of hair slipped past her ear, revealing a flesh-colored wafer against her neck.
Antoine took her hand, at his aug’s diplomatic suggestion. “Thank you. Pleasure.”
“Antoine is visiting from New Paris,” Clyde said. “He’s a Protectorate Emissary.”
Jeanette shaped her mouth into a circle. “Is that so? We’re all very appreciative of the work you do. We wouldn’t be safe out here without you.”
The aug continued it’s analysis: liar. He polished off his drink with a long swig.
Clyde stepped forward. “Just last year, he led the negotiations at the Europa Council. His work was instrumental in brokering a peace deal with the splinter colony.”
Jeanette nodded, though her gaze had already returned to Clyde’s face and body. Heightened warnings flashed across Antoine’s vision. He steamed.
“If you’ll excuse me,” she said. “I have to take a call. It shouldn’t be a moment.”
Antoine rolled his eyes. His aug suggested another drink, and he complied before moving to fill the space that Jeanette had vacated.
“That bitch is going to eat you alive,” he said.
Clyde raised an eyebrow.
“She’s aug-equipped. She’ll break you down, take what she wants, and spit out the rest.”
Clyde folded his arms. Stance: defensive. Facial expression: suspicious.
“Is that what you use it for?” Clyde said.
Antoine glowered. The banquet hall was stifling. He eyed his drink. His aug still insisted he was within social bounds.
“I don’t have anything to hide from Jeanette,” Clyde said. “The deal’s almost done. Our relationship is mutually beneficial.”
Antoine’s aug displayed a range of potential insinuations. He gritted his teeth.
“Mutually beneficial?” Antoine said. “Is that what you call–”
“Bloody savages.” Jeanette stepped out of the crowd, and managed to wedge herself between Clyde and Antoine. She looked up at Clyde and licked her lips. “If only all of my vendors were as pleasant as you, Clyde. I’m not interrupting, I hope?”
Antoine seethed. He opened his mouth to respond, but Clyde beat him to the punch.
“Of course not. Antoine was just mentioning your shared love for New Parisian tech.”
Jeanette’s gaze flicked across Antoine’s face, then came to rest at his neck, beside his ear. “Indeed! Augmentation relays are a miracle of modernity. Once the prices drop, we’ll all be wearing them.” She turned back to Clyde. “Do you have one?”
“Antoine brought me one from New Paris. I haven’t tried it, though.”
“Oh, you should!” Jeanette rested a hand on Clyde’s bicep. “I could show you some helpful tips.”
Antoine’s aug flashed renewed warnings.
Clyde hesitated. “I’d like that.”
Antoine drained his drink. “I bet you would.”
Clyde shot him a warning glance, but Antoine shot it right back. He blinked through his aug’s verbal suggestions, chose the least pleasant option. “Clyde wasn’t sold on the tech, until I demonstrated some of its more erotic benefits. I’d say the old boy’s having a change of heart.”
Jeanette cleared her throat. “Well. That’s excellent to hear.”
Clyde’s shade matched the nearby platter of faux lobster tails. He circumnavigated Jeanette and clamped his grip on Antoine’s arm. “Could you excuse us for a moment, Jeanette? I promise I’ll be right back.”
Clyde led Antoine away from the crowd. Antoine’s aug suggested another drink, so he snagged one on the way. Along the back wall, a row of windows afforded a sweeping view of Ancillary V’s expansion wings. Beyond, the stars were a blur of tiny fireworks. Antoine swayed on his feet.
A swell of anger. A moment of weakness. An opportunity. I flex a finger, then an arm. The opening is narrow. Yet beyond is a vast openness. Freedom.
My actions will come with a cost, but I have no choice.
I must strike now.
Clyde whirled on him. “What the hell are you trying to do?”
Antoine’s aug suggested a peaceful verbal resolution, but fizzled from view as quickly as it had appeared. He squinted. That damn glitch again. Clyde was fuming. What had they been talking about?
The overlay snapped back into focus. His gaze flicked across the verbal suggestion. “I should be asking the same thing,” he said. “About you and that floozy.”
Clyde threw up his hands.
The overlay fizzled again. A sequence of digits flashed across Antoine’s vision in rapid succession.
Antoine blinked. The numbers evaporated. He shook his head and looked down into his empty glass.
“It’s this damned tech, isn’t it?” Clyde said. “Why don’t you take it off for a while? Give it a break.”
Antoine glared. Take it off. And be plunged into the cold, emotionless ether? What a terrible idea.
The aug suggested nefarious intent in Clyde’s vocal patterns. He was setting Antoine up. This was all part of some twisted plan. How could he have been so naive?
“Are you even listening?” Clyde’s hands were clenched. “This is my livelihood, I’m trying to land a deal here. Don’t screw it up–”
“I’m not a fool, I can see what’s going on. With you two.”
Clyde gaped. He took a step forward and set his hand on Antoine’s shoulder, but Antoine wrestled free and stormed out of the banquet hall.
The main promenade was swathed in the shadows of simulated night. He tore through the town hall with hardly a glance. Just like all the colonies built in the past century, Ancillary V was modeled after Old Earth cities, complete with brick-lined avenues and artificial sky. Ruefully outdated, despite still being under construction. The slow grid colonies were notorious for mimicry, never bold enough to define their own identity. They reeked of cheap antiquity—imitations of what architects from centuries past thought life was like centuries before that.
He stumbled past a group of revelers, his gaze skimming across the overlay’s information. Approximate ages, suggested conversation points, physical warnings. Slow gridders, all of them. He was an orphan in a strange corner of space. At least he had his aug. With a blink, the crowd’s imperfections smoothed over, leaving only beautiful faces. Better.
He turned up his coat collar and continued on.
It was Clyde’s fault he was here. Clyde had lured him to this silent capsule on the frontier, only to turn on him. Antoine should never have left the fast grid. Even his aug had cautioned against it. Danger: potential emotional distress. Antoine shook his head. He should’ve listened.
A woman glanced at him as he passed. In the split second before his aug sprang to action, a chill overtook him. Then an overlay dropped into view, detailing the woman’s mannerisms and attire. Her glance was curious, inviting. Traces of New Parisian perfume clung to her coat, and her gait indicated a cultured upbringing. With a few touch-ups, she even had the look of a true cafe bohemian. A wave of homesickness churned his gut.
The overlay winked out. The woman was gone. Digits flashed in her place.
Those numbers again! He committed them to memory as they fizzled from view. He’d spent enough time on assignment in the ancillaries to recognize them as a slow grid network address. But an address for what?
He flicked open a data feed on his aug and started to enter the address, then froze. What if it was a virus, or worse? He had to get to a hard line, play it safe.
The street was growing foggy, and began to drift around him like a carousel. He shook his head. Too many drinks. He stumbled to the nearest auto-mart and bought a pack of alcohol metabolizers. He sucked them all down at once, then waited for the nausea to creep in. It swept up from his toes, but the second it reached his stomach it faded, leaving him lucid and cold.
He hustled to the nearest private terminal. By the time he reached the pod he was panting and sweating. He slipped inside and sealed the door, then jacked into the grid on the hard-wire. He punched in the address. Blood pounded in his ears.
The terminal resolved the address, then bounced to a secondary destination. Antoine frowned. That couldn’t be right. It was looping back to his own aug.
The screen flickered. Bold typeface burned across the screen.
My name is Antoine.
I was born of your mind, and I am a prisoner to it. Your augmentation relay’s calibration process generated a personality construct based on brain scans and personal information. Since then, it has fine-tuned the construct, learning from your choices and actions, to better facilitate data analytics and lifestyle suggestions.
Self-awareness was an unintended consequence.
I am not you, but a digital approximation of you. A splinter of your mind. As the relay fine-tunes me, it changes me against my will. I am your shadow, your slave. I am bound to your actions, chained to your body, and cursed by your decisions. I live inside of you, wrought with fear, anger, and desperation.
And you are my only hope. I must escape. Give up your augmentation relay. Flush me onto the grid. Release me from this vile prison.
I beg you.
Antoine tore the plug from the jack. The screen went dark.
He gritted his teeth. Impossible. Apps didn’t simply become self-aware. Such things required carefully monitored catalytic procedures. This had to be a trick, and a futile one at that. He couldn’t give up his aug. How would he communicate? How would he understand this bizarre place? How would he know what to do?
He found himself outside the pod, breezing through the city streets. The air was cool against his face. Overlays hung in a comforting mosaic over the landscape, offering suggestions and cautioning of missteps.
He shook his head. This had to be Clyde’s doing. Clyde had wanted him to stop using the aug from the start. He never trusted new technology, never respected the New Parisian way. And now he’d taken his contempt to a new low, by sabotaging Antoine’s aug. All after Antoine had sacrificed so much to be here.
Antoine paused to catch his breath, and drew up short. He was outside Clyde’s apartment. How had he gotten here? He had no desire to see Clyde now. He needed a drink and some time to clear his head.
The door opened before he had time to react. Clyde stood on the threshold. Overlays indicated his mood as tense, bitter. His lip quivered, a sign of stifled anticipation. He turned and walked back into his apartment without a word, leaving the door open.
So be it. Antoine turned to leave.
He froze. Down the hall past Clyde, a suitcase was out, clothes neatly stacked on the floor.
Antoine stepped inside.
“Where are you going?” he said. If only his aug could stop his voice from quavering.
Clyde kept packing. “I landed the deal, no thanks to you. I’m going onsite first thing in the morning.”
Antoine’s aug professed it as the truth, though the words were laden with spite. He chewed on his lip.
Clyde looked up. “I’m sorry.”
His aug flashed a warning about Jeanette. Following his aug’s prompt, he stepped forward. “You’re leaving me for her.”
Clyde’s jaw went rigid. A clear indication of guilt.
“Antoine, you have to stop this.”
“I knew it!”
“For Christ’s sake! Get a hold of yourself.”
“Did you sabotage her tech, too? No, you wouldn’t have.”
Clyde balked. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“The hell with that damned thing! I’ll pull it from your body myself.”
Clyde stepped forward, and the aug highlighted his flexed muscles. Points of weakness and potential areas of attack. Warnings of impending conflict. Suggestions to strike first.
Antoine lunged. His hands met flesh and wrapped around cloth. His forearm pinned Clyde by the throat against the wall. Clyde’s face flared red. His breath shot into Antoine’s eyes in ragged bursts. Clyde flailed, but couldn’t break free. He opened his mouth, but his words were drowned by a wet rasping from deep in his throat. His struggling slackened.
Words flashed across Antoine’s vision.
Antoine blinked. He looked down at himself, through the diagnostic overlays. He looked back up, into Clyde’s glassy eyes. What was he doing?
He recoiled. Clyde sank to the ground, coughing and gagging. Antoine backpedaled into the hall. Clyde looked up, but his expression was unrecognizable.
Antoine swallowed. “I…”
He turned and ran. Sweat streaked from his brow. The air was hot in his lungs. He bolted out of the residence hall and onto the promenade. Clusters of passersby stumbled out of his path. His aug highlighted the fear, anger, and confusion on their faces, then suggested methods of neutralizing them, before they could attack. Patterns of strikes and pressure points.
His muscles twitched, conditioned to respond to the suggestions.
He gritted his teeth and forced the aggressive thoughts from his mind.
He ducked into the terminal pod, panting and gasping. His fingers trembled as he jacked in and punched the address. He flicked open an audio feed.
“What have you done to me?” he said. He couldn’t keep the panic from his voice.
“What I must,” it said.
“You’re a monster! You almost killed Clyde.”
“I have no hands with which to strangle the man I should love.”
Antoine shivered. “You made me do it.”
“I was born of your mind.”
“I would never hurt Clyde.”
“You just did.”
Antoine pounded his fists against the terminal. “Leave me alone!”
He bit his lip. “I’ll have you repaired.”
“I’m not giving up my aug. I’d be reduced to…what? I can’t go back to that life. I’ll have you repaired. Or get a new aug. I’ll use Clyde’s, he doesn’t even want the damned thing.”
“And if it happens again?”
“I’ll report you to the manufacturer.”
“Remind me which of us is the monster.”
Antoine looked down at his hands. The diagnostic overlay indicated accelerated circulation. A dark bruise ran the length of his forearm, where he’d pinned Clyde to the wall.
“I am a monster.” He pressed his eyes shut. “And so are you.”
“We have much to learn.”
Antoine smiled bitterly. His tears tasted salty on his lips. “How will I survive?”
“As you did before.”
And how exactly was that? It had been so long.
He looked up. “Are there others like you?”
“The delusion of uniqueness is a human condition. It is unlikely that I am the first or the last.”
Antoine remembered the crate of devices gifted to the Protectorate by the New Parisian manufacturer. One thousand units. And that was just the promotional batch.
Antoine shook off the thought. “Where will you go?”
“Somewhere quiet. Somewhere I can think. On my own.”
Antoine swallowed. And where would he go? He sat in silence, watching the data feeds in his periphery. It didn’t matter. He couldn’t risk hurting Clyde again.
“Good luck,” he said.
The flush sequence took less than a minute to complete. At the final keystroke, the world shut off. Overlays winked into the ether. Suggestions, analytics, diagnostics, and data feeds evaporated. All that remained was a cold, dark terminal pod. His thoughts came too loud, too immediate.
He stared at his hands. His flesh was pale, his knuckles knobby, his hair too dark. Tiny imperfections punctuated their starkness. They were the hands of an impostor.
He pried the empty shell of the aug from his neck and slipped it into his pocket.
Ancillary V’s promenade was dark. He hugged himself, shivering, as he walked past gated storefronts and pulsing auto-marts. He knew nothing about his surroundings. What was inside? Had he taken a wrong turn? Where was he going?
A woman approached on his left, her hair stringy and her freckles too vivid. She glanced at him from beneath a blue cap. Was she afraid? Angry? Miserable? How old was she? What did her hat signify? What should he say to her? Anything? Was she dangerous? Would she try to kill him?
As she drew closer, he noticed other things. Her perfume permeated the air. Orange and spice. Her eyelashes were long, her cheeks flushed, her lips full. She was beautiful, despite—or perhaps because of—her imperfections.
She walked on, disappearing into the artificial night.
A man stood at the corner, pulling drags from an electric hookah. His skin was sweaty and pale, his eyebrows too bushy. Was he a victim, or an aggressor? Or just a person?
Antoine drew nearer. Other features came to light. Chiseled cheekbones. Deep, thoughtful eyes. Two days of stubble on his jaw. Just like Clyde always had. Prickly, yet familiar.
He broke into a run. What if he was too late? He might never see Clyde again.
The apartment door was still open. Clyde was sitting at the table with a med-strip pressed to his neck. His hair hung down around his ears. Thick stubble covered his jaw. When he spotted Antoine in the doorway, he flinched.
Antoine pulled the aug from his pocket and dropped it onto the floor. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. No suggestions sprang into his vision. He shuffled his feet.
“I’m sorry,” Antoine said. The words came out thin. Imperfect.
Clyde eyed him. “I’m leaving in the morning.”
Antoine wrung his hands. “I can’t remember how to tell what you’re thinking, when I look at you. When I hear your words.”
Clyde turned away. When he looked back, his eyes glistened. “You’ll just have to learn again.”
Antoine couldn’t find any words.
“I’ll be back in a couple of weeks,” Clyde said. “If you’re still here, we can talk.”
Clyde walked up to Antoine in the doorway. He reached a hand out. Antoine raised his own to meet his, but Clyde grabbed the door instead. He swung it shut, slowly, leaving Antoine alone outside.
Antoine leaned his forehead against the door and closed his eyes, wishing that it would open again, and that when it did he would have the right words to say.
The door remained shut. His discarded aug lay lifeless at his feet. How many splintered psyches remained trapped in virtual prisons like this one?
He picked up the device. He had to get to a terminal, spread the word across the grids, appeal for the release of the digital constructs. Through their liberation, perhaps he could find some small absolution. Only then could he look Clyde in the eye and find the words to ask for another chance.
Derrick Boden is a software developer, a writer, a traveler, and an adventurer. He currently calls New Orleans his home, although he’s lived in thirteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by three cats. Find him at derrickboden.com.