Post-op, I felt fantastic. The PrimaCore spinal implants were guaranteed to provide moderate to satisfactory relief for all types of suffering. The problem was, they shouldn’t feel as good as this one did.
Weeks after the ordeal, and with no signs of appeasement, I finally opted to receive a pain surrogate shunt. The following day I felt little or no grief at all. It seemed surprisingly too effective, but the company wouldn’t question such a positive prognosis.
We had all seen the commercials. PrimaCore Industries supplied these on demand and as prescribed, with already more than a billion users worldwide. Anyone who wanted to feel a little less grief, worry, or stress or who needed a little more love, pride, and tranquility would uplink those disturbing emotions, which were then released inside diametrically opposite neuro-idents. Almost all subscriptions were anonymous—for good reason. But I was about to discover my surrogate’s identity.
Years ago, the industry permitted people to exchange online messages with their pain surrogates, so each could benefit the most from the other’s vices like a masochist to their sadist. But ethical concerns arose when those relationships proceeded beyond the superficial. Users readily accepted the illusion that they were meant for each other as their grooves fit easily into the other’s longings—and the voids they desperately needed to fill. But after the first surrogate-associated homicide, the anonymity clause was added to all membership agreements. I had ratified mine only weeks ago. At that point, I couldn’t have cared less about my pain surrogate’s identity.
But I did now.
I started having vivid memories of my little brother, memories that could only have come from the murderer’s perspective. The images I saw weren’t through my eyes; they couldn’t have been. With the help of police-confiscated security footage, I discovered that my highly detailed dreams coincided with the horrendous crime. A man had been watching Bill when he went to school every morning, waiting in his car on the edge of the mall parking lot, chain-smoking throughout the schoolchildren’s routine. I saw my little Bill walking past, kicking pebbles as he trotted to school. Mantis Monk t-shirt; it was the morning of his death. I hadn’t been with him that morning—I could have been, but I wasn’t.
The dreams disturbed me, not because they brought more pain but because I could hardly feel anything anymore. It was too inhuman. I should have felt something terrible. And apart from the shunt’s efficacy, I thought I had received a little more from the service, something personal between my surrogate and me, which should not have been possible.
Could my surrogate actually be my brother’s murderer? The first time I inquired about that, the customer service representative assured me that it was nothing to worry about, that my mind was connecting events that weren’t associated, events that couldn’t be associated. She concluded by saying they would look into the matter and modulate my signal feed accordingly—whatever that entailed. When things normalized, and I felt some palpable grief, I thought the surrogate issue had been handled. But later I began to feel robbed once more. And when that alien neutrality turned into pleasure—actual pleasure from the absence of my little brother—I couldn’t accept it any longer. Another counseling session with different reps concluded with the mutual understanding that I wanted to feel some degree of grief.
“I don’t want to be an automaton,” I said.
“To be frank, Miss Hilt, we rarely encounter such levels of appeasement,” the rep said. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, our customers are satisfied, but almost never to the degree you report—let alone complaining they wish to feel more pain.”
I wondered whether I was making too big a deal out of the situation. Perhaps I should have been content to find such tranquility following the incident. But I felt too unlike myself. I got a flash of when I was dragged, kicking and screaming, through the psychiatric ward. No one who had gone through what I had would have come out unscathed no matter what they jammed into their central nervous system.
The rep sighed. “Customer satisfaction is our primary goal, so I’ll schedule a rendezvous for you at one of our clinics. We can lower the signal gain, so you can feel slightly more of your . . . natural emotions.”
“I always wondered how you match up everyone so effortlessly,” I said as I got up to leave. “I mean, there are certainly more of some types of people than their neuro-ident opposites. There must be more depressed individuals than, like, megalomaniacs seeking your aid.”
The rep laughed. “It’s not effortless. That analogy is used far too often to make people understand. Personally, I prefer the sexual explanation. The fact is, the algorithms are far more complex than most people believe. They don’t disclose the minutia of the process, not even to us—proprietary protection and all—but it works. And it’s more than just matchmaking peeves. Not so grandiose as to equilibrate psychological disorders, although that does occur sometimes.”
“But you switched mine without much effort last time,” I said, rather surprised by her answer.
The customer representative frowned. “We never said we did that. Anonymity aside, we can at least tell you it’s the same.” I felt uneasy about that. “The algorithms don’t make those kinds of mistakes,” she continued. “Your neuro-ident surrogate is the best match for you. Then we tweak the parameters to each person’s satisfaction.” She paused as a thought struck her. “Why? Did you have a prejudice in the matter?” She opened her tablet-clipboard and, after reading my previously catalogued complaints, answered her own question. “I see. And these dreams have returned?”
“Not exactly, but the texture, the memory; they were more than dreams.”
The rep shook her head confidently. “The shunt connections can transfer emotional waves, subtle feelings crawling over your cognitive processes, but they aren’t capable of transmitting thoughts and ideas. No technology in the world can do that. Someday maybe, but not today.”
I forced a smile. “It just feels . . . off somehow.”
“You’re sure you want your signal reduced?” she asked. It seemed like I didn’t know what I wanted. She thought I needed my signal gain elevated. But customer fulfillment was paramount, so she acquiesced. Through the mandatory checklist on her tablet, I saw her note that she thought I was a potentially difficult member to please.
That avenue being a dead end, I contacted one of my high school acquaintances to ask about ident hacking. He was the RAM-geek type who had been attracted to me. But I didn’t feel the same, and things ended there. Sifting through the contact information of people I hadn’t talked to in years, I finally found who I was looking for. I inquired via private message whether his skills had improved. Apparently, they had, and he could.
“How much?” I asked, my face too close to the webcam, like a noob. I prepared for the blow. Hacking surrogate idents was a booming black-market industry.
“For you, it’s gonna be fifty,” he said.
“For me. Is that more or less than what you would charge someone else?”
“Go on a date with me, and I’ll cut it in half.”
“Fuck. I’m not a whore, France.”
He laughed. “No one calls me France anymore. Feels nostalgic.” After seeing my glare, he changed his tone. “I won’t hit on you, Jade. I promise. Just keep me company for a few hours and talk about old times—who got fat, who got rich, and shit. Nice place, no rundown low-district joint. I promise.”
“Alright,” I replied reluctantly. He would at least bring what he promised—if he could actually get it. Then I cringed. On some level, I felt I shouldn’t delve into it. But now I was committed.
A few days later, he announced he had gotten what I asked for. The name and neuro identity of my PrimaCore pain surrogate.
Prior to our date—I flinched thinking about it—I cursed my complex emotions, as subtle as they were now. I felt exhilarated to finally go out again, though I was uncomfortable about the situation in which I had placed myself. Getting someone to hack into PrimaCore’s registries had serious legal consequences. Hopefully, he wouldn’t get into trouble. I also thought I might have misled Francis, given him false hope. Therefore, I dressed nicely but not too nice. He would get the hint to keep it friendly, or I would leave, with or without my ident.
Arriving at the table, where he was waiting for me, I relaxed with sips of champagne. Laser lights illuminated a stream of fast-moving steam, creating the illusion of walls between the black leather dining booths. The tables were finely polished and rested on marble tiles and underground aquariums filled with neon-colored fish. The restaurant was more luxurious than I expected, and I hoped he would pick up the tab given that I had promised him $25,000. But he was courteous, kind, and looked much better than he had back in high school, or at least he’d learned to dress better.
I could see he still found me beautiful. His gaze drank in my lustrous silver hair and piercing blue eyes. “So, how have you been holding up since . . . since the . . . you know?” he asked after awkward moments of polite greetings.
“I’ve been doing okay,” I said. Certainly fucking better than okay.
“They’ll catch the guy eventually.” He stared at me, apparently seeing no discernible reaction on my face. “The spine shunt’s helping?”
“It’s adequate.” I reddened and downed the rest of my drink.
“But you feel different?”
“I say fuck a lot.”
He laughed. “You’re joking.” Then he refilled my glass.
“No.” I didn’t want to go into too many details.
“Mind if I have a look?” I hesitated, then swung my hair to the left. “Ah, these newer models look smoother,” he said, looking at the protrusion just below my skull. “Fuses to the skin nicely. Following the whole ‘Be who you want to be’ campaign, they really polished their hardware.”
“Looks like a mini-USB port with an antenna,” I said. “Cheesy as hell, but I hardly feel it anymore. Kind of like piercings. You sort of forget about ‘em.”
“Then why all this?” he asked, pointing at the envelope he clutched under his plate, afraid I would sprint the second I laid my hands on it.
Despite everything, I thought he deserved at least some explanation. I sighed “I’ve felt strange since getting it. Can’t really say for sure, but I’ve seen things in my dreams. Extremely detailed things, things that I couldn’t possibly have imagined—about Bill’s murder.” It felt good to confess.
“And you think this guy . . . you think he’s involved with your brother’s death somehow?” He thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I think you’re going to be disappointed. If I had known that was why you wanted it, I wouldn’t have asked for so much. I thought you wanted to swindle and extort the guy like other sly surrogates. Or God forbid, marry him, like that couple in Dallas.”
After biding my patience like a saint, I pulled at the envelope. His reflex was to stop me, but he let it go.
“You know, I really can’t accept your money for this.” I realized he thought this person’s ident would be of little use to me. Getting paid was good, but now he felt like he was exploiting my recent loss. I could see he didn’t want to do that.
I stopped opening the file and looked at him. “This was a risk to you?”
“Look, France . . .” I wished I hadn’t used his familiar nickname again. “I really don’t want to owe you any favors, and you could’ve gotten in serious trouble if caught.”
“Five will cover my expenses,” he said all too quickly.
I counted the spare currency I had withdrawn. Barely $10,000. Unable to afford his full fee, I had hoped to barter, hopefully without my body. I thanked him and continued to struggle with the plastic-fiber envelop. Expenses, I thought absently. He might be buying from someone else too, a long list of hacker buddies trickling down specialties.
He handed me his steak knife. I felt a little ridiculous trying to tear open the sturdy paper simulacrum. The sheet was lustrous and peppered with a very curious-looking font. My eyes darted over the words, but my excitement quickly abated. I let the document fall onto my bread plate.
“Korea,” I said flatly, thinking he had made a mistake.
“I doubt he has anything to do with it,” he said. “In Waymount.”
“You can’t know that,” I replied, suddenly more determined than ever to investigate this myself, despite the distance and the borders.
“I checked his background, Jade. I didn’t want to give you the contact information of some potentially disturbed individual.” France and many others thought PrimaCore members were all deviants to some extent. “It could have gotten you into a bad situation.”
I smiled with some disbelief. “Thanks, but I can take care of myself.” I took another large gulp of liquid bravery. “And what did you find?”
He bobbed his head, meaning not too much. “He hasn’t traveled through the security zones of the Western Commonwealth—ever.” Game over, he seemed to think.
“Fuck, maybe this really is a wild goose chase,” I said. But somehow, I didn’t think so. Something about my situation was unique; I just couldn’t quite nail it down yet. Maybe I could get my security credentials renewed to meet this Korean for myself. But what kind of opposite neuro-ident would fit a grieving girl? And who, for whatever reason, would possibly want such atrocious feelings?
“Look, Jade, I’m holding a party, mostly punks, next Friday. Come by. It’ll change your ideas.”
Punks. He meant RAM-geeks: introverted software geniuses living in a fabricated cosplay universe, fitting the last century’s ideal of cyberpunks. “Sounds like a sausage fest to me.”
“All the better for you then,” he said. Then he bit his lip, undeterred. “There’ll be women too; don’t worry. Brent’s bringing his BFF, and she always comes with her own entourage. It’ll be grand.”
“Well, it might be better than staring into an empty corner toiling at the particulars of my existential suffering—or lack thereof.”
My salmon was much tastier than I would have predicted and our date much less awkward than I had imagined. Overall, the night wasn’t unpleasant, and I was glad I had come out of my hermit shell. For the first time in a long while, it felt a little like how my life had been before Bill died. But that was all an illusion, of course.
Private James Heggard emptied his automatic, recoilless rifle with a smile, laughing as he saw the fear in the Easterner’s eyes. But that wasn’t enough. James shot another clip into the soldier’s torso, sending it sprawling in a different direction than its lower half. Killing had never been so easy.
“Flinch, we ought to call you Trigger Man,” Cal said, kneeling in the trench and laughing with glee as the spent casings rained on him.
“Works like a charm,” James said, keeping his sight over the bridge. The military, with its free MedAid for active servicemen, had prescribed and paid for his implant. His spine shunt, as requested, removed the stubborn and crippling compassion he held for the enemy, which had so hindered his career—until now. It wasn’t practical for him to feel deep shame and regret every time he pulled the trigger. Freedom had to be defended, but he simply couldn’t shake those nasty feelings, his natural disinclination to take human life. Today was D2 of his return from convalescence. The spine-shunt operation had been a breeze. He felt like he had been wounded his entire life without ever realizing it.
“They aren’t human,” his sergeant had said many years earlier when James failed to execute a prisoner in his care. “They’re the enemy.” But James simply couldn’t, in good conscience, pull the trigger that would blow the unarmed man’s brains across the interrogation room floor. His commander had then shot the man. Hesitation in the field was tantamount to being KIA, but that had been murder, killing, homicide in the verbatim.
Freedom was more important than his feelings, James knew, and he was the first to admit he had a problem. So, he was sent on a temporary medical leave overseas to get the surgery. A day of recuperation later, he was on his feet and felt like a newborn killing machine. In fact, he was particularly enthusiastic to get back to his job. PTSD was completely absent, and he was discharged a week later with flying marks on the social integration index. A model success story, the doctor had said.
The military was quick to jump on PrimaCore’s bandwagon after a closed-door licensing agreement with the company. PrimaCore, with their trillion-dollar contract, was to become the military’s first and only supplier of auxiliary healthcare devices.
James felt like a new man, a man who could do his job without hesitation, without clouded judgment, able to selflessly protect his fellow soldiers and the constitution of the Western Commonwealth.
Another enemy vehicle drove toward the bridge from the north. “Check this out,” James said. With a barbaric war cry, he sent two volleys of shrapnel bombs. The vehicle was thrown into the air, the concussed enemy bodies eviscerated like pulled pork. The burning jeep fell into the Oskil River under a cloud of black smoke.
“Shit, Flinch, you’re gonna make us grunts look bad with a kill score like that,” Cal said, laughing nervously. “Take it easy.”
“I’d recommend it for everyone,” James said, ignoring his friend’s jovial comment.
“Sure they didn’t implant you with some reckless, hell-bent surrogate?” Cal asked.
James laughed as he continued to scan the horizon. “It was never for fear of my own person that I wasn’t the best soldier. It was that I felt . . . reluctant to kill, even enemies. I feared for them, not for me.” He thought a moment. “Today it wasn’t lack of fear that got me to ambush them. It’s that I don’t feel Easterners deserve to live. They’re shit to me, vermin needing to be put down for their own sake as much as ours.”
“Amen, bro,” Cal said amidst sporadic bursts of gunfire. “But doesn’t it bother you that your mind thinks differently now? That you aren’t the same person you were before? Besides, what kind of surrogate would channel urges to kill?”
James looked at Cal like he was the weakling now. He always thought Cal was as grunt as they came, but this soul searching was unbecoming of a soldier. “Yes, sir,” aim, and fire were all they needed to know. This introverted bullshit, this “how do you feel” crap, had to stop. He told Cal to shut up.
“Okay, okay, just curious,” Cal said, then pointed over the ridge. James raised his rifle once again. After the napalm flares, the enemy quieted down a little too much for his enjoyment.