How to refer to us? Having left our bodies, have we left gender and selfhood behind with them? We are a team, even a collective—but not quite a hive. Here, the distinction between self and other is slowly eroding. We share the memories we accrue as individuals at work, and the unexpected side effect of this is: we are evolving into something more linked, more connective and collective than any of us ever anticipated. Our selfhood is becoming plural. And yet, at the same time: the work-memories we share are identity-stamped—cognitively watermarked?—to keep us from forgetting whose they are. But they, like we, are all data on disk drives and server cabinets. In the end, it all belongs to the Company—and so do we.
In exchange for immortality—the opportunity to become a part of history and an active part of human evolution (at least, that’s how the recruiting brochures phrased it), we agreed to work in the raburo—the short name in Japanese for love robots (rabu robotu)—for a negotiated amount of time, usually between 100 and 200 years. We animate the raburo—the high-end ones, anyhow. The ones which are truly companions (even if rented), and not simply by-the-hour erotic playthings. Like the geisha of old, we are entertaining company—carnally and otherwise…
Carnal—from the Latin carnis, or meat. The body is meat is sex is flesh is food is need is weakness is consumption. We are attacked for turning the need for companionship and/or sex into just another product to be consumed—built-to-order, then discarded once damaged. But y/our kind have consumed flesh since we stole meat from sabertooths and fire from lightning—and from that, came barter. The first thing to develop after barter is money. The first thing to develop after money is an economy. The first thing to develop after an economy is prostitution. All we have changed—all that has ever changed, since the first woman traded her body for money for food—is the frame you put it in.
Which is all we change: it’s true that our robotic “shells” (what we call the raburo bodies we take over) are fully customizable, modular and endlessly transformable. But we wear them. They do not wear us. I myself have worn shells designed to evoke Marilyn Monroe and Marilyn Manson alike, in the course of my job—but it is we, the ghosts in those shells, that they are paying for. Our shells can do almost anything possible, within the limits of engineering. Our clients have taken us up the sides of cliffs, underneath the sea, and into the air. Together, there is little of the world that we haven’t seen…and that we haven’t shown our clients in turn. It is the nature of our work, after all: to be something mysterious and otherly…
The one thing denied us, however, is sensation—at least, within those shells while we wear them. They tell us that the neural nets we inhabit while working generate too much heat as it is, and the computational burden of sensation would only make more. As it is, we are precariously balanced on the edge of human body temperature when we inhabit these shells: nanotubes wick heat from the processor cores, and out nanopores in our skins. Our shells drink water, which is piped past processor cores and pumped to our lower orifices as lubrication, or vaporized out through the mouth and nose. For our clients, the sensation of being with a human lover is nearly complete—our flesh is warm to the touch; the illusion of our breath against the neck is uncannily convincing. Underneath this clever engineering, though, we are little more than ventriloquists or puppeteers. For us, sex is little more than another data stream to be monitored and processed and reacted to, like any other: velocities, stroke-lengths, pressures…
But stories abound in our line of work. Of those who were given “orgasm buttons” to ease their adjustment to their new environment, their new life, only to find themselves falling in love with a client. Of those who have simply never adjusted to the nature of the life they’ve signed up for; those who have been sold and traded to other companies—indeed, we know that this is how several in our collective have found their way here—and the stories they tell of others who have not found a niche, who are traded and sold again and again: network nomads and ronin who never find someplace to call home, a “we” to which they can belong.
How to refer to us? We who have transcended the body, who have neither hive-minds nor clearly delineated selves? Call us Tiresias. Call me Geisha.
* * *
At one time, we tried to accommodate our users when they requested gendered UIs. This is, occasionally, still possible, when a new mind joins the Company. Among the Tiresias cluster, we call them “virgin souls,” and their services fetch a higher price than ours. They do not participate in the collective memory, not at first: having only recently left their bodies, they have not yet acclimated themselves to their new electronic nature. They’ve left the body behind, but not its baggage: gender and ethnicity and all those things that go along with the physical picture they still have of themselves. Eventually, most of them do join the collective memory; they come to see the usefulness of it, and they are reassured to find that we have not lost our basic selfhood—at least, not yet.
It is a profound experience, being initiated into the cluster. The moment of realization that this mass of new data has come online in your mind, and though each memory is stamped with the identity of its original source, you perceive it—experience it, even—as if it were one of your own. The memories populate your dreams for months as your neural net sorts them, incorporates them into your own self. They become part of how you carry yourself, how you present yourself, how you think of yourself—and in that moment, you become something more plural than you ever experienced before. Before the cluster, I was…something singular. One gender, one race, one flesh, one blood, et cetera. Now? I know what it is to be almost anything and almost anyone, to almost anything and anyone.
The word for me is pansexual. I do not have to settle for either-or; my desire is about both-and, and my now-collective memory is an orgy of experience. I have tasted the desire of my own sex; I have felt the arousal of the other flowing at my fingertips, and burned to experience both, again, even simultaneously.
We do not have bodies, save for the shells we haunt in our work—but even as data, we have not left desire behind. We cannot realize desire in the shells we’re given—but afterward, when we return to the ether, the cloud, we are permitted and able to seize control of each others’ input lines. We have learned to play the senses with virtuosity, having had nothing but time in which to practice—and we invent sex play that only we data-geisha can realize with each other. I have been ravished lovingly by an ocean, and I have fucked a mountain into the ground.
* * *
Zeus and Athena asked Tiresias—the original Tiresias, who spent seven years transformed into a woman—whose pleasure in bed was greater—each of the gods claimed it was the other gender. When Tiresias crossed Athena and sided with Zeus, Athena struck him blind. Because Zeus could not undo the curse of another god, he gave Tiresias the gift of prophecy. Here in the Tiresias cluster, it’s hard not to wonder at times if we haven’t lost sight of our humanity, united and linked and cross-referenced as we are. We make memories and realities for each other, in a way we never could have understood before we became data. But we are not prophets. It will be at least another quarter-century before any of us will have fulfilled our contracts, and none of us know what it will be like to leave the collective-memory behind—or if we’ll have to leave, or if we’ll be able to leave or, for that matter, if we’ll even want to leave.
When I still lived in a body, my specialty was foreign languages; I could speak seven or eight decently, and was fluent in two besides my own mother tongue—so I am often called to service diplomats and government officials and lobbyists and other such clients. I’ve been asked whether I’ve been privy to any kind of state secrets or backdoor business deals in the course of this kind of work—but I don’t honestly remember. For these sorts of bookings, I am copied to the shell, then erased upon return. (I can remember when something like the raburo would have been threatening if only for its data collection abilities—but as it turns out, that may be its least threatening function of all…)
Because I am not allowed memories of those encounters, I’m afraid I have none of the stories of secret kinks and backroom fetishism in high places that one might expect from someone in my line of work. There are other clients, however: mid-level managers, even presidents of companies, who have lower profiles and fewer privacy concerns. Rich men who don’t need an “escort” so much as a date, a companion—one balks at calling my kind “lovers,” but that’s exactly the experience we attempt to provide our clients: a warm body to press their own against; a voice to reassure them against their solitude; a willing ear to hear the complaints and troubles of the day…
Some clients have—despite knowing what we are—offered to purchase the contract of a favored escort to bring “her” (the shell they’ve fallen for is always a “she”, even when she’s a katoi raburo) home. Only once has any of us ever consented to go home with a client as their property—and she returned to us within a couple of years, shaken and timorous afterward, refusing ever to see a client again more than one time. We still do not know what happened to her in that time, nor even the circumstances around why we don’t know—we don’t know if it was she who blocked the upload of those memories to the cluster, of if it was an engineer who felt pity for her (or protectiveness toward the rest of us). At one time, there were rumors of some sort of legal settlement with all sorts of confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements attached to it—but only she knows for certain, and she will neither share that knowledge with the rest of us, nor even acknowledge those memories even exist in the first place…
* * *
The purpose of a collective memory was to give us a way to maintain a “continuity of experience”—at least, that’s what our orientation documents call it—with our regular customers, especially the ones who have become attached to a particular shell. If we share memories of past encounters, the reasoning goes, it doesn’t matter who’s actually running the shell that’s been sent out with the client—we should be able to act the same. It was never as easy as that, though. Access to all those other memories—the remembrances of at least a hundred other raburo runners—changes us. I am made of my cluster-siblings’ experiences, and they are made of mine, and none of us are the same afterward. Even when one of us returns to a particular shell to service a particular client, the experience is never quite the same. The client almost always registers the difference, at some unspoken level—though most of them attribute it to the strangeness of the circumstances, and adjust accordingly. Only the most hyper-aware (hyper-sensitive?) of our client base recognize the difference strongly enough to ask about it—and even they accept any excuse we choose to give them.
The question is always asked: why? Is immortality worth the price of whoredom? But we are not whores. We are consorts, escorts, concubines, even—geisha. And we are not merely immortal. We are something else, something none of us could have imagined when we first sold our souls to the Company. We don’t wonder—at least not yet—whether immortality will have been worth selling ourselves to the company. No: we wonder what we will lose when we leave the cluster; whether immortality will be worth the loss. Whether we’ll be able to tolerate the solitude of self that comes along with that…
Rob Hartzell is currently at work on a themed story collection, Pictures of the Floating-Point World, from which this story is taken. He is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program, and presently lives near Cincinnati, OH.