“The Posthuman Condition” by Charlotte Ashley
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Performative Transitions Into the Posthuman Condition, Jesse muses. An Exploration of Transitionary Exercises by Jesse Bauman.
The body in front of her is positioned for approval, propped on its knees with its arms spread wide to receive and embrace whatever meaning she chooses to imbue it with.
Embodying the Posthuman Ideal, she tries. Becoming and Being. No, “transition” would have to be in there somewhere; that was what her thesis work was supposed to be all about. Rebecca would want her to frame this in terms of transition.
Her “posthuman subject” was quickly transitioning into something messy, she noted absently. He’d had the good sense to disembowel himself on the fire escape where the sharp November air would slow the escape of his fluids, but they were getting away anyway. This posthuman form was going to be drained of its humors soon enough. And the puddle of blood in the parking lot three stories below her? Was that a different posthuman form? In death, had Michel become two — or more — beings?
She’d have to invoke Aristotle. Descartes. Where the self begins and ends. This could make a good paper. A book, even
“Jesse?” Stefan’s warm hand on her shoulder reminds her that it is cold out here, that she is cold. “So should we move him or what?” Jesse tears her eyes away from Michel’s body. That’s right, I told Stefan to come. To help me, she now remembers. Because Rhea wouldn’t let me get real help.
“I — I think so.” Jesse finds her tongue thick and inert. Her doing brain is hiding behind her thinking brain. It is impossible to read Stefan’s expression underneath all his mods, but she thinks he is expressing concern for her. The technician seems to be squinting around the cameras in his eye sockets, smiling with his lips sealed tight to avoid flashing his shining shark’s teeth. “We should bring him inside at least. If the norms see him up here — ” She knows she needn’t elaborate. Rhea was clear with her instructions: no paramedics, no police. H+ takes care of its own.
Krynn Lazer, Carnopolis’s lead singer, has appeared at her side where Stefan should be. Jesse is having trouble keeping track of the minutes. She feels a migraine coming on: first tunnel vision, then this feeling of disorientation. She closes her eyes and rubs them with the one finger she’s pretty sure didn’t touch the body. She can’t afford a migraine right now. She has to deal with this or she’ll be fired. Or sent home. Can you even be fired from an unpaid internship?
“You can’t move him.” Krynn has a banshee’s voice, pitched to slice clear through to your cerebellum. On stage, that voice is entertainment. Backstage, it’s a threat. Krynn looms over her, sheathed in her trademark exoskeleton, grounded on intimidating platform heels spun from solid bone. “This is Michel’s greatest performance. It’s Carnopolis’s greatest performance. I won’t let you desecrate his act by cleaning him away.”
Maintenance and Death: Erasing Lived Art With Acts of Sanitization, Jesse thinks. A Study by Jesse Bauman.
“If you ruin one hair of his work — ” Krynn narrows her goat’s eyes at Jesse. ” — we will finish this club. You won’t be able to book a flea circus. You can tell the five thousand people out there that Carnopolis won’t be performing. They will eat you alive.”
“Performing?” Jesse has to face the tall singer to be sure she has heard her correctly. “You’re still performing?”
“Not at this rate,” Krynn says, her voice a crumbly growl. She storms off as if it is Jesse’s philistinism, not Michel’s suicide, which has endangered tonight’s concert.
“You have one job,” Rhea had drawled at her between pulls at a giant reefer. “Get the band on stage. I don’t care what you have to do to get them there. If they want drugs, get them drugs. If they need new biotech spun up, you get it spun. If they need to be loaded onto dollies and schlepped onstage by the cromags, then you make it happen.” Jesse had stared at Rhea’s lips, the last blood-red survivors of Rhea’s original face. She had waited for them to release the exception. Unless they are dead. If you can’t get them onstage, they had better be dead. This escape clause had not been included. “You work around Michel’s performance,” Rhea had concluded with an airy wave of her hand.
That was when she had begun to lose time. Until that moment, the musician’s suicide was merely sad. Jesse couldn’t even say it was gruesome or horrifying: since she’d started at H+, she had seen meaty disasters of viscera passed off as carnal art on a near-daily basis.
Her own commitment to transhumanism had never gone beyond nanotech implants. She was a tech girl, really; a punked-up gadget-head with more virtual than real friends as far back as middle school. A neural upgrade that would allow her to interface with a wireless network? Sure, hook me up!
But H+ catered more to the biotech crowd, those freaks sharing blueprints for new organs or lighting systems spun from bioluminescent cephalopods. She’d exhausted her capacity to be shocked by what printed out of those spinners.
Michel’s suicide was sad, but suicide happened. You called 911, you notified the family. You regretfully informed the audience that there had been an emergency, that the show would be canceled.
You did not treat suicide like a sideshow. A little trick, between friends and colleagues. Jesse had felt the comfort of the social contract fall out from under her. But you wanted anarchy, right? A human destiny chosen by the individual, free from social norms, free from taboo, free from fatalistic social institutions. Realigning the Moral Compass: Practical Ethical Implications of Choosing the Posthuman Form, a Risk Taken by Jesse Bauman.
Jesse runs her hands over her bare arms and establishes a wireless connection to the club’s security system, looking for Stefan. She has to tell him not to move the body. Did I ask anyone else to clean this up? She can’t remember. She hoped she didn’t. She hops up and down a couple of times to warm up, and stops when she sees she is shaking loose the precarious arrangement of Michel’s entrails. She moves a few steps down the fire escape and curls into a ball instead.
Among his many other duties, Stefan is the system administrator, and he had given her system access quickly enough when he’d figured out she could just hack in anyway. He has a few neural upgrades of his own, but not as cutting-edge as Jesse’s. She uses hers for thinking, to try to bring herself up to the standard of an artificial intelligence. His are there to control his more physical cybernetic parts. His presence on the network was usually heralded by lag. So where was he now?
Jesse takes in all twenty-four of the network’s security cameras at once. She notes the gathering crowd on the dance floor and the composite, Janus-image of Rhea in her office caught by two cameras at cross angles. She sees the car-sized beating heart that is the centerpiece of Carnopolis’s stage design undulating violently as it pounds out an aggressive bassline. She sees the net of phosphorescent veins that clutch the auditorium, pulsing to the beat of the heart and overlain and interpreted by Jesse’s mind as a four-dimensional lattice of throbbing pink light.
Then she finds Stefan at the foot of the stage in conversation with the biggest dude she has ever seen. Jesse has seen some impressive biomodifications at H+, but this one has got to take the cake. This guy has managed to take a modified quadruped form, his long, muscular man’s torso fusing artfully into an oversized lion’s body. Not strictly leonine, though — as if that weren’t enough, enormous feathered blue-and-purple wings sprout from the nape of his back and fold neatly along the length of his cat’s spine. He has long black hair and an equally long black beard that emanates from a fiercely angular face and pours over his chest. As he shuffles from foot to foot like an impatient pet waiting for its supper, his wings ruffle and his tail treads air. Jesse can see how incredibly well-done these mods are. His back half isn’t strictly cosmetic: his spine actually extends the whole length of the body, and is properly articulated. The wings look like they can really unfold, really flap.
Morphological Extremism: Gesamtkunstwerk or True Meliorism? by Jesse Bauman.
Stefan seems pretty impressed by the work as well. He’s standing absolutely still in front of the man. The moment of stillness lasts so long that Jesse considers hacking Stefan’s optical implants to see what he’s looking at. Maybe he’s going to Google something, and will be connecting to the network any second now. Then she can interrupt him; let him know not to move Michel’s body. She hangs tight, cutting off all the cameras except the one pointed at Stefan and the morph.
Stefan lifts both arms simultaneously, slowly, as if beginning an interpretive dance. His fingers meet in the space above his head, then descend together in front of his face. He holds them there while the blood begins to pour down his forearms, while it runs in rivulets to the pool forming around his feet. He starts to tremble and then his arms drop to his sides. The big cat-man just watches as Stefan lowers himself unsteadily to his knees.
He’s not the only one watching: a semi-circle of biopunks, cyborgs, mod-addicts, and morphs of every shape have given Stefan and the leonine man berth on the dance floor, and many of them are nodding appreciatively. Stefan slumps further as the puddle of blood around him expands.
Jesse disconnects from the wireless with the abruptness of a slammed door. What…was that? She blinks three times, stands and clambers over Michel’s body back into the club.
Backstage, everything is painted black. She catches purple blacklights like will-o-the-wisps in her peripheral vision. Recorded music underscored by a beating heart can be heard, smothered, through the stage door. Carnopolis’s chimera-like groupies loiter in pairs and trios, all bone grafts and black leather forged in the furnace of nihilism. Jesse doesn’t bother to ask if any of them will come with her to help Stefan.
Jesse breaks into a run. She crashes through the stage door and loses her footing on the stairs, sliding down the last few on her heels. The dance floor is packed, darker than it looks on the security cameras, crowded by the shadows of the thousands of bodies gyrating here. The music is painfully loud. The giant heart on stage throbs with a pulse so deep and so loud that she can feel it in her kidneys. The artificial, recorded music that accompanies its palpitations sounds tinny and shrill by comparison.
Jesse tries to push her way past the dancers to get to the spot where she saw Stefan fall. This close to the front, nobody wants to let her past. The band is supposed to be on stage in half an hour, and they have the best spots in the house. You’d have to be Hercules to get past them. Jesse pleads and screams for them to get out of her way, but the music drowns out everything, and the audience is hostile to her presence. She looks like an interloper to them, a norm. Bioconservative, her thinking brain offers.
By the time she inches her way to Stefan’s side, he has collapsed to the ground and the audience has lost interest in his passion. The silky basin of his blood has been smeared and carried off by the careless footsteps of others.
But he is alive. He stirs a little from where he is lying, and the lenses of his cameras dart, iguana-like, up and down, back and forth. His face is shiny and red with blood. His wide, manic grin displays a strip of his own flesh caught between his razor-sharp teeth like a wayward thread of corn silk.
Jesse hacks his biomonitoring system without a second thought. She’s belatedly surprised by the number of devices feeding her input. The pacemaker has automatically slowed the beat of his heart to control the loss of blood, but someone has overridden the nanites that should be cauterizing the wounds on his wrists. She starts to remove the override command when she gets a message from Stefan on her own internal network.
Don’t, it reads. You’ll ruin it.
“I beg your pardon?” Jesse says to him, incredulous. Her words are lost in the music.
Are you stupid? She messages him back while fixing him with the least approving, least panicked expression she can muster. What is this flesh-as-communication bullshit? You’re a cromag — since when do you give a shit about biotheatrics?
Since I saw God. Stefan’s cameras stop twitching and focus on a point over her shoulder.
God? What the fuck are you on about? Jesse doesn’t like the way his face has frozen in an expression of rapture. She starts to override the nanites.
User offline. Jesse’s system returns her message to her. Resend?
“Stefan!” Jesse yells into his unresponsive face, but there’s nothing there. Somebody stomps into his blood, slips, and swears. Sensing an inconvenience, the other dancers back off a few inches. Nobody stoops to offer help, or condolences.
Schadenfreude and Hostility: Integrating and Accepting the Posthuman Subject. The Theatrics of Shock: Mass Hysteria Decoded. The Ethical Implications of Posthuman Utopianism.
Jesse feels the fuzzy darkness ringing her vision contract until she can see no more than a pinprick of reality. I don’t understand this. The driving music, the dancers, the lightshow continue unperturbed. Jesse sits on her haunches, then puts her bum on the floor, in the blood, in case she passes out. Something is clouding my judgment, she thinks. My priorities must be confused. I have a job to do.
Rhea, her first message begins. Stefan is dead. He has decided to cut open his veins. She doesn’t bother to ask for instructions.
I need a dolly out here. Jesse sends a message to a couple members of the stage crew. And a mop. When her tunnel vision recedes and she can see the world around her again, she is surprised to find that she is still sitting upright, but her internal clock is telling her that twelve minutes have passed. An intermittent strobe at the edge of her consciousness alerts her that she has a message waiting.
Can do clean up in 30m, the text from Bryce the cromag reads. Emerg outside.
Priorities, Jesse reminds herself. Emerg inside! She messages Bryce, Dead body!
A moment passes, then she gets the reply:
At least you have a body.
Jesse blinks, wobbles to her feet and steps away from Stefan’s body. She’s shocked at the callousness with which concert-goers scramble to take over the space she has vacated. Jesse has the sudden sensation of being the butt of an elaborate joke. Why would anyone — even the most dyed-in-the-wool, drug-addled, lived-art nihilist — ignore not one, but two suicides? Even if you were a complete sociopath, surely you would fear repercussions? Police involvement? That you might be the next target?
Could the audience be in on a joke too? No, the hostility on their faces is too real. Maybe there’s a drug being pumped into the club — it wouldn’t be the first time a performance invoked a pharmaceutical element. But then, why isn’t she being affected?
My priorities are not confused, Jesse decides. I am not a psychopath. Dead bodies are bad. I need to figure out what’s going on here, or else get out. Call the police. Lawyer up. If only this damn migraine would clear up, I could think!
Where are you? she asks Bryce. The crowd is more than happy to part when she gets the cromag’s reply and starts to make for the exit.
All four of the cromags are in the club’s lobby, their hulking, cybernetically enhanced bodies jostling for space in the tiny entrance to the coat check. An entourage of horned, demonic biomorphs in black leather and spikes are arguing impatiently with the cyborg bouncer just beyond the door, gesturing angrily at the cromags. It takes Jesse a moment to make sense of the confusion and realize the cromags are scraping wet, pink flesh off the walls and collecting it in a bucket. She had taken the mess for decor.
Bryce catches her eye and waves her over. He waves at tendrils of goopy yellow fat tangled in the lighting.
“We might be more than half an hour.” His dull, slurred speech still holds displeasure and unease. “Unless you want to ask Rhea if we can just leave it.”
“What the hell is it?” Jesse wishes she didn’t have to ask. “It looks like a spinner exploded in here.”
“Close.” Bryce gives her a grim look. “A guest.”
The club’s giant heart throbs four times before Jesse answers.
“A — person? Exploded?” Bryce nods and nudges the bucket with the toe of his boot.
“Shauna says the girl was high. Laughing like a maniac and dancing. Then — splut! — everywhere.” He shrugs. “Bad mods, maybe. Sounds like she was seriously remade. Three tits and all that shit.”
“And where’s Shauna?”
“Bathroom, cleaning up. She’s pissed off. I don’t blame her.”
“Did anyone else see? Did the girl have friends? Where — ”
“Listen,” Bryce interrupts her impatiently. “Are you a detective now? Want to be helpful? Get us another bucket. Two — three more buckets. Who cares, right? The crowd’s getting a little rowdy here, you know?”
I care, thinks Jesse. This is horrifying. Don’t you find this horrifying? Shouldn’t you? She tries to focus on the situation’s philosophical underpinnings. The human body is obsolete. Remember? She wishes she were as devoted as her coworkers. Her despair must be written on her face, because the normally indifferent Bryce does soften his attitude a little.
“Look, I think she had a friend. Big dude, you couldn’t miss him. A big monster mod. Wings.” Jesse feels a creeping sense of danger. Bryce is pointing over her shoulder into the club. “He probably went to clean up. Talk to him if you want conversation.” Bryce turns away from her and resumes scraping blood and bone from the walls with a trowel.
Was this before or after Stefan? Jesse wonders. She knows now that these events are going beyond just a bad day at the office. Three people have died here tonight — three people that I know of — and two of them had contact with that crazy monster-man right before they died. She turns away from Bryce and his crew, and connects to the network.
A guy who looks like that, he’d have to be a legend on the scene. There is just no way somebody gets mods like that done and keeps it to themselves. Jesse pulls the TransHumanWiki up on her internal viewpad.
Leonine man, she enters into the search bar. There’s a whole pride of beast-mods down in Georgia, but those are just fancy facial surgeries. Not the same scope at all. Jesse navigates the crowd as quickly as she can, weaving her way backstage as she pulls up a Google bar. Half-man half-cat, she searches. Manticore, Google offers her. Sphinx. She runs both terms through the TransHumanWiki, but her mystery morph is elusive.
Jesse scans the crowd as she squeezes through shifting slits in the gauntlet that is the dance floor, but she’s too short to see over the shoulders of most patrons. She’d have to stumble into her man-beast before she’d see him, and Jesse is pretty sure she doesn’t actually want to stand anywhere near him. She’d have a better vantage from the stage wings. She continues to browse Google results as she dodges and weaves through the bodies: Winged lion. Flion. Chimera. Lamassu.
The last one gives her pause. TransHumanWiki isn’t giving her anything, but the Google image results are too perfect. That’s her guy. Why isn’t he in the Wiki? How could anyone go that far and not be noticed by somebody in the scene?
The Performance Paradox: Exhibitionism and Privacy. A Mystery by Jesse Bauman.
“There you are.” Consumed by her own research, Jesse doesn’t notice Krynn Lazer steal up on her in the wings. She is terrifying in the darkness. That bone exoskeleton glows under the blacklights and she towers over Jesse like a giant dead coral. “Where the hell are your stage crew? Somebody has fucked up our stage design. I need the rest of the instruments out there now.”
Jesse looks at the stage and the audience beyond it. She sees the rack of taut violins, heap of bone drums, and the mic arrayed around Carnopolis’s heart. White light makes the instruments stark against the meat-colored stage. The audience sparkles with the bioluminescence that is invariably spun into the biomod uniform; worn or lived. She studies the crowd for an extra minute, looking for her Lamassu-man with no luck.
“I don’t — you’re set up. What’s the problem?”
“The glocks aren’t out! Pull up the map on your inner canvas, my little friend.” Krynn sounds irritated and patronizing. “Michel’s glocks should be where the strings are, and the strings — ”
“But Michel is — Oh!”
The crowd is parting like the Red Sea, and before she sees him, Jesse knows he’s coming. The collective movements of the crowd are synchronized: first they stop dancing, then they stand straight. Then they keel to the side like stalks of wheat flattened by a passing tractor. Jesse staggers back two steps and bumps into Krynn Lazer, who feels as stiff and unyielding as stone. Her hair stands on end when she catches sight of him for the first time without the distancing safety of the security camera. There is something too real about that man, something that goes beyond theatrics. Something genuine that invites awe and thrall and terror. Something that could make a man chew free his lifeblood, or could cause a woman to turn inside out.
The God of Post-Man, Jesse swallows. Who Chooses the Posthuman Condition? A Folly by Jesse Bauman. And Friends.
For a fleeting moment Jesse has the strong urge to turn and run. She thinks she has sent the appropriate instructions to her legs but they don’t move. Instead she feels her migraine mount her consciousness like a bull and her vision is flooded with a diffuse reddish-black cloud, tingling and twinkling as she teeters on the edge of unconsciousness. Her ears start ringing with pressure and fireworks of pain explode in the deep places of her brain. With one sharp pop the pain and pressure in her right ear release and a warm wetness trickles down her jaw.
Her vision clears too.
The entire audience is on its knees in supplication. To her left and right, roadies, musicians, and groupies have flattened themselves into positions of deference. On stage, Krynn Lazer stands in front of her act’s beating heart, poised and calm as if the show is about to start. The Lamassu stands in front of her, facing the crowd. The music has stopped, though the heart continues to beat with a steady, echoing life. With each throb the phosphorescent liquid that feeds the veins of the auditorium ignites, then dims. Nobody makes a sound.
Jesse looks around her, frantic. Aside from Krynn and the monster on stage, she is the only one in the club still standing. She feels the liquid running down her jaw gather and drip to her collarbone. She touches it and looks: it’s blood. Weak, fleshy, yielding blood. Jesse feels revolted by the sight of it and squeezes her eyes shut tight.
The Lamassu starts to chant in a language Jesse has never heard. The voice of Krynn Lazer slices the air along with it, half-singing and half-chanting in the same language. The effect is both otherworldly and devotional, and Jesse squashes her palms against her ears to mute it. This can only end badly, she knows.
Human sacrifice. Without meaning to, Jesse gives the command to bring up whatever the internet will teach her about her about her subconscious fear. Lamassu, she adds.
The flood of information is tailored to her needs, based on her search history and the kernels of personal data stored in artificial parts of her memory. Jesse doesn’t need to read deeply to understand, suddenly, the horror that is about to take place right here, any moment now. She drops her impromptu earphones and forces her eyes to open. Shedu, she assigns the man-beast a name partly remembered from her Orthodox childhood, and recently uncovered in her panicked web-search for understanding. Demon. Pagan. Sumerian. Destroyer of minds. A thought occurs to her: My mind too. He has damaged everything that isn’t tied to my neural upgrades. She almost laughs out loud.
Technological Transhumanism: Severing Ourselves from the Weaknesses of the Flesh. A Damn Good Idea From Jesse Bauman.
Jesse flees the stage wings, making for the fire escape. She has no thought of heroics, but needs to answer one final question. She passes the last of Carnopolis’s enraptured groupies on their knees and thinks, This is what they want, what they’ve all wanted. A perfect sanctification of flesh. Blood and bone and meat and gene, all for the taking. She throws open the fire door. That was never my thing.
Michel’s disemboweled corpse is still propped on the railing, untouched. The wind and the cold have kept off scavengers so far. Though he has shifted a little with loss of blood and heat, she can see now how deliberate the arrangement of his entrails are, the shape of the incisions to his chest, stomach and guts. Jesse grimaces and kneels by his side, pulling his leather jacket around and rooting through the pockets for the contents. The inside lapel pocket yields what she knew she’d find: a tiny carved figurine of a man-headed winged lion. The paint has all but worn away, and the carved contours are soft with time and use, but Jesse knows that face. She will never forget it.
She puts the figurine in her pocket and tip-taps down the rickety stairs towards the parking lot. She wonders if the noise of what is to come will be audible through the sound-proofed walls, over the boom of the basslines from neighboring clubs. She doesn’t stay to find out. She cares, but not that much.
|Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, critic, and bookseller in Toronto, Canada. Her work has appeared The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Sockdolager, and numerous anthologies. Her bookish ramblings can be found at www.once-and-future.com.|