io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we’ll be featuring a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “Charlotte Incorporated” by Rachael K. Jones. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast. Enjoy!
Image © 2016 by Elizabeth Leggett.
At night she pores over the corpus catalogues online: Incorporated Incorporated, Modern Anatomy, and Shoulders, Knees, & Toes. She weighs the merits of femur length and belly fat, redundant kidneys, attached earlobes, and pronated feet. Most people buy pre-configured corpi with symmetrical faces and standard organ kits, but she wants a custom build. Something completely unique. After work, she boots up the design software and fiddles with the sliders: thickening toes, brightening the little white crescent moons at the base of the nails, narrowing the Eustachian tubes, darkening the delicate tissues around the areolae and lips. She sorts through hardware and software options, laying tendons and tear ducts and lymphatic nets until her design is perfect.
On weekdays, she soothes angry customers at the Terrold Telecom Call Center. Each morning, Mr. Dalton, her smug, incorporated boss, installs her into a generic company corpus called Hank. She knows the corpus is male not from genitalia—-the company is too cheap to buy more than the torso and head—-but from the thickened vocal folds. “Male voices inspire more confidence than female ones, Hank. Basic psychology,” Mr. Dalton explains. Privately she calls herself Charlotte, but she can’t correct him. Technically, only corpi have names, and Charlotte is just a brain in a jar.
Mr. Dalton’s corpus is one of Incorporated Incorporated’s standard office jobs, customized with dark brown hair, a goatee, and stylish myopia paired with chrome glasses. But Charlotte recognizes the telltale patella shape and distinctive chest-to-hips ratio. His face is symmetrical, and his navel smooth. He didn’t even bother with nipples. Generic. Uninspired. Lazy.
When no one is watching her at work, she stimulates each of Hank’s cranial nerves in turn. On her command, he pouts, weeps, and sneezes at the cubicle wall. Mr. Dalton insists that she grin on the job. “Customers can hear the smile in your voice, Hank,” he reminds her, but Charlotte’s favorite expression is the frown, especially deep scowls that yank the brows together and downward into a sharp gulch. When she is incorporated, she’ll frown all the time, and no one will be able to tell her no.
If her coworkers are bothered by any of this too, they don’t say so. During lunch, they gather in the break room for gossip while grazing their corpi on company-brand nutri-kibble. Hank doesn’t have taste buds installed, so Charlotte makes him bolt down his kibble quickly while the others chitchat. Iain has unlatched his corpus’s scalp to lave the dangling filaments of his cauda equina in a cup of nutrifluid as his corpus eats.
An unfamiliar female corpus slides into the seat next to Charlotte and opens a brown sack. “So, what do you think, Hank? How’s my new look?” Charlotte takes in the dark thicket of eyebrow hair over deep brown eyes, the skillful grey streaked through long black hair. It is the port wine stain on her left forearm that gives it away.
“Shanti?” asks Charlotte.
Shanti’s new corpus bobs her head. “Yup.”
“When did you get incorporated?” It makes no sense to Charlotte. Just last Friday, they were commiserating over how much a custom corpus cost, and how hard it was to save anything on their salary.
Shanti winks a well-lashed eye with epicanthic folds crisp as hospital sheets. “It’s a secret. I’ve found a shortcut, perhaps. It’s a little bit black market, but if you want . . .” She unfolds a cheese sandwich from her paper sack and nibbles the brown crust. Charlotte can’t help but envy those gleaming bicuspids and chemoreceptors. Hank gnaws kibble with the solid ceramic plate that passes for teeth.
“No, thank you,” Charlotte says firmly, feeding Hank another bite of flavorless kibble. As tempting as it sounds, she knows better than to take short cuts on anything so important as her future.
• • • •
At the end of the workday, Charlotte climbs out of Hank and returns home to a room the size of a bathroom stall that serves as her apartment. It’s small even by the standards of the unincorporated—-just big enough to fit her transporter if she folds in the wheels. The jar’s dome scuffs against the ceiling. The glass is developing a cluster of cross-hatched scratches there. If she had a corpus, she would be going bald on top.
Charlotte doesn’t need much. There is a power outlet for her batteries, a plastic black storage trunk holding some maintenance tools for her transporter, and a sickly cactus the size and shape of a softball, which she mists each evening with a spray bottle. When the door locks behind her, the room goes dark, and that is when the roaches scurry in, searching for moisture. But Charlotte doesn’t mind them. She can escape. She climbs out of her jar, laves her grey matter with nutrifluid, and weaves her peripheral nerves into the control console that connects to the internet via a neighbor’s unsecured network.
Online, Charlotte feels almost whole. She loads her sensory-sim app and goes for a virtual run down a lane of mossy live oaks in the fall, where the leaves drift and swirl like red and yellow pinwheels. A Savannah, Georgia sim, where she first came into consciousness as J-Provost-L-Bohannon-Two. Created, like everyone, to be free. Free to live and work and chase her dreams, if she could only catch them. If she could pay off her birth-debt and save for a corpus of her own.
The sim feels almost real to Charlotte. More so than the dark apartment where her squishy bundle of neurons waits out another night alone in the dark. The oaks were animated from life, and the sounds mixed from real recordings. Electrical signals to her parietal lobe simulate the wind, perfect save for the occasional static burst that turns the wind from cool to cold.
But taste and smell leave her wanting. The simulation promised fall smells: moldering leaves and burning chimneys. They used the same scent signatures for both types of carbon. It’s obviously not the same thing; a real corpus could tell the difference. Lazy. No one bothers writing good chemoreceptor apps for the unincorporated, at least not ones that Charlotte can afford. Frustrated, she switches off the sensory-sim and wonders how leaves smell when you breathe deep and cradle the air inside your very own nasal cavity, and how it feels to sneeze.
She feels almost corporeal in the app, but the almost matters. It’s the limits. They don’t make puddle-stomping apps or mud pie-tasting apps. No one writes programs that let you run with a grocery cart down the cereal aisle, then coast on the back axle until you hit the shelf. You can download any number of romance sims, but there’s no sim for chasing encyclopedia salesmen off your doorstep with a sword made of skinny green balloons. You can buy all the music you want online, but you can’t buy a program that lets you belch the ABCs in burps that taste like wasabi. But she will do it all when she becomes Charlotte.
She’s scrimping and saving. She uses Sleep Mode eight hours a night to save on power. Good practice for corpus care, or so she tells herself. She buys generic nutrifluid and changes the waste filter every eight days instead of the recommended six. She imagines each sacrifice as another fine nerve filament reaching from her cerebellum toward the Charlotte she longs to be.
She sleeps suspended inside the biochamber, brain stem trailing its fine lattice of disconnected nerves, and she dreams corporeal dreams. The blueprint comes to life, the details exactly as she has selected. Perfection. Charlotte’s corpus will be sixty years old, because she loves the way corpi droop at that age. Sort of like weeping willows. She’ll store extra fuel in thick padding on her belly, waist, and hips. Her black skin will be prone to flaking because Charlotte plans to try every scent of lotion they sell, once she has the chemoreceptors. Her hair will be thick, black, kinky, and unruly—-like dendrites—-and she’ll never try to tame it.
Another month of saving should make the down payment. Then Shanti will see you can make it the old-fashioned way, one penny at a time.
• • • •
Monday morning, Charlotte’s alarm app stimulates her anterior hypothalamus and switches on her external feeds. Charlotte opens the door with a silent command and scrapes the doorframe as she rolls out. A bad wheel jounces her gray matter as she rolls down the stairs, pinching one of her peripheral nerves against the glass wall. Irritated, Charlotte wishes for a mouth to frown with. At last she makes it out into the drizzly, dim December morning and heads for the bus stop.
She passes a wet gray lump crawling through a puddle in the gutter—-someone without any biochamber at all, barely clinging to life. Charlotte stops to lave the poor soul in a dribble of nutrifluid from her chamber, but it’s all she can do, since she has nothing else to give.
The bus arrives at 6:50 on the dot. Alicia, the incorporated bus driver, lowers the access ramp, and Charlotte boards. Alicia has a short, plump corpus with deep brown skin and a vestigial palmaris longus tendon in her right wrist, which bunches the skin when her hands clench the steering wheel. Charlotte appreciates the attention to detail. Most people don’t bother these days.
“Good morning,” Alicia says as Charlotte struggles to get her biochamber up the ramp, thanks to the uncooperative wheel.
“Good morning,” says Charlotte’s voice module, which somehow never sounds convincingly human. At least it’s female.
Someday, when she’s incorporated, she’ll have skin that shade, and a palmaris longus to boot. But she won’t drive a bus. No, she has other plans. Charlotte wants to spall concrete and lay asphalt.
Three corpi have chosen seats on the right side of the bus. The left, which comes equipped with sets of blue nylon straps and floor anchors, is reserved for the unincorporated. A few are already strapped in, their jars lined up like bubble wrap. Not everyone is so unhappy with their state. Some unincorporated are content to a quiet life in a tiny room with a cactus for company. They spend their money on better apps and it is, perhaps, enough. Enough to live and work and die in half a body belonging to someone else, enough to flatten life’s dimensions to a handful of choices on a checklist, your infinite potential contained in a jar.
Charlotte has never understood their contentment, because her jar has never been enough for her. She rolls into her usual niche behind the driver’s seat, and Alicia straps her securely against the wall. Charlotte trains her cameras out the window as the bus rolls forward. There is a road crew working on the pavement this morning. They are replacing the uneven sidewalk across the street. She imagines herself as Charlotte out among those corpi, perhaps wielding the jackhammer, perhaps pouring cement, her muscle groups working in perfect pairs: biceps and triceps, quadriceps and hamstrings, agonist and antagonist struggling together against the pull of gravity.
Then, suddenly, the impact.
One moment, Charlotte is watching the street through her video feed. The next, the glass shatters, Alicia screams, the whole world rolls upside down. Charlotte’s biochamber pitches and cracks on top, where the scratches have made the glass weak. Her tender gray matter concusses against the wall. Nutrifluid leaks as the outside world invades her shell. The liquid drips into the exposed electronics of her maintenance hatch. Blue sparks dance around the edge of the camera. One by one her systems go offline: first the voice module, then visual, and finally the audio feed. The last thing she hears is Alicia taking command of the wreck over the screams of the other corpi. “Hang on. Everything’s gonna be alright . . .” Then Charlotte is trapped in darkness.
Marooned, cut off from the world, Charlotte plunges into the blackness of her own mind. Desperate, she fires electrical impulses down her nerves—-a castaway tossing bottles to the sea. Nothing. Total sensory deprivation. Love notes sent but left unanswered.
Charlotte wonders if she’ll die this way. Unincorporated and unCharlotted. What did it all amount to, the years of discipline and self-denial, the hope so intense that it ached?
She fights the tide of drowsiness that’s stronger than the distant pain. She remembers smacking against the wall, knows that if she sleeps, she might never wake up. Charlotte clings to prickly hope.
She arrives at the hospital alive and whole. There is good news: the concussion was mild, and Charlotte will be discharged in the morning. And Alicia’s corpus only lost a leg below the knee. There is bad news, too: Charlotte’s biochamber needs extensive repairs. Probably cheaper to get a new one. And there’s the hospital bill, of course.
Charlotte runs the math. Her corpus savings are cut in half. Five years’ hard work, lost in an instant. Maybe she can make the waste filter last another day each week. Maybe she can sleep a little longer.
In the end, they are right about the biochamber. While Alicia’s company has agreed to reimburse her, it is only for the value of the old one. And without a corpus, she needs the biochamber to live and work and speak. And the money has to come from somewhere.
Inside her new biochamber, Charlotte pulls up Shanti’s email, shoots her a note. I’d like that address, if you’re still offering.
• • • •
One advantage of the new biochamber is its speed. Charlotte zips down the sidewalk through a nice part of town she normally has no business in. There are almost no unincorporated out here. She has to pull over several times to let the long-legged strides of corpi overtake her. Incorporated people have important places to be, and tend toward impatience.
The address Shanti gave her is a corpus-sized apartment. Charlotte has only seen such places in internet vids advertising corpus life. A male corpus answers the door. Prominent zygomatic arches—-a popular trend in the west—-and a customized roundness plumping out the rectus abdominis, which disguises the standard Modern Anatomy frame almost perfectly to Charlotte’s practiced eye.
“Yes?” His voice is cigarette-rough. Another artistic touch.
“I’m here for a corpus,” Charlotte pipes through her voice module. “My friend Shanti said I could get a bargain.”
He flings the door open and steps aside to let her wheel past his knees. The place is even bigger inside than she imagined. There is a whole kitchen on the left, just for preparing peanut brittle and squash casserole and all the other wonderful things corpi eat. The hallway runs ahead, opening into several rooms on the right and left before terminating in an open space. That is where the corpus leads her.
“You’re in luck. We just had a few good models come into inventory today. Fresh.” It is hard to keep up with his long, strong corpus stride. Charlotte almost rams his shins when they enter the large living room.
She cannot imagine what she would do with so much space. If she had a corpus, maybe a few cartwheels. That always sounded like fun to her. The room reminds her of the conference room at work where they leave their corpi at night, settling them into rolling chairs before Mr. Dalton detaches them and drops them into their waiting biochambers. This room has chairs, too: puffy green recliners with dusty stuffing hanging out of splits in their sides, and in each recliner, a corpus. Six ranged around the room. Charlotte’s guide spreads his arms.
“All on sale. Half price from market rates. Complimentary navel installation if you want it. Take your pick.”
Charlotte rolls between the chairs and examines her options, zooming in her biochamber’s cameras for a closer look. She disregards the three males outright. Of the three remaining, she can instantly see that none of them are Charlotte, not properly. Too young. Too pale. None of them have belly buttons, as the salesman said. One of them is so thin the cheap, generic pelvis looks like it might cut through the skin over the waist.
“Is this it?” Even her artificial voice doesn’t disguise the disappointment.
The male corpus grins. The risorius contracts, but not the zygomatic major. “You can always upgrade it later. Still cheaper than buying new.”
It’s a fair point. And the used corpus in the middle isn’t so bad. It’s young, and a little too thin for Charlotte’s taste, but the frame is good quality, and the height about right. And anyway, it’ll age, and with enough peanut brittle, she can round it out. “That one,” she says, “does it have a palmaris longus?”
He grabs the corpus’s right hand and scrunches the fingers together until the little muscle pops out like cord. “There you go. You want it, then?”
Charlotte remembers her sensory marooning during the accident. There are no guarantees in life, no corpus waiting for everyone. It could be now or never. “Yes, please.”
She logs in to her bank and arranges the money transfer. He asks her to mark it as a gift. Then he hauls the limp corpus upright, and works open the skull bolts, which look a little sticky. Charlotte at last, she thinks.
The skull pops open with a sound like a tooth yanked from its socket. The man reaches inside and rips out something wet and gray. It isn’t moving.
“Oh God,” says Charlotte, “that’s a person!”
The salesman slings the body into a pail lined with a black trash bag. “It’s okay. They’re dead. I’ll rinse it out for you, if it bothers you.” He fishes a yellow pail from behind one of the chairs and raises a soapy scrub brush.
“But that’s a dead person!” Charlotte protests. “They died inside that corpus!” She’s amazed when the salesman just shrugs and starts soaping out the inside of the skull.
“They’re not using it anymore. Might as well let someone else get some use out of it when they’re gone.”
Charlotte cannot process all the thoughts barraging the wrinkled folds of her insula: disgust like sour milk smell, horror like the color mauve, terror like the dark apartment when the internet is down and the roaches skitter over her. Why did Shanti send her here? Did she know? “Is this what they wanted?”
“Of course,” he answers a little too quickly.
Charlotte knows corpi, though. She knows what it means when the eyes drop down when they’re speaking. And she knows. She knows she can’t do it. She can’t take a person’s most personal possession, their own hard-won Charlotte, without their permission. You were supposed to be buried in your corpus. Your corpus was you. “I don’t want this. I’m going to reverse the transaction.”
Instantly the salesman’s corpus stiffens. His chest puffs and his arms cross. “Sorry. No refunds. And I should warn you. You know what’ll happen if you talk about this place, don’t you?”
Charlotte suddenly remembers there is more to fear in the world than bus accidents and dead dreams. “Please. Just let me go home.”
She leaves broke and with no corpus. Outside her apartment, Charlotte passes the person in the gutter again. They have made it to the safety of a puddle today. Another precious life extension for the wretch. A day’s reprieve. And tomorrow? Well, tomorrow, look for another puddle, and call it a life. With her nest egg gone, Charlotte’s own puddle is receding, all her dreams washing down the drain.
Corpuses walk past, but Charlotte sees only stolen cadavers ripped from their owners, a dead gray mass in a bucket. They drink black coffee that Charlotte cannot smell from cups that Charlotte cannot cradle warm between two hands. Her audio feed presents her with a spectrum flat on both ends, as if she won’t miss what their curated reality never offers to begin with. As if Charlotte won’t notice how half her nerves disconnect, how they don’t feel anything at all.
Charlotte scowls, though there are no muscles to answer the call of her neurotransmitters. Defiance prickles through her anyway. It will have to be enough. She will make it be enough. Some parts of a person cannot be bought or sold or owned, no matter how large the birth-debt. Funny how often the incorporated forgot that.
Back at home, Charlotte carefully mists her little cactus. Then she calls up the file containing her corpus design and deletes the extra kidney, the gallbladder, the left ear’s cochlea.
The palmaris longus stays.
Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the February 2016 issue, which features 8 science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a via the link below.