Henry didn’t like rainy, stay indoors days, trapped with her, his sister poking him in the ribs.
“I don’t care what they say, you’re not the same,” she said.
From downstairs, “Stop it, you two, or I’ll come up there and stop it for you. Your father and I are trying to have a visit with aunt Donna.”
For sport, Susan began this same argument whenever she wanted to tweak her twin brother; a brother different than he had been, different since they pressed his engrams into an artificial body, one closely resembling human, but not quite. Not quite for the two years since his human one died.
Wasting away—nothing we can do, the doctors told their parents. Then the lottery pick, an opportunity for continuance. Ventrix Corporation, for external public and philanthropic reasons, and internal, profitable ones, held a lottery each year. Ten winners, children with terminal illnesses, held each year for the past fifteen. The public relations professionals and focus groups agreed; people were more prone to accept the ethics of their products when applied to small children, specifically young children in the four to seven age range, in the correct racial and socioeconomic demographic groups. Sometimes the winners were from poor families, or those from cultural market research analysis showed trending resistance to their offerings that year—whatever it took to pluck heartstrings.
Ventrix’s profitable customer market was in the older, wealthier bracket. By international law, only those with terminal illnesses were permitted to inhabit a new shell. Ethics laws prohibited others from up-shifting. But Ventrix was playing a long game, knowing the rules would change given time.
Susan loved Henry but wasn’t sure it was really him in the shell, afraid to accept it as though acceptance would mean rejecting the Henry he’d been before. Though not identical twins, they’d been closely matched in intelligence and appearance, with a bit of chromosomal sibling rivalry thrown in — matched, until they were not. Henry appeared a typical six-year-old, shorter, now smaller than his twin. Shells didn’t grow or age. In another year, he’d receive his catch-up body. There would be a continuing three-year cycle until he reached adulthood, leapfrogging the years in between. Falling behind, then catching up. This disturbed Susan as only a child would understand. She fought against acceptance, alternating between pushing him away, then drawing him closer. Her behavior confused Henry. Mother said she’d grow out of it. Henry wasn’t so sure.
“Henry, give me some help here, this math is so… weird.” Susan slid her tablet to her brother. They did homework together at the dining room table, easily monitored by parents.
“Lemmie see your screen. Oh, here it is, you need to do the addition and subtraction first, then the multiplication, unless there are brackets; then you work from the inside out. Watch.”
“I don’t see why we can’t use calculators all the time. It would be so much easier.”
“You’d make the same mistake with them, not doing the functions in the proper order.” Henry pushed the tablet back to her, back across the divide, knowing she didn’t like to touch his skin or anything else he was holding.
Susan studied his bland face. “Is Billy still pestering you at school? Has he pushed you or anything? If he has, I’m gonna give him a wallop.”
“No, nothing I can’t handle.” Henry handled things in his own way, biding his time. The bully wounds remained fresh, stinging more every day that passed, but he would hold on. He loved his sister, especially on the days he thought she understood.
“How do you feel?” The first words Henry heard as he woke.
“Okay, I guess. Can I move?”
A white-coated body, topped by a smiling face he’d never seen before, assured him he could, that it would be okay. Henry lifted his right hand then the other, examining them, turning each one, looking for the difference, accepting them as the adaptive program intended. “You may feel slight vertigo when you stand. It’s your new height. Shouldn’t take long to adjust, but take it as slow as you want. There’s no rush.”
His still connected body was being monitored — feedback analysis, they’d said. Henry smiled, knowing he was taller than his sister now, if only by a half-inch. Henry would remain taller for at least six months until Susan’s normal growth exceeded his static height. The next time he would get a twelve-year-old’s body, one based on his father’s growth history. Henry liked that; he wanted to play baseball.
His first half-day being taller and heavier was spent in the out-processing facility, shouldering a small monitor backpack while the system in his chest, his brain root, synced with the company’s servers. Walking beside his mother to the family waiting room, he enjoyed the novel feeling of tallness, the sense of more strength, more energy, wanting to bounce, to skip, to run.
“You look better,” remarked his sister. “Not so easy to tell anymore. Now that you’re more normal, do you want to go with me to Sandra’s birthday party Wednesday?” At first sight, Susan had adjusted to the new shell, acclimated faster than his mother and father. They worried, she didn’t.
Three years, it had taken three years before Henry physically became a teenager in one jump. Three years of frustration, difficult body-image struggles. Two more transfers would take him to the end of these leaping transitions. He’d seen the chart, his height end-point, taller than his sister by six inches. His weight was a different matter. Having thirty percent more mass for his size, the school prohibited him from contact sports, even though the biggest boys outweighed him.
Ventrix had made a financial decision. While the dense, semi-flexible artificial bone matrix was expensive, repairing damage to cheaper, lighter versions were more costly downstream. Henry’s bone geometry was an exact replica of human structures, providing a natural-looking frame on which to attach synthetic systems. The difference was the lack of porous voids and interior channels for bone marrow — he didn’t have those. Some claimed his kind should be banned from all sports, claiming up-shifted bodies held an edge in endurance and coordination. Henry, and other children like him, could be given rigs that held no advantages, but the military, now Ventrix’s primary source of funding, didn’t support that design; they wanted better, faster, stronger, more resilient.
Up-shifted bodies weren’t mechanical things of gears, piston, motors, and pulleys, not in the conventional definition of those terms. Henry’s muscles were shape-changing polymers, intertwined, spiral fiber-bundled strings, mimicking the shape and function of biological tissues. Electrical impulses caused them to expand and contract, controlled in the same way human muscles are. The significant difference was fatigue; he didn’t experience that — no lactic acid waste buildup, no downtime, no need to catch his breath; he didn’t breathe. However, he needed to eat frequently to keep his chems and mechstem-nanos topped off. His food was a liquid diet that would kill a biological human. At school, he swallowed his lunch under the watchful eye of the school nurse, in her office — a ten-second process, a simple tube squeeze — then spent the rest of his lunch period in the library. He liked the library, the quiet, the solitude.
Henry looked in the mirror. This new model had improved facial expressions, automatic emotional responses to surprise, fear, anger, joy, sorrow. Older models were almost blank-faced automatons unless the inhabitant remembered to exhibit expected, though delayed expressions. Ventrix technology was approaching a blended-human singularity.
Thirty years ago, when Ventrix received its first capital infusion, the concept had been to build an organic human shell. The technology to grow organs from mutated stem cells on nebulous fiber structures, with shapes and functions exactly spec’ed to replace failing ones, had matured beyond the experimental stage. Why not try to meld Ventrix’s proven human-to-static AI brain engram transfers to new bodies? They hoped the shift would give transferees longevity missing in the mind transfers to enclosed, immobile cubes. While there was nothing functionally wrong with the up-shifts or brain builds, human minds, once shuffled off from experienced reality, lost interest in continuing existence — artificially enriched reality was no panacea. After five years, uploads began clocking out by choice. If walk-about bodies could be constructed, giving the uploads a more natural life, perhaps the impetus to continue would improve. The military became interested, very interested, especially in the children.
Full bio-bodies had proved problematic. No matter how many avenues attempted, the natural connection between grown bodies and that which makes a natural human eluded them. Fully synthetic bodies were the answer… and the problem, legally, morally, and ethically. Religious objections were the hardest to overcome, but overcome they were. There was no halting commercial progress when demand existed.
After the upload, Henry looked to be a normal, strapping, youthful man. Erased were the slight differences between his appearance and human bodies. Minor skin blemishes and body symmetry offsets, mimicking the genuine thing, had been added. His new skin could have a natural summer tan, complete with tan lines if he commanded it. Still, it was the eyes, always the eyes that confounded designers, something indeterminate was missing, but you had to be close to notice, kissing close. Henry examined himself in the mirror, turning to see every inch of the shell he’d been waiting for, passing his hands over his chest, stomach, the long limbs.
“You say everything works now?”
Dr. Spalling replied, “Yes, you’ll now have normal sexual arousal and responses. If you remember to keep your saline levels up, you can even sweat. It won’t take you long to put that in automatic, under the proper stimulus. You’ll also notice improved eye lubrication and salivary responses. No need to keep those on timers anymore.”
“And my hair and nails will grow?”
“Yes, if you want them to."
Henry was nervous, but not because he was standing naked in the out-processing area; it was because of a girl. As an up-shifted, human girls had no interest in boyfriend-girlfriend relationships — curiosity yes, emotional attachment, even experimental, no. Physical explorations were out of the question.
Catherine was another sort altogether; she was an up-shifted, his age, soon to receive her eighteen-year-old frame. They, and a few others like them, had formed a tight online cabal. An unmonitored, or so they thought, support group, sharing similar challenges only they understood. Still examining, admiring his form, he wished this transfer had come before high school graduation. He had thirty days to wait before his first date, thirty days until Catherine received her new body. In the last year, Susan had offered to take him along on her less than romantic group dates, as protection, she’d said, though he knew she needed none, having grown up not only standing up for herself but also for him, during his short year cycles. That had embarrassed him.
It had been a four-year gap this time, a maturity adjustment, beefier, Susan commented, more manly she said. Catherine thought so too. One-year shy of college graduation, one more year on a full-ride scholarship with a generous stipend, unexpectedly offered by Space Command. Catherine took the same offer. Hers was from the Marines, the military branch still searching for the inclusive-diversity sweet-spot demanded by popular opinion.
There were new things in this model, a small port in a left mid-rib area, externally resembling a mole. The portal served two functions, attachment for an external, augmented power source to supplement the solar and electro-chem processes that powered his previous bodies. It was also a hard link to informational systems, to AIs. A new standard, he was told, just pull out the thin cable, select the proper adapter, and plug into almost any electrical or communication wellspring.
“Your skin is thicker, self-heals faster. You’ll also notice the improved sensor suite. After you graduate, after you’re commissioned as an officer, you’ll need to return for additional training on those before we unlock a few features. They’re grayed out now in your heads-up display.”
It took Henry three months to pick through a workaround to access those controls; he would share his find with Catherine. The purpose of the fluid de-gassing controls stumped him. What surprised him most was the inter-link function; two up-shifted could hardline connect, sharing everything they knew and felt. If he hadn’t found a means to circumvent the temporary blocks, his military obligation, starting next year, would have been a mundane tour. His monitors were pleased; a report was filed.
“This is your last up-shift for quite a while, lieutenant. You’re now cleared for space flight training as soon as you pass through the psychological wickets. And don’t dent the merch, please.” No white coats this time; ‘his team,’ they liked to call themselves, all military staff. “Report to building 341, and good luck,” the colonel said.
Life was good for Henry and Catherine, stationed at the same mega-base in the Arizona desert. The heat was oppressive for fleshy humans, but not for them, not for their kind — not for the forty-seven on this base.
“Henry, I’m afraid… no, that’s not the right word. Apprehensive fits better.”
“We knew this would come someday, in some fashion. I’m looking forward to it. Living among aliens is something we’ve been doing for almost our entire lives, Catherine.”
“We’re the only humans who can make the trip safely, the only ones who can understand them, be accepted by them. It must be done. We’ve been trained, the team is ready. Hey, let’s go for a walk, recharge in the sunlight.”
Henry had nothing to leave behind. His parents, his sister, had died in the short-lived bad-time sickness. He wanted to be away from this planet. With Catherine, he would be taking the only thing that made life worth living in his shell. Once on the other side of the void, he, Catherine, and the others would have children of sorts, and their children would procreate. After seven generations, a code would activate the military’s subroutine, deeply buried, disguised, hidden from Henry, and Catherine, and the others, except one.