For Old Times New
Sierra — 2207
I do not know if it is a busy day at the Ansible clinic, I’ve never visited one before. I have no expectations because I do not know what to expect, though for some reason or other I was expecting the standard cost-saving minimalism you find in hospitals and state-run doctor’s offices. Plastic chairs bolted together and poster print photographs of imaginary happy patients with their imaginary patient doctors having meaningful conversations about things.
The linoleum floor here does not surprise me, but the comfortable furniture does. I have no complaints for any comfort offered. One whole wall here covered with a mural of the L5 station, the others cream colored and decorated with prints of paintings of landscapes. The individual check-in booths with their standing chairs are nice, fabric-wrapped barriers and a terminal with a contact bar so you may connect. I can feel a few eyes on my back as I gradually make it to the one with the universal wheelchair symbol hanging above.
I take a moment to lean on the grab-bars and rehearse the motion in my mind before I can make the twist and collapse against the seat. Right hand on the contacts, left hand on the controller, I cannot maintain grip long enough to remain on the contacts. I move my hands to the other set of contacts, sliding them into the loosely glove-shaped containers. An air bag gently inflates inside to lightly hold my fingers in place and we can begin. The forms take a while to complete until the system can compensate for the shaking and determine the difference between tremors and responses.
Yes, I understand it is permanent. Yes, I understand it is destructive. Yes, I understand nothing is perfect and I could simply die. Believe me I beg of you to be sure it is permanent and destructive, I have nothing worth saving on this mortal coil. Uploaded or dead matters not, release me from this. Send me up or put me down, I do not care where the elevator goes just get me off this floor. It asks me about my life, who I am, who I was. I tell it my dreams, then I tell it my reality. Yes, I have next of kin. Yes, I am keenly aware that my government has paid to be rid of me and will be rewarding my family for saving the VA money on medical care. Yes. I understand. I get it. I know. Yes. Yes. Confirm. Accept. Acknowledge. I have been off the receptor blockers for ten days. The neural interrupt implant has been disabled. Yes yes yes yes believe me I am aware. Thank me? No. Thank you for agreeing to put an end to this. I’d hate to have to disappoint everyone by going home.
My hands are released from the contacts and I slowly withdraw, my right hip shifts so loudly that I have to stop once I’m standing and catch my breath. Push my glasses up, dry the couple tears that the searing pain has squeezed out. Someone meets me with a wheelchair, I gratefully fall into it. I explain the situation. They cart me to the next available upload room, skipping the line. I am grateful for the compassion: it is an unfamiliar experience lately. We are the children of radiation, the sons of the ozone holes, the fruits of chemical exposure and unstable genome interruption, the seeds of neural disorders and solar flares, relief, release, or silence is all my brethren and I ask.
“Due to your condition, you have a twenty-five percent chance of scan failure. I don’t like saying it, but we have to acknowledge it.”
“As long as I have a 100 percent chance of not leaving this room with a heartbeat.” I shove myself up off the chair and onto the scanning bed to relieve myself of my clothes. “The odds of everything else don’t really matter. No matter how this goes, even if it goes badly, consider it mercy.”
“Well. The procedure is going to interrupt your motor control and most of your senses. If nothing else, your last thirty minutes here will be completely without pain.”
“Sounds good to me.”
It is cold in here, the bed is cold, I am cold, but I was shaking anyway. The only warmth I feel is the searing pain radiating from my joints, clouding my thoughts. I lay back on the table and rest my arms and hands into the contact retainers. One of the workers clips something into my IV port. Most upload patients don’t have those. I do. Saves them a needle.
“This is a sedative and a reactive fluid. It should settle everything down for the scan so you don’t have to fight to keep still.”
Oh. I know this sensation. It’s warm and thick, I can feel it rush through my bloodstream. It smells like iodine and tastes like copper and sulfur, it feels like a CT scan.
“It feels like an old friend.”
“Yes, but quite a bit stronger. We’re going to attach to your spinal port now. The systems will start up once we’ve left the room, everything from then on is automated. There will be a loud beep at the point of no return.”
“Thank us from the other side.”
“Thank you even if I don’t make it.”
“You’ll make it.”
“If I don’t, you’re buying lunch.”
They leave the room, the lights dim, and the scanners power up.
There is indeed a loud, single-tone beep.
“Send me, doc.”
The port in my spine powers up, I can feel it. You’re not supposed to be able to feel it, but I can. I always can. Only for a moment though, then I don’t feel anything. My god. It’s wonderful. All I can smell is ozone and iodine, the machines hum and whistle, chirp and whirr. I appreciate the music they play, the deafening mechanical precision. My eyes buzz for a few moments, not that there is anything to see. I feel like I am being stuffed into a digital converter. I suppose I am. Then there is silence, darkness, nothingness. Complete, perfect nothingness. I seem to pause here for a moment, it doesn’t feel like a bad place. It doesn’t feel like anything. I could lay down for a nap, here, if I had a bed. Then suddenly I am somewhere again.
I am in a room. It is a very gray room with very neutral lighting. The shadows are fuzzy and indistinct, as if there is an eclipse.
I am alive?
I am…on the floor. I push myself up, bracing for the onslaught, but there is nothing. I simply gather myself and sit up.
This is a unique sensation. I can feel my fingers and my toes, there are no dead spots. There is no longer a plastic port embedded in my wrist, there is no metal in my hands, no terminal at the back of my neck. Either I am dead, or they repaired my nervous system in transit. I get up and look myself over, most everything else is the same. The scars are all there, the remains of tattoos, the bend in my nose where it was broken when I was seventeen and it never healed straight. I pull my feet beneath myself and stand, unsteady. Oh, this is unusual. I have not felt this in many years.
“This feels like a memory.”
“I assure you it is not.”
“Did I make it?”
“Indeed you did. Welcome to Lagrange, this room is called AetherBox#6135. I am facing away from you. Do you require clothes or may I turn around so we can speak face to face?”
“Nekkid as a jay-bird and feelin' no pain.” I turn around and indeed there’s a person there, a few paces away. A brown-haired man with his back to me, in black slacks and shiny shoes and a doctor’s clean white coat like the posters at so many offices planetside.
“This is fairly new to me, if I’m being honest. I haven’t been able to stand up straight in almost a decade. I thought the upload process brought all your flaws along and you had to learn your way out of them.”
“In many cases it does, but your nervous system was so damaged we were lucky to get a successful scan. It doesn’t make any sense to bring someone right back into their suffering, but we’ve been doing this for a few hundred years so it only took a bit of time to do some remodeling before you were dropped in.”
“That would explain the momentary limbo.”
“I could’ve stayed there and gotten some sleep if you’d have let me.”
“I don’t doubt it. If you’d like to get a little more comfortable, clothing is a matter of wishing you had it. Holding it in your mind, quite literally conjuring your favorite outfit. Smile a little, think to yourself: man I wish my favorite stuff was here.”
I pause to consider his words. What do I miss? Those comfy flannel boxers I got for Christmas that one year, my last pair of 501 blue jeans, plain socks and my favorite motorcycle boots. Yeah. That’d be a good start, and with my old leather belt. I reach reflexively for my dog tags, fingers running over the lumpy vertical scar in my sternum to find them. They aren’t there, but then suddenly they are. I feel the cool metal chain slowly warming up to body temperature, flip the worn tags between my fingers. Release them and let them fall to my chest, stick my thumbs in the pockets of the jeans that showed up while I wasn’t looking. There’s no magic swoosh, no pixie dust. I’m just wearing them. I forgot to get a shirt. My last memory of being in my skin is being cold and I still kind of feel it. I want my nice, thick black and gray plaid flannel shirt…and there it is. I shrug my shoulders into it and realize I am not wearing glasses. I decide that I am fine without glasses, and fiddle with my shirt sleeve cuffs a little. Tap a toe on the floor, the solid tap of the hard soled boots. Good. This is good.
“Alright. I think I can do this. You can turn around now.”
He does. I regard him, his brown eyes and neatly combed hair. Complimentary round wire-rimmed glasses. He regards me in my Saturday construction worker attire, blue eyes and graying brown buzz cut.
“I’d say you’ve got it worked out.”
“Not bad for an old cripple.”
“Except you’re not any more.”
“True enough, but it’s still fresh.”
“You’d be amazed how many people choose to keep their differences, find pride in such things.”
“Everyone does their own thing. Proud of those kinds of folks, honestly not sure how they do it. But I’m enjoying the reprieve.”
“As you’re well enough entitled. Would you like to move on with the tutorial?”
“Sure. How do I change my avatar?”
“It’s not really an avatar, per-se, you can’t just take it off and put on another one out of a saved file. However you can fork, replicate yourself, and in doing so imagine changes you would like to make and include those changes in the new you.”
“Well your fork is another whole person. Either you can be two people now, which costs a bit because every instance takes up space on the System, or if you’re satisfied with the changes then the old you can quit and leave just the new. The new is a perfect copy of you, plus or minus the changes made. Consider it like evolution, each new copy is like another generation with a new adaptation. Except you get to decide if it’s good before the prior generation quits.”
“So you can’t just like…magic yourself into something else. But you can kind of imagine what you’d rather be and break it down into steps from this to that, and follow them like a bread crumb trail by forking each little change until you get there.”
“You pick up quick.”
“I was a SeaBee, once. Before the chemicals and the shrapnel and the everything else.”
“Construction Battalion, the ones who go in and put the infrastructure back up so the civilians have somewhere to go after the various armies get gone blowing the place to hell.”
“It wasn’t glamorous, but family tradition and all. Everyone enlisted, but I don’t have the head for killing people or the balls to be a field medic but I was crazy enough to drive a dozer into a war zone so that’s what I did. They called me Mule back in the day.”
“Strong back, thick head, not worth a fuck in the sack. Birth defect an' all.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake.”
“Eh. If the shoe fits, nail it on.”
“Horse humor, don’t worry about it. I’m just glad I got out of it alive, if only barely. Though by the end there I was pretty well regretting the decision to survive it.”
“I gathered as much from the upload report. So, forking. It’s just like coming up with a pair of pants, except you come up with a whole extra you.”
“Like, I wish there was two of me? Or, I wish there was two of me but the other one was built like I was still thirty-five and still had all his teeth?”
“Something like that. Keep it simple at first, try for a plain copy.”
“Fuck that. Both barrels or don’t load the gun.”
I try it without bothering to explain. Sure enough after a moment, there’s another me. Same name and everything. Jackson Gifford with a bunch of numbers after the name so everyone knows he’s a me but a different one. We look at each other.
“Ain’t that some shit.”
“Sure is,” he says.
“You look pretty good, old man.”
“Thanks, always said death would be an improvement. Didn’t think I’d be right.”
“So now what?” I ask the doctor.
“Well, the first you is the root instance. The oldest one. If you quit, you cease to be and now the new version is the root because he’s the oldest now. If he quits, since you’re older you get the option of absorbing all his memories, or some of them, or none of them.”
“But if I quit he don’t get shit. If he quits I get it if I want it.”
“Yes. Because at the moment of forking, you two have perfect copies of all your memories. They diverge from the moment of forking.”
“What if we’re different for a while, and I want to give him my memories and fuck off?”
“Then he merges back down into you, you combine memories, and fork him back off again.”
“That’s kinda complex.”
“Yeah it is.” Says the other me.
“It’s just the way it works, helps keep things orderly. Also if you fork and don’t like what your fork is doing that’s too bad because he’s his own person now, you can’t make him quit.”
“It gets a little convoluted, but when you think of it like a tree you’re the root instance and he’s the first branch. If you fork a bunch and quit, then all your forks are like new root instances of very closely related trees.”
“But they can’t merge back.”
“Not technically, but we’ve been considering cross-tree merging for a while now.”
“Sure.” The new fork quits and I’m suddenly presented with the option to have all his memories. I take them, and suddenly I’ve got two perspectives of the same conversation. Just one of them is from a pace over there with myself in the room. That’s fucking weird, but I guess it works.
I fork again, but this time the old me quits, but we’re the same person because at the moment of copying we’re the same person, so nothing is lost except this vacuous self-image of being the first and most important version. I understand how the perspective follows now. I’m not dead, but the slightly older version of me isn’t here any more. Also my hair is a little thicker and I’ve regained some of the muscle mass I lost over the last decade and a half. I also understand how two forks could live a long time and grow into different people, or fork into different people. I could leave me behind and be another me, and older me could go right on being the regular blend me, or fork off some other way.
“I get it now. And if a bunch of forks hang out together, they’re a clade. Right? I think that’s what it said in the material.”
“Cool. What’s next on the agenda?”
“Reputation, which is basically like currency except not, except yeah. Also, how to get it, how to get around, how to check the news and the social feeds, and all the other shit.”
“What if I wanna take a nap, can I fork and have him listen and then merge down later?”
“Technically, except you can’t make your forks do stuff. They’re a whole copy of you so they’ll know what’s up. You may as well just take the lesson as one of you and fool with that later.”
“Damn. Can’t even pull one over on myself.”
The lessons are long, and somewhat convoluted. But there are slides at least. Flow charts. Shit I understand, directions I can follow. Give me a user manual and I’ll work the rest out on my own, that’s how I’ve done everything else so far in my life. Reputation as currency, traveling, public sims, private sims, walking between connected sims, building sims, so many things. Things you literally cannot forget now, ADHD or not, because your memory is part of a computer system and it’s permanent. You can lose files at best, and even that takes effort.
It’s like they optimized my brain. Except…they kind of did optimize my brain. I can think clearly here, and that’s really nice. If I want to multitask I can fork and we can all do all the things at once, get them done while staying on task, making new forks to take on the new tasks that pop up, and then all merge back down into me because there’s way too many of us to keep track of at once. I don’t like the idea of there being a lot of permanent different versions of me, but when I do fork the forks all agree that getting stuff done and then merging back is efficient and useful.
I’m told that makes me a “tasker”, rather than a “dispersionista”. I have no idea what those words mean, it incurs another lesson. I suddenly feel like the idiot in basic training that causes a safety meeting for the whole shop.
At the end of the day I find myself with a shitload of information and the ability to go home, because I have a home here. One that isn’t at a hospital. It’s an apartment with a view of wherever I want it to be. I tell them anywhere connected to someplace public is fine, because it’ll be good for my head to be able to step out of a numbered unit, lock my door, and go outside into a city of some kind and do life where there are people and landmarks and things. They link me to a public construct that has exits to a bunch of public sims, so all I have to do is decide where I want to be in the city, what public sim I’d like to go to, and either exit via the permanently connected door to that area or just use the region guide to pick a place and use the multi-teleporter door for convenience. It means there’s no need for taxis or public transit, though the latter exists because people like trolleys and riding on them.
Eventually I get to thank the man who’s helped me through all this stuff, and he tells me his name is Garyson. I can’t fault him for that, my name is Jackson though I intend to maybe rid myself of it later and switch out to a nickname. He tells me that he understands completely, and that he is in fact a forked instance of a perisystem tech who only showed up in my sim because they were concerned that I may have required a personal touch to help through the tutorial as I was in such poor shape upon upload. He will be merging down as soon as I leave, and that if I happen to run into a person in a public sim who looks just like him but not dressed like a doctor, who recognizes me and who’s name is Greg, that’s his down-tree and I should consider him a friend. That’s good to know. I tell him I might try to turn into one of the animal people that my friends back sys-side used to hang out online with all the time. They always seemed friendly, and it would be a good change of pace.
He said he would keep an eye out for a big mule called Jackson, then. I told him to maybe keep an eye out for jack mule maybe called Sierra. He asked where that came from and I explained that one of my old call-signs was Saint because I regularly volunteered for mine-clearing duty on the D9 Sweeper. You have to be a saint or a madman to do that job and as far as call-signs went Looney and Lucky were already taken. So Saint it was, and Sierra Tango is alphanumeric for S-T. He laughed and nodded, and we exchanged system mailbox addresses so we can write.
Then, finally, I got to go home.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got there, just like I wasn’t sure what to expect anywhere else in this world. But I focused and I left, and I found myself in a one-bedroom apartment with a little balcony that overlooks a street. It seems like a pretty nice place, the kind of place I can stay.
After a while I realized that the action on the city street wasn’t the sim I was connected to, but an illusion. It was a reflection of an actual public sim with real people walking around and riding trolleys and going in and out of the little shops. It’s neat the kind of stuff you can find in the help files just by thinking about them. I guessed if I went down to the ground floor and went out, I would probably exit between two shops just like it was across the street. It seemed to be on a nice end of town, though I wager there really aren’t that many shitty ends of town in a nice big System where money isn’t real and crime is generally a fantasy carried out in dedicated areas for people with a specific anarchy bent. Doesn’t matter to me, really. I’m not a cop and I’m damn sure not a soldier any more.
The apartment is nice, the stove seems to be natural gas. I do like a natural gas stove, but find it funny that someone went to the lengths to replicate one here.
Or maybe I did it subconsciously? This one is exactly how I remember my mother’s old stove that had been in the family since her great-great-grandmother to be. I decide I want a drink of water, turn and open a cupboard. Cups are there, familiar multicolored plastic and glass.
I pause. This is kind of unreal. Help files time. Sure enough, the apartment is generated on a static floor plan based on common housing plans from an old city on the east coast of North America. The contents of the apartment are generated instantly upon first usage of things such as closets and doors, so if a new resident reaches reflexively for a certain cupboard expecting something to be there, the thing will be there every single time thereafter. In some apartments a certain door may be a coat closet, in others a bathroom, in others a bedroom, or an exit to a fire escape, or some other thing depending on what the resident was expecting.
So I check around. Cleaning supplies under the sink? Check. Pots and pans over here, baking sheets in the slide-out under the oven, spices over here, plates and dishes, yup. It all passes muster, everything is here. Open this door, closet. Door across? Bathroom. Hallway end door? Bedroom, nice and breezy. Must be a corner apartment, I’ll take it. The bed is huge and fluffy, comfortable. The carpet is soft under my feet, the hallway floor is hardwood when I exit, and the kitchen has spontaneously gained an old familiar table and chairs with some flowers in a vase on a doily in the center. It’s like I’m walking around in the perfect amalgamation of all the things I might find comforting.
It’s a little eerie, but upon realizing what’s going on and that I can change it at-will the mystery flies out of it. The System itself is trying to help me get comfortable, and offers to set things permanently so I may adjust them manually later if I like. I tell it to hold off on that, I might need the help to make it different later.
I check that the door is locked, amuse myself sitting out on my new wrought-iron chairs on the balcony. Watching traffic going by and munching on a sandwich made of ingredients I was really hoping were in the fridge. The apartment instance is apparently entirely self-contained, and doing basically whatever I like inside so long as it maintains the basic apartment format, costs absolutely nothing. Free food, water, power, heat, cooling, forever. If I would like to make a sim, I am welcome to do so and create a doorway to it from here if I so choose. I choose not to, this suits me just fine. This place feels like the old city in the north latitudes just a couple hours from the old farm country where I was born. Like a blend of my grandmother’s house and my first apartment in town when I was discharged from the service.
I get a ping. A letter from Greg. I didn’t expect it to be so quick, but there it is. He apologizes for bothering me so soon, but can’t help wondering if I have any intention to recreate any of my military experience here. I can only assume he’s encountered the kind of dedicated old soldier types, and assure him that I am happily discharged. Though some of it is permanently burned into my being, the names and the memories, I much prefer civilian life and would have preferred even more if the wars never had been fought in the first place. It was just a decision I made when I was eighteen, go to the factory or the mines out of high school, take out a big loan and go to a big school, or get my education at the cost of dodging bullets. I just keep my hair short because it’s low maintenance and wear my tags because they’ve got my medical information on them and I don’t like things on my wrists. Not that I need them now, but old habits die hard. I won’t be wearing hats with division patches any time soon, but he might find me at a firing range sometime because I always did enjoy marksmanship. I thank him for the links to the various veteran’s organizations, and quietly discard them.
We have a good conversation, going back and forth about various things, and I admit that while service took many of my formative years I’d much prefer old tractors and mending fences. He suggests that I should look into an old country sort of sim, I agree so long as it isn’t full of the kind of idiots I went to high school with. He suggests we meet up someplace and hang out once I’ve had some time to settle in. I tell him I’d like that idea, but I need a few days to work on myself. This old body has too many old scars and bad memories tied up in it, I might have to build a new one. He sends me some links to groups that help new uploads refine themselves. Fully half of them are obviously run by furries. I send him my thanks, and promise to ping him in a few days. He says he’ll do it too if he doesn’t hear from me first.
I remember hanging out with my sister’s friends on the ‘net after I was discharged, before my health fell off. Introducing myself as Mule, one of her friends paying an artist to do a picture of how I might look if I ever got an avatar like them. He was a good lookin’ dude. Short gray-brown coat, short brown hair same as mine. Kinda faded to white around the front, around the mouth. Long ears, blue eyes like mine. Built like me but without the scars. No fucked-up nose, no mangled scars on his shoulder, no sternum-split marks in front. I stop in the bathroom mirror and take my shirt off, looking at myself. The reasons my shirts all tuck in and have sleeves to the elbows. Even if I’m not actually in pain, I’m full of memories of where the pain is supposed to be and that hurts instead. Maybe I should just relax, but I have nothing to do. Walk around town?
Nah. Not yet. Let’s have a look a this apartment and all my stuff. Let’s get some stuff in my closets and drawers. I open my dresser drawers and stuff is already there, underwear and socks, jeans and shorts. Except the junk drawer, that one is empty. I guess collected useless random shit I can’t bear to throw out has to be generated manually. That’s fine. I stop to think about the links to the new upload assistance groups and kind of wish they were actual pamphlets. Now the pamphlets are in my junk drawer. First time for everything. I used to keep the envelope with the sketch in there too, the thick brown paper with the graphite and colored pencil mule guy on it. I can see it in my mind. I freeze, then look at the drawer and slowly open it.
There is an envelope in there, plain manila, split at the end where I opened it with my pocket knife. I reach in and draw it out, the return address is blurry and illegible. That’s probably because I don’t remember what it was, but the artist’s name is perfectly clear. I pull the contents out, two slips of cardboard with a paper between them. The piece, for as well as I remember it, snatched out of my memory and put into my two hands.
I have to stop and consider this for a while. This place is powerful. This place is incredibly powerful. Do not genuinely imagine the kinds of horrors that could be wrought with this kind of power. The kind of weapons that could be brought to bear.
You can’t just do that in public unless you have unrestricted ACLs for the area. Well, that makes things suddenly a whole lot less terrifying. That’s good. Thank you again, new upload information stream.
With my nerves mostly settled I finally find some time to just sit and go through the feeds, look at all the forums. Well, not all the forums but a bunch of forums. Tools to find sims, tools to find friends, tools to find sims where you might make friends. Public meeting houses, public meeting sims, the strange nigh-eternal road of nothing but coffee houses. At some point I started yawning, and finally noticed the passage of time while I was buried in exploring the world accessible from my apartment balcony. The air had cooled, the city had quieted, the sky had darkened. I headed inside and closed the sliding balcony door, walked around and turned some lights off, retired to the bedroom, set my clothes on a chair, and slid into bed. It feels so good, cool sheets warming with my body heat, wrinkling and conforming around me, the lack of any real sort of strong pain. Just some soreness that I was so accustomed to feeling at night that I seemed to have generated it for myself.
The morning came with all the fanfare of warm sunshine through the windows, whatever default public sim my windows and balcony look out into is having a nice day. I push the windows open and let the air run through the screens, slide the balcony door open, make some breakfast. Eggs and sausage, fresh from the fridge. Part of me keeps trying to say the place isn’t real, but the rest of me is quick to remind me that it doesn’t have to include suffering to exist. Lagrange station is an actual place, we’re on an actual machine, conscious inside that machine, living our lives in wonderland. Is that not enough? It apparently is, because the eggs and sausage are wonderful, the coffee is fresh and fragrant from my little single-cup machine with my little self-refilling spin rack of flavored brew cups. The part of me that was screaming “this can’t be real” was doing the same thing when that rocket hit the dozer cab, and I know how that turned out.
Shut the fuck up, stupid miserable disbelief voice. This is life now, I have free coffee and pizza for eternity. Suck it. Be miserable somewhere else, I can be alive here. I am alive here, and just to prove the point I’m gonna make it more unreal. I stand up and march over to my dresser, to my junk drawer. Withdraw the fliers, take only the furry ones with me, put the others back. Take the art with me too, I’ll need that. Classes are six days a week, starting at 10am. Well, today isn’t Sunday and it’s basically shortly after sunrise. Is it the same time in every sim? Quick check. The digital flier link says the time displayed is referenced to your own local time, so regardless of what your time is if you make the hop over half an hour before you’re pretty much guaranteed a start on the next class cycle. That’s cool. I make a note for myself on how to check local time, and keep it on an easy-grab reference. It’s currently five-thirty in the morning. Plenty of time to eat, get presentable, and get there really early and be nervous about it. Perfect.
Eat, clean up, have another cup of coffee, shave, get dressed, inspect myself in the mirror. Feeling brave, gonna wear a tank top under this nice beat-up canvas jacket I got. Yep, everything is still there. Including the barcode tattooed onto my neck during basic training…ugh. Eh, fuck it. Gonna change my whole everything later, let’s not dick around with this stuff on a full belly and with no help in sight. I wonder if I can take a photo for posterity. Yes. In fact I can take a selfie without the mirror. There’s a quick guide right here on how to do camera perspective snapshots. Well isn’t this handy. Take a few for posterity and…oh look at this. Your original upload is hard saved as a backup in case you fuck up real bad, so you can always revert as long as you don’t do a final all caps Quit because that wipes you clean off the System unless you have surviving forks. Good to know. Do not use the big Q command, that gun is always loaded. Well, the photos are already taken. I can paste them in an album or something later, or delete them if I get tired of them. Probably just file them off somewhere in case I forget. Yeah.
Cool. I am 100% ready to go. Let’s hit this meeting, learn about how to do the big thing.
Can’t wait for my sister to upload, I know she wants to. All her friends are going to upload too now that it doesn’t cost any real money beside cleaning up your affairs before you leave. She’ll shit a brick just coming up here and finding my ass walking around looking good feeling good. She’ll have an absolute fit if I’m a goddamn actual mule when she gets here. This is gonna be great. Look over the fliers, let’s see. Predators inc yeah no, bird’s nest, dragons and fantasy promising but not right let’s see yoooooo this one is at an actual farm. Fuck yeah. Focus on the location and…bang!
Got it in one!
Just unlatch the gate from this little landing area outside the fence and…unlatch the gate. The gate. Unlatch…shit. It’s locked. Is the flier old? Did the place close? Take a look over the fence, no there’s definitely some stuff happening in there. Hmm. Oh there’s a sign. Read the sign, moron. Gates open at 0930 daily. Cool! That’s not long to wait, it's only…0715.
God damn son of a bitch why do I always fucking do this. I throw the pamphlet on the ground and flop down, leaning my back against the gate. Shit fuck stupid mother fucker went running out of the apartment and can’t do shit for two hours. Goddamn. I poke my foot out and drag the flier back over to myself, dust it off and cram it into my pocket. Pull my art out of the big inside pocket of my coat, look at it. Hmm. Soon enough. Tuck it away. Pick a long stem of grass that’s gone to head, chew on it to keep from mumbling too much.
The gate opens behind me and I fall flat on my back. Oof. Look up. There is a leg next to my head. A hoof. A very big hoof. Attached to a very tall…mare. I think. Reddish chestnut lookin' horse lady. I smile sheepishly.
She looks down at me a little sideways and steps back. “Can I help you? We don’t generally even start taking early birds till nine.”
“Oh! Yeah sorry about that. It’s just…” I sit up and scramble up to my feet, and I am still looking up at this woman. I am five foot eleven now that I can stand up straight. God damn she’s tall. Dig the pamphlet out of my pocket. “Is this the right place? I kinda generally get up before the crows and I got all pumped up to get out here even though it says right in the pamphlet you’re not open for another couple hours. I ain’t got shit else going on so I said fuck it I’ll just hang out till whenever. Nice sunrise and all.”
“Sure is. So you’re here for the new upload species change classes then?”
“Cool. Well since I’m already standin' here and curious, what’cha supposed to be? Wait lemme guess. You’re here early as shit, rarin' to go and starin' me over like ya seen a ghost. Collie? You got the energy for it.”
“Nope, not even close.”
“Huh. Ram? Bull?”
“Oh god. Stud?”
“Nearly, but no.”
“Not exactly closer, but sort of.”
“You’re a fuckin' jack? We don’t get a lotta donkeys.”
“Damn near!” I grin big and yank the art out of my coat pocket and hold it up for her. “Mule! Mammoth Jackstock cross.”
“Well hot shit. So then you ain’t up here tryin' ta get friendly with the cows and the mares and all the cute little sheep huh?”
“No ma’am. Thick head, strong back, not worth a fuck in the sack.”
“Oh my fuckin' word you’re a hundred percent for real.” She whips around and cups a huge hand alongside her mouth and hollers toward the farmhouse. “HEY ANNABELLE!” She pauses. “Yeah I know it’s typical yeah she’s a Holstein don’t say a damn word about it she’s the sweetest lady you’re ever gonna meet.”
A face pops into the kitchen window, a bovine face. “HEY JENNA-MAY WHAT’S UP!”
“YOU AIN’T GONNA BELIEVE THIS!”
“AIN’T GONNA BELIEVE WHAT?!”
“I FOUND A MULE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE DAMN GATE!”
“WE AIN’T GOT ANY MULES ON THIS FARM JENNA-MAY!”
The mare grins. “This is like a daily ritual except usually I’m yellin' outta the henhouse at her ‘cause we got the dumbest fuckin’ rooster.” ahem “WELL WE GOT ONE FOR TODAY I RECKON!”
“WELL GOD DANG BRING HIS ASS UP HERE THEN WE GOT SHIT TO DO!” Heh heh. “You heard the lady, lock the gate behind ya and let’s get going. You mind a little farm work? I bet we can get you fixed up in about an hour, put a round ‘a breakfast in you and you can help herd the first round of newbies for the day.”
“Well I already ate breakfast so you don’t have to-”
She cuts me off. “Yeah yeah sure but judgin’ by your skinny ass and the fact I’m lookin' at a drawin' of an eight foot jack built like an Allis-Chalmers I reckon you gonna be hungry by the time we get done working you over. Speaking of, you any good with equipment? We could use a reliable hand around this place and you’re covered in scars and got a barcode on your neck.”
“Well ma’am you got the right guy ‘cause I was eight years Construction Battalion ‘til someone hit me with a rocket. I can run anything from a pallet jack to a wheel loader to a long-reach excavator to a D9 dozer and most anything else that moves if you give me a little time to fuck with it.”
“Damn, son. Your head ever make it back home?”
“Shit that’s one way of putting it. I’m happily retired but the shrap and the chemicals fucked me up so hard the government paid me to upload ‘cause it was cheaper than medical support.”
“Fuck me that’s rough.”
“Sure is. I was in a bad way when I uploaded but it’s been night ‘n day so far. Literally like about 24 hours.” We walk up to the farmhouse together, I’m kind of amazed to see actual chickens running in the yard and regular fluffy sheep milling around in a pen waiting to be let out. Not to mention the sheep-woman dressed like a shepherd, crook and all, tending to them with a rigidly attentive border collie at her heels.
“This place is kind of amazing.”
“We like it. So barely 24 hours on the System and you’ve had enough of humanity already.”
“I’ve had enough of a lot of shit, really. I’m sick of looking at this messed-up body in the mirror, my sister and all her friends are furry type folks and I got to hanging out with them. I just called myself Mule online and one day she got me that picture as a gift. I always thought it was cool and when I finally got up here I realized I don’t know anybody except other vets and damn it I don’t wanna spend eternity sitting around talking about the wars. I wanna do something decent with myself, something besides eight years catching bullets and building roads. They’re gonna try to upload over the next year, so I asked my friend Greg from the upload room about some stuff and he sent me some links. I figured fuck it, let’s do this whole new life thing for real.”
“Well if you’re tired of it we can sure work on getting you changed up, bet we can even get some farm tags to change out for them dog tags, put whatever name you like and all that shit on them and once the tats are gone and you’re a big ol’ boy ain’t nobody gonna be brave enough to ask.”
“Sounds good to me. Maybe I won’t need that little apartment in town after all. Sure is cozy though.”
“Aw that ain’t no thing. We’ll just bug systech and switch your exits, turn it into one of our resident bungalows here. You won’t even have to redecorate, but it will turn your balcony into a porch if you got one of the regular ones.”
“Cool. So when do we start?”
She hands my art back to me and I stick it in my coat pocket. “Right now. I’m gonna get you into the front room and I want you to start real slow on the forks, no species stuff till I get back. Just frame up some. I just have to run the chickens out the coop and collect the eggs and I’ll be back in to walk you through the hard part.”
“Man you’ve got reference material. That easy.” She turns to the kitchen door after we get into the front room. “Hey Annabelle? I’m gonna leave him in here to get started changing up, stick your head in if he starts yelling or I get hung up in the yard or anything. He’s got a reference but he’s super fresh at it.”
“You got it Jenny-Hay.”
“C’mon not in front of the new guy.”
“Sure thing, mm-hmm. You just get on with your chores we’ll be just fine. Sugar you need anything while she’s out you just holler or thump on the floor real hard or somethin’ an’ I’ll come help. ‘Kay?”
“Yes ma’am I can do that”
“Oooh he says it proper.”
Jenna-May rolls her eyes and laughs, then heads out. “I’ll be back quick as I can.”
“Don’t you go breaking any eggs trying to rush!”
“Don’t you sass me young lady!”
“I’m fifty years older than you!”
“That don’t mean nothin’!”
I laugh. They are in fact shouting back and forth from the farmhouse to the hen house. Oh well. I slide my coat off and toss it over a chair, then peel my tank top up and off. Hmm. I can feel my own ribs really easy, guess all that time sick really did put a hurt on me. Anyway, time to fork. My first attempt arrives looking just like me, but minus the neck tattoo. I can do better. He quits. I fork again, confirm with old-me that all the tattoos are gone. Cool. He quits, I fork. Got a couple scars gone, put on some muscle mass. It’s weird to think about, being me, then forking out of myself into a new me, leaving the old me there, but I kind of have to do it this way or I don’t really get anywhere.
I didn’t even hear her come in, just been bouncing back and forth between selves, making gradual progress, trying not to overdo anything or mess up real hard. I figure I’m pretty well taller and probably a hundred pounds heavier. She gets my attention as my last fork quits, and I realize I’m still looking up at her if not so severely.
“Not bad for a newbie. I’m gonna help you speed it up a little though. I want you eye to eye with me in two forks, and more shoulder. Make the jumps, don’t worry about your clothes. And start thinking ungulate. You need to rearrange a bunch of shit. Your whole skull, your feet, parts of your hands, and anything else you got a thought for. Don’t worry about your clothes, they’ll change to fit, ‘cept the ones you’re not wearing, we can remake those later.”
I pause to think, and give her a nod. Look down at the drawing. Yeah, that guy’s belt is stock fence high. He’s big, I gotta be big. I did say Mammoth Jackstock cross. I look up at her, then down at the art, close my eyes, really form it up in my mind, put some effort into it, and fork out of myself.
“Whoa, shit son I think you worked it out.”
I open my eyes and realize I’m a couple inches taller than her and built to boot. “Oh, fuck.” Hey whoa my voice is more resonant too, that was unexpected. My proportions are off though, but I fork a few times, each time hopping out of myself until there’s eight of me with her and I’ve got a nice fuzzy coat starting to come in. One more time and my nose is starting to drift away from my skull and reshape in the process. I look to her, she nods. All my other forks quit.
A few more forks in she pauses me, takes my hand, and holds it up to her own face. “I know it’s tough to imagine how it’s gonna feel, so I want you to get the contour of my head. You’re gonna be a big boy with a big straight Roman nose and a stand-up mane. Get your ears up, get them long, keep bulking up. You got the frame but not much on it. Think farm hand, not body builder.”
She’s amazingly patient as I spread my palms and feel the way her snout runs off the front of her skull, the lines of her jaw, the muscles, her neck. I don’t go any lower though, we’re barely friends after all. I step back, I fork again. That didn’t work. The fork quits. I fork again, pulling out of myself with a more structured face. She gives me a nod, then flexes at me and points at her bicep, and smirks. I roll my eyes and get back to work. Ten more forks and I think I’ve gained at least a couple hundred pounds but I still look kind of lean and starved.
“Barrel chest, brother. Lots of neck. You’ll get there. Big hooves too, start working on those.” She holds her hand up to mine. “You should be bigger and rougher than me, I’m a quarter horse mix and you’re a damn draft jack.”
Keep forking, lose the boots. The transition from feet to big heavy hooves is a little jarring, but the shape change forces my body to rebuild the shape from the thighs down and it changes the musculature all the way up my back. My ears come up, my hands get thicker, my everything gets thicker. I picture it in my mind. Not steps any more. Just picture the whole guy, the entire jack. The big `ole boy. Hold it, hold him in my mind. Be him. The next fork is a big leap, I stumble back and lean against the wall. My old self even looks surprised.
“Hot damn, you did it. I did it. Well, I guess you did it. You get what I mean.”
“Yeah. We good?”
He nods and quits. I look at her. “Yeah?”
She gives me a once-over, then gently swats me in the belly. “Put some fat on, you’re a farm hand.”
I laugh and oblige, a few forks later and she has me turn around. She nods approvingly, all my other forks quit.
“Good for now. You look proper, but if it were my doing I’d do your mane up taller. Jacks look good with s’more fuzz between the ears, but that’s just my thought.”
“I’ll let it grow out naturally and see how I like it.”
“Compromise, that’s how you get along with the boss mare. So how about it, I know what your system name says but what’s your name-name?”
“Oh, uh. Well. I was thinking Sierra.”
“As in like the Sierra Padre range?”
“As in Sierra Tango. My old crew used to call me Saint, Sierra Tango is alphanumeric for S-T.”
“Ah, gotcha. Hmm. I mean it’s your name, but would you hold it against me if my brain hangs onto Sierra Padre? Because you’re kind of a fucking mountain.”
“I’ll deal with it.” I pick up my size-medium tank top and hold it up, realizing exactly how fucking tiny it really is against me now, and snap it away. My jacket though, I conjure up an appropriately sized new version and fish my stuff out of the pockets of the old one. Slide it on, re-pocket my art and the pamphlet, and snap the tiny jacket away. One hand goes reflexively up to my tags, which have sized up with me because I wasn’t thinking about keeping them standard. Oh well. I vanish my boots and socks, looking down at my new massive hooves and learning to work my equally new tail. “So uh, what next?” My ears brush the ceiling and I realize since my legs changed now I’m near a full head taller than her.
She gives me a grin and looks down too, and hmms. “Well. We’ll worry about getting you fitted for shoes later, the farrier will be around this week. You can go natural till then, won’t hurt anything. Just don’t go splitting them on anything or being stupid.”
“No guarantees on the stupid part, I can be dumb as a rock sometimes.”
“Well at least you’re aware of it. Breakfast?”
“You were right again. I could eat.”
She steps into the kitchen and motions me to follow, so I do.
“Miss Annabelle, I’d like you to meet our new hire, Sierra. Sierra, this is Miss Annabelle.”
“Ma’am.” I give the pleasant-seeming Holstein lady a nod as she turns around. “Pleasure to meet you.”
She leans a spoon in a pan and turns to see, expecting someone at eye level and instead looking me in the chest before looking up. “Well hot damn Jenna-May you said you hired a new mule, I didn’t realize you meant a daggum full blown big boy capital J Jack. You fixin’ to come on full time and move house?”
I can’t help but hem a little and run a hand through my hair, pushing my ear back with it. “Well ma’am I’m new around but I’ve got two hands and nothin’ to do and plenty of time to do it. Miss Jenna-May said a bit about moving my place into a bungalow or something, but I’m not gonna put anyone out for the trouble at least ‘til I get familiar around here.”
“Oh you’ll fit right in just fine if you keep acting like that.” The chestnut mare grins. “Now sit your butt down and eat some breakfast. Miss Annabelle runs the house and the cows. You saw Dottie heading out with the sheep when we came in. I run the rest of the herds, the chicken house, and the gardens. I’m starting you on the hay fields, the storage barn, and the equipment shed. The guys have been saying we should quit using constructs to do all that but we just never found the right hand ‘til I heard you cussing my gate. We can keep a couple around as long as you need the help, but I’ll show you how to bring ‘em on and dismiss them just the same. The dogs and the other farm hands will be here with the early bird gate at nine.”
Miss Annabelle throws down a traditional Southern breakfast the likes of which I’ve never seen, and if I’m being honest I packed away more biscuits, gravy, hash browns, ham, eggs and toast in one sitting than I figure I could’ve done in a whole week before. Never in my life have I ever seen someone so happy to watch someone pound back a meal, but it sure did happen. She got real bubbly and promised to keep me fed if I promised to work it off every day and I’m not sure what got into me but I kissed the back of her hand and told her she had a deal. I thought she might pass out and I’m fairly sure Jenna-May about died on her feet when I did it. Later on I was informed that she’s recently separated and gets a little hot under the collar for gentle giant types. About that same time I found out that Jenna and Dottie were lesbians and both older than either of us by a long shot.
Well, I promised to be cool around the farmhouse and try not to charm her out to the hay barn even by accident. I wasn’t sure if I was expecting the cow shed to be full of a gaggle of cow girls or what, but sure enough what came out the gates was about a hundred head of mixed beef and dairy cattle. The regular kind you could still find back phys-side here and there. A half dozen dog-folks of various working breeds arrived shortly after breakfast to pick up various jobs around the farm since the business of precision forking had picked up and Jenna-May has been spending lots of time teaching classes in that, as well as good farming and gardening classes for humans interested in getting their hands dirty. Surprising to me, but not incredibly so when I considered how many of my old squad came from absolutely barren chemical flats and deserts.
I was talking to the young gearhead of a dalmatian that had been trying his damnedest to get their ancient baler put back together before it was time to mow again, when I heard Jenna-May holler at me to please go open the front gate and lead the students to the schoolhouse barn by the farmhouse. It was already getting warm for the day so I left my coat in the equipment shed and headed over.
She had told me not to tell anyone that I had just changed myself up that morning, since it doesn’t go quite so easily for most folks. It seemed simple enough to me, and I was startled plenty by the excitement of the dogs to have a jack around the farm. I was not prepared for the reactions of a dozen furries in their twenties and half a dozen gardening ladies in their fifties to the sight of me strolling down the path in just my blue jeans and belt. It was also about that time that I realized the various dog boys they had working around the farm were in fact not particularly small, but rather that I was probably never going to fit into my apartment again. Jenna-May promised she’d ask her sim-building friend to come by and help me put something up next to the tractor shed this week. Until then I was welcome to sleep in the hay loft.
It was a few days later when I was getting ready to meet a nice skunk woman about erecting a log cabin just big enough to be comfortable for someone like me, when I got a mail ping. Sure enough it was Greg. I had meant to send him a message later but as usual he got to me first. Just asking how I was and what I was up to, if I had found anywhere to be or met anybody. Well I snagged Jenna-May and a couple of the dogs for a photo by their big orange Massey loader tractor and sent it to him with a “Doin’ just fine, think I’ll make it out here.” He sent me a big laugh back, “Guess you made it out there and never left, huh? I figured they’d help you out but I didn’t guess they’d bring you on as hired help! You look good! I should come visit.”
I told him he’s welcome any time, I should have a new house put up by the end of the week ‘cause I don’t fit in the apartment any more. He said he’ll send over a few housewarming gifts and swing by on Saturday.
You bet, friend. I haven’t felt so alive in twenty or thirty years. I owe you one.