In Machine, a woman deals with loss in a world of biomechanical immortality

In this excerpt from new novel Machine, by Jennifer Pelland (Apex Publications), a woman named Celia with a troubled past has just lost her wife because she's chosen to become a bioandroid. Celia lives in a future of underground surgeries, bio-mechanical implants, and posthuman politics. In this chapter we begin to glimpse all the ways humanity has been changed by biotech — and how it hasn't. Later in the novel, things will get even weirder when Celia tries to recover from her loss by experimenting with bioandroid sex games . . . to get a taste, we've got chapter one of Machine for you right here.

Cover art by Katerina Zagustina

Machine: Chapter 1

Thursday, October 18, 2092

When Celia opened her eyes, Rivka wasn't there.

A white-spectacled technician looked down at her and said, "Sorry about the company." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, and she followed the gesture with her gaze and saw a pair of hospital security guards flanking the room's closed door. "There was another incident this week."

She struggled up onto her elbows. "Can you tell them to please let my wife in?"

He winced. "I'm really sorry, ma'am, but she's not here."

The chill in her bones felt so real that it took her a moment to remember they were now fake.

"I need you to stand for a couple of tests."

She couldn't feel any difference in her body as she sat up and planted her bare feet on the cold tile floor. Her muscles felt the same, her weight felt the same, her center of gravity felt the same. If she didn't know better, she'd think the hospital had done nothing at all and that she'd just awoken from a light nap.

Either way, Rivka should have been there.

The tech put her through a battery of physical and mental tests to make sure that her mind had integrated properly with her new body, then he gestured toward a curtained-off corner of the room where a pile of clothes awaited her. Once she was dressed, the security guards delivered her to the office of Dr. Kenneth McElvoy, the patient relations administrator for the program. "It's good to see you again, Ms. Krajewski," he said, smiling at her through an orange beard that had seemingly gotten fluffier over the past week. "How are you feeling?"

"What happened?" she asked.

His smile vanished. "The Hartford clinic was firebombed. There haven't been any threats against our facility, but we've stepped up security anyway, just as a precaution. Don't worry-patient safety is very important to us."
She'd meant what had happened with Rivka, but she couldn't bear to ask again.

Dr. McElvoy adjusted his glasses. "So, like I asked, how are you feeling?"

Celia looked down at her hands, hands that looked just like her old ones, all the way down to the small scar on her palm from a childhood fence-climbing incident. She'd known the reproduction would be exact, but still, it startled her to see how perfectly they'd recreated every little flaw. "Everything feels the same."

The smile came back. "Just like we promised."

"Just like you promised."

Why wasn't Rivka here? It wasn't like her to be late, and now of all times...

Celia worried at her lower lip with fingers that felt just as warm as before. Maybe the hospital had asked her to stay home for her safety, what with the Hartford attack. No, someone would have said so if that were the case.

"Here's your glasses," Dr. McElvoy said, handing her the copper half-frames. "Let's give your new biometrics a quick test."

She put them on and made sure the bone conduction pads were tucked behind her ears. She felt the light sting behind one ear as the frames attempted to verify her identity by sampling this body's unique chemical signature, now that she no longer had DNA. She then pressed the tips of her thumb and index finger together to activate the microscopic fingerdots just below her skin and turn on the glasses. The holographic lenses sheeted down at half-opacity and showed her home screen. In the upper right corner, her private message box had the Commonwealth of Massachusetts symbol flashing over it. That meant an official court document was waiting for her.

She didn't dare open it.

"Everything seems to be working," she said.

"Good. Now..." Dr. McElvoy leaned forward, elbows propped on his desk. "During your intake interview, we discussed how crucial it was to have a strong support system in place, especially during these first few difficult days. I'm concerned that your support system seems to have, well, vanished."
"But, Rivka..."

Dr. McElvoy frowned at her through his beard. "She's not here, Ms. Krajewski."

The message box seemed to flash even brighter. Celia felt her body go cold, and pressed her fingers together again to shut down her lenses.

"Do you have any close friends to stay with?"

"My friend Trini's out of the country. She's it, really."

"You shouldn't be alone right now, Ms. Krajewski."

She wouldn't be, because everything was going to be fine with Rivka. Maybe she was having another heart-to-heart with her rabbi. Or it could have been work. With the money they'd paid for this procedure, she couldn't blame Rivka for feeling the need to try to rake in a big bonus this quarter.

"Tell you what. I'll see about getting a security officer sent home with you, just to be safe-"
"No," Celia blurted. "I don't want a stranger in my house."

"I'm not trying to scare you, but you and I both know that this isn't the safest time to be one of our patients. Hartford took us all by surprise, but really, it shouldn't have. In other parts of the country-"

"My townhouse shares walls with the neighbors on both sides. I'll be safe. Honestly, the walls are so thin that you can hear-"

"You shouldn't be-"

"Please, don't make me spend the night with a stranger."

He stared at her for a long moment, then softened. "If you insist. But I'm going to have a private security detail drive by your house for the next few days. Don't worry-they'll be discreet. We'd never do anything that would publicly connect you to the program."

"Fine," she whispered.

"So, who else knows about your procedure?"

"I told Trini, and Rivka told her rabbi. And I had to tell my boss and the HR department. Taking a week off at this time of year-"

In Machine, a woman deals with loss in a world of biomechanical immortalityS

Dr. McElvoy held his hand up. "Of course. And I'm sure they understand the importance of keeping your new status confidential. So, I've got you set up for daily check-in sessions this week. Call my office if you need anything tonight, and if not, I'll talk to you tomorrow morning at eight." He stood up and held out his hand, and Celia took it reluctantly, submitting herself to the handshake out of sheer politeness. "Congratulations on the successful procedure. We'll have you back in your own body in no time."

Celia had the sinking suspicion that for Rivka, it was already too late.

The security guards had her wait a moment before escorting her out of the bioandroid wing and into an empty hallway. "It's better if no one sees you leave," one of them explained. When they hit a more populated part of the hospital, the two men faded back into the crowd. She let the hospital computer guide her to her car, climbed into the sky blue two-seater, pressed her thumb against the ignition pad, and let out a pent-up breath as the car started. There was no visible difference between this body and her old one. None at all. The car couldn't tell the difference, the tiny DNA metrics pads on her glasses couldn't tell the difference, not even Celia could tell the difference.

So why wasn't Rivka here?

No, she was just stuck working on a particularly tricky account. All Celia had to do was open her mail and she'd see that. The legal message was just…

She'd feel better once she was home and saw that everything was okay.

She put the car into gear, and her glasses flashed a message from the hospital suggesting that she mirror her windows before leaving the garage, as the protesters might be filming people entering and leaving the building. So she did. She exited the garage and stopped at the base of the ramp to stare at them as they knelt in prayer on the sidewalk next to their "Souls Cannot Be Replicated" banner.

That's what the protests in Hartford had looked like only a week ago.

Her glasses helpfully offered links to more information on the aftermath of the Hartford incident, the latest manifestos issued by radicals in the bioandroid protest movement, and the fastest route from Cambridge to Waltham given current traffic conditions, but she waved them all away.

The message icon taunted her.

She turned her glasses to drive mode to clear the lenses, and drove home.

* * *

Celia knew the truth even before she entered the house.

She turned into the driveway, her townhouse's garage door opening automatically for her car, and as she looked up, she saw that the plants were gone from the kitchen window.

Their two-car garage was empty.

Celia took a deep breath and stepped out of the car. If she stayed in the garage, she could pretend that Rivka had gone out to run an errand. That she'd pulled the plants onto the kitchen table so she could do a little pruning. That the procedure hadn't changed anything between them. That everything was going to be all right.
If only she could stay here forever.

No.

She squared her shoulders and forced herself to walk through the door. As she stepped into the laundry area, she saw that the litter box was gone.

She stared up the stairs in trepidation. There was a hollow where her heart had been, and a small part of her brain marveled that this body was so perfect that even grief felt the same. She swallowed down the lump of fear that was swelling in her throat and started up the stairs. At the top, she hesitated, one hand on the cold metal knob, before forcing herself to open the door and get it over with.

The photo wall was peppered with gaps. One of the matched easy chairs was gone. The artwork that Rivka's brother had painted as his wedding gift was missing, leaving a bright white rectangle on the wall where it once had been.

On the mantelpiece directly below that rectangle was a note. A paper note.

She crossed the room in slow-motion, as if the air had turned to molasses, and saw herself reaching out to pick the note up.

"I'm so sorry. I can't cheat on my wife by living with her machine copy. - Rivka."

The numbness fled and was replaced by pain. With shaking hands, Celia put the little yellow note back where she'd found it and made her way up to the bedroom, trying to ignore all the things that were missing along the way: the plants, the linen dining table runner, Rivka's bureau. The hope chest at the foot of the bed was gone, and in its place was a small stack of sheets and blankets. Celia pulled her childhood afghan out of the pile, climbed onto the bed, and curled up under the blanket to cry.

* * *

She should never have looked her father up in the genebanks. If she hadn't, she'd still be married.

Of course, if she hadn't, by the time they'd discovered and diagnosed the genetic time-bomb lurking inside of her, it would have been too late to do anything about it. It was a particularly nasty mutation of early-onset Alzheimer's, one that only two people in the genebanks were recorded as having: her, and her father.

But she had looked him up. Less than a week after her mother's funeral, Celia had petitioned the genebanks to identify her biological father-the father who had never known that she existed, the father who her mother had steadfastly refused to name. All Celia knew was that she was the deliberate souvenir of her mother's affair with a married man. "He has a wife, and by now, a family," her mother would say. "It's best not to trouble him."

The genebanks identified him as Warren Dunlop. He'd died less than a month after Celia had been conceived, just three days after his strange memory lapses had been officially diagnosed. The doctors had said they wouldn't be able to find a cure for him until after even more irreversible brain damage had set in, so he had shot himself in the head. Since the mutation was unique to him, and since he was registered as having no progeny, the case was closed on his disease.

And then Celia's records were legally tied to his, and the case was opened again.

There was still no cure, because there'd been no reason to try to find one, and the diagnosis was the same-in the time it would take to come up with the gene therapy to correct the condition, Celia would suffer irreparable brain damage. But thirty-seven years after her father received his diagnosis, Celia had two advantages that he didn't.

First, the disease hadn't yet struck her brain.

Second, there was now a stopgap available.

An android duplicate was created of Celia's body, a duplicate that looked and felt identical to the original, even for the wearer. The contents of her brain were transferred to this new body and her biological body was put in stasis. When the cure was finally developed, it would be applied to her biological body, then her new memories would be reintegrated into it and the android body retired.

Celia had had to petition a judge for a special waiver to get into the program. Dunlop-Krajewski's Alzheimer's, as her condition had been dubbed, wasn't technically deadly. Access to replacement bodies was strictly controlled, and they were only doled out to those suffering from terminal, incurable diseases. Celia's neurologist had argued that while Celia's body wasn't in any mortal danger from her disease, her mind certainly was. The waiver had been granted quickly.

The replacement body and the program to support it weren't cheap. Insurance paid for some of it, but due to the controversy of the program, the bulk of the funds came out of Celia and Rivka's house fund. For the entire seven years of their marriage, they'd been saving up to buy a real house out in the suburbs, somewhere where entire city blocks weren't taken up with rows upon rows of townhouses and apartments.

And if Celia had just gone into stasis and not insisted on a replacement body, then she might have woken up in that house. But how could she have willingly walked away from her marriage for years to lie unconscious in a stasis tube, waiting to be revived, when there was this miraculous alternative? And how could Rivka have expected her to?

Oh, Rivka had brought up plenty of tough questions about the procedure, sure, but Celia had assumed that she'd simply been trying to make sure that they really understood what they were getting into.

"What if the brain transfer is buggy?"

"What happens if the new body breaks?"

"What if the protesters find out what you are?"

"Do you think you'll be able to handle living with the knowledge that you're only a copy of the real you?"

Rivka only played devil's advocate when she didn't like something. Celia should have known. She should have-
Celia pressed her lips in a tight line and touched her index finger and thumb together to activate her lenses and all ten of her fingerdots. She tapped her index finger on the holographic projection to produce a cursor, and froze with it just under the flashing message icon. She closed her eyes, then flicked her finger up. There, at the top of the list, was a message with a legal flag.

A tap of her finger opened it.

The divorce was already final. Pursuant to the divorce laws of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Rivka Nomi Ben-Ur had been granted a unilateral divorce from Celia Isoke Krajewski on the grounds that by having more than 51 percent of her body medically altered or replaced, she was no longer the same person her spouse had married.

Celia pressed her fingertips together to shut off her glasses and placed the frames on the one remaining bedside table. She pulled the tatty afghan tightly around her, let out a long breath, and walked across the room to the full-length mirror.

The face that stared back at her looked exactly like her own. Same warm beige skin, same honey-colored eyes and dark tan spiral curled hair that was always just a little too springy to manage. Same lips that were halfway between her mother's skinny Polish/Irish lips and the full African lips from her father's picture. The same lips that Rivka used to trace with her finger-

No, not the same lips.

Machine lips.

She looked the same. She even felt the same. But she was just a machine copy of the woman Rivka loved.

And she was alone.

You can pick up a copy of Machine from Apex Publications or your favorite bookseller.