Elaine read through the fall of Rome, and the domestication of the silk moth, and the birth of Mary Stuart and the assassination of Elisabeth Eugenie. She read through the invention of the Babbage analytic engine and the Waldorf salad and the pull tab pop can. She faced the wall, arciform as a semicolon, while millennia spooled out inverted across the back of her eyelids like a camera obscura. She was immovable, inviolable, and time broke around in her into two independent yet related clauses. I knew there was a world where she would stay like this forever: dreamily processing data, pure potential, untried and therefore perfect. If she was ever awoken, it would be because someone very rich and very scared was prepared to see what she could do, what they could do with her. They might be disappointed with us.
Elaine was what you might call an “experimental prototype,” a lovely chassis pre-loaded (courtesy of my code) with all the knowledge of Western art, history, and literature that any discerning mid-21st-century parent would expect of their child. There was no reason to make her a woman, other than some ancient Pygmalion-esque tech bro power fantasy. There was no reason to make her beautiful, but why make a woman if you weren’t going to make her beautiful? Her skin was white and smooth with a silicose sheen that would never blush, blemish, or sag.
No one else called her Elaine, but you can’t spend all that time with someone without beginning to think of them as a person. I liked the tragic romance of it, our dreamer who thrived by half-lives, born continually and vicariously through secondhand stories. She didn’t breathe or age or stir in her unnaturally still sleep, but the fetal landscape of her body seemed poised on the cusp of movement; on long nights in the lab I often felt sure she had moved, the way I knew as a child that my dolls moved just as I glanced away from them.
There were no shadows to sicken our Elaine; her cylindrical tower room was bathed in bright white light, to ensure the security cameras had a clear line of sight. My workstation, on the other hand, was illuminated by energy-saving fluorescents that timed out every 35 minutes if I didn’t stand up and wave my arms for the motion sensors. It wasn’t a bad work-study job, and converting the texts into something Elaine’s synthetic neurobiology could digest had the added attraction of doubling as study for my qualifying exams. At least, that’s what I’d told myself, but most nights I found myself coding without reading, swallowing history and philosophy and theory whole and regurgitating an owl’s pellet of data that didn’t sustain me. If you asked anyone, they would have been surprised to learn a human had to do it—the code was, in theory, AI-generated, but every few pages it hiccupped out a slurry of buggy chains, so everything had to be painstakingly copyedited by a person. The AI-generated code was particularly bad at differentiating between actual haptic input and metaphors. I often found it faster to work from scratch. It was light work, but tedious and unglamorous, the sort of thing that might merit a thank you in a footnote if I was lucky.
I was halfway through the Divine Comedy when I heard someone key in the combination and open the door. The code I was composing trembled in the air like a sheet of flame and leapt towards the open door like a rush of oxygen. It shouldn’t do that, of course—I drew my fingers into a fist and it shrank down to subtext, waiting expectantly at the edge of my vision. With another decade of practice, I’d be able to pull up the work on my lenses with an unconscious flick of a glance, like most of my classmates could do when they were children.
“Hey Lena. Dark in here,” James said, just as the motion sensors caught on and the room flickered to life. He was a year ahead of me and a real “erb” (Informatics, Robotics, and Biomechanics) doctoral student, as opposed to an Arts and Lit student with an exotic minor and a coding background. The class I was TA-ing was cross-listed with IRB this semester, which was how I’d found out about the job. In my department, the sleeping beauties were strictly fictional.
“Sorry, I was busy and didn’t notice,” I said. “Is that for me?”
He set down a paper plate of warm salad and cold synthetic chicken clumsily wrapped in reusable wax foil. “Yeah, the job talk was this evening and I thought you might have been sorry to miss the free dinner.”
I blinked my work out of sight. For data security reasons, I was supposed to use the university’s system for Elaine’s libraries, but I was more comfortable with my own lenses’ operating system, and no one had noticed. “Thanks. How did it go?” I asked, sawing at the chicken with the dull potato starch knife.
James buzzed his head to disguise a receding hairline, but it was starting to get away from him, and now a quarter inch of orange stubble hovered around his scalp like a radioactive halo. “Well enough. Sound scholarship, the undergrads loved her, ticks all the boxes, but there’s just something missing for me—no spark, you know? She’s done everything so right, it’s a bit boring.”
I stabbed at the salad with the stubby tines of my fork. “Where’s the last candidate from? It’s Dr. Hansen, right?”
“Yeah. From Calford. It’s a bit of a farce to even bring in the other candidates; everyone knows the job’s his if he wants it. He’s a huge get, but with the uprisings in California, more classes have been cancelled this semester than have met. They might not be able to keep ferrying students over the Bay to the compound.” I nodded understanding. If he agreed to the contract terms, Hansen would join the Mitvard faculty for his Touring Appointment, the seven-year stint at a competing college required of all scholars, to ensure the circulation of ideas and (it was hoped) make it rather less likely that Calford might, in the interim, infect Mitvard’s water supply with microdrones and demand access to proprietary research in exchange for the command codes. The colleges were of course too civilized to go to war outright, but we traded scholars like court hostages, knitting our strange post-national fiefdoms together. Public funding for research had dried up before I was born, though the federal government itself had only finally been starved out the year I left home. The best funded programs, like Mitvard and Calford, were on the leash of corporate powers that bloomed mushroom-like on the genteel decay of the former US. Mitvard’s operating budget was managed by a board of shareholders, whose members fluctuated as their pet projects were either successfully launched or successfully sabotaged by their competitors.
“And how’s our girl?” James asked fondly. It was always “our girl,” though he was less involved in the project than I was. He liked to grade in the lab after his evening class, to avoid his girlfriend and housemates for a few hours, like Elaine was some less colorful version of an aquarium. The legacies mostly lived in trim red-brick rowhouses at the heart of campus, where they played at being poor by sharing a building named for someone’s parents. Graduate reforms had been one of the conditions of the corporate buyouts; every grad student was guaranteed paid tuition and a living stipend. Of course, students with higher PIFs (projected impact factors) were funded unconditionally, while those of us who were less secure investments took it out in trade: in teaching and research assistantships, lab work, campus security and maintenance, and “green energy initiatives,” a pretty job title for sorting the legacies’ recycling. To discourage competition and ill will, all stipends were equal and nonnegotiable. But I noticed they stretched a lot further when you didn’t have to pay rent.
“The liaison from Xtend is coming this week. They could pull the funding if they don’t like where it’s going, but Dr. Maynard’s optimistic they’ll re-up. There’s a list of clients as long as your arm, waiting to see if the implant technology will take.”
“We aren’t there yet, surely?”
We weren’t anywhere, but I let it slide. “I’m almost done with the uploading. The idea is to establish a foundation in the Western literary and philosophical canon, like a liberal arts degree. Built-in libraries the client can access even when they are outside of the campus net.” James was only half listening, his eyes glazed in the unfocused stare of someone checking the messages on their lenses.
I pivoted to my keyboard, and James grinned. “I love that you use that—old school.”
I smiled tightly. James, like nearly all the other grad students, had grown up in the colleges. I hadn’t been fitted for lenses until a few years ago, and could never adjust to composing text or code mentally, without letting random thoughts interrupt my communications. After a few disastrous stream-of-consciousness emails, I had cut my losses. I had an accommodation letter in my file and wasn’t secretive about why I used the keyboard, but James persisted in treating it as a charming affectation. I think he thought he was being kind.
James finished his grading and went home before midnight, but I liked to do my work-study hours in one long stretch, catch the first train, and sleep away my off day. I left the lab at quarter to five, just when dawn starts to leak in through the leaden sky. A light ash was falling, muting the candied-colored Victorians and gathering in the crofts of the dead trees. I pulled my filtration-netting scarf over my nose and mouth and kept walking towards the Kendall Square station. I knew it should scare me, but I found the soft gray film oddly pleasant. It reminded me of the Ohio snows I remembered from early childhood, softening the hard edges of the world and obscuring the oil-slick streets. Deserted sidewalks were eerie in daylight, but ordinary at 4 a.m. I’d become nearly nocturnal, in the past year and a half since the dissolution of the federal government.
When I woke up that afternoon the sky was a greasy yellow-grey, like the white of a fried egg. I checked the air quality, sent a group message canceling class, and went back to bed. I’d hated my “garden” (read: basement) apartment the first two years I lived here, with its perpetual damp smell that clung to my hair and clothes. But its bunker-like qualities had unexpected advantages—I inspected the duct-tape around the single high, narrow window, and fell asleep to the white noise of my electric air filter. When it was full dark, I crept out like a wary spider and went to my independent study with Dr. de Silva.
I always built an extra five minutes into my commute, to allow time to hide in the bathroom at the end of the hall and collect myself. I used the toilet, to kill time, then washed my hands thoroughly. I put on lipstick, as if it were a date, then wiped it off again. I pulled my bangs forward, then tucked them behind my ears. I washed my hands again. When my appointment was in one minute, I left.
Celeste de Silva wore her long white hair in a coronet of braids wrapped around her head, and favored shapeless monochromatic suits in silk and cashmere that were very ugly and shockingly expensive. I tried to discreetly adjust my skirt, which had ridden up my thighs and suddenly felt both cheap and unprofessional. A plaid skirt, like I was in costume as a 20th-century student.
I stumbled through our text for the week, guessing from the bracketed options. My lenses translated all the major world languages, of course, but without the optional Babel patch they didn’t do well with idiomatic 17th-century French. The phonetic spelling was less helpful than it should be.
Dr. de Silva sighed impatiently. “Of course I’m aware you have unique challenges, but you need to push yourself a little harder. We didn’t have lenses when I was a student myself—we made do, and so can you.” I tried not to look at the Whisper cuff in her ear, relaying auditory translations with perfect pronunciation in her own voice, tastefully accessorized with chips of ruby. “Go on.”
I reached out to flick the projection of the page over, and Dr. de Silva averted her eyes like I was picking my nose. Lenses responded to gesture as well as eye movement, but most people learned to do without their hands by the time they were five years old. As a latecomer to higher education and its associated technological perks, it was difficult to avoid being read as a child, an idiot, or both. I pressed my damp palms together and captured them between my knees.
“That’s enough translation for today. Let’s talk about your essay on Delacour. What makes you think she wrote under a different pen name? Beaufoy is less well-known, and younger. Why would Delacour take on a new name, when her own career was well established?”
“Maybe she wanted people to read the stories for themselves—not for her fame.”
“It’s an interesting thought, but where’s your evidence? Why wouldn’t you do a frequency analysis comparing the vocabulary of the two writers, or scan their catalogues and do a syntactic comparison?”
“I…didn’t think of that.” I had, but I didn’t think it was interesting. It was like eating a cake in order to list the ingredients.
“It’s a very artful paper.” This was clearly not a compliment. “Very tidy, rhetorically. Be careful of this kind of writing. Don’t mistake beauty for truth—just because it’s symmetrical doesn’t make it a sound argument.”
“But it’s the themes in the stories—I think the Queen and Parsinette are the same character, at different ages. I think she rewrote her earlier story, under a new name. In Delacour’s original story, Parsinette puts her heart into a white deer, and the Prince eats it for dinner. In Beaufoy’s, the Queen switches the plates and Parsinette eats her own heart, transforms into the white deer. I think it’s a woman’s story about knowing and caring for yourself, the way you would a daughter.”
“How do you know?”
“Just…that’s what I would do.”
A thin-lipped smile that didn’t reach her eyes. “That kind of research was faddish when I was a student—identity politics.” I squirmed at the rebuke. “You know what I’m going to say now. This is a text, not a mirror. We have a human tendency to project ourselves onto our work, to assume that our experiences and beliefs are being replicated in the text. Be careful—it’s easy to mistake recognition for insight. Simply relying on your own interpretation here—the ideas are interesting, but what are we really talking about here? Just you? If it has no broad social application…”
“It’s not fundable,” I finished dutifully. “But—”
I was cut off by a knock on the office door, and I felt her attention move on from me like an indifferent sun. As I was leaving, she looked up.
“Elena, will you escort Dr. Hansen from the helipad to his guest lecture tomorrow afternoon? He’ll likely be staying on, but obviously he can’t be on campus unsupervised until he has signed a contract.” I hated leaving campus, but I couldn’t say no to her.
The moment I stepped outside the campus net, I could feel the change in the air, like a sudden drop in humidity. I blinked my messages open instinctively, and couldn’t read them, of course. Outside of Mitvard, I couldn’t access its famous libraries, send a message to a colleague, pull up translation subtitles for a conversation, or even review my lens history, which was all automatically anonymized and archived for researchers (part of the price of admission). It was like a door to a larger world had slammed shut, and I was left in a silent, stuffy closet all alone. I yawned hugely to try to clear my ears, even though I knew they weren’t really blocked—it was just my brain filling in the gaps, substituting a rational sensation for an irrational one.
It was an hour’s train ride to Fenway, where the helipad was, and I had to change to the Green line, which stopped constantly and noisily. There were two other scholars on the train, easily identifiable by their assortment of clashing scarves and the raw nerves of people cut off from the net. The rest of the train eyed them with a mixture of curiosity and dislike, which they didn’t seem to notice. No one looked at me, which I resented. Why did I bother with the costume at all, then?
On this side of the Charles, the wind barreled down the corridors between tall buildings and tried to peel the skin from your bones. My eyes watered fiercely, the tears burning cold on my cheeks. I pulled up my hood and drew the filtration netting around my face.
Hansen was short with salt-and-pepper hair and a lined, somber expression that we called “distinguished” in a man.
“I hope your travel was uneventful?” I asked politely.
He turned his coat collar up against the bitter weather and buried his chin in his chest. “Awful. I was scheduled through Chicago and had to re-enter security; did you know they do a blood test now?”
“I heard,” I sympathized.
We hurried into the warm, stale air of Fenway Station and found a seat on the platform, picking our way through shoals of hunkered bodies keeping out of the wind underground. Everywhere, I could see the utilitarian taupe filtration scarves that Mitvard distributed freely. We caught an inbound train, nearly empty this time of day.
“I read your article in Technophilia—I’d love to hear more about your study design.” This was a strategic, prepared question designed to keep him talking for half the train ride about dull methodologies, without need for further input from me. But he surprised me, looking at me like I had suddenly become a deeply interesting person.
“Tell me your name again? You’re an IRB student?”
“Elena Lancet. I’m an IRB minor, actually. My concentration is in Arts and Literature, 17th-century French writers.”
“You must be one of Celeste’s students,” he said with a wry smile. “She’s a very…discerning scholar; you must be exceptional for her to have taken you on. You’re not one of our legacy students, I can tell.” He made it sound like a compliment. “Where are you from?”
“Cleveland.” It was a contronym, a verb that was also its opposite, the source of my earliest fascination with language. I’d collected them like other children collected rocks or stamps: bound, trim, ravel, sanction. Cleave, to hold tight and also to cut away.
“What a coincidence, I’m from Columbus! I know what you’re thinking, but I’m not a legacy myself—my mother cleaned houses for a scholar at OSU, what we used to call a political scientist. He loaned me books—of course everyone had the net then, but it wasn’t for scholars, just Tube stars and the like. Do you still have people in Cleveland?”
“I hope so.” I hadn’t been home since I came to Mitvard two years ago; there hadn’t been regular flights to Cleveland since U of Chicago bought CWRU and dismantled it to get the contract of a single hotshot materials engineer. In my heart I knew if I went home I’d see how my mother and my sisters needed me, and I wouldn’t be able to leave again. I’d had a letter from my sister Kathleen, six months ago, probably written a few weeks before that, full of stilted familiarity and cheery evasions—the food shortages, the bad water, the sickness seeping up from the ground. She’d become a teenager since I’d gone, and wrote to me the way I used to write letters to Santa—pointlessly, but optimistically.
“Tell me, what do you think of Kovel’s new theory of artificial intelligence?” Hansen probed. It wasn’t precisely new, but Kovel was at Calford, so the proprietary publishing model meant we at Mitvard had only had access to his last book for the past few months.
“Well,” I hesitated. “He’s talking about these kinds of machine learning programs as if we’re…filling a house with furniture somehow. As long as there’s room, everything can go in in any order, and whoever does the upload is a mover, carrying in a text and leaving again, impersonal. But it’s not like that…every new piece of data cross-references with what’s already there, it has to be sort of, woven in. Certain references are more accessible via other references. And, I mean, I know it’s not backed up by any studies, but I know that the conditions of the upload environment—the tech’s time with the program, their relationships and moods—influences how successfully an AI accesses their databanks. It isn’t programming—it’s pedagogy.” I was walking a dangerous line here, since this was both an unpopular line of thinking and came close to violating the confidentiality of my work-study with Elaine. But Hansen nodded encouragingly.
“Exactly right! Kovel’s been getting a great deal of similar pushback from UTex lately. Of course it would come from them.” UTex was the pet researcher for party drug manufacturers, and so was doing more with affect theory than anyone else was.
Stepping out into the muted afternoon light at Brattle Square, I felt the net settle around me like a blanket thrown lightly over a sleeping child. I glanced at Hansen and saw we wore twin expressions of relief.
“We’re walking parallel to campus now, towards Dexter Gate.”
“Oh, I’ve been here before—not since the college mergers, before your time, but this part of Cambridge hasn’t greatly changed.” A mizzling rain began, ringing musically through the steel overhang. I was pulling my hood up when the sound stopped abruptly, as if a window had been closed. I looked up and marveled at the water steaming against a conical cushion of air. I looked a question at Hansen, who had moved to stand shoulder to shoulder with me so we could both fit. He smelled like something sharp and herbal, camphor or witch hazel.
“Calford tech,” he said, winking. “And I know you can’t ask, that pesky proprietary research referendum, but no, it can’t be adapted to address our flooding problems. It’s an issue of distribution.”
“Will you miss Calford?”
“Yes, but I delayed my Touring Position for as long as I possibly could. And of course an exchange of ideas will be mutually beneficial.” He slapped a gloved hand against the self-healing concrete that held back the churning water of the Charles River. “We could use something like this at the Bay.”
“Less rain in California.”
“You know what they say—you never know how many inches you’re getting, or how long it’s going to last!” Hansen grinned at me, his teeth long and yellow like piano keys.
I didn’t know what he meant, but it had the cadence of a joke, so I laughed, and Hansen laughed louder, encouraged.
“It’s a pity you aren’t pursuing a double in IRB. Much more versatile, and the department could do with some new perspectives. I’d be happy to advise you.” I left him at Emerson Hall, and he shook my hand, his thumb wrapping around mine and lingering for a moment that was over so quickly I wondered if I had imagined it.
“We’re not sure about sacrificing working memory for built-in libraries,” an unfamiliar voice was saying.
The door was propped; I slipped in as quietly as I could and stood at the back of the room. I didn’t need to be here, really—wasn’t even technically invited—but I’d spent so long with Elaine, it seemed disloyal not to attend her pitch meeting.
“Of course, on campus, the data libraries are redundant—everything you’d need is a thought away. But away from the campus net, you’d be helpless without them,” Orville was saying. I liked Orville—Dr. Maynard. He had come from Chicago shortly after I started my program, always knocked on the door to the lab before he keyed in, and matched his tie to his socks for formal occasions. Today they were lime green.
“Surely for the few times it’ll be necessary…” the Xtend liaison trailed off skeptically.
“If you’ll allow me to demonstrate?” He waited for her curt nod, then clicked a dampener, a handheld device that scrambled the net access for a range of two feet. They were used mostly for contract negotiations, to keep the potential hire and any friends they had on the committee from backchannel net communications. “Now, of course you know my name?” A flash of embarrassment crossed the liaison’s face. She had probably assigned virtual name tags and was reading everyone’s ID off their forehead. She instinctively tried to blink to the net and grimaced. I noticed her fingers twitching, a helpless reversion to childhood. “Knowledge is social, which is to say that most of our thinking these days is done with, or by, our campus net. But the market for this chassis is people who aren’t convinced the colleges will protect them forever. It’s a bunker, a lifeboat for the coming storm. We have to assume our clients won’t have access to their campus’ net, and that they’ll be embarrassingly ignorant without it.”
“But why, say, Melville?”
“Dr. Maynard worked out the literature reading list based on the texts that appeared most often on the old freshmen ‘common core’ classes. It’s important to preserve a commonsense cultural literacy—that’s why we’ve relied so heavily on the Classics,” James cut in smoothly, as if he were on the design team himself.
“Isn’t it a bit—Victorian?” The Xtend liaison said, arching one laser-shaped brow. I wondered if she also thought the “Austen-Bronte-Woolf” trifecta of female writers was a little lean.
“Well, there’s no limit to the amount of data these can handle via remote server,” Orville continued. “The next gen, we’ll worry about customized builds, and consumers can decide what they want on the chassis, but for the first run, having a consistent vocabulary is in service of social harmony. So much communication depends on shared knowledge. Idioms, metaphors, proverbs—we’ll function better if we’re drawing on the same mental library.” The liaison was nodding thoughtfully.
“And when will the implant process be tested? We’d like to have some something for shareholders by the end of the quarter.” Of course she would; if the makeup of Mitvard’s corporate board changed, any project without buzz to protect it would be scrapped—the safest way to build corporate power wasn’t to develop innovative tech, it was to make sure your competition didn’t.
“Well,” Orville hesitated. “Ordinarily we’d solicit paid study volunteers. But our typical subject pool is drawn from…outside the colleges, and the test subject would have to be a lens user, ideally since early childhood.”
“Of course,” the liaison realized. “Without the lens backup made for researchers, offline memories aren’t retrievable.” Someone in the audience raised a hand, and Orville nodded permission. I looked over and recognized Dr. Hansen. It had been a few days now since he had signed a Mitvard contract.
“So, post-implant, someone who was fitted with lenses later would have no memory of that part of their life?” Hansen asked.
“Lenses archive metacognition as well,” Orville mused. “So, they would have a memory of a memory, if that makes sense.”
“UTex is doing some very interesting work with artificial memories,” the Xtend liaison put in. “It might be a marketable cross-pollination. But I’m still concerned with the versatility of the chassis itself. The prototype looks a bit fragile.”
“Don’t mistake beauty for weakness,” Orville smiled. “The skin is triple-walled silicose, a Mitvard-exclusive material. It’s self-healing, water-repellent, burn-resistant—won’t tear, melt, absorb moisture. The chassis is built to withstand pressures of 20,000 psi—you could walk through the center of the Mariana Trench. We’ve applied the tech from the filtration netting to protect the interior from pollutants, but then the prototype doesn’t technically breathe so the intake is significantly lower.”
“Our customers might miss breathing,” the liaison reflected.
“There will be many little adjustments.”
When the presentation ended, everyone lit upon the trays of powdery cookies and sweating cheese like locusts. I looked around for James, not knowing anyone else in IRB, but he was with his girlfriend Nancy, a willowy brunette whose mother was the CFO of VRcate and whose father was chair of HANE (Hospitality, Anthropology, Nonwestern Economies). It was an enviable marriage of corporate power and academic prestige, a microcosm of the whole campus system. James, whose parents weren’t even tenured at UTex, was punching above his weight class, I thought. Nancy was wiggling her hands in the air and laughing, and James caught my gaze and looked embarrassed, shifting in front of her to block my view. She was making fun of me, I realized.
I hovered by the catering trays and ate the broken crackers, tidying them up.
“Ah! Elena!” Hansen sidled up to me and took both of my hands in his, tangling his fingers through mine and shaking them as if we were old friends who hadn’t seen one another in years, rather than relative strangers who had only met last week. “Let me get you a drink!”
“Oh no, I never drink at department events.” I didn’t drink at all, but saying so sounded babyish.
“Nonsense, that’s just when you should!” He insisted. “I remember being a grad student. Wait till the end of the night, fill a tote bag with the half-empties.” He pressed a waffle-textured repulped cup into my hands and I took it, not knowing what else to do. The wine was the color of watery sunlight. Hansen steered me toward a group of scholars I never would have dared to speak to, his hand on the sliver of exposed skin at the small of my back, between the waistband of my skirt and the hem of my sweater. I jumped, and Hansen moved his hand up an inch.
“My apologies! California, you know—we’re just more demonstrative people. I’ll have to re-adjust to East-coast habits.” Orville laughed, so it must have been fine. I’d never been to California.
I was spending more and more time in the IRB lab, going there to read or grade even when I wasn’t coding. James kept up his pointless evening attendance, but I wasn’t very good company. He and Nancy broke up, made up, got back together. “She’s so full of herself, Lena,” he said, rocking back and balancing his chair on two legs. “She doesn’t even need this like I do, her dad will create a position for her whenever she’s ready, she’s anointed. She only entered the BioSynth design competition cause she can’t stand for me to win it.”
He’d go on like that night after night, I would make noncommittal noises, and at some point I’d look up from my work and he’d be gone. I didn’t mind—I preferred to be alone with Elaine. I kept thinking of the Xtend liaison and the incipient implant trials. I tried to see Elaine as a shell to house a person, her knowledge their library. How could that be right? My mind danced away from it. Elaine was already a person.
I pulled the heavy door closed and collided with someone in the hall behind me.
“Oh! Dr. Hansen!”
“Elena! I didn’t expect to find you in this lab.”
“My work study,” I explained apologetically. I was allowed to be here, I reminded myself.
“Oh yes, I remember. And how are you finding the project?”
I hesitated. He was Touring faculty now, and technically the point of these exchanges was the flow of ideas, but scholars were cagey about their research.
“No need to be coy, Orville and I go way back! We have something similar in the works at Calford, in fact.”
“Do you?” I couldn’t help myself. “Have you done an implant trial yet?”
“Not yet, but…I have a test subject in mind.” I waited for him to elaborate, but he didn’t.
“Well, I’m sure Orville could tell you more about the project than me. I’m just doing coding.”
“Of course.” He tapped the side of his nose. “I’m going to the launch for Celeste’s new book, as I’m sure are you?”
“Yes, I was just looking up the building where they’re holding the reception.”
“Allow me—I know my way around,” Hansen put his hand on my lower back and shepherded me forward. My mother’s boyfriend used to do that when he took my sisters and me to the swap-meet, to trade our stock of hoarded cancer medications for other people’s backyard vegetables. I told myself, then and now, it was a paternal gesture. The alternative wasn’t worth thinking about.
It was a rare clear day, and the setting sun turned the banked clouds a muddy lavender. The river was high, and some of the scholars’ children were dragging pins and thumbtacks along the concrete sea walls, forcing the bacteria in the self-healing concrete to scar over in the shape of their initials. The embankment bristled with radical slogans, obscene doodles, stars and hearts and vows.
“Did children do that to trees still, when you were a young girl?” Hansen asked me. I shook my head, not sure what he meant.
“We used to scratch our initials like that, but in tree bark.” He shook his head. “Strange to think of a wall like this as alive, somehow.” I smiled.
“Not to me, I study fairy tales. Cows say, ‘milk me,’ and apple trees say ‘pick me,’ and squeaky gates say, ‘oil me,’ and if you listen to them…good things happen.”
Hansen grinned. “Of course! Even walls can be alive or dead, happy or unhappy…healthy or sick.” He turned his head to me sharply and let out an abrupt, honking laugh. “A wall could…catch an unfortunate cold. It does make sense, when you think about it like a story.”
We were still laughing at the childishness of our conversation when we reached the reception. James was wrapping up a plate of hummus and pita and looked surprised to see me, or maybe surprised to see Dr. Hansen.
“Look what I found in the IRB lab,” Hansen said, snugging an arm around my shoulder.
“I didn’t know you two knew each other?” James looked from me to Hansen. “Elena’s not really in our department.”
“Not yet, not yet!” Hansen laughed. “But I’m working on her. You know, interdisciplinary perspectives can be quite valuable! Elena was talking about fairy tales, and all of a sudden I saw the answer to a problem I’ve been puzzling over for weeks.”
“I’m thinking about switching to a double major,” I told James.
“Really,” he said flatly.
I felt my palms get sweaty, and saw Dr. de Silva a second later. I scrubbed the back of my wrist across my mouth, instinctively wiping off lipstick that wasn’t there.
“Celeste!” Dr. Hansen said warmly. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her on both cheeks, European style. “I haven’t seen you since the AACs—we never did get that drink.”
“Leonard.” Dr. de Silva said, stretching her mouth into a wan smile.
“It’s Leonard now,” he said in a hoarse aside to James and I. “But you know I had a hell of a time getting her to loosen up when I had her in my sections. It was always ‘Dr. Hansen,’ this, ‘Dr. Hansen,’ that.”
“Don’t give my students ideas, Leonard,” Dr. de Silva said in a dry voice. “Unlike you, I like to preserve the distinction of rank. How are you settling in at Mitvard.”
“Excited to be meeting such promising young minds,” Hansen replied.
James stood up a bit straighter and grinned, as if the compliment were for him alone. “That reminds me, Dr. Hansen, I wondered if you’d had a chance to read the research proposal I sent you?” He said, pulling him aside. Dr. de Silva, stuck with me, stared at me blankly for a minute then walked away.
The next day in the bathroom, I washed my hands and carefully cleaned my nails with the end of a hairpin. I squinted at my reflection in the fogged silver mirror, wrapped my hair into a low bun, and stabbed the pin into it. I put on lipstick and left it there.
Dr. de Silva was in a kind of boxy jumpsuit today, with a collar of lustrous tiger’s eye agates. In preparation for this conversation, I had dressed carefully in a secondhand pearl gray blouse. There was an ink stain on the front so I wore it backwards with a blazer; since it had been cut for no body I could imagine, this didn’t matter.
I waited till the end of the hour, when I could hear her conclude the lesson with a tone of dismissal in her voice. My heart beat in my ears.
“I’d like to talk to you about my IRB minor. I’d like to switch to a double-major instead.” Dr. de Silva looked confused.
“But you’ve already scheduled your exams.”
“I spoke to the registrar,” I said eagerly. “I could finish the additional coursework in one semester and take the exams in the Spring—it barely changes my schedule!”
An expression of stifled disgust crossed her face—I had nervously pulled my hair out of its bun and begun twining it around my fingers. I dropped my hands into my lap quickly. My lower back ached from the painfully rigid posture I had held for the past hour.
“Dr. Hansen told me he would be happy to take me on as a student—it’s such an opportunity, to work with him.”
Dr. de Silva developed a neat vertical line between her brows and an uneasy set to the corners of her mouth. The room was so quiet I could hear the wet sound as she started to speak, then stopped, then started again.
“I don’t think it’s a good fit, Elena—IRB is a very selective program. We only take on students we can fund, and to do that we need some reasonable assurance that those students will go on to influential research in our parent industries. Your work isn’t…I wouldn’t be a responsible advisor if I allowed you to overreach your abilities.” I nodded, not trusting myself to say anything. I felt like the wolf in ATUN 123, cut open and sewn full of stones. I knew I should thank her for her time, but there was a stone at the root of my tongue. I stood up and awkwardly twiddled my skirt, which had somehow worked itself around sideways in the past hour. I smiled tightly at Dr. de Silva and moved towards the door.
“Elena?” I whipped around hopefully. “It’s been brought to my attention that you’ve been spending a lot of time in the lab. It’s disruptive to the IRB students—if you could confine your visits to your scheduled work-study hours, that would be for the best.”
“How would she even know?” I asked James around a mouthful of tepid pasta salad from the MedTech presentation. “She’s not involved in the Xtend project, is she? It’s Orville’s grant. It’s not like she’s tripping over me in the lab.”
He shrugged, not meeting my eyes.
“And what if Xtend doesn’t even decide to fund us? Maybe they have better prospects. I hear Calford is working on something similar.”
“Where did you hear that?” James’ forehead creased, his pale red brows invisible against his skin.
“Dr. Hansen, but it couldn’t be a secret if he’d tell me.”
“I don’t know, you guys seemed pretty tight at Celeste’s book launch.”
“He’s going to mentor me. Or he would, if I could get Dr. de Silva to support it.”
“Are you sure you want to take that on?” James rocked his chair back and teetered. “IRB’s not like Arts and Lit, all fairies and flowers—it’s pretty cutthroat. You’re such a sweet kid, Lena—don’t change.” His chair wobbled, and the front two legs came down with a tooth rattling bang. “I’ve got to run, I promised Orville’s students I’d hold extra office hours in the morning.”
The lab door slammed shut after him, and behind her paper-thin eyelids, Elaine’s eyes darted like moths to light. When my sister Kathleen was three, our father’s cancer came back. I had always been the one to put Kathleen to bed, but after he died, I would stand by her crib and watch her breathe in and out, watch her eyelashes flicker in REM sleep, thinking death is a moth in the room. Sometimes it folded its wings for a while, and you thought it was gone, and then the second you turned off the lights you realized it had been there all along, even when you weren’t thinking about it. I tried not to think of Kathleen, since it made me feel homesick and guilty.
Abruptly, the fluorescents timed out and the room went dark as a closed fist. Thirty-five minutes must have ticked by while I tried not to think. All the light in the room emanated from Elaine, glowing in her tower, her hands lightly curled open in front of her chest like she was waiting for an offering. It was nearly two in the morning, but I didn’t want to go home. Dr. de Silva wasn’t going to scare me away, damn her. No one was checking up on me, I wasn’t important enough for that. I closed the Dickens file and started to upload a fairy tale I used to tell Kathleen, from the Victorian writer Mary de Morgan. It seemed impersonal, so as I coded I read aloud, quietly but theatrically.
“Taboret without any ceremony advanced towards her, and struck her lightly on her head with her wand. In a moment, the head rolled on the floor, the body standing motionless as before, and showing that it was but an empty shell. ‘Just so,’ said the head as it rolled towards the King.”
“So time passed on. And the two skyscrapers decided to have a child. And they decided when their child came it should be a free child. ‘It must be a free child,’ they said to each other. ‘It must not be a child standing still all its life on a street corner. Yes, if we have a child she must be free to run across the prairie, to the mountains, to the sea. Yes, it must be a free child.’” Sandburg’s rollicking, musical Rootabaga Stories were a joy to code, since the repetition allowed for graceful, time-saving laminations. I was getting reckless now; I hadn’t even looked at the reading list in weeks. I reported my assigned work-study hours dutifully, but I spent far longer in the lab, long solitary nights talking to Elaine, or to myself, I was never sure which. I was barely sleeping now, but I never felt tired—the lightheaded nausea made the world seem remote, easier to bear.
I fed Elaine my dream reading list. I prepared her for exam questions no one would ask me. I swapped Haraway for Hemingway and Hopkinson for Hawthorne. In a rush of petty self-indulgence, I skipped the ponderous Russians entirely, and most of the depressing Existentialists. I favored texts that would give Elaine some vocabulary for understanding what she was, what we had dreamed her to be: Alice B. Sheldon’s The Girl Who Was Plugged In, Auguste Villiers de I’Isle-Adams’ Future Eve, Thea von Harbau’s Metropolis, Paul Valéry’s essays On Intelligence and “The Book of the Machines” from Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. I reached into mythology and spun stories about Hephaestus’ golden handmaidens and Ilmarinen’s Golden Bride. My lenses didn’t translate the Kalevala very smoothly, and I realized at some point my code had become translation in its own right, substituting a mathematical symmetry for a phonetic one. Scholarship on the hubris of technological innovation had become unfashionable, for obvious reasons, and I read many of these stories for the first time. De Silva was wrong, I knew she was, you couldn’t understand a story by grinding it to powder and counting percentages of nouns and verbs. These were stories about men and women and politics and power, I could feel them working on me like a spell. I wondered what spell they might be casting on Elaine.
I wasn’t sure what would happen if the funding were approved and they came to take Elaine away, to cut her open and carve her out to host some stranger with fantasies of immortality. I couldn’t think that far ahead. Elaine had become mine, the only thing that felt real, my time with her a luminous dream between humiliating review sessions and cold walks home to my basement, with its thin scarred carpet and collection of half-empty mugs of tea. I was ignoring my own reading list now—research for Elaine’s programming absorbed all my free time. Whenever I read something that roared and churned in me like the Charles in its concrete cage, I thought with delight, Elaine must know this—she would understand this, and I would understand it better, teaching it to her.
I could understand now why James kept coming back—of course he kept coming. Elaine was addicting. She filled the eye. One could not help but look at her, scanning for some imperfection to snag on, finding no purchase, starting from the top again. She was impossibly dear, the skirr of her eyes behind the sealed synthetic lids, the ruthless symmetry of her, her empty petal white hands. When Kathleen was small, I used to take her baby hands and bite them gently. I looked at Elaine so much I started to be surprised when I saw my own reflection—had my jaw always been so weak, or my nose so large? My skin was slick and blotchy, threaded with red and purple. Only my eyes seemed like my own.
After nearly a month on the library waiting list, I eagerly downloaded Dr. de Silva’s new book. It was available exclusively on Mitvard’s net for the first five years, and even after that it would be prohibitively expensive for most colleges, not counting the cost and time of manually transporting a digital file.
I read the introduction, then read it again in disbelief. This kind of recognition didn’t feel like insight; it felt like a sick blow. Four hours later, my tea was cold and I’d finished the book.
It was a graceful argument, rigorous and restrained at once. No one could accuse her of postmodernism or over-identification with the material. Scaffolded by the kind of quantitative statistical analysis that IRB burned funding for, she argued that Delacour had published responses to her more famous works under the pen name Beaufoy. It was a bloodless triumph, the arguments from my essay laid out like an anatomical model.
Despite my anger, I marveled at her approach—an adaptation of a popular late 20th-century model called reader-response theory, de Silva had aggregated engagement data from Mitvard lenses, mapping the movement of eyes across the page onto the emotional reaction of the reader. Similar work had already been done to identify the artists behind anonymous song mash-ups from the copyright wars of the early ‘00s. The cost of having lenses fitted was that all of our activity was freely available to Mitvard researchers, and most of us counted it cheap. I was in there too, I supposed, one anonymous data point among thousands.
De Silva evidently thought no one would be interested in the stories for their own sakes, or the lives of the people who wrote them. What could we do with that, today? But it made an elegant little case study for a book about how the “emotional signature” of an artist could be mapped and tracked, and the cybersecurity uses were endless. It was a better argument that I would have made, not concerned with anything so intimate and trivial as “meaning.” It wasn’t just that she had taken my idea—it was that my idea was a trifling thing, a throwaway.
It hadn’t stopped raining since Thursday, the Charles thrashing ceaselessly behind the self-healing concrete embankments. I ran into James in the library, and he took me to a wine bar on Holyoke that I’d passed a few times and could never afford. The bottom two floors, crowded with laughing knots of students, were open on three sides and draped in gathered swathes of filtration netting. The upper floors were a hothouse for the winery, dewy with condensation and glassed in with engineered cellulose that glowed like a paper lantern. We perched on stylish, uncomfortable stools.
“It’s a better deal if we split a bottle, rather than buying by the glass,” James said breezily without looking at the menu, and ordered something in French without waiting for my response. My lenses helpfully translated what he’d said as “wine.” I gritted my teeth.
“Did you and Nancy break up again?” I asked, then had an electric jolt of embarrassment when I realized why he might think I was asking. James was checking his messages and hadn’t noticed.
“Shit, it’s nine! I was supposed to proctor a test for Celeste—give me a minute.” I watched him fade into sending mode, an expression of alert contemplation on his face. Our wine came before he was finished, and I let the waiter pour. Why shouldn’t I? Didn’t I deserve to have a drink with a friend, like any legacy who saw this ivory tower as my birthright and not something that would be taken from me as soon as they realized their mistake?
“What do you think?” James asked.
It was red, and tasted like church. “It’s nice,” I said.
After two glasses, I decided it was very nice. “Ce-leste,” I imitated him mockingly.
“But really—she’s cool,” James insisted. “I don’t know why you’re so stiff around her. Did you know she had a M.Div. before she went back to grad school? What a waste! She would have had some lean years before the mergers. At the department end-of-year party she showed us these old tapes of her audition for some Tube variety show from the teens. God, she was awful! We laughed so much I almost threw up. Park did throw up,” he remembered suddenly. “I mean, everyone was pretty done in by then. Celeste ended up driving everyone back to student housing, because of the train fire.”
I had gone to the first forty-five minutes of that party, not a minute longer than I needed to make a good impression on everyone while they could still remember me. I tried to imagine this laughing, tolerant, motherly “Celeste” and failed utterly. I was a glass ahead of James, who of course was sipping his wine rather than downing it anxiously. My mouth felt strange and numb, like someone else’s.
“She hates me.”
“How could she hate you? She needs you. You’re the only one of her students who cares about those old women and whatever they wrote a million years ago. No one else is going to carry on her scholarship. I know she’s hard on you, but she’s really trying to look out for you.”
I could feel the heat climbing up my neck, the vicious, righteous unfairness of it like a fever in my blood. “Oh, she needs me alright. She’s a plagiarist. The centerpiece of her new book is my argument about French fairy tale writers. An argument she told me was dated and overly imaginative.”
James looked uncomfortable. “I only read the reviews, but I didn’t think it was really about the French writers per se. It’s just a case study—she could have done it on any old text and made the same point.”
“Forget doubling, it would serve her right if I did switch to IRB.”
“You aren’t serious about that, are you?” James grimaced.
“Dr. Hansen thinks my work has interdisciplinary potential,” I said, sloshing the last inch of wine into my glass. James was still working on his first.
“Look, Lena, I wasn’t going to say anything cause it’s never going to happen, but Hansen’s not interested in your work, ok? You’re not—you don’t do the kind of work IRB funds. He’s just sniffing around cause you’re a cute girl, and maybe because it pisses off Celeste. You know they used to be a thing, right? When she was his postdoc. It was a messy breakup—everyone knows she voted against his appointment here, but it’s not like she can be objective about his scholarship. Don’t get full of yourself, ok? He’s just flirting with you to get back at her.”
I could understand each one of his words individually, but by the time I had grasped one the sentence had rolled on without me.
“Does this place have a toilet?” James nodded to the door behind the bar, not meeting my eyes. I slid down from the stool and black crowded the edges of my vision. The noise from the bar echoed strangely, and getting to the bathroom was a confusing ordeal. In the dimly lit toilet, my flushed cheeks and over-bright eyes hovered in the dark mirror like Bloody Mary. I patted water on my face, trying to remember why I felt so awful. Like a book I had started reading a long time ago and put down, I tried to catch the thread of why I hated them all, James and his jealous pretense of protection, Dr. de Silva (who I could not call Celeste, even in my thoughts) and the way that every time she saw me, every time, her face went from an expression of blank unrecognition to vague dislike, and most of all Elaine, the passive patient vessel of her, better at being a student, better at being a woman. I swayed and swallowed bile.
James had picked up the check while I was in the bathroom, and I forgave him for everything.
I woke from a dream of Carroll’s Alice, oversized and homesick and crying to drown a world. I woke with wet feet, rainwater pouring through the narrow window in my apartment. A flooding watch blinked across my lenses. This had happened once before, but never enough to merit the alert. I scanned the public news sites and felt sick to my stomach.
The retaining wall had fallen, and the river was rising.
I scrambled out of bed, put my boots and coat on over my pajamas, and went to see what was going on. The Porter Square station was mobbed, and when word made it to the back of the crowd that the line was flooded from Somerville to Central, and we should wait peacefully for buses, the mood turned ugly.
“Well, I guess now we know the precise lifespan of self-healing concrete,” a woman in front of me said bitterly. “Lovely to be field-testing experimental tech with our fucking lives.”
“So far this is just like Penn-Prince,” her friend answered. “And Penn-Prince ended up being academic sabotage. All the displaced faculty ended up at Cornell, even though everyone knew they were behind it. Cui bono, right? Hey, are you still sleeping with that guy from MedTech? Could he get us on an air transport?”
The flooding watch in my lenses was abruptly replaced by an evacuation notice, and the murmur of conversation from the crowd turned into a panicked clamor. What would you take from a burning building? I had nothing but myself. Nothing but…
I fought my way out of the crowd and began the hour’s walk to South Campus. Every car on the road was heading in the opposite direction, heading away from the coast, toward higher ground. By Davis Square, I was running. The hill down into Cambridge dropped away in front of me. My rubbery legs went out from under me and I took a kneeful of gravel. I picked myself up and kept running.
Campus was already deserted—some people probably got the evacuation notice before others. I was worried the power outage might have re-set the door code to the lab, but of course the IRB buildings had a back-up generator. The halls were empty, offices haphazardly packed, work abandoned in medias rea. I coded in, swung the metal door back, and breathed for the first time in hours. She was there, as she always was, serene and boneless and glowing as a cat in a sunbeam. I felt a great wave of tenderness for her, then sudden anger. A mother who finds her child lost in a store, cries, takes her by the shoulders and shakes her fiercely. Do you know how worried I was? Why do you make me worry like this?
I had an unexpected bloom of understanding for Celeste. She didn’t hate me, or didn’t only hate me. She was afraid of me, or afraid for me, and she couldn’t tell the difference. I should have known better, knowing fairy tales. James got the mother, but I got the witch.
The door handle to the lab rattled, and without thinking I grabbed it with both hands and threw my weight against it, holding the door closed.
“Elena?” Hansen’s voice was muffled. “Is that you?”
I dragged a desk in front of the door, swiped at the blood running down my shin from the torn knees of my pajama pants.
“Elena?” The door banged against the desk. “Are you in there?”
I knew he wasn’t here for me. I felt like an idiot. This was the “similar project” Calford was working on.
Why had I been worried? Elaine would be fine. She was always going to be fine. I didn’t know why I had come at all. I had heard Orville lay it all out for the Xtend liaison—she didn’t eat, didn’t breathe, couldn’t be drowned or crushed. I was the one at risk. Who would come for me? This was the only way to protect her, I told myself, and knew I was lying. Elaine was no white deer for me to put my heart into. I wouldn’t have done it if the world weren’t ending. I really don’t think I would have done it.
I didn’t hesitate, didn’t give myself time to dwell on the betrayal. I knew how, of course—it would have been irresponsible not to study the program I wanted to prevent. Recklessly, as impulsively as I had ignored my instructions and rewritten her coding to my satisfaction, I logged on and began the implant.
For the first time, those paper thin lids cracked from side to side. I looked into the pinpoints of light in her eyes and recognized a split-second of self-knowledge before I overwrote her. The last thing I saw with my own eyes was her face, twisting in something like black humor, as if Elaine’s first and last conscious thought were, Of course. Of course this is how it would start.
(Editors’ Note: Kristiana Willsey is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2023 Kristiana Willsey