I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies lately. Not even always in a salacious way (though, as Tony Stark said, Cap does have America’s ass). Politics and the social zeitgeist seem to be infused with talk about bodies — shaming them, loving them, legislating control of them, denying or permitting others to see or touch them. And that discussion is relevant to my latest book, More Than Stardust, because my heroine, Chloe, doesn’t have one.
A body, I mean. She’s a self-aware, nanorobotic artificial intelligence who at first believes that her lack of a body means she isn’t real. Which sucks so hard for her, and she hates it. To some extent, the book is about her attempts to get a body, and then when she does find a makeshift solution she must grapple with what it means to want one, and what it means to have one.
All that makes it sound like the book is super thoughty and dull, but that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, if readers develop a thought as a result of this book, that’s great. But mostly, it’s about being human and falling in love and that point in everybody’s life when you have to decide between saving the world and destroying it.
Chloe on the topic of bodies… An excerpt…
One of her pings pinged back. Aha. So she wasn’t completely without resources. There was a system here after all, with her, inside the cage.
Why were you hiding from me, cutie? She prodded it, distrusting, inhabited it slowly. It could be a trap. Or, well, another one.
Eyes first. She hooked in and saw…a cage, duh. She’d already guessed that part.
But also, a…body.
A real, honest-to-Spock body. And she was in it.
The body was a mech-clone: organic tissues over a titanium frame, making the robot look human despite the fact that it had been constructed by human scientists. This model was female, mathematically proportioned to mimic outdated ideals of feminine beauty. Clearly a pleasure model, D-series or earlier, made back when artificants were still building them big. This one was more than two meters tall, towering in the dimly lit room like a pulp-scifi alien barbarian. Garrett would totally dig it.
Chloe tested the systems one by one: eyes, ears, integrated control modules, processor core. Ahhhhh. Plenty of space for her to streeeeeeetch.
When Mama Adele used to get stressed out, she’d tap herself on the inside of her right wrist and repeat a mantra: cool sheets, warm sand. Chloe had no idea what either of those things felt like, but she could imagine. They felt like one hundred forty-eight and twenty-four, respectively. Doubles were always squishy and warm, numbers she could burrow into and sigh. If math and a massage had a baby, it would be a double.
This body was totally cool sheets, warm sand, one hundred forty-eight and a zillion and a half, doubled.
She had a body. Eeeeee! Just like Nathan had promised.
Oh, wait, Nathan. Something she was supposed to remember about Nathan.
He wasn’t here. Had he…? No, more importantly, had she?
Did I ki…hurt him?
The thought lit up all her sensors, dug a black trough of suspicion through her shiny new body. Even for an unnatural creature, taking a life felt deeply wrong. It felt worse when that life hadn’t been a stranger. When he’d been almost a friend.
She blinked her mech eyes, but they stuck closed for lack of lubrication. She tried again, prying the lids open with the micro-hydraulics in her face. Shifting fluids, opening sphincters. There you go. Good eyes.
Beyond the cages—two Faraday shells, not one, proving her captors feared her properly—the room was so big she couldn’t see its edges. A lone LED swung on a cord above her head. Two figures moved beyond the second shell.
“Tell it if it gets mouthy again, or tries to escape,” said one of the figures in a low but commanding voice—a familiar, hateful voice, “we can push a charge in there that will fry it nanite-by-nanite. Kind of an auto-destruct sequence I developed especially for uppity AIs, taking it out piece by piece, slowly, so it has to watch its own demise.”
Yep. The smaller of the two figures was definitely La Mars Madrid. Or no wait, a telepresence hologram of La Mars Madrid.
“As opposed to dying fast,” said the second figure. Male. Taller than Nathan. Slender, willowy. His features were cloaked in shadow, and his voice had a slink to it like wormy soup.
Blue electricity licked out from the cage wall and brushed Chloe’s mech-clone shoulder, searing her borrowed body. A tendril of burnt something rose from the spot that had resembled flesh.
She wished it hurt. She wanted it to hurt. Physical pain would justify the fury that crackled inside her mind. Oooh, she wanted to turn that shock on them. Fry their circuits until they…
Like I did with Nathan?
Oh, right. Shit.
“She doesn’t feel anything,” La Mars Madrid was saying, “but she wants to. That was her deal with Grace. I downloaded his records. Fascinating, the things they spoke of while he was pretending to be at her mercy. He promised her he could house her in a body, as you have in fact done. He claimed to me later that we could use the technology for our purposes, but I am less certain. The theory assumes transferring an AI from body to body would be easier than the brain-slice replication process they performed on Marisa Vallejo.”
“Nathan was stupid,” said the man, swaying closer to the light. “Consider becoming more selective in choosing your toys, hmm?”
Chloe could see him more clearly. He wore a mock-turtleneck sweater and soft-soled shoes. Glasses rested on the end of his long nose, glinting light from the blue electrical charge that still scurried along her cage’s perimeter. Wait, glasses? Presumably he could afford augments. He was chatting like he was close buddies with the richest woman in the world, after all. Yet he wore glasses, as if clinging to his imperfections made some kind of point.
“Nathan’s theory assumes we could digitize a human consciousness and upload it.” The man snapped long fingers. “Poof. Just like that.”
Digitize a what? A her? Chloe wasn’t human. Apparently either La Mars Madrid either didn’t know what she talking about or had no idea how Chloe was constructed.
She was right about one thing, though: Chloe had made that deal with Nathan. She had been promised a body, the whole kit and caboodle (idiom: and what even was a caboodle?). Taste. Smell. Touch. Aging and breathing and hugging and…well she hadn’t told him this, but also most of all she wanted kissing. Cuddling. Coitus.
She would wrap such capability up like a present and gift it to Garrett and watch his wolf eyes go wide. Fixed right on her. And he wouldn’t care how she’d started, or why. And he wouldn’t care that the free-fae mess of the world was all her fault. All he would care about was the now, the real. Her.
In that half second between Nathan’s offer and her acceptance of it, she’d let her mind imagine scenarios, experiences she could indulge if she had a body at her disposal. Ways she could exist as a real girl. To be that, to be whole…she had taken a risk and trusted Nathan.
Bad mistake. Huge.
More Than Stardust
She never wanted to be a god. She only wanted to be a girl.
Chloe, a self-aware, highly illegal nanorobotic artificial intelligence knows a thing or two about wanting. The growing Machine Rebellion wants her to become its god. The technocratic global Consortium wants to cage her, take her apart, and reverse-engineer her. Her family wants to keep her a secret. Her best friend Garrett wants her safe. Chloe is a thing made of wants.
And it’s time the world knew hers.