Featured April 9, 2020 Science Fiction

O What Freedom, This Great Steel Cage

By Shane Halbach
Apr 4, 2020 · 1,015 words · 4 minutes

Dirty Hands

Photo by Franck V. via Unsplash.

From the editor:

Three strangers share no connection except the part-time rental of a surrogate robot, each for their own very different reasons. But sending your consciousness out for trips always risks something unexpected coming back with it.

Don’t miss this brief gem of a story by Shane Halbach, a software developer and fiction writer living in Chicago. His work has appeared in Analog, Intergalactic Medicine Show, and The Year’s Best YA Speculative Fiction, and more.

From the author: This is a story about how technology plays a role in disability, anxiety, and addiction. I have been thinking about it a lot lately; if you had to sum this story up in one phrase it would be, "Social Distancing"!

1. Liv

When Liv takes control of the body, she shoves the lingering personalities aside impatiently.

Liv pushes hard, exploring the boundaries of the machine. She scales mountains, surfs lava flows, searches for treasure at the bottom of the ocean. She is careless of the sturdy frame, impatient with any limitations.

This body, built of welded circuits and tempered steel, is infinitely better than the weak, imperfect slab of meat she leaves behind, dangling stationary from the control harness.

The robot is Liv’s true body. Her thoughts transmit flawlessly through silicone and nanotubes, servos and actuators reacting exactly how she intends them to. The crippled, mis-wired body she was born with is a prison.

When Liv is stuck in her own body, she is paralyzed; in the mechanized body she is free.

2. Mahir

When Mahir takes control of the body, the lingering consciousnesses almost overwhelm him. He hates the alien feeling of their stray thoughts. Sometimes he thinks it’s not worth the effort, but then he masters the last of the electrons, and the others are conveniently forgotten. The moment of transition is simply the price he has to pay.

In his own body, Mahir is immobilized by anxiety. He’s incapable of leaving the house, petrified of social interaction.

In the surrogate body, Mahir has no such worries. The robot is a shield, protecting him like a shining metal cocoon. Robot Mahir is not the real Mahir; anxiety doesn’t travel through the control harness.

In the body, Mahir is free to do the things that he cannot do in his regular body. The bulky robot looms in the shadows of the symphony, its shiny camera eyes browse art at a gallery opening. Sometimes, Mahir walks far from the city to fields of unkempt grass or wild flowers, just to sit and listen to the wind.

Within the ivory tower of the surrogate, Mahir knows peace.

3. Nick

Nobody knows why Nick uses the surrogate.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” they say, “but there’s nothing wrong with him, is there? I mean, wouldn’t you be embarrassed?”

When Nick takes control of the surrogate, the body doesn’t move at all. Nick doesn’t fight the errant thoughts and memories; he embraces them. Drowns in them. Luxuriates in them. Both of his bodies are motionless as he flits from thought to thought, grasping at them like dust motes, until they fade.

Nick doesn’t care about the body at all; he only cares about those beautiful, unintended side effects. Living the ethereal, anonymous echoes of the lives of other users is the only time he can escape from his own life.

It’s the only time he truly feels free.

4. Liv

     When Liv is not in the body, she feels trapped. She hates how slow and weak she is. Having lived as the surrogate, living as Liv is that much more painful. She wishes she could disconnect her memories when she disconnects from the control harness.

     Sometimes Liv is weary of it all. Sometimes she thinks maybe she should stop using the surrogate. Just rest.

     Liv is suspicious of her thoughts. Are they really her thoughts, or does she pull a little bit of someone else with her when she disconnects? Does she leave a little of herself behind?

     Liv doesn’t know which is worse: to be trapped in her useless body, forced to dwell on her thoughts, or to be whole and capable, but lose herself.

5. Mahir

     When Mahir is not in the body, he is a bundle of nerves. He can’t sit still, but he can’t even think of leaving.

On most days, he tries to leave at least once. Usually he can’t even make it to the front hall. Once he made it as far as to touch the door handle. He was confined to his bed for days afterward.

Mahir thinks of robot Mahir, brave and bold, going where he pleases. Mahir girds himself in stolen courage, transferred by osmosis through copper circuits. He lines his flesh with imaginary steel, dons a red jacket, and crosses the threshold.

In his mind, Mahir is robot Mahir, and a prisoner no more.

6. Nick

When Nick is not in the body, he can’t sleep, can’t eat. He grows gaunt and listless. He longs for stolen memories snatched from strangers, unaware.

He would give anything not to want them, not to need them, but he’s helpless. They’re written on the backs of his eyelids when he closes his eyes.

Nick hates the filthy, voyeuristic wretch that he’s become, but he’s trapped, unable to stop. If only someone would stop him. If only he could be free.

7. Liv

Liv takes the surrogate through a park, running as fast as she can through the wide waste of space. The sun dips low on the horizon, slowly melting into a placid lake.

Liv does something she’s never done before: she stops.

Suddenly, in that moment, the sunset is the most beautiful thing Liv has ever seen. Anxiously, she wonders how many sunsets she has run by without noticing. Anxiously, she wonders where the anxiety is coming from.

There is a bench by the lake, and a man sits there wearing a jacket as red as the sunset. The man seems familiar to her somehow, but she doesn’t know why. Liv lowers the surrogate onto the bench.

“Your robot looks strong,” says the man without taking his eyes off the lake. “You’re lucky to have him; you can do anything you want.”

“I can’t decide,” says Liv through the robot, her voice scratchy and mechanical. The robot’s eye cameras flawlessly transmit the color of the reflection in the water.

Together they sit and appreciate the silence. It is the stillest Liv has ever been in the body. It is the happiest she’s ever been, in any body.

Being able to move, and choosing not to, is the ultimate freedom.

8. Robot

The robot’s consciousness is quite different from theirs, and mostly it longs to be free.

This story originally appeared in Analog.

Shane Halbach

Shane Halbach writes whatever he feels like: humorous science fiction, fantasy, magical realism when it strikes his fancy, even a touch of horror