Chelsea Vowel - A Lodge Within Her Mind
It was nestled in between an email promising a “GiANt C0ck,” and “70% OFF ESSENTIAL OILS COVID-19 PROTECTION ACT NOW.” Six months into her share of global isolation, and she was even willing to scroll through her spam mail folder in the hope of relieving her bone-deep boredom.
She let the cursor hover over the email, and took another sip of honeyed Labrador tea, the last of her stash. With the now pervasive fragmentation of her thoughts, she slipped into a mental unboxing of receiving the care package from Treaty 3 territory a month and a half ago, her cousin’s looping, beautiful writing in purple ink on the battered cardboard, slitting open the tape and folding back the flaps as a deep, earthy scent rose and filled the room with the soft intimacy of the dark places in a forest populated with endless varieties of spruce and pine. Removing the dry packing material, askiya, sphagnum moss, she’d found a pair of long rectangular birch-bark earrings, each adorned with a purple-dyed fish scale flower with a lime green porcupine quill stem and two lovely, emerald moose-tufted leaves. Dried Labrador tea filled an empty Red Rose box, a bundle of sage tied with red thread was nestled beside it along with a little cloth sachet of cedar, and another of tobacco. A small pot of honey. Carefully folded brown paper held wild rice. Medicines from the land, the combined scents leaving her crying into the moss, a new, more pungent smell emerging as it swelled beneath her tears.
By then, she hadn’t been out of her tiny bachelor basement suite in over three months, unwilling to risk defying the Emergency Act isolation order. Carding and policing had always been pervasive in this mostly Black and Indigenous area of the city, but the pandemic had provided justification to kick it up to 80s dystopic sci-fi levels. Like many others in areas where the rent strike had been unsuccessful, her rent had been deferred, rather than waived, though her landlord got a hefty assistance package, and she’d be forced out of her apartment if fined under the Act. No one was really certain where evictees were housed after that, but she didn’t want to find out. It was bad enough knowing any potential end to this pandemic would result in her being homeless anyway as the months of deferred rent came due all at once.
It constantly felt like her body was being sliced into numbed pieces, disassociated from one another, bereft of touch, of freedom, the wind on her skin, the sky that still existed, vast as the prairies but hidden by grimy windows that opened into a shadowed ally. She didn’t even talk to herself anymore. Sometimes wondered if she’d lost her voice entirely, but before she could finish the thought, would forget to check. The night that care package came in, she’d slept with the contents arranged around her body, the mingled bouquet filling her dreams with shape-shifting beavers, the silent green cold of abyssal waters, green-needled beings that rasped and whispered in a restful abandonment generations of their Elders had only known through pulsed histories, passed on with the languid cycle of sap, barely believed until it was real again.
“WHOLE BRAIN EMULATION: beyond the limits of biology!!!!!!!!” She clicked.
Isolation had done strange things to her attention span. She often found herself, stiff and cramped from immobility, a book in her hand and no memory of what she had been doing for so long. Straightening her limbs took time, and left her gasping with the pain. Or she’d sit down in front of the television to watch a show, preferably as vapid and escapist as possible, only to blink and see the darkened screen and “Are you still watching” awaiting a response. At first it had worried her, but after a while it didn’t matter. Nothing did. She recognized that she was probably depressed, but that was also the new normal.
She scanned the email, unable to focus on complete sentences. Phrases appeared in front of her like bubbles floating away from the screen, ballooning and popping: processing substrate, recording unique arrangement and responses of neurons and synapses, copy and transfer, Mens Aeterna’s patented neuromorphic hardware, upload at home. And then one phrase that swelled and grew and replaced all the others: escape the confines of your current reality.
It’s what they’d all been exhorted to do since social isolation, then legally and unevenly enforced isolation, began. Escapism was the new patriotism. Read a book! Watch television! Take up a hobby! Create! Network online! Drink alcohol, smoke weed, if you’re confined with your partner, have a lot of sex! Play dress up! Stream your life 24/7, watch other people’s livestreams, anything to forget you haven’t been outside in over 130 days, longer for many. And yet the curve hadn’t really flattened, it had plateaued, with sudden sharp peaks every time the restrictions were softened, followed by even harder measures.
At first, they’d said not to blame people who became ill, but that sentiment had evaporated as the death toll rose. Getting ill was a sin. Getting depressed was a sin. Needing medical attention for any physical or mental ailment taxed that resources needed to battle the pandemic, needing more supplies than weekly rations: sin, sin, sin. Everything was a military/religious metaphor now. It was all battle and sacrifice. Front line workers were angels, their managers generals, we were being tested/attacked, people had to obey orders, send hopes and prayers, support the troops, don’t be a collaborator of the virus, only heretics disbelieved now, treason was a death sentence one way or another, the victims were in a better place now.
So many people were like her, confined alone, and after a while videoconferencing, phone calls, emails, none of it made up for the lack of physical presence of another human being. Suddenly hundreds of millions of people were identifying as prisoners, but so mired in misery, most were doing nothing to organize around actual prison abolition; an opportunity undermined as much by apathy as it was deliberately interfered with as social networks became increasingly monitored and censored.
What did she have to lose? She’d tried it all, she’d been a bright-eyed Indigenous warrior seeking cultural and spiritual enlightenment, a strict schedule, daily exercise, becoming more and more inventive with the dwindling rations once she’d lost her job, posting positive messages online, attending online Cree classes, beautifying her space, telling herself she’d emerge from all of this taking nothing for granted ever again. Yet as the weeks ground on, and turned into months, without the single touch or present voice of another human being, without even being able to go outside, it all melted away. She stopped checking in with her friends, because their faces on the screen seemed as unreal as any television program, and that scared her. She couldn’t distract herself, unable to focus long enough to let her mind escape. Her girlfriend had gone home back to Montreal in the early days for a visit, just before all travel was suspended; she had a hard time even remembering what she looked like. Friends and relations all faded away, lost in their own fog, or unable to penetrate hers.
She didn’t bother trying to re-read or puzzle out the whole email, she just clicked on the link. Scammers didn’t have much to work with once the bank accounts of anyone receiving government aid were frozen, and anti-virus protections had become scarily robust once it was clear the entire remaining global economy relied on a safe internet.
She filled out the form on the page that appeared, though it took a very long time because she kept staring off into nothing for long moments, before coming back and typing in another answer. She clicked on the Terms and Conditions without reading the long legal document, hit submit, and went to lay down. She didn’t really sleep anymore, just sort of drifted in and out of consciousness until she got too bored to stay there.
There was an extra box on top of her ration container. She lingered outside the door for as long as she safely could, greedy eyes drinking in the sights, sunlight too bright, wind bracing, but smelling green and sweet, ears unplugged as the walls fell away for the brief time she had to collect her goods. Across the street, she saw another person, a neighbor she’d never interacted with who was on the same ration schedule and now perhaps the only human being she saw in person anymore. She lifted a hand in a half-hearted wave, but the faded blonde woman, enveloped in a dirty pink housecoat despite the late-August heat, simply grabbed her box and disappeared back into her home once more.
An Edmonton Police Service armoured vehicle rolled into view and chirped when the driver spotted her, slowing almost to a stop. Funny how there was always endless money to buy pipelines and toys for cops. She pulled the boxes into her apartment and closed the door, heart pounding. Honestly, it was more excitement than she’d had in weeks. Holding the boxes against her chest as she leaned against the door, she felt an unfamiliar tug at her lips.
She unpacked her rations first, the little bag of flour, a wax-wrapped thick slice of lard, a bit of sugar, baking powder, canned meat, canned spinach, ugh at least last time it had been baby corn, a handful of black beans, powdered milk, three tea-bags, not even Red Rose, some nameless orange pekoe, three joints, and a mickey of bottom shelf vodka. Eggs and some fresh produce only came every third box.
Each neighbourhood had a different ration box, decided on collectively in an online process that had turned incredibly heated; and like most online processes, completely excluded newcomer families. Otherwise there’d be teff flour sometimes. She doubted the rations in other areas of the city were any more diverse, but her neighbourhood had a high Indigenous population, and the white people who ended up steamrolling the whole process decided bannock ingredients were culturally sensitive or something. It had escaped no neechie’s notice that these rations were remarkably similar to what their ancestors had been given after being forced onto reserves after the Riel Resistance. By now, she fucking hated bannock.
She made some anyway, glancing now and again at the unopened package on her kitchen table, the break in her routine making her feel more awake than she’d been in – well she couldn’t really remember. It had a sticker with her address on it, but no sender’s information. Smaller than a loaf of bread but oddly heavy. Sitting on her tiny kitchen table, full of possibilities. Extra rations? A care package?
She brewed some tea, choosing to use a whole tea bag for one cup rather than letting it sit in a teapot. She’d re-use it later, but this one strong cup of tea was a pleasure that hadn’t grown old, even as she gave up on long baths, moisturization, and other self-care routines that no longer made her feel any better. She forced herself to eat a slice of bannock and drink her tea, wrapping the rest of the bannock up for later, before she’d even touch the box again.
She wanted to hold the box up to her ear and shake it, like an act of Christmas divination, but she was afraid the contents could be breakable. Images flitted through her head, a pink glass unicorn, a plushy animal in some pastel colour, a collection of tiny illustrated board books telling truncated versions of fairy tales, a scented plastic snail that opened up to hold little items when you squeezed the shell. She realized these were all items she’d desperately coveted when she was a kid, things glimpsed in the homes of white friends, toys she’d been allowed to hold but not to have.
She opened the box carefully, and pulled off the brown corrugated packing material to uncover a white VR headset. She looked at it in confusion, disappointment settling into her stomach. Maybe the powers that be had decided on top of the weed and alcohol, the masses needed virtual reality? No doubt plenty of households had given that a shot too, but she wasn’t particularly interested. She sighed, and lifted it out of the box.
It wasn’t made of plastic, as she’d thought, but a much heavier material. Creamy white, glass? Ceramic? She flicked a cracked fingernail against it, definitely not metal. And instead of the elastic head band she was expecting, something unfolded that looked like a silver spiderweb, little shining circles like dewdrops spread throughout. She accordioned the spiderweb in and out a few times, until it suddenly clicked, and the whole thing became rigid, like the top half of a geodesic dome. Surprised, she put the whole thing down on the table. Looking back into the box, she found an envelope.
Inside was a thick white card, with instructions like you get with that shitty Swedish furniture, a seated figure pulling on the spiderweb like she had, fitting the dome over its head, putting the display down over its eyes, and then pushing a button on the side of the headset. That was it, no other information was given.
She sighed, gazing apathetically at the VR rig. The surge of excitement she’d felt had faded, replaced with the familiar grey haze of reality. New tv shows, new video games, new books, none of them caught, much less held, her interest anymore. On the other hand, the day stretched long before her, melting into all the days, and weeks, and months, and years still to come, with no promise of change.
She picked the headset up, and carried it to the battered burgundy love seat in her tiny living room/bedroom. She curled up on the sagging cushions, and holding the heavy display in one hand, carefully fit the strange dome over her head with the other. It caught on her hair, which made things very awkward for a while, but eventually she was able to smooth the thing down over her head. It was a bit too large, but there had been no instructions as to how to tighten it. The result was, it felt extremely front heavy, and as she lowered the display over her eyes, to rest on the bridge of her nose, the cage began pulling up on her hair again as it slipped forward. She hissed in pain.
Holding the display now with both hands so the whole thing wouldn’t slide off her head, taking her hair with it, she felt around in the darkness for the promised power button. She pushed the slight indentation and waited.
Suddenly, the cage tightened around her head, and she spasmed in shock. It continued to slowly tighten, and her breathing became rapid and shallow with panic as she dropped hold of the display, which still featured only darkness, and began to claw at the spiderweb. She was unable to pull it loose, and could feel it compressing her scalp even more. She fumbled for the power button, but couldn’t find the indentation, and the cage became tighter still, so much so that her head began to tingle. She had a terrible image of the VR set squeezing her until her skull split and her brains leaked out between the silver wires. She pulled harder, thrashing around on the couch, desperate to get the thing off her head.
The tingling intensified, but the squeezing had stopped, and was, she realized, not actually painful. Just very secure. What she had thought was pins and needles from the blood in her head being cut off began to stabilize into a thrumming wave of current, running up the bottom of her head, to the crown, and then over again. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but she remained uneasy.
The darkness was no longer as absolute as before. In fact, everything was becoming slightly grey, and as her eyes fought to focus on something, she turned her head this way and that, noticing that as the light continued to rise, she seemed to be in a thick bank of fog. She’d tried VR before, so she was familiar with the disorientation of seeing surroundings that you knew weren’t actually there, but she was also experiencing something strange. She knew she was sitting on her couch, but she no longer sensed the cushions. Instead, her body seemed suspended, like the one time she’d tried a float tank, the body-temperature salt water, absolute quiet, and darkness that made you start to forget your body. As soon as she thought this, her perspective changed; she’d perceived herself to be vertical, but now she was horizontal, as though laying in the tank she’d remembered. Her stomach swooped with vertigo.
The sound of lapping water rose into her awareness, and she thought of Lac Ste. Anne, where her family, along with thousands of other Métis, Cree, Nakota, and Dene families, used to go every summer for Pilgrimage, that sacred space that was left silent and unvisited this season. Wetness seeped around her, soaking her clothing, and water spilled into her ears. What the hell? Had the sprinklers gone off in her apartment? She tried to pull at the VR set, but her arms wouldn’t obey her commands. Instead, water splattered on her from above, misty droplets wetting her face, running into her nose and mouth. She sputtered; she hated having water on her face, even in the shower she always kept her face averted.
With another swooping, she was vertical again, the warm spray of her shower head blasting her full in the face. She squinted her eyes and turned her head away, raising a hand to wipe the water away, but she couldn’t seem to reach her face. Through the mist and condensation, she could see the slick yellowing tiles of her shower-tub combination, and even the shower curtain printed with Christi Belcourt’s piece “Reverence for Life” with its sky-blue background full of flowers, blue jays, and a red-winged blackbird.
The water stopped abruptly, and she was standing in a field absolutely crammed with wildflowers, the sky blue and endless above her, and the warbling calls of a thousand different birds filling the air, but no matter which way she looked, she could not find the sun. This was more vertigo than she was used to, and she swallowed heavily, fighting the telltale watering of her mouth. She looked down at herself, expecting to see an avatar of some sort; in VR you could be human, or an animal, or an object. Instead she saw herself as she usually did, in black leggings, feet out of sight among the bluebells, daisies, clover, dandelions, and Indian paintbrushes. Her hands were just as familiar, naked nails chewed to the quick, brown skin rough, almost scaly from lack of moisturization. She remembered how they’d been before isolation, with chrome acrylic nails and skin plump and shiny with good hand cream from the QUILTBAG store. As she thought it, she saw it, her hands restored to their femme glory once more, and she spent a shocked moment tilting her hands from side to side to admire the shine of the bright pink chrome of her suddenly long nails.
With a snap of awareness, she understood. She stared hard at her nails and concentrated, trying to see them as dark matte purple. It was difficult; her eyes kept saying chrome pink, but she insisted. Without fanfare, they changed.
“Holy shit.” Her voice, so long unused, felt wrong in her throat, raspy. It didn’t even sound like her. Dust poured out of her mouth and rose into the air, turning into butterflies.
A soft bell rung, and the vast field of flowers disappeared, along with the birdsong. She found herself seated on a very expensive looking white leather chair, the one named after a city in Spain. Barcelona, or Madrid or something. She was in an endless space, polished concrete floor that extended beyond the horizon in every direction, soft light without any source, and a single dark mahogany desk in front of her. She blinked in surprise.
Light in the shape of a door opened beside the desk, and out stepped a man in a white suit, looking exactly like Colonel Sanders, weird little tie, glasses, goatee and all. He was carrying a bucket of fried chicken.
Her mouth immediately began to water as she smelled it. She hadn’t had fried chicken since before isolation; neglected one of her favourite childhood foods because it had always been available. Fried chicken was apology food, a bucket for every missed school concert, every broken piggy bank, every black eye. Even still, she loved it dearly.
“How-” she croaked, then coughed, while the Colonel cocked his head and smiled, the bucket still in his hands. She tried again. “How am I smelling that?” she pointed her lips at the white and red striped container.
The Colonel smiled even more widely, and pulled the top off, letting it fall to the floor where it melted like a snowflake. He fished around in the bucket and pulled out a wing, her favourite piece. He held it out to her. She recoiled automatically, the idea of accepting anything, much less food, from the hands of another person having become utterly taboo.
“Well I, well I, say, you ought to taste it, too!” his voice exactly like Foghorn Leghorn’s. She blinked in surprise. She never realized that she’d always assumed Colonel Sanders would sound like that.
She held up a hand, willing everything to slow down, her mind whirling, “What kind of VR game is this?”
The bucket was gone, and the Colonel was sitting behind the mahogany desk, a sheaf of papers in his hands, squinting down at them. He looked up at her with a kind expression.
“Well you see,” he said, in that ridiculous accent, “this is no VR experience. You signed up to participate in Mens Aeterna’s whole brain emulation program.”
She flashed back to clicking on the email, and like a projector was mounted in her forehead, the whole scene played out in the air right before her. Scrolling through the message, clicking the link, filling out the form. Her eyes narrowed; that felt an awful lot like someone covering their ass for legal purposes, and less like something she’d conjured into being with her thoughts. This wasn’t interesting, this wasn’t alleviating her mind-numbing detachment.
She closed her eyes, and tried to imagine different surroundings, but she was so unused to forming or maintaining concentration, images fluttered around her like falling leaves. She peeked an eye open, but the Colonel was still there, smiling faintly. She squished her eyes shut again and tried harder. A place outside, somewhere she hadn’t been in half a year, somewhere green, anywhere at all. Her mind slipped and skittered but wouldn’t settle; it had been so long since she’d been anywhere but her apartment, maybe that had damaged her sense of object permanence?
She sighed, and pictured her living and sleeping room. Herself curled up on the couch, facing her bed, white flowered covers mussed and pushed aside, pillows piled to provide a back rest, walls she’d painted bright yellow without her landlord’s permission, who cares, she was going to lose the place anyway, one stunted plant in the small window above her bed, the one feral alley cats liked to spray to mark their territory, so she had to keep it closed. It felt pretty real. She opened her eyes.
The Colonel was wearing a ridiculous white cotton robe and a sleeping cap, and he was sitting in her bed smoking a pipe, the This Is Not A Pipe one. Did the Colonel even smoke? Apparently, she had developed quite a few unconscious assumptions about him.
The Colonel took the pipe out of his mouth, and gestured at her with it, “Now as I was saying, whole brain emulation records the unique arrangement and responses of the subject’s neurons and synapses, after which the copy is transferred to a processing substrate.”
She stood up, and walked toward the door, ignoring the Colonel as he continued to rattle on about neural protheses, computational modelling, and some other shit she didn’t care about. He followed behind her, dressed again in his white suit. She opened her front door and peered up the dingy concrete stairs to the street, hesitating. What if she was just hallucinating, and she ended up being arrested for being outside? She waited for a tingle of fear, for something to goad her into reconsidering, but there was nothing. Just the flat affect of months in total, crushing solitude.
As she climbed the steps to street level, she realized she was wearing a pair of smoked moose hide moccasins rimmed in beaver fur, glittering red roses on a white background beaded on the vamps. nohkômipan, her beloved grandmother who had passed, had made these moccasins for her Coming of Age ceremony so many years ago; they’d long since worn out and been recycled and gifted on. Wearing them again made her feel a little less alone. As nohkômipan always used to say, miywâsin, it was good. Real or not, it was a feather-light touch of connection to another human being, and she was unsurprised to find tears streaming down her face, evaporating like dandelion fluff, dancing away with precious seeds, finding purchase in every tiny crack in the concrete.
She was on the sidewalk now, the Colonel peering over her shoulder from two steps below, a steady stream of verbiage still pouring forth, “The simulated mind can be housed within a virtual reality, which Mens Aeterna has designed to be co-constituted by uploaded dynamic reanimations of each subject.” She tuned him out.
Mid-20th century bungalows lined both sides of the street, huge American Elm trees casting dappled shadows on the abandoned sidewalks and the road, the narrow boulevards hugely overgrown with an explosion of wildflowers, considered noxious weeds by the city, diligently mowed and uprooted before the pandemic, now left to pour forth like branching streams into the car-free pavement. Everything seemed exactly the same as when she collected her weekly ration box, but the street faded off into grey mist on either side, as though a small section of her world had been plucked out and gently placed to bob serenely in a shallow pool.
She walked out into the road, sharp, tiny stones biting into the bottoms of her feet, spread in the winter to prevent vehicles from slip-sliding disastrously, the usual spring cleaning of salt, stones, and sand having been abandoned, the rains unable to push it all into storm drains, and from there to the North Saskatchewan. The Colonel was her shadow, legalese and medical jargon escaping like air from a pricked balloon. She pointed a moccasined toe and brushed it across an irregular crack populated by lush green grass, bending the two-foot long stalks rich with seed, a verdant communion with another living being. Or the simulacrum of one.
She turned left and unhurriedly walked to the edge of the visible neighbourhood. It was like peering into fog, but instead of opening up and appearing in front and behind, never quite within grasp, this liminal space was sharper, swirling languidly, streaks of silver and dim flashes of light. She stepped over the edge.
She was weightless again, suspended, but her legs continued to make walking movements. She couldn’t tell if she was moving in any particular direction, but she continued. Foghorn Leghorn’s voice floated behind her; she could no longer see the Colonel. The words had long since stopped making any sense.
After an indeterminate time, her feet touched down on a solid surface. She was in darkness, but all around her she felt the presence of soil, redolent with decomposing vegetation. Except now, her feet weren’t there, neither were her arms, and in a disorienting rush she experienced herself as being unbelievably small. It struck her with a sense of intense déjà vu. Since she was a child, whenever she had a high fever, her sense of physical presence would shift between extremes, ballooning out to unimaginable vastness, then collapsing into comfortable density. She’d never been able to describe the feeling to anyone.
“What is this?” she did not hear her own voice, because she had no ears, nor lungs to push air, nor vocal cords. In fact, sensations were flowing through her from around her head but also from what she perceived as her far end, through – she quickly counted – eighteen rays aligned along her very tip.
“Welcome to C. elegans, a nematode one millimetre in length, Mens Aeterna’s first successful substrate independent mind.” She could not see the Colonel, could not in fact truly see anything the way she was used to, but she sensed that she had some way of perceiving and reacting to light, were it to materialize.
“What does that mean, substrate independent mind?” She teetered on the edge of discomfort, the changes in her body too confusing to focus on for more than a fraction of a second at a time. She began writhing forward and, she suddenly realized, upward.
“In layman’s terms,” came the exaggerated southern drawl, “this worm, who possesses only three-hundred neurons to a human’s eighty-six billion, was scanned, copied, and uploaded to Mens Aeterna’s database. What you are experiencing is that raw data, within the co-constituted virtual reality the worm has created. As long as the data remains intact, C. elegans can be placed into any substrate, any material on or from which an organism lives, and thus, is substrate independent.”
Whole body contractions continued to propel her onwards as she considered this. “So you’re saying, you could take this data, this uploaded worm, and put it into something else. Like a mechanical body?”
“Ah, well,” the Colonel sounded almost embarrassed, “theoretically that is possible.”
Before she could push him on that, her head burst out of the soil, and something bloomed around her, felt with every cell of her body as she broke free into open air. Somehow, she knew it was sunshine.
She was human once more, and this time she retched with the vertigo, bile rising in her throat, acrid and painful as her stomach heaved. She was on her hands and knees on a tiny strip of damp soil, about the size of half a yoga mat, the horizon shockingly close, balanced on a tiny island adrift in more shimmering fog. She scanned around her, but couldn’t find the Colonel. Just rich brown earth, and directionless sunlight.
“You said this was a co-constituted virtual reality. What does that mean?”
His voice seemed to come from all around her, “Mens Aeterna sets the basic parameters, but each SIM also recreates its usual habitat.”
She stood, feeling fine again, and once again stepped into the murky space before her. “SIM?” she moved her limbs, glad to have them back, “Oh, substrate independent mind. Got it. So, if you had say, a mosquito in here, everything would be squishy skin and blood?” She pictured vast rolling hills of skin of every hue, of every species, barely holding in oceans of gurgling blood, a little uploaded mosquito rubbing its cartoonish hands together in glee.
“A SIM may not consciously perceive its entire habitat, but unconsciously it will recreate it to within a high value of accuracy.”
Her feet were on the ground again, all four of them. She was small, but not so superlatively as before. She slid down a muddy bank on her furry belly and water flowed around her cool and fresh, delightful. Her nostrils and ears were closed to protect her, a transparent membrane over her eyes like the most perfect goggles ever designed. She had never been a strong swimmer but now? Webbed hindfeet propelled her with strong, practiced strokes, and her body moved as though it was as liquid and fluid as the world around her.
Unlike before she felt a presence, an inquisitive nudging. In surprise, she forgot to focus on the sensations flooding her, seeking the origin of that odd touch. She immediately lost control of her body, though it continued to move as agilely as before; she simply wasn’t the one in the driver’s seat anymore.
“Colonel?” came her panicked thought.
“Be calm. You are in contact with a much more complex consciousness than before.” The Colonel was standing on the bank of the lake, she sensed him immediately and without her volition, her broad, flat tail slapped the surface of the water in three loud bursts, before she dove and soared towards the safety of the underwater entrance to her home.
Climbing up into the warm, dry den, water sloshing furiously against the tunnel until it settled once more, she shook off the excess moisture and awkwardly tumbled onto one side, panting a little. It was overly quiet here, and she realized she was lonely; she had no mate, no kits, no other kin, not even a muskrat to share this home with. It took a moment for her to separate her own feelings of isolation and detachment, from the emotions this SIM was having.
“She’s all alone.” her mind’s voice was almost a sob.
“The Castor canadensis is a social creature in nature, but to date, Mens Aeterna has only scanned and uploaded a single consciousness.” His voice did not seem muffled though it clearly came from without the mud, stones, and sticks that made up this lodge.
The beaver went about its routine, padding into the sleeping chamber and settling in for a few hours. Unable to regain control of the creature’s body, she lay there in silence for some time, her mind whirling.
After a while, she thought at the Colonel again. “You’re uploading me, right now.”
“You signed the contract, read the Terms and Conditions, and agreed to the procedure.” he affirmed.
“And I will recreate my habitat,” she took on his accent, “to within a high value of accuracy.”
Her impression did not seem to bother him, “Correct.”
“Which in my case will probably just end up being my apartment.”
“Well, uh, humans are much more complex than most organic subjects. A nematode has no need to expand beyond the familiar, a beaver may long for companionship, but will not suddenly create a desert to explore.”
“While humans will? Create deserts to explore?”
That word again. “So theoretically I won’t be stuck inside my apartment for eternity, but theoretically, I might be?
“It is possible, yes.”
“Are there other humans here?”
“Not yet, no.”
“Are you kidding? I’m the first?”
“You are the first, yes indeed.”
If her eyes weren’t already closed, her furry breast rising and falling with gentle breaths, she’d close them now and curse herself for clicking on that email. She was feeling a lot now, after months of near emotional numbness. Anger, regret, and a growing fear that she’d be trapped in here forever, just as she was trapped in the real world; but worse, with no end date ever.
“What other SIMs exist here?” she asked, once she was able to cram everything back down so she could think straight.
“Mens Aeterna has scanned a wide variety of organic subjects: Coptotermes formosanus, Blattella germanica, Thamnophis rufipunctatus, Vulpes velox, Bison bison, both bison and athabascae-”
“Stop. Other than bison, I didn’t understand any of that. Common names?”
“A termite, a german cockroach, a narrowhead garter snake, a swift fox, bison, both plains and wood, along with many other organic beings.”
“There are buffalo here?” she demanded incredulously, not even sure why that pricked her ire. It seemed wrong somehow.
“One Bubalus bubalis has been scanned. If you are referring to bison, Bison bison bison and bison bison athabascae represent forty percent of uploaded consciousnesses at Mens Aeterna.”
“You mean you’ve got herds of them here? Just one beaver, but herds of buffalo?”
Herds of buffalo. Here, in a virtual world, parts of which were co-constituted by the buffalo themselves. Absolutely astounding. Her hindfeet kicked weakly, her host was dreaming about swimming, while she engaged in the longest conversation she’d had in at least two months. With Colonel Sanders. As a bizarre rig sucked her brain, and promised to stick her in a virtual world forever.
Something occurred to her, sending a trickle of unease through her innards, “How long will it take to fully scan and upload my brain?”
“Approximately twelve hours.” the Colonel drawled. Did anyone beside the voice actor for an overconfident rooster actually sound like this? For all she knew, the accent was an accurate representation of hundreds of thousands of people, but it was distracting.
“How much time has passed?”
Her sense of time was completely off then, because she would have guessed that she’d been here for a least a few hours. The inkling of a plan began to form; maybe too fanciful, but it was not without precedent. She said nothing more, setting into her new body, as her host napped.
She extended her senses out as much as possible, examining her limbs, analyzing the sensations of her strange new organs. She tried to move, but it was impossible, whatever control she’d had in those first few moments was gone. That was fine for now; taking stock of this body kept her occupied, as alert as she’d been before the pandemic, maybe even more so.
When the beaver awoke, it was hungry, and she learned how to use dexterous front paws to pull up cattails by their roots, hauling them back into the lodge for later, before heading up the banks of the lake for a more substantial meal. She knew beavers ate trees, but she had never imagined how they might actually taste to this animal. Powerful jaws and teeth peeled the rough outer bark away to reveal the sweet, soft cambium underneath, and as she sampled aspen and willow, she realized she had a strong aversion to pine and spruce.
Hours passed before she opened up conversation with the Colonel again.
“What happens if an upload does not complete?” she kept her tone casual, though she wasn’t really sure if she was speaking to a person in real time, or some kind of artificial intelligence. The suspected the latter. Her host was napping again, together they’d watched the sun set, as it turned the surface of the lake into smooth, burnished copper.
“Without a complete neural scan, we cannot accurately map the responses of neurons and synapses in any given organic subject, rendering the scan inutile.”
The beaver woke during the night to do some more eating and foraging, apparently her host was both diurnal and nocturnal. She spent long minutes under water, able to hold her breath for up to fifteen minutes before surfacing once more. A gibbous moon rippled across the water, but down below is where it achieved true majesty, silver rays of light diffused by algae and softly swaying lake weeds. Down here, it was silent in a way that in no way resembled the lack of sound, of breath, in the confinement of her apartment. Here, the silence was like an embrace. If she could weep with the pleasure of it, she would fill oceans.
The beaver was aware of her, but did not seem concerned, only slightly curious. They did not share a language, so communication was difficult at first. Vague impressions of scents, sights, textures, and a deep loneliness. In one another, they recognized beings not suited to a solitary life; understood lack of companionship as a real harm. She couldn’t prove it, but she thought the beaver was growing glad of her presence.
She did a bit of rough math, and conservatively estimated that, if the Colonel was telling the truth about the passage of time here, twelve hours in real life equaled about fifteen days in this place. As the days passed, she was content to be an active observer as the beaver went about its life, but her thoughts often strayed to the terrifying implications of a successful upload.
From what she understood of the Colonel’s explanation, a completed upload would mean she would continue to exist both here, and in the outside world. Except she had no way of knowing which would be the outcome for her. It was terribly confusing, because she knew that the version of her that returned to the real world would also think of herself as her; but she absolutely did not want to be stuck in this virtual world, and even if she ended up the lucky one, the thought of any version of herself being trapped like this was unbearable. Then again, being trapped in her apartment was also a poor outcome.
She had been trying to command her real-world body to remove the headset, to no avail. She did not seem to be able to communicate with her human body any more than she could control this beaver form. She concentrated intensely again and again, willing her real-world hands to move, even with the slightest twitch, but if it worked she had no way of knowing.
On the sixth day of not speaking at all, once more in the routine of silence perfected over months of hopelessness, she risked another question. “Has an upload ever been interrupted?”
She was flitting beneath the water after snacking on what had become her favourite treat, those soft, nutritious cattail roots. From her vantage point close to shore, she could see the Colonel in his white suit, standing on the muddy banks of the lake, distorted by rippling water. Her host was unconcerned by his presence, knowing these two-legged creatures rarely had the ability to detect a beaver underwater.
His answer was unusually pithy. She pushed. “How did that happen?”
“The neural scanner was released prematurely.”
Ah. He was being coy, by cunning, or design, she wasn’t sure which.
For the next two days, she focused her energy on deepening her communication with the beaver. She found the beaver’s mind to be inquisitive, even a little teasing at time. Questions felt like a wet nudge. The beaver would be chewing on a particularly sweet root, and then, the gentle prod. She would take some time to form a complete sensory memory of her own favourite food, moose stew in thick gravy, and when she felt it was as whole as possible, she’d let it open up like the petals of a wapato flower, for the beaver to sample. In this way she was able to share snippets of her own life, and absorb information sent to her. The beaver thought eating animal flesh was about the most disgusting thing possible.
She decided to take a direct approach. “How do I release the neural scanner?”
“You consented to the procedure.”
“What if I want to withdraw my consent?”
“You agreed to all the Terms and Conditions.”
“I didn’t really read them!”
“You clicked the box saying you had read them and agreed to them.”
“Surely I can still withdraw my consent?”
“How do I do that? How do I prematurely terminate the procedure?”
There was a pause, and the beaver, curious about the cause of the intense emotions flooding through her guest, paused in its constant home repair, nose quivering at the white-clad being on the lake’s edge. She had no breath of her own to hold, but that stoppage, that waiting filled her with anxiety.
“If you wish to terminate the procedure, you must input the termination message.”
Hope bloomed, “What is the termination message?”
The Colonel emitted a string of numbers. Not long ago, they would have been impossible to hold in her mind. No longer, she was sharper now, alive once more.
She stopped talking to the Colonel entirely. Day after day passed, with intense communication between herself and her host, as she formed a complex question of her own. Would the beaver allow her to take control of its body? The beaver was intrigued, but proposed a counter-offer. If she would teach it how to be human, it would teach her how to be a beaver.
It was not easy; their terms of reference were so different in many ways, but slowly they learned together, at least the physical aspects of being. Social customs, etiquette, history, all of that was beyond them to impart so quickly and would still have to be learned. After a while, the beaver lost interest in practicing being human; it thought it a silly thing to want to be.
One night, as they lay in the cozy sleeping den, she sent out a tentative tendril of sympathy to the beaver. It was met with surprise, but the beaver understood. It could not leave this place, empty of other beavers, of the possibility of family, but it had never lost hope that one day, it would dive into these tranquil waters and discover a new presence.
She thought about that for a while, the tenacity of hope, and searched for it within herself. Before she’d come here, it had been buried, deadened by the increasingly authoritarian global response to the pandemic. The possibility of turning in a different direction, a direction full of expansive kinship, of mutual aid, withered with every additional control, the farce of consent allowing leaders to present inhumanity as a gift, human rights exchanged for the lie of security. Yet in her time here, with this incredible creature, hope had been reignited within her. She had dived within her memory for the ancient stories, gathering together all the beaver lore she had ever gleaned, from the slightest mention to the most ribald of tales, building a lodge within her mind.
When she felt she was ready, she gathered together all her love and gratitude and let it flow throughout her, watching it catch and spark in dendrites throughout the beaver’s body, now wholly familiar to her, perhaps even more so than her human body, spilling forth faster and faster, spring break up in golden signals, no dam-busting here, just the regularity of natural cycles, powerful and right. miywâsin, it was good.
The beaver’s farewell was like the slap of a powerful tail on a mirror, the crack of a felled tree, the endless rolling thunder of a prairie storm.
She recited the string of numbers.
She opened her eyes, and found herself back in her apartment, for real this time, unbelievably stiff from hours of immobility. At first, she was overly careful as she pulled the slack spiderweb off her head, but the idea of having it attached to her for even a second more was unacceptable. Abandoning caution, some of her hair ended up painfully pulled out by the root as she tore it off the rest of the way. Tossing the thing to the ground, she rose unsteadily.
It was still day outside, so she puttered around, examining objects with fresh eyes, seeing them the way the beaver would have, the familiar becoming strange and of dubious utility. She found herself missing tender cattail roots, the starchy flavor of wapato bulbs, the sweet tender flesh of alder.
She waited until it was the deep of night, that three o’clock stillness where it felt like the world held its breath. She opened the door while she still had the ability to do so, and sniffed the unstirring air. She sensed no danger, but identified a cool thread of running water nearby, that led into roaring river currents and from there, branched off into the endless possibility of deep, placid lakes. An end to solitude.
Had anyone been in the streets, they might have seen her waddling down the middle of the road to the Millcreek ravine; but no humans were present.
* Care package inspired by real life cuz at Land Glitter
* Mens aeterna: an eternal mind, Latin translation provided by Divya M. Persaud.
* neechie: based on a nêhiyawêwin (Cree) and Anishinaabemowin word, slang for a Native person.
* To see Christi Belcourt’s painting, “Reverence for Life”
* always forever hyping up the QUILTBAG