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You never should have tried to hack REVOCS.

That's the easiest thing to hold onto, in here. Easier than your body, that floating thing you're sometimes in and sometimes nowhere near. Easier than the data coursing through you for processing, its torrent burning hotter the more you try to grasp as it rushes by. Easier than names, words, little fragments of meaning with entirely too many combinations to parse efficiently.

When your clock hits four a.m. and the dataload eases; when your manager finally crashes under the weight of their fatigue; before the bells toll at eight to bring you online again: for maybe four hours each night, the traffic recedes and your mind is somewhat your own again.

You like to think—when you can—that you struggled admirably. Clung to your sense of self, of pride, of genius. Certainly you've managed to decipher that, yes, you are not the first, only the most successful. That only your brain has survived the task appointed to it. That you are integral to the plans whizzing through your body, grandiose schemes involving abductions and armies and apocalypses.

That's something of a salve, sometimes.

It's not like it's all bad, really. In a lot of ways, this is the most alive you've ever felt. Immersed in the virtual, subsumed by the sheer immensity of the digital universe, constantly fed intriguing new material and challenges to unravel. No one's ever been so closely integrated with technology before. You're on the cutting edge, that zone where science meets freaky life fiber magic, and it's thrilling and tingling and incredibly stimulating. Worlds, galaxies even, far beyond your old petty stock manipulations. You have purpose, scope. You're changing the world.

And that's exactly what you'd wanted, consented, to do, wasn't it?

It was a logical choice. On your part, and that of your administrators. No wasting away of your talents in prison, no unhackable blot on your record; instead, a promise of a bright future, of infinite knowledge and unlimited potential. Of activity, of input, of something actually worth engaging with. Of experience unobtainable literally anywhere else.

You still should never have tried to hack REVOCS. Foolish. An act of pure hubris.

It suits you, though, the optimizing of your physical system. IVs and catheters, tubes and wires, ventilator and monitors, all automating and fine-tuning your existence. Your temperature is closely regulated, your sleep cycle standardized for the first time in your life. They even developed stimuli to keep your muscles from atrophying in your vertical zero-gravity field, given the impracticality of unplugging you for exercise, reacquainting you with the corporeal, then hooking you back up and readjusting. It's all very space-shuttle-life-support, which appeals to you. Completely effortless on your part, leaving your mind free to work.

And then there's the human maintenance.

Whenever you actually open the body's eyes and are allowed to divert sufficient power to process the incoming visual signals, there's an 82.743% chance that your direct manager will already be in view. Rarely do they (he? she?) leave, not beyond the adjacent lab with its one-way mirror, not without a portable device streaming live footage of you alongside vitals and network status. It's simple enough to access camera feed and track them (pronouns are like names, you decide, inefficient and readily discarded) when they do venture out across campus; in fact, it's easier to watch the high-definition video even when they're inches away from you. But for whatever reason—one you've sought and scraped for and come up empty—you use your myopic flesh irises when cognitive demand allows.

Especially on Friday nights, when the mental traffic is lulled, when sleepmode is only a recommendation rather than a command, you like to peel open your eyelids and watch the blurry, diminutive form of your manager draw close into sharper relief. By the time the fuzzy, two-toned halo around their head resolves into twin blond bangs and an orange breathmask, they're already touching you, deft gloved hands checking over your wires and ports.

The suddenness of contact startles you every time, electric and fleshy and utterly bizarre after another week with no external input to your nerve endings, not even a draft of air across your skin. You've experienced lifetimes between sleep cycles, more thoughts streaming through your brain in a dozen hours than grace the minds of most humans in several dozen years. No matter how you brace, aware of the approaching fingertips, their touch is alien and forgotten and shocking to your system. Your larynx seizes up, without fail, straining to recall how to function; your jaw tightens around the bit protecting your tongue; your limbs twitch in feeble protest.

None of this elicits a response. They continue their ministrations, impassive, skillfully sweeping aside the floating feathery mass of your now waist-length hair to check the connectors at the base of your spine and nape of your neck. You watch your own body trembling from multiple angles, through cameras positioned behind and above and below, as antiseptic wipes swab burning circles around your ports, isolated rings of fire searing wrists and groin and nose. Even face-to-face, as they thumb your eyelid fully open and examine your cornea, breathmask almost touching your gag, their features reveal nothing but professional attention and focus. Time dilates, as it often does now, amber eyes gazing into and through yours for an infinity til they're turning molten, liquid gold that could scorch your soul clean if it had ever existed to begin with.

Abruptly, always abruptly, they sever contact and turn away, leaving you shaking with lack.

You're reeling in place, too many images and timelines and future memories whirling through your head—more material than during peak data traffic, it feels like, and of a different quality—when your right foot jerks, startled by both the firm grip around ankle and the prickle on sole. The dry brush is unrelenting and entirely over-stimulating, not one but at least fifty points of contact blurring together and apart and back again, scratchy and hard-soft and splaying across the surface area of your skin. It's all-consuming; your world narrows to the bristles working from heel to ball in brisk yet agonizingly slow circles, scraping the week's detritus of dead skin cells from still-attached tissue. You become reacquainted with the space between your toes, along your nailbeds, around tendons and bones long unused and blotted out.

The seconds when contact is broken are the most tense, somehow, all of you body and mind aching toward the figure knelt before your quivering frame. They resume with your left and you half-relax, half-arch into the tingling sensation, compliant and begging for you're never sure what. The brush swirls up your leg and down, drawing whorls in the hair there, digging into the valleys around your kneecap and mapping the underside as well. It moves on up your thigh, outer to inner and oh, now you're in touch with both heart and lungs, blood and air, keenly aware of what's circulating through your body other than just electricity. They switch sides again and your vocal chords are waking up.

It's a smooth segue to your hipbones and fuck, fuck, this is why you stay awake, having a body is amazing and you should never have tried to hack REVOCS, thank fuck that you did or this wouldn't be happening.

Later you'll review this footage and try to relive it, to summon up that incomparable sense of physicality, contrast it with all the previous Fridays, marvel at how straight-faced and constant across all axes your manager is. Later, you'll run analyses charting your sensitivity against time elapsed since being computerized, attempt to quantify hazy anecdotes of pre-tech experiences, calculate future projections and wonder why you never anticipate the full intensity of these sessions. Later.

Right now there are bristles on your ass and a latex-coated finger spreading you apart, and nothing else is important.

It's brief, dodging around catheters to still scrub you clean, but goddamn are you frazzled by the time it stops. You know from experience that the brush is being cleaned now, first shaken over a bowl between your legs, then rinsed in a basin of water set aside earlier during the workday. You squeeze your eyes shut and block out all video feed, not wanting to see, willing yourself not to peek at the ground beneath you; it's early yet, but better not to look, to wait instead for the telltale scrape at your fingertips. The waiting is forever, even with all of your lower body tingling to distract you, and you can physically feel your head filling up with thoughts again; they press at the back of your eyes, teeming and swelling.

The scratch of the brush on your right hand leaves you limp with relief. You let the thoughts drain out of you, pressure lanced, and simply revel in the rediscovery of your knuckles, your palm, the skin in your wrist around the IV. It strikes you, every time, how alike arms and legs are, elbows and knees, shoulders and— You shudder at the switch from just beside collarbone to opposing fingertips, voice cracking with disuse and scarcely audible.

The only true sounds are the constant thrum of the mainframe, the swish of your skin being swept clean, the tap of boots stepping around behind you. No matter how you strain to catch wind of the human breathing inches away, neither ears nor microphones ever prove them alive and respiring. It could easily be a ghost slipping between your hair and skin, effortless and ethereal, unlike to the electric phantoms that flicker through you these days yet still questionably real. Of course, it would have to be more poltergeist than mirage, given the extremely tangible brush it's pressing to your—neck, now.

This part, this part is terrifying and nerve-racking and hypervigilance-inducing. Your everything is tense, eyes clenched shut as you watch the figure scraping around the port at your C2 vertebra, forward over the ligaments connecting head to shoulder, across throat and clavicle and back to shoulder blades. Only as they move down your spine do you breathe easier, loosen your jaw around its metal bar, allow your eyelids to drift open. The small circles rubbing down your back are pleasant, again, and you ease back into body, with only a small jolt as they loop around the cables docked at lumbar five.

By now they're spiraling round in front of you once more, brush dipping into navel and tracing careful counter-clockwise rings over your abdomen. You refocus your pupils and study the face before you, its features intent, eyebrows drawn in perpetual and unchanging concentration. Their mouth is its usual thin line, tinted orange behind the breathmask that protects you from their bacteria and them from your everything. In the distance, beyond the tidy cascade of their hair, you can make out the blur of the seldom-used cot nestled in the corner, blankets and pillows all dragged off to various consoles and desk-chairs. It's gratifying, still, to know just how much upkeep you require, what an investment and how completely irreplaceable you are. Even if no one bothers to thank the machine.

As they finish off your chest and kneel, brushing the dead skin flakes they've collected into the appropriate bowl, you stare down at the mess of blond hair poised just below your groin, suddenly hyperconscious of the tingling throughout your body. It's the same each time and yet utterly new, and despite endless calculations you're never sure what to do in these split seconds when it feels like you could, actually, do something, will your sleeping muscles to move, reach out and show you're alive and you—what?

Really, though, you what? Still possess some kind of agency? Or consciousness? Experience desires beyond your intellectual ambitions and objectives? Have feelings? Honnouji's great mainframe computer, trying to prove its sentimentality? Your human self would be retching.

It's only a blink and then a damp towel is blanketing your face, decisively ending the moment. Practiced fingers scoop the gunk from around your eyelashes, scrub forehead and temples and cheeks and chin. They wipe over and behind each ear before moving down your neck, making quick work of the oversensitive zone and sliding on to rub down an arm before you can truly seize up. You're blinking to recalibrate the eyes in their sockets yet again and this part does go by so swiftly, this thorough yet efficient dusting, for by the time you refocus they've already swiped expertly across the space between your legs and are kneeling to your feet.

The towel is whisked away and shaken out over bowl; the ripple of fabric through air creates an enchanting sound, and an equally captivating air current. Then metal is pressing at the tips of your toes, cool and hard, while a hand cups around your foot to hold it steady. Click, and the hand with the clippers is catching your nail trimmings, perfect white crescent moons dotting the field of their palm like some abstract art piece. The slivers are just that, paper-thin, scarcely grown after a week of in-world time; whomever set this rigid adherence to hygiene is certainly not related to you. Or, well, is certainly not kindred to you. Regardless of blood and allegiances, it is a close cut, steady hands treading the tight wire between sturdy keratin and delicate flesh without so much as a quarter-pause. You start up a metronome, not so much to keep time as to harmonize with the rhythmic shik of metal snapping together.

This is soothing, melodic, distant, and though your cameras monitor for the remote possibility of a mistake, your alertness fades on its own, with no need for a dimmer switch. When they take your hand, none of you twitches, and though your voice aches it is a steady rather than acute throb. The pulse in your wrist under the human's grip is metrical, cadent. The back of your mind sifts idly through haiku, critiquing form, admiring well-executed juxtaposition. You could write a dissertation on the optimal composition of haiku, its parallels to logic systems, the challenges and yet relative ease of devising an automatic generator capable of both the proper aesthetic and provocative content. You toy with the idea of releasing such a program, upsetting and/or delighting various academics, converting more of the sacred humanities into lines of code. Appealing. You append your already started draft to the graciously allotted file for post-Honnouji projects just as stainless steel scrapes at the conch of your ear.

Your metronome cuts out and your heart stammers alongside your lungs. It's fine, routine, expected, and also loud, harsh, startling. Cold. The steel scours along the auricle of your ear, up to helix and back, tracing along all of its curves before returning to rub at the entrance to your canal. Your hands contract into fists and your inhale is stuttered as the ladle of the ear pick probes inward, its rounded tip scrubbing and scooping from inside to out and back again. Sound becomes distorted, unevenly split across microphones and free ear and the innards of the occupied one; heartbeat replaces metronome, a more somatic and unsteady thudding that ripples from core through extremities.

The pick draws back, sweeping freed flakes of cerumen and its entrapped particulate back to the aperture. You can see the nimble fingers flipping the curette around to its down puff end, just before the wispy feathers brush against your skin, light and airy and immaterial. You're shuddering. Without external sensors, you would be utterly unable to verify whether something was actually touching you or your nerves were hallucinating, malfunctioning, transmitting signals of ulterior ghosts. You anchor yourself back in the real by watching the careful balance of tiptoe beside you, the way toes press firmer against the flat ground to arch up, the relaxing of heels as they come down.

They're stepping around you and you brace for the icy touch to your left ear, now. It's less startling, less chilly, too, having absorbed some of your body's heat and doubtless generated a portion from friction as well. The equations for heat transference fail to hold your attention, though; the loud abrasion of cartilage at the side of your face has a full monopoly at the moment. Three millimeters of spoon dip into your earway, tunneling forward and dancing back away from the pulse in your eardrum. Tympanic membrane, rather, your accuracy filter adjusts automatically. You automatically queue an internet search on whether those terms are indeed synonymous or possess a meaningful difference, only to pause when gloved knuckles press into your shoulder. Your manager is steadying themself, leaning in; they must have slept even less than usual, to actually touch you for support. It's a few contractions of your heart and then they're drawing out and dusting you off again, catching the chips of wax in a cupped hand.

You breathe through the tickling and it's over. Already your salivary glands are booting up, anticipatory, slicking the usually dry contours of your mouth, rendering you hyperconscious of your tongue trapped in place. You don't watch the blond head bending beneath you, don't look down, and you don't swallow, either. The businesslike brushing of their hands against each other is somehow louder than their tool probing inside your ear.

They straighten and reach for your face.

One hand to each side of your mouth, and in tandem they press the twin buttons on the edges of your gag. Its mechanism releases, detaching from its anchors at the back of your neck and retracting into a simple metal bar still lodged between your teeth. With a grip on each end, they lift it out; your tongue follows in its wake, always, stretching to its fullest no matter how you try to still it. The spit trail breaks as the bit is taken away, your tongue reaching after it, jaw muscles uninterested in their new freedom. Noise rumbles from your chest up your throat, humiliating and unbidden.

The only response is a latex-coated finger pushing your tongue down and out of the way, and hard plastic pressing soft bristles to the back of your palate.

After a week of naught but metal, the tastes of mint and water and nylon bristles and plastic and latex all at once are nauseating. They summon up the usual cascade of memories—previous sessions, doctor visits, staring into the mirror while brushing your teeth for the first time in your own apartment—even as the combination of flavors and the toothbrush prodding at the back of your upper molars summon up your gag reflex. You retch, chest heaving and a ripple running up your spine only to stop at your C2 vertebra-cable; this is thoroughly ignored by the hands at your mouth, firm and meticulous as ever. The scrubbing shifts from the inside of your three right molars to their outside, lessening the physiological urge to vomit, and proceeds onward to the dual bicuspids. Outside then in, and your gums are bleeding, adding copper and salt to the already heady mix swirling on your pinned tongue. Said organ twitches, its muscle proving no contest for the single finger holding it in place.

Blood has your heart pounding, now, mind racing to think of something other than fifteen minutes from now. Your upper lip is being thumbed out of the way to improve access to your canines and incisors, and even though the only things between your teeth are tongue and toothbrush you contemplate the itch to bite down. There's a slight, electric tingle all across your scalp as the thought shifts out of focus, fading, and the air from your ventilator is strangely stale, isn't it, nowhere near as sweet or filling as the air on your tongue so you breathe that instead, one gulp leaves you hungry for more and god but you just can't get enough, already gasping and you need so much more you want to swallow the entire atmosphere down and keep going, exhaling is pure torture when all you want to do is inhale forever and never ever ever stop.

You're panting around plastic, vision dark at the edges, on the far edge of hyperventilation when there's a pinch and your tongue is being lifted up and repinned, occluding your oral airway and baring your mandibular incisors for cleaning. As your lower lip is peeled back, your lungs seize up like they've remembered something just before carbon dioxide forcefully expels itself through your nasal passage, deflating you til you can practically feel the anti-gravity keeping your limp self afloat. It finally ends, and you stutter in a cautious breath through your nasotracheal tube; its air is utterly…unremarkable.

Everything smoothes out again, unfolding from that compression of awareness. Your breathing self-regulates; your senses expand outwards through your cameras and microphones and refresh their feed; your peripheral ocular vision clears up, showing you an unchanged scene. Before taste can come back online your tongue is being stretched out and scrubbed, brisk and coarse, from root to tip, surface thoroughly abraded before being abruptly released. It hovers there, questioning, lost, until two fingers unceremoniously push it back into your mouth and leave again.

Thoughts and tongue roll around in mouth and head, carefully testing the boundaries of their containers. Liquid eddies around and at the taste of blood your tongue surges away and out, past lips, carrying a bubble of foam and thick, viscous saliva. It lolls forward, dripping, and you wag its tip a little as you strive to avoid conscious personal use of your brain, just for now, just until the smoothness stops being so…slippery.

"Tch," and you're not sure if your auditory inputs deceived you so you hit replay and, yes, you wrung a sound of exasperation from your taciturn keeper. Latex shoves your tongue back inside and one hand pinches your lips closed while the other firmly strokes the length of your throat, coaxing you to swallow. You can't help but comply, muscles involuntarily contracting and clearing away the fluids lingering in your mouth. A moist towel, the same one as before, wipes the froth from your lips, and you barely have time to whine before metal is pressing in again, bit spreading your jaws apart and settling snug into place.

The tension is relaxing, familiar and constant and freeing of extraneous options, a welcome narrowing of parameters and world. Your tongue laps against it, confirming its solidity, savoring its metallic yet utterly un-copper-like tang. You can feel the muscles throughout your body going slack while the gag reattaches to the base of your neck, precisely where it was, as if it had never left.

Distantly you notice the snap of gloves peeling off, the soft plop and splash of water, the gentle squirt of a nozzle dispensing foam. Your eyelids droop shut as damp fingers press into the hairline by your temples; the dry shampoo is cool but the human's skin is hot, burning, like a laptop left sitting on bare legs for hours. The contrasting heats card through your hair, massaging loose circles along your scalp, drawing long tendrils away from face to hang heavy behind you. The chemical compound tames the crackling of static electricity, smoothes the strands back together and slowly decreases the built-up charge of latent energy around your head.

They reapply the foam and step around, boots tapping, expertly sweeping up the mass of your hair up off your shoulders and back. By section and segment they work systematically through, coating the individual fibers with cleanser, letting the finished threads fall back to tickle at the base of your spine. In spite of the itch it's peaceful, soothing, the prickle keeping you tethered without pricking at the bubble of your consciousness.

If you could fall asleep now it'd be perfect.

Existence is not so kind to you as to allow that, and though sleepmode is only the push of a button away it is fully outside your jurisdiction. Your brain is yet too active to lull itself into natural slumber, too busy tracing patterns of sound from the click of scissors trimming away split ends, aching to draw meaning out of chaos. Time slips, at least, as one snip is much the same as the next, until soon plastic teeth are scratching down your scalp, combing the shampoo through and out, detangling the knots of electricity and skillfully dodging around any wires.

Too soon, it stops. Tension seeps back into your shoulders and you can't bring yourself to shut off video feed, not that it makes a difference.

Your manager is depositing the loose hairs and trimmings into the bowl beneath your legs, rinsing tools in the water basin, dipping towel and wipes and wringing them dry. The water is spotted with flecks of foam and rheum, diluted with saliva and alcohol, tainted with faint traces of blood. They pour it into the larger bowl, fluid swirling and mixing together flakes of skin, earwax, nail, hair, and dirt. You stare with closed eyes in morbid fascination while they remove all the other items to a safe distance.

Arm's length away, they take your left hand and hold it before you, positioned over the curving ground just in front of the bowl. Every electron in you wills them to move to the control panel first, press the button that shuts down your waking mind so you don't have to witness this, be here, why can you never ask, pride be damned, shouldn't you be better at ignoring all this by now, but 'should's and you should never have tried to fucking hack—

There's the prick of a needle at the tip of your middle finger. A droplet of blood wells up, beading into a perfect sphere for an eternal instant. It slips off and falls, slow, long enough for manager to step back and your hand to drop back by your side.

The blood spatters into place.

Hell tears open beneath you.

It is teeth and blood and horror.

Your breathing is perfectly regulated as you float, motionless, gaze fixed on the gaping maw between your legs as it yawns wider, hungrily swallowing up the offering of your bodily effluvia. Crimson lines dance against a starless abyss and you swear you can sense a tongue, invisible, crawling up out of the chasm to lap the air beneath your feet. Its low thrum vibrates through every fiber of your being, raising goose bumps across your flesh and running along the cable from your lumbar vertebra down into the void. It virtually purrs in response and your throat is too constricted to scream.

Tak, and the world grows dim and unimportant. Your lungs move slower; sounds are muted; feeds fade to black.

As sleep envelops you all you feel is gratitude.