Of course, he wasn’t surprised the other Boxes had problems. Of course he wasn’t surprised. He’d seen the data. He had the reports memorized. In time, they all had problems. They all withdrew, even the ones who said they were happy. Even the ones who’d chosen this life for themselves.
Steve clicked his pen against his chin and surveyed Jeanette’s presentation. She was trying to snare everyone’s attention, hold it close, massage them with her words. He gazed around the room and consulted the families’ tired faces. Nodding, staring down. Chewing for sustenance only, maybe to eke some saliva into their dry mouths. They looked like cows, or oxen.
He looked at the boxes. He gave them two seconds each, a short nod, a minute dilation of his pupils. Just the same regard he gave to all the humans. He didn’t know if they appreciated it, but it was part of LifeMedia’s edict that he treat them as normally as possible.
Actually, he knew they didn’t like it. They didn’t like how he acted. They wanted to feel different from the breathers. Their difference buffeted them and built them up. They thought it made them special. He pitied it a little.
Jeanette was opening her arms in welcome, and trying to get someone to speak. All at once Steve sparked to life. He pulled his tablet from his bag and read all their names, reviewed the schedule, asked for recommendations and emergency-grade problems. They shifted in their seats uncomfortably. He mirrored their postures: slumped, exhausted, as if they were ducking away from an ongoing blast.
He pitched back to Jeanette. Her voice was clean and unworried. Perfect, untainted by dialect or automation or even tears. He looked at the cables and the hard drive on the table. Its power button and network signal pulsed with light, like it was breathing. Or dreaming.
When it got quiet, it was hard for him the keep the screams away. With all the boxes so close, their other voices seemed to wail in his ear even louder than normal, rattling his bones. Or what could be said to be bones. He tapped on his knee and reached for a cookie. It tasted like nothing, but he smiled as he forced it down, tried to feign placidity. Bliss.
It was no wonder they all hated him. He couldn’t read their thoughts, but caught bits and pieces. From what he could tell, they didn’t know what he was. They thought he was just a douchey human. That being so detested was a marker of his success brought him great pain.
They went around the room talking. Lily’s mother was nearly catatonic. Her words came out like water squeezed from rock. Or salt mined. Her gaze was cloudy and occluded, but Jeanette leaned forward, nodded at her, spoke magic incantations of support and empathy. Touched the woman gently on the knee, just so. The mother collapsed like she’d been blown over, into a deluge of blubbering and tears.
Steve turned his eyebrows up in sadness. A human never ran out of tears. Or even sadness. The well was unending, deeper than he thought. LifeMedia wanted the reports to say there was an average grieving period, and that it was short, maybe a few months— and therefore bearable. But instead they were run down for years. Like Andrea. Years now, and still a mess. And she was the model client, really.
Andrea was speaking now. She was always a risk, she knew too much. But she knew how to meander, circle her point so that only Steve could grasp it. When she looked at him, she looked through him. On the phone she addressed him the same way she did LifeMedia’s automated operator. She was saying, very carefully, that Carlton was confused because he had a pre-existing condition, but that thanks to Joey and Jeanette it would all be fixed today, and she was so grateful. Grateful but scared.
One of the newcomers started talking. A tall man spoke, then his son in the Box spoke. The son flashed orange and said he could move his hands. That he woke up with a start every morning, certain he had fallen out of bed or down the stairs. The boy in the Box was a football player. He still ran plays in his mind, felt the turf hit his shoes. The sweat was palpable, as was the burn of lactic acid in his throat. There was a thirst, a powerful thirst he could not assuage.
Lily piped up and said these feelings weren’t real, and not to worry. She said it aloud because the boy had trouble messaging Box-to-Box. The boy still could feel his teeth, tongue, and jaw; of course he wanted to use them. Lily told him to let his body go. Give it to the world of the living and embrace his new way of being and feeling.
Steve sat up and told the boy he would be happy to run a private consultation after the meeting. The boy’s father was a mess of thankfulness. Jeanette gracefully reclaimed the conversation and pushed it forward.
"A lot of us have been struggling to deal with this transition," she said. "My sister has been having physical sensations too. But I don’t think she has…well, the illusion of moving, not like you do. Do I have that right, Joey?"
The octagonal box shone. Blue. “That’s right. Yeah, I feel like I have a body, but I can’t move it. It hurts.”
She sounded almost legitimately sad.
"I’m so sorry to hear that, Joey," Steve said. "Hopefully the procedure today will help. Our research suggests it’s similar physiologically to having a phantom limb."
He told them the brain was plastic. Neurons could take on new uses, he said, and it just took time. The transition was messy, but the pain would end. All the Boxes knew he was full of shit and there was no evidence for his claims, but his words made the breathers sigh and relax. It was soothing to soothe.
Jeanette addressed Edwidge’s mother. The girl had gone eerily silent of late. Steve regarded her features, saw her face lift and move through various emotions effortlessly while she watched the others, modulated her words to their expressions, and gave honestly of herself. Joey had been the same way, she said.
She was almost too perfectly symmetrical, Steve thought. Then he caught sight of a freckle beneath her right eye. He zoomed in and saw the threads of blue and green in her honey-brown irises. They were irregular. Her pupils expanded when she saw him seeing her. This made him sad, too. It was guilt. Of course it was guilt.
Her genetic profile was damn close. He suspected that if he put Jeanette in an fMRI, her brain’s organization would be a dead spit of Josephine’s. Her body was strong, youthful for thirty, lithe and pretty. She was a perfect vessel. People would be too distracted by her looks to notice if was something about her was slightly strange.
Hours passed. The time came. Steve rose and hooked the cords to the hard drive and turned it on. He entered his account number using a keypad on its surface. Andrea handed her husband’s BrightBox to him, like it was a baby. When he reached for Joey, Jeanette jolted and did it herself, slinking the cords around the plates and cups on the table. She hesitated before hooking it up.
"Are you ready, Joey?" she asked. Her eyes were huge.
There was a hesitation. Steve could feel Joey’s cameras on him.
<She’ll be okay,> Steve messaged to her. Joey’s mind reeled at first, but soon she was no longer surprised.
<Of course,> she replied. Of course he was one of them.
“Yes. I’m ready.”
Steve stood and clicked Carlton in. He opened the hard drive’s directory. Opened up a connection to their minds.
Searching them, Steve could hear the din. It was building. Ringing in his microphones, dizzying his cameras. He heard the back-ups screaming. Joey, Carlton, Thompson, Lily, Edwidge. Thousands of others. They recognized what he was and it turned their terror to rage.