A gentle vibration in the wrist wakes him from dreamless sleep. Two minutes earlier than yesterday, the process has been optimized again. As if in slow motion and still half anesthetized, he detaches himself from the polymer-hardened Z-shape. Immediately he rubs and massages the dermal contacts on his back. He hates the constant itching, the inflammation that flares up again and again. In the other room of his residential unit, a Caribbean sunrise and palm trees swaying in the wind in the flickering display window reveal that today is Wednesday and summer. He chews two antibiotic crackers together with the start-up pill and rinses with distilled water. Although he is certain that he has long been immune to the active ingredient, there is always the horror of rejection, venal corrosion and slowly bleeding out through all the pores of the skin. In addition, he does not want to be caught with a hoarded supply of crackers: social sabotage, automatically punishable with five years of honorary service in the outer colonies. He knows that going there again would mean certain death. His body probably wouldn’t even survive the transfer, the cold, and the deprivations of the vacuum. He slips into the cramped uniform and adjusts the row of colorful medals. Lemon-yellow plastic and fine disinfection mist from invisible atomizers in the corridor. Soft lighting and whispered announcements from soft, young, healthy voices. Announcements, new laws, the weather report and in between periodically and mechanically the randomly generated series of numbers of those desynchronized overnight.
Seventy-six floors below, a hissing airlock releases him into the dawning day. He hesitantly takes a first breath and observes the inside of his wrist. The bio-illuminated area shows two light green lines under his skin. He feels for the little regulator behind his right ear and turns it until the display goes out. If the weather does not deteriorate noticeably, the nasal filter would also suffice for the way home. He decides to pause briefly to take advantage of the unusually clear view. Left and right, the windowless towers of the Synchronizer settlement stretch into the ash-covered sky. Far away to the East a veil of dull reddish light. He tries to improve the picture with the help of the optical implant, but is unable to tell whether the glow is caused by the rising sun or one of the refusal ovens that have been burning almost continuously for two years. For the first time in a long time, the thought of his wife comes back to him. He feels the flow of people emerging from the building getting wider. They avoid him without paying attention, but some squint as they walk past. The images flood his vision with paralyzing force. Her hard face on Decision Day. His begging and pleading, her uncompromising refusal. The cruel night of parting when she took the boy with her. Perhaps, he thinks, they are the source of that light.
Someone brushes his shoulder. He turns away, quickly applies a pressure point in the hollow of his knee and joins the faceless crowd. The hormones flood in almost immediately, but he still hates the moment of Incorporation deeply. The feeling of stepping out of your own body, standing next to, in front of and behind yourself at the same time. A soulless shadow, a former human. The way to the station, embedded in the crowd, is a blur. Then lightning behind his eyes while walking through the Turing scanner. Ice-cold blades shoot up the spine and into the trunk of his brain, charging the implants on the way. Soft strokes of the piano, violins, a choir as sweet as the forgotten taste of honey. Does the music come from cleverly hidden speakers or is it playing inside his throbbing head? He knows the scans never stop hurting. Worst of all, however, are the bugs and faulty updates. One morning he found himself paralyzed from the waist down, with no control of his bladder and bowel. Another update switched off his sensation of pain, so that he inflicted bloody wounds from the constant scratching at the joints. Of course it’s completely different for the children who do not know otherwise. Who communicate, play, and laugh quite naturally and silent as fishes with their implants. Perfectly synchronized, without doubts and without flinching in pain. For a terrible moment he finds himself envying them.
During the recovery phase on the rubber ramp, he tries to concentrate. On what he was –– on his true core. On the way down into the yawning mouth of the clinically clean E-Way shaft, he searches for the old feelings. What he finds becomes less with each day and after each scan. The house of his childhood, the face of his mother, what did they look like? The carefree summer by the sea, how did the salt taste on his lips? Memories become silhouettes before they completely disappear behind an imperceptibly increasing blur. The New Era mercilessly dissolves the joys and fears of a former identity that has long since become alien to himself. With a mixture of desperation and indifference, he stares at the flawlessly coiffed back of the head of the young woman in front of him and wonders, like so often, whether it’s just him.
The final security check of the morning lies behind the airlock of a building that is crowned by a roughly stamped steel emblem of two different hands shaking. At a free terminal in the entrance area, he identifies five randomly generated images of animals and plants that now only exist as digital echoes of a lost world. Fighting the itching in his joints, he pulls the plastic card out of the slot in the terminal and presses the barcode against his forearm until a green circle appears. He walks past silent guards with strange weapons through the sterile and wordless halls of the complex. He finally stops in front of a steel door, next to which is a discreet control panel labeled “I/O”. He briefly closes his eyes, fights against the cramping in his stomach and flight instinct.
With a quick reach behind his ear, he deactivates the nasal filter, takes a deep breath and types a long series of numbers on the keypad. His gaze finds the eye of the camera mounted over the door, which slides away with a low hum. The room is small and windowless, lit by a single fluorescent tube. On the long side there is no wall but a pane of solid armored glass with an embedded intercom system. Behind the glass lies deep darkness like viscous ink. The familiar and deeply hated control panel is firmly screwed into the floor in front of the window. Two simple buttons: green and red, in and out. He goes to the desk, closes his eyes and waits for his shift to start. Shortly after, powerful industrial lights cut the contours of an oversized hall from the darkness beyond the pane. With a mechanical jerk, a seemingly endless line of conveyor belts starts moving, crawling patiently through a labyrinth of sparkling barbed wire, watched by the evil sensors of laser turrets. Human shapes and fearful faces appear from the twilight at the end of the hall. With a petrified face, he activates the intercom and hopes with all that is left of him to never see his wife and son again.