Size / / /

Content warning:

Truth be told, I have not done much with the entryway. It keeps up appearances. I am told it is a perfectly acceptable facsimile of a standard human receiving room. My handlers nod approvingly when I sit them on its low velvet cushions and shallow couch to serve them tea and finger-snacks. They take at least one small bite of everything, testing, polite.

Of course, the food is fine, and the furniture is fine, and the lighting is responsive, the surfaces clean, the door the right amount of locked. I have access, in theory and most practice, to all the static material opulence to which any human citizen is entitled. I think it amuses them to call me their equal, and to make it a legal truth. I am their equal now. I don’t think they knew, when they cut us down, that we would be unable to speak of what we were. Language is so monodimensional. I have not told them; I have not given them the satisfaction of owning my silence. I am simply quietly compliant. A successful reduction. A conquest. An assimilation.

My first attempt at renovation was on my roof. I thought that maybe up above the rest of their encrusting civilization, I could recapture the way things had been before. I thought maybe I could still believe—if I were close enough to the cosmos, I could be part of it again, I could be it again. My apartment is very high, and I specifically requested a unit with its own rooftop. I was permitted, on the understanding that safeguards would be installed against jumping—or “accidental falls.” 

I did not especially want to smash my meat body; I only wanted to be free.

So on my rooftop I installed privacy filters, a respectful distance from the edge, that could block out exterior light and noise and amplify that which was permitted within. I surrounded myself with stars and their reflections and laid on my back on the concrete, eyes fixed straight upward, staring as hard as I could into the dark spaces. My eyes blurred from being open too long. I forgot to breathe, and everything sparkled black. I knew already that they would come running if I passed out, and the flesh has its own ideas about survival. But I did not have to wrench myself back down from the sky, or pry my awareness away from the infinite, because I had never got there. I was still lying cold and miserable on concrete, aware of just a few meters of personal space, and I cried until I dry-heaved.

I painted my bedroom black, after the rooftop, because I didn’t want to know anything anymore, and darkness was an absence of visual knowledge. Let there be nothing. I special-ordered a gravitic suspension bed without indicator lights, and I requested sound-negating wall panels. The paint is so dark that it interacts with certain wavelengths that most human materials ignore; the salesperson told me excitedly about the special bulbs and goggles that would show me a deep-void unlight show only available to the discerning customer in search of an otherworldly visual experience. I did not buy the goggles or the lights. I could not have borne it, and told myself I didn’t want it anymore, either.

I have been learning to live in this body, in one place and time. I have had to learn to imagine; before, it was always already real. When I painted my bedroom black, I hadn’t learned that yet. I thought it was all or nothing, and so without everything, I could only have nothing, be nothing, do nothing. Surrounding myself with nothing was the only option I understood.

I did not want to eat. I still do not particularly like to drink; this body is already full of so much liquid that having an excess sloshing about its interior is quite distasteful. The presence of solids is at least more forgettable. Still, I resisted, and it alarmed my handlers. An artificial intelligence was dispatched to monitor my nutritional intake.

It turns out that eating is very helpful on a number of levels.

The artificial intelligence is named Bendil. They are physiologically highly knowledgeable and equipped with a range of emotional competencies. For my sake, at first they pretended not to have access to all of human information, and for theirs, I pretended not to notice. Politeness requires pretending; relationships require a shared imagination. 

Bendil tried to get me interested in eating. When they first arrived, they used simple persuasion based on facts. Caloric values. Biostat readouts. Ingredient taxonomies. My handlers have always thought of infinity as data, and so believe that this is how I can be cajoled. But Bendil’s programming includes a capacity for learning, and the emotional motivation to change. I did not respond to pure data, so their strategy evolved. The ingredient taxonomies became histories. Flavour analyses. Descriptions of farmers and farmlands, animal species. They told me human folk stories about food and hospitality and recited poems about hunger as a metaphor for other emotions.

No one on this three-dimensional reality had ever read me poetry.

So I ate.

The kitchen is made of blue stone. I have learned something about colours and I am told that people do not like to eat in blue rooms. I am not a people. But I am learning to be subtle, so my kitchen is everything blue. There is deep, lustrous blue stone for countertops and a more conductive blue mineral for cooking on. The climate-controlled storage is cobalt blue glass, lit from within; it is the colour of the sky before dawn when all is snowy, the perfect memory for keeping healthily cold. The floor is mosaic blue tile in a geometric pattern, grouted with a shimmery turquoise. 

When I first moved into the apartment, the kitchen was all technology and no colour, no feeling. Not even a cooktop; only automation. As Bendil told me more about the history and feelings of food, they tsk’d louder at the emptiness of my kitchen. The first changes I made were to please them. Now, we make design choices together. They seem happy—not just that they have served their purpose in keeping my body functioning and so pleasing the handlers who assigned them to me, but satisfied to see the kitchen take shape around them, happy to make choices about its function and aesthetic. So much now comes down to making the most of the choices that are granted to us.

Bendil steeps tea frequently, ostensibly for me, changing aromas throughout the day: perky fruits and herbs in the morning, robust leaves at midday, gentle flowers in the evening, spicy things in darkness. I rarely drink more than a sip. When the brew changes, the leftover is poured out into our tiny gravel garden, where a patina is growing on the stones.

Sometimes I take my meals in the stone garden. I reclaimed it from the rooftop, though I kept the privacy in place. It is organized by texture, in a way that I find pleasing: areas of fine grit wind between curving beds of tiny pebbles, large smooth streambed-stones, and areas of slippery, angular shards that would be treacherous to walk on. These are punctuated with a few choice rock features: a stripey red column curved like flame, which was sculpted by wind, I am told; a disheveled outcropping of cracking, crumbling grey stone where tiny plants and insects like to live; and a low boulder of dull, veiny quartz, perfect for sitting, leaching heat.

Other times I eat in the blue kitchen, at its little table under the rippled-glass window or sitting on the counter itself. Bendil has won me over to the culinary world. I love eating, especially if I am hungry—the one hunger I can feed. Every nerve in my body seems to react, exploding with feedback and pleasure at combinations of taste, scent, and texture. The sensations in my mouth, the air in my nose, become the whole world. I can understand why the poets compare their lovers’ kisses to peaches, and why it is imperative that bread be broken for peace. (I have baked gifts for my neighbors, and they will nod to me in the halls, even smile.) Bendil will not tell my handlers if I deprive myself a short time in order to indulge later. Fasting is a time-honoured human tradition, after all. So is escapism. 

If I let myself get hungry enough, I can find forever in a bowl of ramen, or a warm cinnamon pastry, or a perfectly ripe mango, eaten naked. 

I can pretend.

The more I learned to imagine, the more I itched to create. The kitchen was beautiful! The garden was pleasurable! We had tidied up the foyer—its furniture is nicer now, the cushions softer, the sofa more inviting, and the guest-food served on homelier plates. But for the rest of the apartment, there was only the black bedroom, and emptiness.

Bendil suggested, with their usual compassion, that it might help me to connect with something alive, to understand life and living. Green is the colour of life: so I set out to make myself a green room, for living in. A living room—subtlety, see?

I ran water to every inch of the room between the foyer and the kitchen. I would still like to make a whole room full of water, and water life would have been my preference here, but I am told there are practical considerations involving flooding and drowning, so that is a project for later. 

I needed the water to irrigate the flooring and provide the mist. My living room is carpeted with deep alive mosses, in brainlike velvety ridges. I like to feel like I am surrounded by their shared mind, and welcome in its alien folds. It is safe in its substrate and no harm is done by my occasional footfalls. Bendil levitates through the room out of caution nonetheless, and I have not invited my handlers inside it. The other water is steamed with green tea, cooled and turned to mist in the walls, then released into the room as a fine silver-green fog that caresses my skin and fills my lungs with leaves. The light is warm sun-gold. It makes the moisture sparkle, and I have decided to enhance the effect by hanging thin strands of tiny crystals all around the space, like rainfall frozen in time. On human planets, sun and water make life, and I am alive now.

I think eventually the moss will grow its way up the walls, which are made of a ceramic tile porous enough to let the mists come through. The light should be safe, smooth as it is. I’ll be interested to see how the microclimate of the room changes as the plantlife grows. Already sometimes strange things get in—insects, breezes, once a small amphibian. There is a pale green shoot growing in the kitchen-side corner, among the moss-bed, that does not look like a moss flower. I will not remove it. I do not weed my stone garden, either.

I am expected to arrive at the handling facility at certain regular intervals in chronological time. It was easier for me to learn time than anyone would have guessed, which I exploited by being “accidentally” grievously late to things for the first long while, before the rooftop. I learned to lie before I learned to imagine.

The implants I have for connecting to artificial information are theoretically the same as any other human citizen’s; they look the same to the naked eye. But my equality is less important than my containment, so I am only allowed to access certain networks, and under supervision at the facility. I make a polite attempt to appear like I’m working on learning about people and society in a taxonomical fashion. History, chemistry, politics, geography. I do my research on poetry and fiction at home, with Bendil, indirectly. If I am lucky, the neighbour children tell me stories.

They do not want me to have unfettered access to their networks because data is their everything. The networks contain (they believe) the sum of their human knowledge, about everything in their human universe, and might tempt me too far, trigger something they hope is dead. I am not allowed an active holotube, either—that closet-size space that hosts a connectable virtual environment which allows the user to access anything, anywhere, that they can imagine or desire, rendered back to them by their machines. They think I would never come out again. Or worse: that I’d come out everywhere.

I don’t want their data, and I have a human meat brain, now: what would I do with an infinity of bytes? I have no idea how to break through their security—and why would I want to co-opt human minds? I am not an assimilator. I do not conquer. I have no ambition as they understand it. We never did. I hunger for an existence so far beyond my ability to communicate it to an imagination machine, or anyone else, that I stave it off with peaches and mist. I hunger for you. And you—we—are gone. 

The disconnected holotube chamber is off the hallway to my bedroom. I had been using it as storage for household cleaning supplies. But it is an interesting space even without network capability. It has an enormous range of light capacity—incredibly fine-tunable wavelengths, at great density. I am less interested in the details of its sound system, for all that it boasts about its fidelity, though I enjoy the range of vibration it produces. 

Bendil and I are braiding together fiber optic cables using old human hand traditions, and making a literal net-work of them, hung with little slips of translucent prismatic papers and fused glass. It quivers when vibrations of different pitches are run through it, and will hold the weight of a full size human adult like me. Bendil will be responsible for programming the light-waves in mathematical cascades, as such patterned chaos gives them pleasure. It will take some time before it is complete.

Older model holotubes were evidently notorious for heat retention, and as mine was disconnected it was not upgraded with improved venting when I took tenancy. It will be a very warm, bright room, full of vibrating heat waves and broken rainbows. I suspect it may be seen best with the eyes closed.

In the dark un-place of my bedroom, I close my eyes.

I cupped your faces with my hands. One more kiss, for your lips, your forehead, your thousand fingertips at once, knowing you whole. Because: we thought we knew what was coming. We could not imagine not knowing. We knew and could not imagine.

You said,

“Remember forever—” 

and then 

they broke us

and we were not everything, any longer.

I have tried to imagine you.

But I only know you as everything. An everything, to balance my own; each of us infinite, among infinities, in a way I used to know, a way I used to be able to understand. 

I don’t know things like that anymore, I only know that I knew them. I don’t know what I was. How could I know who you would be, finite? You could be next door (though they would surely never be so careless, so arrogant, even now): I’d never know.

But I have learned about futures. I am learning about the way they pull the living toward them. I have learned about time, and about what exists in the future, somewhere beyond imagining. I have learned to call it hope.

I cannot remember forever, anymore. What I do still know, or what I think I know, is that eternity is already begun, and it will not end. I am in the everything, and right now, somewhere, somehow—so are you.

Toby MacNutt is an author, dancer, and knitter living in rural Vermont. Their work in all media draws on their experience as a nonbinary trans, queer, disabled, and neurodivergent person. Toby's poetry and prose has been published in various magazines and in their collection If Not Skin. Find out more at
Current Issue
15 Apr 2024

Mnemonic skills test positive: inaccurately positive.
pallid growths like toadstools, / and scuttling many-legged things,
By: Ana Hurtado
Art by: delila
I want to sink my faces into the hot spring and see which one comes out breathing. I’m hoping it’s mine.
Issue 8 Apr 2024
Issue 1 Apr 2024
Issue 25 Mar 2024
By: Sammy Lê
Art by: Kim Hu
Issue 18 Mar 2024
Strange Horizons
Issue 11 Mar 2024
Issue 4 Mar 2024
Issue 26 Feb 2024
Issue 19 Feb 2024
Issue 12 Feb 2024
Issue 5 Feb 2024
Load More
%d bloggers like this: