Short Story – A Question of Self

So, this is the last of the short stories I had originally built up as a buffer, back before I started this authors blog. Unfortunately, that means that there is a solid chance the rate I put them out might drop a bit. I’m not actually sure of that yet, to be honest pretty much everything is up in the air for me as we move into 2017. We’ll see where everything lands in coming weeks.

Regardless, the short is another one of my experiments. A double experiment, in point of fact. First, I was experimenting in setting the look and feel of a story by active manipulation of cliches (which I, of course, being me, then proceeded to snap in half). Second, I was trying to infuse a story with a bit more of a point. As a general rule I write pieces for entertainment first, not the high-minded philosophical shenanigans that some authors claim as their base material. Which isn’t to say that I don’t work in the occasional moral point or observation, but it’s rarely the focus. In my ever onward attempt to expand my own abilities, I challenged myself to work from that philosophical concept model for this one. What that concept is…well, hopefully you can figure it out, if I managed even a half decent job.

A pair of final notes. I’m not entirely happy with the technical editing on this one, there are a couple of places that are technically correct but don’t look right to me. It’s part of why I left this story until last, but I never have been able to quite fix it…mostly because I can no longer properly capture the mindset I was in when I wrote it, and thus can substantially rewrite. Second, the genre for this one is…fuzzy. Elements of it could be Fantasy or Sci-fi, but on the whole it’s probably closer to General Fiction in overall feel. Anyway, enjoy!

 

A Question of Self

Jacen Aster

It was a rainy day when she showed up in my office. At least, she looked like a she. Tall and dark, seductive looking with generous assets and a troubled expression on her sculpted face. I knew then that I was in for it, but it was my job to help everyone who walked through my door and I’d give her case my all. I straightened up from my slouch and made sure the sign on my desk was properly aligned.

Erasumus Malrose – Identity Counselor

Yeah, that’s me. Maybe it isn’t a glamorous job, but someone has to do it. As for her, I already knew what she would say, what her problem was. Everyone asks The Question, eventually. Some ask it as mere children, others made it to their third century before asking. It was a simple question, but one born only after humanity mastered the technology of body swapping.

“What, now, makes me…me?” That’s all it was, but what I problem it represented…

It was the great, half-expected problem of the modern age. It became so almost five centuries ago, when we first managed to transfer a soul from one body to another, to move from our natural born flesh and bone to a vat grown body, or even to the cold hardware of a machine. With effective immortality and a means to change physical form, identities became an issue within barely a generation.

So what if your original body was male? Perhaps you spent your second century seeing how the other half lived, then your third as a cyborg super-solider with no gender at all. The older the soul the more it tended to forget what it had been originally, naturally, and the identity crisis became the most common ailment next to the nefarious and indomitable common cold. And I, poor foolish being that I am, decided to spend this century studying the phenomena by becoming an identity counselor. Susan, the current name of choice my new client had just introduced herself by, was merely the latest in a long line of confused and desperate souls.

She shifted on the couch, sipping the margarita I’d ordered from the office-bot to calm her down. “So, Mr. Malrose, you see that I just don’t know what to do. I mean, I’ve been in this body for twenty years now but it doesn’t feel any more right than the last one. Not wrong either, but not any more right than the others. Shouldn’t there be something more? Some connection with my form? Should I prefer a male body, or perhaps darker skin? How do I know what it is I’m supposed to be?”

I sighed as she gave voice to the problem. The problem for which there was no known solution. Sure, there was a growing purist movement to form an identity and stick to it, but there were just as many of those who stuck to their guns and claimed that your physical form didn’t matter. Humanity had achieved its supposed ideal, complete freedom from racial or gender prejudice, only to have no idea what to do now that we’d gotten there.

“The answer isn’t something I can just give to you, Sue. But I can, at least, tell you that it isn’t so unusual, not feeling that sense of ‘rightness’ in one specific skin. For most people, the better place to start in answering The Question is, what makes you happy? Not just what brings you momentary pleasure, but what makes you happy in the day-to-day. Are you happy being this version of you? Were you happier as another you?”

She bit her lower lip cutely as she thought on that. Even knowing her body was artificially sculpted for the best effect, I still couldn’t help a twinge of desire at the expression. Eventually, she cocked her head to one side and asked another question. “How do I separate the happiness of events from the happiness with the body I was wearing? I had my longest relationship in a previous body, and that colors my memory of that time. How do I know if it was the body that fit me, or the relationship?”

I grinned at her in response. She was a bright one, skipping the three or four leading questions I was typically forced to ask in order to get my clients to that precise pattern of thought.

“Exactly.”

She looked up in confusion, frown lines marring that perfect face.

“To a certain extent, we are what we are made to be. Be that by nature or by life, it makes little difference. Despite our developments in science, despite our options, we are much like every human in our species’ past. Our personalities and preferences are largely the result of our experiences, not our form.” I shuffled a few datachips idly, letting that sink in for a moment before continuing. “This is even more true now than ever before, for it is nonsense to claim in our generation that we are only what we were born to be. That we are merely a set of natural impulses programmed into us at birth. If it were a mere physical thing, we would lose it the moment we make our first body swap, and if it is something more than we would never have The Question to begin with. No, it is our experiences that define us, and it is there you must look if you wish to find yourself. Both what you are and what you wish to be.”

She seemed to be getting it, her expression lightening as I spoke, but my last sentence seemed to give her pause. Face once again shadowed by confusion, she questioned. “What I wish to be?”

I nodded and pointed out what I felt was obvious, but which so many of my patients missed. “As a species, we differ from simple animals primarily in our ability to self-determine. That has never been more true than now, as we can choose even our physical flesh and sinew to meet our own desires. Therefore, as important as knowing what and who you are is, there is also always the choice to simply decide who and what you wish to be. Be it hero or villain, oppressed or oppressor, scientist, artist or explorer, what you become reflects the choices you make. You are what you have chosen to be, and when you walk out my door today you may choose to become any of these things, or none of them, and no one can stop you but yourself.”

There was a look of slight shock on her face as she processed that thought and I moved in for the kill. I did this by the simple expedient of standing.

Her eyes went wide as she took my form in properly, until that moment having only seen my top half, and even that only in profile. From her previous perspective I would have looked like a fairly generic human male, but that changed immediately as she got a proper look. I towered over her at nearly two and half meters, and I was very clearly a cyborg. A combat cyborg, to be perfectly blunt. My left hand, previously hidden, was a vicious metal claw and the nose of a high-caliber automatic pulser flowed from its wrist. My legs were equally modified, thick metallic powered armor covered only half-heartedly in bulging business slacks.

Before she could get past her shock and fall into fear at the unexpected sight, I began speaking again. “This is a previous body, from a previous me. I kept it when I started this new job, in order to help people understand.” I paused and waited for some response from her.

Her squeaky, shaky, “Understand?” was good enough for me.

“Yes, to help them understand. This body,” I motioned at myself with my claw-like hand, “is the body of a killer, but I choose to use it as a tool to bring peace of mind to others. It is a choice you see, the choice of what I want to be.”

A look of recognition lit her eyes, driving back the fear of my physical presence. After a slow moment to gather her thoughts she spoke the point of the lesson. “You are what you have chosen to be. Not by choosing your physical form, but by choosing how you act. How to use the form you inhabit.”

I smiled, happy she had gotten it. About a quarter of my clients simply screamed and ran. “Exactly. I am what I chose to be. Though, of course, all my experiences that came before led to the mental landscape through which that choice made sense to me.” I reached my human hand over to tap her between the eyes. “It’s all in your head, Sue, and it always has been. Not just for you and me, but for all those that came before. You are not the body known as Susan, but the mind that chose both the body and name. Perhaps, someday, you will find a skin that best suits you, but you don’t need that feeling of fitting to know yourself.”

“I just need to know what I have chosen, and what I will choose.”

I nodded, not feeling the need to speak. As she visibly settled to process this revelation, I moved to refresh both our drinks, doing so myself this time rather than relying on the office-bot, as I no longer needed to hide my form. I put the new drink in her hand and she absentmindedly sipped it for the next quarter of an hour before nodding uncertainly.

“I think I understand, at least well enough to be getting on with. What do I owe you?”

I waved the thought off. “Nothing, The Question is always paid for by the state. Better to get someone help, before they go off the deep end and try to ‘prove their unique existence’ by burning down an orphanage or something.”

She gave a tinkling laugh at my poor joke and stood, brushing by my desk on her way out. I watched her magnificent rear exit my office, then palmed the card she’d inconspicuously left on the desk’s polished surface. A lipstick kiss and a scrawled digidress. The corners of my mouth turned up, and I reached to a button on my control console. As I deactivated the holo-projectors making me look like a cyborg, I let myself wonder what the woman would make of my perfectly human form if I followed through on her obvious invitation…

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