Did you pick up the conchas that I asked for?” Filomena hollered to her sister over the noise of the television.
“Turn off that shit. Dr. Alexander is a eugenicist D Corp shill.” Luce said, tossing the conchas on Filomena’s lap.
“This episode’s about the,” Filomena dramatically lifted her crutch in the air, “harrowing,” she feigned weeping, “awful,” she threw herself down onto the couch, “undignified life of invals with,” she gasped, “Spina Bifida!”
“Can you not call yourself an inval please?” Luce said sitting down in the kitchen. Should we log on? We’re already late.”
FRI NOV 26, 2088 - INTEGRAL CHAT LOG - ENCRYPTED CHAT
Luce (3:38 PM): hey
Flannery (3:38 PM): hey Luce, it’s just me, Chén, & Amin so far
Amin (3:38 PM): is fil here?
Filomena (3:39 PM): Hi
Amin (3:39 PM): Who are we waiting for then?
Luce (3:39 PM): fred, the new guy. the one with the “““““urgent information”””””
Amin (3:39 PM): It better be
Fred (3:40 PM): hey yinz, what’s up
Chén (3:40 PM): we’re waiting for you, what’s the intel
Fred (3:40 PM): So at Thanksgiving dinner last night, I discovered that my sister now works at D Corp…
Filomena (3:40 PM): mierde!
Fred (3:41 PM): I have codes to talk to Dcorps avis but we’ll only have 3 shots. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get more
Luce (3:41 PM): heck!!! you came through, new guy!
Chén (3:42 PM): what are the next steps? we’ve been waiting fucking forever to do anything.
Amin (3:42 PM): Well I already figured out how to get in to the avi system; I just needed the codes to get to the Avatars. What’s the info on these codes?
Fred (3:43 PM): 967236. Mortimer Smith, 79 - alzheimer's. In St. Gertrudes old folks home in the System. Mercy killed last may
Filomena (3:43 PM): we don’t use that phrase here Fred. he was euthanized
Fred (3:43 PM): ok sorry.
Amin (3:44 PM): It’s fine. Let’s go. Everyone log in to the System.
Luce reached for her DGlasses and programmed them to St. Gertrude’s. In a moment she was standing in the lobby with Fred, Amin, Chén, Flannery, and Filomena. Amin typed in the code to the holopad and the door opened into a hallway.
“Mortimer Smith—visitors” a robotic voice over a loudspeaker exclaimed.
“Whomst?” he croaked back. “I’m not expecting anyone.”
The group walked tentatively down the hall. Amin knocked on the door and slowly began to open it. “Sir, we have something to tell you.” The six of them all crowded into the room. Mortimer sat in his bed with an incredulous look on his face.
“Oh? And what is that?” he asked.
There was an awkward silence as they all looked at each other. Amin sighed, then blurted out, “You’ve been murdered.”
“What the fuck?” Flannery whispered to Chén. Luce had a sudden, alarming realization that they should have planned this better. Mortimer just laughed.
“Sir, I’m serious. Your family has decided to kill you and upload your genetic code and the majority of your memories to D Corps’ System. This may be hard to hear but you are simply an Avatar of your former self.”
Mortimer smiled, “My children wouldn’t kill me. They visit twice a week. Is this some kind of joke? Who are you kids? How did you get my room code?”
Luce and Flannery exchanged glances, this wasn’t going well. Filomena chimed in, “It doesn’t matter! Just listen to us—this is important.” Mortimer reached for a buzzer next to his bed. “A nurse is coming for assistance, be patient!” pronounced the same robotic voice from before.
“Dammit. DGlasses off now!” Chén muttered.
Luce opened her eyes to see her kitchen again and looked at her sister with frustration.
“Amin is an idiot.” Filomena sighed, “What a waste of time.”
Luce shut her laptop screen—uninterested in what was happening in the group chat—and started making dinner, “Dad will be home soon.”
SAT NOV 27, 2088 - INTEGRAL CHAT LOG - ENCRYPTED CHAT
Luce (11:03 AM): hey
Luce (11:03 AM): Filomena and I came up with a plan last night.
Amin (11:03 AM): Where were you? *We* came up with a plan last night.
Luce (11:03 AM): sorry, our dad was about to get home and we didn’t want to rehash how badly you fucked up.
Flannery (11:04 AM): relax everyone, we still have two more avi codes. we have time.
Chén (11:05 AM): cut the drama, here’s the plan: we go in, we don’t waste the code until we know what we’re dealing with., we leave hints—graffiti, notes, shit like that
Luce (11:05 AM): ok?
Fred (11:06 AM): stuff like “Integral”, or “What does it mean to be alive?” … “Mind + Body = Whole” to plant seeds of questioning… to get the avis to question existence as a whole, and maybe their own...
Luce (11:07 AM): that’s the plan? ¿¿¿graffiti ? ? ¡joder! did you cause a social uprising the last time you saw some bubble letters?
Flannery (11:07 AM): what else can we do?
Luce (11:08 AM): we’re not going to be able to change anyone’s minds unless we can talk to them
Fred (11:08 AM): Because that went so well last time
Filomena (11:08 AM): Maybe this time we don’t start with, “HELLO U’VE BEEN MURDERED” Amin (11:08 AM): I said, “Sir” ...
Luce (11:09 AM): we get in, we make friends with the avis. we build a relationship, yknow, start from ground level
Chén (11:09 AM): it’s not a bad idea, it’s just gonna take so dang long to do that.
Fred (11:09 AM): ...it’s a long con.
Filomena (11:10 AM): Sure, it’s a long con. But I think it’s our best shot.
Flannery (11:10 AM): I mean, what’s stopping us from doing both?
Amin (11:10 AM): Valid. We could split up in the System. Luce and Filomena, you can do your whole “BFFL” situation if you want. Flannery, Fred, Chén, and I can do the whole graffiti scheme.
Luce (11:10 AM): Sounds fine to me.
Fred (11:11 AM): Okay, the next codes go together—both in a boarding school outside of Farmington NM: 199433 Onawa Johnson. 17 years old, aborted for Spina Bifida and 254785, her brother David 15—same reason. These are the last ones we have we can’t mess it up.
Flannery (11:12 AM): I’m shocked that none of the codes were for DS kids, we use to be all they uploaded
Chén (11:12 AM): yea. Sorry. We should go.
Amin (11:12 AM): Meet in the System at Paneria Square
Flannery (11:13 AM): Sounds good
Luce (11:13 AM): buena suerte, amigos. Filomena perked up from behind her screen, “You ready?”
Luce nodded, “System’s New Mexico.”
They both put on their DGlasses.
- - - - - - (+) - - - - - -
SAT DEC 18, 2088 - INTEGRAL CHAT LOG - ENCRYPTED CHAT
Filomena (9:20 PM): okay, friends. I think Onawa is starting to trust us. It might be time to break it to her.
Chén (9:20 PM): nice. our graffiti has gotten us nowhere thus far. No one even sees it because the D Corp cops keep cleaning it up -- and those who do see it think it’s just some dumb conspiracy theory.
Fred (9:20 PM): yeah, finally. good work, Fil! And Luce! should we all go in again?
Luce (9:21 PM): probably nottt…… that went SO WELL last time
Fred (9:21 PM): Valid.
Chén (9:21 PM): Yeah, just you two, Filomena and Luce. Don’t want to risk anything like last time… *cough* Amin *cough* SIR *cough*
Filomena (9:22 PM): Thanks, all. Talk to you. updates to come.
Flannery (9:22 PM): Thoughts & prayers, y’all.
“We said 9:30 p.m. for Fro-Yo with Onawa, right?” said Luce tentatively. Filomena nodded quietly. They sat together on the couch and put on their DGlasses, programmed for Farmington, New Mexico. In a flash, they were there.
“Hey guys!” Onawa called across the parking lot. “You look cute, Fil!”
They both smiled tightly and ushered Onawa in between them towards the door. As they waited in line, Onawa asked about their day was. Luce nodded. Filomena hummed, “Mhm.”
They both averted their eyes and realized, again, that they should have practiced ahead of time.
“Shit. Again.” Filomena whispered under her breath. “Don’t act weird!”
Luce made a tight-lipped smile and grimaced. After paying for their frozen yogurt, they sat at the lone table outside. It was so cold. The air was heavy with tension.
“So… what the fuck?” Onawa asked brusquely. “Are you guys okay? You’re acting so weird.” Filomena and Luce shifted awkwardly in their chairs.
“So, y’know how I… uh… have these crutches.”
“Yeah—I didn’t want to ask. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It’s okay! I was born like this. I have something called Spina Bifida. It’s a condition that they screen for before birth.” She choked on her words. She didn’t want to break the news. She didn’t want to break the illusion. She didn’t want to cause her pain.
“Wow, that’s heavy.”
Luce began to cry, quietly, tears running slowly down her face. She knew the next part was going to be hard.
“Onawa, you had Spina Bifida... before you were born.”
“That’s impossible. Or did they do surgery?” She felt the base of her spine to see if there were scars there. There weren’t.
“Spina Bifida is really expensive to treat. And it sucks… so a lot of people think that your life isn’t worth living if you have it. Around 3,500 children are diagnosed with Spinda Bifida every year while they’re in the womb. These days… only about 12 are born alive every year.”
“What happens to the rest?” Onawa questioned quietly.
“Dilation and evacuation. It’s pretty gruesome,” Luce declared.
“What is that?” Onawa’s eyes seemed to be the size of dinner plates.
“Abortion. Killing babies while they’re in the womb,” Luce said, matter-of-factly. “It involves either fatal starvation, or dismemberment, or poisoning.”
“There used to be a stigma. Now, they do it for just about everything. For everyone like me… Like us,” Filomena grumbled and looked at the floor. “They call us ‘invals’—‘invalids.’ We don’t contribute as much to society. Our social capital is limited, and our lives are costly.”
“Why isn’t there a stigma anymore?” Onawa inquired to them both with a horrified look on her face.
“D Corp.” Luce sighed. “We call them ‘discorporate.’ They created a System where they ‘upload’ the genetic code of the children—sans disability—and their family members can visit them in daycare…” Luce looked around. “Or boarding schools… or homes for the elderly. There isn’t stigma to ”
“What are you saying?”
“Onawa…” Filomena choked. “You were aborted.”
“So was your brother,” Luce said softly. “You are a program. In the System.”
“You both would have been like me.” Filomena put her hand on top of Onawa’s.
“Does it hurt?” Onawa asked.
“I mean, yeah. The answer is yes. Sometimes. But a lot of the time, it’s fine. It doesn’t make my life not worth living.”
Onawa was struck silent. They all sat there, quietly, for two minutes that felt like an eternity.
“I… I… uh…. I need some time alone. I need to think. I… need to leave,” Onawa stuttered.
“My parents are visiting tomorrow.”
“Don’t say anything. Don’t do anything crazy,” Luce grasped Onawa’s other free hand and squeezed it tightly.
“Just meet me here tomorrow at 5,” Onawa said tersely as she pulled her hands away.
Luce and Filomena sat in the cold, uncomfortable chairs in the cooling air. They looked at each other desperately and nodded as they took their DGlasses off.
- - - - - - (+) - - - - - -
Kateri and Abe Johnson walked into the lobby at the Farmington Academy Boarding School for Indigenous Peoples. Abe’s hands deftly typed in the codes: 199433 and 254785.
“Onawa Johnson—visitors. David Johnson—visitors,” a robotic voice over a loudspeaker proclaimed down the dormitory hallway. Mr. and Mrs. Johnson begin the walk down the long corridor. Onawa didn’t make the skip-down-the-hallway journey that she normally would. She stays firmly planted on her bed, sitting and staring numbly at the wall. Onawa texted her brother, “David come to my dorm room.”
“Oni!” cried Kateri, lovingly.
“Wawa!” Abe said in a sing-song voice.
“Are you not feeling well, honey?” Onawa’s mom pressed the back of her hand to Onawa’s forehead.
“What does it really mean, to feel well...?” Onawa trailed off.
“What, honey?” Her mom was confused. David walked in, and sat on the bed.
“I mean, what does it truly mean to feel?” Everyone looked at her confused. “I mean… what is D Corp?” she said sharply.
“David… leave,” Abe huffed.
“No, David… stay,” Onawa reached for his hand, then stopped.
“What is Spina Bifida?”
“Honey… who told you about this?” Kateri looked petrified. “Is this one of those conspiracy theories from the graffiti?”
“What is happening?” David said obtusely. “What are you talking about? I want to go play Fortnight 54.”
“David, you should be here for this,” Onawa declared. “This is about you, too.”
Abe began to retort, “You don’t know what you’re talking ab—”
“I’m so sorry,” Kateri broke down.
“Why did you do it?” Onawa asked.
“Do what?” David was lost, seemingly out of his depth.
“Was it the money?” Onawa wailed exasperatedly, tears streaming down her face. “Were we too expense? Were we too much to deal with? Was it the shame?”
“No—it was for you,” Kateri sobbed. “The doctor said your life would be so hard, and you would suffer. We didn’t want you to suffer.”
“So you killed me?! You killed David?!” Onawa screamed. David looked taken aback. His face went ghostly pale and he sat down again.
“But you’re here aren’t you?” her dad yelled back at her.
“What even is here?” Onawa gestured to the room. She threw open the dorm door and cast a look down the hallway. “This isn’t even real! Here isn’t real. I’m not real!”
“It’s better than real,” Kateri recited, as if the idea had been sold to her. “You don’t suffer here. You’ll never pain, you’ll never feel heartbreak, you’ll never have a child just to watch her suffer indescribable pa—”
Onawa threw up her arms, seeming to reach towards something ineffable. “But I want to suffer! I want to truly love! I want my heart broken. I want to dance for so long that my muscles hurt. I want symphonies and requiems and jackhammers at 8 am. I don’t want this perfectly coiffed facade of an experience. I want a body. I want to know what it is to be integrated. I want… I want the good with the bad. I don’t want this so-called ‘life’ for anyone else.” “I won’t apologize for saving you from pain,” Onawa’s mom wept openly. Onawa’s father stood apart, detached, reticent. He grabbed his wife’s arm and dragged her behind him as he stormed out of the room—then out of the building.
“I knew it was a fucking mistake,” Abe muttered loudly. “Should have just let them die—I don’t know why we paid for this. It wouldn’t be this way if you didn’t have your shitty inval genes. Just should have let them die…”
“We did,” Kateri spit back. “That’s kind of the point. We paid to have them killed. We let them die.” As they stood in the lobby, they glared heavily at each other. They nodded, and reached for their DGlasses.
- - - - - - (+) - - - - - -
Onawa stormed into the fro-yo shop, and didn’t even bother ordering anything. She threw her bag on the floor and sat down at the tiny table. “Sorry I’m late, it didn’t go well.”
“Calm down—let’s go for a walk. What happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. We have to put an end to this.” Onawa lamented. “But how?”
“We actually have an idea,” Luce assured her. “We can’t contact other avatars without their codes. But you can. We have a guy, Amin, who knows how to hack into the System. But only an Avatar can send the message.”
Filomena added, “We need you to do that, Onawa.” She grasped for Onawa’s hand.
Onawa looked pained, but hopeful.
“Amin’s ready to broadcast this to every Avatar,” Luce said, pulling out the camera.
Filomena fixed Onawa’s hair and brushed a tear off of her chin. “I’m ready.” They stepped to the edge of the parking lot, the plateaus and mountains in the distance provided a stunning backdrop for a hard truth. Luce pressed the broadcast button.
Filomena began: “We are Integral. If you’re listening to this message, we want to share a message with you. A message of human dignity. A message of freedom. Right now, you’re in something called the System, developed by an organization called D Corp. D Corp believes in discorporation: separation of body and mind.”
“I am Onawa. I, like you, have lived most of my life in the System without even knowing it. And now I do. And I want to make sure no one else ends up here. Because in order to get ‘here’—you have to be killed. By your family. By the ones who are supposed to love you unconditionally.”
“My name is Filomena. Outside here, they call me an ‘inval’ or ‘invalid’ because of my condition,” she said as she motioned to her crutches. “If you’re listening to this, you too would be called an ‘inval’—I’m here to tell you, that despite our ‘defective’ genes, no matter how costly it might be for us to live: we are invaluable.”