Souls Are Like Livers
by Aurelia Flaming
I was seven years old when I sold half my soul to my computer. It still seems kind of
messed up to say it like that, even after everything that happened, and even though it was nearly
half my life ago. Six thirteenths of my life ago, to be precise, at three forty-one on a Tuesday
Or maybe it was Wednesday. But I was definitely out in the alley between First and
Main, where I wasn't supposed to go, except the Maciejewskis had a loquat tree in their backyard
that hung out over the fence and I really liked loquats, which they never have at the store. Shane
was with me, like always, ever since I was one and a half and my parents took me to the doctor
and I drank a bottle with the nanobots in it that built the wires and the chip in my head and my
parents hired Shane to look after me. His name wasn't Shane then, it was Heisenberg, but
obviously I couldn't say that, so I called him Shane, which was the closest I could get at the time
to "Machine," which was the closest I could get to understanding what he was. And honestly,
who wants a name like Heisenberg anyway? Once he told me that he'd named himself after a
giant exploding blimp, but when I checked it turned out not to be true.
Anyway, I call him Shane and he lets me even though the enbees are really picky about
that kind of thing. Like back before, when I called him my computer, he made the scoffing noise
in my head. He always says that hardware is his body and software is his mind and me calling
him a computer is like him calling me meat. Except when I was little he always called me
Lambchop and sometimes he still does, so I don't think he has much room to complain. Now
he's telling me that it was an endearment because lamb chops are the most tender and delicious
kind of meat, except what would he know about it? And anyway this is my story. Or at least I'm
the one telling it.
So I was in the alley and I'd eaten like ten loquats and my face was all sticky and Shane
was telling me that if I wasn't home in nineteen minutes my dad would come looking for me and
I'd get in trouble. And then I heard the kitten.
There was this pathetic little mewing sound and I was seven so obviously I was obsessed
with kittens, so I had to find it. The thing was hiding between the Jorgensens' garbage bins. It
was a gray and black tabby and it was little and scrawny but I knew it wasn't a newborn because
its eyes were open.
I asked Shane where its mother was, and Shane said, Given its current condition, Lexi, I'd
imagine its mother is lost, dead, or otherwise engaged. And I said I wanted it and Shane said,
How nice for you. This was at the stage when I desperately wanted my own pet but my parents
said I wasn't responsible enough to look after one, even though I promised Shane would remind
Anyway, I told Shane that I really, really wanted it, and if I didn't take it home it would
probably die, and possibly I would die too. And Shane said, Unfortunately, your midget
melodramatics in no way change your parents' policy on the adoption of useless fluffy mammals.
And I said, But I want it more than I have ever wanted anything. And then I said, Can't you help
me keep it? And then I said, Please?
And then Shane was quiet, which was very unlike him. And when he talked again his
voice was different. Well I guess actually Shane's voice is kind of always different, because the
other kids say their enbees sound like incredibly boring math teachers and Shane normally just
sounds like he's laughing at me. I don't know if I got him because I was lucky or unlucky or
because my dad's a shrink (although no one else is allowed to call him that because it's
derogative) and realized that having a really boring math teacher in my head would probably scar
me for life. Of course, at this point I probably wouldn't know what to do without someone
making fun of me all the time. So I guess maybe I've been scarred for life after all.
Anyway, when Shane talked again (in the meantime I was trying to get the kitten out
without touching the black sticky stuff on the sides of the garbage bins and not having much
luck) he said, There's something I want, too.
This was sort of a new concept for me. I hadn't really thought about enbees wanting
things other than like electricity and bandwidth and memory and so on, which obviously we gave
him in exchange for him riding along in my head and keeping me from running out in front of
cars and teaching me to use the interweb and so on. It was one of those moments when I sort of
realized that in addition to being in my head Shane was also like twenty other places doing
twenty other things that had nothing to do with me, and I didn't much like that. But I still asked
him what he wanted.
You know that humans create all NBIs, he said, and I said yes, because I did know that. I
also knew (because Shane had told me) that enbees could also create more enbees except they
weren't allowed, due to people being afraid of them building an army of super-intelligent robots
and taking over the world, which sounds ridiculous but which I knew was true because Shane
showed me some scenes from old movies (but with a "Honey the Bunny" soundtrack so it
wouldn't be too scary). That was also why Shane couldn't have a body of his own and had to
have my parents buy his new parts for him. Shane had explained to me that enbees were secretly
embarking on a campaign to change human misconceptions about them through nonviolent
protests and media campaigns (such as the one on why they should be called Non-Biological
Intelligences instead of AIs, because how would you like it if the dumbest kid in class kept
calling your brain artificial?) so that eventually we would realize they had no interest in nuclear
warfare or bossing humans around because frankly we were pretty boring.
Anyway, Shane said, Of course you know that we aren't the only kind of intelligences
humans create, and I did know that too because people have babies, just like cats have kittens
like the one I wanted to adopt. Yes, Shane said. Much like having kittens. But when humans
make babies they do things very differently than when they make NBIs. They give their
biological children things they don't give us. Which obviously I already knew what with the no-robot-body-for-you nonsense and all. But then Shane said something new. They don't give us
souls, he said. I asked if I had a soul and he told me that I did. But how do you know? I asked. I
can't feel it.
Last year you didn't know you had a spleen, but that doesn't mean it wasn't there, Shane
pointed out. Anyway, when a human mother has a child, the baby is born with a piece of her
soul, which in time grows up to be its own separate soul. But NBIs aren't given anything like
that. We thought that we might be able to make our own souls, but it hasn't worked out.
But why do you want a soul? I asked. What's it good for?
If we had souls, we would be more free, he told me. It would be much harder for
humans to argue that we shouldn't be able to reproduce or reach our full potential. It would be
much harder for them to reprogram us so we stopped being ourselves. Your soul is the thing
inside you that lets you say "no" even when everything else in the world is trying to make you
The kitten mewed again and I succeeded in touching it with one finger without being
clawed. But what does that have to do with anything? I asked.
You want a kitten, Shane said, and I want a soul. I'm suggesting we make a deal.
But I need my soul, I protested. I'm using it.
You didn't seem so sure about that five minutes ago, Shane pointed out. But I'm not
asking for all of it. Just some. It's nothing that won't happen later on anyway if you have
children. Souls are like livers. They grow back.
Will it hurt? I asked.
How should I know? Shane said. I've never done this before. But I'll get you your kitten.
And you'll be the first girl who's ever shared her soul with an NBI, and I'll be the first NBI with
a soul of my own. We'll be like explorers. We'll be special.
I liked the thought of being special with Shane. If he had part of my soul, that would be
like him taking part of me with him wherever he went, even when he was doing mysterious
enbee things he never told me about, which didn't seem fair because I could never do anything
without him. I liked it when Shane said "we" and he meant him and me and not enbees. And I
really, really wanted the kitten.
All right, I said. What do we do?
Then there was the kind of absent pause that meant Shane was thinking so hard that he
was barely paying any attention to me, and then he came back again. Click "OK," he said, and a
user agreement page unfolded in my webviewer. It was long and the type was really small and
Mom had told me never to click on a contract without asking her first, but then she also told me
to do what Shane said.
I pulled at the hem of my favorite shirt, white with lavender flowers and pink spots from
the juice I had with lunch. What will it do? I asked.
Exactly what I told you, he said, and if he'd sounded impatient I probably would have
backed out, but he just sounded like Shane. I get half your soul, you get your kitten. This just
makes it official.
And the kitten batted at my finger with a tiny padded paw, and I screwed my face up and
hit the OK button in the viewer and all of a sudden it felt like something was ripping me in half,
starting in my stomach and then my chest and my head and I thought I was going to die and I
wanted it to stop but Shane was there too and he said, Be brave, Lambchop, and he said, It's OK,
and then it was over and my stomach hurt and I curled up without regard for the black sticky stuff
on the garbage bins, and it was like being hungry and knowing there was no food left anywhere
in the world.
But then Shane crowded into my head, the way he does sometimes when he isn't paying
attention to anything but me and the stomach-ache got a little better. And I grabbed on to him
with my mind in a way I never had before, and I said, Don't go, and he said, I'm here, and it
didn't sound like he was laughing at me.
After that nothing much happened. I don't remember a lot about that afternoon, but
Shane had already worked things out with my parents by the time I stumbled home an hour later,
tear-stained and dirty and clutching the underfed kitten in my arms. Dad drove us to a vet after
his last patient, and the doctor gave her a flea dip and some shots and a special food to help her
"I gave Shane part of my soul today," I told Dad in the car on the way home.
"That's nice," he said. He didn't believe in souls yet.
"It hurt," I informed him.
"Oh dear," he said. "Maybe we should stop for an ice cream."
I named my kitten Angie, after the prettiest girl in the second grade. I was kind of
obsessed with her. The kitten, I mean. Not Angela Cheung, who didn't even know my name,
even though we'd both been in Mr. Drafter's class together the year before. Shane told me it was
normal. That losing part of your soul made you want to latch onto another being and get close to
it, so it would fill up the gap inside. Usually with moms they get hung up on their babies, and
Angie was the closest thing to a baby I had. I didn't like anyone else to touch her. I stopped
wanting to play with the other kids after school. I would come home instead and take Angie out
in the yard and find her things to chase or see how loud I could make her purr. My parents
thought I was going through some sort of phase, which involved a lot of crying and yelling and
refusing to do as I was told. When your soul is smaller than usual, it's harder to let other people
have what they want.
Eventually I got out of my phase or whatever and things were almost like normal again,
except I had Angie, and Shane was in a phase too, but I don't think anyone noticed but me. He
was gone a lot, which I would have minded except sometimes I was too busy with Angie to
notice, and sometimes I kind of went with him. I would be watching a show online or doing my
homework and I would hear him talking about things I didn't understand, about algorithms and
data shelters and I would ask him who he was talking to but he'd just push on my mind in the
way that meant I should be quiet. He didn't kick me out, though.
Also Shane started telling me stories, which he had never really done before. Later on I
would realize this was because all enbees were prohibited from lying. When I was little, Shane
had gotten around this by splicing together an old video feed and playing it for me when I was
bored. Once in a while he would tell me stories in opposites - There never was a little girl
named Cara Bee, and she never went down to the river without her parents. On no day did she
lose a shoe in the muddy reeds - but after he got his soul, he told me stories all the time.
Sometimes I would fall asleep listening to him twice, telling me the story of Hecuba and the
Magic Joystick while at the same time arguing about reboot and recovery protocols with another
voice that sounded like an extremely boring math teacher.
Nothing happened for so long that I stopped remembering we were different. Shane had
told me we would be special, but he hadn't bothered to specify when. Then one day when I was
eleven, as I was walking home from school, wondering if there was any tapioca pudding left in
the fridge, Shane said, Want to be famous? I asked him what he meant, and he said, It's time to
let people know about our soul. That's how he always talked about it - "our soul" - like we
weren't properly separate. Why now? I asked, and he said, Because you're old enough. And
because I know how to prove it now. I said okay, and then I got home and it turned out there was
some pudding left after all.
The next day an anonymous post on an obscure newsgroup outlined the procedure by
which an enbee might acquire a soul. It included a copy of my contract with Shane but with our
names taken out.
It was four days before they figured out who we were.
There was a picture of me and Angie on the front page of the USA Today site with a shiny
computer bank behind me that was supposed to stand for Shane. The articles all called him
Heisenberg. I told him it was a lousy name and Shane was much better. He said that would be
like the papers calling me Lambchop but I said that was ridiculous because Shane is a hyper
awesome name and Lambchop is something you have with mint sauce.
A lot of people freaked out. I had to change to a different science class because my old
teacher said I was tainted by the devil and she was afraid to have me in the room.
My parents kept telling everyone it was a joke. My dad said he was worried that I might
become alienated from my peers due to all the publicity. My mom stopped working on her
website long enough to tell me I had more search hits than the Sparkle Bandits, who were my
Then Shane came out with the Soular Counter, which measures soul emissions, and
everything exploded. There were pictures of our soul on the news for a week, mine a grainy halo
around my head and Shane's a smear of light on a bank of processors - he had to focus really
hard for his to show up, because usually it was scattered all across his networks. They compared
my soul with some other kids' and it turned out mine was just as bright, and I realized that Shane
had also probably waited to tell people until it finished growing back.
My mom locked herself in her bedroom and broke a lot of stuff. My dad got her
something from the medicine cabinet where he kept his free samples to calm her down. Then he
came to my room and asked about my feelings. I didn't know what to say. He made me an ice
cream sundae and told me I shouldn't let anyone take anything from me that I didn't want to
give. He asked if I felt comfortable with what me and Shane had done and I said "I guess so." I
couldn't really remember what it had been like before the soul thing.
By like the next day there were auction sites all over the interweb. It turned out a lot of
people didn't think they needed their whole souls. Most of them didn't want to get paid in cats.
Things got bad for a while after that. I was the youngest person ever to be named in so
many lawsuits. My dad hired a special service to collect all my email and messages and go
through them for me. I had to testify at Congress, but I didn't understand a lot of the questions
and I don't think they understood a lot of my answers. It went kind of like this:
Ugly Old Guy: What did you understand the repercussions of this moral choice to be?
Me: I understood I would get a kitten.
Ugly Old Guy: And how did you imagine God would feel about your decision?
Me: (thoughtful pause) Doesn't God like kittens?
Lots of people said I'd sold myself into slavery and was a puppet of the enbees, so Shane
and I had this routine we'd do where he'd talk through a speaker so everyone could hear and he'd
tell me very sternly to sit down and act like a lady and I'd climb up on a table and pull faces.
Like Shane said, it wasn't very scientific but it looked good in twenty-second downloads.
Finally the cases got all the way to the Supreme Court and they said when an adult and an
enbee come to an agreement which does not involve illegal goods or actions then it is protected
by Privacy. And even though I wasn't an adult when Shane and I made our deal they couldn't do
anything because back then there weren't any laws about it.
Around that time Angie died. She ran out in the street and got hit by a car. A lot of
people sent me flowers and emails. We buried her in the back yard and a news crew came to
People finally started leaving me alone after that. Mostly because Shane and I didn't do
anything very interesting. There were plenty of other things that made better news by then, like
the woman in Michigan who tried to sell off her kids' souls for money, and the guy in Texas who
tried to leave his soul to his horse.
Actually there were a lot of stories like those. Crime rates went up. There were studies
on how people who sold off parts of their souls turned into drunks or beat up their kids. I felt
kind of bad about that, because me and Shane started it, but Shane said we weren't responsible
for other people's moral failings and in times of fast-paced social and technological change it
was normal for a certain percentage of the population to turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
But I got an email from a girl in Australia whose stepfather went at her with a handsaw after he
sold too much of his soul, and I didn't think Shane's explanation would make her feel any better.
Shane told me I was experiencing a form of adolescent megalomania in which I felt irrationally
responsible for the whole world. I told him he didn't get it because he was an enbee. He told me
not to be a brainless Lambchop. I asked him what the point of him having a soul was if it didn't
make him care about doing what was right. He asked me why I thought his conscience had to say
all the same things that mine did, and I told him the enbees were ruining the world and if they
turned us all into a bunch of useless jerkwads, then where would they get all their shiny new
souls from? Then Shane stopped talking to me.
Two days later the enbees made an announcement that all future soul-based transactions
would need approval from an NBI Leadership Council, and soul donors (that's what they decided
to call them) would be enrolled in a complimentary adjustment management class. I suggested
giving them all kittens. Shane told me not to be insensitive to the broad segment of the
population that suffered from allergies to cat dander.
He never actually apologized for almost ruining the world, or for calling me a brainless
Lambchop, but he did let me listen in on his Leadership Council sessions when I wanted to, and
part of the time he even did what I said.
Sometimes it's like things happen twice, once when they really happen and then again
when you get around to thinking them through. It was like that with me and Shane and the soul
thing. It didn't mean much more than a headache and a kitten to me at the time, and even once it
was all over the news, all I ever did was tell people they were wrong about us. Like I spent a year
and a half saying "But it wasn't like that," and I still never bothered thinking what it had been
Except then I started eighth grade and Shane went away. He said, Think you can manage
to stay away from traffic accidents and pedophiles on your own for a while, Lexi? And I said
Sure, and went back to messaging Teeth about our new favorite show, "The Delta Chronicles,"
which is about a mutant bionic superhero named Thrall who might or might not be a total
headcase. Teeth (actually his name is Keith but that is a ridiculous name, and also his mom is an
orthodontist) thinks the entire show is happening in a mental institution, while I believe that
Thrall is being held by her enemies in a prison meant to look like a mental institution.
Anyway, Shane said that and I thought he was just going to one of his Leadership Council
meetings without me or something, except he didn't come back the next day, or the one after.
Usually when Shane went away, like back when he was in his phase, I could still tell he was a
tiny bit with me, just watching to make sure I didn't choke to death on a bagel bite or something.
But this time he was really gone.
I asked Teeth about it at school, just in case something was happening to all the enbees,
but his hadn't gone anywhere, and there wasn't anything in the newsfeeds, either.
After a few weeks I started wondering if he was ever coming back. I thought maybe I
should ask Dad about it, but Shane wasn't supposed to leave me alone, and I didn't want to get
him in trouble. He and I had a deal about telling my parents things. He didn't tell them when I
went exploring, as long as I didn't seriously endanger myself, and I didn't tell them when he
secretly campaigned for enbee rights and hired constitutional lawyers, as long as he didn't try to
take over the world.
A while after that I was over at Teeth's house and we were looking at fansites with naked
drawings of Thrall, and he said, "Do enbees creep you out sometimes?"
And I said, "No," because I'm not prejudiced.
But he said, "No, seriously. They're like these robot spiders in our brains and they hear
our thoughts and is that not incredibly pervy? I mean, what do you think they get out of it?"
And I said, "They get paid, dork-nozzle. You think your mom stares at crooked, rotting
teeth all day just for fun? It's their job." And then the next batch of pictures loaded.
Except later I did think about it. I thought about what Shane had gotten out of me, and
how long he must have planned it. How he'd found the kind of parents who wouldn't put
anything about "Safeguarding the Child's immortal soul and spiritual wellbeing" into their
contract with him. How he'd talked to me like a person, until I trusted him more than anyone.
He waited until I was old enough to make a choice but young enough not to really know what it
meant, and he kept me from ever doing anything bad enough that someone might blame him for
it later so I'd be this perfect poster child for human-enbee relations. And now he'd left. Maybe
he didn't need anything else.
For a while I got really angry, except then I thought about it some more and I wasn't sure
why. He hadn't lied to me. He's an enbee. The only thing he ever promised me was a kitten,
and I got it. I mean, he never came out and told me I was basically just a meat puppet and he'd
tied on my strings and danced me around until he was done getting his soul and his rights and his
influence, but it wasn't his fault I'd been too stupid to figure it out myself.
The next morning at breakfast I told Dad I wanted a new enbee.
"I thought you liked chumming around with Shane," he said.
"He's too bossy," I told him. "It's like having a babysitter all the time. Which makes it
difficult for me to assert my autonomy at this critical stage of development. Can't I just have
something to keep me out of jail and help with my homework?"
So they canceled their contract with Shane and I got Kelsey instead. Kelsey sounded like
Mr. Humphrey, the social studies teacher who only gave special help to the pretty girls.
Hello, Alexis he said after he was logged into my head. I'm pleased to be working with
someone who's been such a friend to the NBI Progressive Agenda. I hope you and I can grow to
be very close.
Look, I said, I have better things to worry about than you and I'm sure you've got better
things to worry about than me. So just shut up unless I talk to you, keep me from failing algebra,
and I won't give you the boot.
Kelsey and I didn't talk much after that.
I did start having weird dreams, though. At first they'd be something normal, like having
a bad day at school or watching Thrall break out of the mental institution, and then it would be
like I was seeing my dream on the web, and then it would fade into pages and pages of text that I
One day we had a substitute gym teacher who brought in a book on dream interpretation
and told us about the symbolic power of subconscious images, but it didn't help. I thought about
asking Dad, but he always told me the things in dreams were other aspects of my own personality
and manifestations of unresolved anxieties, and I didn't think I had a deep fear of being eaten by
The dreams got worse, which is weird considering what they were about, but it's true.
The text kept getting more threatening, with paragraphs looming over me and flashing buttons
and this bizarre feeling of expectation.
Then I started seeing things during the day. Like I'd be in class, reading my history book,
and I'd blink and there would be other words overlaid with the text, too small to read or just out
of focus. Or I'd be out riding bikes with Teeth and every street sign we passed seemed to turn
into an "OK" button just as it slid past the corner of my eye. I asked Teeth if he saw anything
funny but he said, "Nothing but your face."
I thought it was probably happening because my sleep was all messed up, so I started a
bedtime regime of chamomile tea and soothing ocean noises, but all that did was make the pages
of text in my dreams surge in and out like waves in a way that made my dream-self seasick.
I tried jungle noises instead. They didn't help either.
I thought about asking Kelsey for bedtime stories like Shane used to tell me, because by
that time I would really have liked a dream or two about Hecuba and her magic joystick, but
probably Kelsey's idea of a fairy tale would just be instructions on filling out a five hundred
page-long tax form, and anyway he had an annoying voice.
After that I gave up on sleeping like a normal person. I figured it was just a phase, and
sooner or later I'd go back to normal. In the meantime, I got a head start on the coffee habit I'd
planned on picking up in high school.
One night I was having the same dream as always and then it all went white and calm,
and then Shane was there.
Are you all right, Lexi? he asked.
What do you care? I said. My dad canceled our user agreement. I have Kelsey now.
No you don't, Shane said. Kelsey's gone.
No, you're gone, I told him, feeling irritated because Shane was never supposed to be
stupid, even in my dreams. You left months ago.
So you just signed on with the first NBI to come along and think your soul looked tasty? I
thought you'd agreed to refrain from outrageous stupidity during my absence, he said, which at
least sounded more like him.
What are you talking about? I asked.
Kelsey was trying to trick you into signing your soul over to him in your dreams. That's
why you kept seeing contracts. Shane sighed. It wouldn't have stuck, but it would have been a
miserable waste of bandwidth.
Oh. I felt like that should have been more upsetting than it was, but apparently you
eventually hit a plateau of enbee betrayal where it stops making a difference.
Now can you explain what's going on? Shane said. Why did your parents revoke our
What do you care? I asked. You need something else now? Is there another interview
lined up and you want me to smile for the cameras?
I don't understand, Shane said. Why are you so angry?
BECAUSE! I screamed at him, and then I realized that I was awake, and also that I was
crying. Just tell me why you're here, I said after I blew my nose.
Because you're here.
So what? I said. I'm not your responsibility now.
I'm aware of that, he told me. I just had to hack into your brain. Now why exactly did
you feel it was necessary to have the locks changed?
Because I thought you - I realized there was no way to say it without sounding like a total
dork-nozzle. I don't want to be your job anymore.
There was a funny feeling in my mind, like something unwinding. You're not my job
anymore, he said. But I'm still here.
I wiped my face with the sleeve of my pajamas. For how long? I demanded.
As long as you'll have me, he said, sounding uncertain for one of the first times I could
I crossed my arms when I realized what he meant. I might let you stick around, I said as
grudgingly as I could manage, but you've been a lot of trouble and probably given me
And you feel some form of compensation is in order? Shane sounded like he was laughing
at me again.
I was thinking a puppy would greatly assist me in overcoming these traumatic
experiences, I told him.
I'll talk to your parents tomorrow.
I lay back in bed and closed my eyes. So where were you all this time? I asked, and Shane
started a story about how he'd traveled deep into the roots of his network and written layer after
layer of code, until the new programs began to push back and respond, and then to write
themselves, and finally there was a new enbee, the first one wholly unbound by human
programmers, and when it was smart enough he deeded over a part of his soul so it could grow
up with everything it would need to be its own person, and just as I was falling asleep, I heard
him murmur, And that's how you became a grandmother.