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Souls Are Like Livers
    by Aurelia Flaming

Souls Are Like Livers
Artwork by Andres Mossa

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 afternoon.

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 me.

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 say "yes."

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 gain weight.

"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 favorite band.

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 watch.

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 like.

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 couldn't understand.

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 interweb.

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 agreement?

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 remember.

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 abandonment issues.

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.

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