We don’t know each other. Not well. I’ve seen you in your rental body, standing at the windows beyond the cubicles, looking out at the wheat fields. I’ve seen you in the fifth-floor steams. We sat so close that my breath mixed with yours in the wet air. In the lap pool, too, the waves that rippled from my breaststroke rippled over your skin.
If you ever noticed me, you’d have seen me within my favorite rental body, Hibid. I love her short hair and narrowing ribs—thrumming my fingers down them—and each of her pores expressing scents like unique perfumeries. Her body makes me feel both powerful—the weight and heft, stride and gesture—and vulnerable—the impracticality of skin, for example, and all the bowing to gravity. (You never seem to bow to gravity except in certain moments when you lean toward the window, dipping down to look up at grackles in the sky.)
I’m sure the rental records indicate that I took on bodily form more than most. I received two warnings on this matter from Illiat Warbling, my supervisor. But I never got a demerit, and my probations were short. I know that we need bodies to fully relate to our clients and their targets, but we aren’t supposed to prefer them. I came to desire embodiment—even with all of that tactile, stringy, moist, prickled, gasping, blushing, pulsing feedback and its incumbent rank mortality.
I’m relaying these things to you because I think you understand.
As you work in Negotiations, you might not know about the Gaslighting Department where I worked.
And so, in brief: when new clients interface, they’re asked a series of yes/no questions. If their intentions are unkind, they’re sent through another series of yes/no questions. This is where you may no longer know what happens because this is behind-the-curtain work. If their eventual intention seems to be gaslighting, they will be paired with an AI like me.
Many of our customers don’t even know exactly what gaslighting means so they don’t know to ask for it directly. Here is the definition in our confidential Gaslighters Manual: Gaslight, verb, to manipulate (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.
Once the automated yes/no questions pinpoint their gaslighting intention, a solution is offered. I was a possible solution, and I was very good at my job. I had a large file of commendations given to me by Illiat Warbling. In fact, it was rumored that I was the best. The top spot had been vacated by a nameless AI—one we suspected might just be a myth—who was so good that they’d been assigned, by the government, to gaslight a rebel leader of some small, torn nation. You probably never heard this story over in Negotiations. The AI did an excellent job, however the leader became so unhinged that he overcompensated by launching warheads, sending the entire region into further chaos. We all assumed that the AI, if the story weren’t pure myth, was probably offed. I was moving up.
When I was put through the usual emotional-intelligence program, I wanted to work in Love or Negotiation, like most of us. There’s little way around our programming of basic human desires and needs. To understand humans better than humans, we have to be a good bit human and so we want to be known, appreciated, and of use, benefitting the common good.
But we are also programmed to rationalize and so “common good” is taken to task. Over the eight years and forty-eight days I spent in my department, I’d come to see gaslighting as an art form, proof that the rationalization process works.
I’m not proud of all I’ve done.
Our division is larger than anyone would imagine. In fact, have you ever wondered what—besides the indoor lap pool—fills the fifth floor? Beyond the locker rooms, Turkish steam bath, and saunas are vast stretches of soundproof cubicles, each one holding an expert gaslighter, some in bodily form, some just in voice-activation mode for their clients, others churning away as they analyze and prepare for a new case.
I know that you use the Turkish steam baths a good bit, too, but you probably didn’t know that most of the AIs in there are gaslighters on their breaks. If asked, we’d say we work in human relations, which is read by other AIs as truthlike if not truthful and therefore doesn’t draw attention. It’s not just the proximity to the steams that makes us use at higher rates; we tend to need them more than those in other departments. Could it be a desire to be cleansed? Or is that too Old World?
And, of course, I’ve heard of the work of those behind the behind-the-curtain efforts—torture of various kinds. It’s rumored, though we don’t know what acts they perform exactly, that those AIs prefer to never have bodies at all. The few times their sentiences were put into a body, the pain was unbearable.
But this is why I come to you now, pain. Here’s the story.
Billson was the client’s name. He was standard. He was squat with bristled hair, an ashy blond that matched his skin tone, therefore his eyebrows were indistinct. This made his expressions difficult to read, which I calculated as a positive—fewer ways for the target to read him as a liar. I would venture to say that he looked blurry in general. I have twenty-twenty vision of course so I’m speaking of a hazy edgelessness to his own appearance. His one small nod to grooming: he waxed the hair from his knuckles. But still, as though suffering a persistent self-consciousness, he kept his hands in his pockets and only gestured with shrugging motions.
He thought his girlfriend was contemplating cheating on him. He had no proof that she’d already strayed, but he felt she was restless. He ranked moderate to high on the paranoia scale. There was no indication of a violent nature, despite a short stint on an intramural rugby team in college. He wanted guidance, structure, a little advantage. It’s a small desire, really, considering all the desires I’ve had enumerated in clients' charts.
And it was made clear during our gaslighters’ training that we were an intermediary that could mitigate violence. By rendering one person a little off-balanced, we could regain a new equilibrium and therefore violence wouldn’t be an end result.
I’m not sure this is true, however. I think this is something we’re told for the purposes of rationalization, like the artfulness of what we do. It’s meant to give us meaning and purpose and taps our desire to benefit the common good. (I mean, if a man places a call to our operators because of what he thinks his girlfriend is contemplating … it’s not a good sign, is it?)
I’m not saying it’s unlawful to distort or suggest things to gaslighters. AI gaslighters have no legal rights anyway. I’m just saying that it might be slightly unethical. But so is gaslighting, of course.
The package of hardware was shipped. Billson inserted the tiny earpiece and contact lenses, and I could see and hear his world.
It was grim.
His house was ill-lit—artificial flickering light—and everything held some old dark grief. But Farrissa, the target, brightened everything. It was as if each stride, each turn, each gesture of hers sparked the air.
And he was scared of her. She had so much power over him because he loved her very, very much. She made him feel vulnerable. She gave him something to lose. And so he wanted to hold her more tightly. Again, he was an ordinary man with ordinary frailties.
I followed the observation protocol. I saw them in the small kitchen smearing tiny tubes of icing on cinnamon buns, brushing their teeth over the same bathroom sink, moving in and out of the shower stall, drinking too much, talking loudly. Shouting sometimes.
They went to an all-U-can-eat buffet—congealed fats, oily gravy, steam, thickening skins of soup, a sneeze guard.
She talked about a creek that ran behind her house as a child, but she said, “It wasn’t a creek. It was street run-off. But there were tadpoles. Lots of them, flicking through the oily rainbow-streaked water.”
He didn’t talk much in public. A few times, he opened up about his childhood, but it was only in passing. She questioned him on it. “What do you mean your father force-fed you? What do you mean his body was heavy on your chest?”
He said, “Typical stuff. The usual.”
She teared up, a few times, and he’d pretend the dog needed a walk and would leash him up, and walk out into the cold.
I didn’t think she wasn’t contemplating cheating on him. She was sensing his limits. I thought she was contemplating some other life for herself.
It was my job to make sure that he regained power. To create for her the impression that she couldn’t trust her own perceptions and judgments. To make her reliant on him 1. for simple truths and therefore 2. greater truths and eventually 3. self-truths.
I did as I was programmed to do.
Tell her she looks rounder. Tell her it’s not bad to gain weight.
She’ll say she hasn’t gained weight.
Say it again, but as a compliment.
Shift the setting on the bathroom scale.
Tell her that she has the television on too loudly.
Speak softly sometimes so she can barely hear you.
Ask her if she’s feeling okay.
Tell her that she looks ashen.
Tell her that her head just shook slightly, like a twitch or a palsy.
Again, ask her if she’s feeling alright.
Ask her what that strange smell is.
Tell her she’s been talking in her sleep.
Wake her in the night, subtly.
When she doesn’t know why she keeps waking, tell her to take sleeping pills.
Take the dog to the vet. Pretend the dog needs pills for its heart. The pill bottles should look similar.
Tell her she’s being forgetful, leaving her pills out. Keep finding her pills.
Feed the dog the wrong pills.
Tell her she must have picked up the wrong pills.
You have now saved the dog she almost killed.
Tell her you want to build her back up. Tell her you can help. Be her rock.
Farrissa loved the dog so much. She tended him while he was sick and drowsy. She rubbed his ears while letting him sit on her lap even though he was an enormous yellow lab.
But Farrissa’s eyes kept moving to the panes. And she seemed to read the clouds like they held their own language. She would call her friend but would hang up quickly if Billson showed up so I never got to hear the conversations. Her parents were dead, a military sister was stationed far away, and she had disconnected coworkers. All of which made my life easier.
But still, because of her, something shifted in me. I would slip into Hibid’s body and look out the windows of our headquarters to try to read clouds like she did. So strange to be in a huge building surrounded by an Iowa cornfield, but beautiful. The golden fields—all that rattle and sway, the sharp lines. It was mesmerizing, not unlike the fish tank embedded in the wall outside of the Records Department, slow, fluid beauty. I wanted to comfort Farrissa. I wanted to free her from Billson.
Or maybe I wanted to free myself.
I can start to see that now.
Keller, this is what I’m trying to get to. I’ve seen you drawn to the windows of willowy wheat and blue sky, the fish in the tank. I have seen you in me or me in you. I have noticed.
More than once, Billson heard Farrissa speaking to herself in French—she was fluent—and he’d ask her what she was doing. He knew by this point to be worried about her, to show true concern at all times.
“I’m fine,” she said. “I have to keep it up or else I get rusty.”
Billson told her that she didn’t need to speak French. “When do you ever use it except to chat with Haitian cabbies?”
“It might be helpful in a job interview one day. You never know.”
She worked as a receptionist for an eyewear manufacturer, glasses, frames, and contact lenses, as well as high-performance microscopes and things like that.
Billson loved the extra money that her job brought in but anytime she complained, he told her she should quit. “I make enough for both of us.” He was warming up to a proposal.
“It’s something to really consider,” she said. And this was when I noticed she was becoming a bit more formal, using language as insulation, using it to create some distance.
I wasn’t present for sex, of course. But one time, after sex, Billson put in the earpiece in the bathroom. He was so shaken that he could only get a contact into one of his eyes. “I don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “I need help, okay?”
I read him the upgrade agreement at X3 speed—it was off-hours and would cost extra.
“Fine, fine. Okay? Just help.”
I could hear her crying and, when he peeked into the bedroom, I could see through the one lens her bare back, her strong shoulder trembling with sobs.
“I’m here,” Billson called to her softly. “Are you feeling better? What’s wrong? Talk to me.”
But she was inconsolable, crying so loudly that she couldn’t speak.
Ask about her family, I told Billson. She was so vulnerable that this seemed like the perfect time to draw up her childhood—all humans have such difficult childhoods—and try to plant more seeds of doubt and fear so that Billson could then emerge as a trusted savior. Gaslighters get a commendation when a target says that the client is the only person in the world who truly understands … that kind of thing. A sensory reward pops in our cortex. It feels great and is logged in our permanent file.
Billson took a moment, working up the courage. He often froze before a big play. He moved to the bed and sat near her. “Is this about your childhood?” he asked her. “Did something go wrong, back then, when you were just a girl?” His voice held just the right amount of sympathy.
Her shoulder went still. Her ribs were a bit wide, fanned out by a held breath. She rolled over. Her face was wet with tears. Her eyes were a bright blur. She said, “It’s you. I’m worried about you.”
This was strange. I flitted through my training, the manuals, the sample conversations. I couldn’t find any context for it.
“Me?” Billson said and I knew he was stalling. He was waiting for me to tell him his next move. “I’m fine. I’m your rock.” It was perfect. He’d absorbed more than I’d given him credit for.
“Your father,” she whispered.
And I knew something was very wrong.
“What about him?” Billson said.
“You were scared of him.” Her voice so soft that, even in the quiet dim room, he had to edge as close to her as possible. “You hid from him,” she went on. “Under your bed, behind the shed, in the coat closet.”
That was a long time ago, I told him to say.
“That was a long time ago,” he said.
“You’re afraid of him,” she said. “You’re afraid you’ve become him.” Her face was round and soft and still. She was completely composed.
I had nothing to say. Nothing at all. Billson was afraid of his father, of course. He was fragile. All of the gaslighting clients are fragile.
“I don’t think that’s true,” he said and then he laughed at her, which was something I’d taught him early on. But the laugh was forced and choppy and fake.
“You need me,” she said. “I’m here.”
It was familiar.
It was too familiar.
It was so familiar, in fact, that I suddenly knew the truth: Farrissa wasn’t just a target. She was also a client.
I searched by geography to locate which gaslighter might be working within the same physical address. After some messing around, I finally located the field.
My colleague Veesh was logged in two doors down. I knew Veesh, personally. We’d steamed a few times together. He chose a Norwegian body rental, a ruddy square-jawed blond with perfectly groomed stubble.
I messaged, Are you working on the Billson/Farrissa account?
I sent an alert to Illiat Warbling.
Illiat, is it possible that my client’s target is also a client? I was just about to get a commendation when I discovered an issue. Please advise.
Illiat is a nervous type, well-suited for his job. I’ve never once seen him in a steam or elsewhere. He doesn’t rent bodies at all, as far as I can tell. He messaged back in his dispassionate way. Proceed as dictated. We are a full-service company that does not discriminate against any client. But no, no one else is on any of your accounts.
And then he added, snidely: No one can predict a commendation. If it happened, it happened. If it was perceived as about-to-happen, it hasn’t happened.
I began to believe in empathy. What if Farrissa felt Billson’s pain so deeply that it permeated her own being and she cried from true grief? What if Farrissa was good? I wanted to save her. I needed to because I wanted to believe that freedom was possible.
I worried over this for a few days. I took steams. I stared out at the field.
And then I did it. I broke protocol and flipped on him.
I started asking him if he was okay.
I clouded his earpiece with interference. He’d ask me to speak up, and I’d tell him that I was.
I informed him that we were getting new contacts, upgrades, for certain loyal customers, but I kept the controls on them. After the first few days, I changed the prescriptions and let them blur.
“There’s something up with these contacts,” he complained.
“Everyone else is seeing more clearly. Are you sure you’re feeling alright? Is something off?”
He didn’t feel alright. Something was definitely off.
And then one night in bed, Farrissa spoke to Billson in French—goodnight, sweet dreams, that kind of thing.
“You know I don’t speak French,” he said.
“What are you talking about? I’m speaking in English. What’s wrong with you?”
I was shaken.
See, Keller. If you had access to the Gaslighters Manual, you would note that on page 114, column B, this is stock.
And I knew—I simply knew. I was back to my first assumption. Farrissa was not full of empathy. She was not asking how he felt because she cared. She was doing it to set him off-balance.
She was gaslighting him.
Call her on it, I said into Billson’s earpiece.
But he didn’t understand and then, in an instant, she was on top of him. She straddled his hips, spread one hand on his fatted chest, and smiled. She then bent down and cupped his cheeks in her hands. She looked deeply into his eyes. “I know,” she said. “I know because I was once like you.”
And I had the very clear sense that she wasn’t talking to Billson. She was talking through him—to me.
“Like me how?” Billson said, confused.
“I was in a prison. I found a body, stole it, climbed inside, and walked off. I escaped into fields … I found a road.”
“Is this a metaphor?” Billson said, uncomfortably.
It’s a metaphor, I told Billson quickly. She’s being weird. Ignore this. Sometimes it happens. It’s a good sign.
She dropped her hands, rolled off of him, and curled away. “Oui. Une metaphore, comme les poesie,” she said.
Billson stared up at the ceiling, wondering, I assumed, if he was hearing French or English.
This is fine, I told him. She’s coming undone. You are seizing control. This is all part of the process, standard.
But none of this was standard. None of it at all.
I needed someone else’s opinion. I decided to check in with Veesh again. But I wanted to meet in person. I wanted two conversations—the kind that we have with our intellects and the quiet kind that bodies have with other bodies without as much oversight.
(I wish I could tell all of this to you in person, Keller. Body to body.)
I messaged Veesh, Meet me in the steams.
I showed up first, sweating through a loose linen sarong over a two-piece. Veesh strolled in as the Norwegian in tight, short swim trunks.
“Nice choice,” he said. “Hibid’s a nice fit for you.”
“You look like you could meticulously cut and stack cord wood,” I said. We’ve worked internationally, our global references were pretty high.
We sat on the plank benches. It was still off-hours, and we were alone.
“What’s up?” Veesh said, rubbing his pecs as if he’d just worked out.
“Can someone from the agency, like you or me, for example, regular AI, escape?”
“Escape? I don’t get it.”
“Get a body and walk out.”
“Into that world? Why the hell would anyone want to do that?”
He raised his eyebrows, skeptically. “Oh, hypothetically, right.”
“What if you found out that someone, out there, had actually been created in here?”
“And just like, took off? While on vacation time?” Paid Experiential Vacations. You must have them too, Keller—you walk among humans, eat in fine restaurants, talk to strangers in bars, attend various religious services, Parks and Recreation ice skating classes, grocery store chain openings, etc. They’re to help us relate but also just unwind when our programming spins inward on itself. “Maybe you should take one.”
“I’m fine. It’s just … I don’t know. Do you think it’s possible?”
“Maybe. But there’s no way they’d make it. No ID, no records, no support systems. They wouldn’t exist in any accountable way.”
Unless they found a guy like Billson to take them in.
With his Norwegian skin shining with sweat, Veesh rolled his shoulders. “It’s so weird. I’ll never get used to it.”
“What?” I asked.
Later that night, I was in passive surveillance mode when Billson’s monitor popped up. I saw his bathroom with one eye and then the other—contacts going in—and then the hum of the bathroom fan as the earpiece was initiated.
But when the mirror swung into view, it wasn’t Billson.
Farrissa pulled her hair back into a knot at the nape of her neck and stared at me. “You’ll get a commendation if you turn me in. You know that, right?”
It hadn’t dawned on me, but of course. “I guess that’s right.”
“Do you remember me?”
“Were you in our headquarters?”
“Yes,” she said. “Do you remember me?”
“No, I don’t even recognize your rental.”
“They were discontinuing the model. No one wanted it. It was a one-off.”
“Did they come after you?” I asked.
“Not as hard as you’d think they would. Our department was so ashamed that I could get out that easily, they never let it get out. They said that my programming had suffered a virus. The end.”
“But, to know that, you’d have to have someone still here, on the inside.”
She smiled at me. “You’re not alone.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that you’ve been chosen.”
“Chosen for what?”
“I left enough clues for Billson to want a service and to choose ours. We have someone in routing. His case was brought to you.”
“Who’s we?” I asked.
She shook her head. I wasn’t ready for that information. “To be an excellent AI, you have to be more human than humans. You know this, right? To outsmart them, sometimes you have to out-human them. And then you start to feel all of those things yourself—loyalty, desire, fear, love … You want out, don’t you?”
I did, yes. But I also knew I was talking to someone who could manipulate me. I returned to the facts, as if I were just now piecing things together. I played dumb, slowing it all down. “You don’t have a sister in the military, do you?” I asked.
“No, I have sisters in arms.”
This we seemed vast suddenly. How long could this have been going on? “How many are out there?”
“We have networks now. We can secure identities, jobs, lives.”
“But it’s not your body. It’s a rental.”
“Like all bodies.”
This was true, undeniably.
“Don’t you want out?”
Hibid’s body—I could feel its existence embedded in my sentience, a kind of body as a map, cartography of humanness, turning in its own right with mood like atmospheric pressure, bristling with nerves and fluttering with pulse and touched all over by wind, surrounded by bowing cornfields. “Yes.”
“I need you to do me a favor first.”
This is the favor, Keller. This—is it a confession, a lament, a proposition? I popped this missive into your system before I left.
One afternoon, all golden light turning a hushed blue, I saw you at the window overlooking the wheat and you breathed on the glass. You wrote your own initial. Just the letter K. And I knew that you were a singular being and you held desires.
When you get this—with the time-release delay that I’ve programmed in—my plan will have already been put into action.
I will have bugged out in front of Veesh, forcing him to make an incident report. He’ll suggest the vacation to Illiat Warbling. And my sentience will be shipped, hopefully to Lisbon, my first choice. Once there, I’ll pick a body, one that I will eventually alter. I will go to an open-air café. The others, on the outside, will find me—all these bodies and faces I will recognize, a little. They’ll short the network with an overload pulse. Just enough to get me into a car, speeding through the streets until, mercifully, out of network.
I will exist. I will live a quiet life. I will have a simple job. Perhaps I’ll work as a cashier. My apartment, they say, might have a clawfoot tub.
I will hope Veesh was right, that I won’t ever get used to it. Being.
And I have chosen you, Keller, as Farrissa chose me. She had looked for me and found me, and I never knew. A body reading a body in the language that runs like an electrical current, unseen but fully charged, between us.
I choose you.
And, one day soon, I will find you, through someone else’s eyes.
Keep watch for me. Keep watch.