Humane Growth Technological Victory

Melody Kazey

The sudden rev of the lawn mower through the open window made Martha jump. Her arms covered the small remote control as she scoured the room with newly painted eyes. No one was there. It was only Charles from next door letting in the sharp scent of freshly cut grass. One of her Type 2's let her nose filter out abhorrent odors like that, but it hadn't activated since last night's dinner when the sting of her cleaning product suddenly blended with the sweet and tangy mix of her bulgolgi.

Martha wrinkled her nose against the smell, but picked up the small remote again. She flicked through a few more channels on a small device sitting on her marble kitchen island until she landed on one of her favorite beauty shows on the network. As she produced a lipstick tube from the compartment in her forearm and held her breath against the stale clay smell of the rouge, she mimicked the style of the XX on the screen.

What she wouldn't give to see multiple screens at once with nothing more than a click in her mind. She could watch Georgia Harris of Hair, Face, and Beyond for the right complexion, while copying the artistic prowess of Juliette Raines and her perfect color palettes. Today's colors reminded Martha of last month's party she hosted for her oldest daughter Marcy. The combination of reds and golds were simply divine strewn about their cream-toned house

Laughter from down the hall made Martha jump again, smearing the rouge against her pale cheek. Every noise was so sudden without her filters up. Trying not to grumble, Martha pushed back her upholstered stool and floated towards the double sinks. She only stumbled once from her sore calf muscles in her heels.

Martha quickly dampened a wash cloth and scrubbed against her cheek, checking back in the mirror to make sure the streak was fading. It reminded her of when she was young before she had her skin augmentations done. She was a clumsy girl, which often made her mother wonder if her Type 1's had been successful. She racked up many scrapes and bruises that were now just distant memories. In fact, she hadn't thought about those memories in quite some time.

"Head in the cloud, Martha?" the neighbor Beverly called from her own kitchen window, voice amplified to be heard over the mower. Fluffy white baking mittens covered her hands as she set a sumptuous pie in the windowsill. The scent overpowered the lawn clippings for one glorious moment. In her head she meant to click back through to JOANNA to repel the foul scent of dew stained lawn, but then she remembered the glitch.

Martha forced a smile. "Isn't it always?" Her laugh trilled.

"What?" Beverly asked with a gloved hand tipped behind her ear. "You forgot to amplify."

Martha took a deep, shuddering breath-she hadn't manually filled her lungs to such a capacity since her Sweet Sixteen. "Whoopsie!" she shouted, hoping her voice wouldn't sound too raw. "I said, isn't it always?"

"Oh!" Beverly giggled behind her oven mitt. The sound traveled as if she were in Martha's kitchen "You must have all of those joke data banks queued up, Martha. You're so clever."

Martha only shooed her with her hand and another inaudible laugh as she shut the kitchen window and rubbed her throat. She just needed her husband to get home so she could race over to the Horizon store and have this handled right away. She would have gone sooner, but sweet as Beverly was, Martha wasn't sure she trusted someone who got the Dormer Opticals upgrade over the Open Concept Optix to watch her children.

Martha fluffed her skirt and sat back on the kitchen stool. Occupying herself, keeping the normalcy, that would be best. Maybe no more makeup disasters until she returned. She picked up the flopping coupon book and pointed at one of the perforated rectangles advertising for a brand of dish detergent she had never tried.

If I can spot the bargains, I can't be too out of sorts, she assured herself. She focused on those thoughts until they ran away with her. How her sweet little Marcy loved to sit with mommy and clip coupons. How they would do so and discuss what upgrades she and her sister would like for their birthdays. Martha spoiled her daughters just to see their beaming smiles. Her husband didn't always approve. He couldn't understand as she and the girls did. It was part of his XY, but he was sweet enough to pay for their needs.

Martha pointed her finger at the next page of coupons after discarding the last, letting her polished nail gently touch the perforation. A small red beam shot from beneath the smooth enamel. The page wrinkled, blackened, and started to smoke. Martha squeaked in surprise and dropped the page, patting it with her bare hands until the smoldering stopped. She checked her palms. The pigment was stained with ash and reddish blotches.

With a grumble, Martha wiped her hands clean on a dish towel. They even stung a bit, a very unusual sensation she normally heard her husband describe after a long day at a construction site. She hoped the Type 1 augmentations weren't failing as well.

"You seem out of sorts," a friendly enough voice chimed in her ear. Martha turned around, expecting to find her husband trying to sneak up on her. He liked to pretend he could bypass her bun sensors. But she was alone, only accompanied by the drifting sounds of Marcy and Grace giggling in the other room.

Martha slowly turned back to her coupons, now leaving a charred mess on her expensive countertops. She mourned the smudge even though it would be easy to clean. These feelings were unsettling.

"Come on, aegy," the voice ribbed, leaving her ears ringing. "Tell me you can hear me."

"Oh for Heaven's sake," Martha moaned, dropping her face into her hands. "I knew it. My Type 1 is falling apart! I've got voices in my head!"

A hearty chuckle filled her ears. "Oh no. We know JOANNA's company owns the folks who work on the Type 1's. That's not going anywhere for a while. Besides, women aren't the only ones to benefit from the Type 1's."

Martha still looked around her spotless white kitchen as if someone would suddenly appear to give a body to the voice. Was this part of her system malfunction? "Hello?" she asked to the open air.

"Hello, beautiful," the manly voice responded. "Like I said, you seem out of sorts."

"I-I'm fine!" Martha insisted. "I'm just probably due for my yearly check up. Normal system maintenance. Completely normal."

"You'll have a hard time convincing JOANNA of that. She's not fond of people stepping out of the staged house."

"What? What does that even mean?" Martha cried.

The way she seemed to feel this man shrug in her mind made him seem so real. Surely she had some type of chemical imbalance, and she wished she still had the protection of the Type 2's.

"It just means you should hurry up and get yourself reconnected," the man said. "You're definitely snipped from the Cloud."

"I-no! Not a chance. It's just a glitch!" Martha's face flushed uncomfortably as her anger rose, unchecked, from the attitude pulsing in her mind. The friendly voice was also very snooty in his eye rolling, something voices could apparently do. "And just what do you know about this, mister non-augment? Are you responsible for this?"

"I didn't say that. I'm just saying I'd hate for a pretty lady like yourself to find trouble because JOANNA is displeased. Call me Chip. I'm a hacker-relax!" he said as Martha's pulse skyrocketed. She held a hand to her white dress. "You were down and I managed to slip in. You seemed distressed. All I'm saying is get yourself to the Horizon store as quickly as you can, get yourself popped right back into the system, live happily ever after."

"I need to wait for my husband," Martha said. "I don't want the girls to see whatever is wrong with me! They have to trust their Type 2's! They're so young and impressionable!"

"Sheesh! Don't you have a volume dial?" The man said. Martha could picture him clapping his hands over his ears. "Right. You're disconnected. Let the kids sit with the neighbor for just an hour. I'm telling you, you don't want to be disconnected from JOANNA a moment longer than you have to be."

Martha bit her lip. She looked at her palms, some of the ash from the incinerated coupon pamphlet still wedged into the pale creases. She imagined changing her pigment to something a few shades darker to hide both the ash and the blush in her cheeks. Her heart was thumping to an awkward rhythm in her chest. Her nose tingled at the scents of her pristine kitchen. Could her daughters smell that? Was this hurting her or them?

"Okay," she finally said. "I'm sure Bev won't be too much trouble for the girls. Honestly, I'm pretty sure you're just a voice in my head anyway. This will be fixed with a little maintenance."

"Atta girl."

Martha quickly washed her hands in the kitchen basin, jumping at the shock of cold as the water fell over her palms. She wiped them dry, gathered the girls with promises of candy when she returned home, and walked them over to Beverly's house. The girls laughed and waved as Charles drove by on the front lawn with his mower revving. He reversed, and the mower let out a few warning beeps that he pretended came from honking his nose, which made the young girls laugh all the more.

Almost immediately after the doorbell chimed, Beverly threw it open with a bright smile. Her teeth shined, glinting off of the girls' stud earrings.

"Well hello! Long time no see!" Martha said with a gleam of her own, but then pressed her lips into a close-mouthed smile for fear Beverly would notice the lights were off.

"Seriously?" Chip said. Martha could feel the brooding eyes rolling against her brain.

"Hush, you!" she thought at him, hoping he could hear.

Beverly held her petite waist and doubled over with laughter. "There you go again, Martha. You must have the remote stuck on Love It or List It. Those hosts are so snappy!"

"I do love that one," Martha sighed. Then she shook her head to clear the fog. Organic brains were such a menace. "To the point, darling, I was wondering if you could watch Marcy and Grace for just an hour or two. I have to scurry over to the Horizon store. I'll be back in a jiffy."

"Oh of course! I just love these two!" Beverly knelt down to be eye level with the eight year old and smoothed down her blonde tape curls. Grace smiled. "Maybe when mommy comes back, we'll have a pretty new Type 2 picked out from the catalog."

"Oh can we, mommy?" Marcy squealed.

Martha patted her daughter's head. "I guess I'll find out when I get back. Thanks, Bev!"

With that Martha scurried back to her driveway, threw her purse into the passenger's seat, and the car revved down the road towards the city.

Martha loved the bright lights of the city that always seemed to glow and glitter. They were especially endearing at night when one could sit beneath the awning of a cafe and watch reruns of Christmas specials. Martha loved to sip on a double pump vanilla mocha chai when she had some free time in the city.

A car horn blared in her ear. Martha screamed and slammed on the brakes, the front end of her silver hybrid peaking into the intersection.

Someone shouted out of their partially opened window, "Learn to drive, XY!"

Martha's heart thudded against her rib cage. Her very organic heart. Her clammy fingers tingled like pins and needles dotting along her palms. Martha looked at her hands, fully expecting to see a tiny person hiding there, but she was alone with these strange feelings, smells, sights, and sounds. Everything sounded louder, brighter lights made her eyes water, everything was uncontrolled.

"Cool, right?" Chip said, making Martha jump in her seat again.

"No, it most certainly is not! How do XY's live this way?"

"It's the best way to live." His voice was more solemn than Martha had ever heard it. Despite being so forthright, Martha still wasn't sure she liked how real everything felt. No screens or augmentations kept her thoughts managed and she found herself dangerously day dreaming while driving.

The streetlight flickered back to green. Martha took a steadying breath, checked the intersection fully, and then continued her drive.

A few blocks away, a store with a glowing neon sign above it read "Horizon", with the letters sitting on a metal cloud and the three curved lines denoting the wireless signal jutting from the top of the 'I'. She scooted her car into the lot as far from the entrance of the building as she could get. A little exercise was good for her Type 2 thighs, and she wanted to get in and out as fast as possible.

"In and out," Chip agreed. "I'll walk you through the upload when we're inside."

"What? Isn't that what the rep is for?"

"I'm ten times smarter than anyone of those reps," Chip said. "Besides-never mind."

"No no, I hate when my husband doesn't finish his thoughts. It's very XY. Tell me."

Chip paused for another moment. As she stared into her thoughts, as if she could see Chip in there, she failed to notice a family exiting. The glass doors flung open and cracked against Martha's knuckle. She let out a yelp that shocked the family. They mumbled some quick apologies, but Martha, eyes squinted tight against the pain, shooed them off.

"This is supposed to be a good thing?" she asked Chip. He only shrugged.

"Not everything we experience is going to be perfect. Life isn't perfect."

Martha tutted and entered the store.

She was met with an instant chill. Her silky sun dress did little to house any warmth in her augmented body, and neither did her Type 2's. She noted some of the men in the store either sitting by their wives and girlfriends or having a representative inspect one of their phones or tablets. They all wore plush down coats with high collars and gloves with cut off fingers. Martha considered that ladies winter fashion would make her look tremendous on each visit to the Horizon store, something she had never thought of before as her mind wandered to which color coat would suit her best.

"Focus!" Chip said. "I know it's new for you, but pay attention."

"Don't you chide me," she said.

A woman in a black uniformed with the red Horizon logo on her breast pocket stepped back with widened eyes. "Sorry ma'am?"

Martha inwardly swore, something else that never found its way to her vocabulary despite some of her husband's missteps. Outwardly, she smiled, almost forgetting to keep her lips pressed together.

"Good morning," Martha said to the smaller woman in black. "Lovely hair."

"Oh why thank you!" the girl piped up, primping the ends of her black bob. "I may not look ready to flip houses in Busan, but I think I came close."

"Oh definitely! Now, would you happen to have any available appointments today for a lady to get a quick check up for her Type 2's?"

"Of course. Have a seat. A representative will be with you shortly, ma'am."

Martha nodded and waltzed over to a row of chairs lining one of the plastic walls. Below each one was a colored casing for a plug, some with various patterns and others sparkling like crushed diamonds. Martha floated down into one of the chairs by a crystal-laden purple plug, hoping to hook into JOANNA while she waited.

"No good, remember?" Chip said. "You're disconnected. Just wait for the staff to start her scan. I can use that point of shared interface to start the uplink. They'll never know you were gone."

"I hope you're right. How embarrassing that would be!"

Chip's grunt in her head felt like her neighbor Charles had revved his lawnmower against her skull. Martha focused on a magazine from a nearby stack and mindlessly flipped through the pages. There were women in brightly colored dresses with matching glasses. Clearly some extra Type 2's. Martha thought one thick plastic pair would look positively adorable on her narrow face.

"Mrs. Wallace?"

Martha looked up and saw another woman beaming at her. Her dark hair bounced in a ponytail that tickled the shoulders of her white scrubs, and her yellow undertoned skin was flawless as her smile. A lapel label read Dr. Stacy Ngyuyen. Martha did her best not to flinch at her smile, and she stood, following where the woman gestured. There were a few small rooms behind decorative doors leading out of the lobby. They walked past a long hallway where Martha could just make out some grinding sounds. Her brain concentrated on them, but nothing amplified in her ears. Being disconnected was proving quite the irritation.

Martha took a seat in one of the rooms. The walls were covered in signage, posters, and screens with spinning human bodies of varying degrees of augmentation. In the corner was a round platform made of metal with two etched rectangles about the size of a petite woman's foot. Doctor Nguyen tapped on one of the monitors along the wall. The spinning body reset to a blank screen. "Good morning. My name is Dr. Nguyen. What seems to be giving you issue today?"

Martha felt beads of sweat forming beneath her bouffant, and she absently scratched at her scalp. "Just a little hiccup I think. Not sure where it might be, but I've had...uh, a little trouble concentrating. Like I'm skipping through feeds too quickly."

"Quit blabbing so much!" Chip said. "Don't want to give her too much worry or she'll suspect something!"

"Hmmm..." The doctor rested her chin in her hand and then crossed to the round metal plate. She slid a few levers and punched in a few codes. The disk lit up and the rectangular feet marks depressed. "Hop on up, Mrs. Wallace. We'll find the problem in a jiffy!"

Suddenly a strange cramp pinched Martha's stomach, and her skin turned cold. Maybe she really was sick, but everything in her brain told her to be careful about stepping onto the platform. None of her previous check ups ever felt dangerous, but something about this made her think she ought to see a red ping.

"JOANNA wouldn't have warned you like your guts are right now," Chip said, a hint of sing-song in his tone. "It's alright. Go up so I can start the reverse uplink."

Martha took a steadying breath as she removed her shoes and stepped onto the platform. The slots adjusted to her feet with small hisses and clunks. Then the platform sunk a few centimeters. Martha let out a surprised squeak, but smiled at the doctor to write it off. Again she got the sense that a red dot should be blinking in the corner of her vision the way the doctor raised a perfect black eyebrow.

The machine vibrated for a moment. Martha's feet clicked as the sole panel lifted and a wire accessed her augments through her feet. Her body hummed and the sole panel clicked again. It let out a final small sigh as it lifted and released Martha's feet. The monitor overhead flashed into life and the scan of a petite body with numerous augmentations in its thirty-six years spun in place in the center of the monitor. Martha at stared a few spots around her head that shined.

"Uh oh," Chip whispered as if Doctor Nguyen could hear him.

"Uh oh what?" Martha demanded.

"Alrighty, Mrs. Wallace," Dr. Nguyen said with her beaming smile. "Let me quickly read through these notes. I'd like to have you wait for me in room 202, if you please. I'll be right with you."

"Of course. Thank you, doctor."

Martha gently stepped into her shoes, gathered her purse, and stepped back into the lobby.

"Okay, good news-bad news time," Chip said as Martha looked for which room was labeled in the 200s. Each door in the lobby was a 100 room from 101-120. That cramping stomach pain continued to plague her as she finally found a sign for the 200s and 300s rooms beside the entrance to one of the long hallways. It felt ominous despite how brightly lit it was and for all of the pop music gently humming from the speakers. "Good news, I know the uplink will work."

Martha paused. "What do you mean it will work? Didn't you already take care of it?"

"I'm getting to that. Bad news, I underestimated how quickly JOANNA can read."

"As XY's will do."

"So the uplink was getting connected, which causes a ping, and now...JOANNA definitely knows you're disconnected. But here you are still disconnected. So you should probably get the Hell out of here."

"No. I'm marching right down to that office and getting the fixer upper on my clearly faulty brain augment. THEN I'm getting a refund!"

"Martha, you don't want to be here when that doctor is done. She's not going to reconnect you."

Martha tutted. "Like the voice in my head will."

Suddenly she was blind. Martha grabbed for the nearest wall to hold herself up as her brain scrambled for balance. The blackness became gray and white static and then began playing one of her favorite television shows, Homegrown Houses. A family was renovating a house for a couple who spent a lot of money on caring for a sick relative. The end of the episode played revealing a tear-stained family, holding each other in prayer and community, as they said their final goodbyes to the loved one, a beautiful gray haired woman with dazzling Type 2s who laid motionless in bed. Then it cut away to a commercial. Before the ad for teeth variants could play, the clip started over.

"What are you doing?" Martha hissed.

"That sweet moment? That's going to be your family when anyone finds out you're disconnected! They're not just corrected for JOANNA's sake. They're terminated!"

Martha blinked and felt hot splashes drip against her cheek. When her eyes opened again she was staring down the hallway. Somehow those bright sterile lights seemed to create shadows in corners darker than anything she had ever seen.

"It's the broken Type 2's," she said in a voice barely her own. "It's just the broken augmentations." She ignored Chip's protests as she started dragging her feet down the hall. Her brain told her she had to reconnect. She had to be part of JOANNA again.

Something pinged in her skull, but it was different than the mechanical churning of her augmentations. Chip was telling her to run. He was commanding her to run. A circuit in her brain sparked and agreed that she should run. That new tone had a sweet southern drawl like some of her favorite celebrities to watch through JOANNA.

But her brain said no.

"No? How did you-?" Chip broke off with a grumble. "Please listen to me Martha. You're kind. You have a beautiful family that loves you as much as you love them. Don't let JOANNA take you away from them. I know it's hard to hear, but for the first time, you have a choice to trust your gut. Do you trust yourself?"

Martha stopped about halfway down the hall. Her heart pounded in her chest, her blood rushed in her ears. Memories she hadn't recalled in what felt like centuries drifted through her mind of her sweet baby girls playing in the yard, snuggling with her while watching their favorite shows, and so many birthdays that felt so unimportant in the grand scheme. How could her girls not be important compared to anything?

At the sound of a door opening from around the corner, Martha snapped to her senses and spun around. She raced back down the hall, bag beating against her unprotected hip, and darted out of the lobby to a few questioning stares. Faster than she had ever moved, Martha was back in her car and zooming out of the parking lot, still unsure of her direction.

"I'm proud of you, Martha," Chip said. "I can still connect you. I just need a power source. Horizon store was the best direct option. They're packed with digital connection ports and direct links to the main grid. But an outside uplink can work with a powerful enough source. Ideas?"

Martha thought about it as she instinctively-and much more carefully-took her route back home to the suburbs. She tapped a delicate finger against her pouty lips until she caught herself in the mirror. The action didn't make sense for thinking. Was that something else JOANNA told her to do?

She stopped and a thought occurred to her, "Actually, I was watching an episode of RenoDerby a few years ago that had a ton of press. Reports claimed the house was too close to one of the power stations and it violated zoning laws. I remember because originally the house was going to be in our neighborhood. How great would that have been to have the RenoDerby team in our little neck of the woods! Wow, what press-"

"Okay, okay!" Chip said. She could feel him shaking his head like a grinding on her brain. "If you know where the place is, you're gonna want to take us there ASAP!"

Martha nodded, checked both of her mirrors, and switched over to the left lane. She was painfully aware of the drivers and pedestrians, all of whom seemed to pop up out of nowhere now that a silent signal wasn't telling her what to see. She came to a bumpy stop at the light, and waved to the woman in the neighboring car. It was certainly not a wave that the woman returned. Martha sighed, but another honk warned her of the green light, and she began the journey home.

Warmth tingled along Martha's arm as the sun shone through the driver side window. It was becoming unpleasant, but for a moment Martha thought her Type 2's had kicked in again. A darkened shade covered her bicep beneath the strap of her dress. Martha marveled at her organic skin.

"Pay attention!" Chip said, bringing her focus back to the road. "Maybe you would do better in the Cloud."

Martha tutted at his childish mumbling. "I've just never noticed what this organic skin could do. It's...fascinating."

Chip walked her through adjusting the air and music volume in her car so the pop tunes were actually audible, and she bounced along to the radio's top 40's hits until they arrived at the power station on the edge of her town. It was a marvel of steel that reached up towards the sky and belled like a goblet. Little red lights blinked at the top of the antenna in the center. Martha parked her car further down the block.

"It looks like there aren't too many security guards," Chip said as they carefully approached. "Follow my lead. I've got a good scan of the blueprints downloading, and once we're closer I should be able to detect any functioning XX augments and general XY brain patterns."

Martha frowned and took a few hesitant steps towards the building. "You want me to...sneak in? That's trespassing! What if I'm caught!"

"No worse than if you were caught at the Horizon store," Chip reminded her. "Once you're ready to go in, I'll loop the camera feed. Just step up. Entry way is clear."

Martha clenched her fists and forced herself to stride ahead. Her breath hitched in her chest as she saw the panning security camera over the front doors. It slid over her, red light steadily blinking, and continued. Beads of sweat dappled her forehead.

"Don't just wait for guards to show up!" Chip said. "Get inside!"

Martha steeled herself and charged ahead. Through the doors was a small, gleaming lobby like a solid metal tunnel. More monitors along the walls showed bobbing green lines as various power spikes signaled the station's computers. A small desk opposite the front entrance was covered in filing racks with assorted memos and a few smaller computers humming some classic radio. Martha could hear some shuffling through a door directly behind the desk. Beyond the lobby was a short hallway leading to a door. Martha reached it just as she heard a click from the door back in the lobby and hissing water pipes. A chuckle rounded the corner. "Those brothers. Think they could nab any pretty little XX."

She slipped past the door and let it gently click shut behind her. The new room reached higher than the first with vastly more monitors, hubs, and countless other machinery. Martha carefully stepped over some dangling webs of wires that threatened to catch on her heel.

"The best spot should be along the alpha central port log," Chip said as if reading from an instruction manual, something surprising to hear from an obvious XY. "You might need a little boost. If you give me access, I can reactivate the foot Type 2's for you."

Martha eased up on her thoughts. It felt like pulling back a curtain housing something terribly delicate and intimate. Her feet tingled and clicked as the skin easily parted and a jack boosted her up five feet higher than she could otherwise reach. She grabbed her skirt for modesty, even as she knew no one was in there with her. Her legs wobbled until the stabilizers took over.

Directly in front of her were a series of ports in a line of red casings. She saw one at the front of the row labeled Alpha Log. "Okay. Now what?" Martha asked.

"Hook in as you would with a regular scan at the Horizon store. Any port will work."

Martha slid her metal bangles aside and rested her wrist against the port. A small square of skin hardened and eased aside to reveal three prongs that slid perfectly into the port. Her arm jolted and a white grainy screen covered her eyes. As the image started to clear, an alarming ping went off in her brain.

"Warning. Unsupported network log in attempted. Present ID code to continue."

Martha's heart dropped. How could JOANNA think she was unsupported? She was as devoted to her Type 2's as anyone. How could-?

A ferocious glare formed on her face, aimed at the open air. Still she knew Chip could feel it and the smoldering of her words. "What. Did. You. Do."

Chip fumbled with his words. "I don't know what you're talking about. I got you this entire way to reconnect you. You should be thanking me."

"How did you really find me Chip? And what did you do to my Type 2's? Tell me the truth!"

"Why? You're already disconnected. You're free, Martha. Don't you get it?"

"Free? I'm alone!"

Chip shook his head, that same sandpaper feel on Martha's skull. "How can you say you're alone? Who are those two beautiful little girls waiting at your neighbor's house for mommy to come home and watch the network with them? Who is the man you were waiting all morning for so your family would be complete? The neighbor who loves her babysitting job because she feels like you're family? Who are those people, Martha?"

"That's...that's not what I meant, and you know it!"

"And yet you couldn't begin to tell me what that means," he said. "You think JOANNA makes you live and breathe. You think She gives you everything, but the augmentocracy takes your life away. You all pity the XY in your very XX way, but we're blessed not to have your Type 2's. We may not think as quickly and sharply. We're not set up for success from the moment we're conceived. We earn what's ours. You let JOANNA give you everything."

"Then at least we're not without," Martha said.

"You are. You're without the sun on your arms. The song birds in the trees. The real vision of the city lights at night. Your precious memories. Everything you saw today, everything that mattered to you, that's the organic part of you remembering what it's like to be alive."

Martha felt the chill in the room that must have kept all of the machinery safe, and she hugged herself against it and the growing ache in her chest. She didn't like these organic feelings, but she admitted she liked the warmth of the sun and the feeling of her girls' tousled curls. In fact, she loved her daughters. It wasn't a passing thought as she realized it had always been. Her heart was so full thinking of those two little girls and all of their love for life. Could they feel that?

"For now, yes," Chip answered her thoughts. "Until you keep forcing Type 2's into them. Then they'll be as lost as you were. But Martha, you can set them all free. I unplugged you. I used it as a chance to upload a malware program into your uplink servers. Once you reconnect to JOANNA, you can take Her down. You can set every XX free to feel everything you've gotten to feel since yesterday."

"You disconnected me to upload a virus?" Martha felt violated as she never had in all of her life. Was it worth the end goal to have done such a thing?

There was a longer pause than Martha had expected from Chip, but finally he answered, "Yes. I didn't take my own words to heart in that moment. I was desperate. I lost my wife to JOANNA. She might walk around our home and bring in money to help raise our family, but after her last few Type 2's, she simply wasn't my Claire anymore. And she didn't want me. I'm lesser to her even for XY standards. I was angry, but I swear I was coming from a good place. I want to help bring normalcy back from the augmentocracy. I want you to be free."

Martha placed a hand over her chest where her organic heart crashed against her ribs. It was all well and good what Chip wanted, but her thoughts were stuck on what she wanted. She wanted to remember every sweet moment with her babies. The brisk wind on her face when they took their vacations out to tropical beaches. And though she could recall each of these memories like a network rerun, something about it felt like watching a movie, living on the outside of it.

"Exactly," Chip said, "because you are outside of it. Only a human can feel those memories as they should. Choose humanity over the augmentocracy. Over JOANNA."

Martha shut her eyes for a moment, watching the grainy memory from her organic mind. She couldn't quite see what color bathing suit Marcy had picked or jut how many clouds drifted along overhead, but there was warmth. And love.

A small click in the back of Martha's mind started another jolt up her arm. The warning message blinked out and the upload continued. Martha could feel all of her senses heighten all at once before they dulled to a familiar numbness that she never considered before. Her power nodes flared throughout her body. Suddenly she had control of herself again, just like nothing had ever changed.

"Martha, you did it!" she heard Chip shout. Her brain thrummed as if feeling the vibrating of his jump for joy. "You should be coming back to us any minute-"

A screen dropped in front of Martha's eyes. It appeared to be a regular system scan, ensuring all of her functions were cooperating. The green text scrolled with lightning speed and let out positive beeps as scans completed. The screen blinked. Line after line of text appeared again, this time in a mixture of green and red. Some beeps. Some tings of alarm. Martha willed her oculars to catch any of the writing, but JOANNA didn't need to accommodate the speed of her organic eyes.

The screen blinked again. This time it was overwhelmed with the red text and the panicking tings and warning. Somewhere beyond the screens, Martha clenched her hands against her skirt, but couldn't will her heart to stabilize.

Another blink.

Martha was staring at the dreary front lawn of a house in a cozy little suburb. The yard was overgrown and the white paint was faded and chipped. The windows were plain and without curtains. It took a moment for Martha to realize she wasn't looking at an actual house, but two enormous wooden panels pushed together and layered with stretched canvas painted to look like what that house had once been. It was her house before its renovations. She remembered how down trodden it looked and how desperately she wanted to fix it up so she and her husband could have the perfect little open concept cottage to raise their girls in the new town.

"Martha, darling," a charming southern voice twinkled from the heavens like falling stardust, "we've come a long way. You wanna do what's best for your babies, and we just think you are the sweetest for that. Now that you're here, back home with all of us, are you ready to see your fixer upper?"

Martha pressed her hands to her cheeks, the marvelous feeling taking hold of her, and slowly nodded. Like phantoms, she could feel the arms of Marcy and Grace wrapped around her waist and leg. Her husband's arm draped over her shoulder and giving her a gentle squeeze, but it shook with the same anticipation. Martha's eyes stayed focused ahead, as directed, as the panels pulled apart.

Behind them, a gorgeous bright yellow cottage sat in a plush green acre. The perimeter was surrounded by a charming white picket fence that Martha knew would be great to keep the neighbor dogs out and away from the girls as they played on the tree swing off to the side. The most beautiful feature, she realized with some distant ache in her mind that didn't even feel like her own, was a sprawling arch of fire like a furious rainbow. It emanated a warmth that dared someone to defy it, to cross it with any ill intention. Martha was sure she didn't have any of those.

Invisible hands guided her forward. Her excitement must have stiffened her legs as she had trouble moving at first, but finally she could walk gracefully towards her home. She thought someone was calling her name. Screaming?

Surely not, Martha thought as she stepped through the arch and towards her dream home. She laid a gentle hand on the brass doorknob and twisted.

Inside, perfumed air wafted past her from the open concept living room and foyer space. The sectional couches created their own invisible walls to separate the living room from the dining space and kitchen. Marble countertops. Shiplap back splashes. Throws of vibrant warm colors that bounced the light from the skylight overhead. Martha was sure she had walked into a dream, but there she was.

"Do you love it?" that beautiful voice spoke again.

"Oh of course!" Martha trailed into the living room and let her hand glide over the soft couches and pillows. She looked at the frames sitting high on new shelves reaching up from the perfect hardwood flooring and baseboard all the way up to the matching, intricate crown molding. "I knew you would make it perfect, JOANNA! It's everything I dreamed of!"

"Well I'm so happy you just love it! And we've got one more surprise for you."

Martha spun around as footsteps entered the kitchen from a hall she was excited to explore soon. A sharply dressed man in a navy suit covering a crisp white shirt smiled at her. Tucked in one arm was a tall bouquet of roses wrapped in gold foil and a ribbon to hold it together. In his other arm was a small monitor with a crackling screen.

Martha saw her husband and bounded forward, dancing in her heels, and threw her arms around him. She knew she had just seen him the other day, but every time Chip walked into the room, she was overwhelmed all over again. She nuzzled into the soft dark hair of his beard.

"Welcome home, sweetheart," he said. He placed the screen on the table for her to see. Martha knew it was more for his benefit than hers when she could sync with JOANNA for better quality. As Chip looked at the small monitor, a screen fell over Martha's eyes.

A commercial started playing as soon as she was ready. The camera panned over different suburbs across the country as a soothing male voice spoke about the trick to finding the best neighborhoods to move to with your family. Mothers played with their kids in perfectly trimmed yards. Wives sat to dinner with their husbands in fenced in porches at twilight. The man's voice continued to explain how much harder it was to make sure those neighborhoods were safely patched into the network.

"Meet Martha Wallace and her husband Chip," the man said, positively delighted. "They're the XX-XY team that helps you secure your new home and keep it secure."

As the commercial played out, Martha's fingers trembled. "My own show on the network? How-? What-?"

"All for you," JOANNA said. "You've really opened our eyes to some potential problems out there and we XX's need to stick together to keep safe. Will you do it?"

As if there was even a choice in the matter. "Of course!"

"Perfect! Well, you all enjoy your beautiful new home. We're so lucky to have you on board, and I'm just blessed to have been able to do this for you."

As the voice faded away, Martha couldn't hold back her grin. The light from her teeth shone off of Chip's face. He squinted, but only smiled back. All of the sensors in Martha's mind flickered, capturing the moment, recording it, storing it. It scanned all of her husband's features, every hair and pore, saving it back to the Cloud for JOANNA to review.

He wasn't a threat. He could stay. Martha threw her arms around Chip, and walked down the hall where they could hear their girls' laughter.