Viv: A Short Story

A rendering of a female cyborg.

(© the_lightwriter/Fotolia)

Viv spent nearly an hour choosing her body.

She considered going as her eight year-old self. She would stand eye-to-eye with her father in his hospital bed, shedding tears and crying: please don't go, daddy. But that was too obvious. It would offend him.

He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay.

She considered her eighteen year-old self. She would lean over him, scrawny and tall, her lips trembling with anger: you're being selfish, dad. But that would lead to shouting.

She considered every form, even reviving people from the past: her mother, her grandfather, her little sister Mary. How would her father react to Mary walking in? He would think himself dead. She could whisper a message to him: Stay alive, dad. God commands it.

In the end, Viv chose the look of her last days as a biological person. Thirty-one years old, her auburn hair cut short, her black eyes full of longing. She watched the body print in silicon over robotic armature.

When it blinked to life, Viv stood in front of a mirror. Her face was appropriately somber, her mind in sync with her new muscles. Without thinking, she stretched her arms, arched her body, twirled on her tiptoes. She had forgotten the pleasure of sensation.

"I should do this…" The voice resonated through her. She could not help but smile. "I should do this more often… often… often." Every repetition thrilled her with sound. She began to sing an old favorite: "Times have changed… and we've often…"

But she stopped herself. This was not a day for singing.

Viv clothed her body in a blue dress, packed her tablet in a briefcase, stood in front of the mirror one last time. "I'll be there in five," she said aloud, though she did not need to.

A man's voice answered in her mind: I'm not coming.

"Gabe…"

There's no point, said the voice. We know what he'll say.

"We have to try."

I won't see him dying, Viv.

The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days. Her brother made a habit of last-minute decisions, without concern for how they affected other people, most often her.

She remembered the day he became an everperson. It was soon after their mother's death. They were supposed to visit their father in mourning, but Gabe disappeared without explanation. Viv took the full burden of solace on herself. She sat with her father in a small room, with an old Persian rug and stale furniture. His mustache was beginning to gray, his eyes beginning to wrinkle. "She's with your sister now," he said. "Your mom and Mary, I can…" He leaned in to whisper, "I can almost hear them, at night, laughing on the other side. They tell me to wait… they tell me to wait." Viv nodded for him, pretending to believe, wishing she could.

Gabe did not return her calls that evening. The next day, she began to worry. The day after, she began to look. He made no effort to hide, he simply neglected to tell her the new plan.

Gabe had taken the money from his inheritance, and booked himself an everence. It was something new back then. Viv did not understand the science, but she knew it was a destructive process. His physical brain was destroyed by lasers that scanned it neuron by neuron, creating a digital replica. He became data coursing through a network, able to embody any form, to outlive physical decay. He became an everperson.

It took three days to complete. Viv went to the facility, a converted warehouse by the Bay Bridge. She watched the new Gabe being printed over robotic armature, taking the form of his last biological self, to help with the transition. When he blinked to life, she did not know if he would be the same person, or an imperfect copy of an imperfect copy. But Gabe was totally oblivious to the pain he caused her by disappearing in that way. No robot, she thought, could be so callous.

When Viv made her own decision to everize, she deliberated for weeks, thinking through the consequences and conversations to come. Afterwards, she sat with her father in that same small room, with the Persian rug older, the furniture staler, a new cat purring at his feet.

"But it's suicide," he said.

"It's the opposite, dad. It's eternal life."

"You'd be a robot. You wouldn't be you."

"Gabe's the same as he ever was," she noted the resentment in her voice. "He's just not… physical, until he wants to be."

Her father exhaled an Arabic phrase he was using more often in his old age. La hawla wa la quwata illa billah. She had never learned his native tongue, but she looked up the phrase to understand him better. It meant something like: there is no power except in God. It was a sigh of resignation.

"Vivian," he said eventually, "Your soul is not your brain. Your soul lives on. If you kill yourself, you... it's unforgivable. Don't you want to see mom in heaven? Mary? Me?"

She wanted to believe. She wanted painfully. But when she spoke, it was barely a whisper. "I don't think that will happen, dad."

Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon.

It was the first she had ever confessed to him about God or Heaven. In as steady a voice as he could manage, her father said: "You're an adult, Viv. You do what you think is best."

She came to visit sometimes, as an everperson. He could not tell at first. But as the years went by, as his eyes wrinkled, and his hair grayed, he noticed that Viv never aged. One day he stopped talking to her. Another she stopped coming.

Now he was waiting out the last days of his life alone in a hospital bed. Viv did not want to say goodbye. It seemed such a waste.

You don't have to, Gabe spoke into her mind. Get him to sign, say anything, say it's for selling the house. Once we have full power of attorney, we can decide for him.

"It's not right." She noticed herself speaking aloud on the hoverbus. Nine nervous faces turned to her.

It's not right, she continued in her mind. Dad never forced us to pray, never forced us to —

That was mom.

But he loved her. He never changed her mind, he raised us to question, and he quietly believed. He has every right to live his way, just like we did.

To live. Not to die... When he's an everperson, he'll thank us.

That gave her pause. It might be true. She remembered her first moments as an everperson, suddenly linked to countless other minds, waking to the full expanse of human knowledge like sunlight through an open window, breathless and unexpected.

Still, she said, it's not right.

So you want him to die?

I want to convince him.

And what if you don't? There was panic in his voice. Gabe steadied himself. You brought your tablet, Viv. You know what it's for. Get him to sign.

And what if I don't?

I'll figure something out, with or without you. I won't let him die, Viv. Not this day and age.

Viv kept quiet the rest of her way there. She played memories in her mind, of every conversation she ever had with her father, every time he read her a verse or taught her a parable. She looked for a way to convince him, some doubt, some chink in his armor of belief. But she got distracted by the world outside.

It was strange to pass for a time through physical space. It took longer than she expected. Now watching the sunlight refract through the hoverbus window, she was mesmerized. Every sensation felt more real, more vivid than her memory. "I should do this more often," she said aloud.

The hospital smelled like death. It had fallen into disrepair since her mother's illness. Fewer biological people meant little need for hospitals, or doctors. It would close soon, she thought. Her footsteps echoed through the halls, along with the sounds of old televisions playing old films to keep the patients company.

The room she entered had no sound, except the whirring machines. No light, except an eerie glow filtering through the curtains. The figure on the bed was her father, his breathing strained, his skin cracked like the desert. She closed the door behind her.

When her father turned, she saw a flicker of joy in his eyes. It disappeared.

"La hawla wa la… I thought it was her."

"I am her."

He winced. "She died some twenty years ago."

Viv sat next to him. The machines whirred around them, keeping his body alive another day, or hour, or minute. "It doesn't look good, dad."

"I know."

"You broke a promise."

He held her gaze. "I did?"

"You said we'd see the bats in Australia."

"You were scared of bats."

"And you said they were cute in Oz, the giant bats, like upside down puppies chewing bananas."

He smiled, but that was a long time ago. "Your mom was alive then… Gabe… You were alive…"

"I'm alive now, dad. Look at me. I'm Viv. Vivian Fatema. Your daughter. Half mom, half you. I'm the same person I was."

His eyes shifted. She sensed he wanted to believe. She held his hand and squeezed it. She felt him squeezing back. "I want you to stay, dad."

"There's nothing for me here."

"I'm here."

"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."

His hand let go. "You're there… I don't know where. I have a lot to answer for, Viv. I pray. I pray every day, five times a day, sometimes more. I pray that God forgive you for what you did, forgive me for my part, forgive Gabriel... I wish I could stay, love, but… Everyone I love is on the other side."

It hurt her to say the next words: "It's not real, dad."

"Of course you'd say that." He turned his body away from her.

"Please, dad."

She listened to his breathing.

"I love you," she said.

"You don't love me, Viv. You're a robot."

She lowered her head against the bed. She kneeled for countless breaths. It took all her strength to stand up again.

Viv took her briefcase, pulled out her tablet. She stood tapping at the screen for some time. The clenching of her jaw felt like the old days.

"Before I go, I need you to sign something. It's a power of attorney for the house. We can't sell it without you."

"You're selling the house?"

She shrugged. "It's no use to a robot."

His bony finger signed the screen without reading it. She kissed his forehead goodbye.

"Viv?" She stopped. "Before you go, could you open the curtains?"

She did. Her last image of him was a frail old body gazing at the moving clouds.

On the hoverbus home, Viv turned against the window outside. She pressed the briefcase to her like a hug, her mechanical heart thumping against it. Every heartbeat brought a memory back of her biological life. "I should do this more…" She whispered to herself, not caring who might hear. The sunset turned violet.

You made him sign. Gabe sounded like triumph.

"I did."

You did the right thing.

"I know."

Let me see.

She pulled out her tablet and, with a touch, uploaded the file.

Where's my name? Gabe asked. I only see your name.

"I changed it."

What do you mean you "changed it"?

"I changed my mind last minute, Gabe. I didn't think to tell you."

That's funny, sis. Very funny.

"It's not funny at all, Gabe. It's dead serious. I have power of attorney. I'm going to bury him next to mom and Mary."

No… There's no way.

"It's my choice now."

I can't watch him go, Viv. I can't. Don't be selfish.

"I'll miss him." She felt a pain in her chest. "I'll miss him too." Her voice was different now. "But it's what he wanted."

Gabe left her. She heard nothing but her thoughts. Unbearable thoughts.

Viv turned to the darkening world outside. She found her reflection instead, her reflection in tears. She saw her father's eyes.

Fawaz Al-Matrouk
Fawaz Al-Matrouk is a Kuwaiti writer-director based in San Francisco. His short films have played in festivals worldwide, including Cannes, Dubai, and Clermont-Ferrand, winning awards for writing, directing, and audience choice. He completed a BA in history at the University of Toronto and MFA in cinematic arts at the University of Southern California. He is now writing to direct a feature debut with support from SFFILM Rainin Grant and the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program.
Get our top stories twice a month
Follow us on

Biosensors on a touchscreen are showing promise for detecting arsenic and lead in water.

Photo by Johnny McClung on Unsplash

In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.

What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Hanna Webster
Hanna Webster is a freelance science writer based in San Diego, California. She received a Bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and creative writing in 2018 from Western Washington University, and is now a graduate student in the MA Science Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. She writes stories about neuroscience, biology, and public health. Her essays and articles have appeared in Jeopardy Magazine and Leafly. When Hanna is not writing, she enjoys consuming other art forms, such as photography, poetry, creative nonfiction, and live music

On the left, a Hermès bag made using fine mycelium as a leather alternative, made in partnership with the biotech company MycoWorks; on right, a sheet of mycelium "leather."

Photo credit: Coppi Barbieri and MycoWorks

A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.

Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.