by Erastus Centaur
©2003 Erastus Centaur -- all rights reserved
My boss came into my cubicle. "Rasty? If you can break yourself away from all the fun you're having, we need to talk."
"No problem," I said. "Now?"
"Now." He lead me to a conference room and closed the door. In a cubicle farm, the only way to have a private discussion was in a conference room. He and I only bothered with such things when it was time for a performance review of my job as a computer programmer or 'software wrangler'. It was time for the annual PR, but he usually handed it to me first and actually reserved the conference room in advance.
Once seated, he said, "I have some bad news and some good news. Unfortunately, the bad news is pretty bad. All of our projects have been cancelled."
My stomach tied itself in a few knots, though I thought I had taught myself to not do that anymore. "Cancelled."
"Yeah. I lost the battle. You and I and the rest of the team and all of our customers know the new manager has no concept of what we do. Even unleashing all the customers on him -- I heard he got 600 emails -- didn't convince him or his boss that he couldn't buy our program from an outside vendor." He held up his hand to forestall any comment from me. We had both gone over the arguments as soon as the manager started his campaign. "Explaining that no outside program does what ours does got nowhere. Yeah, he's a first class idiot."
He sighed, weary from the battle. "I just came from the meeting where he told me he just signed the new budget which didn't include funding for our whole group." That was fifteen of us.
I had never seen my boss look so upset. Eleven years ago, he and I interviewed for the same entry-level management job he still held. He had been my boss ever since. He was too good at what he did to be transferred anywhere else, and too willing to be honest about stupid ideas to be promoted. Over the years, I saw how he had been treated -- this wasn't the first cancelled project for dubious reasons -- and I thanked Providence that he had gotten the boss job which allowed me to remain the lowly grunt, someone who could get some actual work done and be happy about it.
While individual projects had been cancelled before, this was the first time management had zeroed us out of the budget. My boss had never been exactly quiet, so we all knew his idiot boss had proclaimed, "We are a manufacturing company, not a software company." Never mind that the company had maintained a programming staff since the era of punched cards simply because outside software companies couldn't keep up with innovation we needed.
I failed to convince my stomach that knots weren't necessary. "So what's the good news?"
"I'm very aware that you like the science-related stuff you're doing now, and working with financial databases would bore you out of your mind."
"You got that right, but how does that relate to any good news?"
"Since we don't seem to have any more of those science-related jobs in this company -- thanks to our idiot manager -- it appears an enjoyable future with this crazy outfit will be limited. I managed to negotiate a special early retirement package for you. Well, for the five of us with more than twenty years with the company. I figured that way, you can get on with that second career in music you're studying for, and I can open that online taxidermy service I've been thinking about."
In spite of the idiots above him, my boss was a great guy to work for. There was a reason he had been my boss for so long. When a previous project had been cancelled and my job satisfaction had gone south for several months, he said I could slip out of the office a couple times a week for classes towards a Masters' degree in the completely unrelated field of music at the nearby university.
He continued, "If you really want to keep working here, you can turn down the retirement package, but it could be another four years before you could match it."
I hesitated. Though it would be a lifetime income, it wouldn't be a large lifetime income.
He saw me hesitate. "Perhaps you could find another computer job doing some scientific stuff."
"I think we both know how many of those jobs have disappeared in the last few years and how rampant age discrimination is," I said. "After all, we've programmed with punch cards! What would we know about the internet?"
He heard my sarcasm so didn't press the point. "If you don't think music will pay the bills, you could probably do pretty well as a writer."
"Me? A writer? What makes you think I can write? My training is in music, not in writing."
"I've read some of your stuff. I thought it was pretty good."
I felt my face get hot. "I haven't published anything. How could you have read it?"
"Oh, not that! I read the stories you've written during lunch."
I was afraid of that. I didn't always confine my writing to lunch. "I get curious when I see locked directories. Now don't get upset. You've seen lots of notices from the company that say I have permission to do this. I figured it was harmless since there weren't any dirty pictures. I haven't told anyone else. And no, this is not the reason why you're being let go."
I still felt like he had invaded my space. "Oh. Those stories. They were written strictly for my own amusement."
"I still thought they were pretty good." Not exactly a ringing literary endorsement.
He paused for a moment. I didn't take up the slack. "Ah, yes. One more little thing for you." He pulled a small card out of his pocket and handed it to me. "You might find this useful. This little gift is from me, not the company. I have an appointment of my own on a week from Thursday."
The card read, "Gift Certificate for one session at Deepest Dreams. Reveal your innermost self. Appointment Only" It also had an address and phone number.
"It might help you get a new start," my boss said cryptically. He added, "I'm sorry it ended like this. In spite of all my fighting, the bastards won. I wish you the best."
And with that I became unemployed.
The university semester ended three weeks later. Though I had four more classes to take spread over two more semesters, at the moment my days were quite empty. Not having much else to do, I made an appointment at Deepest Dreams and was told to reserve a whole day. I showed up there a few days later.
The place didn't seem all that big, one large room on the third floor of a nondescript building just off the main street. Just inside the door was a desk that looked like it could have been a secretary's desk outside the boss' office, except there was no inner office.
The guy sitting at the desk greeted me. He looked to be no more than twenty, someone to run the place while working his way through school. His dark blond hair was cut in one of those radical statements whose main feature is being something that parents don't like.
"Hi," he said. "You must be Erastus Greenslade." I nodded as we shook hands. "I'm Tyler, your guide for today. We might as well get started."
Tyler led me towards the center of the room. There was a large black circle on the floor with black velvet drapes encircling three-quarters of it, leaving an area about ten feet across. Around the open side was a large overstuffed chair with a table beside it. Along one wall was a rack of assorted high-tech gear. Along the opposite wall was a refrigerator. The rest of the room was paneled in walnut, which looked like the real thing. The high ceiling featured many plaster medallions. It all looked very comfortable. Tyler reached into a drawer amongst the computer equipment and pulled out a small black box with three wires on it. Two of the wires ended in small disks.
"Would you like something to drink? Fruit juice? Lemonade?" He spoke while untangling the wires.
"Apple juice, if you have it."
"No problem." He wandered over to the fridge. In a moment, he was back, carrying a large glass. It tasted more like fresh cider than processed apple juice. "Feel free to take anything you like out of the fridge during the day. Everything should be well labeled." He got the wires untangled and held up the box. "If you're ready," he said, "I can attach the electrodes."
"Ready for what? Electrodes for what?"
"The electrodes will be stuck to your forehead. The computer can then read your thoughts and we can begin to explore your deepest dreams." He looked in my eyes for a moment. "That is why you're here." He said it as a statement, not a question.
Tyler set each electrode in turn on what looked to be a wet sponge, then pushed them on my forehead. "Don't worry. They'll pull off easily when we're done with them." He then pushed a button on the little box. A green light came on and the computer stuff behind me began to chatter and whirr. He handed the box to me, saying, "You can clip this to your belt."
I did so, letting the third wire hang down. When I looked up again, the area inside the black drapes began to glow. The light soon seemed to solidify into a shape. With a shock, I realized the shape was an image of me! It showed me wearing the clothes I had on. Tyler saw my surprise and was apparently used to it. "That's just our holo-projection system. It allows you to get a good look at yourself, including the parts you never see." We stepped onto the black circle and walked around the image. It looked solid, yet I could push my hand into the image. When I did so, the area around my hand wavered.
"For our purposes today, clothes will just get in the way." The clothes on the image vanished, leaving my image standing in all its middle-age glory. "My electrodes are implanted," he said with a sly grin. A vertical bar with feet and inch markings appeared beside my image, verifying that it was indeed full size.
I looked at the image. I could make out every scar and birthmark, every hair on my undeveloped chest and paunch, every lack of hair on my head, every gray hair in my beard. My body was not my best attribute.
Tyler commanded, "Think the word, 'print'."
I did so. A moment later I heard a soft thunk near the computer equipment. Tyler led me over, reached into a bin, and pulled out a perfect model of me. It was maybe seven inches tall and made out of some sort of plastic. But the hair didn't look like molded plastic. It looked like real hair, scaled accordingly. The model not only included real hair for the head and beard, but also hair on the chest, back, and the rest of the body. Well, as much of the rest of the body as I could see. While the holo image was naked, the model included a Speedo -- which didn't exactly complement my physique.
Holding a model of myself was creepy. One so complete and detailed was even more so. I handed it back to Tyler.
He set it on the table beside the overstuffed chair. "This model is one tenth the size of the projection. The projection can only show one image at a time. You can 'print' models to make comparisons."
"Comparisons of what?" I said. "What will I be comparing myself to?"
"The purpose of all this is to allow you to create an ideal you. As you think about changes you might want to make in your body -- and I can assure you that everybody has such thoughts -- the computer will pick up those thoughts and change the holo image accordingly."
"And why would I want to spend a day doing this?"
"Think of it as a type of psychological test."
"If that is the case, I can live with my body the way it is. End of test." I reached for the electrodes.
"Not so fast," said Tyler. I froze my hand halfway up. "For the purposes of uncovering your deepest dreams, I would have to record you as being in denial over your idealized shape." He glared at me in a kindly way. "Besides, I understand you have nothing else to do today." I shrugged. No real harm in playing along.
"Go ahead. Think about a change."
That was easy. I had changed eating habits enough to hold my weight steady, but I had been overweight -- all right, obese -- since fifth grade. It would be great to be normal weight, or even skinny. The holo image flickered -- and was skinny! My jaw dropped. I walked around the image. No fat in the face. Slim torso. Slim waist. Slim legs. The image looked great! This computer system was incredible! I turned toward Tyler with all kinds of questions in my mind, none of them able to get out. I wanted an explanation of how a computer could do that.
Tyler didn't provide one. Instead, he said, "Some last minute instruction before I disappear. You don't need me to watch over your personal fantasies. When you think you've exhausted all of your possibilities, just say my name. The computer will signal me. Until then, make as many models as you want. Take a break whenever you like. As I said, the fridge is well stocked; you may take whatever looks good. The bathroom is right over there." He pointed. "I'll talk to you later. Enjoy exploring your deepest dreams."
Before I could say anything, Tyler disappeared behind the black drapes. A moment later, I heard a door open and close. I looked at the image.
Tyler was right. I had fantasized about how I would change my body if I was able to. I had actually fantasized a lot, making long mental lists of possible improvements. I wouldn't actually be able to do it, but why not let my fantasies go for a while? Why not play along? I really didn't have anything better to do.
Five foot nine might be the average height for men, but average height doesn't bestow respect. And I'm five foot eight. All my brothers and nephews are taller, at least one by seven inches. Let's try six foot four.
The image flickered -- and the top of the head matched the proper mark on the ruler. That looked good, but I wasn't done yet.
Take gray out of the beard. A flicker. Extend the beard up to the mouth. Much of the front of my chin didn't grow hair. Make the beard more dense and each hair straighter and softer. A flicker.
I had looked at many heads of hair and decided the ones I liked best were the ones that most nearly looked like fur. By this, I meant a head where all the hairs were short and all the same length, something I couldn't manage with a huge bald spot -- which I also wished away. Another flicker.
The image was looking better.
I happen to think that a hairy guy looks better than one that isn't. Now I'm not saying a guy that looks like a gorilla is my idea of masculinity, but a hairy chest looks better than a smooth one, and I think guys that spend money to get rid of chest hair have it all wrong.
In my early twenties, my legs had been hairy. They weren't now, and I had no idea why. One doesn't exactly go to the doctor and say, "The hair on my legs seems to be falling out." Though I had heard and read a lot about male pattern balding, there aren't articles in newspapers or news magazines about losing leg hair. Another flicker. While I was at it, I wanted more hair on the arms and to have it extend beyond the wrist, across the back of the hand, and all the way onto the fingers. Another flicker.
Skinny was much better than fat, but muscles of a runner would be much better. Runners developed muscles that were firm and sleek, not showy. Another flicker.
And, of course, eleven inches. What man could resist? Another flicker.
I thought 'print' and soon had a model with a thinner version of my face but with a very good looking body.
Now for some experimenting. I changed the hair color to red. It took three tries to get a shade I liked. I made the beard a slightly lighter shade. Then I added a bit of curl to the scalp hair. That took four tries to get it right. As a final touch, I added a light sprinkling of freckles across the nose and cheeks and turned the eyes from brown to green. I printed it.
I printed another after changing the hair color to a tawny gold and the eyes to blue.
While on visits to England, I noticed that some people had hair where individual strands varied from red through orange and gold to blond. The result was striking. I made such a change in the image and printed another model.
If I could change the length of some bones, I could change the shape of others. I gave the image a strong jaw and a more rectangular face. I tweaked the various bones in the face -- cheek, jaw, nose, brow, Adam's apple -- until I got a face that was both distinctive and handsome. I soon set another model on the table.
I studied this model carefully. He was a handsome guy. No doubt about that. I had an itch in the back of my mind wondering what he was like.
If I could make models of an ideal man, I wondered what else I could do. I had long had a fascination of human and animal blends. Those were the subject of my lunchtime stories and I was embarrassed to remember my boss had read them.
I started small. I added the horns of a ram. The image looked good, so I printed it. I added sheep ears and made another model. I replaced the horns with whitetail deer antlers -- 8 points were good -- and deer ears. Print. I took off the antlers, changed the ears back, and added a horse tail. Print.
Could I go even further?
I tried a satyr, complete with cloven hooves, and furry legs. It worked! I adjusted the line between fur and skin to loop under the abs before I printed it.
I tried a centaur, a plain one to prove the concept. Another win. If I could make models of all types of mythical characters, why not go on? I added the horse equivalent of the satyr, a minotaur, a deer-taur complete with antlers, then one based on wildebeest (with horns on the head), and giraffe. The giraffe-taur stood sixteen feet tall and had a six foot torso and seven foot arms. The model stood nineteen inches.
I designed an angel, a man with a pair of white wings that came out of his spine, curled over his shoulders and worked from a second layer of chest muscles. The wing colors were modeled on the blue jay.
How far could I stretch it? I thought about a werewolf - a bipedal character with furry body, wolf head, paws for feet, and a tail. This character needed to be more muscular -- more of a fighter than a runner -- before he looked right. I studied the long fingers on the human shaped hands. The backs were fur-covered, the palms still bare, and the claws...
This computer could stretch the basic input by quite a lot. There didn't seem to be much human in this one, never mind not much of me. I imagined and printed a humanoid fox, coyote, German Shepherd, golden retriever, Dalmatian, lion, tiger, cheetah, panther, leopard, whitetail deer, reindeer, elk, domestic bull, bison, black bear, otter (with shorter limbs and longer torso), raccoon, squirrel (quite the tail!), flying squirrel (no Speedo on this model -- it would hamper the skin-flap 'wings'), rabbit, mountain goat, bald eagle (cool feathers), red falcon, and horse. I did several versions of the horse, some with solid colored fur, some where the fur darkened to black or faded to white at elbows and the hock, some with spots like an Appaloosa or a Paint. I created a gryphon and the male equivalent of the sphinx.
After all that, I paused for lunch and found the fridge was indeed well stocked.
Some of the stories my boss had seen featured centaurs. Perhaps I could use this system to make models of the characters I had created.
I created Jackson, styled on the Clydesdale except instead of brown and white, he was blond and flaxen. I found the computer was good at reading my mind; I didn't have to do much more than think the character's name. Jackson appeared complete with a flaxen star in his blond hair just above his forehead, the way I had described him in my story.
Next came Eric. I had to think about making the red and white patches of his Paint coat smaller and more jumbled than the computer originally created. He was slim and sleek where Jackson was muscular. He had a white star in his red hair above his forehead. I created Dan, who had traditional Clydesdale coloring; Samuel, who had black skin and white fur; Moses, who had black skin, black fur, and white stockings; Jerome, who had black skin and a zebra body; John Chin, whose body was that of a Przewalski's horse; Allan, whose body was a black and white version of the Clydesdale; and a dozen others based on Shire, mustang, quarterhorse, and Thoroughbred and with a variety of colors and shadings. I finished with Peter, whose torso was covered in bay fur that shaded to black on all six limbs.
Tyler had said to make as many models as I wanted. I now had 80 of them on the table beside me. I was out of ideas. Making models of centaurs and other mythical and anthropological creatures -- and seeing full size images before me -- had been a relaxing and enjoyable way to keep me from brooding about my next paycheck. It had been fun to see my characters 'in person' rather than just with my mind's eye. And all those models (well, a few at a time) would look great on my bookshelves.
I mentally said, "Tyler, I'm done." A moment later I heard a door open and close and Tyler appeared from behind the black drapes. He stopped in surprise when he saw the table. It took him a moment to recover. He walked up to the table and began picking up models. He started with the tall giraffe-taur, but then began picking them up at random. "I must say that you have been both my busiest customer and the most imaginative. I don't think I've seen any customer make more than seven models before and none have made any non-human models. The variety here is just amazing!" He gazed across my collection for a few more moments with an appreciative expression.
Finally, he said, "So. Which is your favorite?"
I looked at the models before me. I touched the anthro-horse, -deer, and -eagle. I let my hand stray to the minotaur, then to the various centaurs. I finally chose the centaur with the flaxen star in his blond hair and held it up. The computer recreated the holo-image. Tyler said, "Shall we lock it in?"
"Lock it in?" I looked at him. He seemed serious. "The model seems quite complete as it is."
"No, no. Not the model. Shall we twank your genes?"
I looked down at what I was wearing. "Twank my jeans? What does my clothing have to do with me choosing a favorite model?"
Tyler looked exasperated, but for just a moment. "How did you find out about us?"
"A gift certificate from my boss when we were both laid off."
"And his name?"
I told him.
"Yeah," said Tyler. "He was in here three weeks ago. No imagination at all. His only model was a younger, more fit version of himself. Something about age discrimination. That and eleven inches." Tyler winked. "Did he say anything about what we do here?"
"No..." I drew the word out. "It sounds like you can do more than let me create all these models."
"You could say that. And you thought our mind-reading capabilities were wonderful!" He smiled. "What we do is to remake your body to match your model. In some cases, such as your boss, it is a trivial matter to reset the telomeres and improve the muscle tone." He took the model of Jackson from my hand and held it up in the space between us. "In your case, we rewrite your DNA and trigger your body to conform to it."
"Does that hurt?"
"Nah. Doesn't take very long either."
"Have you done anything as complex as a centaur?"
"Sure. My cousin Logan." The holo of Jackson disappeared, replaced by a holographic video of a lion -- that had a humanoid torso and arms instead of the expected leonine neck.
This was no computer concoction -- or if it was, it was damn good. I saw before me was a six-limbed creature that obviously didn't occur in nature, but was intelligent enough to speak. The voice through the speakers had a pleasing burr to it.
Tyler broke the silence. "Shall we do the same for you?"
"Unnh..." It took a moment to re-engage the brain. "No."
"The cost is included in your gift certificate. You won't have to pay anything more."
"Uh. Not a centaur. Your cousin is amazing, but I don't want people staring at me."
Tyler held up the angel. "I suppose this one is out too, though I'm pretty sure he would be able to fly. Wouldn't you like that?"
"That's still too freakish for everyday wear."
"There's still all these human models to choose from. According to your boss, you just lost your job. This is a chance to really start over -- a completely new life with a long future if you like."
"There's too many aspects of my life I do like that I don't want to give up and showing up looking like someone else wouldn't work. I may not have a job right now, but I am studying for a new career. I have family and friends I don't want to leave behind. They wouldn't understand me showing up in a new body."
"We don't have to be radical." Tyler held up the model of me with tawny hair and blue eyes. "Your friends could get used to that type of change. It's amazing how quickly they'll forget the way you used to look."
I studied that model for a while, my thoughts working. The holo system made Cousin Logan disappear and a new model of me flickered on in its place. This one was back to my original height and head shape, but with the tawny hair and beard.
I could live in a body like that, I thought. I had the computer make a model and held it in my hands for a while.
"Nah," I said, finally. "I look at this guy and I don't see me. I keep wondering what he might be like. I don't seem to be able to project myself into him. He's handsome, no doubt, but that's only the outside. It isn't me."
I could see that Tyler was getting a bit frustrated at his inability to convince me of the usefulness of a makeover. I suspect all his other customers practically demand the new body. I could imagine how eagerly my boss took up the offer.
"Perhaps you could take the opportunity to improve the basic you -- less gray, less bald, better muscle tone, shed the weight. People would only think you had finally gotten in shape and used a little hair color." This time Tyler sent commands to the hologram to show what he meant. "We could even clean out you arteries, remove any potential arthritis from your joints, and restore you to the peak of health."
Oh, man, was that tempting! But I had lived long enough to learn that life-changing decisions should not be made quickly. They should be evaluated and weighed, then compared against values and morals. The consequences should be carefully considered.
And the worthwhile opportunities don't require snap decisions.
"Can I think about this and come back some future year?" I asked.
"Yeah, sure," said Tyler. "Um, you really need years to think about improved health?"
"No. But many years from now I may decide I can't handle old age. In the meantime, I must follow my faith: I believe that the current life is to prepare us for Heaven. And while this isn't a Good versus Evil question, and I feel suicide is wrong, the longer I live here on earth, the longer it is before I get to Heaven. I'd rather live this life fully in all of its stages and get to Heaven when it's the right time for me. So no makeover today, though I do reserve the right to change my mind."
"No problem, Dude," said Tyler. "Most people who come here are frantic in their search for youth, beauty, and sexual dominance. Dealing with that mentality all the time is tiresome, even if it pays the bills. It's refreshing to meet someone who is happy with who he is."
I smiled to show appreciation for his complement. But I had one more question. "Have you tried -- I think you called it -- the gene twanking yourself?" I said.
"Oh, yeah. I created it. If I wasn't willing to test it on myself I couldn't try it out on anyone else, now could I?"
"You don't look old enough to..." I saw his smile. "What am I saying! You can look any age you want. How old are you?"
"I'll be ninety-two next week."
"Nine..." I sputtered, unable to get the words out.
"The idea of how to do this didn't come to me until I was eighty-four, and that was after spending a lifetime doing research in biology. The last year of research was a race against the clock. I was afraid I would die before I could use it on myself. Believe me, a body of a twenty-two-year-old is much better than one that is eighty-eight years old."
He smiled at me. "Are you sure you won't reconsider?"
"Yes. I may not be sure about what I might decide in the future, but I am sure about today."
I surveyed the table full of models. At least I won't feel guilty about gazing upon my deepest dreams arrayed across my bookcase.
"Got a box?"
"Heh," he said. "I'll get several."