Unfinished

By Jason Stoddard

Part 1 of 2

"What do you remember?"

"Everything."

"No. The sharp-edged things that press at the surface of your mind."

Eyes closed. "My first rejuvenation."

"Tell me."

"It was like getting in bed with Stalin," she said. "It was like winning the lottery."

"How so?" My airscreens tried to explain Stalin and lotteries to me, but I blinked them away. Rule One: Do not rush in. Learn by context. Learn the totality of the person. Until the stars are ready to become constellations and the names ripe to fall from the sky.

"Because it was new," she said. "Nobody could afford it. Back then, Oversight picked. And they put their finger on me. Still don't know why. I was Beat before there was Beat. I got clubbed in Vietnam protests. The Oversight Overseeing series was not exactly complimentary. I think it was perfectly random. They needed something for their new Art Purity thing, and my name came up. So now I'm here. And my friends are dead."

"Are you angry about that?"

"I'm angry about everything."

"That's not an answer."

A sigh. "No."

"You said it was like sleeping with Stalin."

A long, indecipherable glance. Mina Best still looked reasonably young, like a well-preserved fifty-year-old who had never made her first trip to the tanks. But her eyes were cool and unreadable, as if someone had drawn a veil before her soul.

"You never lived under Oversight."

"No."

"Look it up on your little screens. Stalin. Put a smiling face on him. That's Oversight. But if he was offering to make you young again, no strings attached, wouldn't you take it?"

I smiled noncommittally. Blinked up some random facts about her life on the airscreens. She was an artist, they said. A painter.

I looked at one of the flat, unmoving pictures that hung in her great white cube of a house. Bright teal splashes emerging from a dark black-purple background. It had a crude and unfinished feel to it. I could see where the bristles of her brush had actually left their imprint in the paint. I could see the weave of the canvas underneath in places. It was strange looking at a piece of art that didn't move or change. It just sat there. Imperturbable. Almost a challenge.

She saw the direction of my gaze. "I know what you're thinking," she said. "But yes, there's a market for it. There's always a market for one-of-a-kind things."

Another lesson. Personal truth is a fantasy, always embellished. Challenge to find the ultimate truth. "I would have thought that nanoreplication could recreate an exact copy."

A snort. "Nanorep doesn't come with a video record and signed bond showing that this was made with my own hands."

"So the value is not from the tactile quality?"

"No. It's because I can't make another one, no matter how hard I try."

"I imagine there would be those who would be happy with a copy."

A sigh. "You don't understand art."

Keep it rolling. "What else do you remember?"

"I remember my mother." This one a deep frown. Very readable. I kept silent and waited.

"Single mom," she said. "Not by choice. Dad was killed by a defective rifle in Basic a couple of years after I was born. 1936. Before Pearl Harbor. Before we even knew we were at war."

Grainy images flashed on the airsceens. I watched ships burning in slow black and white, and the weight of her age hit me. She'd been born in an era when things were in black and white because that was all they could do. That was the limit of their tech. It wasn't art. It wasn't intentional. It was just the way things were. My stomach lurched and skidded.

One hundred sixty-three years old, I thought. I can't do this.

But she was still talking. "Mom got lucky. Started a drugstore in the San Fernando Valley. Everyone thought she was crazy. Too far out from LA. And during the war, we almost did starve. I remember hiding from the bank guys in our little apartment above the store, lights out, barely breathing. But when the war was over and they started building . . . there was a Best Drugs on every major street in the valley by the '50s. My mom had become a businessman. Chasing the money. Maybe that's why I started painting. Because it wasn't business. It was beautiful and useless. She hated it."

Mina laughed, a harsh ratcheting sound. "Mom was out sleeping with the city council and the president of Western Bank," she said. "I was sleeping with a shitty gallery owner on Third Street to get my work shown."

"Are you angry about that?"

"It's too long ago."

"I thought you were angry about everything."

"I am."

"What else do you remember?"

"Everything!" she said, standing up and pacing the room. Little motes of dust swirled in her wake, picked up from the old-time dead carpet, illuminated by the skylights above. "That's the problem. It's a bag of mush! Everything. Nothing! It just keeps getting more and more buried! I don't even remember your name!"

"Gillam," I said. "Gillam Anderson."

"Gillam," she said, as if trying to carve it into the wall of her mind. "New name. I should remember that. That was one of the things I used to be able to do. Remember names."

Time to be honest. "I don't know if I can help," I said.

"Why not?" Immediate. Almost desperate. A look of pleading. "You're an Editor! Edit me!"

"You're my first," I said.

Mina stopped pacing. Looked at me. And in that moment, I could see her seeing my twenty-four years for the first time. I could almost hear the churn of her mind as it wrangled with this new knowledge. She sat on the edge of the couch and looked me in the eye. "You're scared," she said.

"Most cases are only eighty to a hundred years old," I said. "In their first light mindclutter. I don't . . . I don't know why Clariti sent me. I would think they would have sent someone more experienced in pruning the tree of the mind." Though actually I did know. Jill Ayanami. That last empathy class, the darkened room and the small frightened child. She'd pulled me aside and told me that my one great failing was my brutal honesty. In her own brutally honest way, in this newly reconstituted, brutally honest world, she told me that I could achieve anything I wanted -- except for that one fatal flaw. This was her. Pushing me. Testing me. But why?

From Mina, that same intense look. If she were younger, it might have been desire. In her, it was untranslatable. "Experience is overrated."

"I could Edit out your ability to paint."

Another laugh, long and hard. "So?"

"There's no way to undo an Edit. What's done is done."

That brought a soft smile. "Then we are both artists," she said.

"Mina, you may be one of the oldest people in the world," I said. Seventh, my airscreens reported. I shivered.

"So?"

"So you don't want me. You want someone who has done this before."

"Someone whose experience steers them directly over a cliff."

My airscreens explained the metaphor. "No."

"I want someone who can look at me and see me, not case #736 of day #4560 of his career."

And that was true. There were Editors like that. There were Editors for whom the dance of another mind had become just another piece of feral adware, flickering unseen at the corner of their airscreens.

I can do that, I thought. I could see Mina as an individual.

Grainy black and white images rushed back at me. The rough cries of war from some ancient magnetic soundtrack. All the unfamiliar terms. Drug stores. Lotteries. Stalin. Galleries. There was so much to understand!

I swallowed. I can try, anyway.

"What do you remember?" I asked again.

"I've told you."

"No, not enough."

"Are you going to Edit me?"

"Tell me what you remember."

She told me things about times I couldn't pretend to understand.


I was late for the Viewing. I had to wait half an hour for an autorunner to be free enough to take me up the disintegrating twisty roads to her house, far above Malibu.

She lived in a featureless white cube, all unapologetic ninety-degree angles and hard corners, a dream of the future that had expired before Gehry and Ovit. She'd told me about it before:

"It was something I always wanted," she'd said. "I used to drive past this house late at night in my convertible. It'd be all lit up against the sky, and I'd think, 'That's it, that's what I need. A big beautiful simple seamless palette that would be the perfect counterpoint to my work.' Pretentious, I know. But I had to have it. And eventually, I was doing well enough when the market was doing poorly enough, and I was able to have it."

She opened the door before I knocked.

"You're late," she said.

I'm scared, I knew that meant.

I pushed back the instinctive response and hung my head. Rule Two: There is nothing more terrifying than opening one's mind to another. Reassurance is your reciprocal sacrifice. Always do your utmost to put them at ease.

"I called," I said.

"I don't have time for messages!"

"I'm sorry."

She shook her head. "Come in."

She expected to be awed by my equipment. I've been told that they do. Some of them remember a time when computing still meant racks of equipment and fans whirring away the heat of a hundred or a thousand primitive processors. When I put the two tiny dots on her temples and the one small disk on her neck, she said, "Is that all?"

"Yes. It will take them a while to connect."

She nodded. I didn't tell her about the nanometer-sized tendrils that were threading their way through her brain. Something even I didn't fully understand, didn't think much about. I didn't even wear a headwire, and this was so much more than that. Just another small-tech thing, remaking us into something that we thought we wanted to be.

"What about you?" she said.

"I'm equipped," I said, pointing at the tiny dots of my airscreens, buried near the corners of my eyes. "I'll be going immersive for the Viewing, so I won't see or hear anything other than your mind."

"Hear?"

"The structure of your mind is translated to visuals and sound that can be perceived and shaped."

"Like Arcadia? A virtual world?"

"No, not really."

"What does it look like?"

I closed my eyes. How would you describe the Sistine Chapel to a Neanderthal?

"It's as if you can see all the stars in the universe," I said. "And they are singing."

"It sounds beautiful."

"It's indescribable," I said. And I had seen only the simulations, and a few tiny minds that they allowed us in training.

She cocked her head to one side, as if hearing something. "My head feels funny," she said.

"It will for a time," I said. Billions of tendrils, burrowing deeper.

"How long?"

"Perhaps twenty minutes."

I expected her to ask more about the mind-visuals, but she was still sitting still and straight on the couch, her hands in fists. Still nervous. She probably hadn't even heard me.

Mina got up and stood in front of one of her paintings, one of the brighter ones with splashes of orange and mauve. It could almost have been a face emerging from some surrealistic jungle.

"I don't know anything about you," she said.

"What do you mean?"

She shook her head, still looking at the painting. "What do you think about this?" she asked, stepping aside so I could view the entire piece. It was typical of her work, dark and brooding, almost abstract, with splashes of bright color fighting to emerge. Textures of matte and gloss suggested uncharted depths. My airscreens fed me information on the painting, its title, when it was done, but I ignored them.

"It looks like a face emerging from a jungle."

"No. Emotion. What does it make you feel?"

"I don't know. . . ."

"No! First reaction! Tell me what you first thought when you saw it!"

"I was . . ." Looking deep into it, seeing the expression of desperate exhaustion on the face, the shadowy outlines in the depths. "Fear," I said finally. "I was scared."

"Good. Why?"

"Because they're being chased. And they're burning."

"Hmm."

"Am I right?"

"There is no right and wrong. Your parents sheltered you, didn't they?"

"No, not really. . . ."

"Yes, they did."

"No!" I said, standing up. "They were raised in VR. They wanted me to see the world."

"Did you?"

"I didn't spend my time in VR."

"That's not an answer."

Anger, hot and dry like a furnace wind. "They didn't have much money," I said. "They couldn't trade on reputation. We didn't go many places. But everywhere we went was real."

A nod. Silence.

"I've probably walked all of Southern California," I said. "I've been places in Los Angeles that you're still not supposed to go. But every time I went out, they'd warn me. They'd tell me to be careful, it was dangerous. I could fall and cut myself and get an infection. A feral gang could seduce me. I might find an old cache of some awful biostuff. A hundred monsters hid just around the corner."

"They did a good job on you."

"I wasn't allowed to use VR."

"A really good job."

"When I finally saw some old horror linears, I couldn't sleep."

"I'm not surprised."

"For days."

"They do that."

"Your paintings remind me of them."

A sad smile. "My life has not been simple. Or easy."

I remembered some of the things she'd told me. I'd tried to dive into her history after our first meeting, and to put it all in context. But there was so much of it! I could spend the next year learning about World War II. And the Beat movement. Civil Rights. Vietnam protests. The AIDS era. Coming of the Internet. Oversight and the independent communities. Economic collapse and Reconstitution. And her work, reflecting all of that, reflecting all those years. I'd avoided history as much as possible in school. It was a distant drumbeat that meant nothing to me.

But now here it was. Alive. Breathing. And I had to make sense out of it.

I took in a shuddering breath. "I don't know . . ."

She held up a hand. "I'm going to make coffee. Would you like a cup?"

"Tea?"

"Sorry, no."

I shook my head. She disappeared into another part of the house. I could hear a muted rustling as she moved about. Eventually the smell of coffee began to drift into the room, and I wrinkled my nose. Just another example of the chasm that separated us.

My life seemed so small, so meaningless. Even swimming in an immersion tank like my parents seemed a more exotic upbringing. At least they could say they were two of the last of their kind. They'd met in VR and had been married before they'd even come out of the tanks. They were born full-formed into the world. I could imagine them blinking in the harsh light of day for the first time. I had imagined it many times. But I was part of the new old wave. I'd spent most of my time at home with my mother and father. The ancient prototype. Nuclear family. Created by a chance combination of genes with none of the trickery of the geneticists. I was a blank slate. Mina would be better-served by someone with her level of experience. Someone who could understand at least a portion of her grand life.

Yes, but nobody her age worked at Clariti. Nobody her age became an Editor.

How could I do it? How could I take the chance? The most daring thing I had done to date was being inducted into Clariti. And what a perfect excuse that was. My parents loved that I was helping people, real people with real problems. And I loved to dive into the depths of their minds. The ultimate VR.

When she came back into the room, green icons flashed in the corner of my airscreens. Her connection was complete.

"We're ready," I said.

"Can I?" she asked, raising the coffee cup.

"It won't affect the Viewing."

"Wait!"

"Why?"

"What's your name again?"

"Gillam Anderson."

She gave me a too-big smile. "Anderson. That's right. Normal name."

"That's right," I said.

She nodded and sipped. I toggled into immersive mode and fell out of the world.


My God.

Her mind, spread before me.

Howling like a thousand symphonies. Not constellations, but star-clusters, burning in bright colors, visible and invisible, infrared and ultraviolet and radioactive. Bright and dense, like the deadly center of the galaxy. Green stars blazed from yellow mist that was almost as bright as the stars themselves. Red and purple and white mixed in a haze of snow.

Every star a memory. Every cluster an important node of being.

Their noise was an atonal rage. There was no purity, no thread of frequency or melody or beat. Nothing to guide me. A million synthesized instruments set on random.

Every note an imprint. Every frequency a channel worn deep in the mind.

The Goal: Cut the fog. Reduce the mist. Sharpen the contrast. Tighten the threads of being. The words of Clariti came back to me.

But the fog was thick. The mist was made of stars. There were too many individual points.

In extreme cases, pruning of dark memories may be necessary.

I fought the urge to laugh. There were no dark memories here. They all burned bright with extreme importance. Which ones to prune?

I looked up at the universe of her mind. Had I actually told her it looked like the stars at night? Even if every city light were extinguished, even if the atmosphere were stripped away, even if our eyes were made a thousand times more sensitive, we could not see a universe this grand. This was beyond measure.

How can I shape this?

I picked one of the greatest clusters, shining yellow in the memory of defeat. Toggled the interViewer on. Activated Insight. And dove into . . .

Sepia-toned clapboard house. No. That was the color. Inside yellow-white, stained from smoking. Her mother hiding behind a spindly antique table. A man, lunging at her. Low view. Through bars. In jail?

No, a crib, Insight supplied. That is her mother. That is her father.

I don't understand. She doesn't remember this.

She was an infant.

Why does it burn so brightly?

Because it has shaped her. It is connected.

I followed the connection. Something from our century. I recognized the Oversight pins on the old-style suits. A dinner. A view of a thousand tiny faces, looking up at her. Overlay of feral hunger. Applause. A feeling of giddiness, as if released from bonds. A feeling of seeing bars coming together around her.

Rejuvenation, Insight told me.

Zoom out. Into another point.

Standing in front of a blank canvas, brush in hand. The paint has congealed on the brush. She is crying.

Out. In.

Running from a man in a slippery dark alley.

Out. In.

Shouting at her mother in an old-fashioned store.

Out.

No. None of these are connected! It's all confused!

There is an underlying pattern, Insight said.

Show me, then!

That is beyond my capabilities. It is for you to perceive.

Out farther. The universe of her mind, howling at me. The pressure of its light and sound driving me away.

Out.

Farther. The colors became a single sheet of whiteness.

I can't do this!

Out! Out! Out!

I struggled up out of full immersion.

Mina was sitting there, still looking at me with an expression of faint curiosity. How long had I been immersed? Not long, surely.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Nothing," I said, standing up. I had to hold onto the chair to steady myself.

"You're ill."

"No."

"Is it me?"

I struggled towards the door.

"No," I said.

I didn't care if the autorunner was there or not. I would walk down the hills into Los Angeles myself, just like the old days.

"What's wrong?"

I reached the door. Opened it. Stepped through. "Nothing," I said.

I tried to stop the tears all the way down the hill. I couldn't.


At Clariti, one of the First Lessons was being taught. I stopped at a railing and looked out over the inductees. Poonam was teaching that night, a tiny thin rail of a woman. She spoke softly so that a hush would fall over the room, the students hardly daring to breathe lest they miss her words. Their airscreens and enhancements had been stripped from them, their headwires scrambled, and they sat naked and unconnected and alone. They would go up to their tiny cubicles that evening and struggle with memory, trying to piece together what she had said.

". . . a mind today is a cooperative effort," she was saying. "Sorting the layers of age and experience is a task far beyond what we had ever imagined. We drift by 80. We become indecisive at 100. We're cross-purposed and mindlocked by 120. And we do not yet know the end of rejuvenation.

"You will help shape a mind into something that is clear, focused, and precise, while retaining all the depth and wisdom of age. You will cut through the fog and mist and create things of great beauty. You will be allowed access to the most intimate of places. . . ."

I remembered when I had sat there myself among twenty-three other inductees. Three of us had dropped out the next day. Seventeen more had fallen away over the course of the next year.

"Gillam remembers his past," said a voice behind me. Jill.

I turned. She was wearing the grey coveralls of an inductee herself. To remind her that she was still a work in progress, I remembered. Her eyes were intense and unfocused, as unreadable as Mina's had been. And in that familiar look, I suddenly realized:

"You're as old as she is."

She laughed. "No. I'm off by a couple of decades."

"You've been Edited."

"I'm the ultimate success story," she said softly.

"What does that mean?"

She gestured around at Clariti's halls. "How could I have created all this without being Edited?"

"I don't understand."

"Yes, you do."

I shook my head. I knew about the early days of Editing. I knew about self-Edits and auto-Edits and the drooling introverted failures they had created. I knew that Clariti was one of the first orders of Editors, and that their ideas had been widely copied.

"I can't do it," I told her.

"Mina can't paint, you know."

"I guessed as much."

A funny sidewise glance. "You would." She powered up her airscreens and nodded to me. "Recognize this?"

An image had appeared in my peripherals. I blinked it to life. Song of the Blades. Yes, of course. The first Expression Synthesis art. It jaggled at me, haunting all my channels. A distant memory from some art class online, Mona Lisa and television and Immersa and ES and all that. ES was the first big thing of this century, way back in the '20s.

"But that's not hers."

"Something she did under a pseudonym and abandoned."

"Mina did this?"

"That is not all she did."

Another image, very similar to what I had seen in her home. Terrible splashes of amber and yellow on a brown background, like a mob running from the mouth of hell. "Detail in Abstraction. 1970s. ES was not her first movement."

I toggled my airscreens for a quick search of Mina Best and all her pseudonymous art. The small repertoire of her work swelled, connections forming between them . . .

. . . like the connections between the constellations of her mind . . .

When I had it include her entire portfolio based on inferred style, the links grew even more. Mina was at the center of at least three major art movements, one in this century and two before.

A great weight seemed to fall on me. What if I had done the Editing? What if I had destroyed her mind? She might live for centuries. Hers was a soul that could resonate down the strings of time! My stomach clenched.

"Why didn't she take the credit?" I asked, but even before I had finished the question I knew the answer. Because she was not about success. She was the anti-success. She could not see herself as a success.

Oversight had not chosen her at random. It was not winning the lottery.

Jill said nothing. A faint smile.

"How can you know someone who doesn't tell the truth?"

Jill shrugged. "That in itself is knowing them."

"It's not enough!"

Another thin smile. "Only you would believe that. Everyone else would ask her a few questions and charge in."

"That's not what Clariti teaches!"

"It's the reality." Jill came closer to me. "Our First Rule and Second Rule are what we want to be. But we're human. We can never know the totality of someone. It may not even be in their best interest to know them that intimately."

"I . . ."

Jill came even closer and touched my face, lightly, almost like a lover. "Sometimes I think you're the only one who believes the Rules. Which is why I chose you to Edit Mina."

"I can't do it!"

"You can."

I shook my head and backed away from her touch. "Give me something easy," I said. "Like the simulations. Send someone else out to Mina. I can't do this. Not now. Maybe not ever."

She looked at me, unreadable again. "It is your one great failing," she said.

I turned and fled down the hallway, eager for the comfort of my tiny and windowless room.


Read part 2 here.

 

Copyright © 2004 Jason Stoddard

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Jason Stoddard's day job involves The Writing Which Must Be Obeyed (advertising). He's a recent winner of the Writers of the Future Contest and his work has appeared in Far Sector, Fiction Inferno, and Another Realm. He lives with his wife and twelve children-surrogates (five turtles, seven cars) in California. For more on his work, see his website.