Unfinished

By Jason Stoddard

Part 2 of 2

Read Part 1 here

Days.

I put myself back on the roster of available Editors.

Became weeks.

Waiting, waiting. Sitting in the mess hall over a cooling bowl of soup, trying to understand some tiny part of the world Mina had lived in.

I could imagine the memory of Mina Best shrinking in my own mental universe, still burning bright orange-yellow, but fading. Becoming just another point of light in just another constellation.

Jill expected me to go back.

Eventually, I went to her office. Like every other part of Clariti's converted Westside office building, it was earthquake-gooped and still somewhat lopsided. Unlike many of the rooms, it had a single small window looking inland, over the loops and whorls that rose to the east. Jill was looking out the window when I came in, and pretended not to notice me.

"Have you sent anyone else to her?"

"Who?" she said, not turning. I imagined her wide-eyed, innocent.

"Mina Best."

"Why should you care?"

"Because I do."

Jill finally turned. "Last time I heard, fear was not an other-centered emotion."

"Have you sent anyone else?"

"Why should I tell you?"

"Damnit, Jill!"

A pause. That impenetrable look. "No."

"If I could work up to it," I said. "If I could start with simpler cases, like the simulations . . ."

"No."

"Why not?"

"Because they're a single brush stroke. She's an entire painting. To use an obvious metaphor."

"That's the problem."

A frown. "You can't master literature by studying a single letter."

"I can't do this!"

Pause. Another look.

"Fine," she said. "View all you want. But you can't Edit."


There was another catch. Jill was with me whenever I went to View. The first was a young-again man, newly out of rejuve, who wanted a mind to more closely match the youth of his body. Jill had assigned the Editing to German Esparza, and German and Jill and I were crammed into the small walk-in room.

We all went into full immersion at the same time.

A beautiful tiny universe, with polite and discrete points of light.

I looked at it for thirty seconds and knew exactly what to do. A minor demisting, tightening of the bonds between some of the yellow and orange stars, sort and order into ascending constellations. Simple. Easy. I didn't even have to know the man. He fell into too many of the standard types I'd seen in simulation.

When we came out, I tried to tell them what I'd do.

"Stop," Jill said. "No suggestions. No Editing, no input at all. Let German do it."

I watched silently as German muddled his way through a half-effective Editing. I saw so many ways to increase the contrast and tighten the bonds, but Jill was watching me intently. There was nothing I could do.

"You see?" she said softly, when it was all over.

"That was just one case."

A smile. "You think so?"

Second case was another man, an unreconstructed businessman who was losing his edge in making sharp deals. Too much reminiscence, too many sidetracks.

Another simple universe. All Drive. No wisdom. Sharply suppressed defeat gradients. A hardening of the empathic response. It would be an easy, five-minute Edit. German made it a two-hour-long ordeal, even when listening to his Insight.

Jill just looked at me. I didn't meet her gaze.

By the fifth Viewing, I thought Jill was setting me up with the most simplistic cases. But they were all so different on the outside! Actor. Businessman. Housewife. Studio executive. Interactive artist. They all shone with their own unique beauty, but compared to Mina they were almost austere.

By the tenth, I knew Jill wasn't setting me up.


I found a Mina Best retrospective in a small gallery in San Diego. Hired an autorunner myself from my small store of cash and stepped into another world. At first, the paintings were dull and impenetrable, dark unmoving things that smelled of oil and dust. The gallery was small and hot. The clientele shuffled around me, mouthing phrases that I could never pretend to understand, wearing strange tight clothes and seeming to cluster together in groups that excluded me every way I turned. The paintings became darker and more disturbing, and I wanted nothing more than to leave. But I made myself go through the exhibit again.

Back to the beginning, closest to the sunlight that filtered in from the front.

The painting had changed.

Not in any physical way. But where dark stick figures had cavorted against unnatural green flames before, a background oasis presented itself, calm and cool and perfect.

The title, Refreshment, suddenly made sense.

I stopped, open-mouthed, willing the earlier terrible scene to reappear. But no matter how I focused, no matter how I squinted, it remained out of reach.

The gallery owner (or greeter, I didn't know) noticed. She slid up next to me and said, "You see it, don't you?"

I didn't even look at her. "Yes," I said. "Yes."

"The promise in the middle of chaos. That's the center of all Best's work."

I darted a look at the second painting. Yes.

I stepped around to the third. Yes yes.

I turned to see the woman smiling at me. "So few really see," she said. "They talk and talk, but they don't see." And suddenly I was standing in the light with this perfect beautiful woman, and all the dark-clad patrons were the outcasts. In another day and time, I would have asked her out for a cup of tea, just to admire her bright green eyes and slim form. I felt buoyant and unbelievably alive.

"I do," I said, "I see."

Back at Clariti, I immersed myself in Mina Best's work. Because it was her work that mattered. Not just what she lived through. By the time I found the photo of Mina and Jill dancing together, I wasn't surprised. I had seen that face half a dozen times, smiling at me from the secret depths of Mina Best's canvases.

And by the time that Jill summoned me back to her office, I knew what she was going to ask. I even thought I knew why she was going to ask it.


The next day was foggy. The mist pressed in close on Mina's stark white house, softening its harsh edges. I shivered in the damp as I stepped out of the autorunner and made my way up the steps.

Once again, she opened the door before I had a chance to knock.

"You're back," she said.

"Yes," I said. "Remember my name?"

"No."

"Gillam Anderson."

"Ah. Yes."

"Why didn't you tell me that you and Jill were friends?"

"I. Um."

"Did Jill send me here on purpose?"

"Now?"

"No, originally."

Mina swallowed. Held up a hand. Motioned me in and made me sit.

"Jill and I have a very complex history," she said, sitting opposite me.

"I've seen her. In your work."

"We've had times when I hoped that the universe would stop and the moment would last forever. And there were times when I wanted to rip the flesh from her bones."

"And you didn't think to tell me this? You didn't rememember?"

Mina shrugged. A lopsided smile. Silence.

"Why would she send me to you?"

The smile grew. "Consider her fame if a fresh student of hers was able to save the career of one of the oldest artists in the world."

"But . . ."

Mina held up a hand. "And consider how convenient it would be if that same student ended my suffering in a most final way."

I shook my head. "She doesn't care?"

"No."

"What about me?"

A shrug. An eloquent shrug. One that said, It doesn't matter. You'll never understand. Not for another hundred years or so anyway. Not until so many experiences have piled upon each other, layered into a sedimentary sandwich, hardened and changed under pressure into something different, something terrible. On one hand, you bask in Clariti's fame for a short time. On the other, you're a failure, but that's okay, because you're young. You can start again.

To balance on a knife-edge . . . suddenly I knew the meaning of the old expression, a meaning that no amount of airscreen graphics could ever communicate.

"I won't do it."

"That's your choice."

"You don't care?"

"Yes. Very much so. I would like to have the focus to paint again. I would like to be able to remember what I did the day before, without confusing it with a day from forty years past. Or a hundred years past. But you've become . . . real for me."

"What's my name?"

"Gillam Anderson."

I sighed. Looked down at the floor. Up at the alien paintings, brooding on the stark white walls. "Can I do it?"

"I don't know."

"Then why would you let me try?"

"Because it's better than the alternative," Mina said softly.

Balancing. Knife-edge. Not a vector of healing. Not even a weapon of destruction. Less than that. I saw the universe of the mind folding up before me, darkening, fading away.

"No," I said finally. "I can't."

Mina nodded, not looking at me. "I understand," she said. "I expected you to say that. But can I show you one thing, before you go?"

"What?"

"Just a painting."

I smiled. "You can always show me that."

She led me to a room in the back of the house where a huge translucent skylight spilled the cold grey light of the day on a worktable and a curious wood frame that was covered with a cloth (easel, my airscreens supplied). The room smelled of oils and strange and complex organic molecules. The worktable was cluttered with colored powders. A boomerang-shaped piece of wood (palette) was heaped and smeared with dried paint.

Once again, I was overwhelmed by the distance that separated us. This was where she created her art. The totality of it. Just a few rude pigments, wood, and cloth. No interpretation processors or mediation engines. No nanotendril mind-direct connections. None of the tricks of Virtuality, of Arcadia. Not even any of the relatively crude techniques that enhanced the impact of the linears. Paint. Brush. Canvas.

She let me look for a time, seemingly bemused. I could almost imagine a connection between us at that moment, like she could understand, at the core of her being, what I was feeling.

"I think you may recognize this," she said, and pulled the cloth away.

My God.

Her mind, spread out on the canvas. By necessity simpler, flatter, the points larger and coarser. But the black held depths, and the depths hid even more detail, fickle and hard to discern. She'd used gloss and matte, reflection and shadow in ways that I would never have imagined possible. It was beautiful. It was enchanting. I could fall into its depths.

"How . . . ?" was all I could say.

"There are other Editing firms besides Clariti."

"You . . . oh, no, you didn't Edit yourself . . ."

"No. Only Viewed."

I looked from her to the painting. Back again. Then something about the painting caught my attention and I focused back on it.

She had Edited the painting.

Colors were subtly sharper. Groups were more intimately linked. The background noise and hash were reduced, the areas that had become complete static cleared away. I stared deep into the work, not believing what I was seeing. She had put her own suggestions into her work!

But . . . that was too close a tie between defeat and triumph. I pointed that out, touching the great rough canvas and smearing some of the still-wet paint.

"It's OK," she said.

"And this is too great a reduction in the intensity of desire," I said, pointing at another area.

She nodded.

"This could be self-reinforcing," I said, pointing at a loop.

"Yes," she said.

I could do this. I could make this work.

"Are you ready?" I asked her.

"Yes," she said softly. The expression behind the veil of her eyes might have been joy.

We went back to the other room. I planted the receptors again, and dived into the howling chaos of her mind.


Lessons came back to me. On the scales of personality, you will take care not to alter the tilt. Balance is not balance. Personality is unbalanced. It is the artful unbalancing that is key.

I cleared through the mists first. A simple contrast enhancement. A bit of work with the interViewer and Insight, a small sampling of memories to ensure that nothing important was dimmed.

The rest of the suns shone even more brightly against the dark velvet of her mind. A billion pieces of junk jewelry, thrown down on acid-etched darkness. With the contrast enhancement, the howl of her mind had taken on a more pure tone, a tone that could almost have been the deep harmonics of Drive.

Color. Green of Drive. Blue of modesty. Sprinkled with the yellows of defeat. The whites of triumph were dim and widely scattered. But it was not Mina to appreciate her triumphs. This was not a spectrum analysis. This was not curve-shaping.

Hard work with the interViewer. The dim memories shone brighter than the brightest of ten average people. Picking and choosing the ones to suppress depended on proximity to main memory-clusters and what each of the memories actually was. I sorted through a hundred, two hundred, three hundred, puzzling over the blurred images of an incomprehensible past, relying more on instinct than on analysis.

The clusters shone even brighter, more distinct against the darkening background. Good. Good. New ones appeared, previously hidden in the haze of past memories. Invisible linkages became visible. A great yellow thread wove through her mind, like the sweeping spiral arm of a galaxy. I sampled a memory from near its beginning.

Mina and Jill. Dance floor. The blurred vision of alcoholic haze. The overwhelming thrum of bass. Everything sweat and skin and movement, the higher levels disconnected from the base mind.

This appears to be incoherent, Insight said. Deletable.

But I saw the look in Mina's eyes.

No, I told it.

OK.

A sampling from another memory along the channel. The red rage, overlaying broken nails and the smell of blood. Terrible harmonics that stretched up and down the audible spectrum. Ripples that affected a thousand other memories. One to isolate and delink, but preserve.

A hundred other memories like that along the channel. I worked with each, not altering its overall spectrum or thickness, but seeking some disconnect from Drive. Drive was closely linked with her art, even though her art did not exist in any one cluster or any group of memories. It was the light-pressure of the entire universe, the tone and beat of the whole symphony. And Drive couldn't be about just her, or any other person.

How do you know? I asked myself. That's nothing that Clariti taught you.

Perhaps Clariti does not know it all, I thought.

And turned back to the grueling process of Editing.


When I came back up, the house was dark. Night had fallen, and the lights were not smart enough to turn on by themselves. My mouth was dry, and my head pounded. I felt weak and dizzy.

"Lights?" I croaked. Nothing.

"Mina?" I said. Again nothing. She was not even a charcoal outline in the darkness. Just a feeling of warmth in front of me, the almost subliminal knowledge that there was another human body in the room.

I stumbled over furniture looking for a mechanical switch. I found it near the front door and snapped it on. Warm yellow light flooded the entryway, spilling into the living area. It put Mina's face in sharp relief. Her eyes were open and bright. Her cheeks were wet with tears.

"Mina?" I asked, rushing over and kneeling in front of her.

She didn't look at me. Didn't move. Didn't respond.

Sudden visions of the worst nightmares from the early days of Editing came clawing up through my mind. The drooling idiots. The megalomaniacs. The one-dimensional fools.

No, no, no!

"Mina, please," I said, my breath catching in my throat.

Her eyes stuttered to life. She looked at me.

Really looked at me.

And for the first time, I could see what she was thinking, as if her eyes were of the clearest glass. It was wonder. It was joy. She was overwhelmed by simply sitting in her home, looking at the vague outlines in the dark. When the light had exploded onto the scene, it had been another new experience, almost indescribable in its beauty.

"Gillam," she said.

"I thought . . . I was worried. . . ."

"I don't think I'll forget your name again."

I laughed. "I'm not worried about that."

"I am." She looked around the house, as if seeing it for the first time.

"Do you know where you are?" I asked. "Did I remove too much?"

She laughed. "I'm in no danger from Alzheimer's," she said. My airscreens discreetly explained what she meant. "I feel wonderful."

"Do you think you can paint?"

"Give me a big enough canvas," she said. "I'll paint the world."

Was she too positive? Had I tilted the scale of her personality?

No. You would be giddy, too. I thought. Consider the before and after.

Before. After. The painting.

I stood up and went back to her studio, without even asking. I heard her padding along behind me. I could almost imagine her bemused grin as I scrabbled for the light-switch and turned it on.

The painting had changed.

It had lost its depth. Where there were once infinite depths, flat splotches of color lay on a charcoal-gray muddle. Shades that had leapt off the canvas had faded and dulled. The nodes and clusters were inaccurate sketches, not even approximations. There was no way a painting could represent the complexity of even a simple mind.

"It was different," I said. "The painting . . . it had more detail. You painted in the Edits. What happened?"

Mina smiled. "You saw what you wanted to see."

"No," I said. It wasn't possible. It couldn't change that much. It couldn't. She'd switched the painting on me.

"Your mind plays tricks on you," she said. "Trust me."

"I don't believe it," I said.

"You're tired. The light's different. Believe it."

I walked up to the painting. Touched it. It was a rough, artless thing now.

"It was my guide," I said.

She shook her head. A small sad smile.

"It had Edits in it! You painted in Edits!"

"Gillam, I don't even know what the colors mean."

"But you agreed! I said that it was too great a cut in desire. . . ."

But she hadn't agreed with me, had she? Not really.

"It was what you needed to see."

I gripped the edge of the worktable. So I had just Edited one of the world's most influential artists, guided only by my imagination?

Perhaps you can do it. Perhaps you have more talent than you think.

No.

Perhaps your great weakness isn't your honesty. Perhaps your great weakness is giving up before you've tried. Perhaps your greatest weakness is simple fear.

No!

"I have to go," I said.

I stumbled through the house, not waiting for Mina to follow. When I opened the front door, though, she put a hand on my shoulder. I turned and she hugged me tightly. It was like being embraced by a bundle of sticks.

"You can stay," she said.

"No," I said. "I have too many things to figure out."

A look from her. Not disappointment. Acceptance.

She sighed. "Wait."

I said nothing. Did nothing. Just stood there. She watched me for a moment to see if I would leave, then disappeared into the house. When she returned, she was carrying the painting.

"No," I said.

"Yes," she said.

And she was right, I thought, looking at the flat thing again. Maybe I did need this to remind me. Maybe I did need something that didn't move, didn't dance, that just sat there looking back at me, imperturbable. Almost a challenge.

I turned to leave. Then I turned back.

"What was she?" I asked. "Jill. Before Clariti?"

"She was a musician," Mina said. "Aya's Words. Rock."

I shook my head.

"Before your time," Mina said, and laughed.

"What happened? Why did she change?"

"She discovered Editing."

"And took it too far? Changed her pattern?"

"She Edited herself."

I winced. The self-reinforcing spirals, the overwhelming desire to change and change and change . . . it never ended well.

Mina nodded. "Yes. All in all, she's one of the luckier ones."

But what is she? I wondered. What is she, really?

I took the canvas with numb fingers and stepped out the door. It swung shut behind me with a soft and final thud.


I spent enough time at Clariti to clean out my little cell. It was dark and quiet. Classes had ended. The big mess hall was empty and echoing. The few people in the hall walked by me without seeing, their eyes masked by the dance of airscreen data.

I didn't see Jill, and that was okay. Because at that moment, I didn't know if I could face her. I didn't know if I could face her, ever again.

I called an autorunner and went outside to wait for it. The mist had burned off, and a thin crescent moon shone down on me. It was simple and real and good. I knew where I was going. To a small town up the coast. One of the few places my parents had been able to afford to go. A place away from the hustle of the city and the ant-farm that was Clariti. A place that was quiet. A place, perhaps, where I could begin to be me.

 

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.