By Jason Stoddard
13 September 2004
Part 1 of 2
"I don't Edit anymore."
"You can cut too much."
"Eventually, you cut away every part of what you are."
The man on my doorstep looked away. His eyes darted over my shoulder to the top of the great iron door, stretching twenty feet above our heads, and then to the glint of the Pacific through the windows behind me. The architectural perfection of my external life.
"You've done well," he said, stepping into my house.
"You're too comfortable. That's why you don't Edit."
I just looked at him.
"Get out of my house!"
"You're not on fastforward," he said. "You aren't in the grasping times. Can't you spend a morning?"
"You did this to yourself."
He blinked at me. His eyes went cloudy and faraway. He made a tiny noise, not quite a groan or a whine, but something in-between, something that spoke of a deep war being fought. He balled his fists and closed his eyes.
"But it wasn't that way," he said. "Not . . . not entirely. Ferri . . . Ferri . . ."
"Daughter. I'm Paolo Tikaram."
Unbidden, my airscreens flickered to life and supplied details of his life. Mechanical engineer. Founded his own company. Developed some of the tech that had been used in the 21st century mediation systems. Now he was one of the consultants attached to the El Dorado, the as-yet-incomplete and 50-years-late starship that the Quiet Revolution hoped to launch.
He still meant nothing to me. The lunar colonies and Mars terraforming had never attracted my interest—dead-end projects on dead worlds. The El Dorado had a timeframe that I had trouble wrapping my mind around, even with the possibility of the Rejuve tanks.
Paolo saw this. His eyes became moist. He shuffled his feet farther into my house, as if a few more inches might mean the difference between rejection and acceptance.
"I came all the way from Los Angeles."
"Paolo, I can't . . ."
"Afelia." A whisper.
"After Afelia, I thought you would understand."
The iron weight of memory collapsed on me. For a moment, I didn't see Paolo or the geometric perfection of my house. For a moment there was nothing more than Afelia's face, on that final day. Her eyes still relatively unclouded, her mind still whole enough to summon tears.
"How . . ."
"Everyone is an open book. With enough money, you can turn it to any page you like."
"I . . . it was . . ."
"But it still hits you."
I said nothing. Nodded.
"You really don't have time for my story?"
I sighed. Shut the door behind him. "You have my morning."
"Good," Paolo said. "I don't know how much longer I can be me."
I got Paolo situated in the sun-room that overlooked the Pacific. He was wearing a flowing Geh suit of great cut and precision, but it hung like an unwanted gift on his thin frame. It was a rare bright day in early December, and the sun cast razor shadows that weren't kind to his sharp features.
Afelia. Perfect Afelia. After my early success, I had traveled, and my travels had taken me surely and easily into the arms of Afelia. I'd met her on an airship over Venice, on one of those terrible days that travelers dread, all rain and mist and landscapes painted in shades of charcoal and grey. No cheery canals reflecting bright Mediterranean sun, just a dead world of ruins standing in the dark sea, new canals being cut farther inland, where the sea had not yet reached.
I'd met her in the lounge, looking down at the ruins of old Venice. She was beautiful in an unconventional way, triangular elfin face with big, expressive eyes and a lithe body. I'd taken a table and was retreating into airscreen media when she spoke:
"It didn't have to be like this."
I looked up. Looked around. There was nobody else nearby. "What?"
"They didn't need to lose Venice."
"All the erosion, the sea . . . we could have shored it with miracle stuff."
She turned to look at me. And in that moment, I was lost. I said nothing. Neither did she.
"Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be," I said, desperate to fill the silence. "Maybe it's supposed to be lost."
"No," she said. "I'm Afelia Berweiss."
And that was the beginning of the end.
"What took you so long?" Paolo said.
I shook my head. He looked from me to the Pacific to the glass that surrounded us. A gleam came into his eyes, hard and metallic.
He's drifting, I thought.
"I remember a time in Orange . . . ," he began, in a thin, reedy voice.
"It was a woman," I said. "Ferri."
For a moment, pure rage masked his face. His hands dug into the arms of the chair. Then he was back.
"It was her idea. But I agreed to it, so it is really my fault."
Third Criterion: You must accept your own actions. Memories came back. Rejecting half a hundred people whose petty lives of deceit and crime made me ill.
Might as well check for the rest. I called up a long-forgotten construct and sent it to delve into the qualities of Paolo's life. First Criterion: You may be successful, but your success cannot be at the expense of others.
"Once you have accepted profound Editing, you are no longer yourself."
"But Editing helps!"
"When you are very old, the tree of the mind does require pruning. But altering the imbalance of personality should not be part of what an Editor does."
"People get Edited for everything!"
"What did she have you do?"
A sigh. A look of vast fatigue. "She said I was starting to lose my edge. Getting in the way on the El Dorado. Irritating the younger technicians. All the classic signs. We'd just missed our first deadline for launching, and it would take years to purge the Autarch revisions from the system, but I had to tell everyone it would happen soon, that we would launch soon. I was not a pleasant person to be around. She talked me into a rebalancing of Drive and Worth, and the installation of a minor substructure from Francis Eastman . . ."
"The stress-balancing one?"
"Yes! That one."
"That's not a minor substructure. That's a rewriting of the way you handle conflict. One that's not found in any natural mind."
"But I felt so good! It was wonderful to be able to focus, to work, to not overreact when something happened. I was able to do three times my old work and not explode."
"Not for long."
"No. I developed . . . issues."
"Conflict and sex are highly related."
"I know. But one more rebalancing, Ferri said . . ."
"And one more, and one more."
Paolo buried his face in his hands. "Yes," he said. "I whipsawed from the world's worst slave driver to a mild and ineffective manager. With quirks."
"Who's your Editing Manager?" I asked.
"I don't know," Paolo said. "I've never met him."
Genter or Indira, I thought. Maybe even Ayanami. They don't like to see what they create.
He shook his head. He looked around, eyes bright. "I brought my car!" he said. "Let's go for a ride!"
I was losing him.
"Tell me about Ferri," I said.
Snap. "Beautiful Ferri," he said, soft and dreamy. "You've seen her. You must have. Everyone has. The Perfect Life. Analysis. Life of Paul. All those."
"She's an actor?" My airscreens fed me images of her work, none of which I had seen. She was a dark-haired beauty. Unfamiliar.
"Beautiful Ferri," he said. His eyes were more clouded than before. "I have to get back to her!"
He stood up.
"Paolo," I said.
He walked towards the door.
"Stop, Paolo! It's me, Gillam Anderson!"
He kept walking.
He stopped. Turned to look at me. His face was a mask of pain and confusion. "I can't be myself," he said. "Come with me."
He resumed his walk towards the door.
Second Criterion: Editing must be a need, not just a desire.
Damn. Damn. Triple damn. I toggled the airscreens and looked at what the construct had dredged up from the depths of the planetary net. Paolo was clean. So far. As clean as one could get.
I caught him at the car. He didn't look at me as I got in the tiny bubble opposite him.
What am I doing? I wondered, as he started up and shirred down the hill to the remnants of Highway 1.
What else had I to do, anyway?
We drove in silence for a long, long time.
When we first met, Afelia didn't know who I was. Of this I'm certain. You spend enough time in the universe of someone's mind, seeing them through the interViewer, and you know.
The first weeks were perfect. We departed the airship in Edinburgh, on another gloomy day made bright by our growing passions. It was physical, and it was more. I had had my flings, but this was more than that, an intermeshing on a level above flesh, a feeling of being, for the first time, whole.
We toured England in a decrepit autorunner, lands green and emerald and timeless under skies close like blankets. From there, we went to Africa, empty and strange, filled with some of mankind's biological creations. Megalions pursued hunters clad in shining aluminum exoskeletons. Herds of tiny crawling things with too many legs ate the land bare, so others could follow and seed new orchards with biochanged droppings. Sickly yellow trees sang as they grew before our eyes, straining towards sunlight. We met some of the last remnants of the once-proud Maasai, and talked of the future in dreamy terms.
Eventually, she had to return to New York. I followed, hoping to make our days last forever. But as soon as she pushed the tiny dots of airscreens into the corners of her eyes and donned an earbud, she turned to me.
"You're . . . Mina Best . . . Franel . . . Kim Otsuko . . . you're him!"
"You never told me!"
"You never asked."
"You have to Edit me!"
"Afelia, you're not even forty."
"You don't need it. You don't even have the haze of middle age."
"But I could do so much more!" she said. She worked for Hatsumo as a conceptualist, dreaming new worlds for others to explore.
"You'll change your mind."
"No." Knowing even then it was inevitable.
It took us all day to make it down the thin ribbon that was Highway 1. The biocrete hadn't been renewed since the end of Oversight over sixty years before, and it grew patchy and rough in places. Paolo didn't help. He shifted from autodrive to manual at the worst moments—in the middle of a bridge, in the midst of a curve, down a steep grade—so that he could demonstrate just how well he could drive. But when he started claiming that he grew up driving, I had to stop him.
"Paolo, you're ninety-seven. You were born in 2021. You didn't drive."
"Yes, I did. All the time! Oldstyle cars, too . . ."
He stood on the brakes. "You know, I used to fish around here." And we were off on another back road, trying to find an imagined pier.
What did his mind look like? What names would its constellations shout down to him?
"Paolo, can you be yourself?"
Long silence. He gripped the steering wheel tightly, even though the car was autodriving.
"No," he said finally. "Too much effort."
Highway 1 became more substantial as it stretched south. Through the urban sprawl of San Francisco, it became positively shiny and perfect, with discreet little signs to name the businesses and individuals who had adopted it. It lasted until Monterey, and then became a lumpy overgrown thing again.
We ended up on a real pier in Santa Barbara. He drove the little car as close as he could, mumbling to himself. My last efforts to talk to him had been met with the same mumbling, or silence.
I followed him as he walked out onto the pier. The old wooden planks creaked under our weight. The ocean, even on this clear day, looked grey-green and cold. What if he threw himself off?
But he didn't. He came to the end and leaned on the railing, then folded gently to his knees, as if his last reserves of energy had run out.
"Paolo?" I said.
I felt for a pulse and it was there, strong and sure.
I waited for a time, hoping he would get up and go back to the car. Wondering if I should take him back and have it drive us to his home in Los Angeles.
I was still wondering when the whine of a personal autojet cut through the damp sea air and the pounding of the surf. I looked up to see a tiny one-person bubble flit past us. It landed near the car in a cloud of sand.
The hatch popped open and a woman emerged. Dressed in a tan Rexis overcoat that looked very, very expensive, wearing retro shades that probably doubled as super-efficient airscreens. She walked the short length of the pier with a cold, efficient stride. She stopped and looked at me through the glass barriers of her specs. Her face was a mask, unreadable.
"Who are you?" she said.
"A friend. He took me here and . . . now this."
She nodded. "He safehomed. What he was supposed to do."
"Supposed to do?"
"Ferri!" he said, turning and throwing himself into her arms.
And that must have been when her airscreens fed her my identity.
"You!" she said.
"Why are you with Paolo?"
"He asked for my help."
"He's under the care of Dr. Ozaki."
I groaned. One of the worst of the cult of collaborative personality. A superficialist. What do you want to be today? he asked.
"Paolo!" I said.
Mumbling from him.
"Don't talk to him! He needs Editing!"
"Paolo, talk to me! Be yourself!"
"Stop it!" She turned away.
As she turned, Paolo looked my way. And he saw me. Really saw me. It was my chance.
"Paolo, do you want my help? Tell me now!"
He looked at me an instant more, his eyes cloudy and unfocused. I thought all was lost. Then his eyes brightened. "Yes!" he said. "Help me!"
Ferri stopped walking. Turned to face me. I could see she wished me dead.
Paolo lived in the hills above West Los Angeles, on a ranch that had once been a housing tract. We drove by the empty shells of middle-class paradise from the century before last, caved-in tile roofs and old blacktop streets gone crazed and overgrown, yards host to the detritus of a century's worth of extreme flora engineering, growing wild and yellow-green even in the arid climate.
The main house was a simple geometric, built with angles slightly askew and curved eaves that broke the harsh lines in a calculated manner. Opalescent white, it shimmered in an oasis of more recognizable bioengineered ferns and palms, the new hallmark of Southern California. It was a vision of utopia in the midst of cookie-cutter chaos; I wondered if Paolo had left it that way deliberately.
Paolo's car slid into a discreet little slot in a cylindrical outlying building. Once inside the garage, I could see that Paolo could have chosen much more terrifying means of transport. Several ancient nonautomated cars squatted on the featureless white floor, some sporting chrome grins like maniacal mechanical demons.
Ferri was waiting for him at the house.
"I've called Dr. Ozaki."
"So we don't need you anymore."
"Yes, you do."
"I asked you to leave," she said. I could almost imagine the house security systems tracking me.
"Paolo," I said. "You asked for my help. Do you still want it?"
"I have a right to be here."
She frowned and said nothing.
"I need a room," I said. "Private. Away from distractions."
"What are you going to do?"
"I need a room. Now."
"Now," Paolo said.
That did it. She led me to the back of the house, where a little wood-paneled room looked out on a tranquil pond and garden. Real books lined the walls. A framed photo of Paolo on the bridge of the El Dorado had pride of place. Smaller certificates and diplomas surrounded it, like planets orbiting a sun.
"This is his study. If you . . ."
"I don't need your help anymore. Thanks."
She glared at me, but turned and left.
I got Paolo situated in a comfortable chair and sat opposite him. It took only a matter of moments for my airscreens to display his Editing protocols and interface with his systems. Of course. He would be well wired. I toggled on my headwire and dove into the chaos of his mind.
The dead universe of a conceptual linear set at the end of time itself. Layered with grey haze and gauzy connections that spread down the light cone like a deformed spiderweb, linking seemingly random memories from spans of twenty years and more. Bright, simplistic colors, like a painting made by a toddler. The yellow of failure overlaid with the red of pain, great clusters of color obscured behind a deliberate haze. Green and blue and orange taken to the front with relevance turned up to maximum, as if to drown the underlying failure.
And the sound. Not a pure tone, not a symphony, not even a badly-tuned orchestra. It was the wail of a thousand banshees, mixed with the mournful cries of wolves. I heard sadness and desperation and exhaustion and pain behind the sheer wall of sound.
This wasn't a commercial persona enhancement. Even those worked with a lighter touch than this.
I activated Insight and the interViewer, but I didn't dare activate the Editor. The moment I touched him they would declare this abomination mine and banish me from their property.
A point of brilliant blue spawned three overlaid memories—one of shopping with Ferri, one of an armored creature that probably existed only in the virtuality of Arcadia, and one of him crying silently on the edge of his bed, thinking of . . . another point of light, with memories overlaid to mush.
I cannot assemble this, Insight said.
Another point, this one the hot orange of Drive. It was linked to six discrete memories to the point where it was almost indecipherable. Kids in 2030s clothing playing under a watchful public Eye and a party where oldsters tottered on ancient exoware overlaid with a shout of surprise and backing away together with a window-view from an ancient house overlooking rolling golden California hills together with the view over a stark granite desk . . . meaningless snapshots of his life.
There is severe underlying damage.
Yes, I know.
I recommend that you do not Edit this person.
A query to the Editing logs made me gasp. I heard it as a tiny sound behind the wail of his mind. His Editing had started only two years ago. But he had been Edited so many times! Seven times in the first year. Slowly increasing over the second year, until he was being accessed virtually every week. And the sessions were long, some lasting five, six, ten hours.
He had been butchered. There was not enough of him left to Edit.
I toggled out of immersive mode and came back up to reality. Paolo sat looking at me with sad hooded eyes, tears streaming down his cheeks.
"I'm broken," he said.
"Can you fix me?"
There wasn't anything left to fix. He, in a very real sense, was not there anymore.
And yet . . . he had had the determination to drive up and see me. Something was there. If I could review his life, get to know him well enough, maybe I could do something . . .
No! Madness! You cannot know someone that well. It's impossible.
I looked at his tear-stained face. Reached out to touch his hand.
"Yes," I said. "I will."
Eventually, I took Afelia to my house on the Pacific. We dropped out of overcast skies in a two-seat autojet, and she gasped at the size and scope of my land. Inside, she immediately went to the sun-room, dancing like a giddy child, and looked out on the ocean.
"It's wonderful!" she said. "I don't ever want to leave!"
"I don't want you to leave." Softly. Seriously.
She stopped and looked at me, eyes searching. I looked back at her steadily, not willing to take it any farther. Not yet. Though the words stood on the edge of my mouth, and I imagined acceptance danced on her lips as well.
That night, our cries of passion were louder, more intense. Or so I imagined. When we were intertwined in sweaty satiety, she asked me again:
That made me pause and look at her, blue-sculpted and mysterious in the dim glow of night.
"You can make me better."
"You don't need . . ."
"It's not a matter of need," she said. "It's a matter of want."
"Afelia . . ."
But she put her hand to my mouth. "I've installed the network," she said. "I'm ready to go."
To catch a glimpse of Afelia's mind, to really see what she was made of! Just the thought of it made me shiver. We'd shared ourselves in every other way. Why not this?
To see the burning constellation of her mind! To hear the symphony of her thoughts!
A Viewing would not hurt. A Viewing was not Editing.
And yet I still stopped myself. Looked at her. Imagined our lives, stretching out like a beautiful ribbon in time. It wasn't right. There are things love shouldn't see.
But in the end, of course, I dove into the depths of her mind.
"What course of action?"
Dr. Ozaki was a tall, thin man with only the hint of an epicanthic fold. It was a familiar face, seen on many of the Collaborative Personality linears.
"I don't have to tell you."
"No. I am requesting the courtesy of a reply from a colleague."
"I don't have easy answers."
"I would still enjoy hearing them."
"Rule One," I recited. "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."
"You quote me trite rules, twenty years out of date."
"The best rules are timeless, I believe."
A pause. Ozaki paced. "So you plan to learn the totality of this man?"
"As much as I need to."
"But . . ." A pause. A widening of the eyes. He had almost admitted to the watchful house eyes that Paolo was a shell.
Ozaki turned and looked out the window at the faraway ruins. "What if at the core he is unfit?"
"I will use a few minor Edits that are appropriate to his age."
Ozaki shook his head. "What a waste."
"You've been living in your northern paradise for far too long. Look at the city, where the people are. Editing today is their foundation."
"Change is not a foundation."
"Change is part of all life."
"External change. Not self-directed change."
"We must agree to disagree," Ozaki said. "How long do you require?"
"I don't know."
"As long as it takes."
Ozaki made a disgusted noise and left the room. I sat for a while, thinking, How long does it take to recreate a man?
Research and angry looks. That was my life for the next month. Ferri shared the house with Paolo, and it was impossible not to run into her several times a day. At best, she ignored me. At worst, she called me a charlatan and demanded to see my results. And I knew that as the weeks piled on, her requests would become more like orders.
My research took me all the usual places: online, to the Found Media archives, where terabytes of dead data on Paolo Tikaram languished, awaiting the invitation to dance and gibber. There were Oversight records dating from 2027, voluntary surveillance linears thereafter, corporate promotional materials, news of his visits to El Dorado and its associated linears, long-dead records of interactives played as a child and teenager and adult, text and photos and linears on half a hundred friends and acquaintances, logs, interrogation records, even the results of some of the most rudimentary persona-mapping I'd ever seen. There were friends to interview online and in the real, relatives ranging from mother (alive) and father (simulated in Arcadia) to second and third cousins, old loves, even a few cellmates from his worst Oversight transgressions. I tried to work through the planetary net as much as possible, but took trips as far as Brazil and Vancouver and Japan to track down those friends and relatives who were more reclusive. I upgraded my construct and named him Second Anderson, after a famous interactive fifty years dead, and sent it out in proxy. I paid the spawning fees to Arcadia and had him launch a hundred instances to make the search more efficient.
The data flowed like a great wave into Arcadia. I leased more and more space, not seeing the raw numbers anymore. Second Anderson and my summarizing algorithms assured me this was well within their design specs, but I wondered about the sincerity of things. They had no gut. They couldn't know all.
As the data grew, so did my desperation. Even if the summarization worked, could I possibly understand the shorthand? Could I become the conduit to replace the whole of a man without losing myself?
I didn't know.
And every day, the data grew.
Viewing became Editing with the ease of slipping on rain-slick glass. Afelia's mind was simple and beautiful, a tiny cluster of beautiful stars with the voice of a small choir, strong and pure. I'd never spent time with a young mind. I didn't know how beautiful it could be. Embryonic, perhaps, and unformed in many ways, but its depths were black like the deepest velvet. Even the most prominent clusters were unbound by haze. The linkages between memories were simple and pure.
Insight was a revelation. She'd told me of her childhood in wild upstate New York, born to a family that met the strictest definition of traditional. Mother. Father. Both of them of the correct sex and relatively unaugmented, lacking even the permanent buds of airscreens, much less a headwire. Neither of them over forty when she was born. It was something that had strengthened our bond from the start. My simple nuclear family, bent on giving their child a real upbringing, even at the cost of experience. Hers a step back even farther, home-schooled without even the benefit of airscreens.
And yet those perfect idyllic days of her childhood were linked to failure and frustration, strongly enough to bother me every time I linked in. Every time I Viewed the constellation of her mind, that one flaw burned brighter and brighter, until it drowned out all else.
Until one time, when I toggled into the Editing suite and weakened the link. Not enough to make it disappear, but enough to dim the brightness. It was an easy thing to do. A simple thing. A painless thing.
And when she came awake and looked at me, I thought I could see the difference in her eyes.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"No! You did something! I'm free, light as a feather!" She stood up and did a little dance. Like a perfect ballerina in that one tiny moment, and I loved her all the more for it.
I just smiled.
"Do it again!" she cried.
"No," I said. But eventually I did.