By Jason Stoddard

Part 1 of 2

"Nobody to celebrate with?"

I shook my head.

"I know how you feel."

"Go away."

"You feel like a man from the dawn of the communications age, holding a dead cell phone."

That didn't sound Edited. I looked up.

In the darkness of the little rooftop Mexican restaurant, a study in warm-lit charcoal curves: a round-faced little man with plump upturned lips, like some ancient half-forgotten religious icon. I waited for my airscreens to divine the man's identity, but of course there was nothing. I had no connection. No money to waste on one.

"Who are you?" I said.

The thick lips crinkled into a smile. The stranger pulled out a chair and took a seat beside me. His eyes sparkled yellow with reflected candlelight and blue with dancing airscreen data. He held out a hand.

"My name is Timoteo Fernandez."

I shook my head. It meant nothing.

"Just a fellow fan, here to see the El Dorado on its way."

"I'm not a fan."

A laugh. "You came here for the food, then."

"It's cheap." Was he trying to pick me up?

"I'm not trying to pick you up."

I stared at him. "How did you . . ."

"Inference algorithms get you a long way."

A new trick. One I'd missed.

"You've missed a lot, Gillam."

"Stop that!"

Timoteo held up a hand. "Wait. El Dorado's in final countdown."

A little thrill passed among the couples and groups sitting at the other tables. Bent-over whispers, a subtle craning to see the sky to the south. The crowd underneath the bar's canopy filtered out to stand on the southern balcony, carrying margaritas and shots drawn in dark flashes of starlight.

Whispers wound down to soft breathing. Transformed into breath-held excitement. I imagined numbers counting down in my airscreens. I wondered when they would reach zero.

"Now," Timoteo said.

A brilliant blue star bloomed in the south.

For a moment, nothing in the restaurant moved. Even the waiters were frozen in place, looking at the dazzling new beacon in the heavens.

What were they feeling? What their Edits told them to feel, or was this big enough to cut through and touch their real emotions, their actual minds?

The star flared even brighter. Hands rose to block the brilliance. I skated it around the edges of my eyes as long as I dared, then looked down. Yellow afterimages danced on my retinas.

Slowly, conversations started again:

"That was real!"

"Nothing like reality to season the best memes."

"My Editor said I needed to have more experiences."

And in that moment, I could see their minds, remade into an Editor's idea of perfection. They acted as if for some ancient movie. Every move scripted. Every expression mapped. Every laugh faintly familiar. Because the modern mind was a collaborative act. Strengthen the positive experience, eliminate the negative, install designer memes and overlays to order. I wondered if they were Gehs or Ozakis or just automated ripoffs.

"What's wrong, Gillam?" Timoteo said.

I looked at him. His bright, mobile eyes. Moving in tiny, unpredictable motions.

"You aren't Edited," I said.

Timoteo smiled. "You're as perceptive as ever."

"Why aren't you Edited?"

"I've done well enough without Edits."

"Thank you," I said.

Timoteo nodded, but said nothing for a long time. When he spoke, his voice was low and serious.

"Gillam, you're the world's greatest living Editor."

"I didn't know there were dead ones," I said.

But with the flippancy, a bright coal of pride sparked to life. Because I had done things that everyone said were impossible. Even if I had lost everything.

Timoteo, watching me.

"You know I just got out of jail," I said.

"I want to make you an offer."

"You want me to Weave someone back together?"

"No. Just fix a simple botched Edit."

"Why me?"

"I just told you."

I drummed fingers on the cold tabletop and looked back up at El Dorado. It felt like a big piece of myself was flying away.

I thought of the Rules I had learned, so many years ago at Clariti. Back when Editing still had rules. Do not rush in. Learn the totality of the person. I thought of my Three Criteria for taking an Editing job. I thought of just saying no. I thought of Timoteo's money.

"What do you want me to do?" I asked.

We floated in Timoteo's autojet above a beautiful polychrome campus set high in the hills above the San Fernando Valley. Brilliant lights sparked scintillant rainbows from equation-perfect arcs and pillars. A holobanner circled the campus, lighting the night with a soft orange glow.


"You work for the personality simulators?" I asked. Virtual simulations of relatives long-passed or too stubborn to be rejuvenated. Gibbering things with no life in them.

"I'm the CEO."

"You do well," I said.

"We do," Timoteo said.

"I should have asked for more money."

"You should have."

We landed outside one of the smaller buildings. A discreet sign labeled it as ARCADIA INTERFACE STUDIES. Inside, it was a warren of shining tiled hallways hung with moving-ink art from the 2020s and Kore Virtuality ads from the 2050s. Long glass windows looked into gleaming white rooms filled with elegant and incomprehensible equipment. We passed one room filled with rows of white ovoid Infinitee shells.

Life support for losing yourself in Arcadia, I thought, shivering, remembering the years I'd spent in the near-infinite virtuality.

"Why do you need so many shells?"

"Our initiatives can involve large teams in deep Arcadia travel."

"Do you have a team in Arcadia now?"

"Only a few researchers."

We ended up in a small, comfortable room in the Immersion Recovery wing. A pretty brunette woman lay on a hospital-style bed. Her wrists and ankles were bound by polymer straps. Strands of gray weaved through her hair, reminding me of my own.

You're almost fifty, Gillam. Hard to believe.

She opened her eyes and looked up at us. Bright blue. Trembling with fear. 

"Hello," I said.

No response. Frightened eyes tracking.

"What happened?"

Something like a moan. She looked away and struggled against her straps, as if we were monsters.

Timoteo handed me a Crown. "Why don't you drop in and find out?"

This was wrong. She was terrified. I should know more. I shouldn't be doing this.

"What do you want me to do?"

"Make her what she was."

But I don't know what she was, I thought. I'm not ready to do this. I'm rushing in. I don't know enough.

But what was the choice? The grinding labor of a public poorhouse, or swallowing your pride to join the ranks of modern Editors, installing the latest designer memes and personas in people who had forgotten who they were?

"What's her name?"

"Meeri. Meeri Korpel."

I took the Crown and slipped it on.

Oh, the beauty of a mind!

I'd forgotten how dazzling it was.

Like a constellation, burning with the light of a million brightly-colored suns. Like an abstract sculpture done in sapphires, rubies, amethysts, emeralds, yellow diamonds set against perfect black velvet. Like the stunning expanse of a city, set against darkest night. Singing to me in a million voices, a symphony of unnamed instruments.

Meeri's mind was thick. Too dense for someone who was not yet fifty. Too strange for someone who had been rejuved but not yet Edited. Memories packed close and firm, chained in almost-random structures, like clusters of tiny pearls. The yellow of defeat pushed tight against the red of anger. The green of drive and white of epiphany interwoven.

There were too many memories. Too many strong connections. I had never seen anything like it, not even in 163-year-old Mina Best. My first Edit, and still my most famous.

I activated the interViewer and Insight and dove into bright memories.

The first: a glimpse of Clariti, back in the days when they were the only Editing firm. Ghostly figures dancing in the big earthquake-twisted mess hall. Back in the days when I was there.

Was one of them me?

Meeri Korpel attended Clariti shortly after you, Insight said. Her graduation and acceptance into the ranks of full-time Clariti Editors occurred after yours.

The second: a big man set against a picture-perfect Caribbean sunset, waving and shouting at a silvery waiter-robot.

Her husband, Insight said. Since divorced.

The third: perfect blue Arcadian sky, rolling green hills, great granite peaks rising in the background. A small wooden town crouched on the grassland, near a rapidly moving stream.

Arcadia, entrypoint unknown.

The fourth. Watching a stunningly beautiful woman commit hara-kiri, smiling as the blood fell from her parted lips. She wore a Crown.

Experiential Editing art, Insight said. This woman was an early practitioner. This memory strongly linked with failure. Sets a turningpoint.

The fifth, flying above a land that looked very much like Arcadia. Deep blue lakes nestled in tall granite valleys. Snowcapped peaks rising above. The sound of the wind rushing past.

But that wasn't possible. You couldn't fly in Arcadia.

Unknown setting, Insight said.

The sixth: a beautiful white-clad woman floating over the ruins of a stone circle, lit by Arcadian moonlight.

Anna, I thought. The mythical creator of Arcadia.

Unknown setting, Insight said.

Is this a real memory? I asked.

It has no hallmarks of synthetic, Insight said. Weighting of connection to other memories is heavily skewed. Suggest time-scaled light-fan view.

I pulled out of the memory and toggled to the time-fan view of Meeri's memories. And saw it.

Something had reached through her memories, sending tendrils of thought from deep in her past to her present. As if another mind had tried to force itself into hers. It had woven its own pattern, created its own connections.

Was this what my mind had looked like with Paolo Tikaram's Weave installed? I wondered. I remembered Weaving the model of his entire mind from fragments of his Edits and records of his life. I remembered almost losing myself to it.

I could see the pattern of the tendrils that threaded through Meeri's mind. Subtract them, and her mind was clear and beautiful, the mind of a well-accomplished woman in early middle age.

Viewed alone, the tendrils were almost frightening. Too regular to be a mind. Too consistent. Laid out in a complex twisting structure that had higher-order math as its backbone. But not the fractal and random nature of a true mind.

Is it possible to separate memories by weighting of connection? I asked Insight.

Yes, Insight said.

And that was it. All I had to do was chase the wrong-weighted memories and cull them from Meeri's mind. That would eliminate the damage.

But what were they? A mind? Some terrible experiment of Timoteo's?

It didn't matter. I was doing a job.

I spent the next seven hours reviewing the major nodes of alien memory in Meeri's mind.

They all showed Arcadia. In many of them, the POV showed impossible things, like flying. And in some of them, they showed terrifying things: Arcadian hills gone dry and dead and brown, massed storm clouds huddling close over hills choked with black thornbushes, dead towns that lay deserted and decaying.

When I was done, the constellation of Meeri's mind was simple, delicate, exquisitely threaded. It sang at me in a pure voice, edged with a knife of steel.

I could almost see the gestalt of this woman's life, just by the patterns of light and strands of connection. Dim points at the beginning of the fan. A straightforward childhood. White cluster of epiphany. Her training at Clariti. Mixed yellow and red and purple. Her early career. Blossoming into a complex string of white and green. Her growth as an Editor. Then the final bright epiphany, paired tightly with a gleaming yellow node. Mind art and the realization she had taken a wrong path. I could love her for her mind.

I blinked myself back into reality.

Meeri's eyes were closed. After such a deep Edit, she would be out for some time.

Timoteo was still sitting there. Watching me. As if he had never stopped looking at me through the entire Edit.

"That wasn't a simple Editing error," I said.

Timoteo shook his head.

"Tell me."

Timoteo's office was filled with glass cases that displayed relics from a simpler age: cellular phones, PDAs, whisperpods. He sank into a bright blue leather chair behind a big rough-hewn black granite desk. Dawn lit the panoramic windows behind him.

"I don't think we were fully human before we could communicate anytime, anywhere," Timoteo said, gesturing at his shelves of antiques.

"How's that?"

"We were like bacteria. Only able to exchange simple messages over short distances."


"I'm fascinated by the early years of the change."

"What happened to Meeri?"

Timoteo sighed. "She contacted rogue software."

"Rogue software?"

"Arcadia has become a different place while you were away, Gillam."

Meeri's memories flickered behind my eyes. The dead hills. The silent towns. There were many terrible things that crawled the net of larger Virtuality, but Arcadia had always been the refuge. Had something broken through? 

"You see." Nodding.

"Turn off that damned inference!"

A laugh. "Gillam, your face is telegraphic. I don't need inference algorithms."

"What happened?"

Timoteo offered a Crown. "It's easier to show."

I took it.

Slipped it on.


I stood underneath an Arcadian entry trilithon on top of a low hill. Dawn warmed the massive granite mountains ahead of me, painting the sky in shades of orange and gold. Brave stars still twinkled above the challenging sunrise, like the mind of a god seen in an Editing simulation. Crickets chirred in the distance, echoing from the far foothills. From somewhere there was the low sound of rushing water. Every tiny detail perfectly rendered, convincingly fractal and random. Arcadia's trademark.

But this couldn't be Arcadia.

Dead grass rustled at my feet. A chill breeze knifed my light homespun. The rolling hills were brown-gray. A dirt path led from the trilithon to a large portal-town, with ancient wooden buildings faded with years. Windows were dark and empty, and no sound of merriment came from the tavern.

Farther off, dark foothills rose above the town, covered with burned-black trees and tan thornbushes. At their tops, a bright and unnatural actinic blue light pierced the sky. It illuminated the thin and attenuated clouds above. From the peak came something that sounded like the grinding of metal on metal. Like machinery.

Machines in Arcadia?

No. It wasn't possible. The central rule of Arcadia was that none of the shortcuts of Virtuality worked. You built what you could with the native wood and stone. If you wanted to make metal, you mined it, you refined it, you smelted it. All technology had to be built from scratch. A few of the larger portal-towns had built clacking mechanical clock towers. That, as far as I knew, was the limit of Arcadian technology.

Rogue software.

Had something finally broken through to Arcadia?

"What happened?" I asked Timoteo.

"Rogue software. It calls itself the Aficionado. Lives in a big castle up in the foothills. Like it was part of some ancient game."

"I don't think a game could ever bootstrap over Arcadia's security."

"I don't know what it is. We don't know enough about it to say anything yet. Meeri got closest to it."

I saw those alien tendrils, reaching through her mind. As if another mind had forced its way into hers. I shivered.

"Can I help?" I asked.

"You've restored my Editor. That's enough."

"I want to help!"

A head-shake. "You're a restorationist. A minimalist. I don't want to understand this thing. I want to destroy it."

"Do you know how much time I've spent in Arcadia?"

A searching look. Airscreen data flickered in Timoteo's eyes.

"Do you know how important Arcadia is to me?" I asked.

Silence for a time. Then a frown. "I want this thing destroyed."

"I can do that."

I could almost see the calculations taking place behind Timoteo's eyes. The doubt. The desire to believe.

Finally, a sigh. "If you want to help, I will gladly accept."

A brief image: Gillam Anderson, savior of Arcadia. Banners flying. Parades in the rough wooden towns. Maybe a place for me to escape forever.

Of course I would help. I couldn't help but help.

I met Meeri at the Life Simulation Research canteen that evening, still bleary-eyed from sleeping the day through in a comfortable corporate apartment. Brightly-dressed LSR employees huddled over retro blonde wood tables, eyes sparkling with airscreen data.

My reactivated airscreens fed me data from her life: early training at Clariti, breaking off to join the Reformation, embracing the Autobalance Discipline and the Theory of Collaborative Personality, eventually ending in an Oregon collective that specialized in Mind Art.

"And here is the famous Gillam Anderson," Meeri said, as she walked up to the table.

I stood up, ghosts of antique politeness coming to haunt. Meeri's bright blue eyes sparkled with amusement, and she brushed a lock of dark hair away from her face.

She is charmed, the inference algorithms whispered in my earbuds. She will thank you.

"Sit, sit," Meeri said. "I'm here to thank you. I should apologize for being late."

"I was early."

Meeri offered a tight smile and sat down.

She will compliment you, the inference algorithms said.

"You know, we've always respected you."


"Radical Editors. We've always respected you minimalists. Especially you."

I allowed a smile. "I think I'm the last person who actually remembers Clariti's Rules."

Meeri smiled. "'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,'" I said.

"You didn't have to learn the totality of me," Meeri said.

"Your damage was clearly visible."

Meeri shook her head. "You don't understand how many Editors wouldn't have seen it. That's why we respect you. You can see the patterns without knowing the person."

I sat silent, remembering past failures.

Emotional state too conflicted to attribute, the inference algorithms whispered. I subvocalized them off.

"Geh sees like you, a little. You could have been bigger than Geh. You could have been the best Radical Editor in the world."

"That's not me."

"You still could be," Meeri said.

"I don't care." But visions of world-spanning empires came to mind. My own polychrome campus. My own massive granite desk.

"Yes, you do," Meeri said. "But that's okay. I think a lot of Radicals would like to have your determination."

"And you?"

Meeri paused. Looked away. "We made minds like nobody had ever seen. Perfect, fleeting, flawless, as incapable of comprehending anger or malice as we are incapable of comprehending what true altruism is. Wraiths of the forest, we called them. We imagined them breeding and creating a new race that would live in the Oregon woods, a more perfect form of humanity. But they died. They were beautiful and perfect, but they didn't understand the need to survive. And when some of the stranger work started to come in . . ." She shivered.

"I understand."

A sigh. "Maybe you do. Maybe you can look at my mind and see everything I am."

I let her sit in silence for a time. Then: "What happened in Arcadia?"

"I don't remember," Meeri said. "Not all of it. I saw the gate. The castle. The man in the blue jumpsuit. We started talking. And then . . ."

Meeri shook her head. Brilliant blue eyes quivered with unnamed emotion.

"I remember . . . little things. Like Arcadia, but maybe more like dreams. An adobe city on the slopes of a desert hill; standing on chalk-white cliffs above a stormy sea; places that could have been Arcadia, places we hadn't yet discovered. . . . I don't know. It's all confused."

I shivered.

"And fear," Meeri said. "Fear and confusion. As if I were running, searching for a place to hide. Not finding it. Running faster and faster."

"It looked like it imposed a pseudo-mind on yours," I said. "That's what it looked like, during Editing."

"It's trying to understand us."

"It's destroying Arcadia."

"Don't do it," Meeri said. "Don't go after it."

"Why not?"

"It's not just software," Meeri said, softly.

"There's nothing but software," I said. We'd had the power to simulate a mind for many years, but nothing had ever come of it. Except Anna. Except maybe Anna.

Meeri shook her head but said nothing.

I resisted the urge to turn on the inference algorithms again. Eventually, the carts came around, laden with food. Eventually, we ate.

We talked of little things. Meeri's eyes avoided mine. The beautiful food disappeared untasted.

Finally, she looked at me and said, "Look into what Timoteo has bought from you."

"What does that mean?"

"When you were in jail, Timoteo bought a lot of your assets. Specifically, your Weaving symbolism and persona-compression techniques."


Meeri shook her head. "I need to go. Thank you again, Gillam."

Inference algorithms on, I subvocalized.

"Wait," I said.

She turned. Looked at me.

She is terrified for you, they whispered. She is worried about the future. Recommend allowing her to leave.

I sighed. "Thank you, Meeri."

She smiled. I could almost believe it was genuine. Then she disappeared into the canteen's growing crowd.

I learned how to die the first day I went in.

I dove into the dead town below the foothills with another Editor and two men who worked as visigods for Life Simulation Research.

We hiked to a hand-cut rock wall of massive stone that ringed the base of the foothills. Like Mayan temples, slumbering in the jungle. But these held back only dead trees and thornbushes, not rainforest. The others laughed when I asked how the wall had been built.

They laughed harder when I saw the gleaming stainless-steel gate that opened onto a cobbled road overhung with trees. My expression must have telegraphed my dismay.

The tyranny of imagination has come to Arcadia, I thought.

I shivered. All the constraints of Arcadia were off. If the Aficionado had the power to imagine reality and make it so, it could be a god. It could do what it wanted. It could make Arcadia just like the blurry and imperfect Virtuality outside.

Our heels clicked on the cobbled street. Faint rustling noises came from the thornbushes that choked the dead forest. The others looked around uneasily, as if they knew what was coming.

Thick, powerful animals that wore the colors of wildcats exploded out of the forest. Like bears imagined by a fanciful child. Snarling mouths showed shiny white fangs that gleamed wet and sharp. Their cries were like beautiful birdcalls, amplified and redoubled.

We turned and ran.

I remember being pushed to the ground by a strong blow to the middle of my back. I remember skidding along the cobbles, banging my chin, new vistas of pain. I remember a hot puff of breath and a cry and sharp fangs closing on my neck. I remember feeling my flesh tear.

I remember screaming in the tiny white Infinitee shell.

When we were outside again, the others in the team laughed and told me that was how it usually went.

After that, I went in alone.

Read Part 2 here

Jason's day job is in advertising, but he'd much rather be writing. In addition to Strange Horizons, his work has appeared in Interzone, Writers of the Future Volume XX, Far Sector, Fiction Inferno, and Another Realm. He lives with his wife and 15 children-surrogates (eight turtles, seven cars) in California. His previous appearances in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more on his work, see his website. To contact him, send him email at jason@fictionados.com.