Source Decay

By Charlie Jane Anders

Jeremy should have known there was something going on with Tara, when she tried so hard to avoid looking at him that she spilled mochaccino on his pants. She was wearing her shiny purple Superstar sweater which she only wore when she thought she could get on television, and the leggings the topless American Apparel girl wore on the billboard. The whole time while they were meeting for coffee, Jeremy tried to talk about his new research project on bird migration, and blonde, freckled Tara kept making faces and asking loaded questions about what Jeremy was really doing with his afternoons. Where were those birds really flying to? Did those birds have a secret destination?

By the time he finished his ginseng latte, Jeremy reached a decision: he was going to have to phase out the "with benefits" portion of his "friends with benefits" relationship with Tara.

The tricky part was how to let Tara know that her benefits had expired—it's not something Hallmark makes a card for, and Jeremy really did want to stay friends with her. This was the sort of ticklish social situation that Jeremy would usually ask his girlfriend Roberta about, but Roberta did not technically know about Tara's benefits—well, she didn't know at all, in fact—so Jeremy was going to have to settle for withholding benefits from Tara, until she figured it out on her own.

Jeremy pretended in his own head that he'd talked this out with Roberta, and she'd given him good advice. Since he couldn't come out and thank Roberta for advice she'd only given in his mind, he settled for showing more affection than usual: kissing her wide, pale face, once under each eye, on the balcony of their second-floor apartment, and smoothing out her red-highlighted black hair with both hands. After he let go of her head, he noticed a man across the street, pointing a video camera in their general direction. Which was weird.

And then Tara called up Jeremy in the middle of dinner and wanted him to say he still cared about her. Her voice sounded stagey, as if this were one of her spoken-word performances. For some values of "care," Jeremy did really care about her, so he said yes.

The next day on his way to work, Jeremy noticed a car driving three cars behind his, and once or twice he thought he saw the previous day's camera-man standing in the parking lot near his work, observing him.

Jeremy took Roberta to dinner at a nice restaurant, with outdoor seating and heatlamps, and bought her a bottle of fizzy wine the color of blood in water. He still wanted to thank her for the advice she hadn't given him, and also he felt sort of guilty for providing those benefits to Tara in the first place, although he doubted Roberta would mind, since Roberta had long since discontinued her own benefits with Jeremy. They were just toasting with the fancy wine, when the man with the camera came running over to their table.

The camera-man wore a parka, and he had a whole crew and a middle-aged man in a cheap suit with him. And Tara was running behind them, crying and smiling. She wore her "getting on television" jumper again.

"How could you?" Tara screamed when she reached their table. "How could you run around with her? In public? And she's my best friend!" Roberta was not Tara's best friend, although they had taken a pottery class together, years ago.

The man in the cheap suit strode up to their table. "I'm George Giordano, from the TV show Infidelity Squad. How do you feel about the fact that you're ruining this lovely lady's life? Does your conscience ever bother you?" He turned to Roberta: "You know that Tara is Jeremy's girlfriend. They're planning their wedding. How can you do this to your best friend? Don't you feel you owe her an apology? What makes you think you can play games with her emotions like this?"

"Yeah!" Tara shrieked. "Playing games! With my emotions!"

Jeremy and Roberta got up and walked away from the restaurant, without paying their bill, but George Giordano and Tara followed them the whole way back to their car.

Jeremy almost tried to explain that he wasn't cheating on Tara with Roberta—in fact, it was the other way around—but he decided that would probably make things worse. And in any case, George and the camera crew were mostly interested in talking to Roberta, because they liked the "sleeping with her best friend's guy" angle.

By the time that episode of Infidelity Squad aired, Jeremy and Tara had moved in together, and Roberta was no longer talking to either of them. Nobody had ever fussed over Jeremy the way Tara had—on television, no less—and he decided he liked having her fight for his love. It made him feel like a prize. Tara and Jeremy sat on their new sofa, holding hands, watching the detective watching Jeremy—whose carefully touseled sandy hair looked great in both regular and infragreen video. Later, Tara and Jeremy appeared on a follow-up episode of Infidelity Squad together, talking about how they'd patched up their relationship.


Five hundred years later, Zalathy Bascot watched the original Tara-and-Jeremy episode of Infidelity Squad for the tenth or eleventh time, chewing her left middle thumb. She straddled her U-chair and leaned over the photon hole, as the "Infidelity Squad" logo whirled into focus. An announcer said, "Infidelity Squad is a tribute to the faithful and a scourge to the duplicitous. If you suspect your loved one is sowing seeds in a foreign orchard, call our toll-free number and Infidelity Squad's licensed investigators will establish the truth."

In the episode showing on the photon hole:

Tara talks about her fiancé Jeremy, who seems to be slipping away. And then the Infidelity Squad is on the case! Investigators start following Jeremy, aka the Suspect, around, and observing that he is seen in the company of Roberta, aka the Companion. They are observed, consuming Libations together. Watching the surveillance footage on camera, Tara is horrified and elated.

Zalathy paused the playback and pressed all six of her thumbs together. "Okay sure. It's compelling stuff, granted. But it's an age-old story, one we already have in multiple other formats. There are plays. There are poems. It's even in the Bible and other sacred texts, the story of the unfaithful husband. That fragment of I Love Lucy, on the other hand  . . ." Her lipless mouth knitted shut.

Her boss, Zorro Hey, pointed at the look of misery and excitement on Tara's face. "But Tara and the Infidelity Squad—it's just so vivid," he said. "I mean, sure, it's a classic story, it's as old as monogamy. But don't think about the story, think about the format. This is the most quintessentially television piece of television you could find. If we're looking for something to represent the format, this is perfect—it's an artifact of the relatively new technology of portable video recording, and the obsession with surveillance. For the first time ever, humans could expose their personal lives in a mass medium. There's nothing between us and what Tara is feeling—it's completely truthful, totally immediate. And it still speaks to us, hundreds of years later."

Zalathy spread out the video nubs on her countertop once again. These were the choices: that episode of Infidelity Squad, about twenty minutes of I Love Lucy, two thirds of a Star Trek: Voyager episode, an entire Mad About You, a couple of game shows, a political talk show from 2147, an interactive murder mystery from the 2160s, and a few collections of unrelated clips. She would have pushed for the Star Trek, except it cut out just as Captain Janeway was about to make a pivotal decision.

"I would argue that romantic comedy is the crucial distinction of television," Zalathy said after pondering a moment longer. "It existed before television, sure, but not in the form of a romance about a couple's ongoing relationship. One that develops week after week. And look at I Love Lucy: it's amazingly metatextual. It's a television show about a woman who wants to get on television. How can that not be the most emblematic representation of the medium?"

"Lucy is great, and I'll be sad to lose her." Zorro nodded, then shook his head, his hair responding to the extra kinetic energy by glowing a gentle mauve. "But really! Does Lucy love Ricky as much as Tara loves Jeremy? Plus Lucy spies on Ricky, I will grant that—but she doesn't place Ricky under round-the-clock video surveillance. Tara is the ultimate television hero. We'll be celebrating her forever."

Zalathy said nothing to that—Zorro was the boss, after all. She almost pointed out that the whole "cheating" motif felt weirdly retrograde, since society was on the verge of solving the monogamy issue any day now, using limbic encryption and isomorphic hormones. But there was no point in arguing with Zorro once he made a decision, so she slunk back to her bedchamber on the orbital sloop and stared out at the nearest space elevator stretching down to the Earth's crimson surface below, until she dozed off in her slammock.

And that's how the Tara episode of Infidelity Squad came to be the last remaining piece of television, preserved for future generations in the Museum Of All Media, orbiting the equator.


Twenty years later, a third of the girls—and a tenth of the boys—born in one particular year were named Tara. The Zenratha Mega Drama Conglomerate Partnership commissioned a 72-hour elevator installation about the Tara-and-Jeremy saga, with popular elevator starlet Mitzi Glorious playing Tara. Sure, you'd only have time to watch twenty or so hours during each elevator ride, but since most people spent half their lives on the space elevators (going on salvage or reclamation missions down to Earth), you'd probably get to see the whole thing within a couple weeks. The miniseries invented many details about the childhoods and families of the three main characters, and fleshed out the supporting cast, including the waiter who served Roberta and Jeremy that fateful bottle of pink fizz.

Licensing and franchising requirements meant different elevators had different versions—if you rode the Africa Express, you'd see a version where Roberta turned out to be an android who'd installed bootleg limbic code on Jeremy to try and win him away from the faithful Tara. If you took the elevator down to Antarctica, you saw a version where Tara and Roberta both killed themselves simultaneously, to prove they each loved Jeremy more. In the Samarkind version, Tara injected herself and Jeremy with isomorphic hormones and they both died of endocrine failure. Frequently, George Giordano was a ghost, who haunted the adulterous.


Seven hundred-odd years after Tara first phoned the Infidelity Squad hotline, her episode of the show had gone through a dozen different digital formats, including DVD, photon hole, brain overlay, full haptic, FrosTfloss, and Retro-Retina[cm]. The Museum Of All Media closed for repairs, then fell out of orbit altogether in what turned out to be an insurance scam. The Infidelity Squad episode didn't quite make the transition to the next-wave video format, and a couple decades later, someone noticed it no longer existed. People still had a thirty-second clip of Tara saying "Playing games! With my emotions!" included as part of a longer feature about romance throughout the ages, along with a few clips from Desperately Seeking Susan and Oh No You Didn't IV, the only two romance movies still extant.

Nobody was interested in watching the actual Tara/Jeremy/Roberta episode by then anyway—the seventy-two-hour miniseries had been remade as a fully immersive life syllabus, in which you could spend hours (or days, or weeks) living as Tara, Jeremy, or Roberta, with all their life memories and kinesthetic senses implanted into you. People frequently forgot their real names and identities, after a few days as Tara—or as Roberta the Raven-Haired Temptress, who'd gained her own cult following.

By now, the Earth's surface was habitable once again, with only a few hundred modifications to your respiratory system, eyes, and skin required. For a few years, the island once known as Cuba was converted into a Tara-vs-Roberta theme park, with pink fizz fountains—nobody knew what the actual pink fizz had tasted like, so this stuff was grapefruit-ish, laced with a neurotoxin akin to raw opium. (There were no longer grapes, or grapefruits for that matter, by now.) Every hour, on the hour, giant robot versions of Tara and Roberta battled around a Jeremy-shaped water spout.


The story of Tara and Jeremy became a super-popular metapoem (a poem with elements of opera, video games, neuro-Bollywood, and vibro-blog included) called "Playing Games." In this version, Tara was an Ortho, who refused to get all the filters and skin-upgrades required to live on Earth. She preferred to keep her pure, traditional, human shape; appendage-wise, Tara had only the three hands, two legs, and one prehensile tail. Roberta, meanwhile, was fully upgraded, with seven modular limb-sockets, the full Earth-survival suite, and a few extra sensory organs—including the one which let you smell higgs bosons, which many people believed made you a nymphomaniac.

Jeremy was an Ortho too, but life down on Earth appealed to him—all those wide open spaces. All those weather systems. All that constant gravity. As much water as you wanted—you could bathe in water!—and tons of old stuff everywhere. And there was plenty of work to do, if you didn't mind getting down in the dirt and digging for scrap. The air was still too corrosive for the really good kind of digging machines, which tended to break down too quickly. And that was good news for unskilled humans with a good work ethic. (It was the opposite of the Lunar and Martian biospheres, which had limited space, and carefully restricted immigration to a few highly skilled people.)

That slut Roberta kept sending Jeremy twallops of herself, running around a field of rocks, glimmering in the sunlight. Roberta spun around and around, and her long dark hair streamed behind her, catching the purple/green glow from the mountains and OAK trees. The Intelligent Agents, trying to Neuralize her brain, bathed her face in an unspeakable fluorescent loveliness. This particular day, she had tentacles in all seven of her modular limb-sockets, and three of the tentacles ended in human feet. She dangled those feet, with their painted toenails and toe-rings, in a stream, and leaned back with her lips parted. One tentacle brushed her face and then pushed her hair back. Watching this, Jeremy felt his serotonin firewalls crumble.

Jeremy told Tara he was leaving on a supply mission, but instead he sneaked down to Earth, and Roberta took him dancing in a geodesic sex dome, where he could safely ditch his survival gear and get swept up in her flurry of legs. She buried her face in his neck and whispered that this whole world could be his, if he'd just Convert.

The very next day, Jeremy stood in line at an Upgrade Center, his gloved hand clutched in Roberta's double-jointed pseudopod, waiting to sign up. There were half a dozen cute girls, with various configurations, including multiple heads, holding leis which they were prepared to drape over Jeremy's neck once he officially Converted. (There really was a labor shortage down there.) Jeremy was having doubts about giving up pure, honest humanity—of course—but he kept imagining running around out in the open with Roberta—or even flying, wrapped up in her embrace, since she had enough sockets to have both wings and tentacles.

Just as Jeremy reached the signup window and was getting ready to impress his hands to the upgrade agreement, a swarm of Intelligent Agents came down from the air, and formed into the massive, angry face of George Giordano. "Stop!" The floating head shouted. "We are the Intelligent Agents of love. You could gain the whole Earth for your playground, but if you lose your true love, you'll never get it back. Jeremy! How can you treat the faithful, loving Tara this way?"

Roberta sprang forward, on the four ballerina legs she'd rented for the occasion, and told the floating head of George Giordano to be on his way—Jeremy and she belonged together, and he belonged on Earth, and that was all there was to it. "If Tara wants him back, she'll have to come down here and get upgraded herself. He's never going back to Orbital 237."

"Harlot!" The head of George Giordano grew to three times its regular size, and got redder. The eyes, made up of a million glinting silver and black Agents, got bigger and buggier. The mouth opened wider and wider, until it seemed about to swallow Roberta up.

"Go ahead and try," Roberta laughed. "I have 27 different kinds of protection against Intelligent Agents, including anti-Neuralizing firewalls and—" Her boast choked off, as the giant mouth of George Giordano opened even wider, and she disappeared inside his glaring face.

While the Intelligent Agents disassembled Roberta, George Giordano looked at Jeremy (and, by extension, the reader/viewer) and explained that he was no mere swarm of Agents—he was the utter manifestation of True Love, and True Love is patient and kind—unless you commit an unforgivable falsehood, in which moment True Love becomes a Force for Vengeance and Purification that no firewall can hinder. This swarm of unstoppably deadly Agents was dedicated to those who keep their promises in love, and a scourge to those who lay in a stranger's borrowed sleepnet, for with each stolen moment the righteousness of the Swarm of Love grew ever more potent. (The speech went on for a good 15-20 minutes, but this was the gist.)

That metapoem was ultra-popular on the orbital stations and ultrasloops, but didn't make it down to Earth . . . at first, anyway.


And then one day, a Senior Fertility Architect from Earth, Winstance Meterkamp, flew up to the big Equatorial Grain Hub, on a Trade Crusade. Resplendent with his polarized feathers (which rippled as they repelled each other over and over) and slender legs attached to a dozen micro-limb sockets each, Meterkamp ignored the stares of the Orthos hunching over their AtmoGluten sandwiches and herbanogs. He was all set to spend his entire sojourn on this orbiting slum (where they grew half the food consumed on Earth) avoiding any cultural or emotional contamination . . . and then he spotted a holo-dome full of images of an unmistakably Converted woman, waving a variety of limbs at an entranced Ortho man.

"This ought to be good," Meterkamp muttered. He made a space for himself in the crowd with his wings, and soon he was so absorbed in watching this retelling of the classic tale of Tara and Roberta, he almost missed his crucial grain-supply meeting.

For the rest of his stay on the Hub, Winstance Meterkamp could feel the Orthos watching him: their curiosity, their loathing, their desire. As if he, personally, had seduced them or their loved ones, with his terrible resplendence. How dare he turn an adaptation for survival into a thing of beauty? Winstance kept forgetting words in the middle of sentences. He was not oversensitive, or especially passionate, but he felt a strange heat gather in his atavistic glands.

Ten days later, back on Earth, Winstance still brooded. He nearly sat on someone's prehensile tail/tongue during a meeting of the ruling Oligopathy. He couldn't even hear the debates, all he could do was brood, until the need to speak up felt like a sunburn a few skin-layers down.

The urge to voice his feelings overcame Winstance in the middle of a plenary session about re-liquefying the oceans, and he found himself standing up. "They hate us! The Orthos, I mean. They think we're all Robertas. They have this . . . this metapoem, based on the old legend." He explained what he'd seen, in fragments, and his voice cracked with shame. The whole Oligopathy stopped its discussions and listened to Winstance Meterkamp, even after his speech reached the 45-minute mark. At some point, Winstance realized that people were expecting him to offer something besides outrage. They wanted a plan, an idea. They wanted . . . leadership.

"We need to do more than just respect ourselves," Winstance said, groping for the next thought. "We tried self-respect, and it wasn't enough. We need a new story to replace the old one. They want us to be Roberta? We'll be Roberta. But we'll be our own Roberta. We'll make her the hero she always deserved to be."

Five years later, Winstance Meterkamp was sworn in as the first ever Global Exekutor of Earth. Enough Earth-dwellers had seen the famous metapoem by now, albeit via shitty bootlegs, that it was accepted as a major planetary insult. If anyone questioned Winstance's food-allocation policies, he'd find a way to change the subject to Roberta. Nobody wanted to be accused of softness on the Roberta/Tara issue. Winstance took to wearing sumptuous cloaks of 40-denier algae over his panoply of limbs.

"We will not be despised," Winstance Meterkamp said at his inauguration, which was timed to coincide with the global celebration of Roberta's thousandth birthday (observed). People staged psy-operas about Roberta's misunderstood passion, created life-size, living Roberta statues out of metacoral, and delivered lengthy, annotated papers about how Roberta deserved Jeremy more.

As a result, relations with the Equatorial Grain Hub deteriorated and grain shipments had slowed way down—which was one reason those food-allocation policies were becoming so important. Flying less material to and from orbit freed up resources for Meterkamp's big project: rehabilitating an old rail-gun, to aim at the Hub.

"Uh, howya. Would you mind terribly not pointing that rail-gun at us?" Gogo Fernanda, the Grain Hub's Senior Metaphysical Director asked Winstance in their first summit meeting. "It, you know, it makes us all a bit nervous up here. It's a long way down."

Gogo settled into her slapbak chair, and gazed across the drinkwell at the sheen of Meterkamp's cloak. They were on neutral ground: a sumptuous private suite on the Orbitdork.

Winstance Meterkamp still wasn't, by nature, a flamboyant man—that was the reason for the fancy cloaks—but he had learned how to turn his natural discomfort around people into a workable simulacrum of passion. And he felt seethingly uncomfortable, facing this smug Ortho woman who could still see the strange contours of his body, despite his billowing cape.

Winstance wanted to say something about bigotry, about how much his people had sacrificed to live on Earth and try to rebuild the planet, only to be repaid with loathing.

Instead, all he said was, "Roberta deserved Jeremy more. She loved Jeremy more."

"We disagree," Gogo Fernanda said after a moment's consideration. "Everybody knows that Tara was Jeremy's true enduring love, and Roberta a sly harlot. Oh, and we've developed a microwave pulse thingy, which my scientists assure me will cook your atmosphere like a mycosausage."

"You wouldn't dare," Winstance Meterkamp slapped his hand onto the drinkwell between them. "Deactivate that microwave weapon, or the next time your orbit takes you over Borneo, you'll have a nasty surprise."

"If you fire that rail-gun," Gogo Fernanda laughed, "We'll fire our microwave pulse long before it reaches us."

"We'll see about that," Winstance Meterkamp snarled, throwing his cloak around himself. "And Roberta? Roberta followed her passion. Roberta lived her life to the full, in ways you'll never understand."


Nobody had much reason to visit the shattered wreck of Earth for a thousand years after that. But one day, roughly two thousand years after Tara and Roberta had lived, someone on Mars noticed a glimmering shape on Earth, visible with even a rudimentary telescope. It occupied most of the former Belgian Empire: a crystalline tableau depicting two women locked in eternal struggle. Now that they'd inherited the planet at last, the Intelligent Agents had decided to pay tribute to the most enduring story of the culture that had spawned them. Their two mothers, immortalized in clear microsteel-reinforced plastic.


Charlie Jane Anders blogs about science fiction at io9.com. Her fiction has appeared at Tor.com and in The McSweeney's Joke Book Of Book Jokes. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series. She won the Emperor Norton Award for "extraordinary invention and creativity unhindered by the constraints of paltry reason." For more about the author, see her website. You may contact her at charlieanders2@gmail.com.