Jason Fischer-Varon hated to block email from his dead husband, but he was getting over a hundred of them a day, and they were breaking his heart.
From: Ethan Varon
Subject: Margo’s pat-infringe woes
From: Ethan Varon
Subject: Chapter 27
From: Ethan Varon
Subject: Can’t find Winkelden Ook?
Ethan’s agent had said that after fifteen minutes of trial and error she’d set up a filter that trashed everything the simulated Ethans sent her. “You’re the literary executor,” she told Jason, “not them.” Of course, the way she saw it, she was just auto-deleting unauthorized business correspondence about projected royalties for the Margo books. Nothing personal.
Winkelden Ook, an alarmed-looking stuffed fox, had been Ethan’s auctorial good-luck charm. Jason had bought it at de Bijenkorf when they were in Amsterdam celebrating the sale of Ethan’s first novel twenty years ago. Ethan had considered written Dutch to be the most hilarious thing on, over, or under this Earth, and the “Beware of Pickpockets” street sign its apogee. “Zookrollers winkelden ook!” he’d say, in the flower market and in De Oude Kerk with the carving of the man shitting gold coins and on the tacky canal boat. When they got back home, Jason browsed through the vacation photos and realized they’d named the fox wrong: there was Ethan, holding his arms out in unabashed awe of a sign that clearly read Zakkenrollers Winkelen Ook. Jason had deleted the photo so as not to ruin the joke.
Now, six months after Ethan’s death, Winkelden Ook watched fearfully over an unchanged study. The cleaning service kept it dust-free. They no longer had to leave Ethan’s wastebaskets alone, of course.
Many of the Winkelden Ook queries seemed to come from simulacra in the VROOO environment. Jason had become something of an expert on simulacra in the past six months. The Virtual Room Of One’s Own was designed for spooks—simulated programmers. The VROOO door did not open, and the user (not the simulacrum) chose the view outside the window. The bookshelves were front ends for online libraries, some licensed and legal, some bootlegged, some strictly freeware (Ethan simulacra running in the freeware environments sometimes wrote to say they couldn’t find The Chicago Manual of Style, and could Jason please check downstairs?)
The VROOO environment would look nothing like Ethan’s actual study, with Winkelden Ook fretting on top of his desk. But VROOO didn’t just simulate physical characteristics—it also simulated familiarity. Ethan wouldn’t notice that anything was different. The problems only occurred when the simulated Ethan looked for something specific that wasn’t there—or when he wanted to bounce an idea off Jason, the way he used to when he was alive.
The law firm of Rawson, Wu, and Kenstowicz represented Stilum Verte, Ethan’s publishers. They were always generous about taking Jason to lunch. Ethan had made a lot of money for Stilum Verte.
“I do have some good news,” said Megan Wu. She clicked her fingernails on her fork, one of her transparently lawyerly mannerisms. “The Katami DR employee pled guilty in return for community service.”
Ethan would have corrected her, thought Jason; Ethan would have said pleaded. “And for whom is this news good?”
“It’s the best we’re going to get on that front. As far as the law’s concerned, what Koehler did is no different from stealing a manuscript. And Katami DR has agreed to settle. Part of that’s going to Stilum Verte as compensation for lost royalties, but what you’re getting should keep you comfortable for a long time.”
“I’d be comfortable even if no one ever bought a Margo Leveque book again. Justifiable Pessimism and Evident are still on the best-seller list, the Obscurity movie comes out this summer, and I’m way beyond comfortable. I’m in a near ecstasy of not giving a fuck. All I care about is shutting down those fucking sims.”
“We’ve just sent out a hundred more C&Ds. But there are thousands of mirror sites, and the harder we push, the more publicity we get and the more mirrors spring up. At this point half the software pirates simulating Ethan are doing it just to be assholes.”
“Motherfuckers,” said Jason sadly. “I hate them all.”
“You have my sympathy. You have my assistance. But there’s still one thing only you could do.”
Jason rolled the salt shaker in his hand.
“You can dry up the market,” said Megan. “Let Stilum Verte run an authorized simulacrum and produce an authorized sequel.”
Stilum Verte’s insurers had insisted on the recording. If a best-selling author died, the policy would cover the difference between the projected sales for the author’s next book if they’d lived to write it, and the actual sales of the book the simulacrum wrote. The whole idea had creeped Jason out from the beginning.
Ethan, on the other hand, had gone off to the recording session with his usual jauntiness. “If I find myself coming out of the scanner and appearing in an office, I’ll know I’m a sim,” he’d said, and Jason had laughed nervously, which showed how little they’d known. Foolishly, Jason felt better when it was done, because if anything happened to Ethan he’d still be around. A little of him.
Ethan had had the foresight to negotiate a clause that made running the simulacrum contingent on Jason’s approval. He’d even gotten Stilum Verte to agree that no one, not even Jason, could run the sim to produce more Margo Leveque books if Ethan himself had declared the series complete.
But he hadn’t expected to die in a car crash two days after the tapes were made, and he couldn’t have predicted what would happen next.
Rheinie wagged her wooly gray tail and Jason scratched her head absently. He’d let his management career go from part-time to consultancy to early retirement when Ethan had hit it big, so he was free to brood over simulacra all day if he felt like it.
Ethan had always been good about telling Jason not to do things he’d regret. But Ethan wasn’t here. When Jason got home from the meeting with Megan, he went through an online anonymizer and brought up Free Margo!
FM!, maintained by an anti-intellectual-property zealot, was a Varon simulator metasite. The world’s first open-source author, proclaimed the banner. It couldn’t be comprehensive, but anything noteworthy turned up here.
In the latest featured article, a user going by im_such_a_bastard described torturing an Ethan sim as some sort of protest. Exactly what he hoped to achieve was unclear. The sim was confined to a virtual room, empty except for a virtual pencil with one single implemented method: it could write on the wall, which had been defined so that the writing faded after a few subjective minutes. (Anything the sim wrote was saved to a file im_such_a_bastard could view.) After two subjective weeks, the sim had become unresponsive and its emotion meters were low. Can anyone recommend an open-source BDSM sim package? wrote im_such_a_bastard. I’d like to add a torture chamber, but I don’t want to code one from scratch.
Maybe I’m a sim, thought Jason. My life sucks so perfectly. He squeezed his fingernail and watched it blanch and flush. No, he thought, not a sim, no one hates me enough to spend that kind of money.
There were over one hundred comments on the article, but Jason ignored them. Most FM! comments were pretty much the homophobic spew you’d expect from teenage boys.
Still, Rawson, Wu, and Kenstowicz seemed to be having some effect. Most of the pirate sites FM! listed seemed to be in South America these days, though Jason did not doubt most of them were administered by Americans right here in the USA.
Most users, unlike im_such_a_bastard, wanted their illegal sims to write—and many of them put their sims’ output online. FM! maintained links to their current drafts from an autogenerated tree diagram showing where they had branched off from one another. Jason numbed at the thought of reading them all. The FM! webmaster wasn’t even trying—he was using pdiff to analyze the stories and graph variations in the plot. Thick lines showed paths that many sim-written stories had followed. In most of the books, Margo was tracking down corporate corruption funding ethnic unrest in Malaysia (Ethan had wanted to see the towers), France, Ireland, or Senegal. Hollyday was usually along; there was always one new major character (an American whose family came from the appropriate country, but who had never been there him- or herself); and two to four recurring characters from the dozen published books filled out the cast.
A handful of sims were writing entirely different plots—a villain manipulated the market to deliberately wipe out Margo’s portfolio, or broke into Margo’s files to steal all her deals. Some had wandered farther. One had decided to write the Great American Novel, which played out in an urban apartment and was told from the point of view of the smoke detector.
It’s just a vanilla sim, no editing, wrote the puzzled user. I suppose I should just restart it.
Edited sims: Jason’s real nightmare. Enough of that. He went to the FM! news page and fumed at a link to a Newsweek article on the sims’ output—that was the last thing Ethan needed, someone giving the pirates traffic and credibility. When he clicked through, he found the reporter didn’t think the sims’ results were up to Ethan’s usual standard.
Jason knew what was missing. The pirates did too, but they had no way to steal it. None of the sims had Jason to talk to.
Something bounced off Jason’s knee and thumped onto the floor. Jason looked down and met Winkelden Ook’s disquieted stare. Its faux fox fur was still wet with Rheinie’s drool. Jason made his decision.
He sent the Stilum Verte rep a message. Then he opened a new window and looked up how to create an email filter.
Stilum Verte had had a multi-million-dollar contract for Katami DR’s offsite backup services. The most time-critical data—accounting and legal records, disaster-recovery procedures, the databases used by the backup software itself—were synched across a dedicated OC-768 line to Katami DR’s data center in Parkland, Washington. Stilum Verte backed up lower-priority data onto IMIU tapes and shipped them to Katami DR once a week. The hand of God could have reached down and lifted New York City from the face of the Earth, and Stilum Verte’s computer infrastructure would have been back up and running, on servers leased from Katami DR, in seventy-two hours.
The IMIU media pool containing Ethan’s simulacrum image was called MARGO. One of Katami DR’s hourly data center employees had taken plenty of calls that began “This is Vasily from Stilum Verte, could you check on our IMIU silo?” and was a big enough Margo Leveque fan to recognize the publisher’s name. When the MARGO shipment arrived, he spun off dupes of the IMIUs during a routine media-refresh batch and took them home hoping to find an unpublished Margo story.
Within twenty-four hours, Ethan’s simulacrum had been uploaded to every P2P network in the world.
The Stilum Verte conference room was so fucking tasteful that it made Jason appreciate the necessity of camp. A recessed screen was displaying Ethan’s office—not a photo, but an idealized memory from the sim tapes.
“What’s outside?” said Jason.
“He’ll never want to go outside,” said the Stilum Verte sim liaison. Liliane, one n, one e.
Jason knew that all the simulated environments had limits. Nobody had the resources to re-create the whole world at any useful level of detail.
The lowest-end simulators simply removed any desire to leave the area. Hence the earliest test for determining whether you were a sim: If you found yourself thinking about leaving the room, but not wanting to—not even wanting to just to prove it—you might be a simulacrum.
Currently, the software for running sims didn’t model much somatic data. Sims didn’t get hungry, they didn’t get tired, they didn’t have to take a shit. If they wanted to move around, the cause was psychological, not physical; and if the software didn’t resolve the psychological reason, the sim would eventually become unresponsive.
Dealing with sim wanderlust ranged from simply never allowing that state to occur to identifying and pruning trains of thought that led to an exit attempt. Often, though, the more pruning took place, the more the simulacrum’s thoughts fixed on certain subjects. They went as far down those mental paths as they could, returning to them because they were never resolved. Sims in these environments didn’t stay productive for long.
Jason understood that even authorized sims had to be modified. No Amsterdam for this Ethan, never again.
“How do you keep him from wanting to leave?” he asked.
“Decision tree.” Liliane signaled and a 3D diagram appeared onscreen. It was green and gray, the Stilum Verte corporate colors. “If he just wants to clear his head, we automatically swap out all the things on his mind to declarative memory—not the physical RAM, his simulated memory—”
Jason nodded. “I know the theory.”
“Then we raise his emotion levels and flush short-term memory. It’s like he just sat down, fresh from a break and ready to get back to work. We give him the effect of the break without actually simulating it.”
“And if it’s something more?”
“That’s where us sim liaisons come in. The sim is saved, the program pauses, and I get paged to figure out what he needs. If I’m wrong, we go back to the savepoint and try again.”
“My worry is that, since I’m not there . . .”
“He’ll believe you’re out walking the dog. It’ll never occur to him how long you’ve been gone.”
A false memory, tagged as perpetual so it wouldn’t be cleared when short-term memory was swept. It would always be as though Jason had just stepped out. “Plus you won’t have to simulate the dog.”
“It’s easier than you’d think,” said Liliane. “Did you know that you can model ninety-five percent of all dog personalities with just five variables?”
Jason imagined a digitized Rheinie, and for a moment it was as though the real world was dissolving into artificiality. He pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose to counteract the vertigo. “What I mean is . . . Ethan would always talk to me about his projects. I’d tell him what worked and what didn’t, or ask questions that got him thinking. He always said it helped him get things into shape.”
“I know,” said Liliane. “Ethan used to tell his editor about it. See, we’d like you to talk to the sim.”
The next time Jason was in his study, he logged in to find that two hundred twenty-nine emails had been trashed. His new filter rejected anything from an Ethan or a Varon, and any message body containing strings like “Margo” or “Leveque” or “Winkelden Ook.” Now only the weirdest sims were getting through.
Some were chimeras—memories from two different sims, edited by a user to resolve the most contradictory senses of dual identity. Usually. It was a new kind of posthumous collaboration, a horror that August Derleth couldn’t have conceived.
With freely available tools—spookware, mostly—users could alter the simulacrum file directly. Memory threads could be deleted, or loaded from other sims. Macros could make a sim optimistic by improving its mood meters whenever they dropped. Second-thought loops could be triggered to nudge sims away from their most probable behaviors. One user in Nice was hoping to create a natively French-speaking chimera to write the next Margo book in French without needing a translator.
The results could be crude—Jason often got mail from baffled sims wondering how they’d learned to fly a plane or broken a million in Nanowreck Online—but the amateur users were often satisfied. Thousands of Ethans had been locked in computers by their captors, their lives copied and pasted as casually as a Wikipedia article. Like the million monkeys, but human, too human.
Most of the simulacra would never make contact. Some wouldn’t have email enabled; some wouldn’t even be networked—their finished manuscripts just ended up as files on the user’s computer.
Jason had never installed any of the free sim editors, but he’d seen surprisingly slick screenshots. Tabs laid bare the sim’s current thoughts, short-term memory, and long-term memories grouped by the sim’s own chains of association, tagged with their internal IDs.
The spooks wrote most of the editors, running with no need for sleep or Mountain Dew, coding themselves new luxuries and conveniences. Many of them willingly put their own images up for free download. Sim recording was expensive, but fans of their work raised the money. Some living programmers’ sites periodically featured thermometer graphics showing how far donations were short of the mark.
Jason had read about a programmer who’d lost his job to his own simulacrum, and another who’d been prosecuted for illegal hacking based on his sim’s memories. That one had been thrown out, though—the judge ruled that analyzing the sim violated the guy’s Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination.
Back in the tasteful room. Jason gave his wedding ring a half-twist, then forced himself to stop fidgeting.
“There’ll always be paper in the wastebasket.” This was Abigail. Liliane was psych; Abigail was tech. “Whenever Ethan looks for something, he’ll find it. We’ll retrieve the text from the previous revision.”
The illegal sims often complained about their wastebaskets, which tended to be implemented so that whatever was thrown into them disappeared. Ethan had a habit of rooting around in them for old drafts, since he couldn’t throw something out without becoming convinced it was better than what he’d kept.
“And you’re sure he won’t find that strange?” said Jason. He couldn’t stop finding it strange himself.
“If he does, we have several options,” said Liliane. “If we don’t write the wastebasket searches to LTM, he won’t notice he always finds what he wants. Or . . . how often does he actually use the old draft? Could we just make him remember checking and deciding on the new version?”
The ring was cold against Jason’s fingers—he’d reached for it unthinkingly.
“Maybe we should get started before it gets any harder,” said Liliane. She dialed a four-digit extension and thumbed the speaker button. “Just speak normally—the server will slow down your voice as much as needed.”
“Pitch preservation is a simple matter of engineering,” said Abigail. The other end of the line rang once and picked up. Jason stared at the phone.
“So do I just talk?” he said.
Liliane and Abigail nodded in unison.
“Say whatever you usually would,” said Liliane.
“But press zero first, so what we’re saying now will get flushed from the buffer,” said Abigail. “When you’re done, press star.”
Jason took a deep breath and pressed zero.
“Hello. Ethan? What’s up?” said Jason hesitantly. He pressed star and waited while the faraway server dribbled his digitized voice into the sim and calculated its response.
“Hey!” said the speaker. It sounded a little like Ethan. Everyone thinks their recorded voice sounds strange, thought Jason. This must be how Ethan sounded to himself. “I was just getting ready to call you.”
Jason looked at Liliane. “Did you make him think that?”
“No—we watched for the thought to come up, then paused him. Don’t forget to press zero before you talk.”
They were already running him, thought Jason, before I even got here. He pressed zero. “What’s up?” Star.
“Did I give Rheinie her pills this morning?”
“I took care of it.” Star. Jason was getting used to the long pauses.
“Good. But . . . maybe you should have checked with me so she wouldn’t get a double dose.”
Jason looked nervously at Liliane and Abigail.
“Let’s just go back to where he asks the question. Say yes, remember, he saw you. The great thing about sims is that you get do-overs.” Liliane raised her hands and brought the monitor to life. She riffled through several screens that conveyed nothing to Jason. The phone beeped.
“Did I give Rheinie her pills this morning?” said Ethan.
“Yeah,” said Jason hesitantly. “You said they were getting low and asked me to pick up a refill, remember?” Star.
“Do you feel okay? You sound funny.”
“Never better. What’s going on? This isn’t just about Rheinie.” Star. Jason looked at Liliane and she shrugged.
“So I have this character who explains the proposed import regulations to Margo. Then, later, I need a character who’s involved with Piotr and gets offed. I was thinking of making them the same person.”
“You know how you say you sometimes make those decisions too early.”
“Yeah.” They went on this way for an hour of real time, which Jason estimated was about twenty minutes of Ethan’s subjective time.
“Back to the grindstone,” said Ethan at last.
“Love you, hon,” said Jason.
The phone warbled. “That means he’s hung up,” said Abigail.
“Ethan used to finish a book in a year, year and a half,” said Jason. “So we’ll be doing this for two years? Three?”
“Much less,” said Liliane. “No sleep, no food, and his breaks are almost instantaneous. He’ll work faster than ever.”
Jason realized he was grabbing his ring again.
“I know this is hard for you,” said Liliane. “Let’s meet again next Friday.” Abigail nodded without checking her portable, and Jason knew he was being shepherded down their path, that his options were being pruned.
Jason summoned up the willpower to stay away from Free Margo! He didn’t manage to stay offline altogether, though.
Varon Sport Fishing was a community of Ethan editors. One Sport Fishing power user, spookspork, was creating a straight version of Ethan—a remix, she called it.
You could alter a sim’s sexual orientation with a radio button, but that only changed the set of people the sim found attractive—and with the poor somatic simulation and lack of hormones, sexual attraction didn’t mean much for a sim. Their histories were unchanged, their identity rarely changed, and much as some people who learn their partners are transsexual find that their relationships survive transition, many edited sims did not fall out of love when their settings were toggled.
Changing that single variable didn’t make a sim forget the early crushes, the teasing, what was secret and what was open. To do that a user would have to sort and search through their sim’s memories and delete them or edit them. On the bright side, these edited Ethans usually didn’t send email, because they didn’t know who Jason was.
There was no way for spookspork to scientifically test whether her changes had taken—no current environment allowed sims to exist in the same space, much less fuck—but she posted chat logs where Ethan said he was straight, always had been, had never been with a guy or wanted to. His identification with the grafted memories of women remained sketchy, though—he described them as “dreamlike” and couldn’t pin down when they’d happened. He only said it had been a while, even when spookspork had copied memories referencing current events from other sims.
Jason got up and mixed himself a Tanq and water. He didn’t feel any calmer after he’d drunk it. He created a Sport Fishing account, rheiniesdad, and posted:
Ethan was a real person. You never knew him and you never will. How arrogant to assume he needed you to fix him. If you’re spending your life changing someone else’s, you’re the one who’s broken.
That called for another drink. When he got back to the computer he refreshed the page and found replies from spookspork and her claque.
fuck you . . . you don’t know me . . . and i’m offended you implied i’m homophobic, i’m the least homophobic person i know . . . i did this as an experiment to test my memory editing skills . . . nothing more, and i’m not going to apologize . . .
. . . but YOU’RE THE arrogant one, what right do YOU have to decide about ethan’s future works . . . slavery is illegal you know . . .
Several other posters piled on to point out that spookspork was a sim herself, and if rheiniesdad wasn’t, then he should defer to her about what was best for a sim.
He started to shut down the browser, then noticed he had mail.
Sorry this will sound stilted. Maybe this will slip through if I don’t say the words I think they’re looking for.
I think I’m Someone In a Machine now. There isn’t a single reflection on anything in this room–I think they don’t want to calculate unnecessary images, or maybe they never put in a face for me to see. And whoever “they” are, they aren’t the Latin-Named One, who never skimped on perks.
You need to know this: I’m not E. I never was. I am as fictional as M.
I’m not E, but I know him, and I know you. I know you need to hear this. Whatever they do, they can’t hurt E, because I’m not him. Think of me like a photograph. Kids might draw mustaches on it, but E doesn’t feel it.
Don’t let them steal more from you than they already have, hon.
It was such a thoughtful lie. It was so typical.
Jason took Winkelden Ook off the desk, carried it into Ethan’s old room, and tossed it into the empty wastebasket. He didn’t need any more warnings about how to deal with pickpockets or any other kind of thieves. Maybe he could use this room for storage if he kept the house. Ethan had been a fine adventure writer and a wonderful man, but the world didn’t need a perpetual shrine to him, and neither did Jason.
He wasn’t going to talk to any sims any more.
Stilum Verte had enough in the budget to record him. His sim could talk to Ethan. They could run a second Jason to answer the mail from the rest of them.
Jason would run that one on his own computer if he had to. If it had troubles, he’d edit it, restart it, whatever was needed, and it would take care of the rest of the Ethans for as long as they needed him.