by Michael Swanwick
I met her at a businesspersons’ orgy in London. The room was in the back of a pub that was all brass and beveled glass, nostalgia and dark oak. The doorkeeper hesitated when it saw how many times I’d attended in the last month. But then I suggested it scroll up my travel schedule, and it saw that I wasn’t acting out a sex-addiction script, but properly maintaining my forebrain and hindbrain balances. So it let me in.
Inside, the light was dimly textured and occasionally mirrored. Friendly hands helped me off with my clothing. “I’m Thom,” I murmured, and “Annalouise… Enoch… Abdul… Magdalena… Claire,” those nearest quietly replied. Time passed.
I noticed Hellene not because she was beautiful—who pays attention to beauty, after the first hour?—but because it took her so long to find release. By the time she was done, there was a whole new crowd; only she and I remained of all who had been in the room when I entered.
In the halfway room, we talked.
“My assemblers and sorters got into a hierarchic conflict,” I told her. “Too many new faces, too many interchangeable cities.”
She nodded. “I’ve been under a lot of stress myself. My neural mediator has become unreliable. And since I’m scheduled for an upgrade, it’s not worth it running a purge. I had to off-line the mediator, and take the week off from work.”
“What do you do?” I asked. I’d already spotted her as being optimized.
She worked in human resources, she said. When I heard that, I asked, “Is there any hope for people like me? Those who won’t accept optimization, I mean.”
“Wild minds?” Hellene looked thoughtful. “Five years ago I’d’ve said no, open-and-shut, end of story. Period. Zero rez. Today, though…”
“I don’t know,” she said in an anguished voice. “I simply don’t know.”
I could sense something significant occurring within myself, intuit some emotional sea-change organizing itself deep on the unseen levels—the planners building new concept-language, the shunts and blocks being rearranged. Of course I had no way of knowing what it was. I hadn’t been optimized. Still—
“Can I walk you home?” I asked.
She looked at me for a long and silent second. “I live in Prague.”
“We could go to your place, if it’s not too far.”
We took the hypermetro to Glasgow. Got off at the Queen Street Station and walked up to my flat in Renfrew Street. We talked a little on the train, but Hellene fell silent when we hit the street.
They don’t like the old places, the new people, cluttered with seedy pubs and street corner hang-outs, the niches where shabby men sit slumped over their whisky in paper bags, the balconies from which old women watch over the street. It unnerves them, this stench of accommodation and human dirt. It frightens them that it works so well, when it so obviously shouldn’t. “You’re a Catholic,” she said.
She was looking at my icon, a molecular reproduction of Ad Reinhardt’s “For T.M.” It’s one of his black paintings, his first, and modestly small. At first it seems unvaryingly colorless; you have to stare at it for some time to see the subtle differences in the black, the thick cross that quarters and dominates that small lightless universe. He painted it for Thomas Merton, who was a monk.
My copy is a duplicate as exact as human technology can make it; more exact than human perception can distinguish. I use it as a focus for meditation. Opposite it is a Charles Rennie Macintosh chair, high-backed. An original because it was made to his directions. Sometimes I’ll sit in the one and stare at the other, thinking about distinctions, authenticity, and duplicity.
“You wouldn’t need meditation if you were optimized.”
“No. But the Church considers it a mortal sin, you see.”
“The Church can’t possibly approve of your attending orgies.”
“Oh. Well. It’s winked at.” I shrugged. “As long as you go to confession before you take Communion…”
“What do you see when you meditate?”
“Sometimes I see comfort there; other times I see suffering.”
“I don’t like ambiguity. It’s an artifact of the old world.” She turned away from the picture. She had those chill Scandinavian features that don’t show emotions well. She was beautiful, I realized with a mental start. And, almost at the same instant but twice as startling, I realized that she reminded me of Sophia.
Out of nowhere, without transition, Hellene said, “I must return to Prague. I haven’t seen my children in two weeks.”
“They’ll be glad to see you.”
“Glad? I doubt it. No more than I will be to see them,” she said in the manner of one totally unable to lie to herself. “I’ve spun off three partials that they like considerably more than they do me. And I signed them up with Sterling International for full optimization when they were eight.”
I said nothing.
“Do you think that makes me a bad mother?”
“I wanted children, too,” I said. “But it didn’t work out.”
‘You’re evading the question.”
I thought for a second. Then, because there was no way around it short of a he, I said, “Yes. Yes, I do.” And, “I’m going to put a kettle on. Would you like a cup?”
My grandfather used to talk about the value of a good education. His generation was obsessed with the idea. But when the workings of the human brain were finally and completely understood—largely as a result of the NAFTA “virtual genome” project—mere learning became so easy that most corporations simply educated their workforce themselves to whatever standards were currently needed. Anybody could become a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, provided they could spare the month it took to absorb the technical skills.
With knowledge so cheap, the only thing workers had to sell was their character: Their integrity, prudence, willingness to work, and hard-headed lack of sentiment. Which is when it was discovered that a dozen spiderweb-thin wires and a neural mediator the size of a pinhead would make anybody as disciplined and thrifty as they desired. Fifty cents’ worth of materials and an hour on the operating table would render anybody eminently employable.
The ambitious latched onto optimization as if it were a kite string that could snatch them right up into the sky. Which, in practical terms, it was. Acquiring a neural mediator was as good as a Harvard degree used to be. And—because it was new, and most people were afraid of it—optimization created a new elite.
Sophia and I used to argue about this all the time. She wanted to climb that kite string right into the future. I pointed out that it was the road to excommunication. Which shows just what a hypocrite I was. Back then I was not at all a religious man. I didn’t need the comfort of religion the way I do now.
But you take your arguments where you can get them. Wild minds don’t know from rational discourse. They only care about winning. Sophia was the same. We yelled at each other for hour upon hour, evening after evening. Sometimes we broke things.
Hellene drank her tea unsweetened, with milk.
We talked through the night. Hellene, of course, didn’t need sleep. Normally I did, but not tonight. Something was happening within me; I could feel my components buzzing and spinning. The secondary chemical effects were enough to keep me alert. Those, and the tea.
“You seem an intelligent enough man,” she said at one point, and then, gesturing at the wooden floors and glass windows, added, “How can you live in such primitive squalor? Why reject what science has revealed about the workings of the brain?
“I have no complaints about the knowledge
“So why haven’t you been optimized?”
“I was afraid of losing myself.”
“Self is an illusion. The single unified ego you mistake for your ‘self’ is just a fairy-tale that your assemblers, sorters, and functional transients tell each other.”
“I know that. But still…”
She put her cup down. “Let me show you something.”
From her purse she took out a box of old-fashioned wooden matches. She removed five, aligned them all together in a bundle, and then clenched them in her hand, sulfur side down, with just the tips of the wood ends sticking out.
“Control over involuntary functions, including localized body heat,” she said.
There was a gout of flame between her fingers. She opened her hand. The matches were ablaze.
“The ability to block pain.”
This wasn’t a trick. I could smell her flesh burning.
When the matches had burned out, she dumped them in her saucer, and showed me the blackened skin where they had been. The flesh by its edges was red and puffy, already starting to blister.
“Accelerated regenerative ability.”
For five minutes, she held her hand out, flat and steady. For five minutes, I watched. And at the end of that five minutes, it was pink and healed. Unblackened. Unblistered.
Hellene spooned sugar into her teacup, returning to the sugar bowl at least six times before she was done. She drank down the sweet, syrupy mess with a small moue of distaste. “These are only the crude physical manifestations of what optimization makes possible. Mentally—there are hardly the words. Absolute clarity of thought, even du ...