Science Fiction & Fantasy

GENOME by Sergei Lukyanenko

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Fiction

The Nearest Thing

CALENDAR REMINDER: STOCKHOLDER DINNER, 8PM. 

THIS MESSAGE SENT FROM MORI: LOOKING TO THE FUTURE, LOOKING OUT FOR YOU.

***

The Mori Annual Stockholder Dinner is a little slice of hell that employees are encouraged to attend, for morale.

Mori’s made Mason rich enough that he owns a bespoke tux and drives to the Dinner in a car whose property tax is more than his father made in a year; of course he goes.

(He skipped one year because he was sick, and two Officers from HR came to his door with a company doctor to confirm it. He hasn’t missed a party since.)

He’s done enough high-profile work that Mori wants him to actually mingle, and he spends the cocktail hour being pushed from one group to another, shaking hands, telling the same three inoffensive anecdotes over and over.

They go fine; he’s been practicing.

People chuckle politely just before he finishes the punch line.

Memorial dolls take a second longer, because they have to process the little cognitive disconnect of humor, and because they’re programmed to think that interrupting is rude.

(He’ll hand it to the Aesthetics department—it’s getting harder to tell the difference between people with plastic surgery and the dolls.)

“I hear you’re starting a new project,” says Harris. He hugs Mrs. Harris closer, and after too long, she smiles.

(Mason will never know why anyone brings their doll out in public like this. The point is to ease the grieving process, not to provide arm candy. It’s embarrassing. He wishes stockholders were a little less enthusiastic about showing support for the company.)

This new project is news to him, too, but he doesn’t think stockholders want to hear that.

“I might be,” he says. “I obviously can’t say, but—”

Mr. Harris grins. “Paul Whitcover already told us—” (Mason thinks, Who?) “—and it sounds like a marvelous idea. I hope it does great things for the company; it’s been a while since we had a new version.”

Mason’s heart stutters that he’s been picked to spearhead a new version.

It sinks when he remembers Whitcover. He’s one of the second-generation creative guys who gets his picture taken with some starlet on his arm, as newscasters talk about what good news it would be for Mori’s stock if he were to marry a studio-contracted actress.

Mrs. Harris is smiling into middle space, waiting to be addressed, or for a keyword to come up.

Mason met Mrs. Harris several Dinners ago. She had more to say than this, and he worked on some of the conversation software in her generation; she can handle a party. Harris must have turned her cognitives down to keep her pleasant.

There’s a burst of laughter across the room, and when Mason looks over it’s some guy in a motorcycle jacket, surrounded by tuxes and gowns.

“Who’s that?” he asks, but he knows, he knows, this is how his life goes, and he’s already sighing when Mr. Harris says, “Paul.”

***

Since he got Compliance Contracted to Mori at fifteen, Mason has come to terms with a lot of things.

He’s come to terms with the fact that, for the money he makes, he can’t make noise about his purpose. He worked for a year on an impact-sensor chip for Mori’s downmarket Prosthetic Division; you go where you’re told.

(He’s come to terms with the fact that the more Annual Stockholder Dinners you attend, the less time you spend in a cubicle in Prosthetics.)

He has come to terms with the fact that sometimes you will hate the people you work with, and there is nothing you can do.

(Mason suspects he hates everyone, and that the reasons why are the only things that change.)

The thing is, Mason doesn’t hate Paul because Paul is a Creative heading an R&D project. Mason will write what they tell him to, under whatever creative-team asshole they send him. He’s not picky.

Sure, he resents someone who introduces himself to other adults as, “Just Paul, don’t worry about it, good to meet you,” and he resents someone whose dad was a Creative Consultant and who’s never once gone hungry, and he resents the adoring looks from stockholders as Paul claims Mori is really Going Places This Year, but things like this don’t keep him up at night, either.

He’s pretty sure he starts to hate Paul the moment Paul introduces him to Nadia.

***

At Mori, we know you care.

We know you love your family. We know you worry about leaving them behind. And we know you’ve asked for more information about us, which means you’re thinking about giving your family the greatest gift of all:

You.

Medical studies have shown the devastating impact grief has on family bonds and mental health. The departure of someone beloved is a tragedy without a proper name.

Could you let the people you love live without you?

A memorial doll from Mori maps the most important aspects of your memory, your speech patterns, and even your personality into a synthetic reproduction.

The process is painstaking—our technology is exceeded only by our artistry—and it leaves behind a version of you that, while it can never replace you, can comfort those who have lost you.

Imagine knowing your parents never have to say goodbye. Imagine knowing you can still read bedtime stories to your children, no matter what may happen.

A memorial doll from Mori is a gift you give to everyone who loves you.

***

Nadia holds perfectly still.

Her nametag reads “Aesthetic Consultant,” which means Paul brought his model girlfriend to the meeting.

She’s pretty, in a cat’s-eye way, but Mason doesn’t give her much thought. It takes a lot for Mason to really notice a woman, and she’s nowhere near the actresses Paul dates.

(Mason’s been reading up. He doesn’t think much of Paul, but the man can find a camera at a hundred paces.)

Paul brings Nadia to the first brainstorming meeting for the Vestige project. He introduces her to Mason and the two guys from Marketing (“Just Nadia, don’t worry about it”), and they’re ten minutes into the meeting before Mason realizes she had never said a word.

It takes Mason until then to realize how still she is. Only her eyes move—to him, with a hard expression like she can read his mind and doesn’t like what she sees.

Not that he cares. He just wonders where she came from, suddenly.

“So we have to think about a new market,” Paul is saying. “There’s a diminishing return on memorial dolls, unless we want to drop the price point to expand opportunities and popularize the brand—”

The two Marketing guys make appalled sounds at the idea of Mori going downmarket.

“—or, we develop something that will redefine the company,” Paul finishes. “Something new. Something we build in-house from the ground up.”

A Marketing guy says, “What do you have in mind?”

“A memorial that can conquer Death itself,” says Paul.

(Nadia’s eyes slide to Paul, never move.)

“How so?” asks the other marketing guy.

Paul grins, leans forward; Mason sees the switch flip.

Then Paul is magic.

He uses every catchphrase Mason’s ever heard in a pitch, and some phrases he swears are from Mori’s own pamphlets. Paul makes a lot of eye contact, frowns soulfully. The Marketing guys get glassy and slack-jawed, like they’re watching a swimming pool fill up with doubloons. Paul smiles, one fist clenched to keep his amazing ideas from flying away.

Mason waits for a single concept concrete enough to hang some code on. He waits a long time.

(The nice thing about programs is that you deal in absolutes—yes, or no.)

“We’ll be working together,” and Paul encompasses Mason in his gesture. “Andrew Mason has a reputation for out-thinking computers. Together, we’ll give the Vestige model a self-sustaining critical-thinking initiative no other developer has tried—and no consumer base has ever seen. It won’t be human, but it will be the nearest thing.”

The Marketing guys light up.

“Self-sustaining critical-thinking” triggers ideas about circuit maps and command-decision algorithms, and for a second Mason is absorbed in the idea.

He comes back when Paul says, “Oh, he definitely has ideas.” He flashes a smile at the Marketing guys—it wobbles when he looks at Nadia, but he recovers well enough that the smile is back by the time it gets to Mason.

“Mason, want to give us tech dummies a rundown of what you’ve been brainstorming?”

Mason glances back from Nadia to Paul, doesn’t answer.

Paul frowns. “Do you have questions about the project?”

Mason shrugs. “I just think maybe we shouldn’t be discussing confidential R&D with some stranger in the room.”

(Compliance sets up stings sometimes, just to make sure employees are serious about confidentiality. Maybe that’s why she hasn’t said a thing.)

Nadia actually turns her head to look at him (her eyes skittering past Paul), and Paul drops the act and snaps, “She’s not some stranger,” like she saved him from an assassination attempt.

It’s the wrong thing to say.

It makes Mason wonder what the relationship between Paul and Nadia really is.

***

That afternoon, Officer Wilcox from HR stops by Mason’s office.

“This is just a random check,” she says. “Your happiness is important to the company.”

What she means is, Paul ratted him out, and they’re making sure he’s not thinking of leaking information about the kind of project you build a market-wide stock repurchase on.

“I’m very happy here,” Mason says, and it’s what you always say to HR, but it’s true enough; they pulled him from that shitty school and gave him a future. Now he has more money than he knows what to do with, and the company dentist isn’t half bad.

He likes his work, and they leave him alone, and things have always been fine, until now.

(He imagines Paul, his face a mask of concern, saying, “It’s not that I think he’s up to anything, it’s just he seems so unhappy, and he wouldn’t answer me when I asked him something.”)

“Will Nadia be part of the development team?” Mason asks, for no real reason.

“Undetermined,” says Officer Wilcox. “Have a good weekend. Come back rested and ready to work on Vestige.”

She hands him a coupon for a social club where dinner costs a week’s pay and private hostesses are twice that.

She says, “The company really appreciates your work.”

***

He goes home, opens his personal program.

Most of it is still just illustrations from old maps, but places he’s been are recreated as close as he can get. Buildings, animals, dirt, people.

They’re customizable down to fingerprints; he recreated his home city with people he remembers, and calibrated their personality traits as much as possible. It’s a nice reminder of home, when he needs it.

(He needs it less and less; home is far away.)

This game has been his work since the first non-Mori computer he bought—with cash, on the black market, so he had something to use that was his alone.

Now there are real-time personality components and physical impossibility safeguards so you can’t pull nonsense. It’s not connected to a network, to keep Mori from prying. It stands alone, and he’s prouder of it than anything he’s done.

(The Memento model is a pale shadow of this; this is what Paul wants for Vestige, if Mason feels like sharing.)

He builds Nadia in minutes—he must have been watching her more than he thought—and gives her the personality traits he knows she has (self-possessed, grudging, uncomfortable), her relationship with Paul, how long he’s known her.

He doesn’t make any guesses about what he doesn’t know for sure. It hurts the game to guess.

He puts Nadia in the Mori offices. (He can’t put her in his apartment, because a self-possessed, grudging, uncomfortable person who hasn’t known him long wouldn’t go. His game is strict.) He makes them both tired from a long night of work.

He inputs Paul, too, finally—the scene won’t start until he does, given what it knows about her—and is pleased to see Paul in his own office, sleeping under his motorcycle jacket, useless and out of the way.

Nadia tries every locked door in R&D systematically. Then she goes into the library, stands in place.

Mason watches his avatar working on invisible code so long he starts to drift off.

When he opens his eyes, Nadia’s avatar is in the doorway of his office, where his avatar has rested his head in his hands, looking tired and upset and wishing he was the kind of person who could give up on something.

(His program is spooky, when he does it right.)

He holds his breath until Nadia’s avatar turns around.

She finds the open door to Paul’s office (of course it’s open), stands and looks at him, too.

He wonders if her avatar wants to kiss Paul’s.

Nadia’s avatar leaves Paul’s doorway, too, goes to the balcony overlooking the impressive lobby. She stands at the railing for a while, like his avatars used to do before he had perfected their physical limits so they wouldn’t keep trying to walk through walls.

Then she jumps.

He blanks out for a second.

He restarts.

(It’s not how life goes, it’s a cheat, but without it he’d never have been able to understand a thing about how people work.)

He starts again, again.

She jumps every time.

His observations are faulty, he decides. There’s not enough to go on, since he knows so little about her. His own fault for putting her into the system too soon.

He closes up shop; his hands are shaking.

Then he takes the Mori coupon off his dining table.

***

The hostess is pretty, in a cat-eye way.

She makes small talk, pours expensive wine. He lets her because he’s done this rarely enough that it’s still awkward, and because Mori is picking up the tab, and because something is scraping at him that he can’t define.

Later she asks him, “What can I do for you?”

He says, “Hold as still as you can.”

It must be a creepy request; she freezes.

It’s very still. It’s as still as Nadia holds.

***

Monday morning, Paul shows up in his office.

“Okay,” Paul says, rubbing his hands together like he’s about to carve a bird, “let’s brainstorm how we can get these dolls to brainstorm for themselves.”

“Where’s Nadia?” Mason asks.

Paul says, “Don’t worry about it.”

Mason hates Paul.

***

The first week is mostly Mason trying to get Paul to tell him what they’re doing (“What you’re doing now,” Paul says, “just bigger and better, we’ll figure things out, don’t worry about it.”) and how much money they have to work with.

(“Forget the budget,” Paul says, “we’re just thinking about software, the prototype is taken care of.”

Mason wonders how long Paul has been working on this, acquiring entire prototypes off the record, keeping under the radar of a company that taps your phones, and the hair on his neck stands up.)

“I have a baseline ready for implantation,” Paul admits on Thursday, and it feels like a victory for Mason. “We can use that as a jumping-off point to test things, if you don’t want to use simulators.”

“You don’t use simulators until you have a mock-up ready. The baseline is unimportant while we’re still working on components.” Then he thinks about it. “Where did you get a baseline with no R&D approval?”

Paul grins. “Black market,” he says.

It’s the first time Mason’s ever suspected Paul might actually care about what they’re doing.

It changes a lot of things.

***

On Friday, Mason brings in a few of his program’s parameters for structuring a sympathy algorithm, and when Paul shows up he says, “I had some ideas.”

Paul bends to look, his motorcycle jacket squeaking against Mason’s chair, his face tinted blue by the screen.

Mason watches Paul skim it twice. He’s a quick reader.

“Fantastic,” Paul says, in a way that makes Mason wonder if Paul knows more about specifics than he’d admit. “See what you can build me from this.”

“I can build whatever you need,” Mason says.

Paul looks down at him; his grin fills Mason’s vision.

***

Monday morning, Paul brings Nadia.

She sits in the back of the office, reading a book, glancing up when Mason says something that’s either on the right track or particularly stupid.

(When he catches her doing it her eyes are deep and dark, and she’s always just shy of pulling a face.)

Paul never says why he brought her, but Mason is pretty sure Nadia’s not a plant—not even Paul could risk that. More likely she’s his girlfriend. (Maybe she is an actress. He should start watching the news.)

Most of the time she has her nose in a book, so steady that Mason knows when she’s looking at them if it’s been too long between page-turns.

Once when they’re arguing about infinite loops Paul turns and asks her, “Would that really be a problem?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” she says.

It’s the first time she’s spoken, and Mason twists to look at her.

She hasn’t glanced up from her book, hasn’t moved at all, but still Mason watches, waiting for something, until Paul catches his eye.

For someone who brings his girlfriend the unofficial consultant to the office every day, Paul seems unhappy about Mason looking.

Nadia doesn’t seem to notice; her reflection in Mason’s monitor doesn’t look up, not once.

(Not that it matters if she does or not. He has no idea what he was waiting for.)

***

Mason figures out what they’re doing pretty quickly. Not that Paul told him, but when Mason said, “Are we trying to create emotional capacity?” Paul said, “Don’t worry about it,” grinning like he had at Mason’s first lines of code, and that was Mason’s answer.

There’s only one reason you create algorithms for this level of critical thinking, and it’s not for use as secretaries.

Mason is making an A.I. that can understand as well as respond, an A.I. that can grow an organic personality beyond its programming, that has an imagination; one that can really live.

(Sometimes, when he’s too tired to help it, he gets romantic about work.)

***

For a second-gen creative guy, Paul picks up fast.

“But by basing preference on a pre-programmed moral scale, they’ll always prefer people who make the right decisions on a binary,” Mason says. “Stockholders might not like free will that favors the morally upstanding.”

Paul nods, thinks it over.

“See if you can make an algorithm that develops a preference based on the reliability of someone’s responses to problems,” Paul says. “People are easy to predict. Easier than making them moral.”

There’s no reason for Paul to look at Nadia right then, but he does, and for a second his whole face falters.

For a second, Nadia’s does, too.

Mason can’t sleep that night, thinking about it.

***

TO: ANDREW MASON

FROM: HR—HEALTH/WELFARE

Your caffeine intake from the cafeteria today is 40% above normal. Your health is of great importance to us.

If you would like to renegotiate a project timeline, please contact Management to arrange a meeting. If you are physically fatigued, please contact a company doctor. If there is a personal issue, a company therapist is standing by for consult.

If any of these apply, please let us know what actions you have taken, so we may update your records.

If this is a dietary anomaly, please disregard.

The company appreciates your work.

***

They test some of the components on a simulator.

(Mason tells Paul they’re marking signs of understanding. Really, he wants to see if the simulation prefers one of them without a logical basis. That’s what humans do.)

He pulls up a baseline, several traits mixed at random from reoccurring types in the Archives, just to keep you from using someone’s remnant. (The company frowns on that.)

Under the ID field, Mason types in GALATEA.

“Acronym?” Paul asks.

“Allusion,” says Nadia.

Her reflection is looking at the main monitor, her brows drawn in an expression too stricken to be a frown.

Galatea runs diagnostics (a long wait—the text-interface version passed four sentience screenings in anonymous testing last month, and something that sophisticated takes a lot of code). She recognizes the camera, nodding at Mason and Paul in turn.

Then her eyes go flat, refocus to find Nadia.

It makes sense, Nadia’s further away, but Mason still gets the creeps. Someone needs to work on the naturalism of these simulators. This isn’t some second-rate date booth; they have a reputation to uphold.

“Be charming,” Mason says.

Paul cracks up.

“Okay,” he says, “Galatea, good to meet you, I’m Paul, and I’ll try to be charming tonight.”

***

Galatea prefers Paul in under ten minutes.

Mason would burn the place down if he wasn’t so proud of himself.

“Galatea,” Mason asks, “what is the content of Paul’s last sentence?”

“That his work is going well.”

It wasn’t what Paul really saidit had as little content as most of Paul’s sentences that aren’t about codewhich means Galatea was inferring the best meaning, because she favored him.

“Read this,” Mason says, scrawls a note.

Paul reads, “During a shift in market paradigms, it’s imperative that we leverage our synergy to re-evaluate paradigm structure.”

It’s some line of shit Paul gave him the first day they worked together. Paul doesn’t even have the shame to recognize it.

“Galatea, act on that sentence,” Mason says.

“I cannot,” Galatea says, but her camera lens is focused square on Paul’s face, which is Mason’s real answer.

“Installing this software has compromised your baseline personality system and altered your preferences,” he says. “Can you identify the overwrites?”

There’s a tiny pause.

“No,” she says, sounds surprised.

He looks up at Paul, grinning, but Paul’s jaw is set like a guilty man, and his eyes are focused on the wall ahead of him, his hands in fists on the desk.

(Reflected in his monitor: Nadia, her book abandoned, sitting a little forward in her chair, lips parted, watching it all like she’s seen a ghost.)

***

At the holiday party, Paul and Nadia show up together.

Paul has his arm around her, and after months of seeing them together Mason still can’t decide if they’re dating.

(He only sees how Paul holds out his hand to her as they leave every day, how she looks at him too long before she takes it, the story he’s already telling her, his smile of someone desperate to please.)

The way Paul manages a party is supernatural. His tux is artfully rumpled, his hand on Nadia’s waist, and he looks right at everyone he meets.

It’s too smooth to be instinctive; his father must have trained him up young.

Maybe that’s itmaybe they’re like brother and sister, if you ignore the way Paul looks at her sometimes when she’s in profile, like he wouldn’t mind a shot but he’s not holding his breath.

(He envies Paul his shot with her; he envies them both for having someone to be a sibling with.)

“Why do you keep watching me?”

She’s not coy, either, he thinks as he turns, and something about her makes him feel like being honest.

He says, “I find you interesting.”

“Because of how I look.” Delivered like the conclusion of a scientific paper whose results surprised everyone.

“Because of how you look at everyone else.”

It must shake her; she tilts her head, and for an instant her eyes go empty and flat as she pulls her face into a different expression.

It’s so fast that most people wouldn’t notice, but Mason is suspicious enough by now to be watching for some small tic that marks her as other than human.

Now he knows why she looks so steadily into her book, if that’s what happens every time someone surprises her.

Doesn’t stop him from going cold.

(He can’t process it. It’s one thing to be suspicious, another thing to know.)

It must show on his face; she looks at him like she doesn’t know what he’s going to do.

It’s not how she used to look at him.

He goes colder.

Her eyes go terrified, as terrified as any human eyes.

She’s the most beautiful machine he’s ever seen.

He opens his mouth.

“Don’t,” she starts.

Then Paul is there, smiling, asking, “You remember how to dance, right?”, lacing his fingers in her fingers and pulling her with him a fraction too fast to be casual.

She watches Mason over her shoulder all the way to the dance floor.

He stands where he is a long time, watching the golden boy of Mori dancing with his handmade Vestige prototype.

***

He spends the weekend wondering if he has a friend in Aesthetics who could tell him where Nadia’s face really came from, or one in Archives who would back him up about a personality Paul Whitcover’s been saving for a special occasion.

It’s tempting. It wouldn’t stop the project, but it would certainly shut Paul up, and with something that big he might be able to renegotiate his contract right up to Freelance. (No one taps your home network when you’re Freelance.)

He needs to tell someone, soon. If he doesn’t, and someone finds out down the line they were keeping secrets, Mason will end up in Quality Control for the rest of his life, monitored 24/7 and living in the subterranean company apartments.

If he doesn’t tell, and Paul does, Paul will get Freelance and Mason will just be put down.

He has to make the call. He has to tell Compliance.

But whenever he’s on the verge of doing something, he remembers her face after he’d found her out and she feared the worst from him, how she’d let Paul take her hand, but watched him over her shoulder as long as she dared.

It’s not a very flattering memory, but somehow it keeps him from making a move.

(Just as well; turns out he doesn’t have a lot of friends.)

***

Monday morning Paul comes in alone, shuts the door behind him, and doesn’t say a word.

It’s such a delightful change that Mason savors the quiet for a while before he turns around.

Paul has his arms crossed, his face a set of wary lines. (He looks like Nadia.)

Mason says, “Who is she?”

He’s hardly slept all weekend, thinking about it. He’d imagined tragic first love, or some unattainable socialite Paul was just praying would get personality-mapped.

Once or twice he imagined Paul had tried to reincarnate Daddy, but that was too weird even for him.

Paul shakes his head, tightly. “No one.”

“Come on,” says Mason, “if I haven’t called HR by now I’m not going to. Who?”

Paul sits down, rakes his hair back with his hands.

“I didn’t want to get in trouble if they found out I was making one,” he says. “It’s one thing to fuck around with some company components, but if you take a customer’s remnant” He shakes his head. “I couldn’t risk it. I had them put in a standard template for her.”

Mason thinks about Paul’s black-market baseline, wonders how Paul would have known what was there before he installed the chip and woke her.

“She’s not standard any more,” he settles on.

Nadia should be here; Mason would really feel better about this whole conversation if she were here.

(But Paul wouldn’t be talking about it if she were; he knows that much about Paul by now.)

“No,” says Paul, a sad smile crossing his face. “I tried a couple of our early patches, before we were working on the full. I couldn’t believe how well they took.”

Of course they did, thinks Mason, they’re mine, but he keeps his mouth shut.

Paul looks as close to wonderment as guys like him can get. “When we announce Vestige, it’s going to change the world. You know that, right?”

He knows. It’s one of the reasons he can’t sleep.

“What happens to Nadia, then?” he asks.

(That’s the other reason he can’t sleep.)

“I don’t know,” Paul says, shaking his head. “She knows what she is—I mean, she knows she’s A.I.—she understands what might happen. I told her that from the very beginning. At first I thought we could use her as a tester. I had no idea how much I would—” he falters as his feelings get the better of him.

“Not human, but the nearest thing?” Mason says, and it comes out vicious.

Paul has the decency to flinch, but it doesn’t last.

“She knows I care about her,” he goes on. “I’m planning for better things. Hopefully Mori will be so impressed by the product that they’ll let me—that they’ll be all right with Nadia.”

He means, That they’ll let me keep her.

“What if they want her as the prototype?”

“I haven’t lied to her,” Paul says. “Not ever. She knows she might have to get the upgrade to preserve herself, that she might end up belonging to the company. She accepts it. I thought I had, too, but I didn’t think she’d be soI mean, I didn’t think I would come toin the beginning, she really was no one.”

Mason remembers the first time Nadia ever looked at him; he knows it isn’t true.

They sit quietly for a long time, Paul looking wracked as to how he fell in love with something he made, like someone who never thought to look up Galatea.

***

She’s waiting in the library, and it surprises him before he admits that of course he’d look for her here; he had a map.

He doesn’t make any noise, and she doesn’t look up from her console, but after a second she says, “Some of these have never even been accessed.” A castigation.

He says, “These are just reference books.” He doesn’t say, I don’t need them. He needs to try not being an asshole sometimes.

She glances up, then. (He looks for code behind her eyes, feels worse than Paul.)

“I love books,” she says. “At first I didn’t, but now I understand them better. Now I love them.”

(She means, Are you going to give me away?)

He wonders if this is just her, or if this is his algorithm working, and something new is trying to get out.

“I have a library at home,” he says. (He means, No.)

She blinks, relaxes. “What do you read?”

“Pulp, mostly,” he says, thinks about his collection of detective novels, wonders if she thinks that’s poor taste.

She says, “They’re all pulp.”

It’s a sly joke (he doesn’t think it’s anything of his), and she has such a smile he gets distracted, and when he pulls himself together she’s leaving.

“I’ll walk you somewhere,” he says. “Paul and I won’t be done for a while.”

Clearly Paul told her not to trust him before he went in to spill his guts, but after a second she says, “Tell me more about your books,” and he falls into step beside her.

He tells her about the library that used to be the guest bedroom before he realized he didn’t have guests and there was no point in it. He explains why there are no windows and special light bulbs and a fancy dehumidifier to make sure mold doesn’t get into the books.

(It’s also lined in lead, which keeps Mori from getting a look at his computer. Some things are private.)

Her expression keeps changing, so subtle he’d swear she was human if he didn’t know better.

She talks about the library at Alexandria, an odd combination of a machine programmed to access information and someone with enough imagination she might as well have been there.

(Maybe this is immortality, as far as it goes.)

She mentions the Dewey Decimal system, and he says, “That’s how I shelve mine.”

“That explains your code,” she says. When he raises his eyebrows, she says, “It’s … thorough.”

(Diplomacy. Also not his.)

“It has to be,” he says. “I want Vestige to be perfect.”

He doesn’t say, You.

“I know,” she says, in a way he doesn’t like, but by then they’re standing in front of Paul’s office, and she’s closing the door.

This floor has a balcony overlooking the atrium.

He sticks close to the wall all the way back.

***

He goes home and erases her avatar from his program.

(Not like he cares what she thinks, but there’s no harm in cleaning house.)

***

Marketing calls them in for a meeting about the press announcement.

They talk a lot about advertising and luxury markets and consumer interest and the company’s planned stock reissue and how the Patents team is standing by any time they want to hand over code.

“Aesthetics has done some really amazing work,” Marketing says, and Mason fakes polite interest as hard as he can so he doesn’t stare at the photo.

(It’s not quite Nadia; it’s close enough that Mason’s throat goes tight, but it’s a polished, prettier version, the kind of body you’d use if you wanted to immortalize your greyhound in a way society would accept.)

“Gorgeous,” Paul says, and then with a smile, “is she single?” and the Marketing guys crack up.

(One of them says, “Now now, Paul, we’re still hoping you can make a studio match—HR would be pleased,” and Paul looks admirably amenable for a guy who’s in love with a woman he thinks he made.)

It’s only Paul on the schedule to present, of course—Mason’s not a guy you put in front of a camera—and it’s far enough away that they’ll have time to polish the code.

“Naturally, you should have the prototype presentable ASAP,” the Marketing VP says. “We need a pretty face for the ads, and we need her to have her personality installed by then. Aesthetics seems to think it’s already in place, in some form?”

The VP’s face is just bland enough not to mean anything by it, if their consciences don’t get the better of them.

Don’t you dare, Mason thinks, don’t you dare tell them for a chance to keep her, second-gen or not, it’s a trap, not one word, think about what will happen to her.

(She’s still a doll, he thinks, deeper, ruthlessly; something will happen to her eventually.)

“I don’t know a thing about the particulars, I’m afraid,” Paul says, and having thus absolved himself he throws a casual look at Mason.

Mason thinks, You asshole. He thinks, Here’s where I rat him out.

He grits his teeth and smiles.

“We’ve been running tests,” he says. “Would you like to see Galatea?” Then, in his best Paul impression, “She has a crush on Paul, of course.”

The Marketing guys laugh, and Mason pulls up Galatea on his pad, and as the lights go down he catches Paul glancing gratefully in his direction.

He hates how strange it feels to have someone be grateful to him; he hates that it’s Paul.

***

Paul walks out with the Marketing guys, grinning and charming and empty, and from the plans they’re making for the announcement and the new projects they’re already asking him about, Mason suspects that’s the last time he’ll ever see Paul.

It’s so lonely in his office he thinks about turning on Galatea, just for company.

(He’s no better than some.)

***

LiveScribe: MORI PRESS CONFERENCE—VESTIGE, PT 1.

SEARCH PARAMETERS—BEGIN: 10:05:27, END: 10:08:43

PAUL WHITCOVER: From the company that brought you Memento, which has not only pioneered the Alpha series real-time response interface, but has also brought comfort to grieving families across the world.

It’s this focus on the humanity behind the technology that is Mori’s greatest achievement, and it is what has made possible what I am about to show you. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: Galatea.

[MORIVESTIGE00001.img available through LiveSketch link]

[APPLAUSE, CALLS, SHOUTS]

PAUL WHITCOVER: Galatea isn’t human, but she’s the nearest thing. She’s the prototype of our Vestige model, which shifts the paradigm of robotics in ways we have only begun to guessif you can tear your eyes away from her long enough.

[LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE]

PAUL WHITCOVER: Each Vestige features critical-thinking initiatives so advanced it not only sustains the initial personality, but allows the processor to learn from new stimuli, to form attachmentsto grow in the same way the human mind does. This Vestige is built on a donor actressanonymous, for now, though I suspect some in the audience will know who she is as soon as you talk to her.

[LAUGHTER]

In seriousness, I would like to honor everyone at Mori who participated in the development of such a remarkable thing. The stock market will tell you that this is an achievement of great technical merit, and that’s true. However, those who have honored loved ones with a Memento doll will tell you that this is a triumph over the grieving heart, and it’s this that means the most to Mori.

Understandably, due to the difficulty of crafting each doll, the Vestige is a very limited product. However, our engineers are already developing alternate uses for this technology that you will soon see more ofand that might yet change your world.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for being here today. It is not only my honor, but my privilege.

[APPLAUSE]

Small-group interviews with Vestige will be offered to members of the press. Check your entrance ticket. Thank you again, everyone, really, this is such a thrill, I’m glad you could be here. If you’d

***

The phone call comes from some internal extension he’s never seen, but he’s too distracted by the streaming press-conference footage to screen it.

Paul is made for television; he can practically see the HR people arranging for his transfer to Public Relations.

(He can’t believe Paul carried through with Nadia the Aesthetic Consultant. He can absolutely believe Paul named her Galatea.)

“This is Mason.”

There’s nothing on the other end, but he knows it’s her.

He hangs up, runs for the elevator.

***

Nadia’s on the floor in the library, twitching like she got fifty thousand volts, and he drops to his knees and pulls the connecting cable out of her skull.

“We have to get you to a hospital,” he says, which is the stupidest thing that’s ever come out of his mouth (he watches too many movies). What she needs is an antivirus screen in one of the SysTech labs.

Maybe it’s for her sake he says it, so they can keep pretending she’s real until she tells him otherwise.

“It’s the baseline,” she says, and he can’t imagine what she was doing in there.

He says, “I’ll get you to an Anti-V, hang on.”

“No,” she manages.

Then her eyes go blank and flat, and something inside her makes an awful little click.

He scoops her up without thinking, moves to the elevator as fast as he can.

He has to get her home.

***

He makes it in seven minutes (he’ll be paying a lot of tickets later), carries her through the loft. She’s stopped twitching, and he doesn’t know if that’s better or worse.

He assumes she’s tougher than she looksGod knows how many upgrades Paul’s put her throughbut you never know. She’s light enough in his arms that he wonders how she was ever expected to last.

He sets her on one of the chaises the Mori designer insisted mimicked the lines of the living room, drags it through the doorway to his study.

He finds the socket (behind one ear), the same place as Memento; rich people don’t care for visible flaws.

He plugs her into his program.

It feels slimy, like he’s showing her into his bedroom, but at least Mori won’t monitor the process.

Her head is limp, her eyes half-lidded and unseeing.

“Hold on,” he says, like some asshole, pulls up his program.

(Now he’s sorry he deleted her avatar; he could help her faster if he had any framework ready to go.)

The code scans. Some of it is over his headsome parts of her baseline Paul got from the black market. (Black-market programmers can do amazing work. If he gets out of this alive, he might join up with them.)

He recognizes a few lines of his own code that have integrated, feels prouder than he should.

He recognizes some ID stamps that make his whole chest go tight, and his eyes ache.

Paul’s an idiot, he thinks, wants to punch something.

Then he sees the first corruption, and his work begins.

***

He’s never worked with a whole system. It’s always been lines of code sent to points unknown; Galatea was the first time he’d worked with anything close to a final product.

Now Nadia is staring at the ceiling with those awful empty eyes, and his fingers shake.

If he thinks of this as surgery he’s going to be ill. He turns so he can’t see her.

After a while he hits a stride; it takes him back to being twelve, recreating their apartment in a few thousand lines of code, down to the squeak in the hall.

(“That’s very … specific,” his mother said, and that was when he began to suspect his imagination was wanting.)

When he finishes the last line, the code flickers, and he’s terrified that it will be nothing but a string of zeros like a flatline.

But it cycles again, faster than he can read it, and then there’s a boot file like Galatea’s, and he thinks, Fuck, I did it.

Then her irises stutter, and she wakes up.

She makes an awful, hollow noise, and he reaches for her hand, stopsmaybe that’s the last thing you need when you’re having a panic reboot.

She looks at him, focuses.

“You should check the code,” he says. “I’m not sure if I got it all.”

There’s a brief pause.

“You did,” she says, and when her eyes close he realizes she’s gone to sleep and not shorted out.

After some debate he carries her to the bed, feeling like a total idiot. He didn’t realize they slept.

(Maybe it was Paul’s doing, to make her more human; he had planned for better things.)

***

He sits in front of his computer for a long time, looking at the code with his finger on the Save button, deciding what kind of guy he is.

(That’s the nice thing about programs, he always thought; you only ever deal in absolutesyes, or no.)

***

When he finally turns in his chair, she’s in the doorway, watching him.

“I erased it,” he says.

She says, “I know,” in a tone that makes him wonder how long she’s been standing there.

She sits on the edge of the chaise, rolls one shoulder like she’s human and it hurts.

“Were you trying to kill yourself?” he asks.

She pulls a face.

He flushes. “No, not that I wantI just, have a game I play, and in the game you jumped. I’ve always been worried.”

It sounds exactly as creepy as it is, and he’s grateful she looks as his computer and doesn’t ask what else he did with her besides watch her jump.

I would have jumped if I were you and knew what I was in for, he thinks, but some people take the easy way out.

Nadia sits like a human gathering her thoughts. Mason watches her face (can’t help it), wonders how long she has.

The prototype is live; pretty soon, someone at Mori will realize how much Vestige acts like Nadia.

Maybe they won’t deactivate her. Paul’s smart enough to leverage his success for some lenience; he can get what he wants out of them, maybe.

(To keep her, Mason thinks, wonders why there’s no way for Nadia to win.)

“Galatea doesn’t remember her baseline,” Nadia says, after a long time. “She thinks that’s who she always was. Paul said I started with a random template, like her, and I thought I had kept track of what you changed.”

Mason thinks about her fondness for libraries; he thinks how she sat in his office for months, listening to them talk about what was going to happen to her next.

She pauses where a human would take a breath. She’s the most beautiful machine in the world.

“But the new Vestige prototype was based on a remnant,” she says. “All the others will be based on just one person. I had to know if I started as someone else.”

Mason’s heart is in his throat. “And?”

She looks at him. “I didn’t get that far.”

She means, You must have.

He shrugs. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know,” he says. “I’m not Paul.”

“I didn’t call Paul,” she says.

(She had called him; she knew how he would respond to a problem. People are easy to predict.

It’s how you build preferences.)

If he were a worse man, he’d take it as a declaration of love.

Instead he says, “Paul thought you were standard. He got your baseline from the black market, to keep Mori out, and they told him it was.”

He stops, wonders how to go on.

“Who was I?” she says, finally.

“They didn’t use a real name for her,” he says. “There’s no knowing.”

(The black-market programmer was also a sucker for stories; he’d tagged her remnant “Galatea.”

Mason will take that with him to the grave.)

She looks at him.

He thinks about the first look she ever gave him, wary and hard in an expression he never saw again, and the way she looked as Galatea fell in love with Paul, realizing she had lost herself but with no way of knowing how much.

He thinks about her avatar leaping over the balcony and disappearing.

He’d leave with her tonight, take his chances working on the black market, if she wanted him to. He’d cover for her as long as he could, if she wanted to go alone.

(God, he wants her to live.)

“I can erase what we did,” he says. “Leave you the way you were when Paul woke you.”

(Paul won’t notice; he loves her too much to see her at all.)

Her whole body looks betrayed; her eyes are fixed in middle space, and she curls her fingers around the edge of the chair like she’s bracing for the worst, like at any moment she’ll give in.

He’s reminded for a second of Kim Parker, who followed him to the Spanish Steps one morning during the Mori Academy study trip to Rome when he was fifteen. He sat beside her for a long time, waiting for a sign to kiss her that never came.

He’d felt stupid that whole time, and lonely, and exhilarated, and the whole time they were sitting together part of him was memorizing all the color codes he would need to build the Steps back, later, in his program.

Nadia is blinking from time to time, thinking it over.

The room is quietonly one of them is breathingand it’s the loneliest he’s felt in a long time, but he’ll wait as long as it takes.

He knows how to wait for a yes or a no; people like them deal in absolutes.

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Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine

Genevieve Valentine’s first novel, Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, won the Crawford Award; her second novel, Glad Rags, is forthcoming from Atria in 2014. Her short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Fantasy MagazineClarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod, and in anthologies including ArmoredUnder the Moons of Mars, Running with the Pack, The Living Dead 2, Federations, After, Teeth, and The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, among others. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog at genevievevalentine.com.