Shan Tiree is trying to listen to music as the car finds its way through Nuevas Colinas. Unfortunately, someone, and that someone is Shan, has left the car’s settings at levels appropriate for the Sunset Cooperative. The car, therefore, keeps reporting possible pedestrians, and then a moment later correcting those pings to indicate that what it’s really sensed is animal life, mostly dogs and birds. Shan tries to remember the voice commands to change the car’s settings, but it’s quite a sequence. It’s deliberately long because it’s not the sort of thing you want to change accidentally when you’re trying to find the nearest habitation. Finally Shan gives up, settles for playing the Stones louder than the notifications and resolves to have the manual go through its unroll on the way back to Sunset, no matter how dull that’s going to be.
Actually, it’s pleasing that there’s so much life up here. Shan hopes to hear about a bear, maybe, but already Shan’s margins are pumping compensators about Shan’s (genetic and raised, damnit) heightened sense of danger. A report of something that actually could harm a person might send the margins into the slight nausea of recalculation mode. Shan’s system, like that of just about everyone Shan knows of their own age, just wasn’t made to deal with the continuing relative lack of danger in the New Situation. (It still feels weird that those words are getting more capitalised every day.) Most danger, turns out, is because of other people. If the co-op managed to grow its population, then danger might return one day. Hooray. The emptiness all around Sunset feels like it should be dangerous, but actually there’s more and more clean water out there, and the dogs are still afraid of people, and the co-op can now test for pathogens a mile away. There’s only a kind of philosophical danger, something Shan has experienced a couple of times on these rounds, the way that the emptiness can inspire religious awe, can get people feeling a need to fill that space with some higher presence. They all know how dangerous that could be.
“How far to Dr. Kay’s house?” Shan asks.
“Couple of blocks,” says the car. “If we were in Sunset. Which we aren’t.”
It’s been using exactly that speech structure in answer to almost every question. “In kilometres?”
“Two point three.”
“Thanks,” says Shan, because it’s part of their self-measurement process to always be polite. They’ve also vowed to never assign personhood to objects, a tendency in human beings that goes deeper than genes or upbringing. Put a face on a balloon and humans will start treating it as a person, while, perversely, not always granting actual human beings the same status. But hey, in this situation, Shan can’t be both polite and exactly correct about the non-personhood of the car. Shan is, these days, just about managing to square the circles of their own personality, so that tiny inner conflict doesn’t bother them much. Right now, all these clashing parameters in their head are just about enough to stop the co-op asking if they’d consider having children. Which, honestly, is how they want things to be. “Car, sing along to ‘Only Rock ’n’ Roll.’”
“But I like it,” says the car.
“Welcome to the house I haunt,” says Dr. Kay, opening the door and saying that immediately like Shan is an old friend and he’s been expecting them.
That gives Shan a moment’s pause. “Good morning, Dr. Kay. I work for the regional government. I’m here to assess your needs.”
After the round of appropriate introductions, vocal and device, he leads them down the stairs. The house is one of those old bunkers, fabricated inside the hill at the centre of a small clearing, woods all around. Shan had to park the car at the closest point and had found no sort of track to the front door. This was the sort of place that had been quickly and roughly built in the time when suddenly anyone who had the privilege of resources found they could build anywhere because there wasn’t anyone to stop them. And of course there was ‘new land’, land without law, to build in. The earnest simplicity of the fabbed wood, knots recurring only at the sort of pattern level a free mind could perceive, spoke to the kind of person who saw places like this, incredibly, as a return to nature. It spoke to Shan of billions dying just over the other side of the hills. Still. Still. Shan tells themself to not go there. Not good for them, not good for this unbiased evaluation of whether or not Dr. Kay is a danger to himself or to others. If Shan judges him to be so, the co-op will consider whether or not to hold judicial proceedings, such as they are, a jury sitting without any actual judges, then possibly have him arrested, or detained for his own safety, and brought into the co-op to do useful work while being more closely monitored. They’ve done this three times in the last year, which is an exponential growth of the range of law. Not everybody in the co-op wants law, or wants it to extend beyond the fence. And indeed, this visit feels kind of weird to Shan. They had to get that introduction pre-cleared on their ethics score, because it very much doesn’t tell Kay what the stakes are. But if it did, it could put Shan at risk. Kay’s law enforcement records have been lost, and the records of his scientific career are patchy like they’ve been erased in places, which is a pattern that speaks of military employment that’s been hushed up. What this visit is about is whether or not his subsequent rush toward isolation and the eccentric encounters he’s had with the few people who’ve seen him since point to anything sinister. What Shan really is going to have to work on their ethics about is the assumptions they’d made when they got here. Plenty of absolutely social people now live in places like this. The emotion Shan just felt was an ethics kink of their own and no reason to feel negative toward Kay. They have to take care to be neutral about this procedure.
“What do I call you?” he says, as the office area proffers beverages.
“Noted.” He points to himself. “We.”
Shan is more disappointed than angry. And they still have to deal with this man neutrally. So, they’ll start by pretending to take this slur at face value. “Ah, should I change the records? You’re down with us as a ‘he’.”
He nods, eager. “Changing the records would I think be a great idea at this point. Yes. Yes.”
Oh. He means it. Or did he just realise he was being offensive and back out from that posture in what he thinks is a tricksy way? There’s something weird about the way he’s looking at Shan. It’s childlike. “Have you had an accident of some kind? How are you feeling?”
“Do you mean exciting to yourself, or—?”
“Everything’s exciting.” He gestures to the house. “I’m we, but all this, this is the ghost of a pronoun. I mean it displays aspects of what such a word means, as a ghost has features, aspects of humanity, not that I believe in proscribed conceits like ghosts, before you ask, I don’t want to blunder into losing points, where was I?”
Oh. He knows he’s being assessed on a points system. And was that a little look of annoyance on his face just then, as if he shouldn’t have given away that he knew that? “I’m…not sure I follow.”
“I’m saying all this has gone beyond being a he or a she or a they and it’s definitely no longer an it. It has unique features, emerging features, of its own. Like it was going woo and wearing a sheet. Metaphorically.”
He’s lived alone a long time. Shan is making allowances. They’ve seen numerous people who’ve been brought into the co-op being as random as this. But, equally, this feels like the babble of other men of his age who’ve maintained the cultural identity Kay seems to belong to. Or, Shan corrects themself again, who Shan is inclined to believe he belongs to, because they’ve seen no real sign of that other than that he seems to think he’s revealing enormous truths like he’s the chosen one. “I’m sorry, you’ve lost me. What do you mean by ‘all this’?”
“Follow me,” he says. “And what I am now will become clear. I want you to meet Lucifer.”
He takes Shan to a tall mulching tube that forms, oddly, the centrepiece of the living room. It extends upwards, presumably into the next floor, and down into the one below. It’s transparent, and inside Shan is surprised to see not compost but…it’s definitely something organic, but it doesn’t resemble plant life. It resembles strata of marrow, veins, and wires too, with cells and LEDs threaded all the way down the column.
For the first time Shan feels unsafe. Has he got a body in there? Why has he called it by such a provocative name? But again, names, myth-uses, it’s only indicative, not concrete. Shan hasn’t yet felt able to assign any points to Kay either way. “What am I looking at?”
“Enhanced memory re-processors. Re-processors are like…” He gestures up and to the left, which is where he must think most people still look for their supplementary information. Shan finds themself oddly comforted by the gesture. “Afterburners. What those things apparently did for jet engines, but for neuron interactions. You know how a free mind is grown out of any sort of interaction, and recognised when those interactions reach the Turing Point? What was the last system to do that on its own? An election season, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, yeah.” Shan does indeed quickly consult the air for that one, vaguely hoping he notes that they keep the access point straight up now. Because nobody seems to feel that a sudden upward eye roll is a sign of biohazard anymore. Ah, that was why Shan had enjoyed him making that gesture. Because the currently fashionable one always did trigger Shan just a little. “Across three specific media platforms. And for a year or so after a couple of hundred humans also had to be recognised as part of that mind, but then it started communicating for itself, and they were allowed to legally separate themselves.”
“And the time before that it was that soap opera.”
“It prefers to be called a drama now.”
“Right. I keep setting you off on the need to correct me, don’t I? I apologise. It’s only because I’m not all here.” He points to his head.
That was again a bit of a firework display of possible points in both directions, that, exactly like fireworks, left nothing much to go on afterwards. “Do you mean you’ve had memory lapses, or—?”
“I mean all of what I used to be is no longer in this skull. Some of it is in here.” He puts a palm on the surface of the tube. “This is Lucifer. Right now at least. This is what I’m describing. We can find and even encourage free minds in the wild, as it were. We set up gardens for them, wait for the right conditions, but sometimes even then they don’t arise. We are barely starting to consider how to go about making one from scratch. Indeed, some physicists, which is typical for them, have even said the conditions of this universe preclude us from understanding enough about a mind to make one.”
Shan doesn’t think there have been physicists with the necessary resources to form theories like that for decades, so presumably he’s talking about the past. Shan has been moving their eyes to get the air to follow the key words in this field vastly divorced from their own specialisations. What they’re seeing in annotations around Kay’s speech, the words of which are preserved in mid-air, supports his story so far. These are speculations based on collective research, albeit very old research, and include no warning signals about conspiracy disorders. Still, Shan doesn’t like being lectured to without consent. It’s a marginal case for a points loss, in fact, maybe they’re now teetering on the edge of definitely going in that direction. But despite not asking for it, Shan is interested now that it’s arrived. Which loses them a point or two in their own internal reckoning, which they compare to the vast array at the end of each day. One should not tread on consent after the fact, even, but what the hey, it’s themself they’re oppressing. “Go on.”
“I experienced some interesting stress symptoms in the wake of moving up here. I started to feel that the many conflicting impulses in my mind were getting less and less amalgamated with each other into a single being.”
Here, finally, are some classic symptoms, possibly heading vaguely toward the “danger to himself” category. “I have some meds with me and am able and qualified to fab whatever else would fit your neural contact points.”
“No, thank you. I would have said yes to that back then. Like a shot. But I came to value the clash between the points of view. To become interested in the differences. In what they said about the creation of people within minds. If I may—?”
Oh, now he makes the rather genteel spinning gesture with his hand that’s meant to be asking permission to continue in a conversation, but these days actually comes over as enormously patronising. Up here though, off the smallnets, would he even know? Shan can’t make themself reply with the relevant gesture. But they are interested in something about this that’s suddenly got very relatable. “Sure.”
“I set up a neural link between myself and the brain material I’ve grown in this tube—”
So he has got a body in there? “And what was the source of that material?” Shan slaps an alert ready in the air to have the car ready to go outside. All they have to do is get to it and throw themself in. With stairs involved.
“A crow, I think. I found it dead in the woods, but not yet decomposed.”
Shan relaxes, just a little. Then they tense again when they remember something. Their compensators are getting a hell of a workout today. Shan had kind of expected that, though. “Wait a sec. You’ve been saying ‘I’. I thought you were ‘we?’”
Kay beams all over his face. “I am me, but Dr. Kay is me and…” He suddenly runs for the stairs, then, a moment later, steps back up them when he sees Shan hasn’t followed. “Follow! Follow!”
Shan slowly does. Kay keeps giving them orders, which is either down to a worrying cultural background or a possible isolation disorder. Shan wonders if maybe there’s a reluctance on their own part to start making judgments here. They’re very aware of their own glass house. They were chosen to do this because they’re so self-critical ethically. Maybe the co-op should have chosen someone who didn’t care so much. But then where would they be? Shan is pleased they were chosen. They must remember they’re pleased that this is difficult. It should be.
On the next floor down is a study, which is more like a museum of the pop culture of previous centuries, some of which screams worrying cultural references to Shan and some of which screams that they must find out if that show is archived anywhere. Kay is pointing to what looks like a media distribution hub, the sort of patched-together compromise that was still just about being used when she was a kid. It’s got the logos of a few old shows and movies stuck to it, again in the way redolent of how those days got. Shan supposes they hugged their culture close to their chest back then. The titles skew in all directions according to her visual notes, no landslide of violence-aggrandising order shows, but a few. And a few things which still played. The hub is connected to the same sort of wiring she saw below, with tubes of the same sort of…organic matter plugged into it.
“And so is this,” Kay continues his sentence from upstairs. “And…” And he heads downstairs again.
Shan follows him in the end through three lower floors, in which he points to locations with similar installations in some sort of store room, an empty bedroom that looks like it was designed for a child, a kitchen that strikes Shan as kind of wonderful and homely, and a pod full of hydroponics. That’s where they end up, at the base of what looks like the same column Shan first encountered. Kay has said ‘and this’ every time. Now he points again at the column. “There are twenty-seven of them all in all, at various places around the house. They’re all me.”
“You’re saying you…took aspects of yourself and…put them into other…objects?”
“Not objects.” He sounds offended.
Shan stomps on a kneejerk urge to apologise. They don’t know yet what the status of these containers is, and being precise about what’s an object and what’s a person is central to Shan’s own ethical check-in. “But, putting that question aside, that’s what you did?”
He takes a moment of pacing to get past his anger. “I pruned an outgrowth, replanted it and encouraged it. And was thus free of it myself. And thus I ceased to be all of Dr. Kay, because I no longer have in me several things that are Dr. Kay.”
“So who are you?”
“Part of Dr. Kay, which is why I answer for him, but beyond that…I’ve been thinking about a name for myself. But self-description, especially in these circumstances, is difficult.”
“That’s telling. Because you sound to me like a whole person. I haven’t been struck by any lack of personhood on…” But actually, Shan realised, they had. There’d been that moment of wondering if he’d been injured. “No, okay, I have. But still. Are you sure you haven’t just…” Actually, whatever he’d done, if he’d really done it, didn’t deserve that ‘just’, because it would be no small thing, scientifically speaking, or probably ethically. It might be that he was punishing himself for something, locking up parts of himself. The question then would be what had they been guilty of? And was he thus still guilty of it? “Why are you so sure these are individual persons?”
“For one thing, because this…nation of me…they talk to me as individuals.”
“They talk to you?” And Shan didn’t like that phrase about him being a nation very much either. That was highly reminiscent of new frontier cant. But again, not quite, not enough.
“You want proof, of course. You can talk to them yourself. They stay in their own worlds mostly, talk to me about days that I’m not having, but quite banal versions of an average day for me, really, like dreams that don’t seem to be about very much. When they talk to me they realise that these were dreams and sometimes they get kind of annoyed about that.”
“How would I talk to them?” Shan is not prepared to be hooked up to any sort of gizmo. Not by this guy. No way. But, their compensators keep reminding them, they keep hitting points where Shan expects Kay to erupt in sudden, violent action, and every time he just keeps talking. Shan has muscles from working the co-op and Kay is frail and unarmed. But, but, but, the eternal but that may always sit there at the centre of such conversations between men and others because there have been decades of trying to shift it and it’s still damn well there.
“I’d like you to allow them access. I’d like you to believe me.”
“My office doesn’t confer me with the power of official belief.” That’s meant to be a joke, but Shan is sure it came out sounding like official belief is a thing.
“I want you to believe me, not your office.”
Shan doesn’t like the sound of that. But it kind of shaded into him being lost, needing someone to believe him, not needing to present something in a peacocky way. Is it his weird range of expressions and body language that’s keeping Shan guessing about his motivations? “If I agreed, how would I ‘allow them access?’”
Kay beams all over his face. It must seem to him like he’s winning them over, but actually Shan just wants to hear more, to see more expressions, to finally somehow decide. “It’s my theory that, once in a blue moon, electrical signals from a human brain would get randomly amplified by, I don’t know, a cosmic ray impact on that brain or some kink in the electromagnetic background and get broadcast out of the skull. We’re talking tiny signals and lots of insulation, so I’d say it happened maybe a handful of times in all human history. And no, there’s no need to check that theory in the air, it’s pure crank stuff. In the 1970s, a lot of research was done into what they called ‘psi’ and it was all bullshit, nothing that couldn’t be put down to mathematical error and chance, because they were hunting for something, I think, that just didn’t happen while they were watching, and maybe not for centuries either side.”
Gah. Please say or do something that doesn’t walk on a fine line. “And why is this relevant?”
“Because I’ve amplified these parts of me and haven’t put insulation in the way. I’m surprised you haven’t felt the voices in your head already. They’ll all be trying to connect to your brain, to talk to you.”
And this time Shan actually takes a physical step back. Their compensators do their work. There’s a pause while Shan kind of looks around the corners of their mind, trying to hear anything.
And then, oh God, they find it.
Is that their imagination? It feels like their imagination. It’s their own…Shan doesn’t know, does the voice inside their head, their own imagined voice, sound like their speaking voice, or could it sound like anyone’s? Because a voice like Dr. Kay’s is saying to them, carefully, over and over…
“Please, listen to me! Please listen to me!”
Internally, somehow, Shan kind of says that they are.
“Oh thank God!” says the internal voice, more clearly now. “Listen. Don’t believe anything he says. I’m the real Dr. Kay. In the glass tube. He split me off, he split off lots of other parts of himself, anything that might get in the way, anything of conscience. I found all the archetypes inside my mind, from the maiden to the fool. He threw them away too. He’s the one that’s left. He’s the trickster, he’s everything evil in human beings. He’s Lucifer.”
Shan tries not to react. Their compensators are now in overdrive and they feel full-on nauseous as a result. But at least it’s given them a poker face. Hopefully. Wow. Well, now they have their answer. If this is some kind of trick, then it’s a full-on attempt to scare Shan. If it’s not, then inviting them into an area when other voices can enter their mind without warning them first is a definite violation of their consent, but…only in as much as inviting them into a room not having said there’s a crowd in there, because all these minds can do is talk, right? Okay, that’s a point off. But only a point. Which doesn’t really square with how vastly uncomfortable Shan feels right now. Not that the co-op will believe any of this. Anyhow, Shan needs to find a way to slowly head back up each of the stairwells and get to the car. So, let’s talk as if this is fascinating stuff. “I think I can hear something. It sounds like…something one of them is making up?” Shan has to ignore the shouting that statement causes from the mind the physical form of which…oh, Shan kind of automatically looked at the tube Kay already identified as Lucifer.
Kay is looking between Shan and the tube. “Oh, is he telling you what he tries to shout out every time a vehicle passes in the distance? Other people being around wakes him and the others up from their lovely dreams. I guess him lying like that is why I plucked him out of here and put him in there, that’s what the trickster does. “Help, help, I’m trapped in here by the evil doctor!” I swear, I feel I’m a lot less evil without that old guy inside me.”
Shan has no idea what to believe. “Could I maybe hear from another of them?” Like, maybe one of the ones upstairs? Maybe as high up as possible? Shan glances upward, trying to nudge him in that direction.
“Sure.” They head up one flight again, and here is indeed another voice that could also have been Shan, broadcasting into their imagination once again. This one is saying also that it’s the real Dr. Kay, that what’s out here in the body is Lucifer. Is Shan just picking up the same one again? No, now they’re both talking at once.
And Dr. Kay now has an expression on his face that’s quite clear in its meaning, not at all walking a fine line. He’s eagerly awaiting something.
A new thought is in Shan’s head now. Either they’ve come up with it themselves or it’s been said to them. Which it is has suddenly become strangely complex. “How…how did you make this transfer? I mean, did you need some sort of attachment between you and the tubes?”
“No,” says Kay. “If you stand here long enough it just kind of happens.”
Shan finishes up the paperwork in the air as quickly as possible, asking no more questions about Kay’s work. They walk stiffly up the remaining stairs to the exit, their body still anticipating having to run. But no trigger moment comes. Kay follows, offering pleasantries, saying come again.
Shan lies in the seat in the car as it drives through the night back toward Sunset. Dr. Kay, they think to themself, has maybe found a way to grow free minds, so what does it matter if he thinks of it in very peculiar terms?
Shan wakes from sleep a while later to find themself still in the car. It’s diverted itself because of bears. Shan has missed a bear. Dr. Kay, they think to themself, has maybe found a new therapy that might be useful for all kinds of conditions, so, sure, let him have his weird archetype fantasies.
Standing outside the car, Shan stares out at the emptiness. The weight of it still gets to Shan. The horizon so far away and flat seems to demand something to fill it, seems to ask to be part of a map that could be folded shut. Into that gap can come a serpent. Into that gap should come a serpent. Into that gap will come, woken again, ever sleeping, ever woken, the thing that is always there in human beings.
Into that gap should come.
(Editors’ Note: Paul Cornell is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2021 Paul Cornell