The Human Factor (from Evil Eyes).
Being in the software design business has an advantage: we're somewhat resistant to softcore mindsoft. Once, on a train, someone shoved an MMR be-mod program into my PFX. It converted my twisted mind into that of an innocent, martyred spirit and took control of 99 percent of my will and behavior. But in the deepest room of the soul, a ghost lay screaming into the glorious false dawn.
Scattered strategically around the clean, spacious lobby, potted plants block prying eyes. Attention to detail paid mindlessly. The extreme discomfort of sinking into a sickeningly comfortable sofa. If I could, before it kills me, I'd make a break for it and go back to that horrible grave, even for just a moment. Please. Let me go, right now, and leave me there forever!
Sometime later, the PFX throttles down as it switches to remote control, and the tension is released. Hard, jerky breaths and fast heartbeat. Mind Reformation, no doubt about it. No one cares if a child makes a mess in the toy box.
PFX and MMR. Competitors. One the producer and seller of mind-stabilizing devices integrated with the mental-health care system, the other the propaganda bureau of a religious cult disguised as a popular movement. The difference is there, but negligible, amounting to whether or not the hand of God is visible. Liberalism vs. totalitarianism. One limits options in the name of free choice, the other offers only one choice as the supreme value.
Either choice is the refutation of the other. Belonging to one or the other is happenstance, fallout from a bad experience.
Young man in dark suit walks in, fiddling with remote control, rolling the small device between his hands. One slip and my brain goes ghostly for real. Gentle smile on his lips. The long, slender fingers of a tech. Luckily, not trembling.
"Sorry to have kept you waiting. This isn't our normal business. Please excuse our rudeness."
"What's your business? I'd appreciate it if I could finish as quickly as possible and go home ..." Finger touches remote. "I don't want to go home. Whatever thy will might be, for the great cause, I embrace my rebirth after extinguishment of life in this world, achieved spontaneously, without will ..."
Puzzled expression. "I turned the control off right away."
"I can recite from memory, I've been here before. What do you want, anyway?"
A stunned pause. "I advise you to quit the stupid acting. Mugen Daishi prefers more refined jokes, as you already know."
"Wants to see me, does he?"
"Come this way."
"Why?" He takes the question on his back and disappears into the potted plants. Follow.
Mugen Daishi. Great Teacher Unmanifest. Silly name. What he has is not jokes, but hundreds of thousands of followers and the power to control them.
The PFX joint secretariat once tried to investigate him. Their best man came back with a giant amoeboid compressed into the cavity where his brain had been. As the single cell muttered the Spontaneous Unmanifestation Mantra through his mouth, his body was quickly absorbed into its vacuole. Legend has it that once it swelled to normal size, only the larynx remained at the top of a huge mound of light-green gel, bubbling out the mantra until it was reduced to powder in the freeze-drying room. Mugen may be a joker after all. But he's a man one rarely gets to see.
Elevator at far end of lobby opens as a matter of course, closes as a matter of course. Slender finger points to 50F, the top floor, as a matter of course. No feeling of gravity, pressure, or power. Indicator points to 50F, and the door opens on the 30th basement. A banal misdirection.
The lowest floor of the MMR building is Mugen's apartments. A long, long passageway. Silence. The winding passage dead-ends at black double doors. Bracketing the doors is a pair of muscular sentries, each with a 360-degree rotating sensor where its head should be. Their arms slowly rise, holding needle cannons.
Young man in suit says the magic words, a phrase from the Spontaneous Unmanifestation Mantra. The muscles take a prayerful posture, the doors open.
Darkness. Nudged from behind, duck through the door
Visual perception negative. A small sound echoes in the distance from somewhere above. Distant thunder. The words just come to me. In the 30th basement? A dazzling flash across my view briefly lights an endless deserted wilderness with one sad little tree. Another bolt from the dark sky splits the dry trunk in two. Blackish purple clouds boil. A wind begins to blow, heavy and humid, rubbing sticky contagious air into skin and moving on. A swamp wind. There must be a murky swamp nearby. Another flash.
And the voice.
We arise from the muck and return to the muck. Pitiful are the dust beings of this world, for they bear the burden of eternity without understanding. Wandering eternally, reaching nowhere, spontaneous accomplishment without manifestation.
Another bolt of lightning backlights the floating shadow of a small person. The wind blasts and howls.
Accomplishment without movement, shift without change. Error lies in choosing to make no error. The error unconsciously chosen escapes and transports without changing. To intend without accomplishing; to be without understanding.
Dramatic, you might say. The latest and most pompous version of the Spontaneous Unmanifestation Mantra echoes across the wasteland. A bright overhead light snaps on and melts the illusion. A small, clean room, like an intensive-care unit. Quiet breeze from the ventilator.
"I've been waiting for you, ghost," says Mugen Daishi.
A voice like a ringing bell. The only simile I can think of. It sits relaxed, two yards away on a leather-covered divan. Maybe only five feet in height. Golden plastic hair, overlarge eyes, huge head, smooth skin without shadows. But for the head, utterly hairless. Undistinguished clothes, no adornments.
Remember the plastic dolls of children? Imagine a much larger one. This is ...
"I am Mugen. Please don't call me Rikka-chan." The bell tinkles laughter. Sophisticated jokes, huh? Nothing but a bad pun.
"You mustn't complain about differences in taste. I thought this would suit you, but ..." The doll spreads its arms and shrugs. Another psy?
"Some use such expressions, those who can't help but rationalize everything. Tasteless talk. I just know you, that's all." I have things I don't want anyone to know.
My patience reaches its limit. "It may be unnecessary to you, but I'm used to using my mouth, so I will. What do you want?"
"My, we are impatient, aren't we? I was so looking forward to having a little chat with you, but ..." He seems to be trying to look sad, but only manages to distort the plastic face grotesquely. Poor at expressing emotions?
"Not myself, rather it's this container is so clumsy. Except for that, I like everything about it." An exoskeleton?
"We'll begin the explanations there. I could get straight down to business, but you wouldn't be convinced. Have a seat. The going will probably get a little rough."
"I don't like lectures. Keep it short."
"A most fastidious ghost. All right." In a relaxed pose, the doll crosses its unnaturally long legs. The squeak of plastics. As the torso turns, I see tubes and cables running from the hip to the back of the divan.
"You know who I am. But you probably don't know what I am, do you? I am mind." What in hell could he be talking about?
"Everyone has a mind."
"No, that's not what I mean. Mind without flesh. Understand?"
"What's this doll stuff then?"
"Only a container, as I said."
"Are its contents just illusion?"
"Not illusion. The content is me. Would you like to see?"
No. I imagine an exhibitionist Rikka-chan doll exploding her guts.
The reality is worse. The polarizing plastic turns transparent. Plastic walls divide the body into small cells, each filled with white blobs and viscous liquid, connected by a complex web of tubes and cables.
"This is it. This is me. Mugen is mind without flesh. Now you know." I look away and nod. Some might think that way. "Sure. No body cells, no organs, no muscles, no skin, no bones, only neurons. An entire body made of brain cells, right?" Monster! As I think it, my PFX takes off. Acute pain.
"Please don't use such expressions. I'm rather neurotic about them, I'm afraid." Right.
"But now you know what I am, ghost. I am mind. Mugen is a fleshless mind."
"Aren't neurons flesh?" The doll-shaped plastic bag full of neurons tilts its head and winks.
"Does the soul exist? Let us end this metaphysical dialectic. The answer is easy. Cells alone are neither flesh nor mind. Flesh and mind are specialized functions. If we fiddle around with matter, we get flesh, and if we manipulate ideas, we get mind. My cells are specialized in mind, therefore I am a fleshless mind. Did you never study James's psychology in your classical literature class?"
"I only remember chemistry, where I learned to brew and distill wheat. But why not contain yourself in an oval shell? From any angle, that container looks like nothing but, well, flesh."
"It won't anger me if you call it a doll, ghost. You're sweeter than I thought."
"It hurts more than you think."
"Mugen sees hearts, especially yours. Don't forget. But you ask a pertinent question. You hit me where I live." Laughing quietly, he picks up a picture from the side table.
"Look. To answer your question."
An old photograph, taken at probably three months old. The right chest is caved in as though gouged out. No arms. From the navel down it's covered with opaque plastic gauze, from which several tubes extend beyond the frame. Where there should be a face is a ripped canvas, the picture on it a failed abstraction. But why?
"This time you are brutally cruel. Must I say it? Sometimes I want to look like a man." No emotion in the bells. None.
"You got me wrong. Why do you have to explain this stuff. I don't get it."
"I prefer to undertake discussions with full understanding. Despite my appearance, Mugen is very much the gentleman." Mugen Daishi manifest as a plastic doll. As he says it, the extremely neurotic boss of MMR eerily folds his smooth face in the parody of a smile.
This is all immensely silly. Is Mugen crazy? Perhaps, but even so he remains, unfortunately, logical. People often go crazy logically, invariably working from bad assumptions.
"Well, what's your purpose?" I know the answer without asking, but if I don't ask, the meeting will never end.
"I want you. Your mind, your cortex, and the software design skills stored there." He begins to reveal himself.
"Do you plan to just scoop my brains out and smear them on yours?"
"Please don't speak so harshly. I'm sensitive, despite how I look. I don't want any part of such savagery. But I can transfer the necessary synapse patterns onto appropriate structures. The lobectomy is long out of fashion."
"How much do you weigh?" How many other people's nerve centers have you absorbed?
"Seventy-five pounds. I have taken in perhaps fifteen or sixteen people, plus several dozen pattern transfers. In terms of knowledge and experience, I can easily defeat you." A Polyannish giggle.
"And if I say no?"
"I don't understand why. I'm sure we can work something out. With money, for instance."
"And if I say my reasons are not resolvable?" In point of fact, there are no such reasons. Money exists to solve problems.
"If so, I'll only collect what you owe me."
"I don't remember owing you anything."
"I have an IOU. One fresh slice of cerebral cortex, several hundred grams. Five years ago, at the back door of this building, you were assaulted by a ruffian. The front of your head was caved in. I replaced the injured part of your brain with a new one and transferred all the memories, at tremendous cost I might add. Now I want you to pay me back. That's reasonable, isn't it?" He tosses some documents at me. There's even a copy of the police report.
He may be telling the truth. I'd been there to sell some avant-garde soft. I may have had my frontal lobe worked on then without knowing it. I don't sense any memory blanks, but it's easy to transplant continuous memories. As easy as bribing a cop.
"That's about it. Very good, ghost. You're exactly what I anticipated you would become. Quick connections."
"Did you predict me then?"
"Not quite. I created you."
"Yes. One or two distortions that would not be sufficient grounds for a malpractice suit. They make you enjoy the world a bit less than you used to and like drinking more. Don't forget this. There are plenty of would-be artists who bring us self-indulgent avantgarde software that has no hope of sale. Brain tissue transplants and memory transfers are very expensive, because the brain is of itself a total gestalt. But a hit product, with even just one individual, can recoup the investment and more." He widens overlarge eyes. Long, creepy lashes.
"Quite the entrepreneur."
"I told you, knowledge and experience."
"You value my skills that much? Flattering."
"Your skills suit my problem. The system I built does not connect quickly enough. Especially for upgrades. People are getting bored with the current version of the mantra."
"It's easy to crank out a good piece of software in a hurry. Set up a competitive-feedback matrix and toss the first chunk of code into it. The software evolves on its own, feeding on shreds from insignificant lives."
"Unfortunately, we must maintain a certain reputation. This is not the sort of business that is suited to capitalism, so we must proceed in a less conspicuous manner. Therefore ..."
"Therefore you use the back door, right?"
"But in good faith, you understand." He runs a hand up through the blond plastic hair and winks.
"If I say no, nevertheless?"
"I don't understand why."
"You created me. Me, the hit pop-soft ghost. Sure, I'm better off than I used to be. I'd have gotten nowhere if I'd stayed the same and went on fooling with that stuff. If I accept that, I suppose I should thank you for it." I bite the words off and spit them out.
"The past is dark to those who cannot see beyond themselves."
"Yeah, I do seem to have learned how to make software that sells."
"I'm always impressed by the charts." A breath. "Your songs, as well."
A beat. "My skill comes from my past, my own experience, what nobody else can really know. But I build it into my music in ways that anyone can understand."
"Such effort to communicate! I'm impressed."
"You get me wrong. I'm just spitting off the top of a well of poison to keep from drowning in it. It's not sublimation, otherwise I'd die of self-poisoning. That's why machines can't do mindsoft. It requires the craft of someone who refuses to die of poisoning."
"That's grand." Bells tinkle.
"One poison senses and reacts to another. In smooth words, that's the human factor. People live by smearing shit on one another. Those who smear well succeed, but what they smear is still just shit. Machines still can't be as dirty as people. Machines can't shit. Machines can't finish mindsoft."
"Such a misanthrope, ghost. We arise from the muck and return to the muck. My propaganda doesn't seem so bad now, does it? And then?" He listens, amused. I want to throw it all away and get it over with.
"So I can't give up my skills. Let's say I admit that I borrowed the medium they're stored on. And in it you buried a small nexus that controls me in the presence. Following the program, I became what I am now. My skills may have grown from your seed, as you intended. But it's not your power that's been refining them. It's my life, the shreds of my life and my past. My past isn't yours. My skills are my past."
I spit out my monologue and stand up. Which doesn't mean I can see a way out.
"I understand what you're saying. The words, anyway." The transparent doll filled with neurons slowly turns. An old picture on the table. He snaps plastic fingers and the heavy black doors open. The young man in the suit stands waiting.
"I haven't had such an interesting conversation in a long time. Let's call it a day now. No need to rush. Come again. In four or five days." He throws a kiss like a young girl, a grossly exaggerated mannerism. Dynamation porn.
"So long, Rikka-chan. I had a nice time, too." Trembling voice, exhaustion. As I walk away, Mugen addresses my shoulders. "Oh, and by the way, I've just remembered, there is one small flaw in your argument." I stop and turn reluctantly. His voice is too confident to ignore.
"That cortex I let you borrow is, actually, mine."
"I've heard enough of that bull."
"You're wrong. It's part of the cortex that constitutes me. In other words, part of what I was born with." I freeze. Neurons don't regenerate. That means ...
"Yes. You are part of me. You maintain your consciousness using me. What you call your experience and past is nothing but part of me."
"I've been having a little trouble recently. Some parts are getting out of hand. Parts not recognizing the whole is a problem. Anyway, don't forget this. You, who are whole to yourself, are, in reality, just part of me. You are me. I'm not always you, though." More bells. The heavy door closes at my back.
Later that night, I feel like straightening out the facts. I returned to the grave accompanied by the man in the dark suit. Several times I had the urge to ram a knife into my brain. This sort of disgust is unaffected by reason.
Many possible interpretations. The mind software business got started in the previous century as a by-product of the laws restricting psychoactive drugs, just as the Volstead Act had nurtured the underground liquor business. The ban on drugs necessitated something else to stabilize the mind, something to divert latent, chronic anxiety.
Mindsoft and cult religion. Service businesses of the same kind. They make money selling weights for people to hang on their worries. From his inferiority complex, Mugen developed a special collecting habit. Organ transplants and transactions are common. But what he chooses are cell structures that cannot regenerate, namely nerve centers.
Mugen's extreme neurosis led to the side business of renting out the storage media that he'd collected. He transplants part of himself, which retains a certain degree of distortion, into people with certain potentials and waits for the potentials to bloom. He demands payment once the storage medium is filled with information, enriched by shreds pulled from the bodies of other lives that the owner consumes to stay alive. His knowledge and experience swell, and he uses them to fuel his religious organization. Some call that rational management.
All this comes from the rarity of the storage media and the craftsmanship required for mindsoft production. If the mind could be recorded on disk, there'd be no problem about the medium. If the software could be finished by machines, there'd be no need for the craftsman. Technical constraints make Mugen's management policy effective, and that will continue for some time. The public is still conservative about the ethical aspects of human-machine integration. Some even oppose transplants. Now I can relate.
The medium is clearly not the message. Given sufficient recording capability, any medium will do.
But think about it, a situation in which an organ from someone else is creating my perceptions, my awareness of being myself. If the disk is clean, I'm more or less comfortable even if it's used. But wouldn't you resist a once-and-for-all test of your favorite program on an operating system with unknown and undetectable bugs? And the humiliation to have what I believed to be an independent self revealed as a slave to a master program. All these boil down to the human factor.
Translation by K. Odani and Steven Ayres
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Article Type:||Short Story|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2002|
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