"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." – Mae West
Linda was talking, but I had long since tuned her out. I could see her lips moving, bunching and parting around the sounds of things that I am sure she thought mattered while I waited for her to decomp.
I occupied myself by counting her freckles. There were forty six of them; forty seven if you included the fat double-splotch to the right of her smile as two separate blips. I made it to thirty five before a jolt ran through her and she straightened up.
"Oh, dear. I am terribly sorry. The time has rather gotten away from me." She looked embarrassed but excited too. As if she had been killing time before a date. "You won't think me too rude, I hope?"
I assured her that I would not and together we stood. It seemed unkind to treat her like a non-person-a bit like kicking a dog-so I walked her over to the little glass closet in the corner of the living room, opened the door for her, and grimaced a little at the too-clean antiseptic smell that came from within.
Linda, being a lady, slid the door closed behind herself and smiled politely at me for the few seconds it took her to dissolve into a pile of dust.
After she was gone, the closet tidied itself up with remarkable efficiency. The dust—an entire human body's worth of compartmentalized biology—was hurried down a shaft into a steel bin, there to be sorted and reprocessed.
I felt a momentary twinge of discomfort then. I had thought a conversation with an idealist might have turned the point of my malaise like another blade swatted fast across an epee tip, but evidently I had been wrong. I had spent most of Linda's two-hour life-cycle politely ignoring her. Clearly what I was craving was the company of another Permanent.
Rebecca's name blipped on my Minder the moment I finished articulating the thought—the slender plastic wristband anticipating my need. "Would you be available?" I asked, knowing full-well her preferences for her leisure time.
The response came back a minute later. "I am, so long as you don't mind spectating."
I shrugged, letting the Minder interpret the movement into a spoken response. At the same time, it began to warm up my towncar out on the tarmac.
As the last traces of Linda were scrubbed from the decomp chamber, I left home with hope in my heart.
The two men were muscular, sweaty, and only marginally dressed. With the crack of a racket, a blur of green-orange light bounded across the court between them, skipping once off of the ground and into a waiting backhand.
Rebecca was wearing one of those thin visored hats that casino dealers used to wear back when there were dealers or casinos in which to wear them. Its white cloth band lay cinched like a circlet around her summer-blonde hair while she sat back and watched the tennis game.
The two players were both Fabs. I could tell because they were enjoying the sport far more than any Perm would. Both men were grinning miles of white-as-lightning teeth, passing the ball back and forth into places it could have been impossible to extricate it from. Muscles coiled and uncoiled with rippling definition and Rebecca took this all in like a Roman senator.
"Once upon a time," she said without looking up from the action, "a match like this would have been all over the news."
"For tennis?" I sniffed. "Hardly."
Now she turned, arching an eyebrow. "For the level of athleticism on display, I should think. Among other reasons."
There was an open lawn chair beside her and an untouched glass of lemonade on a thin circular table, sweating in the season's clutches. I sat down and took a sip. It was sweet and cool with just a hint of pineapple-mint to complement the tartness. It was perfection, but my refreshment preferences were a publicly archived datapoint. All the lemonade meant was that Rebecca's Maker had an internet connection. Perfection was nothing special.
"So, Tom, what brings you here during leisure time?" Rebecca had on a short white skirt with a top to match. She folded one long, meticulously tanned leg over the other and fixed me with a probing stare.
I looked away.
"If it's counseling you want, you can Fab a sympathetic listener as easily as I can," she said casually, touching me gently on the leg.
"It's not that." I shifted in my seat, then dipped my eyes down towards the concrete, acknowledging the lie. "There are some things you just can't talk to one of them about," I amended.
"Why not? They are every bit as real as you or I."
Out on the court, one of the players missed the ball by a hair. It went skipping away to clatter against the chain-link fence behind him. Just for an instant, he seemed to deflate, the lost point sapping him of all his confidence. Then the fierce smile returned.
He had been fabricated to be competitive, but not cruelly so. He truly loved the sport with every fiber of his being. Just as he would love marching into the decomp chamber when it was time. He would stand tall and proud and then be a mess of molecules on the floor. Somewhere in that mix would be the constituent atoms of his smile.
"They don't always feel like they are," I said.
Rebecca fixed me with a pointed stare. "You are in a bleak mood."
I felt instantly ashamed. Here I was distracting her from the sport, ruining her enjoyment, and likely detracting from her work at solving the Problem.
"I'll see myself out," I said, my face burning with more than just the day's heat.
She let me go.
"The issue is that nothing feels real to me anymore."
From the other side of the couch, Linda nodded. She was dressed in a colorful sweater and jeans and my Minder had graciously lowered the indoors temperature to accommodate my choice in her clothes. I was still wearing a dress shirt and slacks and the conditioned air was chilly on my skin, but I didn't want to ask her to change.
"It's like playing a sim," I continued. "I'm just balancing meters—hunger, tiredness, social interaction, productivity—and it never ends. The days all blur and the Problem always looms and there's never anything different to think or feel."
I could see by her face that what I was saying had upset Linda and I felt a terrible flush of shame, but I pushed on anyway. I needed to get this weight of ennui off of my chest. Afterwards, I could Fab another Linda and just listen to her problems. I could make things up to the next iteration.
"I hate to see you like this," Linda said, pulling close. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Inches away, her freckles were constellations: a whole solar system in pips of pigment. I wondered if they each had their own Problem looming, just like ours. I wondered if the inhabitants of one freckle yearned to touch the others and if they would feel satisfied when they did.
"You're already doing plenty," I told Linda. "Just listening is enough."
Her smile was a sunrise, sweeping slow as honey-gold light across her features. "Really?" she asked. This was everything. This was the whole world to her.
"Really," I said, my stomach curdling. I turned away. "I'm sorry. I have to send you back."
I didn't look at her. I didn't want to see her face. She would be disappointed, I knew, but there would be satisfaction there too. A life completed.
I wished, just for a moment, that I was a Fab.
Linda respected the privacy of my thoughts, and so I heard the click of door hinges before I turned around. The machines above and below her whirred, and then the chamber was empty but for the settling of sediment.
The Problem, put in simple terms, was humanity's only remaining challenge. We had already solved all the other little hitches along the way to being a self-sustaining, technologically sound civilization. Power generation was functionally infinite. Our computing devices had been carefully stopped just short of passing a Turing test. Overpopulation had been settled with a controlled die-back shortly before the implementation of medical immortality, and the desire to breed vanished with a few years of counseling and a morning handful of pills.
The tyranny of distance, however, never let up.
In a perfect universe, we should have expanded as a species, sporelating amongst the stars, but for all our achievements, we had not been able to crack the secret to outrunning light. We were stuck, closed inside the coffin of our own utopia. We could send out generation ships, carving away chunks of planetary mass to throw like darts into the winding coils of the galaxy, but to do so meant selecting hundreds of thousands of otherwise immortal volunteers to die in their sleep a million years hence when their ark inevitably missed its target and eventually got suckered into an uncalculated solar orbit.
Instead, we had decided to hunker down and fight back against our own senescence. Every day, every Perm set aside four hours to brainstorm. Individual theories and wild conjectures were encouraged. A series of automated laboratories worldwide would test our hypotheses.
The hope was that one of us would eventually happen on the means out of our cage.
We all knew that it was slim, but apart from our own personal amusements, there was nothing else for us to do.
"Quantum mechanics," I said. "Outsourcing. We make contact with a neighboring dimension and spin their electrons around until they tell us how they solved the Problem." My workstation dutifully recorded every inane word without comment.
"Super-cavitation," I said. "More booster rockets. Detailed study of movement at relativistic speeds."
My head ached, although not for any valid medical reason. I simply felt that I should be in pain and my body obliged.
"Mantis shrimp spectography. Study of non-human sensory perception. Analysis of possibility for post-light speeds of energy. Finished."
I pushed my chair back as my workstation clicked itself off. I was not sure if I had generated any original ideas. Even across my own lifespan, I was sure to revisit the same empty guesses every once in a while. The work station did not judge. It simply collected the data and released me from my obligations for the day.
I sighed, then walked over to the decomposition cabinet. It was programmed not to activate without a Fab inside of it. I stared at the bland, undecorated walls for a few minutes and then in deference to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution I decided to get very drunk.
Fabricating a bottle of fifteen-year Scotch was trivially easy, and so I dialed in a bottle of whiskey and one of bourbon to give the machine something more meaningful to do. My minder gave an agitated little chirp, notifying me that I was likely about to do something irrational. I curtly told it to shut up. Amber sloshed in a glass tumbler and burned smokey on my lips and in a few minutes I was not feeling any happier than before—I was just more honest about it.
"Catalog," I told my Minder. "Fabs. New template." An AR overlay spread open in the air in front of me.
"Linda," I said.
She was still wearing the sweater that she had on when I had sent her away. It flickered where my fingers brushed it.
"Sliders," I said. "Fundamentals. Show me."
Values and draggable bars sprang into being, covering Linda in metrics. Most of them were personality gradients—affection, professionalism, humor—but a few were more concrete. Ethnicity. Physical fitness. Longevity.
I stared at the last one.
Fabs were designed to have minimal impact on the global population. Mostly they were produced to fulfill a function for a few hours. They could still eat and hydrate and excrete, of course, but it was a rare thing if one of them needed nourishment. Mostly they took the first pangs of unsatisfied hunger with them to the dust chute.
"Longevity maximum?" I asked my Minder.
"One week," it said, its tone cold and irrefutable.
I set the longevity slider to max.
For the personality settings, I was more discerning. I nudged affection only slightly, taking it from neutral to friendly. I had experimented with it set to full only once, and the unreserved, helpless adoration had frightened me. No Permanent would ever feel like that about another. I had decomped Linda in minutes.
For professionalism I scaled the slider slightly back,and to compensate for it I added a touch of humor. The other parameters I left to my Minder to randomize—so long as they fell within statistically common values for Perms.
The result was slightly younger than my usual Lindas. She had lightly browned skin, dark eyes, and a piercing glinting in the flesh of her nose. She was wearing sweatpants and a t-shirt.
I got up and walked away from the overlay. What I was doing—assuming I even knew what that was—was not illegal. It was not even a flag for mandatory counseling. It still unsettled me.
"Fab it," I said.
The holographic Linda vanished from my living room.
Moments later, the door to the decomp closet opened and she stepped out. I had not programmed her with a specific purpose, and so she just stood there, bare toes digging into the carpet—blinking newly formed eyes at the room. Eventually they lit on me.
"Hi," she said.
"Hi," I echoed helplessly.
We had dinner together. My Minder generated a pair of Ducasse steaks, a platter of steamed vegetables, and a wine to pair. The new Linda fell upon hers like a starved animal. She had never eaten before, although this knowledge didn't seem to bother her. Between buttery, garlicky bites, we chatted.
Her hobbies had been established at random, so we spoke about painting and boating and star-gazing. The last topic startled me a little—most Perms had spent whole evenings staring up in stomach-clenching frustration at the night sky—but this Linda was persuasive. Grudgingly, I admitted that I might be able to see a kind of beauty in it.
When dinner was finished, I instructed Linda that I was going to bed. It wasn't uncommon to Fab a warm body to sleep beside, but somehow the thought of asking this Linda to fill that role was intolerable. I had my Minder make up the couch for her and retired to my own room.
My head was whirling, but the second it touched the pillow I was out cold.
When I woke in the morning, I had almost forgotten the night before. It lay on the other side of a gauzy veil, through which I could only peer.
That veil was torn away when I walked into the kitchen.
My new Linda was slouched against the refrigerator—a non-functional, decorative throwback piece—with the bottle of bourbon curled by its neck in one hand. Half of its contents were gone.
"Tom?" Her eyes were darkened creases. "I don't think I like being alone."
I took a step back. "What do you mean?"
"I didn't want to go to sleep last night because there's so much to think about. A whole world to consider. You know? So I stayed up a little bit and then this happened." She gestured clumsily with the bottle.
"Oh." I wasn't sure what else to say. I hadn't Fabbed her to have someone to supervise. I didn't have a list of the things she needed me to say to console her. I sat down on the cold floor across from her, fumbling and failing for the right words. "Do you want to talk about it?" I finally asked.
Linda glanced at the bourbon. "The first few sips were terrible. The next few were better."
"I mean, do you want to talk about why you couldn't sleep?" I pressed.
"The universe is too big," she said, clinking the bottle on the tiles. "There's too much to know. How do you stop thinking about it? How do you decide enough's enough?"
I froze. Fabs were supposed to have solvable problems. It was abuse otherwise.
I shifted topics. "I'm going to make you some breakfast," I said and stood up. As I did so, a platter of fried eggs hissed into being on the dining room table. "You should eat, and then you should get some sleep. There are pills in the bathroom if you need them. Can you do that for me?"
The Linda nodded.
"Good," I said. "I'll be back soon. There's someone that I realized I need to speak with."
The javelin's tip gleamed in the morning light, its shaft angled perfectly away from the ground. Thick hands held it loosely, their bold deco contours shining with sweat. With an exhale, the javelin leapt into the air. I watched it disappear into the distance.
"You have something different to bother me with?" Rebecca's eyes were hiding behind dark sunglasses but the edges of her mouth betrayed a smile.
"It's related," I said.
One eyebrow crept up from behind the rehab glasses. "How related?"
"What if you could make a Perm?"
She looked at me levelly—or at least I assumed she did—and said "I can make a Perm. I just don't particularly feel like breaching population law."
"What if you could Fab a Perm?" I clarified.
This caused the glasses to come off. "Just what exactly are you wasting your time on?"
"I mean, it would still be a Fab," I continued, "but what if you gave it a Perm's personality?"
"That's morbid," she said automatically. Her javilineer was trooping back now, marching across the lawn with his recovered prop on his shoulder. "And it would probably get you a psych eval."
"It wasn't for a particular Perm, and it was kind of an accident." I folded my arms across my chest.
"You've actually done this?" Now she sounded titillated. She waved towards the Fab to continue his demonstration and then turned her beach chair to face me. "You're insane," she said calmly.
"I told you it was an accident," I snapped. "And now it's acting all depressed. What do I do?"
"Decomp it," answered Rebecca.
The javelin vanished skyward again as I turned away.
Her name woke her. I was sitting on the edge of the end table, just a few feet from the couch. She blinked blearily and her eyes slowly came to a fix on me.
"If something's bothering you, I want you to come talk to me," I said. Then, without pausing to think about what I had just done, I went back to my room to lie down for a few more minutes in the dark.
"Tom." Her voice cut through my brainstorming.
"Pause," I told my Minder and looked up.
Linda was still looking haggard around the edges. The skin under her eyes was pouched and puffy and there was a crease running the side of her cheek where a pillow-edge had dug in. "You said I should come talk to you." She sounded abashed. "Is this a bad time?"
I glanced at my Minder. Three hours and fifty five minutes remained on the clock. "No. It's okay," I said, turning all the way around in my seat to face her. "What's wrong?"
"How do you find purpose?" she asked without preamble.
My thoughts shuddered to a halt.
You didn't find purpose. It was given to you in the shape of the Problem.
So long as you were a Perm, at least.
"Maybe you just pick something," I said, trying to draw on old, pre-longevity dramas for inspiration. "Find something that you care about a whole lot and just go for it. Prioritize happiness."
Linda seemed to think about this for a long time. Finally her expression cleared and she stepped away. "I can do that," she said.
Four hours later I disconnected from my brainstorming session to find my library in pieces on the floor. Linda had emptied the contents of all three of the hardwood shelves onto the carpet and was sorting through them. Her hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail and there was a look of intense concentration on her face.
"Don't step there," she said, not looking up. "You can walk on the other side. There isn't much of value over that way." Linda pointed to a series of small swaying towers of leather-bound display volumes. "That's where I'm putting the tragedies."
If I asked her to decomp herself, she would go. Right away. The Maker did not produce Fabs without a failsafe. My library could be tidy again with a blip of my Minder.
"What are you doing?" I asked instead, hunkering down by the piles of displaced paper.
"Fixing it," she said, her forefinger tracing a path down orderly lines of ink.
"They're just decorative," I said. "They're not broken." Or they hadn't been, up until a few hours ago.
Linda's finger stopped where it was. She looked at me clinically. "It's unhappy," she said. "That's the same thing."
"Come away from there," I told her gently. Following her pre-conditioning, Linda obeyed. She threw a conflicted look over her shoulder as my Minder beeped and her handiwork flickered and vanished back onto the shelves. "There's nothing wrong with the books. They're just meant to look nice. It doesn't matter what's inside."
Later, when dinner rolled around, Linda still seemed listless, so that night I took her boating.
"I must admit," Rebecca said, nipping a piece of melon from her skewer, "You've gone from being a bit of a bore to a genuine curiosity."
A riotous spray of water fountained into the air as if to underscore her words. The diver surfaced moments later at the other end of the Olympic pool. He climbed back out onto the grouted tiles that ran its circumference, his body streaming, and Rebecca allowed herself a satisfied smile.
Nettled, I snapped "when have I ever been a bore?"
"Oh, Tom, we all are. It comes with permanency. Don't pout." Rebecca was a good deal older than I was. She had been alive at the time of the dieback and rich enough to purchase her longevity as well. From the outside, we might have seemed no different—perpetually frozen in our early twenties—but at times like this a wider chasm yawned between us.
"Well, I'm glad you think I'm droll," I said, watching disinterestedly as the diver padded back to the narrow white board, leaving evaporating footprints on the sunwarmed tiles. In a few hours, he would be vanished along with them.
"I never said you were that." Rebecca put her skewer aside. "I'm just glad I convinced you to bring your fascination with you."
Linda sat a few feet away, absorbed in a book. Its pages fluttered in a passing breeze. She had declared it the happiest one in the library. The least broken.
On its spine a title was picked out in gold. The Great Gatsby.
She was still a quarter of the way from the end.
"You have an opinion, then?" I asked Rebecca, a little coldly.
"None at all. I'm merely enjoying the novelty. Have you decided what you're going to do when the week is up?"
"What do you mean?" I asked, more sharply than I had intended.
"Will you go back to being a bore?"
I was going to answer, but a crash of water cut off my reply.
It was some time after midnight when I felt the pressure on my back—a palm, pressed lightly through the sheets. I rolled onto my other side to find Linda standing at my bedside, her eyes unreadable in the dark.
"I finished it," she said.
"What?" I managed groggily.
"The perfect story. I finished it. I was wrong. It went all to pieces in the end."
I fumbled for the meaning in the words. Missed.
She sounded distraught.
"Sometimes stories are like that," I said. "They swerve at the last possible moment, from happy to sad or the other way around."
Linda didn't move. She was holding her right arm at her side as if it had been wounded. "Then they're broken," she said. "That's what a thing that can't be happy is."
I felt a knot of words swell against the inside of my throat, all of them together jamming it closed. I wanted to tell her to lie down, to sleep beside me, but my morals recoiled. She had not been made for that task. Her feelings for it would be complicated. Conflicted. She would obey, but her thoughts would be a tempest.
"Go back to sleep," I said finally.
Instead of hearing dutiful footsteps padding away from the room, I felt a sudden weight settle on the edge of the bed. Through the blankets, an arm draped around me.
"I want to be here instead," she told me.
We stayed that way until morning.
I counted the hours again. They were thinner than they seemed.
Linda and I sat on the couch together, our shoulders just barely touching. We spoke occasionally, but the words did not matter. She was not reading. She had had enough of that for her lifetime, she told me when I asked.
There was a nervous energy to her—almost a jitteriness—and I could tell that it was from anticipation. She would be going to the closet soon. All of her uncertainties would be coming to an end.
I realized that I was envious.
"What's wrong?" she asked, feeling the anxiety pressing through my skin.
"Nothing," I told her. "You shouldn't go."
My Minder blipped. Not a violation. Just a warning that I was skimming perilously close to an eval. I unclipped it from my wrist. It bleated plaintively.
"Why?" Linda asked me. Her eyes were unreadable.
"Because it's the last thing you'll do."
She smiled radiantly. "Isn't that perfect?"
My Minder was silent now, and I knew that meant the eval recommendation had been sent. It would not chime again unless it reasoned I was about to break the law.
There hadn't been more than a few minutes left on the timer when I had taken it off.
Linda inhaled slightly and my stomach tightened when I thought she was about to stand, but then she let the breath go and smoothed the creases from her sweatpants.
I thought about how it had felt to have her lying beside me. Fragile. Impermanent.
I thought about a tiny pile of dust, draining away into a steel basin.
When she did stand, I stood with her. We crossed the carpet in matching strides. Her face quirked with something almost like distraction. Or irritation.
This was supposed to be her moment. Hers alone.
Because she was a lady, I held the glass door open for her—and because of an unguessable need rising inside me, I slipped in after her.
From the couch, my Minder blared an alarm.
There was barely enough room in the chamber for us both to stand. We had to press tightly together.
The closet door clicked closed behind us and I felt the lights overhead begin to warm.
Maybe it wouldn't take me, I thought.
Maybe we would both live forever.