Read Strongest Conjuration Online
Authors: Skyler White
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I opened my eyes, and the mudflats vanished, leaving a whiff of ocean and a tooth-deep case of the shivers. Phil, who had been reading on the sofa next to me, put a fat white mug into my chilled hands. He wrapped an arm around me with a whiskery, “Welcome back, Ren.”
I breathed in green tea steam and let the sensory jungle of reality drift into background. In the Garden, any detail that doesn't signify evaporates. Here, the cardboard smell of packing boxes and the snuffle from the kitchen of Susi at his food dish meant only that Phil had already fed the dog, and it was getting late.
“About four hours.” Phil answered the universal question of Incrementalists just back from grazing. “Learn anything?”
I shook my head. We both knew I wouldn't, but Phil's way of asking made it sound reasonableânoble, almostâfor me to burn vacation days trying.
“But you're still having fun?”
“Fun? I'm conducting important, potentially groundbreaking research here!”
He kissed the top of my head. “You're exploring.”
“Just mucking about,” I said.
Phil chuckled at the dumb joke. My Garden is infinite brackish mud. His is a villa he admired two thousand years ago in Rome, a sprawling decrepit beauty. Oskar roams a gritty, burgeoning late-eighteenth-century Paris. You'd think a UI designer could do better, but no. I'm the interface designer with a bad interface.
“Hungry?” Phil nudged me. “I've waited very virtuously for cheese and crackers.”
I needed to eat, but Phil's shoulder, snug and muscular against mine, was feeding something emptier than my belly. “Let's wait for Ramon,” I said and, to stay curled next to him a little longer, added, “What do we call him now anyway?”
“I call him Ray.”
“He hates that.”
“I mean, what do we call him now he has boobs and a PhD?” I said, and the doorbell rang. “Jesus, he's early.”
Susi skittered into the room, delighted to alert us to the bell surely only he heard. Phil stood and caught him by the collar.
I'd meant to straighten up the front room, at least. Phil's coffee, my tea, the electric cup warmer, and both our laptops cluttered the table, and we still had no place for coats.
Phil opened the door with a funny little bow. “Welcome to our humble home,” he said, as he always did.
I chucked the cup warmer in a drawer and collected our mugs.
Ramon shook Phil's hand with the severe economy of motion I remembered from his previous body, despite Sarah's softer curves. He had the thickest eyelashes I'dseen on anyone over twelve. “What a great house,” he said. “Ren must have picked it.” He handed me a bottle of wine.
“Anima Negra,” I read. “Spanish?”
“Mallorcan,” he corrected. “A new winery, but it tastes like â¦ It tastes right.”
I let Susi outside to play, and Ramon opened his housewarming present that tasted of his home. Phil sautÃ©ed garlic in a mix of olive oil and butter, and we all ate cheese and crackers while Ramon caught us up on his death and new Second. “It was poorly timed,” he conceded. “I was unprepared.”
“Very careless of you.” Phil's tone was light, but his knife went
through the fat red peppers with a keen, hard edge. He'd spent a lot of time at Casino Del Sol during the days we'd waited to learn whether Ramon's memories and personality would survive the spiking ritual. “Damn lucky we already had a recruit lined up,” he said.
“For Irina's stub, yes.” Ramon glanced at me, but I kept my face neutral. Or full of crackers, which is mostly the same thing.
“Irina can stay in stub,” Phil said. “Doesn't bother me a bit, not two months before all-of-us-but-mostly-Phil-get-naked-in-front-of-everyone day.”
“Who's calling it that?” Ramon had always halfcloaked his laugh in a modest cough; in Sarah's throat, it sounded half-undressed.
“Me, mostly.” Phil shrugged oneshouldered, chopping steadily. “But almost everyone agreed we needed you out of stub and integrated by the twenty-fourth.”
“Almost everyone?” Ramon raised sculpted eyebrows.
“Pretty much.” I fed Phil a generous hunk of cheddar on a melba toast. “The Incrementalists going public has a lot of people really excited.”
“And I was seen as rather a wet blanket?” Ramon studied the scarlet lip print on his wine glass. “I never opposed this course of action,” he said. “But I find enthusiasm in our ranks, as in law enforcement, troubling.”
“We should only do what we don't like to?” I teased. “Not a recipe for job satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction is for finished work,” Ramon said. “Its anticipation is self-indulgent. Incrementalists should undertake only what we begin reluctantly.”
“I'm reluctant,” Phil said.
“You're nervous. It's not the same. In 1856 you were reluctant.”
Phil met Ramon's eyes and threw peppers in the hot pan.
I could graze for what meddlework Phil had undertaken reluctantly more than a hundred years ago, but I would never share their memory of it. Celeste had seen to that. “Want to tell me the story?” I asked.
“Later,” Phil promised.
“It's not important,” Ramon said.
I guessed it probably wasn't, and went into the kitchen to be closer to Phil. I threw away garlic skins and pepper stems, a raven in the wake of his culinary war. “You'd think an Incrementalist would clean as he goes,” I marveled in mock wonder, “but no.”
Ramon smiled. “Some Incrementalists do.”
“Right,” I said. “Say âall Incrementalists breathe,' and Oskar would suffocate trying not to.”
“A potentially useful stratagem.” Ramon sat back in his chair. He studied his hands, tilting his red-painted fingernails in the light. “What do you do with your vestigial claws?” he asked, waggling them at me.
“They're the ultimate skeuomorphs, aren't they?” I raised my hands don't-shoot style, but rotated to look at my own nails. “I keep them short so I'm not tempted to paint them.”
“I tend to get experimental with color,” I explained. “But I forget about them, the polish chips and peels, and then there's a client meeting. Inevitably. And me with nails like scabbed knees.”
“It's a design term.” I began reuniting spice bottles with their MIA lids. “Things like rivets on blue jeans or, more mindlessly, the freezer
the fridge. When a new iteration retains as decoration a once functional element. UI designers borrowed the term for the way we'll appropriate the look or sound of real-world things to suggest ways of interacting with electronic ones. Call data packets
, and users will know to put them in
just like they know, intuitively, that clicking the little house icon will take them back where they began.”
Ramon nodded and turned to Phil. “Did those who opposed spiking my stub into Sarah Waverly's body do so on those grounds?”
“What grounds?” Phil looked up from the sink where he was filling the pasta pot.
“On the grounds that breasts on my body would be like wings on a chicken?”
“Delicious deep-fried with hot sauce?”
Ramon sighed. “Skeuomorphic,” he said.
“Something like that.” Phil hoisted the filled pot onto the stove. “We debated whether your mind would function as well in her brain.”
“And whether you'd hate it,” I added.
“No.” Ramon cupped Sarah's breast, evaluating and abstracted. “I may prefer it. A body has never been what defines an Incrementalist.”
“To Ray.” Phil raised his wine glass. “Every bit as rational, now twice as pretty.”
Ramon lifted his glass in manicured fingers. “It's Ramon,” he corrected, and the worry pinching Phil's eyebrows finally let go, if only incrementally. It really was Ramon. The trust between them went hundreds of years back, and Phil needed him there.
3. His Castle
In the glow of Ramon's wine and Phil's rustic pasta, our new house felt more ours for having shared it. I emptied Ramon's bottle topping up his glass, and Phil went down the hall for a new one.
“So, Ren,” Ramon said, spooning himself seconds from the ancient earthenware dish, “what have you been working on?”
It's a question every Incrementalist has an answer for, and I did, my work just wasn't meddlework. Ramon inclined his unfamiliar head in his familiar way, and my curiosity spilled over into the silence he held open. “I'd actually really like your insight,” I confessed. “I've been trying to figure out how the Garden actually worksâthe mechanisms of how it stores and shares memoriesâand you're the first Incrementalist since Celeste to get a new Second without shading.”
“Is this professional interest?”
“Not really. Sort of.” I held Ramon's eyes, and felt Phil's as he came back in with the wine. “Yes, my agency has a client who's working on an electronic model of human memory, but it's primitive. They're trying to remediate pathology, not enhance capacity. Honestly, if the Garden is to memory what the microprocessor is to computation, the rest of the world is still doing math on its fingers relative to us. Nobody's even dreamed of building something with the kind of scope the Garden has.”
“Somebody has.” Ramon put a neatly coiled forkful of pasta between his studiously lipsticked lips.
I shrugged. “I'm not really, here or at work. An electronic version of the Garden would be years away, even if it's possible, and it probably isn't. I just want to know how, when one Incrementalist seeds a memory, the rest of us can graze it and remember too. Is there some actual, external
we all shareâsome resource only Incrementalists can access? If there is, what is it, and how do we interface with it?”
“You're not looking for a physical object or location?”
“Of course not.”
“And why is my recent stub and Second relevant?”
“I've been concentrating on the spiking ritual.”
Ramon just waited.
“Designers study edge cases,” I explained. “Extreme users, handicapped users. Sometimes you can learn more about typical-use scenarios that way than you can from focusing just on the meaty part of the bell curve. I was hoping to find out something about our memory from the one thing that We Who Remember forget.”
“We don't forget anything.” Ramon wiped crumbless fingers on his napkin.
“So you remember what turned Sarah Waverly into Ramon Llull two weeks ago?”
“Of course not.” Ramon refilled my glass from Phil's new bottle. “But I didn't forget. One can't lose what hasn't been made.”
I took a long, red swallow of wine, Ramon's precision irritating me precisely. I started to brush off the quibble, but quibbles can be clues. He was right. I put my wine back down. “Okay,” I said, thinking it through. “You're saying you have no memory of your stub getting spiked into Sarah because you didn't make a memory of it. But why wouldn't you? Maybe it's something about how the spiking ritual handles memory directly?”
“A stub is not a memory,” Ramon said.
“Okay,” I conceded. “That's true. Stubs are more than just memory. And they're weird in other ways, too. They're made automatically when an Incrementalist dies, instead of being seeded. They vanish from the Garden once they're used, instead of staying permanently.”
I looked from Ramon to Phil. They both nodded, so I kept going, working it out for myself aloud. “A dead Incrementalist's stub is what transfers his memories, his personality (sometimes), and his access to the Garden into the recruit's mind and body. It's what turns one of Those Who Forget into one of Those Who Remember.”
“We don't call ourselves that anymore,” Ramon said.
“Right. I know.” Some quibbles are just too quibbly. “But maybe there's something about the transfer of access
the Garden breaking contact
the Garden. Does gaining the collective memory somehow make you forget how you learned to remember?”
“Maybe.” Ramon turned to Phil, whose eyebrows did the who-me? dance.
It was a cute look, and I smiled out of habit, but I had a fish by the throat, and they're slippery and don't have necks.
“Your personality stayed intact through the spike,” I pressed Ramon. “But if it hadn't, Sarah would have become the newest Incrementalist. Unless something broke for her like it did for me, she would have inherited your memories and your access to the Garden. But she wouldn't have gotten
Garden. Your metaphor, your grid of x, y, z and alpha axes would have shaded with you. Sarah would remember it, but she'd experience the Garden through a new, unique metaphor of her own. If she wanted to remember one of your seeded memories, she would need to remember your coordinates, like you have to remember the navigational metaphor of whoever's stub made you an Incrementalist.”
“Jaime.” Ramon inclined his head in respect.
“Right,” I said.
Most Incrementalists cherish a nostalgic affection for the personality that shaded when they were spiked. Mine tried to kill me, so I really don't. I took a long, restraining sip to keep from buffaloing Ramon's moment with my eagerness. He raised his glass in a silent toast, and I continued, “Oskar believes the Garden is an inexhaustible resource, a bottomless soup pot limited only by the number of spoons. What if understanding how the ritual transfers access to the Garden lets us make more spoons?”
It was Ramon's turn for a too-slow sip.
I grinned at Phil. “We could share the Garden,” I said. It would make a fitting revenge on the secretive Celeste to open up the Garden to more people. “It might even let us make an electronic backup. Phil sure would have been happier waiting to get you out of stub in advance of get-naked day, knowing nothing you knew had been forgotten.”