NEW FICTION: AN EDUCATION OF SCARS by Philip Brewer

Paul Raven @ 02-03-2009

This month’s fresh fiction at Futurismic is another examination of the ways small and alarmingly plausible advances in science and medicine might affect people’s lives in the near future. This time out, Philip Brewer delivers a dark and touching take on the classic love triangle in “An Education of Scars”. Let us know what you thought in the comments – and enjoy!

An Education of Scars

by Philip Brewer

I was just two steps from escaping the party by slipping out onto the terrace when I spotted Hostess and Investment Banker Pickering watching me. She didn’t say anything, but her expression of reproach stopped me. I ducked my head.

“Oh, stop it, Peter,” she said. “I invited you to the party to cheer you up, not make you miserable.”

I did my best to look happy.

Hostess Pickering sighed. “Is there anybody here you actually want to talk to? I’ll introduce you.”

I looked around.

The floor was a shimmering sea green. Forty or fifty people drifted back and forth in couples and small groups. Outside it was night, but the terrace was lit just enough to keep the windows from turning into mirrors.

“Peter? I’m not going to introduce you to the terrace.”

I snapped my head back and looked again at the people.

Then I saw a woman.

Hostess Pickering noticed and turned to see who I was looking at. “Oh, Peter.”

It was hard to tell how old she was. Her hair was red; her gown the same green as the floor. She had scars on her face.

The scars made long, red tracks across cheek, forehead, and jaw. One ran from hairline to cheekbone, the half-centimeter through eyebrow marked by a tiny white streak. The scars looked almost like ritual scarification, except that they were just random slashes.

She was standing by herself, watching the party. Then she turned her head and looked out at the terrace.

I don’t know how long I gazed at her. Finally, I looked back to Hostess Pickering, who looked unhappy but led me across the room.

“Davida, let me introduce Mycologist and Programmer Peter Delacor. Peter, this is Artist Davida Anwyl.”

Now I was doubly intrigued. Was artist her vocation or her avocation? And what kind of art?

She offered her hand. She wore gloves, which was very much not the fashion. Not light and lacy, they were sturdy, like work gloves.

Her gown left her shoulders bare. Her skin was pale, translucent. She had no freckles, as if she had never gone out in the sun. Her lips were colored a shade of red that seemed odd for a red-head to wear, until I noticed that it was the same angry red as her scars.

“I can see programmer, I think,” she said. “But you don’t seem like a mycologist.”

I shrugged. “I have trouble sticking with an avocation. I did martial arts for a while. This year it’s mycology.”

She smiled, as if inviting me to continue, so I did.

“I spent last summer hiking and camping in the mountains. I found the most interesting things were the lichens. When I tried to learn a bit more about them, I came to be interested in the fungus part. Hence, mycology.”

“I use fungus in my art,” she said.

“Good evening, Peter.”

I turned to see who had joined us, although I should have recognized his voice.

“Competitive Athlete and CEO Khan! Good evening, sir.” I had almost spoken his vocation first out of habit, but avoided that faux pas.

Khan had the long, muscular arms and compact trunk of a wrestler. He could have passed for forty, but he had the ears and nose of a second-center. His skin was the color of terra-cotta, his hair very short. I didn’t know his ethnicity; he could as easily have been Native American, Tibetan, or Afro-Eurasian. With his money he could have had the ears and nose fixed, and I’d always suspected he kept his features that way so people would know he was old.

I was about to introduce him to Davida when he draped his arm across her bare shoulders.

Davida leaned up against him and turned her head so that her cheek nestled into the curve of his neck.

“I see you’ve met my wife,” he said.

“Yes, sir.”

“Tell me, how is that project of yours going?”

“Still up in the air, sir. Test runs have been satisfactory.”

“Weren’t you going to do a client demo about now?” He smiled broadly and turned his head just a tiny bit so that the corner of his mouth touched Davida’s temple.

She sighed.

“Yes, sir. The demo went well enough.” His smile was still broad, and I realized that he knew what had happened. Rather than give him the satisfaction of dragging it out of me, I went ahead and said, “But the client decided to cancel the project, even so.”

His smile faded. Perhaps I had cut his game short.

“Sorry to hear that,” he said. “Are there other potential clients?”

“Of course,” I said. “Any brokerage firm or investment bank might be interested. Or maybe a mutual fund or unit trust.”

He nodded. “Good luck with it,” he said.

“Thank you.” I glanced at Davida.

She straightened up, balancing her weight again on her feet and not on him. She put out her hand. “It was nice to meet you, Mycologist and Programmer Delacor,” she said.

“And you, Artist Anwyl.” I released her glove.

This time I made it to the terrace.

The upper half was visible from the party, so I went down, past the gardens, past the row of bronze nymphs, until I came to the pond. It was still, and there were no crickets, just the occasional quiet splash of some night creature in the water.

Hostess Pickering found me there and sat down next to me. She didn’t say anything for a while, then said, “I thought you might enjoy a party, after your disappointment yesterday. I had forgotten that you used to work for Khan.”

“Just did some contract work for one of his companies, really. Only met him a few times.”

“Are you okay?” she asked. “I know you were counting on the demo to bring in your next round of funding.”

“No problem,” I said. I didn’t want charity. Even less did I want an investment. I’d already lost one business to disputes with an investor.

She didn’t seem to have anything more to say, so I said, “Thanks for sending a car to bring me here, but you needn’t have it take me home as well. I’ll just call one.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “The car is waiting for you.”

Hostess Pickering told the car that she wouldn’t need it until the next day and that it could garage itself once it dropped me off. When it stopped in front of my old apartment building, I told it not to wait for me to go in. I stood on the sidewalk until it was out of sight, then I turned and trudged the two miles to the self-storage space where I had moved the equipment I needed for my work, together with the few possessions that weren’t worth selling.

#

In the morning I left my sleeping bag open to air out while I walked to the fast food place on the corner to use the restroom. Even so, the small space still smelled of sweat when I got back. I made tea in the microwave. Without a stove, I made everything in the microwave.

My workstation took up about a third of the warehouse unit. Most of the rest of the space was occupied by a big VR exercise rig. With the new fashion being neural pick-up systems where you don’t have to actually move, the rig hadn’t been worth selling. There was about three feet in between, space for either my sleeping bag or my desk chair.

I’d been working for half an hour when my scheduler told me that Khan’s scheduler wanted to set up a meeting so I could demo my software for a hedge fund he was involved with.

I hesitated, but just for a moment. I didn’t have any other potential clients. I let my scheduler set up an appointment for the next day.

Then I tried to concentrate on coding, but found I was thinking of Davida. After half an hour with nothing to show for it, I gave up and climbed into the VR rig. I set “No weapons, multiple opponents, skill level: 0″ and spent a long time chasing down hapless monsters and battering them to death with my bare hands. I didn’t quit until my knees trembled and my arms were so tired that even zero-level monsters posed a threat.

I managed to focus long enough to fix a minor bug that had embarrassed me during the previous demo, then gave up.

I spent the rest of the day studying the expression of surface proteins on fungal spores. I didn’t actually learn anything, but what’s an avocation for, if not to distract you when you can’t focus on work?

#

I decided not to dip into my dwindling savings for a car; it was only a twenty-minute walk from the closest bus stop to Khan’s home and office.

His door software admitted me to the vestibule. Khan kept me waiting only a minute.

He had a large office. On one side, three upholstered chairs and a sofa were arranged around an oriental rug. On the other side was an oval conference table. In between, where I would have expected a desk, was a leather chair with a view of the city behind it.

Three men were waiting, a stock analyst and squash player, an economist and pianist, and an investment banker and gardener. Khan introduced us and explained that they, together with Khan, ran the hedge fund.

They sat down and gave me their attention.

“The evidence is pretty strong,” I began, “that AI investment software outperforms even the best human investment advisors. Only an AI can take in all the information on market trends and economic activity and use that information to anticipate market shifts before they occur.”

I had made the same presentation two days before, to the firm that had paid for my work on the prototype. But my contact had left the firm and her replacement had decided not to go on to phase two.

“The AIs currently on the market use a neural net structure which is slow, expensive, difficult to maintain, prone to error, and hard to diagnose when it does make a mistake.”

It helped that I didn’t really want to work for Khan. My stress level was very low. That’s the sort of thing that people like Khan are good at reading.

“Those programs are complex because they are trying to solve an intractable problem: predicting the behavior of a chaotic system with millions of individual actors, each with a different situation and a different agenda.”

I had done my presentation without any visuals up to this point. Now I brought up the main display for my software on a screen.

“My system is smaller and simpler because it is trying to solve a smaller, simpler problem. It doesn’t try to predict what the market is going to do. It predicts what the AIs are going to do.”

They were impressed. But not impressed enough to commit to support my plans for phase two. Khan’s counterproposal was to buy exclusive rights to the prototype for one month, with an option to extend. They’d spend that month testing the prototype, while I implemented just a few of the features I’d planned for phase two.

The money Khan offered would support me for months at my newly lowered standard of living.

I accepted.

Davida was in the main hallway as Khan walked me back to the front door. She wore wide-legged draw-string pants and a sleeveless top. Her hair fell in loose curls about her shoulders. She did not offer to shake hands, but she smiled. Khan kissed her as he passed and her smile widened.

When I got home, I wasn’t sleepy. I climbed into my VR and set it for “Edged weapons, single opponents, skill level: 9.”

Each time I lost focus, I felt the simulated burn of cold steel. Biofeedback.

#

I was fairly productive for the next several days, implementing the features at the top of Khan’s wish list.

When I wasn’t working, I spent a lot of time in VR. Mornings I was chased by monsters while I ran, dodged, climbed, and pushed rocks and trees out of my way. Afternoons I drilled with weapons. Evenings I practiced unarmed combat.

I left the intensity setting for simulated injuries to the maximum. It helped me focus.

#

As soon as I had the first set of additional features, I spent a day at Khan’s home and office, setting up the improved prototype and teaching one of his assistants how to use it.

Around mid-day I broke for lunch.

Khan didn’t have a terrace like Hostess Pickering, but there was a shaded patio with a table and a view of the back garden. I served myself lunch, still hot in the insulated containers I’d brought it in. The fragrance of basmati rice was not quite overwhelmed by the cardamom and coriander of the lamb curry.

Davida came out and sat across from me. She had a salad sprinkled with whole small flowers. Through the rich aroma of my own dish, I could just make out the scent of chives.

“Tell me about your art,” I said.

Davida looked thoughtful, as if deciding how to begin, but then said, “Tell me about your other avocations, before mycology.”

So, I told her about the martial arts. I told her about studying with real teachers in real dojos and about studying with software teachers in VR. I talked about Aikido and the other arts I’d studied.

She gazed at me as I spoke, and I found myself trying to decide if her eyes were green or hazel.

When I fell silent, she asked, “Did you just study, or did you compete in contests?”

“I did compete,” I said, “Both in person and in VR. I came to enjoy the VR, where you don’t need to worry about hurting your opponent, or about being hurt.”

“Why did you switch?”

“I got tired. Not of the training, but of the people who chose VR martial arts as their avocation. Some were serious, but many were vain and foolish. They would make simulated costumes with elaborate decorations that were supposed to be impressive but were just stupid.”

“Did you?”

I hesitated, then nodded. “For a while. I changed avocations when it got too painful to watch all these other people acting just like me, one year younger.”

Khan came out and joined us. He had some kind of flat bread that wasn’t pita or chapati. He ripped off pieces one-handed and used them to eat a dish of vegetables in sauce.

“How have you been testing your software?” Khan asked after several minutes of silent eating. “I’m speaking of the correctness of the predictions.”

I had given him documentation that included test plans and the results of the testing I’d done, but I didn’t point that out. “The hard part is getting actual data to compare the predictions against. I was never able to justify the expense of subscribing to one of the services, just to provide test data.” That sounded better than saying I hadn’t been able to afford such a subscription.

“So, what did you use?”

“There are a few news agencies that publish presumptive AI activity based on an after-the-fact analysis of market activity. Some companies with commercial AI services publish their results on a delayed basis for marketing purposes. I gather as much of that sort of thing as I can and pull it together.”

Khan nodded. “So you don’t try to match any particular AI, just the general behavior of the AIs taken as a group.”

“Right. But the AIs all tend to behave similarly, because they’re all trying to do the same thing.”

“If the commercial AIs all produce about the same result, why choose one over another?”

I shrugged. “They compete mostly on speed. One that produces the same advice as all the rest but comes up with it thirty seconds earlier is worth a lot. That’s what my software is supposed to do.”

Khan smiled. “I’ve got contracts with several of the AI services. We’ve been running your software against them for a couple of hours now. There’s a pretty good match. And your software is often as much as five minutes ahead of the AIs.”

Khan had eaten quickly. He stood and left with his empty plate, nodding at me and at Davida before he left.

Davida sat silently, looking at what was left of her salad, one chive flower pushed to the side, as if saved for the last bite.

Although I was still a bit hungry, I said, “I think I’ll go for a little walk. Stretch my legs before I sit back down at a workstation.”

“May I come with you? There’s a path just above the house that’s rather nice.”

She put on a jacket of some light but tightly woven material, gloves, and a hat, a sort of extreme version of a French legionnaire’s hat. Instead of just a flap over the back of the neck, it had the cloth cut to wrap around the throat as well.

In the shade of her hat it was harder to see her scars. I hardly noticed them, yet not seeing them made her face look different. It made her seem less herself.

“Isn’t it hot, wearing that?”

“Not really. Keeping the sun off helps. And it’s very light-weight fabric. The breeze comes through more than you might think.”

“I had wondered how you kept your skin so pale,” I said.

“Pale skin was a little exotic where I grew up,” she said. “I was encouraged to stay out of the sun.”

“Where are you from?”

“My parents were Welsh,” she said. “But I grew up in China.”

“Is that where Khan is from?”

“I don’t know,” Davida said. “I don’t think so.” Then she pointed out some lichen on a rock and asked me about it, and we talked about fungus for some time.

We took to walking together every day after lunch. She asked me about myself. I told her, and talked about my plans for the future. But whenever I asked her the same questions, she’d change the subject and we’d end up talking about business or politics.

Only once did she say anything personal.

She had asked why I didn’t use my software to make money for myself.

I didn’t want to admit just how meager my circumstances were. So, instead of just pointing out that I had so little capital that even a great return wouldn’t amount to much, I also said, “It takes a certain tolerance for risk to bet a huge sum of money on what’s really just one piece of software’s guess about what some other software’s going to do.”

She put her hand on my face, the fabric of her glove soft against my cheek.

My mind was so fixed on the feel of her touch, that I nearly missed what she said.

“It’s real to you.” There was a faint note of surprise in her voice. She paused a moment, then said, “To Khan it’s just a game.”

I had almost made up my mind to kiss her, but then she turned away and we walked back together.

Everything else I did was wrapped around that mid-day hour with Davida. I spent my mornings at Khan’s home and office, matching the output of my software against that of the commercial AIs that Khan subscribed to. Then I spent the afternoons at home, trying to improve my model. Before and after, I worked out in my exercise VR, running from monsters in the mornings, tracking them down and killing them in the evenings.

#

Near the end of the month, Hostess Pickering sent a message asking me to come. My scheduler talked to her scheduler, then told me I should leave immediately. Hiring a car took a chunk of the money Kahn had paid for the prototype work.

At Hostess Pickering’s I asked the car to wait. Then, following the instructions I’d gotten from the scheduler, I walked around to the back of her house and down to the pond.

Davida was there, in a patch of shade near the pond.

She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and gloves. She sat on the ground, a few feet from the pond, turned so that the pond was on her left.

I joined her, sitting in front of her, my knees just an inch from hers.

She looked at me for a long time. Finally, she took off the glove on her left hand. Then she reached out toward my face. I held still, not knowing what she was going to do.

Very slowly, she slid just the tip of her smallest finger between my lips. I froze, as if she were some small animal any motion might frighten off. She turned her hand slightly, and then pulled it back.

“My parents died when I was very small,” she said, resting her bare hand in her lap, the little finger held out away from the rest. “It was an accident in Shanghai, where they were students. I was left alone, with no money, and no relatives.

“Different things can happen to a foreign orphan in China, depending on luck. I was in various different institutions. But, because I was pretty, I ended up at a kind of school. A school where they train girls to be wives.

“They taught me to play music, to dance, to converse, to be a hostess at a business function or a social event, to appreciate literature and theater and opera.

“When I was fifteen they introduced me to Khan. He was kind and funny and much more exciting than my life at the school. He took me to restaurants and casinos. We took slow walks and fast rides in his speed boat. He talked of showing me the world. I fell madly in love with him.

“Khan treated me like the daughter of a respected friend. I continued to live within the walls of my school, except when he came to take me out.”

Davida paused, smiling. “I tried to seduce him. I had been taught some skills for this, but I was just a young girl and Khan was over a hundred. I was quite foolish, but he never laughed at me, never humiliated me.

“The day I turned seventeen the mistress of the school told me that Khan had asked to marry me. She explained about the consequences.”

Davida moved her hand to draw my attention back to her finger. For one centimeter of its length it had turned red. Not the red of her scars. More swollen. More rough, like a hundred tiny blisters about to form. She reached out and rinsed her hand in the pond water, then wiped it dry.

“Khan had asked that I be given what is called an induced hypersensitivity. I loved Khan and didn’t want any other man, so I was willing. Entirely willing.

“I’m allergic to men. All men, except my husband. If I touch one, this happens.” She raised her hand again.

It was like the worst case of poison ivy I’d ever seen.

“More intimate contact risks anaphylactic shock.”

After a time, I asked, “Can it be reversed?”

“Yes,” she said. “The relevant t-cells were designed to present a special receptor site. A signaling protein that will bind to that site and trigger cell death was defined as part of the original project. Khan has the definition.”

“Isn’t there some other way to get it?”

She shrugged. “A team of a dozen biophysicists with a good lab and fast computers could probably find the right t-cells, find the right receptor, find a protein that would work, and come up with a synthesis for the protein. I looked into it once. It could be done in just a few years with enough money.”

I started to speak, then closed my mouth. Given time to prove itself, my software might be worth that much money. For someone with enough capital and willing to risk it, it could certainly produce that much money. But I was living in a storage locker.

Davida, though, seemed to see something in my face. She nodded, then stood and walked away.

I was always struck by the way she stood, not clambering to her feet, but simply rising up from the ground, perfectly balanced.

#

It had been a couple of years since my last VR combat match against a live opponent, but things hadn’t changed much. There was new action for people who used neural pick-up rigs that let you fight as fast as you could think, without having to get sweaty or tired. But the serious fighters still used rigs like mine that matched the actual movements of the operator.

I entered one of the open ladder tournaments. My old ranking had lapsed, so I had to start at the bottom, but that was fine. I spent all of Saturday afternoon and evening working my way up through newcomers on the ladder. With my recent practice, my moves were as good as they’d ever been. I was just as fit, and maybe a little more mature.

By dinnertime I had beaten nine opponents, including one guy who had beat me routinely when I’d been fighting before. If I fought another match I’d earn a new ranking of my own, which would have given away more than I wanted, so I stopped there.

I spent the evening studying Khan’s fighting.

Khan had been “CEO and Competitive Athlete” for a long time–since back when VR combat was a new thing. He had fought a lot then, and a lot of those fights were published and available on the net.

Either he didn’t fight much any more, or he closely controlled the distribution of the VR recordings, because I could only find a few bootlegs of recent fights.

I sent all the VR recordings I could find, together with most of my remaining savings, to a software house that specialized in custom training software. They delivered a monster programmed to fight like Khan. The monster beat me the first two times I fought it, but not by much. Within a day I was beating it two matches out of three.

#

I challenged Khan to VR combat. He seemed to find the idea amusing.

I had come to his office to make the challenge. He sat sprawled out in the leather chair in his office, grinning.

I let him suggest the idea of a wager.

His smile grew when I proposed that he put up the unlocking sequence for the induced hypersensitivity. “Will you put up all rights to the AI prediction software?”

I nodded.

It only took a few minutes to put both my software and his unlocking sequence into a trust and to have the trust transferred to a bonded stake-holding firm.

The stake-holding firm came to verify my VR rig. They tested it and sealed it against tampering. They changed only one thing: the injury simulation module. Mine produced a generic warning pain of controllable intensity. They replaced it with one that simulated the actual pain of whatever injuries would have been produced.

The next two days I practiced with the “realistic pain” module in place.

#

For the match, I appeared in VR wearing a plain white gi with a white belt.

Khan’s image wore grey sweatpants with elastic cuffs and a grey t-shirt.

The arena was almost featureless. The floor was off-white with just a touch of resiliency. The circle was ten meters in diameter. There was nothing outside the circle. To step outside was to concede the match. To be driven outside was to lose.

The machine provided a referee. On its signal, I bowed. I had not expected Khan to bow to me, but he did, a full, deep bow with no trace of mockery.

I attacked.

My preferred art, when I’d practiced, was Aikido. But Aikido does not focus on attack. For attacks I’d had to learn Kung Fu and Karate.

It would be nice to imagine something like Karate for attack and Aikido for defense, but it doesn’t work that way. Aikido is about circling; about keeping one point. You can’t use Aikido for defense while attacking.

I didn’t take time to feel out Khan’s style. I had practiced enough with the simulations that I felt comfortable facing him. I drove at him, punching and kicking as fast as I could, with very few feints. Each strike was potentially a “killing” blow that would be judged by the machine as a victory to me, if it landed.

Khan fell back, then circled to avoid being pushed to the edge of the arena.

It took me about twenty seconds to realize that I was completely outclassed.

The published VRs of his fights, including the bootlegs, must have been carefully limited: controlled so as to produce a false image of his skill.

There was a brief moment, after I knew I had no hope of winning, but before I’d had time to contemplate the consequences. In that moment, Khan brushed aside my last attacks, penetrated my defenses as if they were not there, and hit my nose and throat with strikes that would be judged “killing” by the software. Then, almost before I could feel the pain, he drove me outside of the circle, ending the simulation.

Rights to my AI prediction software were transferred to his company before I could draw a breath through my uncrushed throat and touch my nose to know it wasn’t broken.

#

I’d never had a way to contact Davida, I just saw her when I went to work at Khan’s home and office. I sent a message to Hostess Pickering, asking if she could arrange a meeting. It was almost a day before her scheduler contacted mine.

I spent the time looking for a job.

I had scrupulously avoided debt, because bills I couldn’t pay would have put ownership of my software at risk. Now I didn’t hesitate to hire a car for the ride to Hostess Pickering’s house in the mountains.

Hostess Pickering met me at the door, but just gestured toward the doors to the terrace. I went through them, then walked down to the pond.

Davida was there.

She was wearing a silk sundress rather than jeans, but she was sitting on the ground anyway.

I joined her, sitting in front of her, my knees just an inch from hers.

She looked at me for a long time. After a moment, I realized that she had a new scar. It ran down the side of her face, not quite hidden by her hair.

Almost I reached out to touch it, but stopped. Instead, I said, “Did you know, when you told me about the induced hypersensitivity, what I’d do?”

“Khan knew,” she said.

I thought about that for a minute.

Davida took a deep breath and let it out, then she said, “There was another thing he had done, before we got married, besides the IHS. It’s called ID–induced dependency.”

I shrugged.

“My brain doesn’t maintain the proper levels of serotonin, unless I’m around Khan. I’m only happy when I’m touching him. As long as the air I breath has bits of his skin, hair, and saliva in it, I’m okay. But when it doesn’t, I get anxious. If it goes on for long, I get depressed. Whenever he goes away, I spend hours a day in his office. For the traces of him he’s left behind.”

I tried to think of some kind of response to this.

“Sometimes he asks me to do things I don’t want to do. If I say no, he moves out of our bedroom. Usually it only takes me a few hours to give in.

“Sometimes I hold out for a day or even two. I always give in eventually. But if I’ve made him wait too long… ” Her voice trailed off and I saw she had tears running down her face. “If I make him wait too long, he won’t let me just come back to him. He makes me beg for permission to do the things I didn’t want to do.”

I wanted to cover my ears.

“I do whatever he wants. I beg. I invent new things that I don’t want to do and offer them to him as gifts.”

She looked down and her tears dripped off her cheeks and made tiny dark spots on the dress where it was spread out in front of her.

“Then I do the only thing I can think of to get back at him. I cut a new scar into my face.”

She ran her fingers along the line of her new scar. “He had the first one healed. But I learned. I created a fungus that invades the scar. Regeneration drugs don’t help. Plastic surgery can make the scar smaller, but the fungus invades the new scar just the same. It’s my art.

“He hardly ever does it any more.”

My feelings of loss and bitterness had grown to include shame as I’d listened to Davida. Now a new feeling took root. Rage.

Davida saw it in my face. “Don’t be an idiot twice,” she snapped.

I controlled myself, tamping my feelings down. I was good at that. I reached for the calm that I sometimes found in VR combat. “Why would Khan do such a thing? If he wanted to marry you, why would he want you–” I couldn’t quite say the word “broken.”

“Khan likes to own things.”

#

It didn’t take long to find a job, since I was willing to relocate. A company in Bangalore that did hybrid AIs–part neural net, part self-programming state machine based on a genetic model–hired me. I think I impressed them in the interview with the suggestion I could improve their model using my knowledge of DNA exchange in fungi.

I decided before I left to give Davida a gift.

The only hard part was getting the sample. I got it by going to another of Hostess Pickering’s parties. Khan was there. He smiled and shook my hand and told me that the AI prediction software was working well enough to be useful, but not so well that it would put the AI companies out of business.

The transparent glove I wore when I shook his hand wasn’t sticky to the touch, but was covered with nano-scale hooks designed to catch and hold certain kinds of small things. Things the size of bits of skin.

Once I had the glove pulled off inside out and tucked away, I enjoyed the party immensely.

My avocation had taught me the skills I needed. I even used the same fungus I’d been studying. I had already sequenced the genes that determined the surface proteins of its spores. Now I did the reverse: I inserted genes that would produce the surface proteins I wanted–those on bits of Khan’s skin.

The day I left for Bangalore, I sent them to Davida with a note: “Grow them someplace where you’ve wished you could spend more time.”

#

I don’t know exactly what I expected to happen. I knew better than to imagine that Davida would show up on my doorstep, suitcase in hand. I suppose I was just hoping to hear that she had moved out of Khan’s home and office. It was a pleasant surprise to hear that it was Khan who ended up moving out.

No further details of their separation made it into the news, but I liked to imagine that Khan was miserable.

I haven’t started a new business venture yet. The AI techniques of my new employer look like they might speed up searching for unknown signalling proteins. Maybe there’s some money to be made there, although I’m not sure how big the market is.

In the meantime, I’ve been enjoying drawing a regular paycheck.

It had seemed too expensive to move the VR rig with me to Bangalore; I gave it away before I moved. To get my exercise, I joined a gym.

There’s a big mirror in the locker room and I sometimes catch sight of myself as I walk to the shower. Something about my reflection would surprise me, and it took me a while to figure out what it was.

I don’t have any scars.

###

Philip BrewerPhilip Brewer has studied economics and worked as a software engineer, but he’s always been a writer. He would like to take this opportunity to thank his former employer for closing the site where he’d worked for twenty years, making it possible for him to eke out a meager existence as a full-time writer. (And to hope that economic conditions don’t force this situation on anyone who won’t appreciate it as much as he does.) He speaks Esperanto and uses it to communicate with people all over the world.

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6 Responses to “NEW FICTION: AN EDUCATION OF SCARS by Philip Brewer”

  1. Giridhar RAO says:

    Dark and lovely! Thank you!

  2. JustinP says:

    Loved it! The notion of a vocation/avocation balance is pure genius.

  3. Kathleen Gabriel says:

    This story’s haunted me for seven and a half years. It’s great to see it where more people can read it.

  4. Jerry says:

    This was really quite good Phil; original, believable and unexpected. I could not have predicted the ending.

    One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if you had of devoted yourself full-time to writing from your youth, instead of spending all those years as a programmer and part-time writer.

    Good luck to you in your future efforts.

  5. Curtis Medway says:

    That was an absolute delight. I don’t have much time to read on the internet so imagine my surprise when, having been unwittingly hooked to the rhythm of writing by the very first moment of the story, I found myself forty minutes later sitting back in my chair with a feeling not unlike sexual gratification!
    That was a deeply rewarding experience to read, a piece of art one feels connected with and moved by on a level that speaks quite plainly of the authors painstaking love for his characters and the darkness of human conditioning and greed.
    I felt bonded, hopeful, troubled, excited and tortured. This is beautiful art and the author has left me feeling like a thief having given nothing for such rewarding, talented work.
    Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Roger says:

    That was one of the best shorts I’ve read in the last ten years.

    Thank you.

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