While You are greater than Myself, reduce Myself
WHILE (u > i) i- -;
The scalpel made a sharp hiss as it slid across the small stone. Daniel flipped the blade over and repeated the process on the other side. Each run removed a microscopic layer of stainless steel, turning the surgical edge into something coarse and sloppy. He referred to the simple rock as his “Dulling Stone.” It had become a crucial part of this once-a-week ritual. The problem with sharp blades, he’d discovered, was that they hardly left a scar.
He leaned close to the mirror and brought the scalpel up to his face. Several years ago, when he’d made his first wrinkle, he could have performed this procedure from across the room. The focusing and magnifying lenses in his then-perfect eyes could tease galaxies from fuzzy stars—but those mechanisms were no more. They’d been mangled with a surgeon’s precision. Now he needed to be within a specific range to make sure his cutting was perfectly sloppy.
He chose a nubile stretch of untouched skin and pressed the instrument to his forehead; the blade sank easily into his very-real flesh, releasing a trickle of red. Daniel kept the blade deep and began dragging it toward his other brow, careful to follow the other ridges in their waves of worry.
As always, the parallel scars reminded him of Christie, Melanie’s young niece. When her parents discovered she was cutting herself, they’d asked Melanie for help. And Melanie had asked Daniel, as if he would understand such a sickness. Cutting to relieve anxiety? He’d had no answer for once. And he was so smart back then. If they asked him now, of course, he’d be able to tell them— Ah, but nearly everyone involved was dead now, and—
He was making too many connections; recalling too many links with his past. His mental acuity was out of control; the blade hadn’t traveled a centimeter and he was thinking about a dozen other things. Parallel processing. It wouldn’t do. He assigned another 20 percent of his CPU cycles to the factoring of large primes. The world sped up around him as his mind slowed to a crawl. Now it was moving too fast, not him.
As his logic gates were overwhelmed with new computations, instructions meant for fine-motor servos became delayed. His hand slipped and parallel lines touched. An old scar was torn open. Blood leaked out in a stream as Daniel fumbled for a tissue. He noted the shakiness in his hand, the difficulty he had turning spatial commands into physical motion.
Better, he thought.
He dabbed clumsily at his forehead to wick away the mess he was making. The new wrinkle was outlined in oozing red—but it wasn’t complete. He picked up a small blue vial, the perfume it once contained lingering, triggering olfactory sensors just acute enough to register the floating molecules. It reminded him of something, but he couldn’t seize it. The failure was another sign of progress.
He tapped out a small pyramid of course sand into his palm, pinched some of the powdered stone between two fingers, and pressed it into his new wound. He was careful to grind the fine shards deep enough to trigger his tear ducts. Past the pain that warned him of the permanent damage being caused.
None of those systems had been dulled, of course. There’d be no cheating.
He grabbed another tissue and dabbed it across his scalp, removing the excess blood and grit. Before more could work its way out, he smeared a layer of skin adhesive over the rubble-filled canyon. He smiled at the warning on the first-aid tube—it prescribed, in several languages, the necessity of cleaning out the wound before applying. He worked the edges of the tan gel as it congealed, blending the fake skin into the real.
He surveyed his work. The lines radiating out from the corners of his eyes could be denser, but he’d save that for next week. He skipped to his hair, which was coming along nicely. He allowed himself a bit of fine-motor control for this part, removing 512 strands in a long-established pattern. Next week he’d ramp up to 1024 hairs a session, he decided. Soon it’d be 2048 follicles destroyed each week. He also needed to change the dye formula, he decided. Move past the snow-on-slate and begin a full bleaching.
Cosmetically, he was satisfied. He moved to his least-favorite portion of the ritual—the part he always saved for last.
It was a routine within a routine. First, he culled specifics, sorting through his banks for two momentous occasions to completely erase. The pizza party in ’72 was still in there. He would miss it, but there were few easy choices left to make. He deleted the entire day without looking at it too hard. He had made that mistake too many times. He also took out something recent, a movie he’d watched a few months ago. Gone.
Next came the roughening-up. He still had plenty of good memories set aside for this process. He chose the honeymoon. It had only been hit twice before, so he could still recall most of the week. This wasn’t a full deletion, it was more like bisecting a holographic plate. You still had the entire image when you were done, but with half the detail.
He made the pass, wiping 1’s and 0’s from his protein memory at random. It was like shading his cheeks with blush, smoothing everything out and tapering it just so. He glanced briefly at the wedding night to see what was left, but it was hard to say without knowing what was gone.
The final step was the one he dreaded the most. Random memory deletion. It went against his primary programming, both the degradation of awareness and the arbitrariness of the maneuver. He triggered the routine with a grimace. He’d long toyed with the idea of changing the algorithm, making it so he wouldn’t even know what was being lost—but he never went through with it. He always wanted to know. Even if it was just a brief glimmer before it winked out forever.
Some of his best memories had been sacrificed in this way. They would flash like fish in shallow water, darting out of sight as he plunged after them. And he couldn’t help it; he always plunged after them.
This time—he got lucky. It was the day in Beaufort’s with Melanie. One of his few bad memories left. The details were already gone, but an overwhelming sense of disgust lingered, leaving a bad taste on his tongue receptors. Whatever that was—good riddance, he thought.
Daniel forced a smiled at his reflection—the scar tissue around his eyes bunched up. Much better, he thought. Or worse, depending on how one looked at it. He continued factoring large primes and rose unsteadily to his feet. The mechanical linkage in his left leg had been built to take a pounding, but his arms had been even better-designed to dish one out. He could feel the metal rods grinding on one another as they struggled to bear his weight. He had to lurch forward, shifting his bulk to his less-damaged leg as he shambled toward the door.
He fiddled with the knob and limped into the hallway. A flash of movement to one side caught his attention. It was Charles, one of the male nurse-bots, leaving Mrs. Rickle’s room. The android had a tray of picked-at soft foods in his grasp; the various mounds were swirled into a thick, colorful soup.
Synthetic eyes met and Charles smiled—raised his chin a little. “Big night tonight, Mr. Reynolds?” he asked.
“Hello, Charles. Yup. Scrabble night.”
“Scrabble tonight, huh? Well I hope she goes easy on you, old fellow.”
Daniel smiled at the reference to his progressing age. It was kind of him to notice, to nurse along the ruse. “She never goes easy on me,” he replied in mock sadness.
Charles added the tray of half-eaten food to his cart and sorted some paper cups full of pills. “Would you mind delivering her medication for me? You know how Mrs. Reynolds feels about—“ The android paused and looked at his feet, “—my kind,” he finished.
Daniel nodded. “She’s getting worse, isn’t she? About treating you, I mean?”
Charles strolled over to deliver the medication. “It’s fine. Like I always tell you, she’s done enough for my kind that I’ll stomach a little—unkindness.”
The nurse-bot turned back to his cart.
“Either way, I’m sorry,” Daniel called after him.
Charles stopped. Spun around. “You ever hear of a woman named Norma Leah McCorvey?” he asked.
Daniel leaned back on the wall so his bad leg wouldn’t drain his batteries. “Didn’t she pass away? She lived two halls over, right? The woman with—“
“No, no. That was Norma Robinson. Yeah, she passed away in ‘32. Norma McCorvey lived, oh over a hundred years ago. She was more famously known as Jane Roe.”
Daniel knew that name. “Roe vee Wade,” he said.
“That’s right. One of the biggest decisions before your wife came along—“ The nurse-bot studied his shoes again. “And people remember her for that—for the decision. They remember her as Roe, not as McCorvey.”
“I don’t follow,” Daniel told Charles. He eyed his wife’s door and fought the urge to be rude.
“Well, most people don’t know, but years later—Norma regretted her part in history. Wished she’d never done it. Converted to one of the major religions of her day and fought against the progress she’d fostered. I just—“ He looked back up. “I’ll always remember you and your wife for the right reasons, is all.” He turned to his cart without another word and started down the hall.
Daniel watched him go. One of the cart’s wheels spun in place; he wondered when Charles would finally get around to fixing that. Favoring his good leg, he shuffled across the hall to Melanie’s door. It was shut tight, as usual. He knocked twice, just to be polite, before pushing it open. A familiar lump stirred on the bed, changing shape like a dune in a heavy gale.
“Who’s there?” a raspy voice croaked.
Daniel went to the sink and poured a cup of water. “It’s me. Daniel. Your husband.”
She rolled over, long white hair falling back to reveal a thin, weathered face. Wispy brows arched up in a look of surprise that had become her state of rest. “Daniel? Dear? When did you get here?”
“I live across the hallway, sweetheart.” He said it patiently as he crossed to her with the two cups.
“Of course. That’s right,” she said. “Why do I keep forgetting that?”
“Don’t worry. I forget stuff all the time. Here. Take these.”
Melanie labored to sit up straight, grunting with the effort.
“Honey, use the remote. Let me show you—“ Daniel reached for the bed controls, but his wife waved a fragile arm at him, shooing his words away.
“I don’t trust the thing. And I don’t trust whatever that damned robot is wanting me to swallow.”
Daniel sat on the edge of the bed and held the first cup out to her. “He just delivers what Doctor Mackintosh prescribes, dear. Don’t take it out on the messenger. Now swallow these, they’ll make you feel better.”
She shot him a look as she threw the pills on her tongue. “I don’t wanna feel better,” she spat around them.
“Well, I want you to. Now drink.”
He set the paper cups aside and smiled at her, trying to help her forget her bad mood. “Do you feel like a game of Scrabble?” he asked. Thirty years as a lawyer, winning rights for his kind, had filled her head with a vocabulary that computers were envious of. Even though she couldn’t string them together into rational ideas—not anymore—the words were still there, ready to be pulled from confounding racks with too many consonants.
“Scrabble night?” Her eyes flashed beneath the webs of cataracts. “You mean ‘Bingo Night,’ right?” False teeth flashed with the joke, a reference to her rack-clearing skills with seven and eight-letter words.
“You call it what you want, but Charlie said you should go easy on me tonight.”
“Fuck Charlie. You tell that abomination—” Melanie stopped, her eyes widened even further. “Sweetheart, what did you do to your forehead?”
Daniel moved a hand up to his brow; it came away spotted pink, the drippings of a future scar. Too many primes, he thought.
“I must’ve hit it on something,” he lied. “You know how clumsy I can be.” He turned to the sink to smear the fake skin a little, making like he was tending to the wound.
“You weren’t always clumsy,” Melanie called after him. “I remember. You used to be so strong and agile—but at least you haven’t gotten any less handsome.”
“You’re welcome, now set up the board while I get my robe on—oh, and I must tell you about the awful dream I was having before you came.”
“Oh it was horrible. We were younger, and married, but you weren’t you, you were one of those damned androids, and in the dream I was covered in rust, and oh—it was terrible.”
“That does sound awful,” Daniel admitted.
Melanie swung her feet over the edge of the bed and reached for her robe. “What do you think it means?” she asked
Daniel unfolded the board and set the tile dispenser in place. He stopped factoring primes for a moment.
“Probably nothing,” he lied. “Just a bad dream. Random.”
“Nothing’s random, dear. Take a guess.” She rose and joined him by the card table, placing one hand on his shoulder.
Daniel turned to his wife of nearly sixty years. His every processing unit was racing for an optimal solution to her query, but it was like looking for a largest prime. It was something that didn’t exist.
“Maybe you’re scared of losing me?” he tried.
Melanie raised a hand—bone wrapped in brown paper—and placed in on his cheek. “But, in my dream, I think I hate you.”
He pulled away from the touch, and in his auditory processors, the sound of neck servos seemed as loud as turbines, a dead-giveaway. “Don’t say that,” he pleaded. “I don’t think I could go on if you ever hated me.”
“Oh, darling,” she wrapped her hands around his arm and pulled him close, “I didn’t mean to upset you. You’re right. It was just a dream, nothing to it.”
Daniel encircled her with his arms, steadying their embrace with his good leg. Just a dream, he thought. How badly he wished that were so. His protein memory cells went idle, awaiting further instructions. He held his wife. Servos whirred quietly in one knee, fighting to keep the rest of him upright.
Melanie opened her mouth to say something–but then it was gone. She’d forgotten how she got here.
Charles considered, briefly, doing the same.