a short story by Tom Cool
An illustration in photographs and pencils by the author.
Having circumnavigated the globe several times, I had thought that I had known the sea. My limited experience had been deceptive. All of my voyages had been in tropical zones, circling the warm waist of the world. In a typhoon, the southern seas had been furious and horrifying, but never bleak. East of Iceland, as the Sephora steamed north, I learned how indifferent is the ocean. It has no color, mood or nature of its own, slavishly reflecting in hue and temperament the aspect of its master, the sky.
East of Iceland the sky was a cold, dreary expanse of lifeless gray cloud. Underneath it the ocean crawled on its belly like a cur at its master's feet. The ocean, which had seduced me while wearing the profoundest blue in nature, the blue of the tropical ocean under clear skies, crawled with a heavy gray, a hue more lifeless than slate, more dispiriting than the gray of rain-slickened tree branches in winter. Underscoring its bleakness was the knowledge that, if a man were to fall into these arctic waters, in five minutes the ocean would suck from him all his living warmth.
The Sephora was pitching as it bounded over the cold choppy rollers of the North Atlantic. Since the sea was following, the ship was rolling hardly at all. I stood in the private sponson off the master's cabin where no one could see me. And there was none to see. Sephora was a robotically controlled ship. No one was aboard except Cecilia and Coupon.
How many of my off-hours had I spent here, enjoying the tropical sun, smearing myself with sun-block to prevent burning a shade darker than my paradigm, Coupon. Now I had to worry about wind-burn, as the frigid wind sliced past my face. Zealously I applied lip balm. My lips could not be chapped and brittle, while Coupon's were moist and pliant.
Taking more weather than him was a dangerous proposition. Yet I craved the weather deck, where, alone, I could try to remember who or what I was, other than one of the most deeply bonded emulators in the world. That day, the bleak scenery of the subarctic ocean reinforced my mood. My thoughts were heavy and troubled. I wondered how much longer I could go on. The end of my indenture seemed impossibly distant.
A sharp double rap -- his signature knock -- called me away from my own thoughts. I undogged the hatch and stepped back into the master's cabin. Here the warm air was scented with rosewood. The furnishings were simple but opulent; every plush chair and love-seat was bolted through the deep wool carpeting into the deck. The lighting was muted and indirect.
Looming before me was Coupon, my mirror image (or, more properly, I was his mirror image). We had the same tall, narrow head, cold gray eyes (gray as the sea, I realized), thin lips. We were wearing identical mess dress of Coupon's design: black slacks, gold satin cummerbunds, white short waist jackets with miniature medals, a light cotton shirt with a soft choker decorated with a ruby broach at the throat.
"Is it too much?" he demanded. "Is it too much to ask that you wait for me here? I've got the Japanese calling every five minutes, the ball-and-chain wants a private word, I'm trying to visualize the next generation of SEE, and you can't tear yourself away from the weather deck for five minutes."
I bobbed my head. It was a mannerism learned from my Universal Emulators coach in client relations, a Japanese man rumored to have doubled for the Emperor for fifteen years. "I'm sorry, master," I said. "How may I serve you now?"
"The ball-and-chain . . . nah, I'll take her this time. I want you to run interference with the Japanese. Keep them off my back for two more days. Don't promise anything except they'll be happy when I pitch the concept."
"Yes, master," I said, disappointed he had chosen that task rather than interfacing with his wife. I worried that he was beginning to mistrust how convincingly I played the role of the husband.
I brushed past Coupon and pressed the ceiling-height mirror, which popped open to reveal the doorway into my cabin. Once safely inside, I logged into the covert surveillance network, so that I could monitor him through the rest of the day. Our knowledge of each other's activities had to be kept complete, less one of us betray the other. Then I donned Coupon's business avatar and began to answer requests for communication, beginning with Morita, the Sony vice-president in charge of site-entrenched entertainment.
"Mr. Coupon, how are you?" Morita began. He was wearing his typical business avatar, a two-sworded samurai in green silks. Coupon's avatar was also retro, silk brocades based on the court dress of the Sun King.
"Fine, Mr. Vice President. How pleasant to see you. Are you feeling as fit as you look?" I asked in Coupon's most dulcet tones. In doing so, in posing as Coupon, I was committing several felonies simultaneously . . . and since he had shared his cryptocode with me, so was my paradigm.
An overseas Japanese, Morita was direct. "We here in Portland are very excited about your preliminary proposal. We are anxiously awaiting the full proposal."
By now I was wearing my paradigm's head. I was not acting like Coupon. I was Coupon, yet Coupon informed by my better judgment. It was a delicate balance, responding authentically as Coupon, but Coupon on one of his best days. I knew that he would have retorted irritably because of the recent stress, but I responded with a soft answer.
"Yes, well, I'm hard at work on that now. So much of the shine is in the polish, don't you think?"
"Of course you're right," Morita said. "Simply that we have a board meeting tomorrow. It might strengthen the project's support from the board if I could show them something. Perhaps a two-D rendering?"
"Let me see if anything is worthy. One moment please . . . "
My avatar froze as I linked off-line with Coupon, who snarled, but shot me a two-D rendering of the new entertainment, an immersive Valhalla optimized for Russian males.
"How intriguing . . . " Morita said, as the samurai studied a photograph of Nordic paradise. "And how much is natural?"
"Certainly all the mead," I said, chuckling. "Please, let me save the rest for the proposal. With your kind permission."
"Of course," Morita said, thankfully placated. "By the way, how is the sailing?"
We exchanged small talk for several minutes, then Morita as the superior took the initiative to sign off. In the confines of my secret room, I heaved a sigh and checked my other. Coupon was arguing with his wife. We needed him to work on the proposal. He should have sent me to see her. I scanned the transcript of the argument to date. I needed to return to the communication queues, but the fight was too distracting. It upset me. Here I was dedicating the best days of the best years of my life to him, shouldering his most tedious burdens, taking the brunt of his personal and professional shocks, freeing him so that he could create. Day after day, night after night, I proved that I could be everything that he was, I could do everything that he did, yet he had the name. My name was almost forgotten. Because the lightning bolt of employment had struck him and not me, I had no dreams of my own. I dreamed his dreams. I accepted his insults. All that I asked was to serve him. And here he was, squandering the time and the emotional energy that I saved for him on yet another stupid argument with Cecilia. He was savaging her, too. Sometimes I thought he brutalized her just to upset me.
" . . . getting fat and lazy," Coupon was shouting. "Don't you understand that I've got work to do? I've got to earn the money that you're so fond of spending."
"We're rich enough already, Frederick," Cecilia said in her pleading voice. "I just want more of your time. It gets lonely in here -- "
"You're the one who wants to see St. Petersburg in February, well, here you are, complaining about how boring an Arctic passage is."
"I thought we might have some time together," Cecilia wailed. Then she said something unnerving: "I don't understand you! Sometimes you're so wonderful and understanding, and other times, like now, you're so bloody beastly -- "
Coupon roared with anger. I stood up, afraid that he was going to hit her again. He loomed over her, his fists clenched. I fought my own compulsion to bolt from my hiding hole, dash down to her cabin and pull my twin away from her. Thankfully, he managed to chain the demon of his temper, venting it only in screams of obscenity. Coupon turned his heel and left Cecilia sobbing.
Moments later, he tore open the door to my room, crowding inside where his shouts would be doubly sound-proofed.
"What have you been doing to my wife?" he demanded. His face was flushed, the cords of his neck muscles strained, I could see the pulse in his jugular veins.
"You know what," I said. "What you've ordered."
"You're making her fall in love with you!" he shouted.
Looking up into his flushed face, seeing the blood-shot eyes and spit-speckled lips, I wondered how I could ever have considered ourselves handsome.
"I'm making her fall in love with you," I answered.
"I said that you could make love to her!" Coupon shouted. "I didn't say to go on about it for an hour!"
"We were having a good day," I retorted.
Coupon clenched his fist and swung at my face. Abruptly I stood, my left arm deflecting the blow, as I grabbed him by the lapels and jacked him up against the bulkhead.
"Never again," I hissed.
He could feel my strength. Our identical faces were almost nose-to-nose. I stared into his eyes and sought the glint of fear I knew would surface. When it gleamed like something arisen to the surface of a dark pool, I repeated, "Never again. You will never hit me again. And you'll . . . "
I hesitated, because it occurred to me that instructing the client not to beat his wife exceeded my brief as a professional emulator. Uncertain, I released his lapels, reflexively crushing my own so that once again our appearances matched. Coupon's breath stank as he hyperventilated so close to me.
"We're -- sorry, master," I said. "We're under pressure. We've got the deadline. Why don't you retire to the study, work on the proposal. I'll finish your communications. Later, we'll have calmed down enough. You could go to Cecilia then. Apologize."
"I'll be damned if I apologize to her," Coupon snapped. "But you will. And make it good, too."
"I don't want to have to bother with her again for two days. Or with you. I've got a deadline, dammit! I've got to pitch a 300 trillion yen SEE in two days, and the damned 3D models aren't even done, let alone the animations. Aren't I paying you to make my life easier?"
"Yes, master. I'm trying."
"Well, give the communications back-log the same attention you give to my future ex-wife and maybe we'll get something accomplished!"
Coupon turned his heel, checked the spy hole to ensure no one was in his stateroom and left me alone with only his odor. I sat and wondered. After I had glimpsed the fear in his eyes, something else had surfaced, something colder and more deadly. Hate. In that moment, Coupon hated me, his other self. I hugged my ribs. I began to fear for my life.
It would be so easy. He could poison me or simply tip me overboard. A privileged conversation with the president of Universal Emulators, a surrendering of his employee insurance premium and I would not even be history. It would be as if I had never existed.
Then, the sister idea presented its seductive self: how easy would it be for me simply to tip him overboard. If I managed to avoid DNA typing for the rest of my life, then I could be Coupon. Not emulate him. Be him.
A new fantasy, so much richer and darker than the workaday one of fleeing with Cecilia. "My future ex-wife . . . " Lately, he had taken to referring to her as such. Was he doing it to torment me, because he had learned to read my thoughts as thoroughly as I read his?
I shook my head, then turned my attention to the communications. There were now 18 high-ranking requests to communicate, plus hundreds of messages in his in-boxes across the Nets. Soon I fell into the rhythm of communicating as Coupon. It was soothing. While he began to orchestrate the over-all presentation in the study, I tended to the hundreds of details. The Korean animators needed a tongue-lashing; imagine trying to use stock back-grounds in a Coupon presentation! Alexi, chief of the user group in St. Petersburg, had an interesting point about the spouse-acceptance factor; I summarized his drunken ramblings and shot the summary to Coupon. And that Zurich professor was still whining about historiocity! Was that even a word?
Hours later, I worked down to the textual interchanges. Fan mail from Duluth. Blue-sky futurizing with the MIT media lab. High-priced gossip about Microsoft's next move. He really was an incurable networker. If only he had built up a real staff and controlled his interactions, then he would never had needed an emulator. Yet that's how these employed people were: so fearful of losing control, so terrified of becoming one of the huge majority of the unemployed. The Net allowed them to be virtually everywhere all the time, so they worked until they stressed themselves to uselessness, shot themselves or hired an emulator to pose as them, first in the little things, gradually, in all things, even the most important . . . except presentations to the sponsors. After all, in the Net, you were who your cryptokey said you were.
And if your competition used class-B emulators, then naturally you wanted a class-A: some poor dupe, highly educated but otherwise unemployable, who was desperate enough after squandering his youth preparing for a nonexistent job that he was willing to market his very self. Cosmetic gene therapy. Bone splints and grafts, hormonal treatments so that he smelled like you. Voice, posture, walking, sitting lessons. Someone willing to break himself upon the rock of economic necessity and heal in bonds so that he could emulate you during those tiresome cocktail parties. Someone who could even service your spouse while you were busy preparing for your next professional triumph.
Someone very much like me. Coupon's emulator. Whose name was just a scrawl on a contract locked up in a Yokohama bank, but when I remembered it, it was Jack. Jack Quimby, who had been a poor British boy raised in America before he became an American tax refugee, or at least the shadow of such.
So I worked the queue until they were down to only one, which I thought had been garbled in transmission since I couldn't decode it. Then I noticed the routing codes. Someone in Yokohama was replying to a message Coupon had sent. Was he communicating with my service in a personal code unknown to me? Perhaps he was checking the details on the clause of the contract that dealt with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of the emulator.
I wrapped the message in a shell and shipped it for decoding to a discrete black arts group in Taiwan. Checking the time, I saw that it was almost four in the morning. Coupon was still working in the study. Now he was drinking; the alcoholic phase of his work marathons typically lasted twenty hours. That would give us time enough to crash, sleep, work another day and then make the presentation.
And so to bed. My paradigm had ordered me to Cecilia, and so I went.
She was laying in the dark with her back to the door. I shut the stateroom door and undressed silently. The curtains were pulled back from the portals, which glowed as redly as demon's eyes. Beyond the glass, the ship's running light was firing the swirling mists of a heavy sea fog. The weather was worsening. As the ship was beginning to roll, I stumbled as I crawled into bed.
I could tell she was awake, although she didn't move. Settling into bed, I began to hope that I would spend a peaceful night.
"Don't you love me?" she asked, her voice small and vulnerable.
"Yes, of course," I said, but on whose behalf I was uncertain.
"Why do you treat me so horribly?"
"One word, Cecilia. Stress."
She turned, so that the red light outlined hazily the curve of her cheekbone. Her eyes were black pools in shadow, yet they gleamed.
"Why do you keep pushing yourself so? Is it worth it?"
"Sometimes . . . " I said, intending to say, Sometimes I wonder, but I pulled myself up short. It wouldn't do to negotiate the master into a position with which he was uncomfortable. How well I knew that his priorities were work first, second and third, with Cecilia somewhere in the double digits.
"Sometimes . . . it may not seem like it's worth it," I said, speaking now for him. "But it's what I do, Cecilia. It's who I am."
"Who are you?" she asked sharply. "Who are you really?"
In the darkness, it was impossible to read her eyes. I couldn't tell at what level she was asking, so I answered at the level most comfortable for Coupon.
"Frederick Coupon, CEO of Bonus Enterprises."
"I don't think you know who you are," Cecilia said.
"Maybe not. All I see in the mirror is the reflection of a man's face. I don't see myself except when I look at something that I made and I know that no one else could possibly have made it."
"I don't think you exist outside of the things you make," she said. "I don't think you're for real."
"Yet somehow the reality of my money is convincing," I said. That was pure Coupon, but she had wounded me.
"I want a divorce," Cecilia said.
"A divorce will only get you two million yen, if you remember the terms of the prenuptial. I'll give you three million yen right now if you would kindly shut the fuck up."
Slowly Cecilia raised herself to sit. I wondered if she had a butcher knife among the bed clothes. How unfair it would be to die as Coupon!
"That was good," she said. "But that was just getting too much like Coupon."
There followed a profound silence.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"You do him really well," she said. "It bothers me that you're making it harder to tell the difference. I always liked you better. I don't think I should have to put up with two Coupons. A tag team of jerks. I've only been putting up with him for so long because I liked you. Don't you get like him."
"I am him," I offered feebly.
"I think you're getting confused on the issue," Cecilia said. "But you are definitely not him."
"Who am I, then?" I asked.
"I've been wondering that for two years," Cecilia said. "Who are you?"
"I don't know."
"Who did you use to be?"
"Jack. Jack Quimby."
The lights flared. Coupon stormed into the room.
"That's just great!" he shouted. "You're fired, you idiot."
"No, you can't fire him," Cecilia said.
"What! He's fired!"
"It's going to cost you half of everything, then, Fred," Cecilia said. We both winced. Nobody called us Fred, just as nobody pronounced Coupon with the accent on the first syllable, at least not after the first transgression. "Because the prenuptial is void in the case of infidelity."
"But I've been faithful to you!"
"No you haven't," Cecilia said coldly. "When you sent this employee, this double, into our bed, you violated the monogamy of our marriage. Any judge would see it that way."
Coupon staggered. It was obvious that he saw the piercing, twisted truth of Cecilia's logic.
"And so until you're willing to give me half of everything you own," Cecilia said, "I'm calling the shots. And I don't want to see you anymore. And I want Jack here to . . . protect me. I feel threatened right now. Go away because I feel the deep urge for him to protect me."
Coupon's jaw sagged. He took a step forward, then one back, then he turned and fled from the stateroom.
Cecilia hugged me from the rear, her arms warm around my shoulders, her breasts pressed against my back.
"You do want to protect me, don't you, Jack?"
"If you'll protect me," I answered. "Deal."
I collapsed into her arms. We made urgent love. She seemed to delight in murmuring my name, "Jack" and hearing her murmur it and then shout it and finally scream it was a perfect tonic for my wounded soul. When we were done, I felt more like my own self than I had in years.
"Who are you?" she asked, as I lay, head on her breast as she stroked my hair.
"An emulator. Universal -- "
"No, who are you really?"
"Just . . . a fool who refused to be useless," I said. "I studied and trained for so many years. I always felt certain that I would be the one good enough to get a job. The months passed and then the years. And I found out that there were millions of men like me. Do you know what that's like?"
"Yes," Cecilia said softly, her voice deep with emotion.
"And I am good," I said. "He never would have gotten the Miami contract without me. Now I don't know what we're going to do. We can't go on like this, can we?"
"Oh no," Cecilia said. "He'll kill us first."
My mind resisted the thought, but I knew that she was right.
"We'll have to go away," I said.
"Oh no," she said. "He'll have to go away. Do you really think that he would let us live, knowing that he's committed fraud thousands of times? His name is his reputation and his reputation is his business. We could ruin him. He'll never allow us to have that power over him."
"Why hasn't he . . . "
"He's thinking about it now," she said. "You know he is. He's been watching us make love and now he's thinking about what we're saying. He's working it out at just about the speed that you're working it out."
"So I think you had better start looking for a weapon."
"But -- "
"If you want to save yourself, you have to do it, Jack. So do it."
"And what about you?"
"You're more his match, Jack. Go."
Slowly I rose from the bed.
We had no weapons on board. Coupon didn't trust them. On legs as nerveless as wood, I stumbled toward the galley for a butcher knife, but then I realized that was where he would go. Since the study was closer to the galley than the master stateroom, he would beat me there. Looking for a weapon, I would only find him there, armed. So I turned and hurried aft and then downwards toward the engine room, where surely there would be heavy tools such as a crow bar. Then I stopped short. Would he second-guess me and go to the engine room instead of the galley?
For a long moment I stood swaying. The deck was increasingly unsteady as the weather topside grew nastier. It seemed that he was reading my thoughts and countering each impulse. Although I couldn't see him, our knowledge of each other seemed like a long tunnel of mirror images, each image slightly smaller, less precise and askew.
His almost perfect possession of my own mind enraged me. "I am NOT you!" I shouted.
Downward I hustled. I burst into the engine room, where I found emergency equipment secured to the wall. I had my choice of a sledgehammer, a fireman's axe and a crowbar. I chose the crowbar.
v Back up the ladders I hurried. Coupon was cowering in the galley, no doubt, clutching the butcher knife --
A sharp sudden agony pierced my back. Reflexively I wheeled, striking out with the crowbar. Through a haze of pain that reddened my sight, I saw the tip of the crowbar clip the temple of the head identical to mine. The lucky blow stunned him. I raised the crowbar again, but it seemed we both were down. I remember wanting to strike, but I don't remember striking.
Hours later, I rose once again to consciousness. I was face-down in a postoperative sling so all I could see was a communications station moving, while my own body hung unmoved. The screen fired into the image of Cecilia's face.
"Jack," she said. "You're going to be all right."
"I feel fine," I said. "I feel wonderful."
"You're heavily sedated," she said. "The surgery system had to fuse your left kidney and repair some nerve and muscle damage. It'll take you a few weeks. But you'll be fine."
"Yes. Yes. And . . . "
"He's gone," she said. "You left quite a mess, but it's been cleaned up. I'm wiping the janitor system's memory now."
"He's . . . in the ocean?"
"Under the ocean. Chained to ten kilogram free weights."
"Never talk about him again," Cecilia said. "Now, are you up to making the Morita pitch in eight hours?"
"It would be better. Failing to make the pitch would be suspicious."
"I know. And it's such an important pitch. Let me check how far he got in pulling the pieces together."
"Give me the cryptokey, darling, and I'll help."
"It's nothing you can help me with." "Yes I can," Cecilia said. "I'm an emulator too."
Her naked statement stunned me. For a long moment, I stared into the image of her eyes, finally beginning to see the truth.
"On whose behalf?" I asked.
"I don't know," she said. "Either she put me in place because she wanted to escape from him, or he put me here because he killed her. It's a double blind contract. I don't know. I think she's dead. But I'm trained, Jack. I can help you. Give me the cryptokey, please."
"No," I said.
"Why not? Don't you trust me?"
"Trust you? I don't even know who you are."
"I'm the same as you, Jack. The same. Just a poor girl who didn't want to be useless. You're hurt, darling. Let me help."
Despite my medicated state, I was beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable with the situation. Having been stabbed in the back hours previously did nothing to raise my confidence in human nature. Strangely, I felt betrayed, because while I had made love to Cecilia as Coupon, this stranger had made love to me as Cecilia.
And why was she telecommunicating? Why wasn't she at my side?
"Where are you?" I asked.
"In the communications center," she said. "I've got to overwrite the memory of fifteen different systems. Some of them are cryptolocked with your code . . . with Coupon's code, Jack. I've got to have it."
"I'll clean them out later," I said. "There's time."
"You don't trust me!" she wailed.
"No," I said. "But maybe I will later. Give me time."
Cecilia's image stared at me. For a moment she seemed to have frozen.
"All right," she said. "That's fair. Let's just get through this bloody presentation."
"There's a lot of work ahead of us," I said.
"I'll help you, Jack."
"I need your help . . . Cecilia."
"I'm Luiza," she said. "Luiza Johnson."
"Call me Cecilia, though, Ja -- Fred. Cecilia. Otherwise we'll have to keep rewriting over the memories. And someday you might slip in front of another person."
"Of course. Frederick."
We muddled through the presentation. I healed well enough that I was able to attend the necessary meetings in St. Petersburg. At the first opportunity, however, Cecilia and I escaped in the Sephora. We set course for the lesser Antilles. By the time we anchored off the Ochos Rios recreational complex, Cecilia's and my relationship had taken its new, more loving form. To all the world, it seemed as if Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Coupon had undergone a marital renaissance.
We grew into a good team. Besides her emulator training, Cecilia refused to talk about her past. For my own part, it was difficult to try to explain who or what a Jack Quimby was or once had been. Our work together seemed the most fruitful topic of conversation. Eventually I came to believe that a romantic relationship is a complex of behaviors and chemistries, with identity having little to do with it. Did it really matter? Men had loved women throughout history, but what man had ever claimed to know them?
Yet I was beginning to trust her enough that I was contemplating sharing Coupon's cryptokey. As luck would have it, I was on the cusp of deciding to do so, the day the message came in from the Taiwanese black arts enterprise.
Unlocking the code with Coupon's cryptokey, I read the following message:
Most excellent Mr. Coupon,
We of Red Dragon Semantic Arts have been honored with your patronage. We regret the tardiness of our delivery, but since the outer message code was irreducible, we had to resort to special actions to obtain the key. Decoding the inner code, of course, relies on your own private key.
We have billed the indicated account by 50 MYen. May we suggest that you exercise the utmost delicacy in your further dealings with Universal Emulators. We look forward to the next opportunity to be of service.
I tapped in the two large prime numbers which constituted Coupon's private key. The original text then became sense:
Special Emulator Reichmanf,
Your most recent request to allow Emulator Quimby to relieve you on station is most emphatically denied. The current team in place is highly functional. We will not entertain any more communications on this issue. You will continue to perform your duties as stipulated by your indenture contract, which will not be up for renegotiation for another three years, six months, eleven days.
Find comfort in the knowledge that your private account now totals over 39 trillion yen.
I studied the message for long minutes, unable to comprehend. Finally, when I did understand, I wondered if Emulator Reichmanf had taken the place of the original Coupon, or had he merely assumed the place of a (n-1) generation copy?
And who was I? Nothing about me seemed so important as the fact that I was the only man in the world that held Coupon's private cryptokey. Reichmanf had shared it with me and it had been the death of him.
Out on the sponson, staring at the hypocritical blue face of the tropical ocean, I realized down to my grafted bones who I was.
The bearer of Coupon's cryptokey. In other words, Coupon.