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Surface Tension

by Jörn Grote

“How can I help you?” the Superbright asked. His virtual office looked very old and distinguished. It was in Victorian style, not like an office of the late modern age. Adrian wondered why: even the Superbrights liked to be part of human culture and imitate its ways. But maybe the office was intended to make human clients feel at ease.

“There’s something wrong with one of those Recreations of yours,” Adrian said.

“Name?” the Superbright asked. He was briskly professional.

“Thomas Upright.”

A book appeared out of nowhere, and the Superbright began to read page by page with immense speed. Adrian knew it was just a representation of the Superbright sifting through its gigantic company database. Back From the Grave was small and very costly, but the company’s results had always been excellent — at least until Thomas Upright. At first, Adrian had been fooled like all the others, but something was wrong.

The Superbright stopped. “Thomas Upright: died age thirty-two in an accident. His family and his friends gathered enough whuffies to have him recreated.”

“Nearly two million. That was hard,” Adrian replied, with an undertone of reproach. He heard it in his own voice and wondered whether he was bitter about all the time and work that had gone into Thomas’s recreation, or whether he ultimately regretted the recreation itself.

The Superbright looked up. “I know, but nothing is cheap. And our time is limited and much in demand. So, what is wrong with Thomas?”

Adrian looked at him. “Your recreation is faulty. It’s hard to explain.”

“Then try,” the Superbright said abruptly.

Adrian thought for a moment, trying to find the words. “The Thomas you recreated is like Thomas was, most of the time. But there was always something else. Few of his friends or family members noticed, or if they did, they ignored it and soon forgot.

“And yet there were moments when Thomas did something or said something that was completely unlike the surface façade he presented most of the time: hard edges of something lurking below his normal self, something not very pleasant, hard and cold. And yet these scant moments were also him. And they are missing now. Nobody seems to notice but me.

“Maybe I just imagined it,” Adrian said quietly. But since he and the Superbright were inside a simulation of reality, even things said very quietly were not unheard.

“You did not imagine it,” the Superbright admitted.

“I didn’t?” Adrian looked up.

“I have a question for you,” the Superbright said. “Do you like the Thomas we recreated more than the original?”

Adrian wondered where this was going, but he tried to answer truthfully. Superbrights were very good at spotting lies from baseline humans.

“Yes and no. The original Thomas from before had... he was....” Adrian’s voice trailed off, and then he began again. “Sometimes he said things that chilled me to the bone. The Thomas now feels less threatening, but also less sharp. I really don’t know how to say it better...

“He seems as smart as before, most of the time, but the original Thomas could say things that cut to the quick of a problem, insightful things, and most of the time, when you felt his hard edges, he stated very uncomfortable truths about his friends and about me. He made me furious, but he also made me think. Now he’s too nice. But there’s no depth any more. He lacks depth.”

The Superbright looked at him for what seemed like eternity, although only seconds went by.

“I admit that the person who runs around now under the name of Thomas Upright is a lie. But so was the person you knew as Thomas in the past. Let me elaborate. When we sifted through the material for his recreation to emulate his persona, and went through all the memories of the people who knew him, and through the countless data trails his life had left behind, an interesting picture began to form.

“To put it bluntly, Thomas was a part-time sociopath. Not a full-blown, people-eating mass murderer, but hard around the edges. What makes him interesting is that his sociopathic nature came and went like mood swings. He lived on the edge between human and inhuman for a very long time.

“Thomas knew exactly what he was, and he also knew when he began to lose control and where he was going.”

“What are you saying?” Adrian asked.

“His death wasn’t an accident.”

“And nobody is allowed to recreate suicides,” Adrian said in a monotone. He was just adding a fact everyone knew but seldom wanted to think about. Suicide was a topic all immortals tried to avoid.

The Superbright continued: “You see our dilemma. Even if we had recreated Thomas as he was, he would have either killed himself again or he would have killed others. The only thing we could bring back was his surface persona as a full-blown personality. And nobody has complained so far.”

“I have,” Adrian said.

“That is a problem. We won’t bring him back as he was; it’s too dangerous. The only thing we may do is disclose all the facts of this case to the public — if you press us.

“But think about what this will mean to your friends and to Thomas’s family. They are content with him now. And think about the Thomas we have recreated: what will this do to him? How would you react if you discovered that everything about yourself was a lie? It could break him. Think about that.”

“And it would harm the reputation of your company.”

“Maybe it would, but some will realize that we had few options. Yes, harm would surely come our way in some form, but nothing our company couldn’t survive.”

The Superbright leaned back in his chair, as if he were completely relaxed and nothing could faze him. “It’s your decision. Think about the debt you owe to Thomas’s family and to the new Thomas, as well.”

Adrian felt torn. “What about my debt to the real Thomas? He was, after all, my friend, too.”

“Nobody ever said life is easy.”

“I need time to think,” Adrian said and vanished from the office of Back From the Grave.

* * *

“You’re back,” the Superbright said. “Have you reached a decision?”

“Yes. Can you bring the original Thomas back, but in such a way that his personality is more stable, and not swinging between two extremes?”

The Superbright appeared to be lost in thought. “Maybe,” he said. “We could stabilize his personality somewhere between the two extremes. He won’t be completely like the old Thomas. The hard edges you mentioned will occur only occasionally; they will be a constant of his personality. He won’t be as nice; no surface personality to hide behind. Are you sure this is what you want?”

“Yes,” Adrian said.

“There’s the cost. Four millions whuffies.”

“Four million?!”

“Yes. This is not a mere Recreation; this is more delicate: personality design.”

“That amount might take years to collect. And I have to do it all alone; neither his family, nor any of our friends can know.”

“Yes,” the Superbright said, “you will be in our debt.”

“Okay,” Adrian replied.

* * *

The new new Thomas Upright looked at Adrian coldly. “You know I won’t help you pay the debt incurred to recreate me.”

He and Adrian were standing on the entryway stairs of the Back From the Grave Recreation Center. Thomas’s new body looked oddly like that of the original, but it was also very different. Adrian wondered whether the Superbrights had chosen the body or Thomas had chosen it, himself.

“It was your decision,” Thomas continued.

“I know,” Adrian said.

“Was it worth it for you?”

Adrian shrugged. “I don’t know yet. But now I have a chance to find out.”

Copyright © 2007 by Jörn Grote

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