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The Incrementalists, Page 3

Steven Brust

  “Good question, but an easy one,” I said. “Because it’s the next thing we get to. The big one. The one you need to know before decid—”

  “Just say it,” she said. “I hate prologues.”

  I knew that. “The process involves giving you the memories of one of us—of someone who died. No, don’t ask how that’s done. Later. The point is, you’ll be getting the memories of a woman named Celeste. You’ll be what we call her Second, with all of her memories, in addition to all of your own. Which brings up the question of—”

  “Who will I be?”


  “What’s the answer?”

  “There’s no way to know.”

  She put her teacup down and looked at me. “Oh, well, that’s just peachy. It isn’t dangerous, but for all intents and purposes, I could just disappear?”

  “Your memories won’t.”

  “But I might.”

  I nodded.

  “And I should even consider this—why?”

  “That whole thing about making a difference. Don’t tell me that isn’t important to you; I know better.”

  She said slowly and distinctly, “Shit,” pronouncing it very carefully as if to make sure there would be no confusion.

  I ate some more wrap and drank some coffee.

  “Who was Celeste?”

  I felt my face do something, and it was like I’d just let my eyes widen after flopping quads. Crap. The chances she’d missed it were zero, so I said, “She was someone who was very important to me.”

  “You were lovers?”

  “Only briefly in this lifetime.”

  “Jesus Christ,” she said. “This lifetime? How many lifetimes have you had?”

  “I do not,” I said, “wish to answer that question at this time.”

  “I kind of think you should,” she said.

  “You are risking what is left of this lifetime. You may, as you, gain others. You may not. There’s—”

  “How old are you?”

  I shook my head. “That’s an impossible question. This thing I’m asking you to do, where you get someone’s memories. I’ve done that before. So, do you mean the age of this body? The age of my personality? How long the original—”

  “Stop it. How long have you been you?”

  I inhaled and let my breath out slowly. And I wondered why I was getting upset. This was predictable; part of the normal process. Why was it getting to me this time? One plus zero is one. One plus one is two. Two plus one is three. Three plus two is five. Five plus three is eight. I got up to 610 and said, “I’ve been around for about two thousand years. What else would you like to know?”

  “Two thousand years?”

  “Me, as me, yes.”

  “Do you have memories from before that?”

  “Yes, all the way back to the beginning. But—”

  “The beginning of what?”

  No way around it. “The human race,” I said.

  She stared at me.

  I continued as if it were no big deal. “But the ones way back are, well, hazy. I can refresh any of them I want to.”

  This was where part of her would be saying, All right, just pretend you believe it, and go from there; worry about reality later. “But you’ve been Phil for two thousand years.”

  “Two thousand and six, yes.”

  “Same personality?”

  “Same basic personality. It alters some with the body you’re put in. My personality in a woman’s body is subtly different, and things like sexual orientation are, in part, wired into the brain, so that changes. But I’ve thought of myself as Phil for, yeah, about two thousand years.”

  “You’ve been a woman?”

  “Several times.”

  “Why did you pick a man this time?”

  “We don’t get to pick. The others pick for you. That’s why it’s me talking to you instead of Celeste.”

  She sat there for a long time, first looking at me, then through me. Then she said, “Is it worth it?”

  I discarded half a dozen glib answers, then realized that without them I didn’t know what to say. “That’s sort of an impossible question,” I said. “For me, it’s worth it, yeah. Even with—even with the times we blew it. Was it worth it for you to tell your boss he made Bill Gates look like Richard Stallman?”

  Her face twisted up as she tried not to laugh. “You know about that, huh?”

  I grinned at her, and she let herself smile. I was right about wanting to see it.

  Then she said, “Meddlework. That’s what you call it?”

  “Yes. What about it?”

  “You do that to people, and change them, to make things better.”


  “I want to watch you do one,” she said.


  “Look how stupid this is.” I held the passenger door open while Phil moved bags of clothes and boxes of paper from the front seat of his Prius. “Car manufacturers know even married people drive alone more frequently than with a passenger, but we still have cars with five seats and no storage. If this seat simply folded flat easily, think how much better it’d be for you.”

  “But not for you,” he said with a flourish indicating the cleared seat.

  “But you almost never have anyone else in here, so most of the time, it’d be better.”

  Phil turned his oddly twisted eyebrows to me and I felt stupid. He’d rather have a regular passenger. Obviously.

  “It’s just bad design,” I said.

  He pointed his eyebrows at the windshield and pulled into traffic.

  “The car, I mean,” I said. “How long were you and Celeste together?”

  “A while.”

  I stopped talking. It seemed prudent. We drove in the quiet through the visual noise of Las Vegas. It faded quickly into a suburban west that could have been Phoenix or Houston or here.

  “I can show you the file I’m building for a guy named Acosta, but I’m still gathering switches, so there’s not much to watch yet.”


  “Information I can use to get past his defenses. Like your matzo ball soup. I’m still collecting them.”

  “But you can show me one?”

  His mouth smiled, but not his eyebrows. “Switches aren’t something you can see. They’re not actual toggles or whips. They’re metaphorical.”

  “So you just remember them?”

  “Sorta. We store them in the Garden.”

  I just waited.

  “The Garden is … um. We have forty thousand years of individual memories times two-hundred-odd minds, plus switches and other information. We have to keep it somewhere. The Garden is what we call that somewhere.”

  “Somewhere outside yourself?” I asked. “You can store your memories remotely?”

  “Sorta,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. But in effect, yeah. You’ll either understand when you need to, or you won’t need to.”

  His house was small, but bigger than a man living alone needs, with a rock yard he didn’t care about and room for two cars. Inside, the emptiness felt more Zen than lonely, and comfortable.

  “I know you don’t drink coffee, but I haven’t bought tea for you yet. Can I get you anything else?”

  “You weren’t expecting me to come home with you today?”

  “No. Most people need to think it over.”

  “That’s what I’m doing.”

  “No, you’re experimenting with it.”

  “I’d take a beer.”

  Not just the one, but both eyebrows spun out. “Now you’re just fucking with me,” he said.

  “Yeah,” I agreed, and made myself cozy on his sofa. “Tell me about Acosta.”

  “One of our pattern shamans tipped us off to him.” Phil stayed in the kitchen, making coffee, getting me a glass of water, talking while he worked. “He’s sales manager at a midsize manufacturing company here in town, but moving up the ranks. He started on the line. Couple of months back, he hired a n
ew sales guy, but he’s not working out. Acosta’s given him every chance. He’s loaned him money, covered for him. They’re friends. But now he has to fire him.” Phil hesitated with his hand on the fridge door, his back to me, looking for words. “What Acosta ends up telling himself about this—that he can’t be a boss and be a friend, that his buddy’s been trying to play him, or was never really his friend—will make a difference in how he manages everyone else for as long as he works—and we think that’s likely to be a lot of folks. He’s teaching himself a basic rule here, and I want to help it be a good one.”

  “How can you know it’s that pivotal?” I took the water from him and he sat down with his coffee cup beside me on the sofa.

  “We’ve learned to spot that in people,” he said. “When lives are at a turning point.”

  “By comparing your collective experience of people over so much time?”

  “Right,” he said.

  “Shared in the Garden?”

  “Yeah. Shoulders and backs show you what they’re going through is big; their hands tell you it’s urgent; and the jawline lets you know if it’s temporary and immediate or a true pivot point.”

  “Do you see that in me?”

  He looked at me. “No.”

  “You said you’re responsible for the MP3 format.”

  “We helped.”

  “What else?”

  “Excuse me?”

  “What else have you done?”

  He opened his mouth, then closed it again. “Are you asking for an example, or an exhaustive list? If you want the list, I have to decline; I have plans for next February.”

  “An example would be nice. Something like the MP3 thing, where you did something that had a broad effect.”

  He was quiet for a few minutes, then he nodded.


  “All right,” I said. “Ever heard of John Rawlins?”

  She shook her head, her eyes narrowed and focused on me the way a snake focuses on a bird.

  “He was Grant’s chief of staff.”

  “Grant? General Grant?”

  “Right. The one buried in Grant’s Tomb. What do you know about him?”

  “Um. Lee surrendered to him?”

  “Right. What else?”

  “He was a butcher, a bad president, and a drunk.”

  “Yeah, that’s the guy. Except none of that is true.”

  She started to speak, and I held my hand up. “The drinking thing. I don’t know, maybe. But he probably never got drunk during the war, and certainly never when it mattered.”

  “Then how did he get the reputation?”

  “Short version: jealousy in the officer corps, and the fact that he did have a drinking problem when he was in the army after the Mexican War.”

  “He beat it?”

  “With help from John Rawlins, who took it upon himself to make sure Grant stayed sober.”

  She nodded. “And?”

  I remembered the flag of the 46th Ohio, tattered and shredded. I remembered myself, after Shiloh, retching from the smell of bodies and saying over and over to myself, You didn’t run, you didn’t run. I remembered huddling on the ground after the second assault on Vicksburg, thinking about the last screaming fight with Celeste and half hoping I’d get a wound so brutal it’d force some sympathy out of her. I remembered the long, ugly march to Tennessee, trying to get a song started and failing as the cold and wet and the mountain paths almost did what even Johnston couldn’t.

  “Yeah,” I said. “We saw how important Grant was after Donnelson. We didn’t know if he’d start drinking, but we couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t.”

  “So you meddled with him?”

  “No,” I said. “With Rawlins. You could say Rawlins meddled with Grant, though he wasn’t one of us.”

  “I’m not sure what you’re saying.”

  “I found Rawlins’s switches—oysters, saddle-leather, I don’t remember what else. I meddled with him to make sure he took it upon himself to keep Grant from drinking.”

  “And if you hadn’t done that?”

  “Who knows. Maybe nothing. Or maybe Grant would have been drunk at Shiloh. One thing I know for sure: if the Union had lost at Shiloh, things would have been even worse.”

  “So you made him better.”

  “I think so, yes.”

  She frowned. “But everyone remembers him worse. Why don’t you set the record straight?”

  “How would we do that? We meddle a bit with biographers and historians and archaeologists, and point them towards evidence, but other than that, what can we do? Who’d believe us? If someone announced, without evidence, that half the books destroyed in the library at Alexandria were works of erotica, would you believe him?”

  “Were they?”

  “Not half.”

  “So there’s nothing you can do?”

  That stopped me. The question was either too big or too small. After some thought, I said, “You know what we call people who aren’t one of us?”

  “I didn’t know there was a term for them.”

  “Of course there’s a term for them. Every group has a term for outsiders. We call them, ‘those who forget.’”

  “What’s your point?”

  “That we remember.”

  She was quiet for a couple of minutes. Her shoulders shifted back a little, and she rolled her head as if her neck was stiff.

  “That’s it,” I said.


  “In my jaw and shoulders?”

  He nodded. “And your hands.” And he was right.

  “Can you guys find a nice girl for Brian? Maybe someone a little more rock-n-roll than me?”

  “We could, but so could you.”

  “Oh, right. I can’t tell anyone, can I? I can’t call my mom and say good-bye?”

  “No.” He held my eyes the way you’d take a sick man’s hand. “But you won’t just vanish. Even if your personality doesn’t stay on top of Celeste’s—the other, older personality—it’ll be a meld more than a swallow. And gradual.”

  “But I will always be there in the external Garden? Just packed away, stored remotely?”

  “Your memories will be.”

  “Okay,” I said.

  “Okay what?”

  “Okay I want in. Whatever it is you have to do to make me one of you. I’m ready.”

  “Okay,” he said, and put his coffee down.


  That’s Backwards Too


  Ritual and memory; pain and understanding.

  Ritual has a mass, a weight, a gravity. It pulls you into itself, and as you use it, it uses you. It takes power and it gives power. Ritual is the same every time, otherwise it isn’t ritual. It is different every time, otherwise it has no power. No matter how many times we experience the same ritual, it transpires differently than it lives in our memories.

  That’s especially true of the ritual I performed on and with Ren, because we never remember any of the details between reaching into the Garden to shape the stub, and using the stub in its new shape. Here, of all places, as part of the ritual, our memory fails.

  What is memory? Some say our memories are ourselves, which is oversimplified, but not wrong. But if there were a symbol of memory, what would it be? Would it be wood that came from a living thing as our memories continue to grow and change after the events that created them have passed? Would it be shaped by a human hand as our personalities are shaped by our experiences? Would the shape be pointed, to represent that we are always moving forward? Would it be on fire to represent the memories of passion without which we aren’t human, and leaving behind ash to represent the memories of regret, without which we shouldn’t be?

  That’s just rationalization, though. I don’t know why memory is symbolized as a burning wooden spike. But it is, and it always has been, for any useful definition of always.

  I finished around nine in the evening, Ren sleeping comfortably on my bed. I pulled a chair up next to her, exhau
sted by the ritual as always, unable to sleep afterward as always. See previous remark about “always.” I waited, rested, read some Ashbless poems, and wished I could sleep. The Pirates were playing Toronto again, but I couldn’t summon up the energy to check the score.

  About three hours later she woke as we always do, a scream starting on her lips continuing the one that almost passed before; then she realized that the only pain was a dull headache, and so the scream never emerged. Then she brought a hand to her forehead, touching it to see if there was a wound. It was a gesture I’d seen thousands of times, and made hundreds.

  Eventually, her eyes focused on me: fear, anger, wonderment, confusion. What had I just done to her? How much of it was real? Did it matter if it was real? Why hadn’t I told her what I was going to do?

  And then, as I watched her eyes, I could see the first taste of Celeste reaching her. I knew that the strongest, sharpest, clearest of Celeste’s memories would first seep into Ren’s head like floodwater under the door. She’d remember when Celeste went through the same ritual, and perhaps she’d remember when Celeste did the same thing to me. Maybe. I can’t reach Celeste’s memory, except through Celeste. We can’t reach anyone’s memory, except through what they tell us. We trust our memories even though they lie, and we cherish our memories, even though there are some we wish we could scrub like burned egg off a frying pan.

  The memory of pain would be present, clear, sharp, but behind it would be understanding. Pain and understanding are always at war with each other. We are fighters for understanding, but we can only get there through pain. We are keepers of memory, but we can only get there through ritual.

  Her eyes focused a little more. I got up, sat down on the edge of the bed, and held a glass of water to her lips. She drank a sip.

  “Hello, Ren,” I said. “Welcome back. How’s the head?”


  “You asshole,” I said, which tightened the tenderness I’d seen softening the edges of his eyes enough to keep me from crying. “You shoved a burning stake between my eyes, how the hell do you think my head is?”

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s the only way.”