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by slight ligaments

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You’re in a bar. You’re drunk. You’re alone.

The alone part is not new. That’s standard practice. That’s operating procedure.

You’re drunk and your fingers are buzzing and you think that you are in love but you don’t really know what love means. Maybe you once did, but maybe you didn’t. Maybe you just fooled yourself.

Maybe, you are a Philip K Dick replicant in a universe that has only electric sheep. Maybe, you are too old for this.

Maybe, you are too young for this. Maybe you are just a boy who fell off a roof when he was too young to know any better.

 

Maybe, you are just an origin myth. A skeleton of a thing, waiting for reality to hang upon it, clutching with cold hands at anything like specificity.

 

This is what it is, to be Joe Macmillan.

You are not safe.

 

-

 

In Texas, in 1983, Joe Macmillan is falling in love. Thinks he’s falling in love. Hopes he is.

It’s hard to tell, when you don’t really understand what love is. Conceptually, in practice.

 

Cameron Howe is fierce, sharp-edged. She reminds him of everyone he’s loved before her. (Everyone he thought he loved. Again: it is hard to be sure, when everything about you is quicksand.)

She smells a little like ammonia. Sometimes he thinks he will cut himself upon her edges, but it’s worth it, because she’s so bright that it alleviates the emptiness of him, the way he is an aching, screaming black hole of a person.

Cameron asks Joe how he got all those scars. He lies to her, because that’s what he’s good at, right? He’s artificial. He’s a liar. Someone made him, and then he made himself, and now everything he says is as real as he is, which is to say, not at all.

He is a good liar but she does not appreciate, for someone who is clever and fierce and a maker of things, how it is an art, what he does. He makes people believe things. It’s not quite code, but it’s something magic enough.

 

-

 

In Las Vegas, in 1990, Joe Macmillan is older than he used to be, and more tired. He was tired before; there is no time in his life that he can remember not being tired. But now he has a death on his shoulders; now he has Ryan, who he carries like a ghost. In memoriam.

In Las Vegas, in 1990, Joe Macmillan is drunk, and there’s a bottle of cheap champagne in his hand and he is with the woman who is what is left of the girl who built him. This is to say, Joe Macmillan is with the woman who emerged like a butterfly from the furious angry beautiful firestorm who made Joe what he is.

 

It’s not nice, to give someone else blame like that. To say that Cameron Howe became the destroyer of worlds and that in turn constructed Joe Macmillan, who is himself not something to be proud. Joe Macmillan is not like the BIOS of the Cardiff Giant, the real one, the one that they took out at the end to save the project, because if they didn’t they would be broke and heartbroken and fired. But they ended up heartbroken, anyway.

Joe is, unfortunately, a product.

It wasn’t Cameron’s fault. Cameron did what she could with what she was given.

 

-

 

Would you like to know the story of how Joe Macmillan got all those scars? It’s not a long one. It’s short. It sucks, honestly. It’s not very nice. Not neat, not pretty.

It doesn’t ring well, through the air. It’s not something that sells, especially. It’s not a pitch. If it was, Joe wouldn’t buy it.

That’s why he doesn’t give it out. It’s not the kind of thing that wears well, like one of his suits. It fits him poorly, and makes him feel small, and cheap, and artificial.

 

When Joe was a little kid his mom got high and took him up to a roof and he fell off. And then she died.

Well, she didn’t die.

But she was gone, so that’s the important thing. She was dead.

 

Joe almost died. That’s important, too. Joe could have been dead, except that his dad worked for IBM and so they had access to things that normal people don’t have access to, and so in turn IBM had access to Joe, in ways that normal corporations don’t have access to normal people.

Joe was very, very young.

It’s important to remember that.

(That’s what Joe’s dad says. It’s important, to know that, Joe was so, so small. There were so many things that he had left to do in his life.

You had to weigh that up, when you made a decision.

That’s what he did, when he made his decision.)

 

-

 

“Have you ever been a myth?” Joe asks Cameron, in a hotel room in Las Vegas, both of them adults, both of them calm. Both of them older than they were.

She looks at him. Her hair is dark now, and she smiles differently, warily, with grace. She wears a ring on her left hand and when she kisses him it feels the same, as though nothing was ever different at all. “I think so,” she says. “I think now I am.”

He thinks about the girl dressed up as the rider in Space Bike. He thinks about Cameron with her dark hair. “Yeah, okay.”

She says, “I always thought you were full of shit, you know.”

He smiles, can’t help himself. “There was a minute there, I had you going.”

 

It’s like, deja vu. A hotel room, in Las Vegas.

Joe Macmillan, saying, what do you think we are made of? Star stuff?

She laughed at him, once, and said: we’re just computers. Just run a little faster, most days.

 

-

 

Ryan Ray was not what Cameron is. He was brilliant. It’s important to remember that.

Joe does not pick people who are not brilliant. It is the act of a mirror, no? To find the brightest light, to reflect it. Like the moon, like - a laser. Find what is strongest and make it stronger.

You can’t do it yourself? Find the people who can, and take all the credit.

(With less savagery than that, of course.)

 

Joe loved Ryan, as much as he could, as much as he can. Joe loves Ryan. If there is anything about which he dreams it is Ryan Ray, who tried to fix Joe and failed; who tried to be Joe and failed.

Ryan, who tried to pick out of the emptiness of Joe’s heart the thing that was singing, and then was eaten alive by it.

Ryan was like Gordon.

Joe knew it from the start. But he thought, this time, he would be better. He thought that Ryan came without the flaws that Gordon had. Without those fault lines, of loyalty, of ties to other things.

He was right.

Ryan came unmoored. Joe cut all the lines and tied Ryan to himself and then was not good enough as an anchor.

 

-

 

The reason Joe says that Cameron made him is because she did.

It was a group project. They are all group projects, that is what happens when you work with programmers and with code and with hardware development. Nobody acts alone.

You build on what came before you. You cobble it together from antiquity, from shorthand. Sometimes you rewrite, entirely. But there is still something that you were. There’s still a ghost in the machine; still history, pressing at your fingers. No human achievement exists without the first cave painting.

That’s what computers are like.

Or: we are all the future. And that’s what makes them afraid of us.

 

Cameron built the BIOS of the Cardiff Giant in a closed room, from scratch. But she was reverse engineering an IBM BIOS. There was something she knew she was trying to make.

And that’s how she built Joe.

 

Cameron was always brilliant. Cameron always knew how to make things with hearts, because Cameron wanted that, wanted them. Because the first thing she ever made was Cameron Howe; because she was Katherine, before that, and beyond binary she understands the construction of self out of ones and zeroes and bleach that stings your nostrils and changes the colour of your hair and makes you stare at your reflection in the mirror as though she is a stranger. But she’s not. She’s you.

And you imbue her with all of the grace you possess, and all of the bitterness, too, until she is flesh and blood and heart and soul.

Real.

He picked her for her software.

 

-

 

Joe made Cameron. He made Cameron, he made Gordon, he made Ryan. He can’t take credit for Donna. Donna is her own person.

(They are all their own people.

It is hard to admit that. You don’t want to admit that, when the finding of people is the only thing you have.)

 

In return, Cameron and Gordon and Ryan and Donna, they all made him. They reached into the code of him, into his hardware. Reconfigured him, put in their patches and their bug fixes and their graphics upgrades. All that optimization.

 

IBM didn’t know what they were doing. They were playing, like children, like evolution. They were trying to save this kid’s life, and they were trying to make him something else.

They succeeded, in both ways, in half measures. They made him: a boy with an easy and beautiful smile, a boy who charmed like he breathed. A boy who could do for them what they needed. A mirror, to hold up and to reflect. And to distort, for mutual gain. For better ends.

Joe Macmillan is a miracle of modern engineering.

Don’t tell anybody, though. It’s proprietary.

 

-

 

This is what happens, in a hotel room in Las Vegas. The first hotel room, in the first Las Vegas.

 

“I built something that had a soul,” Cameron says. “And you took it out, Joe, you - made it something wrong. You made it so it wasn’t special anymore.”

He catches her by the arm. He says, “You can put it in me, instead.”

 

Donna and Gordon can do hardware. Joe is complex, but he is not that complex. And they are brilliant, the two of them. That’s why he found them in the first place. Part of him knowing, perhaps. Part of him yearning.

The ghost in the machine. The last ditch echo of the boy who fell.

 

The hardware is easy to follow because it already exists, and because they are brilliant.

The software is:

The software is Cameron, who hates him, whose mouth tastes acrid and bitter and like orange soda.

Cameron, who will take any legacy she can find, even if means that once, long ago, she fell in love with a mirror. A thing with no soul.

Cameron, who kisses Joe Macmillan and puts the OS into the back of his neck, into the handy port that IBM left and Donna and Gordon have reconfigured for the series of floppy disks that Cameron is about to insert.

 

Cameron leaves before he can boot up.

She doesn’t care.

He opens his eyes, and lord, that hurts.

 

-

 

In Texas, in the basement of a corporate building owned by Joe’s father in law, Cameron kisses him, and betrays him, and it is all in the same breath.

He sees it coming. He thinks fast, these days.

She built him a soul, remember? You would think she would know that. You would think she would remember.

You would think - he thought -

 

But he set all those Giants on fire. It was not a malfunction, like at IBM.

He called it a glitch, later. Had to; how else to describe it?

But it wasn’t.

 

They didn’t have souls, you see.

Joe used to not have a soul.

He knows it’s not worth it, to be alive, without one.

 

-

 

B.C., Before Cameron. This is what Joe Macmillan thinks it is, to have a heart:

To be able to love someone. To be able to have them love you back. To mean what you say.

 

A.V., After Vegas. Joe Macmillan has a heart. It doesn’t feel all that different.

This is a lie. It feels like being hurt.

It feels like a collection of bruises, over and over again.

 

Joe Macmillan fell off a roof when he was very small and his father said, never let him be hurt again, and so they built him, a thing with sharp eyes and a sweet and sloping smile and the ability to charm any person and the insulation to not let himself feel any of it.

All she did, really, was strip that away.

 

-

 

In 1990, Joe and Cameron are in a hotel room in Las Vegas, and they are kissing. It feels like being young.

It feels like electricity, sparking through his veins.

It feels like home.

“What did Ryan do?” she asks. “Did he look at you? Did he try-”

“He’s not you,” Joe says. “He got confused by it. By the reality of me.”

“Because you don’t have a soul?”

“Because I do have one,” Joe says. “I think he saw your fingerprints on it. I think it confused him.”

“What did you want from him?”

“I wanted to make things,” Joe says. “You weren’t quite finished with me. You made me feel. You let me long for things. You let me get within reach of a world where I could touch things, and build them.”

“That’s what being human is,” Cameron says. “Coming close, but not close enough.”

“He thought he could fix me,” Joe says. “I thought he could fix me, too.”

Cameron presses her fingers to her mouth. “You want me to try.”

“I want you to try,” he says. “But I - I just wanted to see you. That’s it. Is that all right?”

She has this wide mouth, these sharp eyes. He constitutes her as much as she constitutes him.

Well, less. It is unfair to ignore all the time they have been apart. He has spent it dreaming of her, and dreaming of Ryan.

She has spent it in construction, and grieving.

 

-

 

The project is the Giant. That is the thing for which Joe Macmillan hires Cameron Howe, in 1983. He does not know what hope is but he has it anyway.

 

The project is the Giant.

 

“The project was you,” Cameron says, in a hotel room, in Las Vegas, in 1992, in the future, where the internet is live and she does not have a ring on her left hand. “That’s what I built, isn’t it?”

“That’s what we built,” he says. “Isn’t it?”

She looks at him. “Yes,” she says. “All right. Yes.”

 

-

 

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