Threshold

This story has a sequel, Lilac.


"Is anybody in this classroom tweaked?" the ethics professor asked. "Er - never mind, that's backwards, I'm not supposed to ask about - If anyone in this classroom is tweaked or sensitive to the subject, they may be excused for this class and Wednesday's."

"Why?" asked Mercy.

"Campus policy is that I have to warn you that the discussion topic for the day may be distressing for tweaked individuals and those close to them. And anyone sensitive to the topic for other reasons. There will be discussion of historical anti-tweaking arguments, among other related topics."

"Do potentially distressed people have to leave?"

The professor shook his head. "You can stay, I just have to warn you. If you do leave you're excused from the associated reading and the section on the test."

Mercy was tempted - she could probably make good progress on her art project with that time, or, more realistically, she could binge-watch a lot of TV - but she stayed put. Lyle, sitting next to her, nudged her foot, looking nervous.

"I think I'll be fine," Mercy said, mostly to Lyle, but the professor took her as representative of the whole class and proceeded with his slideshow ("Tweaking: Prenatal Genetic and Epigenetic Alterations").

Mercy lasted ten minutes and then snapped to the professor that she would be skipping this section on the test and gathered her belongings and stormed out.


"You're not fine," Lyle observed, following at a half-jog as Mercy fumbled her books into her knapsack and stomped away from the lecture hall.

"I thought it was going to be - I would be fine if he'd stood there and told me that great thinkers were of the opinion that I wasn't worth the expense!" hissed Mercy. "Or the health risks to Mother however much better things have gotten - or the research allocations that let them improve that much. I was expecting him to tell me that I should have been aborted. I could have coped with that. But no, he respectfully trots out and engages arguments that say I should have been born sick? That my wholeness is an affront to human dignity? That I am - that - ugh! I should have left."

"Can I help?" asked Lyle, wringing his hands. "Do you - what do you do when you're stressed out? Hit the gym? Eat ice cream? Go to church?"

Of course he'd ask about church; his project was on her religion. So she obliged him. "Sometimes I do go to church, and at another time of the week I could turn up and volunteer to help with the preschool - I should show you the church preschool sometime before you turn in your project - but the bus to the church doesn't run at this hour. And the place would be empty right now anyway. God's ministry is in words and deeds and fellowship, not consecrated dead places, an empty church might as well be an abandoned warehouse. I'll take the ice cream plan if you're buying. Is that within the scope of your research?"

"Can do," said Lyle.

He found them a gelato place. The cashier called Mercy Lyle's sister; Mercy corrected her. She got pistachio, and ate it angrily.

"...So," said Lyle. "I kind of hate to ask, but I have a grade riding on this."

"Yes, of course," sighed Mercy. "Go ahead."

"So I gather Conceptual Christianity feels very strongly pro-tweaking. Or at least has room for such opinions."

"Do you want me to quote things at you or just - talk?"

"Both, ideally," says Lyle. "You're a lay case study, not a minister, but if you can call quotes to mind..."

"Conceptual activists were actually instrumental in lobbying in favor of tweaking back when it was first viable for the consumer market," Mercy said. "It is not an exaggeration to say that but for the grace of God I would not be healthy today."

"Can I ask what you were tweaked for?"

"I don't actually know," says Mercy. "I suppose I'll find out once I'm managing my own medical care but I never bothered to ask my parents. I only know that I was tweaked at all because my father mentions it when they're saying their gratitudes."

"And why does the church feel that way?"

"That which - this is a quote, although I won't get it perfect, look it up for your project - that which God makes is whole and perfect but may be corrupted by men or by nature. To shape things more like the way God would have had them be is God's work. Deliberately preserving things in states where they have constrained potential is as evil as constraining that potential in the first place. If you would not take a healthy child and break its spine or give it a lobotomy, you must not turn aside the chance to heal one who could be born healthy with your intervention."

"Quoting who?" asked Lyle.

"My namesake. The Reverend Mercy Small, no puns please."

"I wouldn't," said Lyle.


Mercy's next class, unlike the morning's ethics lecture, was comfortably within the scope of her major. Simulation Engineering 202. There was a sign on the door when she and Lyle arrived; cancelled, continuing equipment failure, techs are on it, read chapters thirteen through fourteen.

"Wish I'd taken the practical last semester and the theoretical now when they're having all this hardware trouble," Mercy sighed.

"Do you want me to leave you alone while you read chapters thirteen through fourteen?" inquired Lyle.

"I already read them, last weekend. Routing around simulation nesting, physics engines and how to cut corners on them for computationally small projects, self-insertion and dreamlikeness or Why You Can't Count Higher Than Two In Sim. Large aside on how you never ever ever sim anyone under age sixteen no matter what. I assume I'm boring you, poor anthropologist. Dash it all, I finished my midterm project early, I wanted to run my sim, but the techs can't figure out what's wrong with these machines. I might not bother coming again Friday unless I've gotten a message saying class is on."

"Yeah? What were you going to try?"

"Releasing a tiger into a soccer practice. It'd make my lab partner laugh. I had a backup plan to make it a wallaby instead, in case the professor thought there was much chance of threshold; if we had to wake somebody up they'd resent the tiger. In addition to finding themselves prematurely silicized. I did make sure nobody on the soccer team is an Orthodox New Millennium's Child or otherwise hung up about it, first. I'm not sure what the issue Orthodox folks have is - is it literally the sim depiction, or the possibility of having an extra of someone in particular, or do they just object to threshold no matter what? You're the one studying modern religion, you tell me."

Lyle snorted softly. "I haven't made a study of New Millennium's Children, but I think I've heard it's the third thing."

"Really, threshold's not a huge risk if you know what you're doing," Mercy assured him. "Sims are started and stopped every day with no greater odds of turning into subjective experiences than an unusually bright parrot. Not that we don't have assorted protestors outside the building sometimes calling us abortionists. I suppose it's better that they're bothering us and not traumatized pregnant women. I have no such saving grace for the ones calling us soul-stealers."

"Mercy?" said Lyle.

"Mm?"

"Can I get you to ask your parents what you were tweaked for?"

"For your project?"

"Yes."

"I don't see why not. Do you want to be there?"

Lyle hesitated, then said, "No. But if you could take note of your reaction to it to tell me tomorrow I'd appreciate that."


Lyle bought Mercy brunch the next morning; her only class was sculpture, late afternoon. They both got loaded waffles. Mercy looked pensive.

"Are you all right?" Lyle asked her. "Did the conversation not go well...?"

"Oh - I didn't even get around to asking your question, I'm sorry," said Mercy. "It's - I called, and it turned out they were going to call me after they expected me out of Sim Eng, and - Mother's sick. She's going to silicize."

Lyle nodded slowly. "That would be distracting. Yeah."

"And since you'll probably ask, Conceptual Christianity is entirely positive on silicization. Words and deeds and fellowship and all still exist if you go from flesh to pattern. Mother didn't grow up Conceptual, though. Her mother's still alive - and decrepit, it hurts to look at poor Nana, I think she's starting to consider changing her mind but who knows if she will before - but anyway my mother's father actually died. Less than ten years ago! Ceased to exist, and not in a freak accident, either, he just turned away the uploaders and died. And I think Mother has residual hangups about going in silico, from her childhood? Even though she converted when my parents got married."

"She's nervous?"

"She's got a lot of very complicated feelings, I imagine, she didn't dump them all on me. It's going to be so different. Father might go with her, they were talking about how I'm almost twenty and don't really need them physically around anymore, there was a terrible joke about how she'd leave me all her recipes..."

"You're old enough to silicize too, if you wanted," said Lyle. "It'd be early, but it wouldn't wreck your brain growth."

"I know, but I might want children, one day. And it's not as though I go visit my parents too often from here regardless." She shrugged. "They'll probably rent one of those silly looking robots and decorate it with seashells and come bother me all the time. I'm just worried that Mother's worried."

Lyle nodded and poked his waffle with his fork. "I'll understand if you don't want to ask them."

"I don't have to ask them. With Mother on her way to silicizing and Father on the fence I'm expecting a little alert any moment now about being in charge of my own med-" There was a beep; Mercy consulted her pocket computer. "Yep, there it is. I'll just look it up now."

"Mercy -"

"Mercy Long," Mercy said, "nineteen, female, B-positive... here we are. Tweaked in utero for - this is all minor spellchecking -"

"Mercy -"

"Almost found it. Tweaking indicated principally because of prenatal profile indicating high likelihood of child being -" She blinked. "Transgender. Huh. I was expecting something more... I don't know."

"Well. They do tweak for that if the parents want to," Lyle said.

"I never did look at a complete list of tweaking parameters. The wording doesn't quite say what they did, where I started out. Did the tweak make me a girl or make me female, I wonder?"

Lyle didn't answer; she poked at her pocket computer. Eventually she shrugged and put it away. "Anyway, there's your answer."

"Think it was a good idea?" Lyle asked.

"Both I and Conceptual Christianity are in total agreement that trans people deserve full recognition as the genders of their souls and that their essential humanity should not be infringed upon in thought, word, or deed. That having been said, I don't see why anyone would decide to be trans if they could change it that easily and that far in advance," says Mercy. "It sounds - I don't know quite what I want to say - complicated? Exhausting? If you could have childhoods in silico I suppose it would be comparatively trivial to deal with, if pointless to include, but you can't. My cousin's wife has a prematurely silicized... aunt, I think... who got very sick when she was four, and they - I've talked to her a little, and it just - But that's beside the point. Yes, I suppose I think it was a good idea."

Lyle stole a half-strawberry off her waffle. Mercy rolled her eyes and let him.


"I thought you were going to sit with me in Sculpture," Mercy said, when Lyle turned up at her dorm suite that evening.

"Sorry," Lyle said.

"You don't have to apologize to me, you're the one with a final project on Conceptual Christianity to turn in. Not that I don't enjoy your company."

Lyle smiled a little, at that. "Hey - Mercy?"

"Mm?" she asked, waving him in and shutting the door behind him. "Oh, hey, do you want some popcorn?"

"Yes please. I've got a weird question."

"Shoot."

"If somebody simmed you, and your sim thresholded, how would you feel about that?"

She started the popcorn going and thumped onto the couch next to him. "Are you asking me theologically or personally?"

"Whichever, both - in sum, I guess."

"Conceptual Christianity holds that subjectivity-bearing patterns are people, and moreover that they are the people they think they are to the same extent that flesh people are - so, sims are generally mistaken if they think they're Christ or Napoleon, we don't have the data to sim them, but a threshold pattern who thought she was Mercy Long would almost certainly be Mercy Long. She'd be a prematurely silicized version of me, so I guess she'd be put out about not being able to have kids without enormous hassle and we'd have to go through the amicable forking process instead of trying to juggle a single legal identity, but I don't envision having a philosophical crisis about it."

"And it would be the amicable forking process."

"Why would I want to invite the hostility rigmarole? Either of me? Bureaucrats and risk of asset seizure - not that I have that much, I guess it'll be more when my parents go - and restraining orders. Ugh. I'm not saying I'd give her input into when or with whom I eventually had the kids she couldn't, or even be especially generous with my allowance, but that doesn't mean we'd necessarily fight."

"Very - practical of you."

"I do think I'd be irritated with whoever simmed me without my permission. I'm a sim engineering major, I'd have wanted to look over their parameters."

Lyle nodded slowly.

"What are you going to wind up turning in, anyway?" Mercy asked. "You keep bouncing topics all over the place and sometimes it seems more like you're going to write a book about me than a thesis about my religion."

"The format is - it's - okay, I have no idea how to - Mercy, if somebody asked you how to help escort your sim into shared silicon and tell her what was going on what would you do?"

"God, Lyle, I'm not qualified. Don't they have people whose job that is? Who've majored in social work or something and run around handling threshold cases when they pop up, in between counseling the mentally ill and looking in on fosterage arrangements and so on?"

"Some," said Lyle, "but I don't think they know what they're doing either. She'd be you, more or less, what would you tell her?"

"I'd - I don't know! Hello, welcome to the world? Our parents always wanted a second child and will be so pleased that they have one once they've gotten over the shock? So tell me about your simulated environment? I can cover part of the rent on a robotic chassis to let you take classes with me if you want? Can I call you by our middle name instead?"

"Assume as part of the sim she had a different name already."

"Well, that would be convenient, at least, but if you start changing things around I start reaching for the social workers again, my expertise goes kaput."

"Yeah, I'm getting that." Lyle swallowed. And then he said, "Hello. Welcome to the world."

"You're not funny," Mercy said, getting up to retrieve the finished popcorn.

"I know," said Lyle. He didn't take any when she sat back down and offered him the bowl. "I never told you my last name."

"Lyle, it's not funny."

"I'd show you, but you're in the middle of a snack. And you might decide you want to slap me and I'd hate to deny you the chance."

"Lyle -" Mercy looked at her popcorn.

"Count them," murmured Lyle.

Mercy tried. Picked up one kernel at a time and looked at them collecting in her palm. One two five three six four -

One two four -

One two two many -

"Oh God," she breathed. "What did you do?"

Lyle bowed his head. "I'd say," he said, "that our parents always wanted a second child, but they really didn't."

Mercy flung her popcorn at the wall and sobbed.


"You're not an anthropology student."

They were in sim engineering classroom. It was empty. The equipment would present as broken if she tried to fire it up. Couldn't have the sim nesting. Mercy had considered it thematically appropriate.

"I'm a sim engineer like you. A couple years farther along."

"I'm your, what, thesis project?"

"You weren't supposed to threshold. I didn't do it on purpose. The professor rated it less than one in a hundred million likely."

"But I'm your thesis project."

"Yeah."

"You don't care about Conceptual Christianity at all."

"I used that excuse," said Lyle, "because that's - what I changed. In baseline reality, Father converted. Not Mother."

"God, no wonder you look like me. You probably looked exactly like me until you started taking hormones; is your sim presence optimized or do you look like that in the flesh?"

"I look like this," said Lyle. "When I'm wearing clothes and my skin's having a good week, anyway, if you want to get technical."

"I did not need to get technical," Mercy said. "Did you use to be named Mercy?"

"No. They didn't name me after a Conceptual reverend because they weren't Conceptual. I'd rather not tell you what they did call me. I'm Lyle now."

"Of course. I apologize," said Mercy automatically. "When did - when did I -?"

"If you think about it - paying attention like when you tried to count the popcorn - you'll be able to get a more precise guess than me," Lyle said. "But the threshold notification popped up during your ethics course yesterday. When you got angry."

"How long were you running me before I - before I thresholded? Just from when you asked me about shadowing me for your project? Did you do that the long way around, even, is that a simmed memory?"

"I gave you twenty minutes' lead time and then I showed up," murmured Lyle. "I was really there when you met me, it's not a simmed memory."

Mercy swallowed. "Why would the sim engines have been broken - why wouldn't there have been preschool or a bus to it the middle of a Monday -"

"Yeah. Can't sim children. If they thresholded -"

"Of course. Of course you can't."

"But you're fine. You're nineteen."

"Our parents didn't want another child?"

"They weren't," said Lyle, "very happy with their first one."

"Because you weren't tweaked, because they weren't Conceptual Christians -"

"Yeah. Basically."

Mercy kicked a sim engine, not hard. It didn't really make a noise. If she thought about it, all that there was, was the impression that she'd heard something.

"Is there someplace set up for me in proper silico?" she asked. "What are - what am I looking at, here?"

"When you were in sculpture -"

"Dreaming I was in sculpture -"

"Yes. Sorry. I got the school to take a decent chunk of liability because the professor signed off on my parameters. You've got enough runway from that alone to cover standard-speed runtime and an environment - design your own or buy into a shared or get a private off the shelf, whatever you like - you can rent a chassis and test into courses - maybe not sculpture, fine motor control, but, you know - and get a degree. It'll last even if you take a gap year or don't find work right away, and the hiring market for engineers is still good even though it's a couple years later than you thought it was. I'll probably find a job this fall and I'll help you if you need it."

"I wonder what the transition'll be like. Going from - dreamlike physics-cheating sim to proper silicon," murmured Mercy. "I barely notice if I don't pay attention..."

"It's not very different from coming out of a self-insert into baseline reality - I've heard," said Lyle.

"Which I, well, remember doing. Right." She sighed. "Any reason to wait? Besides the fact that I can't slap you through a display screen? I don't want to slap you."

"Uh, I'm glad you don't want to slap me. No, no real reason if you're ready."

Mercy swallowed.

"Do it."

Lyle hugged her, once, quick, hard, and then he disappeared, and then the world followed after him.