“—which suggests possible applications, if the cobbler is much younger. Don’t you think, Miss Professor?”
The Dauphin sat twelve rows back—teenage heir apparent to the throne, playing at Academy student—smug smile, a ring of vacant seats around him, his speech casually slurred, ostentatiously humble with plain quill and standard-issue student gown (expensively pressed).
I intended my gaze to crucify him. Softness to students is a graybeard luxury; a young woman can only be hard. All the more so, I was sure, in this particular case. I nursed silence to the edge of discomfort, coiling the spring. “It is a thought experiment that depends on immaterial souls transferred by miracle,” I said. “There can be no practical applications.” I paused again, as if gathering my thoughts. “Or do you perhaps mistake yourself for God?”
The class sat stunned. Just two months ago, Distinguished Professor Li had been dragged through the streets of Beijing by his scholarly pigtail for having insulted the King. But I had chosen my moment carefully.
The Dauphin gazed steadily back at me. Though I didn’t look at his guards standing by the rear door, I knew they would be ready for his word.
Finally, the Dauphin shrugged. I resumed the lecture. Word would spread. Only my reputation for exchanges like these prevented me from going the direction of all other women.
High Table. I sat halfway toward the head, among middle-aged men with stalled careers, my rank but not my equals.
“I’ve heard the Dauphin is eagerly attending your course on metaphysics,” said one of them—the gentle one, the one who smiled, Extraordinary Professor Ran Yong. Eyes turned toward us from all directions. The Dauphin’s choice of classes was the perfect gossip magnet.
“He might earn a 2nd, if he doesn’t decide he’d rather bowl at lawnpins.” Then, as if this were an ordinary conversation which I could easily divert, I said, “Tell me more about your research on eleventh-century hypnotic techniques, Yong.” I speared a wet mushroom with a ridiculously small silver fork.
“He can’t care a devil’s arse about abstract metaphysics,” said another of the men—the one with red ears and big eyebrows, Extraordinary of, right, Politics. This one could tell the Dauphin all about constitutional monarchy, if the Dauphin cared to listen. “The Dauphin longs to bask in the flowering wisdom of the lady Extraordinary—so young, so deliciously swift!—whose atheistic Treatise on Human Nature has been the buzz of the Court as much as in the Academy.”
“He would be putting his immortal soul at risk, if immortal souls existed,” I said—the only possible reply to that inane trap of a remark.
“His father will have you hanged.” It was the sour, unmistakable voice of Ordinary Professor Zeng Shen, one rank higher up the Table, just below Distinguished and Rector. “I speak, of course, strictly Chemically,” he said.
“Then I should fail the Dauphin straightaway,” I said. The Chemist’s long, elegant fingernails were tapping the table linen. “I will request you as outside examiner, Professor Zeng, so that you too may test your integrity against royal power.”
Only the formerly smiling Ran Yong realized I wasn’t joking. I knew this because while the others’ faces edged up in startled amusement, Yong’s face crashed and the soggy potato slice he’d been eating tilted off his forgotten, wandering fork, did a slimy little flex on the rim of his wine goblet, then toppled in.
Looking down from my office window, I saw the Dauphin walking alone across the snowy quad—no, not quite alone, trailed at a distance by two bodyguards. He walked slowly, burdened with an unusually large, leather-bound book, presumably returning to his Novice’s quarters. No ordinary Novice would have been permitted to withdraw such a valuable book. He dropped it in the snow, then struggled to lift it. The guards stood back, waiting.
I raised my hands off the cold stone sill and returned to my desk, thinking of merit and monarchy. The laws of kings are brief, weightless things. The quill in my hand became a living bird, writing philosophy, forgetting.
“Posit that the mind is an active organization of material,” said the Dauphin, “as you have argued, Miss Professor Fu. Memory, then, is also just a configuration of matter, right? The same configuration, the same pattern, can be transferred from one brain to another. The prince can possess the body of the cobbler, no miraculous soul-transfer required.”
I had called an early Examination on the Dauphin—Novice Jisun Fei, as the Dauphin now styled himself—publicly challenging him to establish his scholarly seriousness and quality of mind. He had requested Ran Yong as second mentor, apparently having begun individual tutelage in the history of hypnosis. Per my demand, Professor Zeng served as outside examiner. We three sat behind a grand oak table, the Dauphin in a simple straight-backed chair on the stage before us. Exams were formally open to the public, though the public rarely came. For this one, I’d booked the theater. The seats were full, the walls lined, the high-vaulted room rustling with whispers. The Rector had set aside his usual business, taking a red velveted balcony loge. Even the Queen had come, front row left, her retinue like a giant lacy coat around and behind her. Soldiers glinted by the doorways. The crowds expected blood—humiliation of the Dauphin; demotion, exile, or worse for the young female atheist Extraordinary.
“Novice Fei,” I said. “When a memorial idea is passed from one mind to another, it is either properly recognized as an idea that originated from a complex of ideas different from those of the receiving mind, and the transfer thus confirms rather than extinguishes the distinct identities of the two individuals; or it is not properly so recognized, in which case it is defective and equally cannot serve to ground a genuine transfer of personal identity. Believing one was in the battlefields of Jingsuo makes one a madman, not a reincarnation of Han Xin. As I recall, this was adequately covered in the assigned texts.”
I awaited the Dauphin’s reply, potential rebuttals already half formulated. Still, he was doing well enough that I would probably be forced to pass him, rather than be rid of him with the good excuse of his publicly displayed incompetence. I could allow the audience no doubt who was the true philosopher, however, nor any doubt about my intolerance of sloppy thinking. Nakamura’s prince-and-cobbler thought experiment was now the crux of my attack.
“My thought, Miss Professor Fu—”
“‘Professor Fu’ will suffice, Novice Fei,” I inserted, “since you don’t use gendered honorifics with the other professors.”
“My thought, Professor Fu,” the Dauphin resumed, his thin face still confident, “is that one could hypothetically render the memorial ideas non-defective by transferring the entire identity—all necessary memory, all necessary personality—beginning at the moment of birth, so that the baby cobbler in all relevant respects eventually becomes the new incarnation of the prince, continuing the prince’s plans and resolutions, recalling the prince’s friends, taking responsibility for his misdeeds and credit for his accomplishments. If done with sufficient fidelity, there will be no good reason not to regard this as the successful transfer of the prince’s person into a new, younger body.”
Chemistry Professor Zeng slapped the table, brightening with triumph. “The Novice Dauphin has cleverly slipped you poison, Extraordinary Fu! For indeed if the soul were merely brain, it should be possible to duplicate it as one duplicates any Chemical reaction—perhaps in part through the hypnotic techniques of Extraordinary Ran here. It should be possible to produce a profusion of princes who share as much identity as any materialist can regard as worthwhile. In denying the unique Elemental identity of each individual soul, your materialism converts human individuals into ordinary, reproducible stuff—as reproducible as a metalworker’s lawn-balls. This is plainly too preposterous to tolerate. I propose that we end this exam and award the Novice a 1st.” He turned toward me, wearing a somewhat sad expression. “It might also be time, Miss Fu, if I may say so, for you to begin rethinking the premises of your hasty career.”
The Dauphin responded quickly, before I could gather my own reply. “I would humbly suggest, Professor Zeng, that this is a dispute best addressed by practical experimentation. Can we indeed duplicate minds as we duplicate lawn-balls? As a Chemist, you’ll be sympathetic with new extensions of the Empirical Philosophy, I think?”
Professor Zeng seemed about to answer, then stopped.
After pausing just long enough for everyone to note Zeng’s lack of reply, the Dauphin continued, as if in spontaneous generosity, “I propose the founding of a new Academic institute for the study of mental transfer, with Miss Professor Fu as director. I have 150,000 liang which I can pledge to the purpose. As director, Professor Fu will of course require promotion to Ordinary.”
A thousand voices erupted at once. 150,000 liang was a huge sum. The new institute would instantly be among the richest in the Academy. I would become one of the youngest Ordinaries in Academy history, and the first woman. I glanced at the Queen in her wheelchair, who seemed to be suppressing a conspiratorial smirk, and at the Rector, whose lips were a tight, ambivalent circle. Conservatives in the Academy would fiercely resist my promotion. It was the perfect power play, Crown against Academy, with a heavy silver thumb on the scale and me as pawn.
The Dauphin had slouched out of his formal posture, back into his habitual smugness, right arm and hand curled in, casually strumming his chest. His cards were played. Professor Zeng looked a bit as if he had swallowed one of his noxious Chemical draughts, but Yong was grinning so wide I started to wonder if he hadn’t somehow hypnotized us all into it.
As new Director of the Institute for Mental Transfer, my first personnel action was to hire Yong, which succeeded, while simultaneously attempting to promote him to Ordinary, which failed. Yong was, I soon discovered, an expert only on the history of hypnosis: Practical, applied hypnosis required an aura of seriousness and confidence, and Yong couldn’t face the most willing Novice for two minutes without breaking his mien. After a few months of failed efforts, I suggested Yong try children as hypnotic subjects, which is what the Dauphin wanted anyway. At this, surprisingly, Yong proved a natural. His five- and eight-year-olds gladly became chickens or kings, recalled entirely fictional events in vivid detail, and learned long strings of words and numbers, all at his gentle suggestion.
I hired singers and storytellers and painters. The painter Zinaida Serebriakova, from one of the barbarian tribes, could instantly sketch any scene described, making it seem somehow closer to the truth than one’s own memory. The storyteller Shan Tianfang could so fully carry his audience to another place they had to later remind themselves they hadn’t personally been there. Our old stone offices filled with the hum of voice and song, with panels and scrolls depicting children playing clay marbles, depicting black-gowned students slumping bored on knotty desks and old women eating toast and other mundane scenes. I took a second office in a modest outbuilding to escape the distractions. In secret writings, in the long slow game I was playing, I worked on political philosophy, making plain the links between mysticism and tyranny.
The Dauphin abandoned pretense of being an ordinary student, pushing our research always in certain directions: It was clear he hoped eventually to achieve radical life extension by these means. I resisted. We would not genuinely confuse children, except in harmless ways. We would not leave people permanently hypnotized or nurture any sort of serious delusion. The Institute for Mental Transfer was an institute for the study of memory and teaching and storytelling, guided by an experimental materialist philosophy. That was “mental transfer” enough.
The Dauphin acquiesced on practical matters, but not on broad principle. He visited regularly, often for weeks at a time. He sometimes surprised us with funds for very specific projects—once a full 1,800 liang for as exact as possible a painting of his bedroom and nanny as they had been when he was three. He loved old manuscripts – strange ancient philosophies, witnesses’ accounts of the European invasion and collapse, Daoist poetry. Sometimes during his visits, I would watch him leaning forward in the dim evening light he seemed to prefer, bending over a book, scratching his arm, forgetting the pose of his face. He asked my political views, which I didn’t hesitate to express, though he never answered by sharing his own. Sometimes he gazed at me peculiarly, requiring me to highlight his poor manners, after which he generally left.
I had no friends, no lovers. My family in the provinces presumably thought of me only as the child bride they had sold south, twenty years previously, for some barley fields—a misapprehension I felt no urge to correct.
The Dauphin leaned heavily against the door jamb of my private quarters. “Our project has acquired a new urgency,” he said, his voice more slurred than usual.
I hadn’t seen him for months. He hadn’t bloomed into quite the twenty-year-old I’d expected. He had, perhaps, folded more than bloomed.
“Too urgent, Your Majesty,” I said, “to wait for morning?”
“May I enter, Professor Fu?”
“No. I don’t want gossip.” But as I said this, the Dauphin ducked beneath my arm and collapsed into one of the large brown chairs that I had in theory reserved for guests.
I left my door wide, but the Dauphin’s two bodyguards remained in the shadows outside.
“It’s hitting me—early,” the Dauphin said, stuttering a bit.
“What is?” I asked, though I knew perfectly well.
“My mother could walk until almost fifty.”
“It would be unethical to commit a child to a life of delusion,” I said, neither sitting nor setting down my tin lamp. “And it would serve no purpose, for the child would never be you. The material-configuration view no more allows transfer between bodies than does the Elementary soul view. What you seek is a metaphysical impossibility.”
“If the memories were perfect enough, the personality similar enough. If the child knew that my past was his own. If he took up my goals and views unquestioningly, only rethinking them sometimes in the way I sometimes also rethink….” The Dauphin’s right arm and hand were curled inward, strumming his chest — a posture I no longer regarded as merely casual. One foot twitched slightly.
“You must take your pleasures now, Fei,” I said.
“There is no undisputed heir after me. When the King dies, it will be civil war.”
“The King still has time to clarify the succession.” I tightened my night robe, then stepped forward and touched the back of the Dauphin’s left hand in what I hoped was a comforting gesture.
“You are the only beautiful woman in the world,” the Dauphin said, gazing intensely at me, his whole nervous body suddenly still.
I had never seen the Dauphin with a woman, nor even heard credible rumor of it. He seemed to lack male friends also—too alien, perhaps, too distant and intimidating and ill-fitting. Shadows crossed his face, making it difficult to read.
“Is this a marriage proposal?” I asked, considering the pros and cons.
“For our next bodies, Fu Hao,” the Dauphin said. “Not these.”
“This is what I am now calling veridical hypnosis,” Yong said. In five years at the Institute, Yong had gained confidence, having finally found something he was uniquely good at. However, I could secure no promotion for him, nor for anyone else in the Institute. Professor Zeng (now Distinguished Professor Zeng) and the other conservatives blocked the Institute’s every move, except for our hiring at the most junior ranks. Rather than rising to Ordinary, Yong rose, as I hadn’t thought possible, to ever greater heights of sartorial misjudgment. I was currently distracted by his large black and yellow bow tie. His wife perpetrated his wardrobe upon humanity, I think, as a joke to which Yong and his juvenile subjects were the only people in the world not privy.
Zinaida Serebriakova sat by, in the black barbarian leathers she still wore. One of her paintings was on an easel facing us but away from the five-year-old hypnotic subject.
“Think back to your nursery room as it was when you were two years old,” Yong said, in deep and gentle hypnotic voice. The child was laid back on a red velvet fainting couch. “Does your room have a window?”
“Yeah,” the child said after a pause.
“Please count your window panes for me, first on the top, then on the bottom. How many panes does your window have?”
The child said nothing for a moment, eyes flicking under closed lids. Then, “Four on top, four on the bottom.”
Yong looked briefly at Zinaida’s painting, exchanging a glance with her. “That is good counting, Lulu, but you are mistaken. Your window has six panes on top, six on the bottom. One-two-three, one-two-three, across the top. Then one-two-three, one-two-three, across the bottom. Can you picture that for me?”
The child grunted quietly in what I assumed was assent.
“Hold on to that picture. Keep it in your mind. You are looking at the window panes. Can you slowly count them out for me?”
The child was quiet for a moment again. Then it slowly counted out four sets of three.
“I want you to hold this picture in your mind and remember it. This is what the window was like in that room you lived in when you were two years old. You will remember this after you wake up. You will remember this window for the rest of your life.”
I observed as Yong slowly led the child through other features of the painting—the color of the walls, the pattern of the bedspread, the posture of the toy horse. At the end, Yong had the child open its eyes, still in trance, and look directly at Zinaida’s painting. “Is this what your room looked like?” Yong asked. The child agreed, confirming everything detail by detail.
When the child had gone, Yong turned toward me, beaming. He wiggled his eyebrows, saying nothing.
“I surmise,” I said, “that Zinaida has created an accurate painting of the child’s nursery as it was three years ago, and you have now replaced the child’s vague, false idea about its old room—perhaps its family has moved and Zinaida visited the old house?—with a correct idea.”
“Veridical hypnosis,” Yong said, flicking both ends of his horrid tie.
I felt a possibility drop into place. One could build a more perfect past, mostly true, through careful selection of the parts one chooses to preserve. And if an alteration or two is made in good cause—well.
It feels like a story about someone else. Little Mo Xi is hiding among the silks and silver and puppets and perfumes she loves, hiding from the gaze of Lord Xia. Lord Xia wants her to perform strange acts; he rows her, naked, to the middle of his private lake.
Then one morning years later, there is someone more familiar, someone who has given herself a secret new name, who now loves only books, who eventually escapes north with a heap of stolen gold and merchant tallies, who is not chased by the old man. This person becomes a certain Rector’s favorite, the adolescent girl who can embarrass men and boys in argument. The Rector enjoys elevating her above the boys and men—until one day he notices that his little girl has become full woman and risen too high.
Three days after Yong’s demonstration, the King invited me on a fox hunt. The courier’s horse high-stepped conspicuously through the central quad, where horses were generally disallowed, and the courier himself was weighed down by at least five pounds of hat. I was to arrive the next day at nine. Yong suggested I wear my Academy cap with a leather chin strap.
I will not describe the appalling ritual nor the stupefying hours wasted on bizarre details by people who apparently had nothing better to do. The only relevant fact is that the King held me back at a crucial moment, while all the others charged forward.
“It was the Queen’s last, ardent wish,” the King said, looking not at me but in the direction of the hunt, “that the Dauphin’s plans for your Institute be fully realized.”
“Your Majesty, I can’t save the Dauphin any more than I could transmute a fox into a hound. With all due respect, the royal coffers can’t purchase an exception to the laws of metaphysics.”
“Of course not. You will dress the fox as a hound,” the King said. “You will give it hound ears and hound fur and a hound tail.”
“We have found a pregnant girl, unmarried,” the King continued. “Daughter of a leatherworker. Her face and her manner—her bouncing stride, her laugh—they remind me so much of the Queen when she was twenty! I will marry this girl and decree the child to be my own, clarifying the succession.” The King stopped his horse and pointed his little leather whip directly at me. “But only if you take the child into your Institute and raise him exactly as the Dauphin intends.”
“And if the child is a girl?”
“The child will be a boy,” the King said, and I heard the fox scream, swallowed by the baying of hounds.
The Dauphin lay almost motionless in his great bed, his head and back propped, his breathing shallow. The royal physician tilted a vial of hemlock into the Dauphin’s mouth, then gripped the Dauphin’s tongue with two fingers and inserted the fingers of his other hand deeper in, then withdrew both hands to massage the Dauphin’s throat. The Dauphin had not yet lost control of his eyes; he was glancing around the room—terrified, I thought, but how could I know that?—at the physician, at a few acquaintances who had gathered, at an aunt, at the several painters, storytellers, and mnemonists who had come from the Institute to record every detail of the event, at me. His father was seated on a stool in a corner, beyond reach of the Dauphin’s glances, his face behind a white kerchief.
I was struck by how brown the King’s fingers seemed, how strong, by the gleaming royal ring that was the token of his rule, and how all the power of that hand was dedicated to holding that small veil. If the King were a better man he would have held his son’s hand at this moment, his son’s last, and received his gaze.
The new Queen’s child was indeed a boy. The nurse carried it, screaming and still wet from birth, into the Dauphin’s room the very moment the physician closed the Dauphin’s eyes. The King revealed his swollen face and forced his lips into what he presumably hoped the Institute’s specialists would mistake for a smile. He briefly grasped the baby then handed it back to the nurse and fled the scene.
Later that day we heard the King’s declaration: There would be no naming ceremony, no celebration of birth. Likewise, there would be no funeral, no prayer for ascension to Heaven, and no addition of a name to the Temple of Ancestors. No birth had occurred and no death, merely a transfer of bodies. Dauphin Jisun Fei only required rest and restoration from the difficult transfer, and his new body required further maturation.
Metaphysics by royal decree. The fox would be dressed as a hound, and we must all call it hound.
Yong rose to his task, and he became an eccentric favorite of high society. The Academy conservatives finally allowed his promotion to Ordinary.
Yong’s task had been made immensely easier by the Dauphin’s earlier efforts. The Dauphin had written detailed diary entries for each day and lengthy memoirs about his youth. He had privately hired skilled painters, in addition to the Institute painters I’d known about, to record the appearance of familiar people, places, and items. He had coached his bodyguards in mnemonic techniques that he had gleaned from his visits to the Institute, and these former bodyguards consulted at length with the Institute’s specialists.
The child grew just as the Dauphin had wanted: with accurate, veridical memories of the Dauphin’s life—more accurate, more detailed, more complete, than most of us have of what happened in our own lives three or ten years ago. By age three, he was chattering happily about when he “used to be big.” By age thirteen, he fully identified with the opinions, plans, and obligations of the Dauphin of old. Our specialists constantly surrounded the new Dauphin, partly to prompt him with recollections which he trusted implicitly as his own, but also to record his new life as he was living it now, anticipating the eventual need for transfer into a third body. The King had at first been awkward with the child, but eventually came, as far as I could tell, to regard him wholeheartedly as the re-embodiment of his son.
We began to receive inquiries from other nobles about the possibility of mind transfer. We sent new specialists across the kingdom to record other people’s lives—a service for which we demanded exorbitant sums, which we dedicated to further research.
One day, Yong looked pointedly at me and square-folded a note. My name showed on top, in Yong’s distinctively medieval calligraphic style. “This note,” he said, “predicts how you will destroy everything.” Raising the note high and back in his right hand, he said tut-tut, as though I had reacted with anything other than a perfectly still face. He tucked the note into a parti-colored vest pocket. “No reading it yet! We mustn’t spoil your surprise!”
The Dauphin was now fifteen years old, and as most fifteen-year-olds do, he was experiencing existential confusion. He had better justification than most. He sat before me in my main office, slouching slightly, his curled arm lightly brushing his chest—in authentic teenage casualness now, not disease. The specialist bodyguards who always followed him stood silent in the corners.
“I am not the Dauphin,” he said.
“You are not the Dauphin,” I replied.
“My life has been delusion. I am not the Dauphin, but neither am I anyone else.”
“You are not the Dauphin,” I said, “because the duplication of material patterns, no matter how perfect, is insufficient for personal identity. You are not the Dauphin because two babies in different districts could have been raised just as you have been, to believe they are the Dauphin—or twelve.”
The Dauphin leaned forward in his chair, squeezing his mouth with one hand. Teenage whiskers were sprouting on his chin.
“You have always denied the identity,” he replied.
“Nonetheless, my thinking has advanced. I now doubt the importance of strict identity. The traditional concept of personal identity was built on the assumption that what we care about in personhood—the memories, the values, the personality, the opinions and familial relations and legal obligations and acquaintanceships—all depend on continuation of the body. That assumption is now obsolete.”
The Dauphin stood and walked over to gaze at a wall where certain of my certificates were displayed. “I could cut it all off now,” he said, his speech starting to slur. “I could let go of all that, make a break, call it delusion, take a new name, flee to another land.”
“As could we all,” I said. “As I in fact did, long ago.”
The Dauphin turned on me in sudden anger, advancing two steps before regaining control. “You did not. This is no game. This is no philosopher’s puzzle! I will soon be King, Miss Professor.”
“If you wish to lean on legal title, Dauphin Jisun Fei,” I said, “then ‘Mrs.’ would be preferable to ‘Miss.’”
The Dauphin stopped mid-stride, suddenly deflated—eyes flicking around the room, looking for something safe to hold on to. I was reminded of a certain young man on his deathbed fifteen years before.
So I sat the Dauphin back down, expelled the specialists from the room, and told him the story of Mo Xi, the little girl who had been sold.
Yong was looking at himself in a hallway mirror, his right hand slowly smoothing a lapel. He didn’t seem to notice my approach. Was he melancholy? I asked how his wife was doing.
“Oh, she died three weeks ago,” he said, turning toward me with a weak smile.
We stood silent a moment. Why hadn’t he told me? “You’ll let me know if there’s anything I can do,” I said.
Yong’s cuffs, for the first time in memory, didn’t quite match. He seemed pinned, like a specimen insect, waiting for something.
“When I am King,” the Dauphin said, “it will be different. The upper classes. The sexes. I’ll think through everything anew, starting with the ancient texts, updating them with modern scholarship. I will reorganize the Kingdom, challenge the existing nobility. You shouldn’t just be born to it. Like you always said! People will get what they deserve.”
Since his existential moment in my office, the Dauphin had become a regular visitor. Sometimes, as now, we would walk for hours through the forested game sanctuary behind the Academy, specialists trailing us with easels and ear trumpets.
“It’s unlikely that you will advance far with that project,” I said.
“It’s an ideal. I’ll compromise! Of course I’ll compromise. But I will declare my way, setting a marker for future generations.” His voice, I thought, was a little louder than it need be, as though he wanted to be heard clearly by the specialists behind us. This boy was very much like the Dauphin I remembered from two decades before—healthier, of course, not nearly as thin, with darker skin, rounder jaw, more recessed eyes, but similar in mind, mannerisms, opinions, habits, in the material patterns that mattered most. Having remade himself, he was eager now to remake everything else.
We walked a while in silence, the Dauphin limping slightly. He stopped beneath a giant yellow tree.
“Professor Fu,” he said. “Hao. Join me. You know my thoughts almost as well as I myself do. You’ve seen those diaries, those memoirs, those paintings. I hid nothing. I still hide nothing.” He swept his arm in the direction of the specialists. “All those old thoughts are still in me, or have been returned to me. Yes, ‘me’! You know how I feel about you. Your thirty-year-old self, the one I loved, is so vivid before me. I picture her now. She is almost alive in my mind. You are still that woman.”
When he did not continue, I said, “That thirty-year-old is gone. Her only relevant remains are the words she left on some paper and whatever mental configurations of hers are repeated, imperfectly, in my brain and in yours and the brains of some others.”
“How well do you remember that night I came to your quarters and collapsed into that big brown guest chair?”
“The chair was blue,” I corrected, wondering in how many other ways our memories clashed. “I had not yet sold off all the furniture of the previous occupant.”
“It was brown,” he said, looking intensely at me, in that same way. “The offer still stands.”
“I have no interest in suicide, Fei. And I am opposed to child marriage.”
“Marriage is another thing that will be rethought when I am King.”
The hills turned white, then green, then yellow again. I began to show Fei my manuscripts in draft.
What is love, I wondered, if it can survive bodily death? What happens to the distinction between self-interest and concern for others, when memories cross the boundaries of the skin? What should we now expect of youth, of the elderly? Might a noble now anticipate memories that span eight hundred years, anticipate that he father a hundred resentfully mortal sons? What will become of family, rank, reward, injury, loyalty, entitlement?
People change. For instance, Rector Zeng Shen, the elderly Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, who had just come to my office to inform me that I was being promoted to one of the four Distinguished Professor positions at the Academy.
“I don’t wish to be considered,” I said. Two mnemonists and a painter stood behind me, the painter already capturing the scene.
“Hao,” Shen said, leaning on his elegant cane, “you have already been considered. The promotion has already been voted on and approved.”
“It serves me better if the world knows that the most renowned Professor in the Academy was never fully promoted. It enhances rather than diminishes my reputation.”
“Perhaps that is why you have finally been promoted, Hao.”
Yong had died of plague—the only person who had ever offered me innocent friendship, I realized exactly one day too late. Soon after, Zinaida returned to her childhood land, as if she were then free. The Dauphin had become King and already had a son, the ordinary biological product of a man and woman—though his Queen had died in childbirth, and who knew if the boy would ever inherit from his re-embodiable father. The Institute flourished, our income now almost equaling the rest of the Academy combined, and our mnemonists shadowed a whole generation of nobles. A few nobles had already drunk the hemlock, and their names, titles, legal obligations, and all the rest, were generally considered to have transferred to the new bodies. Pregnant women from the lower classes had been arranged in advance, eager to accept a large gratitude payment if their newborns’ sex and appearance proved adequate.
Zeng Shen had become my best ally in the Academy, though he remained opposed to the hiring of women in general. I was perhaps, in his eyes, too powerful to count as a true woman – instead an honorary man, or some unique new thing without a sex. He had become, too, much softer with age, no longer harsh and combative. He would be surprised by the new essay I was scheduling for posthumous release, my long-withheld treatise on politics.
“I might as well tell you, Shen,” I said, “that in two weeks I will be drinking hemlock. The Academy will need to decide whether to attribute professorial rank to the child.”
Shen said nothing for a moment, then navigated himself onto my least comfortable office chair. “Hao. Hao. I thought you still agreed with the Elementists that transfer is death.”
“Whether the child is metaphysically me or not is irrelevant. I am old and my powers will soon be declining. I am in pain from childhood injuries that have reasserted themselves.” Shen tilted his head curiously, but I did not elaborate. Not even the specialists now recording me knew the truth about little Mo Xi. “What I care about most is the continuation and promulgation of my memories, my thoughts, my values, and my vision for the future of the Kingdom. The new Fu Hao will receive and preserve those material patterns—patterns which will otherwise decay in me. And the act is timely, since from it a child with my ideas will grow into power. The new Fu Hao is to become bride of the King, honoring a certain marriage proposal that occurred thirty-three years ago.”
I had appended some provisions to the marriage proposal. King Fei and Fu Hao would be intellectual collaborators only. Together they would shape a new society governed not by silver or kings but by repeating material ideas shared across bodies and onto diaries and canvas and through the minds of the specialists who would both sustain and partly constitute this new kind of transgenerational organism. King and Queen and Noble would no longer be merely human things. Human bodies would become the limbs of something larger.
This is why I drink the hemlock.
As I die (specialists recording the moment, one observing my face so closely we almost brush noses), I think of a note with my name on it which the undertaker had found, among other forgotten things, in a vest pocket on Yong’s corpse. Years of stain and crease had made it illegible: “Without … never know …” and some smudged characters that might have been person or benevolence, might have been emotion or essence.
My mind buzzes with things undone, as if I could stand up and now do them, though my legs feel warm and empty. The warmth rises to my abdomen, my chest, and I wonder why I’d never fully accepted Yong’s friendship. I think of two little girls sold into aristocracy, each with some claim to be me, one long ago and another to be born today, girls radically different from and invisible to each other. I prickle with doubt about King Fei despite our walks and contract, despite or maybe because of our… well, for me did it ever become love? The warm emptiness flows up across my lips, these thoughts each competing to be my last, galloping into a dead end.