Alice’s eyes have become the text, plugged in through the optic socket located like a teardrop by her left eye. Bad grammar surges on and on. There is no stopping the inexorable flow of misspelled words, incorrectly placed commas, or tense confusions. Her eyes, editor’s eyes, rented for the spare seconds in between her other jobs, during her sleep. She edits in the cloud-ware: proofing user’s manuals from Japan, deep-cleaning bids and proposals from the biopharms, critiquing poorly written novels that never will be published except in the author’s netsphere. Three friends will read the book, pronounce the work brilliant publicly, and remind themselves to read no more.
The phone rings, a venomous wasp buzzing in her ear. Her shoulders rise and she twists her neck, hoping to pop the tension away. “This is Alice,” she answers, already knowing the call is from Tod. “Hey, bro. What’s the situation today?”
He is quiet and she knows he is shrugging, a man of few words, with a reluctance to ask for favors, not even for his daughter, her beloved niece, their dying Anne.
“I need more money,” he says. “The heart went up in the bidding war. The doctors said if we didn’t win this bid, we might as well give up. So, I won.”
“That’s great,” she says. A few sentences float past. She adds a semi-colon and deletes three commas, considers rewriting the whole sentence to avoid the run-on. “How much do we need?” Her chest pounds with relief.
He names a figure, causing her to lean her head back, to stare at the flaking ceiling of her home, the home suddenly no longer hers. Nor is the new hover sitting in the driveway, or the antique mahogany bedroom set handed down from her grandmother. Everything must go.
And she has to talk to her boss, the head of the Editor’s Guild. She’s going to need more hours, more jobs to fill the empty blinks of time she has left—breakfast, lunch, dinner. Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.
“Aunt Alice.” A whisper in her ear. Anne, always so tired and limp from the lack of oxygen, pale as a fairy wraith, exiled from Avalon into a foreign sun that does not nourish.
She will do anything for this child.
Sunday afternoon used to be her solitude, her time to read her pad, catch up on the system news, relax in a café savoring her one cup of off-world java.
Now the lazes and small pleasures have disappeared into the never-ending flow of words. They beat at her brain, flock about in an endless line of insistent contracts. Some grow impatient and flit off; others stack into piles requiring her attention, her edits. She needs twenty today, sixty this evening while she sleeps. The first payment is due Monday to reserve Anne’s heart, to keep the vascular organ in the bank. If they can’t pay, no heart. No Anne.
She settles herself in her desk chair, closes her eyes, and gets to work.
All of her time is spent in the cloud-ware, immersed in the half-sleep of the void, editing. The words coil and thrash. She sees them as malevolent ebony snakes. They blend together and stop making sense.
The unthinkable happens. She misses an apostrophe error, a simple one: “it’s” instead of “its.” Contraction versus possessive pronoun, an easy mistake for a beginner. The type of blunder she’s paid good money to catch.
Chirp, chirp. She answers. Her boss. “Look, Alice, you’ve got to cut back. I can’t afford these kinds of gaffes. I know your situation, but I’m not giving you any more contracts. The Guild is cutting you off.”
She tries to argue, shame staining her with heat. The chief editor is insistent: she needs rest, and he is going to make sure she gets some. “Our reputation is at stake, too,” he says and clicks off.
When she next closes her eyes, there’s only black, lifeless, cold, silent black streaming through her lids. No words. No sentences.
Chirp. She doesn’t answer; it’s Tod. She can’t tell him what’s happened, how she’s put Anne’s life in jeopardy through a silly mistake brought on by the fugue of exhaustion. There’s no excuse.
Sunday afternoon. She’s trolling the cloud-ware, for illegal contracts, the words no one wants to take on, defying the Guild. Stories without hope of redemption. User manuals so cluttered with translations they make absolutely no sense at all. Snuff pornography. Autobiographies without purpose, only ramblings of a boring life.
Anne’s last payment is due in two days—the heart will be hers, completely. The words Alice finds will make the difference between Anne’s life and death.
She takes her first illegal contract, a proposal editing job looking to bypass Guild-mandated procedures. Full of misspellings of the client’s name, medical terms, and reads as if it was written by a highly educated chemist with an imperfect understanding of first grade English. The writer uses commas like they are the height of fashion and is overly fond of exclamation points.
Her head pounds. She signs up for some smut, just to vary the day. Left queasy and shaken, she wonders who would actually read the story, much less find sexual fulfillment in the activities described therein. All it’s done for her is shaken her belief in humanity and reaffirmed her faith in the misuse of the written word.
The afternoon progresses relentlessly into night, the sun setting outside in a bath of golden light while the words wriggle around her.
The torture will never end. All of her work is running illegals now, twenty-four hours a day plugged into the cloud-ware, using all the processing time her brain has to offer. Her stomach reminds her with a growl of physical needs. She sips on a stim and ignores the pangs.
Twenty-four hours to go, then 10. The clock in her head keeps on ticking. The stims of caffeine, the calmer patches to keep the worst of the shakes at bay, rushes through her system, maintaining the virtual high.
Words swarm her, angry fire ants biting and clawing at her. Illegal documents materialize, each one worse than the last. A wiki assignment pops up; she edits article after article on obscure cricket regulations.
All the vile jobs of the editing world keep her going, keep the money account growing, but the deadline creeps closer. Sixty precious minutes left, and she needs ten more contracts.
That’s when they find her. Her feed goes dark, the words stop. The head of the Editor’s Guild, her boss, storms in. The door to her office slams open. Bright light makes her blink.
“You’re under arrest,” her former boss says. “For illegal document trafficking.”
She doesn’t have time for this. Anne’s heart beats in her head, each second a chance floating away. She’s out of her chair, the first step wobbly because her muscles are screaming their inactivity. Her throat is dry and her vision blurred, unused to the lack of phrases. Her bare house is unfamiliar without the flow of grammar.
“Good,” he says. “You’re coming without a fuss. That might help your cause. I’ll put in a good word for you; I know why you’re doing this.”
“Then let me finish,” she says. “Anne depends on me. My brother is counting on me.”
He shakes his head, saggy eyes crinkled with pity. “I can’t. I’d lose my guild membership. We all have to eat.”
“Then eat this,” she says. The punch comes from her gut and the words flying out of her fist and into his face. “Strength,” “desperation,” “determination,” and “fortitude.” Spelled correctly and using the Oxford comma.
He crumples to the wood floor, cheeks no longer tense with mistaken sympathy. Her short fingernails struggle for purchase in the fragile skin by his eye. The clock in her head keeps ticking. One more job. Ten minutes.
She tears through, blood slippery in between her fingers, sticky on her palms, smelling like wet pennies, until she finds his cable. She disengages the plug from the side of his eye, yanking the cable down along the line of his socket, splitting the skin.
She digs her own cable out, the pain rippling out in tears. She lays down next to him, his body twitching, and plugs the feed into her own outlet.
One last job. She sorts through her editor’s feed. Swims past the corporate edits, dives into the black market. One contract suits her needs, worth enough money, if only she can finish it in ten minutes—a Master’s thesis, mostly incomplete, incoherent. No worse task in all of editing. Eight minutes left. She demands her money up-front, but the student refuses.
She leaps in.
The first pass, she fixes the spelling, the commas—attempts to form coherent sentences.
She writes a thesis sentence. Begins the reorganization.
The graduate student flutters around the document, trying to help, to insist on his viewpoint. She locks him out. Far away, in her body, she can feel the twitches of exhaustion and adrenaline, knows that the Guild will have already sent another representative.
The document is in pieces now, floating around her as she cuts and pastes, smoothing transitions, working on the flow. When the paper is coherent, she turns to the last step, the dreaded MLE formatting of the citation pages and footnotes. Her hands shake; the words want to resist her control.
This time, the editors don’t bother knocking. She places a final period, turns in the file, accepts payment, and flings the money into her brother’s account. Alice is safe.
They storm in, socket removers in their hands, finger-like tips ready for her eye jack. Stunned with exhaustion and success, she waits.
Her sight fades in red pain.
Her feed goes dark. All the words are gone. The good ones, the perfect ones, the ideal sentence as well as the tortured phrases.
Her head is her own, forever.