Sep 29, 2022 3:57 AM
how Merrin came to the attention of Exception Handling
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Merrin tries to imagine how much more dubious and sheerly weirded out she would have been if someone from Default Hospital or Exception Handling had approached her out of the blue and tried to recruit her. She...would honestly have thought they were trolling her - where 'they' was some group that had very deeply misunderstood her own feelings on the subject and didn't know it would hurt. She would have, reasonably she thinks, been pretty mad about it. 

(Merrin did grow up in dath ilan. She is capable of enjoying and appreciating group conspiracy-pranks like the whole Sparashki adventure; now that it's safely after the fact, she can even faintly enjoy picturing how nonplussed all the elite traders on the market must have been. But it doesn't come naturally to her, and catching when she's being trolled doesn't either, especially because her mom is also an unusually straightforward person. Merrin has always been earnest, and she still remembers with humiliation some childhood incidents of wrongly taking people at face value.) 

She...doesn't place more than negligible probability mass that they're trolling her right now. After the day she just had, that would actually be mean, and this would be obvious to everyone. 


She shrugs a little. "I mean, didn't know I could do that until today. In real life, I mean. Sims are different." 

(...Sims are harder, sometimes, she remembers thinking that on multiple occasions. The reality of human biology in a state of crisis isn't on her side, but it's not actively out to get her either. And having the same patient for twelve hours of nonstop emotional roller coaster was...exhilarating, actually, at least after the fact, and somehow it still feels that way even though they lost this one. Merrin sort of feels like she was more alive, more all of herself, than she's maybe ever been before.) 

Honestly, the hardest part of today, relative to an especially nasty sim, was being watched by Very Serious People. Which is a stupid thing to have a problem with, so really, opportunities to practice it are good? Right? She made actual mistakes because she was distracted by socially panicking, and - in this case they probably didn't matter, in this case she probably did basically well enough not to cause more cumulative damage during the time the patient was hers to carry, and the conclusion - holding constant a treatment protocol that she didn't and couldn't have designed - was predetermined by the time he reached the hospital at all. Probably, in this case, it wouldn't have mattered if Merrin was ten years older with five times as much emergency sim time. 

She's been doing emergency sims for more than two years, of course, but - not at this level of difficulty. She couldn't have handled a patient like this even a year ago - even just six months ago, she was technically certed on the temporary liver replacement machine by then but hadn't yet sufficiently drilled it into submission that she could handle it alongside anything else complicated. So much of her first few years at the hospital were just making up ground, fighting with every hour she could stretch and snatch out of every day just to pull even with her peers, stubbornly submitting herself to the embarrassment of being bad at things in front of everyone over and over and over again. 

Really, so much of Merrin's entire life, since she was eleven and someone believed in her, has been spent on trying to catch up with a Civilization that outsmarts her at every corner. That isn't shaped for people like her, though of course it does its best to have room for everyone. She was determined to prove that her existence would be worthwhile anyway, that she wouldn't be one of the people left behind, in Quiet Cities or waiting in the cold for something, somehow, to be different. It might have taken years to grind her way all the certs for ICU, but she did it, and she was so happy here, and it was enough, it's - not really surprising, given how hard it was to reach this point at all, that she didn't hope for more. 


(Merrin, to be clear, absolutely doesn't begrudge Civilization for being hard for her to keep up with. Can you imagine the alternative? A world where somehow like Merrin is unusually smart rather than unusually slow would be so awful.) 


Merrin glances at Personnel.

"I - think it makes sense for it to have been an update for other people as well? And I don't– I didn't really want to leave, before."

And she isn't sure she wants to now, but...who is she kidding, she's going to. Not even because of the compensation, really. She already has a big enough pile of labor-hours that she has no idea what to do with it! But, while other people might not consider it a moral imperative for Merrin to leave behind a life she likes when no one's True Death is at stake, Merrin does, actually, care about whether she saves people from the temporary death of cryopreservation. It's not the same as living to go home, here, now, in this time and place, surrounded by the people they live and work and raise children with. And that's leaving aside the part where the predicted 97% chance of cryo working and the preserved people being revived is not the same as a probability of 1.

(Merrin suspects she's actually less upset than average about True Death, especially her own, it's not like it's any worse than the fact that she also didn't exist before she was born.) 

The value function is not up for grabs. Even a fourth-rank Keeper cannot, actually, tell Merrin that either choice here is equally good from Civilization's point of view and so it's up to her to do what makes her happier as though that matters more. (Though, honestly, there's no reason to think she won't be happier in Default, treating interesting patients all the time, once she gets used to it.) But the reason Merrin already knows that she's going to leave isn't that she thinks people will be angry or judge her otherwise. 

...Or because they'll be impressed with her for her achievements. They probably will, but this feels very uncomfortable - and that's weird, because Merrin does actually like doing things well and pleasing her colleagues, so why is it so superheated awful to remember Catchall talking about her like she was suddenly an impressive person instead of a decidedly mediocre one.... 


- oh, right. 

"I, um, think I find this scary because it - feels like making a negative update on Civilization," she says, shakily. "If - there's anything I can do that most people can't do, it, it feels like that means the world is worse off than I thought. But - I guess that's thinking about it wrong." She giggles nervously, which aaaaaaaaaaaaah why is she like this. "Uh, the thing I mean is, it's so specific, the only thing I'm actually good at is working longer," being able to handle five machines is downstream of that, and other people can do it too, the normal way, by being actually smart, "anyway I already know what the world looks like, and nothing is actually on fire, definitely nothing is on fire because of me specifically not fixing it, it probably...shouldn't...feel like new information on - things that aren't me..." 

Merrin is aware that her throat is tight and she's pleading desperately for something and she cannot actually pin down what. But that is, after all, why she went to talk to a Keeper in the first place. 


Not all Keepers and not even all medi-Keepers are psychiatrists; but every Keeper has to know at least the basics, because everyone on some very deep level seems to believe that Keepers are psychiatrists, so they have to be ready.  It does, in fact, help - in that particular regard, if not others - to have the ability to visualize how most people work, deep down.

It is in fact a sort of knowledge that has measured dangers to human beings, if not to ideal agents.  The brain is built to model others by sympathy, by putting itself into somebody else's shoes, to model other people by asking your own brain what it might be feeling inside if it had lived through their experiences.  To think of other people as complex cognitive machinery, if you've learned enough to do that and accurately, is not just to imagine other people in a format where your emotions don't natively bind to that representation.  It directly bypasses the underlying machinery of sympathy.

So, if you're a Keeper, you just don't do that all the time, and only do it when you choose, and then having done it you restore your previous state of emotional modeling with respect to that person and prevent the mechanical knowledge you gained from interfering with the emotional bindings there.  And since you can't do that perfectly, you also by an act of choice treat the person, and to some extent feel about the person, the same way you would as if you couldn't see those truths about them.  You know the theory, but you don't constantly see the very obvious implications of that knowledge all of the time, even though you've already practiced many times the mental motion of seeing those implications.

And that's how you learn to model people as machinery instead of people, without turning into an exceptionally dangerous psychopath.

Which is to say: there's a hazard to knowing how to model people as machines, but you can cancel out that hazard by learning other mental techniques, which you could also easily use to shoot yourself in the foot or the limbic system if you didn't use them exactly correctly; and once you learn those, you need to learn other hazard-bearing mental techniques to navigate around their downsides.

This, in the end, is why there is a distinguished cluster and profession of people called 'Keeper', rather than sociologically distinct groups that are Bearers of Secret One, Bearers of Secret Two.


Rittaen, fourth-rank Keeper attached to Exception Handling, can tell, obviously enough, that there is something that Merrin desperately wants to be true, or desperately wants not to be true.

It's not in fact the function of Keepers to tell people what they want to hear.  It's not the function of Keepers to ward off people's internal stresses and crises.  Sometimes you would be hurting people, in the long run, if you steered them around an internal crisis.

If there's a point where a Keeper would definitely straightforwardly just tell you something, it's when your distress is being generated by a belief about something that's straightforwardly false, that was arrived at by local noise rather than global internal problems, and they can just tell you how reality actually is and be believed by you and then that actually solves your largest real problem.

This does not look like one of those cases.


Rittaen has heard from Personnel (indirectly via the second-rank Keeper reporting to a sixth-rank Keeper and then back to himself, very strong links individually but he does not neglect to notice the chain) the hypothesis that Merrin doesn't want to be 'special', in some sense of specialness that Personnel doesn't know how to pin down exactly, and suspects of maybe possibly being not the sort of thing that has a straightforward truth condition on states of reality.

So Rittaen flips on his person-as-machine Sight, and considers Merrin and her fear.

...If you were to translate Rittaen's conclusions back into language that ordinary dath ilani understand, they would not be very exciting conclusions.  The hidden truths derived of secret knowledge usually are not, in fact, exciting, because it is usually the nature of correct conclusions that they end up merely real.  If you know that the Sun does not circle around dath ilan but rather dath ilan rotates - as is forbidden to tell young children before they work it out on their own - you don't thereby know that the day tomorrow will be twice as long as the child expects.  It all adds up to normality, and the question is just what is normal and how the adding-up occurs.

What does it mean, to Merrin, to be 'special', that is so very terrible?  The evidence doesn't suffice to pin it down precisely, but as is often the case, the multiple hypotheses consistent with past data about Merrin tend to all make pretty similar predictions about the future too.  Merrin's neurodivergence is known to include her being a face-recognizer, and that in turn often goes along with the condition of status-heaviness where the human sense of status takes on greater weight within the mind and becomes a reified order of the universe, such that disorder within it is directly painful; Merrin has a sense of how much status she is supposed to have, and for her to have more status than that is disorder and That's Terrible...

Only it isn't, of course, anything like that simple, real human beings are not that simple; it's more that there was that potential structure and instinct in Merrin, and then it attached to other thoughts and experiences.

People are built, not with an instinctive fear of snakes, but with neural structures that are ready to latch on to a class of stimuli that include snakes, and learn to fear things in that snakelike class much more rapidly.  If you raised children in a way where they were sometimes threatened with tentacles - not even hurt by them, maybe, just seeing other people scream and run away - then those tentacles might be, to them, snakes, in the sense that the snake-identifiers would have latched onto those.

Rittaen can guess, as one hypothesis among many non-mutually-exclusive ones, that Merrin has sometimes talked to people whose behavior and reactions struck Merrin as their expecting Merrin to be more verbally fluent, and being disappointed that Merrin wasn't.  Maybe some kids actually said that to her, as a kid, when Merrin wasn't in a selected cohort of other kids with similar subject fluencies and learning speeds.  Maybe Merrin just imagined the disappointment, the underlying potential structure and pseudo-prior of her brain prompting her to imagine that people were thinking that, imagine disappointment that they might or might not have really felt.  It'd be the same pain to smol!Merrin either way.  And that's one of many kinds of stimuli that this potential latent structure in Merrin - the recognizer of getting-above-your-place, as is more heavily powered in her than in the average dath ilani - might have latched onto, and said to Merrin over and over, "This pain, now, this is your punishment for other people thinking you had more status than you had."

Rittaen can also guess, based on Merrin's externally visible behavior within this very conversation, that Merrin also considers people of status to have duties; and that Merrin has in the past been compelled by a sense of obligation to perform what she sees as her duties, and made sacrifices for that, which other parts of herself resented; and this also was internally bound as a kind of pain that happened to her because she went above her place, swiftly learned as a fear; and so now the cluster of everything learned this way is partially opposed to Merrin's morality; which is turn is a kind of stress that diminishes to the extent that Merrin does not internally consider herself to be higher; and this reinforces a mental motion against that.

And that the higher Merrin is, the lower Civilization is relative to her, and that she has a sense of safety and wholeness and comfort in being surrounded by Civilization, that it is to her something like a parent but not a parent that let her down the same as some of her other parents.

(The rearing of an average child is heavily optimized to avoid predictable formations of tangled fears like these in average children.  But Merrin is neurodivergent, and human-attention is a sharply bounded resource in Civilization.  If there'd been Keepers following smol!Merrin around, thinking through every consequence of events around her, they could have prevented her from being tangled in a way that an average dath ilani wouldn't have been; but Civilization does not in fact have that kind of money.)

(And also to be clear, it's entirely possible, on this model-cluster of Merrin, that she'd have ended up with very similar scars if she'd been born at +3sd g instead of -1sd g.  The thing inside her that was hyperprimed to learn a certain fear quickly, might have just found something else, but similar, to latch onto - some other unpleasant experience that could match the neural criterion for 'this bad thing happened to you because you have an objective place and went above that'.  While people are ultimately shaped by their experiences, their brains are often very ready to be shaped in particular ways.)

...the point being that while Merrin may have started out as genetically neurodivergent in a simple way, her sense of not-wanting-to-be-special is now this enormous tangled cluster of past pains and fears learned too quickly, some based on false models of reality and some parts on true models too, that were all latched onto by the same neural structure that wanted to very quickly learn to avoid things like that.  The details are hard to guess exactly because her past behavior doesn't distinguish them, which means that all those different possibilities mostly imply similar future behaviors and can be mostly integrated out.


What should Rittaen do about it?  Mostly nothing.  It's not his own place to meddle just because he knows Merrin better than Merrin does, even in the possible worlds where that's true and he hasn't made a critical mistake from not having true introspective access to Merrin's own thoughts.  It's more Rittaen's place to check that nothing really bad is about to happen to Merrin on account of this internal tangle; and so long as he's there, checking that, Merrin doesn't have to learn Keeper disciplines herself in order to prevent anything really bad from happening to her.  That's the point.

"For what it's worth," he answers, after a pause during which he chooses to appear to be somberly considering her words - "the way in which most of Civilization can't do what you can, should not, I think, cause you to update very drastically about Civilization.  There isn't something deeply wrong with a universe where most people don't want to run emergency sims all day, or at least, it seems not so to me, and that is what you are observing.  If you do go to work for Exception Handling, you'll learn in time that there is both more and less to Civilization than you thought.  I'm not sure but that you wouldn't learn the same in Default Hospital too, and maybe even if you stayed in Harkanam and had children and found that neither you nor Civilization could protect them from everything."

"The world is very large, in the end.  You should not fundamentally expect that you already know its workings.  And you are also very large; you should not expect that you already know yourself.  Today you learned that you were wrong about yourself and about Civilization and about which jobs you can have; and that's really a very small way to be wrong, compared to some I've seen.  The upshot is that instead of staying in Harkanam and learning more about how you were wrong about Harkanam, you have the option of learning about how you were wrong about Default Hospital, or going off to Exception Handling to be wrong about that.  But that's just an option, and you don't have to take it at the expense of being wrong about Harkanam."

"The world is too large to be mastered, and exactly for that reason, there's no point in you feeling that you have to chase after any single part of it.  Go where you want to be.  You'll learn some things you wish weren't so, but that will happen to you regardless and in time.  Eventually, everything that can be destroyed by the truth will be, in this life or the next."


Merrin listens warily, with the expression of someone whose personal experience has not left her assuming that adults will tell her true things, and is trying to figure out where his incentives lie in this particular situation. (She doesn't expect an actual Keeper to lie, or to be trolling her in a serious situation like this, but she certainly has no expectation that he's particularly going to be saying everything, or conveying what he actually thinks.) 

She nods, though. Nothing he just said sounds false, and it also doesn't feel like he's - carefully padding the edges for her, leaving out the parts that he might think she isn't strong enough to hear. (People leaving out things that they think will upset her to hear is something Merrin hates, even when the things do, in fact, hurt and upset her a lot.) 

Civilization isn't perfect, and its resources are extensive but not infinite. She already knew that, and really it was the entire lesson of today. It was quite a memorable way to find out that Exception Handling doesn't quite have everything figured out, yet. Would she prefer to live in a different world instead, one where Exception Handling already had a protocol for this, and they saved the patient? Yes, a million times over. Is that one of the options on the table? No. She lives in the world she lives in, and she can either know that or refuse to look, and it's better to know. Not to know everything - there's a reason she isn't a Keeper - but to know the things that are relevant to her decisions. Which is a lot of things, because everything is intertangled, Merrin knew that as well. 

She's...still really scared, actually. But it's much more a familiar kind of scared. It's how she felt when she decided to go for her nursing certs, how she felt when she showed up for her first shift as an unskilled health care worker, how she felt over and over again when she decided to try something hard, something where she might fail - worse, where she might fail in front of people and let them down. 

And the world isn't going to end if she lets people down. It might feel like it will, but she's been there before, and it won't

She wants to meet their patient again in the Future (though inconveniently she doesn't actually know his name) and say that she tried really, really hard, and it wasn't enough that time, and she really is sorry about that, but that she kept trying, and someday, later, they saved the next patient thanks to what they had learned. Merrin may be a person who makes a lot of mistakes, but she does try really hard not to keep making the same mistakes over and over, and especially not to do that because she's too scared to look directly at reality. 


(Also, if she does fail to see reality as it is, because it hurts to accept it, that's not a permanent failure either. They have the whole Future for her to figure it out, eventually, and if there's one thing Merrin has already learned she's capable of, it's not giving up.

...Though it might really, really suck if it turns out she can't do something that someone was expecting of her, and she's never really and truly failed before, that is scary, she...might not be okay for a while...) 


"I...think that makes sense," she says finally, after making a lot of rather expressive faces. She glances over at Personnel. "Although, um - are things going to be okay here? I don't want to inconvenience everyone by leaving if that's going to mean you have a problem covering all the emergency certs?" Why does it have to be ONE OR THE OTHER, no matter what she decides here she's going to be letting someone down, it's terrible. 


"I mean, people do sometimes change jobs, that's among the reasons why hospitals have two people with each emergency cert.  You'd leave a larger hole than usual, but we'd spike the bonuses for picking up certs, and be back in compliance a couple of months later."

Another note of that sting from Catchall's criticism.  People whose departures would leave large expensive holes in your organization are usually people you want to pay more, above and beyond payments linear in labor or numbers of certs; and maybe someone should've noticed that fact about Merrin, what with the general heuristic being a proverb.


(This might have been easier to notice if Merrin had ever asked to be paid more for the truly ridiculous number of their emergency certs she was taking on, or, you know, if she had made a habit of even checking how much she was getting paid. She knows it's more than enough to cover her housing and other expenses, at which point she doesn't keep very close track of the excess.) 

"...I don't have to decide right away, right?" she asks Rittaen. "I can - make sure it's not going to be a problem here?"

(Though she's a little worried that if she stays, the surrealness of today will start to drift into the past, it'll go back to feeling like surely someone is trolling her, and she won't actually be able to bring herself to leave. She can probably sort that out in her head and do the correct thing anyway, but it's definitely always been easier for Merrin to push through scary things on adrenaline and momentum.) 


"Yes.  Though your prospective employers would probably appreciate the courtesy of hearing a deadline by which you'd decide, sometime in the next two days."

It's meddling, but anybody could figure out that Merrin stood in that much danger and meddle; you don't have to be a Keeper.


Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah two DAYS??? ....Okay, fine, it's in fact reasonable for Default Hospital and Exception Handling to prefer not to be inconvenienced by her indecisiveness. 

"I can probably do that. Um. I maybe should talk to people who work with both, just to - get a better picture of what it would be like? But I don't need to do that tonight." In fact, her brain feels just about ready to melt and slide out her ears. "Anyway, I...think that's all my questions, I, um, sorry for taking up your time but I'm glad I asked you, it - helped." 


"I mean that you should tell them your actual deadline in the next two days.  Not that your deadline should be two days from now.  Get some sleep and check things over with a friend before you make any large life decisions, Merrin, you're exhausted even if honorably so."

Rittaen rises.  People expect him to act with gravity, and it doesn't cost Keepers nearly as much sanity points to reconfigure themselves around other people's expectations; so he rises with great formality and departs in a terribly sober and serious fashion.

(Keepers are nearly the only people in all Civilization who will dress consistently somberly in public, and then not feel an irresistable urge to for example speak in a high squeaky voice just to show how much they shouldn't be taken too seriously.  Realistically this explains quite a lot of what's going on there culturally speaking.)


Aaaaaaand now that Merrin no longer feels like she has to maintain some basic dignity in front of a fourth-rank Keeper, she flomps. 

"Aaaaugh," she says, heartfelt. "I still half feel like I'm going to wake up tomorrow and find out I hallucinated all of this. Thanks for staying for that. Um. I - should get back to my mom before she worries, but. I maybe want to go actually look at the offers. It's going to keep bothering me otherwise." 

Rudely, the computer terminal in the room is all the way over there. Terrible. Merrin wasn't feeling physically that tired before, but it's actually getting late according to her circadian rhythm now. 


Personnel pauses with her hand halfway to a grape in the table's fruitbowl.  "So, the Keeper didn't explicitly say that you shouldn't look at the exact salary offers, because, you know, telling people not to learn true facts is... something Keepers try not to do unless they really have to, or so we're told.  But he also didn't actually tell you the salary and expected-bonus numbers, despite it being the first thing that most people would want to hear, and that sort of sounds like somebody who worried that he'd be at least slightly injuring you by telling you the numbers, which a Keeper would also try not to do."


"Mom is going to ask me! It's literally the first thing she'll ask!" 


"Just tell her that you got implicitly advised to think it through without knowing the numbers first?"

"Or I could tell her but not you, yet?  They did kinda authorize me to pass on the job offers myself, if you came over and asked me what was going on and if anything was meant seriously, so I actually do know the numbers too.  Well, and also because they wanted to give our hospital a chance to counterbid, though with this sort of look that said that there'd be questions about why we hadn't paid you more earlier, if you were generating that much value for us... but, like, not in a way where they wanted that to impede all the interested parties putting in bids on you, because that's in your interest too."

"My guess, for what it's worth, is that you're supposed to think it through knowing the part that the Keeper told you, that the higher modal-case monetary offer is from Default Hospital, but not knowing specifically how much modal-case money you'd pass up by spending whatever fraction of your time in Exception Handling.  Then once you know how you feel about that, you actually look at the amounts of money.  Then you go into a soundproof room and spend a while screaming to express your emotions about how you can't possibly provide that much economic value and are going to hugely disappoint these people who falsely believe in you way too much.  And then, you know, take the job, because they know better and it's not your job to correct them about that anyways."

"Though I guess you could also take the job and just never ever find out how much it pays, at all?  Just set up an agent who handles all your finances sight-unseen, and have an account somewhere which always gets refilled to at least ten thousand unskilled-labor-hours no matter how much you spend."


"....I, um, I might appreciate it if you can tell my mom just so she won't nag me about it– I, um, wait. Can you do that? I mean the last thing - getting an agent to deal with all my finances - that would be great!" 

Merrin is pretty sure that she is supposed to be on top of her own finances but also literally all of the advice she can find on the Internet for her sort of financial situation is super hard to follow, and she sure seems to have self-selected into a colleague group of people smarter than her, which means that their advice consistently makes her feel stupid. And, like, she is at all capable of learning and then doing math? She doesn't mind doing math for her actual job! She does sort of mind having to do random extra math about her earnings and spending! 


Oh wait. 




....Okay so she just learned that Personnel knows the figure and thinks that Merrin will scream about it, and Personnel knows her really well, so - really this is enough information to know that she should already be screaming??? 

(She is not literally screaming out loud, but mostly only because she's tired and that would be so much work.) 


"I had in fact meant that as a HUMOROUS ANTISUGGESTION.  And while it plausibly fits you unfortunately well, and I can't actually think of a psychologically better plan to substitute now that I'm focusing there, if you actually do it, I'm still putting you on my 'does not get humorously terrible advice because she might do it list' forever."


Merrin would probably be really embarrassed about that if not for the INTERNAL SCREAMING. 

"....I. Um. I'm not sure if this was also meant as a humorous antisuggestion but. You know the monetary offer. And. You did sort of say. That if knew it I would have to go scream about it. So I am making the predictable update about that!" 

Also aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah! Also she is, in fact, predictably going to take the job anyway??? ....This really does not reduce the aaaaaaaaaaah!!! 


"Merrin?  You're probably leaving the hospital and so, while we'll maybe always be friends I hope, our actual relationship is probably going to be mostly winding down, and given that, there's something I've wanted to do with you - well, to you - and something I've wanted to say to you - for quite a while now."

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