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The Memory Gatherer

For a time, circuitry was the bottleneck, difficult to come by (outside the black market), and Kera had more important things to buy.  The protein packs and mineral supplements and occasional bits of real food that manage to land on her table, to be shared with her brother Fyr.  Waxed thread to mend what clothes they have left.  The couch for Mother when she was still alive, laid out to catch her when she slipped off the bandwagon.  Kera raised the couch so rats couldn’t nibble at her.

It’s much easier these days as the war dwindles, once-empty beaches now dumping grounds for the remains of destroyed AI, scattered circuits of green laced with gold, charred and battered and stinking of ruin.  Kera prefers the North Head Cliffs.  She climbs down the sheer rock under a full moon, a heat-scattering cloth draped over her back so the Sea Scouts don’t find her.  Years ago, before Kera was born, sentient machines grew frustrated and war blossomed from the anger.  Many of the robots have given up by now, but not all of them.

Dawn rises beyond the cliffside when Kera drops on the sand. It’s silent except for the waves lapping the shore clean, over and over, water rushing over the pebbles scattered on the shoreline. Kera picks one up and kisses a prayer into the stone before throwing it into the ocean.  Prayer stones should be blessed by a priest first, then washed with fresh water, cleaning desires for God’s ears.  This is the closest she’ll come to the real thing.  The southern third of the beach is piled high with gutted chassis and fractured boards.  Wind draws the smell closer and Kera binds a greying bandana over her mouth and nose.

It’s easy to determine a useless component, ruined by fire and buckshot, but when a component is whole and fried internally it’s harder to tell.  Smell alone won’t help.  Kera has  memorized the differences in the vast sea of proprietary chips, and works with what she finds.  There’s no time to wait for the right pieces.  If she finds an AX526-multicore instead of a PrG-15cx, she must make do.

Something on the mound of debris moves and she draws her gun without thought.  Her creation, it fires both bullets and electromagnets with a burst charge.  Fyr wanted to give it a name, but Kera has no desire to name it.  For her, naming something admits ownership, admits caring.  The gun is only a tool for survival, one she would throw away if she could.

A small hand waves out from behind a pile of debris, skeletal steel, no larger than a child’s, and is instantly snatched back by a larger hand.  Time passes, and Kera’s gaze remains fixed on where the hand emerged from, her gun steady.  She shouts that she is armed, but doesn’t want trouble.  The larger hand emerges, open, unarmed.  Another follows, then a head, an old paint can set with two camera eyes.

Kera lowers her gun.  The smaller robot emerges, its chassis cobbled together with loving but impoverished hands.  The child robot, a little girl, stares at Kera with innocence.  A mother and daughter.  They must have come to rebuild their father.

So has Kera.  They work in silence.

*          *          *

She doesn’t gather her memories first, nor her brother’s.  There’s time for that later.  Much later.  The first memories will come from her father’s old friend, Meron Gethick.  They knew one another before the war, joined the battle together.  Her father outranks Gethick, posthumously, though ranks are of no real value now, since government and formal military are distant memories to their generation, fables to Kera’s.

Gethick is a barrel of a man, white-haired and scarred like an apple forgotten in the orchard dirt.  His reading glasses are cracked, indicating he once had the wealth to buy such a luxury, and no longer has it to repair them.  His uniform is tacked up on a far wall, brown and mended, hung with medals.  One is for surviving the attack which killed Kera’s father, but she can’t hold it against him.

“I’ll admit,” he says by way of greeting, “you coming isn’t much a surprise.”

“Oh?”  She asks this with natural shock.

He offers a seat, refusing to take his until Kera takes hers.  Such manners are unnecessary, but like the ranks, it’s a hint of humanity some cling to with animalistic ferocity.  Not that AI can’t be patched to do the same, but those are thoughts best left unsaid.  Kera smooths down the bland beige dress, the finest dress her mother ever owned.  Her mother has been gone almost as long as her father, but Kera still cannot claim the dress as her own.  It hangs on her shoulders like a sack.

“Your father loved telling stories about you.”  Gethick coughs, and something wet slaps against the walls of his lungs, a bit of flesh scraped free by the fumes of burning plastics, shredding soft, organic bodies from within.  Between that sound, his pallor, and the handkerchief at hand ready to catch blood and blackness, he has six months on the outside.  ”You and Fyr both. You kids were the reasons he kept fighting, you know?”

Kera says nothing.  Her father never spoke of such things, and the words come as a surprise.

“Mean son of a bitch on the field, don’t get me wrong.  But he liked to tell stories ’bout the two of you.  His favorite was you taking apart a telephone when you were four years, screwdriver and all.”  Gethick laughs, as though seeing Kera now makes him wonder what her father exaggerated.  “Real proud of the brain you got on you.  Bragged all the damn time, saying how maybe we were fighting battles now, but you’d invent the thing that’d put down the bots for good.”

Kera recalls that day, with the phone.  Her fingertips find the scars on her side, persistent reminder of the whipping she received, hard ridges under the thin fabric of her borrowed dress.  Her throat swells and her fists clench, but she pushes the rage aside.  “I’ve never heard him tell it, ” she says, dragging her finger along the worst of the scars, over and over.

“He always said he was working on it, a speech for your kinmaking.  Said it’d make a good warning for your husband.”

Tears burn at the edges of her eyes.  Not unexpected, but sooner than she anticipated.  She twists it to her advantage. “I have always looked forward to my kinmaking.” Her voice wavers suitably.

“What girl doesn’t?” He offers Kera a fresh handkerchief, keeping his own soiled rag clutched in his fist.

She dabs eyes, a melodramatic gesture, but the cloth drinks in real tears.  “I would love to hear his speech.”

Gethick looks away from her bare emotion, ill-equipped to deal with it.  “I could try to say it for you, though I’m not sure it’d be the same.”

“I have a better idea.”  She begins to explain the Memory Gatherer.

*          *          *

Gethick’s mind is undamaged by the gathering.  The Memory Extractor would probably be a better name for it, but a harder sell.  She had to lie to him as it was, tell him memories only play on the screen, faded green and watery, there is no mechanism to digitize human thought.  That was true, once.  His memories of Kera’s father, the particularities of his laugh, his penchant for moonshine and fistfights, his actions on the battlefield, heroic through one lens and terrifying through another; all gently touched by the Gatherer, copied, and stored on a thumb drive.
Walking back home, equipment strapped to Kera’s back, she reaches into her pocket and hold the first fragment of her father, tracing its shape with a callused thumb.  She recalls the mother and daughter on the beach, searching for the components that once made the little girl’s father.  Robots can reproduce, in a way.  Two robots can merge fresh installs of their software and build a small chassis to boot it on.  Free of experience, free of the burdens of war, free of scars that prolonged data series bring.  Kera wonders if the mother had told her child that father was sleeping now, watching them from far off.

 

void death() { while (1) sleep(); }

 

Would she understand it better than a human child could?

The process is slow.  Kera’s father had few friends who held enough of him to be of any value.  She loads new memories into the simulator as she gathers them, into the blank AI, feeding it data points to build its behavior on. It is months before the machine wakes, self-aware only by the slimmest margins, like little Fyr, so many years ago, an infant in a wooden crate.  Like we all were, once.

Every night she goes through the memories collected, playing them out one after the other in the dark.  The Father she is growing is loaded on a scattering of hardware, a spill of silicon and wires across a sheet of steel siding supported by a sawhorse at either end. She has not given him a chassis.  The burn mark on the back of her left hand, a small, round puckering of skin, reminds her why, should it ever slip her mind.  Her thumb rubs idly over the scar.

“Why are you doing this?”

Fyr’s voice startles her, and she hides her hand in a flash of shame.  She picks up a board and a screwdriver, trying to look busy.  ”Sorry, what?”

The door frame is too weak for Fyr to lean against it, so he contents himself with standing just inside her room, arms crossed.  ”Building this thing.  Talking to Meron.  What do you want?  Answers?  Revenge?”

“You wouldn’t understand.”  She speaks quickly, with more confidence than she feels.  It’s the first time someone other than her had asked, but the hundredth time the question had been lain at her feet.  She was no closer to an answer, and it made her head swim and her chest ache.  ”Go away.  I need to focus.”

“He’s dead,” Fyr spits.  ”The only good thing he’s done, and he didn’t do it soon enough.”

Kera drops the screwdriver and all other pretenses of working, taking long, steadying breaths instead.  She had never raised her voice against him and it would take a good deal more than this to make her truly angry.  Still, there is the dark knot in her chest, throbbing, struggling to free itself.

Fyr studies her from the doorway, scrutinizing the tired stoop in her shoulders, the dry dirt caked into her skin, the lovingly cleaned components laying on her workbench.  The Memory Gatherer rests on the table, tipped on its side.  ”Will it make me forget him?”

Kera faces him fully.  There is a cruelty in his eyes, unnatural for his age, for any age.  Bile and guilt rise up her throat, and she wishes not for the first time that she had been stronger for him.  She wants to say yes, say she can sweep it all away for him, bring him back into this world, beautiful and new.  But she has never lied to Fyr and would not start here.

“No,” she tells him. “It doesn’t work that way.”

He shrugs and fades from the doorway.  ”Dinner’s in half an hour.”

*          *          *

It is a year from her first Gathering when the machine speaks.  A pile of freshly-acquired materials lay on her primary workbench, with no real organization except the order in which she managed to stuff it into her bag before warmongering robots or looters with bigger guns arrived.  She is using a flathead screwdriver to pry apart two boards that have melted together.

“Kera?”  His voice stumbles over her name, half-formed and lilting.  “I can’t see you.”

The room is dim, shuttered light coming through the gaps in our patchwork roof, glowing grainy against dust in the air.  She’ll have to ask Fyr to fix those before the rain season comes.  “I haven’t installed optical receptors,” she says automatically.  A high snap of plastic and the boards are separate.

“Haven’t what?”

The screwdriver slips from her fingers and lands on the packed dirt floor with a dampened thud.  It’s speaking.  It’s speaking and it doesn’t realize it’s simply AI.  She slips off her chair and pick up the dropped tool, berating herself, she should have thought of that.  How would it realize it wasn’t human?  How would it think to ask?  Everything it knows comes from the memories loaded into it.  No visual receptors, no physical data transmitters, nothing.  It can hear her, it can speak, and that’s all.

“Sorry,” she mutters.  “Bad joke.”  She approaches the table it lays strewn across, a sad, twisted rainbow of cables and wires, patched where they had been stripped, ending in bulbous mounds of components, soldered with whatever was handy at the time.  She briefly imagines his cooling body splayed on a hospital cot, but drives the thought away.

“What happened?”

There’s such fear in its voice that she wants to pick up a hammer and smash the whole thing to bits.  How dare he, she seethes.  How dare he.  How can that bastard begin to feel fear?  All he should feel is shame and guilt.  He shouldn’t be reaching out like a child, cold and alone, looking for comfort.

The screwdriver is still in her hand, rubber grip worn long before she got to it.  Kera envisions how easy it would be to stab the vocal synthesizer and feed it the worst memories she can gather when it has no way to scream.  Feed it what keeps Fyr from returning her hugs.  Feed it what keeps her from returning any of the smiles and glances she gets from boys at the market.

Kera draws a breath, regaining focus.  The end is more important.  Finding out why is more important for her than these swells of rage.  She exhales slowly.

“The war,” she says.  “You were hurt in battle. Do you remember?”  He will remember the battle.  It’s one of the first memories he received.  How well he compiles the events, given his limited dataset, is another question.  “Do you remember anything?”

“I…”  The audio synthesizers fumble, halting over words as he comes to them.  “I’m not sure. Everything is… scattered.  Distant.”  It plays a sound like a descending scale.  An attempt at a sigh.  “I don’t remember my name, Kera.  I remember yours.  But not mine.”

She leans over the table.  It’s important it believes it’s my father.  She says this in her mind, over and over, and in doing so she remembers pouring water over the prayer stones as a child, kneeling in the mud and pouring for hours, in days when she still believed.  Now she finds water too precious to waste on useless balms for the spirit.

“Kera?”

She runs her fingers over the wires, cold, copper wiring sheathed in polyethylene.  No blood, no life, just a dead stream of electrons.  “Jason,” she whispers, giving him his name.  “It’s Jason.”

*          *          *

Jason believes everything Kera tells him.  He believes he was gravely injured in the battle which actually killed him.  That he has been comatose for years, and now he has woken at home, blind, paralyzed, and Kera has been caring for him.  His wife has passed, ill with grief.  Fyr is at war, but the war is a dwindling series of battles now, humans as the victors.  He eats everything through a tube he cannot feel.

Most of this is true, if seen from a certain perspective.

Kera continues giving him memories, more careful now.  He must feel as if he is recalling them, as if old events are floating to the surface, not downloading from a flash drive.  Thoughts gathered from old drinking buddies, people who met him before Kera was born, before his kinmaking.

Fyr doesn’t know yet.  Kera hasn’t spoken of the secret in her room, locked away, muted when she leaves.  The gentle voice that now whispers her to sleep, that does not see the tears she keeps silent, that gives soft utterances of love.  She doesn’t know where to begin.

Her room is always dim now, the holes in the roof patched against the coming rain, which should be here in about a month or so, washing down the walls of her small home.  Kera has started on a new tool, to detect electromagnetic disruptions, with hopes that it will detect robots concealed for attack.  She withdraws a fresh set of memories from her pocket to give to her father before she resumes work.

“Thank you, Kera,” he says.  As the months have passed he has gained control over the vocal synthesizer.  He sounds almost as Kera remembers, only not as warm, not as full and round.  Hard to say if it is the AI or her memory at fault.

Kera’s hand stills, just short of inserting the thumb drive.  “For what?”

“For taking care of me.”  He has no body, no way to move, no eyes to cast down in sadness and self-loathing, but he doesn’t need it.  “I should be dead.  I remember the attack, very well.  It’ll sound strange, but I can even see my body flying through the air, like I’m watching through someone else’s eyes. “  He pauses, gathering his thoughts.  “There’s no real way I survived. If it wasn’t for you…”

Her finger loops through a coil of wire and for a moment she is five years old, scared of the thundering market crowd, grasping at her father’s hand.  He holds her hand gently but with confidence, and his voice drapes a soft cloth over the mass of people, whispering, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Daddy’s here. I’ll always be here.”  She remembers turning into his warm body, grasp the leg of his pants, just above the knee, scared, but knowing he would protect her from outside harm.

Always from outside harm.

Kera’s hand closes around the twisted coil of copper wiring, blues and reds and yellows woven together, grimy fingers folding into a hard, trembling fist.

“Thank you for caring for me,” he says.

*          *          *

Kera sits in her chair, her gentle weeping the grey rain after a storm.  She held in her hand a thumb drive, small and seemingly innocuous, but she knew the truth of it, of the poison it held.  The Memory Gatherer lay on the table beside her, one of her dark hairs shed and left behind inside.  Her only solace is that she had the forethought to turn off her father’s aural receptors.

She still has not asked Fyr for his memories.  Her brother isn’t necessary for this part.  He doesn’t care, doesn’t need to know.  Why are you doing this? He wouldn’t understand.  Her thumb flicks over the metal protrusion, testing a blade for its sharpness.

When Kera finally rises, she moves like a marionette under an ill-practiced hand.  She fumbles with switches on what might have become her father’s torso, activating his aural receptors, his vocal synthesizers, sliding back the sheath over the USB port.

“Kera?  Are you there?”

She traces her finger over the open port, staring at the scar on her hand.  ”Sorry.  I was… somewhere else.”

The soft descent of a sigh.  ”I was beginning to worry,” he says.  ”If something happened to you…”

She wonders if the concern is more for himself than for her.  After all, without her, he would be helpless.  Without him, she would be… what?  Happy?  Free?  She clutched the memories in her hand.  Time without him had given her none of those things.  Time with him had given her their ghosts.  ”Something did happen to me.  A long time ago.”

“What happened?”

Kera plunges the memories into his mind.  ”You tell me.”

It doesn’t happen in an instant, as much as Kera wants it to.  The build is slow, dragging through a silence marked only by a spinning hard disk downloading the memories, placing them in the current database, integrating them into the ever-growing neural net.  Vocal synthesizers emit spasms of sound.  Like pain.

“Is that… me?”  Fans whir to cool the taxed processors, the AI unable to organize the data against what it knows.  ”That can’t be.  I didn’t do this.”

“You’re really going to deny it?”  Kera’s words come out in a cold, hard hiss, thick with restraint, a cruel laugh chasing after it.  Her vision goes blurry and she blinks away tears.  ”What did I do to deserve it?  And Fyr?  What could either of us have done?”

“This can’t be right.”  The AI processes the data against its present set, attempting to integrate in the memories with what it knows of itself.  ”This can’t be me.  It just… it can’t.”

Kera rips the thumb drive from the circuitry, slamming it against the table.  ”Why did you do it? Tell me!”  She chokes on a fresh sob, new tears running after their lost sisters.  ”How can you sit there and tell me you didn’t do it?”

“I don’t…”  The AI stumbles on the words, smothered in new emotion.  ”I couldn’t have… I would never– Kera, I love you!”

She screams, her mouth fumbling over obscenities which twist and churn into a gritty wail.  Her body is stripped raw of reason and she takes the circuitry by the wires, swinging it over her head and smashing it against the table.  A shard flies free and catches the roof, cutting a hole in the soft patching, and fresh rain drips on the dirt.  She flings the circuitry at the wall, years of work striking the steel walls with a plasticine crack.  Half-formed words of panic burst through the vocal synthesizer as it crashes into the floor.

Her screwdriver plunges into the plastic, over and over, her cries playing a staccato rhythm against the sound of everything shattering.  Plastic flies through the air, catching her face, her arms, the back of her hand, carving deep, drawing blood, but rage washes over her and she feels nothing.  She stabs the hard-packed dirt for several minutes before she realizes there is nothing left to destroy.

Kera tumbles to the ground, gasping like a man once drowned.  Rain drips through the new gash in the roof, splattering the back of her freshly-cut hand.  The wound bleeds freely, tracing over old scars, fresh water thinning her blood as the dripping rain washes her clean.

Fyr rushes into the room.  ”What happened?  Kera?”  He flies to her side, wrapping an arm around her, lifting her up, pulling her close.  Over her shoulder, he sees the Memory Gatherer, sees the thumb drive laying on the table beside it.  “Oh, God.  What did you do?”

She turns her face up, staring past him.  He follows her eyes to the destroyed machinery laying on the ground, dust and fragments, years of her life consumed in a flash of rage.

He wipes at the stains on her cheeks, tear tracks caked with dust.  ”Come on.  Wash up, and we’ll have dinner.”  He tugs at her shoulders, helping her to her feet. “It’s just us now.  Forget about him, okay?  He’s dead now.  It’s over.”

Kera stares back at the remains.  She wanted to say yes, it’s over.  But she has never lied to Fyr, and would not start here.

The End

Morgan Dempsey is a software engineer, currently living in Silicon Valley, California, USA. She blogs at Inkpunks (www.inkpunks.com) and reads slush for Scape (www.scapezine.com). Her fiction is also in Broken Time Blues, an anthology of 1920s speculative fiction. Her personal blog is at www.geardrops.net and she tweets obsessively at www.twitter.com/geardrops.

 

8 comments

1 Editor’s Note – July 2011 | Redstone Science Fiction { 06.30.11 at 11:09 pm }

[...] Dempsey is a young writer who really impressed us with her story, The Memory Gatherer. This dystopian story of a young woman’s reaction to her harsh life shook us up a bit and we [...]

2 Redstone Science Fiction #14, July 2011 | Redstone Science Fiction { 07.01.11 at 6:37 am }

[...] The Memory Gatherer by Morgan [...]

3 Go read “The Memory Gatherer” « Carla Harker { 07.01.11 at 8:51 am }

[...] Dempsey’s first pro sale, “The Memory Gatherer” is up on Redstone SF. Go. Read. Enjoy. And then understand why I’m her biggest [...]

4 Gerry S { 07.02.11 at 9:57 am }

Excellent. One of the best stories I’ve read all year.

5 Chris { 07.03.11 at 8:33 pm }

Loved this bit:
void death() { while (1) sleep(); }

But isn’t the prototype for sleep
void sleep( int seconds);

But death isn’t eternally sleeping and awakening in any case… What about just:
void death() {while(1);} // crash loop… more efficient too?

I’ve always seen writing as programming humans. Interesting to see C code used poetically. Fitting here. Very cool. Cool story.

6 Jaron { 07.04.11 at 5:26 am }

Wow. Ouch. Awesome!

7 Bucky { 07.23.11 at 6:40 am }

What an awesome way to explain this-now I know evertyhnig!

8 The Great Geek Manual » Free Fiction Round-Up: July 5, 2011 { 07.31.11 at 11:11 pm }

[...] “The Memory Gatherer” by Morgan Dempsey at Redstone Science [...]