Below the Tree Line

In the memory clinic below the tree line, an android on the television said, “There are stories hiding underneath these mountains.” He was a humro, or humanoid robot; Mercy Stevens could tell by the smooth jade pebble inserted into his clavicle. The documentary cut to a panorama of Mt. Lassen’s crater, a purple depression in the center of its peak, and he added, “The heat under the surface here, the liquid rock, constantly re-dreams the land.”

It was a pretty sentiment, and Mercy found herself imagining how magma went through cycles of birth and death, hot and young underground, born through a smoking vent, and aging on the surface until it was dark and cracked.

She closed her eyes. The waiting room was a spartan affair. There was nothing to see: nothing, that was, but a few celebrity magazines fluttering on the table, and Mercy had already read their headlines three times. She had no attention, at a moment like this, for anything less than profound.

The brown couch she sat on had several thread-loops picked out of the cushions. She added another. Years of nervous fingers… she thought.

A petite nurse appeared in the door, calling gently, “Miss Stevens? We’re ready for you.”

The girl on the couch, opening her eyes, flashed the nurse a reckless smile. She pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder and went through the inner door.

Ducking her head, the nurse led her down a white, breezy hallway. “How are you?” she whispered. “Don’t be afraid.”

“I’m fine,” Mercy said, blinking.

The nurse tilted her head gracefully and gestured at the final door. It was a dark-reddish wood, rather the color of cherry liqueur: cedar, Mercy guessed, and she knew a bit about planking. Trying to control her ragged inhales, she tossed her shoulders back and turned the handle.

The room beyond was also painted white, but in a less professional way than the rest of the building. There were veins and chips on the surface, baring the wood underneath, and the wide window at the other side of the room was gaping slightly open. It looked up at the winter forest on the mountainside. She didn’t have to approach it to see the haphazard, unexpected fall of snowflakes: they were smacking against the glass. She found the storm and the forest beautiful, and felt her heavy thoughts dilute slightly, as if they’d been stirred with milk.

“The doctor will be with you in a minute, if you’ll just sit, miss,” said the nurse. She indicated the operating chair and closed the door.

A calming flute tune was playing from somewhere. Mercy sniffed: lavender. She sat. She tried to control her breathing.

The two walls of the room perpendicular to the window were plastered with some type of thin, nanotechnology lamina. It was a mild, antiseptic green; several icons waited on it to be activated, dark against the pastel palette, some even in the image of knobs and levers. Mercy appreciated whoever’s sense of human had added that detail. The other icons were obscure and symbolic; she thought about tapping one to see what it did, but let better sense, this once, prevail. Instead, she dragged her finger across a blank stretch of the lamina. She jerked back as the point her fingertip contacted swirled into a storm of colors, which clarified, as she watched, into rolling Arabic script. The unfamiliar phonemes then vanished, like stones sinking in murky water, nearly as quickly as they appeared.

The door opened, and a woman in a medical coat came in. She had blonde hair with gray hanks above each of her ears, skin that looked as if it had seen too much hard weather, narrow lips, a large nose, and blue eyes with brown coronas around the rims. “Hello there, Mercy,” she said, smiling and checking her clipboard. She offered her hand. “My name is Julia. I’ll be your physician today.”

“Thank you,” Mercy said, holding her voice consciously deeper than before. Something about the woman was intimidating, and she didn’t want to show it. “I’m sure you can help me.”

Julia smiled at her reassuringly, and sat in the other chair. “So what exactly is going on here?” she asked.

Mercy took a deep breath. “I fell in love.”

“Oh. I see.”

Mercy cleared her throat. “A passing madness.”

Julia inclined her head, her blonde hair falling on one side as far down as the name tag on her lapel. She scratched a note onto her clipboard, and seemed to be waiting politely for more information. Mercy settled herself differently into the operating chair. “First of all,” she began, her voice steadying, “you should know that I have far too much propensity to fall in love. It’s happened six—no, a dozen times. And it always starts the same way: when someone makes me laugh, you know—”

“First of all,” Julia interrupted, “when did this happen?”

“I was down in San Francisco for a week, staying with friends.”

“How long ago?”

Mercy bit her lip and stared over Julia’s shoulder. “About three months.”

The doctor scratched on her clipboard again. “And I assume you’re already—?”

Mercy felt herself flushing. “Yes, I have a boyfriend. We’ve been together a long time.” The statement echoed tritely in her mind.

“And he knows you’re here?”

Mercy looked away from the doctor’s eyes and gave a stringy laugh. “Wouldn’t that have been stupid?” Anticipating the doctor’s next question, she drew her hands out of her pockets and explained, “Because I know that he would have given me his blessing—or I don’t know that, but I’m afraid of it—and who, who the hell wants their mate to condone them killing a part of themselves?”

The doctor drew back, blinking. “The anger you’re feeling is perfectly normal, Mercy. It’s admirable, and honorable, that you’ve come here, despite your reservations. I’ll be bringing you the help you need.”

“Right, I’m sorry. I love my boyfriend, and I like our life together, and…I don’t have the strength to be deceptive.” Mercy leaned back in the chair, noticing, as she did, a glint of light in the indent of Julia’s clavicle. She surged forward in surprise. She reached quickly and tapped the indentation, and was rewarded with a metallic echo. It was a light brown stone, one she couldn’t name—perhaps some type of hematite?—but a stone nonetheless. “You’re a robot!”

Julia didn’t draw clear. “I am a trained memory technician,” she said levelly.

“Oh.” Mercy sat back, feeling her face flush. “I’m sorry,” she blurted, “I just can’t trust you anymore.” She drew up her hands in a peace gesture. “It’s nothing personal, but I—”

“We’ve already started, Miss Stevens,” Julia said, for the first time a hint of something caustic in her voice. “We can’t stop now. It’s unfortunate, but true.”

Mercy sat back. “Oh.”

“You must be brave.”

“I’m not a brave person.”

Julia was silent, as if pondering that judgment. Mercy turned, and looked at the snow falling out the window. Her breathing was coming irregularly again. When she turned back, the doctor had drawn her clipboard up on her knee and was pressing the butt of her pen against it in a complicated pattern. Mercy tried to follow, but couldn’t; instead, she noticed that the humro had no eyebrows but very thick eyelashes, the same gray as the feathers of a pigeon.

“There are a lot of kinds of courage, obviously,” the girl said after a moment, to fill the silence, “and I suppose I have a few of them.”

The android put down her pen and met Mercy’s eyes. “Okay. Let’s continue with this session. Have you ever had the procedure before?”


“Do you know what we do? Do you know exactly what it entails?”

Mercy looked doubtful. “You erase memories.”

“No, no.” Julia shook her head emphatically. “We don’t erase memories—that’s illegal. You get to keep your memories. What we—dissolve—are the emotions you’ve attached to them, so you can move through your life unencumbered by remorse, regret, shame, doubt, or, in your case, unwelcome love.”

Mercy nodded slowly. “That sounds fine, I guess.”

“He will become nothing to you but a phantom.”

Mercy cracked a smile. “I’ve always liked ghost stories.”

Julia was again silent, letting the comment billow between them and drift away, except that now Mercy thought she was processing information. The doctor stood as if at random and drew her finger across the surface of the right wall-coating. An icon glimmered into being and danced out of it. Julia sat again, tugging the hem of her skirt surreptitiously past her knees. “Tell me about your boyfriend,” she commanded soothingly.

Mercy considered. “I’d rather not.”

There was a pause, and the snowstorm was audible against the windowpane. “All right,” Julia conceded. “Tell me about the other one, the man you don’t want to love. His name?”


“Tell me about Caleb’s personality.”

“Well, he—” For the first time, Mercy looked at the android angrily. “Is that really necessary? Must I share my emotions before I get rid of them? They’re mine.”

The humro leaned forward. “Possessiveness is a normal human reaction. Let your anger go.”

Mercy didn’t even nod politely. When it became apparent she wasn’t going to respond, Julia asked, “Would you like some water?” Receiving a mollified nod, she rose and drained two cups from the tank in the corner. Eel-like bubbles of air wiggled to the top. “Thanks,” Mercy muttered, taking one and spilling a few drops. They landed on the front of her sweater.

“I told my boyfriend about it, you know,” she said abruptly. “My feelings. I’ve felt—lust, I guess you could call it, or desire—I’ve felt it for people before, while we were together, but this was different. This was…this was much too real to keep secret.”

“How did your mate react?”

Mercy glanced away from the humro’s steady gaze. “Well, I was crying, but I was calm. I could reach down and feel fortitude underneath the tears. I explained that I didn’t want to break up with him—that all I wanted was to be able to love him and another person at the same time.” She contemplated the door.

“And it didn’t work?” Julia prodded.

Mercy bared her teeth. “What do you think? Here I am.”

The doctor sipped her water and repeated meditatively, “Here you are.”

“And you know the most tragic part of all this? The most tragic part of this business is that I’m in love—God am I in love—and yet I’m going to be happy without him.” Mercy took a deep breath, hearing her voice thickening with tears.

“OK,” Julia said gently, “I understand your distress, but we need to back up here.” With a business-like manner, the humro asked, “Would you die to save a child?”

“What? Why is that important?”

Julia raised her eyebrows. “Just answer the question, Miss Stevens. Would you die to save a child?”

Mercy paused, then said firmly, “Yes.”

“Would you die to preserve a story?”

“Which story?”

Julia grinned. “A good one. Your favorite story. The one you base your religion on.”

Mercy frowned. “I suppose so, yes.”

“Would you die to save this memory?” The humro stood and dragged a finger along the waxy green surface of the walls. Mercy gasped: she was suddenly, and entirely, experiencing the last night that she’d spent with her friends in San Francisco. There was no duplicity about her position: she was there, she was thinking what she had thought then, and she had no knowledge of the coming events.

She was tucked onto the downstairs hide-a-bed. Just beyond the window she could hear the electric transits pass on Van Ness every five minutes. The doily-like edges of the white curtains brushed her cheeks. Everyone else had gone to sleep, presumably, or at least gone to their rooms and shut the doors. It’s impossible, it’s all impossible, she was thinking. She buried her nose in her book, chest rising and falling in staccato rhythm, eyes closed, inhaling the sweet pagey smell. The book, an actual non-digitalized copy, was a treasure that she’d found in her great-grandmother’s effects when she died, but Mercy wasn’t reading it. She was remembering the heat in her face when Caleb had given her a compliment, and her new desire to let her gaze linger on his profile while he spoke.

She turned off the light and lay down again. She could see a lambent moon slipping teasingly between the curtains like a fantastic eye. She rolled her face up to the trickle of light still spilling down the stairs from Caleb’s room. Was it meant to be inviting? She realized at that moment that, if she could split into two people, one walking up to that warm light to perform an adventurous seduction, and the other leaving without saying goodbye, she would. She pled silently with the world not to make her choose.

Mercy came gently back to the here and now. Before opening her eyes, and without any hesitation at all, she answered, “Yes.”

Julia began laughing. She laughed on the inhale rather than the exhale, so what emerged was a donkey-like wheeze. With another human, Mercy would have smiled in response, despite the grating noise. With this android, she felt no such inclination. “Shut up,” she whispered under her breath. There was nothing more repulsive to her at that moment than the doctor’s mirth-twisted face.

“I apologize,” Julia said, quieting. “That was insensitive and unprofessional.”

“You’re damn right.” Mercy crossed her arms over her chest. “How did you get into my head?” she spat. “It was hardly ethical.”

Julia looked truly contrite. “I’m sorry for not warning you. This machine,” she gestured at the walls, “has been investigating your mind since you’ve been in this room, using our discussion. It’s called an Intersensitizer, or Marquez Device. It’s painless, and most people can’t even sense the intrusion.” The android paused. “It’s an amazingly subtle piece of machinery. Also amazingly dangerous, in the wrong hands. No human has ever been licensed to operate it.”

Mercy thought about that for a few seconds. Was her species so untrustworthy? “What does it do?” she asked cautiously.

“In layman’s terms?” The humro scratched at the hematite in the center of her collarbone, a thinking gesture. “The Intersensitizer interprets neurological and subconscious data—flickering thought—and can manifest it linguistically. Or transform it.”

“Memory surgery?” Mercy asked, her throat dry.

“Memory surgery,” Julia assented.

The android turned away and began wrestling with the lower half of the window. Cranking a lever to the right, she jiggled the frame until it slid up. To Mercy’s surprise, there was no screen behind it. The fresh winter air slid into the room unhindered. A gob of snow dropped onto the back of the android’s hand as she settled the frame in place.

“I hope you don’t mind the fresh air,” Julia said, turning back. “I feel like I need it, but let me know when you get too cold.” She paused. “You have a very typical case, you know.”

Mercy stood as well and came over to the window. She noticed for the first time, leaning her head out of it, that the peak of a volcano rose above the forest, purple with crags. Its cone was mired in a noxious haze. Mercy wondered if, as the evening deepened, a finger of lava would begin to blaze from its crater. Bringing her head back just in time to hear Julia’s final sentence, she asked, “Why?”

“Humans tend not to be sensible animals. You will be far happier once this process is complete, and yet you remain conflicted. A large part of you refuses to let go of memories that are only getting in your way, only causing you pain. Perhaps you believe they are essential to the texture of your consciousness. This is fairly typical.”

Mercy leaned against the wall, feeling abrasive. “What, and you—your kind—never feels conflicted, wants two things at once? Personally? Religiously? Ethically?”

“Ah, ethics.” Julia glanced over at the young woman. “You’re getting cold.”

“Not yet, no.”

The doctor smiled gently. “Then let’s examine the topic of ethics, shall we? Do you mind if I lecture?” She walked back to the center of the room and stroked the wall. A belt of sparkling color followed her hand, and it formed into the words, “When you cut me, do I not bleed? When I sleep, do I not have circadian rhythms?”

“Human societies,” Julia began, “make immoral decisions gradually, so gradually that the paradigm of morality shifts to accommodate the change. For example: your culture makes a clear distinction between humans, and my ilk—slaves.” She grimaced and softened the blow. “Servants. Of course, you are more dependent on us than we are on you. You’ve almost…um…” her drawl deepened, “taken us as a guiding light. We are never our own enemies.” She paused, and made sure that Mercy was meeting her eyes. “We would never make a decision that could harm us, just because we can.”

The humro glanced out the window at the snowy forest, in its musky complexity, and her face softened. “This distinction was originally palatable to the liberal-minded because androids were primitive machines that didn’t look or act like independently-sentient beings. Over time, however, the technology grew more elegant, the imitation of humanity more precise. An individual from a pre-android culture would thus see my subjectification to servitude as grossly unethical. But you do not. Your cultural conception of morality, of right and wrong, has evolved in the interim. Do you understand?”

“I do, but I don’t—I don’t know if it’s important.”

“But it is. It’s incredibly important.” Julia looked out the window and resumed the didactic tone. “It was a similar situation three centuries ago in this country with industrial pollution. Were the humans informed, originally, that industry and technology would strikingly damage the eco-balance, they would have been appalled. They would have altered the course of their fate. Unaware of the eventual repercussions, however, your species plunged into a pattern of wastefulness that, by existing, learned to justify itself in your minds. It created a cosmology—a metahistory—to vindicate it.”

Julia’s voice seemed to be gathering power with every word she spoke. “You humans skimmed off a world here, a world there,” she said, “another species excised, another layer of existence removed. Soon this one slender world that was left for you, the city of your own making, would have been gone too. A remarkable number of you were going insane, from pure homogeny.” She rubbed her finger against the polished stone in her collarbone again.

“Some scholars believed that reality, always a relative thing on such an out-of-the-way scrap of the universe, had needed the roots of the plants and the bodies of the birds to anchor it. If you’ll forgive the conceit—it had toppled off of humanity’s head like a headdress.”

“So we stepped in. The androids. The humros were designed by wide-minded factions to protect the overall health of planet Earth. We are caretakers of reality, through being caretakers of natural wildernesses.”

Mercy found her voice. “I don’t think of you as a slave,” she said.

“I appreciate that.” Julia shook her head. “Have you been listening?”

“Yes, I was listening,” Mercy flushed slightly, “and I understood most of what you said. But I don’t know what all of that has to do with me.”

The doctor wrinkled her nose, an undignified gesture. “What you have to understand is that the choice that you have right now would not be a choice for me, because of what I am.” She smiled wryly and spread her arms. “I act for the good of the biosphere. I act for the good of myself, so that I can continue to protect the biosphere. Speaking for the good of the biosphere, it’s in your best interest to make yourself less miserable.”

“Look.” Mercy had begun shivering violently, but she turned over her next words carefully before saying them. “You’re talking as if I…as if I had a choice still to make—but I’ve already made it.” She paused, looking at the tiled floor, then raised her eyes again. “I told you I’m not brave, and that’s true. I don’t have the courage to try and love two men, honorably and without anger, at once. I don’t have the courage to keep going on in misery. And I don’t have the courage to wait for the world to change.”

Julia was silent. Mercy lifted her chin and snorted. “Earlier I called my feelings a passing madness, but maybe…maybe it was a passing sanity, and this is the madness.” She bit her lower lip. “But I’ve made my choice. And I’m tired of the suspense. Can’t we get it over with?” She felt the tightly-held tears trembling on the edges of her eyelids.

“You are cold.” Julia’s voice was accusatory. She stood and wrenched the window shut. A last gust swirled around the room before dying. Mercy had gone to sit on the operating chair, her knees pulled up to her chest, and the doctor came to sit once again in front of her.

“I’m ready,” Mercy insisted again.

“Are you sure?”

Mercy glanced at the android with something like amusement. “Are you conflicted?”

“No. If you’re sure, put your hand here, against the wall—” Julia demonstrated. “Yes, like that, and say the word ‘unequivocation.’ I picked that,” she added quietly, “because there was relatively no chance that anyone would say it by accident.”

Mercy took a deep breath, pushing out her chest. Was this what it felt like to commit suicide? “Unequivocation,” she whispered.

The walls swam to life. She felt the machine casually destroying the barriers around what she thought of as herself. Words whipped through her edges, and then there was almost nothing separating Mercy from the chairs and the television and the window and the humanoid robot memory-technician. And something within her, something even more alien than the knowledge that she must let part of herself die, rejoiced.

No. No! NO! the remainder of her wailed.

Mercy reached inside herself for her own strength: her lack of shame, her articulation. Suddenly, Julia was standing in front of her, blazing, leaving burnt-looking darkness along the seams that her body made with the landscape. Help me! Mercy screamed. To her surprise, the humro woman took her into an embrace, interposing a barrier between Mercy and the machine, where there were hardly any boundaries left. What can I do? Julia asked with a trace of wistfulness.

Mercy whimpered.

Ethically… they thought.

Let go, Julia said.

The android dissolved. Mercy dissolved, like sugar in water.

What was ripped from her: her tenderness for the way Caleb plucked out his hair while thinking; the hope of one day showing him her childhood home; her fierce, relaxed joy that time she’d found him in the starlit city-garden and thought that he was the squash vine; the desire to tell him about how, as a child, she used to carry a glass vial of water in her pocket and pretend it was perfume.

There was some re-knitting, and then the nothingness pulled away in motile tendrils. The first awareness Mercy had was a sudden superconsciousness of the cells in her body struggling, incessantly and meaninglessly, to exist. She came back with the slowness of an aged woman, a traveler who had spent years on the road. Whowhat, she thought drunkenly. Whatwhohow. She jarred open her eyes.

There was no one else in the room. The walls were their same placid green.

The window was gaping again. She dragged herself to it. Wintery air was rollicking through, and had already formed a seal of ice around the edges. She mechanically tugged it closed, and noticed that the snow outside was freshly marked with the tracks of heeled shoes. That must be where Julia had gone.

The door creaked behind her. The petite nurse peeked in and smiled cheerfully. “You’re done, honey.” She bustled in and tugged Mercy’s clothes straight. “Your boyfriend is here. He’s practically charging through the door to see you. He must love you very much.”

A smile broke slowly across Mercy’s face. “I’m a very lucky woman.”

“Yes, yes.”

The nurse led Mercy out of the room by the hand. The girl turned once at the threshold and looked out the window. Catching the swift movement of white clouds along the ridge of the mountain above her, she had for an instant an epiphany of clouds as dreams, circling the world. Then the revelation was gone, leaving her grasping at the words it left behind, collecting them for when she would write them down. Clouds, with their ever-changing, downcast faces, were dreams, or maybe were desires. The inarticulate awe filled up her body like thirst. Clouds molded; clouds changed. Under them, the volcano slept.