Keeping Time first appeared in Kazka Press, November 2013.
The mantel clock kept its own time. It was fussy, too, in the way old clocks sometimes are, refusing to work when wound in a way it found unacceptable. Because of this, in each generation, the task fell to either the youngest or oldest member of the household.
Maisey was five when her grandmother showed her how to wind the clock. She bounced on the balls of her feet, her fingers itching for their turn. She’d warm the brass key in her palm, the way her grandmother did. Every evening they’d clean the old clock with a soft cloth and lemon-scented polish.
“Pay attention,” her grandmother would say. “It will soon be your turn.”
“When, Grandma, when?”
Her grandmother chuckled. “Not soon enough for your father.”
But when Maisey’s turn finally came her feet no longer bounced. After the funeral, she dragged a chair through the gathering, cutting off words about her grandmother–some soft, some less so–and clambered up to reach the clock on the mantel.
“Maisey!” Her mother’s voice cracked, its edges so sharp; if it were a real thing, you could cut someone with it.
“I promised Grandma,” Maisey said.
In the middle of murmured condolences and her mother’s sobs, she pulled out the key and wound the clock.
When her father retired, Maisey offered the key to him. But he had too many golf games–and then, too many back problems–to bother with an old clock. Her mother spent so much time canning tomatoes (which no one ever ate) and volunteering (which gave her a headache) to remember the old timepiece gathering dust on the mantel.
So Maisey dug out a chain from her jewelry box and hung the key around her neck. The clock ticked on, grateful for the gentle touch of Maisey’s fingers. When she packed the car for college she placed the clock in last, belting it into the front passenger seat.
She went through three roommates until the campus housing department found one who didn’t mind the faux mantelpiece taking up half their dorm room. After one too many broken hearts Maisey let each perspective boyfriend wind the clock at least once. In the end, she picked the man with the lightest touch and most nimble fingers. She learned there were advantages to this beyond winding clocks. When she graduated she took him, the faux mantelpiece, and the clock.
Together, they built a life.
When at last her granddaughter was born, a girl whose eyes shined each time she heard the clock tick, Maisey knew her own time was drawing near. These days, she polished the clock more often, fussed over its placement on the mantel.
“We need to spruce you up,” she’d say. “Can’t have you looking your years–not like me.”
The wood casing gleamed in the light. When little Tessa pressed a finger against its side, she gave Maisey a delighted smile.
“Oh, Grandma! It’s warm.”
It always was, this old clock, warm and constant.
“You have always been my loyal companion,” she told it on the day she loosened the chain from around her neck.
Einstein once said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” But what if, for the briefest moment, she could defy that rule–and even Einstein himself–by passing on the key before passing on herself? When Tessa turned five, Maisey presented the key to her, chain and all, and hovered while the little girl wound the clock for the first time.
And yes, there it was, her life, all of it, from her own grandmother’s death, the scrape of the chair across the floor, sharp braces against her lips, the whisper of taffeta prom dresses, text books weighing down her arms. Timothy on bended knee, the mantel and clock behind her, as if peering over her shoulder. On it went, in one great wash through her blood–all of time, all her life, all at once.
“What now, Grandma?” Tessa asked.
“Keep it well, my dear,” Maisey said, “keep it well.”
That night, the clock stopped ticking.
The afternoon of her grandmother’s funeral, Tessa dragged a chair across the floor and scrambled up to the mantel. She turned the key once, twice. Tessa inhaled lemon-scented dust, then held her breath. Behind her the air shook. She turned, saw her mother, whose body trembled with sobs. Tessa jumped from the chair and threw her arms around her mother.
From the mantel, something shifted inside the clock. A single tock shuddered through its wood casing. Then, once again, the old clock started keeping its own time.
The light was the brightest thing she had seen. She lowered her goggles over her eyes and made sure her pack had sunscreen for her skin, a breakershield for sand and debris, and empty space for what she would bring back. The humans behind her, still deep within the protection of the underground tunnel, wore gas masks and shielded their eyes with covered arms from the toxic atmosphere. They waved and she remembered that was a gesture of saying goodbye—or hello—but given the circumstances, she assumed they were giving valedictions. She waved back, her shoulder whirring where flesh met her metal frame.
The metal grate of the door to the underground closed with a final gear-ridden thump. The wind whistled in her ears, bringing the dust of fifty homeless years across her face. The human part of her liked the warmth of the sun; the metal part switched to solar power storage and the thousands of intricate metal wires that connected her harvested brain to muscle, fiber, metal, and plastic tissues propelled her body forward. A cracked road ran as far as her eye could see. Damaged, fallen partway down so she had to cock her head sideways to read, a sign reflected green and white:
LAS VEGAS 72 SALT LAKE CITY 493
All around her was the decaying landscape of a desert. Dust devils and sandstorms climbed higher than she could see. Soil, loosened by toxicity and time, created a storm that touched the top of the sky to the north; an orange-yellow wall of swirling particles moved toward her. In the other direction was the ruined rubble of mountains under a gray sky. Weeds speckled the landscape and the caw of vultures made her look up, their shadows darkening her face.
They were the only living things capable of dealing with the fatal sky.
The baked black asphalt under her feet smoked as she walked. She realized that the shoes her humans had given her were melting. More curious than anything, she peeled them off, watching as long, thin lines of spindly melted plastic danced in the wind.
“Hope,” she said, the word immediately catalogued along with the emotion to take back to base. “Last exhibited by Montrose, Alastair B. of the Matsumi Hall at approximately three hours after third tinnubation on the left heel of a black tennie; Montrose, Alastair B. hopes for my successful return with news of the outside world. I shall endeavor not to disappoint.”
She threw the shoes away and watched for a minute while they boiled under the sun, then started walking. They had been a gift from Alastair, a boy in the Matsumi Hall where she spent most of her time. He hadn’t wanted her to go and the shoes were to remind her with every step to come back home. They had been a gesture, but were hardly a necessary one. She had metal legs that sprouted in the opposite direction of a human knee and crouched on three long, backward-curving toes, allowing her to run and jump great distances. Shoes, she reasoned, had been his way of saying goodbye, like the older humans having waved to her.
The last of the psychic reverberation from her hand faded as the dust storm to the north bore down on her. Her vision through the goggles became littered with old bones. Every once in a while she would come across an actual body, bleached in the sun and stretched out in death: limbs twisted at unnatural angles, mouth splayed open farther than jaws could crack. Even though no flesh remained, save for a few mummified individuals, she could tell they died painfully. And alone.
Her first prerogative was to find shelter. Even though her metal parts had been coated with a sealant and protectant, the parts of her harvested from organic tissue would need more than sunscreen to protect them from the abrasive, caustic clouds of superheated chemicals and debris. Barring an appropriate shelter, she was to construct one for herself out of her breakershield and any debris she could find on her way. In the distance along the side of the road she could see the ruins of a building; she’d just have to get there before the storm.
She ran, a loping stride that took her farther than she thought possible. Before this she had been shorter, on a small platform with wheels, capable of navigating through the underground tunnels with ease. They had made the new legs for this expedition. Her mind clicked through all of the pictures her humans had retrieved from before the winds, and when she found a suitable match, her left eye ran through the history—as much as they had recovered—of what exactly it was she was seeing.
An old sign lay toppled over sideways: UNLEADED $4.23. The windows had all been broken and most of the shelves ransacked. Whatever was left over had been corroded by the toxic atmosphere. Bags of food were nothing more than melted and charred plastic containers resolidified into garish lumps; liquids had burst in their refrigerators and the spray had long since discolored and evaporated, leaving stains; the floor was sticky with unnamable sludges.
She walked through the broken doorway and over fallen shelves until she found an intact door toward the back. She twisted the doorknob and was hit by the emotion it had last absorbed.
“Desperation. Last exhibited by Bly, Francis M. fifty years ago at approximately two hours before the first tinnubation, three months after the First Oxidation. He was desperately trying to find some gas for his car in order to drive his family deeper into the desert, where he thought they would be safe from the metal storm.”
Inside of the office—the door said EMPLOYEES ONLY—she found the remains of a human male wearing a shirt whose colors matched the building’s façade. She touched the nametag just above a small hole in his shirt.
“Relief. Last exhibited by—“ she looked at the nametag CHRIS, “Webber, Christopher, fifty years ago at approximately one hour and forty five minutes before the first tinnubation, three months after the First Oxidation. He was relieved that he would die a quick death instead of what he had been seeing on the news.” She could only assume he had been killed by Bly, Francis M. in his search for gasoline.
The whistling of the wind picked up and she heard the tinkling of debris as it hit the broken glass and began to invade the store. She pulled the door shut, took Chris’s shirt off his desiccated body—his head lolled sharply to the side after she disturbed it—and stuffed it in the crack under the door. While she waited for the storm to abate, she took the sunscreen from her pack and started applying it to her face, her left arm, and the back of her right hand. Nothing else was flesh. She turned her solar auxiliaries back into organic consumption and began to eat what remained of Chris’s body. Thanking him for his kindness, she closed her eyes out of decency as she cracked into a femur bone.
When the storm was over she pulled Chris’s shirt from under the door, shook it out, and placed it back onto the chair with his remains. She closed the door after herself as she left the gas station. She scanned the rest of the store to see if there was anything her humans needed back at base. Stored in her memory was a very specific list of things to retrieve if she could: fuel, water, knowledge of other survivors, books. None of those things were here. She placed her goggles down over her head and had just stepped on a broken piece of glass that crunched under the weight of her metal foot when a shelf next to her exploded in a cloud of shredded particle board and nails. A piece raked by her face but didn’t penetrate her skin. She cocked her head, looking at what remained of the shelf and then back the way the projectile had come.
“Yes? Is someone there?” she asked into the air. “My name is Borr. May I have yours?”
Another bullet whizzed past her and struck a refrigerator to her left. The remaining glass spiderwebbed but remained in its frame.
“I am required to tell you that if you continue to use force upon me, I am prepared to defend myself.”
She was only allowed to harm a human being if she felt she was in danger of being damaged beyond repair; even then, she was never allowed to kill, just incapacitate and maim. As another bullet rushed by her and she took cover, she knew that if she were hit, she would be unable to retrieve the items desperately needed by her humans. She flexed her legs and waited for her attackers to show themselves. She knew how valuable ammunition was out in the aboveground wastelands; they would only waste so much before coming to look for her.
The desk that used to hold the—her mind clicked through lost knowledge furiously—cash register was protected and there was a plastic shield with only a small opening for the transference of monies. With one kick of her leg, the door into the booth burst open and she hunkered down, pushing a large storage cabinet that held—she read the sign CIGARETTES—into the doorjamb.
Three crashes into the store and she saw the tops of three heads rush in. Forcing herself to concentrate on the moment at hand instead of learning about the past, she pushed against a small compartment in her right thigh. A small box containing a hand-held, weaponized air-decontaminant popped out. Her humans used them to suck all of the air out of a room, thus allowing it to detox, but after a lab accident, they realized they could use it for other purposes.
“Tick-tock ‘em over the ridge, will ya?” the largest of the three said. He was wearing a mask and communicated through gestures as well as muffled speech. Where his face and hands were exposed, there were festering wounds that had turned the brackish gray color of bleached skin. He scratched absentmindedly at one near his ear, where the mask strap just grazed it, and it began leaking a dark pus.
“See-four it all, Bast! I’s only jeeped a girl. How rocky can it?” the second one snarled, cradling a gun in his arm and jumping at every sound, be it from falling merchandise or their boots crunching the broken glass. He was younger and, beneath the fogged interior of his mask, Borr could tell that he was missing his nose. There was only a gaping hole that led straight into his nasal cavities.
The third one remained silent and she wondered if the toxicity of the air had damaged his ability to speak. Every few steps he took, he had to stop and wheeze out a breath and squeak and cough until Bast knocked him hard on the back. He lifted his mask for a second to spit out a black, viscous fluid. It hissed where it struck the floor.
“Sixer! Scan the walls, eh?” Bast said, inclining his head toward the office where Borr had found Chris’ body. The one who had remained silent—Sixer, Borr scanned, noting that he seemed reluctant to split off from the group—opened the door while the other two came closer to her. There was a mirror in her booth and she looked at their distorted figures moving closer in the circular reflection. She hoped they couldn’t see her back.
“To me,” Bast growled and the noseless man lumbered over to him. The leader approached the glass barrier, looking through into the booth, but not down to where she was. He pressed his face up against the glass, cupping his hands to cup to get rid of the glare, just as Sixer cried out.
“Deader! Munned deader!” Sixer’s voice was muffled through the walls as Borr noticed that he could speak after all. “And the teethmark’s fresh! What was she doing? Ravagin’s not good for a cannibal. Especially’s a munned deader like him in there.”
Her brain began analyzing the slang, trying to figure out what they were talking about just as Bast’s gun knocked into the plastic, startling her. He growled through the glass, put the muzzle of his gun through the small opening, and started firing. The cigarettes by the door exploded into tobacco and paper, spraying the air with floating bits of fluff. He called for the other man to start trying to force the other door.
“If you don’t desist, I will be forced to defend myself! Please stop!” she yelled, gripping the gun in her hand, looking for the best target.
“The girl’s gonna be a trinket! We’ll have a stolen base in no time!” Bast said, grinning lasciviously. The noseless man began banging on the door with large fists, causing the entire booth to shake.
Borr took aim in the middle of the room, equidistant from both of the men, and fired the trigger just as Bast cracked through the plastic. A small projectile burst out of the muzzle and, when it hit the ceiling, started a chemical reaction that quickly began sucking all of the air within twenty yards. Even the air held in the lungs of the two men rushed to the spinning node in the ceiling. They collapsed instantly.
She stood up, crawled through the cracked glass window, and landed on the other side of the counter, being careful not to land on Bast’s unconscious body. She made sure both of the men still had pulses before taking the gun from the noseless one (“Mischievousness, last exhibited by Croc, five mints ago. He was looking forward to seeing my parts from the inside out”) and a large, wicked knife from Bast’s thigh (“Lust, last exhibited by Bast, approximately five mints ago. He was fantasizing about raping me”). She was just about to walk out of the store when she heard the cocking of a gun behind her.
“Don’t even cog ‘bout winding out of here,” he said in a shaking voice.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand. These men were attacking me. They are not dead, just incapacitated. My name is Borr. Yours is Sixer. His was Johnson, Christopher A.,” she said, pointing with her head into the door. “Do you know of any survivors other than yourself? I was told to disregard janitors.”
“Janitor? Who you calling a janitor?”
“May I turn around? It is discomforting to speak to the wall when I want to make eye contact with you,” she said before she remembered her manners. “Please.” She twisted her feet so that she could see her interlocutor. By the time she could see his face, his gun was on the floor and his jaw was as open as it could be inside of his mask.
“But… but… how?” he stuttered.
Though she may have understood his words, she didn’t understand to what they referred.
“There’s holos of you stitched up everywhere. I’ve been jeepin’ you on every wall and crevice since they gave me a mask. Who are you?”
“Holos? You mean holograms? Holograms ceased functioning at the end of the Second Oxidation, nearly forty years ago. You do not look like you are over the age of seventeen, so the fact that you have seen a functioning hologram is illogical. Please explain.”
“Holos,” he said, looking around for an example and picking up a bag of chips with a picture on it. “A holo, jeep? Only of you.” He pointed toward her and then became unfocused as he saw her bottom half. “But your legs aren’t bots in ‘em holos.”
“’Bot, yes. I am the Bio-Organic Retrieval Robot—Borr for short. And as far as I am aware, I am the only one in existence. My humans used the last of their resources to make me in order to survive this atmosphere and retrieve supplies and information for them.” She cocked her head to the side and examined Sixer. “I have been told to disregard janitors—the gangs that run the deserts, like you—but if you have these holos around, may I ask that you take me to see them? I would be very much obliged. I have been ordered to give anyone who helps me assistance in any way I can. Shall I list all of the things I am capable of doing? I can repair electronic devices, I can go outside without a mask, I can lift upwards of eighty—“
“Can you speak English? I can’t overmake a see-four thing you say. Sound like a bookframe to me.”
Her attention snapped to the north, where another dust storm was rolling in. Sixer looked back over his shoulder to follow her gaze and then to his fallen companions. He sucked on his teeth; it sounded hollow and echoing from behind his mask. He rolled his head, grunted, then pulled on her arm.
“Follow me. That dust’s mighty sized and the one before it was a blinker,” he said, leading her to one of three motorcycles stashed on the side of the sun-baked road. He gave her a helmet that she looked at, flipping through her computer memories until he gestured to her how she should put it on. When she touched the hard skeleton of it, she recognized the signature.
“Apprehension, last exhibited by Burn, Soren, also known as Sixer, approximately twenty mints before last tinnubation. You were apprehensive about the trouble you thought you’d find at the gas station. “
“What in the great cloud are you talking about? How’d you cog that?”
She held up her left hand for him to see. It was flesh colored, but just beneath the skin were a million tiny metal sensors that swam constantly over the swirls in her palms and fingertips, picking up the last psychic residue left by an organic being on whatever she touched. “I retrieve information through psychic reverberation as well.”
“I’m wheeling to face a whipping for bringing you back,” he said, snapping a helmet over his own mask and revving the engine. Within a few seconds they were racing down the black asphalt road, kicking up straight lines of dust that went out in a V behind them.
“Your friends? Won’t they die?” she asked as she looked back at the gas station, now rapidly disintegrating beneath a layer of dust. They were moving faster than she could ever run on her metal legs and she felt a new emotion: exhilaration. She ran through the catalogue in her mind of all of the objects she had ever touched whose surfaces had held that emotion, but came up surprisingly empty.
“Someone you like. Someone who helps you and watches out for you.”
“You mean a mask maker. No.” He spat on the side of the road and pulled his mask back in position. “I weighed Bast an odd or an end. Rescued my life, once. I don’t chit being beholden to anyone. The others will be clean to hear he’s munned.”
They drove for twenty more minutes, the whipping wind tearing away any questions or words she may have had. More emotions flowed from his jacket and his motorcycle. He had been nervous, angry, frightened, but nothing more than those base instincts. She had a sense of self preservation, knew that if she were damaged beyond repair or even damaged too far from the range of her base that she would cease to exist, but she had always felt a sense of belonging with her humans underground. She could feel their closeness to each other, their hope of something better. There was no such feeling in Sixer. The overwhelming emotion that he imprinted upon things was isolation and loneliness. When they arrived at his home, she understood why.
It had once been a large city, the largest in the desert at that time. The long-forgotten name on the sign and her encyclopedic memories let her know that she was entering the place once called Las Vegas, but nothing remained of the brightly colored, constantly moving, dizzyingly distant and fuzzy memories she had stored away in the computer linked to her brain. This place was broken and corroded, littered and scattered. Streets were deserted. Buildings had collapsed and shattered upon the asphalt like the old bones she had seen earlier. The innards of hotels were sheared in half; in some cases she could see the insides of intact rooms, thirty stories up, that were exposed to air, like looking into the terrarium of some exotic creature. She didn’t need to touch anything to know the last emotion they had absorbed: abandonment.
“It makes sense why you would stay here,” she said. “After the Oxidations, when all of the metal helped to turn the atmosphere toxic, most of the more aggressive janitorial clans would stay away from the only place within miles that housed such a collection. If given the right equipment, one could peacefully live here without fear of being raided.”
“My grandrents put their masks on here. Seemed dusty to shift places,” he said, shrugging in the seat. He turned sharply, squealing the tires and leaning his weight into the turn until he flicked on the light and went into a tunnel that had never found daylight again. It had collapsed under the weight of a ruined hotel and the people who remained here had dug out caverns and domiciles in the concrete mess. Passing through slowly—there were always people in the middle of what could be called a very small and antiquated street—she saw women in rags staring at her with eyes that probably had never seen the sun, children squatting in corners with skinny limbs and bulging stomachs, masked men covered in the gray flesh pustules that plagued those who spent too much time aboveground foraging for survival. It was very different from what she was used to, but she had been told stories about what it would be like. What she would have to endure in order to retrieve supplies.
But Sixer had been right: plastered all over the walls were colorful drawings, only barely faded with time, with her face on them. They were exactly the same, from the shape of her face to the color of her eyes, even sometimes her haircut. They stared out with their dead, concrete irises and everywhere they drove—in alleyways, on the sides of the buildings, on fallen lampposts, on the sides of large trucks—she stared back at herself.
It was curious to her. There were no mirrors underground other than the occasional reflective surface, and although she knew what she looked like, it had never occurred to her that there was something worth staring at. The pictures of her were smiling or sad, looking at the viewer or far away, as if seeing something only she could see, through wall brick or even through time. They had the expressions of a lost generation, the one she only knew through the vague glimpses she received through her hand. Borr tried to make her face into the same expressions as they whizzed by and only succeeded in finding something missing in the way she picked up the corners of her mouth or turned down her eyelids. She couldn’t actually feel what the girl had felt before. She could understand emotions, but all she knew was survival, retrieval and curiosity.
When they arrived at a stretch of open road in what used to be the main street, Borr saw what had once been an underpass ahead, covered with the littered debris of a thousand different cars. Sixer stopped the bike, got off, and motioned for her to do the same, then booted down the kickstand and walked past the cars, threading in and out of their collapsed, upside-down, twisted bodies. He motioned for her to follow him into the darkness of the underpass, and when she didn’t—she was too busy marveling at a large tower that looked as if it were swaying in the blustering wind—he pulled her hand.
“Worry, anxiety, regret, excitement, fear—I mean,” she said, pulling her hand away. “I apologize. When making direct contact flesh to flesh, I receive all of the emoter’s emotional states at once, and oftentimes it is confusing for both me and the emoter. Where are we going? This is not what I am supposed to be doing. I doubt there are any supplies or information about other survivors in this tunnel. Thank you for giving me a ride on your motorcycle. I will depart to search for water, now.”
“Borr,” he said, “for as well as I can cog, someone loved you so heavy that he went and holoed and stitched you all over the walls. I’ll cycle you back, but don’t you itch to jeep? It’s the only important place that’s squeaky anymore.”
“Squeaky?” she asked and began to think of all of its possible definitions. “Making a high pitched or shrill noise; making a narrow pass or completing something within a small margin; confessing to a crime—”
“No, no,” he said and pointed to a nearby ruined hotel that looked like it had spilled its innards in an implosion. “Dusty.” He pointed to a nearby picture of her graffitied onto the side of an overturned truck. “Squeaky. You cog? Looks like a thing of port—important—something to divine there’s still rain out there somewhere.” He looked around and found the still-standing building and pointed again. “Squeaky, not dusty. Like a woman or a time from before.”
“You mean beautiful. You think it’s the last beautiful thing here,” she said, nodding.
“And what with your hand,” he pointed and gestured her touching a wall, “you can magnify what I’ve been breathing to find out.”
She was beginning to understand what he wanted her to do. She pulled his hand and led the way into the underpass, wanting the flood of emotions this time as they made contact: “Excitement, exhaustion, desire, and hope.”
They walked through the cars and she had to let go of his hand in order to steer around the cars. Everything she touched was tainted with fear. Everyone who had been in this tunnel had died here when one of the first oxidizing clouds had turned the atmosphere to fire for a few seconds. It had run rampant through the enclosed space and torched everything. Here and there she received an outcry of disgust or sympathy from a worker sent to clean up the bodies. That was back when there was such a thing as burying the dead. She had been taught to use them for fuel.
The cars further into the tunnel were blackened, and even years later, the faint acrid smell of smoke still clung to the cracked concrete. There was no light up ahead—the underpass had caved in a hundred yards from where they were—and Borr began to wonder what Sixer found so beautiful in this tunnel. He placed a hand on her shoulder, telling her to stop, and started searching around his belt for something. She could barely see, but heard him as he finally made a sound of discovery.
An eerie blue light glowed. Within a few seconds, her eyes latched onto it and everything around her began to light up. Covering all of the walls were intricate murals that had been scrubbed clean after the fire. It was a large painting that filled the tunnel walls, reaching up and around the entire cave, making Borr wonder how someone had even gotten up there in the first place to paint and clean.
“I squeaked ‘em up,” Sixer said and made a gesture like he was moving a cloth back and forth.
“You cleaned the soot off?”
“Her face is the only thing to jeep that’s not broken.” He wasn’t looking at her any longer, but at the curling arms of the woman as she opened herself up to the night sky, stars exploding out of her and decorating the entirety of the tunnel. She was laughing here, weeping there, looking up at the stars and rearranging them. Her hair was water, smoke, fire, a gathering of people. One image turned into another until Borr thought she would cry. She knew tears because of smoke and smell, but never because of beauty.
“Well?” Sixer said, visibly anxious in the pale blue light that lit up his face from below, casting strange shadows that made him look even younger than he was. “Print it.” When Borr didn’t do anything, he took her wrist in his hand and pressed it against the cheek of one of her painted reflections.
“Depression,” she whispered, “last exhibited by Orson, Andrew C. approximately forty years ago before the Final Oxidation, at four hours before third tinnubation. He was depressed because this woman had died and it was the last time he was going to see her body.”
“Andrew Orson?” Sixer asked, releasing his grip on her wrist.
“Do you recognize the name?”
“Just keep printing,” he said and allowed her to wander down the tunnel and touch all of the artwork that littered the brick walls.
“Elation, despair, anger, and hope.” She put her hand out and looked back at Sixer. “That is one thing about humans I will never understand. I see all of these emotions that are left on objects, projected through them as if they were people. I’ve seen useless things treated better than the very people humans claim to love. But the one emotion I have found, even after all your race has been through, is hope.”
“Yeah, hope. I wouldn‘t even know the word if I hadn‘t been taught to stitch up words. Grandrent, before the winds, was—what’s the word?—a lib— libr—”
“Librarian?” Borr suggested and Sixer nodded before looking back to the murals. His face was anxious.
“What’s the tan line about the woman?”
“From what I have received, Orson, Andrew C. loved this woman very much, but she became very sick.” As she narrated, she began walking around and showing the different versions of the girl. At the end of what they could see of the tunnel was her picture, full-cheeked and colorful, glowing with a light. As Borr walked, the colors dimmed and grayed out and the woman became thinner until half of her face was a skeleton and the other an old crone. “She died, but the man was a cryobiologist—a scientist—and he preserved her body.” There was a picture of the woman sleeping in a glass coffin with a man leaning over her, a sword in his hand. Borr’s memory clicked and found the fairytale of Snow White. “When he found that the world was ending, he started drawing her so he wouldn’t forget her face because access to her body had been denied. Without knowing what was going to happen to her after the building she was in collapsed and the atmosphere turned toxic and burned, he wanted a way to remember, to tell others.” She opened up her arms and found the center drawing on the ceiling that showed the girl waking up and radiating light, as if she had become a new sun in the sky.
“Then how’d you get her face?” Sixer asked, wiping a bit more of the dirt off a nearby grimy patch with his sleeve.
“My humans told me they’d found many bodies suitable in the rubble for harvesting, but one of them in particular was remarkably well-preserved. When I awoke, I had none of the memories of this human I had once been—there needed to be room for the processors and interfacers, and I think now that they chose this body because none of them knew me. All of the other candidates had been mothers or brothers, husbands or children. I was a nameless new face for a nameless new world.”
“So you don’t divine this Andrew man?” Sixer asked, staring directly into her face and then back up to the doubles all staring down upon them.
“When I first awoke, I knew nothing. There was light, there was cold, there were faces, but I didn’t know anything, not even a way to communicate beyond gestures and small sounds. I assume that if humans remembered the first images that appeared to them when they were born, it would be something similar. But the world at that moment was only as big as what my eyes could see and I didn’t have much of a body, or they hadn’t connected it so I could feel or move anything. I was learning simply by being.
“What I did to that body that you found in the gas station, Chris—that was how I learned about emotions and history. Back then, it wasn’t just confined to my hands because they wanted me to be able to process as much information at once as possible and the only reliable source of fuel was corpses. The dead bodies were just piled up, they were running out of room to bury them, and everyone was afraid of disease. They could not open the doors to allow me to use solar power, so I was built to consume the dead. It was only after, when there was too much input—like when I touched your bare skin—that they confined the psychometry to my left hand.
“Every emotion, everything I know came from those people and they are all catalogued inside of me, from the bodies I consumed to the objects I touched. Jacobs, Emily A. taught me about happiness. Her most vivid memory was Christmas morning—it was a holiday long ago. Schofield, James T. taught me curiosity when he sat and stared at a praying mantis—it’s a type of insect—for fifteen minutes. And from Orson, Andrew C., I learned about love. It wasn’t until now that I could really understand what that concept was. All of these emotions I knew about, could recognize and imitate, but now I understand.”
“Seems to me,” Sixer said, taking her hand and leading her out of the tunnel and back into the harsh, toxic world beyond the rubble and collapsed buildings, “that you’ve already unmasked what’s important for your humans, as you say. Maybe they’re the ones who buried it, looking for an after today instead of a before today. You don’t retrieve things, like your name says. You breathe ‘em. You create ‘em.”
They stayed next to the underpass, staring at the darkening sky, until the small flashlight Sixer had with him burned down into nothingness and they were left alone in the dark.
She felt her face, comparing the curve of her cheek with the burned-in image from the tunnel. If only she could use her hand to understand what she was feeling right now. If she could catalogue it, reference it, save it in her memory, then she wouldn’t have to figure out what to do now. But only the texture of the fine hairs on her cheek translated into thought; nothing else accompanied it.
Her humans had made her for the purpose of retrieving the objects they could not. Sixer, someone she had been told to ignore, had told her—shown her—that she was more.
She heard Sixer move in the darkness and then felt his hand upon hers.
“Acceptance, kinship, relief,” she said softly. “Not love, but close.”
She remembered Alastair, the little boy who had given her the shoes, and suddenly knew what she had to retrieve.