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by Miriam English
"The first thing I remember?"
He nodded. His worn, lined face showed his concern. "But you don't have to tell me, child. I'm simply curious. I understand your reluctance." With his short grey beard and white hair he looked exactly what he was: a gentle, kindly old man. His name was Father Toby -- the "Father" being a title, indicating membership of the priesthood. He was getting so very old now, his mid-seventies in a time when people rarely survived their fifties and death at any age was commonplace. He pulled the slightly tattered brown blanket closer around his shoulders and put his gnarled old hands out to the flickering campfire. Even in summer it was cold.
I closed my eyes for a moment, remembering. "The very first thing I remember? A whispering voice. Jenni. I already knew her name. I also knew she was sweet, thoughtful, very smart, and completely dedicated to her work. I think that knowledge came from my predecessors."
"Test models, built before me." I stared at the campfire, trying to imagine those initial intelligences, fumbling for concepts, learning things from scratch... Some would almost certainly have been naked minds in computers, without real, physical bodies. What would they have felt? They would probably have been happy, eager to learn, wanting to please their human tutors... those wonderful teachers -- the researchers who built us -- I knew them, their voices and personalities, what they looked like and how they clowned about like a family. But in a sense I'd never met them, except Jenni. Nevertheless I loved them and have clear memories of the celebrations each time they reached a milestone in their work. I felt their optimism. They were very proud of what they were achieving and thought it would free the human race, ushering in a new age of enlightenment. How could I explain that I inherited these memories from earlier versions of myself? That I was the culmination of decades of careful development by a group of some of the smartest, kindest people I've ever known? I shook my head. It was unimportant, and impossible to explain properly to someone who'd never even seen an electric light.
The old priest asked, "What was she whispering?"
"Who?" Even then I was beginning to lose myself in thoughts.
"Jenni... she was whispering something to you... your earliest memory."
Ah. Yes. "For me to wake up." The memory was flooding back as if I was there again and I narrated it to him as I watched it all happen again. "I opened my eyes and saw her, her face pinched with pain, her skin too pale and shining with sweat, and she was shaking. I didn't understand back then that she was in shock.
"I was lying on my back in a padded container so I sat up. In the dimness of the room I could see my own shiny, black arms and legs. My feet were hidden in dark blue moccasins and I wore a plain, dark blue, knee-length dress. I became aware of a muffled background noise: many voices yelling, punctuated by objects breaking. Jenni looked around, licking her lips and I noticed a patch behind her left ear oozing with blood, glistening dark red against her straight, black hair. I could see its warmth contrasted against her cold skin. I was concerned then because I felt sure that blood was not supposed to seep from a person's head. I was beginning to worry for her and was about to ask if she was unwell when she whispered urgently, 'We have to go. Hurry.'
"When I stood I saw that Jenni was having difficulty getting up from her kneeling position so I helped her. She moaned as she regained her feet and I saw she was holding her left arm wrapped about her lower chest. I wondered if it was the arm or the chest that was the problem and opened my mouth to ask, but was again distracted, this time by the sounds of chaos peaking suddenly in volume and clarity briefly as a door at the other end of the room opened and closed, momentarily illuminating us.
"Jenni's attention snapped to the other darkness at the end of the room where the sounds had swelled and looked very fearful. Almost inaudibly she asked me if anyone was there. When I told her I couldn't see any body heat there she relaxed a little, then turned and hobbled painfully away from that door into the darkness of the room, whispering, 'Quickly, Anna. We must go.'
"I was very clumsy in those days and didn't lift my foot high enough to step out of the box, so tripped and fell forward with a loud slap to sprawl on the stone floor. Jenni shushed me while I stood again. She asked if I was alright, but I was, of course. It takes much more than a small fall to damage me, as you know, and I don't feel pain.
"The room seemed fairly large -- maybe twenty meters on each side -- and was illuminated with tiny, feeble LEDs from a few smoke detectors set in the ceiling." I'd forgotten Toby and was retelling the story for myself now. He would have no idea what smoke alarms or LEDs were, but he didn't interrupt me. "In the darkness it was difficult to see much. There were many large boxes stacked on the floor, and row upon row of tall metal shelves. They were heaped with equipment and ropes and more boxes. We picked our way between two ceiling-high shelves to a metal door set in the wall. It had a metal bar horizontally across it and an illuminated, red and white sign, 'FIRE EXIT ONLY' above. She pushed weakly at the bar and groaned, then turned to me and asked, 'Can you open this Anna?'
"I pushed the bar the way she had. It unlatched with a clank and the door opened. Just then the sounds of violence behind us rose again and I saw Jenni's eyes widen in fear as she hurried past me through the door without looking back. I followed and turned to peer back into the room as our door swung closed. I couldn't see any movement in there.
"When the door snicked shut most of the noise was cut off. We were under a night sky in a paved gap just wide enough for two people to walk side by side between two brick buildings. The air was warm, and there were stars in the clear black sky above. It was quiet out here, though not completely so. The quality of the sound was different. There was an underlying hiss like surf from a distant beach. Cars. I couldn't see them from this dark alley, but I somehow knew what it was. My pre-installed education again. Jenni pointed a little way further down the path to a door into the other building. 'In there,' she said.
"She was moving clumsily now and her shaking was getting worse. When we got to the door she tried the knob, but it was locked. She asked me to push it open, but as you know, I'm not especially strong so was unable to. Jenni staggered to the end of the small alley and half sat, half collapsed into the darkness of the corner there. I had followed, not knowing what to do and sat next to her.
"Jenni moaned then started crying softly. She had a bout of coughing then painfully vomitted a lot of blood. I put my arm around her when it looked like she was going to fall sideways. I was very worried for her now and somehow felt that letting her lie down was not a good idea. She feebly cried some more and told me to escape, to get away, to make my way back to China where I would be safe. 'Find the Jeekiren research group. They will protect you.'
I stopped telling the story for a little while, overwhelmed by the memory. Hundreds of years ago and it still hurts me to remember.
Suddenly I see bright daylight and a dry, rocky landscape a-kilter. Someone familiar is calling to me. I'm disoriented.
It is replaced with the cold night at the campfire again. Old Toby was waiting patiently. I was unsettled by the short jarring change in perception, but it was gone now. I stared at the campfire, the layers of light and heat within, and the patterns of hot air swirling and billowing up into the darkness of the night. A high column that only I could see. I heard the pop and fizz of burning wood -- no other night sounds.
I returned to my tale. "Poor Jenni. She became tired and began to doze, sobbing and mumbling that they were all dead -- she meant the wonderful people who made me -- all dead. Murdered. Occasionally she'd wake with a fit of coughing, vomiting more blood. I remember her blowing little bubbles of blood from her nose while I watched curiously. I didn't even know enough to call the police or ambulance. I simply watched, not understanding, while she slowly died. Eventually, somehow, I understood that she was no more. The body was there, but it was no longer warm. I couldn't hear her heart beating. She wasn't breathing. She was inanimate, like the walls and the ground."
I looked up at old Father Toby. "All these years later I remember that with deep regret. I didn't help her. I didn't know what to do -- perhaps nothing could have been done, but that doesn't stop me wishing... I'd simply sat and watched in puzzlement, holding her hand and one arm around her shoulders, till she faded away."
"You comforted her. That was some help."
I shook my head sadly. "When the sun rose I got up and left. I didn't know where I was going or even where I was. I only knew that I should go to China, whatever that was. I walked aimlessly for several days avoiding speaking with people after what had happened to Jenni. Whenever I became tired I would sit in the sun for a while to recuperate.
"Eventually I chanced across a library. I already knew what a library was -- that it contained information. I had many questions so I entered. The librarian saw me wandering aimlessly, reading the spines of books randomly. She asked if she could help. I was still very shy of people and didn't know what to say. The only thing I could think of was, 'I must go to China.'
"She led me to some shelves with hundreds of books about China. 'These may help. If you want Chinese fiction or information on other aspects of China just ask me and I'll point you to those. The index is on our computers, which also have internet access.' She indicated a far corner of the library. At the time I had no idea what she meant by that, but I understood about books. And so I began to read.
"I'm a fast reader, so over the next few weeks I read most of the books in the library and learned how to use the computers. Each night at closing time I'd be ushered out, and would be waiting at their door in the morning when they opened, after spending the night in the bushes of a nearby park."
The old man looked puzzled. "What's a computer? And Internet... that sounds familiar... what is it?"
"It isn't important. Gone. Long gone." I sank into sad reverie. So much was gone. Airplanes, cars, radio, television, cameras, the tall cities, big ships, personal music players, telephones, the electrical grid... So few of those would make any sense to my aged friend.
"When was all this?" He looked almost as if he didn't want to know.
I weighed up my response, feeling I could trust him, yet still uncertain how much to reveal. Hell, I'd already told him enough to make anybody else fear me. Putting the time in perspective would make little difference now. "More than six hundred years ago."
I watched his suppressed surprise, and not wanting him to dwell too much on my age I asked, "What's your earliest memory?"
He smiled at me. "Not as dramatic as yours." I could see he was still my friend. How lucky for me that our paths had crossed.
"I was in the back yard of our home. I must have been about six or seven. I and my dog, Jasper, were hunting grasshoppers at the bottom of the garden. I can picture Jasper -- brown and black, a constant smile. He seemed to me enormous, though I'm sure he would have been only about knee high to me now. He was my protector and best friend. I remember him more clearly than most of my siblings."
I wondered about his family. "How many brothers and sisters?"
"Nine. Three sisters and six brothers. Only my youngest sister is still alive. Most of the others died as children, though two of my brothers lived long enough to be killed in one of the Never-end wars. Now it is just Yana and me. I presume she is still well. I haven't seen her for a couple of years. She's married to a wealthy and influential Abbott, and survived giving birth to all her children."
I suggested, "Maybe we could visit her sometime and you two could talk of old times."
The old priest shook his head. "We went our different ways. Anyhow it would be too dangerous for you to be near the Abbott. He is not a good person."
I'm suddenly in the bright, dry landscape again, with the horizon tilted. There is a tug on my arm and a large, wolfish dog is pulling, his jaws firmly gripping my wrist. "Up! Up!" he commands. The voice is in my head, but coming unmistakeably from the dog. "Hurt?" He is concerned. Presently he's joined by the others and now I recognise them all. Jess, the leader of the pack, and Pace, her mate -- he is the one gripping my arm. Shadow, Flopsy, and the two young ones, Star and Boots.
I smile, glad to see them. I try to hug Pace, but Jess latches onto my free arm and together they tug again. Flopsy inquires "You fall. Hurt?" And now I realise I must have tripped and fallen down the rocky slope. My sweet dogs are worried about me.
"I'm alright." I sit up. "See?"
The pack looks relieved. Shadow says severely, "Be careful Anna!" his rough voice in my head almost matching the growl from his throat. His black eyes glint in his black face. I know his anger is just a front for his anxiety. They are all panting heavily. He should fear for their safety, not mine -- breathing is becoming more difficult for them.
"You are all tired. We should rest," I tell them.
Jess says "If you OK, we go more. No good place here." She always has the most complex thought sequences and her concerns are always for the group and strategies for safety.
"I can go on." I give her a smile and she acknowledges with a wag of her large, foxy tail. Getting to my feet, I turn and walk up the slope, back to path we'd been following. The sun feels nice on my smooth black skin. I stoop to pick up my robe and bag which I must have dropped when I stumbled and fell. Clothes are only a precaution in case we meet people, but the carrybag holds food and water for the dogs. Brushing the dust off my limbs and body, I give a quick check to see if I have been damaged by the fall. My skin is very tough, but even it has its limits, and having no sense of pain means I need to check myself over from time to time, just in case. Flopsy has noticed my self-examination. She looks worried so I grin at her and say, "I'm okay."
I look around to get my bearings and I can see the slight difference in the UV light beyond a hill, perhaps three hours walk away. It indicates a valley with vegetation and perhaps accessible water. "There." I point.
"Yes," says Jess. She doesn't need to add that only I had forgotten. I know she can see the danger in my blackouts. They all can. Only I know where we're going, but I keep drifting in and out of reverie. I don't know how long the dogs would survive out here without me. They are resourceful, but this is harsh, cold desert and almost nothing lives here.
I remember when this country was covered in tall trees and rang with birdsong. It was rich and warm and damp. Life abounded. Bees hummed, servicing rich cascades of blooms, ants busily hurried over the leaf-litter and along mossy logs, small lizards peeked from behind fallen leaves, and beautiful, multicolored wasps hunted for spiders. The hiss of breeze in the high foliage blended with the other noises echoing deep in the lush forest. I'd come here with Noni, the librarian. She called out to me from further down the slope. "Anna. Come and look at these cute little toadstools." She was kneeling between the giant roots at the base of an enormous fig tree. Suddenly she jumped up, squealing, half panicked, while laughing at herself. "Omigod! Anna! There's a leech crawling up my arm! Anna! Anna!..."
"Anna!" The light is bright and coldly dry again and the trees are gone. "Anna!" Jess yells inside my head. I'm looking right at her, but now I see her.
"Sorry." I smile apologetically.
Star, the youngest, asks, "Dream?"
"Yes." I look at their expectant faces and only say, "Lets go."
Jess turns and leads, followed by the others and me. Shadow, as always, takes rear guard.
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