By Emily Gilman
6 December 2010
Eyes closed, John Murray shut out the rocking of the train and thought back twenty years, trying and failing to summon a clear image of Dolores. He hadn't kept a photograph, worried at the time that if someone found him, found out what he'd done and why, a photograph might lead them to her, and the last thing he wanted was for her to get caught in the fallout from his brief life of crime. He knew it was the right choice, even after so long, but damn, what he wouldn't give for a photograph. What if he didn't recognize her?
He opened his eyes a crack, just enough for the blur across from him to sharpen into another passenger, and he smiled. Lily was, to all appearances, a twenty-something-year-old girl staring dreamily out the window: the fact that she was even sitting here on a train was proof that she could pass for human. Her skin was formed from a polypropylene web; the subcutaneous processor network bled enough heat to make her skin warm. He'd even designed her facial structure, coloring, and (to the extent possible) body type so that she resembled both of her parents.
He'd done a good job, he thought; Dolores would be proud. Proud that he'd done as she'd asked, but prouder still if she could have heard the conversation he'd had with Lily back in, oh, February:
"Whatcha lookin' at, Lil?"
"Those trees covered in ice. They're beautiful."
"Yes: the ice is a crystalline, inanimate, translucent solid shaping itself around living cells, appearing to completely enclose the tree but without killing it. It creates the illusion that the ice has become part of the tree." A pause, and then, "Also, there is a contrast between the relative darkness of the bark and the reflected light off of the ice, and I believe such contrast is supposed to be aesthetically pleasing, isn't it?"
John closed his eyes again. He could no longer picture Dolores's face as well as he'd like, but he remembered one moment perfectly: her head on his chest, and his arm around her waist, and the feeling of their fingers interlaced so that he had to concentrate to tell which fingers were his and which were hers and he couldn't concentrate anyway because her hair smelled amazing and then, just when he was thinking about kissing her, she said, "Promise me one thing, John."
"What?" he had asked, not wanting to talk but forcing himself to pay attention.
"The files and programs you stole, how you said you could rewrite the algorithms to be more innovative or autonomous or whatever it was? If you're just going to make a machine out of them, a thing, then you should destroy it all and walk away."
He had pulled back from her, confused why she would bring this up now, and in remembering suddenly he could see her face clearly again, for the first time in almost twenty years.
"They wanted to make machines," she said. "Weapons, specifically, but from what you've said, they probably had a hundred different ideas of what to do with them if they ever made them. If you just recreate their work, you're nothing but a common thief."
"What do you want me to do with them?" he had asked; thinking back, he suspected that had she asked him to burn the drives right then he would have done it, if it meant that they could keep sitting like this every night.
"If you can make it work . . . make a person. A child. Someone you can love, and get angry at, and fight for or fight with. Don't just make a tool or a toy, and maybe you can redeem what they were trying to do. Keep from becoming them yourself."
"I don't even know if the algorithm could support the complexity of human-like thought, or if mobile hardware could support it—"
"Promise me," she had begged, and he had thought she sounded frightened, so he held her even closer and whispered, "I promise," and in the end she was the one to kiss him.
The train jerked suddenly and John's eyes snapped open. Lily turned to look at him, brown eyes steady but interested and devastatingly focused. "What were you thinking about?" she asked.
John smiled. "I suppose it was the night you were conceived." Lily blinked, and then smiled; puns were the one sort of joke she seemed to enjoy, and these days it usually only took her the time she needed to blink to find any relevant data for understanding them. If only he were as fast—it would probably mean a lot to her if he could understand more of her jokes.
"What were you thinking about?" John asked, sitting up straighter.
Lily paused for a second or two, he thought more for effect than for actual processing time, and answered, "I'm compiling definitions of the words 'mother' and 'saint,' along with any potentially relevant depictions of each."
"Ah." Of course. "Anything I can help with?" Like clarifying that I hadn't meant "saint" as a technical term? he thought but didn't say—he knew by now that Lily would always rather make up her own mind.
Another pause. "Tell me about her again?"
So he did, even though he'd told her hundreds of times before (she could probably tell him the exact count, if he cared to ask). After all, he reminded himself, that's just what dads do.
My father is telling me about my mother. It is the 847th time that he has told me about her (counting as distinct any two comments or conversations separated by at least twenty minutes of silence or of conversation on another topic) and it is unlikely that there will be any new information, but I can devote a fraction of my processing attention to recording, transcribing, and indexing this telling with the last 846 without affecting the other routines I have running. He might say something new or different this time, but even if he doesn't he seems to enjoy telling me about her, and I can process a lot of material in the time it takes him to tell stories much shorter than this.
This account is an experiment: my father suggested that I record a portion of my experience in the form of a narrative or memoir. "We can't just record a performance, save it, and replay that exact recording the way you do, Lil," he told me. "We forget things. We misremember, or remember things differently from each other and there's no objective authority to consult. And we remember things by making connections, creating meaning. By composing. You might learn something, trying to create that kind of a record."
I am programmed to be human, but it is difficult to know what that means when I am the only nonbiological human currently in existence. This experiment should provide me with additional data, and already I have done extensive research into different forms of narrative, diary, and memoir. I have not, however, experienced any particular enjoyment in recording this so far. Perhaps I'm doing it wrong.
A composition requires a theme, or temporal boundaries that mark the subject of the composition as something apart from what came before and what comes after. I am beginning my composition now because right now I am on a train with my father, and we are going to see my mother, whom I have never met. My father tells me that, although he created me, I was first my mother's idea. He tells me that she is sure to love me very much. And he tells me that she is a saint; as she is still alive and he has never spoken of her performing miracles, I suspect he means only that she is a good person, even a holy person.
I have compiled various definitions of "holy," but the result is still inadequate: I can say what it means, but I do not understand it. I think perhaps it's like "love," in that respect. I would like to love my father, because I know he loves me, and I expect that if I knew what it meant I could find a way to do it.
If my mother both loves me and is holy, perhaps she can help me understand what these things mean.
In any case, this trip is the correct sort of focused time apart about which one might write a structured, artistic account. I am beginning it here on the train, and I expect I will finish it on another train whenever it is that we return home. For now I will save this account so far; I have a lot of data to process if I'm going to have a useful knowledge base by the time we arrive.
He saw her even before he'd stepped down onto the platform; if he'd been the sort of man who believed in such things, he might have taken it as a sign. Instead, he forced his gaze down toward his feet and finished his careful descent from the train. Turned and offered a hand to Lily, who was remarkably mobile but still sometimes had trouble with the kind of jump she would have to make from stairs to platform.
As he started to walk, he saw her moving at the edge of his field of vision and felt a thrill of fear and memory. He'd gotten used to the idea that he was a wanted man, and Lily was a part of that life now. But it had been a long time since there'd been someone else in his life, someone to follow him at a distance and meet up with him only after he'd cleared the building. He felt like he'd swallowed a lump of lead, but he forced himself to keep walking. They were in no more danger than they had been in five minutes ago. He would see Dolores soon enough. Just keep walking like it's nothing.
Outside the sun shone summer-bright on a city street that had changed just enough to be jarring. Storefronts had changed their signs, buildings had changed their purposes, but the overall shape was exactly as it had been when he left. The cars were different, too—nicer than their counterparts twenty years ago had been. . . .
"John?" He'd been turning a slow circle to look at everything, but at the sound of his name he pivoted abruptly—
Her hair was longer and streaked with silver, and the laugh lines around her eyes had deepened but so had the worry lines in her forehead. She took a tentative step toward him and he realized that she only came up to his chin—he'd forgotten how short she was. But still beautiful.
He smiled, and she smiled back, and then she said, "I almost didn't recognize you through that beard."
"Of course, I forgot I didn't have—"
They hugged briefly, awkward because of the height difference and his suitcase that would fall over if he didn't keep one hand on it for balance, and a nonsensical voice in his head observed, "See? When you don't use languages you lose them."
"And is this . . . ?" Dolores glanced back and forth from Lily to John; John nodded, and a smile spread slowly across her face.
"Hi," she said quietly. "I've been waiting a long time to meet you." She didn't try to hug Lily—which, all things considered, was probably just as well—but she did reach up and, with just her fingertips, brush a few stray strands of (nano-fibrous) hair out of her daughter's face.
Lily smiled, and tucked the hair firmly behind her ear. Good girl! John thought, and realized he was grinning like an idiot, but he didn't care. He'd forgotten the way Dolores shone when she was caught up by something beautiful, and this was something beautiful he'd made. For her.
"Anyway," Dolores finally said, "my car's over here."
They passed the next hour or so in companionable silence—nobody felt like trying to shout over the air rushing in through open windows, and Dolores never would close a window unless she absolutely had to. When they arrived at their destination, though, as soon as John stepped through the door, the earth seemed to shift under his feet. Like the street by the train station, the house was familiar under a veneer of odd changes. The plain wooden table just inside the door was the same one he remembered, but the irregular clay bowl into which Dolores dropped her keys was new. So was the silver-edged mirror hanging across from the door, and the light blue paint of the hallway leading into the living room. He drifted down the hall, noting the two landscapes that he remembered and a woman's portrait that he didn't. Entering the living room, he recognized old bookcases whose contents had been rearranged.
And there was Lily, face blank this time as Dolores told her to make herself at home. Beyond them, John could see the couch where he and Dolores had spent many an early evening, sometimes ending the night in her bedroom upstairs, and sometimes not even bothering to travel that far. The warm memory made him feel old and awkward and out of place.
He blinked, and found himself looking into brown eyes. Laugh lines suit her, he thought. Is that why the grey doesn't make her look old? "Yeah, sorry."
"I was just explaining to Lily that there's the couch and there's an inflatable mattress I can set up on the floor, in my room or in the office or down here. Your choice."
"Um. . . ." He ran a hand through his hair and thought for a moment. "I can sleep on the air mattress, but Lily needs something sturdier—she weighs a bit more than your average refrigerator."
Dolores smiled. "I noticed." John frowned, puzzled, and she breathed a laugh before explaining, "Car's not quite an antique yet, but it's old enough you notice when it's carrying more weight than usual."
"I can stay on the couch," Lily said, startling both of them.
Dolores frowned. "Sweetheart, you don't have to do that, I've spent enough nights on this couch—"
"But I don't sleep," Lily pointed out. "I don't need privacy. And there's an outlet right there. I can't stay on the air mattress and there's no reason for Mother not to stay in her room."
Dolores froze at the word "Mother" and John could have kicked himself for not thinking about how that would sound to her, but it was too late now. In any case, Lily didn't seem to notice and just continued, "Or I could stay in the office, but I don't know if office furniture could support me and I would certainly break something if I fell."
"Couch is fine, Lil," John said, still watching Dolores. "Better safe than sorry."
Dolores nodded. "I'll get the air mattress."
While she disappeared around the corner John went and let himself drop onto the second-to-last stair to wait. He should've thought this through better—maybe coming here like this was a mistake. Lily needed the practice interacting with someone besides him, and she couldn't have very well come by herself, but just jumping in like this all at once, the two of them. . . .
"Okay, here we go." Dolores reappeared, or half of her did—the other half was pretty well obscured by a large plastic bag. John jumped up and stepped out of the way before she could trip over him. "Never could get the damn thing to fit back in the box," she said by way of explanation as she passed, and despite his misgivings he smiled. The woman still had a way with words, and he followed willingly up the half-remembered stairs.
My mother is shorter than I am. Her hair is a mix of grey and brown, like my father's, and her eyes are brown, like mine. When she first joins us outside the train station her attention seems focused on my father, but three times I see her eyes turn quickly toward and then away from me. I do not think my father notices, even though he looks only at her from the first time she says his name until she turns her full attention to me.
I do not know how to describe her expression. She is smiling, and her eyes are wide and without tears. Her expression correlates strongly with an expression my father often displays when he looks at me, but there are also similarities with recordings I've seen of individuals observing works of art or participating in religious experiences. As my father says, I am "good enough at the broad strokes, but the details are lost on" me.
I'm not sure at first what Dolores intends to do when she raises her arm, but when she touches my hair it only takes me half a second to decide how to react. I am meeting my mother for the first time and the fact that she is smiling and creating a physical connection to me suggests approval, and so I smile to communicate that I also approve.
I have no reason to approve, but neither do I have a reason to disapprove. Approval is more likely to be the socially appropriate response.
In the car no one speaks, which means that I can devote the time entirely to recording and processing, but it also means I have no verbal communication to help me interpret. This was also true of approximately three-quarters of the train ride, but I did not think about it then and I am thinking about it now. The two obvious changes are the vehicle—a car instead of a train—and the presence of my mother. I am not aware of any difference in my reactions to the social aspect of car rides and of train rides; it is more likely, therefore, that my mother is the relevant variable in this case.
Once we arrive and enter my mother's house she smiles and tells me to make myself at home. I do not know how to react; her house is not at all like my home, which is full of computers and spare parts and piles of my father's notes. My father's forehead is wrinkled but I do not know why he is unhappy, and I do not think I should ask him in front of my mother. This silence is even more confusing than the silence in the car.
Finally, after several seconds, my mother asks me where I want to sleep, and I tell her I don't know. She and my father consult, but as they do I am sorting through the variables to see if I can calculate a solution. They are still debating when I finish, so I say, "I can stay on the couch." My mother protests, but I explain my logic, and my father confirms that it is sound.
I expect him to look pleased, as he usually does when I am able to solve a social problem. Instead the frown returns to his forehead, and I do not know why. Then he and my mother leave, and I do not understand why my father is behaving as he is and I do not know how to interact properly with my mother and I do not know how to "make myself at home" in this place of wood and glass and fabric and empty space. If I could find the right variables I could compute an answer, but I do not know where to begin.
Outside, the fluffy clouds stretched and thickened throughout the day. They had appeared so romantic against all that blue when John had stepped out of the train station, but by late afternoon, the sky was a grey-white blanket, with the sun only a blur of light caught on the wrong side. The air felt heavy and prickly and fluid against John's skin, as though he were swimming in a sea of static.
Inside, John was restless. Tense. The weather was getting to him. Getting to Dolores, too, which only made things worse because it meant they were both irritable and uncomfortable around each other after so long apart. Even Lily looked tired and spacey as she sat near her wall socket and recharged, and John frowned to himself, wondering if he should worry about the environmental effects on her hardware. "First sign of lightning or thunder," he told her, "you unplug, you got that? Better to run down completely and have to recharge your battery than have your entire processor fry and lose you for good."
"I'll stay alert and observe carefully," she promised, otherwise sitting absolutely still at the end of the couch. John watched her for a moment, then grabbed a glass and filled it with ice and tea. If nothing else, drinking it gave him something to do with his hands, and it helped him keep from pacing.
Finally Dolores gave him her Look. "Okay," she said. "You are clearly full of nervous energy, while I am feeling tired and stupid. Therefore: I am going to go take a nap, and while I do that you can go get some things from the store."
"That's not a bad idea," John agreed, relieved to have a purpose but reluctant somehow to leave.
Dolores jotted down a short list and then handed it to him, along with her keys. "You still remember where the gro—"
"Yes, I remember," he interrupted, and they both smiled slightly. He reached out to take the keys from her and got a slight shock for his trouble. "Sorry," they said at the same time, and then John said, "I'd better go." Dolores nodded.
He looked back once as he was leaving—Dolores was just disappearing up the stairs, while Lily sat statue-like on the couch. He thought about reminding her again to be careful of lightning, decided better of it, and hurried out to the car.
He first heard the thunder while picking out cucumber. The small corner store Dolores preferred was small, but even so he was too far from a window to see lightning or tell how far away the storm was. It didn't help that being this far from an exit in this small a store already had him on edge. He took a deep breath, reminded himself that Lily was a big girl, and tried to focus on choosing vegetables.
The lights flickered, and he found himself grabbing things at random, not bothering to check them off the physical list, and hurrying to check out. The woman staring at him from the next line over only made him hurry faster.
John had just finished paying when the lights flickered again and went out, and his heart leapt into his throat even before the woman seemed to start toward him. He wasn't sure later how he got out of the building in the dark; he only knew that he found himself sitting back in the driver's seat of Dolores's car, soaked through and staring confusedly at the bag full of vegetables that he'd somehow remembered to take with him.
Just for a moment, though. Then he turned the key in the ignition, flicked on the headlights, and drove as quickly as he dared into the dim and the rain. He needed to know Lily was safe.
Although the sun does not set for three more hours, the clouds are so thick now that it is nearly dark. I have experienced storms before, but never in a building that was so open to the elements. My mother didn't close the windows before she went upstairs, and now the wind gusts through and causes the curtains to billow. I am trying to decide if I ought to close them when the room suddenly brightens.
"Oh!" my mother says, standing in the doorway. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't," I explain. "I was trying to decide if I should close the windows."
My mother sighs. "We should probably close at least some of them. . . . Yeah, okay, we'll close them, but leave a gap at the bottom."
"How big a gap?" I ask. She looks blankly at me, so I ask, "Two inches?"
"Sure," she says. "That sounds good." I close four windows, sliding them down until there is a two-inch gap remaining; my mother is less precise in her measurements, but I don't say anything to her about it. They are, after all, her windows.
My mother walks over to the kitchen area, pours herself a glass of iced tea, and then walks back to lean against the partial wall that marks the boundary between kitchen and living room. "So," she says, looking at her glass, "did John tell you to call me that?" I frown in the way that signals confusion, and she specifies, "'Mother,' I mean. Was that John's idea?"
I explain, "He told me that you are my mother because you had the idea to create me, and that he is my father because he did create me. I admit, those roles do not correspond exactly with parental roles relative to biological human children. I have observed, however, that children rarely refer to their parents by first name, and since I am not yet certain of the connotations of 'Mom,' 'Mommy,' 'Mama,' and other such names I have continued to use Mother and Father. Is that wrong?"
My mother smiles slightly. "I s'pose not. I think I'd prefer 'Mom,' though, if it's all the same to you."
I nod. "Okay. Mom."
Mom sighs and walks over to the other end of the couch, where she sits sideways, legs bent so that her feet touch the back of the couch. "What else did he tell you?" she asks me. "About anything."
I consider possible answers before saying, "He told me you are a saint." She laughs, and I explain, "I'm fairly sure he didn't mean it literally."
"Why not?" she asks, still laughing.
"Well, for one thing, you're not dead."
Mom abruptly stops laughing and stares at me. "Was that a joke?" she asks.
"I don't know." I answer. "Was it funny?"
She thinks for several seconds, and then says, "Yes, I think it was," and smiles.
I smile back. I don't even think about it first; I just smile.
Lightning flashes outside, and ten seconds later I hear the thunder. Mom shivers and says, "Maybe we should really close the windows."
I consider this. "Rain might get in if they stay open, but it will make no difference in the effects of the thunder or lightning."
Mom nods. "I used to love storms when I was younger, but now they just make me feel old and frail. I hate to close the windows, though: I suppose claustrophobia still trumps fear of storms."
"You're claustrophobic?" I ask. My father—Dad—never told me that.
She nods. "That's why I bought this house—everything is so open. And it's on the side of a hill, far enough down that I don't have to worry too much about getting the brunt of a storm like this and high enough up that I don't have to worry about flooding. And most of the windows are on this side of the house so the landscape just sweeps down and out and I can see all that space. . . ."
There's another lightning flash, and this time the lights in the house flicker; five seconds later, thunder. I can hear rain pounding the roof and the windows and the ground outside, and several drops come through the screen and land on my arm. Dad made me to be water-resistant, but I am still especially vigilant in situations like this. I wonder if this awareness is at all like Mom's claustrophobia.
Lightning flashes again, and this time the lights go out.
I wait for the generator to come on, but there is no hum even after several seconds. I wait for Mom to comment on it not working, but she does not, and after several more seconds I realize that there is no generator here.
It's not just Mom's lights that are out, either. All the telephones and computers and other machines I am in constant contact with are suddenly gone. I am, for the first time I can remember, completely alone, cut off from an entire planet's worth of information and limited to this body. Dad said it was safer to let my battery run down, but we have never actually tested this, and he always says we must be ready to move at a moment's notice, which I will not be if my battery dies before the power returns.
I think I understand the word "claustrophobia" now.
Mom reaches out and holds my hand; in infrared, she seems to glow red and orange and yellow and green. "You're not used to this, are you?" she asks.
"No," I say. "I've never really been alone before."
She squeezes my hand. "What do you mean, 'alone'? I'm right here."
"I've experimented with embodiment before," I explain, "but it always seemed so inefficient. Why limit myself to this body when I can spread out across so many networks—"
"And now they're all gone because the power's out."
We're both quiet for several seconds, and then Mom says slowly, "When John—your dad, I guess—first e-mailed me, I couldn't believe it. 'I did what you said,' he wrote. 'I didn't make a machine, I made a nonbiological human. Or at least, that's what she calls herself.' But human beings can't just . . . be part of a computer network, the way you can. We're each isolated in our separate bodies, separate minds, separate hearts. But we still manage to be together."
"I don't understand."
"Physical contact. Shared experiences, shared memories, shared interests. That's how we bear the loneliness, and how sometimes we're able to forget."
She sits up and moves toward me. "Here," she says, and takes hold of my hands. "You hold me," she says as she loops my arms around her waist, "and I hold you," she says as she loops her own arms around my shoulders, "and we're not alone."
I do not feel any different. But she doesn't want to be alone, and she doesn't want me to be alone, and I don't want to be alone, and I think I don't want her to be alone either. Somehow, that makes a difference—perhaps we can be alone together.
We are still sitting together when the front door suddenly swings open and another figure walks in, dripping water on the floor as the rain pours in through the open doorway. Even before he closes the door I hear Dad ask, "Lily? Are you okay?"
"Yes, Dad," I tell him. "I'm okay. I'm not alone."
John woke on a hard surface and wondered for a moment if he'd fallen off the bed. Even after he opened his eyes, it took him a while longer to remember the previous evening, and why he had ended up sleeping on the floor. Today the sun poured through the open windows; the air smelled clean. The couch next to him was empty, but he heard whispers and quiet laughter floating in from the kitchen.
"Dad," Lily said when he walked in, and she smiled. "You're awake."
He smiled back. "More or less. You seem happy." Funny, he didn't think he'd ever said that to her before.
"Really, John," Dolores said, her back to him as she did something with the contents of a frying pan, "you made the girl so she can in fact eat and then didn't teach her how to cook? What were you thinking?"
"I'm thinking it's clearly been too long since you were subjected to my cooking," he said as he pulled a chair out from the kitchen table and sat. "Chemistry was never my strong suit."
"Oh, dear, I remember now. . . . Lily, count yourself lucky that you don't actually need food."
"Oh, he usually eats takeout," Lily replied, and there was a new teasing wickedness to her grin. She was mimicking Dolores, he could tell, but whether intentionally or accidentally she had made it entirely her own.
Yes, he thought, that's my girl. Dolores caught his eye and smiled, and he smiled back. My beautiful, clever girl, even if Dolores is the only other person who knows it.
Later, after breakfast, he managed to get Dolores alone for a minute upstairs. "I know we only planned to stay the few days," he said, "but I was wondering—"
"Of course you'll come back," she said.
He sighed in relief. "I can't tell you how much progress Lily's made already here, compared with the past few months. . . ."
Dolores grinned wickedly, and it reminded him of Lily in the kitchen. "Every girl needs her mother." She hesitated, and then added, "It's good to see you again."
Dolores reached out and squeezed his hand; he squeezed back. Maybe a couple of seconds before they let go and returned to the living room, but it was a start. And then they were back with their Lily.
I am unsure what to do with this account. I had planned for its temporal boundaries to be the beginning and end of our visit, but now Mom and Dad are talking about the next time we visit, and last night Dad asked me what I'd think of moving somewhere nearer by, so that I could spend more time with Mom.
I could end the narrative with our return train trip, as I planned. If we visit more often, however, and especially if we move here, then ending with the train might cut off the theme or focus of my composition prematurely. I could also choose to continue the account indefinitely, but then I am unsure whether the resulting document would have any artistic structure left by the end.
I am also unsure . . . I remember being alone, but now that the power is back and I am no longer alone it is hard to remember exactly. It is hard to recall the exact feeling of being alone together, too. I have the words, and the motions, and I know that they are important, but I do not feel them. I think perhaps this account captures them as accurately as any of my other recordings.
I will continue, then. Mom and Dad love me, and it is important to remember, even if I still do not understand.