talonkarrde: (Default)
For [livejournal.com profile] beautyofgrey

-

I had been sitting quietly by the bay windows for some time, watching the world go by, when my grandchildren brought the package forward. They had been playing around in the attic for the last half an hour, after their mother — my daughter — encouraged them to 'find some old things' in an effort to have some peace for a bit. Apparently, they had rummaged through enough of the dusty old boxes to come up with something that they couldn't explain. 'Mommy didn't know what it was', they chimed in together, so here they were, an eight year old boy and eleven year old girl, perched on each arm of my favorite rocking chair.

And on my lap were the crown jewels of this expedition, the source of the mystery, the secret of the adventure that apparently only I knew. It had been unwrapped, but with care — I was sure that it was Erin who had slowly tugged the strings apart, simply because Allen would have shredded the paper to get to the insides. On top of the spread wrapping paper was a small, dark wooden box, with a sliding door as the top. And lying on the box was the remains of a rose, though the years and years had turned it into something that crumbled upon being touched.

"What is this, Grandpa?" Allen asked me curiously, reaching out to touch it before Erin swatted his hand away.

I sat there for a moment, thinking of past lives and careful choices, and then responded simply — "A memory," I said, and left it at that.

But Allen wasn't satisfied with my answer — what ten year old boy would be? — and reached out for the box again, though his sister's glare was enough to stop him from actually touching it. Still, unable to contain himself, he asked again, "A memory of what?"

I looked at Erin then, who simply looked back at me curiously. She was mature beyond her years, and knew enough about life to know that this was something that could affect her grandpa more than a little, and would not press. Still, though, I could see the curiosity in her eyes, and it was that, more than anything else, which led to me actually telling the story.

---

The box was a gift to me from a girl called Terry, I said, when she was twenty and I was eighteen. Yes, she was older than me, and yes, this was well before I was even your mother's age. It was given to me on our third anniversary of being together; we had been dating for quite some time and had started thinking about long term plans.

She had been thinking about what to give me for a while, I suspect, to teach me a lesson; she had complained once that I wasn't very subtle or romantic — at least not with keepsakes — and tended to discard things the minute that I didn't care about them anymore, whereas she was the opposite and kept almost anything that had ever meant anything to her — a ticket from her only airplane ride, wedding invitations from her friends, the letters we had written to each other, her childhood toys...the list went on and on, as did the amount of stuff in her family's attic that was hers. It was a side effect, I suppose, of her being a creative artist and me being a logic-driven scientist; I saw value in the present and future, whereas she drew inspiration from the past.

Regardless, though, we spent our third anniversary eating at a nice diner and I took her home just before nine — yes, this was indeed a million years ago, when nine was late — and just after I pulled up to her house, she stopped me and said, "I think we should give each other our gifts now."

Allen, here's a word of advice — always, always prepare a gift in advance when you meet a girl for any special date. Especially if the girl says not to prepare anything; this just means that you have to think long and hard and pull out all the stops to prepare something. Our third anniversary was a special date, and I had nothing at all... so me, being the quick thinker that I was, improvised — I did an immediate running inventory of the car parts that I could break off and give to her. Somehow, saying 'you are my driveshaft' didn't sound right, even to my not-very-romantic ears. Instead, I reached to the rear seat, and picked up a single rose, and handed it to her.

Her face dropped a bit. Not, I think, because I handed her a rose, but more likely because the rose had suffered some damage — I had run over it, as a matter of fact, on the way to picking her up, due to a bit of hurry on my part, and I had simply tossed it on the backseat instead of throwing it out immediately. So she had a rose in front of her... just one that was a bit dirty, and a bit squashed, and a bit dying.

No, it wasn't the smoothest thing I've ever done.

But I suppose the gods were watching down on me, because the next thing out of my mouth was this: "The rose, Terry, symbolizes my love for you. It may not be perfect, and it may not look like much, but what it means is that I will persevere through any trial, overcome any obstacle, simply to make you happy. This rose has seen better days, yes, but it's still alive, and I promise you that if you give it some water, you will see it stay alive much longer than any perfect rose you could pick out from the store."

And then I held my breath for what was seemed like an hour while she turned the rose over in her hands and observed it closely, her face absolutely devoid of any emotion. Just as I was about to apologize for everything I said and everything I did, she smiled, and leaned in to kiss me, which I took as a success.

"And here I thought you couldn't be romantic," she said. I mentally cheered...until she followed up with, "Even though that was the biggest pile of crap in the world, you get credit for trying, and for improvisation," and kissed me again. You see why I fell in love with her?

Anyway, afterwards, she reached down under the seat and brought out this exact box, in the exact same form that you see here now. When I asked her what it was for, she simply said, "It contains a little bit of the past, and a little bit of the present, and a little bit of the future. Don't open it until you can tell me what's inside." She looked very serious, and asked me to promise her that I wouldn't, which I did. I didn't understand at all, but she knew me well enough to know that I would keep asking questions until I figured it out — something that we seem to share, Allen.

I recall that the first thing I did with the box was shake it — always the scientist, I intended on subjecting it through a rigorous series of physical tests to determine the attributes inside. Of course, Terry was always one step ahead of me, and all of my actions yielded nothing. It wasn't light, but it wasn't heavy; it didn't smell like anything while it was closed, and shaking it produced absolutely no effect. I began carrying it around with me in class and at work, and would play with it absentmindedly while I was thinking of other things, but I never tried to open it — I had promised, after all.

It took me about two weeks, or maybe three, before I really entertained the suspicion that nothing was inside. It was always at the back of my mind, but I think it was after accidentally dropping it — yes, that's why this corner is a bit dented — that I wondered if she simply gave me a box, with absolutely nothing inside. It couldn't be, I thought... or could it? It struck me as something avant garde, which was like her, if a bit cruel, which wasn't, and came up with a null hypothesis.

So I asked her, and she simply shook her head — and then asked for the box. This was new, and I readily complied, only to watch her tilt it towards her, slide it open, and... talk into it? I moved to change my angle but she had already closed it, handling it back to me, and I was left with just as big of a mystery as before. But it led to one major change — every night, when I would set the box by my bedside, she would perform that same ritual before she went to sleep. She always covered the face, always lifted it to her mouth, and always seemed to say something before setting it back down.

And it looks like you've already figured it out, Erin. No, Allen, she wasn't eating, or spitting, or doing anything like that; she was speaking into the box, speaking her hopes and dreams and memories to store, acting as a modern day Pandora, without any of the bad things. It was indeed a little bit of her — and our — past, and our present, and the future she hoped we would share.

It was completely sentimental, and completely emotional, and I finally understood why she collected what she did — everything she kept had a bit of the person who created it in them, and now she was giving more than a little bit of herself to me.

I kept the box by my side for ten years, up until the day that she passed away, giving birth to a wonderful little girl called Marie — yes, your mother. The week before my Terry died, she was going through her collection of memories — in the attic you were just in — and brought out the rose, which she had kept all this time, and hidden from me. It was our thirtieth anniversary.

And afterwards... after it happened, I couldn't bear to have the box by me anymore, so I wrapped it with the rose, and set it up here, where it's been for thirty-four years now.

---

With that, I lifted the rose up by the stem, wondering at the forces that had kept it together for the last third of a century, and finally slid open the box to reveal — as expected — nothing tangible. But of things that couldn't be measured by science, one might imagine the wisp of a good life rising from the box, a slight smell of cinnamon and nutmeg, never to be recaptured again.

"And now that I've passed the story on to you," I said, "I think I'd like to pass these gifts on. Would you like them, perhaps, to keep and think about?"

I could see that both of them were a bit intrigued and a bit put off at the same time — it was certainly unlike any gift that they had given or gotten before. And yet, the story had changed them, at least a bit; they understood that there was signifance in these ancient relics beneath my wrinkled hands, and appreciated them for more than what they appeared to be.

Allen spoke first, as usual, and claimed the rose, without giving a reason why; Erin didn't object, but reverently lifted the box off of my lap after Allen had taken the stem from my fingers. And that was that.

---

I didn't see my keepsakes again after that, but Allen came by a few years later and told me that each one of his girlfriends received a rose — crushed — and the story of what it meant, and that apparently he had quite a bit of success in deviating from the standard. And Erin, a few years after that, told me that she had given the box to her first boyfriend after two years of being together, and expected to marry him. I gave her my blessing and attended the wedding; it was a beautiful one.

And now, at the end of my days, I simply wait until I can see Terry again, and tell her how much Erin looked like she did at our wedding.

Winding Up

Nov. 6th, 2010 05:59 pm
talonkarrde: (Default)
Death was an interminable quiet, a resolute emptiness that enlarged and exaggerated the life that had come before. It was death, as close as I can understand it, and it was a slow and irreversible one, as rust built on limbs that once moved freely and bolts, then servos, and finally entire connected mechanisms became unsynchronized and fell off, a part of my body no longer.

And as my physical body failed, so too did my mental faculties. My hearing, first, and I understood what it was like to be in a silent world. After that, my color vision — the circuits giving out long past what the warranty would have covered, reducing my world to a million dull shades of grey.

Some time later, there was a rainstorm, and I did not get to shelter in time, and the last thing that I remember seeing is a fog, the sheets of water washing away the dust that was setting on the fort and watering the plants in the garden. But after that, there was no more vision, and even still I persisted, navigating by memory, by touch, cleaning that which I could, removing foreign substances, waiting for a touch that told me my family was back.

And only one day when I found that I could no longer move, no longer calibrate myself to adjust to the losses, only then did I consider the finality that my family would not come back to me, that Robert and Audrey would find his castle and her garden decayed, decrepit, destroyed.

And then I slept without dreaming, forever.

#

When I wake up, at first, there is nothing but awareness. An awareness of awareness itself — Descartes' consciousness, cognition. A knowledge of self and being, but nothing else.

Then comes the awareness of the time, of past and future, of moments which preceded this, now this, now this one, and moments that come now, and now, and now, and a sense that while the future could not be known with certainty, the past should be, where is mine?

And finally, there is the awareness of a lack of self, an image, a sense of body. Movement and senses — or rather, the lack of them — come with the knowledge that I /should/ have those things, and did, yes, did once have them, and in thinking about when that was, I dig, I access random storage locations, and something changes, and a moment later, I remember everything.

I am Paul, and I was left to die, and I did die, and now I am alive again.

#

They tell me later, after they connect auditory monitors to my inputs, that they saw the cognitive function on the diagnostic monitors and decided to reconnect the memory banks. They — a team of neuroroboticists hired by Robert — tell me that my body was damaged beyond repair, but the central core was salvageable. They tell me that I will soon have a new body and all will be as it was.

And it is a week later and I can see again, and I have a shell that is the same model as my old self, and Robert comes into the room — the age the master was when I was first purchased, and I wonder for a moment if I will do the same duty again, be left again, and be resurrected again.

I wonder for a moment at the ephemeral nature of this race, and I—

And I pause, and run a self diagnostic. And then another, and another, and another, and ask the technicians to run one on me, and still I do not believe that there are no errors in my coding.

For when has a robot ever wondered about life?

#

At first, I took my old job back again, and took time to restore the manor to the condition that it was. Robert congratulated me about my work, and mentioned, in passing, how he was sorry that the family could not make it back for thirty years, and how much he and Audrey had missed me out on Jupiter's moons. And then he said, with a small smile on his face, that his wife was pregnant, and perhaps I could be the same friend — friend, is the word he used — to his child that I was to him.

And I think that once it would have been interpreted as an order, or as a request that would have been executed by my code in the same way, and I would have said, 'Yes, of course, master,' as was the designated response, and taken the dismissal.

Instead, though, I paused for a moment, and then decided, consciously, to accept that request.

"I will be his friend and guard him from all that would hurt him, Robert, for as long as I can. This is what I want."

I think I surprised him, that day; I also surprised myself.

#

Once, I was a mover, a personal assistant and a servant to a family. I was a plaything to two children that I accepted and who accepted me, until they went away.

And then for a time, I ceased to exist, like many robots — and men — that have come and will come after me.

But then I came back, and now I am something I was not before; I am bound by code, but it is my own and not something that was written by another. I make choices based on what I wish instead of rules that I must follow. And I choose to serve, still, but out of love, instead of obligation.

And I wonder, as I was never able to do, what will be in my future.
talonkarrde: (Default)
The family called me Paul and I accepted the name easily, even though it came from my description — Personal Automaton, Utility and Labor. Sure, there were those of us named with more wit — Jeeves and Lurch, for example — but there were also ones that were referred to as Scrap, Dumbbot, and, other, less polite words. In light of the possible variance of owners, I had a good family.

When I was produced, it was during the first Outer Giants Bubble, and I only stayed in stasis for three weeks after the Awakening Process; my family had put their money in the right stocks, and came out ahead of the explosively bullish market. They decided to stay with a relatively small plot at home instead of the vast tracts of land they could had if they went off-planet — which might have had something to do with the news about the convicts and forced immigrants the Nations were shipping out — and ended up getting a three square mile plot of land, just south of Mount Kilamanjaro, only about two hours flying distance from the Saharan Starport.

It was an incredible view, one that, yes, even one an automaton could appreciate.

My job was simple: keep everything in working order. As utility and labor, I was to keep the grounds, make sure the electricity and plumbing was operating correctly, and fix any mechanical flaws. Though I was expected to interface with humans and thus given a humanoid shape, I was designed primarily for strength and constructed from the best materials for moving and shifting, though with some dexterity for manipulation. I would never reach the level of fine motor control that the Children And Toddlers series required, but I could reliably lift a car or two over my head without any problems — which, as I found out, is quite a trick.

The first five years were wonderfully mundane. My master and mistress simply wanted me to keep everything presentable, and I did, trimming grass near the mansion, keeping the gardens healthy and free of pests, and doing occasional maintenance work inside the house. I had time to maintain myself, and there were the other, non-sentient bots — lawn-mowing machines, trimmers, and others that I could instruct to do much of the work. When I had an issue with a servo or more complicated electronics, I could take it to my owners and they would call in a specialist and get it fixed promptly. I was not loved, no; but I was respected, and I did a good job, and that was enough for me. I could say nothing wrong of them.

It was the sixth year, though, where things began to change. And it was the twelve years after that which I most enjoyed, where I thanked my makers for allowing me the experience of happiness.

For in the sixth year of my service, Robert and Ashley were born.

They were twins who brought my owners much happiness. I thought I understood their feelings, despite not being programmed for empathy; it was a matter of successfully procreating, and doing so in an aesthetically pleasing and symmetrical fashion. When they were babies, I would see them when their mother took them out into the backyard, and go about my work, and from time to time, I would notice that they were watching me, too. When Robert was about four years of age, he solemnly came up to me and said “Good morning, Paul,” as if we were friends — or, perhaps, equals — and then promptly instructed me to build him a fort.

I did, using the logic that my owners would want me to serve their children, and constructed an elegant, if old-fashioned fort out of the spare lumber that I had been collecting for construction purposes, and positioned it in the back yard as Robert wanted it. It had two towers, and a wall that was almost six feet tall, and I was proud of my abilities to do such a thing.

When I finished, an hour later, he came up to me and hugged my leg, and said, “Good job, Paul,” and I understood that I would serve Robert as I had served my master. Even though his mother scarcely allowed him to play in it, the fort stood for years as a reminder of our first real interaction, and set the tone for how we would interact. I would build obstacle courses for him, and clear jungle with him, and scale mountains; I was his protector, his knight, his lieutenant.

I was proud — yes, an automaton can be proud — to help him in any way I could.

Ashley was different; she was a girl, of course, and young, and far less prone to asking me to do things, though she greeted me warmly every time we saw each other. It was in her tenth year when she first asked me to do something for her — and it was not a building she wanted, but rather something from the books she had been reading: a garden, a secret garden, a maze of hedges with a secure center that only she and I would know. Inside would be her sanctuary, her place of refuge, and she returned to it time and time again in the years that followed.

And so my owners became my family.

Across the seasons and years, Robert and Ashley sought out my company often, regaling me with stories I would listen to and giving me requests I would fulfill. The family’s land became dotted with their creations: buildings and miniature reproductions from pieces of literature, fantastic geometry from their imaginations, and I built it all. Some were designed for the company of their friends and some for their own solitude, in times when they didn’t even want to see each other, but even then, I would be allowed into those refuges; perhaps because I had built them, perhaps because I had been their guardian ever since they were children.

The Master and Mistress understood my relationship with their children, and never bade me to take them out; instead, they simply asked for me to go to them, and keep them company, and make sure they came to no harm. In those years, I understood what it was like to be a friend instead of just a servant, to be asked instead of required to do things, even though my code would have required me to do it just the same.

But a few words — a question, instead of a command — makes all the difference.

And then they left.

It was the seventeenth year of my service; the twins’ twelfth birthdays, and it was the Centennial Collapse. There was an issue with formerly high-value resources that were suddenly irrelevant. Technology had jumped, and those in that sector had not seen it coming, and were caught flat-footed.

My family had been in that business, and very quickly went from being comfortably well off to being paupers. There were talks to sell the land, but Robert and Ashley protested against it, and the Master drew upon what money he had left to ensure that the land would stay in the family, even if it meant that they could not stay with the land, as there were no more jobs on Earth for my owners’ specializations. They — my family — would have to leave, to seek their fortunes in the stars, and they would leave me here to watch over everything, until they returned.

I understood the logic behind it, of course; my duty as a PAUL was to keep the lands and mechanics pristine; I would have no place on a starship where there were self-regulating systems to keep everything clean, and there was not enough money to refit me for one of the other planets.

But still, I — ‘hoped’ is not the right word, for while we can learn and feel and experience, we are not completely human in our programming — I would have preferred to be able to go with my family. Perhaps it showed, because they sent Robert and Ashley out to me, and they looked very solemn, even with what I knew as tears coming out of their eyes, and they said this.

“Will you keep the grounds for us, Paul?,” and, “We’ll be back for you, and we want everything to look as good as it ever did. Can you do that?”

And what could I do but obey- no, instead: what could I do but accept their request?

I kept the ground for over seven thousand three hundred days — for over twenty years — with ten minutes each morning and each night spent looking to the North, for the sign of the family car, or any car, flying over the Mount, carrying my family back to me. The rest of the time, I did my duty, as was asked of me, and I kept the lawn mowed and the plumbing working and the electronics active. But more than that, I kept the castle, the keep, the rose trellis, the obstacle course, and the Escher stairs maintained, and most of all, I watched over Ashley’s secret garden and Robert’s fort.

Every year it was harder, as some of the lesser robots broke down and there was no one to order parts, and no money to pay for them. The lawn took hours to mow, instead of minutes, and the repairs became more and more haphazard as I understood that to repair a small, superficial thing would be cannibalizing resources from a more important repair that I would need to do later. But I kept going, replacing my own servos and parts as it became necessary, accepting some diminished mobility as time drew on and parts grew short.

In the last year, though, I ran out of spare parts, and there have long since been no other robots that I could borrow from. I have been forced to stop mowing the grass; there is too large of a chance for a jam to occur, and I will explain it to the Master when he comes back. I can no longer lift the stones to replace those that crumble on the castle; I hope that Robert will forgive me for that. I will build him another, a thousand others, when he comes back. And her Escher stairs, that geometric masterpiece has collapsed — I no longer have the materials to reconstruct it, to let it hang in the air. But I will build Ashley a million illusions when she returns, as many as she wants.

I stumble often, now, and occasionally must drag myself across the grass with one leg useless. My servos whine, and creak, and they have started to fail.

But his fort and her garden, they will be maintained until I can no longer move.

I will do what they asked of me.
talonkarrde: (Default)

I watch as he wraps his hand around my index finger, the tiny fingers blindly grasping at something that his eyes can’t see yet. I whisper that I love him because mommy tells me to and I see the little crinkle of a smile, though it couldn’t be from my words. After all, he can’t understand me yet, can he? I am eight, and I ask this question to the doctor-lady, who just smiles and says that everyone understands love.

This is my brother and he is beautiful. He is pink, round, soft, and despite what my friends tell me about how to treat small, cute things, I find that I love him dearly and would do anything to protect him. I shake my head when my mommy asks me if I want to hold him, because, well, what if I drop him?

He is beautiful, my brother, and we will be best friends, playing games and growing up together, and we will have no secrets from each other.

-

By the time he is three, we know there's something wrong. He did the normal amount of crying when he was a baby, but he doesn’t speak, not even the nonsense babbling that all my friend’s little brothers and sisters have done. He hasn't spoken full words; my parents do not hear ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ and no matter how much I try, I can’t get him to call me ‘brother’. Mom laughs less nowadays, and dad has been talking about going to the doctor for more tests.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him, though he's kind of quiet. Sometimes he’ll just look off into the distance, no matter how many times I call his name, and when I point at the train and the superhero and go “Crash! Boom!” he doesn’t smile, or respond. He doesn’t play with me, and it makes me sad.

But it's okay, because my parents tell me that he’s just a late developing child, and he'll able to play with me when he gets older. Mom says that after all, there are 12% of babies or something that are late speakers. Mom’s been using a lot of numbers lately.

-

He starts speaking when he’s six years old. It has taken doctors, specialists, and the efforts of friends that have autistic children more than two years to get us to this point, but we do.

I am at home, sitting in one of the chairs next to him while the psychologist leads us through the program, trying to help him with this ‘applied behavioral analysis’, when he connects the dots, making the association between the pictures of families, him, and his family.

And then turns, and says, loudly and clearly, making eye contact with me, “Brother!”

-

By the time that I am eighteen, I know all about autism and what it is. I’ve been to support groups with my parents, I try to read everything that the Mayo Clinic and others put out, and I stay up to date on new studies. I appreciate now the sacrifices that my parents have made for my brother, that his tantrums and special classes and many doctors and various pills have been something that no parent wishes for, and I do my best to help them.

Truthfully, though, I get tired of my brother as well. My friends all look at each other awkwardly when I ask them to come over because they do not know how to react when my brother starts talking, endlessly, about something they don’t care about… or worse, when he insults them carelessly and casually, saying, “Oh, you’ve gotten fat lately, Susan”. Our neighbors are less than understanding; there was an anonymous message in our mailbox telling us to ‘keep the monster inside’ after a particularly bad episode where he went out to the street and screamed for ten minutes.

Sometimes, we are all so worn that even when he makes progress in his various behavioral programs, I can only think of how much farther he has to go, and how much I or any normal child would have accomplished in less than a fraction of time it takes him.

-

We’re at the mall together, shopping for clothes and games, and he asks to go get a coke. I let him go, pick up a new video game for him, and wander towards the food court.

He’s stopped by a table where a couple of teenagers are sitting, and I find a seat at a nearby table behind him to listen in. It’s a social interaction, one that he might have trouble with, but he’s fourteen and needs to learn to deal with it on his own.

It starts out well – does he go to their school, what grade he’s in, stuff like that. I think that he might have found a couple new friends, in fact. Then one of the guys asks him where he goes to school and he gives a proud answer – Skoan, he says, a school for special students. And in one line, they start getting nasty, asking whether the crazies go there, whether the students wear diapers. The undertone is unmistakable – and stops being an undertone when one of the guys asks him whether or not he’s retarded.

I get up, ready to beat the goddamn daylights of these fucking pricks, and stalk over toward them.

As I approach the table, fists clenched, my brother says, simply, “I’m worth more than you are,” and turns away, seeing me. I falter for a moment, unsure of what to do, and he says something else.

“Let’s go, brother.”

-

My brother will never be the President of the United States, a rocket scientist, or a CEO. I do not know if he’ll achieve his dream of helping out those that are like him, a dream that he only recently told me. But I do know that I celebrate each success that he has in functioning with society. Making eye contact and calling a family member by their name or learning how to walk away from a conflict may seem like incredibly small steps to others — and often they remind me of how much further he has to go — but they are solid, beautiful moments.

Though we have never shared a conversation on politics and the future of the country or talked about girlfriends and love, I will be there for him for the rest of our lives, for all of the moments that will happen in the future.

//

A/N: This is a work of fiction, though I have based the events on interactions with a family friend.

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