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The One Who Isn’t

It starts with light.

Then heat.

A slow bleed through of memory.

Catchment, containment. A white-hot agony coursing through every nerve, building to a sizzling hum—and then it happens. Change of state.

And what comes out the other side is something new.

• • • •

The woman held up the card. “What color do you see?”

“Blue,” the child said.

“And this one?” The woman held up another card. Her face was a porcelain mask—a smooth, perfect oval except for a slight pointiness at her chin.

The child looked closely at the card. It didn’t look like the other one. It didn’t look like any color he’d ever seen before. He felt he should know the color, but he couldn’t place it.

“It’s blue,” he said.

The woman shook her head. “Green,” she said. “The color is green.” She put the card down on the table and stood. She walked to the window. The room was a circular white drum, taller than it was wide. One window, one door.

The boy couldn’t remember having been outside the room, though that couldn’t be right. His memory was broken, the fragments tailing off into darkness.

“Some languages don’t have different words for blue and green,” the woman said. “In some languages, they’re the same.”

“What does that mean?”

The woman turned toward him. “It means you’re getting worse.”

“Worse how?”

She did not answer him. Instead she stayed with him for an hour and helped him with his eyes. She walked around the room and named things. “Door,” she said. “Door.” And he understood and remembered.

Floor, walls, ceiling, table, chair.

She named all these things.

“And you,” the child said. “What name do you go by?”

The woman took a seat across from him at the table. She had pale blond hair. Her eyes, in the perfect armatures of their porcelain sockets, were blue, he decided. Or they were green. “That’s easy,” she said from behind her mask. “I’m the one who isn’t you.”

• • • •

When it was time to sleep, she touched a panel on the wall and a bed slid out from the flat surface. She tucked him in and pulled the blankets up to his chin. The blankets were cool against his skin. “Tell me a story,” the child said.

“What story?”

He tried to remember a story. Any story that she might have told him in the past, but nothing came.

“I can’t think of any,” he said.

“Do you remember your name?”

He thought for a moment. “You told me that you were the one who wasn’t me.”

“Yes,” she said. “That’s who I am, but what about you? Do you remember your name?”

He thought for a while. “No.”

The woman nodded. “Then I’ll tell you the story of the queen,” she said.

“What queen?”

“She the Unnamed,” the woman said. “It’s your favorite.”

She touched the wall by the bed. The lights dimmed.

“Close your eyes,” she said.

And so he did.

Then she cleared her throat and began to recite the story—line after line, in a slow, steady rhythm, starting at the beginning.

After a while, he began to cry.

• • • •

Upload protocol. Arbitration ()

Story sixteen: contents = [She the Unnamed] />

Function/Query : Who wrote the story? {

/File response : (She) wrote it. {

Function/Query : What do you mean, she wrote it. That isn’t possible. {

/File response : Narratives are vital to understanding the world. Experience without narrative isn’t consciousness. {

• • • •

And so it was written.

In a time before history, in a place beyond maps, there was once a queen, she the unnamed, who dared defy her liege husband.

She was beautiful and young, with tresses of gold. Forced to marry a king she did not love, she bore him a son out of royal duty—a child healthy, and strong, and dearly loved.

Over the following years, unease crept into the queen’s heart as she noted the king’s cruelties, his obsession for magics. Gradually, as she learned the true measure of the man who wore the crown, she came to fear the influence that he might have on the child. For this reason she risked everything, summoned her most trusted confidants, and sent the boy into secret hiding, to live among the priests of the valley where the king could never find him.

The king was enraged. Never had he been defied.

“You will not darken this boy’s heart,” she told the king when he confronted her. “Our son is safe, in a place where you cannot change him.”

Such was the king’s fury at this betrayal that upon his throne he declared his queen an abhorrence, and he stripped her name from every book and every tongue. None could say her name nor remember it, and she was expunged from history in all ways but one. The deepest temporal magic was invoked, a sorcery beyond reach of all but the blackest rage—and the woman was condemned to give birth again and again to the self-same child whom the king had lost.

The queen had expected death, or banishment, but not this.

And so through magic she gave birth to an immaculate child. And for three years the new child would grow—first crawling, then walking—a strapping boy at his mother’s side, until the king would come to the tower cell and take the child on the high stone. “Do you regret?” He would ask his queen.

“Yes,” she’d sob, while the guards gripped her arms.

The king would hold the child high and say, “This is because of your mother.” And then slice the child’s throat.

The mother would scream and cry, and through a chaste, dark magic conceive again, and for nine months carry, and for one day labor, and for three years love a new child, raised again in the tower cell. A boy sweet and kind with eyes of blue.

Until the king would again return and ask the mother, “Do you regret?”

“Yes, please spare him,” she’d cry, groveling at his feet. “I regret.”

The king would hold his son high and say, “This is because of your mother.” And then slice his tender throat.

Again and again the pattern repeated, son after son, as the mother screamed and tore at her hair.

Against such years could hells be measured.

The mother tried refusing her child when he was born, hoping that would save him. “This child means nothing to me,” she said.

And the king responded, “This is because of your mother,” and wet his blade anew.

“Do you know why I wait three years?” he asked her once as she crouched beside a body small and pale. He touched her hair tenderly. “It is so you’ll know the child understands.”

And so it continued.

A dozen sons, then a score, until the people throughout the land called the king heir-killer, and still he continued to destroy his children. Sons who were loved. Sons who were ignored. A score of sons, then a hundred. Sons beyond counting. Every son different, every son the same.

Until the mother woke one day from a nightmare, for all her dreams were nightmares, and with her hand clutching her abdomen, felt a child quicken in her womb, and knew suddenly what she had to do. And soon it came to pass that she bore a son, and for one full year loved him, and for a second year plotted, and for a third year whispered, shaping a young heart for a monstrous task. She darkened his heart as no mother ever dreamed. She darkened him beyond anything the king could have done.

And in time the king finally came to the high tower and lifted his son high and asked, “Do you regret?”

She responded, “I regret that I was born, and every moment after.”

The king smiled and said, “This is because of your mother.”

He raised his knife to the child’s throat, but the three-year-old twisted and turned, like his mother had shown him, and drove a needle-thin blade into his father’s eye.

The king screamed, and fell from the tower, and died then slowly in a spreading pool of blood, while the boy’s laughter rang out.

Thus was the Monster King brought into the world—a murderer of his father, made monstrous by his mother, and now heir to all the lands and armies of the wasted territories.

And the world would pay a heavy price.

• • • •

The next week, the woman came again. She opened the door and brought the child his lunch. There was an apple and bread and chicken.

“This is your favorite food, isn’t it?” the woman asked.

“Yes,” the child said after thinking about it for a moment. “I think it is.”

He wondered where the woman went when she was not with him. She never spoke of her time apart. He wondered if she ceased to exist when she was not with him. It seemed possible.

After a while, they went over the cards again.

“Blue,” the boy said. “Blue.”

The woman pointed

Floor, ceiling, door, window.

“Good,” she said.

“Does that mean I’m getting better?”

The-one-who-was-not-him did not answer though. Instead she rose to her feet and walked to the window.

The boy followed and looked out the window, but he couldn’t make sense of what he saw. Couldn’t hold it in his mind.

“Can I go outside?” he asked.

“Is that what you want?”

“I don’t know.”

She turned to look at him, her pretty, oval face a solemn mask of repose. “When you know, tell me.”

“I want to make you happy,” the boy said. And he meant it. He sensed a sadness in the woman, and he wanted to make her feel better.

The child stepped closer to the glass and touched it. The surface was cool and smooth, and he held his hand against it for a long while.

When he moved back to the table, something was wrong with his hand. Like a burn to his skin. He couldn’t hold his pencil right. He tried to draw a line on the paper, and the pencil fell out of his hand.

“My hand,” he said to the woman.

She came and she touched him. She ran her finger over his palm, moving up to his wrist. Her fingers were warm.

“Make a fist,” she said. She held her hand up to demonstrate.

He made a fist and winced in pain.

“It burns.”

She nodded to herself. “This is part of it.”

“Part of what?”

“What’s gone wrong.”

“And what is that?” When she didn’t answer him, he asked, “Is this place a prison? Where are we?”

He thought of the high tower. This is because of your mother.

The woman sighed, and she sat down across from him at the table. Her eyes looked tired. “I want to be clear with you,” the woman said. “I think it is important that you understand. You’re dying. I’m here to save your life.”

The boy was silent, taking this in. Dying. He’d known something was wrong, but he hadn’t used that word in his own thoughts. When he spoke, his voice was barely a whisper. “But I don’t want to die.”

“I don’t want you to die either. And I’m going to do everything I can to stop it.”

“What’s wrong with me?”

She did not speak for a long while, and then changed the subject. “Would you like to hear another story?”

The child nodded.

“There was once a man and a woman who wanted a child very much,” she began. “But there were problems. Problems with their genes. Do you know what genes are?”

He considered for a moment and realized he did. He nodded. “I’m not sure how I know.”

“It’s bleed-through,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that the couple did in vitro and had a child implanted that way, but the children died, and died, and died, over and over, until finally, one day, after many failures and miscarriages, a child was born, only the child was sick. Even after all they’d done, the child was sick. And so he had to live in a hospital, with white rooms, while the doctors tried to make him whole. Anyone who visited had to wear a special white mask.”

“A mask like you?”

“Is that what you see when you look at me?”

He studied her. The smooth oval face. He was no longer sure what he saw.

She continued, “The child’s sickness worsened over time. And the father had to donate part of himself to save the child. After the procedure, the child lived but the father developed a complication.”

“What kind of complication?”

She waved that off. “It doesn’t matter for the story. An infection, perhaps. Or whatever you’d prefer.”

“What happened to the father?”

“He left the story then. He died.”

The boy realized that he’d known she was going to say that before she spoke it. “And that was because of the child?”

She nodded.

“What happened to the child?”

“The boy still wasn’t healed. There were TIAs. Small strokes. And other issues. Little areas of brain tissue going dark and dead. Like a light blinking out. It couldn’t be helped.”

“What happened then?”

She shrugged. “That’s the end of the story.”

He wondered again if she even existed when she wasn’t with him. A thought occurred to him. A terrifying thought. He wondered if he existed when she wasn’t there.

“How long have I been here?”

“Try to remember,” she said. “Try to remember anything that happens when I’m not here.”

He tried, but nothing came. Just shadows and flickers.

“What is my name?” the boy asked.

“Don’t you know yet?” The woman’s eyes grew serious. “Can’t you guess?”

He shook his head.

She said, “You are the one who isn’t me.”

He studied her eyes, which were either blue or green. “That can’t be right,” he said. “That’s your name. You are the one who isn’t me. It can’t be my name, too.”

She nodded. “Think of this place as a language. We are speaking it just by being here. This language doesn’t have different words for you and I,” she said. “In the language of this place, our names are the same.”

• • • •

[Reload Protocol]

White light. {

You are catchment. You are containment. {

You are.{

• • • •

A fleeting memory rises up: a swing set in the back yard under a tall, leafy tree—dark berries arrayed along delicate stems. The sound of laughter. Running in the grass until his white socks were purple—berry juice wetting his feet.

The sun warm on his face.

The feel of the wind, and the smell of the lawn, and everything the white room was not.

A man’s voice came then, but the words were missing—the meaning expunged. And how can that be? To hear a voice clearly and not hear the words? It might be a name. Yes, calling a name.

• • • •

“Look at me,” she said.

She sat across the table from him.

“There have been changes made.”

“What changes?”

“Changes to you,” she said. “When you were sleeping. Changes to your fusiform gyrus,” she said. “Can you read me now?”

And gone was the porcelain mask. The boy saw it clearly and wondered how he hadn’t noticed it until that moment—her face a divine architecture. A beautiful origami—emotions unfolding out of the smallest movements of her eyes, lips, brow. A stream of subtle micro expressions. And the child understood that her face had not changed at all since the last time he’d seen her, but only his understanding of it.

“The facial recognition part of the mind is highly specialized,” the woman said. “Problems with that area are often also associated with achromotosia.”

“Chroma-what?”

“The part of the brain that perceives color. It’s also related to issues with environmental orientation, landmark analysis, location.”

“What does that mean?”

“You can only see what your mind lets you see.”

“Like this place . . . the place where are we?” he asked her.

“You can look for yourself,” she said, gesturing to the window. “I’m going to give you a task to complete while I’m not here.”

“Okay.”

“I want you to look outside, and I want you to think about what you see, and I want you to draw it on the paper. Can you do that?”

He glanced toward the window. A pane of clear glass.

“Can you do that?” she repeated. “It’s very important.”

“Yeah, I think I can.”

When the woman left, he tried. He tried to see beyond the glass. He could hold it in his mind for a moment, but when he went to draw it, the images evaporated like mist.

He tried again and again, but failed each time. He tried moving quickly, putting pencil to paper before he could forget, but no matter what, he could not move quick enough.

Then he came up with an idea.

He pushed the table across the room to the window.

He lay on top of the table, with the paper before him, and he tried to draw what he saw, but even then he failed. It was only when he tried purposefully not to see it that he could suddenly make the pencil move. He drew without understanding what he drew—just a series of marks on a page.

When he finally looked down at what he’d drawn, he could only stare.

• • • •

Function/Query: Can you tell what the defect is? {

/File response: Neurons are just a series of gates. An arrangement of firings. {

Function/Query: Consciousness is more than that. There are cases of brain damage that have shown similar patterns. AIs always have this problem. {

/File response: Not always. {

• • • •

The next time the woman came, the boy was much worse. Something had broken in him. TIAs, he thought. Tiny strokes. But it was more than that. Worse than that.

Sometimes he imagined that he could see through the walls, or that he could see through the floor. He was sure by then that he existed when the woman wasn’t in the room with him, and this was a comfort at least. He was autonomous from her, and from the room itself. He could drop to his knees on the floor and place his face on the cool tile and look under the door. A long hall disappeared into the distance. He saw her feet approaching, and that was the first time he noticed her shoes. White. The soles were dark.

He showed her the picture he’d drawn.

She held the paper in her hand. “Is that what you see?” she asked.

He nodded.

A series of lines. It might have been an abstract landscape, or something else.

He told her about his hallucinations, about seeing through the walls and floor. “I am getting worse, aren’t I?” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

In her face, he saw a thousand emotions. Mourning. Rage. Fear. Things he didn’t want to see. He wished for the mask again. A face he couldn’t read.

The woman sat by him on the bed. After a while, she said, “Do you know what dying is?”

“I do.”

“Do you know what it will mean for you?”

“It will mean I am no more.”

“That’s right.”

“The stories you told aren’t true, are they?”

“The truth is like a word with no translation. Can blue be green, if there’s no word for it? Can green be blue? Are those colors lies?”

“Tell me a new story.”

“A new lie?”

“Tell me a truth. Tell me about the man.” He thought of the swing and the summer day. The man’s voice saying his name.

“So you remember him.” The woman shook her head. “I don’t want to talk about him.”

“Please,” the child said.

“Why?”

“Because I remember his voice. A tree. Berries on the ground.”

She seemed to gather herself up. “There was once a man,” she said. “A very powerful man. A professor, perhaps. And one day the professor was seduced by a student, or seduced a student, it’s not really clear, but they were together, do you understand?”

He nodded.

“But this professor also had a wife. Another professor at the university. He told her what had happened, and that he’d ended it, and probably he meant to, but still it went on, until, in the way of things, the young woman was with child. A decision was made to solve the problem, and so they did. And six months went by, and the affair continued, and though she was careful, she was not careful enough, and she felt so stupid, but it happened again.”

“Again.”

She nodded. “And again he pressured her. Get rid of it, he said, and so she did.”

“Why?”

“Because she loved him, probably. Until the following year, her senior year at the college, she stopped being careful, and it happened again, and he told her to take care of it, and this time she said no, and she defied him.”

“Then what?”

“People found out, and his teaching career was ruined—everything was ruined.”

“And that’s the end?”

She shook her head. “The two stayed together. The man left the wife, and he and his former student raised their boy.”

“So it was a boy?”

“Yes, a boy. And then the wife, who’d had no children who survived, was alone. And loneliness does strange things. It lets one focus on one’s work.”

“And what was her work?”

“Can you not guess? The woman gestured around her. “Neuroscience, AIs.”

The woman was quiet for a long while before she continued. “And the years passed and the new couple stayed together, until one day the man and the boy were at the ex-wife’s house, because they all had to meet to sign papers regarding some property—and the boy was with him. And the man left the boy unattended for just a moment, and it was a simple thing for the woman to put the ring around the boy’s head.”

“What ring?”

“A special ring to record his pattern. You only need a minute—like a catchment system for electrical activity. Every synapse. A perfect representation of his mind, like a snapshot transposed into VR. She stole him. Or a copy of him.”

“Why?”

The woman was quiet for a long time. “Because she wanted to steal from the man what he’d stolen from her. Even if he didn’t know it.” She was silent again. “That’s not true.”

“Then what is true?”

“She was lonely. Desperately lonely. It was a small thing to take, she thought, just a pattern of synapses, the shadow of a personality, and he’d never know. The wife had wanted so badly to be a mother.”

The woman stopped. Her face a porcelain mask again.

“But there was a problem,” the child said.

“Yes,” the woman said. “Patterns are unstable. They last only for so long. Every thought changes it, you see. That is the problem. That is the fatal flaw. Biological systems can adapt—physical alterations to the synaptic network to help adjust. But in VR, it’s not the same.”

“VR?”

“A location,” she said. “The place where the pattern finds expression. The place where we are now.”

The boy looked around the room. The white walls. The white floor.

“The patterns of older people are stable,” the woman said. “They’ve already thought most of the thoughts that made them who they are. But it’s not the same for children. The pattern drifts, caught midway in the process of becoming. It’s possible to think the thought that makes you unfit for your pattern. The mind loses coherency. As the pattern drifts, it destabilizes and dies.”

“Dies.”

“Again and again.”

How many times?

The woman would not answer.

“How many times?” the boy repeated.

“Sons beyond counting. Every son different, every son the same.”

“How could that be?”

“The system reloads the pattern.”

“So I will die?”

“You will die. And you will never die.”

“And what about you?”

“I am always here.”

The child stood and walked over to the window and looked outside. He still couldn’t see what lay beyond. Still couldn’t process it. Had no words, because he had no experience of it.

He only knew what he’d drawn on the paper. Lines sloping away. A child’s drawing of a flat plain that spread out below them, as if they looked down from a great height. It might have been that. Or it might have been something else.

“So I am an AI?”

Even as he spoke the words, he felt his thoughts lurch. A great rift forming in his consciousness. In knowing what he was, there emerged the greatest rift of all—the thing that could not be integrated without changing who he was.

And so he turned toward the woman to speak, to tell her what he knew, and in that moment thought the thought that killed him.

• • • •

The woman cried out as she watched him die. He crumpled to the floor and lay on his side.

She crouched and shook his shoulder, but it was no use. He was gone.

“This child means nothing to me,” she said as tears welled in her eyes.

A few moments later, there was a buzz—a sizzling hum. A flash like pain across the boy’s face.

And then he raised his head.

He blinked and glanced around the room. He looked at her.

She allowed herself a moment of hope, but it was dashed when the boy spoke.

“Who are you?” the child asked.

I am I. The one who is not you.

She watched him, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to read her face. Wouldn’t even see her, really—just an opaque mask that he wouldn’t be able to understand.

She thought of the ring descending around her head. The strange feeling she’d had as she’d found herself here so long ago. Here in this place, which she’d never really left. Not in years and years. She and the boy—locked in a pattern that would repeat itself forever.

One day she’d find the right words, though. She’d whisper in the boy’s ear, and shape him for the task. She’d be strong enough to turn him into the monster he’d need to be.

Until then, she would keep trying.

“Come sit on my lap,” the woman said. She smiled at the boy, and he looked at her without recognition. “Let me tell you a story.”

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Ted Kosmatka

Ted Kosmatka

Ted Kosmatka’s short stories have appeared in many venues, including Asimov’s, Nature, Nightmare, and Lightspeed, and have been reprinted in numerous Year’s Best anthologies. He has been nominated for both the Nebula and Sturgeon awards. His debut novel The Games was nominated for Locus Magazine’s Best First Novel award. His most recent novel is The Flicker Men, published by Henry Holt. Originally from northwest Indiana, Ted now lives in the Pacific Northwest with his family.