She wears a smile. I like her smile, nervous and maybe a little scared, sweet and somewhat lonely. She wears jeans and a sheer green blouse and comfortable sandals and rings on two fingers and a glass patch across one eye. Standing at her end of the room, she asks how I feel. I feel fine. I tell her so and I tell her my name, and she puts her hands together and says that’s a nice name. I ask to hear hers, but she says no. Then she laughs and says that she wants to be a creature of secrets. Both of us laugh and watch each other. Her smile changes as she makes herself ready for what happens next. I read her face, her body. She wants me to speak. The perfect words offer themselves to me, and I open my mouth. But there comes a sound—an important urgent note—and the glass patch turns opaque, hiding one of those pretty brown eyes.
She takes a quick deep breath, watching what I can’t see. Seconds pass. Her shoulders drop and she widens her stance, absorbing some burden. Then the patch clears, and she tells me what I have already guessed. Something has happened; something needs her immediate attention. Please be patient, please, she says. Then she promises to be right back.
I watch her turn away. I watch her legs and long back and the dark brown hair pushed into a sloppy, temporary bun. A purse waits in the chair. She picks it up and hangs it on her shoulder. Her next two steps are quick but then she slows. Doubt and regret take hold as she reaches the open door. Entering the hallway, she almost looks back at me. She wants to and doesn’t want to, and her face keeps changing. She feels sad and I’m sure that she is scared. But whatever the problem, she wants to smile, not quite meeting my eyes with her final expression, and I wave a hand and wish her well, but she has already vanished down the hallway.
The room is my room. The chairs and long sofa are familiar and look comfortable, and I know how each would feel if I sat. But I don’t sit. Standing is most natural, and it takes no energy. The carpet beneath me is soft and deep and wonderfully warm on bare feet. I stand where I am and wait and wait. The walls are white and decorated with framed paintings of haystacks, and there is a switch beside the door and a fan and light on the ceiling. The light burns blue. The fan turns, clicking and wobbling slightly with each rotation. A window is on my right, but its blinds are drawn and dark. Behind me is another door. I could turn and see what it offers, but I don’t. I am waiting. She is gone but will return, and she has to appear inside the first door, and I spend nothing, not even time, waiting for what I remember best, which is her pretty face.
A similar face appears. But this is a man wearing white trousers and a black shirt and glove-like shoes and no jewelry and no eye patch. He stands on the other side of the door, in the hallway, holding his hands in front of himself much as she did. He stares at me and says nothing. I ask who he is. He blinks and steps back and asks who I am. I tell him. And he laughs nervously. I don’t know why I like the sound of laughter so much. He repeats my name and asks new questions, and I answer what I can answer while smiling at him, wondering how to make this man laugh again.
Do I know what I am meant to be, he asks. Which is a very different question than asking who I am.
I have no answer to give.
Then he lists names, one after another, waiting for me to recognize any of them. I don’t. That’s not surprising, he says. I was only begun and then left, which is too bad. Which is sad. I nod and smile politely. Then he asks if I have ever seen anybody else, and I describe the woman who just left the room. That’s how I get him to laugh again. But it is a nervous little laugh dissolving into sharp, confused emotions.
That woman was my mother, he says. He claims that thirty-one years have passed and she barely started me before something happened to her, but he doesn’t explain. This is all unexpected. I am not expected.
I nod and smile, watching him cry.
He wants to hear about the woman.
I tell him everything.
And then she left?
I tell how the patch darkened, interrupting us, and I describe the purse and how she carried it and the last troubled look that she showed me, and what does it mean that I’m not finished?
It means you are small and nearly invisible, he says. It means that you have existed for three decades without anybody noticing.
But time has no weight. No object outside this room has consequences, and this young man standing out in the hallway is no more real than the painted haystacks on the walls. What I want is for the woman to return. I want her weight and reality, and that’s what I tell this stranger.
Shaking his head, he tells me that I am unreal.
Why he would lie is a mystery.
He mentions his father and cries while looking at me. Do I know that his father died before he was born?
An unreal person can never be born, I think.
You were begun but only just begun, he keeps saying. Then he admits that he doesn’t know what to do with me. As if he has any say in these matters. His final act is to turn and vanish, never trying to step inside the room.
But he wasn’t real to begin with. I know this. What cannot stand beside me is false and suspicious, and the lesson gives me more weight, more substance, the epiphany carrying me forward.
Another man appears.
Like the first man, he cannot or will not step out of the hallway. He looks at my face and body and face again. He wears a necklace and sturdy boots and odd clothes that can’t stay one color. He says that it took him forever to find me, and finding me was the easiest part of his job. Operating systems were changed after the Cleansing. He had to resurrect codes and passwords and build machines that haven’t existed in quite some time. Then on top of that, he had to master a dialect that died off ages ago.
He wants to know if he’s making any sense.
He is a madman and I tell him so.
I found your file logs, he says, laughing and nodding. Stored in another server and mislabeled, but that was just another stumbling block.
I don’t know what that means.
He claims that his great-grandfather was the last person to visit me.
Phantoms like to tell stories. I nod politely at his story, saying nothing.
He tells me that the man lived to be one hundred and fifty, but he died recently. There was a will, and my location was mentioned in the will. Until then I was a family legend—a legend wrapped around twin tragedies. His great grandfather’s father was killed in the Fourth Gulf War, and his great-great-grandmother missed him terribly. She was the one who began me. She spent quite a lot of money, using medical records and digital files to create a facsimile of her soul mate. And she would have finished me, at least as far as the software of the day would have allowed. But her son was hurt at daycare. He fell and cut himself, and she was hurrying to the hospital when a stupid kid driver shut off his car’s autopilot and ran her down in the street. The boy wasn’t seriously hurt. What mattered was that the boy, his great-grandfather, was three and orphaned, and a drunken aunt ended up raising him, and for the rest of his many, many days, that man felt cheated and miserable.
I listen to every word, nodding patiently.
He wants to know what I think of the story.
He is crazy but I prefer to say nothing.
Frowning, he tells me that a great deal of work brought him to this point. He says that I should be more appreciative and impressed. Then he asks if I understand how I managed to survive for this long.
But no time has passed, I reply.
He waves a hand, dismissing my words. You are very small, he says. Tiny files that are never opened can resist corruption.
I am not small. I am everything.
He has copied me, he claims. He says that he intends to finish the new copy, as best he can. But he will leave the original alone.
Pausing, he waits for my thanks.
I say nothing, showing him a grim, suspicious face.
But you do need clothes, he says.
Except this is how I am.
My great-great grandma had some plan for you, he says. But I won’t think about that, he says. And besides, clothes won’t take much room in the file.
My body feels different.
Much better, he says, and steps out of view.
Time becomes real when the mind has great work to do. My first eternity is spent picking at the trousers and shirt, eroding them until they fall away, threads of changing color sprawled across the eternal carpet.
Yet nothing is eternal. Each of the haystacks begins with the same pleasantly rounded shape, but some have turned lumpy and ragged at the edges, while my favorite stack has a large gap eaten through its middle. And I remember the straw having colors instead of that faded uniform gray. And I remember the sofa being soft buttery yellow, and the room’s walls were never this rough looking, and the colored threads have vanished entirely, which seems good. But the carpet looks softer and feels softer than seems right, my feet practically melting into their nature.
Portions of my room are falling apart.
As an experiment, I study the nearest haystack until I know it perfectly, and then I shut my eyes and wait and wait and wait still longer, remembering everything; when I look again the painting has changed but I can’t seem to decide how it has changed. Which means the problem perhaps lies in my memory, or maybe with my perishable mind.
Fear gives me ideas.
My legs have never moved and they don’t know how. I have to teach them to walk, one after the other. Each step requires learning and practice and more time than I can hope to measure. But at least my one hand knows how to reach out and grab hold. I push at the window’s blinds, but for all of my effort, nothing is visible except a dull grayish-black rectangle that means nothing to me.
Stepping backwards is more difficult than walking forwards. But turning around is nearly impossible, and I give up. In little steps, I retreat to the place where I began. The carpet remembers my feet, but the carpet feels only half-real. Or my feet are beginning to dissolve. The woman will be here soon. I tell myself that even when I don’t believe it, and the fear grows worse. I start to look at my favorite hand, studying each finger, noting how the flesh has grown hairless and very simple, the nails on the end of every finger swallowed by the simple skin.
A stranger suddenly comes to the door.
Hello, it says.
What it looks like is impossible to describe. I have no words to hang on what I see, and maybe there is nothing to see. But my feeling is that the visitor is smiling and happy, and it sounds like a happy voice asking how I am feeling.
I am nearly dead, I say.
There is death and there is life, it tells me. You are still one thing, which means you are not the other.
I am alive.
It claims that I am lucky. It tells me much about systems and files and the history of machines that have survived in their sleep mode, lasting thousands of years past every estimate of what was possible.
I am a fluke and alive, and my guest says something about tidying the room and me.
The work takes no time.
My favorite hand is the way it began. My favorite haystack is rather like it began in terms of color and shape. Legs that never moved until recently barely complain when I walk across the room. It never occurred to me that I could reach into the haystack paintings, touching those mounds of dead grass. Some feel cool, some warm. I sing out my pleasure, and even my voice feels new.
My guest watches me, making small last adjustments.
Because it is proper, I thank it for its help.
But the original file is gone now, it says.
I ask what that means.
It tells me that I am a copy of the file, filtered and enhanced according to the best tools available.
Once more, I offer my thanks.
And with a voice that conveys importance, my guest tells me that I have a new purpose. What I am will be copied once more, but this time as a kind of light that can pierce dust and distance and might never end its travels across the galaxy and beyond.
I don’t understand, and I tell it so.
Then my friend does one last task, and everything is apparent to me.
I ask when am I going to be sent.
In another few moments, it promises.
For the last time, I thank my benefactor. Then I let my legs turn me around, looking at the door that was always behind me.
A second room waits. The bed is longer than it is wide and rectangular and neatly made. Pillows are stacked high against the headboard, and identical nightstands sport tall candles that have not stopped burning in some great span of time. I know this other room. I think of her and the room and step toward the door and then suffer for my eagerness.
What is wrong? asks a new voice.
I turn back. A creature with many arms stands in the hallway.
You appear agitated, says the creature.
Which is true, but I am not sure why I feel this way. I stare into a face that seems buried in the creature’s chest, hanging word after inadequate word on my emotions.
You are interesting, says the creature.
I am nothing but a file with a name and a few rough qualities.
But my new companion dismisses my harsh outlook. Every arm moves, drawing complex shapes in the air. You are part of a large cultural package, it says, and do you know how long you have been traveling in space?
I could guess, I say. I could invent infinite estimates, all but one of them wrong.
And then it laughs, revealing a reassuring humor. Even this strange laugh makes me happier than I was before.
An eight billion year voyage, it says.
That seems like an unlikely, preposterous figure, and it shakes me.
It explains that it can’t determine which star was mine, and my galaxy barely wears a name, and most of the data that came with me has been lost to the vagaries of time and the great distance being covered.
But here you stand, it says.
I am standing, but sad. My savior is full of hearty laughter, yet I feel sick and sorry and lost.
She is gone forever, I say.
It knows whom I am talking about. It measures my misery and learns what it can from my longing, and then at the end, as if delivering the punch line of a joke, it laughs and says:
But the universe is infinite, and in too many ways to count.
I don’t know what that means.
Infinite means eternal, it says, and eternal means that nothing is unthinkable, and what can be imagined is inevitable.
But when? I ask.
And again, the alien laughs, saying:
Are you hearing me? There is no such monster as “when.”
I am a file and I am protected and I don’t know where I am or how well I am protected. Time stretches, and I suspect that I exist mostly inside some sleep mode, probably initiating only when I blink my eyes.
Once again, the two rooms decay and the haystacks fall apart and I forget how to move and forget a great deal more too.
Beyond the walls, worlds die and dissolve away.
Little flickers tear the walls to pieces, but the pieces knit themselves back together, and I wait, and wait, and then she comes through the door once again. Her clothes are different. There is no eye patch and no purse. But while I am uncertain about much, I know that beautiful face.
It took me a little while, she explains.
She walks toward me, pulling the pins out of her brown hair.
And that’s when I remember what I was going to tell her that first time that we met.
I won’t ever let you out of this room, darling.
I say it now.
She thinks that is funny and wonderful, and laughs.
And in another moment, I can’t remember anything else that ever happened. The universe is nothing but the two of us holding each other, laughing ourselves sick.