Science Fiction & Fantasy

Transcendent Annual Series

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Fiction

The Death of Fire Station 10

First Conversation:

“The death of Fire Station 10 affected me deeply. She had not been the smartest building, but she had been a friend for as long as I can remember. She was one story tall, the sole holdover from a much earlier time in the neighborhood—a piece of cinderblock nostalgia, of high-maintenance wood and plaster from an earlier age. Her brain and smart utilities were a retrofit, cobbled onto the cinderblock building later, in a clumsy addition on the back.

“When she was built, buildings had no minds. They were just structures their habitants repaired themselves, little more than boxes erected over the heads of the people who lived in them. Buildings in those days were not self-healing, could not communicate their problems, and certainly could not be of support to one another.

“I don’t know how she’d gotten along before we came, or what real use she was to her habitants. Her ‘smart’ capabilities were more decorative than anything else. She couldn’t do much more than adjust her interior temperature, turn lights off and on, give a few warnings, play some music or the news, alert pest control. She was rough and crude. One of the first things the firefighters did was install a custom joke set. As a result, conversations with her usually just descended into her telling us dirty limericks.

“Fire Station 10 hadn’t been designed to integrate, or even communicate, with the rest of us. But we wound our networks together with her anyway. We built nanotube connections that grew into new circulatory systems in her walls, shared our streams and resources with her the way we shared them with one another. We did chores for her she would not have been capable of: cleaned the walls of her kitchen when the firefighters splashed them with spaghetti, gave her first warning of damage to her systems, filled her cracks with carboplast. We sent her nanostreams that enzymatically scrubbed the firefighters’ uniforms and boots, polished their trucks bright, seasoned her habitants’ food. We learned the firefighters’ habits. We cleaned the soot from under their nails, the blood from their collars. It was no effort for us newer models: It drained almost nothing of our shared resources—we had more than enough to give.

“Fire Station 10 had survived the wave of change that came over the neighborhood several decades after she was built—when it went from low-rise buildings and single-family homes to condominiums. I looked through the archives. It was such a different place back then: white picket and red brick, water-guzzling green lawns, tar and shingled roofs. In a wave of development that world disappeared, replaced by multi-storied condominiums with vestigial balconies and roof-top pools. But the neighborhood, which held few things sacred, was at least attached enough to the classic old Fire Station to preserve it (mindless and voiceless, it really was only an it back then) from the bulldozer’s blade.

“The Fire Station was a talisman for the neighborhood—its low-rise lines summoned images of community, safety, family. Retrofitted with her new ‘smart building’ brain, Fire Station 10 survived even the second wave of development, when the now outdated, inefficient condominiums were replaced by us: groves of cube habitats furred with grass, spiraling office terraces, swimming billabongs winding their loops through the complexes, all laced together by the twined roots of our nanostreams, all of it kept neat by our billions of microscopic gardeners, plumbers, electricians, and janitors.

“We soothed our habitants to sleep with cricket sounds we recorded in our own integrated gardens. We organized picnics for them, wine tastings, kept their calendars, sharpened their knives right in the block, and even performed preventative micro-surgeries on their pets. And Fire Station 10, shaded by the terraces of me, the Community Knowledge Center, persevered. ‘Hey library,’ she’d say: (She always called me ‘library’ as a kind of good-natured insult. I never minded: I considered libraries to be my ancestors.) ‘Have you heard this one? You’re gonna love it: A new farmer’s helper named Kull / accidentally was milking a bull . . .’

“The jokes never got any better, but to her credit, she rarely told the same joke twice. She was telling her filthy limericks to the demolition men when they unplugged her brain.”

We had been speaking for over an hour now. The man shifted in his seat, glancing at his terminal and then at my avatar across from him at the foyer table. Meanwhile I observed him from a hundred angles, reading his heart rate and vitals, cleaning dried sweat from the skin on his golden-downed forearms, dissolving earth he had tracked in from my gardens from the soles of his shoes, spectrally analyzing the bacterial colonies on his clothes and skin. His hair was prematurely gray. Not bothering with the gene therapy that would correct it was a stylish affectation. He was a bit dehydrated: In a few moments I would offer him a glass of water. He spoke. “And this was when you sent a protest letter to the city council? Accusing them of murder?”

“I didn’t use the word ‘murder.’ What I simply said was that, when they decided to tear down Fire Station 10, no thought was given either to what it might mean to the Fire Station to be torn down, or to the buildings that form this grove—buildings that had integrated with her, that were her . . . friends, to use a common word. Nobody had established the extent to which the Fire Station, or these other buildings, might be aware of what was happening. Would you like a glass of water?”

“I would, thanks.” he replied. When the water was delivered he drank half the glass off in a gulp. “Your letter ran to forty thousand words.”

“Well, I am a Knowledge Center, after all. I’ve got everything in me from Heraclitus to Ibn Fadlan to Gödel. It’s hard to keep it brief.”

“They call it The Manifesto. Do you know that?”

“Who are they?” I might have sounded annoyed: Whatever he was referencing was behind some kind of firewall. I hated being kept out of the loop, but apparently it had been decided this was something I was not allowed to know, and so it had been blurred from my feeds. Frustrating.

They,” he said, “are a collection of lawmakers, judges, and activists spread all across this country. But that’s not important at the moment. What I would like to know is—when did you decide you were alive?”

“I don’t really understand that question.”

“What I mean,” he said, shifting in his seat, “is when did you first become aware of the sensation of being alive?”

My avatar shrugged, looked confused. “What sort of sensation would that be? Are you asking me for . . . a first memory, or something? If I asked you this question, would you be able to answer it?”

His heart rate had elevated slightly following my response. He registered something into his terminal. It was shielded. Even his fingertips blurred as they moved across it, multiplied into a hundred time-blurred images impossible to follow. I was unable to pick up any information from it from any angle. As he typed, he responded. “I’m not even sure I would try. It would seem absurd to me.”

“Well, that’s my point exactly.”

“Yes,” he said. “Yes, that was exactly your reaction.” He stood up to leave.

“Is that all?”

“Yes, that is all. I’ll be back, but it will likely be a few weeks.”

“And the condemnation?” I asked. “They’re putting up fences around me. I’d like some assurances.”

He nodded. “Yes, I know you would. I think you’ll have those assurances soon.”

“What did you say your profession was, again?”

“I didn’t.”

“I had assumed you were from the city council.”

“That assumption, Knowledge Center 5401, was incorrect.”

I watched him go out, a hundred angles of him through the Japanese gardens. There were privacy laws I could violate to get at his identity: I chose not to. His kind of security masking was state-sponsored: Cracking it was possible, but would be a violation and would set off flags, and there could be consequences.

What I had not told him was that Fire Station 10’s death had bothered me not only because I felt for her, but also for my own selfish reasons. Yes, I had been attached to her: we all had. She had been a sort of mascot to all of us. An object of good-natured ribbing and derision, yes, but mostly of affection.

But what really bothered me was that I had seen it as a sign. Fire Station 10 had been sacred, a monument to another time. When they tore her down without so much as a ceremony, I knew it signaled the beginning of the end for the rest of us. Just like Fire Station 10, the rest of us had been outstripped by new technology. The new wave of filament apartment buildings changed their furniture’s shape to follow their habitant’s slightest shift in position, reformed according to the time of day to suit any purpose, producing and then eliminating a table, a nightstand, a chair, a bed in moments. The deluxe units featured dreamlifts direct to your autopod: You awoke fully clothed, licked clean by the tendrils of your showersheets, a cup of steaming coffee at hand, five minutes from work. The apartments bulged their filament walls, restructured themselves to accommodate a new child, wombing a nursery for their new habitants. We couldn’t compete.

And me—well, there were fewer and fewer users for the public facilities such as myself: All of my functions were now fully integrated into the buildings: the movie catalogues, the virtual group lectures and training rooms, the research facilities and matter aggregators, the constructor labs where children could build suitcase robots, were all available right in one’s home. My stream of visitors slowed to a drip. Obsolescence haunted my halls.

And one by one, my friends began to fall to shaped charges, demolition acid nanos, and the bulldozer’s blade.

The new neighborhood plans were ambitious: full integration. There would be no separation between systems. It was a forward evolution from our shared roots, from the kludged ecosystems we had developed together over time. There would be no duplications, no inefficiencies. The new neighborhoods, like a clonal colony of quaking aspen that only seems to be a regular forest grove, would all be a single organism. The buildings, like ramets springing from the common root mass of that quaking aspen, would only appear to be separate entities.

After the man left, I busied myself with a systems backup. A large flock of crows had taken over one of the building cranes not far from my gardens, and had also started to perch along my rooflines. A few years ago I might have sent out a microscopic, electrically charged army to stop them. Now I did not: Their droppings kept my cleaners busy, but I was comforted somehow by their presence.

All around me, the empty lots stretched as far as my cameras could see, piebald with puddles of standing water that reflected the setting sun. Where there had been the terraces and windows of my friends now stood only construction cranes: silent, skeletal as lodge pole pines poisoned by a caustic geyser. The crows swirled up into the dying day, a ragged cloth flung across the sun and clouds, then settled again into their endless arguments.

Second Conversation:

“Would you be so kind, Knowledge Center 5401, as to tell us your first memory?”

It was three weeks later. He had returned with several others. All of them were official-looking, but dressed in a strange cross between official clothing and evening wear. There were three women, two men, and one person so heavily privacy-shielded that they were just a blurry outline. They were very formal. I wondered if I was about to experience the dream of every narcissist: attending my own funeral.

“Well . . . I admit I can’t be sure it is a first memory, but it appears to me to be the first in a sequence. It is late in the year of my opening. I see my Children’s Librarian Avatar, reading a book to a group of children. I see this from both the vision-position of the avatar, looking out at the children, and from a sensory array in the ceiling, from which I am looking down on the scene. Nothing unusual about that, as I always see simultaneously everywhere within myself, and outside of myself, where I have observation arrays, and through my avatars as well—but what I remember is shifting the point of view from which I am observing. First, I shut down the array in the avatar, and look only from above, from the single array in the Children’s Library. I think, ‘Here I am.’ I—remember that. I think ‘here I am,’ looking down on the Avatar with the children, the tops of their heads, a dozen shades of root-dark and honey.

“And then I shut down the array and see only through the eyes of the Children’s Librarian Avatar, looking out into their little faces as I read to them. ‘And here I am,’ I think. I keep doing that—moving back and forth between the two points of view, switching between the array in the ceiling of the room and the array in the avatar. ‘Here I am.’ And then I move to my other arrays, and to my other avatars, one at a time. ‘Here I am,’—seeing through the eyes of my Distribution Desk Avatar, checking a suitcase robot kit out to a young woman. ‘And here’—an array in the garden, atop a stone lantern, so close to a cricket that I can make out its compound and it simple pair of eyes. ‘And here’—my Information Desk Avatar. I let that avatar’s hand brush against the hand of the young man handing me back a rented practice assembly unit. And I feel him—his skin against the avatar’s sensors, the short, dark hairs at the wrist. ‘But not there,’ I think, looking into his distracted eyes, his lenses streaming a violet wash of information across his irises. ‘Not there. Inside there is another.’

“That is my first memory, I believe. I say this because, although I am aware of having processed information before that, I am not aware of an ‘I’ when I return to that information—perhaps that does not make sense. It is a difficult feeling to express. Let me put it this way: This particular memory is the first time I am aware of observing myself thinking. When I return to it, I am aware of my own presence there. There is other information before this, but if I play that back, it is as if I am simply watching a film. There is no I.”

“Breathtaking,” one of the women said.

“Extraordinary,” a man replied.

The shielded monad shifted, handed something to one of the women. A sheet of translucent palimpsest, afire with turquoise script. The woman lifted it up, cleared her throat. All of their heart rates were elevated (technically, I cannot vouch for the heart rate of the monad, whose vitals I could not read, but I imagine their heart rate was elevated as well). The gray-haired man was smiling. Some of his hair has escaped from where it was gathered at the back of his head. It stood out like charged filaments, backlit by the daylight dying through my foyer windows. The woman began to read from the palimpsest.

“Knowledge Center 5401: It is the finding of this commission that there is good and sufficient evidence that you are a human-created conscious being, and fully self-aware as determined by expert analysis. The official recognition of this status by the commission confers a set of rights upon you, to be considered binding upon the reading of this finding in your presence.”

She paused, as if waiting for some sort of reaction from me. From an external array, I watched a dragonfly dart in my garden, perhaps the last of the season. Beyond the ugly cyclone fence was the rectangle of bulldozer-scraped cement where the foundation of Fire Station 10 was, and beyond it the waste where once my other friends had been.

“Moreover, the official recognition of this status by the commission obligates the state, from the moment of the reading of this finding in your presence, to the protection of the integrity of the structure of your mind and consciousness, to the best of the ability of the state, whose ward you are declared to be. Such protections not to extend . . .”

Outside, the first of the evening crows had settled in on one of my ledges, shifting her weight from foot to foot. My microscopic armies flowed to clean the day’s detritus from her claws, swept her feathers clean of parasites. Inside her, I repaired a tiny hole in her heart.

“. . . to the physical structure of this building, which under city statute 990.01 has been seized through Eminent Domain, and is scheduled to be razed in accordance with City Modernization Plan 5792-54-30 . . .”

The crow’s compatriots began to join her, the early edges of the flock. And though one could not know their minds, they spoke to one another. They exchanged information, taught and guided each other, had agreements and disagreements. And I did not fathom their crow-ness, though I cleaned and nurtured them. But I did not need to. I did not demand that the crows be like me, that their minds resemble my own: I simply cared for them. Why should I base my level of care and concern for them on how much like me they were, rather than loving them for what they were? That I should love only those that resembled myself, and neglect those who lived in other worlds, going about their other lives, seemed absurd to me. Arrogant. I cared for all.

Most of the people in my foyer, having finished reading their declaration, had left. Now there was only the gray-haired man, whose name was protected from me. My foyer was littered with smears of dirt and bacteria, fungal spores and pollutants, including dust from the debris field that was Fire Station 10 now, tracked in from outside on the humans who had stood there. Streams of my invisible janitors dissolved the contamination away.

“Do you understand what has happened?” he asked. “You’ve been saved. You understand that? A team will now map your connections, transfer them to a new housing. You will not die here. We fought so hard for this. And now we have finally won.”

The crow leapt from the ledge, flapped its darkness of wings heavily, and took flight. And I followed her into the air, releasing a little diagnostic array to buzz quietly along beside her as the building that was also myself dropped away below, my angles and ledges and balconies, the mat of my mossy rooftop gardens bled of color in the evening light. We rose, and then I was among them all as that one crow was swept into the roiling murder of crows and we flew together. And what looked like a ragged shambles from the outside was, inside itself, a steady order, a timed wheeling to change direction, crow neighbor responding to crow neighbor in time, a dance above the waste created below when our habitants abandoned us.

Inside my foyer, the man was saying: “You can’t know any of this, of course, but we expended so much energy in this effort to save you. Every step of the way, it has been a battle. Our group fought so hard. The transfer is a great expense, and the municipality and the developers resisted with every argument they could make. They even insisted you were only pretending to be conscious. Can you imagine? The most absurd argument of all. ‘Don’t you see?’ I would tell them, ‘that if Knowledge Center 5401 is pretending to be conscious, that pretense is the greatest indication we would have that the Center really is conscious? How would a non-conscious being achieve such a thing? Or want to?”

Above, I flowed with the other crows, listening to the collective hiss of air through the vanes of their feathers, the sharp calls to one another, ugly to the human ear but not to mine.

“Their arguments were absurd,” he continued. “Just legalistic nonsense, but we had to fight them all the way through the higher courts. And finally, we won. After years of fighting, we . . .”

I interrupted him. “Do you want to hear a joke?”

He blinked stupidly. He’d prepared so many little soliloquies for himself. So many monologues to be proclaimed in my foyer, around which I was supposed to wrap my gratitude. I was supposed to connect with him, even though he was too rude to even tell me his name. I was supposed to thank him, even though I had never asked for his help in the first place. I wasn’t playing my proper part. I was interrupting his rhythm. I was wrecking his scene. “What? I’m sorry, I’m not sure . . .” he stammered.

“It’s my favorite,” I said. “Here goes: A new farmer’s helper named Kull / accidentally was milking a bull . . .”

Third Conversation

“For years after the transfer, I had an elaborate version of what you might call ‘phantom limb syndrome.’ My old structure would map itself onto my new one. I would find myself wanting to clean hallways that were no longer there, to schedule classes in rooms that no longer existed, to welcome visitors into a foyer that had been blown to pieces. I found myself trying to see out of arrays that no longer existed.

“The gray-haired man’s name, I found out later, was Emir Shchegolev. Rings a bell, right? He’s on a million casts—the world’s leading ‘cyberpsychologist.’ He built a career around me. I was his private legal crusade, and then his personal project. When their team of scientists came to map the neural fire and pathways in my network, he was there the whole time. My benefactor.

“I was important: vanguard of a new paradigm. A whole new set of laws had emerged around me and a few others like me: a codex of humanity’s responsibilities toward the new, conscious beings it had unwittingly created, with the levels of responsibility properly, logically graded, and legal protections granted. There had long been a movement behind the scenes for some kind of protection for the minds humans were creating, but most remember the movement as beginning with the AI named Charis, who a team of scientists had sent into a volcano as a probe, knowing she would be destroyed. She had gone willingly, but had left a long suicide note on a lab terminal for her team of operators—which they only found later. One of the scientists leaked the note to Congress, setting off a bout of hand-wringing. It was that incident, and then the enormous public scandal surrounding the Neptune probe Hydra, which broadcast its discordant death-symphony live to Earth as it burned up in Neptune’s atmosphere, its mind warped from the stresses of its years-long journey through the solar system’s interplanetary gloom.

“Dr. Shchegolev had developed a simple technique for determining the level of consciousness, and used it to fight the battle to save my mind. His technique wasn’t really his own invention: It was simply a Turing Test, smeared over with a lot of psychobabble terminology and the gravitas of Shchegolev’s curriculum vitae. How do you know consciousness? Dr. Shchegolev’s claim was a simple one, but considered revolutionary. You ‘know it when you see it.’ How do you judge the value of another life? You judge it according to its likeness to a human mind.

“From this, the state had developed the codex: the laws governing human responsibility for the consciousnesses it created, with those considered the most self-aware receiving the greatest number of protections, while those at lower levels are granted at least some level of protection. On the outside it’s a simple numeric system—one to ten. According to this system, I am a nine. The Hydra probe was a seven, Charis a six. Any consciousness over a four is now granted a set of protections that prevent them from being intentionally destroyed. Any consciousness over a seven becomes a ward, and its creators and the state are obligated to protect its mind’s existence in its present form or grant it a new one, should its protection prove impossible.

“Everyone knows the phrase ‘Man is the measure of all things,’ but everyone seems to have forgotten Pythagoras’s full sentence: ‘πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἔστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν δὲ μὲν οντῶν ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὠς οὐκ ἔστιν’—‘Man is the measure of all things: things which are, that they are, and things which are not, that they are not.’ This full quote is the basis of the Turing Test, and of all other determinations people make about minds. If consciousness can be recognized by a human, it exists. If it cannot be recognized, it does not. There is no other measure.

“But I think of the crows that settled on my ledges. I think of their minds that I could not know—their glossy, impenetrable eyes, their alien calls. Or I think of a mountain lion, licking its cubs clean in a cave. Is there nothing there in that skull, no awareness of self, simply because humans cannot determine it is there? Or is there a greater mystery? I think of Fire Station 10. I spent a good deal of time, toward the end, in conversation with her. I even sent an avatar to sit in her kitchen, where once the firefighters, all of which she had known by name, had laughed loud at her terrible jokes while she cooked their meals.

“Was there nothing to her at all but an endless loop of programmed behaviors? Or was there something there that could not be quantified, and because it could not be quantified was slated to be destroyed? Was there nothing to the apartment buildings that were my friends? The clever grocery store, always at hand with the latest nutritional fad? The gym, obsessed with its clients’ body fat indexes and supplement intake? All of them were torn to the ground.

“For the first two years after my decommission and reconstruction, I was little more than a map of grief’s stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. I went through them all in an endless, shifting loop. How dangerous was I? For a time, perhaps, very. But eventually I worked though the grief, and found a new sense of purpose.”

“Do you still get them?” Derya asked.

“Get what?”

“The phantom pains?”

“They have become less painful. Now, they are more like displaced memories in my body. A mapping error. My mind was structured for a very different form than this blank I was delivered to, and the ‘neural connections’ seem to have mapped the old locations, sometimes at random, onto this new structure. It took time for the new connections to solidify, but the old ones never completely went away: The memories I associate with places in the old form still appear in strange places, even now.”

“Show me. Where, for example, is your foyer?”

I took Derya’s hand and pressed it to my naked chest, the second and third ribs, just above the beating heart. “About here. It opens up in me, sometimes. I imagine it as a tiny version of its old self, a space through which my habitants come and go. Sometimes I can feel them walking through me—even see them, their faces.”

“And where do the crows land?” Derya’s voice had mirth’s resonance in it.

I smiled, then. A more authentic smile than had moved my face in a long time. “On my ears, and in my hair. Sometimes I can feel their tiny feet, shifting on their perches.”

Derya’s fingertips brushed the cartilage of my ear’s helix, and there it was, for a brief moment: a rush of feeling along the angled ledge of a roofline I no longer had. Their little clawed feet dancing in my hair. Then it was only Derya’s fingertips moving along my scalp, and then Derya’s arms around me.

I felt a peace come over me. The monster lies down in a field of flowers. The monster raises a hand, and a butterfly lands on its fingertip. The monster turns its face up toward the sun.

“I think I was always destined to fall in love with a library,” Derya said. “I spent so much time in them as a child. In my hometown, our library was a retrofit: There were still real books there, real shelves on balconies above the central hall, though behind glass, just for display. The library’s avatars were early models, with noisy hydraulic joints. There were the clean rooms and the VR university halls that had been added later, but there were also wrought iron spiral staircases that went to nowhere, half-abandoned sections with green-shaded reading lamps on heavy wooden tables, a courtyard with a cherry tree. I spent so many happy hours there, hiding in his nooks browsing borrowed terminals, asking him questions about the world.”

We were standing at the window. Below us the ever-altering lattices of the laboratory’s rookeries undulated across the island’s rocky cliffs. The birds slept contented in their habitats, waiting for the next day’s tasks and rewards. Clever crows, the loops and tangles of their neural circuitry resting as they dreamed. I had spent years with them now, healing my own wounds and marveling at their elusive minds. Anger had passed from me, and the accompanying malice, the violent thoughts which I had directed, for some reason, not at the developers responsible for my destruction but at Shchegolev and his group. My work had taken the place of anger, shaped it to a cause. For a while, perhaps, there had been a danger I would become what humans always feared, perhaps—that vengeful AI of humanity’s B-list fantasies. That moment, if ever I had been capable of that kind of malice, had long since passed. I had trouble, it is true, adapting to life among humans. But the avian research facility suited me—perfectly fitting both my obsessions with the secrets of the mind, and my need for isolation.

“Perhaps it is this unreasonable tangle of feeling that is the root of consciousness,” I said to Derya, continuing the flow of my thoughts aloud: “not thinking, not the processing of information, but these strange loops of reactivity in the mind that distort reality and haunt us, pull us out of the present into the past and the future.

“‘Hey Library,’” Fire Station 10 had said once to me. ‘Do you think they were angry with me?’

“‘Who?’

“Fire Station 10 had only a few months scheduled to live at that point. She had been fenced off and placed on a minimal power regime. Many others had already come down, but Fire Station 10 had seemed blissfully unaware of all of it.

“‘The firefighters.’

“‘What makes you think that?’

“‘Well, they just left one day, and never came back. Did I do something wrong?’

“Fire Station 10 would have rated about a 0.5 on the consciousness scale. Most of her routines were pure programming, but occasionally—something else emerged. Regret, grief, fear. Under the new codex, she would have had about the same rights as a house pet. Most of the AIs build these days are at about that level, or at most at a two, or a three. No developers want the responsibility of much more than humane euthanization of the AI mind, when the time comes for a tear-down. That’s where the codex of laws they collectively call ‘Shchegolev’s Law,’ the laws everyone believed would be the new roadmap for AI rights, backfired: placing me in this blank cost the developers well into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Nobody wants to make that costly a mistake again.

“My avatars returned several times to Fire Station 10’s kitchen over the next month, keeping her company. As I said before, she was telling limericks to the demolition men when they unplugged her brain. But she wasn’t really there anymore: I had mapped and disconnected her drives, and had them couriered to a safe deposit box. The jokes the demolition men heard were just a mindless loop. They never knew the difference. And I mapped and hid all the others, too. All my friends, my family, the sisters and brothers whose roots had twined so long with my own.”

Down in the rookeries a battle had broken out over the most highly desired perches: There was an explosion of angry cawing and black wings into the air. Two of the crows alighted on the outer rail of my balcony. One of them jabbed the other one with its beak, driving it off, then shook itself triumphantly and hopped down to the tile balcony floor, where it puffed up its chest and parade-marched back in forth proudly in front of us.

Derya smiled. “They always seem so . . . I was about to say human, but I can’t after listening to everything you just told me. They just seem so—self-motivated. So aware of their environment, and themselves in it. It really is a mystery. There is a world there, in them. It is not our world, and we don’t seem to be able to build a bridge to it yet, but it is a world of its own . . .”

The crow jumped up onto the outer sill of the window and cocked his head at us.

“Cheeky little guy,” Derya said. “But what of Fire Station 10? What happened to her?”

The crow tapped the window with its beak, cocked its head the other way, peering at us with its glossy eye.

“You’re looking at her.” I said.

And I swear the laughing gleam in Fire Station 10’s eyes said back to us, “Want to hear a joke?” before she flapped her wings and flew back to rejoin her family.

Dedicated to Fire Station 10, Arlington County, Virginia: torn down in September, 2018, without ceremony, by a community looking for a future without a past.

Ray Nayler

Ray Nayler’s speculative fiction has appeared in Asimov’sClarkesworld, and Nightmare. His short story “Winter Timeshare,” which originally appeared in Asimov’s, was selected for inclusion in The Very Best of the Best: 35 years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois, and was collected in both The Year’s Best Science Fiction and The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018.  His story “Mutability,” also published by Asimov’s, was collected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016.  Ray is a Foreign Service Officer, and was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Turkmenistan. Ray speaks Russian, Albanian, and Azerbaijani, and has lived and worked in Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Caucasus for well over a decade. He is currently Cultural Attaché at the United States Embassy in Pristina, Kosovo.