“What We Keep”

Short Story by Ava Reiss

Mansako replaced a joint in his hip. It had been loose for a while, but they had lost track of the repair kit. He debated heavily on whether it was even worth the time. True, the worn joint made walking troublesome, but they wouldn’t be on Earth much longer. He and half-dozen individuals were the Record Keepers. The last human consciousness on Earth.

            When the kit turned up during moving, he thought, “Sure, why not?”

            They routinely moved deeper into the tunnels. The large structures once held other names, but Mansako couldn’t recall. It was lost information. So they referred to the tunnels by letters.

            When the sun had started to expand, plans were initiated to move to Mars. The effort needed to be coordinated, but the nations of Earth struggled to find agreement. They argued over what country should inhabit which section of Mars. Blood was shed. In the meantime, much of civilization moved underground to escape radiation.

            When a deal was finally struck and terraforming began on the red planet, the Earth was barely sustainable. Most surviving humans left in a hurry.

Yet, there was consensus none wanted their history to perish with the Earth.

            Thus, the Record Keepers volunteered to have their consciousness transferred into android forms. They would remain behind, without need for food and water. Daily, they worked to record and transmit Earth’s history to databases on Mars.

Centuries passed and their work was nearly complete, and in good time too. Even their artificial bodies could no longer survive the surface of Earth. They had anticipated this, and moved many artifacts underground. At their leisure, they could continue their work. Once their task was finished, each would transmit themselves to another robotic form on Mars.

Mansako lifted his box of personal belongings and marched into tunnel D. He stared at the mishmash: A baseball from his childhood. A fossil. A lock of hair. The rest were handwritten letters. The arcane practice became a fad around the time the exodus to Mars had occurred. He had a lover and she hadn’t wanted him to stay. But Mansako felt it validated him to become a Record Keeper.

He scratched his head. Not that he had any hair. It was a tic from his behavioral code. Mansako couldn’t precisely recall the feeling of validation

“Fernia cried a lot,” Mansako recalled her saying so in the letters. He knew it should bother him but… it didn’t. He also wasn’t sure why he kept the letters. Mansako knew logically they were personal. But realistically, he felt no attachment. They were merely another stack of things he would scan to Mars.

Yet, parting with them seemed wrong. Perhaps it was another behavioral tic.

“Fernia died four hundred years ago…”

In the last letter to him, she said he had changed. That he wasn’t human anymore. Mansako didn’t understand what she meant. She broke up with him shortly after. He looked her up years later. He saw she had married and birthed three children. It was something she once described as her dream of a happy life. He felt satisfied for her.

Mansako’s happiness was in preserving human history.

He thought about smiling and the code for simulating joy was triggered. His android form would’ve reflected the thought, except his face coils were damaged. Half of his features sagged, unresponsive.

Mansako saw the other Record Keepers gathered around large metal tubes. Tunnel D had mostly been unexplored, and there were things left behind by previous inhabitants. His coworkers were peering into one tube with a glass window. Mansako set his box down and joined his coworkers. There were eight tubes in all, attached to a computing unit. Five were empty. Two held corpses.

The last one contained a perfectly preserved woman.

Tatiana was attempting to find an interface port with the mainframe. “I can attempt syncing one of my OS’ to see what information I can glean.” 

Loosil found one first. “I can do it,” he offered.

“Please,” Tatiana responded.

Loosil connected, and a moment later, he announced, “The meta data is damaged. I don’t know who she is. But she was a cryogenic experiment to a company that folded before the exodus. In the hurry, they abandoned her.”

“What do we do?” Tatiana asked.

“Simple,” Mansako responded. “She is a part of history. So we will transmit her consciousness as we do with all history. We will message Mars ahead of time and inform them to prepare an artificial body.”

“Appropriate suggestion,” Loosil commended.

“We must first wake her so we can copy her brain activity,” Tatiana said.

Loosil’s eyes flashed green as he interfaced again. “I have retrieved awakening procedures. Commencing now.”

Mansako and the others gathered curiously. None had seen a biological being in centuries.

There was a hiss and the metal tube vented gas. The top half lifted. Mansako’s sensors detected nitrogen and oxygen levels from before the exodus. He leaned his face close to get a better reading. Marveling at the state of the atmosphere from the past, he didn’t pay attention to the waking woman.

There was a moan. As the biological being tried to sit up, she bumped into Mansako. “Ow! What is this? A weird floor lamp?” She grabbed Mansako’s arm.

“Excuse me,” he shifted his eyes to her. Mansako felt the left one stick at an awkward angle. Those darn face coils.

Her lips opened and a shrill sound echoed off the walls of tunnel D.

The androids raced forward, concerned their biological being was injured. They had a wealth of medical knowledge in their databases, and were eager to assist.

The woman jumped behind the tube in a spry action. Mansako didn’t recall humans typically moving that fast. Perhaps something had frightened her and her sympathetic nervous system kicked in.

“Please, we’re here to help,” Tatiana spoke.

A slew of curse words exploded from the biological woman’s mouth. Followed by, “ROBOTS HAVE TAKEN OVER THE WORLD!” She found a deteriorated leg on the ground. Loosil had tossed it yesterday. She swung it wildly, catching Schemus in the head. His skull came loose and rolled beneath a table.

Mansako sighed. It wasn’t going to be easy to reattach. It might be a good thing for Schemus though. One of his vertebrae had been locking and he couldn’t look to the right. They could correct it during reattachment.

The woman continued swinging. The Record Keepers stayed back, trying to prevent future repairs.

“Please listen,” Loosil attempted to soothe. “We’re here to help send you to Mars.”

She stopped swinging. The leg held tenuously between her and the Record Keepers. “Did everyone finally go?” she demanded.

“Yes, and we’re going to send you there too. If you’d cooperate.”

She gulped, “Okay. Where’s the ship?”

“What ship?” Loosil asked.

“The ship to Mars!” Her grip tightened and her face grew red. Mansako tilted his head, fascinated by her change in mood.

“There is no ship. We are sending you there the same way we will be leaving Earth. By transmitting your consciousness.”

Her brow lowered, “There’s no ship?”

“No. They all left five hundred years ago.”

The broken android leg started swinging again. The woman dashed out of the tunnel. “Get me outta here!” she screamed.

“You cannot go above ground!” Mansako called after her. “You will die and we will melt before our assignment is complete!”

“She’s headed towards the gate to tunnel C,” Loosil declared, tracking her position through the walls with heat-seeking vision. Tunnel C sat above tunnel D, and was from there they had moved.

“That’s alright. Biological forms will tire eventually,” Tatiana spoke optimistically.

“You sealed the exits to tunnel B, correct?” Schemus’ voice came from underneath the table. Tunnel B had become uninhabitable for even androids. Their heat-seeking vision showed nothing there but a sea of red.

The Record Keepers exchanged looks. “I did not,” each took turns saying.

“Why would we need to? We all know better than to reenter tunnel B,” Loosil responded.

Tatiana gulped, “But she doesn’t.”

The Record Keepers galvanized in unison, all dashing and calling for the biological form to stop.

As Mansako ran, his hip started to lock. He hadn’t greased it yet. The uneven pacing made him trip and he hobbled behind the rest. He passed by artifacts of tunnel C and felt his code for pride activate. Their information had all been transmitted to Mars. Their work was so close to completion. Tunnel D was the last.

As he neared the gate to tunnel B, his sensors went on the fritz. His gauges detected high temperatures, and he saw artifacts instantaneously incinerate. “Tunnel B has been breached!”

Mansako froze in his tracks. A difficult decision stood before him. He could head back to tunnel D and attempt to seal himself in. Hopefully in time to save the artifacts. Then, it would just be him and Schemus finishing the assignment.

Mansako gazed towards the red spewing from a circular door. Or he could seal the gate to tunnel B and save what Record Keepers he could. His body might hold up to the challenge.

Fernia surfaced in his thoughts. She had said that he left her behind. That he should feel guilty. Mansako wasn’t sure what type of synthetic body was waiting for him on Mars. But if it had a guilt processor, he didn’t want to trigger it.

He staggered towards tunnel B.

Before he turned the last corner, the temperature dropped.

When Mansako approached the gate, he saw android forms melted against the frame. They had managed to shut it. The biological woman was nowhere to be seen. Not surprising. No trace of her could’ve withstood the temperature of tunnel B. It was unexpected that she even survived tunnel C. It ran around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Perhaps chemicals from her cryogenic state still ran in her body, dulling pain receptors.

Mansako inspected his friends’ CPUs. To his chagrin, most were fried beyond salvaging. Only Loosil and Tatiana’s appeared hopeful. Mansako carefully cradled them in his palm. With a sigh, he limped back to tunnel D.

On the way, he deliberately sealed tunnel C.

“What happened?” Schemus cried. “There was a ruckus, then lots of flammables disappeared in here! And you!” Schemus tried to roll out from under the table. He rocked feebly. “You appear half-melted!”

Startled by Schemus’ words, Mansako ran to his box. The baseball was a charred orb. The fossil cracked. All of Fernia’s letters and her lock of hair were gone.

Mansako sighed. A code was tripped, one he hadn’t thought of in a long time. He became debilitated.

He slowly realized it wasn’t that the words of her letters and genome sequence were gone. No. He had those scanned into his personal database. What was missing was the connection to her. Fernia had touched those papers. The hair was compiled by her cells and blew against her cheek. When Mansako stroked it, it activated a memory code in a different way than if he merely thought of brushing her hair.

Mansako stared dumbfounded at the artifacts surrounding him. “Schemus?”

“Yeah?”

“Has it ever occurred to you we’ve only been sending shadows to Mars? That the real history of people lies in the very objects themselves?”
            “I don’t know Mansako. Why are you speaking like this?”

Mansako walked to his friend and retrieved his head. He set him carefully on a lopsided table. “We’ve been ‘alive’ for five centuries. Yet, why are the things we keep in our memory boxes all from before that time?”

“Thank you.” Schemus said as Mansako placed a stone carving to keep his head from sliding off. He blinked thoughtfully, “Are you saying to be alive is form new memories?”

“No. Because I can remember in crystal clarity every item we’d documented. They’re new memories, on old things. Totems that have built empires, and stood for hope… icons of monumental significance to masses.” Mansako scratched his head. “But I haven’t been able to trigger my emotional code unless it’s in relation to something in my personal past.”

There was a moment of silence. Schemus then asked, “Are you saying we died for nothing?” His brow furrowed, distraught.

Mansako unfurled his titanium fingers and gazed at Tatiana and Loosil’s chips. He retrieved an image of their biological forms, photos taken five hundred years ago. A wave of sentimentality swept over him, reminding briefly of a quality Fernia described as ‘human.’

“I don’t know,” Mansako spoke wistfully. “But why do we keep what we keep if the significance is something to be shared between people? Shouldn’t the memory of it be enough?”

About the Story:

Ava dreamt most of the story, especially parts about the sun expanding and transmitting consciousness to Mars. She also dreamt of the biological woman awaking from a cryogenic state to discover the world was no longer how she left it. In the dream, there was more going on with the woman being terrified of the androids and trying to breach the surface. Ava dusted the story with attributes of herself battling pack rat tendencies. She’s paranoid she’ll become a hoarder, buried in stuff she’s convinced holds sentimental value.

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

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