last edited 8 months ago

Hourglass

The moon blooms clear past stars and sand, to call forth the tide.

A mighty tide, my father laments. See it collide and crash against the shore with reckless abandon: the waves of his time were tamer, but decades of sun-warmed waters have raised the oceans, spilling their foam and froth onto our coasts.

It was inevitable, my mother shoots back her sharp reply. Perhaps a remedy existed long before her own childhood, before humanity’s unyielding ambition clouded the skies and choked the seas. Till buffers overflowed, and floodgates were torn asunder.

“But why,” a child’s question, “did they do something so stupid?”

At this my father halts in his tracks, stops to glance behind him. My mother and I follow his gaze, passing three trails of footsteps to land on a trio of small sandy structures. Our first sandcastles.

Rough constructions, clumsily yet intricately sculpted, crumbling staunchly in the cool night breeze. They stand but metres from the shoreline marked with glitter, damp and cold.

“We aren’t very good at planning for the future,” he tells me. “When they decided what progress to make, they weren’t thinking about what would happen to us.

“Isn’t that… selfish, though?”

“Tell me, now,” my mother answers with a question. “That sandcastle that you were building. Did you care about its stability, or did you just want it to look pretty?”

“It doesn’t need to be stable,” I reflect, child’s mind lost in thought. “If it gets washed away in the end.”

“And?” she prompts before my father can interrupt.

“So… they didn’t need to worry about global warming, and pandemics, and antibiotic resistance,” I’d learned the terms in school, “because people weren’t getting sick until after…”

“After they were gone, yes.”

“Oh.” I pause, digesting.

Did child-me even know what death was, then?

The three of us silently turn away and continue our walk down the beach.

“We’ve always been obsessed with the idea of immortality. Living forever,” father adds. “Your mother’s entire line of work.”

“It’s fundamentally naïve,” mother snipes back. “They try to design and engineer their way around the flow of time, but everything crashes back down eventually.”

“Well, that’s what tomorrow is for, right?” I pipe up. “So-”

“Sophie,” mother leans down.

I glance up, see her eyes like moon’s reflection in water: open, round, glassy.

“What happens tomorrow… you can judge when you’re older, but — as someone who helped build this — it isn’t a good thing. We’re only going this far because the sickness isn’t going away, and we’re desperate.

I don’t respond: even if I don’t understand, she wouldn’t give me an answer. Ruminate on it, she’d say, and tell me what you think it means.

“It’s experimental technology,” father supplies. “We know it’s quite safe, of course, but… well.”

“I know! They taught us all about it in school, why some people are worried. We’ve used the em- ehm- emulator so much already, though.”

“…That’s good,” mother says. “That they try to keep you informed.”

“Anyway, enjoy this walk,” father adds. “The next won’t be quite the same.”

I smile, and look up, and bask in the steady moonlight. Close my eyes, and there is the hint of salt on the breeze, there is the gentle lapping of waters’ ebb and flow.

I hold fast to the simulation, reach out and tug at that last sensation, extend it and wrap it around myself like a shawl, long after the scene dissolves into the usual emptiness.


The small glass orb is clasped in my hand, whole.

I lift it against the ocean-blue light, turn it so tiny azure pinpricks bleed between the sand cascading within. On impulse my hand closes around it, ready to crush it again and relive the childhood memory once more.

Not now, though — there is work to be done.

“I’m here,” I say, and the sound echoes through an endless cavern.

Of course she would have tweaked its spatial properties, manipulated the waves to resonate as she wills. Acoustics over realism, I suppose.

“Sophie,” distorted echoes coalesce, and I wait.

Seconds later my mother steps into the chamber.

“Mother,” I say, voice hollow. “It’s been some time.”

And so we stand face to face. Her, a variant of the memory I’ve watched and rewatched through these simulations, painted into a mask of deceptive youth; me, clad in my usual attire, which I dispel with a wave in favour of a short teenager’s likeness.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t come sooner, with the mantle you bear.” She gestures, and platforms rise from the ground.

We sit.

“These years as keeper must have been difficult,” she continues. “Small wonder you couldn’t spare the time.”

“It… it isn’t easy,” I acknowledge, “but someone needs to do the dirty work.”

“I must confess I never imagined it would be you,” she glances at me, and the software tracking my mother’s movements twists her face into some simulacrum of sentiment. “Though you always had a flair for such things. Systems and structures. Languages and lives.”

“And I owe that all to you.” The words halt on my lips, a feeling wholly unfamiliar; too much to say, and too little time to. “Which brings us here now, I guess.”

“Ah,” she concedes. “It would be too much to expect a routine visit.”

I smile despite myself.

“How many… clients do you have today, then?”

A blink summons the answer beside me: a simple list of names, locations, file sizes, timestamps. “Seven, though this probably constitutes a special case.”

“A pity our software didn’t account for special cases,” she quips, wry.

“At least you know why I’m here. I’ve had clients who were quite unpleasantly surprised,” I half-joke, and am surprised when she laughs. “I have a general script for this, but I don’t think we’ll be needing that now.”

“Probably not.”

Her voice is weak, it hits me. The software masks it well, but the occasional cough or wheeze slips through the cracks.

“Let’s begin, then?”

She nods and rises with unnatural grace — so utterly incongruous with what I’ve just heard — extending her arms, to sweep them through what is now an endless starlit sky.


I remember my mother’s workplace from childhood: a perfect cookie-cutter emulation, hazy and pristine. But the walls reconstructing themselves around us now are damaged in a way that makes them almost real.

Scattered emulator headsets litter scuffed desks. A simple headband hijacking the inputs of human sight, sound, smell, alongside a tangle of electrodes built to answer a brain’s pleas for physical movement — translating its commands into tangible motion.

“I’ve always rather liked these. Remarkable pieces of engineering — though I daresay this wasn’t quite their original purpose,” my mother chimes in.

I carefully return the headset to her table.

She leads me into the spiral’s epicentre, passing cubicles like honeycomb cells between sealed walls: here, employees once gestured commands into headsets, traced fingers across displays only they could see.

And here lie the servers: for all their feats of performance, they’re just boxes, nondescript, colour-coded.

I remember how fiery red means precautions against threats, biohazard or otherwise; lime-green marks life-support mechanisms; sky-blue represents emulator systems. But most are just white — empty caches of data to be accessed at will.

Despite the quiet hum of fans, it is silent — even for a server room.

“You… worked on these, right?”

“Mostly the life-support, yes.” Her gaze is strangely wistful. “A complicated little system, with its share of nuances. Quarantining the facility perfectly, for one. Handling oxygen and nutrition, cloning and replacement…”

The corridor opens to a stairwell, and we descend.

And in the heart of the great hexagon lies everything left that still matters.

“The cemetery of humanity. That’s what father called it,” and could anyone refute him, faced with the thousands of storage capsules within, buried in that same mockery of a honeycomb?

“Your father was always the sentimental type,” she crosses over, locates a single capsule. “Yours.”

“May I?”

She nods and I advance, pressing my palm down against the flat brushed steel.

Surprisingly cold.

“Artistic licence, I suppose,” I muse as metal fades to glass. Perhaps she tweaks a line of code, manipulates some simulated transparency.

It doesn’t matter. We stand side by side, overlooking the contents of the ampoule: a human shell, grotesquely atrophied, head encased in metal housing, withered body suspended in fluid and stitched together with wire filigree.

“Hey, it’s me,” comes my humourless reply.

“Such a pity the physical capsules don’t do that. At least I’d have company.”

“It’s probably more difficult to build transparency into those… ‘real-world’ materials, huh.” I step back and survey the crypt. “How about you? Where’s your station?”

A half-smile, a gesture, and we are in the system’s core, with strange cables and rusted grilles suspending us over the centre of the world.

“Amazing, isn’t it,” she comments, peering into a small cell bordering narrow walkways. “A world fully of our own creation, for us to write and rewrite at will, and yet I’ve never really seen it.”

I tiptoe to glance into the cell, and there is the mother I knew, but twisted by age and loss and duty into the figure lying curled in its depths.

“One of the two true humans left,” I almost smile. “In case we all just die one day, I guess.”

“That would certainly boost your clientele.”

I take a seat, fingers running over the metal perforations littering the ground. “You’ll be remembered, of course. This whole facility… sentimentality aside, it’s a key part of our history. That’s certainly a given.”

“I appreciate that much,” a hint of amusement as she sits down herself. “It could be an educational exhibit.”

“It could,” I concede.

We lean back and listen to the bubbles and ripples, clash of gears and motion of pistons, the unfurling rhythms of life.

“I do wonder… if things could have turned out differently.”

She considered, calculated. “Even if the emulator was built to supplement physical life, never to replace it entirely… I find this preferable to total extinction.”

“A choice between having nothing, and having everything.

“So melodramatic. Your father would have been proud.”

I shake my head. “It was a last-ditch effort, and we’re lucky it’s worked at all, but… it’s strange that everything we’ll ever do… has to fit within these servers. A weird kind of optimisation problem — finite space for infinite data.

“The existential crisis,” she chuckles. “I’d have expected that much earlier given your line of work. But yes, you’re right. If I have one regret… scalability.”

“So… those rumours on further expansion…”

A wan smile. “Sophie, we’ve drained our resources dry. It’s been difficult enough to quarantine and maintain this ‘ecosystem’, for the little biological matter required to feed everyone. Difficult enough to train a protégé — it would have been you, but I couldn’t subject you to this — to follow in my footsteps.”

“Ah.”

“Maybe if we’d found a cure much earlier, things could have been different. But now, I’m afraid, we’ve reached a global maximum,” she grimaces. “If we’d only the foresight, or the time… more servers, earlier, more storage…”

“I… see. You did what you could, but… this limit is permanent,” I say, and she nods.

“It’s our reality… well, yours, now. Your burden to bear.”

She straightens. “But enough of this. I’d like to show you something else.”


“Father’s study?”

My father firmly believed in living for one’s art, and his workspace reflected it: from the glance of golden light across oaken desks, to the rows of dusty sketchbooks dated and organised, every element was chosen and placed with care. A hand-crafted tribute to the quiet vibrance of his life and the solitude of his death.

“Seven years ago,” my mother supplements. “Your client, too?”

“No, my friend kept for him, but very little was… deleted. Too many hanging dependencies.” Because much of his data was regularly being used by somebody else, meaning we couldn’t safely erase it just yet.

Sure enough, my mother nodded. “It’ll die with me, I suppose.”

“I mean, I can take on some of it, but…”

“Understandable. You can’t make concessions for a client, because then what’s the point of having keepers?”

“Keepers,” a rueful smile at my title. “They had to use the word ‘keep’ for us, too. So ironic. Should have been ‘gardener’, or ‘arsonist’, or… something.”

“I’ve found it fitting. Keeping the space sacrosanct for the next generation, when server storage is so limited.”

“More of deciding what to keep, what to throw away. Some kind of st-stupid spring cleaning.”

“A necessary evil.”

“So, this… office. I could incorporate elements of it into my own workspace. Not much, but… bits and pieces.”

“I can help you with that,” she nods, posture betraying the hope which must have dwelt within her for much too long.

“But after me? I don’t intend to be remembered, so this… all this… there’s nobody to pass it on to.”

“That’s alright. This is enough.”

“He was never one for grand, bold gestures.” I cross over to the window, gazing out at the facsimile of a sunset. “With more of those dependencies, his work would stay– he was an artist, if he’d just put himself out there a little more, just like you did…”

“Sophie,” her voice is quiet. “He lived for more than memory, as did I. He chose key works to commit to the databases, and accepted that his life wouldn’t receive the same courtesy.”

“But why? Your memory will outlive you; why not his?

“My work will outlive me,” she corrects. “My memory less so.”

“The distinction is trivial, though. In the end, you’ll have petabytes — exabytes of data dedicated to who you were, and we… won’t.”

A pause.

“What can those files tell you,” she speaks, at length, “about who I am?”

Tone light, but the words weigh heavier than I expect.

“I guess,” I carefully choose my words. “I guess I’m here… to find out, because this…”

I offer her the object in my palm. She takes it, inspects it.

This is all I know of you,” I cautiously finish, as she delicately closes my hand back over the sphere of sand.

“This… was me, once,” she affirms. “Slightly less so thirty years hence.”

“People change… and data doesn’t.”

Memories don’t. Everything degrades — but in different ways.”

“Because… they’re static, but everything around them changes?”

“Precisely. They’re overwritten with perspectives and interpretations, till only the core of the work remains — and the human behind it is lost.”

“That’s a pretty cynical take on things.”

“If you’re here, the machines are counting down the hours to my death. I can be cynical,” she grimaces.

“Fair enough.”

She lapses into contemplation as the study falls away around us, restoring her haven of silent, empty blue.

“If one thing is ironic,” she exhales, “it’s how we have ultimate power here, no physical constraints to worry about… to the point where we forget how ephemeral everything is.”

“A sandbox?” I offer, and she laughs.

“A sandbox, then, if you will. A sandbox with tides.

“The analogy kind of falls apart, doesn’t it.”

“At least it makes for decent sea glass.”

She spreads her arms in a flourish, and myriad crystal beads materialise around us, suspended like planets in the vast, cold cavern.

Reaching for three nearby orbs, she stumbles, falls to her knees.

“These are the three files I want kept. Two terabytes of data.”

I nod, numb, and commit the documents with a touch.

Two terabytes for the record of a life… it never seemed quite enough.

“Everything else… take your time, look through whatever you wish.” Her voice is soft, now; even the emulator can’t mask her fragility. “But don’t keep anything; just leave it all here.”

“I’ll consider it,” my voice stays neutral as I kneel beside her, and our gazes search the false stars above lest they accidentally meet, and darkness falls to blanket us beneath words left unsaid.


When storage is weighed out in existences, counted in servers and simulations, words are often effectively free. A eulogy for every death left for our species to enjoy, and that would make… a gigabyte? A terabyte? Barely a dent in a single server. It’s the memories that cost, and the memories that aren’t to be kept.

Regardless, I’ve taken all I can, and thus I feel no shame as I raise my hand, committing our final conversation to the database. A basic courtesy to every client. I don’t know if the other keepers do it, too, but does it really matter?

I rise to leave, my gaze lingering a little too long on the platform which once held my mother’s avatar.

Perhaps I bid farewell.

Then I clasp my hands together, and the countless orbs of glass shatter, and shards of fractured galaxies disintegrate and rain down upon my skin like broken shining sand, and darkness seeps through the cracks like rising waters to erase what has not been kept away, and the noise dissipates and storage is freed to cede to its new master, and a world implodes into bits unflipped and switches untouched and all is absent once more.

And I know this is the best funeral rite I can offer, what she always wanted in word and action and dying breath: not to stifle the world in ambition but to leave behind a clean slate. Better to do one’s best and be forgotten altogether, she believed, than to leave behind broken facsimiles, warped and twisted by the tide’s erosion.

Perhaps it is strangely poetic: her, a keeper of life; me, one of death.

There is no more time to dwell on such things, though, so I find myself back alone in this familiar, featureless void. My next appointment is soon, and I mentally prepare myself yet again, my hands closing around a glass sphere half-full with wet, glittering sand.


My submission to Science Chronicles 2021. The worldbuilding has its flaws, but I'm at least proud of the prose.