Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for January–March 2019: identity.
“Once upon a time,” Jim said, “in a country called Acirema—”
“Acirema,” I said. “How imaginative, it’s—”
“Do you want me to tell this story or not?” Jim said. His tone was suddenly harsh.
“Sorry,” I said. I’d just woken up, and my head hurt. I was still trying to piece together how he’d ended up here. How I’d allowed him to stay. I glanced at the windowsill—there was the bottle of whiskey someone had given me for my birthday. Empty. That, then, was why my head hurt.
“Go on,” I said, feeling my stomach sink. “Please.”
Jim stood and began pacing the narrow end of the bedroom. “You have to understand,” he said, “that in Acirema, everyone had suffered a great deal as a result of an age of emotional decision-making. Eventually, out of fear for—
“Wait a second,” I said, remembering something from before the whiskey came out. “I’m sorry, but if this is going to be another attempt to persuade me—”
“It’s not. It’s a story about Acirema, and two women who fell in love despite what might have seemed like insurmountable obstacles.”
“OK,” I said. I pulled my knees up to my chest. He was so handsome, I thought. With his shirt off, and that tattoo on his shoulder.
“If you let me talk for a minute,” he said, “I’ll tell you how they met.”
He glanced at me, as if to make sure I wasn’t preparing another interruption. I zipped my lips.
“They met,” he said, “in the library. Most libraries, of course, had long since been replaced by facilities supporting the cloud. Some, however, had been preserved as museums of ancient artifacts. Their public holdings were small, since many reading materials had been banned. But still, it was possible to check out books on science and technology, biographies, historical texts.
“The Arisen—those members of society who had passed their computational logic exam and received their memory chip—valued such historical accounts, as long as they weren’t fantastically written, and as long as they contained only true facts.
“As you can imagine, however, it was a challenge to determine which were the true facts, and which were the fictions. It was to address this very issue that the profession of truth-checker—which could, of course, only be held by an Arisen—eventually developed.
“Pom was a truth-checker. And for this reason, she often visited the library.
“Not all truth-checkers visited physical libraries. But Pom had bad eyes. This is a critical point in the story. Pom—or so she said—had a type of astigmatism that made it more comfortable to read a physical book. Computer screens gave her a headache and corrective surgery came with a risk, however unlikely, of further damaging her vision. Pom thought the inconvenience did not merit the risk.
“This, at least, was her rationale, confirmed by her ophthalmologist, who had listened to her and written the requisite note in his shadowy office, with gold lamps and shelves lined with a surprising number of books.
“And so Pom often found herself in the library, searching the stacks for untruths. And this is where she met Mathilde, our Unarisen, a lowly librarian charged with the task of organizing the stacks and removing all counterfactual books.”
For a moment, Jim paused in front of my bookshelf, which was empty except for a few decorative objects. I wondered how I could tell him to leave, without offending him too directly.
“At this point,” he was saying, pacing again, “I should explain that our Mathilde was a great lover of books. It was for this reason that she did not pass her Arisen exam and never received a memory chip, that gift from the authorities that would process her emotional memories each night, sifting through and removing those knots of feeling that would inevitably lead to rash and unhelpful decisions, then saving them elsewhere, on the cloud, so that though they could not be immediately accessed, they would never be lost.
“Otherwise, Mathilde was an extremely intelligent woman. She would have made a successful ascendant, but she loved reading too much, and it was for this reason that she had taken the job of librarian, which involved the destruction of fictional or counterfactual books. Because she did not want the job to be performed by someone for whom it was easy.
“When Mathilde burned a book, she stroked its cover. She whispered to it. She read its last lines over and over before she slipped it into the flames.
“Mathilde, of course, knew that this was not a logical routine. Books have no feelings. It would be impossible to comfort them before death. And yet. And yet, and yet. It seems our Mathilde was not a logical person, and so she and Pom both went to work in the one library still open in the city where both of them lived.”
It was late morning now, and light had begun to come in through the window, crossing the bed in narrow bands. Later, they’d start to widen, and by early afternoon they’d be golden and fat, rhomboids of light on the bedspread.
“Notsob,” I said.
I wished, again, that I hadn’t drunk so much. I was beginning to feel that awful dusty ache in my throat, something between thirst and loneliness: that empty feeling when you’ve just woken up, and haven’t yet remembered what you knew you’d lost the evening before.
Jim pulled up short. “What?”
“Notsob,” I said, looking at those bands of light. “The city where they both lived.”
Jim paused for a moment, his head tilted to the right. Then he understood, and laughed that quiet, unhappy scrape of a laugh.
“Right,” he said, pacing again. “Right. Notsob. As head memoir inspector in the city of Notsob, Pom was responsible for dividing the library’s memoirs into two stacks: factual, and counterfactual.
“In order to determine this, she arrived promptly each morning, reported to the same carrel in the reading room, and applied to a stack of memoirs that she had selected a complex algorithm involving computations of subjectivity, sentimentality, use of metaphor, and reverse-historical impulse.
“The doomed books piled up, and Pom’s head throbbed from reading so many memoirs. After a long morning of work, Pom’s shoulders ached, and she suffered from headaches. She was often forced to take breaks, laying her head down on the desk, resting her eyes for a moment.
“It was after one of these breaks that Pom opened her eyes and saw a new book—a book she didn’t remember having selected—sitting on the desk in front of her. It was called The Diaries of Mary Bradford. Pom frowned. As you can imagine, she liked to proceed through her stacks in a very particular order. She considered returning the book to its place. but something about its tired presence there on the desk—its green cover was faded and worn, its corners softened—compelled Pom to open it.
“As if, out of politeness, she were opening the door for an old person.
“After skimming through the opening pages—including an introduction by a nephew of the book’s author, who seemed to have felt compelled to make numerous apologies for the author’s gender, her flights of fancy, her inferior intellect—Pom read the first entry, in which Mary Bradford—a girl of 13, born, it seems, in England in the 17th century—prepared for a journey to America.
“For a few pages, Pom was engrossed. Then, remembering herself, she sighed in resignation. Before she’d even started to run her calculations, it was clear that this memoir was not going to pass state standards for historical rigor.
“The diarist’s voice was stilted and false, striving after the tone of a male adventurer she called ‘Sir William Leslie,’ otherwise lost to history. She was nostalgic and sentimental. Her raging against her parents’ choice of a man for her to marry was understandable, but expressed in a melodramatic and ungrammatical fashion. And worse, on every page, she employed excessive metaphor.
“Any one of these factors alone should have doomed The Diaries of Mary Bradford, but for some inexplicable reason, Pom did not immediately toss it into the stack of banned books. This, of course, was her first error: an inexplicable lapse. Even Pom could never quite say what it was that caused her to read the next entry. Whether it was the spunk in young Mary’s voice, preparing to embark on a journey away from the only world she’d ever known. Or whether it was simply the desire to know whether she did indeed marry the man her parents had chosen for her. And whether, despite her parents’ injunctions, she was able to bring her beloved dog, Ralph, on their journey.
“Regardless, Pom read on, and checked the next entry in case. That entry, of course, also failed the algorithm. And yet perhaps because Pom was tired, and it was the end of a long day, she still didn’t feel certain. When it was time for the library to close, Pom looked around to be sure that no one was watching, then placed the diary at the very bottom of the pile of books she was inspecting.
“On her way out of the library, as she did every evening, Pom waved goodbye to Mathilde. Pom could feel Mathilde’s eyes follow her toward the door, and for some reason she slowed as she checked for her umbrella, turned up the collar of her coat, and pulled a scarf out of her bag. She wondered, idly, how that diary had appeared while she was sleeping. The thought of Mathilde watching her as she slept caused a quick flush to creep up around her temples.
“Annoyed at herself, she removed her glasses, cleaned them, then blinked at the clearer foyer of the library. Then she shouldered her workbag, pushed through the revolving doors, and entered the brisk April air. Once more—and only once more, I can assure you—she glanced back at Mathilde, through the glass doors. Mathilde smiled. Despite herself, Pom smiled as well. Then she hurried off down the sidewalk.”
I watched the bedspread while Jim paced. The bands of light had indeed widened into rhombuses, and I knew that soon they would begin to contract.
I looked around at the white walls, the brown shelves, the gray bedspread. With the exception of those few trinkets on the bookshelf and the empty bottle on the windowsill, everything was so bare. I knew I should tell Jim to leave. But then there was something so sad about lying there in that empty room, waiting for the light to contract. Knowing that soon I’d be alone, in a room that might as well have been in a hotel, or someone else’s house: a house that bore no evidence of my life.
“As Pom walked home,” Jim was saying, gathering steam, obviously determined to get to the end of the story, “along the same twisting streets she always walked along, she could not help but reminisce about Mary Bradford, who—at the time Pom stopped reading—was still at home in England. Still adventuring along the carriage road with her sheepdog, Ralph. Still running after him into the fields, though now she did so with the awareness that very soon she would lose him.
“For some reason, on that particular day, Pom felt intensely aware that it was also springtime in Notsob. The last stubborn ice formations on the cornices of houses had melted, and Pom could smell water trickling along the stone gutters. Then she realized that the trees—which had been bare all winter—were in fact covered in tiny green buds, furled like little lettuces.
“This line of thought—‘like little lettuces’—gave Pom a terrible start. It had been a long time since Pom had formed a simile. That kind of language was poorly regarded in arisen Acirema: an obfuscation of truth.
“Realizing what she’d done, Pom felt a stab of anxiety. Stories of other fallen inspectors had trickled down through the ranks of Pom’s graduate program. Book inspectors had the highest rate of descendance, and Pom did not want to descend. For all the practical reasons—financial, social, etc.—she was pleased with her ascendance. She liked to think that her emotional memories had been saved somewhere safe, to be accessed, perhaps, by future generations.
“Pom, furthermore, shared the majority view that it was raw, unreasoned emotion that, historically, had led to the cruelest disasters. For the sake of her country, therefore, and for the unborn children she sometimes allowed herself to dream about, she did not want to descend. That night, however, when she lay down to sleep, she could still smell water trickling along stone. She could see the new leaf buds like tiny lettuces, and the lilac blossoms, and the moss between each cobblestone. She could hear the ringing clip of her heels on the stone, which had been somehow muted all winter.
“Lying there, waiting to sleep, Pom felt invaded by sensation: memory, scent, the unburied voice of that pilgrim girl, preparing for her ocean voyage. The next morning, however, Pom woke with a feeling of crispness. Her mind had been cleaned overnight. The memories of yesterday had been processed. She no longer smelled lilac or heard the sounds of her heels on cobblestone. Her lapse into sentimentality had been removed from her memory, stored in the cloud, accessible only under suitably controlled clinical conditions, if the proper paperwork had been filed.
“That morning, she made her bed especially neatly. She pulled her sheets taut and tucked them in with hospital corners. Afterward, she dressed for work, made herself a cup of coffee, and set out for the library full of a sense of new purpose. As she passed through the library doors, she nodded once at Mathilde, offered a polite smile of professional recognition, then settled down again with her stack of dubitable memoirs.
“She read all morning until her head started to throb. When her headache threatened the accuracy of her algorithmic calculations, she took a break, closing her eyes and placing her forehead on the desk of the carrel while electric blue signs filed across the black space of her skull.
“When the throbbing in her temples had died down, Pom opened her eyes and opened the book in front of her. Perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised to find that, once again, she was reading Mary Bradford’s diary. She knew that she should have stopped immediately, but by now the book had begun to seem like an old acquaintance: one she couldn’t, out of decency, simply ignore.
“Instead, she read on for a few pages, experiencing once again Mary’s anticipation of the journey to come: her love of that dog, Ralph, with his brown eyes and his white blaze; the smell of grass in the meadows; the stone walls cracked with soft moss.
“When she got to the place where she’d stopped the previous day—when Mary learns that her dog is not to come on the journey, though her fiancé, unloved, undesired, will be on the ship—Pom shut the book. How, she thought, had she come again to the same diary? Yesterday, she’d placed it at the bottom of a towering stack. Had she already moved through so many memoirs? Was she destroying books at such a pace?
“These were questions, of course, that she was asking to distract herself from what she already knew: that the book should be condemned, and that she was the person to do it. Clenching her jaw, she willed herself to open Mary’s memoir again. Once again, the results of the algorithm revealed that the book would have to be sent for destruction.
“And once again, something kept Pom from throwing it into that pile. Perhaps it was the silvery paths of snails on the pale undersides of the cow parsnip leaves, as Mary described them. Perhaps it was the wind wrinkling the surface of the recently unfrozen trout pond. Regardless, reading those pages, something like a memory of her walk home yesterday evening flashed through Pom’s body—leaves, running water, and stone—and with a quick jerking reflex, Pom again shoved Mary Bradford’s diary to the bottom of her unread pile of books.
“That night, when the library closed, Pom gathered her possessions and moved out to the entryway. Again, she waved goodbye to Mathilde; again Mathilde smiled in such a way that caused Pom to pause, her hand helplessly suspended midflight. Blinking shyly, Pom reminded herself that Mathilde was not an Arisen. She was a creature of reflex and unrefined feeling. Then Pom completed her wave. She checked for her umbrella. She turned up her collar, pulled her scarf from her bag, pushed her way into the revolving doors.
“Once she was safely inside the sealed glass of the doors, however, Pom paused. Somehow the exit into a world of brisk air, lilac bloom, and cobblestone made her feel anxious, and rather than exiting through the door she continued to push until she was deposited again in the library lobby.
“As soon as she stepped back into the lobby, however, she felt her face growing hot. What must the librarian think of this strange Arisen woman, going in circles? Still, she was nervous about leaving the library. About the rush of sensation she might feel if she did. So there she stood, facing the doors, until from behind her she heard Mathilde.
“ ‘Good night,’ Mathilde called, and Pom shivered. Her voice sounded like water, running over cold stone.
“The next morning, Pom returned to the library. Again, her memories of the previous day had been processed, so nothing of the shiver that ran through remained when she walked through the revolving glass doors. She was only aware that twice, in the presence of this woman, she had succumbed to sentimentality. As a result, she was resolute, even a little annoyed at both herself and Mathilde when she strode past Mathilde without saying hello.
“At her desk, there was a new mountain of memoirs. She unshouldered her bag, cleared a space on her desk. Crisp routine, the neat repetitions of logic. And yet, despite all her noble intentions, Pom could not control the weakness of her optical nerves. After lunch, her temples started throbbing again. Again, she put her head down on the desk. When she woke, the diary of Mary Bradford was before her once more, but this time her page had been kept by a pressed flower.
“It must have been a large flower, Pom thought: the size of a peony. But instead of thick petals, its bud was composed of hundreds of tiny green branches. A green map of a flower, Pom thought. Like the complicated arteries of a city. Like the exposed veins of a pale, upturned wrist.
“At the end of each branchlet, there was a white flower the size of a comma. Pom picked it up and twisted it between her thumb and her forefinger. It was cow parsnip, she realized. The flowers that brushed Mary Bradford’s shoulders when she walked along the carriage road.
“Pom felt off-kilter and breathless. For a moment, she wished that this feeling could be immediately processed so that she could regain her sure footing. And yet she knew that the sensation would not be processed until nighttime, and for now the flower remained in her hand, and Mary Bradford’s diary remained on her desk: solid and real, with its creased corners, the dirt accumulated from every reader who’d taken it home and turned its yellowing pages.
“Suddenly, Pom was possessed by the desire to touch every one of those people. To run her hands along the cow parsley that Mary Bradford had touched. To plunge her hands up to the wrists in that cold stream she’d heard the previous evening.
“Then Pom continued to read. She read about Mary Bradford’s departure from England, about her parents, about the man to whom she was to be married. Pom’s heart sank when he was introduced: too old, too stern, entirely unexciting. It sank further when, in a storm, the dog, Ralph, was lost at sea. But then her heart warmed when, still far from the land they hoped to reach, the stern fiancé held a funeral for the dog Mary had lost. Understanding her irrational grief, and indeed even feeling it with her.
“Reading the poetry that the stern fiancé brought to the funeral, Pom felt a pang of guilt: Poetry, of course, had been the first banned fictional form. But she read it, nevertheless, and could not help but feel washed by a wave of sensation.
“Pom felt those lines, married together by rhyme. ‘Look homeward angel now,’ the fiancé said, on the prow of the shop. ‘And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.’ Pom had spent her life looking forward, shedding her memories every night. But now, reading those lines, she felt herself turning, pulled back by an unassailable force.
“Once again, at the end of the day, Pom placed Mary Bradford’s diary at the bottom of her stack, and when she left the library, Mathilde’s voice shivered through her. Once again, her walk home was alive. Her heels striking the cobblestones, Pom felt saddened and joyous at once. Certainly her life had been sharpened; only now she was aware of everything she had lost, everything she would lose again when her memories had been properly processed.
“When she got home, she dusted off a shelf over her bed and placed the pressed cow parsley there. Then, exhausted after a long day at work, she lay down in her bed, closed her eyes, and waited for her memories to process.
“This pattern—neck pain, sleep, waking to that familiar diary—continued for several weeks. At night she fell asleep and lost touch with all the sensations that had quickened her walk home from the library. In the morning, she awoke feeling empty.”
I watched him, my knees pulled up to my chest. The room had grown cold. The back of my head was throbbing. As I’d known they would, the rhomboids of light had narrowed and slipped away, and now Jim was pacing in shadow.
“This emptiness,” Jim said. “It was a thing Pom had never felt upon waking. It was as if her chip wasn’t functioning properly. For the first time in her adult life, she registered the loss of what she’d felt the evening before. It was as if she were homesick for a place she couldn’t remember.
“Pom began to make a habit of turning for reassurance to the shelf over her bed each morning. By then, it was full of artifacts carried home from the library. During the weeks in which this pattern continued, Pom found a new artifact every day, keeping her page in Mary Bradford’s diary. After the cow parsnip, there was a handful of cut grass, a piece of white lace, a chunk of salt-encrusted wood, a seashell that still smelled like the ocean.
“It was this seashell that Pom most often picked up in the morning, when she was feeling empty and far from a home she couldn’t remember. Though she didn’t, of course, recall any of the sensations she had felt when she picked up the shell for the first time, her thumb did fit perfectly into its cool, smooth underbelly. Sometimes she pressed its pleated back to her cheek. Sometimes she ran her tongue over its grooves. Then she dressed for work, and when she walked through the large glass library doors, she saw Mathilde.
“In the following weeks, Pom’s output slowed to an embarrassing trickle. When she should have been looking for books to destroy, she instead continued reading Mary Bradford’s diary. At the end of the day, she made a habit of lingering for a long time in the foyer of the library, all just to feel Mathilde watching her movements. She fiddled with her coat collar, zipped and unzipped her bag, checked for the presence of her unnecessary umbrella, and after three weeks of repeating this pattern, Pom walked out of the library and ran directly into the Statewide Supervisor of Text Elimination.
“He asked if he could accompany her on her walk back home from the library. Pom agreed, and as he talked, Pom listened with an odd sense of detachment. His words seemed to pass just over her head, a steady current that she watched from below, like a trout in that unfrozen pond. It had been noticed, the supervisor was saying, that Pom was no longer performing at her usual rate. An investigation had opened; in the end it had been decided that she was not fulfilling her duty; perhaps the position of book inspector was not the most logical post for Pom’s particular talents.
“Now the book inspector was attempting to be kind: Of course, he was saying, we all understand the sacrifices involved with ascension. The absence of felt memory from childhood, the loss of closeness with family, the resulting feelings of unbelonging.
“And yet succumbing to such sentiment, he was saying, has deleterious effects not only on the individual but …
“Pom found her attention wandering. She kept noticing the leaves on the trees overhead. She kept listening for the sounds of her heels on the cobblestones.
“Algorithms had been consulted. Their recommendation was that Pom should be moved to the position of Office Coordinator, effective immediately. Tomorrow morning, she would report to the State Center for Book Inspection, where she would be given further instructions.
“Pom agreed, crisply, that this was for the best. But that night, alone in her apartment, Pom cried. It was a strange experience: She hadn’t cried since early childhood, and she could no longer remember what had caused her to do so. Now, the experience of crying was uncomfortable and embarrassing, but also something of a relief. This time, at least, she knew precisely why she was crying.
“In the library, it had been as though she had discovered a closet she could move through into a world that was her own: unmonitored, unprocessed, entirely private. A world where the sound of her heels on the cobblestones was heightened. Where the scent of dirt after a rain was so strong that it could fill a whole breath. Where the sound of Mathilde’s voice was like water running down stone. For three weeks, she and Mathilde had lived on the other side of the closet. And now she was crying because from today on, she would live alone on this side, and by morning she would forget even why she had cared enough to cry these tears in the first place.
“Still, there was nothing she could do to change her situation. She would have to sleep at some point. In the morning, she would no longer remember, and without memory, there would be no regret. Resigning herself to the facts of the matter, Pom lay down and waited for sleep to enfold her.
“In the morning, she did not press the seashell to her face. She wanted to, as soon as the emptiness began to sink in. But she reminded herself not to cling to something already gone. Instead, she lay very still for a while, looking up at the ceiling. Then she dressed, and made herself coffee, and locked up her apartment and reported to her new office.
“She soon found that she was capable at her new duties. Her productivity was high, and by the end of the week, the feeling of emptiness that had come to haunt her in the mornings had started to fade, replaced by sensations of purpose.
“In fact, she had progressed so far in the course of a single week that she told herself, as she walked to the office one morning, that she would dispose of her artifacts that very evening. They were nothing more than sentimental distraction, those flowers and shells; why she had allowed herself to collect them was a mystery.
“That evening, Pom walked home full of confidence. She already felt cleaner, simpler, just knowing those artifacts would be gone. This feeling buoyed her, kept her steps brisk as she rounded the corner onto her street, as she fumbled in her bag for her keys, as she passed an alleyway and felt her arm grabbed suddenly by a rough hand that pulled her backward so that she dropped her bag, tripped on her heel, and stumbled into the side of a dumpster before falling onto her knees. Panic surged through her body. For a second, the world went black. And then she heard a familiar voice. ‘I’m sorry,’ it said. ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ ”
Jim paused and glanced at me, his face darkened by shadow. Suddenly, for no reason at all, I felt tears prick at my eyes. I blinked them back. It was just this depressing time of day: the light faded and gone, evening creeping in. There was no need to be crying.
“Now the same hand was helping Pom up,” Jim was saying. “Guiding her to the back wall of a building so that she could rest. ‘I’m sorry,’ the hand said. ‘Are you all right?’
“Pom couldn’t face her attacker. Something in her refused to match the rough hand to that voice. Now the hand was returning Pom’s purse. Now her attacker was kneeling, the same hand brushing gravel from Pom’s knees.
“Leaning against the building, Pom felt very weak. She wanted to reach down and brush the dark hair of the person kneeling before her, to hold onto her for support. ‘I’m so sorry,’ the voice said again. ‘I didn’t mean to frighten you, but I’m in trouble. Could we go inside? I’ll only take a minute of your time.’
“Pom’s head was throbbing. Now there were spots of blue light in her vision, and perhaps it was those spots and that throbbing that caused her to agree.
“ ‘Fine,’ she said. ‘Just for a minute.’ She told herself it wasn’t a crime to allow an Unarisen into your house. But even so, before she unlocked her front door, she looked around to be sure no one had seen them.
“Inside, Pom sat at the kitchen table and watched while Mathilde reached into her bag to pull out a book. It was, of course, Mary Bradford’s diary.
“ ‘It’s been condemned,’ Mathilde said. ‘So I stole it. I can’t go home. They know where I live. They’ve already gone there and taken the other books that I saved. If they find me, I’ll be arrested and the book will be lost. Please don’t let them destroy it.’
“Pom stared down at the book. If the authorities found this book in her house, her chip would be removed. She would descend. Having lost her felt memories once in her lifetime, she’d lose them again, and this time the loss would be permanent. There would be no consolation, even that of imagining they’d remain in the cloud, to be viewed, perhaps, by posterity, at some point when such emotions were no longer a threat. No. If she removed that chip, all traces would be lost. Each tender interaction with her parents, now gone. Each meaningful moment with the men and women she’d known in her adulthood.
“Gone, all of them. And then she’d be doubly, triply alone. The Arisen would shun her. The Unarisen—who believed that the Arisen were cold, excessively logical, devoid of any human emotion—wouldn’t accept her. She’d spend the rest of her life in between.
“ ‘They’ll take my chip,’ she said to Mathilde. ‘I’ll lose everything.’
“ ‘But do you remember reading it?’ Mathilde asked.
Pom put her head in her hands. ‘Factually, yes. I remember that I did read it.’
“ ‘But you don’t remember how you felt when you were reading it? Or after, when you saw me in the lobby of the library?’
“ ‘No,’ Pom said, but even as she said it, she was aware of the shelf over her bed, which she had failed to clean off, which even now stood as evidence that there had been excessive sentiment involved with her time in the library. Even that shelf would be enough for the authorities to examine her chip, and already the memory of the encounter—the book on her kitchen table, this Unarisen fugitive—would have been recorded. Even this conversation would be enough to cause her to descend, Pom thought, and a new wave of emotion—fear, anger at Mathilde, loneliness because very soon she was going to send Mathilde out of her house—washed over her.
“It was then that Mathilde knelt before her again and touched her bruised knee with one hand. ‘Do you feel this?’
“Pom didn’t move. She only pressed her palms into her eyes until the blue spots reappeared. Then Mathilde leaned forward and kissed Pom’s knee. ‘Do you feel this?’
“It was nothing terrible: only the kind of gesture that a mother might have used to comfort a daughter, and yet Pom could not remember feeling this, and she seemed to be rocking in a sea of loss. Now Mathilde reached up and touched Pom’s neck with her fingertips. ‘Do you feel this?’ she asked, and Pom was angry, because she did feel it, and she knew she wouldn’t feel it tomorrow. But then Mathilde kissed the side of Pom’s neck, and kissed the back of her head, and kissed the top of her ear, and each time Pom felt washed with new sadness that she would not remember this feeling. Then Mathilde took Pom’s face in her hands and leaned forward so that her dark hair brushed Pom’s shoulders. Then she pressed her mouth to Pom’s mouth.
“ ‘Can you feel this? And this, and this?’ ”
It was then that Jim finally stopped pacing, came to the bed, sat beside me, and touched my knee.
I flinched. “Don’t,” I said.
This time he stopped.
For a moment, he sat there slumped in the darkness. I thought maybe he’d leave, or at least start pacing again. But he wasn’t moving. He stayed there beside me.
“In the middle of the night,” he said, in a quieter voice, “Pom woke. Mathilde was watching her. Pom started in fright. Her memories had already started to process. Why had she let the librarian sleep in her bed? What if she had stolen something? What if the authorities found out? Pom grasped for the sheets, feeling an urge to cover herself. When Mathilde reached across the bed and touched her bare arm, Pom pulled it away.
“ ‘You don’t remember, do you?’ Mathilde asked.
“ ‘I remember what I need to,’ Pom said. ‘Please: I have to ask you to leave.’
“ Mathilde drew her hand away. ‘I understand,’ she said. Then she got out of bed and got dressed. Pom watched each one of her movements: the long lines of her arms, her dark hair falling over her shoulder. Once she’d buttoned her shirt and tied back her hair, Mathilde paused. ‘I couldn’t help noticing the shelf over your bed,’ she began, ‘and—
“ ‘I shouldn’t have kept them,’ Pom said. Her face had grown hot. ‘You can take them with you when you go.’
“ Mathilde nodded. She opened the knapsack in which she had been carrying Mary Bradford’s diary, and with one sweep of her arm knocked all of the objects into the bag. ‘Gone,’ she said. ‘Wiped clean. I won’t bother you again.’
“ ‘Where will you go?’ Pom asked.
“ ‘I’m not sure. I can’t escape on my own; I’ve already run out of money. I’ll have to go home eventually, and the authorities will find me as soon as I do. They’ll arrest me, but before they do that, they’ll find where I’ve hidden our book.’
“ ‘And destroy it.’
“Mathilde shrugged. ‘That’s how it goes,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing else I can do.’
“She shouldered her bag and headed out toward the door. She walked slowly, one step at a time. There was the door to the bedroom; there was the hallway out to the front door. Mathilde approached it. She had one hand on the doorknob, one thumb tucked under her knapsack, when she heard Pom speak.
“Pom was standing in the hall. ‘Will you read me the last page?’ she said. ‘I never got to the last page.’
“Mathilde nodded. She pulled the diary from her bag, opened it, and started to read:
Should never have left home. Ralph, gone. My only love, gone. The person I once was, slipping away. Fear that, on land, my memories will grow dim. What will become of him then? Fear that Ralph will be lonely, deep in the sea. Unwatched for, forgotten.
“Pom sat down in the hall. She was sitting with her legs drawn up to her chest. Mathilde looked at her, then continued to read:
Moved out toward the open sea behind us. Facing away from the land. Nothing but washing blackness. Remember me, I whispered to him. Remember me. Remember me. Remember me.
“ ‘You can stay here,’ Pom said. Her eyes were pressed into her knees.
“ ‘The authorities will come after you eventually,’ Mathilde said. ‘For harboring a fugitive. They’ll bring you in. They’ll scan your chip. They’ll know exactly where I’m hiding. They’ll know where we’re keeping it.’
“ ‘I won’t let them,’ Pom said. ‘I’ll eject my chip.’
“ Mathilde paused for a moment. Then she sat beside Pom. ‘Do you know what that means?’ she asked. ‘You’ll lose everything that you’ve stored.’
“ ‘I’ve lost it anyway.’
“ ‘We can’t be sure how you’ll function without it.’
“ ‘I’ll learn.’
“ ‘When you die, the record of your life will be incomplete. Your memories will go with you.’
“ ‘They’re my own memories,’ Pom said.
“ ‘Are you sure?’ Mathilde asked. Pom looked at her, squinting. She was very nearsighted without her glasses. Remembering this, Mathilde stood, moved past Pom, found where Pom had placed her glasses on the bedside table. She fit their wire arms over Pom’s ears. Then she kissed both of Pom’s ears. Then she kissed Pom’s forehead.
“ ‘Look at me and tell me the truth,’ Mathilde said. ‘Are you sure about this?’
“ ‘Yes,’ Pom said. She stood and went to the cabinet under the sink, and pulled out a bottle of whiskey. ‘I’m sure about this.’
“They drank a glass together. Then, in short succession, Pom drank another two, and closed her eyes when Mathilde took out her pocketknife.
“The chip wasn’t buried deep. It only required a shallow cut to remove it, but still Pom gasped when the blade sank through her skin. The pain was worse when Mathilde probed the cut with her finger. Then there was an unnatural scraping sound. Pom winced and dug her fingernails into her thigh, and then, suddenly, Pom’s whole body was a shell for passing memories: a man standing under the soft snow from cottonwood trees; a hawk circling alone; wind in her hair; night falling; her mother’s perfume; the loneliness she’d felt, alone in a bedroom.
“And then those glimpses were gone. Pom gasped a second time, this time not as a result of the pain but because of the emptiness that replaced it. Then she looked up at Mathilde.
“ ‘Put it back,’ she said. ‘Put it back in!’
“ ‘I can’t,’ Mathilde said. ‘No one can put them back in.’
“ ‘What did you do to me?’ Pom asked. She crossed her hands over her stomach. There was nothing within her. She had become no one. ‘What did I let you do?’ ”
Jim paused. By then I’d touched the bandage at the back of my head, and the crescents my fingernails had left on my thigh, and then I was really crying.
“What did I let you do?” I asked. “What did I—
“Don’t interrupt,” Jim said, but quietly now, sitting close to me. For a while, he let me cry, and when I’d quieted he started his story again.
“Mathilde tried to comfort Pom,” Jim said. “ ‘You’re starting over now,’ Mathilde said. ‘Now everything that happens is yours to keep—’
“Pom didn’t move.
“ ‘We have to start over again,’ Mathilde said. ‘This is the beginning. I am Mathilde.’
“Pom still didn’t move.
“ ‘You are Pom,’ Mathilde said. ‘I am Mathilde. I’ve watched you a very long time. You can’t see without your glasses. You always bring an umbrella. You take a deep breath before you push through the glass doors. Every day you walk home along the same streets. You live on your own. This is your apartment. These are the cuts on your knees where you fell on the gravel. This is how I kissed them, one at a time. Do you remember this? Are you starting, now, to remember?’ ”
Read a response essay from Jim O’Donnell, university librarian at Arizona State University, about libraries as more than fact factories.
Previously in Future Tense Fiction:
“Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
“The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
“Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
“Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
“No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
“Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
“A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
“The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
“When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
“Lions and Gazelles,” by Hannu Rajaniemi
“Burned-Over Territory,” by Lee Konstantinou
“Overvalued,” by Mark Stasenko
“When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” by Annalee Newitz
“Thoughts and Prayers,” by Ken Liu
“Mpendulo: The Answer,” by Nosipho Dumisa
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.