Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Memory Garden

by Eric Penner Haury


Like sharp ice crystals growing from formless water, Haylie's mind rose from oblivion. Her half-formed brain recognized the confusing sensations flooding it even before she could understand what they meant. And when her body flickered into existence, a half-smile flickered on her face.

Back!

And where she should be -- in the corner of the central court of a high walled hedge maze. She faced the fountain in the middle and beyond it the wooden archway that led into the maze. Haylie didn't bother to look back before lowering herself onto the bench that curved in front of the well-manicured hedge's corner. For one moment, her fingers brushed the granite. She drew them back at once. Would they never get texture right? She placed her hands in her lap, and tried not to notice that she now felt nothing.

Haylie barely had time to sigh before a fortyish woman in a tight, fluorescent blue dycron jump suit passed through the arch. She'd changed her hair again. This time it was dyed black and gelled into clumps that made it appear that an octopus was clamped to her head. The latest style, no doubt, and the ugliest yet. Haylie thought she had stopped herself from shaking her head, but Lynn's pace slowed.

"What?" Lynn demanded. She shifted her stance to head back out the arch, as she had almost done the last time and once a few months before.

"Nothing," Haylie said, forcing the disapproval down so that only her smile remained. She sprang from her bench to greet the woman she remembered as her daughter.

####

Each kept to her own end of the bench, eyes locked, leaning forward but never closing the gap.

"I'm dating again," Lynn blurted after a brittle silence.

Haylie's smile broadened. "Excellent," she said. "When did you start?"

"A couple weeks ago," Lynn said, and something like a giggle escaped her mouth. "No one steady. Just a few guys at clubs. And Sara set me up with..."

Lynn's eyes lost focus and her face grew slack. Haylie slid back tingling from the sudden separation.

Mind mail! Even though Haylie was freed from it personally, would it continue to intrude on her life? Couldn't Lynn put it on hold, even here?

An instant later, Lynn returned to the other state Haylie knew so well: forced and weary, but alert.

"Sorry..." Lynn said, adding, "Mom," only after the usual half-beat. "M-mail from work. A scheduled meeting with a client just fell apart. Guess who's been assigned to salvage it?" A smile darted across her face. "I really tried to get all the work done before I came. All that effort." Lynn sighed just as Haylie had done so many times in her life on the outside.

Haylie leaned across the gap that separated the two women. She would have taken Lynn's hand, stroked the hideous hair on that beautiful head and found that part of her that she knew wanted to stay. If it were possible.

Lynn rose. "I better just go. I'll return when I can really be here." She headed for the maze, pausing at the arch to say, "I love you. I will be back."

Haylie held out her arm as if it could cross the distance between them until Lynn had withdrawn. With Lynn gone, Haylie glanced at the fountain for a moment and wondered if she should wander the vast grounds of New Bletchley Park, then decided against it. She needed to sleep.

She sent a mental signal to the central computer and melted away in mind and body.

####

An instant later, for her, Haylie reappeared in an open field. A quick scan of the nearby streams and flower gardens, the shapes of the field's gentle slopes, and the distance to the lofty, encircling stone wall told her where in New Bletchley Park she had appeared. But not why.

"Hi, Tracy," a voice said. Haylie spun around and saw a high school girl in a maroon bodysuit. The girl smiled as if to a close friend, her silver dental tattoos flashing in the sunlight.

"Hi, Tracy?" Haylie repeated, then nearly stumbled where she stood. That was not her voice!

Haylie reached for her throat, but the moment her hands came into view, she froze. The long, olive-toned fingers before her were as wrong as the voice.

"What's the matter?" the girl asked.

"This isn't right," the alien voice hissed for Haylie.

"I told you I had more research to do," the girl said. "I looked at some other vids of the Topeka riots, and I came up with a lot more questions to ask you. What's wrong? Would you rather do the interview inside?" The girl pointed to the distant Turing Archive Building, a condensed manor set in the park's encircling wall like a diamond in a ring.

Haylie scowled at the building. What were they doing in there to make a mess like this?

Her gaze settled on a nearby stream, which meandered down the field's gentle slope to a pond at the park's center.

That was what she needed. She raced to the stream's edge.

"What's going on?" the girl demanded. She chased after Haylie like a clumsy puppy.

Haylie reached the stream and knelt at its bank.

Expecting it did not blunt the shock of seeing another's reflection in place of her own. Beneath the white dress all women residing in New Bletchley Park wore and the ghostly shimmer with which every resident was cursed, stood a tall, tan, dark-haired woman in her twenties. It was the kind of change Haylie would have craved in her former life.

"There's a problem," Haylie said as she rose.

"I worked that out," the girl replied. "What is it?" Must Haylie spell everything out to her?

The stranger's reflected face flushed.

"This isn't my body," Haylie muttered.

"Of course it isn't, not really," the girl said.

"No, I mean my name is Haylie Walker," Haylie said. "Somehow when they... woke me up just now, they put me in the wrong... form."

The girl's mouth hung open. "They can do that?" she gasped.

"Not when everything is working right," Haylie responded. "Now give me a moment and I'll solve this. You'll talk to the person you really want to talk to."

With an ease she could only achieve by not thinking about what she was about to do, Haylie sent a mental inquiry about the situation to the park's computer. The reply was not instantaneous. Never a good sign.

A second after she sent the message, a wordless electronic answer slid into her mind like a vision from an unfeeling god. It informed her that everyone was busy and asked for details.

She glared across at the archive building once more. Busy? She couldn't even get a real person? Real. Hard as it was now, she shoved the thought down.

"What's the name of the person I'm... supposed to be?" Haylie asked.

"Tracy Miers," the girl blurted. "Number three," she added. "It's so weird you're not, I mean, you're not her."

Haylie told the automated response that she was in the body of Tracy Miers. The moment she finished her report, the computer told her that that Tracy Miers had not been activated, but that Haylie Walker had been at the request of Lynn Salluzo 1 minute 34.56 seconds ago. It assured her that Haylie Walker was functioning properly.

Lynn!

She must have been waiting in the hedge maze at that moment. And now she would have to see Haylie like this, stripped of her body and stuffed in another's. The conversation would be focused on what had happened and how. Would Lynn, so ready lately to withdraw at a frown, be willing to stay if Haylie's entire face were wrong?

But Lynn was waiting.

"I'm sorry, I have to go," Haylie told the girl. "This problem will be fixed, and you'll get the answers you want. We all will." Haylie asked the computer to transport her body directly to her usual awakening place. The computer indicated compliance but nothing happened.

Haylie groaned, then told the computer to transport Tracy Miers' body there instead, but the computer, with a slight mental slap, reminded her that Tracy Miers wasn't active.

"Something else wrong?" the girl asked.

No answer seemed adequate. But if she couldn't move Tracy's body one way, she would move it another. She set her sights on the hedge maze. It stood almost halfway across the 250-acre park, an angular green bulge just small enough to miss from that distance if she didn't know the park so well. Even in this crisis, running felt sacrilegious to her in this island of green sheltered from a vast megalopolis. But she strode as quickly as she could and did not give as wide a birth to visitors and residents as she usually did.

As it was a weekday, the park was nearly empty. She saw no more than a hundred people, both visitors and residents, scattered across the grounds, some walking alone or in small groups, a few enjoying picnics, and a comparatively large cluster surrounding a gazebo, listening to a small band. Even when, as was common, the visitors had adopted the simple, white Victorian-inspired dresses and suits required of the residents, Haylie easily identified them. Experience had taught her to recognize the faint shimmer surrounding residents even from two hundred yards away.

Haylie paid little attention to the family as she passed them, two adults and a few children having a picnic near a stream. She noted that they were all visitors, then adjusted her path to keep her distance.

She failed.

Haylie heard one of the children chasing after her and almost dared to run.

"You're one of them, aren't you?" the child called to her. She quickly glanced back. It was a boy, she guessed, six at the oldest.

"Jackie," the woman warned, "Don't bother her."

"But you're one of them," Jackie said to Haylie. "One of the ghosts?" If anything could stop Haylie now, that could. For a moment, Haylie's only motion came from the flickering of her borrowed form. The litany that a part of her mind often recited flooded through her: Ghosts, cyber-ghosts, projections, simulations, copies...

"I'm not a ghost!" Haylie declared. "Excuse me, I must go."

"But you're not real, right?" the boy said before she could take a step. He tried to slide his hand through her leg. Haylie jumped away from the touch, converting her movement into an awkward stride.

"Lock-lip, Jackie," the man ordered from where he sat, "Their kind don't like it when you talk like that."

As Tracy Miers' simulated body appeared to hurry towards the too-distant hedge maze, artificial tears glistened unfelt on her hologramatic cheeks.

Their kind! Those words and countless others swarmed through her. Haylie Walker Copy #12 usually convinced herself human beings were her kind. But the last few minutes had stripped that identity from her and proved her to be a lie: She was but a brain scan of the woman Haylie Walker held in the Turing Archives computers, one of seventeen copies made of the same woman at different points in her life.

Her memories were borrowed, her body and voice -- when she had them -- projections, her sight and hearing computer extrapolations from what the microfilament sensor/projectors hidden throughout New Bletchley Park detected around her illusory body.

The only chance of escaping from this truth was to reach the refuge where Haylie Walker's daughter waited. The one person -- out of all the people in Haylie's donated memories -- with whom she maintained contact, Lynn would treat her as the woman she felt she should be.

Or probably not, with this doubly false body.

But Lynn still waited. Not sure of her reception, Haylie continued her race to the maze, the words "her kind" echoing with each, footprintless step.

####

Haylie broke her own commandment about running when she spotted a woman with an octopus hairstyle making a beeline for the archive building and the exit.

She repeatedly shouted Lynn's name as her virtual presence closed in on Lynn's real one, even as her own duplicated instincts and some clever code from the programmers made her pant from an exhaustion she did not feel. Lynn turned when Haylie was twenty yards away.

As Haylie closed the distance, the microsensors showed her that Lynn's face was puffy and red, and not because of the latest style of make-up.

"Who are you?" Lynn demanded when Haylie stopped in front of her.

Even when the simulated panting subsided, Haylie couldn't answer, not even inwardly.

"Leave me alone," Lynn demanded.

"Wait," Haylie gasped. "I'm... I know I don't look like her, but I'm the one you came to visit."

"I don't come to visit anyone, anymore," Lynn said. She pointed a stiff finger at the hedge maze. "If she sent you to mock me or lecture me or to deliver her latest instructions, tell her she's lost me. I didn't accept that treatment from the original. I won't take it from a copy."

She spun around and ran. Haylie followed, but Lynn's physical body easily outpaced Haylie's computer generated one.

"Lynn!" Haylie cried. Lynn only ran faster.

Haylie halted after a few dozen yards, panting and crying as if she were real. Unable to follow with her false legs, Haylie followed Lynn with her false eyes until she entered the archive building. What had driven her away? Then, wiping away her illusory tears, Haylie turned back to the hedge maze.

####

When Haylie reached the maze's center, she froze. Her simulated mouth fell open.

A lone computer simulation stood near the fountain. She was physically five years younger than Lynn with a similar height and build and hair a barely distinguishable mix of near-white blonde and grey.

It was Haylie herself, or at least her simulated body. The ventrilospeakers projected a hollow gasp that appeared to escape from Tracy's throat. Haylie felt less than empty.

She hadn't imagined that the programmers could have messed up her awakening -- her activation -- so completely that her image had been activated with someone else's mind in it.

"Did you talk to a woman, a visitor, here a few minutes ago?" Haylie asked the stranger controlling her form.

"Leave me alone," Haylie's voice told Haylie. "I have to deal with something here."

"Yes, you do," Haylie said. "There's been a mistake in our... awakenings."

"Awakenings?" the other woman spat, "Is that what you call it?"

"That's my..." Haylie said, then broke off. She didn't deserve to say it. "My..." She forced herself, standing straight, though not quite looking at her possessed form. "That is my body, for lack of a better term, that you're using."

"No it isn't," the other said. "It's mine."

"Records will show that that it belongs to Haylie Walker," Haylie said.

"How would that help you?" Haylie's possessed form asked.

"Because I'm Haylie Walker," Haylie snapped, as if proving it to this pretender were enough.

"Are you?" the pretender asked. "Well, so am I."

####

Haylie shrank half a foot in an instant. Her mind reeled.

"Done," the programmer said with a trace of a chuckle. Slouched in a chair that faced one of the wood paneled walls, his back to the two Haylies and his legs propped on a simu-oak desk, he didn't even turn his head.

"Welcome back to your own bodies," he added. Haylie almost simulated a laugh. Neither she nor this other simulation -- Haylie Walker Copy #17, the final copy made -- had bodies. The fact that each was now represented by an image that had been recorded the same time their respective minds had been recorded didn't change that.

"What about Tracy?" Haylie asked. "The girl's waiting for her."

"Doorlog says she left," the programmer said. "So Tracy's completely off now."

"Will I have to expect this to happen often?" a voice nearly identical to Haylie's said from behind her.

As if she had no control over her simulated movements, Haylie's virtual head turned and she looked to where the other Haylie stood. Beneath the shimmer that proved her falsehood, this other Haylie appeared like a lost sister five years older. The extra years had made her face slightly plumper, her wrinkles longer and deeper, and had shifted the balance between blonde and grey hair. Here was a flash from the real Haylie Walker's life that she hadn't shared.

And this was the person -- simulation, copy, clone, hologram -- who had driven Lynn away.

"Sorry," the programmer tossed out like throwing a soda can into a recycling bin. He still did not move. "Freak accident. We were upgrading part of the system. It didn't seem to be relevant to the simulators, but it looks like a piece of the code we were altering interfered when we got the request to turn on #12 within a millisecond of a request for Tracy Miers Copy #3. And then with #12's body not getting a brain, somehow the system pulled you out of its memory, #17."

"I have a name!" the other Haylie said.

"Right now, numbers are simpler. Or we could just communicate with thought transfer."

"No!" both Haylies responded.

"I'll work on this ‘til I find out exactly what happened," the programmer said. "The update's done, though. You should both feel safe in your own bodies."

"Body," the other Haylie snapped. "That was no body." She thrust an accusing finger at Haylie. "She doesn't have a..." Her voice caught and her face fell. "I'm not a person anymore," she gasped.

The other Haylie's face sagged, heightening the difference in their appearances. Yet the simulated tear that ran down that face could have been Haylie's own.

"You don't have to cry," the programmer said, though he hadn't turned around to look. His eyes -- no doubt as dead as those of anyone staring into a network -- still aimed uselessly at an empty portion of the wall. But he could see them clearly. Like many other programmers in the Turing Archives, he had adapted the park's ubiquitous sensor/projectors to provide a substitute for his natural vision. "Of course you're a person. Nothing's changed since you were copied. You're not a citizen. But you can still demand your rights in court. Oh, can you demand your rights. We got three of your kind suing the Archives right now."

Your kind! Would Halley never be allowed to set aside what she was again? And to be told she wasn't human by this creature who seemed to have abandoned his own humanity to become a talking corpse propped up in a chair.

"You might just have a fourth suit on your hands," the other Haylie said. "I was told this copy would be turned on... No, I wasn't told anything." She grimaced as if the words hurt her mouth. "I am the copy. I am... Whatever I am, the technician who copied me said . . I would be... turned on the next day. And that every copy had a few hours each week when they were on."

"Yeah, that is strange," the programmer muttered. With barely a pause between sentences, he added, "But I found the answer. There's a note in your file, #17. It says that right after you were recorded, the woman you were copied from asked you to be erased." The other Haylie's simulated breathing became shallow, and her eyes lost as much focus as if she were receiving a mind mail. "Doesn't say why," the programmer continued. "That would count as murder, so we couldn't do it. But she did have the right to ask for you not to be activated, so you were kept out of the regular activation rotation."

"What?" the other Haylie gasped. "I can't believe this. I knew I was hesitating about being copied again, but... How could I... she...?" The newly awakened copy spun to face her predecessor. "How could you do this?"

"I didn't," Haylie said. Neither was the real Haylie anyway. All that mattered was the real one had rejected her final copy, and, perhaps by extension, rejected them all.

"Wait," the other Haylie asked, her simulated face whitening. "What happens now? Are you just going to... turn me off?" Her false lips pulled taut.

"Of course I'm not going to shut you off," the programmer chuckled. "Once you've been activated, even accidentally, the law says you call the shots, not the original."

"Then I call that I stay on," the other Haylie declared.

"Then you stay on," the programmer said.

"Thank you," the other Haylie replied as if to a telemarketer.

"Not indefinitely, of course," the programmer added, and the other Haylie's eyes widened. "There's still not enough memory to have all of you on at once. We give you more each week than the law requires plus time with only your mind on for rapid simu-sleep. Anyone can pay for more time, and you get some extra if you volunteer for our studies. But eventually everyone gets turned off."

The other Haylie moaned.

"Off isn't as bad as you expect," Haylie said. "As we experience it, the moment after we're off, we're on again. And there is something oddly renewing about the experience."

"You know, we recently started a study where we're comparing how different copies of the same person interact with one another," the programmer said. "You could delay your first deactivation by letting me record you two interacting for a few minutes."

This time the other Haylie responded first. "Not a chance! Not even for that." The other Haylie pointed at Haylie. "I don't even want to think about her and the other hers out here if I don't have to."

"That's a bit limiting," the programmer replied. "A lot of our research projects compare different versions of the same person one way or another. But you could probably get a few extra active hours for several months if you let us study how well your data held up without being turned on all those years."

The other Haylie bore down on the programmer. "Don't call me data!" she shouted and thrust her finger, accidentally, into his face. He didn't bother to flinch, but she pulled the hand back as if she'd plunged a real finger into hot coals. "This can't b..." she uttered, then pulled herself straight. "And exactly how long was I... off? Twenty years? Twenty-five?"

"The record says eighteen," the programmer noted with a verbal, though not physical, shrug.

"Eighteen?" the other Haylie repeated. "The world did more to Lynn than I thought."

Lynn! Haylie had already confirmed with the doorlog that Lynn had left. And she had left not knowing what had happened. With her other self focused on the programmer, Haylie backed out of the room.

Alone in the hallway, Haylie forced herself to send a message requesting that the computer activate her mind mail account. She tensed as she felt the backlog of unwanted messages pressing against the default message filter like water against a bursting dam. At least these programmers knew how to block spam.

Haylie groaned. She called up dusty habits inherited from the original Haylie to create a mind mail message explaining to Lynn what happened. She used simple text. No simulated video or direct thought transfers.

Haylie initially couldn't bring herself to send it off. What right did she have to do so? She was not Lynn's mother, no matter how she felt. But she did feel. A mental shove, and she sensed the message leaving her.

A computer's response smashed into her mind.

It informed her that Lynn had blocked all messages from her.

####

"If the message came from you as director, Lynn might at least look at it," Haylie said. "Until then, I'm stuck with the blame for the actions of that... whatever she is."

The director's office shared the Neo-Victorian, quasi-antique wood-paneled décor of the rest of the Turing Archive Building. One wall was dominated by an oil painting of the multi-trillionaire who had established and overseen the design of every facet of the park. He appeared ten years older then the two copies of him that Haylie had met. With Haylie, under the gaze of their mutual benefactor, stood the park's director, Dr. Alison Levi.

"I'll send a full explanation, of course," Dr. Levi said. "It was our mistake. It's only fair. Will you be alright for your shift at reception this week?" Haylie barely had time to nod before the director asked, "Do you want to see one of our counselors?"

The ventrilospeakers chuckled with Haylie's voice. She remembered trying out two of the archive's counselors shortly after becoming a resident -- a copy. They had both spent most of their time dead-eyed, focused on their mindlinks, which fed them a second by second reading of her simulated brain activity. They only listened to her words to get a faint idea of what she was saying when her virtual neurons fired. She'd heard that even on the outside, this was becoming the trend in counseling.

"No thank you," Haylie answered. "Just let her know the truth." Because something in their relationship had to be true.

####

The entrance hall was a room fifty feet across with stairways that led to a second story. Haylie sat behind the solid reception desk in a hologramatic chair, waiting for the large wooden door to the outside to slide open and let in the occasional visitor come to wander the grounds or see a resident -- copy, ghost -- as well as a group of professional groundskeepers come to examine New Bletchley Park's latest technohorticultural innovations.

She greeted them all quickly, helped them with what they wanted, and they left her. Cut off from Lynn, this was about the only interaction with people she could expect.

When alone, she tried to meditate, a practice she had cultivated after becoming a resident, but her duplicate mind would not let her. It kept telling her that her actions, her perceptions, her every memory was a lie. Even the visits from Lynn, which, whatever she was, she had experienced, were false, the visits of a woman to a sham mother. Perhaps that was the latest trend, just like the octopus hairstyle.

The wooden door slid open, and Haylie forced the public smile on her face. Her smile grew broader when she saw Lynn peering through the doorway from the cement, steel and neon world of blasting audio and flashing hologramatic street ads.

Only the park's ad-free parking lot served as a barrier to keep the noise far enough away for Haylie's cry of "Lynn!" to be heard.

The woman and the hologram almost met at the threshold. But a resident could not leave the confines of the park or the archive building, and Lynn did not enter.

"I can't be long," Lynn warned. "It's my lunch break. I only came because I knew you... really you would be the one at reception." Really me, Haylie thought and suppressed a laugh. "I can't believe what happened. I got that message from Alison. It makes sense now, but Mom, why didn't you contact me as soon as you were turned on?"

"Lynn, I didn't understand what was happening," Haylie said.

"You could've sent a mind mail letting me know where you were," Lynn said. "I'd have worked out enough from there."

"A mind mail?" Haylie snapped.

"Yes, a mind mail," Lynn said. "You know, what everyone on the planet uses." Haylie couldn't suppress a laugh. That was the phrase Lynn had used as a seven year old asking for a mindlink implant so she wouldn't have to link in with a less immersive sensor cap that a parent could confiscate when she wished. And it wasn't that different from what she said when she asked for the same surgery at thirteen. And sixteen.

"I guess I didn't think of it," Haylie said.

"And if you had?" Lynn asked.

"Perhaps I would have done it," she said. "For you, it's likely."

Lynn's laugh felt like a verbal slap. "Likely?" she said. "You're in one of the centers of brain-computer interface research. You're part of that research and maybe you'll use m-mail?"

"I'm so used to avoiding it," Haylie said. "Escaping all those artificial thoughts that are shoved into everyone's heads from outside sources was one of the major reasons I agreed to be copied in the first place."

"Artificial?" Lynn spat. "Mom, how can you say that? Every thought in your head -- no, your mind -- came from outside. You only remember me because of outside thoughts."

Even though the sensation wasn't real, Haylie felt her knees about to buckle. Not Lynn, too!

"I can't do this," Haylie said. She directed her false body back to the desk.

"What do you mean you can't do this?" Lynn said. "You wanted me to come back. Well, I came back. I rearranged my schedule so I could come here now. Just like I arranged my life so I could come visit you for years. Not any of the other seventeen, just you. And now we're going to talk!"

"About how fake I am?" Haylie asked. "Am I just a mother simulation program for you to turn on and order to have a conversation? Order to feel fine and up to it. I may be false, Lynn, but I can't just be told how to feel. My feelings, at least are real."

"If you are a mother simulation, you're getting pretty close to the real one," Lynn muttered. "I thought it might be happening. Now I'm sure."

"So none of us satisfy you," Haylie's voice shouted from a corridor leading into the entrance hall. Haylie Walker Copy #17 stalked towards her other self and the woman they both called daughter.

"How did you get here?" Lynn gasped.

"I set the doorlog to tell me whenever you came in," the other Haylie said. "It seems that standing right outside wasn't enough to keep the log from registering you.

"Too bad, copy," the other Haylie said to her predecessor. "She's going to leave you, too. Just like she left me. I understand now," she said to Lynn, who trembled, turned round and stalked back into the parking lot. If Haylie hadn't been standing near the doorway, it would have closed.

"Wait, Lynn!" Haylie shouted.

"You started making excuses not to visit," the other Haylie continued, taking her place next to Haylie. "You rarely responded to a voice message or wanted to have a live chat. I suppose you were visiting her already back... when I was copied. Your real mother wasn't good enough, eh?"

Lynn spun around. "Was your real daughter good enough for you? Not that either of you are my real mother." Tears once more appeared to stream down Haylie's cheeks.

"Of course you were good enough," the other Haylie told Lynn. "Too good to be another victim of modernity. For reasons too complicated to go into, I have been... unavailable for a while. And the first thing I see when I come into existence after being copied is my own daughter as old as I am. And with that same weariness I've seen on my own face. I don't know everything that happened in the intervening years, but I could see what they had done to you. And I had so wanted it to be better for you. That's why I said what I said. Because there's still time to change."

"So I'm to do what?" Lynn asked. "Give up my job, drop out of society, and go into the woods? I didn't notice you doing that. Or should I keep complaining about how horrible the modern world is while at the same time going to one of that world's high tech centers to make duplicates of myself a couple times a year? I'm leaving. I'm not waiting to see how long it takes each of you to get as bad as the real one."

Lynn ran off to her left until she was out of sight. Both Haylies stepped back from the door, which slid shut.

Silence and stillness filled the room and Haylie's future.

"Why can't she listen?" the other Haylie muttered.

Haylie spun on this later version of herself.

"We need to talk," she said. "And we need to do it elsewhere."

Haylie sent an emergency signal to activate her replacement at reception. She didn't remember to look away when Calem Chen Copy #7 appeared in the reception chair, as she usually did when another resident -- copy, hologram -- appeared.

"Excuse me, Calem," Haylie said. "I had to activate you early."

"You said, activate?" Calem asked. "What happened to ‘wake up?'"

Haylie ignored him. "I have to talk with someone. I should be back to finish my shift though." She seized the other Haylie's arm, projections being the only things that another projection could grasp.

The other Haylie simulated a curt exhalation, but allowed herself to be led out of the room and through the hallway that led to the park.

Outside, Haylie and her other self, walking slowly in the sunlight that Haylie's mind could almost believe she felt, regarded each other silently for more then a minute. Haylie wanted to turn away from this distorted reflection, this demonstration of what she was and what she wasn't. But she couldn't, and even if she weren't looking at this other copy or other Haylie Walker -- whatever she was -- the other would still be there.

"You said we need to talk," the other Haylie pointed out.

"What are you doing?" Haylie demanded.

"Dealing with what I've become and trying to save my daughter from a horrible mistake," the other Haylie said.

"How does mocking her help?" Haylie asked.

"Perhaps it doesn't," the other Haylie said. "But being kind, offering a suggestion or two doesn't help either. I know she hates me. Maybe she always will. But she'll hear what I said and maybe she'll see the truth in it. Eventually. Besides, I heard some of what she said before I arrived. Look how she treated you.

"To be fair," Haylie said, "She was right. I should've let her know. I wasn't there for her."

"Was she there for you?" the other Haylie said. "You were right. We're just a big video sim for her. Or you are... were," she added like a stiletto to the heart. "I guess it made her happy, for a while."

"I think so," Haylie said. "Not all the time. Not as much lately. But there were moments, minutes in every visit when it was like it used to be."

"So that's why she chose a sim over me," the other Haylie said. "Or not over me." She sighed. "I know why I... she asked to have me deleted. She almost didn't come to be copied this time. She kept thinking about how she was creating another person -- or another something -- with her memories, even her deepest secrets. A copy she never wanted to see. She had to avoid coming when one of them -- us -- was active, which was harder every time. And then while her copies got to live in paradise, she had to drive back to the real world."

"She had Bert," Haylie reminded her. Haylie allowed herself a few moments to remember her -- or the real Haylie Walker's -- husband, Lynn's stepfather. If only his application to become a resident had been approved.

The other Haylie stared into the distance. Haylie could almost see the memories percolating through the other Haylie, memories Haylie alone should possess.

"Bert," the other Haylie sighed just as Haylie often had before she'd learned to stop. "He was the consolation prize, wasn't he?" Haylie closed her eyes. "They -- we -- had peace, but she had a husband. Did he visit you?"

"No," Haylie said. She repressed her own memories of Bert, using the only tool she could: thoughts of Lynn and the current crisis. "He never comes," she told the other Haylie. "Not since I became a ... was copied. I check the doorlog every once in a while." Though it probably had been close to a year since the last time. She sent a query just to be sure. He still had not come. "Don't expect it," Haylie advised the other copy. "It would be a kind of cheating on the real her."

What did that make Lynn's visits?

"By the time you were copied, had I..." the other Haylie asked, "... had she started to wonder what the point of making copies of herself was?"

"A little," Haylie confessed and peered across the vast, nearly empty park. That was what had attracted her, or Haylie Walker, at first. A place of peace sheltered from the modern city. Vast areas of green, room to wander alone, and a wall that, although lower than the city's skyline, emitted a distortion field which blocked the city's noise and converted the sight of the skyscrapers outside into a shifting abstract design that, if not beautiful, was at least not ugly. "She's right about work. She can't just drop out, and she is good at it."

"I never said she wasn't," the other Haylie retorted. "But there are better jobs, kinder companies, if only a few. That's what she should go for. But it doesn't matter. She won't come back. Unless, somehow, she can visit #4, or perhaps #11. Maybe they will fit the role of fantasy mother for her. I doubt she'll want to run into either of us while visiting them, though. This place doesn't project into people's homes, does it?"

The question sparked an idea in Haylie. She glanced at the looming archive building, then back to the distorted image of skyscrapers.

"No, it doesn't," Haylie replied. "Now I must return to the desk. Wander the park," she added, only half focusing on her words. "You might remember what you... what she... what Haylie Walker was like when --" Haylie shrugged " -- she first came here."

"Now you're running away from me, are you?" the other Haylie said.

"You have a way of driving people off," Haylie called back to her. Are you a person? Jackie's voice appeared to ask in her head, as if an audio chat had been forced on her. Not now, she told the thought, and returned to the building.

####

The programmer appeared not to have moved in the several days since she had last seen him, Haylie noted as she stepped through the door that had unlocked itself and slid open before she had reached it.

"Hi, #12," the man greeted. "What's up?"

"I understand you're a good programmer," she said.

"Of course I am," the programmer said. "This place hired me."

"Yes," Haylie agreed. "I presume you've done some hacking."

"Have I?" the programmer asked. "Find the trail leading back to me before you make that sort of accusation. Trust me, you'll never find any of them." He chuckled and then spun his chair around. Haylie jumped back.

"Anyway, why are you suddenly interested in hacking?" he asked. "A note in your record says not to bother asking you to participate in any projects that involve fiddling with your code."

Haylie leaned towards him. His eyes now focused on her.

"I'm interested in seeing if you could help me break into a small corporation."

####

Two days later, she returned to his office. He had regained his near catatonic state.

"She might need more time," Haylie said, her illusory form pacing. She sent another query to her mind mail and found the same result. The messages she had sent Lynn remained blocked.

"You said two days was fine," the programmer replied.

"I said it might be fine," Haylie corrected. It could either be not enough time for Lynn's anger to ease or so much that it had started to harden.

Haylie pressed her nonexistent fingers together. If only she dared wait longer. For her, only three hours of active time had passed since she had made her proposal. "I can't believe I'm doing this."

"Why?" the programmer asked. "This is basic stuff. The only remotely hard thing is getting through their security. I've done something like it to communicate remotely with friends. Sending part of your program through to their system is new, but not hard."

"Would you stop referring to me as a program?" Haylie snapped.

"Why exactly did you agree to be copied if you hate the idea of being one so much?" the programmer asked. "So are we going to do this, or do I have to take your remote communications idea and try it with a ghost who'll actually carry through with it?"

Ghost! She would have slapped him if she didn't need him so much. And if it were physically possible. But at least "ghost" was a step up from "program."

Haylie groaned. Everything about this was wrong except the desire to contact Lynn.

"Alright," she mouthed so softly no human could hear her.

"Great," he responded. "Happy haunting."

Before she could simulate a move, she no longer had even the semblance of a body. Haylie had gone blind and dumb. If she'd possessed anything resembling a mouth, she would have screamed.

But she remained silent when sound and hearing returned a fraction of a second later.

She looked out into the modern world using an alien eye, the camera on the audiovisual panel in Lynn's office. The image was distorted by washed out colors and a fisheye lens. She took in the entire room as a whole, unable to shift her view or focus on individual objects.

Numb, effectively paralyzed, Haylie had never felt less real. But she had reached Lynn.

Lynn sat in a mindlink stupor at a sleek, nearly empty, desk. Either luck or good office design had placed Lynn's chair near the center of Haylie's vision, minimizing the fisheye distortion.

She wore a dark, conservative pantsuit that Haylie would have preferred her to wear to the park instead of florescent dycron. Her hair, now dyed auburn, had been restyled, the tentacles slicked back against the side of her head and converted into art deco parallel bulges. Behind her, the window provided Haylie a view of the city at noon from midway up a skyscraper.

On the far wall, an array of video frames cycled through a series of photographs and artwork that ranged from landscapes and Picassos to modern, chaotic whomp-painting. Despite the distortion of her fish-eyed vision, she recognized Lynn in many of the photographs -- each with a different hairstyle -- a few with Nathan Salluzo, Haylie's ex-husband and Lynn's father, one with Haylie, and one with Bert.

When awareness returned to Lynn's eyes, Haylie called, "Lynn." Her voice echoed to her own hearing, and had a slightly higher pitch.

"What?" Lynn asked. She looked around. When her gaze settled on the audiovisual panel, which the programmer had promised would bear an image of Haylie while she inhabited it, Lynn groaned.

"I don't believe it," Lynn said.

"Lynn, please listen to me," Haylie said. "I did a lot to come talk to you."

"How could you?" Lynn said. "You burst into... Which are you?"

"I'm yours," Haylie said. "I mean..." She sighed, the sound coming through as a quick burst of static. "Fine, I'm Haylie Walker Copy #12. I'm the one you came to visit."

"And now you've come to do what?" Lynn asked. "Order me to keep seeing you like you ordered me to stop talking when I came to reception? Well, guess what, Mom. Now I have things to deal with." Her pupils monetarily dilated. When her focus returned, she glared at the communications devise that Haylie had become and pressed a virtual button on her desk.

"You actually don't have control over this," Haylie said. "I'm coming in through the public address system. I'm only in your office though, but I think I can be transferred elsewhere if you move."

"You're not giving me a choice," Lynn said. "Why am I not surprised? All of you are the same." She plopped down into her chair. "So what are you here to tell me?"

"First, that I'm sorry I lost my temper," Haylie said.

Lynn waved her hand in the air as if trying to speed the conversation. "OK, that's a good start. Go on."

"But I truly wasn't up to talking then," Haylie said. "You have bad days. So do I. I was still dealing with the fact that I'm not real." I'm not real echoed in her mind. "And what you were saying made it even worse."

"You were dealing with that?" Lynn laughed. "Give me a break. What were you doing the first two decades of your existence as a copy?" Haylie tried to lower the head she did not have.

"I was trying not to remember," Haylie said. "And your visits helped. Even better than the peace of the park and freedom from the world..."

"Oh, the hideous world," Lynn said. "A source of all problems to be avoided at all cost." She rolled her chair over to the window. "Can you see out of this thing or are you just getting audio?"

"I can see," Haylie responded.

"Good, cause here's the world." She tapped the glass with her multicolored nails. "No distortion field -- either emitted from your park's wall or inside your own head. Take a good look."

"The view's nice from up here," Haylie agreed. "But I can see you, too. The other... me, she was right about how tired you look. Haylie Walker looked like that once. So many people do now. When's the last time you shut your mindlink off for a full hour? I bet sometimes you wanted to, but did you dare?

"Sure," Lynn said, "sometimes life -- not just work or m-mail -- gets to be too much. But I deal with it. I don't hide in a garden trying to shut it out."

"Do you hate the park?" Haylie asked.

"No, I don't hate the park. The park makes sense, mostly. If I got there early and there wasn't any pressing m-mail, I sometimes looked around before you were" -- her fingers curved into quotation marks -- "'woken up.'"

"You did?" Haylie asked. She'd never mentioned that.

"A few minutes at most," Lynn said. "With my job, I was lucky to get that much time in or out of the office." Haylie did not let herself respond. "But, some of the things in the park: the castle, all those old-style clothes you have to wear. That place is high tech. They should admit it. Everything about the decor, it's just pretending."

"It isn't a castle," Haylie replied. "It looks back to castles and manor houses, but it doesn't pretend it's old. It just takes what was good about those old things. And think of the peace people find there because of the style. That's real."

"I guess," Lynn murmured.

Memories flashed through Haylie's simulated mind, moments from the past like this, when mother and daughter had shared pleasant, bemused disagreements.

"You started coming after you stopped seeing the real Haylie Walker, right?" Haylie asked.

"A little after," Lynn said. "I thought, maybe there was a you I could talk to in there."

"What happened?" Haylie asked. "How did it get so bad?"

Lynn turned around and said, "She got worse. Much worse. That other copy I met is better than she is now."

"Worse means it started out bad," Haylie said loudly enough for the public address system to crackle. "What exactly ‘got worse?'"

"Well, let's see: her criticism of my hair, my clothes, my everyday desire to use a mindlink and live like everyone else. Any of it seem familiar? It's sure familiar to me."

"I do like certain things," Haylie said.

Lynn laughed. "Yes, you do. And you dislike others, usually the ones everybody else likes. Everybody who hasn't been dead for like a hundred years. And you were always pushing that on me. Sometimes you did it more. Sometimes you did it less. When you and Dad divorced, it got a lot worse. When you met Bert, it improved. But a few years after you -- I mean you you -- were copied, it got worse again and never got better.

"That's why I chose you out of all the copies," Lynn said. "You were the most recent one I knew I could be comfortable with." Haylie thought of all their pauses and hesitations in their conversations. And yet she knew what Lynn meant.

"But then you started getting worse, too," Lynn said.

"Lynn, I didn't like a lot of your outfits and hairstyles, but I tried to hide it."

"You've been failing lately," Lynn said, "more and more. Just like before. It's almost good all of this happened. It gives us a reason to move on."

"What?" Haylie said.

"I've seen your future," Lynn said, "what you become. Now you've seen some of it, too."

"If there's one thing I've learned over the course of all this," Haylie replied, "it's that I am not the real Haylie Walker." The body she didn't have tingled when she said those words. Arguably she hadn't said them, but that thought was starting to sound like useless semantics the more often she thought it. "I was able to ignore that fact, especially when I was with you. But it is a fact. Just because the ... your real mother changed doesn't mean I have to. Why did she change, anyway?"

"I don't want to talk about this," Lynn said.

"Please, just one answer," Haylie said. "It may even help me avoid her fate."

Lynn rolled her chair back to her desk.

"Sometimes people change for no reason," Lynn replied. "She got a lot worse after Bert left her, but she'd already started -- " Lynn threw her arms in the air. " -- hardening before then."

"Bert left?" Haylie gasped. Even with the odds of any marriage succeeding, to think that this one had failed. Though the park had never caught his fancy the way it had hers, after they had started dating seriously, he had applied to be part of the Turing Archives. They had spoken of being together forever. Haylie never learned why he'd been turned down. And now, because they had rejected him, the Bert of that moment was gone. To think that the love she still felt might be as much a part of history as the Topeka riots.

"So please, Mom, can we drop it?" Lynn demanded.

"Alright," Haylie said. "But I wouldn't have left Bert or driven him away. Whichever it was."

"Maybe," Lynn sighed. She leaned back in her chair. "Wow, this is different."

"Different enough that you might consider visiting me again?" Haylie asked.

"Perhaps," Lynn said. "The original, real, whatever... she never would have done what you did to contact me. What's it like to join the modern world?"

"Uncomfortable," Haylie said.

Lynn smiled. "I might be able to come again. But only if you make sure that the other one I met doesn't interfere."

####

When she was returned to whatever her normal state was called, Haylie spent almost an hour searching for her other self. Residents had the choice of letting anyone who queried the computer know precisely where they were in the archive building or the park at any time. The default setting was on.

But like Haylie did -- like all Haylies no doubt always did -- Haylie Walker Copy #17 had turned her locator off.

Haylie finally found her sitting on a wooden bench in one of the park's many gazebos, head down.

"I've been in contact with Lynn," Haylie said, climbing up the steps into the gazebo and standing opposite the other Haylie.

"You have?" the other Haylie replied without looking up. "How'd you manage that?"

"She wants to keep visiting me," Haylie said. She forced her eyes and her mind to stay focused on this other her. "But you have to promise to leave her alone."

"So you can have her to yourself?" the other Haylie snapped. She tapped herself on the chest. "I am her mother... I..." She moaned.

"However much you are, I am as well," Haylie replied.

"No, I am more. I have five more years of experience with that child," the other Haylie said.

"If our memories from before don't count," Haylie said, "that doesn't matter." The other Haylie's fingers closed into a fist. "But maybe they do count. Why can't they? But the years she came to me here, they count too. And considering what those five extra years you remember did to your relationship, I'm glad I didn't live them."

She almost asked the other Haylie if Bert had left during those five extra years of hers. Lynn hadn't made that clear. But Haylie had felt the love in this other copy the last time they had discussed Bert. Whether it would be a revelation or a reminder, dredging that up now wouldn't help.

The other Haylie rose. "And so you're the lucky one? You get to have a relationship with my daughter -- our daughter, if you must -- and I don't? What right do you have to decide that?"

"I didn't decide it," Haylie said "She did. She won't have a relationship with you. Not now. I'm willing to ask her to speak to you, but not for a while. She has to be ready, and you have to think about what changed in those five years. Because something did. If you try to see her now, she won't see either of us. I know you love her. Do you want that?"

The other Haylie sank back onto the bench. "You promise to try and get her to see me?"

"When you're both ready," Haylie said. The other Haylie's eyes narrowed. "What's the matter?" Haylie asked, unable to hide a smile. "Don't you trust yourself?"

"Do you think she would have a relationship with both of us?" the other Haylie asked.

"I can't guarantee it," Haylie admitted, "But we had a relationship with a mother and two stepmothers, didn't we?"

"Did we?" the other Haylie asked.

"I remember it," Haylie said. "Anyway, why can't Lynn have a relationship with two mothers or even more? There are eighteen of us."

"You're willing to share eighteen ways?" the other Haylie chuckled. Just one of eighteen overlapping selves vying for one child's love?

"It's a long shot," Haylie said, smiling at the thought. "And it's Lynn's choice, besides. But maybe it could work out." Haylie glanced to the distorted image of the skyscrapers outside the walls. "It's a different world out there."

"It's a different world in here," the other Haylie said.

"I suppose so," Haylie replied.

The other Haylie sighed. "I'll try it your way. For now! But if you drag your feet too much over this, I may reconsider." Haylie nodded. She approached the other Haylie and started to put her hand on her shoulder.

"Don't," the other Haylie warned, and Haylie withdrew. "How long do I wait? Years? You know, I think I can understand the advantage of turning myself off for a while."

"Just remember the work you need to do can only be done when you're on," Haylie said.

After a few seconds with no response, Haylie left her other self to her own thoughts and wandered the park.

In between admiring topiary and flowers and offering quick greetings to the few familiar-looking residents that she passed, Haylie sent a quick mind mail message to Lynn. She told her that the other Haylie had agreed to leave her alone but made no mention of the second agreement she and her other self had made. Lynn wasn't ready for that.

The message was sent. The computer confirmed receipt, and Haylie flinched. But she also smiled. She smiled to think of Lynn interrupting a business meeting to receive it. And even the discomfort she felt at having the computer's response shoved into her mind could be seen in a positive light. Would one mere program be bothered to interface with another?

Whether it was sheer chance or unconscious choice, Haylie couldn't know, but she halted at one point, recognizing the spot where young Jackie had accosted her. Haylie made her way to the nearby stream and sat down at its edge. The water flowed slowly enough to reflect her image but quickly enough that anyone, real or virtual, shimmered slightly.

While Haylie studied her reflection, she let one of her legs slip into the water and felt the stream flow through her. After counting to thirty, she had herself deactivated.

####

She arose again by her bench at the center of the maze.

Lynn stood in front of her, eyes weary but face smiling. The two silently sat together for a moment, legs nearly touching.

"Hi, Mom," Lynn said, and they began to talk.

THE END


© 2009 Eric Penner Haury

Bio: Eric Penner Haury was born in San Diego, CA and grew up there save for a brief stint in Cape Cod, MA. He attended the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA and now lives and writes both short stories and novel-length works in northern Arizona. He has published works in "Tales of the Talisman" and "The Fifth DiŠ". In 2008 he received an honorable mention from the Writers of the Future Contest.

E-mail: Eric Penner Haury

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