Rationality - Editor
The Last Archives
by Shane M. Gavin
Half a galaxy away from Earth it was shaping up to be one of those storms – the kind that had yet to be seen by anyone still living their first or second lifetimes.
Elain glanced back at the barriers she had placed over the entrance – barriers of corrugated metal that had been previously wounded in another great battle with the elements; barriers of shredded tweed bags that were half filled with muddy sludge; barriers of broken tree branches and of clumps of grass-covered sod that she had torn straight from the earth with her bare hands.
DetChiev--the man who both forty years her junior and eighty years her elder--was examining the construction, just as thoroughly as Elain had done only moments before.
Another gust of wind forced the surrounding trees into uncomfortable postures, stances they had never before been forced to take. They groaned in agony as their usually strong and stiff bodies snapped to the will of one whom they usually called friend. The gust lasted for only a moment and they were silent again, save for the gentle, almost soothing rustling of their foliage – a sigh of relief that their ordeal was over. Their ordeal was far from over.
Elain would return when the storm had passed and comfort them. Perhaps she would even allow them to sooth her own nerves, and ask if any among them was old enough to remember a time when the storms didn't come. If none among them was that old, she would ask if any of them had memories of the last great storm. She would ask if any of them had lost friends to that storm. She would ask anything she thought to ask, for the trees had a million exciting tales to tell, but only recounted them when asked to.
“You can't blame the wind.” Her father had told her that a lifetime ago. Three lifetimes ago. Back when an eight-year-old girl--a girl who was really eight years old, for the first time--had struck out at the only target she could find to place blame upon for her mother's death.
“You can't blame the wind,” he father had said. “It's not responsible for its blowing.”
Elain had then blamed the trees. The trees, too, were not responsible for their actions. She had then blamed the rains, but the rains were not responsible for their falling.
“The storms are our creation,” her father had said. “If anyone's to blame, it's us.”
After saying that, her father had cried. At the time, Elain hadn't known that men cried. She had thought him weak for the longest time after that day. It was only after he had died--actually died, for the last time--that she had changed her mind. It was only when she had talked to him in the forest, when she had talked to him and he had not lied to her in that parenting way, when he had talked honestly, it was only then that she had changed her mind.
“Elain!” DetChiev grabbed at her shoulder and pulled her close. Fighting against the drumming thunder he screamed into her ear, “Inside Elain! The rains. The rains have come.”
She felt the first drops strike her aged scalp through her thinning grey hair. DetChiev let go of her shoulder and ran toward the entrance that they had barricaded half way up its height. Before she had time to think, before she could turn to follow him, the gentle drops turned to a constant, heavy stream that fell so thick it blocked her vision like an early-morning fog. She froze where she stood for long seconds before she lifted her bare feet and struggled along the same path DetChiev had taken. More and more of the mucky earth stuck to her feet with each step she took and she was barely able to lift them with the extra weight.
She ascended the three steps to the base of their barricade and looked for footing positions and hand-holds upon the construction. DetChiev's hand came over the top. She took it, placed her left foot on a bent edge of sheet-metal that was almost an acceptable step, and hoisted herself up and over the top.
On the first day, the outer barrier held. On the first night, it gave way--first to the winds and then to the tides of the ocean that had formed outside of the entrance. Water spilled through the opening by the gallon, through the corridor and into the deep pit that had been designated the final barrier.
The waters would continue to rise so long as the rains fell and so long as the winds howled. All the Hundred and One could hope was that the storm would pass before the pit filled and the waters spilled over into their habitat. And they hoped hard. Those who believed in a god, any god, prayed. Those who had no such belief prayed nonetheless.
As the waters rose, Elain held Joshua and Elizabeth in her arms. Among the Hundred and One these were the two she called her children. Joshua was five year old, Elizabeth was eight, and although both were, in reality, older than Elain's physical body, they were both still of her flesh--what had once been her flesh--and her maternal instinct told her to hold them tight. Neither resisted. In a few years they would both be as keen of mind and independent as they had been only a few years before, but for now they were children. This the Reset allowed for and they had both elected to be reborn children instead of adults. In their minds there was no point to living five lifetimes if they could not live five childhoods.
For a while, on the second day, DetChiev sat with them and they talked. DetChiev's father, like Elain's, had been one of those responsible for bringing the storms and they talked of that for a while. Then they talked of the trees and of Elain's mother --whom she had never found among them.
Elizabeth asked what had happened to Elain's mother.
Elain decided not to tell the child that she had died in another great storm, back when Elain had been the child's age, but the child's age for the first time.
Then Joshua asked, “Mother, were there storms like this on the old world?”
Elain didn't know. She looked to DetChiev, the twenty-year-old who was her elder by a full lifetime and one of only two among the Hundred and One who had lived on both the old world and the Floating World.
“Not like this,” he answered. “The storms on the old world lasted years and were storms of dry earth, not water. There wasn't any water on the old world.”
“Will there be storms on the new world?” Joshua asked.
“We're not sure,” DetChiev replied. “But if there are, we'll be safe on top of high hills and not trapped underground.” He checked his words. He had spoken without taking into account the child's age. “And if there are no high hills then we'll find a really safe cave, just like this one.”
Joshua smiled, satisfied. The children slept easy. Elain and DetChiev worried. Yet, when their eyes met, some of the worry disappeared.
“You look so young,” she said. “And I am so old.”
“Only recently,” he commented on the first observation. “And only for a short while longer,” he said to the second.
He pressed his lips to her forehead, “I'm looking forward to spending another lifetime with you. We've both weathered one of these storms before, and we'll survive again.”
On the second night, the pit filled. It overflowed into the living quarters and chaos erupted within. Most were asleep when it happened and it quickly became apparent that the Hundred and One were not ready for the floods--all had thought that the storm would cease before they came. They had not spent enough time recounting the strength of the last great storm. They had not taken into account just how much more severe the smaller storms had become over the years.
People pushed, pulled, slipped and crashed into walls and each other. As the power failed and darkness filled the habitat, people just screamed. The water-level rose inch by inch until it was waist-high to a fully grown adult. There was no escape: no way out, no way to stop the water.
Friends were separated, families were separated. There were more screams. Worse again, some of the screams stopped. By the time the storm had finally blown itself out, by the time the waters had ceased rising, the Hundred and One had become the Eighty-Four.
It took three days for the waters to drain and hypothermia took another twelve as they waited, frenzied and freezing, in the flooded habitat.
The Seventy-Two wept for their friends, their families, the families of their friends and the friends of their families. They mourned equally for those who had lived the most of five lifetimes and those who had still been living their first.
Death was death, the Reset couldn't change that. All that could be done for the dead was to archive them, but there weren't enough trees vacant to archive such a large number.
No one knew how to choose who would be kept and who would be left to rot at the far end of the outside world. The bodies of those who were archived would rot also, but only their flesh would decay. Some advocated a clearing of the oldest trees to make room for new occupants. No one knew how to do such a thing, or if such a thing was even possible. For all of the five days after death that the archive was possible, the arguments continued.
It was agreed early on that the ones who were children, even reset children, would be archived first. There was no good reason for the children to be chosen over the adults, but it was suggested and no one objected.
Elain, her daughter and DetChiev accompanied Joshua to a vacant tree in forest of the outside world. They laid his body at its base. The tree's green leaves were all but gone, blown away by the winds of the storm. The dull plastic bark was exposed all around, other than where wiring protruded and twisted about it.
The trio stepped back and waited as the wires untangled themselves and constricted Joshua's body. It took only a minute for the wires to let go of their grip on him.
“Hello,” the tree said. “You look sad.”
“We are sad,” Elizabeth said to the tree. “My brother died.”
“I was your brother.” It was a software response, constructed by reading an index of Joshua's now archived memories and using a stored audio-print to extrapolate his voice and respond to what the tree perceived as an argument that required a solution.
Elain had tears in her eyes. It wasn't the first time she'd archived a family member, but it wasn't the kind of event that got easier. This archive was made harder by the fact that the tree had chosen to use an older audio-print--taken before Joshua's last reset. It was an old man who spoke back at them when they addressed the tree.
She knew that in time, impersonal as the tree was, she would have long conversations with her son and that his baritone voice would come to be a comfort in her life. Then time would pass and she would have nothing left to say to him, and he nothing to her. When that day came, she would stop visiting him.
The tears in her eyes fell to the ground below.
Someday, though, something new would happen and on that day she would visit her son again and tell him of the new developments in her life.
It had been the same with her father. It was the same with her father. Today she would visit him and tell him that her son had died. She realised that there was one story she'd never asked him to tell: the story of why her mother wasn't in the forest.
She looked up to see that the last of the great storm's clouds had dispersed to reveal the bright, shining metal sky a mile above. She found herself suddenly wishing that the Floating World, what had become not much more than a floating graveyard, would finally reach its destination.
Down 999,928 men, they would never truly settle the new world, but they might enjoy a few lifetimes of solid ground and sunshine before they died a final death.