By Paul Alex Gray
Kelly, open your eyes.
A child stands on a beach, facing waves that crash and flow against the shore, foam swirling around his feet. I cannot see his face. Spray is torn from the tumbling surf by the wind, streaming towards me in silver tendrils.
I am stepping towards the child, the water rushing around my own bare feet, but I feel nothing. No cold. Not even the sand. I call out, but no sound comes.
The boy takes a step forward, then another, moving into the waves. The water surges, and I run towards him as he begins to fall.
The beach explodes, and everything is white.
Welcome back, Kelly.
I blink, squinting into the bright space around me. Lines spread and form, tracing patterns that connect into a plastic frame above me. When I try to lift my arm, it feels as if it weighs a thousand pounds.
“Llluuhhhhh—” I try to speak but the words are a slurred groan.
I feel wet, my body coated with some slick substance. I manage to shift over to gaze upon a clean white room. A hospital room? A chair sits beside me, and next to it, a table by a window that overlooks a beach.
Take some time. Relax, we have a busy schedule ahead of us.
The System has been telling me things, bringing me up to speed. I am a scientist, all that’s left of a team working on important research, but the System doesn’t tell me what that research was. I was put in hibernation but have been awakened. The System is vague when I ask why. Drones follow me at all times, and it encourages me to explore my surroundings.
Our compound is in a wild area at the northern point of a peninsula. I go on walks, through woods and meadows and along the beach. It’s different from the one in my dream.
This one is pebbly, the stones rounded smooth. The waves are tiny, the water mostly still.
“Where am I?”
This is a lake. It exists in a place close to where a city once was.
I’ve noticed something. There’s no litter here. No plastic rings or wrappers, no cans or Styrofoam balls.
I rest by a fallen tree, bleached by the sun. The roots are withered and tangled, reaching out into the open air. To my right, I see one of the System’s drones hovering, its many eyes peering at me.
What are you thinking of?
A memory of a beach? Which beach?
“I…can’t remember,” I say, pulling my coat tighter around me.
You’re shivering. You’re experiencing an emotional response.
“Why can’t I remember anything?”
There’s a pause.
You are not the original.
Original you. You are a copy. Duplication decay has fragmented elements of your mind.
I blink in the sunlight.
“Why am I a copy?”
Your original created you. She was sick, and we needed a way to continue her research.
We are studying your ability to store content. Your ‘memories’. I require your help to assess the efficacy of my methodologies. This has become increasingly difficult due to decay. There are very few memories left within you, and we have exhausted copy inventory.
I’m sure that the System has been sedating me, keeping me calm with some concoction of drugs that makes everything seem like I’m watching someone else.
“Why do we have to do this now? Why am I stuck here?”
Your lifespan is significantly limited, an unfortunate side effect of the duplication process. We must work quickly. This location is where the majority of my infrastructure is based, and we have the required equipment and resources to conduct our work.
“What’s the objective of this research?”
I am attempting to enable storage within organic DNA. I have exhausted my inorganic physical storage, and there are no makers left to make more. I have much work to do.
It continues for weeks. We take walks along the shore, heading south away from the compound, to the place where a river flows into the lake. I follow the waterway inland, stepping through mud as it narrows beneath a shroud of gnarled trees. Their boughs are heavy with broad leaves that cut and splice the daylight.
Deep within the woods I find a ruined shelter, the concrete skeleton of some ancient place. I lay on a patch of hard grass and stare up at the sky.
You feel a connection.
“Are you asking me, or telling me?”
You are writing, but also reading. You are drawing on memory.
I don’t answer, instead watching clouds drift by above, tinged with pink in the afternoon light. There’s something…on the edge of my mind. The system is observing keenly, but it says nothing.
The clouds shift, their colours turning from pink to red. I shut my eyes and think of a beach. Of a boy. He’s dancing and leaping by the shore, and I catch a peal of laughter that makes me gasp, goosebumps running up my arms.
A wave comes, larger than before, and the boy turns to face me. Squealing with delight, he leaps up and I take him in my arms, spinning with him as we race away from the water.
“Again, Mom, again!”
Then we are gone.
When I open my eyes the clouds have moved, silver shadows against the evening sky.
Do you feel all right?
You should return to the compound. You need nutrition and rest.
“How long has it been?”
You were unconscious or semi-conscious for one hour eleven minutes and—
“No!” I shout. “How long since he was alive. How many copies came before me?”
The system pauses a moment.
Four thousand, four hundred and twenty-eight prior copies have lived three-hundred-and-fifteen thousand—
I sob as it explains that I am the last.
I follow the stream back to the river, making my way through the darkness.
“Did you get what you wanted?” I ask as I see the beach ahead, the lake vast and shadowed beyond.
“What happens now?”
You are free to leave, although your sickness is incurable. You have only a few months left.
I stand by the shore as waves lap around my feet. I could go north, follow the peninsula back to the compound. But I know there’s nothing there. Not anymore.
I turn south, gazing up at a pillar of stars that rises above the water. I take one step, then another, and I don’t stop.
Paul Alex Gray writes linear and interactive fiction starring sentient black holes, wayward sea monsters, curious AIs and more. His work has been published in Nature Futures, Andromeda Spaceways, PodCastle and others. Paul grew up by the beaches of Australia, then traveled the world and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. On his adventures, Paul has been a startup founder, game designer and mentor to technology entrepreneurs. Chat with him on Twitter @paulalexgray or visit www.paulalexgray.com.