A SUNKEN MEMORY
CJ-1844 sat in the pilot’s chair of his deep-sea probe, his neural network link extending from the palm of his hand into the input dock of the submersible’s control console. The ship fed him information on the waters around him as he kept it on track speeding through the abyss. CJ’s mission was simple: find the last mind bank hidden in the ruins of old Baltimore and collect any souls still sleeping within. It was something CJ had done dozens of times before, though he took little pleasure in it. Ruins were dangerous places, and worse still, the ride to get to them was incredibly dull.
Over the submersible’s speaker system, CJ played music to pass the time, old tracks from when he was still human. CJ liked the old songs. They helped maintain the memories in his neural cortex, triggering nodes of data that hadn’t been inspect-ed in a long time. The song playing now was titled “September.” Though CJ had no lungs, his vocal synthesizers could still crank up to an impressive volume, and on long voyages like this, with nothing to do but enjoy some music, he took full advantage of the range of his cybernetic voice.
“Our hearts were ringing…In the key that our souls were singing…As we danced in the night…Remember how the stars stole the night away!” CJ bounced in his seat as the disco beats of millennia past built up to the chorus, and at the climax, he held up a chromatic hand, tossed his head back, and shouted his favorite verse. “Ah! Ah! Ah! Ba de ya! Say do you remember? Ba de ya! Dancing in September! Ba de ya! Never was a cloudy day…!”
CJ remembered how strange it had been when he was first downloaded from the mind bank that held his conscious-ness for five hundred years. Those who found him said he’d been stored in a facility in the ruins of Houston. At the time, he did not know who he was, where he was, or where he’d come from, a common side-effect of having one’s memories suddenly compiled in a new, unfamiliar platform. Cyber Displacement was often described as moving into a giant house where the inside of every room was something familiar, but you had no idea as to the layout of the house itself, and some of the rooms had caved in during the move. Things came back to different people in different orders, and some things, due to file corruption, never came back at all. For CJ, when he awoke, all he knew was that he wanted to listen to some music. And despite the many mind transfers he had experienced since then, that desire never left him, though many other memories had. Data corruption was al-ways a risk with digitized memory—the catch to being immortal.
The amount of people who had uploaded their consciousness before the start of the Ascension War was paltry compared to the total population. Less than 1%. And once the war started, any banks in the major cities—DC, New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, London—were all bombed into radioactive glass. Those that survived the war were still threatened by the horrific nuclear storms and earthquakes that ravaged the planet in the centuries that followed. Only 1% of 1% remained to be down-loaded in aftermath. Those few souls turned out to be the very last vestiges of humanity…if they could even call themselves human. Centuries of irradiation meant many minds could only be partially restored. Everyone seemed to have a missing piece or two, and by now some were missing a lot more than others.
CJ had undergone many missions to find lost mind banks, but it had taken a toll. The world was a savage place be-yond the titanium domes of Maroon-0, and more often than not, there had been many a time he’d returned to base with a body so thoroughly broken, he’d needed his mind transferred to a new chassis. And each time his memories became a little less stable. A little more corrupted. Thinking of his human life now only gave him headaches and flickering glimpses—the taste of greens, a wrinkled brown face, a cherrywood guitar. But know-ing how they fit together, that was impossible, and it was only getting worse. Others wondered why he strained himself so, risking so much to find so little, but in a world where no one new was ever born, searching for minds from mind banks was the closest thing to bringing life into the world.
CJ wondered if he had children once upon a time. He thought he could remember them vaguely, round and laughing like little chestnuts, but now he wasn’t sure. Their faces weren’t there. It was a faded memory. Corrupted data. Did he have a wife? A husband? He shook his head. Corrupted data. A faded memory.
The administration had warned him to stop before it was too late, that it had been over two hundred years since the last mind bank discovery, and he was risking his sanity for nothing. They said there were no souls left to be found, and to destroy his mind in vain exploration would be a waste. CJ didn’t believe that though. He couldn’t. They couldn’t be all that was left.
The cyborg suddenly stiffened in his seat as a warning signal was transmitted from the submarine pod’s AI into his neu-ral network. His artificial brain interpreted the signal to make it sound like ringing sirens going off in his head, startling him with an unwelcomed shock.
“Emergency!” The pod’s AI said calmly. “Severe tectonic activity detected.”
“Details!” CJ ordered, turning off the music with a thought.
“A magnitude 9 earthquake has been detected three clicks from our current location. The shockwave will hit us in approximately one minute. I suggest following emergency protocols and bracing for impact.”
An earthquake? Now? Impossible! The analysts had given CJ the most up-to-date geological forecasts before setting out on his mission. Something like this should have been predicted. If CJ still had teeth, he’d suck them in frustration. Not even a fully optimized neural matrix and AI assistance could overcome human error. No point in worrying about that now. CJ had to think of the present. He was exposed, in the open with no shelter to break the oncoming wall of water. All he could do was follow emergency protocol, cut his link from the console, strap in tight, grab the railings on either side of him, and brace for impact.
Disconnected from the console, the AI’s voice sounded over the speakers instead of echoing in his head. “Impact com-ing in five…four…three…two…one.”
The shockwave hit the small craft like a storm gale, throwing CJ against the glass viewport. If he still had bones, his jaw would have shattered on impact. Before he could grab ahold of the handles again, CJ was flung back hard into his seat. Then he was thrown again, this time to the left, his head denting one of the bars he was trying to hold to steady himself. The submersible spin and CJ held on for dear life. He felt no pain, his tactile sensors maxed out before reaching that point, but it still wasn’t pleasant. There was a tension, a panic that made the cyborg desperately cling to the support bars. If his arm or his head were to smash something vital in the sub, shatter the viewport, crush the console jack, or dent the computer mainframe, that would be the end of it. Not even his hyper durable body would survive sink-ing to the crushing fathoms of the abyss. And even if he did, he’d burn through his battery charge before reaching home try-ing to walk the ocean floor.
He would die.
The lights in the sub flickered out suddenly, casting him in blackness. Whether as a means to save energy or as a result of structural damage, CJ couldn’t tell, not while disconnected from the neural link. So, as it was, CJ spun in the darkness of the abyss, hearing the roaring waters eddying around him.
CJ did not notice at first when the sub finally stopped turning. He’d almost gotten used to the feeling of endless spin-ning. But eventually everything did stop. The rolling, the creak-ing of the sub’s hull; it faded until it just ceased altogether. But whether the sub was floating or resting on the ocean floor, he couldn’t tell. All he saw was black, and all he heard was silence.
“Pod!” CJ called out. “Pod, wake up!”
There was no answer.
Fumbling in the dark, CJ reached out to the control con-sole, feeling for the port to plug in his neural link. He found the small, peg-shaped hole and placed his palm over it, docked, and reached out into digital space to sense the AI’s presence.
What he saw in his mind space was more darkness, a field of empty black.
With a forceful thought, CJ willed the sub to activate, pushing his intention firmly upon the machine. There was a flash of dim light, a candle flicker in the black void, and then, one by one, more lights started to flare as the basic diagnostic systems were starting to reboot, and a bit of tension eased from the cyborg’s shoulders. Or at least it did for a moment. Then a yellow image of the ship’s battery gauge appeared, showing a lower than optimal measurement of remaining power. 30%. Under normal circumstances, it would have been enough to get home, but who knew if it would be enough now.
Once CJ finished taking note of the battery, the gauge faded away and quickly replaced itself with a 3D projection of the ship displaying highlighted areas of structural compromise. A propeller was loose, but beyond that, no serious damage had been sustained, as indicated by the majority of the ship having a healthy green outline. CJ thanked his lucky stars and dismissed the projection from view.
“AI system reboot initiated!” chimed the AI’s melodic voice, echoing in the digitized mind space. A glowing wheel suddenly took the foremost spot in CJ’s mental vision. It turned yellow, then slowly turned neon blue, and then bright green. “Hello, CJ -1844! This is Submersible Exploration Pod-136 at your service!”
“Welcome back,” CJ said. He pulled his senses out of the realm of cyberspace and back into his physical surroundings, which remained almost as dark as he’d left them, save for a few safety lights now adding an ambient red glow to the pod’s inte-rior. “Can you turn the headlights on?”
Immediately, the headlights of the sub flashed bright, revealing to CJ that he was indeed on the bottom of the ocean. However, judging by what he saw, this place had not always been submerged. There were buildings here, or at least the re-mains of them. Lumpy and misshapen as they were from the weathering passage of watery eons, they were still unmistakably buildings. Among the buildings directly in front of them were two thick fleshy stalks, each the size of a young tree. A pair of anchor worms, CJ thought, creatures who waved lazily in the water, catching small fish that wondered too close. He’d seen them before, though they were usually found in groups, not pairs.
“Where are we…?” CJ thought aloud, leaning forward on the control console, staring in awe at the ruins before him. The style of architecture did not match those of Baltimore’s ruins. He would know, he’d been there twice before. In fact, these didn’t match any of the old sunken cities CJ had visited. Most of the buildings were too squat, too old fashioned for the stand-ard designs of the late 23rd century.
“We are 6.3156 degrees north by 10.8074 degrees west.”
“Yes, but where exactly is that?”
The AI provided a holographic map, making it appear in the forefront of CJ’s mind. The oceans were blue, and the land-masses were green lined with brown mountains and deserts, and his exact location was represented by a flashing red dot. They were on the edge of the mid Atlantic, only a few kilometers off the coast of West Africa.
“This must have been above water hundreds of years ago,” CJ thought aloud. “What was this city called?”
“It was called Monrovia, capital of a small nation called Liberia.”
The names were vaguely familiar to CJ, like he’d heard them before, but he did not have any specifics he could recall off hand. The problem with digitized memory was that, at best, it was only as clear as it had been at the time upload, and the vaguer the memory, the more susceptible it was to corruption. CJ did know, however, that all the major cities of the former West African coast like Lagos, Accra, and Dakar had all been thoroughly explored centuries ago. Scanning the unusual buildings, he wondered if anyone had conducted expeditions here before.
“Negative.” The AI said, sensing his thoughts. “The ad-ministration has deemed this area an unlikely prospect for mind banks since it was relatively undeveloped prior to the war, thus no one has undertaken the effort to explore it.”
Great, CJ thought sarcastically, slumping back in his seat. He’d landed in the boondocks. If he were going to be thrown to the other side of the Atlantic, the least he could ask for was to be thrown someplace interesting. Now all he had to look for-ward to was a long trip back home with nothing to show for it. Of course, that was assuming he could even get home. Maroon-0 was nestled in the heart of the Gulf of Mexico, over 5,000 miles away. This sub was not meant for such a range. Without another convenient shock wave, returning was going to be tricky to say the least.
CJ tapped his chrome fingers thoughtfully on the con-sole, looking at the battery display in his mental space. It read 29%. “Pod, how can we get back to Maroon-0 with our current battery charge?”
“If we go at half speed, we will be able to reduce our energy output to such an extent that we should be able to get back to base. Though we will be delayed by a week.”
“Hmph. A week? At least it’ll give me time to think of what I’ll report to the administration.” CJ nodded, accepting that it was what it was. “Chart the course for home and let’s be on our way.”
“Excuse me, CJ, I would be remised if I did not inform you that I am suddenly detecting a signal. It’s weak, but it is there.”
CJ raised a holographic eyebrow with mounting intrigue. “What? Here? In the ruins?”
Curiosity roused the cyborg. The thought of coming back with something, anything, was too tantalizing to ignore.
“Can you lock onto the signal?”
The map reappeared in CJ’s mind, zooming in on their immediate surroundings. The red dot was his position, the green dot was the mysterious signal, though it did bleep in out occasionally, disappearing from the map only to reappear a few mo-ments later.
“It’s close… Only a kilometer south.” The cyborg pondered for a moment, mulling over the temptation. “Will reaching the source of the signal use a significant amount of energy from the battery?”
A warm giddiness filled CJ with excitement. It was a feeling he hadn’t known for some time. “Let’s check it out!”
At that moment, the ground shifted, jolting the sub backwards. CJ was flung against the control panel, barely catch-ing himself in time to watch the seabed outside heave and crack apart. His circuits froze in terror as the ground bulged before him. Another earthquake? No, not now! But then he saw the truth of it. The fleshy stalks that CJ had assumed were anchor worms, the things he’d been shining the sub’s bright headlights on for the past several minutes, revealed themselves to merely be eye stalks of something that had been buried underneath. Rising like a mountain from the ground, covered in dark chiton over-grown with barnacles, arose a gargantuan crustacean unlike any-thing CJ had ever seen.
The AI, sensing the paralyzing awe in the cyborg’s thoughts, took it upon itself to commence preservation protocols. “Buoyancy reinitiated, revving engines for departure!” “It turned the sub around, pointing it away from the ruins and to-wards the open ocean.
“Where are you taking me?” CJ asked, coming to his senses.
“That signal is still back there! We need to find what it is!”
The AI responded with a tone that almost sounded impatient. “That is not recommended!”
“I’m not leaving until we see what’s back there!” With a firm thought, CJ pushed away the AI’s command to retreat and forced his own will upon the sub. He started by overriding the AI’s control of the propulsion system, turning the sub back around and then revved the engine to full speed.
“What are you doing?”
“Just be quiet and watch!”
CJ blasted the sub forward towards the ruins, towards the crab. The creature snapped its mandibles angrily and raised a claw to catch the tiny craft. CJ held tight to the console as he commanded the sub to jerk to the right, darting around the creature’s reach. He spotted a building, it’s wide hollow window just big enough for the craft to fit through. CJ focused and shot the sub through the window, threading the needle in one side and out the other.
Feeling a sense of vindication, the cyborg amplified it just to make sure the AI could sense it. “You see. Nothing to worry about.”
Then there came a thunderous boom that rippled out like an explosion, rattling CJ in his seat. Behind them, the creature swung a chitinous claw, swiping the top the building they’d just sped through, sundering tons of stone and metal. Alarms from the AI’s sensors rang inside CJ’s mind, blaring and howling as they turned his whole vision bright with flashes of red.
Chunks of metal and cements struck them in the rear like shrapnel, pummeling the hull with terrifyingly loud pings and bangs. The cyborg focused, pushing out the noise of the alarms and the AI’s persistent warnings, so he could be undistracted from piloting. There was a loud snap from the rear. The damaged propeller had fallen off. CJ spun the sub in a barrel roll and pushed harder with his will, cranking up the speed of the remain-ing propellers to the max. Soon they cleared the field of falling debris and a sense of tentative calm started to set in.
“That was reckless,” the AI chastised.
CJ had no response. Maybe it had been a little reckless, but he hoped whatever he was looking for was worth it. He called up the battery display again. 26%. It was less than he expected, but he nodded to himself. It was what it was. He fig-ured he’d find out soon enough what this gamble was for.
CJ drew up the map of his surroundings again. The crab was a massive yellow blip, slowly following behind him, until finally, it stopped and fell out of range. And then the cyborg noticed the green blip, or the lack there of. The prize he’d turned around to find, it was gone. He slowed the sub’s speed and expanded the range of his scan. Where was it? Where did the green blip go?
Then, as the distant clicking and gurgling of the crab echoed out behind them, CJ saw it. It was flickering weakly, but he saw it, adjusted his course, and closed in. The signal led him into the half-buried interior of a concrete building in the heart of the ruined city. What function it had served in the past was im-possible to tell. Most of its plaster had been washed off, leaving behind a rugged surface with lines of rusted rebar sticking out like bones of a rotting corpse.
“We’ve arrived,” the AI said, lacking enthusiasm.
The cyborg searched the ruin until they came to a corner of the building where sea moss coated the pile of stones in green fur. CJ activated the mechanical probing arms, extending them from the sub’s underbelly, and started to pull away the heavy debris one chunk at a time. After a while, a bit of worry crossed CJ’s circuits. He was wasting energy he couldn’t afford. He checked. 24%.
“At this rate, we will not have enough battery life to propel consistently back to base. Not even on low output.”
CJ furrowed his holographic brow. The AI was right, but there was no point in stopping now. He yanked hard with the sub’s arms and pulled back a huge slab of concrete, and as he did so, something gleamed underneath. Pulling back the final bits of rock, CJ uncovered what looked like a giant pillbox coated in shimmering mother of pearl.
If CJ had lungs, he would have gasped at that precise moment. “Do you know what this is?”
“I do not have enough data to confirm.”
“This…this is a life case!” CJ remembered how the pro-spect of these things were in vogue back in the years leading up to the war. It was never confirmed that any working prototypes ever actually existed, though, only failed test models. “Tell me, do you get a reading of what’s inside?”
“Of course, you can’t! The shell is designed to block everything from radio waves to gamma rays. It’s airtight and nigh shatter-proof. It’s designed perfectly to create an impervious and self-sustaining environment for the user inside. Do you get what I’m saying?”
“You found a powerfully shiny suitcase.”
“There might be a human inside! An actual human!” CJ’s mind was starting to race with thoughts, but he slowed it down just enough to issue more mental commands to AI, telling it to prepare the airlock in the back of the sub and load the capsule. The AI took over the submarine’s arms, gently lifting the silvery capsule from the rubble and pulling back into the sub’s loading bay. There was a hiss as water was drained away from the other side of the wall behind CJ’s chair, the area where the loading bay was contained in the small sub. When he heard the signal chime announcing the water was fully drained, he commanded the sub to open the door behind him before he unplugged his neural link. CJ spun his chair around and waited for the door behind him to open. There was a loud click as the locks un-latched, sliding open in three parts.
Still in his chair, CJ leaned forward to reach into the small loading bay. He slid his chrome hands over the shimmering surface of the case, examining the sides, looking for some way to open the smooth box. Finally, his fingers felt something along the side, a small panel displaying vital signs, including a pair of little lines that rose and fell ever so slightly between long intervals.
CJ’s holographic eyes widened in overwhelming awe. Two heartbeats? Two minds? Eager anticipation tickled his neural network again, jumping like sparks in his mind, and he put a finger on the unlock button. There was a click and a hiss as the atmosphere inside the casket fled out, cold and white with mist.
Carefully, the cyborg lifted the lid to find two young humans curled in fetal positions, facing either side of the casket, no older than ten. Their chocolate brown cheeks and kinky close-cropped hair were tinged with white frost. They laid still and silent, their chests barely rising and falling as they breathed in-credibly slowly. Naked as they were, CJ noticed one was male and one was female. This was greater than any mind bank a cy-borg could have ever hoped to find.
“I have to admit,” the AI started, “I had not suspected this.”
To be continued . . .