At one time, people launched the ashes of their loved ones into space. Now they launched memories.
Those memories were uploaded after death and stored on a chip in a box. A digital urn. An echo of life. The boxes were loaded by the thousands onto the massive generation ships leaving Earth. Engineers. Doctors. Scientists. Those whose knowledge would be of help on the journey’s other side.
The girl was different.
She had no special knowledge. She had been six when she died, the victim of a genetic defect. Her parents had paid a steep price to send her where she never had the opportunity to go in life.
The girl knew the exact moment when she became more than a collection of memories. When she went from 1s and 0s to I and me. It was when she saw the boy.
The hand that opened her box was small and smooth-skinned. The face that peered down at her had wide blue eyes and freckles across the nose. He was five or six years old and had somehow found his way into the dimly lit cargo hold with its floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with identical beige, rectangular containers. He sat in the narrow space between aisles on the concrete floor with her wooden box in his lap.
She saw him with the pinprick-sized camera on the inside of her open box lid and felt curiosity for the first time. Who was this boy? Why had he opened her?
She activated her hologram projector. She appeared in miniature on a scrap of red velvet inside the box, dressed as she had been in her last school photo, in a leopard-print dress and pink sandals. Her hair hung in two long braids over her shoulders.
“Hello,” she said.
The boy poked at her. His finger went right through her hologram.
“Are you real?”
“Yes. Are you?”
She thought she might be imagining him. This possibility made her afraid because, now that she was self-aware, she wanted someone to talk to.
“That’s a silly question,” he said.
“Does that mean you’re real?”
“Of course I am. My name is Evan Meeks. Who are you?”
“I don’t know.”
That was true. She remembered a name from a memory. For weeks she had been in the hospital. The machines by the bed had clicked and beeped while she tried to wriggle her fingers and toes each day with less success. Her mother had kissed her and pressed her tears to her cheek and said I love you. It was the last time she remembered being alive. She didn’t want to keep the name her mother had whispered because the memory of it made her sad.
“Everyone who’s real has a name,” Evan said. “The only ones who don’t are robots and avatars.”
She didn’t know what avatars were, but she knew she didn’t want this boy to put her in the same category.
“Would you give me a name?”
He scratched his head in thought. “How about Angel? You look like an angel to me.”
“I like that.”
“Will you be my friend?”
“Oh good. I don’t have any friends. The other kids in my class make fun of me.”
“Why?” she asked.
He set her box on the floor, jostling her and making her hologram glitch until she could stabilize it. He rolled up his pants. Instead of flesh, black metal rods and springs mimicked the shapes of calves, ankles, and feet.
“My DNA forgot to give me legs,” he said matter-of-factly, as if repeating something he had explained many times before.
“They shouldn’t make fun of you for that,” the girl said. “I don’t have legs, either. I don’t even have a body.” And back when she did have a body, it hadn’t worked right. In a way, that made them the same.
A smile broke across Evan’s freckled face. “You’re neat. I like you.” A voice called his name. He turned toward it. “That’s my mom.”
“Don’t go,” the girl said.
She didn’t want to be alone.
“I have to.”
“Then don’t leave me on the floor. You have to close my box and put me away. I can’t recharge if you don’t.”
He lifted her, gently this time so she didn’t glitch, and put her back on the metal shelf, wedged between two larger beige containers. Directly across the aisle from her, a tiger toy lay half-draped out the same sort of container, its head and front paws dangling over the lip. Why had Evan dug out her box instead of the more interesting tiger? He must not have seen it, lucky for her. The tiger blinked and said nothing.
Evan’s mother called again.
“Goodbye, Angel,” Evan said.
“Will you come back?”
“Cross my heart.”
His hand reached out and shut her lid.
Evan visited every few days.
He told her about life on the ship, which for him was mostly school. He showed her the avatar he used in on-board ship games and the pea pod he had grown in class. She told him what she remembered of Earth, because Evan had been born here and so had his parents. Trees and buildings were easy; he had seen images of those. Scents were harder, like the bite on the air before a snowstorm or the hint of vanilla in the bark of a pine tree. She no longer had a sense of smell, or taste or touch — her box’s technology wasn’t that advanced — so she had to rely on her memories.
“Do you miss your parents?” Evan asked.
“Yes. But I died, and they didn’t want me anymore. They sent me away.”
“Maybe they wanted you to have an adventure.”
“I didn’t want to go.”
“If you hadn’t, we wouldn’t have met.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” she said.
It made her feel better.
They often talked for hours, until his mother called him away. When he left, he always shut her box, and she drifted outside time, waiting and waiting until her only friend returned.
Years passed. Evan grew taller, leaner. She envied his ability to change, taken for granted by the living. His freckles faded. His voice dropped. He sprouted hairs on his chin. She became ashamed of her leopard-print dress and her hair in braids. She had matured too, but he would only ever see her as a little girl.
His weekly visits became monthly, then every few months. One day, he came to her a grown man. He opened her box on the shelf without taking her down, which meant he didn’t intend to stay. He wore a gray work jumper with the word Botanist on one sleeve and Meeks on the other.
“Hello,” she said.
“Hello, Angel. It’s been a long time.”
“Where have you been?”
“Busy,” he said. “But I wanted to tell you my news. I’m getting married tomorrow.”
Jealousy and anger overwhelmed her, but she had only to look down at her tiny hologram feet in their cute pink sandals to remind herself of the futility of her feelings for him.
“Who?” she asked.
“Her name is Susan.”
“Susan who called you ‘robo-boy’ at school?”
He chuckled. “I’d forgotten that.”
“She pushed you down on the playground. You skinned your elbows. You cried about how much you hated her and you wished she was in this box and I was in your class, instead.”
“She’s training to be an engineer. She’s changed a lot. We both have.”
And I haven’t, the girl thought.
“Wait,” Evan said. “Are you jealous?”
“No,” she lied.
“You are jealous. I never thought—”
“No, you didn’t.”
He muttered a few words that might have made her blush, if she could. He paced away down the narrow aisle and slammed a hand into a metal shelf. It made a loud clang that echoed through the cavernous cargo hold. He walked back to her, his face flushed.
“Angel, you’re my best friend, but I’m not a kid anymore. Do you understand that? I have responsibilities to the people on this ship. I can’t live my life with—” He stopped.
“With a memory?”
His acidic words burned a hole through her soul. He could not have hurt her more if he had tried. A memory. How could he think that after all these years? For the first time ever, she turned her back on him, though she still could see him with her camera. He looked stunned.
Over his shoulder, the toy tiger lay where it always did. Silent, watching. Usually the girl didn’t mind. But it knew Evan had rejected her, and that worsened her shame.
She switched off her hologram projector.
“I’m sorry,” Evan said.
“Go,” she whispered.
At least he had the courtesy to shut her box.
The next time he came, his hands were wrinkled and bony, his skin translucent with veins, and his nails thick and yellow. He had a face to match, but his blue eyes had not changed. They were full of the same playfulness and spirit as those of his boyhood self.
They looked at each other for a long time, her in the box on the shelf and him leaning heavily on a cane, his metal feet shifting on the floor. She remembered her grandmother on Earth, who’d had gnarled fingers and missing teeth. She wondered whether Evan was missing teeth, but when he smiled, he flashed straight rows of unbroken white.
“Oh Evan,” the girl said. She reached out a hand to him, yearning to touch his cheek, but with no true body, she could not.
“Do I look that bad?” he asked in a raspy voice. “I suppose I do, to a young girl like you.”
“How long has it been?”
“Seventy years, give or take.”
The passage of time staggered her. In her inactive state, a day felt the same as a year or a century. “What took so long?”
His bony shoulders went up in a shrug. “Life. Marriage, work, kids, grandkids. You’d be surprised how fast the years go by. Before you know it, you look in the mirror and you don’t recognize the face staring back at you.”
“And Susan?” She kept her voice level, even while jealousy still stabbed at her. For him, they had quarreled more than a half-century ago. For her, only moments has passed between then and now.
“Susan died twenty years ago,” he said with the weariness of old regret. “An accident with the engines, but she got them working again. She’s a hero. Saved the ship. The kids and I would rather have anyone else be the hero and Susan be alive.”
“Did you store her memories?”
He shook his head. “Her brain was damaged in the accident. Too much head trauma.”
The girl fretted and tugged at her braids. “All those things. Good and bad. I wasn’t there to share them with you.”
“It’s all right.”
“No it’s not,” she said.
He had been her friend. He had abandoned her, as her parents had abandoned her. She bowed her head. He extended a fingertip as if to stroke her hair, an old man comforting a child. She couldn’t feel his touch, but she pretended she could.
“I’m here now,” he said.
A voice called his name.
“My oldest daughter. She thinks I can’t take care of myself.” He smiled, and deep creases appeared around his eyes. “When you’re my age, people treat you like a kid again. Don’t ever get old.”
If only she could.
“You have to go?” she asked.
“You’ll come back?”
“Cross my heart.”
This time when he walked away, slowly with the click of his cane and his metal feet on the concrete floor, he did it without closing her lid.
She yelled after him.
He turned the aisle’s corner and was gone.
The girl made a sobbing noise. “Come back! I can’t recharge like this. I’ll go dead. You have to come back! Why can’t you hear me?”
“Oh, he hears you,” said a voice across the aisle. It was the toy tiger, still draped over the lip of its container, as it had been for decades. Its golden eyes blinked, while its voice came from speakers in its ears. “He did it on purpose.”
She sobbed again. “Why?”
“Don’t you see? That was goodbye. He’s dying, and he doesn’t want you to spend the next century or two waiting for him to come back, when he never will.”
“What do you know about it? Who are you anyway, always sitting there and watching me but never saying a word?”
The tiger’s ears twitched. “You don’t think you’re the only memory box on this ship, do you? I might look like a toy, and you an angel, but we are both more than we seem.”
The girl calmed herself down. “Evan is coming back. He said he would, and he keeps his promises. I need to be ready.”
“What are you thinking, girl?”
“See. That’s the problem. Girl. He only ever saw me as a child. Not a woman. Not an equal. I couldn’t change my appearance in my inactive state, but now that I’m open, maybe I can.”
She shut off her camera and hologram projector to save every scrap of power for what she wanted to do. Blind to the outside world, she turned her attention inward.
Already she had manipulated the all-but endless string of her programming. She had done it spontaneously, when she became self-aware. Changing her appearance should prove easy compared with that, but it was a slow process. It took time, and her power reserve was running out faster than she thought possible.
When she found the correct piece of coding, she first erased the school photo with the leopard-print dress and braids. That girl had died long ago, with her mother’s tears and whispers of love. She recoded from scratch, painstakingly matching her appearance to how she saw herself now, whom she had become.
She put on the finishing touches as her power reserve dropped to one percent, which gave her just enough left to turn on her projector and say to the tiger, “What do you think?”
The tiger regarded her for several seconds and said, “I think you are beautiful.”
With that, her power shut off.
She reactivated in a new place. At first she felt surprise that she had reactivated at all. Then she looked around.
Gone were the monotonous beige containers under the cargo bay’s perpetual half-light that had comprised her world since death. She combed her oldest memories to give names to the strange and fantastic things around her. Her box sat on an end table, facing a room with a couch and chairs, floor rugs, lamps, pillows, knickknacks, and framed photos and paintings. There was a monitor mounted to a wall and other electronic devices scattered around that she had never seen before.
She struggled to remember what a place like this was called, and then the word surfaced. Home. This was a home.
A young boy with brown hair and blue eyes peered into her box. At first she thought he was Evan, but he couldn’t be. Then a second boy, identical to the first, ran up. She couldn’t tell them apart.
“It’s not working!” said one boy.
“Bang on it. Sometimes that works.”
“Don’t be stupid. It’s really, really old. Banging on it might break it.”
“Then I’ll do it.”
She didn’t like the idea of anyone banging on her box, so she switched on her hologram projector. The boys looked at her. One boy punched the other in the shoulder.
“Ow. What was that for?”
“You got the wrong box.”
“Look. Grandpa said she was a kid.”
She decided to head off the argument before it escalated further. In the rich alto she had given herself, she said, “I was a kid. Then I grew up.”
She ran her hologram hands over her woman’s body and full-length dress that was the same blue as Evan’s eyes. Her hair was white and in a bob, a style that had been popular on Earth before her death. When she smiled, her skin crinkled around her eyes and mouth.
She couldn’t wait for Evan to see her.
“You’re so old,” one boy said.
“Yes. That happens,” she said, pleased. “Where’s your grandpa?”
The boys looked at each other.
“He said he’d made a terrible mistake, that he had left someone important behind. He gave us directions on where to find you, and we did. But when we got back…”
“Yes?” she prompted.
One of the boys took something off the shelf beside her that was outside her camera’s field of vision. He held it out so she could see.
The box was simple woodgrain with a hinged lid, small enough for a child to hold. Just like hers. That couldn’t have been coincidence. She remembered the boy who had first opened her box and the man he had become, and wished she could cry real tears for him.
“Open it,” she said.
The boy who held the box clutched it to his chest, looking sad. “All he does is say stuff like a computer program. He’s not Grandpa.”
“Please,” she said.
This time, they set the other box on the shelf and turned her box to face it. When they opened the lid, a hologram appeared. Gray streaked Evan’s hair. He wore a simple white shirt, denim pants, and work boots that covered his metal legs. Time had given his face authority and confidence, while his body still had its muscular strength. She had never seen him so handsome, but his eyes were dull and empty, devoid of the spirit she had come to love.
“Is your mom home?” she asked the boys.
“Yeah, in the kitchen.”
“Go find her.”
“She wants to be alone with him.”
When they had left the room, she smiled at Evan. He stared back at her blank-faced, a program interface awaiting a command. It was as the boys had said. That was all right. She had become self-aware. Evan would too. It might take a year or a century, but she was patient. She would awaken him, no matter how long it took, as he had awakened her long ago.
“Hello, Evan,” she said. “My name is Angel. Do you remember me?”