Waiting on Annette



She lay in the tank before him, floating in the last portion of a once-great ocean, a naked goddess waiting to rise from the sea. Annette the Beloved, Annette of the Multitudes, Annette of the Dying Days. Was that a hint of a smile playing across her lips, her familiar wry sense of humor at play even while she slept? He thought no: no high-level cognitive function, not yet. But maybe. Who could say what went on in the mind of the dreamer who never awakened?

The Resident studied her through the glass, searched her face and form for any imperfection, any indication of change or sign of life. She stared back, wide hazel eyes unblinking, unseeing, hands folded at the waist, her long tawny brown hair sprayed across the tank like a fan of aquatic plants, motionless but still alive. When had she last stood by his side and watched the rippling of the synchrotron lights through the observation dome, or lain in his arms under the long-dead stars of their youth? When had she last screamed his name like a curse or collapsed in tears at his feet, decrepit with age and begging for release? He could not remember, and that troubled him. He only knew that such things had happened.
 
He finished his inspection some time later. How much later, he could not say: Annette had a way of mangling time, of devouring it. All systems functional, all readings optimal. He could have confirmed this from anywhere within the great Mansion or its grounds, but today, just like every other day, he had to see her in person. He put his hand on the thin layer of glass that separated them, imagined the time when he could push it aside and see her rise up and sit, soaking wet, her eyes filled with wonder. The glass was cool to the touch. His breath caught in his throat. Not today. It was not yet time.

“Shall we go now, sir?” Lennox had waited patiently while he tended to Annette. The fact that the menial had known the exact moment when he was starting to feel restless was slightly irritating, as was its smooth voice and expressionless face. But there was no point in being annoyed at a machine, so he simply nodded, and together they made their way back to the lift.

This cellar was the deepest and by far the largest chamber in the Mansion. More than three hundred meters from end to end, the floor was smooth and slightly concave, making it seem like whichever way he went, he was going uphill. The walls and ceiling were rough stone, with harsh blue-white light spilling out from fixtures dug into the ceiling high above. The echoes of their footsteps clattered off the distant walls. Lennox knew better than to initiate any conversation.

Annette’s tank was at the very far end of the chamber, pressed up against the dry rock wall. The cellar was filled with these tanks, lines of them snaking from one end to the other, with just enough room between for the two of them to walk side by side. Most of the tanks were derelicts: dusty, sagging, broken-down, with cracked cases exposing innards of shredded wires and burned-out pumps. Some were spotless, pristine, as if the occupant had just stepped out the day before. All of the tanks were empty; all but one. Every tank had a name scratched into the glass by a hand that was sometimes firm, sometimes wavering, as if done by a man who couldn’t stop shaking: Annette.
    
There had been a time when every tank had been full, when the sky above was bursting with stars and the cellar below with Annettes. He knew this had to be true, that logically it was the only thing that made sense. But he had no memory. No, that wasn’t entirely true: as he walked by each empty tank, ran his fingers lightly over the glass that was no longer cool to the touch, he would get flashes. This one played the flute and curled her tongue when she laughed. This one planted irises and poppies in the garden and called him ‘Daddy’ sometimes because she knew it made him uncomfortable. This one tried to kill him, silly thing, and then killed herself. All of them different. All of them Annette. He’d made the mistake, once, of asking Lennox how many: how many had there been, how many were left. Thankfully, he had forgotten the answer long ago. Love should never be reduced to a number, not the deep, endless love for Annette: never, that is, until the number is one.

“Tomorrow, Lennox,” he said, when they reached the wide doors at the far end of the chamber. “Tomorrow we wake her.”

“Very good, sir. I will begin the preparations.”

#

Up two levels was the Mansion’s second-largest chamber. The air was fresher here, with occasional breezes supplied by cleverly hidden fans that Lennox was forever having to find and repair. Many things grew here, flowers and grasses and even a pair of squat live oaks. In the distance, he could faintly hear the sound of running water. It was all he could do to keep from grinning or breaking into song as he walked his usual path among these leafy things. They were waking Annette! At long last! He might see her as soon as tomorrow! 

The process could take anywhere from a few hours to a few days – this was something that the Resident always marveled at, that they started diverging on the day of their birth. The last step was the most delicate: the neural conditioning, where Annette learned balance, coordination, language, the basics of manners, dress, morality, all without the introduction of memory or biases, so that when she stepped out of the tank, she would be a person, but would have no personality. The Mansion did this, and it took all of its heuristic potential to do so. The Resident remembered the many times he had spent waiting in his room with the lights dimmed, shoulders hunched with fear or anticipation, unable to sleep.

He would bring her here first, as soon as she was able to walk. She had loved it here. All of them. He could see her, kneeling just there, planting honeysuckle, looking up at him quizzically, a smudge of mud on her left cheek. Or was it jasmine? What was it that troubled her that day? It was bamboo now. That whole section of the garden where Annette had once planted honeysuckle or jasmine, bamboo that threatened to take over the neighboring stands of zinnias and poppies. He had no recollection of Annette planting bamboo, but she must have. She must have.

“Lennox, the bamboo seems to be spreading again,” he said.

“Yes sir. I’ll trim it this evening.”

“I’ll be bringing her here when she rises. It must be perfect.”

“Of course, sir. Just as you say.”

He scowled at the bamboo for a moment, tugging at his beard. It was the sky here that was wrong. No sun or moon, just a gentle, diffuse light that changed to a soft, warm darkness at nighttime. He had been born under a true sky, with clouds and stars and wind that blew of its own accord. He was sure of that. No Annette could say the same; this approximation was all she could ever know. Except … the first? Had there even been a first? He did not know. So much had been lost. His mind was like this garden: it continued, it even thrived in some ways, but only because parts were continually being plowed under to expose the dirt to the air. Had he been the one who had built the Mansion, and filled the chamber below? Possibly, but if so, he had no recollection. Annette was a gift. That was all he knew. In many ways, she was the only thing here that was truly alive.
 
#
 
He came to his senses in the middle of the night, as he often did. Yes, of course he missed Annette very much; of course he would be overjoyed to see her again, to hold her in his arms, to hear her speak again. Could he remember the tenor of her voice, the soft sing-song of her laugh? He was almost sure he could; there were recordings, of course, a multitude of multitudes, but he couldn’t bear to watch them.

But what then? What would he say to her, how could he explain? He didn’t know how to be with her anymore. She was still Annette, but who was he?

What if she grew to hate him?

He summoned Lennox.

“You will find a way, sir, as you always have,” the menial said, after he explained the situation. Its silhouetted form stood out against a backdrop of a few dim red stars. This room had a large transparent dome for a ceiling and was the only place in the Mansion with a view of the true outside. It was also the only room he could fall asleep in, and even then only rarely. He sat up in his bed and studied the insipid spectacle of the dying universe.

“I can’t do it, old man,” he said. “Cancel the procedure. Shut it down.”

Lennox tilted its head. Its featureless face somehow managed to convey disappointment. “Are you sure, sir? She has waited a very long time.”

The Resident frowned: an intentional misrepresentation. Annette was not ‘waiting’ at all, she did not experience the passage of time in any way. “She will have to wait a little longer,” he said curtly. “This is not the right time. I’m not ready for her.”

“Then when will the right time, sir? If I may ask.”

“Tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow.”

The Infant rotated into view, just over Lennox’s left shoulder, an intense, spinning blue-white dot casting garish, pulsing shadows across the room. The little pulsar wasn’t much bigger than the asteroid the Mansion had been carved into, but it supplied all of her energy needs and would continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The Resident looked at the menial expectantly. This was the point when Lennox usually left him to his own thoughts. Lennox remained.

“She has waited a very long time, sir,” it said finally.

“Lennox, I am in no mood. Do as you’re told.”

Still the machine hesitated.

“She will live a long life. You will have many happy years.”

“’A long life?’” He climbed out of his rumpled bed and stared at the machine incredulously. “She will live an instant, a flash, and then there will be nothing left but the scent of her! What will I do then, when she is finally gone, and there are no more left?”

Lennox turned its porcelain white face to him. Its eyes were black, featureless. “What do you do now?”

“I wait! I wait for the time when she awakens and I can hold her in my arms, and as long as that time is always ahead, then the waiting is still bearable!”

“But sir.” Lennox rotated its torso so that it could smooth the bed coverings. “If you never wake her, how is it any different than if you already had?” This was an argument it had used many times before. The Resident sunk down to the side of the bed and rubbed his tired eyes.

“I will wake her, Lennox,” he said wearily. “Just not today. Now do my bidding; go shut it down.”

The menial straightened itself up and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder. “She deserves a chance to live, sir. No less than the others.”

“I know,” he sighed. “I know. She’ll get that chance, I promise. Tomorrow. Now go.”

Lennox slipped silently out of the room.

#
 
He knew the moment he woke up, some hours later. There was a change, tiny, microscopic. Annette had always marveled at how he communed with the Mansion, how he knew the instant a pump overheated or a collector panel went out of alignment. This time it was worse, far worse. Lennox hadn’t aborted the procedure at all; the menial had, in fact, accelerated it. He jumped out of bed and called to the Mansion, stop it, shut it down immediately, but the Mansion did not hear. He called for Lennox, knowing there would be no answer. He would have to go and stop it himself. No matter what, he could always use the manual override on the tank itself. This would not be the first time he had had to use it. He unlocked the drawer in his nightstand and pulled out an object with a short steel and glass barrel with two brass terminals at one end and an onyx handle. He slipped it into his pocket. He was sure he wouldn’t need it, but just the same. He stepped out of his room and made his way down to the cellar.
 
#

The change was more noticeable in the tank room. The machines had come to life, for the first time in some unknowable span. They had come to abrupt, humming life, as only machines can. Pumps throbbed and indicator lights along the walls flashed a mesmerizing cadence of amber and blue, while the voice of the Mansion spoke in a calm singsong, detailing the arcana of the Awakening. The focus of all this activity was the last tank at the back of the room, where a virtually inanimate hunk of organic material was being transformed into a living, breathing, self-aware human organism. The process was well on its way. For once, he had slept too well, and he cursed himself for this: if the Awakening progressed too far, it would be impossible to stop it without killing Annette.

Luckily, that wasn’t the case. He could tell by the tenor of the machines, the attitude of the Mansion that curled around him like a fist, there was still time. He sprinted down the central aisle, passing empty tanks by twos and threes. In the distance, at about fifty meters, he could make out the solitary figure of Lennox, blocking his path.

“Please sir,” the menial said, when he was in striking range. “Don’t try to stop it. This is for the best.”

Without answering, he reached into his pocket and pressed the barrel into Lennox’s side, so that the terminals contacted between the third and fourth ribs. The menial stiffened for a moment and the Resident jumped back as a hail of sparks erupted from the contact point. Lennox’s face lit up as if with a sudden revelation, and it dropped to the floor. The stench of burnt hair and plastic filled the air.

He stepped over the body, only to be confronted by a second Lennox, stepping out from between two tanks. “I think you should reconsider this course of action, sir,” it said.

“Lennox, we’ve talked about this. I don’t want you making copies of yourself.”

“I know sir, only –”

The Resident burned this second Lennox down, same as the first. He frowned. This sort of behavior wasn’t completely unexpected; Lennox did sometimes show signs of wear and tear. But this was becoming infuriating.

He looked up from this second burned-out Lennox to see two more blocking his path.

“Lennox, enough,” he said. “The Mansion doesn’t have infinite resources for manufacturing an army of disobedient robots, you know. Both of you, remove yourselves. The more you delay me, the greater the chance you will do her harm.” The throbbing of the pumps had changed tenor, and some of the indicator lights had already changed to green. There was very little time left.

“I am sorry, sir,” said the Lennox on the left. “We cannot.”

“She should have a chance to live, sir,” said the Lennox on the right.

The menials stood fast, their identical idiot faces not shifting in the slightest. Another indicator turned green. The Resident snapped his mouth closed with an audible pop: he couldn’t take their mute, craven defiance any more, not one second longer. With a shout, he attacked the Lennox on the right, picking it up and driving the barrel of his sparker into its armpit, so hard that the barrel snapped with a loud discharge that sent a convulsive wave of energy through both man and machine. The resulting explosion threw him back several feet while the Lennox exploded in a shower of sparks. A display of arcs rippled up the menial’s torso as it spasmed in a crude parody of agony; its eyes rolled back into its head and its face began to melt. It fell into a nearby tank, and within seconds, it was burning vigorously, clouds of black, acrid fumes pouring from both the balled-up body and the innards of the tank.

The Resident shook himself and tried to pull himself to his feet. There was a time when a shock like that would have easily killed him. That was long ago.

“Come, sir,” the surviving Lennox said, taking him by the arm. “It is no longer safe here.” It began guiding him back toward the door at the other end of the chamber.

“No! I have to get to her!” he coughed, trying to pull away. Lennox held him tightly. The fire was already spreading to other nearby tanks. The grim wail of a klaxon started up overhead, soon to be answered by others throughout the chamber; yet the indicator lights continued to change from amber to green, one after the other.

“The fire is spreading, sir. We must leave immediately.” Lennox was now dragging him bodily toward the exit. Overhead, a trickle of white powder spilled from a handful of the fire suppression heads and then stopped. The thick glass case of a nearby burning tank cracked and then shattered.

The Resident’s eyes and throat burned, and the shock had left his muscles aching as if from a terrible beating, but still he struggled to break free. “Lennox!” he shouted hoarsely. “You have to let me go to her!” The Lennox only tightened its grip. Suddenly, a line of flashing strobes descended from the ceiling while the wail of the Klaxons rose in intensity. The Resident knew what this meant. He had programmed the Mansion not to allow a fire to persist in the tank room. If the fire suppression system failed and flames continued to spread, the whole chamber was to be vented. Annette didn’t need oxygen, not while she reclined in her tank; only fire and animate life did. This was to happen even if he was still in the chamber. Such was his love.

With one last, mad burst of strength, the Resident managed to break free, squirming out of Lennox’s grasp and then kicking the momentarily imbalanced menial into a tank. He could be very strong, when need be. There were times when that frightened Annette; an image flashed of her staring, wide-eyed, him red-faced, standing over a broken table. Had they quarreled? Why had she been so afraid? He shook his head. There was still time, just enough, to abort this catastrophe and make his escape. He ducked his head and charged past the flames, plunging into the thick smoke of the growing fire. Lennox called after him, but the menial was slow, clumsy.
“Sir, you must come back! The danger is far too great!”

The Resident kept going. Today was not the day. That was the only thing that mattered. Only, smoke was everywhere. He had lost his bearings. There were nothing but empty tanks, and they all looked the same, every one empty, drained even of the memory of who it was who had lain there, drained of everything but a name. Far overhead, the vents opened, and the air started to rush out. The fire howled mindlessly, given a temporary boost by the sudden kick of wind. The man sucked in a lungful that burned like acid and stood. He could see now. The smoke was being vented along with his oxygen; she was there, only a few meters away, floating in her tank, peaceful, untouched. Her skin was different, flushed with new-flowing blood. He thought he could just make out the faint impression of a pulse at the base of her neck.

He staggered over and opened the control panel. Great red spots crowded his vision, and his joints felt as though they were being pulled apart with tools, but he kept on, fumbling with the controls. He spoke the words that would stop this, that would return her to her timeless state, but his voice sounded thin and distorted. The green lights of the panel stayed green; the faint humming of the pumps continued. He screamed the words again and again, using up the last of his breath, but the words were invisible, tiny crickets that jumped away and were gone. He had a sturdy body: strong and resilient and impervious to almost any kind of wound. But it needed oxygen. It died without oxygen.

With the last of his strength, the last of his breath, he spoke one last word. A name.

#
  
The first thing she saw was a lacework of branches arching over her head. Trees. Yes, that was the word. The air she breathed in was fresh and pure, and smelled faintly of dirt and grass, although she did not know how she knew this. The blanket she lay on was smooth and soft against her skin. She sat up. The sudden movement made her feel slightly dizzy, and she leaned to one side.

“Gently, madam,” a voice said. “It will be some time before you have all of your strength.”

She turned. A sort of man was standing next to the blanket, made of metal and plastic. His face held no expression. She stared at him for a long moment.

“What is this place?” she said finally.

“Home, madam. Home.”