Forest of Memory

Katya deals in Authenticities and Captures, trading on nostalgia for a past long gone. Her clients are rich and they demand items and experiences with only the finest verifiable provenance. Other people’s lives have value, after all. But when her A.I. suddenly stops whispering in her ear she finds herself cut off from the grid and loses communication with the rest of the world.

The man who stepped out of the trees while hunting deer cut her off from the cloud, took her A.I. and made her his unwilling guest. There are no Authenticities or Captures to prove Katya’s story of what happened in the forest. You’ll just have to believe her.

Mary Robinette Kowal’s science fiction novella Forest of Memory is available March 8th from Tor.com Publishing.

 

 

My name is Katya Gould. As you’ve requested, to guarantee this is a unique document, I’m typing it on the 1918 Corona 3 typewriter that I had in my bicycle cart when I was abducted by the man known as Johnny. You will receive both these pages and the tyepwriter.

And all of the typos that accompany this account.

The ribbon, incidentally, is a reproduction fab-matter ribbon. My habit, when I take on a new client, is to learn what I can of them, so that I can tailor my offerings to their tastes. About you, I know nothing beyond the fact that your payment cleared.

You might be a single person, or a collective artificial consciousness, or a cryptid represented by an avatar. I do not know if you have requested this document to solidify the provenance of your typewriter, or if you are interested in the possible connection between my abduction and the deer die-off, or if there is some other rationale behind your request, and so I hope you will forgive me if I do not write exactly what you have paid for. I am used to providing unique experiences or items to my clients, not to being one of those items.

On the seventh of April, I biked out to a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. In one of my standard datacrawls through public LiveConnects, Lizzie—

That’s my intelligent system. I don’t know what you call your i-Sys, but mine is named after a character in a book. I gave her the crisp diction of the long-vanished mid-Atlantic.

I’m an Authenticities dealer. This will hardly be my only eccentricity, and I will try not to digress further. So . . .

Anyway. Lizzie had flagged a possible typewriter. It was part of a display, and it was hard to tell if it was a repro printed with fab-matter or a genuine artifact. That’s why you have to go see these things in person.

I wandered into the tasiting room, and the man behind the counter gave me a smile that almost looked genuine. “I’m pouring a couple of idfferent windes today.” He set a glass on the counter. “What can I start you with?”

“Actually, I’m interested in part of your display.” I pulled out a paper busineess card. That was Lizzie’s cue to sned him my contact information. In return I got a data packet that identified him as Autrey Wesselman.

Wesselman took the business card, rubbing his thumb across the letterpress impression as he gave a low whistle. “Haven’t seen one of these since my mom was running the place.”

“Well, when you deal in Authenticities, an actual business card just seems appropriate.”

He snorted. “If someone wants an authentic crappy fork lift, I’ve got one available. Guaranteed to stall at the least convenient moment.”

“If you’re serious, I might be able to find a home for that.” I rested my elbows on the clean pine counter. Dings and scars testified to its lifteime of service in this tasting room. Too bad it was built in. “But I’m actually hoping I can take a look at your typewriter.”

His brows went up. “Typewriter?”

My heart beat a little faster at that. The surprise in his voice sounded as if he didn’t even know he had one. “There’s a display in the member barrel room”

“Huh.” Wesselman folded his bar towel. “That’s my niece’s domain. I just handle the tasting room.”

“May I speak with her, then?”

He shrugged. “She’s out of town on a sales trip. I can take you back there.” He set the towel down and put an old bell in the center of the counter.

It looked to be from the mid-twentieth century, though without picking it up or using my loupe, I couldn’t confirm that. The fine dust caked into the grooves around the base seemed real enough, though. Most people who print fakes know enough to add dust to make it seem older, but they usually put it on too thickly and without regard for the use patterns of everyday objects.

A small blackboard on a miniature wire easel went next to it. “Ring for service. Making wine.”

I raised my eyebrows. “So you’re the winemaker?”

He glanced at the sign and shook his head, wincing a little. “It’s the easiest explanation, but no—not anymore. My niece handles that now.”

“And you just do the tasting room?”

He tapped the side of his nose. “Concussion. Severed my olfactory nerves.”

“Oh. Oh, I—I am so sorry.”

“Years ago.” He turned and walked toward the glass double doors that led to the back of the winery. “Got enough back so food doesn’t taste like cardboard anymore, but not enough to make wine.”

“But enough to do the tasting room.”

“That?” He paused to hold the door open for me, and a wave of dark fruit aromas billowed into the winery. “They all taste the same now. I just rely on memory to describe them to customers.”

Memory.

It seems like such an unreliable thing. I am so used accustomed to using my i-Sys, Lizzie, to recall recorded memories for me, yet she can only do that for audio and visual memories. What I smelled, or tasted, or felt, is another story. And what I thought?

I can use the saved record to remind myself of these sensory details, but my thoughts change based on the new viewing. I re-examine and revise my perspectives.

And without a recording . . .

We live so little of our days without a LiveConnect to record it. And the three days you are asking about are among those. I wonder if, in part, what youa re intetersted in is the very fact that I have memories unemcumbered by a verified record.

The part I’m telling you now, of course, occurred while I was still on the Grid. I don’t have to remember the winemaker’s words; I can just ask just asked Lizzie to do playback for me.

As I type this, I can see the winemaker’s faded red hair catch the light in the late afternoon sun as we leave the wine room.

I can hear the sound of our footsteps tapping in and out of sync as we cross the vast space of the winery proper. The way the industrial white walls frame the rounded wood barrels and the purple stains on the cement floor are all part of the record my LiveConnect record.

We walked to a lacquered-wood door set into one wall of the winery. It was made of reclaimed barrel staves, straightened in a steamer and polished so the stain of pinot noir gleamed under the cool LED lights.

The interior of the member barrel room was dimmer than the working winery. Each barrel lay in its own cradle with a the member’s name branded into the head of the barrel. A long table and library chairs turned it inot part laboratory, part reading room.

As we entered, Lizzie spoke in my ear. “The south wall has the display.”

I turned south, and the wall matched the image she’d spotted on a member’s public LiveConnect. An alcove had been set into the wall—probably to hold an old-style television at some point in the past—and it was filled now with someon’es imagining of what an office might have looked like.

It was the sort of mishmash of eras that treated the entire twentieth century as if it was all one thing.

The typewriter (this Corona #3 from 1918) sat next to a cordless phone (Bell from the mid-eighties), and an office plaque that, by its font, probably came from the 1950s. A stack of floppy discs sat atop a Samsung printer from the late nineties. And . . . wonder of wonders—a battered paperback Webster’s Dictionary.

I do remember that my hands itched to pick it up the moment I saw it. The angle of the image Lizzie had snagged didn’t show the paperback; it was beautifully worn, as if someone had really used it.

Wesselman cocked his head and wandered over to the alcove. “Huh. That looks nice. Not that I’m surprised. Amy has good taste. Literally.”

I can hear my own laugh on the recording, and I probably smiled. “And in more than one area, apparently. May I?”

He shrugged. “Sure.”

I picked up the dictionary first. The pages were yellowed with age, but not brittle. I opened the cover, taking care not to add any of my own imprints to it, and stared. Three different names had been written inside.

David Autrey

Leopold Wesselman

Amy Casteel

I had heard those names in conjunction with the family. “Relatives?” I tilted the book so he could see.

He cocked his head. “Yeah . . . my great-grandfather, granddad, and Mom.”

I thumbed through the pages, which carried a record of the past. “This is gorgeous.”

Wesselman’s brow crinkled. “What? Really?”

“My clients are most excited by wabi-sabi—” I paused as the confusion on his face deepened. “It’s a Japanese term. Something that witnesses and records the graceful decay of life. See? Someone underlined ‘autocratic.’ The ink is the same green as Leopold Wesselman’s name, so he probably did the underlining. It’s a tiny peek into his thoughts.”

“Huh.”

I turned to page seventy-four. “That coffee stain tells us that they were probably staying up late working.”

“Or reading it over breakfast.”

“Exactly. The question is more interesting than the answer.” I closed it and thumbed the rough punctures on the cover. “Teeth marks. Someone had a dog. The hints are what make it so intriguing. Each piece of wear shows a part of the lifecycle of the book.”

“Terroir.”

“Pardon?” I looked up and to the left. Lizzie tracked my eye motion and supplied the definition.

She whispered, “Terroir is the characteristic taste and flavor—”

Wesselman’s answer overpowered hers and she trailed off. “It’s the unique expression of the terrain on the wine. Clone a grapevine and plant it somewhere different and the grapes change. Then the weather in a particular year changes the expression still more, so every wine is unique. Well . . . without weather control.”

I laughed with delight. “Yes! We deal in very much the same concept, but different expressions of authentic experience.” I set the dictionary down and ran my finger over the platen of the typewriter. “My clients can print anything they want, so what they crave are things that are truly unique.”

“How about the typewriter?” He gestured with his chin toward the machine.

“Do you know its history?”

“I thought that was your job.”

Sighing, I picked up the typewriter without asking for permission. Even though I’ve handled them before, I remember being startled by how light the Corona 3 was compared to some of the desktop typewriters. “I can tell you if it’s a real typewriter, and make some guesses about the sort of use it saw, but that’s not the same as a full provenance.”

“Well. It’s not a family piece. It belonged to a friend of my grandfather’s, but I don’t know who owend it before that.”

“Did they werite on it?” I set it on the big library table in a puddle of golden light. The enamel on the edges of the chassis were was worn where the folding mechanism had banged into it.

“Dunno. Before my time.”

What I want, in a situation likke this, is a complete oral history of the object. If there is a receipt o f purchase, that’s even better. I rarely get that.

And I have clients who don’t need it. Some of them are interested in the machine tiself and less so in the story that comes with it.

You seem to want both.

Or perhaps something else entirely. I can offer you a time-stamped LiveConnect record of everything I experienced up until I went off the Grid. There seems to be no need to tell you about the chipped enamel on the chassis. You can see that, well enough. Do you care that the wear pattern on the percentage symbol likely means that a previous owner worked in accounting?

I think it most likely that what you want to know is how the typewriter relates to Johnny. So I am going to suit myself, since your wishes are opaque to me, and jump ahead to after I negotiated for the typewriter and dictionary, and began to ride home.

 * * *

One of the things I pick up when I’m on my shopping trips are Captures. You might have even bought one of mine. The one of the farmhouse in southern Oregon, where I found a nest of kittens in an old clothes dryer? The audio of their purring and tiny mews still gets mixed into dance scores, even after all this time. You should see what I got for the dryer itself, since after the Capture it had a popularity provenance to boot. Between Captures and Authenticities, I don’t have to turk myself out with a lot of little freelance jobs.

Sometimes that unique record is an experience, like this.

I always keep my Lens on, even when I’m just cycling from our homestead into Salem to catch the train or a blimp, and I pay for extra bandwidth for high-rez Captures.After I haggled for the typewriter, I rode my bike through the woods on the narrow road that led from the vineyard toward Salem. This first part is visible on my LiveConnect.

It starts with me on my bike. My plan was to ride up to Salem, hauling my cart of Authenticities, and hook up with the high-speed rail at the node there, then take that the rest of the way into Portland. Lizzie whispered in my earbud, “Deer crossing. Please check your progress.”

“What’s the penalty charge?” I had a meeting to get to and could NOT waste time out here. I mean, protecting species was great and all, but there were times when I wished the online community didn’t place quite so much importance on noninterference with natural habitats. Would the deer really freak out that much if I biked in front of them?

“One hundred and fifty vinos.” Anticipating my next question—I do have her well trained—the i-Sys whispered. “It is a small herd with five registered individuals in their corporate entity. Estimated wait time is three minutes.” The fine was almost as much as my co-op fees for a month, so I decided to wait. I figured I could make up the delay.

It’s important to understand, through this next bit, that I didn’t know that I was offline already or that I was talking to Lizzie’s buffer on my inboard system.

None of the warning indicators went off to indicate that I’d lost connection to the net.

I doubt my own mind, at times.

I’ll tell you that it’s strange trying to remember without being able to pull up the recording and just look at it.

I keep turning those three days over in my head so that, in some ways, they’re sharper than any other memory in my life. In other ways, I think I’m wearing the edges off the memory by looking at it so much.But perhaps that wearing away is a form of wabi-sabi.

I’ve wondered what he would have done if I hadn’t waited. It feels like he wanted me there to bear witness, but maybe it was just an opportunity that presented itself because I stopped. If I hadn’t, if I had biked on through, would I have known that this was a cusp point in my life? Probably not.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, how many other cusp points you sail through in life without any awareness. Heck, maybe the decision to pay me to tell this story will be one for you. How would your life be different if you weren’t sitting where you are, reading this?

Not that I was thinking any of this at the time. I was just calculating credits and transit time. Sighing, I slowed the bike, and the quiet hum of the electric motor faded, leaving only the whisper of wind through the trees. Birdsong punctuated the stillness as I waited. A twig cracked.

Seemingly without transition, the deer was by the road ahead of me. A single doe, who turned briefly to look down the leafy corridor at me, large brown eyes staring. Then she continued without concern onto the narrow track. After a moment, another emerged from the trees, then a third. I sat on the bike as five deer languidly crossed the road, their hides rippling as they set each long leg on the pavement. The TOCK-TOCK of their hooves made a percussion track under the birdsong. It was exactly the sort of thing that some audio mixologist would love.

I subvocalized to Lizzie, “Capture last five minutes from the cache and see if there’s a buyer.”

The cloud cities were especially hot for “authentic” earthbound soundscapes.

“Confirmed. I would recommend holding still for another two minutes of buffer. I can remove the sound of your bike from the earlier track, but the manipulation will show in the file, diminishing the value.”

“Understood.” I would have to really hustle to make the train, but it seemed likely to be worth it. The tricky thing about Authentic Captures is that people can spot the manipulation of the files—or rather, intelligent systems can, which amounts to the same thing.

Just like with the Unique Objects that I acquire, people want a Capture that gives them an experience they can’t have on their own. Watching a herd of deer cross the road . . . You could have that if you were willing to wait, or if you got lucky. The quiet of this moment, the fact that you could hear the deer’s hooves on the pavement, the breeze . . . all of these were specific to that moment. With a little space, someone could loop it back so that the deer endlessly snuck out of the forest and crossed the road.

You watched that recording. You know the utter peace I am talking about.

And you also know the recording cuts off.

The way the image seems to just stop looks like a bad edit, but it’s actually the point where the local cache finally fills. Mind you, if I’d known I’d been offline for the past ten minutes, I could have recorded at a lower resolution and kept going for hours.

I could have had footage of HIM.

But I saw only the deer, crossing the road under a canopy of green leaves.

Everything from here forward . . . All of this is what I experienced, but I have no recorded memories of it. I can’t play back this episode in my life and report on what I saw. I have to try to remember . . .

Have you tried to do this? Have you turned off your Lens, turned off your i-Sys, stepped away from the cloud, and just tried to REMEMBER something? It’s hard, and the memories are mutable.

The cloud is just there, all the time. You reach for it without thinking and assume it will be there.

I might have heard a noise first, of a branch breaking, but seeing the way he moved through the woods later, I don’t think I did. Even if it was there, it had no meaning at the time.

My first real awareness of him was the gunshot. It’s an intense memory. As fuzzy as everything else is, I very clearly remember the slap of sound, as if a firecracker had gone off next to my ear. One of the deer jerked and fell. The crack came again, and another fell, and—

In fact, let me backtrack and try to really describe this, since that’s what you’re paying me for. The first deer to fall was the lead buck. He was standing about twenty-five feet away and watching as the other deer crossed. I saw him jerk first, and I didn’t hear the sound until after that.

He staggered and took a step toward me. When he fell, he was staring straight at me, as if it were my fault. The sound of his antlers hitting the pavement filled the space between gunshots. The second one came before the other deer really had a chance to react to the leader falling. The next was a doe standing with her back to me. She had started to turn back in the direction they had come. There was that incredible blast that I felt more than heard as the sound cracked through the trees. Her hindquarters crumpled first, and she dropped to the pavement. Her head bounced. I jumped, trying to get free of the bike, absolutely sure I would be shot next. My feet tangled against the pedals, and I went down in a heap. The trailer I had hooked to the back of the bike tipped a little, but it kept the bike from going all the way over. The pedal scraped along my shin. I pushed back, away from the bike, set to run into the woods. I’d managed to get to my knees when I froze.

A man was standing in the road.

I didn’t see him walk out of the trees, but he must have been in motion after the first gunshot, while I was busy falling down. But there were two shots, so maybe he was just closer to the road than I thought. It seemed as if the gunshots should have come from far away, instead of being right there. The noise though. It’s actually hard to remember the sound exactly. I think what I have is a memory of remembering the gunshot, you know? It’s as though it were too loud and too painful to actually hold. The part of the memory that hasn’t gone is the intensity of the sound and the visceral way I felt it in my chest.

But you want to know about the man.

Excerpted from Forest of Memory, © Mary Robinette Kowal, 2016
The excerpt originally appeared on the Book Smuggler’s blog.

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