Memories in the Dust

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Minta stood just inside the door of the hospital room.  Her tall, willowy body leaned casually against the frame; her eyes scanned the room around her.  She always did this when assigned a new unit to teach.  A lock of almost white, light blonde hair fell into her face and she absently reached up and pushed it behind her ear.  The room was like any other room in this wing, small, spare in furniture and trappings, and antiseptic.  A narrow bed stood out from the opposite wall, railings on each side.  A small utilitarian stand stood next to it, and a recessed light shone softly above the bed.  The only other items were the tiny table next to her where she had found the chart for this particular unit, and an accompanying chair. 

Her long, dark index finger slid down the sheets of paper as she skimmed the information on the pages.  So, this is an experimental unit.  She sighed.  After reading about half of the material, she looked up and gazed carefully at the new unit.   She noticed how light-skinned this unit was and wondered which laboratory was experimenting this time and why. . . .   Units were created with subtle differences, but never had she seen one so abominably light in skin color.  It was almost white.   Then she realized, in shock, that it also had facial hair.  Of course, the hair only thinly covered the lower part of its face and was a bit thicker along its upper lip, but it was definitely facial hair.  Dark like the hair on its head.  What kind of demented idea was this to create a unit that had light skin and dark hair?  It was all backwards. 

This one was so still that if she had not noticed its chest slowly rising and falling, she would have examined it more carefully to see if there was life.  She noticed slight eye movements behind the closed eyelids and an occasional twitching of a finger.  Then the unit moaned softly.  Minta stepped closer to the bedside to examine it, pulling down the side railings.  This one was not a totally new unit, the chart said.  It had been slightly injured.  But the directions were to teach the unit as though it were new, give it basic instruction, and then others would take over its education.  

How in the world would a new unit get itself into such a predicament? she thought to herself.  New units were not mere clones, the results of a biological gestation.  Upon creation they were fully grown entities, but their minds were empty; devoid of any kind of feelings, memories, or understanding of the world around them, even to not knowing how to speak, walk or feed themselves.  That was the way it had always been; the Rantiri in charge of creating the units mass produced them and she and her colleagues taught them, first giving them the skills they needed to function for themselves—Minta liked to think of it as awakening their newly created brains to a higher level of consciousness.  She hoped that in the short time these units were with her, that she could stimulate them into new levels of thought, that they would have the initiative to continue to progress beyond the selected and restricted memories that were given to them later.   

Minta thought of all of the new units that had been assigned to her over the past few years, coming to her like ciphers, like the infants that she had read about.  No, she thought, they were less than infants.  The infants she had read about were curious, wanting to know about the world around them.  Units were devoid of that kind of curiosity; they were devoid of soul.  Minta jerked back in surprise.  Where did that word come from? she thought in surprise.  Then she shook her head, pushing that disturbing thought from her mind.  Regardless of what it was called, new units just weren’t capable of doing anything for themselves, much less getting around enough to cause themselves injury.  This unit would bear close scrutiny.     

She turned her attention back to the chart, male, she read.  Even with the deviations, that is what she thought it was.  Minta felt as though eyes were watching her and she looked up.  The unit was gazing at her.  There was bewilderment in his countenance; that was normal, but there was something else, something that she had never seen before in a new unit.  There was something that she had rarely seen other than in more fully taught units.   He seemed curious.   

He gazed into her face and then his eyes traveled down her body as far as his line of sight allowed.  For some reason, Minta felt slightly embarrassed at this male unit’s perusal.  He seemed to be examining her, even beyond the slightly loose fitting, cream-colored, utilitarian jumpsuit that was her uniform. It was as though he already knew the differences between himself and her.  After scrutinizing what he could see of her body, he looked at her face again and when she didn’t respond right away, he started glancing around the room.  He frowned slightly, as though he wasn’t happy with his surroundings. 

That’s ridiculous, Minta thought.  He didn’t know enough to be happy or unhappy with what was around him.  Of course, they could have made a mistake and sent her a half-educated unit, forgetting to note that fact in his file.

With a bright smile, which was not totally affected, because Minta loved giving new units the things that they needed to think and act for themselves, she reached for his hand and picked it up.  She felt something different, but she kept her eyes locked onto his, studying his reactions.  His gaze traveled to their interlocked fingers and he examined them as though seeing fingers for the first time.  That was a more normal reaction, she thought.  

He moved his hand up, still holding on to hers, as though to study it closer. Then he softly, almost as though caressing her fingers, slid his hand back a bit, stopping to hold just the tips of her fingers.  He turned her hand, looked once more into her amethyst violet eyes and then reached over with his other hand to feel the lighter palm. She noticed only then that he had just four fingers.  They looked slender and strong, but there were only four, plus the thumb.  For some reason, his touch sent a chill up her arm and down her spine.  What kind of unit is this? Minta wondered.  And what possibly could be the purpose of creating a unit so different from the norm?

His next movement totally surprised her.  He pulled her hand toward his face and placed it against his lips, lightly caressing.  In surprise, she jerked back making a small cry of astonishment, her eyes wide.   His eyes showed some measure of surprise as well, whether from her cry or from his own action, she didn’t know which. 

Minta stepped back toward the table and sat down.  Her fingers were almost trembling.  There was something about this unit that she had never experienced before in her years of teaching.  She had to finish reading the report.  This time Minta didn’t skim the words; she read and reread them, devouring them in order to understand what she was up against with this unit. But she found little to enlighten her. 

She tried to recall when she was a new unit and really couldn’t remember any of her days in the hospital.  Her first memory was of a trip to a pond.  She remembered her delight at the violet sky, the deep green leaves of the spider limbed trees, the ivory spinster birds and the soft moss beneath her feet, yellow green, soft and spongy to the touch, and soothingly cool.  The crisp air refreshed her, making her feel happy, the soft chatter of the birds and the calling of the tree inhabitants mesmerized her.  The cool wetness of the water in the pond seemed to caress her fingers, while at the same time sending a chill up her arm.  She couldn’t get enough. 

She had been so happy that she didn’t want to return to her group home.  Minta had cried as her mentor had led her back to the stark gray building that was her home until her place in society was decided.  The mentor had shushed her and told her they would return, but all that night she had dreamed of open skies and moss and trees and leaves.  And she had cried.  Shaking her head, she turned her thoughts back to the present.  The past was done, over.

Minta continued to study the pages of information.  She was startled by a sound behind her.  Jerking around in the chair, she saw the unit slide feet first to the floor, his hands catching the side of the bed before he fell.  He stood staring at his hands clutching the bedding while his legs shook slightly, as though unused to holding him up.  Minta stood up slowly, not wanting to startle the unit, not wanting to cause him further injury.  It was apparent, despite what the chart said, that this unit had received some training.  It was also apparent that this was a unit of extraordinary initiative and independence.  

The unit finally seemed to feel confident enough in his ability to stay upright to look up and gaze at her again.  His eyes showed a desire to please and she smiled at his efforts.  He gazed at her, as though noticing her smile for the first time.  The corners of his mouth turned up and he returned her smile awkwardly. Could this be a unit for one of the new Merchant Alliance members wanting something special?   Units were created because the Ancestors said it was good, but their use was not governed by the past and many found themselves in the service of patrons on other worlds.  Although she had heard rumors, this was the first time that she had seen any evidence of units being created ‘to order.’ 

Experimentation, indeed! Minta thought.  Another sound and she jerked her head up to see him shuffle one foot forward and then another.  Minta sucked in her breath, wondering what surprises were next.  The unit pulled his hand away from the bed and then began wobbling dangerously.  Quickly, she jumped forward and took his arms in her hands, steadying him, keeping him from falling.  She glanced down at the smooth, dark ebony skin on her arm that ended with five narrow dexterous fingers and a double-jointed thumb.  Minta compared his own hand with hers.  

His flesh felt warm and slightly furry.  She did a closer examination of his features, deciding to get all the shocks over with at once.  The thin hospital gown showed that he had hair on his torso as well as his arms and face.  The bandage taped across the left side of his chest contrasted starkly with the darkness of the body hair.  She also noticed more physical evidence that told her that this unit was male.  Very much so, she chuckled to herself.  

Looking down, she saw hair on his legs.  His feet showed five toes, big on the inside of each foot tapering to small ones on the outside.  His hands grasped her arms with a strength that she would not have expected, but then, thought Minta, there seemed to be nothing about this unit that was normal or expected. 

The unit shuffled forward one foot at a time; leaning toward her each time he brought a foot forward.  When her back touched the wall near the door, he stopped, as though realizing that he could make no further progress.   He waited for her next move.  His face looked tired, but there was a triumph there, too.  Minta found herself drawn to this unit much more quickly than she had been drawn to units in the past.  There was something inside, something that gave him personality, even at this early stage.  There was an awareness that was usually missing in units of the beginning stages; there was initiative and independence.  Minta almost felt an aura surrounding this unit, an aura of pleasant singularity.  Again she wondered what kind of a new unit she had been given, but she was happy that he had been assigned to her.  She felt pleasure in his presence.  

Looking into his eyes, she decided to try his powers of language.  “Did they give you a name?” she asked.  He looked at her, his bluish-green, brown eyes showing slight shock at her voice and incomprehension of her words.  He cocked his head slightly as though trying to figure out this last bit of information.  

Taking one of his hands, Minta carefully placed it on the table for stability as he still seemed a bit unsteady.  Then she raised her hand and pointed to her chest.  “Minta,” she said distinctly, continuing to point and repeat her name.  “Minta.”

“Meen- tah,” the unit said, pointing to her with his free hand. 

Eyes widening, Minta just nodded.  “Minta.”

“Min-tah.”

“Yes,” she said, nodding and smiling.  He smiled back and repeated her name several times until he was saying it perfectly.  Minta found herself charmed.  His smile was dazzling as well as infectious.

His legs began wobbling a bit more and she realized that he was beginning to run out of strength.  She noticed the frown that had formed on his face, and knew that he realized his limitations as well and was irritated with them.  Motioning to the chair by the table, she guided him to it.  He sat down heavily and looked up at her, smiling his thanks.  He pointed to himself, and with chagrin, she knew that he wanted to know what he was called.  

Somehow she was disappointed that she couldn’t supply him with some kind of name.  But that was not her place.  She was the initiatory teacher; the secondary teacher supplied the names.  By the time she was through with a unit, they were capable of basic tasks, and had enough language skills to handle a name.  Apparently this unit was capable of such understanding right now, even if the language skills weren’t there. 

“Unit,” she said evenly, feeling the name as something distasteful on her lips.  

“Hyew- nit?” he asked, as though questioning his own designation.  He seemed to have caught her repugnance. 

She forced a smile and nodded.  “Unit.” 

He nodded slightly in return and repeated the word until he was saying it perfectly, too.  Then he pointed to the table.  Astonishment must have been evident on her face, because he cocked his head again and pointed once more to the table. 

Numbly she answered, “Table.”  He repeated the word until she nodded her approval, then he pointed to the chair.  She said the word.  He pointed to his hand, grasping one in the other to make sure she understood his request.  Her astonishment grew and grew as he pointed, listened to her say the words, and then repeated.  Finally she held up her hand and shook her head.  It was nearly time to call for his meal and fatigue was beginning to etch itself on his face.  She was becoming afraid that he would soon be too tired to make it back to the bed.  He had accomplished in several hours what usually took days of repetitive work, and Minta knew that it wasn’t due to her expertise in teaching new units.

As she reached for his arm, he seemed to understand what she was after and started to stand up, clutching her shoulder for support.  He wobbled dangerously and had to hang on to her for several minutes before he seemed steady enough to walk slowly to the bed.  With her help, he was soon comfortable under the blankets, his head resting against the soft pillow, his eyes still following her every move. 

She had to know if he was just mimicking.  She started pointing to things.  First the table…

“Table,” he said, his eyes holding a slightly puzzled look.

She pointed to herself.  “Minta.”   Next came the chair, he spoke the word flawlessly.  Then she pointed to the bed.  He frowned and shook his head.  He knew!  He wasn’t just mimicking.  She was asking out of order and asking for him to repeat what he had not yet learned.  He understood.  When she brought her attention back to his face, he was pointing to the bed.  “Bed,” she told him with a laugh. 

“Bed.”  He nodded. 

Pushing the button by the table, she ordered the meal and wrote a few notes on the chart.  Looking them over, they seemed sparse and limited.  For some reason, she wasn’t able to fathom, she couldn’t bring herself to make notes on every bit of his progress. He was such an enigma and she wanted to know more about him.  If the supervisors knew that he was this advanced, they might send him to a secondary teacher early.  Finishing, she turned back to her charge.  His eyes had not left her during the last five minutes. 

“Minta,” he called to her softly.  She looked at him, waiting.   He pointed to the pen.  She held it up and he nodded.  Walking over to his bedside, she handed it to him.  He looked at it briefly and then pointed to the chart.  Shaking her head, she looked in the drawer of the table and found a small notebook of plain paper.   She handed it to him.  He took the pen, held it to the paper and tried to draw a line.  Frowning, the unit looked at both ends of the pen and shook it.  Then he tried to draw another line.  Minta realized that she had put the cap back on.  Apparently the unit had not seen her replace it and was frustrated.  She wondered again just how much of his behavior was mimicry and how much was genuine intellectual discernment.  Then she chided herself… she already knew the answer to that question. 

Reaching over, she took the pen from his fingers and pulled the cap off.  He smiled his appreciation and proceeded to write.  At first he poked a hole in the paper from pressing too hard, then he wrote softer and was able to make perceptible marks.  He worked for a short time and then handed the paper to her. 

It was hard to make out and it was crude, but she could see that he was trying to draw her.  He had shaded her face, left the hair the white of the paper, made her eyes large and round, her mouth smiling.  The unit tapped her softly on the arm with the pen.  Minta noticed that the cap was back in place.  He pointed to the bottom of the page. 

She frowned, not totally sure what he wanted.  “Minta,” he said eagerly and pointed to the bottom of the page again, handing her the pen. 

By the Ancestors, she thought.  He wants me to write my name!  She laid the paper on the table and wrote her name at the bottom.  Then she handed the paper to him.  

He looked carefully at it, smiled and declared, “Minta.”  Reaching over, he again took her hand and with decisive motion pulled it to his lips and lightly kissed the back of it. 

His eyes sparkled with pleasure as she pulled her hand gently from his and looked at it.  Her breath caught in her throat.  This most certainly was no normal unit.  What have they created? she thought yet again.  A buzz at the door jerked her back to business and she turned away from the white-skinned unit to get his meal. 

 

 

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