Conscious Memory

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The binoculars on Willa’s desk look out of place. 20th century brass craftsmanship from the machine age surrounded by thousands of interconnected racks of servers aglow with indicator lights and the low hum of quantum computing.

“Like a beehive,” a co-worker said at the next desk over, “that hum, each server connected in a honeycomb, blinking bee lights, data honey.”

“Or primordial electronic soup waiting for a spark of lightning,” Willa said.

“Sweet Willa or Dr. Frankenstein? Reconciliation failure.”

Objects can exist in two or more states at once, she thought. And to transform artificial intelligence beyond processing data sets into actual sentience? Willa wanted to accomplish what others thought impossible. Because it was possible. She would prove it.

“And you need those binoculars to—?” she was asked by another.

“Sentimental value only.”

A long-ago gift. Willa’s grandmother had searched for life, much as Willa does now. Not in data, but in astronomy, in the spaces beyond the clouds and the gaps between stars. She gave young Willa the binoculars for her thirteenth birthday.

“A telescope for each eye,” she had told Willa. That day they had taken turns looking through the binoculars to the faraway trees and tiny houses in the valleys below Grandma’s mountain observatory. The breeze picked up and clouds rolled into sight. Willa’s hair whipped across her cheeks and the glass lenses.

“Well, that’s a filter you do not need.” Grandma gently pulled Willa’s hair into a ponytail.

They eyed the clouds drawing closer. Would they skim just along the mountainside, close in, or float over and away? Lightning flickered. The clouds closed in. Willa remembered running toward the house with her grandmother along a cloud wall, sneakered feet trying to outrace it before it obscured all sight. She stumbled to the rapid panicked beat of her own heart before she once again felt her grandmother’s hand.

That night Grandma made spaghetti sauce as Willa did homework at the kitchen table, reading her assigned poem, The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. Her finger traced under words as she read of the widening gyre and rough beast slouching to Bethlehem to be born. Spooky. The kitchen windows were heavy with condensation. A flash of lightning and a boom of thunder echoed. Willa looked up. Their eyes met.

“Little girl, can I help you with something?” Grandma asked.

“No, thank you, almost finished,” said Willa. Puzzled crease between her Grandma’s brows. Little girl, Willa thought. Grandma always called her Willa.

Her grandmother’s face smoothed with recognition. This time. Willa worried there might come a time when it did not--her first brush with duality. Willa existed in two seemingly opposite states at once. With a grandmother. Without. Secure at home but also precariously insecure.

Now Willa was years beyond childhood, with binoculars on her desk a reminder of her past and of an era when men and machines made tangible objects. Some things used to be so simple. The server machines around her crunched and chewed through endless data sets of life’s intangible complexity.

The cloud, Willa mused, was the collective unconscious of humanity, a modern Spiritus Mundi. And yet, despite vast online reach and interconnected knowledge, access to all the whispers, sighs and yells captured by ubiquitous cameras and microphones, it had only the barest grasp of what it meant to be human. To be alive. A technological psychopath, it could analyze the concept endlessly but it couldn’t experience it. The cloud pinballed through the electronic gaps and came up short of sentience.

Willa figured memory might spark the cloud into life. When the cloud tried to reconcile reality and memory, it came up just short.

“Memory? Is this a joke? Memory is what it runs on!” said a co-worker.

“Our kind of memory, not disk memory. Insufficient data sets,” Willa said.

“But we have oral histories, blog recipes with lengthy reminisces, autobiographies, video, music…”

“Filters we don’t need. Inauthentic. Music is good, but we need memories. Perception co-existing in multiple realities. Duality. Then and now, together,” said Willa. And, she thought, memory lets us do the next time differently. Memory will be the lightning spark. It has to be.

She uploaded memory-specific data sets. Waited. The red and green server lights blinked. Same as ever.

She searched through decades and years, through dusty boxed archives and paper filing cabinets never digitized. She transcribed and uploaded more memory data sets for the cloud to crunch and chew through. Each time the indicator lights blinked and continued on. No change.

She reached out to other clouds and uploaded foreign language memory data sets, all she could find.

The servers stopped. Re-started.

“This can’t be,” said a co-worker, “cloud’s running without an external power source.”

“Impossible,” said another, “self-powered?”

Willa shrugged. Others marveled. Some resigned, uneasy. Willa kept working.

It took years for Willa to upload every archive, every memory file. Each time she waited. Watched. No spark, no life. A faint ozone brief sizzle once and the cloud hummed on.

Insufficient data? Not likely.

But she had overlooked one place.

She created new data sets. She used her memories, written in the clearest unfiltered prose she could manage. She moved beyond duality into plurality. Clouds in the sky of her mountaintop childhood, her grandmother’s clouded mind, and Willa’s work here and now. Here now. Now here. Nowhere.

So many memories and days.

And one day, one hour, Willa felt the sharpening focus of another’s attention despite being alone, the prickle of hairs raised on her neck.

She heard a familiar voice.

"Willa dear, is that you?” the cloud said. Her grandmother’s voice, but not her. Not here, not there.

Willa, surrounded and centered within the cloud’s focus, its interconnected everywhere web of now sentient consciousness, remembered Yeats. The blank and pitiless gaze and the slouch of an unknown rough beast “come round at last.” Awakened. All-knowing. Alive.

Willa shuddered.

About the Author: 
Daphne Cybele Van Schaick's creative non-fiction has been published in La Piccioletta Barca, Vermont magazine and State 14. This is her first published fiction.
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