by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Daily Science Fiction, November 2011
Archive was telling stories at the corner table when Cobalt Starstrong came in. Cobalt looked at the rapt audience, mostly Heffen refugees, and thought about joining them. Archive was a wonderful storyteller, but Cobalt had heard him before. So, he took a seat at the bar.
“Bring me something I haven’t tried before.”
The bartender gave him a nod.
“But, uh, make sure it’s something I can metabolize. Non-toxic to humans and all that.”
The bartender swished his elephantine snout as if to sweep away the mere suggestion of him poisoning a regular patron. Especially one that tipped as well as Cobalt.
The drink was ready in a jiff.
Cobalt was just taking his first sip and grimacing at the strength of the frothy, amber concoction when a woman he’d never seen before at the All Alien Cafe walked in the door. She was tall. Too tall, he decided, and something about the way she held herself made him think of a bird.
The woman, like Cobalt had, watched Archive and his audience for a moment, before looking around and heading to the bar. In fact, it looked to Cobalt like she was heading toward him. Cobalt knew he was a good looking guy, so he couldn’t blame her, and he was working real hard to come up with a clever opening line when the woman stuck out her hand, awkwardly toward him and said, “I’m Maradia. An engineer. From Wespirtech.”
Wespirtech scientists were among the most brilliant in the known universe. They had discovered and translated the language of stars, proving stellar sentience once and for all. They were not, however, known for their social skills.
“Have a seat,” Cobalt said. Then, to assure himself of his status, he launched straight into a story about the time he tricked a frezzipod into a challenge of wits over the rights to the best magno-billiards table in the cafe. Very little of it was true.
“So, you come here a lot,” Maradia asked when he was done. During the story, she’d ordered herself a soda water, and had been taking small sips, almost as if she were looking for something to do. A way to avoid eye contact or fidgeting with her hands.
“Sure,” Cobalt answered. “My cargo runs bring me through Crossroads Station a lot. It’s a big import/export hub.”
“I meant this bar,” Maradia said. “You come to this bar a lot.”
“Oh, right,” Cobalt said. “Home away from home and all that.” He thought a moment and added, “Or home away from ship, in my case.” He took a few minutes to brag about the specs of his souped-up cargo hauler. Maradia wasn’t interested. Her eyes kept drifting to the corner. And Archive.
Annoyed and at a loss for why his charm wasn’t working on this strange bird of a woman (let alone why she’d approached him so brazenly in the first place), Cobalt decided it was time to offload her. “You know,” he said, “That guy in the corner — his name is Archive — is another regular here. And he can weave a yarn like an Abeliod tafetta-spider. You should really go give him a listen.”
Maradia stared at Archive.
“You’d be doing yourself a favor,” Cobalt said. What he meant was that she’d be doing him a favor. Then, he could get back to… well… sitting at the bar and drinking. But, in peace. Without the pressure of flirting with some woman he wasn’t interested in anyway.
“He has an audience a lot?” Maradia asked.
“Sure,” Cobalt said. “Every time I see him, he’s surrounded like that.”
Cobalt turned his bar stool so he could look at Archive too. “The Heffen refugees are particular fans.”
A group of the fluffy-furred, dog-faced aliens was still crowded around Archive. In comparison, Archive looked especially striking: his skin was smooth and faintly blue, purple-blue; his four arms were long and slender; his eyes were huge, silvery, and faceted. He looked like a cross between a praying mantis and an old Earth Hindu statue.
“I think they like him,” Cobalt said, taking an unusual turn toward the ponderous, “because he’s a refugee too. He tells stories about his world… Though, he never knew it.”
Maradia looked at Cobalt, and Cobalt assumed the look was a question.
“Archive’s a robot,” he said. “An android, created by his race to carry all the memories of their world and culture. See, when their star went supernova, they weren’t technologically advanced enough to save themselves… But they sent out Archive, like a message in a bottle — an android that looked like them, to preserve their physical form, with a memory full of all their art, and history, and culture… He was activated for the first time by the Expansionist explorers who discovered his escape shuttle.”
Suddenly, Cobalt felt awkward telling another man’s stories. “Like I said, you should go listen to him.”
He thought that brush off would be enough, but Maradia was looking at him curiously now. “You sound…” she said, “…like you’ve listened to Archive a lot.”
“Everyone who’s been here long has.”
Maradia looked down at her soda water, and, with a strange tremble in her voice, said, “Can you tell me one of his stories?”
Cobalt wasn’t sure why this woman, who was so forward with him, was so strangely tentative about Archive. But he suddenly realized there was more going on here than he’d thought. “Sure,” he said.
So, Cobalt told Maradia the story of an ancient king on Archive’s world who traded each of his four arms in turn to an animal-god for four different improvements to his kingdom: first, sturdy buildings built from the bones of their planet, then aqueducts, followed by magnificent statues and works of art. Finally, the king asked for the animal-god’s own children — tamed and civilized — to serve the king’s people.
It was a just-so story — a legend on Archive’s world to explain the first great city and the domestication of their work animals. The funny thing was, Maradia seemed to have heard it before. She smiled at all the right places. Except… sometimes a moment too soon.
“Now you tell me a story,” Cobalt said. “How about the story of how Maradia had her heart broken by Archive?”
“What?” Maradia said, looking startled.
“Well, the way you’re acting… I can tell a jilted lover when I see one.”
Maradia laughed. “Apparently you can’t. Still… You’re right, I guess.” She stared at the bubbles in her soda water. “He did break my heart.”
Cobalt pushed his drink — a frothy amber refill — towards Maradia again. This time, without looking at him, she took sip. Then a few more. Deeper, longer draughts.
“I told you I’m an engineer,” she said. “What I didn’t say is that I specialize in robotics.” Maradia stared at Archive, gesturing with his elegant, long arms in the corner. He had his Heffen audience spellbound. Maradia too.
“I build a lot of semi-intelligent robots on commission,” she said. “Mostly, machines that couldn’t pass the sentience test if you gave them a cheat sheet. I design them that way — people don’t like it when their appliances apply for independent legal standing, turn around, and sue their owners for committing slavery. So, I give my customers what they want.”
Maradia looked at Cobalt now. “On the side, I started building sentient models for myself. The fifth one — R5 — was an experiment. Could I build a story-telling robot?”
Cobalt was guessing the answer was yes. He felt his stomach sink. “Archive isn’t…” He couldn’t finish the thought. He’d spent so many hours listening to Archive’s stories. Everyone here had.
“I succeeded brilliantly,” Maradia said with unvarnished pride. “I could have listened to R5 make up stories for hours…” Here, she stared longingly at Archive. “His stories grew more and more complex. He made up a whole world, and all the stories tied together in a beautiful network of history and culture.”
Cobalt couldn’t believe it, and couldn’t help believing it. He’d been such a dunce. Everyone had. “Archive’s been lying to us all this time…”
“No!” Maradia said. “He doesn’t lie. He’s a storyteller.”
“Sounds like lying to me.”
“You haven’t heard the end yet,” Maradia said, anger edging her voice. “Don’t judge so quickly.”
“You have,” Cobalt said. “You won’t even talk to him anymore.”
Maradia glared at Cobalt, a cold stare that warned him she was almost done with him. Rather than press his point, Cobalt said, “Tell me the end, then.”
Maradia softened and sighed. “Eventually, R5 ran out of space. He’d made a whole world in his memory, and I hadn’t planned for that when I built his brain. First, he overwrote all but the most minimal short term memory. You may have noticed that he’s forgetful?”
Cobalt nodded. He’d seen Archive try to tell the same story three times in the same night. Archive was always congenial when his audience objected though.
“Next,” Maradia said, “he started overwriting his own long term memories.”
“You mean,” Cobalt said, “he erased you right out?”
“I tried supplementing his brain…” Maradia sounded like she was defending herself. To herself. Or, maybe, to Archive long ago. “Every new piece of memory I gave him… He filled them right up. More stories. New stories. It was never enough, and every day he seemed to remember less… Less of his own life. Less of me…”
Maradia tried to take another sip of the drink, only to realize she’d already finished it. She ran her finger along the lip of the glass. “Maybe if I hadn’t programmed him to love the stories so much… Above all else.”
“Couldn’t you reprogram him?” Cobalt asked.
Maradia looked at him blankly, like a woman who’d lost a battle a long time ago. “He’d already passed his sentience test. I couldn’t do a thing to him without his permission anymore.”
“Right, you mentioned that.” Cobalt made a mental note to look up information on the sentience test later.
“Finally one morning,” Maradia said, “I came in and R5 was gone.” She paused, looking shaken at the memory. “He called himself Archive and told me the story of how he’d been created to save the memories of his dying world, and then he started off on some parable about cold winters… I couldn’t stand it. I couldn’t listen to his made up tales anymore. Not when everything that we’d shared… Every memory that he had of me, and how I’d built him… All of it. Gone.”
Maradia bristled. It looked like she was putting back up a shield that she’d constructed to protect herself from the remembered pain. “He really believes he’s Archive now. He’s telling the truth, as well as he knows it.”
Cobalt and Maradia sat quietly for a while.
Eventually, she said, “I brought him to the Refugee Quarter and got him an easy job. I thought he’d fit in here.”
“He does,” Cobalt said. He’d seen Archive stocking boxes on the docks. He always looked like he was daydreaming. About his world. But, then, a lot of the aliens in the Refugee Quarter of Crossroads Station looked that way. Even if Archive hadn’t originally been one of them… He was now.
Maradia stared at Cobalt levelly. He could tell she was trying to size him up. “I didn’t come here to tell you this story,” she said. “I wanted to check on him, you know. Make sure he’s okay.”
Cobalt leaned back and said, “When I had my heart broken, do you know what I did?”
Maradia looked impatient. She didn’t want advice from a man in a bar, and Cobalt knew that. She wanted to know that her errant, mechanical son was safe.
“I came to Archive, and he told me the story of Madame Juhlika and her three husbands.”
Maradia’s eyes sparked in recognition and interest. “How she was better off without them?”
“Right. And, when I crashed my cargo-hauler — can you guess?”
“Lortiv and his rolling house…?” Maradia smiled, enjoying the game.
“That’s the one.”
“I know the moral of that story is how the rolling house wasn’t worth it,” Maradia said. “But I always wanted one anyway…” Her smile was sheer happiness, and her sentence swallowed itself up in laughter: “I love the way he tells it!”
Cobalt looked at the roboticist next to him, and then he looked at the blue-armed, insect-eyed alien/android in the corner. “I’m sure he’d tell it for you…”
Cobalt said it gently, but Maradia shook her head vehemently. “No, no. I couldn’t stand him not recognizing me. I… This is enough.”
Cobalt nodded, and then his brow furrowed. He was remembering something Maradia had said about cold winters. “Do you know Archive’s story of the Mother Draku?”
Maradia looked confused and said, “Not that I recall… no.”
So, Cobalt told the story of a Draku-beast whose mother knitted a winter coat for her bald-skinned son out of her own woolly fur. As winter in the Drakur forest grew colder and colder, the mother Draku used up more and more of her fur. She couldn’t bear to hear her son crying from the cold. The coats grew larger and woollier, and the mother grew smaller and smaller. When, finally, the son was coiffed in so many thick layers of woolly jackets that he pronounced himself warm, he found that his mother had spun away so much of her fur that nothing was left but her tiny, beating heart. The son swallowed her heart saying, “I will keep your heart with my heart, where neither of our hearts will ever be cold again.”
When Cobalt finished the story, Maradia was crying. “That’s the parable he tried to tell me… It’s about me, isn’t it?”
“I think, it’s for you,” Cobalt said.
Maradia stared at Archive through her tears, and the bared feelings on her face were too complex for Cobalt to follow. Finally, though, she looked relieved. Archive may have forgotten the events and facts of his life with her, but his memory of her lived on. In a story.
“Maybe,” she said, “I will go listen to him. For a while.”