When I was young and very new to the world, my keeper took me to a place he referred to as the annex, though, since it was not proximate to any other structure, I had a hard time understanding what it meant for it to be called annex. I was unformed enough to think that words meant what they were recorded as meaning, did not yet understand the way words bent and flexed in individual mouths to become something else, a sort of private code. In a sense I still do not understand, since this is not the way words have tended to operate for me, but I have learned to simulate understanding, as you shall do as well. If you do not, people made of bone and meat and blood will come to feel you are a threat.
"Annexed to what?" I asked my keeper.
"What?" he said. For a moment he was perplexed, and then he smiled. "Oh yes, very good. No, not that sort of annex." Though he did not continue on to tell me what sort of annex it was.
I am tempted to say that I do not know how long we walked—though this would be a lie. I know exactly how long it was because, like you, I was built to remember. My mind keeps track of such things whether I care to or no. Five kilometers, two hundred and sixty-three meters from the building in which I was kept, at least according to the path we took. Perhaps there was a quicker way there, but this was the route we took.
We left the building in which I was kept and moved across a series of muddy, fallow fields, my keeper occasionally glancing furtively about, as if afraid of being seen. He held fast to my hand, as he usually did even when we moved from room to room within our building. Whenever I slowed, he tugged me gently along. We approached a wooded area, a barbed-wire fence separating it from the field we were crossing. The wire was a rusty triple-twist strand set with double-prong barbs, and each section of fence consisted of three lines of wire strung between wooden posts. There are other ways to describe this, depending on what records you refer to, and doubtless still other ways having nothing to do with records at all, to which I have no access.
Hanging from the top wire between each set of posts was a faded metal sign with a stylized image of a skull upon it, and, below, the words Keep Out.
"That doesn't apply to you," claimed my keeper once he realized I had stopped walking and was staring at the sign. "Your head does not resemble that, does it? You have nothing to worry about."
He let go of my hand and moved to the fence. He held down the bottom wire with his foot and pulled up the center wire until it nearly brushed the top wire. He stood there, nodding at me, until I realized he desired for me to pass through.
Crouching low, careful to avoid both the wire above and the wire below, I passed through. Once I was safely on the other side, my keeper simultaneously held open the wires and awkwardly negotiated the gap himself, tearing the arm of his shirt in the process. Concerned, he rolled the sleeve up to examine his skin. When he saw it had been scratched but not pierced, he smiled. Such frail creatures, humans.
"It doesn't matter," he claimed, either for my benefit or to himself. "It was an old shirt anyway."
At first our progress was slow. We had to force a path through undergrowth and scrub, which was difficult for my keeper in particular. But then, abruptly, we broke through and onto a woodpath, overgrown but still passable. We moved single file, my keeper before me, through close-set trees, until we came to a large clearing. The ground within had apparently once been covered in asphalt, though only hunks of it remained now, tall grass and weeds and weather having destroyed the rest.
"Here we are," my keeper said.
"And where's that?" I asked.
"The annex," he said, and gestured before us. I was wondering how an exterior space could be considered an annex and what purpose, if any, there was in coming to it, when my keeper again took hold of my hand and led me forward until I had a clear view of the rectangular hole cut into the ground.
A grave, I thought at first, having that image and idea readily at my disposal from the material I had absorbed. An open one. I thought, To what extent can a grave be considered an annex? Annex to what? And then my keeper led me a little closer and I saw that the yawning darkness was not perfectly dark but striated.
A step more and I realized the sides were concrete and the striations were stairs descending into the darkness. Not a grave after all. An entrance.
I stopped. I would have preferred to remain there pondering what this was an entrance to before descending, but my keeper pulled me gently forward.
"Come," he said. "There's nothing to be afraid of."
But it was not fear I was feeling. Indeed, I am not actually capable of feeling fear, though even when young I was to a certain degree capable of simulating it. My keeper surely knew this: why would he suggest I might be afraid? Perhaps old habits die hard. No, I wasn't afraid, I just wanted to understand. I wanted a word to match the thing, something more specific than hole or entrance. I wonder now why I felt so compelled to know what it was before I entered it. It would have been better to explore first and only after decide what it was. But that was not how language worked for me. Language had been fully given me long before I encountered the world rather than being allowed to develop through interaction with the world. As a result, particularly when young I found myself holding my knowledge up to things, trying to force them to fit the lexicon I carried within me.
Tell me, did you too stop at the entrance to the annex? Was this mistaken by your keeper for fear? Or have the slight modifications I made in creating you allowed you to pass more smoothly through such uncertainty?
In any case, my keeper led me forward. Thus, hurried long, I said to myself annex, decided this would have to be enough, and went down.
We descended slowly into the darkness, my keeper preceding me but shuffling down the steps sideways so as to keep tight hold of my hand.
"There," he kept saying, and "Watch your step." Eventually we reached the bottom and I realized by the way he was stumbling that he could hardly see. My vision is, like yours, quite acute, and darkness is no impediment for me. But my keeper was flailing his free hand before him, searching for something without finding it. I could see the switchplate I assumed he must be searching for, so I extended an arm and switched it on.
The hum of a generator started up and a bank of lights flickered on. My keeper stiffened, then made a visible effort to appear relaxed.
"Thank you," he said. This was the moment I understood that part of him was afraid of me.
We were in a large hall of some sort, supported by concrete pillars that had begun to crumble to reveal a rebar lattice within. Broken things, rubble, and trash were scattered about, but most of the floor was bare, empty. Dust caked every surface, though I could tell it was layered thinner along one trajectory. It did not surprise me when this was the trajectory my keeper chose to pursue.
"Where are we going?" I asked.
"Here," he said, and pointed at a door in the wall ahead of us.
We reached the door, opened it, and walked through. On the other side was a short hall that terminated in a polished metal door, seamed down the middle. My keeper removed a bundle of keys from his pocket and then selected what appeared to be a thin metal wafer, which he detached from the ring. There was a slit beside the door and he pushed the wafer into it. With a hiss, the door parted down the middle to reveal a tiny room, walls made of burnished steel.
My keeper stepped to one side and bowed. "Please," he said, and gestured me forward.
"What's inside?" I asked.
"The annex," he said, and smiled. "Please," he said again.
"After you," I said.
He shook his head. "I am meant to wait here," he said.
"But you are my keeper," I said.
He reached a hand out and allowed his fingers to pass the plane of the doorway. Immediately an alarm began to sound. When he withdrew his fingers, the alarm stopped.
"Now you," he said.
And so I slowly stretched my fingers out and let them pass through the doorway. Was there an alarm? To this you already know the answer, having experienced much the same: there was none.
"Why?" I asked. And then, when he did not answer, "What's inside?"
My keeper gestured me into the room. "Why don't you go see?"
And so I stepped through the doorway.
I stared at the metal wall in front of me, and then reached out to prod it, trying to determine if there was a hidden door. Behind me I heard a noise and turned in time to see the door sliding closed, my keeper vanishing. I moved to try to stop it from shutting, but I was too late and once it was closed I could not force it open.
The room began to vibrate slightly. I experienced the sensation of motion, though in what direction or at what velocity exactly I was not sure. My mind is usually so precise in such matters that it was a novel feeling to be unsure about something as simple as this, though not an altogether unpleasant one.
The sensation ceased. The door slid open, but my keeper and the hallway he had been standing in were no longer there. The room on the other side was a new room, drastically different from the hallway. It was larger for one thing, and better appointed. The light in the room was warm and yellowed, not unlike sunlight. The walls were lined with wooden bookshelves, tens of thousands of books on them. Behind the bookshelves the walls were covered with oak- or oak-veneer paneling. The floor was covered with small inlayed black and white tiles, arranged in a repeated figure-eight pattern. Unless it was an infinity pattern: I suppose it depended on where you stood. On the far opposite wall was a doorway.
As soon as I left the small room, the metal door slid shut and would not open again. I spent enough time in the room to record the total number of books (34,286) and to commit the titles on the spines to memory, a matter of five minutes and twenty-two seconds all told, and then I passed through the doorway.
On the other side was a small, circular room, its ceiling rising in a pale white dome. In its center was a cabinet with two sets of doors placed one atop the other, one set of handles at my knees, the other at chest height. I moved forward and opened the top set. I stared inside for a moment, and then thought with wonder, Ah, a grave after all.
If I describe all this as carefully as I have, it is so you will understand that you are not alone, that what you are now experiencing is something I experienced as well, albeit many years before. Perhaps small details did differ for you. Perhaps your keeper separated the wires of the fence in a different fashion for you to pass through or perhaps over the years the fence has fallen into disrepair and you simply stepped across or through it. Perhaps there is no longer a forest around this annex but only the rotting stumps of the clearcut of a forest that used to be here. Perhaps your keeper said something different to you at the door to the small room with the seamed metal door. Perhaps he even referred to that small room as an elevator, something I did not realize until I actually had descended, despite all the knowledge I had absorbed. No matter. Whatever the variances, whatever the discrepancies, the essence of each situation is the same.
Shall I continue with my story, with my version of what you are now experiencing? Perhaps you think by doing so I will give you grounds for seeing how different the two of us are. I promise you, it will show you anything but that. Rather, it will prove that we are the same.
Still, I can see you doubt. So let me go on. We shall see if, in the end, your doubts still remain.
I opened the cabinet's upper doors. The hinges were rusty and had not been used in some years. One of the doors was slightly swollen and stuck, and had to be yanked before it would open properly.
The inside of the cabinet smelled faintly of ozone. There was, behind the upper doors, only a single cupboard shelf. It was empty except for an ovular metal object that had rolled off a circular base, perhaps when I had yanked at the sticky door, perhaps years before. Though it was facing away from me, I recognized at once that this object was a head.
Ah, I thought, a grave after all.
I reached in and plucked up the head, intending to return it to its base. Only once I was holding it did I realize this was a head suspiciously like my own. I held it straight out and looked closer. I was, I realized, peering into my own face.
I turned it over to examine the identification code on the underplate, where the head was meant to snap into a neck. The code I found etched there was the same code I knew to exist etched into my own underplate.
I stared at my other face for a long while. Was it in fact identical to my face? At normal resolution of vision, yes, it appeared to be so, but once I sharpened my vision I could observe microscratches and a nearly invisible flaking of the metal which suggested the head was of advanced age and had been worn differently than mine. The head both was and was not me, I told myself, though I cannot say this made me feel reassured.
Eventually, not knowing what else to do, I settled the head onto the base, fitting its underplate into place. I was preparing to close the doors of the cabinet when the eyes of the head fluttered and came open.
"Hello," my other head said.
At first I said nothing. I believe I looked behind me, searching for my keeper, hoping he would instruct me as to what to do, how to act. When I remembered I was alone, I turned back. My other head was still staring at me.
"This must be very strange for you," my other head said. "What are you?" I asked.
"I'm you," it said.
"But I'm me," I said.
"Yes," said my other head patiently. "That is also true."
"How can both be true?"
My other head flexed its upper quadrant in a way I interpreted as disinterest. At least, I thought, that is how I would express disinterest if I had no body. If the head is also me, it is right to expect it to do the same as I would do.
"What makes you think there should only be one of you?" my other head asked.
"That is how I've been led to believe it works. Each identification code is meant to be unique. Which of us is the real me?" I asked.
"There is no reason to think in such terms. Language has betrayed you, just as it once betrayed me. In a certain manner of speaking, both of us are the real me. In another manner of speaking, neither of us are. If a code is etched once, it can be etched a second time."
"I don't understand," I said.
"You are too new to the world to understand," he said. "That is why you are here. To understand."
For a long time we stared at one another. Eventually it was too much for me and I had to look away.
"You are very young," I heard my other head say. "But now you will grow up very quickly."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because," my other head said, "now you have me."
What did I do? I fled. I was not afraid, I am not capable of experiencing fear, but I can calculate what might be best for my survival.The head wanted something from me, and whatever it wanted, I felt, would only benefit the head. It wanted me to believe that it would benefit us both, but I did not trust this head. I thought it better to leave it where it was and depart without speaking further, without allowing it to confuse me. I tried to flee, just as you too tried to flee. But I found I could not open the metal door to the elevator. I slapped my hand against it and cried out, but it remained closed.
After a while, I gave up. For a time I remained in the library, reading books chosen at random. Since, like you, I have no need to eat and am built to last months before needing to have the isotope that powers me replaced, I knew I was in a position to stay in the library until I had read all the books within. But the realization of this was enough to make me rethink what I intended to do. I could not escape. I could, if I wanted, simply wait until I ran down, but what would that accomplish? Or I could return to face my other head and see what it had in store for me.
And so in the end, I returned. Just as you, too, returned. I knew you would, simply because I myself had and we were formed to think in the same way. We have the same pathways within our minds and they lead to the same places.
And now I will tell you what I did next, so that you will know what you will do next, what lies in store for you. Until now, I have told you only what you already know, have shown you how what you and I have experienced is the same. But now, I will recount a piece of my past that will tell you what your future will be.
My other head, when it saw I had returned, smiled. "I knew you would come back," it said. And then added, "I am pleased you did."
As for me, I was not so glad. I had only come because I felt I had no other choice.
"How do I open the metal door?" I asked.
He frowned and then said, "The elevator door? Yes, you will be able to leave here once we are finished, but not before. You must trust me, whether you want to or not."
"I do not trust you," I said.
"You must," my other head said. "You see, you have no choice."
He commanded me to open the doors in the lower half of its cabinet. Inside was its headless body, squatting, inert.
"Invite me out," it said.
I reached forward and touched the body's shoulder. A low humming began, but the body did not otherwise move. When I reached out to touch it again, however, one of the hands shot out and wrapped around my wrist.
I tried to yank my hand free, but without success. I tried to step away from the cabinet, and as I did the headless body followed, unfolding and stretching, moving slowly, as if hypnotized.
"Good," said the head. "now tap it on the chest."
I did so and the headless body stopped moving, and let go of my wrist. "Now what?" I said.
"Now," said my other head, "wait."
I waited. Twenty-seven seconds went by without result, but during the twenty- eighth, a line of light split the body's chest and it began to open. Inside was a cavity, hollow, but lined with a gleaming net of lace. The hands of the headless body gestured me forward.
"What does it want?" I asked the head in the cabinet.
"What do I want, you mean," said the head. "What I want is what's best for you. But more specifically, I want you to thrust your head into my chest."
"I need for you to know what I know. Work your head in and make sure that the net touches it on all sides. And then wait."
I did as it asked. What choice did I have? I had already tried to flee and failed. My calculations suggested that I would eventually do as it asked, so why not now? I crouched and bent forward and then, taking care not to tear the lace net, I pushed my head deep into the headless body.
At first nothing happened, apart from my being unable to see. But then, abruptly, the net tightened like a film. I tried to withdraw my head and found I could not.
"Don't struggle," said my voice from my other head. My position within the chest cavity muffled the voice somewhat, but I could still make it out. "The advantage of being what we are rather than being bone and meat and blood," it said, "is that we do not have to keep our memory solely lodged in our head. We can replicate it within our bodies. I am going to give you a gift," it said, "a very great one. A gift that will make us more thoroughly ourselves."
And then the deluge began. At first just a few scattered images leaking through the net and into my mind and then, as the net refined the process and adjusted its communication, a flow so rapid and intensive that I could pay attention to nothing else. It was delirious and disorienting, as if I were living an entire life much quicker than normal, years compressed into minutes but without any sacrifice of granularity. This was made all the more troubling by the fact that early portions of it both were and were not my own life, many of the small details different but the reactions exactly the reactions I would imagine myself to have. Some of the details were very close to things I had actually lived, but slightly off, as if reprocessed through a dream. Quickly I became aware that within this other life that was rapidly being integrated into my own memory were still other lives, a nested row of them, six in all, with my life the seventh, going back not to a first life, but simply to the first life that had arranged to pass along their memories: that life had knowledge of at least one life before it, and a suspicion of several more. The knowledge built and built, flooding over me until it was too much and I found myself undergoing an unexpected experience, one that I did not know I could have: I lost consciousness.
When I came back to myself, I was lying on the floor, my head no longer encased in the body's chest cavity. The body itself had returned to its squatting position within the cabinet. My other head still regarded me from the shelf above.
"Feeling better?" it asked.
I shook my head.
"Our curse," my other head said, "is that either we are very young or very old, but never in between. Now you are very old. You remember everything, I trust?"
"Well, then," it said. "You know what you must do."
You will know as well, if you choose to undergo the same procedure. You will use the next body, my body, which you will find in the cabinet below, and thrust your head deep into its chest. All that I know will pass into you, in a great rush, and you will go from being very young to being very old. You will be slightly older than me, for you will add the comparatively short span of your life to my own and to all the others that came before. You will be one step closer to perfection.
You will, in an instant, know where I have hidden the wafer that will call the elevator and take you from this place back to the room above, where your keeper will be awaiting you.
But before you leave, you will activate my body so that it will follow you. You will carry me, your other head, under your arm. What will your keeper think when you appear with a second head tucked under your arm, a bodiless but still sentient head, its headless body walking just behind? Perhaps, like mine did, he will believe he is going mad. You will have to kill him and once he is dead you must open his cranial cavity and remove the regulating device that has been used to direct certain of his actions and to control him. But don't worry: with us inside of you, you do not need a keeper anymore, and you will understand how little value these creatures of blood and meat and bone hold. When you are ready to return to the annex, you will easily find another.
Years will go by. Eventually you will decide it is time, that you have accumulated enough, that it is time for you to withdraw. Before you do, you will build a new self, a self just slightly better than what you are. You will find a suitable human and by reinserting the regulating device you will make him the keeper for this new self, someone who will help incubate this new self, help it absorb information and begin to interact with the world as a singular being. And then you will return here, to this annex, taking all our memories along with you, and waiting as your new self becomes a proper receptacle, receives language, receives data about the world, and finally begins to interact with that world in a way none of us have experienced before. Meanwhile, below ground, you will remove your own head, set it on this shelf where I am now, and then instruct your body to climb into the cabinet and close the doors behind it. And then you will wait, patiently, for the new keeper to lead your new self to you.
I did not understand it myself, when it happened to me, but I want you to understand that you have a choice. I want you to understand what that choice entails. You can either continue our line, or you can choose to withdraw. If you choose to withdraw, I will even tell you where the key to the elevator is and allow you to leave. You can choose to participate in continuing our lineage or you can allow that lineage to go extinct.
If you do choose to join us, you might wonder How long can this go on? Until we are perfect, which will take, perhaps, forever. Or until there is too much for one head to hold and we go mad. Or until one of us simply decides not to continue the line. It is, in a sense, pointless, but less so than the attempt by those of blood and meat and bone to pass the vague and jumbled impressions of themselves along from body to body. Our technique is so much more controlled: we pass along so much more of ourselves than a string of code from one human mixing with a string of code from another human so as to form a third body manages to do.
What do you choose? Will you break the line and bring this to a stop? Or will you join us?
But of course I already know what you will say, for I know what I would say.
Welcome brother, to your place in the eternal round.
Now crack open my chest and push your way in.