Wind Chimes and Falling Rain
by Maia Rocklin
Published April 9, 2021
This he knows: that he was not born, but made.
Though his mind stores several petabytes of information—world history, medical information, pop culture, eighteenth-century sea shanties, the precise sugar content of a package of Sudo-Choc cookies—he cannot remember his moment of emergence into the world. How long did he float in that gelatinous, engineered womb, his development observed and adjusted by steely-faced scientists? At what precise point in time did he cross the threshold from non-sentience into this life?
This he does not know.
And yet there is one memory, faint as the first light of dawn leaching into an indigo sky, which comes to him on stormy days: the sound of rain drumming on a rooftop, and the soft twitter of wind chimes. An afterimage, an echo of an echo. Each time it comes to him riding a wave of such profound longing he can scarcely breathe—only to vanish before his eyes are fully open.
Probably it's a coding error, a flaw in his design.
He ponders these things in idle moments, keeping them shut away in the deepest parts of himself. Bio-Aides are not human, after all. Only servants. They are not meant to possess profound inner worlds or puzzle over philosophical questions. They are designed to serve, and so he does.
The terrace where he sits overlooks the rolling lawn of the Bennett estate. Beyond, the tree-studded horizon darkens from sickly yellow to purple, like a bruise healing in reverse. He stretches out his neck, tiny round ears flattening against his angular, rodent-shaped head, and tastes the air with trembling whiskers. Registers the scents, the atmospheric pressure, the temperature, the wind currents. His neural link with LogoSat, orbiting the Earth some twelve thousand miles above, fills in the rest.
"Seventy-two percent humidity," he says. His tongue flashes peach-pink behind rows of sharp white teeth. “Dust storm expected in thirty-one minutes. It is recommended to remain indoors until the storm has passed.”
Beyond a slight pursing of the lips, the young brunette curled up in an Adirondack chair behind him does not react to this news.
“My face feels so grimy,” she sighs. She pats both of her cheeks, flaunting French-manicured nails. “Ugh. You're lucky you have fur, Julius."
“I believe your skin is reacting to the wildfire smoke rolling in from the northeast," says Julius. His voice is calm and gentle, but no one would mistake it as belonging to a human; a guttural, animalish rasp in the back of his throat betrays him. His vocal cords and mouth shape can only accomplish so much.
In a sliver of cloud-choked sky above the tree line, the first fork of lightning tears apart the darkness. He loves watching the storms roll in over the countryside, though they are capable of such destruction.
“Hmm,” Angeline says, stroking his coal-black fur. He leans instinctively into her touch, and arches his back so she'll scratch along his spine. Even humans enjoy being preened, so why can't he?
His tail wraps around her wrist, and he takes the opportunity to scan her vitals.
Blood pressure, ABG levels, and heart rate come back as normal. Iron levels, however, are showing a minor decline from the previous day. Julius quickly inscribes a message, the words floating in his retinal overlay:
Please prepare a salad for Miss Bennett's dinner tonight using spinach, pumpkin seeds, and strawberries. Add pomegranate seeds if you are able to acquire them. Thank you.
He sends it off to the cook less than half a second after he completes Angeline's scan.
“The sawmill, do you think?” Angeline asks, pointing her chin towards the smoke in the distance.
Julius sniffs again. “It is likely. I smell cedar.”
"The owners were stupid not to install a fire break. That place is a tinder pile.”
"Perhaps they believed the fires would not begin to reach this far north until many years from now,” Julius says. “Besides, they likely are not able to afford a private fireteam.”
"Maybe now they'll be forced to sell,” Angeline says.
Julius sits up on his haunches, clasps his tiny hands across his belly, twiddling his thumbs. There are so many animals composing his genetic makeup it's hard to tell which one has the strongest influence; he stands somewhere at the junction of raccoon, macaque, and ferret.
"I don't doubt that," he says. "Nor do I doubt that there's a hungry corporation waiting to offer them a pittance for the property, now that it's Uninsurable."
“You know, Julius, for a Bio-Aide you seem to have your fair share of opinions,” Angeline says. “Is it a manufacturing defect?"
"I cannot say, Miss."
"It's just that most Bio-Aides I've met are way more reserved than you. Robotic, almost. You forget they're living things from the way they act and speak."
“Our purpose is to assist humans in a wide array of daily tasks,” Julius says. A programmed response from his creators. Whoever they were.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. You aren't just a pet." Angeline exhales sharply, throwing an arm behind her head. "Maybe it's because you were an early model. They must've ironed out all that unsightly personality stuff in the new generations." She's only partially joking.
"I always wonder how they figured it out at first. How did they create such a complex brain out of nothing but lab-grown cells and a weird hybrid rodent body? I mean, you don't just create something like that from nothing. But there aren't any animals with brains as complex as yours, so what did they build off of? What was the source?"
Angeline can be vapid, and naive, and downright self-centered, but she consistently manages to surprise Julius with moments of insight.
A large insect flutters past, and his head snaps forward, long, sinewy body uncoiling like a spring, teeth closing on his prey. The cracking of the pine beetle's carapace coincides with the far-off rumble of thunder, and the skyline blurs with rain released from sagging clouds. It won't be enough to deter the dust wall.
They move inside, and Julius sends a silent command to the manor AI to lower the storm shutters and lock down the premises. Pouting, Angeline throws herself onto her bed, just as the tip-tapping of wind-whipped grit reaches their ears.
Angeline has him bring up one of her favourite reality shows—in which contestants complete a series of challenges for a chance to be granted permission to move out of their High-Crime Zones—and promptly drifts off to sleep, drooling a little on a silk pillow.
After a while, lulled by the storm sounds, Julius lays down his head, too.
And dreams. Or remembers.
It hits him this time like a rogue wave capsizing a ship at sea. He sees it, feels it, smells it in vivid detail: the covered porch of an old log cabin, the tang of pine in the air, a crystal clear lake disturbed only by the feathery kisses of dragonflies and water striders. He sits on a wooden bench swing with his bare feet brushing against the ground.
He is not in his own body. There is too much of him. He feels naked.
He's seeing through the eyes of a human.
Leaning against his chest, tucked under his arm, is a pretty woman with dark hair arranged in large, silken curls. She tilts her face up towards him and forces a smile. Why does she try so hard to hide her sadness? He wants her to be happy.
Not only that—he loves her. With every fibre of his being, he loves her. It is a fact as immovable as the Earth itself, something he knows without thought or question. But how can that be, when he doesn't even remember her name?
He notices his own hand around her, how pallid and frail it is, the joints and veins popping against skin that looks thin enough to rupture. Breathing is harder than it should be. And he's so tired. Gravity weighs heavily on him.
Rain begins to fall upon the surface of the water.
A breeze stirs the brass wind chimes that dangle from the awning, and their melancholy music rises above the steady bass thrum of the rain. He inhales deeply, smells the oil she wears on her skin—lavender and mint.
Then the noises fade, replaced by the too-loud sloshing of blood in his ears. She says something he can't hear. Three syllables. Ah, of course. He knows those words well. He wants to say them back but his lips are not responding. Nothing works anymore.
His eyes fall shut against his will. He wants to look at her one more time but he can't.
At least he knows she'll be taken care of. A lifetime of hard work and this is all it's amounted to: a mouldering log cabin in a township now designated as Uninsurable. The man in the suit, the one who visited him in hospice, knew exactly how to prey on his vulnerabilities. How could he say no? Why not donate what's left of him—a perfectly healthy brain in a broken body—in exchange for enough money to help his beloved leave behind this futureless place?
Besides, they promised they'd let him say his last goodbyes in the comfort of his own home. Whatever happens next, he won't be there to witness or object.
A tranquility envelops him as the rest of his senses begin to shut down, severing him at last from the world of the living.
And he leaves her, with all the love he possesses.
Angeline's voice, accompanied by a gentle hand on his back, drags Julius unceremoniously back into his body. His tiny, inhuman body.
The woman, the one who smells of lavender and mint, is nowhere to be found. Try as he might, every detail of her, of the cottage in the pines, of the wind chimes and falling rain, has been swallowed by a black hole of amnesia. But it cannot erase the longing, dagger-sharp, in the centre of his chest.
"Are you okay?" Angeline asks. "You were making noises in your sleep."
Julius composes himself. "Sorry for disturbing you, Miss," he says. "I'm fine. It was only a dream."
Or was it a memory?
He doesn't know.