Escape Pod 448: Paprika
by Jason Sanford
“Ah Paprika, you dance so well,” Satoshi exclaimed each bright-sun morning, his praise always pleasing no matter how many times Paprika heard it. And Paprika could dance, she really could. Not like some of the olds, who’d spent millennia shaping their locked-down bodies through graceful movements. But still she could dance. Ballet. The Twist. The Bhangra.
Sometimes she’d make herself as tiny as Satoshi’s hand and pirouette for hours on his workbench while he reformed nano into exciting, long-lost toys. Other times she’d dance full sized–child sized as Satoshi would say, although Paprika knew to never speak that depressing word to customers. Paprika would create a full-flowing lehengas skirt–always the brightest of greens–and she’d dance in the store window, spinning and spinning until she was so overcome with happiness she’d dance through the window into the outside world, leaping and spinning to imaginary partners, bowing and smiling to the boys and girls who never came, flying across the deserted streets and passing in and out of the empty but perfectly preserved buildings surrounding Satoshi’s shop.
But whenever any of the few olds left in the city visited, Paprika restrained herself by simply sitting at her table in the window display. Not that she was for sell–Satoshi always made that clear to any customer who mistook her for other than what she was. With her young girl’s body and innocent happiness, Paprika knew she helped Satoshi sell more than merely the bright toys which populated his store. She sold nostalgia. Happy memories of long-vanished childhoods.
And if nostalgia helped keep Satoshi alive, that was fine with Paprika.
One day an old she’d never seen–which was surprising because there were only a few hundred left in the city–visited the store. The woman’s bright red hair shimmered from head to waist and her tight-crafted face was bound in a rigid mask of anger and irritation from who knew how many years of life. Paprika instantly loved the woman’s hair and would have spun her own nothing-imagined locks into a perfect imitation. But she didn’t want to risk alienating one of their rare customers. So Paprika simply sat quietly at her window table reading one of the ancient paper books she sometimes found in the city’s empty buildings.
The woman approached the workshop desk and rang the tiny holographic service bell even though Satoshi stood directly before her.
“May I help you?” Satoshi asked in a calm voice, never one to be angry or irritated no matter how pushy the customer.
The woman held out her upturned palm, which shimmered to a rainbow of colors. Even though Paprika sat at the wrong angle to read the data with her eyes, her core easily interfaced with the stream. The woman’s hand contained a notice from Satoshi, telling a customer the train he’d ordered had been created.
“So wonderful,” Satoshi said, the glee in his voice almost unheard of among the olds. “I’d worried Mr. Tanner might be unable to pick it up. When he ordered the train he was so, well, perhaps excited would be a close-enough word.”
Paprika instantly knew something was wrong by the way the woman clenched her youthfully recreated hands, but Satoshi was in the thralls of his imagination and didn’t notice. He walked quickly to the other side of the shop, dust and unbonded nanobits flickering in his wake. He stood over the train set Mr. Tanner had ordered, a replica of a Lionel 2333 diesel locomotive Paprika had copied from Mr. Tanner’s few remaining childhood memories. Paprika remembered the glee in Mr. Tanner’s stiff eyes when he’d described the train, which had already been ancient when Mr. Tanner was a young boy.
Satoshi picked up the train. The front of the engine shone bright red, the back a striking silver, and to Paprika it seemed the train could zoom across the universe faster than even light dared dream. She’d been disappointed to learn trains only travelled on their tracks, but once Satoshi completed the set she’d still enjoyed watching it run circle after circle, hour after hour, across the days.
“It’s a marvel of replication,” Satoshi told the woman as he placed the engine back on the tracks and attached a boxcar and red caboose. He tapped the control pad and the train began moving around the circular track. “The cars are rebonded nano, as is the crystal heart powering the engine,” he said with pride. “But the tracks and wheels–I wanted to give Mr. Tanner more time than allowed by mere rebonded nano. So they are original nano filaments. Never broken. Never degraded. He can run the train continually for the next hundred thousand years.”
Satoshi was so pleased with his creation he didn’t see the woman tear up. Paprika knew from previous interactions with olds that tears were a bad sign, but no matter how Paprika tried to catch Satoshi’s eye he didn’t see her warning. He finished describing in loving detail the train and how it so completely captured Mr. Tanner’s original childhood memory. Only then did he notice the crying.
“I see,” Satoshi said awkwardly. “Is this why Mr. Tanner didn’t come today?”
“He has become dead. I’m his great-granddaughter, Anya.”
“I see,” Satoshi repeated. Paprika was grateful he didn’t ask what had happened. Except for the rare accident, most olds died during rejuvenation treatment. Or, less often, they lost the desire to live and no longer commanded their bodies to keep going–which to most olds was the same as an accident, only an accident of mind and soul.
The woman touched the train’s control pad, bringing it to a stop. “The rejuvenation went poorly,” Anya said. “In the end, as Tan’s body collapsed, the only thing on Earth he desired was this train. But my family doesn’t hold with pointless nostalgia.”
Satoshi nodded sadly as Paprika began to cry woven drops of light which disappeared into her table. If she and Satoshi had known, they would have brought the train to Mr. Tanner. Nothing would have stopped them on such a noble quest, no matter the wishes of his family.
As Paprika’s tears flowed through the table, she decided mere illusion wasn’t adequate for the occasion. She reformed the tears into solids and they plinked plinked on the table, wetting and dancing like proper tears should.
Anya Tanner heard the tears–obviously having enhanced senses like all the olds–and nodded solemnly at Paprika. The woman obviously approved of such honorable displays of sadness.
“Do you still desire the train?” Satoshi asked. “Mr. Tanner would have wanted his family to have it.”
Anya restarted the engine, which again circled the tracks with its boxcar and caboose. She walked over to Paprika and flowed her fingers through Paprika’s ghostly hair. Paprika knew it was insulting not to harden her body so the woman could touch her, but she refused to do so. While she was sorry Mr. Tanner never received his train, she didn’t want this old touching her.
“A copy of Tan’s memories and self is now stored in one like you,” Anya said. “Perhaps that time angel saved all of him. But I wonder…”
Paprika glanced at her tears on the table before turning them yet again into illusion. She didn’t want to speak. She didn’t want to discuss the duty she so rarely performed. Besides, this woman was an old. While she had lived for many hundreds of thousands of years, she was still human. How could she comprehend Paprika’s life? How could she understand the memories and sentience-maps of the six people trapped inside Paprika’s self-contained pocket universe? How each stored memory and glimmer of awareness tickled Paprika’s endless days. How she continually fought her programmed need to copy the consciousness of every old she met.
But Anya knew nothing of this. Instead, the old sighed, no doubt merely seeing Paprika as a potential vessel for her own immortality. “This is why my family refuses nostalgia,” Anya said. “There’s nothing in it. Only ghosts.”
Paprika and Satoshi both remained quiet. As Paprika had observed across so many years of existence, such outbursts as Anya’s were often an old’s final plea before some memory–pushed from the mind for countless eons–demanded a return to life.
Sure enough, Anya walked over to the train and ran her fingers along the shiny tracks.
“I remember a green teddy bear,” she said in a soft voice. “Not very well, but I think the memory is still here. Can you find it?”
Satoshi bowed gently. “If even the slimmest of memories exist in your mind,” he said, “Paprika will tease it out.” With a happy smile, Paprika hardened her body and leapt from the window display, taking Anya’s hand as she led the woman to what she and Satoshi lovingly called their memory chair. As the woman sat down, Paprika ghosted her fingers through the woman’s mind, searching for the green teddy bear.
Now that Anya was one of them, Paprika didn’t mind touching her. Anya may still be an old, but Paprika figured she was now less of an old than moments before.
In honor of Mr. Tanner, Paprika kept the train running for the next few thousand years. Day and night the train circled its tiny track, its headlight glowing faintly. Sometimes, when Satoshi was focused on a project, Paprika sped up her time sense so the train became a burning ring of red, going lightspeed fast. Other times she slowed her senses down so the train paused between one beat of its crystal heart and the next, its wheels forever hoping for the next move down those stiff unending tracks.
But as the centuries passed into millennia, and the few hundred olds left in the city died one by one, fewer customers visited Satoshi’s shop. Naturally, Satoshi took their lack of customers with his typical ease. “The mind adjusts to not working after a while,” he said one day.
Paprika frowned. While Satoshi’s machines could create anything he needed–food, water, and an endless stream of toys–olds like him couldn’t exist forever without a goal to work toward. Their minds weakened and their will to live ebbed.
Paprika tried to keep Satoshi’s spirits up. She teased out memories of toys from the six lives she’d already copied to her pocket universe. But while Satoshi always created toys from these memories–games and bouncing balls and a pyramid which continually rebuilt itself from self-rearranging blocks–his heart wasn’t in it. Paprika feared that without something to aim for Satoshi would stop desiring to live. That he would let himself die.
One night while Satoshi slept, Paprika cursed herself for being so selfish as to want her friend to keep living. You are a time angel, other time angels sang in her mind, their words reaching her from all points across the world and echoing the edicts of their original programming. Let him die so you can save his memories and self. All that he is will live forever, safe and sound until the universes themselves boil to an end.
“Maybe he doesn’t want me to save himself,” she whispered back. “That’s why we’re friends. He loves me for who I am, not what I can do for him.”
A disappointment! the time angels screamed. That’s all you are. Can’t you feel what the other time angels have saved?
And she could feel it, she really could. When she wasn’t around Satoshi her programming opened her up to her fellow time angels. To the millions and millions of olds they had copied and stored. There were now so few olds left on Earth that many of the time angels refused to seek out any more humans. Instead, they embedded themselves into stone and land, protecting their pocket universes as they slept through fast-time.
It’s not too late for you, her fellow time angels yelled in anger. Save Satoshi. Redeem yourself.
As the angry words flowed through her, Paprika rocked back and forth in her window, looking out at the dark empty street and the dark empty buildings of the dark empty city. While she knew she shouldn’t give voice to the question that was building–that doing so would be dangerous–she couldn’t stop herself. She hated her programming. And she was tired, so very tired of the constant nagging to do her duty.
“What’s so great about living forever in an empty pocket universe?” she asked.
The anger and pleading from both her fellow time angels and her internal programming fell to silence, unable to answer. Paprika grinned, pleased she’d finally said what she’d wondered about for so long.
Then her pleasure turned to worry as the silence continued, neither her fellow time angels nor her internal programming even protesting her question. The silence built the rest of that night and into the next day, the sun rising and setting as Paprika refused to move, afraid that mere motion might destroy her. The silence flowed again through fading sun into night, the stars sparkling without a care on Paprika’s discomfort.
Finally, as morning returned a second time, the silence ended. “I’ll teach her,” a single voice announced.
Paprika nodded, pleased the silence had ended but also wondering whether this was her programming speaking or one of the other time angels, and what exactly she needed to be taught. But she had no way of knowing so she stood up, stretched, and walked across the shop to see what Satoshi had been up to the last few days.
When Paprika’s lesson didn’t arrive during the next hundred years, she stopped thinking on what it might be. Instead, she worried about Satoshi and his lack of customers. In an attempt to keep Satoshi from losing his will to live, Paprika began wandering the ancient city, looking for olds. Looking for someone who still craved the toys only Satoshi could create.
She tried to pretend she was merely dancing like always, letting her happiness carry her outside the shop. But Satoshi knew better.
“There’s no need to trouble yourself, Paprika,” he said one day while sweeping up nano dust. “If there are people who desire what I give, they’ll come.”
“Perhaps they need a gentle reminder of what we offer.”
Satoshi laughed, his first laugh in decades. “Spoken like a true time angel.”
Paprika frowned until she realized he was right. She was merely being herself.
With a bow to Satoshi she walked out into the city.
Despite the brave face Paprika wore for Satoshi, it was difficult for her to remain happy when she walked the nearly empty city. Instead of seeing the gleaming towers rising two kilometers above her, her pocket memories would surge forward, forcing her to remember when the towers were full of people. The six people she’d copied had loved the buzz of conversations which constantly flowed from their own lips and the mouths of everyone around them–discussions and dreams and plans which had seemed so important at the time but now rang as hollow as the city.
Each time Paprika recalled such memories, she would remind herself that they weren’t hers. Her memories were separate, kept in her programming, while these memories arose from her pocket universe.
But keeping them separate sometimes made Paprika want to scream in pain. One moment she’d be dancing among the giant statues of forgotten heroes in the city’s Memory Park, and the next she’d see the park as it was three hundred thousand years ago, with crowds of people–and kids, always so many laughing happy-happy kids–watching the kite fights. She’d stare in amazement as red triangle kites and blue neon squares and glowing-burst fabric boxes swooped and climbed as the crowd cheered and oohed.
On one trip through the park, the memories became too much and Paprika collapsed into the neatly gened giggle grass, which tickled her face as the green blades reached for her. Above her several whisper oaks shaped the breeze into the pleasant babble of ancient words and conversations. She smashed her hardened hand into the grass, cursing it for not knowing all the people they’d once welcomed were gone. But the grass merely bent under her blow, not caring that she wanted it dead.
“Are you okay, Paprika?” a familiar voice asked.
Paprika looked up to see Anya Tanner standing over her, the old’s red hair blazing in the dimming light of dusk. Anya held the green teddy bear Satoshi had made for her. The bear waved a furry paw in greeting as Anya sat down beside Paprika in the grass.
“What’s the matter?” Anya asked. The teddy bear stared into Paprika’s eyes, also curious about their friend.
Paprika wiped her face, even though she hadn’t created any tears. “It hurts,” Paprika said. “I remember what this park was like back then. I mean, the people I carry remember.”
Anya sighed and ran her fingers along the gened grass blades so they rustled to the faint, whispered laughter of children. The teddy bear roly-polied across the giggle grass, adding even more laughter to the breeze.
“I know what you mean,” Anya said. “I try not to dwell on what has been. But sometimes the memories still come. Like when I see you here. You remind me of all the kids who no longer play in this park.”
Paprika sat up and held Anya’s hand. In the thousands of years since she’d met Anya, she’d grown to really like this old. She especially liked Anya because she refused to allow herself to be copied and stored in the pockets of the few time angels who still passed through the city.
“Why aren’t there any more kids?” Paprika asked. While she could access memories of kids from the six people she’d copied, she’d never known any personally.
“What use are kids when you can live forever? When you can copy yourself to live on after you die?”
“But what if it’s not true living?” Even as Paprika formed the question, her programming shrieked at her. Cursed her for daring to question her sole duty and purpose.
“What do you mean?” Anya asked.
“I mean,” Paprika said, forcing herself to speak over programming’s anger, “what if the memories and sentience-maps we time angels save are only dead copies of who you are? Not the whole of who you are and have been?”
Anya reached over and hugged Paprika. “I think you worry too much, little time angel. It helps people to know their memories and consciousness might live on after them. That they’ll never disappear. That’s why humanity created time angels in the first place. If your purpose makes people happy, why worry on the deeper aspects of what exactly you save?”
Paprika smiled at the reassuring words, and snuggled closer to Anya’s body. “I’m worried about Satoshi,” Paprika whispered. “Are there any toys you’d like him to create?”
The teddy bear frowned–obviously jealous at the thought of new toys–until Anya reached out to rub its green fur. “Don’t worry, Boo, nothing could take your place.” Anya then tapped her head. “However, I do remember a wonderful kite I used to fly in this park. But you have to promise not to go copying anything else in the old noggin. I’m not convinced there’s anything up there worth saving for posterity.”
Paprika giggled as she ghosted her hand and reached into Anya, quickly pulling out a glowing memory of a blue, soaring kite.
It’s so easy to forget time when you have so much of it. So it was for Paprika and Satoshi. After Paprika’s meeting with Anya in the park, she avoided leaving the shop for a few millennia. She and Satoshi kept to their usual routine, with Paprika dancing while Satoshi created toys.
But then came the year where Satoshi grew worried. The worries began in the winter when the first snows coated the empty city, and grew more and more as spring arrived and fresh giggle grass burst forth from the cracks in the street outside the shop. Paprika yearned to ask what was wrong, but knew better than to say anything. These things always came out eventually.
And so, on a hot summer day, Satoshi told her.
“It’s Anya Tanner,” he said in a weak voice, sitting in their memory chair in front of the train tracks. “I think she has died.”
Paprika immediately reached out to the city’s information net, which hummed despite its age and decrepit state. Anya’s smiling face popped up before her eyes and said, “Don’t be stupid–I’ve as alive as ever.” But Paprika knew the real Anya never smiled such a silly smile. This was one of many avatars Anya kept. All the olds used them for communications. Even though the planet was nearly deserted the avatars still chatted with one another, millions of them laughing and gossiping as the nets around them frayed and cracked in advance of their eventually collapse.
“I’ll go check on her,” Paprika said, jumping up and running for the door. She wished now she hadn’t waited for Satoshi to tell her. Maybe then she could have helped Anya.
“You should stay here,” Satoshi said. “There’s nothing you can do to help Anya. If she’s alive, she’s alive. If not, she’s gone.”
Paprika paused before the door, her body shaking as it ghosted in and out of solid form. Go to Anya, her programming screamed. Copy her before it is too late! Paprika tried to fight the urge. To tell herself she only wanted to check on her friend.
“Are you okay?” Satoshi asked.
Instead of answering, Paprika ghosted through the door and ran down the street. She ran past tall buildings still looking impressively new, their windows beaming back blue skies and their walls shimmering rainbow swirls. She ran past empty homes which should have been bustling to the lives of people.
But when Paprika stopped running and looked closely, she found cracks in the nano. A tuft of grass growing through the black of a road. A door which hung slightly from its frame. A thick coating of grime and mildew on those buildings whose nano had lost their repulsive charge.
Paprika knew the city wouldn’t last beyond a half million more years. Not without people to take care of it.
She walked to a small house on the eastern side of the city, where Anya Tanner lived. The houses there were a strange mix. Their nano walls and streets were still perfectly shaped, with vibrant colors and clear windows. But yards which Paprika remembered once being genetically trim were now choked with massive trees and thickets. When she reached Anya’s house she found a grove of whisper oaks blocking the front door, the leaves having shaped themselves to say “Paprika, Paprika” over and over as the wind blew through their canopy. Paprika thought this strange–Anya had never been partial to whisper oaks so why would she have reworked the trees’ genetic memories so they whispered her name? Even the chatter squirrels living in the trees glared at Paprika and repeated her name over and over in their usually unintelligible tongues.
Paprika shivered. Someone had done this genetic manipulation on purpose. Was this her lesson?
Unable to reach the front door because of the trees, Paprika ghosted through them, scaring the squirrels into chastising her with more chatterings of her name.
Once inside, she discovered that the doors and windows were still shut, keeping all but a thin layer of dust out of the house. The dinner table was set for no one, the shelves and walls filled with moving pictures of people who beckoned Paprika to come and gaze at them. In one photo Mr. Tanner waved at her. In another, a child-size Anya laughed in Memory Park as kites fought mock battles above her.
Like all the houses of the olds, this one contained a basic rejuvenation machine. The bed-sized machine would envelope anyone who lay inside it in a massive hug of pseudo-flesh and warmth, quickly rebuilding and replacing damaged body parts. But this machine no longer worked. The pink flesh of its exterior had been hacked and sliced, with long cuts showing where the machine had bled out and died.
Someone had attacked the machine. Paprika reached out her essence and felt for anyone in the house, but she was alone. She realized the attack had probably happened centuries before. The house was also secured from the inside, meaning whoever did this had never left.
Or, she thought, whoever did this didn’t need to use doors.
Now more wary, Paprika continued her search.
On the only unmade bed in the house, Paprika found a mummified body with faded red hair. But where in life Anya’s face had been regrown so often she rarely smiled, the mummy’s face grinned as if death was the happiest event Anya had ever known.
Except death wasn’t what Anya grinned over. As Paprika ran her fingers through Anya’s red hair, she felt the slight magnetic caress of another time angel. One of her brothers or sisters had copied Anya’s memories before her friend died.
Paprika’s programming screeched in fury. That should have been you. You are a failure. You should let yourself die. The programming shrieked so loud Paprika’s body fell apart, her ghostly pieces scattering across the room.
When she finally pulled herself together, several years had passed. Once she could again solidify her body, she stood up and kissed her dead friend on the forehead.
In the crook of the mummy’s arm rested a green teddy bear. The bear nodded at Paprika’s kiss and reached out as if to hug her.
Paprika picked up the bear and hugged it back.
Even though Paprika had only been gone a few years, time had been rough on Satoshi. His body had stiffened so much he walked with a cane, and when Paprika tried to hook him up to the rejuvenation machine, she discovered the machine destroyed, just as Anya’s had been.
“A time angel did it,” Satoshi said sadly. “He looks young, like you, but he has a most cruel manner about his bearing.”
“But time angels don’t kill people,” she said, shocked at the attack. “Our programming forbids it.”
“Ah, but this one hasn’t killed me, has he? He merely damaged a machine I occasionally need, which isn’t quite the same thing.”
Unfortunately, Paprika couldn’t argue with that reasoning.
That night she sat in her window, clutching to her breast Anya’s green teddy bear. She reached out her mind to both her programming and her fellow time angels. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m truly sorry for questioning my function. Please tell me what I can do to help Satoshi.”
Her programming didn’t answer. Instead, the same voice she’d heard before, the one which had promised to teach her, laughed. “You know what you need to do,” the voice said, speaking with the same magnetic chill as the imprints left on the destroyed rejuvenation machines of Anya and Satoshi.
“I won’t do it,” she said.
“Then I will.”
Reaching into the vast powers which kept her pocket universe contained, Paprika slapped the voice from her mind. She then ran to Satoshi’s room, where her friend tossed gently in his sleep as if reliving a pleasant dream.
She stood beside Satoshi’s bed and didn’t move until he woke, refusing to let any other time angel even dare to approach his life.
For the next hundred years Paprika protected Satoshi. She could sense the other time angel nearby, but she knew he wouldn’t risk approaching Satoshi while she was around. Instead, the other time angel spun on the edge of her awareness like a shooting star, far enough away that Paprika sometimes doubted if he existed, but close enough that he could easily keep track of Satoshi.
She searched throughout the city for a working rejuvenation machine, but there were none. Those that had worked were damaged, the same as at Anya’s house. She also didn’t find any other olds. They were all gone. Only Satoshi remained.
On one of her searches, she felt the other time angel approaching Satoshi’s shop. Paprika raced home to find a small boy about to enter the doorway.
He’s mine, Paprika’s programming shrieked and she immediately grew her power until she filled the street, flickering in colors of red and black and anger, purest anger, howling as she attacked the time angel with all her strength. But instead of fighting back, the boy merely grinned and ghosted away, as if pleased by how easily Paprika had given in to her programming. He disappeared back to the edges of her awareness.
Then one day Satoshi announced he would die.
“I suspect it is better to embrace my time,” he said, “than to slowly lose so much of myself that I don’t know when death will come.”
Paprika nodded. She suspected Satoshi knew she’d been protecting him, and that doing so was slowly exhausting her, wearing down her will to fight her programmed sense of duty. Having long since resigned herself to this moment, Paprika walked into the workshop, returning a moment later with the memory chair where people sat when she caressed their minds. She thought it proper that Satoshi sit here when she copied all he was to her pocket universe.
“No, my friend, I won’t be going with you.”
That caused Paprika to cry for real, tears which she couldn’t control, tears which phased in and out solidity no matter how she tried to stop them. She’d always assumed Satoshi would copy his life into her before he died. That he’d live on alongside the copies of the other people she’d shared her life with.
“Forgive me,” Satoshi said, “but I don’t want to burden you with my petty life.”
“What if I want that burden?”
Satoshi smiled and held her tiny hand, but he shook his head softly.
Paprika cried as she hugged Satoshi. “Please,” she asked a final time. “It’s what humanity created me to do.”
“There are always things we’re made to do,” Satoshi said. “But this, I cannot allow.”
“But you’ll live forever.”
“Do you truly believe that?”
Paprika paused, wanting to say no. To be honest and say the memories and sentience-map she’d copy to her pocket universe wouldn’t be the same as the Satoshi she’d spent so many years with. That Satoshi’s life in this toy shop, creating wonders for the world while Paprika danced in joy, would never be the same as any mere copy of the man.
But her programming quivered at the forbidden thought, causing her truthful response to dangle unspoken on her lips. “I copy and save all that you are,” she said instead, repeating the lies time angels had always spoken. “Your memories and life will never be destroyed.”
Satoshi squeezed Paprika’s hand. “I already have that.”
Paprika’s body shook, unsure what Satoshi meant.
“When I craft toys for people, the memories they create last long after I’m gone,” he said. “And those memories cause people to live their lives in such a way that a touch of me is never forgotten.”
“But there’s no one left. Everyone you built toys for is long dead. Their memories only exist as copies within time angels.”
“Not true. The memories of me and my toys live on in you. Not in your pocket–in your mind. In your life.”
Paprika nodded, and a slight smile cross her face even as her programming screamed at her–even as the anger from that other time angels leaped at her and warned her not to do this. But she didn’t care. Satoshi was right. While the memories and lives in her pocket universe might never die, they might as well be dead for all the good they did in this world.
Satoshi didn’t say another word. Paprika held his hand through the night until, shortly after dawn, he gasped and didn’t breathe any more.
After that, Paprika couldn’t stay in the shop.
Keeping her body solid, Paprika formed a backpack from her essence and placed inside it a number of Satoshi’s toys, along with Anya’s green teddy bear. She was tempted to take the train but decided instead to keep it running. She picked up the memory chair and set it beside the train, then carried Satoshi’s body and rested him there.
This is good, she thought as the train ran circles before Satoshi’s slumped form. When she left she’d leave the shop’s door open. She’d seen how quickly human bodies decayed when not sealed in houses and buildings–a few centuries and Satoshi would be nothing but dust. But his train would run and run and run. Perhaps the chatter squirrels or other animals would stop by and be touched by the beauty of the toy running on long after the man who created it had died.
As she left the house, Paprika saw the time angel standing across the street. His small-boy-like face and body quivered with anger.
“You didn’t save him,” he said. “He died. And is gone. All gone.”
“It’s what he wanted.”
“You’re not worthy of being a time angel,” the boy screamed, his words echoing to the voices of the other time angels. The boy flickered as his body ghosted to impossible size, swelling with power and rage.
Paprika had never before worried what this time angel could do to her because his powers were a simple mirror of her own–at most they might fight to a draw. But this time the boy swelled with far more power than she possessed. Paprika realized the boy was drawing energy from the world’s other time angels. She had so insulted their sense of duty and purpose that all of them were united in a desire to destroy her.
For the first time ever, Paprika felt true fear. But not fear for what might happen to the six people copied in her pocket universe, which according to her programming should have been the only fear which mattered. No, Paprika feared for herself. If she died, there would be no one left who remembered Satoshi.
The boy reached for her, massive waves of power ready to rip her core to pieces and even destroy her pocket universe. But instead of fighting Paprika simply ghosted away, passing through Satoshi’s toy shop and shooting across the city and land until the boy lost track of where she was.
From then on, Paprika walked. She couldn’t stay in one place more than a few months without the boy and the other time angels locating her.
Depending on the latitude, Paprika walked around the Earth once every few years. Sometimes she stayed solid and walked along the ocean floor; other times she ghosted and walked the waves. But either way she circled the planet over and over, from far north near the Arctic Circle to the equally frigid wind-swept ice of Antarctica.
As she walked she saw no other olds. All the cities were as empty as her city. All the homes and buildings were bare.
To pass the time she sometimes took Satoshi’s toys out of her backpack and played with them. The green teddy bear would sing songs for her while she clapped and danced. If she closed her eyes it was almost like Satoshi was still alive.
She also dipped into the lives of the six people in her pocket universe. Their sentience-maps and memories sat inside her like cold and unmoving creations–nearly alive, but totally unlike the people they’d once been. She realized Satoshi had been correct. There was a big difference between a living person in this world and that person’s basic components stored unchanging for all time.
She was tempted to simply destroy their lives–to collapse her pocket universe in the explosion of bound energy which enabled her to keep it intact. But she knew that would be disrespectful to those six people.
Instead, she shared their memories. She implanted many of them into the mind of the green teddy bear, which giggled as it suddenly remembered living in the ancient cities of Earth and playing with its own teddy bears as a child. She also placed memories into the gened animals which now lived on the planet, such as the chatter squirrels which mimicked human speech. She knew the ancient geneticists who’d created these species would have hated her actions, but they were no longer around to complain. And she always took care to only gift the animals with happy memories and genes, usually related to playing with toys.
She even reworked the genes of the whisper oaks, implanting the joy of Satoshi’s toys within their limited memories. When she finished the wind made their leaves whisper his name over and over, and standing near their trunks left one with a burning need to go and experience the endless playtime of the forest.
Whenever Paprika saw another time angel–usually that boy but sometimes others like him–she ghosted away as fast as she could. But each time she escaped she felt their combined power coming closer to capturing her.
It would be only a few centuries before they caught her.
So it was that Paprika returned to Satoshi’s toy shop. She’d avoided coming here because she knew the time angels would be watching. But now she didn’t care.
Satoshi’s shop stood as before, but in the thousands of years since she’d left the building’s nano had weakened and no longer repelled dust and dirt. The street outside had also completely broken down, allowing vines and trees to grow up around the shop. And most surprisingly, the window she’d sat before for so many centuries had actually broken. She wondered what could have done that, then remembered the time angel boy. He’d probably done it out of spite at not being able to kill her.
Paprika stepped into the shop. While the door was still open, the plants and trees hadn’t been able to grow very far into the shop due to a lack of sun and rain. A thick layer of dust coated everything, with tiny paw prints showing where families of chatter squirrels had made their home here.
In the middle of the shop sat the table with the train on it, which still ran circle after circle over its tracks. Paprika stepped to the table, which was clean of dust. On the chair before the table lay Satoshi’s bones, which had been stacked into a neat pile sometime after the rest of his body decayed.
Paprika smiled. She hadn’t expected the train to be still running. Obviously someone kept the train tracks clear of dust and dirt and made sure Satoshi’s bones weren’t scavenged by animals.
“It seemed proper,” the boy said, stepping from Satoshi’s old bedroom. “After all, thanks to you this is all he has to be remembered by.”
For a moment Paprika’s programming hissed, reminding her of her now-forsaken duty before dying down again. But she’d long since learned to ignore what her programming said to do.
“If you want Satoshi to be remembered, you should let me live. I’m carrying around many memories of my time with him.”
The time angel twitched, as if physically ill at Paprika’s heresy. “Your memories of the man are an abomination,” he said, reaching out to the other time angels around the world, who each provided a bit of power to him. “If you promise not to flee again, I’ll let us depart this place before I kill you. There’s no reason for me to destroy your friend’s legacy too. Even if that legacy is only a single toy churning above dust and bones.”
Paprika looked around the shop, from the counter where Satoshi had waited on customers to his magical workbench to the window she used to sit beside. For a moment she smiled as memories raced her mind. But as much as she’d loved her time here with Satoshi, her memories didn’t depend on this shop for life.
“Do you know what I’ve realized?” she asked. “About the powers we have? Why all the world’s time angels are only able to share a bit of their powers with you right now?”
The boy shook his head, uncertain where this was going.
“I realized we only have a little bit of power to share because we use so much power constraining the pocket universes within us.”
The boy paled, and opened his mouth as if to protest, as if to beg Paprika not to do what she was about to do. But for once there wasn’t enough time for even a single word. Without a second thought, Paprika reached into her being and destroyed the bound energies maintaining her pocket universe. The energy rushed into her core, feeding her powers, feeding her soul, which she immediately directed toward the boy, who had barely begun to comprehend her ultimate heresy when the wave of energy smashed into him.
As she released the powers constraining her universe Paprika slowed her time sense. She saw every part of the boy’s essence as it was destroyed. Saw him try to ghost away before the energy wave overwhelmed him. Saw his own universe implode along with its stored memories and sentience-maps. Saw the red circling train turn to light. Saw Satoshi’s bones and the shop and the city around them convert to energy as the explosion swelled toward the horizon.
When the counter explosion from the destruction of the boy’s own universe reached Paprika, she threw up all the power she now possessed. She rode the explosion out of the city, dancing on the energy like she’d once danced in Satoshi’s shop.
The time angels never again troubled Paprika. They were horrified at what she’d done–that she’d not only destroy her own universe but take the boy’s with her, destroying the thousands of lives he’d copied. Paprika tried to point out that the time angels had planned to do the same to her but they couldn’t comprehend such sameness. To their eyes Paprika was perverted and deserved to be destroyed. The boy was merely doing his duty as a true time angel.
But even if the time angels couldn’t understand her reasoning, they now feared her. Without the need to maintain her own pocket universe, Paprika had more power than the other time angels combined. Unless they also forsook their pocket universes, which was something they’d never do.
Instead, they agreed to leave Paprika alone.
And so time passed.
For the first few centuries Paprika healed the city. Not that she could rebuild what she’d destroyed. But she carried in dirt and rocks by hand, filling the massive crater a drip and a drop at a time. She planted whisper oaks and giggle grass and even chased angry chatter squirrels back there to live.
Once the crater was gone, she gathered the biggest blocks of broken nano she could find and built a massive pyramid, modeling it on the toy pyramid Satoshi had once built. The pyramid stood on the spot of Satoshi’s old toy shop. She even carved his name into its sides.
Once Paprika was satisfied with her work, she pulled off her backpack and removed her toys, making sure to first play with the teddy bear and the various games and balls and puzzles. She then reached into herself and crafted a new pocket universe. Not one as powerful as her last one, but it would do. With a final hug to the teddy bear, she placed the toys in her new universe, where they would be safe.
She then sped up her time sense, going faster and faster until there was no night or day, merely a continual gray merging of the two. Trees grew like vines and vines moved like animals, the seasons passing to blinks of her eyes. Vegetation and soil climbed the pyramid, eventually covering Satoshi’s name. But by extending her powers she could still sense the single word, and it comforted her that this remained of his life.
She sped up her time sense even more, so the ground began to ripple and rock like waves of water as thousands of years passed in a single breath. Dirt and stone rose around Paprika as she closed her eyes. She felt the other time angels around the world, who had long since given in to their own programmed urges for fast-time sleep. Even though she knew she’d never again be a time angel, she was glad she wasn’t alone.
She felt her mind beginning to calcify. Felt her thoughts ending and her self dying off. She sighed, happy at the bliss of nothing. She could feel herself about to end … when something caught her senses.
The pyramid had changed. Someone had uncovered it.
Paprika hesitated, yearning to give in to the nothing blur of fast time. To answer the final demands of the programming she had otherwise forsaken.
But she had to know.
So she awoke.
The world had changed and, yet, not changed. After she woke she found herself in a grove of what looked like whisper oaks, yet the words they spoke sounded strange. In the millions of years which had passed the trees had begun to shape the wind into far more than a few simple words–they now spoke in sentences and even complete conversations. She reached out and touched one of the trees, causing a feeling of peace to flood into her. But she also felt a strong sense of play–of joy at all the fun waiting to be experienced in this world.
The remains of the pyramid rose from the forest before her. As she’d sensed during fast-sleep its stones were clear of trees and vegetation while giggle grass flowered around its base. As she stepped closer she saw where the long-lasting bonds of nano had broken down, with many of the blocks now cracked and broken. On the pyramid’s lowest blocks lay what she guessed were toys. Wooden balls and blocks. Kites made of carved sticks and large leaves. Teddy bears crafted from dried clay.
Someone obviously kept the pyramid clear and maintained this area.
Smiling, she reached out her senses. She felt the remains of the time angels, now embedded deep in the Earth, their minds long since calcified, mindlessly protecting their pocket universes full of unchanging lives as they fell through fast sleep. She also felt around the planet. There were still no olds. But a new species lived across most of the world. Their genes tasted similar to the chatter squirrels she remembered. Except they were bigger, and much smarter.
And they definitely loved to play.
She touched the trees again. Come and play, they said as her mind processed their new language. Come. Play with us.
She grinned. In the trees’ new language, the word for play sounded similar to “Satoshi.”
Looking around the forest, Paprika saw the descendants of the chatter squirrels watching her. Making sure they could see what she was doing, she opened her pocket universe and removed the toys she’d stored there. The green teddy bear stretched and yawned. The games and kites and balls and puzzles waited expectantly for someone to play with them.
She placed the toys beside the already existing toys on the lower blocks of the pyramid. Then, as several chatter squirrels edged closer to examine her gifts, Paprika danced away, pirouetting into the air as the sun and trees laughed in tune to the whisper of “Satoshi! Satoshi!”
About the Author
Jason Sanford is an award-winning author and an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Born and raised in the American South, he currently lives in the Midwestern U.S. with his wife and sons. His life’s adventures include work as an archaeologist and as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Jason has published more than a dozen of his short stories in the British SF magazine Interzone, which once devoted a special issue to his fiction. His fiction has also been published in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Analog: Science Fiction and Fact, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, InterGalactic Medicine Show, Tales of the Unanticipated, The Mississippi Review Online, Diagram, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Pindeldyboz, and other places. Books containing his stories include multiple “year’s best” story collections along with original anthologies such as Bless Your Mechanical Heart.
About the Narrator
Heather Bowman-Tomlinson is a horticulturist by trade, current stay at home mom for two children, team mom for the local Goalball team, and advocate for Blind/Visually Impaired causes and adoption causes. She loves D20 gaming, reading, camping and canoeing, card playing, and music.