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You are most aware of building-think in bad weather. The night brought with it a tropical depression, Typhoon Senti, but all you note of its howling winds and bullets of rain are the data readings collected by the National Archive Complex. [PRESSURE 70KPA HUMIDITY 90% TEMPERATURE 28C CONDITIONS WITHIN OP PARAS] Rain puddles at the lobby entrance; it's human memory that compares the camera feed to patterns of coffee creeping across kitchen tiles from a mug dropped by disease-ravaged hands. Building-think only checks the hermetic sealing on the lobby doors.


When you are not Night Clerk you have things to worry about: electrical bills and medication cycles and decoding the creases on your lover's brow as she reads the lymphoma doctor's report. But logged into the National Archive's neural system, a walking flesh-blood extension of the masonry's sensory network (HUMAN FEMALE A28.7 H162 W54u T37.2 R95 SYNC 98%) all that matters is consistency. Changeless parameters flashing green in neat lines you don't actually see but sense like the marrow in your bones (enhanced as they are by titanium cells).

You patrol the building, spiraling upwards from the lobby. This is not strictly necessary, but it soothes the human mind's need for movement, keeps happy the synapses that insist security requires active vigilance, like a circulating white blood cell.


Before Day Clerk ended his shift today he flagged a suspicious individual (Lee Junwei, b. 1992, ID: 110102199212075374). This old man has spent hours over the last three days wandering the floors of the National Archive, from the grey aisles of the General Collection to the rosewood pillars of the Hall of Great Sages. He has not accessed any records, nor has he requested an audience with any of the archives. His tracks spiral around and around the locked second floor where the archive controls are. Machine sees no issue with this; there has been no breach. Your human mind sees the dots and sees premeditation.



The Shanghai Meteorological Service's monitoring of the Yangtze is a constant ping. [2315 WATER LEVEL 92% FLOOD RISK 80% 2330 WATER LEVEL 90% FLOOD RISK 78%]


The General Archives store a thousand carefully curated individuals born each year, selected at age 45 from what the state says are the different sectors of life. There is an entire department, a prestigious one, dedicated to this yearly selection. The data in the General Archives is needed for reports and scholarly studies, they say, like carefully prepared glass slides, dyed beautiful colours to highlight parts of anatomy. This is a historical record, they say. The Germans have a word for it: zeitgeist. A summation of the times.


On floor eight, the Hall of Great Sages, you stop. In one of the access alcoves you bring up sage Liu Wen (call number 41872.5). This is outside patrol protocol, but it does not affect building operations, and doing this satisfies the human mind.


The alcove projects Liu Wen in the form he took in his thirties, a personal request of his. He appears black-haired still, bespectacled, white shirt and dark pants. Many are the topics in the archives of your conversations. You are fascinated by life in other eras, and you often ask questions comparing his life growing up in Guangzhou with your own. He likes that you discuss things that are outside the boundaries of what he is usually asked, but sometimes the questions baffle him, like the time you asked him how much one kilogram of rice used to cost.  "Why does it matter?" he asked in return. "I don't remember."

"Isn't that something everybody should know?"

"It's not relevant," he said.

Today you discuss the filmmaker Eileen Zhang. They met in the 2030s, in the United States, when Liu Wen was an expert consultant for the US government as they built the Library of Congress' first archive of individuals. Zhang is not here: the Archives only accept outstanding citizens and she was never naturalised. Rules are rules.

"She used to read to me," Liu Wen says. "One tiny story a night, as a reward for making it through the day."

"She died first. How did you cope, knowing you would never hear her read another story?"

"You have so many questions for a night clerk. What's there to tell? I went on, as people must. I saved her data and petitioned for her to be archived, but the Council said no."

"How did you respond?"

"At that time, it hurt, but we also sympathised with each other's views. If we archived people just based on the fact that they were loved, this building would cover the surface of the Earth."


You surge to attention. The window that has opened on your south side third floor has admitted a moving human-sized (162cm) warmth (36.9C) that triggers sensor after sensor in domino chains. Weight (54kg) and heat signatures match: Lee Junwei (b. 1992, ID: 110102199212075374).

You tell Liu Wen: "I enjoyed our talk, but I must take my leave. We have a visitor."

"Be lucky, Night Clerk."

You fold Liu Wen back into the dreamless sleep of the archive, where he will rest until called.

[ALERT: PING RESPONSE FAILURE X121406 X121411 X121416 X121421 X121426 X121431 X121436 PING RESPONSE FAILURE C1XV231 C1XV236 C1XV241 C1XV246 C1XV251 C1XV256 C1XV261]

That's the second floor going dark: all cameras and sensors shut off, except for a blossom of existence around the protected control room. Lee Junwei must have cut wires. The atrium sensors pick up the sound of glass shattering (1250 Hz).


Your exoskeleton-enhanced gait takes you across the length of the Hall (320m) in 16.7s. The Hall ends over an atrium that yawns down to the first floor lobby. The floors stack over each other, pagoda-step-like, and the black rope that dangles into the hole smashed into the second-floor ceiling tells you all the story you need to know.


You seal all entrances and cut the lights (ocular intake set to mode infrared). This is what state money has armed your human body for. The titanium cores of your bones absorb the force of your impact (57.4kPa) as you land, in a single bound, where the intruder has gone. Slippery puddles of wet mark the path to the door of the library control room (distance: 500m). The door still obeys your command to open, saving you from cutting through it. You enter the area that has been violated.

(Ocular intake: set to 390nm to 700nm)

Lee Junwei has a torch, which throws fragmented shadows over the walls and ceilings. You find him crouched by the rack of a processing unit with a bag of tools, tending to a whirring fist-sized lump of plastic with indicator lights soldered on in a crooked line. Arterial cords loop out of it and under the prised-open panelling of the processing unit.

"Stop what you are doing and step away," you say.

Lee Junwei staggers backwards, hands in the air. "Please don't hurt me. Please!" The typhoon has hit him hard: silver hair plasters flat on the dome of his head, and his suit of black cotton clings heavily to his bamboo thinness. Water puddles around his feet like incontinence, and his eyes shine in the bony sockets of his face.

Your hand closes over the cord between the bootleg unit and the brains of the library. "Wait," says the old man. "It's my son, please."

Your hesitation is as illogical as the old man's actions. You have no access to the library's control core and you cannot tell what his device is doing to the system.


"I know the police are on the way. I won't run, I'll let them arrest me, but please let me finish." His voice wavers, as if still being blown by the wind, and he holds up a silvery stick, finger-shaped. He points to the wired device. "It's my son. He died last week, he was young, it was too soon. I want him to be archived."


[ALERT: PING RESPONSE FAILURE X121406 X121411 X121416 X121421 X121426 X121431 X121436 PING RESPONSE FAILURE C1XV231 C1XV236 C1XV241 C1XV246 C1XV251 C1XV256 C1XV261]

"I know you are just doing your job," Lee Junwei says. "But I beg you, look the other way until the police arrive."

"Was he blacklisted?"

"My whole family's been blacklisted because of me. It's not his fault! He was a poet, a writer, he was a peaceful man. He has a lot to teach the public."

Lee Junwei: You search the web, the state media, for answers. In his youth, he was a dissident, an artist, who once set fire to a monument to prove a point. Now you understand.


[ALERT: PING RESPONSE FAILURE X121406 X121411 X121416 X121421 X121426 X121431 X121436 PING RESPONSE FAILURE C1XV231 C1XV236 C1XV241 C1XV246 C1XV251 C1XV256 C1XV261]

The subroutine pressure becomes too much to bear. Your hand pulls reflexively on the cord and it comes free with a clatter. "I cannot make that decision."

Lee Junwei grabs your arm as if there are no 600-kilowatt tasers buried under the surface of the exoskeleton. "Please, Night Clerk, you can help me, can't you? They put implants in your brain that can connect to the library building."

He presses the stick into your hand. "You can put his data in later. I'll tell the police I came to destroy the archive. They'll believe me. I don't need him to be in the Hall of Great Sages, even the General Collection will do. Save his data somewhere, let his life have meant something." His eyes fill up like a broken helmet. "Don't let my son be punished for the things I did as a foolish young man."

You put the stick aside. "I sympathise, but I cannot help you."

"This is an act of a father's love, please. He was my son, my only son. I've failed him. I failed him."

You look at him, shaking with the pattern of body-weakness that is so familiar to you. "If we archived people just based on the fact that they were loved, this building would cover the surface of the Earth," you recite, and you're sure this is an adequate response to what Lee Junwei said. Outside, the police cars have arrived, wet with rain, a glow of high beams and red blue red blue red blue. It's over.

[MINDLOG v6.5.2x Logging out of National Archive system... waiting

Protocol initiated...

Authorisation granted.


System message: Logout successful.

Have a nice day!]

You’ll talk to yourself post-disconnect, your voice trying to fill up the void left in your head, a sensation that takes hours to fade. Your habit is to leave the National Archive building by the rear entrance at the end of your shift, and nothing can shake you from this, not typhoons, not even desperate old men and hours of police questioning. This is what you do. This is what I do.

Wei En paused at the building's edge, and took a deep, steadying breath of the damp air.

Typhoon Senti had petered out into a lingering drizzle, leaving in its wake squelchy roads and wet-rat buildings, urban ugliness enhanced by the gleam of water-shine. The sky had taken on the luminescent grey of paper ash, and in the distance the first electric trains rattled their tracks. Wei En slung the duffel bag containing her uniform over her shoulder and something clattered to the ground, bouncing in the wet.

Bending gingerly, Wei En picked it up, fingers brushing gritty tarmac. Lee Junwei’s data stick. As Night Clerk she must have tucked it into an enclosure of the exoskeleton, but that memory had slipped from her mind, sucked into the eddies left behind by mindlog exit.

When Wei En had gotten the job Shujun had fretted before the procedures, pulling up article after article about the side effects of mind implants, the memory losses, the personality defects. She had stuck the printouts to the kitchen cabinets and bathroom mirrors when Wei En refused to read them. Job money was hard to come by, and on top of that the state had offered to pay for a procedure that people their station could never dream of affording.

Wei En held the stick up in the weak light, water sliding off her fingers. Strange. She tried to imagine an entire person there—all the memories, all the emotions, all the potential thought—but it was only an inert lump of metal in her fingers.

An age-stained metal dumpster lingered at the end of the alley, mouth open, as though calling for her. Drawn over, Wei-En held the data stick in a closed fist over it for a long moment. The metal edges cut into her hand. She imagined opening that fist, imagined the stick clattering down the dumpster's side and splashing into the collected typhoon-leavings, imagined turning and leaving. Peoples' lives were thrown away all the time, she reasoned. And the old man, Lee Junwei, he was mad, he had no idea what he was talking about. He wanted her to put his son's data into the archives, but of course that was impossible, she was only the Night Clerk, how could she have access to the Archive's data structures?

A memory of Lee Junwei swam up, with his broken-helmet eyes, and it seemed to Wei En that the watery surfaces of his eyes were a mirror. A familiar taste of desperation washed up on the back of her tongue, a combination of bile and adrenaline.

Let his life have meant something, he had said.

Wei En swallowed, and put the data stick into her jacket pocket. It was quite a stylish thing with nice lines, and made of some sort of stainless, scratchless material. Maybe she could turn it into a necklace for Shujun. It would be something to comfort her, something to accompany her as she went forward.

She walked home.

The typhoon had left three inches of brackish water on the ground floor of their apartment building, and the ancient elevator would be knocked out of commission until the place dried. Somebody had put up a sign.

Wei En's thighs were burning by the time she reached the fifteenth floor, and continued burning as she coaxed movement out of the rusty lock. Outside of uniform, gravity still applied.

She left her shoes and socks to dry on the rack. Her lover was making a pot of coffee in the kitchen, its piquancy a welcome contrast to the dank that gets trapped in narrow corridors. Shujun had her starched shirt on and her hair up in a bun. "Will you go to work today?" Wei En asked.

"I'm sure it will be dry by evening. Boss will need extra help today, the rains will have left a big mess."

"Is it all right for you to help?"

"It should be fine. See, my hands aren't shaking today." She held them out, fine-boned and painted with veins, as proof. "I've felt much better lately. The new medicines seem to be working."

Wei En put the duffel on the tiled floor and pulled up a hard-backed kitchen chair. Its scratchy, worn surface was comfortingly solid as she slouched and stretched her aching soles. "What if the lift is still broken in the evening? How will you get back up here?"

"Maybe I'll call neighbour Li to carry me upstairs." Shujun laughed, and her teeth showed, shining like piano keys. She put a chipped tin mug in front of Wei En and poured steaming coffee into it. "Shall I tell you about my day at work yesterday?"

"Yes, always." Clouds of coffee steam wafted up and Wei En inhaled, holding the sharp scent in the back of her nose.

"Well, it was busy, as you would expect. There were flood preparations to be done, and we had a lot of customers who came in to buy chargers and spare batteries just in case the power failed. Boss didn't want me to carry too many heavy things, so he sent me to the front. There was this old lady, very unreasonable, she only wanted to deal with male staff..."

She heated breakfast as she spoke, stirring the pot of congee on the stove. Wei En studied her, the way she moved, the slope of her shoulders, the curve of her neck. The sun had begun to emerge and the slats of the kitchen window painted golden stripes on the edges of her hair. If Wei En could freeze this moment, dip it in amber, she would.

"Am I boring you?"

"No, that's never possible. Please continue."

Shujun smiled and tucked a phantom strand of hair behind her ear. "Did I tell you about the child who came in with her mother yesterday? You should have seen her, she was so round, so cute. Her hair tied up in little buns..."

Shujun's hands fluttered as she described how precious this girl was, how lively. Fingers sluiced through the air, their movements informed by muscular twitches, the memory of butterflies. In that moment Wei En could have listened to her speak of a lifetime of banalities, a never-ending parade of gritty details that could be picked at over and over in memory until they slipped away like fish in a tide. She wanted to live in a world without time, without money, without death, so she could stop grasping at the sound of her lover's tongue and just listen to it curling around the hard realities of life, on and on and ever after.

Words are hard, but J.Y. Yang has chosen a profession and several hobbies which involve fighting with them all the time. A graduate of Clarion West, they live in Singapore with an unspecified number of succulent plants, all named Lars.
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19 Feb 2024

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