A quest, a puzzle, and multiple lives:
On an artificial world with a forgotten past, floods of "silver" rise in the night like fog, rewriting the landscape and consuming those caught in its cold mists. Seventeen-year-old Jubilee knows that no one ever returns from the silver—but then a forbidding stranger appears, asking after her beloved brother, lost long ago to a silver flood. Could he still be alive? And why does the silver rise ever higher, threatening to drown the world? Jubilee pursues the truth on a quest to unlock the memory of a past reaching back farther than she ever imagined.
A John W. Campbell Memorial Award Finalist.
Linda Nagata writes both breathtaking science fiction and amazing adventure fiction. She always takes us to places we've never been before, in ways we've never experienced them. Whenever I finish a Linda Nagata story, I feel like I've lived a new life.
Like so much of Linda's work, Memory is an award-finalist. That's because she does such innovative work and makes it seem so very easy. After you finish reading this novel, I hope you move on to the rest of Linda's work. Marvelous worlds await you if you do. – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"[A] kick ass big idea, hard SF novel...Yes, I'm raving. But I seriously love this book."– Tobias Buckell
"The feel of visionary fantasy mixes with hard SF in this powerful novel of a young woman's quest for a missing brother in a far future world beset by out-of-control technology."– Locus
"...Nagata's book conjures up a richly realized world in which a truly eerie landscape serves as the vibrant background of a tale of self-discovery and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds."– Sally Estes, Booklist
When I was ten I had a blanket that was smooth and dark, with no light of its own until I moved and then its folds would glitter with thousands of tiny stars in all the colors of the stars in the night sky. But the pale arch that appears at the zenith on clear nights and that we call the Bow of Heaven never would appear on my blanket—and for that I was glad. For if there was no Heaven, I reasoned, then the dead would always be reborn in this world and not the next, no matter how wise they became in life.
This was always a great concern for me, for my mother was the wisest person I knew and I feared for her. More than once I schemed to make her look foolish, just to be sure she would not get into Heaven when her time came. When my antics grew too much she would turn to my father. With a dark frown and her strong arms crossed over her chest she would say, "We have been so very fortunate to have such a wild and reckless daughter as Jubilee. Obviously, she was sent to teach us wisdom." My father would laugh, but I would pout, knowing I had lost another round, and that I must try harder next time.
I seldom suffered a guilty conscience. I knew it was my role to be wild—even my mother agreed to that—but on the night my story begins I was troubled by the thought that perhaps this time I had gone too far.
I lived then in the temple founded by my mother, Temple Huacho, a remote outpost in the Kavasphir Hills, a wild land of open woods and rolling heights, infamous for the frequency of its silver floods.
As often as three nights in ten the silver would come, rising from the ground, looking like a luminous fog as it filled all the vales, to make an island of our hilltop home. I would watch its deadly advance from my bedroom window, and many times I saw it lap at the top of the perimeter wall that enclosed the temple grounds.
That wall was my mother's first line of defense against the rise of silver and she maintained it well. Only twice had I seen a silver flood reach past it, and both times the chemical defenses of the temple kobolds that lived within the wall stripped the silver of its menace before it could do us harm. True silver is heavy and will always sink to fill the low ground. But the remnant silver that made it past the wall spired like luminous smoke, tangling harmlessly in the limbs of the orchard trees.
Because silver was so common in that region no one dared to live near us. Only a temple, with its protective kobolds, could offer shelter from the nocturnal floods, and Temple Huacho was the only one that had been established anywhere in Kavasphir. So the mineral wealth the silver brought was ours to exploit, while the temple well was famous for producing new and mysterious strains of the beetlelike metabolic machines called kobolds. My mother harvested the kobolds while my father prospected, and eight or nine times a year small convoys of truckers would visit us to collect what we had to trade.
On that evening, two trucks had arrived from distant Xahiclan and the drivers had with them a boy named Tico who was also a lesson in wisdom for his parents. Naturally I loved him on sight, and so did my brother Jolly who was a year older than me but not nearly so useful to our parents. We abandoned our younger siblings (who we were supposed to watch) to play wild games in the orchard. After dinner—a magnificent feast that my parents had prepared and that we did not appreciate except for the sweets at the end—we disappeared again, this time on a special quest.
In the old enclaves like Xahiclan the temples all had long histories. Thousands of players depended on their protective powers, and so they had become sacred places. Children were not allowed to play on the grounds, and only the temple keepers were permitted inside the buildings. None of this solemnity was attached to Temple Huacho. Our outpost was not thirty years old; it was home to no one but our own family; and it was the only playground my brothers and sisters and I had ever known.
Jolly and I were oldest, so we could go where we wanted within the confines of the temple wall, though perhaps not to the well room, not without supervision. But Tico wanted to see the well of the kobolds. He told us he had never seen a kobold well before. Jolly and I were so astonished to hear this that it took only a moment for us to reason that the rule about not visiting the well room was an old one, and that if we were to ask, our mother and father would surely say we were old enough now to go there on our own . . . but of course we couldn't ask: they were busy with the truckers and would not want to be bothered, while it was up to us to keep Tico entertained.
So we crept quietly through the halls, accompanied by Jolly's little dog, Moki—a sharp-faced hound with large upright ears, a short back, lush red fur, and a long tail. Moki had been Jolly's pet for as long as I could remember. He stood only knee-high, but he followed my brother everywhere. Now he trotted beside us, his nails clicking against the tiled floor.
Temple Huacho was a house of stone, made from the abundant minerals of Kavasphir. The floor tiles were a cream-colored marble laced with gold; the walls were of lettered stone, in a shade of green like malachite with the letters compressed into barely readable veins of black print; the ceilings were made of translucent slices of a lighter green stone bearing the image of fossilized forests. Lights shone behind the ceiling panels, giving the effect of walking through a woodland on a cloudy day. Tico was much impressed by this décor. On the way to the well room he kept whispering about how wealthy we must be until I decided that perhaps I didn't like him quite as much as I had thought.
The entrance to the well room was framed by the trunks of two trees fossilized in white jade. Jolly held on to Moki while I leaned past the nearest trunk, taking a quick, cautious look around the room, confirming that it was empty. Then I motioned Tico and Jolly forward.
The well room was a round chamber, its walls lined with cabinets holding hundreds of tiny, airtight drawers where mature kobolds were stored. On the right-hand side, in front of these cabinets, was the broad jade table that served as my mother's workbench. Her microscopes and analytical equipment were shapeless lumps beneath a white dust cover. On the left side of the room another workbench supported stacks of transparent boxes—test chambers for uncataloged kobolds—but they were empty.
At the center of the room was the temple well. A thigh-high mound of fine soil surrounded its throat. Over the years I had watched this mound grow until now it spilled onto the tiles around it, where its soil was scuffed and crushed to a fine brown powder by passing feet.
Tico did not wait for further invitation. He strode past me to the mound's edge, where he looked over the embankment of dirt, and down, into the dark, jagged hole that was the throat of the well.
A kobold well is made wherever a plume of nutrients chances to rise from the steaming core of the world, a bounty that awakens the kobold motes, tiny as dust, that lie dormant everywhere in the soil.
I felt proud when I saw the awe on Tico's face. The well was the heart of Temple Huacho. It was the reason my mother had settled there. It was the source of our security, and our wealth. So I was surprised when Tico's expression changed. Awe became confusion. And then confusion gave way to a wicked scowl. "Is that it?" he asked. "A dirty hole in the ground?"
I frowned down at the fine, loose soil, wanting desperately to impress him. "There are kobolds," I said, and I pointed at the well's throat where two newly emerged kobolds were using their weak limbs to claw free of the hard-packed ground. These were large metallophores—metal eaters—as big as my father's thumb and beetlelike in appearance, their color as dull as the soil that nourished them.
Kobolds were a kind of mechanic, a machine creature, and like any machine they were created by the labor of other machines: the kobold motes, to be specific. That was the essential division among the animate creatures of the world: mechanics were made, so that they began existence in finished form, while organic life had to strive for existence through the complexities of birth and growth and change.
Mechanics were living tools. The metallophores that I pointed out to Tico could be configured to make many kinds of simple metal parts. As a spider eats and secretes a web, so kobolds could take in raw material, metabolize it so that it took on a new form, and secrete it. But where spiders secreted only webs, kobolds could produce things as diverse as medicine or machine parts, depending on the strain. The common metallophores of our well did their work inside a metabolic foam, which they would excrete in layer upon layer for many days depending on the size of the artifact they had been programmed to make. When the project was complete the foam would be washed away, revealing the fan blade, or bracket, or truck body that the configuration had called for.
All players were dependent upon mechanics, but we were especially dependent on the kobolds. We could not have survived without them, so it was easy to believe the legends that said they had been made for us.
But Tico showed no sign of being impressed by the large metallophores, so I hurried to look for other kobolds, and soon I spotted some that were tiny, the size of a grain of wheat or even smaller, moving through the mound's soft soil. "See those?" I asked Tico. "There. Where the soil quivers? Those are probably the kind that make platinum circuits. My mother's been trying to improve that strain."
He shrugged. "Who cares about kobolds? I've seen thousands. I thought you were going to show me a well like the ones in Xahiclan. They're a hundred feet across, with crystal walls crawling with rare kobolds no one's ever seen before."
A hundred feet across? I wondered if it could be true. I looked at Jolly. He had circled around to the well's other side where he stood with his hands clasped behind his back, a sure sign he was getting angry. Moki sat beside him, his alert ears listening for any familiar words in our conversation. Jolly said, "At Temple Huacho we find lots of kobolds no one's ever seen before. More than in all of Xahiclan, because this temple is new."
I smiled, pleased at my brother's parry. But now the line had been drawn and Tico had territory to defend. "New kobolds out of this little hole? I don't believe it!"
It took me a moment to understand that he had just called my brother a liar. When I did, my cheeks grew hot. "Why do you think your dad comes all the way out here?" I demanded. "It's because our kobolds are special."
"Uh-uh!" Tico countered. "It's for the minerals."
Jolly smiled his signature half smile. I saw it, and took a step back from Tico. In a quiet voice Jolly said, "You forget where you are, Tico. This is the Kavasphir Hills. You're not in an old, tame enclave like Xahiclan. We don't need a big well, because the silver here is powerful."
Jolly was a beautiful child, smooth-skinned and bright-eyed, his blue-black hair sprouting in unruly spikes—but he was eleven, and the easy cheerfulness of his early years had already begun to fade under the pressure of a growing self-doubt, for no talent from his past lives had ever returned to him. Every new skill had to be learned with great labor, as if for the first time. Though I was younger, I was far ahead of him in reading and math, because for me each new lesson only wakened a knowledge I already had, while Jolly had to earn it. He would grow frustrated, and rail that he must have been the stupidest player in existence, to have learned nothing from his past lives.
That night though, he was a player. He told Tico, "This land belongs to the silver. It's in the ground. It's in the well." He stomped his shoe softly. "It's here, right under our feet."
Tico didn't like this idea. He took a step back. "It's not."
"Oh, yes it is," I said, rising to my brother's aid—though the idea of silver lying in wait underground was new to me, and deeply unsettling . . . because it made sense. Questions I had never thought to ask were suddenly answered, and I echoed them aloud: "Where do you think kobold motes come from?" (As if I knew!) "The silver makes them, that's where. It's in the land."
"It is not!" Tico said. He was becoming desperately angry now. "My uncle's a stone mason. I've been to a quarry where stones are cut out of the ground, and there's never been any silver underneath any of them."
"This is a temple," Jolly said.
Well it certainly was and Tico had never been in a temple before. What did he know about temples? Nothing except the silly rumors he'd heard in Xahiclan of wells a hundred feet across. But Tico was proud of his ignorance. He shrugged; his lip thrust out in a pout. "Your well is still boring to look at."
This was too much for me. To belittle the well was to belittle the life my mother had made for all of us and that I could not bear. "Come with me, then," I said, and I started to climb carefully over the mound. "If you want some excitement, then come with me and see the silver—unless you're afraid."
Jolly's eyes widened when he saw what I was doing. "Jubilee!" But the well lay between us, and he could not stop me.
I looked over my shoulder at Tico. "What's the matter? Don't you want to come?"
Warily he asked, "What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to climb down the well. That's what you have to do to see the silver."
"But I can see the silver outside any window. It's rising tonight. My dad said so."
I edged closer to the well's dark throat, placing my feet carefully so as not to crush the lumpy shapes of dormant kobolds that lay buried beneath the surface of the mound. "But it's in the well too. Always. Night or day. Don't you want to see it?"
I didn't expect him to follow me. I thought fear (or wisdom) would get the better of him, and he would run away and then Jolly and I could have a good laugh together. But Tico was a gift to his parents, and to me. "Okay," he said. "You go first."
Of course I had never climbed down the well. I had no idea if the silver really could be seen at the bottom, or even if there was a bottom, but Tico was watching me with a wicked smile. He knew I was lying. He was only waiting for me to give up and admit it, but how could I? I glanced at Jolly. He was my big brother. He was supposed to keep me out of trouble, but he only looked at me with merry eyes, saying, "The chimney bends about ten feet down, but if you wriggle past that, you can keep going for almost thirty feet."
I could not hide my astonishment. "You've been down the well?"
"Sure. How do you think I know about the silver?" He looked past my shoulder and his smile widened to a grin. I turned to see Tico fleeing the well room. The sound of his footfalls faded in the direction of the dining hall. "He won't tell on us," Jolly said. "He'd only get himself in trouble."
Tico was already forgotten. I turned back, to glare at my brother. "Have you really been down the well?" I didn't want to believe it. I didn't want to believe he'd done something so momentous without me. And he didn't want to admit it. I could see that at once. "You have gone down it!" I accused.
He looked askance. "Only one time. When you went with Dad to Halibury."
That was the time my father had taken me to see the matchmaker. Jolly was oldest and he should have gone first but our father wouldn't take him—not until he knew what Jolly's talents were. My own special talent was languages. I had a knack for them that had been clear by the time I was six. Naturally my brother had been jealous, and he must have been bored too in the days I was away—but that was months ago! He should have forgiven me, and confessed. I wondered what other secrets he kept. "You should have told me."
"Why? You would only want to go yourself."
"So it's dangerous. You really can see hints of the silver down there."
"I'm not afraid."
He was only a year older than me. I knew I could keep up with him. I always had. "You can follow me, Jolly, if you want to, but I'm going."