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FICTION

Irretrievable

  • onSeptember 25, 2020
  • Vol.49 Autumn 2020
  • byKim Choyeop
If We Can’t Go at the Speed of Light
Tr. Youngjae Josephine Bae
2019

“It seems to be irretrievable.”

Jimin frowned at what the librarian said. Irretrievable?

“What do you mean?”

“I mean . . . the mind is missing. The search isn’t returning any results and there’s no trace of it having been checked out.”

“That’s impossible. This definitely came from here.”

Jimin flipped the card in her hand to double-check. It was indeed issued by this library. The library’s name was labeled on it clearly alongside a complex identification code.

Stumped, Jimin asked, “Could it be a temporary error?”

“I’m sorry, but that’s unlikely. I’ve never seen this happen before though . . .”

“What in the . . .”

Jimin was about to complain when she noticed the look on the librarian’s face.

The librarian’s eyes were fixed on the screen, muddled with perplexity. From where she stood facing the librarian, Jimin could make out the screen’s reflection. A dizzying array of indecipherable characters was on display. Nevertheless, Jimin was able to recognize what the pop-up at the center of the screen meant.

[Kim Eunha: 2E62XNSHW3NGU8XTJ

Index history unavailable.]

After a short pause, all the librarian could say was, “Ms. Kim Eunha should be in here somewhere. It’s just that she can’t be found.”

Mom had gone missing.

Well, it couldn’t be that common for someone to go missing after they’d died. Even when Mom was alive, Jimin never imagined that she could go missing. On the contrary, Mom was such an easy person to locate. It took only one hand for Jimin to count all the places Mom had ever been to over the last few years of her life. When did she disappear and to where? There was no way of knowing at this point. The day Jimin visited the library was three years after Mom had been deposited there.

The visit was Jimin’s very first to a library. The curved roof, flat grounds, and the garden and pond surrounding the building made it seem more like a long-established tourist destination than the pinnacle of cutting-edge technology. No one carried books in and out of the building, but people still referred to the place as a library.

Some of the places once called libraries turned into museums while the libraries not worthy of the transformation were mostly digitized. The concept of libraries was now different. They no longer held books or research papers. Instead of endless rows of bookcases, libraries now housed layers upon layers of mind connectors.

People visited libraries to memorialize the deceased. Gradually, spaces for memorializing turned into places seemingly distant from death. Memorial parks sprawled across urban outskirts were transformed into charnel houses with cabinets for urns and then into libraries. No one brought flowers to a library anymore. Instead, libraries sold data to offer to the stored mind—bits of data that replicated flowers, food, or objects the deceased used to be fond of.

Postmortem mind uploading had become common decades ago. At first, people thought souls were being converted into data. Some hoped that although the flesh might perish, the spirit would survive forever. But that hope was soon shattered by the suggestion that converted data had no ego or consciousness of its own. Countless psychological studies and experiments were carried out to determine whether the mind possessed an ego. After an extended debate, the consensus was that minds were nothing more than life-like representations of the deceased. Minds might appear to be responsive to external stimuli, but they actually exhibited imaginary reactions the deceased would have likely shown based on memories of the past.

Many people still treated minds as if they were alive. With a bright smile, a child in a documentary said, “You may not be here now Dad, but I can see you at the library anytime.” A brief commercial featured the moving reunion between a woman and her deceased husband through a mind connector.

 

 

Regardless of how scholars defined minds, mind libraries changed the way people thought about life and death. Everyone still feared death, but the sense of loss the bereaved felt was now different. Libraries were able to fill the emptiness after death whenever people thought, What would she have said if she were still alive? or He sure would have been happy to hear this.

Mom was deposited at the library when she passed away three years ago, at least according to the lengthy mind manual that arrived through the post after Jimin heard news of her death. Yet, not once did Jimin visit the library. She had no desire to meet or say anything to her dead mother. Had she known Mom could disappear so unexpectedly, she would have come sooner.

On her way home, she searched in vain for similar cases using all sorts of keyword combinations, including “irretrievable from library,” “uploaded mind missing,” and “tag loss.” When she asked whether the data could have been deleted, the librarian denied this and merely added that the data was there but just couldn’t be tracked down. It was, however, impossible for such a thing to happen had Mom’s name or any other personal detail about her been filed properly in the first place.

The librarian promised to be in touch again tomorrow since there wasn’t much information that could be gleaned then and there. Jimin hoped it would turn out to be a mistake on the library’s part.

Upon hearing the whole story, a shadow drew across Junho’s face.

“There must be a way. Let’s take our time and figure it out.”

He gazed at her with concern.

“I don’t want you to be stressed out by this sort of thing when we’re in such a critical period . . .”

Jimin nodded in agreement. Junho told her he would finish preparing dinner, so she walked past him and headed to the bathroom.

After a cursory shower, Jimin stepped into the bedroom to find a message from the hospital displayed across the window. It was a reminder of the precautions to be taken during the early stages of pregnancy.

Eight weeks is a critical period in pregnancy. Jimin was sick of being reminded of how careful she needed to be because miscarriages tend to happen around that time. Not only were there limited medications she was allowed to take during that period, but she was told that even the most trivial incident could lead to a miscarriage or cause problems with fetal development if it startled her or induced stress. Without any resemblance to a human form, let alone a proper nervous system, a cell turned out to have a presence stronger than any human alive.

The pregnancy hadn’t been “planned.” Or rather, it was planned in a narrow sense of the word, but not because Jimin had desperately desired it. When friends who married earlier showed Jimin photos of their kids, she thought they were cute, but nothing more. Being wholly responsible for another human being was an entirely different story. She wasn’t sure she could be a good mother or sacrifice that much for a child.

Junho was persistent in trying to change Jimin’s mind. The pain of pregnancy and delivery had been reduced significantly compared to the past. During labor, an almost painless birth technique could be adopted as long as there were no outstanding issues.

“You’ll only have to suffer a bit at the beginning. Babies grow fast,” Junho assured her.

Maybe she’d been too hasty. Waves of regret crept in as soon as the birth control chip was removed from her husband’s arm. The feeling continued to linger after Jimin became pregnant sooner than expected. The fact that she was pregnant finally hit home when colleagues at work learned of her pregnancy and began to ask after the baby inside her instead of herself.

One day, she freaked out at the sight of blood on her underwear and rushed to the hospital. The doctor recommended a few days of rest. Three days later, she came down with severe morning sickness. She took a ten-day leave.

Jimin went to the hospital on the first day of her leave. The doctor let her listen to the baby’s heartbeat through the traditional method of using a stethoscope. A baby’s heart beats twice as fast as the mother’s. Was it because babies were that much more determined to live? The doctor smiled and told her the fetus was healthy with a normal heart rate. Nevertheless, the look on Jimin’s face remained rigid as she left the examining room and walked past the reception desk.

What was wrong with her? She had a fetus in her womb and even heard its heart beating, but it failed to rouse affection in her. Instead, she had to wrestle with a bunch of inexplicable emotions. Lately, she’d read a lot of stories other pregnant women shared online. The stories were all similar. They mentioned how happy the women were to finally be pregnant and that they were already in love with the child inside them.

It wasn’t like that for Jimin. She thought looking at a photo of the fetus and hearing its heart beating would stir some sense of anticipation or excitement in her, but it didn’t. Was she unprepared to give proper love because she herself had never received it?

Mom was dead. Jimin thought the fact could no longer have any effect on her life. But now the absence of her mother, something she had pushed back into a faraway corner of her mind and consciously or unconsciously neglected to think about, hit her like a tidal wave. Once she realized this, she couldn’t control all the random thoughts that ensued. The way other pregnant women wrote about their own mothers came to mind. Maybe the hormones are to blame for the mood swings I’m going through these days, and then my thoughts often turn to my mother . . .

That day, Jimin remembered that Mom’s mind was deposited at the library. However, she had no idea what purpose could be served by meeting her after all this time. It wasn’t as if their relationship had been anything at all like that of others. On her way to the library after rummaging through the whole house to find the card, Jimin wasn’t sure what she wished to say to Mom. Part of her didn’t care since the mind wasn’t even her real mom. Should she hurl words of resentment? Should she ask why she behaved the way she did?

It had been all for nothing anyway. She’d been informed that Mom had gone missing even before she could figure out the questions she wanted to ask.

Jimin didn’t expect to have a touching reunion. Maybe she was just seeking confirmation that Mom was there. Perhaps that was what made it all the more disheartening for her.

The library hadn’t been in touch yet. After some hesitation, she picked up her phone and called the library.

“The name is Song Jimin?”

“No, that’s my name and the person I’m looking for is Kim Eunha. When I visited yesterday, I was told she was irretrievable, and I was assured that the library would be in touch . . .”

“Could you hold for a moment?”

Jimin could hear the voice talking to someone else nearby as well as the sound of typing on a keyboard. She waited patiently. Junho noticed she was holding on to her phone with pursed lips, and by the time he reached the bedroom with his head tilted, the voice on the other end returned.

“I’m sorry. Would it be possible for you to visit the library again? The situation seems to be a bit too complicated to explain over the phone.”

When they announced their arrival at the library, the librarian who spoke to Jimin over the phone rose from her seat and came back with a man. He looked skinny and tired. He introduced himself as the library’s database manager. Jimin and Junho followed him into a small room at the back of the library. The room was designed as a space to receive visitors and was furnished with two couches, a table, and several refreshments.

“Please have a seat first. It’s kind of a long story.”

The man wore a troubled look.

“To be precise, we’re not at fault nor was the data mismanaged. Cases like these are extremely rare, which is probably why our staff member failed to offer a detailed explanation.”

The database manager’s eyes rested on Jimin’s. He seemed to be thinking hard about how he might be able to make her understand the situation. He chose his words carefully.

“Let me get straight to the point. Someone disconnected your mother on purpose. The indexes have been erased. That doesn’t mean the data has been deleted. The expiration or removal of data from the library is bound to leave a record behind. However, the data is not listed in the expiration registry.”

 

 

Someone disconnected her on purpose?

“Your mother is somewhere in this library’s database. That’s what the librarian meant by ‘irretrievable.’ To be honest, there’s no way to locate her at the moment. Our guess is that someone with access to Ms. Kim Eunha’s mind erased all the indexes that made her mind searchable. That’s beyond our purview, so if it wasn’t your doing, it must have been someone else in your family.”

His explanation seemed to be taking a mysterious turn.

“What do you mean by indexes being erased? How can you not be able to find her when she’s in the database? It’s just a matter of searching through the data,” said Jimin.

“That’s why we said an explanation would be necessary, although both of you may already be familiar with some of the technicalities . . .”

The database manager took a sip from a glass of water on the table.

“Through mind uploading technology, our library stores the memories and behavioral patterns of the deceased. The data here is different from texts, images, or videos that are easier to analyze. A mind is an extensive collection of in-depth information about a person’s life. It’s a product created from scanning trillions of synaptic patterns in the brain and using them to run mind simulations.”

The database manager held up a tablet to show them a segment of the library’s promotional video. Jimin paid little attention to the video and focused on what he was saying.

“It is extremely difficult to directly sift through mind data. Memories are stored in a form that cannot be directly verbalized. That is why we classify minds by assigning an index of sorts to each mind. If you’ve ever been to a traditional library, you may have noticed how they classify books by attaching small labels based on a cataloging scheme. Even for paper books, the amount of information they contain is too massive to sift through, which is why libraries made it possible to locate books based on its title, author, and a couple of keywords summarizing the essence of each book.”

Jimin had never been to a traditional library. But she did remember reading books someone had borrowed from such a library when she was little. Labels in various colors were attached near the bottom of the book spines.

“Mind libraries are no different. Indexes are attached to each mind for it to be recognized. The primary index is the identification code made from a random combination of letters and numbers. We also collect the name and last address of the deceased as well as the social security numbers of relatives with their consent, just in case an identification code goes missing. That much information usually leaves almost no chance for any data to go missing because of an error or mistake. However, in your mother’s case . . .”

“Are you saying it’s difficult to find her because those indexes have all been erased?”

“That’s right. At least for the moment, there is no mind that can be retrieved through the library card or personal information you have. The one thing we can count on is that the data itself hasn’t expired, so there’s still hope. We believe it will first be necessary for you to contact other family members with access to your mother’s mind to figure out what happened.”

“Is there any chance that access to her mind could have been misappropriated?”

“Access to a mind or changing information linked to it requires several layers of biometric identification. The chances of misappropriation are extremely low.”

Jimin had only two family members left, her father who had cut off contact with her seven years ago and her younger brother with whom she talked over the phone once in a while. Could one of them have done it?

Bewildered, Junho asked, “But why on earth would you let anyone erase the indexes?” Jimin was thinking the same thing.

“The bereaved have the authority to change any of the settings related to the access of a mind. They can even order for a mind to expire. We explained these protocols when the mind was first uploaded.”

“Still, how is our situation different from expiration? What’s the use if we can’t gain access? How could you proceed without obtaining consent from the rest of the family on such an important matter?”

Jimin̓s arguments were met with nothing but weak excuses.

“I’m sorry, but this is certainly different from an expiration. Even though it can’t be accessed, the mind itself is still somewhere in the database. Perhaps you could think of it this way . . . it’s like the difference between a person who’s missing and a person who’s dead. A mind isn’t simply a bundle of data.”

Even so, to Jimin, Mom was as good as expired since she was no longer able to meet her. But why would someone manipulate Mom’s mind like that? Between her father and brother, she had a pretty good idea who was behind this, but she couldn’t figure out why.

The database manager started speaking again.

“I guess there was no agreement among your family members. It never occurred to us that a situation like this could arise. Processing minds for expiration is common for us, so we usually do take the step of collecting consent. Besides, making partial changes to indexes is much more common than you think so that sort of step. . .”

Jimin couldn’t let things slide like this. But just as she was about to continue protesting, the librarian who had been busy talking to someone else on the phone suddenly brought something up on the tablet to show the database manager beside her. As she was sitting opposite from them, it was hard for Jimin to make out what was on display.

Jimin felt a knot of frustration tighten inside her as she watched the two whisper to each other. The knot also carried a strand of guilt. When did Mom disappear? If she had come to the library right after Mom passed away, would she have been able to meet her?

The database manager and the librarian’s voice grew louder than a whisper.

“Oh, that’s still being tested . . . isn’t that impossible?”

Confused, Jimin and Junho waited as the two exchanged incomprehensible technical jargon.

“There may be a risk of damage in the process. Right. Let’s try placing a request for authorization first.”

The look on the database manager’s face had changed as he turned toward Jimin and Junho.

“There might just be a way.”