“The Memory Spider”
by Fiona Moore
Carrie didn’t notice the cat-sized spider at first, perhaps because she was too busy packing Nancy’s photographs, award certificates, prizes and miscellanea into storage boxes and loading them onto the back of the walkbot. Perhaps because, sensing an alien presence in the room, it was hiding. When it finally emerged, tip-tapping upside down along the ceiling by the lighting fixture, she jumped in surprise.
“Oh,” she said, realising what it was. Motionless now, it held its front legs raised and moving slightly. She remembered Zeynab, the postdoc with the arachnid research project, explaining how that was part of the way they sensed their environment. It was brightly coloured, like a tarantula done over in neon… or no, maybe it was a peacock spider, all teals and crimsons. But it was the wrong shape. Maybe it was a jumping spider? Didn’t they come in bright colours?
“Can I look at you?” Carrie held out her hand, beckoning the spider closer. It obeyed, cautiously, tipping down the wall and trotting across the floor.
The cleaningbots at the university where Carrie was assistant research director (her PhD in psychology had taught her that she was good at research but took rather more pleasure in talking government agencies into giving the university money) were the usual institutional kind. Designed to stand out as little as possible as they ran over the floors, walls and ceilings like speedy horseshoe crabs, the only customisation the university logo watermarked discreetly onto their shells (and with a few alarm-and-security features intended to put off the inevitable attempts at sabotage or hacking by students who were convinced they were the first ones ever to think of doing this). The cleaningbot in Carrie’s own apartment was an ancient model that the landlord refused to upgrade, and Carrie refused to spend her own money to improve, so it mostly just sat in its charging hutch in the cupboard while Carrie did the cleaning the old-fashioned way.
She’d seen ones with customised exteriors before. People with kids, especially, would go for fluffy big-eyed shells that made them look like anime characters, and she’d dated a man with an arts degree who had one that looked like a moving sculpture, a shifting array of cubes and spars flashing rhythmically as it moved. Never anything like this, though.
Still, it made sense. Nancy liked beautiful things, and eccentric things. She’d had quite a lot of time on her hands after her forced retirement from performance, modern joint-replacement technology finally unable to keep up with the punishment she inflicted on her knees. And Nancy had liked spiders: there was a wall full of close-up photos of them in her studio (the idea that this might scare some people seemed to be a feature rather than, so to speak, a bug), and critics still talked about the spider-themed version of Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty she’d choreographed fifteen years back. And, Carrie thought unkindly, female spiders often ate their mates. And sometimes their young.
“Show me your ident,” Carrie said. The spider obligingly flipped over and opened a port on its abdomen, so Carrie could read the details. “I suppose I’d better call the company and let them know to collect.”
Presumably they’d take off the custom shell. It was a shame to lose something that beautiful. Still, it wasn’t Carrie’s, and it hadn’t really been Nancy’s.
“Okay, you can go back to work,” Carrie stood up, clapped her hands at the spider. Amazingly, it gave a little bow before scuttling off to inspect the corners for dust.
She, Carrie thought. Zeynab had said the ones with the big abdomens were female. Part of her thought, that’s ridiculous, robots don’t have genders. Another part thought, well, if Nancy designed it that way, then it’s a female.
“Back to work for me, too,” Carrie returned to her task of taking things off the shelves in the living room.
People said that the way to get to know somebody was to look at their photographs, the ones they’d kept, the ones on display, the ones they’d hidden. But after half a day of looking at Nancy’s photographs, Carrie didn’t feel like she knew her any better.
Aside from the framed spider collection, there were pictures of Nancy at dinners and events with people who were evidently important enough for Nancy to print out and put on the wall, but Carrie didn’t know and couldn’t be bothered to find out. Professionally-done publicity shots. A scrolling digital frame of Nancy in performance, an array of leotards and shoes and makeup, some that Carrie recognised and others she didn’t. One man she’d evidently cared enough about to press in a book; Carrie lingered over this one, a casual shot of him in a garden, smiling awkwardly but endearingly next to a camellia bush. The photo was old, the colours fading.
It wasn’t her father.
Carrie’s father, a gentle soul who had worked as marketing manager for an arts charity, had, in Carrie’s sixth year, reached the limit of his ability to support and nurture the career of a top-level artist. Carrie remembered the day he’d sat down with her and asked who she’d rather live with during the week: him or Nancy.
Carrie hadn’t had to think about it much.
Theoretically Nancy had weekend custody, but in practice she was away so much on tours and the like that Carrie didn’t see a lot of her. When she did, it was often wonderful: premieres, and events, and exhibitions, where she’d be called Carmen instead of Carrie, she’d get to wear pretty dresses— and, when she got older, get her nails and makeup done— and be told by a lot of people how beautiful she was, and how grown-up, and how much she looked like Nancy.
When she was thirteen, she finally realised how completely creepy that was.
Back in real life, her father met a graphic designer with short locs and a broad smile and big yellow glasses, and before long Carrie was calling her mom and Nancy Nancy, and before much longer than that was actually thinking of her as mom and Nancy as Nancy. Nancy became a fairy godmother of sorts, a glamorous, maybe a little bit dangerous, creature who could transform your life. If you let her.
There weren’t any photos of Carrie either.
Carrie put another load on the walkbot—this one mostly books—and sent it down the stairs. She’d borrowed the walkbot from work, knowing that the low-rise Nancy lived in didn’t have an elevator. It was an old model but serviceable; it bore the university logo across both sides, and a stylised honeybee. Because, Carrie remembered, it had originally been bought for a long-term project looking into memory in bees; something to do with the way they embodied routes through dancing.
She followed the walkbot down, carrying a smaller box herself, loaded the boxes into the back of the storage facility’s van, went back up the stairs, hearing the slight squeak and hiss of the six-legged, jerky machine behind her.
She didn’t know what she’d expected from this clearout. She didn’t need to have done it herself; she could afford to have a moving company do it, and her father had offered to chip in on one, just to help. But she’d refused his offer, refused to spend the money.
She told herself to stop being disingenuous. She knew perfectly well what she’d been after.
It was a cliché. I never knew my mother, but, looking through her things, I now feel like I understand her. Poor little Child of Divorce. Or Child of Celebrity Parent.
Nancy—well, she was all public persona. It seemed unkind to say it; all those letters from people saying how they’d looked up to her, especially little Black girls dreaming of being dancers, and women who’d once been little Black girls dreaming of being dancers.
But it was the images they loved, mirrors they saw themselves in.
It wasn’t only the photos. The books were exactly what you’d expect: coffee-table books based on her dance companies or tours in the living room, textbooks and histories in the studio. A swathe of assorted novels gave Carrie pause for a moment, until she realised they were all ones which had been adapted for stage performance.
So, Carrie thought as she sealed up another box of prizes, small abstract sculptures on fake wood bases, just a narcissistic woman obsessed with herself and her career.
The phone company had unlocked Nancy’s phone to her, as next-of-kin; Nancy had barely used any of the smart features. The diary was functional. The television box was well stocked, but again nothing you wouldn’t expect: dance performances, especially her own, with an assortment of popular dramas and nature documentaries, mostly dating from the last few years of Nancy’s life. Carrie scrolled through, stopped briefly on a how-to-dance video.
She switched it on. Nancy, in her sixties, still graceful and poised, smiling to the camera, talking the viewer easily and kindly through the steps. She’d always been a good teacher, Carrie thought. She’d had countless messages, emails, even physical cards and letters, forwarded from the funeral service, all from students of hers, talking about what a difference she’d made in their lives. It was one of the things that had made Carrie regret not getting to know her better, had prompted this misguided attempt to find nostalgia.
On the screen, Nancy moved through a simple exercise. Now Carrie did suddenly feel a surge of actual nostalgia. A memory, long-lost, of Nancy teaching Carrie the same exercise, her clumsy, fat child feet trying to mimic the graceful moves.
Smiling at herself, Carrie stood and moved through the exercise. There you go, she thought to the screen-Nancy. Still no good at it, but I can do it.
She froze, a flicker of movement in the mirror over the bookshelves catching her eye.
She turned, expecting maybe one of the moving company’s reps or someone from a utility company, come to switch something off or collect something.
But it wasn’t.
It was the spider.
The spider was dancing. Peacock spiders did, Carrie remembered, belatedly. But that was the males, not the females.
And she wasn’t dancing like a spider.
She was moving her feet through a complicated, eight-legged version of that basic exercise.
And as Carrie watched, standing still now, she went on. Ran through other basic exercises; ran through more complicated ones. Finally she began to do a short dance, clearly moving to a music Carrie couldn’t hear. Then she shifted her rhythm, did another. And another. Finally, she sank, forelimbs extended and abdomen curved upwards, into a kind of arachnid curtsey.
There was a moment of silence.
“Well,” Carrie said.
Nancy had tried several times to encourage Carrie to dance. Teaching her those little exercises when she was small. Enrolling her in classes as soon as she could walk, which five-year-old Carrie had abandoned with an overwhelming sense of relief once she and her dad had left, signing up for soccer lessons instead. Nancy had continued trying, and, for a while, Carrie had obeyed, just to please her and hopefully find some common ground, but eventually Nancy decided that whatever natural talent and drive she had, it hadn’t passed to her daughter, and she gave up. Carrie, meanwhile, urged on by an adolescent sense of rebellion, had gone on from soccer to Australian-rules football and rugby, eventually playing left wing on the university team.
The coach said she could have been world class. Maybe she could have been, but she really didn’t want to put in the hours, break her body for the sake of a game. Nonetheless, she’d enjoyed the physicality, the coordination, the strategy, the fun of talking over the match with her friends afterwards. She’d been the one responsible for starting a staff soccer club at work, which was still going strong, and gaining members, five years later.
And it seemed Nancy had found someone she could teach to dance.
Carrie called the spider to her again, ran her hands over her, examined her. Nothing you wouldn’t expect on a cleaningbot.
“Did she teach you?” she asked. “Or did you copy her? Or was it both? She saw you copying her, decided to teach you some moves?”
The spider looked at her with, Carrie fancied, an expression of innocence.
Then she began to dance again.
This time, it was different. More complicated. Carrie recognised some of the steps; others were new. Some were humanlike; some more arachnid.
“That spider movement,” she said, realising. “She taught you that, didn’t you? How to move like a spider, not like a cleaningbot.”
The spider kept dancing.
Carrie watched, holding her breath. Seeing Nancy’s movements, seeing Nancy’s creativity. Something no one would know, or see—since almost no one came to her apartment, and if they did, they wouldn’t be looking for a dancing cleaningbot.
The movements slowed. The spider made one final flourish with her middle legs held high in the air, then settled back.
There was a silence.
“Damn,” Carrie said. “They’re going to wipe your memory.”
Carrie was reading over the terms of the bot lease when a call came through, with eerie coincidence, from the company.
“Oh, yes. It’s about the cleaningbot, isn’t it?” Carrie held her phone, looked at the neatly groomed man on the other end; white, be-suited, and looking so much like Kyle McLachlan that she wondered if he might perhaps be a bot himself.
“Yes. We were wondering if tomorrow morning would be a good time to pick it up?”
Carrie felt her insides twist. “I suppose so,” she said. With painful timing, she saw the spider begin to move gently on the ceiling, making the gestures she now recognised as the precursor for its dances.
The man smiled sympathetically. “I’m very sorry for your loss,” he said. “It’s hard, losing a parent, isn’t it?”
Well, it’s complicated, Carrie thought. Aloud, she said, “What do you do to the bots, when you get them back?” Clarifying, she added, “You wipe their memories, right?”
“Running memory, yes,” the man said. “They go on to new assignments, and it wouldn’t do to have it cleaning someone else’s place in the same way that the last person liked. They have to learn new systems.”
“Is there another kind of memory?” Carrie asked, facetiously.
“Sort of,” the man said, to her surprise. “The deeper memories. What you might analogise to the personality. They’re part of what they are; not only can’t we get rid of them, it would be a bad idea if we did.”
“Thanks,” Carrie said. She ended the call, watched the spider finishing another dance. They kept getting more complicated, more involved.
“You’ll forget how to dance,” she said.
The spider flourished her limbs, uncaring.
Carrie kept on packing well into the evening, pausing to order a delivery from the Japanese place whose card was tacked to the kitchen wall (Nancy hadn’t been interested in cooking. Of course). Started taking apart the bookshelves, wrapping the furniture—there would be a moving team in the morning that would take those, but it didn’t hurt to get a head start.
Every so often the spider would dance, and when she did, Carrie would stop what she was doing and watch it.
Sometimes the dances were familiar; sometimes less so. Carrie realised that Nancy had been creating, experimenting. Developing something just for herself; a secret art, something she could enjoy. Not for the public, not for the people for whom she’d taken the pictures, collected the books, made the videos. Just something for herself to enjoy.
And now, for Carrie.
She started recording it, on her phone. Every time she did, she locked the video from wider access, encrypted the password. There was no way she was showing this to anyone, not even the people at work who might like to see a giant spider dance.
“I found it,” she said aloud. “I found it.”
“Thank you for letting me see it.” Even if she hadn’t deliberately intended it, her mother had left her something of herself.
The spider settled down, tapping its feet gently. Carrie went to the kitchenette, started sorting the empty bottles. Basketball-style, she hurled one across the room at the wastebasket, scoring a direct hit.
There was a grating noise from the ceiling. She turned to see that the spider had rushed into a corner, was cowering.
“It’s okay,” she said to it. “She could be scary sometimes. I know.”
Not that Carrie had much conscious memory of it. Just sometimes, impressions of fear, of anxiety. Like the time she’d had an unusually volatile Head of Department and realised that the way she’d avoided him had been the same way she’d avoided Nancy during one of her moods, just afraid of becoming a random target.
And there were more subtle things. The way Carrie could never see her perfectly-healthy, well-muscled body as right, that her default idea was that a body should be thin, all ribs and legs and no breasts. Not her mother’s fault, just some kind of ducklike imprinting, something that not even all the years being parented by her dad and her mom could undo.
Maybe it wasn’t a bad thing that the spider’s memories would be lost.
Still. She couldn’t leave it feeling that way.
She stood up and, again, began to dance herself, clumsily. The spider, after a few minutes, responded, coming out and mimicking her movements, upside down.
“That’s the way!” she said, the fear and guilt receding.
She laughed as she realised the spider was imitating her perfectly, clumsiness and all. Not mocking, not judging, just doing exactly as she did.
And then, she shifted. Went into footwork exercises from her soccer days; aerobics, dodging drills, kicking drills. Using an old therapeutic squeeze-ball, the blue foam emblazoned with the name of a fashionable private physiotherapy clinic, to show the spider how to juggle the ball, on her knees, chest, head. She wasn’t top-notch at the best of times, and she was rusty with lack of practice, but it was amazing how it all came back.
The spider incorporated it into the dance, shifting its legs and body to juggle invisible balls, moving side to side, kicking out and in.
“Okay,” she said as the dance ended. “I guess I did have something to teach you.”
All too soon, the night was over. The boxes were packed, the furniture labelled, either for the recyclers or for storage, for Carrie and her father and anyone else to argue over and use and eventually give away, most likely, but at least the effort was made.
The walkbot trotted back up the stairs, its back unladen.
Carrie spared a glance at the spider as she went into the kitchenette to make some coffee. She’d managed a few hours’ restless sleep on her mother’s bed, and, although she felt she’d come to terms with it, she was sad to leave the spider.
She told herself not to be sentimental.
She wrapped her fingers around a mug bearing the logo of some world-famous ballet company or other, trying a mindfulness exercise of focusing entirely on the moment. Listen to your heartbeat, the rush of blood in your ears. Listen to the sounds of the house, the hums and creaks and rustles.
Loud rhythmic tapping.
Carrie hurried out to the living area, and there she saw it.
The spider, dancing on the ceiling, as usual. If a bit slower, more exaggerated
And the walkbot, on the floor. Imitiating her steps, in a six-legged gait.
She watched as the spider repeated sequences for it, slowly, then speeding up until the walkbot was able to do the steps quickly. For one dance. Then moving on to another dance. Then, amazingly, starting in on Carrie’s own soccer moves, turned into a graceful ballet.
She felt her face break into a smile.
She wondered if the walkbot would teach the others. Or teach the cleaningbots at work. And if it did, they would teach the others. And the others, and the others. Which was even assuming that the dancing was part of the surface memories—maybe, just maybe, it was part of the deep memories, and, in its new form, with its new owners, maybe the cleaningbot would go on teaching her mother’s dances to new learners, over and over, developing new eight-legged ways of moving, ballets of unseen cleaningbots moving in simultaneous rhythm all around the world, over and over.
And even if it didn’t—
Whatever happened to the spider, the dance would go on.
Fiona Moore is a London-based, BSFA Award-shortlisted writer whose fiction and poetry have appeared in Clarkesworld, Asimov, Escape Pod, and three consecutive editions of The Best of British SF. She has also published one novel, three stage plays, four audio plays and a number of guidebooks to cult TV series. Full details can be found at www.fiona-moore.com.