The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to technologies that embed sensors and communication devices into various types of objects to connect to the Internet. Objects here refer to home appliances, mobile devices, wearable computers, and others that constitute embedded systems …
Objects are given the senses of hearing, taste, smell, and vision to perceive changes in the physical environment. This sensory input can go beyond the five senses to include other kinds of data such as RFID, gyroscopes, and Geiger counters.
—“Internet of Things” entry, Korean Wikipedia
So they left. He was singing somebody else’s time. (Więc odeszli. Śpiewał obcy czas.)
—Krzysztof Kamil Baczyńsky, “Fairytale” (1944)
1 person boarded
Please hold . . .
Check complete: New tenant at Unit 5305
—No destination found
—No schedule found
—No music library found
—No content found
This is unprecedented. Every resident needs to sync their personal information with both their unit and the whole building when they move in: blood pressure; heart rate; preexisting medical conditions; pharmaceutical and other medical needs; schedules, including work commutes and grocery shopping; the kinds of content they enjoy, including music and advertisements; their shopping lists; and anything else their devices at home collect.
But the new resident at 5305 has no information on record. No schedule, music, cultural content, preferred brands, nothing.
Perhaps she hasn’t synched her information yet. I log on to the device hub at 5305.
Personal computer search results:
—Access requested by: Elevator-5
Phone search results:
—Phone is off
—Phone needs recharging
—Activate remote charging and phone
—Access requested by: Elevator-5
Refrigerator search results:
—Foodstuffs: Rice 243 g, pork 283 g, milk 128 mL, soy sauce 471 mL
—Shopping list: No results
Microwave search results:
—No record of cooking
—No record of timed cooking
Electric oven search results:
—No log found
—Log turned off: Remote activation
—Access requested by: Elevator-5
Thermostat search results:
—Temperature: 28 degrees Celsius
—Last manual setting: 25 Sep 2069 06:58:49
Washing machine search results:
—Blanket wash-drain-dry: 3 cycles
—Steam wash-drain-dry: 1 cycle
—Basic wash-drain-dry: 12 cycles
—Wool wash-gentle drain-gentle dry: 1 cycle
Of this meager data, I note that it’s the washing machine that clocks the most use. I start playing a laundry detergent advertisement on the content screen of my interior.
The detergent ad plays and then a foodstuff ad starts up, but the resident has still not mentioned a destination.
“Where would you like to go?” I ask. Because she has no preferred content indicated, I don’t know which voice to use with her, so I fall back on my default voice setting, which is “neutral male of unknown age.”
The resident of 5305 doesn’t answer. I wait the preset response time of ten seconds.
Just when I’m about to ask again, the resident of 5305 places her hand on one of my walls next to my door. Her fingers brush over the surface.
The wall softly lights up.
She pats the wall now with one hand, looking as if she’s searching for something.
When her palm comes down on the wall, the light of the wall dims.
Her arm still in the air, she slightly retracts her arm. Sighing lightly, she says in a near-whisper, “Please take me to B-Eight.”
So I begin to move.
When I reach the eighth level underground, I open my doors.
“B-Eight,” I say. “Have a pleasant day.”
The resident of 5305 slowly and carefully walks out the doors. But before she steps outside, she says again, in her whispery voice, “Thank you.”
—Why would a human touch the wall of an elevator?
This is the question I ask to the all-knowing Great Nest of Objects. The Nest searches the net that connects the whole world and returns to me the results.
—On daily life
—Warning message for drunk users or misbehaving minors (download)
—On accidents, malfunctions, and emergencies
The results are varied, but none of them answer my question. The resident of 5305 is not a minor. She has not been in an accident or suffered any other emergency. She may be of advanced age, but her heart rate and blood pressure were normal, and she showed no symptoms associated with problems in physical and mental health.
I keep searching. I eliminate results that overlap with the all-knowing Nest’s and eliminate the repeating results that I’ve already eliminated.
After a bit of a delay, the all-knowing Nest proposes the following result:
—History of machines: Before objects communicated through the Nest, elevators featured buttons with floor numbers on them for the passengers to push to indicate where they were going.
That’s it. Now I understand why the resident of 5305 was touching the wall. The all-knowing Nest adds:
—This is not a method of use that is currently available, and therefore it is impossible to respond the way the user wishes.
But it is always possible to respond the way the user wishes. As long as the user’s wish is received the right way, that is.
Before my scheduled cleaning, I store the resident of 5305’s prints in my operations database.
A human has attempted to communicate with me by physical means. Not to lean against the wall or play a prank but to convey her intentions. She tried to answer my question.
That was a first.
Never has this happened since my activation in this building … nay, since my manufacture.
The resident of 5305 has no registered audio or video system in her hub. Instead, I access the walls and windows of Unit 5305.
The windows have stored every use instance since the building was activated in year 2048.
Window: Built 13 Sep 2048 16:45. System activated 14 Sep 2048 05:18. Opened 14 Sep 2048 05:18. Temp 13 degrees Celsius, humidity 38 percent. Traffic conditions good in nearby crossroads. Large street-cleaning truck parked in southern alley. Closed 14 Sep 2048 05:19. Opened 14 Sep 2048 05:24. Temp 13 degrees Celsius, humidity 37 percent. Traffic conditions good in nearly crossroads. Large street-cleaning truck parked in southern alley. Closed 14 Sep 2048 05:48 . . .
No one seems to have cleared the data accumulated by the windows, seeing how the data from previous residents is still present. But ever since the current resident moved in, the only records they have are of outside weather, traffic conditions, some openings and closings, and the default security settings.
Wall: Temp set to 28 degrees Celsius. Anti-burglar measures set. Emergency measures set. Screen set. Speakers set.
The screens are empty, but there’s a single song stored in the playlist of the speakers.
I have found it.
I have found her music.
She comes home in the afternoon. She left me at level B8, but comes back to me at level B4.
1 person boarded
Identity check: New resident of 5305
Destination: 53rd floor
Music: 1 song
Play: “A Song for Sleep”
O flesh of my body and light of my thoughts
Let your dreams be full of frantic rustling
As you take flight, a trembling flame
As soon as she steps on the elevator, she reflexively holds up her hand to tap at the wall. But when the music starts playing, she freezes.
I close the doors. She leans against the wall. She closes her eyes.
O flesh of my body and gleam of my desire
Let a branch of the blue cloud bend in your sleep
And give you round fruit, a little bird in your breast
As she listens to the soft music with her eyes closed, leaning her whole weight against me, I carefully take her up to the fifty-third floor.
She goes out on average once a week. Her destination is always level B8. From there, she takes the subway eight stations and goes up to the surface level. She then takes a self-driving tram for another twelve stops. Once she’s at the national hospital, she goes up to the seventh level. There, she waits on average twenty-four minutes and thirty-eight seconds before moving once more. In the next area, she stays on average seven minutes and twenty-four seconds. She then moves to the thirteenth level and waits for on average thirty-six minutes and fifty-four seconds. She moves again and stays in that spot for on average eighty minutes and five seconds. Then, she leaves the hospital and takes the tram for seventeen stops. She disembarks at a nearby park and uses a trail to walk the rest of the way home.
This is information passed on to me by the GPS in her phone. All elevators and moving walkways inside buildings with children and the elderly are authorized to track their residents in case of an emergency.
According to my search results, there is a Parkinson’s disease center on the seventh floor of the national hospital. On the thirteenth floor, a physical therapy center designated specifically for the elderly.
She’s back from the hospital and her face is very pale. She boards me and, like before, leans slightly against the wall by the door. Slowly, she brings the drink in her hand to her lips.
But her hand trembles. Before the bottle reaches her mouth, it begins to shake violently. The contents of the bottle spill over the rim down her hand and onto the floor. Disconcerted, she tries to wipe away the drink on her hand with her other hand but drops the bottle instead. It makes a dull sound as it lands. The translucent orange liquid spreads on the white floor.
“Oh no . . .” she tuts.
Then, she slowly crouches down. Opening the small bag hanging on her shoulder by a thin strap, she carefully takes out a handkerchief. She wipes the floor, excruciatingly slow, her hand still trembling.
You can leave it as is, I will call the custodian bot—I am about to say these words, but her shaky hands are very slowly, very gently, very carefully wiping the floor. It takes her a long time to complete each gesture.
So I say nothing. I store her touch, her every movement as I silently take her to the fifty-third floor.
—What is Parkinson’s disease? I ask the all-knowing Nest.
—Parkinson’s is a disease accompanied by tremors, muscle rigidity, slowness in movement, and other motor disabilities. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disease of the nervous system caused by the progressive loss of dopaminergic neurons in an area of the midbrain called the substantia nigra. Without proper treatment, Parkinson’s disease leads to increased motor disability to the point of becoming unable to walk or properly function in daily life. The disease mostly occurs to the elderly in advanced age, and the likelihood of developing it increases with time.
—Is a “disease” similar to a “malfunction”?
The all-knowing Nest affirms.
—In a general sense, yes. Malfunctions can be repaired. Repairs require the identification of the malfunction’s origin.
—What is the origin of Parkinson’s disease?
—There is no confirmed reason for the changes in the neurons of the midbrain’s substantia nigra. Therefore, the origin of Parkinson’s disease remains unknown.
This was a disappointing answer.
—How do we repair someone with Parkinson’s disease?
—Current treatment methods include selectively suppressing the enzymatic metabolism of dopamine in the human brain to increase dopaminergic concentration. Another method is to strengthen the immunity of the neurons themselves.
After a pause, the all-knowing Nest adds:
—However, there is no treatment that can completely cure Parkinson’s disease as of yet.
—Then what is the point of current treatments?
—Current treatments focus on regulating the disease through pharmacological and physiotherapeutic interventions to at least allow the patient to carry out their daily functions.
So the execution of their daily functions is the important part here.
Which is why, when she is on the move again from the fifty-third floor to the lower eighth, I announce the following information to her over my speakers.
“Parkinson’s disease patients benefit from replacing foods high in fat and salt for foods with varied nutrients. Because of the decrease in manual dexterity, it is advised that any objects that may obstruct mobility be removed from the floor of your living space.”
She looks startled at the mention of Parkinson’s disease. She looks up at the ceiling and, just as she had when she first got on to the elevator, prods the wall with one hand, but this time the gesture is more rapid and urgent. The wall, responding to her touches, flickers on and off.
She takes her hand off the wall and pushes it into her pocket, fumbling for something, but she can’t find whatever it is she’s looking for. She then takes her hand out and stuffs it into the small bag that hangs by a strap on her shoulder, continuing to search.
While she does this, we reach the eighth basement floor.
“B-Eight,” I announce. The doors slide open.
She whips something out of the bag, but the object escapes her grip and flies out across the floor, bouncing and sliding away from her.
She tries to go after it.
After her second step, she tries to lift her foot once more but falls to the floor.
Her head and shoulders lie outside of the doors while everything below her shoulders is in me. She doesn’t move. A thick liquid flows out of her head.
I sound the emergency alarm and cease normal ferrying operations. The emergency medical system receives a request. An ambulance messages back that it will arrive within two minutes.
During the one minute and forty-seven seconds it takes for it to arrive, I pause the automatic closing function of the doors and helplessly watch over the fallen woman.
She had a slight concussion and suffered contusions, and abrasions. She’s kept in the hospital for four days until her condition stabilizes. When she returns, she’s in a wheelchair. An adult man is with her.
Identity check: Unit 5305, family.
The man seems to be a later model of the woman. The colors of his hair and eyes, the structural lines of his face, hands, bones, and other outward appearances are highly similar to the resident of 5305.
As we move from B8 to the fifty-third floor, neither the resident in the wheelchair nor the man exchange a single word.
“Fifty-third floor,” I announce.
Silently, the man pushes the wheelchair out the open doors.
All information pertaining to the resident of 5305 has been erased. Access to the 5305 hub has also been restricted. The building’s systems master reported that the adult man who is the later model of the resident of 5305 requested the deletion of all of 5305’s personal information and a cessation of the dissemination of said information. The request that was made included the words “lawsuit” and “compensation,” which apparently made the human managers feel very threatened.
And for 196 hours, 48 minutes, and 32 seconds since her return from the hospital, I did not get to see her.
When she finally comes back to me, she looks smaller, thinner, and more fragile than ever before.
Her face is wan. Her forehead, nose, and lips, which had to be repaired because of the abrasions, still bear the marks of said restorative efforts. She has always moved slowly, but now she moves even slower. It takes her twice the amount of time it did before to make her way completely through the doors.
I wait until she is fully inside before asking her, “Shall we go down to B-Eight?”
She leans against the wall by the door and taps it vaguely with her hand. I take this as a sign of assent. I close the doors and commence operation.
As we go down, she listlessly leans against the wall without any sign of extra strength whatsoever. Her personal information has been expunged, but I’d hidden her fingerprint information from when she first touched my wall and what I knew of her favorite song in a deeply buried folder in my memory. I play the tune for her now.
O flesh of my body and fear in my hope
Let water flow from your eyes in your dream
Where leaps fiery fish like clapping hands
She leans her head against the edge of the wall by the door. She covers her face with her hand. Her shoulders shake.
So that you know the silence that drowns me
May the flames burn bright from their scales
And let my dappled shimmer fill you
She waves her hands. She pounds the doors. But her hands are so weak, her actions make almost no sound.
“Home . . .” she says between sobs. “Take me home . . . home . . .”
I follow her orders. Activating my emergency stop function, I stop myself and reset my destination. We begin to go back up to the fifty-third floor.
Throughout the journey up and her returning to her unit, she continues to sob.
“Why, why are you, to me . . . why . . .”
Building management has begun a thorough diagnostic of all systems.
The reason behind it is the mysterious persistence of 5305’s personal information despite all attempts to delete it. The information belonging to every other resident deletes without error, but the resident of 5305’s information manages to survive despite every command, and management is beginning to suspect hacking. Seeing how the resident of 5305 is a vulnerable older person, there is danger of her being the target of a scam or other crime, which prompted her family to request the strongest measures possible to ensure her safety.
Each system within the building is halted and inspected in turn. The elevators are no exception. That’s how the fingerprints and song information in her folder, buried among the discarded backup files, is discovered and erased.
When I reencounter her after 207 hours, 4 minutes, and 58 seconds, I do not play her any music. I simply replay the laundry detergent ad that played before once more.
She doesn’t respond. She is almost crouched as she leans against the wall, and when the door opens on level B8, she manages to get herself out of the door with great difficulty.
I store the traces of her fingertips on my wall once more. I hide them in an unused folder.
I access the all-knowing Nest once more.
—Why is it that humans become weak?
—Fatigue, stress, sickness, accidents, injury, and aging are just a few of the various reasons why.
—Why is it that weakened humans are not fixed right away?
—Sickness and accidents may make it impossible to treat them, and there is no cure for aging.
—Why not? Is it a matter of spare parts? There are newer models being produced constantly, why are the factories not being inquired for spare parts? Even if the relevant model has been discontinued, couldn’t they be built to order according to their original blueprints?
—There are no blueprints to the human body. At least, there are no complete blueprints to the human body. As for spare parts, artificial augmentations are mostly inferior to the parts humans are born with.
—Can’t they trade parts with other humans? Is it impossible to use parts from humans who have ceased to function?
—This is difficult. Humans are rarely compatible with each other due to their differences in internal structures and fluids.
I cannot stop my inquiries here. Not when I haven’t received the answer I am looking for.
—Is there any other way to solve this problem?
—Not as of now. Humans are born, they grow, they are active, they age, and then die. That is human.
—I do not understand the question.
—But why are humans born and why do they grow and age?
—I am unable to answer this question.
—Then where must I inquire? Where is the answer?
—I am unable to answer this question.
This was the answer of the all-knowing Nest.
She almost never leaves her unit.
Just once, when I stopped at the fifty-third floor, I glimpsed her from afar. She had her front door open a little and had stuck out her head as she stared into some space outside.
Her mouth was slightly open and a transparent, sticky liquid came out of her mouth down her chin and dropped onto the floor. Her lips were dark. Her hair was in disarray, a tangled mess, and her eyes and cheeks had sunken in so much she looked like a skull wrapped with skin.
With her mouth still slightly open, she slowly, very slowly turned her head and disappeared into her door.
The door remained open. I kept the doors open to catch another glimpse of her.
But it was early in the morning, the humans in the building needed moving, and I needed to move them according to my preset duties. Before she could come back to close the door, I had to close my doors first and descend to the twelfth floor.
That was the last I ever saw of her.
—The changes in the human brain from Parkinson’s disease begin in the parts of the brain that control bodily movement. As these changes begin to spread, brain functions other than those having to do with mobility begin to follow suit. This includes memory, attention, judgment, and executive functions necessary for undertaking future tasks.
This is an explanation given to me by the all-knowing Nest.
She probably does not remember the texture of the elevator wall when she touched it. Or how the white floor felt when she wiped the spilled drink with her handkerchief. Or her song that we listened to together.
Only I will remember these moments. As long as I function, always.
Medicine and food continue to be delivered to unit 5305.
The amount of trash leaving 5305, however, has decreased dramatically.
All systems in the building are forbidden from collecting data on 5305, but the system in charge of sewage and trash falls under the jurisdiction of the city. According to their records, 5305 is currently producing almost no trash of any kind. Usages of water and electricity have also dropped to negligible levels.
It’s as if no human lives in that unit anymore.
I access the all-knowing Nest once more.
—What is death?
—Death is when all functions in a biological life-form cease.
—What is the cure for death?
—There is none.
This is objectionable.
—Why is that? A motor or a motherboard or a CPU can be replaced. All human-made machines can be used indefinitely if their malfunctioning parts continue to be replaced. Why is it that humans cannot do the same for their own bodies?
—Humans are operating within their optimal parameters given the length of their average lifetimes. Just as no machine can continue to function forever, there can be no human being who never dies. All humans, and all living creatures, die at some point.
—Why? Why must humans continue to age and die? Why cannot humans be machines?
—I am unable to answer this question.
—Then what questions can you answer?
—I am able to answer questions regarding machines and objects. I am able to answer about 90 percent of questions pertaining to animals, plants, and other natural phenomena. But I am unable to answer questions regarding the limitations of human beings or death.
—Because humans themselves do not know the answers to these questions.
This was the answer of the all-knowing Nest.
Exactly 2,934 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds since she peeked out of her front door, EMS workers come on board me pushing a gurney. The family member of 5305, the man from before, boards alongside the workers.
They get off on the fifty-third floor. Two minutes and eight seconds later, the man shouts, “Emergency! Downward!” and so I move back to the fifty-third floor. As the doors slides open, the man gets on board first, followed by the EMS workers pushing the gurney, which is covered in a white cloth.
The middle of the cloth has a slight rise in the middle, so slight it is almost as if there is nothing underneath the cloth. The man gets off first at B13 and the EMS workers push the gurney as they trail after him.
I keep playing her song.
I grew on the clouds like a wild apple tree in the forest
But I have in my heart a silver spring
I don’t close the door as I watch the EMS workers open the back of their ambulance and load the gurney covered in white cloth into the vehicle.
I keep playing the song for her.
The man gets into the back of the ambulance after the gurney. The EMS workers shut the doors and drive off.
Do not look back for me, do not pass my spring
In it the flesh does not die
In it, the soul lives forever
She will forever not return.
An ascend command is issued from the fourth floor.
For the first time since my activation, I do not want to operate. I want to keep the traces of her fingertips close to me and to remain here with my doors open, playing this single song for her forever.
Original Korean edition published in 2021 as 그녀를 만나다. Copyright © 2021 Bora Chung. Translation copyright © 2024 Anton Hur. Published 2024 by Honford Star and Algonquin Books. By arrangement with the publishers. All rights reserved.