by Deborah L. Davitt
Cyrus tapped his fingers against the wood of the conference table. Sensors reported solidity, low friction, and a surface temperature matching that of the ambient air, or 25.5° C. The newsfeed report hovered in the air before his eyes, projected by the holographic display embedded in the table’s surface, but he didn’t need to read it. He’d already taken in the words through his wireless port, but he still processed it, for lack of a better term, at a more human speed. The faintly vainglorious thrill of reading about himself remained, but his lips pulled down into an unconscious frown as he did so:
PALO ALTO, North Am. Union, December 14, 2137
Eric Vauquelin, CEO of Allied Robotics and Transferred Consciousness (NYSE: ARTC), continues to withhold comment on the arguments in probate court regarding the last will and testament of his father, Cyrus Vauquelin. Vauquelin’s groundbreaking transference of his consciousness to an android body has mired the family’s company in a legal morass. Investors remain uncertain of the company’s direction as lawyers for Eric Vauquelin argue that if the android Cyrus is the same entity as the human, then any will naming the android as an heir would be unnecessary, making the document a tacit admission that the android is not the same entity as the human.
As part of the same legal stew, the android Cyrus filed for divorce a year ago against his wife—or widow—Sarah Vauquelin. Her lawyers contend that this proceeding is invalid, because Cyrus’ human death terminated the marriage, and that as such, no marriage currently exists. The matter is expected to go as far as the Terran Supreme Court.
The North American Union has imposed a moratorium on any further uploads while the matter remains a matter for judicial debate, but ARTC reports that fifty thousand people had already had ‘backup’ copies of their consciousness uploaded to storage servers before Cyrus’ ‘resurrection’ demonstrated the validity of the practice.
Now that’s what we call life insurance.
Cyrus had had plenty of time to process in the past two years. Oh, he had to power down for an hour or two at night for maintenance cycles. He had no recollection of these periods, but he could examine his logs in the morning, an unsatisfactory substitute for dreams. During his conscious hours, he’d reviewed his personal datalogs of his previous ninety-five years of existence, and found to his dismay that they seemed shockingly inaccurate. Pieces were missing—a result, no doubt, of having begun consciousness recordings in his seventies. He’d also found ways in which his mind had taken pieces of information found on either side of gaps, and created narratives that explained the data . . . narratives that did not correlate to facts he found in external sources. Unsettling, to realize how frail his mind had been before his death.
How many decisions did I make out of partial information, or out of hormonally-driven emotional reactions? he wondered, still tapping on the table.
The door opened. “Mr. Vauquelin? Your son is here to see you.” The young staffer stepped out of the way, and Eric strode into the room, carrying a briefcase and wearing a frown. Difficult to look at his son’s face and not see his own, Cyrus reflected. And while the anger inside him boiled up again—He betrayed me. They both did!—it was tempered by the realization of the voids in his own memory. I’m missing data. I may not be able to trust my internal narrative. Did they betray me, my wife and my son? Or did I betray them?
And how can I ever know for certain what the truth is?
“You asked for this meeting,” he said, not standing. Eric did not take a chair at the table, remaining on his feet. Wordless power dynamics. “What do you want to talk about, son?” Cyrus added, trying to sound off-handed. But pushing. Prodding at the central argument. Asserting that no matter what body he wore, Eric was still his son, and always would be.
“The power struggle’s destroying the company,” Eric replied brusquely, setting his briefcase on the table. “Not to mention what it’s doing to the family. And since society as a whole seems to need a precedent for how to deal with second selves—”
“Transferences,” Cyrus corrected automatically.
“You can have your lawyers regurgitate that line of bull for the courts all you want, but you and I both know that you’re not the same person as my father.” Eric opened the briefcase, removing a tablet from inside of it. They remained the most secure option besides paper for documents that couldn’t be trusted to a network. He stared at Cyrus now. “Admit it.”
“You, technically, are not the same person that you were two years ago, either,” Cyrus noted mendaciously. “You’ve had different experiences, shaping your mind, and the cells in your body have changed over time, as well.”
Eric stared at him. And Cyrus relented. “No,” he admitted quietly, leaning forward. “I was an old man. My mind was cloudy. Driven by habits of thought, anger, and fear. I still experience those emotions. It’s . . . hard not to fear your own dissolution, especially when you’re one electrical short away from it. I certainly still feel anger. But my mind is . . . clearer.”
“Then you’re someone with whom I can have a discussion. Which is more than I can say for the old man, the past few years,” Eric replied, his lips crooking down at the corners.
The words stung, but recollections stirred of broken conversations that had gone nowhere, or had repeated themselves in endless loops of fractured words.
“And you’re someone who needs to start thinking about the future,” Eric added. “Not to mention the crap your technology is going to kick loose in society.” He scowled. “Everyone wants to live forever. But no one wants to report to their six-or-seventh generation grandfather or grandmother for the rest of eternity. Not to mention the fact that at the moment, your transferences are limited to the wealthy. If you don’t make immortality widely available somehow, you’re going to have a revolution on your hands.”
Cyrus nodded. “I know,” he returned, steepling his fingers. “That’s why I need the assets of the company.”
“No,” Eric returned evenly, sliding the tablet across the table. “You’re not getting the whole corporation. But I think I have a way forward. We split Allied Robotics and Transferred Consciousness. You get the TC half, all assets, all materials. You give up your personal assets, which will go into a trust for your grandchildren. And you drop the divorce with Sarah, and sign an acknowledgement that the human known as Cyrus Vauquelin died in 2135, leaving his wife a widow. And I will sign an acknowledgement that you, Cyrus Vauquelin, were born in 2135, and are a member of our extended family. That you are, in fact, my father’s brother.” He shrugged. “It probably won’t have much legal value initially, but a show of amity would probably help the courts move on with things.”
Cyrus glanced over the proposal on the tablet. “I’m surprised Sarah didn’t come with you. Disappointed, I have to admit.” No anger in his voice, and just a tinge of guilt. “I hired her to be my wife, you know. Decided love hadn’t worked out the first two times. I looked through the resumes that the HR department brought me till I found an intern I liked the look of. She thought she was up for a modeling job till I handed her the prenup and the ring.”
“Leave her out of this,” Eric told him, his voice tight. “She deserves that much.”
Cyrus pointed at a paragraph abruptly. “Without robotic bodies, the upload process is useless. You’ll be building the bodies my people require. You can hold us hostage for eternity.”
“We can come to an agreement on that in the future,” Eric returned evenly. “We have time. Those who’ve already had themselves copied are being held in servers, inactive, since the moratorium.”
“Is that all we’re ever going to be?” Cyrus asked, staring at the contract. “Copies? Secondhand selves?” Those words hung in the air for a moment, heavily. And he wondered how long they’d haunt him with the crystalline recollection of his machine mind.
Eric shrugged. “Depends on how each person handles their death. How much of a bastard each was in life. And what kind of ghosts they want to be for their families.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “I’ve already had my lawyers in talks with government officials, drafting laws to avoid felons—particularly child abusers, rapists, and murderers—from getting your immortality.” A humorless smile. “A new version of the old Calvinist elect, I suppose. But again, you have to make this available to more than just the one percent who can currently afford it.”
Cyrus began signing and initialing. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what your plans are?” The words felt oddly tentative.
“Plans?” Eric’s eyebrows rose. “I plan to provide improved robotics and better internal server architecture for the android bodies. Better software to ensure that files in the android body are constantly compared against a backup in the server, to avoid personality decay, while still allowing for personal growth through experience.” Eric paused, his shoulders shifting minutely, betraying momentary uncertainty. “Unless you’re asking on a personal level?”
Cyrus’s hand paused over the tablet. “Yes.”
“Sarah and I will be getting married quietly on Luna as soon as you drop the divorce suit.” Eric’s voice became rough. “We always figured that your death would be our second shot at life. But we never did a thing to hurry up your exit. Please . . .” Eric closed his eyes and swallowed, his voice going from that of a hard-edged businessman, to that of the boy Cyrus remembered. “. . . please know that.”
“I never thought you did, or there would have been a wrongful death lawsuit on top of all the rest,” Cyrus returned evenly, but he felt an astounding amount of relief, mixed with stung pride and anger. He considered it all, especially the confirmation that his son and his wife—widow—had been having some form of a relationship for some time. But . . . sooner or later, every father needs to step out of the way of his children. And all that hurt pride of an old man was just that . . . pride. She was as much a business arrangement as everything else in my life. He pushed it aside. Focused on the future, instead. “Any plans on uploading, eventually?” Cyrus hesitated. “I . . . may not have been the best of fathers.” The admission hung there. And then, reluctantly, he added, “But that doesn’t mean I want to watch my son die.”
Eric awarded him another stare. “You’re in luck. Sarah told me last night that she didn’t think she could live without at least a copy of me around. And given that my copy would eventually watch her die, it wouldn’t be fair to leave him alone, too.” He shrugged, his voice going hoarse. “Either way, we won’t know it. We won’t be here. But they will.” He took the tablet back from Cyrus, clearing his throat. “You should look into how your tech can help with colonization outside the solar system,” he recommended, his voice all business once more. “Good long-term project. Also keeps the dead from messing up the economy of the living.”
Cyrus’ eyebrows lifted, accepting the change of tone and subject. “You mean, the solar economy might not survive a workforce that doesn’t require food or water, can work twenty-two hours a day, and will infinitely enlarge itself over time?” Sarcasm in his tone now. “Tell me something I don’t know, son.”
“I’m sure I’ll come up with something,” Eric returned, initialing the contract. “Glad I didn’t have to threaten you with a server wipe or something.” His tone remained distant, but under the determination, the hint of threat . . . vulnerability, too. “Since you’re not technically a person under the law yet, it wouldn’t even have been murder.” His eyes flickered up. “But it would have looked, smelled, and felt like patricide. So I’m glad we could settle this like rational beings.” Another quick, incisive look, and then an offered hand-shake. “Have a good life, Dad. Pleasure doing business with you.”
August 21, 2195
Consciousness. Consciousness with no recollection behind it at first. Just a pervasive feeling of wrongness. Nicholas Juric tried to sit up, and found that restraining bands crossing his chest, arms, and legs prevented this. “What’s going on?” he called, turning his head to stare at the bare white walls of the room.
Recollection filtered back. This isn’t where I just was. I was at TCI with Beth and the kids. Our quarterly updates. “Hello? Did I pass out during the upload?”
A door situated somewhere behind him opened, and he could hear footsteps. “Mr. Juric? Please relax. Everything is fine, and disorientation is a normal part of the process.” Female voice, soothing, with no overt mechanical overtones. Thus, when the person addressing him came around the edge of his gurney, a shock of surprise passed through him. Her chocolate-toned skin had the faintly anomalous sheen that marked a TCI android; matte where it should shine, and waxen where it should be matte. Her face had been modeled on that of a woman in her late thirties, from all appearances. An interesting choice, given that she could have looked twenty-two for eternity, if she’d wished. “I’m Dr. Fairchild. We haven’t met before.”
“You’re a copy?” Nick blurted as she removed his restraints.
“At Transferred Consciousness, Incorporated, we prefer the terms transference or upload But yes. This is my second life.” Dr. Fairchild smiled, the expression surprisingly natural. “And this might come as something of a shock to you, but . . . this is yours.”
Surprise flooded through him, but Nick became aware, suddenly, that he could feel no attendant rise in heart-rate. No surge of adrenaline to accompany the jolt of fear. He couldn’t even feel himself breathing, and that shook him the worst of all. Panic set in, and now that his hands were free, he reached for his own neck, trying to find a heartbeat there. “That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t remember—” he faltered.
“Dying? Most people don’t. You conducted your last consciousness upload on February twentieth, 2140 at the Chicago TCI location, along with your wife and children. Per the terms of your contract with TCI, when you, well,” she paused and smiled again, more sympathetically, putting a hand on his shoulder, “when you died in a car accident on April fifteenth, 2140, your upload was moved to the transfer queue. You lost about two months of memories, I’m afraid.”
An accident? Oh, god. “Was I alone in the car? What about Beth and the kids?” They were his first concern; everything else could wait.
The doctor winced. “Your wife wasn’t in the car with you,” she told him softly. “But your son, Arkady, and your daughter, Lia, both were. They’re . . . well. They’re still in storage.”
Grief cut through him, intolerable and savage. “My kids are dead?” The words rang back from the walls, almost mocking him. And you are, too.
The doctor put a hand on his shoulder again, gripping tightly, a very human gesture. “Their bodies died, yes, but in good time, they’ll . . . wake up in new ones.”
Dully, still sorting through the shocks of his awakening, Nick asked, “Who . . . who was at fault in the accident?”
“Does it matter now?” Dr. Fairchild sat down on the edge of the gurney. “Do you remember the terms of your contract with TCI?”
“. . . something about colonization.” And then he had it, bright and sharp, the words of the contract scrolling across his mind’s eye with pitiless clarity. Nick’s hands shot up to cover his eyes, but the words burned there pitilessly. “Oh god, does that happen every time you ask about an end-user license agreement, too?”
“Pretty much,” she replied sympathetically. “You get used to it. So, you know where you are, correct?”
“I’m . . . on Theta Boötis D.” Nick’s words ground to a halt in pure wonder. I’m a construction worker who dropped out of college, and I’m on another planet. “I agreed that in exchange for a second life, I would work for TCI on Theta Boötis D or another comparable planet, once my consciousness was transported here and placed in a new body.” Then his head jerked up. “So why aren’t my kids awake?” he challenged. “That was in the contract, too.”
“Lack of materials, among other things,” she answered, simply. “Come with me, Mr. Juric. We’re all contract workers here, even me. And we’re building a new world, a new society. One resurrected person at a time.”
He followed behind her numbly, noticing distantly that his knee, arthritic since high school thanks to a bad tackle in his senior year, didn’t make him limp. Of course, that’s because it’s not the same knee. No original equipment. Am I even me anymore? I mean, I feel like myself, except I shouldn’t know that it’s 25.556° C in this corridor, and I do.
Dr. Fairchild paused in the pristine white corridor in front of a wide window, and Nick stared out of it, unable to speak for a long moment. The city below looked rough around the edges. A few manufacturing buildings, neatly clustered by what looked like some sort of refinery. Raw earth, piled up along the sides of fresh-looking cement roads. A rectangular, hangar-like structure, and the sharp noses of what looked like a handful of rockets beyond it. And above it all, a yellow-green sky, filled with puffy white clouds, with a burning white chip of a sun at noon blazing down on the whole scene. “As you can see,” Dr. Fairchild said calmly, “We’ve been hard at work since touching down here a year ago. You’re fortunate, Mr. Juric. You’re among the first five thousand souls to set foot on this planet, and I use that term advisedly.” A brief smile. “We’re pioneers. However, that is why your children have not yet been awakened. We don’t have the resources to provide them with platforms, and our priority must be adults who can immediately contribute. Also, the technology is so new, that no one really knows how a transferred consciousness that young will mature. No hormones. No need to learn, since we have computational algorithms and databases already installed.” She turned her head to regard him. “I’m sorry.”
“How soon?” His voice went hoarse. It made no sense, really; he didn’t have vocal cords to constrict. And yet, his voice responded to his emotional state. Must be one hell of a subroutine . . . .
“Perhaps ten years, depending on how efficiently our work here goes on. And how they respond to being Awakened.”
“Ten years,” he said, dully. “Arkady should be eighteen by then. Lia, sixteen.”
“Actually, since the trip here takes fifty-five years, since superluminal travel remains outside our reach, your son should be sixty-three right now.” A hesitation, and then, with more gentleness than he’d been expecting, she went on, “Or dead in a car accident. But his second self will be eight, and just as you remember him . . . in ten years’ time.” She paused again. “And you get to build the world that he’ll grow up in.”
Nick nodded slowly, wrestling with it all. Numbers danced across his vision. “It’s a fifty-five year trip. Beth was thirty-five, when I . . . left.” Left sounded better than died. “She’s ninety. If she’s still alive.” He stared out at the bare rock and churned soil outside the hospital complex. No sign of green plant life at all. “And if I sent a message to her today, saying ‘Hi, honey, I’m alive and awake. . . .’”
“It would reach Earth sometime in 2245,” Dr. Fairchild informed him. “Even with advances in medicine, Beth will have likely already died by that point.” Her hand came to rest on his shoulder again, that gentle, human gesture. “If it’s a comfort, there’s a good chance that Beth might already be on her way here. She was covered under your contract under, ah, survivor’s benefits. You can look through the messages we received while our ship was in transit, and the manifests for the ships scheduled to follow us.”
Nick closed his eyes and news articles, sent in a continuous stream from Earth, burned in his mind. Colony ships, with cargo holds crammed with robotic equipment and their servers packed with a freight of souls, have taken to the skies, bound for every star. Rather than send generational ships, with their vast requirements of food and oxygen, humanity has chosen to send itself to the stars in the form of coded information. We might not set foot on other planets for generations to come, but our ghosts will seed the universe, so that the living might follow in their footsteps.
Opening his eyes once more, he stared at the yellow-green sky. “Chlorine in the atmosphere?”
“Almost twenty percent, yes. It’s a pretty caustic environment out there. Totally unsuited for human life, but there’s an ecology. Of sorts.” Her voice turned rueful. “There are some pretty loud arguments on staff about whether we should terraform, so that humans can eventually live here, or if we should leave it as is, so that we’re the only form of humanity who can.”
That makes as much difference to me as knowing who was at fault in the car accident that killed most of my family, Nick decided numbly. “Where do I go to get started working?” he asked.
“You don’t have to start today. You can move around the atmospherically-sealed buildings and meet the rest of the Awakened. We’re trying to set up a process by which we can all talk to our loved ones who are still in the servers—”
“Just tell me who I’m reporting to, doctor. The sooner I get started, the sooner I get to see my kids again.” For a given value of them being my kids. They’re no more real than I am, except, maybe, we can be real to each other. He looked up at the green-gold sky once more, as if trying to look beyond the clouds and the blazing white chip of a star in the heavens.
What the hell happened to Beth after we all died? Did she mourn? Did her sister come to take care of her? Did she—oh, god, please no—commit suicide? Did she take comfort in knowing that we’d all meet again? But she always said that . . . she’d never know it if we did have second lives. Her second self would have awareness, but her awareness would end when she died. Nick wished that he could swallow as distress rose in him, but he couldn’t. “I don’t suppose we get . . . records from Earth, along with the newsfeeds and cargo manifests?”
“We received some, yes, but it’s hardly comprehensive.” Again, that note of compassion in the doctor’s voice.
Maybe she just . . . moved on. Went to counseling. Remarried. Adopted someone else’s kids. Or . . . lived alone all her life, waiting to die. He couldn’t decide which set of possibilities felt the most intolerable. “Doctor . . . not knowing what happened to my wife will probably drive me crazy. Not knowing for the next fifty to a hundred years? Definitely will.”
Dr. Fairchild turned to face him. “We all left people behind, Mr. Juric,” she told him. “I’ve told others of the Awakened to . . . think of our second lives as a kind of heaven. We don’t get to know what happened on Earth after we left, not entirely, anyway. And there’s an old poet who once said that the mind is its own place. It can make a heaven of hell, or a hell of heaven.” She gestured at the window once more. “It’s up to you.”
Just concentrate on the job, Nick Juric decided. One foot in front of the other. Think only about the work. I’ll make this hell of a planet into a heaven, if I can. And maybe one day, for me . . . it will be. When I have everyone I love back with me, where they belong.
Changed or unchanged, so long as they’re alive? It’ll be enough.
February 4, 2146
Coffee and tea urns steamed gently at the back of the conference room. A window, dull and filmed by dust, overlooked the Palo Alto skyline, but the eyes of most in this chamber were inwardly turned, seeing faces that weren’t there. Intolerable memories that needed to be confronted. “Beth, are you here to share today?” the counselor embedded in the circle of chairs asked, trying to reignite conversation.
The middle-aged woman jumped slightly, looking up from her recycled paper cup. “Oh, no. I just came to support Rebecca,” she murmured, brushing graying hair out of her face.
“Perhaps it would help everyone here if you told us how you dealt with the death of your husband and children.” Another gentle prompt. “It was sudden, wasn’t it?”
Beth drank the scalding coffee in her cup, ignoring the burn. It gave her time to choke down the grief. I knew coming here would be a mistake. It’s been six years. I don’t dwell on it every day anymore. But coming here, having to talk about it . . . but Rebecca needs to hear this. Not just from me, but . . . everyone here. So I may as well start. “Car accident,” Beth stated baldly, blankly. “Icy roads in Chicago. Semi-truck couldn’t stop at an intersection. Nick held on the longest. Almost a full day. But both of my children died at the scene.” She felt a sting and looked down, realizing that she’d crushed the coffee cup, and hot fluid had leaked over her hand. “I, ah, didn’t deal with it well. After the funeral, I had bereavement time and vacation, and I cleaned our house. Top to bottom. My husband—Nick—he liked beer. When he was alive, he collected the bottles from about different brands and microbrews. Set them all up along the top of my kitchen cabinets, where they got covered in dust and grease. I hated cleaning them. But I couldn’t throw anything out. I kept that house like a shrine. The kids’ rooms . . . as if I were waiting for them to come back. Nick’s side of the bedroom, the same.” She swallowed. “I went back to work. Finally, my sister here in Palo Alto told me I should come out here. Get a fresh start.” She stared blindly at the window for a moment. “I threw the bottles in the recycling bin. I packed up all the toys except a few as . . . reminders . . . and gave the rest to charity. And then I cried all over again, because I felt like I’d just killed them.” She stopped talking, feeling her throat constrict and tears threaten. After a moment, she went on, “I’d been living in the moment of their deaths for two years. It was time to let them go.” That sounds so nice and healthy, except I can’t let them go, because they aren’t . . . really dead, are they? Except they might as well be.
After everyone congratulated her on how strong she was, and how well she’d moved on, except I’m not and I can’t, the meeting took a break, and Beth found herself standing beside a man at the coffee table who looked vaguely familiar. “I hate it when they put people on the spot,” the man told her quietly. “It’s unusual.”
“Young counselor. Inexperienced at getting people to talk,” Beth replied, shrugging. “I’m just glad she didn’t get into the whole transferred consciousness thing. They always seem to want me to open up about my feelings on that.” Which is largely why I stopped coming here.
He grimaced. “I know the feeling. I usually go to a meeting closer to my apartment, and they always want to know if I’m angry at my wife for uploading.”
Beth’s eyebrows rose. It was refreshing to hear someone else talk about this. “I was,” she admitted. “Some days, I still am.” She turned away slightly. “It’s stupid of me, I know. Wherever he is, he isn’t . . . even awake yet, probably. Or even who he used to be.”
“It’s not stupid. Here we are. Stuck.” Bitterness soured his tone. “Can’t go back, can’t go forward.”
Beth stared at him. Dark hair, graying, dark eyes. Five o’clock shadow by three in the afternoon. Italian, or something else . . . . “If you don’t mind my asking, how did your wife—?” As delicately phrased as she could make it
“Cancer.” A brief, awkward pause. “The hell of it is, I’m in oncology, and I couldn’t do a damned thing for her. Had to turn over all her care to other people on my team at Stanford—”
“Oh!” Beth felt like an idiot. “I thought you looked familiar. I’m down in Emergency.” They could have crossed paths in the hallways a dozen times, but they would never have had a reason to speak to one another before.
He smiled faintly, but his eyes remained preoccupied. “You’re an RN down there?”
“Nurse practitioner. Transferred to ER work after my family. . . .” She let the words trail off. After the accident, it had just seemed right to try to save other people’s relatives.
An understanding nod from him. “Yeah. I know.” He sighed, and silence fell between them.
After an awkward moment, Beth asked quietly, “So why did she upload, exactly?”
“Afraid, I guess. And she was a psychologist. She thought that it would be an important experiment to preserve a personality through the upload process that had actually been through the death and dying process.” A muscle twitched in Dr. Tilki’s cheek. “They hadn’t done that, until her. They’d only done the quarterly updates of the personality and experience matrix. But her, they recorded every day, until she passed. Still connected to their recording devices. They gave me a chance to talk to her in the . . . server . . . and say goodbye.” The muscle in his cheek twitched again. “And then they put her back to sleep and shipped her off across fifty light-years of space.”
Beth hesitantly reached out and touched his arm, very lightly. “I would give almost anything to be able to talk to Nick and the kids one more time,” she replied, her throat constricting. “To say good-bye.”
“I said my good-byes every single time I visited her in the oncology section.” Buried fury and leashed pain in his voice now, though he kept his words soft. “Talking to a ghost, an echo of her in a machine? Sounding so . . . chipper and alive? Hurt even worse, somehow.”
Beth swallowed, compassion making her chest ache. “I’m sorry.” The words seemed inadequate.
He nodded, a half-smile kinking his lips. “No, I’m sorry. I’m wallowing. But you’re a very good listener.”
“That’s at least half of nursing,” she replied, smiling faintly now, herself.
“You know what the worst part is?” he added now.
“The fact that the courts can’t decide if remarrying is bigamous or not?”
“No, no, they’re eventually going to find that there’s a dividing line between the previous life and the electronic one, and that people aren’t the same individuals. Just like most churches have come down and said that the electronic copies aren’t souls. They might be people, but they’re not souls.” He rolled his eyes slightly. “The worst part, for me, is that half my friends tell me I shouldn’t grieve because she’s not really dead. The other half tell me I need to move on. How can I ever move on, if she’s not really dead? And if I do move on, if I find someone I like, and who I think would be a great mom for my daughter, what do I do then? Wait till I die to get around to living?”
She nodded. She’d read any number of disparaging remarks in the comments sections of newsfeed articles about people who’d remarried after their spouses had uploaded. “Some blogger reached out to me for comment after the accident,” she offered, looking away. “Asked me if I were proud that my children were the youngest uploaded to date.”
“Jesus Christ,” Dr. Tilki muttered. “Do people have no consideration? They asked a grieving mother if she was proud that her children had been taken from her?”
She shook her head, staring fixedly at the coffee urn in front of her. And, to her surprise, found her hand taken gently in warm fingers. “Would you like to get out of here?” he asked. “Maybe find someplace that serves a hell of a lot better coffee, and talk about . . . well, almost anything else?”
Beth looked up. “I’d like that,” she answered. “Maybe you could tell me about your daughter?”
“Amy? She’s eight this year.”
“That’s . . . exactly the age my son was.” She managed a smile. “You’ve got pictures?”
“About a million, yes. I’ll deploy those after we find coffee that doesn’t taste like watered-down battery acid, though, if that’s all right?”
Her smile warmed. Became sincere. “Absolutely.”
March 18, 2204
Hannah’s eyes snapped open and she sat up, fighting the restraints that kept her body in check against a flat surface. “Dr. Hannah Tilki? Please relax. There’s usually some disorientation at first—”
“I’m fine,” Hannah replied immediately. Oh, god, I feel fantastic. No pain. No weakness. No cloudiness in my mind.
“What’s the last thing you remember?” A dark-skinned female android moved out of the corner of the room to stand over her solicitously.
“Dying,” Hannah responded bluntly. “And then hearing my husband saying good-bye, and telling him not to worry about me, or to grieve. Because I wasn’t really dead.” She tipped her head to the side, her exultation tempered as realization filtered through her. “Wait. I died in 2143. I was slated to go to Theta Boötis D. That’s only a fifty-five year trip, sublight . . . .”
“Correct. Your ship arrived in 2198, but you weren’t a priority for Awakening.” A pause. “I’m Dr. Fairchild, by the way.”
Hannah regarded the other woman steadily. “You kept me in storage for six years, while you had five thousand Awakenings scheduled a year.” Wait, how do I know how many personalities they activate and load into platforms annually? She brushed that aside as a matter for another time, however. “People who died of cancer, like me. People who died traumatically, but don’t remember it. People who are construction workers and electricians and robotics specialists. Miners, surveyors, and any number of other professions . . . who have no social structure, no wives, no husbands, no children, no families to give them support during the transition.” She paused. “And waking up a trained psychologist to help them through the transition wasn’t a priority?”
Dr. Fairchild grimaced. “That wasn’t my decision, believe me. Those higher up felt that the lack of hormones in our current bodies would prevent violence and strong emotional responses to situations.”
“And you’re finding what? That people are, instead, apathetic, without families to strive for?”
“That. A truly staggering number of suicides. My superiors expected suicide not to be an issue at all, since depression shouldn’t exist in the absence of serotonin imbalances.” Dr. Fairchild shook her head and removed the straps. “Instead . . . .”
“Existential crises,” Hannah supplied, her mind racing. She hopped off the gurney, delighted by the painless, free motion of her new body. “Why are we here, if not to leave something better behind us, for our children? That’s been the core of human society since the Stone Age. And you can’t expect people to reach a level of abstraction immediately, seeing all the humans of Earth as our children. You can’t expect people to give up their social bonds instantly. That’s what makes us human.”
A wan smile. “You adapt quickly and move very quickly, Dr. Tilki.”
“I can slow down, but you should never stop moving.” Beth swung her head around, trying to register everything in her surroundings.
“At any rate, you’re saying precisely what I have been, for years now. Come on. You have a lot of work ahead of you, but perhaps the most important counseling task of your career is what I’ll ask you to handle first. Every society, as you say, revolves around children. Bringing them up. Leaving something for them, and letting them excel, in their time. We have several children under the age of ten in the servers. We haven’t been able to Awaken them yet, because it’s simply so . . . problematic.”
Hannah’s mind churned through the issues. “You’d be putting them in adult platforms, because customized child-sized ones would be a waste of materials? Also, they’d never experience the hormones and rapid growth of body that teenagers do. They were uploaded before almost all of their cognitive abilities had developed completely—which isn’t really done until humans are in their twenties, anyway. . . .” She trailed off, and then added, more softly, “Judging from the amount of information I seem to have at my fingertips, it would overwhelm a child’s mind.”
“We don’t usually supply a newly Awakened person with colony records and full intranet access, but your dossier suggested that you could handle it. And as I said, you seem to be adapting much more quickly than the average individual.” Dr. Fairchild handed her a tablet, and Hannah slid a hand across its surface, pulling up the records there and absently downloaded a copy of the files for herself. Wait, how did I know how to do that . . . ? So caught up in the novelty of it, all, she barely noticed that her own arms were hairlessly devoid of the freckles that had sprinkled them in life.
“These two will be your first patients, Dr. Tilki. Arkady and Lia Juric. Age eight and six respectively, at the termination of their first lives. Their father is here, and one of our best construction engineers. But he’s . . . drifting without them, I think. We can’t afford to lose him, as we’ve lost so many others.” Dr. Fairchild regarded Hannah. “So let’s give him his children back. And try to ensure that his children are stable individuals who can contribute to what we’re building here.”
The challenge loomed ahead of her. And Hannah smiled, undaunted. “Dr. Fairchild, I’m looking forward to meeting all of them.”
A whisper crossed her mind then, looking down at the records. Lia Juric is six. Amy’s sixth birthday . . . we were going to have her cake in my hospital room. But all I could have done was watch her open her presents. A trickle of regret, determinedly pushed aside. She’s in her seventies by now. Maybe . . . just maybe . . . she’ll upload. And I’ll see my little girl again.
The next day, she met with Mr. Juric, the father of the children in question. He’d set his facial appearance at forty or so—precisely the age at which he had died. In terms of body conformation, he possessed a tall, bulky model, around two meters in height, which apparently reflected his original form as well. He also had what appeared to be a perpetual scowl, and a tendency to open and close his fists, as if looking for something to grip, which Hannah marked down as an unusual mental tic, reflective of agitation in a human, or a processing loop in a machine. A whole new world of diagnoses, she thought, burying her excitement. “Mr. Juric, I’ve been considering what we need to do to Awaken your children,” she began after introducing herself. “Normal human children receive information at a trickle compared to what an adult consciousness in an android platform can process. They’ll be bombarded with information. They’ll have computational algorithms already embedded, so they won’t really need to learn ‘reading, writing, and arithmetic.’” Her wry smile garnered no return. Hannah sighed internally and leaned forward, softening her voice. “What they really need is experience, Mr. Juric. A lifetime of choices, good and bad, with commensurate results.”
“Yeah.” His tone matched the scowl on his face. “And they’ve been stuck in a server without any experiences at all for decades. How do you plan to give them ten or fifteen years of experience without letting them wake up and experience things? Catch-22 much?” He barked out a harsh laugh. “And folks around here don’t seem to have the time or resources to let them run around making choices that don’t conform to the colony’s needs and the corporate line.” Disgust in his voice now, coupled with resentment.
Hannah wished she could take a quick breath. She had a solution for him, but didn’t know if he’d accept it. “Simulations, Mr. Juric.”
“Simulations?” He stared at her blankly for a moment.
“Games, if you would,” Hannah replied. “Games are how we’ve always taught children necessary skills, whether they played at war, at hunting, or at cooking. They’ve always played games to model adult skills and adult actions.” She smiled, hoping to catch his imagination with the idea. “In this case, I’d set up a procedurally-generated virtual reality simulation for them that would allow them to go through childhood as they would have experienced it. Grammar school, middle school, high school. Playmates and teammates and family. You’d join them in the simulation during your nightly recharge period.” Which would give you time away from work. A chance to dream. A part of your life that has nothing to do with the needs of the colony and the corporation. “They’d progress through childhood and adolescent relationships and crises at a much accelerated rate, and you’d be able to help them make good choices all along the path to adulthood.”
His scowl turned into a frown. “They’re artificial personality constructs, so you’re going to give them an artificial childhood. That’s . . . meta.”
“It seems a better idea than just throwing them into the adult world here and expecting them to function as adults overnight. I anticipate this taking about a year, perhaps two, depending on how much time we allow them to run the simulations each day. Measuring their progress at weekly and monthly intervals as we condition their responses.” Her enthusiasm carried her away, but her smile vanished as his black scowl reappeared.
“And when they wake up, and they’re here, and not on Earth? When they realize that they’re dead, and just ghosts, like the rest of us? Won’t they be bitter about having been lied to?”
The words held outright challenge. Hannah looked down for a moment, regaining her composure. “Mr. Juric, you very understandably want to protect your children.” Let’s not get into the meta game of whether they’re your children, or just what you perceive to be your children. You feel that they are; therefore, they are. “I would not lie to them. One of the most important things about games, is that everyone participating knows that they’re games. We would tell them that they’re . . . going to dream for a while. And when they wake up from that dream, they’ll be adults, and with you. Just as you’ll be with them every step of the way.”
He put his face down in his hands, and Hannah reached out and touched his shoulder with gentle compassion. “It’s the best I can do for them for now. And they’ll help us to understand how to Awaken dozens, even hundreds of other children. So that no parent here has to go any longer without their families.” Other than those who are still back on Earth, that is. One thing at a time.
He looked up from his hands, regarding her steadily. “All right. When do we start?”
“We’ll need at least a month to get the VR set up. Someone from the CS department will be re-tasked to assist me in developing it. It’ll be rough at first, but at least there are dozens of standard programs that we can work with here.” She paused, and then her enthusiasm for the job escaped her again. “And just think. We might be able to set up simulations for the adults here, too. So that we can reduce burnout, among other things. Almost everyone here works twenty hours a day, with four hours off for platform recharge. That’s not healthy—”
He shook his head, his expression turning cynical. “Not healthy for a human. But we don’t eat anymore, you know. Don’t drink. Don’t crap. Even if you meet someone you like, no sex. We don’t do much of anything that makes us human.” Juric’s face became weary. “Except work.”
“Exactly the problem. People talk about work with each other, but there’s no other socialization! I used to play violin, for example. There are thirty-five thousand Awakened at the moment. Surely, someone here knows how to play an instrument or to sing. But there are no concerts. No choirs. No music, besides what someone might cue up in the privacy of his or her own mind.” She raised her hands expressively. “Playing music together, performing it, creates unique social bonds. Listening to a live performance does the same thing. That’s something human that could be done by anyone here. Theater. Sure, everyone here could read the lines off the scripts in their heads, but there’s more to it than memorization. There’s interpretation. Differences in how you might play the role.” She caught his dubious expression, but continued relentlessly, “All right, so Shakespeare isn’t for you. How about sports, Mr. Juric? Again, it’s the performing together that’s communal, as is watching the performance. Sure, everyone here has perfect reflexes, but every game will still be decided differently. Because we can’t control every factor on a playing field.” She threw her hands wide. “I can’t believe no one here has been doing these things. I’ve been Awake for a day, and I’m already thinking of all this.” She went to cluck her tongue against her teeth, and then stopped, rattled, as she realized that she had no idea how to do that anymore.
Juric snorted, or at least, it sounded like it. “All right. So I’m entering this simulation with my kids as a single father. I tend to think that children do better in two-parent households, but . . . Beth isn’t here.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “I’ll do the best I can.”
He did, too. She observed the simulation as Arkady and Lia ‘woke up’ inside what looked like a hospital to them. Their bodies inside the simulation were just as they’d been when they were alive, so no cognitive dissonance for them. And then the looks of disbelief on their little faces as their father told them that they’d died. At first they laughed, because Daddy was being so silly. Then horror. Fear. Denial. And finally, tears. “When will Mommy come and be with us?” Lia demanded.
“Wait. If Mommy comes here, it’ll mean that she’s dead, too, won’t it?” Arkady asked, clearly a step or two further along the curve than his sister. “I don’t want her to come here! I don’t want her to be dead, too!”
“But I want Mommy!” Lia wailed.
This is what the adults are missing, Hannah thought, watching the images unfold inside her own mind, but from outside the simulation. Somehow, these unformed minds have stronger emotional reactions than their elders, who adapt to the new circumstances with a blind sort of numbness, and become dependent on the routine of the job to get through each day. We need what these children have, to help our fellows retain their humanity.
She hadn’t really conducted any self-analysis yet. Too busy. Too immersed in the project of helping Nick Juric raise these two extraordinary young people, while providing emotional outlets for an entire colony of repressed consciousnesses. She told herself that she thrived on the challenge, on forming social bonds between thirty-five thousand other souls. So it came as something of a surprise when, during the second year of the simulations, Nick asked, “Why don’t you come inside with me? They’re teenagers now, effectively. They deserve to get to know the person who’s been designing their whole world.” He smiled faintly. “God. Or Mom, as the case might be.”
When Hannah hesitated, Nick caught her hand and tugged it, lightly. “Besides, Doc. You’re in need of a vacation in the worst possible way. Every sim you’ve been in, has just been for testing purposes before you give someone a week in Tahiti. Come on in. I’ll cook you the best batch of imaginary spaghetti you’ve ever tasted.”
The simulations took three years. And at the end of those three years, Lia and Arkady ‘graduated’ to full members of the Theta Boötis D community. They were given platforms and assigned jobs; Arkady on bioengineering team, and Lia on a surveying team that ranged over the planet, scouting for resources. Their experiences allowed dozens of other children to be Awakened successfully. And Nick asked Hannah, tentatively, to share his charging cubicle. And his simulations, more permanently. “No priests around,” he told her, uncomfortably. “So, not exactly getting married. I just . . . like playing house with you. Even if it’s only in my mind.”
Hannah reached out and touched his face, lightly. “I miss Anton,” she told him, gravely. “It’s only been three years for me, though it’s been more like ten for you, since you died. But I . . . don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. TCI sent word that he accepted upload in 2195, but I don’t know if he’ll even come to this planet. He was so damned angry towards the end.”
“With the universe, for taking me away. At the cancer, which he couldn’t cure.” She hesitated, and then admitted, “With me, for . . . treating death as an adventure, I suppose. I probably should have been more . . . aware of his feelings.” A nagging sensation of guilt. Yes. I should have. And it’s been so easy not to think about him or Amy here. So much to do. So many people to help. But I didn’t do much of anything for those who should have mattered most to me, did I? “I’m often better at managing other people’s problems, than my own.” The low-voiced confession hung in the air for a moment. “But I like playing house with you, too, Nick. We can keep at it, if you don’t mind the fact that I’m always going to treat this all like . . . the best adventure there is.”
Nick pulled her platform closer to his in a human gesture she wouldn’t have expected from the automaton he’d allowed himself to become a few years ago. Synthetic skin the same temperature as the ambient air touched her own, and internal sensors recorded pressure. “That’s precisely what I’ve come to love about you,” he told her calmly. “So let’s give it a few decades.”
“And maybe in a year or two we can test out the sexual simulations I’ve been developing,” she blurted, and then laughed at the expression on his face. “Hey, just because we aren’t equipped in reality, doesn’t mean that simulations can’t help in that area, too.”
“You want to reinvent porn.” He shook his head. “Only you, Hannah. Only you.”
“No. I want to reinvent participation in an essential human experience.” She made a face. “There is a difference, you know.”
“No one will understand that. You’re going to go down in planetary history as Hannah Tilki, Queen of Robot Porn.”
“Oh, shut up.”
January 15, 2240
The survey team’s hovercraft glided back into the city limits, and workers on the scaffolding of the skyscrapers waved down at them congenially. Lia disembarked, carrying her satchel filled with samples straight to Arkady’s bioengineering lab, a scowl on her face. She almost didn’t notice how many workers up on the skyscrapers gleamed silver under the sun. More and more people tended to inhabit work-only, durable platforms during the day, while returning to their human-form bodies at night, for socialization. Her stepmother would have gone off into a delighted lecture on the fluidity of identity in their new society; Lia took it as a matter of course, and a slightly annoying one, since it meant that she needed to use the blips of people’s ID chips instead of her facial recognition skills to identify them.
She stomped into Arkady’s lab and dropped her satchel on the bench beside his microscope. “And hello to you, too,” he said, not looking up from the eyepiece. “You’re in a mood.”
“I found three locations where your hybridized Terran plants are out-competing the native flora. You made them a little too strong, Ark. The point is supposed to be coexistence, not driving the native plants to extinction.” She slid onto the workbench, letting her legs dangle, and folded her arms across her chest.
Arkady rose from the microscope, a frown crossing his face. “Oh, hell. That’s not good at all. You have coordinates and samples?”
“All in there.” She jerked her head at the bag. “I don’t even agree that we should be terraforming this planet. We’ve adapted our platforms over the years to deal with the caustic effects of the atmosphere. We live here just fine as is.”
Arkady ran his fingers over her hair lightly. They’d adapted to their strange existence decades ago, and scarcely ever noticed the plastic sheen of their skin, or the too-perfect clarity of each other’s eyes. “This again.”
“Eventually, human colonists will make it here, and to all the other seed planets. It’s our job to make the way for them. We’ll be ghosts to them.”
“You and I never agreed to that. Dad agreed for us. And this is our home. We cling to far too much of Earth.” She scowled. “We still use Terran dates. This planet has a four hundred and eighty-three day orbit—and those days last thirty-seven hours each. Saying that today is January the whateverith is an irrelevant relic of a planet we don’t inhabit.”
He lifted her chin. “Lia, you’re fussing. That usually means something else is bothering you. Give.”
Lia shifted uncomfortably, but she’d never been able to lie to him. Not in their first lives, when he’d been her teasing older brother. Not in the simulation, in which twelve years had gone by at the speed of electrons dancing through their minds, an entire upbringing passing in just three years of external time. And not at all in the three decades since. “Meilin’s taking ‘maternity’ leave to go Awaken her kids in a sim.” She looked away, a hollow feeling inside of her.
A pause. “She’s been here for ten years. Weren’t her kids twelve or so when the earthquake got them? She’ll hardly be off any time at all, and she’s put in her time, same as Dad did—”
“And I’ve been here for thirty-six years, all told, and I’ll never—” The hollow chasm inside of her gaped wider.
Gentle fingers on her shoulders, and concern in Arkady’s voice. “Have you talked with Hannah about this? Sounds like an existential crisis—”
Lia put her head down on his shoulder for a moment, just resting. “It’s not the same,” she told him, her voice muffled. “Existential crisis in the newly Awakened means that they don’t know if they’re real. Or if there’s any point to their existence. I know that I’m real. I know what my job is. I’ve got you and Dad and Hannah. It’s just that . . . I feel so empty, Ark. And it gets worse every time one of my colleagues goes off to Awaken their family. Whether their kids were ten or fifty-five when they died.”
“In fairness, there are two hundred and twenty kids under the age of twelve who’ve been Awakened,” he pointed out gently. “Out of a colony of two hundred and twenty-five thousand.”
“Doesn’t matter,” she replied dully, turning slightly to look up at him. “You and I can never have that.”
His brow furrowed in concern. “You could create a simulated family,” he offered, hesitantly. “Find someone here that you like, who’d—”
“Play at being a father and husband?” Lia’s voice turned miserable. “Raise simulated kids with me, who could never actually come out of the simulator? I’d rather play with dolls.”
He pulled her in closer. “Lia, you’re scaring the hell out of me. This is the kind of talk that usually precedes someone wiping themselves.” Dread in his voice now. “If you go, I won’t have . . . I won’t have anyone to talk to.” Two hundred or so people had shared their experience of growing up in simulation, but none with them, besides each other. There was no one else who had their experiences, who understood them as completely as they understood each other. “Please don’t go. We already lost Mom. For decades, if not forever.” TCI had sent word that their mother had died and uploaded back in 2195. The year their father had Awakened. Her ship was en route, but accidents happened. Three ships had been lost, fifteen thousand precious minds wiped for eternity, in the past forty-five years. “Don’t leave me.”
“I don’t want to leave,” she told him, her voice still miserable. “I just want my life to mean something more than just an accumulation of soil and plant samples.”
He rocked her, a comforting gesture from their childhood. “Look, much as you want to deny that we’re human some days, we still are.”
“And are not.”
“Yes, yes. That’s a given.” He looked down at her, his face sober. “Humans do a lot of things. One of those things is making more humans. And I think there’s a way that you could do that. Take some of your core consciousness. Mix it with someone else’s. Like me mixing DNA here in the lab. Raise the resulting consciousness in simulation, as we were, and then house it in a body when it’s achieved a level of adulthood that Hannah can quantify statistically.”
She looked up at him, hope creeping into her. “You make it sound so easy. So straight-forward.”
“I doubt it will be,” Arkady admitted ruefully. “Nothing ever is.”
“And who would I even get to be the donor? I don’t want a child who’s just a clone of my mental processes.” She grimaced. “I’d bet that almost everyone here would have trouble thinking of that kid as . . . real. Valid. As much a person as they are. Look at all the people who think that our childhoods weren’t real. Just three years spent playing video games.” She paused. “But they were real years, for us. Real experiences.” She closed her eyes. “Sort of limits the pool of donors, you know?”
“I wouldn’t have that problem,” Arkady told her, an odd note in his voice. “I’ll be your donor, Lia. Just, for god’s sake, stay with me.”
She leaned against him once more. “Do you think god really cares about people like us? Ghosts? We’re alone, Arkady. All we have . . . is each other.”
March 18, 2240-September, 2300
Requesting server space and run-time for programs as large and complex as offspring promised to become required a petition to the TCI corporate business office as well as to what had become the planetary governing council—a group of about two hundred citizens with positions of authority in medicine, science, and management, as well as other individuals, who’d been elected the representatives of small ‘unions,’ who looked out for the well-being of the transferred consciousnesses of the colony’s workers. Nick Juric and Hannah Tilki were both on that council, a fact for which Arkady felt enduringly grateful for the next year as his joint petition with Lia worked its way through the approvals process. “Approvals?” Lia took to saying derisively. “They should call it the disapproval process. Certainly, everyone who reads the request form immediately queues up at least seven different arguments as to why it’s impossible, immoral, or unethical.”
Arkady hammered away at the process, however, countering every argument with one of his own. “Impossible? How so? Are we impossible?” he began one meeting, drumming his fingers on the table in front of him, a habit of life he’d never been able to break. “They’re sending us recordings of infant minds from Earth these days, inchoate blurs of perception and experience no more than a few months long, as grieving parents of children doomed to die of birth defects take solace in the hope that their child will have a more lasting memorial than a tiny tombstone—an immortal life.” He paused, turning to look around the sea of plastic faces in the meeting hall, and then glancing up at the camera drone hovering over his head, sending his glance into the vid feed thousands of other consciousnesses on the planet would access today, tomorrow, whenever they felt like downloading the recording directly. At the moment, about four thousand people had logged into the feed, and he could watch a continuous stream of their comments on the proceedings scrolling through part of his mind. Hannah’s worried that we might wind up as some kind of a hive-mind. She says group-think is dangerous. And then Dad usually laughs and points out how much of our off-hours are spent yelling at each other in these kinds of forums. And tells her that it’s all her own fault, for reminding people that there’s more to life—and afterlife—than just work.
He’d waited long enough for silence to exert its own gravity around his words, giving them more weight than they might otherwise have had. “TCI has forwarded those newborn files to us, like children floating in reed baskets across a sea of stars, and entrusted them to us. And people in this very room have advocated for raising those children through the same simulation process that has allowed over two hundred of us to grow to maturity.” He made a rude noise, watching Hannah turn towards him, her expression surprised, as he did so. “Dr. Tilki, could you explain for everyone here, and in the community at large, why that has yet to work?”
Frowning, Hannah nodded. “Those files, while they represent the hopes and dreams of the grieving parents who sent them to us, aren’t what we all are. Self-aware consciousnesses recorded before death. There’s not enough person there to make a consciousness.” She sounded upset, and looked down at her hands. “It’s one of the few failures of the technology,” Hannah admitted. “We’ve sent word back to Earth to stop . . . giving those parents false hope. But they keep passing those recordings on, anyway.”
“What does this have to do with the argument at hand?” Dr. Fairchild asked, leaning back slightly in her chair. Arkady had found it fascinating that over the years, the doctor had changed her hairstyle from the skull-hugging, curly buzz-cut she’d had when he was a child, to waist-length braids. She’d explained it to him, once: I don’t need to worry about bacteria or loose hairs falling into a wound with my android patients, Arkady. And everything we do, these days, is about identity. Not that it was much different when we were alive. Everything was about identity then, too. A wry smile had flashed whitely from behind her matte lips, before she’d patted her braids lightly with one hand. But these are about me remembering who I was, and embracing my whole life. As much as those folks who wander around in their mechanoid bodies embrace who they are now, and chide me for holding onto the past.
“Simply put,” Arkady replied, “using part of my consciousness and part of Lia’s to create a base pattern for the new consciousness would seem to stand a better chance of creating a viable mind than starting with a recording of . . . black and white images of a mobile rotating over a crib, and primal urges such as hunger, comfort, and discomfort. There’d be more person there, in essence.”
“Careful,” Dr. Fairchild warned, raising a hand now. “That comes dangerously close to suggesting that a human infant isn’t a person.”
Lia leaned forward from her place at the table, and adjusted her microphone with a hand more suited to working outdoors—titanium-shelled, ideal for work with heavy equipment and resistant to the caustic atmosphere. “For purposes of the transference process, they aren’t,” Lia replied bluntly, and Arkady looked up at the ceiling, wishing he could sigh as shocked whispers rustled through those around him, and the comments scroll from those watching the vid feed exploded with reactions. “No, listen. They aren’t suitable candidates, and it’s a tragedy,” Lia called over the voices in the room with them. “If what we propose to do works, however? That’s a real solace we can offer parents who’ve lost children. Maybe then we can take those poor, insubstantial files, and add a little of the father’s mind, and a little of the mother’s, and then they’ll have the child they lost. Or at least a more reasonable facsimile.” Lia’s sorrowful tone suddenly became acid. “And goodness knows, it’ll give same-sex couples a chance at their own offspring. And would give people who only met here, after they died, a chance to make something together that was never possible before.”
“And we won’t know if it’s impossible till we try,” Arkady cut in hastily, watching the comments multiply in the chat feed almost exponentially, as Lia’s comments bloomed into rapid extrapolations by the people watching the meeting. “So, let’s leave aside impossible, and move onto unethical—”
“It certainly is unethical,” one of the TCI upper managers called, interrupting Arkady. “Creating life? Playing god?”
“Oh, come now,” Hannah called across the room cheerfully. “What do you think we’ve been doing all along? And I don’t just mean here on Theta Boötis D, or anywhere else there are transferred consciousnesses. I mean, since humanity’s inception.” Her merry grin faded into an expression of determination. “You might as well say that every time a human infant’s been born, it was an unethical act by two people playing god.”
The room and chat-feed both exploded once more, but by the end of the session, Arkady and Lia had received the tentative approval of the planetary council and TCI management to use a portion of the recreation and social services simulators for their special project. “Special project,” Lia had fumed under her breath. “What a way to put it.”
“Just wait till they get our requests for maternity and paternity leave,” Arkady told her, and relaxed internally when his sally got a laugh.
They opted to generate ‘twins,’ named Vasilija and Davi Juric in honor of grandparents whom they’d never met on Earth. And with the equal-parts fascinated and repulsed gaze of their entire community on them, they began the process of raising their children in the simulator. Hannah watched the simulations and made recommendations, particularly stressing that the new consciousnesses would need social stimulation to grow in complexity, and to learn to interrelate with other humans.
As such, Lia brought Meilin, her coworker, into their simulation one day, as Arkady played with the children in what certainly appeared to be a backyard, somewhere on Earth—though they’d chosen to add the green-yellow sky of Theta Boötis D overhead, and not the blue welkin of Earth. “Would you at least consider bringing your son and daughter in to meet them?” Lia asked, her avatar leaning on the image of a fencepost. “Right now, they’re about the social age of four, and we’re planning on putting them in the school simulation with the rest of the Awakened children soon.”
Meilin’s lips turned down. “But they’re not Awakened,” she protested, staring at the children as Arkady brought them over. “They’re not . . . they’re not real.” She whispered the last, looking shame-faced, averting her eyes in a completely human manner. As if she couldn’t bear to look at the children while saying the words.
“Vasilija, Davi, say hello to your Mama’s friend,” Arkady told his two young creations, watching them with a peculiar mix of pride and apprehension. He’d mixed native and Terran flora in his lab many times before. And if a new rootstock had flourished, he’d been pleased, and if it had died off, he’d been vexed and gone back to the drawing board. But never had he felt the vicissitudes of existence as clearly as he did whenever the children were involved. They matter, he thought fiercely. They’re real because they matter. They matter, because they’re real. These tiny, nascent, uncontrollable, self-willed identities . . . matter. And I have to find some way to make everyone else understand that.
To his delight, Vasilija managed to emerge from behind him and offered Meilin one of her avatar’s tiny hands. “Hello,” she mumbled. “Mama says . . . you have a little girl? Can she come over and play?”
Meilin crouched down, her eyes now holding a mix of discomfort and curiosity. “I haven’t decided yet,” she replied, with more kindness than Arkady had expected. “What do you like to play?”
Davi stuck his head out from behind Arkady’s leg. “I like the construction simulator! Grandpa always lets me drive the big cranes, and my last building didn’t fall down!”
“It did too,” Vasilija retorted.
“It did not! It stayed up till you broke it with the wrecking ball—”
“Don’t argue,” Arkady reminded them, and smiled at Meilin. “If they come over, I’ll probably run one of my garden sims for them all. They should like that. I have a hedge-maze worked out that’s miles long. Should take them a good four hours to get through it.”
Meilin hesitated, but nodded. And after she left, and the children when back to playing, Lia took his hand and murmured, “Told you that increasing the size of their avatars’ eyes by two percent would help.”
“It helps now.” Arkady shrugged. “If they keep that look for their adult avatars, it’s going to put adults Awakeneds right into the uncanny valley when they talk with them.” He’d long since lost the reflexes of his human body, but this was one occasion on which he wished he could sigh.
“Yes, but by that point, what they look like will be their choice.” Lia’s voice held the same uncomfortable mix of fierce pride and complete dread that he felt, himself. And their hands clenched together so tightly that their biofeedback sensors warned of imminent deformation to the visual fabric of their avatars.
By the sixth year, Arkady was convinced he couldn’t remember a single easy day, though records and simulation captures let him relive brilliant moments of success. They sat through meetings with the entire staff of the school system, arguing vehemently over the ethics of behavioral modification when Davi displayed a tendency to hit other children in frustration. “No, we’re not going to just go into his code and rewrite him!” Lia exclaimed furiously. “How would you like it if someone went in and pruned out little bits and pieces of you? That’s unethical.”
“We’ll do it the old-fashioned way,” Arkady informed the teachers tiredly. “Feedback and response and stimuli.”
“But he’s falling behind because of his behavior, and he’s a disruption to the other students,” one of the teachers, Mrs. Hesbani. She’d never actually set foot outside of the simulations, and had declined taking any sort of android platform, placidly telling anyone who asked that making a body for her would be a waste of materials and energy, and that the simulator offered her more freedom of mind than a body could ever offer. Arkady didn’t understand that perspective in the slightest. But she was at least one of the teachers most sympathetic to children who’d never set foot in the real world, either.
Still, he felt on edge, and as if he needed to protect his children. Lia clearly did, too, exclaiming, “Yes, but what most of you propose—rewriting his code—is equivalent to recommending lobotomy to a human for being a minor inconvenience to you.”
They all shifted uncomfortably. Arkady met each of their eyes in turn. “If he falls behind, then he’ll have to make up the work later, and the other kids will have to get used to the fact that not everyone is perfect. Whether they’re living, dead, or neverborn.” Arkady set his jaw over the last word, which left a ringing silence in the room.
Not every parent, after all, had been as flexible as Meilin, whose children wound up adoring Vasilija and Davi. Private messages about the unpeople, the neverborn, sometimes leaked out into public discourse. And from the way many of the teachers on the school staff suddenly looked away, a few of them clearly knew the term. Had probably used the term.
Arkady wanted to shout at them all. Wanted to demand, You see my work outside of the city? The lichens, mushrooms, and, yes, the very first giant sequoia spliced with the native trees? I’ve made something hybridized, of neither this world, nor our old one, something that will tower above all of us in generations to come. This is what our children are. Something new. Something unique. Something marvelous. Something ours. And you’re worrying about the fact that they were born from almost the same petri dish as my trees?
Get a life, you undead idiots.
But he didn’t. Because no one, living, dead, or otherwise, had ever been convinced of anything by someone yelling and bullying them about it. The only way people were convinced of anything, really, was by listening to or observing the actions of someone they respected. And to most of the Awakened, Lia and I are, and always will be, kids. It’s up to us to convince the people of our generation, and the ones who Awaken after us, to respect us and our choices. You can’t do that by yelling, screaming, or kicking. You do it by living well.
And so, when their twins graduated ten years into the process, with a self-perception of themselves as adults, and designed their own android bodies into which their minds could be decanted, Arkady thought he could see in their eyes the dappled shade of his hybrid sequoias, looming at the edge of the horizon. “Thank you for having us,” Vasilija blurted as she stood up in the real world for the first time, approaching him to hug him with her android arms. “Thank you for . . . everything, Dad.”
It felt real to him. “Thank you for giving our lives meaning,” he replied softly, looking over her head look at Lia. Davi had just wrapped his arms around his mother, and she’d closed her eyes in the bliss of holding her son in her arms for the first time in reality. Beyond Lia, Nick and Hannah held hands, Nick wiping at his eyes as if to chase away the tears he couldn’t actually shed.
Fifty years later, Arkady had plugged himself into the simulator to run a garden sim for his grandchildren, when an alert flickered through his consciousness. He pulled his consciousness back into his body and sat up, exchanging worried glances with Lia and Davi. “A ship?” Arkady asked, unnecessarily. They’d all received the same information.
And, in spite of trusting the data, they all stepped outside, onto the fourth-floor balcony of the storage tier in which they kept their bodies when they weren’t using them, and stared up into the hazy clouds and peridot sky above, watching as a white ship descended. “We weren’t scheduled for another soul-freighter for another six months,” Arkady muttered, rubbing at the back of his head absently. The term had been coined by TCI management types.
Predictably, Davi made a face. “You might as well call them refugee ships, Dad,” his son said, still staring up at the sky. “The dead aren’t really welcome on Earth. I used to work with Repatriation Services. I heard horror stories from the oldest Awakened people . . . folks who just tried to go on with their lives, but their relatives just wanted to be able to move on and not deal with the skeleton at the feast anymore. Or they listened to their church leaders, who told them that we weren’t real, that the souls had moved on to be with god. And rejected, they give up and come here.”
“You’ve been listening to the first-gen Awakened people,” Arkady pointed out, trying to be soothing. “Don’t borrow trouble. There’s been at least five generations born since the technology’s inception.” And I’m from the first. Damn. I’ve never felt old before. “I’d expect there to have been some social adjustment to the new reality since then.”
Attention, TCI staff, contract workers, and others! Another alert blipped across Arkady’s field of vision. The ship overhead has broadcast her identity as the Terran ship, Lyra Celeste. They report five thousand living humans aboard, who departed Earth last year.
“Last year?” Lia repeated, out loud. “That’s impossible—”
“They did it. They beat Einstein and worked out an Alcubierre drive!” Arkady’s tone held a measure of fierce pride. I might not be human by their standards, but god. What we humans can do, when we put our minds to a task!
The alert scroll continued. They have a colonial patent, and would like to disembark. TCI management is asking them to delay, as we do not have enough facilities to handle their needs. The planetary council and TCI management are also calling for a population-wide forum tonight to discuss the new arrivals.
Davi’s voice held dread and a little anger. “They’re here, and they’re going to wave their colonial patent in our faces, and tell us to leave.” He turned towards them, giving his parents a fierce glare. “I won’t be forced out. This is our home. I was made here—born here. My kids came into being here, too. I’ve read enough of human history to know that they’re going to want to force us out, send us to a new world, and take this one for themselves. I won’t let that happen.”
And with that, the reality of the humans hanging above them, their ship like a sword held in the atmosphere by a thin thread, hit Arkady. He turned to look, really look at Davi for the first time in years. Their son’s eyes had already gone vague and distant as he chatted at the speed of electrons on the local network, probably conferring with his wife and sister. Davi had opted to dye his skin green some four decades ago, partially in homage to his father’s work with hybridizing plants, and partially, as he’d told them at the time, because I’m not entirely human, and sometimes I want to rub it in the faces of those who reject what humanity I have as insufficient for their tastes. The young man—sixty this year, but he’d always seem young to Arkady—had, at the same time, opted to change his hair fibers into something that more resembled sequoia needles. Not just a fashion statement, but a statement of identity and belonging. Many other of the ‘neverborn’ had made similar modifications to their bodies. Arkady knew of one young woman who’d declined a humanoid body at all, insisting on being embedded into the frame of a spacecraft, instead. Hannah had muttered and fussed about people losing their humanity. And Lia had countered, stridently, Maybe they’re just expanding the definition of what it means to be human!
Arkady stared at his son as if he’d never seen him before. And then looked up at the ship once more. “It may not come to that, Davi,” he murmured. “But I do hope they’re ready to expand their definitions of humanity. Dread rose through him. Humans have never been particularly willing to expand that definition in the past, have they? “Or they’re going to unpack whatever really large magnets they brought with them, and head straight for our server cores.”
September 21, 2300
Anton Tilki’s eyes opened, and information spun in front of them like a galaxy full of stars. They left us in the servers for fifty years after our ship arrived on Theta Boötis D. That’s . . . one hell of a nice welcome. He sat up and turned his head to ensure that, per the information scrolling before him, that yes, Beth had been Awakened with him. His wife sat up, putting a hand to her head as if dizzy, and in spite of his anger at having been left effectively comatose for an extra fifty years, Anton felt himself smile. “Beth, you look amazing,” he told her, reaching out a hand for hers. “Just like when I met you.”
“Fortyish and plump?” She studied her hands. “These look a lot more real than android bodies on Earth do.”
“They’ve been improving the quality of their models. Less plasticine.” He stroked her hair, which felt amazingly pliable to the touch. If I’m a ghost, at least I get a pretty good grade of afterlife to haunt.
“Oh, god.” Beth blinked rapidly. “Is that date I’m seeing correct?”
“Yes. They waited fifty years to wake us. But then, how much demand do they have for ER nurses or oncologists, instead of robotics specialists and mechanics? We’re deadweight anywhere but Earth. But Earth can barely support the living, let alone all the dead.” Irony dripped from his voice as he stood, helping her up out of reflex. Arthritis had settled in when she was sixty-seven, and had progressively worsened over the decades. He’d stayed hale till the end, but when Beth had died in her sleep, he’d said goodbye to the daughter they’d raised, and his grandchildren, and requested euthanasia. So that if there was an immortal part to his humanity, it could be with her, and so that his recorded consciousness could travel with hers.
A door shushed open behind them, and they turned. “Mom?” a voice called, and two young people trooped in. Both were evidently androids; the female had obvious titanium hands. But their faces looked disarmingly like Beth’s own. “Mom, it’s us. Arkady and Lia.” Their smiles would have taken Anton’s breath away, if he’d had any breath. “We’ve been waiting for you for so long.”
“They woke us in 2204 or so—ninety-six years was way too long to wait for you, Mom.” They wrapped their arms around Beth, holding her tightly.
“I’m surprised that you remember me at all,” Beth said, yearning in her voice as she reached for them in return. “You were so young when you died.”
“Dad and Hannah made sure we remembered you,” Lia chirped. Anton jolted at the name Hannah, but thought, That has to be a coincidence . . . .
“We put in requests to have you Awakened once a year after your ship came in, but colonial authorities are pretty hot on everyone having a job or a purpose,” Arkady added.
“Your father’s well?” Beth asked, her expression strained.
“Yeah.” A slightly guilty exchange of glances. “He and Hannah Tilki, ah, sort of got married back in 2207 or so. They’re outside. Waiting for both of you.”
“Hannah Tilki?” Anton repeated, not even knowing what he felt at the moment. “My first wife?”
“Yeah, she’s kind of a planetary bigwig,” Arkady told him. “Head of the mental health and recreation programs.”
Anton glanced at Beth. “I think I’m all right with that,” he said slowly. Consideringly. “We’d already been dead for twelve years before they, ah. Got together.” Overall, he was surprised at his own lack of reaction. I’m numb, I think. Though this might be the mother of all awkward meetings.
Beth nodded, and replied, sounding just as dazed, “And I’ve been married to you for forty-seven years. That’s almost five times longer than I was married to Nick. And apparently, he’s been with Hannah . . . nine times longer than he was with me.” Her expression crinkled as the math took place effortlessly in her mind. “Damn.”
“Outstanding. Can’t wait to introduce you to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren, too,” Lia told them, relief spreading across her youthful-appearing face.
“Grandchildren?” Beth repeated, clearly startled. “What—how?”
“Our kids,” Arkady responded. “Lia’s and mine. There are plenty of people here who’re upset about the whole thing. Artificial reproduction. ‘Ghosts shouldn’t have children.’ They also have the gall to call our kids neverborn.” He grimaced. “But we’re human, and one of the things that humans do is make more humans. Lia and I took parts of both of our core consciousnesses and combined them, and raised the resulting artificial consciousnesses in simulation. The result is a couple of healthy, well-adapted adults who’ve been in their platforms for about fifty years now.” His tone wasn’t casual, but it was matter-of-fact. “They got their adult platforms a few months before your ship arrived, in fact. And they’ve each, ah, had children of their own, since.”
Beth’s mouth dropped open. Anton supplied the words she couldn’t seem to bring to her lips. “Wasn’t that, well . . . incest?” he asked, trying not to sound appalled. This can’t be how Beth ever pictured meeting her children again. My god, do they even understand what they’re doing to her?
Lia shrugged. “It’s not like we have to worry about genetic defects,” she responded. “But that’s the other thing a lot of the older-gen models are upset about, yes. I don’t really understand it. We’re human, yes. But we’re also not.”
Arkady put a hand on her shoulder, having the grace to look embarrassed. “It’s not as if those of us who died as kids and got Awakened afterwards have, well, sex drives. I don’t even understand the recreational sims Hannah’s put together for that sort of thing. But a lot of people who were older when they died miss it. Different strokes and all that.” His eyes flickered between his sister and his mother, and he kept his tone soothing. Reassuring. “Lia’s just blunt, Mom. I’d elbow her to apologize, but she is who she is. Tact of a brick and all.” A look of wry affection at his sister.
“Rip the bandaid off,” Lia told him, making a face. “They’re in for a lot of surprises in the next twenty minutes. Best if they’re sort of numb for the rest, I think.” She looked back at their mother, and offered, more tentatively, “Vasilija and Davi are really looking forward to meeting you, Mom. Dad’s told them so much about you. Of course, you’re . . . a little different now.” A flicker of humor and sadness flickered across her expression. “All of us are, really. A lifetime or two of experience tends to do that.”
“I . . . look forward to meeting them,” Beth managed, her voice unsteady, flicking a glance at Anton that read to him, clearly, as I have no idea what else to say, so I’m falling back on platitudes.
Mind spinning, Anton slid a hand under her arm and stepped out into the corridor with her, to where Nick and Hannah awaited. They let the kids drop the worst on us, so we’d be too numb to react to anything else. He paused, new information trickling into his consciousness. Kids. Ha. If I’m doing the math right, Arkady and Lia have been continuously conscious longer than either Beth or I lived
While both Nick and Hannah’s faces lit up at the sight of them, Anton could read apprehension in their eyes, as well. Amazing how well we simulate our humanity, he thought, distantly. Human. But, as Lia said, also not.
“Welcome back to the land of the living,” Nick told them, breaking the awkward silence. “I’m so damned happy to see you, Beth.” A touch of what sounded like yearning, carefully suppressed. Decades of water under several bridges. “I always said, so long as I eventually got to see everyone I loved again, it wouldn’t matter how much they’d changed.” He smiled faintly. “And now I get to see if I was right.”
“Why did they decide to wake us now, and not fifty years ago?” Anton inquired sharply, wanting to keep the conversation free from remembrances of past emotion for the moment. He’d been objective about the situation until actually seeing their dead spouses in front of them. He’d been able to tally up the years each of them had actually spent together. As if numbers on a tally stick offered some sort of protective ward against old love, and the pain of loss, and the power of memory. But on seeing them, objectivity had rapidly faded. Jealousy is stupid and pointless. But I’m still human enough to feel it.
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Straight to the point. I’ll show you.” He took them to a wide window. Outside, they could all see a green-yellow sky above a city filled with towering skyscrapers girdled with silvery monorail tracks. And hanging in that peridot dome above the cityscape, a white ship loomed, hundreds of feet long. It looked like nothing Anton had ever seen before.
Anton stared at it. “Aliens?” he finally asked.
“No,” Hannah told him, her voice soft. “Humans. Earth produced a working Alcubierre drive about forty-five years after you died. This is one of their first large-scale ships, which arrived yesterday. There are five thousand fully organic human colonists aboard that ship. They need . . . medical checkups. They need people who are used to dealing with the frightened, the injured, and the sick.”
“They’re scared,” Nick explained quietly. “Scared of us, in the main. All their ghosts.” He looked resigned.
“And the planet has never been terraformed to match human requirements,” Hannah added on. “We decided we liked the yellow-green of the sky. The bioengineers have been working with the native plants to produce more oxygen, sure, but . . . .”
“We held a referendum last night. The majority decided that this was our world,” Nick added. “We live here. It’s ours. Our families are welcome to join us. But we don’t want to be displaced by human colonists. Told to move on. Exorcized like unwelcome ghosts.”
“Every human generation has been displaced by the one that succeeded it,” Hannah added softly. “Except this one. We’re all going to have to learn to live with our ghosts.” She paused. “And we need people like you to be the bridge between us and them.”
“But we’re a hundred years out of step with you,” Beth objected. “And a hundred years out of step with them.” She paused. “Oh. Right. I . . . see your point.”
Anton stared up at the ship in the sky, and then shook his head. There were plenty of riots on Earth among populations who couldn’t afford uploading. Outright wars in third-world countries, where the dictators couldn’t get the tech for themselves, whipped up their populations against the countries who did make it available for their entire populaces. I don’t want to go through any of that again. “This place looks like a kind of heaven,” he said. “I’d hate to see it turn into some sort of hell.” Anton glanced over at Beth. “I guess we’ve got a job to do. Let’s go do it.”
September 21, 2300
Seventy-two was, according to the healthcare industry, the new middle-age. Judith Poulin had her doubts about that. Her arthritic left knee had flared up, so she didn’t join the rest of the younger passengers who’d been practically grafted to the ports of the ship for the past day. Staring down at the city on the surface below. She might have joined the younger people, but for that grinding pain in her knee. Technically, she had a perfectly good view of everything on the screen hovering in the air in front of her at her private table—better, probably, than what little she’d see out of a tiny window, past someone’s earlobe. But the other passengers seemed to want to experience it all first-hand, not predigested by a lens and computer interpolation. And she shared that desire. We all signed up to come here in the flesh, didn’t we? I worked my whole life just to get here while I was still alive. Yet now that I’m here . . . I’m not sure I want to be. Contrary human nature.
A flash of her husband’s face flickered through her mind for a moment, along with a forlorn accompanying thought: I wonder what Paul would have seen, if he were here. If I’d just cracked the math faster, if we’d been able to bring the drive on-line ten years earlier . . . would he be here with me today? Looking at this screen, and seeing . . . a point to everything?
With an effort, Judith pushed that line of thought away. It did her no good to perseverate on her husband’s death. Instead, she tried to focus on the present, adjusting the privacy curtain around her seat and table, and reaching out to highlight and enlarge the telemetry coming from the planetary surface. Scanning the faces in the crowd of androids looking up at the ship for hints of familiar faces.
A hand caught her curtain and twitched it back. “Excuse me, Dr. Poulin, but might I join you?”
Judith glanced up, prepared to brush off whoever it was. And then her mouth fell open on silence. After a shocked moment, she put herself back together. “Do you know, you look exactly like Cyrus Vauquelin?” It can’t be, of course. If he were aboard—for god’s sake, they’d have told me. Wouldn’t they?
“That would be because I am, Dr. Poulin,” the android, who looked like a man in his fifties, gray-haired, calm, but not running to fat, assured her, taking the seat at the small table beside her. He left the curtain open, however, though he ignored the crowds milling around them. “One of them, anyway.” A faint smile touched his features. “I’ve been accommodated splendidly in a private cabin just across the hall from yours, actually. However, every time I’ve tried to knock, you’ve been out, and introducing myself by some impersonal text message just didn’t feel right.” He steepled his fingers together. “And since we are, between us, the authors of the current situation, you by leading the team that designed the Alcubierre drive that brought us here, and me for creating the transference process . . . I thought it important that we should meet.”
She stared at him, knowing that her expression had tautened. But the first words that rose to her lips were, “One of them, Mr. Vauquelin? How many bodies do you have running around, precisely?”
“At the moment? Six.” Cyrus Vauquelin shrugged. “One’s on Earth, minding the home office. The other five of us have each taken passage on one of your wonderful ships, to see how TCI’s employees and the colonists have been building the future. Eventually, we’ll all return home and experiment with integrating the experiences we’ve all had, into the body-mind of Cyrus Prime.”
She licked her lips unconsciously, a nervous reaction she couldn’t quite control. Androids took such odd risks with their perceptions of reality. Wouldn’t having six different sets of memories for the same time span drive someone insane? She wondered. How would they know whose reality was which? Except . . . it would all be his. Nevermind. Not my problem. As such, she cleared her throat and picked a word out of his reply to focus on, that didn’t require a degree in philosophy to pursue. “Colonists? Indentured servants, I’d say.” Her voice held challenge, and she met his artificial eyes squarely.
He chuckled, a rusty sound that sounded thoroughly organic. She admired the facility with which he emulated the laugh he’d likely used in old age, and respected that he, in the main, wore his years. At least some of them. What is he, two hundred or so by now? “For indentured servants, they have many of their own ideas, and while they remain contractors, quite a few of them seem to have fascinating hobbies. Such as designing whole new forms of humanity.”
Her eyebrows rose. After a moment, again sidestepping the direction the conversation had taken, Judith asked, “Mr. Vauquelin? If you have billions at your disposal, and six bodies into which you’ve copied your consciousness . . . may I ask why all of them look exactly like you?”
Another rusty chuckle. “I’m sure it seems like vanity. Ego written in very large letters.”
She spread her fingers slightly, acknowledging his point. “And it isn’t?”
“I actually have a very incognito model for when I don’t need or want to be recognized. Periodically, I used to download myself into it, and go paint in the Italian countryside for a month. It did me good not to be Cyrus Vauquelin for a while.” A sigh’s worth of silence. “Of course, since that particular model happened to have the form of a thirty-year old woman, I did have to learn how to deal with being hit upon incessantly.”
Judith had been reaching for her coffee mug, and now nearly dropped it. “You’re having me on.”
A pause. Then Cyrus smiled. “Yes, actually. I am. The spare body’s male, but substantially younger and looks nothing like me.” He shrugged and leaned back. “I like to vacation incognito, Dr. Poulin, but when I travel on business, it’s as myself. And frankly, still, here in my two hundred and sixtieth year? It’s still usually business with me.”
She looked pointedly at the curtain. “You’re not the only one who prefers a little privacy.”
He didn’t shift the curtain back into place. “I wanted to see you in the clear light of day,” Cyrus informed her, tilting his head to the side slightly. “It’s curious that the physicist most responsible for the drive that brought us here today hides in the shadows of her own ship.”
“It’s not my ship. Allied Robotics built it.” She grimaced. “Your son’s company.” And she caught the faint twitch of his eyelids at the reminder. I remembered right. There was bad blood between them, as the history books mention vaguely. And then, another realization: The old man’s still human, in spite of it all. Perhaps I should apologize—
A voice crackled over the loudspeakers, synchronized with a text crawl on the display in front of her: “Ladies and gentlemen and others, the local inhabitants are sending up a ship to dock with us. Medical doctors are aboard, and what we’re told is a welcome committee made up of delegates to local government.”
“Local government?” Judith heard a male voice sneer from several cubicles away, a hint of fear and contempt in that young voice. “Exactly how do ghosts have a government? I thought they were supposed to come here, make like drones, build the place up a bit, and then move on to the next planet.”
“Like convenient migrant workers. Ones who never linger or get underfoot,” Cyrus murmured, his voice contemplative and perhaps a touch ironic. “Always expanding out around the living, like a ring or a halo. Except, soon enough, there will be more among the dead than among the living.”
“That has always been the case, has it not, Mr. Vauquelin?”
His head snapped towards her. And suddenly, his smile widened. “Dr. Poulin, in the hundred and sixty-some years of my second life, I honestly can’t remember any person as young as you are, challenging me so directly.”
Young. Well, I suppose it’s all relative. She rubbed at her knee again, discreetly. “You are, as you said, Mr. Vauquelin, directly responsible for the mess we’re in today. You’re here. What do you propose to do about it?”
“I might ask you the same thing,” he shot back, as a faint thud echoed through the ship’s frame, indicating that a smaller ship had indeed docked with one of the hatches. “You’re here, too, aren’t you? Why did you come all this way? Why aren’t you at the windows, looking down at your bright new future, with the rest of them?” A little gesture towards the ports.
A voice blared over her own for a moment: “Docking clamps secure. All crew members to your stations. Prepare to release seals.”
Judith cleared her throat in the wake of the announcement. “When I was five, my great-grandmother, Amy Tilki-Poulin died.” She hesitated, and then plunged on, the words tasting hot and bitter in her mouth. “The family didn’t hold a funeral. My great-grandpa held a celebration, a send-off. They poured champagne over the coffin and threw confetti, because now, she’d be off to see her family in the stars once more. Her father and step-mother, at least. Twenty years later, we did the same thing for her son, my grandfather. Thirty years after that, my father wanted the same kind of goodbye. I wasn’t even allowed to mourn, because mourning had become unfashionable. After all, we’re all really just going to see them again, aren’t we? Unless they happen to choose to go to a different planet with their second family, and not their first. Or unless they choose to die unrecorded.” She looked away, swallowing.
Cyrus raised his eyebrows, as if inviting her to continue, but when she didn’t speak further, he finally asked, “I assume that someone made a choice with which you didn’t agree?”
Judith stared past him sightlessly, her eyes filled with unshed tears. “My husband decided to die.” It took effort to force the words past her lips, and they felt like hot rocks, scraping the back of her throat as she did. “He was an engineer on the drive team. We’d worked together every day for thirty years. Numbers were practically the only language we spoke, even at home. I was comfortable with the silence. With knowing that we were drawing nearer our goal—well, my goal, anyway. Of seeing our families again while we were still alive. Of exploring the universe with this life,” she added, tapping herself just over the heart. “Not with some other one.” Judith exhaled. “Ten years ago, Paul shot himself. He’d erased his life-recordings beforehand, and left no note. He erased himself as thoroughly as any human can, in this day and age. He chose not to go on. To leave me, his family, our children, and our work. And no one around me knew what to say or do, because, you know what? We’re not allowed to mourn anymore. It’s unseemly.”
A room-temperature hand caught her shoulder, and Cyrus’ voice softened. “Dr. Poulin, I’m sorry. I did not mean to bring up such painful memories, or to mock them.”
She twitched away. “Why come here?” Cyrus persisted.
She shrugged. “To see if there’s any point to letting a ghost of myself continue on without me. To see if any of my family are still here. If I can even recognize them as such. And after that? I . . . don’t know.”
“There’s always a point,” Cyrus told her sharply, his fingers tightening slightly on her shoulder. “Your otherself matters, if not to you, who will die, but to those around you. Which is why your husband’s choice, which he didn’t even discuss with you, was cruel. But even if you don’t have a single solitary person left who’ll mourn your passing, or look for your ghost? You still matter. That’s something I didn’t understand until I died.” He smiled faintly. “I’d pursued immortality out of fear. Fear of losing control over my empire. Fear of dissolution. That other me . . . the first me? He’s gone, yes. He doesn’t know anything about what I’m doing now. But I’m here. And I’m not as frightened as I once was, of letting go. Of losing control. Which is why I’m here, Dr. Poulin. Not to control or force the people of this world. I’m here to observe.”
“Observe?” she repeated, her throat still aching, and moved in spite of herself at his words. He doesn’t sound like a corporate raider, does he? “That’s all?”
“If they ask me for assistance, I’ll help if I can. But yes. I’m here to see what they’ve made of themselves and this world.” He nodded, releasing his grip on her shoulder. “I like to think I’ve learned a few things in the past hundred years or so.”
Gasps from the crowds of people around them caught her attention, and Judith turned to look as androids of various body conformations moved through the passenger compartment. Several looked to be made entirely of metal, more robot than android, but when they spoke, she heard pleasant human voices. Others looked entirely human, though one had, perhaps as a fashion choice, dyed his skin a vivid shade of dark green. “I’m Doctor Anton Tilki,” one of the male-appearing androids called out over the noise of the crowd. Judith’s heart skipped a beat, and she dug out a pair of highly discreet glasses to perch them on her nose and study the man’s face. I suppose he looks a little like my father. Could that really be my great-great grandfather? Tilki isn’t a common name. “They just broke me out of storage today, and I died about a hundred years ago, so I might not be completely current on medical technology, but the corporate types want me to give everyone a physical before we take you down to the surface to find living quarters in the pressurized areas that have an oxygen atmosphere for you. That part may take some time,” he added.
“Why?” came a shout from further down in the passenger area. “Why’s it going to take time?”
“Because,” one of the silver-bodied, more robotic-looking creatures replied, his tone placid, “the areas that aren’t pressurized, and have native atmosphere, are highly caustic, even to our bodies. If we have to go out into those areas, we either need to wear protective suits, like you, or switch bodies to a platform like this one. And personally, I don’t like wearing my work uniform all day.” One three-fingered metal hand reached up and tapped on the rather square-shaped head that was armed with video cameras for optical reception, and little more. “Many of us might have to go into storage in the servers just to make room for you. So . . . yes. It’s going to take a little time, and you’re not all going to go down there at once.”
Judith stayed seated. Her knee twinged too much to trust it with her weight at the moment, but as the various androids worked the room, she caught them—and the various young humans in the area—stealing peeks over at her and Cyrus. Well, mainly at Cyrus, she thought ruefully. Business tycoons who bring immortality to the masses are infinitely more recognizable than mere physicists who open a window in a universe of locked doors.
The doctor, having worked his way around to her private table, paused, staring at Cyrus for a moment, and then nodded. “Sir.” His voice held a slight chill.
“Do I know you?” Cyrus murmured. “Sorry, I may have to access long-term memory storage—oh!” He blinked, clearly taken aback. “Dr. Tilki, of course. We met when your wife Hannah volunteered to test the upload process throughout her final illness.” He paused, and then offered, quietly, “I’d offer my condolences, but . . . I believe she’s here, on this planet, isn’t she?”
“I’ve seen her, yes, now that I’ve been Awakened,” Dr. Tilki replied, his tone clipped, turning back to Judith.
Anton and Hannah Tilki. Those . . . yes, those are the names of my great-grandmother’s parents. “Dr. Tilki?” Judith asked, her voice sounding oddly small in her ears. “Did you have a daughter named Amy?”
The man’s eyes snapped towards her, and he caught the inside of her wrist in gentle, professional fingers, searching for the pulse there. “Yes,” he replied, looking puzzled. “I’m told she’s in storage here, too. Not yet Awakened. They seem to have some damned odd priorities here—”
“She’s my—you’re my great-great-grandfather,” Judith said, staring at the relatively young face of the doctor in front of her with avid eyes. “You died before I was born, and they . . . they woke you today . . . because they knew I was on this ship, didn’t they?” Too much of a coincidence to be anything else.
The doctor appeared rattled, but rallied. “Ma’am, I . . . don’t know.” Doctors hate those words. “But I can promise you that I’ll find out. That we’ll find out.”
Hours later, on the surface, TCI had organized a tour, mostly for Cyrus, but added Judith to the proceedings when they realized who she was. Inside of an environmental suit hastily provided for her frail human body, she stood on an observation platform atop the highest building and stared, wide-eyed, at a city of five hundred thousand souls that didn’t have a single grocery store, and whose people produced no edible crops. “We weren’t expecting humans to travel here for another hundred or so years, and even then, probably on generation ships,” a young man named Arkady apologized to her left. “We simply haven’t bothered with agriculture yet. Which is going to make feeding you lot a trick.”
“The most recent radio signals we had from you were, of course, fifty-five years old,” Judith murmured. “We understood then that you were working on increasing oxygen levels through plants, and that sustainable crops were just a few years away.”
Arkady made a face. “Haven’t been able to solve the chlorine problem. Can’t fix it into the ground, as plants on Earth do with nitrogen. That’ll make the soil even more caustic than it already is. Overall, it’s going to require a domed habitat for humans. Or one that’s underground.”
A corner of her mouth curved up. “Wouldn’t that be ironic? We the living, trapped in graves underground, while the ghosts walk the surface.” But her tone, in spite of her words, held no bitterness. Still, the young-appearing man stared at her, flummoxed.
Dr. Tilki, overhearing, hurried back over to her side. “I’m finding it best not to think of it in terms of a divide between the living and the dead,” he told her, obviously trying to find some way to bridge the gap. “I’m trying to think of everyone as a fellow-traveler in space and time. And, Dr. Poulin, these folk have lived—for lack of a better term—here for over a hundred years. They don’t want to be displaced—”
Judith held up a hand, shushing her ancestor. “And I understand that,” she replied. “I will work to help find a way for us all to coexist on this world.” I will? When did I decide that? “As you’ve all said, it will take time. Fortunately, for most of you, that’s a somewhat renewable resource.”
She caught the smile of relief on Dr. Tilki’s face, and turned to move away, trying to conceal the stiffness of her left leg as she did. Cyrus caught up with her, however, and slid room-temperature fingers under her elbow. “I can walk,” Judith told him with some dignity.
“Yes, of course you can. But the stairs ahead are steep, and not designed with older humans in mind.” Cyrus looked down at her. “You seem to be coming to terms with all us ghosts quickly.”
Judith turned her face away. “That’s because you’re not the ghosts that matter.”
Mid-step, she stumbled, and Cyrus steadied her, keeping her from pitching down a set of spiraling metal stairs that led back down the spire on which they’d been taking in the view of the city. “On the contrary, my dear madam,” he told her dryly. “I’d say that we’re the kind of ghosts that matter the most.”
“Your kind of ghost can be talked to and reasoned with,” she admitted, trying to catch her breath and feeling her heart pound against her ribcage at the closeness of the fall. “Which does make you much more agreeable—if more intractable and aggravating—than the other kind.”
He released her hand and moved to the railing to look out and down at the city once more. “You said on the ship that you were looking for a point,” he called over his shoulder. “For a reason. For something to show you why going on mattered, even if it’s just an echo. Look down! Isn’t watching this grow and develop and change reason enough? What more can you want, but wonder?”
Judith approached the railing cautiously, and stared down at the city once more. Silver spires and glass everywhere against that green-yellow sky. A plane of some sort, flying overhead, piloted by a human consciousness embedded somewhere inside of its frame. And she closed her eyes, thinking, Paul declined wonder. He declined eternity. Or at least a reasonable facsimile. And I’ll never know why.
But here, with her gloved hands curled around the railing, and Cyrus standing silently beside her, Judith could mourn, and let his ghost with all its unanswered questions pass away onto the wind. “When the time comes,” she said quietly, so that only Cyrus could hear her, “I’ll choose eternity.”
By Jackson A. Helms
“If you go into the villages, you need to know what’s fady,” the driver said.
“People have superstitions. If something is not allowed it’s fady. If you violate a fady you will be punished.”
“What’s fady around here?”
“There is no fady in the city. We’re more developed.” He paused. “But there are some who still believe. My grandmother believes it’s fady to work in the morning on a Tuesday.”
“Do you work on Tuesday mornings?”
The driver laughed. “I work every morning.”
The passenger looked out the window. They drove east through fuzzy green rice paddies. Red clay farmhouses, accessible by narrow mud walkways, sat atop earthen mounds in the center of each paddy. She turned and saw the chaos of Antananarivo retreating behind her. The capital’s jumbled houses and narrow alleys clung desperately to rocky outcrops towering over the sea of rice.
She was happy to leave the city. She had spent her first days in Madagascar searching for a driver. Now, finally on her way, she looked forward to a few hours of traveling. She hoped the driver would not expect her to be social.
“My name is Nest,” he said. “Like a bird.”
“That’s a good name. I’m Elaine.” She looked back out the window, trying to imagine life as a Malagasy rice farmer.
“What music do you like?”
“Oh, I like just about anything.”
Now she imagined the island’s first farmers. They sailed here across thousands of miles of open sea, bringing their language and crops with them. From their Asian homeland those seafarers had colonized countless islands across the Pacific—Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island. Crossing the Indian Ocean, they planted their Asian culture here off the African coast. Supposedly the language of some Dayaks in Borneo is so similar to Malagasy that –
“Do you like films?”. Nest interrupted her thoughts.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Have you seen Jurassic Park? It’s my favorite. I think you’ve heard of it. It’s an American film.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it. It’s a good one.”
“Are the dinosaurs real?”
Elaine turned her gaze from the farms outside and met Nest’s eyes in the rearview mirror. “What?”
“Are the dinosaurs in the film real? They look real.”
“No, they’re not real. Dinosaurs used to exist, but they all died long before there were people. Except for birds. Birds are dinosaurs. But the other dinosaurs, like the really big ones, went extinct a long time ago.”
“Then how did they have them in the film?”
“For Jurassic Park I think they used robots and models and animation. Most movies today use animation, with computers.”
“Ah, America is so developed.”
“I don’t know. People are the same everywhere.”
Her mind turned back to Madagascar’s first settlers, the clearers and burners of the forest. They had lived alongside, and hunted to extinction, giant lemurs and dozens of other vanished animals. Eggs of the 10-foot tall elephant bird, roc in Arabian mythology, were over a foot long and their shells could still be found across the island. She had seen one on display in the capital.
The plateau they were crossing gradually expired into a series of jagged ridges. It was here that Elaine finally saw forest. In the sterile landscape they had crossed to get here—two hours of driving—they had not passed any natural vegetation. Not an acre of woods, not any riverside jungle. Just farms, paddies, and cow pastures, crops planted right up to the riverbanks. But here some of the steeper slopes avoided the plow.
Her destination would be similar but larger. A forest haunted by a remnant population of the world’s largest lemur, the indri. Seventeen larger lemurs, some over 300 pounds, had already gone extinct. But the indri, dubiously bumped up to first place and next on the chopping block, still lingered. It had been eliminated from most of its range and now clung to existence in only a few isolated forests. But it was still technically alive.
“That’s tavy.” Nest nodded toward the disheveled farmland at the forest edge. Rough fields studded with blackened tree stumps, the remains of recently burned forest, graded into older and more established farms. “Tavy is when they burn to farm. They’re planting coffee and mangos and bananas.”
“There’s some forest there too. It’s the first we’ve seen today.”
Her enthusiasm for natural areas was not shared by Nest, who continued undeterred. “Have you tried coffee from Madagascar? It’s very good. The soil here is rich because it comes from the forest, and when we burn to make tavy it makes the best coffee. Our zebu—that is what we call beef—is also the best.”
“I’ll have to try it.” Elaine had little interest in sampling cows, or coffee, or anything else that she could get in any city back home. This was Madagascar, and after monotonous days of city and farmland, she just wanted to see forest. But today she would settle on the tourist lodge at its edge.
Elaine put down her spoon and looked up. The waiter, standing attentively in the shadows, interpreted her sudden movement as a summons. Elaine waved him off and continued listening. The mournful sound trickled in, carried weakly on the wind from beyond the forest’s edge behind the restaurant. It hung on the air, like a long hopeless yelp, and then cut out.
“That is the song of the ancestor.” The voice startled Elaine. She had not seen the woman approach. “Sorry to interrupt your meal. I am Barsama, the owner here. How is the food?”
“The food’s great.” She shook Barsama’s hand. “My name is Elaine. What did you call that sound?”
“The song of the ancestor. It’s the call of an indri lemur. Here we believe the first people were indris. Then some of them decided to leave the forest and live on farms. Those people became us. The indris are the people who stayed in the forest. So they are like our ancestors, and they sing sad songs because they miss us.”
“I’m actually here to look for indris.”
“Do you have a guide?”
“Not yet. A friend recommended a man named Dedi.”
The woman paused. “Yes, Dedi was the best guide. Sadly, he died last year.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Dedi loved indris and always knew where to find them. He even carried a staff that was carved like an indri’s head. He said he wanted to live in the forest with them.”
“What happened to him?”
“He went into the forest alone and didn’t come back. His friends went to look for him, and found his body with a large machete cut on his head. We never learned who did it. Dedi was popular with tourists, and earned a lot of money as a guide. Maybe someone was jealous.”
“Geez.” Elaine molded her face into what she hoped was a concerned expression. “So what should I do?”
“I have a friend who is a guide. If you would like, I could ask him to meet you here in the evening. He can help you arrange everything.”
“Sure, that’s perfect. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Enjoy your meal.” Barsama turned and disappeared into the kitchen.
Elaine picked up her spoon, tilted her head to catch the end of a particularly long indri call, and bent back to her meal.
Elaine returned to the restaurant that evening to find a man waiting for her. Alert, wiry, and standing a head shorter than Elaine, the man was difficult to age. He could have been in his late 30s or maybe even 50s. He introduced himself as Elaine approached.
“Good evening. My name is Deux. Are you Miss Lane?”
“Yes, I’m Elaine. What was your name again?”
“Deux, like the number two. Barsama told me you needed a guide.”
“Yeah, I do. Are you the friend she recommended?”
“I am. When would you like to leave?”
“As soon as possible. I feel like I’ve been waiting for days. Is tomorrow too soon?”
He gave a reassuring laugh. “Tomorrow is no problem. It’s easy. I will take care of everything, and tomorrow night you will be sleeping in the forest.”
Deux agreed to meet Elaine early the next morning with provisions and a couple porters. She handed him a stack of bills to buy supplies, then sat at a corner table, picked up the menu, and indulged herself with thoughts of the upcoming hike. She had done it. She had made it to Madagascar, found a remaining chunk of forest, and if all went well, would soon be face to face with the world’s largest surviving lemurs.
They set out the following morning. Deux took the lead, and Elaine followed close behind with her pack. Two porters trailed them, one hefting a nylon sack filled food and cooking supplies. The younger of the two—Elaine thought he could not be older than sixteen—carried on his shoulders a rattan basket containing three thin and noisy chickens. They would carry them into the forest alive and slaughter them as needed.
Even though the forest here was legally protected, farmers had cleared all the easily accessible areas for crops and pastures. The forest edge hung a few hundred meters beyond the road, like a ragged black curtain marking the farthest extent of the settlers’ fires. Recent rains had flooded the pastures. That, and the quickly rising tropical sun, would make crossing the open area the most difficult part of the day’s hike.
Deux moved with the ghostlike stride common to experienced guides the world over. He half ran along the packed red dirt trails, and seemed to wade through the marshes without wetting even his flipflops. Elaine managed not to lose sight of him as he sped ahead of her, and somehow stayed ahead of the porters, although she suspected this was just because they did not want to pass her.
Elaine lifted her eyes from the trail and stole a glance at the forest edge ahead, now a wall of solid monotonous green. Jungle, she thought. Not in the romanticized melodramatic sense that was just a derogatory word for forest. This was jungle in the technical sense, jangla, impenetrable thickets at the edges of clearings and riverbanks. Elaine examined the tangle of shrubs, climbing palms, and five-meter high pandanus with leaves like serrated tentacles. Beyond that wall lay the beckoning shade of the forest.
A frantic shout from behind caused Deux to run to the rear. Elaine turned in time to see the two porters disappear into the trailside pasture grass. Instinctively, she crouched and scanned the landscape for threats, and slowly became aware of Deux’s voice calling her name.
“Lane! Miss Lane!”
“I’m here!” Elaine stood up.
“It’s the chickens, Lane.” Deux called from some hidden dip in the pasture. “They escaped from their basket. Wait in the forest.”
Elaine continued along the trail, chuckling at the thought of three men chasing those skinny chickens through the tall grass. She found it hard to believe they would ever catch them.
She paused at the foot of a small hill to catch her breath and adjust her shoulder straps. The forest edge waited at the top of the rise. Why hadn’t she borrowed Deux’s machete before she went on ahead? The sooner she found a way through the layer of jungle, the sooner she could drop her pack and rest in the shade while she waited for the guys, probably three chickens lighter, to catch up.
As she crossed the lip of the hill, Elaine saw a dark tunnel where the trail penetrated the forest edge. Relieved she would not have to bushwhack after all, she ducked into the narrow opening. Deux must bring people here often, she thought, then jerked her arm as pain shot through her elbow. A drop of blood flowed from a straight slash through her skin.
“Dammit,” she cursed herself, more with disappointment at her clumsiness than with pain. “Come on, Elaine. Pandanus.” She had brushed against the serrated edge of one of the spiraling plant tentacles.
Elaine shuffled to a large fallen log, dropped her pack, twisted her body to wipe the bloody elbow on the side of her shirt, and plopped down in the leaf litter to nap.
It was raining when she woke up. No, not rain, but something else falling on the leaves around her. Elaine flicked her eyes upward to see a dark shape snuffling through the tree tops, occasionally dropping bits of fruit rind or knocking loose dead leaves and twigs. An indri? Not likely, too small and dark. Maybe some other lemur? Elaine hazily rooted through her pack to retrieve her binoculars. But sudden footsteps spooked the visitor into fleeing, its presence attested only by a dampening wave of ruffled vegetation.
“Bonjour, Miss Lane!” It was Deux, newly arrived from the pasture.
“Bonjour! How are the chickens?”
“The chickens are here.” He waved his hand toward the rattan basket on the young porter’s shoulders. Elaine was disappointed to see it was again full of live chickens. The hens’ great escape had been a brave, if ultimately futile, effort.
“So what’s the plan? Do you think we’ll find any indris today?”, she asked.
“No, not today. It is already late. To see indris you must find them in the morning. We will rest here, and then go to our campsite. In the morning we will find indris. I promise.”
The porters set down their load and sat beside Elaine. Deux doled out a snack of peanuts, individually wrapped cheese wedges, and milk biscuits.
“Deux,” Elaine asked after eating a few biscuits and cheese, “Yesterday my driver from Tana told me that if you go anywhere in Madagascar, you have to ask about fady.”
“That is true. Every place has fady.”
“So what’s fady here?” Elaine began shelling a peanut.
“There are two. One, it is fady to piss near the water. It makes the river dirty.”
“That’s a good one,” Elaine said.
“Two, it is fady to kill an indri. People here call indris babakoto. It means ancestor or family. Killing an indri is like killing your friend, and it brings bad luck.”
Elaine thought about the hundreds of miles of farmland she crossed to get here, and the recently burned stumps and new pastures just beyond the forest’s edge. “But you can still cut down forest to make tavy?”
“That is different. It is not killing.”
“But it still kills indris.”
“Yes, but it is not killing. It is only fady to kill indris yourself.”
The young porter suddenly interjected something to Deux. He did not speak English, but had picked up on the discussion of fady and babakoto. A quick discussion followed, ending with the older porter shushing the teenager.
“What did he say?” Elaine asked.
“Gino says a family killed and ate a babakoto two nights ago. But it was far from here,” he reassured her, “maybe five kilometers.” Elaine listened silently, though she knew that five kilometers was not far for an indri or a human. “Fidel says it is just a story. He says the people here do not hunt. They are farmers.”
They reached their campsite on a small ridge an hour before sunset. The ground was mostly clear and Elaine assumed Deux, or some other guide, used the site regularly. She walked a short way into the woods, dropped her pack near a flat spot, and used her knife to clear away a few seedlings. But before she could begin piecing together her simple two-person tent, Deux called her back to the group.
She arrived to find Deux’s tent already erected about twenty meters away. The porters’ shared tent parts were laid out near a used fire pit, next to the sack of food and cooking gear.
“Gino will collect wood for the fire,” Deux informed her. “But first we need to have a fomba ceremony. It is like a prayer. We talk to our ancestors. We thank them, and ask them to forgive us for anything we cut or take from the forest.” Elaine nodded. “You don’t need to say anything. Fidel will do it.”
They joined Fidel in a semi-circle around the base of a moderately sized tree. Buttress roots flowed from the ground up to the tree’s side, forming a series of wedge-shaped hollows around the lower trunk. A perfect dwelling place for small animals or other spirits.
They squatted respectfully as Fidel murmured a short prayer. When it was finished he filled a plastic cup with rum from a bottle and took a drink. He passed the cup to Gino, who drank and passed it to Elaine. She took a sip and passed to Deux. As he tilted his head to finish it, the cup slipped from his hands, ricocheted flatly off a buttress root, and came to a stop in a pile of damp litter in one of the dark compartments at the tree’s base.
Elaine remained motionless, trying to maintain the demeanor of a respectful outsider to this fumbled rite. Gino and Fidel looked expectantly toward the guide.
After a moment Deux laughed to relieve the silence, bent to the cup and brought it to his mouth a final time, making a confident show of draining the last clinging drops.
His recovery appeased the porters, who hopped up and went to gather firewood. Deux began silently erecting the porters’ tent, and Elaine left to finish setting up her own.
She emerged later to find two chickens tethered under an overhanging boulder on the edge of the camp clearing. A glance toward the fire revealed the naked body of the third, lying in splash of blood on a flat-topped rock. The smell of burning feathers wafted from the low fire.
“Tonight, we will eat the first chicken,” Deux said. “The chickens there,” he gestured at the tethered hens under the overhang, “will eat the food we throw away, and we will kill one tomorrow and one the day after. This way the food is always fresh. There are no refrigerators in the forest.”
Elaine smiled politely at his joke, then went to rinse her hands in a creek.
Elaine wanted to keep sleeping but her bladder would not cooperate. She slowly opened an eye. Still dark. There might be time to go back to sleep after pissing. She sat up, pushed her sleeping bag down to her waist, and put on a shirt. Then she lay back down and wriggled her legs out of the sleeping bag and into her hiking pants.
Keeping one eye closed, both to preserve her night vision and to emerge as little as possible into wakefulness, she grabbed her water bottle, wrestled her way out of the tent flap and switched on her headlamp. She wandered a short way into the trees, scanned the ground to make sure it was clear, and switched off the light. She closed her open eye and squatted in the darkness, half dozing to the pleasant sound of urine drumming on the leaf litter. When she finished she reopened the one eye, tipped a splash of water onto her hand and rinsed herself.
She pulled up her pants, took a few steps toward her tent, then switched on the light to find a glowing face staring back at her.
Elaine let out an incoherent cry and launched her water bottle at the apparition.
“Shit, it’s just you, Deux. You scared the crap out of me.”
She placed a calming hand on her chest as her water bottle rolled to an ineffectual stop near Deux’s feet.
“I’m sorry Miss Lane. Is it time to go?” Deux, who had no watch, was apparently taking his time cues from her.
“No, I was just pissing. It’s still early. I’m going back to sleep for a while.”
“I see.” Deux rubbed his bloodshot eyes and returned the way he had come.
Elaine leaned against a tree for a minute and let out a last quiet “shit,” then fetched her water bottle and returned to the comfort of her sleeping bag.
At sunrise she rinsed off in the creek, this time searching out a spot far from camp. She wanted to avoid a repeat of last night’s creepy experience. She shuddered again at the memory of Deux’s tired red eyes appearing at her vulnerable moment. Then she pushed the image away and lowered herself into the cold water.
She followed the sound of the porters’ voices back to camp. As she approached she felt the conversation speed up and get heated. She had wanted to learn Malagasy, but after a week all she could manage was an occasional misaotra—thank you. It was hard to force herself to learn the new language when most people spoke to her in French or English. Here in the forest her language deficit was a severe handicap. Unable to speak directly to Gino or Fidel, she had to field her questions to them through Deux. And there was no hope of understanding camp conversations in real time.
Elaine arrived at the clearing to sudden silence. Deux sat alone on a log with his back to her, while Gino and Fidel squatted on the opposite side of the low fire.
“Good morning everyone.”
The porters responded with uninterested nods and began fiddling with pots and cooking gear. Deux turned around and cheerfully asked if she was ready to see indris.
The two of them left camp, Deux and his machete leading the way. After minutes of silence, Elaine asked how Deux was doing.
“I’m fine. It is good to be walking in the forest. It is like medicine for your mind.”
“Gino and Fidel don’t seem happy. It sounded like you were arguing earlier.”
Deux waved his hand dismissively. “They are idiots.” He pointed to his head with his free hand. “They have nothing in their brains.”
“Why do you say that?”
“They want to go home. They say they are afraid! I hired them for two nights, but they want to leave today. Lazy.” Deux turned around, and casually waved his machete toward her. “Why didn’t you call me earlier? If I had more time, I would have found better people to hire. Friends that I could trust.”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t plan ahead. I didn’t know any guides here.”
“It’s okay.” His smile returned. “This happens all the time. You and I will still enjoy the forest.”
“We’ll stay one more night, and leave tomorrow afternoon?”
“Yes, we will.” Deux froze. “Listen” he whispered.
An indri song floated in the air and was joined by another. Soon several indris were calling repeatedly to each other. The calls seemed to come from every direction, meeting and overlapping around their heads. Each call was a slow whine, like a drawn out toy trumpet note, some descending, some ticking upward at the end.
Elaine froze and let the songs move through her. She was thousands of miles from home, and now the indri calls pulled her even further away. Further back. In her mind she again traveled to the island’s first farmers. She watched them penetrate inland from the beaches over generations, imagined their first encounters with indris. She thought about the animals those people encountered and drove extinct over the centuries. The elephant birds, Malagasy hippos, lemurs even larger than indris. Elaine knew the indris were communicating with each other, but the songs seemed like messages for her from her own history—from the babakotos.
Deux nudged her and pointed upward. An indri leaped into view from the periphery and landed on a nearby trunk. It did not jump or fall into the tree, but rather shot in horizontally as if fired from a gun. Coming to a stop with its arms gripping the smooth trunk, it pointed its doglike head at her. Its yellow-green eyes met Elaine’s. Before she could fully process the brief tête-à-tête, the animal was off. Bouncing from tree to tree like an errant ping pong ball, the tailless lemur was a hundred meters away in seconds.
“Let’s go” Deux said, and trotted after the indri.
Elaine followed, running off the trail and angling downward along the side of a ridge. She reached back to steady her bouncing pack, and lost her balance. Her right foot slipped leftward underneath her on the slick incline. She landed heavily on her hip, and straightened her left leg to ride in a controlled slide down the rest of the slope. As soon as she hit the bottom she was up and after Deux again.
He stopped and waved her over. Elaine arrived panting and dirty to find Deux calmly holding up three fingers. She looked around to see two indris nearby and a third in the distance. She had no idea which of them was the one they had pursued. The indris were quiet now. They still called occasionally, but the songs were interrupted by feeding breaks as they foraged for young leaves.
It was over in fifteen minutes. The far indri disappeared first, followed by the other two, and Elaine had no desire to pursue them further. She had had her moment. The forest was quiet again save for the buzzing of cicadas.
“That was amazing, Deux. Thanks for finding them for me.”
“I told you it was easy. I think we can find them again tomorrow morning, before we leave the forest.”
He ambled back up the ridge, carrying his sandals in his free hand to allow his toes better purchase in the muddy incline. Back on the trail he put them back on his feet and shot a smile toward Elaine. “Now we eat.”
Elaine smelled the boiling chicken as they neared camp. The scent seemed to agitate Deux. He picked up his pace and stalked with hasty strides, energetically swinging his machete. Bursting into the clearing, he barked a question at the porters. Gino stepped back submissively, while the older Fidel responded in a quick quiet tone.
His answer enraged Deux, who stepped closer to Fidel, towering over him now. Deux began to shout, and Elaine watched in horror as he lifted his machete above his shoulder. The blade whistled downward and embedded itself with a thud into a nearby tree trunk. Deux stamped away in silence.
Fidel stared after him a moment, then gathered up his gear and began walking away along the trail out. Gino flashed Elaine an apologetic look and ran to join the other porter. Elaine watched them disappear, then looked around the camp. A pot of stew simmered over the fire. Deux’s machete was still half-buried in the tree—the one with the buttress roots where they had performed the fomba.
She pulled the blade free, turned to set it near the fire, and saw that Deux had returned and was sitting calmly on a log.
“They are idiots,” he spat. “If they don’t want to stay two nights, okay. But it is only noon. They should stay at least until the evening.”
“It’s not a big deal. It’s just a few hours.”
“But they cooked all our food.” He waved his arm at the rock overhang, now conspicuously devoid of any tethered fowl. “We were supposed to cook one chicken today and one tomorrow.”
“That’s fine,” Elaine tried to calm him. “We can just eat this today, and heat up whatever’s left tomorrow morning.”
He waved away the suggestion without looking up.
Elaine spent the afternoon reading in her tent, giving Deux time and space to cool off. She could not understand why he had flipped on the porters. It was a little annoying that they wanted to leave a day early, but so what? And if she were a porter and did not plan on staying another night, she would want to leave around noon too. It would take a while to get back to the road, and the tropical sun sets early. It was considerate of them to cook all the food before they left.
But Deux did not see it that way. And that crazy machete thing? She realized there was another reason she was giving Deux space—she was afraid of him.
This made her worry even more. In all her travels, all the guides she had worked with in other countries, she had never been afraid of someone. Was she slipping, losing her edge? Getting too old and cautious to explore?
No, this was legitimate. Even the porters were wigged out. He shouted and buried a machete in a tree! Their fomba tree, no less, where they had asked permission to enter the forest.
And now she was alone with him. Just one more night, she consoled herself. She had not come all this way, gone through all that effort to find a real Malagasy forest, just to retreat because some second-rate guide lost his cool.
A light rain drummed on the tent’s mesh top. She put down her book and crawled out into the dark to put on the rain fly.
Afterwards she wandered over to the camp clearing to reheat dinner. Deux had already gotten the fire going, and had erected a waterproof canopy over the clearing. He was maneuvering the pot of chicken over the flames as Elaine approached.
“Good evening, Miss Lane.”
Elaine caught a whiff of rum as he greeted her. His eyes were more bloodshot than they had been during their encounter the previous evening. There must have been some fomba rum left in the bottle.
“Good evening, Deux.”
“The food will be ready soon.”
“Thanks for heating it up.” Elaine figured she should try to calm Deux’s emotions. But she was always so clumsy with these things. “And thanks for organizing this whole trip.”
Deux did not respond. The rain intensified, pounding now on the canopy overhead.
“I know it was really short notice.” She gave it another awkward try. “But I think the trip has already been worth it. It was amazing seeing the indris this morning. And we’ll have some more time in the forest tomorrow.”
“You lied to me earlier.”
“What do you mean?”
“You said you hired me because you didn’t know any guides. But I know that you asked about Dedi.”
“I did ask about Dedi. But I didn’t know him. I just heard about him from a friend.”
“Dedi was an idiot. But the tourists loved him. Foreigners don’t know anything.” Deux turned his bloodshot eyes towards her. “It is not hard to find indris. We all grew up in the forest.”
Elaine feared provoking Deux further, so stayed silent and tried to look concerned. Just make it through dinner, she thought, then get back to your tent.
“I can speak to foreigners too.”
“Yeah, your English is great.”
“I learned it at the mine. All this land used to belong to a French mining company. I worked there for a long time. But then the mine closed and the foreigners left.”
“When did that happen?”
“It was long ago. But then they made the land into a national park. They should have given it to us. We need land for tavy. They were idiots.”
“But now you work in the park as a guide. And there’s not much forest left. What about the indris and everything else that lives here?”
“You sound like Dedi. He never worked at the mine. He was too young. He was happy when they made the national park. Being a guide was his first job. Other people had more experience, but Dedi got all the money. All he cared about was indris. He didn’t think about people. Idiot.”
Elaine had no desire to get involved in local politics or dredge up an old murder. She ladled some stew into a bowl and began gulping it down. Deux did the same, and they passed the rest of the meal in silence. As soon as she finished eating, she muttered a lame excuse about being tired and shuffled back to her tent.
Elaine woke in the darkness, her stomach twisted with anxiety. Her dreams must have been disturbing but she could not recall them. Lazily she reached for her watch where she had set it beside her sleeping mat. Only midnight. Her bladder began to nudge her outside. But something held her back. She tried to convince herself she did not have to go, or that she was too tired to get up. But she knew she was afraid.
Come on Elaine, she thought, you have been camping for years. No reason to be afraid of the dark.
But her tent, which usually felt like a protective home, now seemed vulnerable. She was aware that all that separated her from the rain, from the dark, from anything—or anyone—was a thin nylon sheet. Her tiny two-person tent was little more than a sleeping bag, and did not really protect her from anything except being seen. If she turned on her headlamp she would not even have that, since her silhouette would be illuminated for all the world. She, in contrast, could not see beyond the enclosing tent walls. In this rain she would never hear approaching footsteps.
She reached up and stroked the sloping tent ceiling inches above her nose. Someone could be standing outside right now. It would be obvious from the shape of the tent where her head was. One slash of a machete could tear right through the tent and into her face.
She waited but the imagined blow never came. This is ridiculous, she thought. Why are you intentionally scaring yourself?
Still, it took several minutes to work up the courage to leave her tent. And she did not dare use a headlamp. In darkness she navigated the space outside her tent and squatted, taking comfort in knowing the rain would mask her sounds as well. Then she darted back inside.
At dawn she emerged to a dripping world. She made her way to the fire and poked at the damp ashes. They were scheduled to have one last early morning walk to find indris, then hike out in the afternoon. But Deux was nowhere to be seen. Probably hungover.
Elaine took the opportunity to bathe again in the creek. When she returned and found the camp still deserted, she took down her tent and loaded her gear into her pack. Then she sat and read, enjoying the indri calls in the distance.
By late morning the calls died away, and Elaine accepted that she had missed her last opportunity to see indris. But she would be damned if she missed out on food. She got a fire going and heated up the last dregs of their chicken and potato stew. It was noon by the time she finished eating and cleaned up. Deux’s absence had gone from awkward to infuriating. They needed to leave soon if they were to make it to the lodge by dark, but Deux had not even gotten out of bed.
She walked over to his tent, stepping loudly so he would hear her before she arrived. The tent flap remained shut. Elaine stopped a few feet away, unsure how to proceed. She hoped he was still in there and not roaming the woods nearby. But something told her the tent was empty. She nudged one wall with her foot.
No response. She kicked the tent, then reached out and shook it. There was no one inside.
She realized then that she hated him. She hated how he had creeped on her that first night, how he had treated Gino and Fidel, how he had ruined her last evening and morning in the forest, and now she hated him for putting her in this position. What the hell was she supposed to do? Keep waiting? She had to hike out soon, but needed Deux to guide her, and he was probably passed out against a tree somewhere, still drunk from the night before.
Fuck him, she thought. In the end she was only responsible for herself and her own gear, all of which she could carry out on her back. The trail was clear, and even if she got lost she had an escape azimuth. No matter where she was in the forest, she could use her compass to head due north and eventually hit the road somewhere near the lodge. Elaine returned to camp, shouldered her pack, and set out.
When she had gone about twenty meters, she turned around, shouted a farewell “Fuck you,” and continued walking.
She walked with her head down and eyes on the trail, alert to the buzzing cicadas and bird calls. She stopped for a moment to adjust her pack straps, then the air around her exploded with whining trumpet sounds. Indris. They were more hyperactive than she had ever heard them. The songs bounced at her from multiple directions and repeated themselves frantically. She searched the forest canopy in vain.
Her heart quickened and she picked up her pace. Thinking she might get another glimpse of indris after all, she carried her pack forward at a lumbering trot.
Then she froze. Deux straddled the trail ahead of her, arms akimbo. His machete hung from his right hand, but he was otherwise unencumbered. No water bottle, no pack, no sack of cooking gear. He lifted his face from the ground until their gazes met. His eyes were dark, like the hyper-dilated orbs of a deep sea fish.
“Deux? What’s going on?” No response. “I looked for you but you weren’t in your tent. So I figured I’d hike out and meet up with you later.”
Deux walked toward her, arms swinging languidly. He seemed oblivious, as if her were whacked out of his skull on some hallucinogen.
“Deux, stop! Hey! Deux!”
Deux continued his approach. Elaine took a step backward, then another. Soon she was frantically backing away with her arms up, all the while shouting to get Deux to acknowledge her, to pull him back into humanity from wherever he was. She stumbled and her pack carried her backwards. She fell into a half sitting position, anchored to the ground by her gear.
Still Deux approached. He was fifteen meters away now. His right hand gave an anticipatory twitch, moving the machete blade slightly upward. The fucker’s going to murder me, she thought.
Elaine’s hands scrabbled for the pack’s waist belt. She unclasped it and tried to stand, but the chest clasp was still secured. Fuck, fuck, fuck, she thought, as she fought to free herself. Deux reached for her with his free left hand. Then the chest clasp finally snapped free and she rolled to the right and scrambled to her feet.
She felt Deux’s fingers grasp at her shirt collar, slip away, and then curl around her right forearm. He jerked her around so that she faced him, and pointed the machete in her face.
“You lied to me. Foreigners are all the same. Idiots!”
Elaine tore her arm free and pushed him hard in the chest with both hands. He tripped over her pack and sprawled backwards. She sprinted past him as he fell and pounded down the trail.
Deux did not follow. After a while she slowed to a jog, then a walk as she took stock of her situation. She had been so focused on escape that she abandoned her pack when she ran. She would not have been able to retrieve it anyway with Deux right there, let alone run with it. If she made it out she could come back for it later. But her worst case escape plan—go due north to get to the road—was ruined. It would be difficult to navigate across country without her compass, especially in the dark. Her only option now was to stick to the trail, move fast, and get out by sundown.
A crash exploded to her right. Deux must have gone off trail to cut her off, and now he erupted from the vegetation, angling toward her at a wild sprint. She began to run, but Deux knocked her over with a flying tackle and scrambled on top of her. He pinned her arms with his hands and straddled her. His machete, tethered to his wrist with a leather thong, trailed along the ground.
Deux’s dark eyes stared into Elaine’s from inches away. Then he screamed in rage, an endless wild yell. His sour rum breath flowed into her mouth and nose and eyes. He paused to breath then screamed again, tensing all his muscles and pouring into her his life’s anger.
Elaine struggled, but his grip was pitiless. Over and over he screamed, exhausting himself with each effort. Then he lowered his gaze from her face to search her body. He paused, then removed his left hand from her arm. It hovered over her throat before moving down to grope her breast.
Elaine pushed out her freed right arm, searching for something to grab, to push against. Her fingers wrapped around a piece of smooth hard wood.
Deux’s hand fumbled with the buttons on her hiking shirt. This was her moment. She slammed the wood against his head with a crack, then heaved against the ground with her right leg, throwing him off her left side. She scrambled to her feet, and he followed. Wielding the wood with two hands now, she jabbed the end at his eyes. He leaned back and the blow struck him on the nose and upper lip, sending him reeling to the ground.
Elaine darted off the trail, trying to put distance and concealing vegetation between her and Deux.
When she was sure she was alone she slowed down and got her bearings. The piece of wood was still her hand. It would be dark in half an hour or so. Keeping the sun to her left, she walked in a vaguely northward direction. The forest edge must be close.
She stepped right to go around a large pandanus, only to find more of the plants behind. An impenetrable thicket of stiff serrated leaves reared out of the ground like a wall of swords. She followed the barrier to the right, searching for an opening in the fading light.
A lone indri call broke the silence. It was followed by others, all of them far away, wafting in on the fading light. Then she heard footsteps behind her. She turned to see Deux just visible in the distance, hacking at vegetation with his machete.
In a panic she dove into the wall of pandanus. Holding her wood in front of her to protect her face she shouldered her way into the plants. The leaf edges tore her clothes and skin. But the plants did not give way. She was trapped.
“Miss Lane!” Deux shouted, and she heard the manic strike of machete against branches and vines. He was close. “Miss Lane!”
Elaine hurled herself to the ground to crawl under the arching pandanus leaves. A few meters into the thicket, she heard Deux hit the wall behind her with a crash and another shout. He began to hack a tunnel through with his machete. The indri calls were frantic now, maybe half a dozen or more animals singing to each other through the tree tops.
Elaine pushed herself onward until the leaves opened above her. Standing up, she felt a breeze on her face. Dry soil crunched under her feet. She was standing on charred cinders.
Tavy, she thought. I’m out of the forest.
“Miss Lane!” She turned to see Deux’s machete pierce through the pandanus jungle and cut the air near her face. “Miss Lane!”
Then Deux wailed in pain. His arm and machete snapped back into the thicket as he wrestled with the toothy plants. She watched him flail against the entangling vegetation, and then slowly retreat back into the forest. In the darkness it seemed like the plants themselves were dragging him away. The indris called louder and fiercer than ever.
“Miss Lane,” Deux said again, but soft now, pleading. “Help, Miss Lane.” Elaine did not move. His wails turned to sobs, then ended in an abrupt rasping gurgle.
Electric lights twinkled in the distance across the tavy. Elaine followed them to a village and stumbled to the steps of the nearest farmhouse where an old woman sat cross-legged on a porch.
A final mournful indri song sailed to them across the tavy.
“Ah, you know the ancestor?” the woman asked and pointed to Elaine’s hand.
In the harsh glow of the porchlight Elaine examined for the first time the wood she had carried out of the forest. It was not a log, but a staff, and its end was carved in the likeness of an indri’s head.