There are six arc-worlds in the part of the universe claimed by humanity, each containing enough dna, data and technology to restart our entire species in case something happens. Something can be anything from a new plague to the hingari deciding humanity should simply not be or some unknown alien menace wanting to simply clear this area of space away because we are too noisy.
Each arc-world is shielded and protected by different ways and means. Orien and I haven’t been told how this one is protected, only that we’re living here now. It’s not a prison. We’ve been told we can leave. But we have seen hingari ships. We know how powerful the aliens humanity is fighting can be. We know what it costs to defeat them. We would be allowed to leave, but under such strict conditions that freedom would become a prison all its own.
Orien is taking it far better than I. Perhaps because he is a solider, or because medics are used to such things. That’s what I tell myself sometimes, but I know it’s not that at all. He’s old, and tired, and more snythetic than human now. There are limits to what can be done to the human body. To how long people can live, or want to survive. To how much can he done to a person before they finally decide it is too much.
I’ve been travelling Arc-6 to get to understand it. Wandering. Exploring.
For a long time, I never did that. Reflected. I’m the oldest transfer I know of by a good while, and few people become transfers these days. Fashions come back into style all the time, but technologies don’t. The technology to create transfers never matured since it was too easy to abuse. And we scared people because we’re not people at all. I’m a cylinder on treads with limbs when I need them, a projection of a ‘human’ self when I have to use it, a viewscreen-face interface on my body so people don’t feel like they’re talking to some kind of robot.
But I’m not like them. I’m old. I’ve rebuilt and fixed myself so often I’ve lost count, fixed vehicles and technologies for so long I once fixed someone’s arm without even consciously thinking about it. I don’t know why I’ve survived so long. But I’m not a hero: I’ve never fought in wars, never been involved in politics. I’ve just fixed things in the background, like mechanics always do. And done other things, learned to be more than that, when it was no longer enough.
When Orien made me want to be more. And he is old, as humans judge old. And he is dying. And I’m not. He loves me and I love him, but neither of us wanted to be each other. I never wanted to build a faux-human body to use as ‘me’, he never wanted to be a transfer. And we both know that. But he will die and it will hurt me. It’s been hurting me for years, knowing it was coming. Trying to imagine his death to inoculate myself against it.
He could live, if he truly wanted. There are experimental technologies. Transfer programs to dump the entire human mind into a cloned body. They’re not safe, but living is never safe. We don’t know if any of it can work, after the vortex Brin put us through.
I could die, if I wanted to. It wouldn’t be easy: I’m just old and tough and in the end just a mind turned to information inside a box of a body. Destroy enough of me, in the right way, and I can’t repair myself. Can’t survive.
I won’t die for him. He won’t live for me. And I don’t know if I am fine with what that says about me. So I wander, and think, and lose myself in the movement of my treads, in the information an arc-world has to offer.
It takes him almost six hours to find me, limping over a hill full of ancient cloned people. He’s limping. I fix it, but the limp always returns. Going through the vortex Brin created so we could tell people about the destruction of McLan damaged both of us. I will heal, in time. He won’t.
“Busy?” he says, and his grin is soft and his eyes bright.
“Talk.” He comes over, sits on the edge of the hill and studies my viewscreen. “Please. Dar.”
I lick my lips in the viewscreen, flick it off. Talk. Days of ruminations spill out, nights of worry becoming almost coherent. Brin is dead, and was our friend, and I’m half speaking about her, and Orien, and me and it all falls apart at that because I don’t have the words I want to have.
“Hey.” He stands, hugs my chassis gently, draws back to run a hand along my side. “It’s all right, Dar. Honestly, it is. I don’t think you’re a coward. I’m not brave enough to-to do what you do, to keep going, to keep learning like you have. I might be, but I don’t want to find out.” He pulls his hand back and lets out a soft, bitter laugh. “I love you, but not enough to keep going. Not as a transfer, not by other means. I don’t keep up with the medical journals anymore. Everything is slipping away and I don’t have it in me to chase after it.”
“I can fix that limp for good,” I say, soft.
He smiles at the joke. I don’t need the viewscreen for him to know I’m joking. There is no one else I can say that about. “You’re one of those things, Dar,” he says, and rests his head against my viewscreen. “You’re loving it here: learning how this world works, that humanity has actually thought of the future without arrogance.”
“That I won’t be alone,” I whisper.
He raps me gently on the top. “It’s not just that. You know it’s not just that.”
Orien pulls back and laughs, pressing fingers lightly into my chassis. “I love that you don’t, Dar. You’ve never wanted to be famous, never seen yourself as more than you are, another person – in whatever form – living out their life. Most people can’t do that, can’t just shut their egos off and learn when they need to, listen when they have to. We just can’t.” He pulls his fingers away slowly, playfully, sending sparks across my systems.
“I never, ever claimed to be fair.” He touches me again, to win a gasp and then a yelp before pulling back. “You’re going to live, Dar. Make new friends, new lives. I’ll live on inside your head, in memories that you’ll never get rid of – even the ones you want to. The times we had, the people we were. You’ll tell people, and they’ll remember, and I – I haven’t been the same, since Brin put us through the wormhole. Inside. I don’t know why.”
“I know.” I reach over, extending every limb my body has, and hug him tightly. “Some things not even love can fix.”
“If it could,” he whispers, and hugs me back. “Dar. Now.”
I hug him. Tight as I can. Tight as he hugs me. I squeeze, and he squeezes, and his body fails first. It takes everything I have not to fix his systems as he collapses to the ground, and he whispers garbled words, fingers touching my chassis. Trying for a connection. For a farewell.
And I reach down with my arms. And I hold him. And I make soft keening sounds as his smile finally goes and everything that was Orien is gone.
And everything I am is still here.