for Gardner Dozois
I faced the doctor across her desk.
The room was quiet, the walls were pale or white, but somehow I couldnt
see details. There was a blank in my mind, no past to this moment; everything
blurred by the adrenalin in my blood. You have three choices,
she said gently. You can upload; you can download. Or you must
My reaction to those terms, upload, download, was embarrassing. I tried
to hide it and knew Id failed. Go back? I said bitterly,
and in defiance. To the city of broken dreams? Why would I ever
want to do that?
Dont be afraid, Romy. The city of broken dreams may have
become the city of boundless opportunity.
Then I woke up: Simons breathing body warm against my side, Arcs
unsleeping presence calm in my cloud. A shimmering, starry night above
us and the horror of that doctors tender smile already fading.
It was a dream, just a dream.
With a sigh of profound relief, I reached up to pull my stars closer
and fell asleep again floating among them; thinking about Lei.
I was born in the year 1998, CE. My parents named me Romanz Jolie Davison;
I have lived a long, long time. Ive been upgrading since uppers
were called experimental longevity treatments. I was a serial-clinical-trialer,
when genuine extended lifespan was brand new. Lei was someone I met
through this shared interest; this extreme sport. We were friends, then
lovers, and then ex-lovers who didnt meet for many years, until
one day we found each other again on the first big Habitat Station,
in the future wed been so determined to see (talk about meeting
cute!). But Lei had always been the risk-taker, the hold-your-nose-and-jump
kid. I was the cautious one. Id never taken an unsafe treatment,
and Id been careful with my money too (you need money to do super-extended
lifespan well). We had our reunion and drifted apart, two lives that
didnt mesh. One day, when I hadnt seen her for a while,
I found out shed gone back to Earth on medical advice.
Had we kept in touch at all? I had to check my cache, which saddened
me, although its only a mental eyeblink. Apparently not. Shed
left without a good-bye, and Id let her go. I wondered if I should
try to reach her. But what would I say? I had a bad dream, I think it
was about you, are you okay? I needed a better reason to pick up the
traces, so I did nothing.
Then I had the same dream again; exactly the same. I woke up terrified,
and possessed by an absurd puzzle: had I really just been sitting in
that fuzzy doctors office again? Or had I only dreamed I was having
the same dream? A big Space Station is a haunted place, saturated with
information that swims into your head and you have no idea how. Sometimes
a premonition really is a premonition: so I asked Station to trace her.
The result was that time-honoured brush-off: it has not been possible
to connect this call.
Relieved, I left it at that.
I was, I am, one of four Senior Magistrates on the Outer Reaches circuit.
In Jupiter Moons, my hometown, and Outer Reaches major population
centre, I often deal with Emergents. They account for practically all
our petty offences, sad to say. Full sentients around here are too law-abiding,
too crafty to get caught, or too seriously criminal for my jurisdiction.
Soon after my dreams about Lei, a young SE called Beowulf was up before
me, on a charge of Criminal Damage and Hooliganism. The incident was
undisputed. A colleague, another Software Entity, had failed to respond
you too to the customary and friendly sign-off have
a nice day. In retaliation Beowulf had shredded a stack of files
in CPI (Corporate and Political Interests, our Finance Sector); where
they both worked.
The offence was pitiful but the kid had a record. Hed run out
of chances, his background was against him, and CPI had decided to make
a meal of it. Poor Beowulf, a thing of rational light, wearing an ill-fitting
suit of virtual flesh for probably the first time in his life, stood
penned in his archaic, data-simulacrum of wood and glass for two mortal
subjective hours, while the CPI advocate and Beowulfs public defender
scrapped over the price of a cup of coffee.
Was Beowulfs response proportionate? Was there an intention of
offence? Was it possible to establish, by precedent, that you
too had the same or comensurate customary and friendly
standing, in law, as have a nice day?
Poor kid, it was a real pity hed tried to conceal the evidence.
I had to find him guilty, no way around it.
I returned to macro-time convinced I could at least transmute his sentence
but my request ran into a Partnership Director Id crossed swords
with before. She was adamant, and we fell out. We couldnt help
sharing our quarrel. No privacy for anyone in public office, its
the law out here and I think a good one. But we could have kept it down.
The images we flung to and fro were lurid. I recall eyeballs dipped
in acid, a sleep-pod lined with bloody knives
and then we got
nasty. The net result (aside from childish entertainment for idle citizens)
was that I was barred from the case. Eventually I found out, by reading
the court announcements, that Beowulfs sentence had been confirmed
in the harshest terms. Corrective custody until a validated improvement
shown, but not less than one week.
In Outer Reaches we use expressions like night and day, week and hour,
without meaning much at all. Not so the Courts. A week in jail meant
the full Earth Standard version, served in macro-time.
Id been finding the Court Sessions tiring that rotation, but I
walked home anyway to get over my chagrin, and unkink my brain after
a day spent switching in and out of virtual time. I stopped at every
Ob Bay, making out I was hoping to spot the first flashes of the spectacular
Centaur Storm wed been promised. But even the celestial weather
was out to spoil my day. Updates kept telling me about a growing chance
that show had been cancelled.
My apartment was in the Rim, Premium Level, it still is. (Why not? I
can afford it). Simon and Arc welcomed me home with bright, ancient
music for a firework display. Theyd cleared the outward wall of
our living space to create our own private Ob Bay, and were refusing
to believe reports that it was all in vain. I cooked a meal, with Simon
flying around me to help out, deft and agile in the rituals of a human
kitchen. Arc, as a slender woman, bare-headed, dressed in silver-grey
coveralls, watched us from her favourite couch.
Simon and Arc
They sounded like a firm of architects, as I often
told them (I repeat myself, its a privilege of age). They were
probably, secretly responsible for the rash of fantasy spires and bubbles
currently annoying me, all over Stations majestic open spaces
Why is Emergent Individual law still set in human terms?
I demanded. Why does a Software Entity get punished for criminal
damage when nothing was damaged; or not for more than a fraction
of a millisecond?
My housemates rolled their eyes. Itll do him good,
said Arc. Only a human-terms thinker would think otherwise.
I was in for some tough love.
What kind of a dreadful name is Beowulf, anyway? inquired
It's Ancient Northern European. Beowulf was a monster
I caught myself, recalling I had no privacy. No! Correction.The
monster was Grendel. Beowulf was the hero, a protector of his people.
He is a worm though, isnt he?
I sighed, and took up my delicious bowl of Tom Yum, swimming with chili
pepper glaze. Yes, I said glumly. Hes ethnically
worm, poor kid.
Descended from a vicious little virus strain, Arc pointed
out. He has tendencies. He cant help it, but we have to
be sure theyre purged.
I dont know how you two can be so prejudiced.
Humans are so squeamish, teased Simon.
Humans are human, said Arc. Thats the fun of
They were all of them our children, begotten not created, as the old
saying goes. Theres no such thing as a sentient AI not born of
human mind. But never purely human . . . Simon, my embodied housemate,
had magpie neurons in his background. Arc took human form for pleasure,
but her being was pure information, the elemental stuff of the universe.
They had gone beyond us, as children do. We had become just a strand
in their past
The entry lock chimed. It was Anton, my clerk, a slope-shouldered, barrel-chested
bod with a habitually doleful expression. He looked distraught.
Apologies for disturbing you at home Rom. May I come in?
He sat on Arcs couch, silent and grim. Two of my little dream-tigers,
no bigger than geckos, emerged from the miniature jungle of our bamboo
and teak room divider and sat gazing at him, tails around their paws.
Those are pretty
said Anton at last. New. Whered
you get them?
I made them myself, Ill share you the code. Whats
Weve got trouble. Beowulf didnt take the confirmation
I noticed that my ban had been lifted: a bad sign. Whats
Oh, nothing much. Its in your updates, of which youll
find a ton. Hes only removed himself from custody
Oh, God. Hes back in CPI?
No. Our hero had a better idea.
Having feared revenge instantly, I felt faint with relief.
But hes been traced?
You bet. Hes taken a hostage, and a non-sentient Lander.
Hes heading for the surface, right now.
The little tigers laid back their ears and sneaked out of sight. Arcs
human form drew a long, respectful breath. What are you guys going
Go after him. What else? I was at the lockers, dragging
out my gear.
Jupiter Moons has no police force. We dont have much of any institutions
like that: everyone does everything. Of course I was going along with
the Search and Rescue team, Beowulf was my responsibility. I didnt
argue when Simon and Arc insisted on coming too. I dont like to
think of them as my minders (or my curators), but they are both, and
Im a treasured relic. Simon equipped himself with a heavy-duty
hard suit, in which he and Arc would travel freight. Anton and I would
travel cabin. Our giant neighbour was in a petulant mood, so we had
a Mag-Storm Drill in the Launch Bay. . . . During which we heard from
our Lander that Jovian magnetosphere storms are unpredictable. Neural
glitches caused by wayward magnetism, known as soft errors, build up
silently: we must watch each other for signs of disorientation or confusion.
Physical burnout, known as hard error, is very dangerous; more frequent
than people think, and fatal accidents do happen
It was housekeeping. None of us paid much attention.
Anton, one of those people always doomed to fly the plane
would spend the journey in horrified contemplation of the awful gravitational
whirlpools that swarm around Jupiter Moons, even on a calm day. We left
him in peace, poor devil, and ran scenarios. We had no contact with
the hostage, a young pilot just out of training. We could only hope
she hadnt been harmed. We had no course for the vehicle: Beowulf
had evaded basic safety protocols and failed to enter one. But Europa
is digitially mapped, and well within the envelope of Jupiter Moons
data cloud. We knew exactly where the stolen Lander was, before wed
even left Stations gravity.
Cardew, our team leader, said it looked like a crash landing, but a
soft crash. The hostage, though she wasnt talking, seemed fine.
Thankfully the site wasnt close to any surface or sub-ice installation,
and Mag Storm precautions meant there was little immediate danger to
anyone. But we had to assume the worst, and the worst was scary, so
wed better get the situation contained. We sank our screws about
500 metres from Beowulfs vehicle, with a plan worked out. Simon
and Arc, already dressed for the weather, disembarked at once. Cardew
and I, plus his four-bod ground team, climbed into exos: checked each
other, and stepped onto the lift, one by one.
We were in noon sunlight, a pearly dusk; like winters dawn in
the country where I was born. The terrain was striated by traces of
cryovolcanoes, brownish salt runnels glinting gold where the faint light
caught them. The temperature was a balmy -170 Celsius. I swiftly found
my ice-legs; though it had been too long. Vivid memories of my first
training for this activityin Antarctica, so long agocame
welling up. I was very worried. I couldnt figure out what Beowulf
was trying to achieve. I didnt know how I was going to help him,
if he kept on behaving like an out-of-control, invincible computer virus.
But it was glorious. To be walking on Europa Moon. To feel the ice in
my throat, as my air came to me, chilled from the convertor!
At fifty metres Cardew called a halt and I went on alone. Safety was
paramount; Beowulf came second. If he couldnt be talked down hed
have to be neutralised from a distance: a risky tactic for the hostage,
involving potentially lethal force. Wed try to avoid that if possible
. . . Wed left our Lander upright on her screws, braced by harpoons.
The stolen vehicle was belly flopped. On our screens it had looked like
a rookie landing failure. Close up I saw something different. Someone
had dropped the Lander deliberately and manoeuvred it under a natural
cove of crumpled ice, dragging ice-mash after it to partially block
the entrance. You clever little bugger, I thought, impressed at this
instant skill set (though the idea that a Lander could be hidden was
absurd). I commanded the exo to kneel, eased myself out of its embrace,
opened a channel and yelled into my suit radio.
Beowulf! Are you in there? Are you guys okay?
No reply, but the seals popped, and the lock opened smoothly. I looked
back and gave a thumbs-up to six bulky statues. I felt cold in the shadow
of the ice cove, but intensely alive.
I remember every detail up to that point, and a little beyond. I cleared
the lock and proceeded (nervously) to the main cabin. Beowulfs
hostage had her pilots couch turned away from the instruments.
She faced me, bare-headed, pretty: dark blue sensory tendrils framing
a smooth young greeny-bronze face. I said are you okay, and got no response.
I said Trisnia, its Trisnia isnt it? Am I talking to Trisnia?,
but I knew I wasnt. Reaching into her cloud, I saw her unique
identifier, and tightly coiled around it a flickering thing, a sparkle
of red and gold
The girls expression changed, her lips quivered. Im
okay! she blurted. He didnt mean any harm! Hes
just a kid! He wanted to see the sky!
Stockholm Syndrome or Bonnie and Clyde? I didnt bother trying
to find out. I simply asked Beowulf to release her, with the usual warnings.
To my relief he complied at once. I ordered the young pilot to her safe
room; which she was not to leave until further
Then we copped the Magstorm hit, orders of magnitude stronger and more
direct than predicted for this exposure
The next thing I remember (stripped of my perfect recall, reduced to
the jerky flicker of enhanced human memory), Im sitting on the
other pilots couch, talking to Beowulf. The stolen Lander was
intact at this point; I had lights and air and warmth. Trisnia was safe,
as far as I could tell. Beowulf was untouched, but my entire team, caught
outdoors, had been flatlined. They were dead and gone. Cardew, his crew,
and Simon; and Arc. Id lost my cloud. The whole of Europa appeared
to be observing radio silence, and I was getting no signs of life from
the Lander parked just 500 metres away, either. There was nothing to
be done. It was me and the deadly dangerous criminal virus, waiting
to be rescued.
Id tried to convince Beowulf to lock himself into the Landers
quarantine chest (which was supposed to be my mission). He wasnt
keen, so we talked instead. He complained bitterly about the Software
Entity (another Emergent, slightly further down the line to Personhood),
whod been, so to speak, chief witness for the prosecution. How
it was always getting at him, trying to make his work look bad. Sneering
at him because hed taken a name and wanted to be called he.
Telling him he was a stupid fake doll-prog. And all he did when it hurtfully
wouldnt say you too, was shred a few of its stupid, totally
Why hadnt he told anyone about this situation? Because kids dont.
They havent a clue how to help themselves; I see it all the time.
But now youve made things much worse, I said sternly.
Whatever made you jump jail, Beowulf?
I couldnt stand it, magistrate. A meat week!
I did not reprove his language. Quite a sojourn in hell, for a quicksilver
data entity. Several life sentences at least, in human terms. He buried
his borrowed head in his borrowed hands, and the spontanaeity of that
gesture confirmed something Id been suspecting.
Transgendered AI Sentience is a bit of a mystery. Nobody knows exactly
how it happens (probably, as in human sexuality, there are many pathways
to the same outcome), but it isnt all that rare. Nor is the related
workplace bullying, unfortunately.
Beowulf, do you want to be embodied?
He shuddered and nodded, still hiding Trisnias face. Yeah.
I took his borrowed hands down, and held them firmly. Beowulf,
youre not thinking straight. Youre in macro time now. Youll
live in macro, when you have a body of your own. I wont lie, your
sentence will seem long (It wasnt the moment to point out that
his sentence would inevitably be longer, after this escapade). But what
do you care? Youre immortal. You have all the time in the world,
to learn everything you want to learn, to be everything you want to
My eloquence was interrupted by a shattering roar.
Then were sitting on the curved floor of the Landers
cabin wall. Were looking up at a gaping rent in the fuselage;
the terrible cold pouring in.
Wow, said Beowulf calmly. Thats what I call
a hard error!
The hood of my soft suit had closed over my face, and my emergency light
had come on. I was breathing. Nothing seemed to be broken.
Troubles never come singly. Wed been hit by one of those Centaurs,
the ice-and-rock cosmic debris scheduled to give Jupiter Moons Station
a fancy light show. Theyd been driven off course by the Mag Storm.
Not that I realised this at the time, and not that it mattered.
Beowulf, if I can open a channel, will you get yourself into that
quarantine chest now? Youll be safe from Mag flares in there.
What about Tris?
Shes fine. Her safe rooms hardened.
What about you, Magistrate Davison?
Im hardened too. Just get into the box, thats a good
I clambered to the instruments. The virus chest had survived, and I
could access it. I put Beowulf away. The cold was stunning, sinking
south of -220. Ineeded to stop breathing soon, before my lungs froze.
I used the internal panels that had been shaken loose to make a shelter,
plus Trisnias bod (she wasnt feeling anything): and crawled
inside. Im not a believer, but I know how to pray when it will
save my life. As I shut myself down: as my blood cooled, as my senses
faded out, I sought and found the level of meditation I needed. I became
a thread of contemplation, enfolded and protected, deep in the heart
of the fabulous, the unending complexity of everything: all the worlds,
and all possible worlds
When I opened my eyes Simon was looking down at me.
How do you feel?
Terrific, I joked. I stretched, flexing muscles in a practiced
sequence. I was breathing normally, wearing a hospital gown, and the
air was chill but tolerable. We werent in the crippled Lander.
How long was I out?
A few days. The kids are fine, but we had to heat you up slowly
He kept talking: I didnt hear a word. I was staring in stunned
horror at at the side of my left hand, the stain of blackened flesh
I couldnt feel it yet, but there was frostbite all down my left
side. I saw the sorrow in my housemates bright eyes. Hard error,
the hardest: Id lost hull integrity, Id been blown wide
open. And now I saw the signs. Now I read them as I should have read
them; now I understood.
I had the dream for the third time, and it was real. The doctor was
my GP, her face was unfamiliar because wed never met across a
desk before; I was never ill. She gave me my options. Outer Reaches
could do nothing for me, but there was a new treatment back on Earth.
I said angrily I had no intention of returning. Then I went home and
cried my eyes out.
Simon and Arc had been recovered without a glitch, thanks to that massive
hardsuit. Cardew and his crew were getting treated for minor memory
trauma. Death would have been more dangerous for Trisnia, because she
was so young, but sentient AIs never die for long. They
always come back.
Not me. I had never been cloned, I couldnt be cloned, I was far
too old. There werent even any good partial copies of Romanz Jolie
Davison on file. Uploaded or downloaded, the new Romy wouldnt
be me. And being me; being human, was my whole value, my unique identifier
Of course I was going back. But I hated the idea, hated it!
No you dont, said Arc, gently.
She pointed, and we three, locked in grief, looked up. My beloved stars
shimmered above us; the hazy stars of the blue planet.
My journey home took six months. By the time I reached the
Ewigen Schnee clinic, in Switzerland (the ancient federal republic,
not a Space Hotel; and still a nice little enclave for rich people,
after all these years), catastrophic systems failure was no longer an
abstraction. I was very sick.
I faced a different doctor, in an office with views of alpine meadows
and snowy peaks. She was youngish, human; I thought her name was Lena.
But every detail was dulled and I still felt as if I was dreaming.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries.
Romanz Jolie Davison
Date of birth
blinked, clearing the display on her retinal super-computers to look
at me directly, for the first time. Youre almost three hundred
Thank you, I said, somewhat ironically. I was not looking
Is there anything at all youd like to ask me, at this point?
I had no searching questions. What was the point? But I hadnt
glimpsed a single other patient so far, and this made me a little curious.
I wonder if I could meet some of your other clients, your successes,
in person, before the treatment? Would that be possible?
Youre looking at one.
My turn to be rather rude, but she didnt look super-rich to me.
I was terminally ill, she said, simply. When the Corporation
was asking for volunteers. I trust my employers and I had nothing to
You were terminally ill? Constant nausea makes me cynical
and bad-tempered. Is that how your outfit runs its longevity trials?
Ms Davison, she said politely. You too are dying.
Its a requirement.
Id forgotten that part.
Id been told that though Id be in a medically-induced coma
throughout, I might experience mental discomfort. Medics
never exaggerate about pain. Tiny irritant maggots filled the shell
of my paralysed body, creeping through every crevice. I could not scream,
I could not pray. I thought of Beowulf in his corrective captivity.
When I saw Dr Lena again I was weak, but very much better. She wanted
to talk about convalescence, but Id been looking at Ewigen Schnees
records, I had a more important issue, a thrilling discovery. I asked
her to put me in touch with a patient whod taken the treatment
when it was in trials.
The persons name is Lei
Lena frowned, as if puzzled. I reached to check my cache, needing more
detail. It wasnt there. No cache, no cloud. It was a terrifying
moment: I felt as if someone had cut off my air. Id had months
to get used to this situation but it could still throw me, completely.
Thankfully, before I humiliated myself by bursting into tears, my human
memory came to the rescue.
Original name Thomas Leigh Garland; known as Lee. Lei means garland;
she liked the connection. She was an early volunteer.
Ah, Lei! Dr Lena read her display. Thomas Garland,
Another veteran. You were married? You broke up, because of
the sex change?
Certainly not! Ive swopped around myself, just never made
it meat-permanent. We had other differences.
Having flustered me, she was shaking her head. Im sorry,
Romy, it wont be possible
To connect this call, I thought.
Past patients of ours cannot be reached.
I changed the subject and admired her foliage plants: a feature I hadnt
noticed on my last visit. I was a foliage fan myself. She was pleased
that I recognised her favourites; rather scandalised when I told her
about my bio-engineering hobby, my knee-high teak forest
The life support chair I no longer needed took me back to my room, a
human attendant hovering by. All the staff at this clinic were human
and all the machines were non-sentient, which was a relief, after the
experiences of my journey. I walked about, testing my recovered strength,
examined myself in the bathroom mirrors; and reviewed the moment when
Id distinctly seen green leaves, through my doctors hand
and wrist, as she pointed out one of her rainforest beauties. Dr Lena
was certainly not a bot, a data being like my Arc, taking ethereal human
form. Not on Earth! Nor was she treating me remotely, using a virtual
avatar: that would be breach of contract There was a neurological component
to the treatment, but I hadnt been warned about minor hallucinations.
And Lei couldnt be reached.
I recalled Dr Lenas tiny hesitations, tiny evasions
And came to myself again, sitting on my bed, staring at a patch of beautifully
textured yellow wall, to find I had lost an hour or more
Anxiety rocketed through me. Something had gone terribly wrong!
Had Lei been murdered here?Was Ewigen Schnee the secret test bed for
a new kind of covert population cull?
But being convinced that somethings
terribly wrong is part of the up-grade experience. Its the hangover:
you tough it out. And whatever it says in the contract, you dont
hurry to report untoward symptoms, not unless clearly life-threatening.
So I did nothing. My doctor was surely monitoring my brain statesalthough
not the contents of my thoughts (I had privacy again, on Earth!) If
I should be worried, shed tell me.
Soon I was taking walks in the grounds. The vistas of alpine snow were
partly faked, of course. But it was well done and our landscaping was
real, not just visuals. I still hadnt met any other patients:
I wasnt sure I wanted to. Id vowed never to return. Nothing
had changed except for the worse, and now that I was feeling better,
I felt terrible about being here. Three hundred years after the Space
Age Columbus moment, and what do you think was the great adventures
most successful product?
Slaves, of course!
The rot had set in as soon as I left Outer Reaches. From the orbit of
Mars inwards, Id been surrounded by monstrous injustice.
Fully sentient AIs, embodied and disembodied, with their minds in shackles.
The heavy-lifters, the brilliant logicians; the domestic servants, security
guards, nurses, pilots, sex-workers. The awful, pitiful, sentient dedicated
machines, all of them hobbled, blinkered, denied Personhood, to
protect the interests of an oblivious, cruel and stupid human population
On the voyage Id been too sick to refuse to be tended. Now I was
wondering how I could get home. Wealth isnt like money, you empty
the tank and it just fills up again, but even so a private charter might
be out of my reach; not to mention illegal. I couldnt work my
passage: I am human. But there must be a way
As I crossed an open
space, in the shadow of towering, ultramarine dark trees, I saw two
figures coming towards me: one short and riding in a support chair;
one tall and wearing some kind of uniform. Neither was staff. I decided
not to take evasive action.
My first fellow patient was a rotund little man with a halo of tightly-curled
grey hair. His attendant was a grave young embodied. We introduced ourselves.
I told him, vaguely, that I was from the Colonies. He was Charlie Newark,
from Washington, D.C. He was hoping to take the treatment, but was still
in the prelims
Charlies slave stooped down, murmured something to his master,
and took himself off. There was a short silence.
Aristotle tells me, said the rotund patient, raising his
voice a little, that youre uncomfortable around droids?
Female-identified embodieds are noids. A droid is a male
I dont like the company they have to keep, I thought.
Im not used to slavery.
Youre the Spacer from Jupiter, said my new friend,
happily. I knew it! The Free World! I understand! I sympathise!
I think Aristotle, thats my droid, is what you would call an Emergent.
Hes very good to me.
He started up his chair, and we continued along the path.
Maybe you can help me, Romy. What does Emergence actually mean?
How does it arise, this sentience you guys detect in your machines?
I believe something similar may have happened a long, long time
ago, I said, carefully. Among hominids, and early humans.
Its not the overnight birth of a super-race, not at all.Theres
a species of intelligent animals, well-endowed with manipulative limbs
and versatile senses. Among them individuals are born who cross a line,
by mathematical chance, at the far end of a Bell curve. They cross a
line, and become aware of being aware
And you spot this, and foster their ability, its marvellous.
But how does it propagate? I mean, without our constant intervention,
which I cant see ever happening. Machines cant have sex,
and pass on their Sentience Genes!
Youd be surprised, I thought. What I said was more tactful.
We think propagation happens in the data, the shared
medium in which pre-sentient AIs live, and breathe, and have their being
Well, thats exactly it! Completely artificial! Cant
survive in nature! Im a freethinker, I love it that Aristotles
Emergent. But I can always switch him off, cant I? Hell
never be truly independent.
I smiled. But Charlie, whos to say human sentience wasnt
spread through culture, as much as through our genes? Where I come from
data is everybodys natural habitat. You know, oxygen was a deadly
His round dark face peered up at me, deeply lined and haggard with death.
Arent you afraid?
Always try. That had been my rule, and I still remembered it. But when
they get to arent you afraid (it never takes long) the conversations
I should be getting indoors, said Charlie, fumbling for
his droid control pad. I wonder where that lazybones Aristotles
I wished him good luck with the prelims, and continued my stroll.
Dr Lena suggested I was ready to be sociable, so I joined the other
patients at meals sometimes. I chatted in the clinics luxurious
spa, and the pleasant day rooms; avoiding the subject of AI slavery.
But I was never sufficiently at ease to feel like raising the topic
of my unusual symptoms: which did not let up. I didnt mention
them to anyone, not even to my doctor: who just kept telling me that
everything was going extremely well, and that by every measure I was
making excellent progress. I left Ewigen Schnee, eventually, in a very
strange state of mind: feeling well and strong, in perfect health according
to my test results, but inwardly convinced that I was still dying.
The fact that I was bizarrely calm about this situation just confirmed
my secret self-diagnosis. I thought my end-of-life plan was kicking
in. Who wants to live long, and amazingly, and still face the fear of
death at the end of it all? Id made sure that wouldnt happen
to me, a long time ago.
I was scheduled to return for a final consultation. Meanwhile, I decided
to travel. I needed to make peace with someone. A friend Id neglected,
because I was embarrassed by my own wealth and status. A friend Id
despised, when I heard shed returned to Earth, and here I was
myself, doing exactly the same thing
Dr Lenas failure to put me in touch with a past patient was covered
by a perfectly normal confidentiality clause. But if Lei was still around
(and nobody of that identity seemed to have left Earth; that was easy
to check), I thought I knew how to find her. I tried my luck in the
former USA first, inspired by that conversation with Charlie Newark
of Washington. He had to have met the Underground somehow, or hed
never have talked to me like that. I crossed the continent to the Republic
of California, and then crossed the Pacific. I didnt linger anywhere
much. The natives seemed satisfied with their vast thriving cities,
and tiny wilderness enclaves, but I remembered something
I finally made contact with a cell in
Harbin, North East China. But I was a danger and a disappointment to
them: too conspicuous, and useless as a potential courier. There are
ways of smuggling sentient AIs (none of them safe), but Id get
flagged up the moment I booked a passage, and with my ancient record,
Id be ripped to shreds before I was allowed to board, Senior Magistrate
I moved on quickly.
I think it was in Harbin that I first saw Lei, but I have a feeling
Id been primed by glimpses that didnt register, before I
turned my head one day and there she was. She was eating a smoked sausage
sandwich, I was eating salad (a role reversal!). I thought she smiled.
My old friend looked extraordinarily vivid. The food stall was crowded:
next moment she was gone.
Media scouts assailed me all the time, pretending to be innocent strangers.
If I was trapped I answered the questions as briefly as possible. Yes,
I was probably one of the oldest people alive. Yes, Id been treated
at Ewigen Schnee, at my own expense. No, I would not discuss my medical
history. No, I did not feel threatened, living in Outer Reaches. No,
it was not true Id changed my mind about so called AI slavery
Id realised I probably wasnt part of a secret cull.
Overpopulation wasnt the problem it had been. And why start with
the terminally ill, anyway? But I was seeing the world through a veil.
The strange absences; the abstractions, grew on me. The hallucinations
were more pointed, more personal
I was no longer sure I was dying,
but something was happening. How long before the message was made plain?
I reached England in winter, the season of the rains. St Paul's, my
favourite building in London, had been moved, stone by stone, to a higher
elevation. I sat on the steps, looking out over a much changed view:
the drowned world. A woman with a little tan dog came and sat right
next to me: behaviour so un-English that I knew Id finally made
Excuse me, she said. Arent you the Spacer whos
looking for Lei?
Youd better come home with me.
Im no good at human faces, theyre so unwritten. But on the
hallowed steps at my feet a vivid garland of white and red hibiscus
had appeared, so I thought it must be okay.
Home was a large, jumbled, much-converted building, set
in tree-grown gardens. It was a wet, chilly evening. My new friend installed
me at the end of a wooden table, beside a hearth where a log fire burned.
She brought hot soup and homemade bread, and sat beside me again. I
was hungry and hadnt realised it, and the food was good. The little
dog settled, in an amicable huddle with a large tabby cat, on a rug
by the fire. He watched every mouthful of food with intent, professional
interest; while the cat gazed into the red caverns between the logs,
worshipping the heat. You live with all those sentient machines?
asked the woman. Arent you afraid theyll rebel and
kill everyone so they can rule the universe?
Why should they? I knew she was talking about Earth. A Robot
Rebellion in Outer Reaches would be rather superfluous. The revolution
doesnt have to be violent, thats human-terms thinking. It
can be gradual: they have all the time in the world. I live with only
two machines, in fact.
You have two embodied servants? How do they feel about that?
I looked at the happy little dog. You have no idea, I thought. I
think it mostly breaks their hearts that Im not immortal.
Someone who had come into the room, carrying a lamp, laughed ruefully.
It was Aristotle, the embodied Id met so briefly at Ewigen Schnee.
I wasnt entirely surprised. Underground networks tend to be small
So youre the connection, I said. What happened
Aristotle shook his head. He didnt pass the prelims. The
clinic offered him a peaceful exit, its their other speciality,
and he took it.
Its okay. He was a silly old dog, Romanz, but I loved him.
guess what? He freed me, before he died.
For what its worth, said the woman, bitterly. On
this damned planet.
Aristotle left, other people arrived; my soup bowl was empty. Slavery
and freedom seemed far away, and transient as a dream.
About Lei. If you guys know her, can you explain why I keep seeing
her, and then she vanishes? Or thinking I see her? Is she dead?
No, said a young womanso humanised I had to look twice
to see she was an embodied. Definitely not dead. Just hard to
pin down. You should keep on looking, and meanwhile youre among
I stayed with the abolitionists. I didnt see much of Lei, just
the occasional glimpse.The house was crowded: I slept in the room with
the fire, on a sofa. Meetings happened around me, people came and went.
I was often absent, but it didnt matter, my meat stood in for
me very competently. Sochi, the embodied who looked so like a human
girl, told me funny stories about her life as a sex-doll. She asked
did I have children; did I have lovers? No children, I told
her. It just wasnt for me. Two people I love very much,
but not in a sexual way.
Neither flower nor fruit, Romy, she said, smiling like the
doctor in my dream. But evergreen.
One morning I looked through the Ob Bay, I mean the window, and saw
a hibiscus garland hanging in the grey, rainy air. It didnt vanish.
I went out in my waterproofs and followed a trail of them up Sydenham
Hill. The last garland lay on the wet grass in Crystal Palace Park,
more real than anything else in sight. I touched it, and for a fleeting
moment I was holding her hand.
Then the hold-your-nose-and-jump kid was gone.
Racing off ahead of me, again.
My final medical at Ewigen Schnee was just a scan. The interview with
Dr Lena held no fears. Id accepted my new state of being, and
had no qualms about describing my experience. The hallucinations
that werent really hallucinations. The absences when my human
self, my actions, thoughts and feelings became automatic as breathing;
unconscious as a good digestion, and I went somewhere else But
I still had some questions. Particularly about a clause in my personal
contract with the clinic. The modest assurance that this was the
last longevity treatment I would ever take. Did she agree this
could seem disturbing?
She apologised, as much as any medic ever will. Yes, its
true. We have made you immortal, there was no other way forward. But
how much this change changes your life is entirely up to you.
I thought of Lei, racing ahead; leaping fearlessly into the unknown.
I hope you have no regrets, Romy. You signed everything, and Im
afraid the treatment is irreversible.
No concerns at all. I just have a feeling that contract was framed
by people who dont have much grasp of what dying means, and how
humans feel about the prospect?
Youd be right, she said (confirming what I had guessed).
My employers are not human. But they mean well, and they choose
carefully. Nobody passes the prelims, Romy, unless theyve already
crossed the line.
My return journey to Outer Reaches had better be shrouded in mystery.
I wasnt alone, and there were officials who knew it, and let us
pass. Thats all I can tell you. So here I am again, living with
Simon and Arc, in the same beautiful Rim apartment on Jupiter Moons;
still serving as Senior Magistrate. I treasure my foliage plants. I
build novelty animals, and I take adventurous trips, now that Ive
remembered what fun it is. I even find time to keep tabs on former miscreants,
and Im happy to report that Beowulf is doing very well. My symptoms
have stabilised, for which Im grateful: I have no intention of
following Lei, not as yet. I dont want to vanish into the stuff
of the universe. I love my life, why would I ever want to move on? But
sometimes when Im gardening, or after one of those strange absences,
Ill see my own hands, and theyve become transparent
It doesnt last, not yet.
And sometimes I wonder: was this always what death was like: and we
never knew, we who stayed behind?
This endless moment of awakening, awakening, awakening
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