for Gardner Dozois

I faced the doctor across her desk. The room was quiet, the walls were pale or white, but somehow I couldn’t 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 return.”
My reaction to those terms, upload, download, was embarrassing. I tried to hide it and knew I’d failed. “Go back?” I said bitterly, and in defiance. “To the city of broken dreams? Why would I ever want to do that?”
“Don’t be afraid, Romy. The city of broken dreams may have become the city of boundless opportunity.”

Then I woke up: Simon’s breathing body warm against my side, Arc’s unsleeping presence calm in my cloud. A shimmering, starry night above us and the horror of that doctor’s 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. I’ve 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 didn’t meet for many years, until one day we found each other again on the first big Habitat Station, in the future we’d 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. I’d never taken an unsafe treatment, and I’d 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 didn’t mesh. One day, when I hadn’t seen her for a while, I found out she’d gone back to Earth on medical advice.
Had we kept in touch at all? I had to check my cache, which saddened me, although it’s only a mental eyeblink. Apparently not. She’d left without a good-bye, and I’d 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 doctor’s 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. He’d 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 Beowulf’s public defender scrapped over the price of a cup of coffee.
Was Beowulf’s 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 he’d 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 I’d crossed swords with before. She was adamant, and we fell out. We couldn’t help sharing our quarrel. No privacy for anyone in public office, it’s 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 Beowulf’s 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.
I’d 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 we’d 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. They’d 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, it’s a privilege of age). They were probably, secretly responsible for the rash of fantasy spires and bubbles currently annoying me, all over Station’s 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. “It’ll 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 Simon.
“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. It’s aspirational.”
“He is a worm though, isn’t he?”
I sighed, and took up my delicious bowl of Tom Yum, swimming with chili pepper glaze. “Yes,” I said glumly. “He’s ethnically worm, poor kid.”
“Descended from a vicious little virus strain,” Arc pointed out. “He has tendencies. He can’t help it, but we have to be sure they’re purged.”
“I don’t know how you two can be so prejudiced.”
“Humans are so squeamish,” teased Simon.
“Humans are human,” said Arc. “That’s the fun of them.”
They were all of them our children, begotten not created, as the old saying goes. There’s 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 Arc’s 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. Where’d you get them?”
“I made them myself, I’ll share you the code. What’s up, Anton?”
“We’ve got trouble. Beowulf didn’t take the confirmation well.”
I noticed that my ban had been lifted: a bad sign. “What’s the damage?”
“Oh, nothing much. It’s in your updates, of which you’ll find a ton. He’s only removed himself from custody—”
“Oh, God. He’s back in CPI?”
“No. Our hero had a better idea.”
Having feared revenge instantly, I felt faint with relief.
“But he’s been traced?”
“You bet. He’s taken a hostage, and a non-sentient Lander. He’s heading for the surface, right now.”
The little tigers laid back their ears and sneaked out of sight. Arc’s human form drew a long, respectful breath. “What are you guys going to do?”
“Go after him. What else?” I was at the lockers, dragging out my gear.


Jupiter Moons has no police force. We don’t 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 didn’t argue when Simon and Arc insisted on coming too. I don’t like to think of them as my minders (or my curators), but they are both, and I’m 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 hadn’t 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 we’d even left Station’s gravity.
Cardew, our team leader, said it looked like a crash landing, but a soft crash. The hostage, though she wasn’t talking, seemed fine. Thankfully the site wasn’t 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 we’d better get the situation contained. We sank our screws about 500 metres from Beowulf’s 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 winter’s 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 activity—in Antarctica, so long ago—came welling up. I was very worried. I couldn’t figure out what Beowulf was trying to achieve. I didn’t 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 couldn’t be talked down he’d have to be neutralised from a distance: a risky tactic for the hostage, involving potentially lethal force. We’d try to avoid that if possible . . . We’d 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. Beowulf’s hostage had her pilot’s 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, it’s Trisnia isn’t it? Am I talking to Trisnia?, but I knew I wasn’t. Reaching into her cloud, I saw her unique identifier, and tightly coiled around it a flickering thing, a sparkle of red and gold—
The girl’s expression changed, her lips quivered. “I’m okay!” she blurted. “He didn’t mean any harm! He’s just a kid! He wanted to see the sky!”
Stockholm Syndrome or Bonnie and Clyde? I didn’t 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), I’m sitting on the other pilot’s 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. I’d 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.
I’d tried to convince Beowulf to lock himself into the Lander’s quarantine chest (which was supposed to be my mission). He wasn’t keen, so we talked instead. He complained bitterly about the Software Entity (another Emergent, slightly further down the line to Personhood), who’d 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 he’d 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 wouldn’t say you too, was shred a few of its stupid, totally backed-up files—
Why hadn’t he told anyone about this situation? Because kids don’t. They haven’t a clue how to help themselves; I see it all the time.
“But now you’ve made things much worse,” I said sternly. “Whatever made you jump jail, Beowulf?”
“I couldn’t 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 I’d 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 isn’t all that rare. Nor is the related workplace bullying, unfortunately.
“Beowulf, do you want to be embodied?”
He shuddered and nodded, still hiding Trisnia’s face. “Yeah. Always.”
I took his borrowed hands down, and held them firmly. “Beowulf, you’re not thinking straight. You’re in macro time now. You’ll live in macro, when you have a body of your own. I won’t lie, your sentence will seem long (It wasn’t the moment to point out that his sentence would inevitably be longer, after this escapade). But what do you care? You’re immortal. You have all the time in the world, to learn everything you want to learn, to be everything you want to be—”
My eloquence was interrupted by a shattering roar.
Then we’re sitting on the curved “floor” of the Lander’s cabin wall. We’re looking up at a gaping rent in the fuselage; the terrible cold pouring in.
“Wow,” said Beowulf calmly. “That’s 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. We’d been hit by one of those Centaurs, the ice-and-rock cosmic debris scheduled to give Jupiter Moons Station a fancy light show. They’d 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? You’ll be safe from Mag flares in there.”
“What about Tris?”
“She’s fine. Her safe room’s hardened.”
“What about you, Magistrate Davison?”
“I’m hardened too. Just get into the box, that’s a good kid.”
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 Trisnia’s bod (she wasn’t feeling anything): and crawled inside. I’m 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 weren’t 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 didn’t hear a word. I was staring in stunned horror at at the side of my left hand, the stain of blackened flesh—
I couldn’t feel it yet, but there was frostbite all down my left side. I saw the sorrow in my housemate’s bright eyes. Hard error, the hardest: I’d lost hull integrity, I’d 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 we’d 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 couldn’t be cloned, I was far too old. There weren’t even any good partial copies of Romanz Jolie Davison on file. Uploaded or downloaded, the new Romy wouldn’t 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 don’t,” 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…” My doctor blinked, clearing the display on her retinal super-computers to look at me directly, for the first time. “You’re almost three hundred years old!”
“That’s incredible.”
“Thank you,” I said, somewhat ironically. I was not looking my best.
“Is there anything at all you’d like to ask me, at this point?”
I had no searching questions. What was the point? But I hadn’t 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?”
“You’re looking at one.”
My turn to be rather rude, but she didn’t 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 lose.”
“You were terminally ill?” Constant nausea makes me cynical and bad-tempered. “Is that how your outfit runs its longevity trials? I’m amazed.”
“Ms Davison,” she said politely. “You too are dying. It’s a requirement.”
I’d forgotten that part.
I’d been told that though I’d 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 I’d been looking at Ewigen Schnee’s records, I had a more important issue, a thrilling discovery. I asked her to put me in touch with a patient who’d taken the treatment when it was in trials.
“The person’s name is Lei—”
Lena frowned, as if puzzled. I reached to check my cache, needing more detail. It wasn’t there. No cache, no cloud. It was a terrifying moment: I felt as if someone had cut off my air. I’d 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, yes… Another veteran. You were married? You broke up, because of the sex change?”
“Certainly not! I’ve swopped around myself, just never made it meat-permanent. We had other differences.”
Having flustered me, she was shaking her head. “I’m sorry, Romy, it won’t 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 hadn’t 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 I’d distinctly seen green leaves, through my doctor’s 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 hadn’t been warned about minor hallucinations.
And Lei “couldn’t be reached”.
I recalled Dr Lena’s 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 something’s terribly wrong is part of the up-grade experience. It’s the hangover: you tough it out. And whatever it says in the contract, you don’t hurry to report untoward symptoms, not unless clearly life-threatening. So I did nothing. My doctor was surely monitoring my brain states—although not the contents of my thoughts (I had privacy again, on Earth!) If I should be worried, she’d 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 hadn’t met any other patients: I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I’d 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 adventure’s most successful product?
Slaves, of course!
The rot had set in as soon as I left Outer Reaches. From the orbit of Mars “inwards”, I’d 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 I’d been too sick to refuse to be tended. Now I was wondering how I could get home. Wealth isn’t 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 couldn’t 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—
Charlie’s 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 you’re uncomfortable around droids?”
Female-identified embodieds are noids. A droid is a “male” embodied.
I don’t like the company they have to keep, I thought.
“I’m not used to slavery.”
“You’re the Spacer from Jupiter,” said my new friend, happily. “I knew it! The Free World! I understand! I sympathise! I think Aristotle, that’s my droid, is what you would call an Emergent. He’s 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. It’s not the overnight birth of a super-race, not at all.There’s 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, it’s marvellous. But how does it propagate? I mean, without our constant intervention, which I can’t see ever happening. Machines can’t have sex, and pass on their ‘Sentience Genes’!”
You’d 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, that’s exactly it! Completely artificial! Can’t survive in nature! I’m a freethinker, I love it that Aristotle’s Emergent. But I can always switch him off, can’t I? He’ll never be truly independent. “
I smiled. “But Charlie, who’s to say human sentience wasn’t spread through culture, as much as through our genes? Where I come from data is everybody’s natural habitat. You know, oxygen was a deadly poison once—”
His round dark face peered up at me, deeply lined and haggard with death.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
Always try. That had been my rule, and I still remembered it. But when they get to aren’t you afraid (it never takes long) the conversation’s over.
“I should be getting indoors,” said Charlie, fumbling for his droid control pad. “I wonder where that lazybones Aristotle’s got to?””
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 clinic’s 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 didn’t 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? I’d made sure that wouldn’t 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 I’d neglected, because I was embarrassed by my own wealth and status. A friend I’d despised, when I heard she’d returned to Earth, and here I was myself, doing exactly the same thing—
Dr Lena’s 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 he’d never have talked to me like that. I crossed the continent to the Republic of California, and then crossed the Pacific. I didn’t linger anywhere much. The natives seemed satisfied with their vast thriving cities, and tiny “wilderness” enclaves, but I remembered something different.

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 I’d get flagged up the moment I booked a passage, and with my ancient record, I’d be ripped to shreds before I was allowed to board, Senior Magistrate or no—
I moved on quickly.
I think it was in Harbin that I first saw Lei, but I have a feeling I’d been primed by glimpses that didn’t 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, I’d 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 I’d changed my mind about “so called AI slavery”… I’d realised I probably wasn’t part of a secret cull. Overpopulation wasn’t 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 I’d finally made contact.
“Excuse me,” she said. “Aren’t you the Spacer who’s looking for Lei?”
“I am.”
“You’d better come home with me.”
I’m no good at human faces, they’re 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 hadn’t 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. “Aren’t you afraid they’ll 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 doesn’t have to be violent, that’s 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 I’m not immortal.”
Someone who had come into the room, carrying a lamp, laughed ruefully. It was Aristotle, the embodied I’d met so briefly at Ewigen Schnee. I wasn’t entirely surprised. Underground networks tend to be small worlds.
“So you’re the connection,” I said. “What happened to Charlie?”
Aristotle shook his head. “He didn’t pass the prelims. The clinic offered him a peaceful exit, it’s their other speciality, and he took it.”
“I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. He was a silly old dog, Romanz, but I loved him. And… guess what? He freed me, before he died.”
“For what it’s 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 woman—so 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 you’re among friends.”
I stayed with the abolitionists. I didn’t 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 didn’t 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t 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. I’d accepted my new state of being, and had no qualms about describing my experience. The “hallucinations” that weren’t 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, it’s 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 I’m afraid the treatment is irreversible.”
“No concerns at all. I just have a feeling that contract was framed by people who don’t have much grasp of what dying means, and how humans feel about the prospect?”
“You’d 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 they’ve already crossed the line.”
My return journey to Outer Reaches had better be shrouded in mystery. I wasn’t alone, and there were officials who knew it, and let us pass. That’s 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 I’ve remembered what fun it is. I even find time to keep tabs on former miscreants, and I’m happy to report that Beowulf is doing very well. My symptoms have stabilised, for which I’m grateful: I have no intention of following Lei, not as yet. I don’t want to vanish into the stuff of the universe. I love my life, why would I ever want to move on? But sometimes when I’m gardening, or after one of those strange absences, I’ll see my own hands, and they’ve become transparent—
It doesn’t 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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