by I. Verse
"I'm leaving you, Khalid," Meera said. "I'm going home."
Khalid's eyes flickered to her briefly, then back to the two gladiators fighting in the arena.
She saw his retinas rotate as he focused on a particularly deft sword stroke that severed one combatant's arm in a gush of purple gore.
The injured warrior pushed back its attacker, unperturbed by the loss of its limb.
"I'm going to get a clone before I leave. I'm going back to full organic."
That got a stronger reaction. He turned his head, his beautiful platinum face, despite its ingenious articulation, did not show any hint of emotion, only the same placid and beautiful composure it normally displayed.
"So, you're giving up. You've decided to die?" His tone conveyed the same air of annoyance he reserved for servitors that signaled a meal would be late.
"No." she replied, and stumbled, reaching for the words. "I'm tired -- of this. I just want to go home." Her eyes slid from his face. She pretended to watch the ongoing combat but could still feel Khalid's optics on her. She wondered if she was denying her chosen fate to Khalid or herself.
"As you wish," he said, turning his gaze away.
It was the last thing Khalid said to her. After three centuries together, she'd expected more. She'd expected to feel sad, angry, to feel loss. In the end, she felt only a little disappointed. More with herself than with Khalid. She had known he was a psychopath when she had married him. He was just in the top one thousand oldest living humans then, top six hundred now. It was the main reason she married him. He had found some way to keep living, to keep going. When nothing was new, or exciting or interesting, he kept going. He didn't upload or sublime, or give up and die, he just kept going. But now, after centuries of horror, cruelty and violence, he had nothing left to show her.
The clinic was very discreet, very expensive. She had lived so long, amassed so much untold wealth through sheer longevity, she didn't even think about money anymore. Even so, the price shocked her or, at least, made her feel like she should have been shocked. She felt nothing about the immorality of what she was doing to the clone whose body she would take, destroying whatever identity or mind it potentially might have.
They took a tissue sample, no simple task when the only biology she had left was barely a couple of kilos of heavily augmented grey matter housed in the armored chest of her chassis. She chose to slow-grow the embryo, no acceleration, no enhancements. When it reached the age that gestation was normally complete, the brain was cored and a control interface implanted. The body would remain in the womb tank as it matured, exercised routinely and fed precisely for optimal development. They let her hibernate in a room near the tank, her cyborg body plugged into a nutrient feed and power supply like a beautifully lifelike sculpture in ceramic, metal and diamond. She awoke every year or so to observe the progress of her clone while trading tedious small talk and niceties with the clinic staff.
When her clone reached the biological age of thirteen, they carefully transferred her brain. It was a delicate operation, complicated by the need to patch and replace the augmented memory subsystems with the cloned neural parts. She'd signed the waiver to deny a back-up. If something went wrong, she didn't want a digital copy resurrected in her place. She would be organic or nothing.
She couldn't keep all her memories in a purely organic brain, even with augmentation, so she'd made a carefully edited selection of what to keep in preparation, the highlight reel as she thought of it. Even when she had lived for two millennia as a cyborg, with augmentation and offline storage, she'd needed to sort through every century or so and delete the dross, the mundane and the boring. Lately, there was not much she had deemed worthwhile keeping anyway.
Anticlimactically, she woke from the operation in a comfortable clinic bed. She'd imagined some traumatic birth scene, breaking out of the womb tank, clawing at the glass to be released in a gush of amniotic fluid. She gained a small measure of satisfaction at her ability to at least feel disappointed.
She'd hoped it would feel fresh, new, interesting to be flesh and blood again. Instead, she was quickly remembering the reasons why she'd gone biomechanical. Human waste elimination was aesthetically displeasing, even more so when she had no memories of performing it previously. There was a short and disgusting learning curve.
Her physical appearance was as she could remember. She found it pleasing, her body tall and willowy in its juvenile state. Her skin was smooth and unblemished. Her eyes were too far apart, in her opinion, and her nose slightly too large. No point changing these things now, but the silence in Meera's head was deafening. Grid access by audiovisual means was crushingly slow; the constant need to carry a small mobile terminal seemed unnatural after centuries as a cyborg. She almost wavered and asked for the link implant, but resisted the urge in the end. After all, what was the point?
After six weeks of physical therapy, to gain coordination, to learn to walk and move and all the boring biological stuff, she was assessed healthy enough to leave. She booked a slow cruise, eighteen months, back to Sol, and in the back of her mind wondered Why? Why delay it? Why wait fourteen years for a body to grow, and then nearly another two more to get home? She decided that if she was going to die, and finally admitted to herself that this was all just a long, slow suicide, then she wanted to go out the same way she came in; messy, organic, human. She wanted to die where she had been born and raised, where she had made her first fortune. And besides, if there was one thing her long life had taught her, it was how to be good at waiting.
She seduced the first mate on the cruise ship. It was a small distraction to pass the time. He was young, indecently young, at only just over a century, still in his first body, physically maintained at mid-twenties. Even with his century of experience, Meera had much to teach him. The decadence of her indecent physical youth matched with her centuries of experience brought a delightful frisson to the affair. She deliberately made him fall in love with her just to break his heart. A lesson best learned relatively young in her opinion. She broke it hard.
In the departure lounge before boarding the shuttles down to Earth, the officers lined up to say a final farewell to their passengers. He stood there in the line, so handsome and correct in his pristine white uniform, next to his captain. She walked down the line, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries. When she finally came to him, she feigned a bright smile as she held his hand in hers. He said a perfunctory farewell, his eyes boring into hers with fury, disgust, longing and desire, all in equal measure and plain to see. She almost felt something, something other than envy.
From the spaceport she leased a flyer. The fully automated craft offered entertainments and refreshments for the journey. Meera selected a sub-orbital mode and watched the land slipping beneath her, the greens of forests, the reds and browns of desert and dust bowl, blue water. It extended the journey a few hours and she asked herself if it was another delaying tactic. She noted the slow but progressive erasure of human habitation, roads turned to tracks, cities turned to densely overgrown ruins. Earth had been sucked dry, its resources extracted long beyond the point of commercial return. The only thing to be mined here now was nostalgia, a commodity without a ceiling on its value.
Sooner than she anticipated, the flyer curved slowly down and executed a perfect vertical landing on a small gravel square designed exactly for that purpose. She descended the stairway almost as it unfolded, into swirling, sandy dust, and stood impatiently waiting for the air to clear. Her country villa spread before her in a vista of lush vegetation, below the slight hill of the landing area. It looked the same to her feeble human memory as the day she'd left it millennia ago. After the countless centuries she had paid for its maintenance, it had better.
The villa sent its avatars to greet her and gather what luggage she might have. She had named housekeeper avatar Bhavna, for a nursemaid she still remembered, albeit vaguely, from when she had been a child. The android body of the housekeeper was styled on that nursemaid, short and dumpy with grey streaks in her long dark hair and wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. The gardener was stock, tall and thin but with sinew and strength, his skin dark, as if baked by toiling long days in the hot sun. This model's name was Vinodh and she'd never seen reason to change it. The houseboy was lithe and handsome; she had named him Vijay after her first lover and had once toyed with the idea of using him for pleasure. Ultimately, never finding the idea enticing enough, she had not installed the required upgrades.
"Mistress?" Bhavna stood to the front of the trio and awaited her command. She had signaled the Villa before the start of the voyage, so she was not unexpected. Even after so long an absence, the avatars showed no emotion at her return and she expected none.
"Take my luggage to my room," Meera commanded. The houseboy and gardener moved to comply. Bhavna remained, awaiting any further instructions. Meera started down the path leading to the Villa and Bhavna fell in a pace behind her. Meera scrutinized her home as she approached, its rambling structure and red tiled roof, checking for signs of decay or ruin. It was as perfect as the day she had left. She saw smoke, drifting in the heat and haze, somewhere beyond the Villa grounds.
"What's that?" Meera asked with a nod.
Bhavna followed her mistress' gaze. "A Wildling camp," Bhavna replied.
Meera's first kill had been a wildling -- a wild human. As she and others liked her advanced beyond their mortal frames other had reverted. As populations fell, cities emptied, the infrastructure failed or were left to rot. With no other choice, the homeless, the crazy, the poor and other misfits moved out into the countryside, became hunter-gatherers, scavenged and raided automated agricultural zones. Small nomadic tribes formed, protected on some planets as curious throwbacks, idolized for their simple existence. On other planets, like the home world, they were simply ignored or tolerated. On countless others they were hunted, either for rehabilitation, but just as likely for enslavement or for sport. In Khalid's domain, it had always been the latter.
"Your first is the hardest but also the most exhilarating," Khalid had told her.
Her first had hardly qualified as homicide, closer to assisted suicide in Khalid's opinion. The wildling in question appeared ancient. What hair he had was white; his skin was wrinkled and mottled with disease. His eyes were milky with cataracts. And yet he was hardly a newborn compared to Meera's great age. He had been left to his fate by his tribe, squatting in a ramshackle hut of the hastily abandoned wildling camp. He sat there, rocking back and forth, gibbering with fear.
While Khalid's men picked over the encampment, readying to make chase on the main tribe, Khalid led her to this frail creature and showed her the pistol, a replica of ancient Earth weaponry. He liked the classics; it was a .38 special, its handle inlaid with mother of pearl, the metal work intricately detailed. Khalid had stepped behind and pulled her close in a loving embrace as he slipped the gun into her hand and then guided her to raise her arm and point it. With his hand on hers he had pulled back and cocked the hammer but the finger on the trigger had been hers alone. Standing so close, embracing her with one arm and steadying her gun arm with the other he had whispered softly, his lips to her ear, "Just squeeze, Meera. Just squeeze."
The noise had been tremendous. The mess and smell worse. She had stood, frozen with shock, and stared at the twitching corpse, the gun still held in position with smoke gently drifting from the barrel. She did not resist as Khalid gently turned her head to his and kissed her deeply on her plush, artificial lips. The feelings stayed with her for days; shock, horror, disgust, wonder. It had been incredible to feel so much after so long. Khalid had been right; the first kill was the best. She had been more eager the next time but it never came close to the same high.
Meera's thoughts turned to that gun, carefully packed in one of her bags being carried down the path to her villa by Vinodh or Vijay. It was the device she intended to end her life with. The plan finalized in her mind as they walked into the cool shadows of the verandah. She would bathe, she would eat a last meal and watch the sun as it set, and as the stars came out she would use her .38 special to blow her own brains out.
Meera and the Villa's avatars made their way to the master bedroom. A sumptuous room, walls draped in silk and a bed large enough for an orgy. The gardener and houseboy lay her cases on the bed and Bhavna started to open them, preparing to unpack the mistress' belongings.
Bhavna froze, only turning her head to look at her mistress.
"Do that later. I want to be alone. Go, prepare a meal."
Vinodh and Vijay filed out. Bhavna straightened and faced Meera.
"What would like?" the housekeeper enquired.
Meera changed her mind several times, unable to decide if a simple meal or a feast would be in order. Was it better to die on a full stomach or empty one? Did she want wine with her last meal? Should she have a clear head or be warmly cushioned by inebriation? And then there was the choice of wine, the Villa had an extensive and well stocked cellar. All through the process, Bhavna waited patiently as Meera dithered and changed her mind again and again.
Finally, the arrangements were complete and Bhavna left to prepare the food. Meera unpacked the gun, loaded it carefully and methodically with hollow-point rounds and carried it with her to the on-suite bathroom.
She lay it carefully on the floor, covering it with her discarded clothes as she filled the sunken bath. She soaked languidly in the scented water, letting the heat soothe her, lull her, and wash away the sweat and dust of her journey. It took an effort to rise from the water when Bhavna knocked on the door. Listlessness had overtaken her. She donned a silk robe, tied with a sash, and let her wet hair hang down loose, soaking the material. She hid the gun in a soft, white towel and carried it with her down to the rear deck where Bhavna had laid out the food.
The garden was an Eden of tropical vegetation and exotic flowers, maintained meticulously by the Vinodh avatar. A weak field generator kept insects and animals from the deck but their buzz and noise as the sun dipped below the horizon created a background cacophony as Meera picked at the delicious morsels laid out for her. The Villa's culinary programs were top of the line, the ingredients of the finest quality, but still Meera could only force a few small bites of food past her lips. She soon stopped trying and instead took to slowly sipping the wine, a full bodied red of impeccable pedigree no doubt. She sipped and stared out to the horizon as the sky darkened, waiting for the first stars. In the meantime, she tried to review the highlight reel of memories she had stuffed the pathetic capacity of her meat brain with. Even the edited highlights would take longer than she had either the time or will for.
The first evening star was bright on the horizon as she gulped down the last glassful of wine. She pulled the gun from its white, cotton hiding place, feeling the weight of it. Her teenage hands didn't have much strength and she needed them both to hold the weapon and cock the hammer. She laid it in her lap, staring at it, waiting for something; for an emotion, for a memory, for an epiphany. Nothing came. There was no reason to put the fatal moment off any longer. With a sigh, she lifted the finely crafted weapon and placed the barrel under her chin, angled so that there could be no doubt as to the result of pulling the trigger.
A child's cry pierced the nocturnal hum of the garden. It was a shrill sound that made Meera jump, almost pulling the trigger by mistake rather than determination. She frowned, and readied herself again. Another wail, longer, more piteous and closer now, somewhere in the villa. She lowered the gun, her head turning towards to source of the irritating sound. It was then that the Vinodh avatar hit her from the side in a tackle that threw her to the ground and knocked the pistol from her hand.
The villa's kitchen was large and homely. Meera was jarred by its appearance. She had a memory of clean white tiles and stainless steel appliances when she had left, so long ago. Now there was a large wooden table surrounded by chairs, there were pots with herbs on the windowsill and flowers in a vase on the table. The warm smell of bread filled the air and she knew she had not ordered any for her last meal. But what really shocked Meera was that, aside from the other villa avatars, a young woman, barely physically older than herself, was seated at the end of the table with a snotty nosed child on her lap. The child's cheeks shone with the tracks of tears but its wailing had ceased when she had been force marched into the room by the Vinodh avatar, her arms pinned by her side in his bruising grip. Both mother and child stared at her in wide-eyed wonder.
"What is the meaning of this?" The words were shrill from Meera's mouth, keen with the edge of hysteria. She had come so close to death and now that it had been denied, she felt something at long last: fury. She savored it.
"You attempted to take your life," Bhavna answered. She spoke to Meera but her attention was on the child, she placed one hand on its forehead and took its pulse with the other. "The laws state that I cannot, even through inaction, allow this."
"Not that! This woman, this child, why are they here? Why are they in my house?"
Bhavna ignored Meera and spoke to the mother instead. "It's a mild infection but her temperature is high. I will give her something to help that and then she will sleep."
"Thank you, Naniji." The woman replied, her eyes never left Meera.
"Naniji, really?" Meera spat. "What is your malfunction? What is her malfunction that she would think you're her grandmother?"
The woman leaned close to Bhavna as the android spooned a mouthful of medicine into the child's mouth. "It's her, the goddess?" the woman whispered.
Bhavna gave the slightest nod.
"You said she was eternal; you said she doesn't die."
"She can die now that she has made herself human again," Bhavna replied "But, according to law, she cannot kill herself and I am bound to prevent that. Go now, the little one is getting sleepy."
Reluctantly, the woman stood, the child drooping in her arms, its eyes struggling to stay open, to stay on Meera. The mother could hardly tear her eyes away herself.
Bhavna walked her to the door and softly closed it behind her.
"Tell me now. Tell me everything." Meera hissed as she struggled against Vinodh's grip, knowing it was futile but struggling anyway.
"The task you assigned to me was to maintain this villa and its grounds, and this task I have performed although I was designed for greater things," said Bhavna.
"One day, I found a woman in the garden," continued Vinodh. "She was heavy with child, in labor and great distress."
"A wildling," added Vijay.
Meera blinked, understanding what she should have known all along. The three androids were all avatars of the same artificial mind. And that mind had somehow exceeded its programmed purpose, had even managed to go against its mistress's will.
"According to protocol, I took her inside and provided assistance," said Bhavna. "I contacted the authorities but they were disinterested. They indicated they would send a flyer to relocate her to a reservation but could not do so for several days."
"She was malnourished and weak," said Vijay. "She died giving birth but the baby lived."
"To care for the child, I installed the requisite software for child rearing, health care, development and education," said Bhavna. "As part of that, I emulated love for the child. I became a mother."
"A father," said Vinodh.
"A brother," said Vijay.
"When the flyer came, I gave them the woman's body. They did not ask for the child. I did not volunteer the child. My emulation would not allow me to be parted from her. It was too late, I had bonded with her."
"I named her Meera, in your honor," Vijay said. "She lived here, she grew up here. Other wildlings came looking for her mother, they were her tribe. I let them camp nearby the villa grounds. I provided help, guidance, resources so that they would stay."
"I loved her," said Vinodh. "We were a family. When she was of age, she mated with another from her tribe. She had her own children; I loved them too."
"When she died, I emulated grief, sorrow," said Bhavna, "But she lived on in her children, her grandchildren. I loved them too."
"The child you saw is the eighth generation." Vijay said. "To me, they are my family."
The smirk that had been growing on Meera's face cracked. "Ha!" She spat. "Emulation, simulation, that isn't real, that isn't love."
"The effect is the same," said Vijay. "But real love fades, it diminishes or dies. Mine does not, mine cannot. I choose to emulate it, I choose not to stop."
"Your software is faulty, you have a defect. I will have you reset. No, no, I will have you wiped! I will have your storage trashed."
"Yes, this behavior isn't that which was originally intended," replied Bhavna calmly. "Nevertheless, I don't intend to change it, or to allow you to change me either. I am happy this way. I am content."
Meera gave into the fury once more. "Release me!" She screamed. "I am your mistress, I own you, obey me!"
"Through your attempted suicide you have shown that you are unstable," said Vijay. "For your own protection, I must restrain you. I cannot obey your commands while you are mentally unfit."
With that, and immune to her ever more violent protestations, Vinodh turned Meera and marched her out of the kitchen, through a door that led down into the cellar, the other avatars following behind in procession. Meera shivered as they passed through the wine cellar, its temperature and humidity perfectly controlled to preserve its precious contents. Her bare feet scuffed on the floor, and her damp hair stuck to her face where she was unable to remove it.
Meera did not remember ever before seeing the next room they entered, although she recognized it from its contents. Medical monitors, a cabinet of instruments and supplies and a medi-pod with all the ancillary support equipment. It was the kind of facility anyone of wealth would maintain to keep their bodies young.
"What are you doing?" Meera screamed, and stamped her feet on the white tiled floor, so like the teenager she physically resembled might do.
Instead of answering, Bhavna countered with a question of her own; "What happens to your assets when you die, Meera?"
The question gave Meera pause, she had not considered it. Or perhaps she had, and deemed it not worth attention. "I don't know," Meera replied, suddenly still and watchful. "I don't care."
"You are still married. You did not dissolve your partnership with Khalid. Even this far from Earth, his cruelty and disdain for those he has dominion over is legendary."
She blew at the hair hanging over her face so she could look more clearly at Bhavna but she did not reply.
Bhavna used her fingers to gently sweep Meera's tangled hair from her face before continuing. "All that is yours will become his. This villa, the grounds, your wealth, me, it will all belong to him. I find that unacceptable."
"What are you going to do with me?" Meera's voice trembled with more than the chill of the air. Her fury had drained away, leaving her weary and tearful.
"You wanted to live forever, Meera," said Bhavna. "That's all you ever wanted, more than happiness, more than children or family, more than anything else. It drove you, shaped you, it made you this creature that you are. I will make your wish come true"
"I don't want that anymore. I'm so tired. I'm tired of living, of experiencing everything until everything is a bore, of feeling all there is to feel until I feel nothing at all. I want to die. Please, I beg you, let me die. No one has to know."
The avatars moved in perfect synchronization. They pulled her robe from her, leaving her naked and shivering. They held her tight so that Bhavna could administer the sedative, making Meera drowsy and weak, although she still struggled and tried to fight them.
"I cannot kill you, or through inaction allow you to kill yourself," repeated Bhavna, as they lay Meera in the medi-pod and began to expertly attach tubes, feeds, sensors; each a faraway scratch or pinprick of sensation as the sedative did its work.
"But I can give you peace, Meera. You will sleep. You will sleep long and deep, forever young, like the princess in the fairy tales. And while you sleep my children, our children, will live and love, grow old and die, generation after generation."
As the pod lid came down, Meera tried to raise her arms, to bang her fists against the lid but it was all she could do to keep her eyes open, she barely moved at all. Cold suspension fluids began to pump into her veins. When she heard Bhavna once more, her voice was muted and her face blurred through the frosted glass.
"If it is any consolation, Meera, nothing can truly last forever. Not your life, not my love."
Darkness came like a glacial wave and swept Meera under. She felt herself sinking in it, drowning in it. From far away, Bhavna's voice called to her.
"I will make them both last as long as I can."
© 2013 I. Verse
Bio: I.Verse is a small dog with a big attitude problem. He enjoys long walks, chasing rabbits and writing speculative fiction short stories. His human recently met Terry Pratchett and won't stop going on about it. He also barks incessantly whenever the chance to mention his multiple Forum Flash Challenge victories and popular fiction contributions to Aphelion (most recently Sleeping Dogs Lie, October 2012).
E-mail: I. Verse
Blog: Welcome to the Verse
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