Aphelion Issue 254, Volume 24
September 2020
 
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Caveman

by T. Richard Williams




When I had a human body, I would often drive out into the deep desert and hike to the edge of a cliff along my favorite trail and stand there, just stand there, as still as one of those urban street entertainers posing as a living statue. I’d shut my eyes, feeling the updraft of wind from below, defiantly withstanding the intense sun-fueled heat for as long as I could, becoming in those moments part of the extreme environment in which I had radically submerged myself.

When I had a human body.


*****



When I was dying, I would focus on the gentle metronome of my ventilator--the intake, then the soothing, long out breath. In....out....in....out....

My life reduced to its bare minimum.... In....out....in....out.

A twenty-four-hour Om....

My perpetual Zen experience.

Existentially restful.

Fearless.

Cradled in the undulating white fog of my hospital bed, my head drifting in the Sweet Alyssum of my pillows, the pod-mask and vine-tubes feeding me luscious, cool oxygen--in....out, in....out--until one morning, my body shut down and my mind took a journey, my brother Larkin and my husband Chen looking down at me so loving, the last memory I have.

When I had a human body.


*****



When my downloaded mind woke in its new body--the morphine-hidden cancer left behind in its old shell--the first thing I saw was the pastel white of the recessed lighting illuminating the ceiling tiles a few meters above me. Then, slowly leaning over me, like a Sandhill crane or Blue heron coming in for the gentlest of landings, my brother Larkin, his new face as handsome as his old one--the black hair, the angular cheeks and jaw line, the full-lipped smile, only his digitized metallic gold eyes giving away the truth--bent close to kiss my forehead and then said in the mellow baritone of his new voice: “Welcome, Randall.” His shimmering glance flowing into mine: “Welcome.”


*****



That was two years ago. Back on Earth.

Today, it’s Tuesday afternoon in the City. Of course, “afternoon” on the Moon is a relative term--but, because we still go by Earth calendars and chronometers up here, Tuesday afternoon it is. So--it’s 2:00 PM on my BioChron. (I had the digital tattoo installed last winter after I came up here. A Rolex. An anniversary present from my husband.

Sorry, I digress a lot, especially when my mind’s churning.

So.

It’s now Tuesday afternoon; I’m at home, calling my brother back home:

I say, “Larkin. How the hell are ya, bucko?”

His HD--his holographic doppelgänger--looks at me, completely puzzled.

I lay on some more of my best Brooklynese: “What’s wrong, Larkin? It’s Randy. Up on the Moon. Getting the new digs ready for Chen.”

“I know who it is, but what’s with the 20th century Canarsie?” Unable to restrain himself, he starts laughing.

“Hey. What’s so funny?”

He leans forward, and imitating my accent, says: “You is, Randall, baby. You is.” He laughs even harder.

“Not too convincing, huh?”

“Seriously awful.”

“Oh well. I tried. It gets boring up here.” For the moment, I’m avoiding the real reason I’ve called. “Let’s face it, a thousand mindless construction bots--give or take--don’t make for very scintillating company.”

“What about Clare and Ron?”

“They’re okay, but we really don’t have much in common. Their Originals were so wrapped up in their particular fields that any hope of talking novels, art, or HoloFlicks is pretty slim.” I sigh dramatically. “That’s what happens when your Original is a gay architect who moonlighted as a gallery curator.”

“Not to worry, dear,” he says. “The Administrator promises I’ll be joining you next month. Chen and Kiesha, too, of course. Family reunion, brosky.”

“Music to these cyborgian ears.” Then I dive in: “But there’s a reason I called. And, yes, it’s something I’m not sure Clare or Ron would understand.”

“Color me intrigued.”

“It has to do with my being a cyborg.”

Larkin leans back in the chair--a beautiful highbacked replica of a William Morris. “A little late for second thoughts, don’t you think, Randy?”

“No, no,” I clarify, “not about being one. More about the feelings I’m having.”

“Okay. Still intrigued.”

We’ve always been each other’s best friend--from our childhood in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn--into our adult years, and he became my rock during my final months in the hospice.

We both have partners--he has a smart-as-whip wife, Kiesha; I have a husband, Chen, who’s the apple of my eyes. The four of us always did things together, from vacations to museum outings, from afternoons in Central Park to hikes along the Hudson. Best of all, Kiesha and Chen became inseparable friends.

When I received my cancer diagnosis, my brother and I were working on a building project in Manhattan, I was chief architect and he was one of the contractors. As my health became more and more compromised and Chen’s role as caregiver got more and more time-consuming, Kiesha and Lou intervened. They were influential ISA--International Space Administration-- scientists. I’ll spare you all the bureaucratic red tape, but because of their efforts all four of us were chosen to be downloaded into cyborg hosts and would eventually be living on the Moon.

That was two years ago. Right now, I’m the one on the Moon. They’re still Earth-bound. Once Luna City is completed, we’ll all be reunited.

Cue the music.

Happy ending.

Moving along.

Except...


*****



Being a cyborg means so many things.

Physically, I’m part biological (generally Homo sapiens sapiens with a few gene-splits from compatible species like Sus domesticus, which is why my hubby sometimes calls me “Mr. Piggy” when I make “raunchy” remarks) and part technological wonder. Lots of microscopic gears, nanobots, not to mention remarkable “bones” of lightweight metals, fiber optic “blood vessels” and “nerves” running alongside the enhanced human ones, and what I like to call werewolf-gold “eyes” that can read a sign a mile away as easily as studying the patterns on a bluebottle fly’s wings or the ommatidia of a bee’s compound eyes.

Psychologically--ah, that’s a different matter isn’t it? When my mind was downloaded from my Original body, everything came along with it--my “book learning,” my memories, my talents, my politics, my social views--everything that made me Randall--including, most importantly, my feelings.

In any event, I go by my Original’s name: Randy. (Some newly born cyborgs pick a fresh name, something that marks the demarcation between caterpillar and butterfly. I never saw the need. My mind and memory are intact, and I’m as much Randall now as I was on the streets of New York.)

I’m one of three Administrators of the Luna City Project. (I’ve already mentioned Clare and Ron.)

What’s the Project? Over the past two years we--the three lunabots and close to a thousand fully robotic partners (workers, drones, grunts--pick any name you’d like)--have been building an underground city around the clock (cyborgs need few rest periods). It’s inside one of the massive lava tubes found in the Marius Hills, a set of volcanic domes located in Oceanus Procellarum--the Ocean of Storms--a vast lunar mare on the western edge of the near side of the Moon. Luna will one day house over ten thousand humans (genetically altered to flourish in the low gravity) and about a hundred lunabots like me and several thousand or so androids. A city of scientists, private citizens, businesspeople, old, young, teachers, students, writers, artists, composers, cyborgs, androids...a real city. A society. A culture.

Like the four lava tube towns already built on Mars, Luna’s underground location is ideal. The surface of any world that lacks a magnetic field is at the mercy of lethal bombardments of radiation, not only from the sun but from the galaxy beyond. The City, several hundred meters beneath the surface, is a haven for humans--and for us. Too much prolonged radiation isn’t good for any living thing, whether biological or technological.

Enough. Let me get back on track.


*****



I can see Larkin shifting about in the chair.

“I’m sorry. I need to rehearse all this to make sense of my story. Not for you so much as for me.”

“So, tell me.” He moves forward. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there?”

“Not wrong so much as confusing.” But that isn’t the right word. “Not confusing, but...” I pause.

“Just tell me for god’s sake.” He’s more eager than angry, more impatient than annoyed.

“The crux of my story lies in a bookstore.”

“Bookstore? Really? Paper and bindings?”

“Yes, that--but much more.”

“The droids have developed living books. But I need to be clearer, don’t I? So...”

Larkin settles back again.

“Imagine this: You’re looking at me enter Alexandria Books, named after the famous ancient library. It’s located in the center of town, on the ground level of one of those spiraling, Gaudi-like skyscrapers that give Luna City its special flavor.

“Inside you see rows of books--actual bound books--something right out of the mid-1900s--aisle upon aisle, divided into topics and genres. Wooden bookcases, upholstered furniture, reading nooks, a tea bar, a bakery counter. All worthy of a holoflick.

“But this bookstore has the all-important additional feature. In the center of the store are six round platforms, each about two meters wide, loaded with some of the more miraculous technology of the City. They allow readers to take the volume they’ve chosen from a shelf and live in the book. Rather than taking it home--though there is that option--a reader can--thanks to a chip imbedded in the binding--download it as a living thing into his or her Comm system and spend the next hour seeing and feeling everything in that book, reminiscent of the way virtual reality devices--those favorite mechanisms of long, long ago--allowed.

“But not just human readers; we cyborgs, too. We can ‘experience’ books, as well, because our consciousness is derived from our downloaded Original. How I experience things now is how my Original once experienced things in my former purely biological incarnation. I retain all of his memories and feelings--a detail that will prove important a bit later.”

I pause. “You still with me Lark?”

“Absolutely.” If he were hoping for something quick, he’s given up. He’s fully settled into his chair.

“So, about two hours before I called Chen yesterday, you see me heading to a shelf, choosing a book--I Am Alive, written by Earth-based cyborg writer Lex Randolph--and going to one of the platforms. I activate my Comm, then tap the cover of the novel, and you see me almost immediately surrounded by an undulating veil of purple and green mist, my feet slightly off the floor, my head tilted back as if I were in some kind of ecstasy.

“Of course, you can only see me floating there. You can’t see what I’m experiencing inside my mind and body--though if our Comms were linked, you could.

“So, you see me there, living with my book, in my book...”


*****



I Am Alive
by Lex Randolph

Chapter One:

Hugo woke up this morning from his biweekly four-hour stint in his stasis pod and found himself alone. All the androids, all the cyborgs--gone. Every Comm system--silent. He--Hugo had chosen a male form today, having tired of his stint as Delilah--put on his BioSuit because--like humans (whom all cyborgs resemble in general height and weight)--he needed one to venture through the airlocks onto the surface. Unprotected, his circuitry would fry and his organic components would be permanently damaged, both from the radiation and the manic temperature fluctuations of Mercury. He went cautiously through the Entrance airlocks in the western cliff wall of Rembrandt Crater.

The outer doors opened. And...

Nothing.

Just the sweeping veil of stars in the oil-black sky and the perpetually rugged, eternally grey landscape. No shuttles on the landing pads; no rovers near the garage. No sign of any human activity.

Emptiness.

Back inside, filled with increasing infusions of anxiety that evolved into frantic fear, Hugo nearly ransacked the Control Tower. Every attempt at communicating with Earth was a failure; any effort to speak with his fellow cyborgs was met with static at best, complete silence at worst.

But then--in a moment, in a blink--he was standing in the Control Room, looking out at the city, which was now bustling with activity. He re-scanned his various visual links. All nominal. What had just happened?

The Room--on the top floor of the Tower (a thirty-story skyscraper that gleamed in the warm light of the holographic sun--clouds floating in the blue sky that formed the ceiling of the vast cave) was filled with his fellow cyborgs poring over data screens. Outside, he could see all kinds of vehicles moving in and out of the Entrance airlocks going to and from their daily surface tasks, while one- and two-passenger gliders (with androids at the controls) disappeared into the lava tubes beyond the city heading to the water and mineral mining operations. RoboCranes in the Park at the eastern end of town were putting the finishing touches on the playground and at least two new buildings were materializing on the western end, the self-replicating girders and acrylic windows blooming like some fantastical metal flower while sheets of titanium, aluminum, and lunarglass filled in the exterior walls.

He tapped into more of his inner sensors. What did he find? At 10 hundred hours, he woke from stasis and saw that he was alone. But at 13 hundred hours, he wasn’t alone.

Alone.

Blink.

Not alone.

He said it again, aloud: “Alone. Blink. Not alone.”

He stood still, doing a third diagnostic.

The results made him falter for a moment, as if, like a full human, he’d momentarily lost his balance.

What his scan seemed to prove was that he woke at 13 hundred hours, not at 10. His so-called “blink” was when he actually came out of stasis. Had a dreamt the wakening at 10? What could that mean? Do cyborgs in their brief stasis time dream after all? Could that be proven? What would be the ramifications of that?

He was relieved beyond words that he wasn’t alone.

But what did his “dream” of being alone mean for him?

Who could he share this with?

Who could....


*****



“Suddenly, you see me terminate the book in mid-sentence. The mist disappears, I’m firmly planted on the reading platform.

“You see me shake my head--then cry--actual tears from the lacrimal implants I asked for. Finally, I sit down in one of the bookstore’s several reading chairs to ponder what’s just happened.

“After an hour, I go home and call Chen, just like I’ve called you today.

“I didn’t tell him anything that happened to me in the bookstore. I just wanted to hear his voice, see his face. Like I wanted to hear and see yours today.

“Nothing more.

“Nothing less.

“His voice. Your voice. Your faces.

“The voices that soothe me, console me, comfort me now; like they once did.

“When I had a human body.”


*****



Larkin gets up, forgetting for an instant that we’re a quarter million miles apart, that we can’t really reach out to each other. “What the hell, Randy. What’s this all about?”

“That’s what I’m trying to figure out. But I think it has to do with my feelings. My feelings about being a cyborg, a transhuman.”

“It’s been two years, and suddenly it hits you?” I can tell he’s trying to make a joke, something to make me smile. He’s always been good at that.

“What can I tell you?” I try to follow his lead, keeping things above the murky water. I smile nervously. “I’m a slow learner.”

Larkin’s clearly frustrated about the one second separation of time and the quarter million miles of space that separate us. “Wish I were there, kiddo.”

“Me, too.” As realistic and convincing as HD communication is, it still isn’t the same. You can’t hug an HD or shake a hand, can’t take a walk or share a meal. It’s an exasperating abyss, the one between is and isn’t.

I sit down, seemingly next to his chair. “Those opening paragraphs in the book just got to me. I mean the situation. It’s my worst fear. And there it was in print and before my eyes. The fear of waking up from stasis and finding that I’m alone. And all those feelings. Fear, anger, terror...so much.”

“You knew we’d have our Original’s feelings when we were downloaded.”

“Of course, but I’d forgotten how many I had. How well I hid them when I had my human form.” I point to my cyborg body. “I’ve been this for nearly two years, but it took a few sentences in a book to make me realize how deep the well really is.”

I get up again and walk over to the full-wall window overlooking Luna City: The brilliant holographic sky, dozens of high-rise office and apartment towers, walk ramps connecting buildings, transport tubes in which you can see mass-transit as well as smaller vehicles speeding along.

I turn to face my room. Spacious, with a central sliding door leading to the hallway beyond. The kitchen area off to the left is very utilitarian: small fridge, a counter with a couple of built-in hot plates, and some overhead cabinets. There’s a door to a bathroom off to the right. Instead of a bed, there’s a clear-faced floor-to-ceiling cylinder in the corner opposite the doorway. It’s a stasis chamber that’s used whenever a cyborg like me needs (or feels the need) for recharging, resting, and/or cognitive downloads. The other walls are painted deep, rich earth-tones--my favorites. There’s beautiful retro furniture that’s an amalgam of Victorian, art deco, and mid-1950’s “modern.” Faux wood floors are partially covered with several Persian-style rugs.

And none of these comforts of home felt comfortable.

“What’s going on, Randy?” Larkin finally interrupts my silence.

And before I have time to think or edit my thinking, I say: “I miss New York. Manhattan.”

Lark smiles. “I figured as much.”

“But it’s been a while; I thought I’d get used to it by now. Being here.”

“It’s not just Manhattan, Randy. You do realize that, right? It’s your old life, too--with me, with Chen, with all our friends. It’s all bunched together. Trust me, I get it. I go through the same thing. One day we’re human, the next day we’re something else completely.”

“But if I hadn’t done it, made the change, I’d be dead. You were perfectly healthy when you downloaded. It was a choice. That’s part of the difference between us. Maybe I feel like I didn’t have a choice. It was this new life or death.”

Larkin gets up from his chair back on Earth and rephases in the middle of Randall’s apartment.

“Why didn’t you say this from the start?”

“When?”

“Today, this call.”

“It takes me time to warm up.” I hesitate and take the plunge. “Besides, I’m scared.”

“Of what? Me?”

“No, not you, idiot. Of telling you all this. I’m afraid you’ll think I’m being stupid. Dumb. Idiotic.”

“None of those words ever came to mind.” He walks over to where I’m standing. Of course, he can’t actually touch me, but he lifts his hand to my shoulder, and I feel the static tingle of his HoloForm. Not the same thing, but it’s enough.

“I think what I’m trying to tell you,” I say, “is that experiencing the book just dredged up all those feelings of loneliness. Feeling lonely--isolated--imprisoned--with the diagnosis, with the hospice, up here at the City.”

“But think, Randy. Chen was with you through everything before you died.” There’s no ridicule or judgement in his voice; he isn’t saying I’m wrong; he’s just trying to show me that I’m not as out to sea in a fog as I think. He adds: “Me, too. You weren’t alone.”

“I know. And I love him--and you--for being there. But in the end, despite all the loving support, when the door to my hospital room closed at night, I felt so completely detached from any sense of safety. Absolute existential loneliness.

“When I woke in my new body, I was happy. Very happy. I’d dodged the bullet. But then--perhaps stupidly--I attended my own funeral. There we were, ten of us--friends, you, Chen. I saw a sapling lowered into the pit, then you and Chen wrapping my naked body around the root ball. I saw the earth covering me and the tree roots. I looked out at the mountainside. I remember us all laughing in joy, but then me suddenly feeling this stab of anxiety, of primal fear rush through me. That was my body under the dirt, yet here I was looking on--all my thoughts and memories intact--me in this new body, this ageless, artificial body filled with nanobots and other atom-sized tech that would keep both the biological and mechanical parts operating indefinitely. This was the stuff of myths, legends, and folk tales. Me a demi-god out of some Greek epic. Half man, half timeless robot. It was terrifying.” I look at Lark and again, the truth spills out. “It is terrifying.”

Larkin always was a great listener, so I appreciate his silence as we both digest what I’ve just said.

But then, I go on, somehow unleashed: “All I’m saying is that it really hit me, there at my grave on Whiteface looking down at Lake Placid far below. It hit me how different I suddenly was from the rest of the human world.” I forget myself and try to reach out to him only to have my hand slip flickeringly through his body.

I stop, and then wave my hand back and forth through his seemingly solid body. “There. You see? Right there.” I pull away from him. “There.” I point to where my fingers had just been. “I’m different; you’re different. No matter how hard I try to connect, the reality is I can’t. In real life, you’re a quarter million miles away. Keisha, too. My Chen. And that’s how it feels even when the three of you are actually in front of me, like we were before I came up here.”

I take a deep breath with my one lung sack, a breath that fed the biological components, a breath my wires or bots will never need. “Here it is in a nutshell: I’m the same person I’ve always been, but in a different body. I realize I miss the old one, though that would have meant endless months of suffering from my cancer. Yes, I like being on the moon, but I long for--yearn for--my days in Manhattan. My old body had physical cancer; today I suffer from spiritual cancer.”

And then I cry.

And then, after a few moments, the tears stop, and I stand there, somehow feeling relieved. “Larkin?”

“Yes?”

“It’s so simple, isn’t it?”

“Tell me.”

“I’m grieving, that’s all. Grieving.” I repeat the word a few times as if it makes my self-revelation more real--indisputable--undeniable. “The big, crushing vacuum of grief. The terrible, complicated business of grief. It’s...grieving.”

He looks into my eyes. “I think you’re right,” he says slowly. “Maybe that’s how it works, right? Something brings up feelings--like that book you were reading--and, somehow, you’re able to identify them. And they’re big ones, kiddo. Big feelings.”

“But what if I always feel this way? Feel the grief. Feel like I’m not quite connected. Then what?”

“Then we’ll figure something out. And yes, I said we’ll figure it out. You, me, Chen, Kiesha, and whoever else you bring into the mix.”

Once more, I look out at the nearly finished City, our new home buzzing with activity--buildings rising before our eyes, android workers flitting from one construction site to another. Just wait until the humans come. And the other cyborgs. And the droids. I start to laugh.

“What’s funny?”

“I was just looking at all this.” I point to the City. “We’ll all be living in this giant cave. We’ll be cavemen. Thousands upon thousands of cavemen. All of us trying to figure ourselves out, trying to make a new culture, a fresh start.”

“Cavemen.” He lets out a guffaw. “I like that.”

“Neanderthals. Denisovans. Moving from the safety of the old to the frighteningly new.” I laugh, too. “Okay, I’m getting a bit crazy with all the metaphors, but you know what I mean.”

“I do.” Again, he reaches out, his fingers tickling my shoulder. “I’m just glad to see you’re feeling a bit better.”

“Me, too. But,” I look at him squarely in the eyes, “I don’t want the simulated version of a life. I want the real deal.”

“Me, too.”

“So how do you do it? Sometimes you seem so unaffected by the change.”

“Ah, if I’m as honest as you are, I think I’m closer to you than you imagine.”

“You mean you’ve felt like this, too.”

“Maybe not in the same way, but yes. Remember we’re downloads of our former selves, so our differences back then remain our differences now. I was never as emotional--and that’s not a criticism--as you were. Are. You’re the guy who cries at HoloFilms. I just ponder them. But just because I’m not as expressive as you, doesn’t mean I’m not feeling things.”

“Oh my god, is this a gay/straight thing?” I roll my eyes.

“Are you kidding? Really? You should know better. It’s got nothing to do with you being gay or me being straight--whatever the hell that means anyway. I’m less demonstrative. You’re more demonstrative. That’s just what makes us unique.

“The bottom line for me is that I’ve had my moments since being downloaded when I feel that weird disconnect, too; when I feel like a human, but ask: What’s this contraption I’m moving around in?”

“Like being two things at once,” I agree. “I’m alive--but not quite connected to the new body. Hell, everything used to be spontaneous--autonomic. Now, I’m aware of my body; aware of giving it instructions--move left, move right, take a breath, taste some food, you should really empty your bladder sack.” The thought makes me chuckle. “Back then, when I had a human body, I didn’t have tell myself to pee.”

“Exactly.” We both nod our heads.

Suddenly, we’re really brothers again, despite the many miles separating us, looking out at the new City, talking about pee.

“Look at us,” I say with a smile. “We’re just empathetic cavemen.”

“Huh?”

“Empathy, bro. Empathy. That’s what’ll make this work.”

He looks at the City. “Really? Empathetic cavemen?” Now he really laughs.

We look at each other, and, as if we can read each other’s mind, we beat our chests and grunt, the same way those prehistoric men used to in the old-time HoloFilms, then burst out in vigorous laughter, the way we once did--and apparently, the way we can again.


*****



A month later, on schedule, Larkin arrives with Chen and Keisha. We spend a few days acting like honeymooners before we get back to the business of finishing the City.

When it is, it smells wonderful--what some used to call the “new car smell” fills the titanic cave.

Then they all arrive: ten thousand humans, a hundred more lunabots like me, and several thousand or so very sentient androids.

As I watch our City explode with life and activity, all I keep thinking is how many new stories will be told in this place. All those new adventures--some with tears, some with laughter, some with danger, some with life-long ease.

Today--it’s a Monday, 0800, a new work week--I feel like an old-fashioned beat cop, pounding the pavement from district to district, making sure every operation is running smoothly, encountering human eyes, digital eyes, no eyes at all--flesh, blood, beating hearts, mechanical hearts, some happy, some afraid, some angry, some hopeful, some wondering.

In the evening, I stand on our balcony, more often than not with Chen, Keisha, and my brother at my side. The people I love. Looking. Watching. Anticipating. Feeling all those stories unfolding.

Just like I did when I had a human body.



THE END


© 2020 T. Richard Williams

Bio: T. Richard Williams is the pen name of William Thierfelder, a visiting docent at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and a retired professor of Arts and Humanities. He divides his time between Portland, Oregon and New York City. He is a writer, artist, and lecturer.

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