“Will you come with me no matter where I am going?”
A group of girls giggled and whispered to each other behind cupped hands as they passed us. My strange classmate, the girl whom everyone whispered about when she wasn’t in earshot, had posed this question in a very public spot. We stood in the middle of the walk leading from school down to the transport-way, forcing the flow of our fellow students to split into two streams around us.
I wondered what I risked with a yes. To a male upper-schooler, a pretty girl smiling in the spring sunshine at the beginning of the mid-term break might be the very definition of possibility. I could imagine all kinds of possibilities, but much of what I imagined with Pira fell into the category of “life-threatening”.
I didn’t know yet why she latched onto me when we first began attending upper school together, although I admit I never tried as hard as I might have to escape her. After all, Pira distracted all guys my age, although the others knew better than to actually approach her. I had begun to develop a better sense of self-preservation myself, largely due to my prior misadventures with the girl now gazing up at me with hopeful silver eyes.
“Are you implying I can’t ask where you’re headed, first?”
She nodded, hooking a stray white hair behind her ear. “I’m supposed to bring you along, and I can’t tell you the destination. I’m worried you might panic and try to back out before we get there.”
“This doesn’t sound very promising…”
“It’s okay!” she insisted, capturing my forearm with both hands. “I make this trip often! Please say yes; Grandfather wants to meet you.”
She said it the old-fashioned way: Grandfather. Most folks only used that word as a name when referring to the ancient cyborg who managed our world during the Settlement. If it weren’t a well-known fact that Grandfather had shut down and left the rest of the job to humans more than a decade before, I might have assumed she meant him.
“Why would I panic?”
She bit her lower lip, frowned, then shrugged. “Please trust me.”
“I’ve trusted you before, Pira.”
“Are you dead yet?” Her defiant little chin tilted upward.
She dropped her shoulders and looked like she might cry. Then, to my consternation, the tears actually welled. Worried what my fellow guys would think of me, I put up my hands and made stopping motions.
“Okay! Okay! I’ll go! Just let me bring my books home first, okay?”
“Of course!” She brightened immediately, hooked her arm around mine and began escorting me to the transport-way station.
“Wait! Don’t you need your books? We have homework over the break!”
“I finished it during lunch,” she chirped. That claim would have been ridiculous coming from anyone else, but I knew better than to doubt it. I had seen Pira doing her homework.
The school resided on a ridge overlooking a quilt of wealthy lawns and villas. The view on the walk down was amazing. One of the great supports for the local sky barrier rose from the campus, so the ceiling bent upward as quickly as the ground sloped down. Beyond the barrier, the next habitat to the west rose to block any sight of my own home neighborhood.
Above it, we could see the old Lander, sitting in the heights beyond.
The line had already formed at the station, but it wasn’t too bad yet. The car that came on our turn was one of the bigger ones though. Nobody else in upper school commutes from my neighborhood, so we couldn’t split the fare with anyone. We let the group behind us take it.
“Please provide documentation or indicate agreement to remote video supervision,” the next vehicle intoned when we got in. As an underage pair of opposite gender, we’d encountered this request many times and already had our IDs out. “IDs confirmed: both passengers are Registered Self-Responsible Youths. Please input destination.”
Fortunately Pira already knew where I lived and it didn’t matter to her. The first time she insisted on coming to my home, we travelled past all the seedy clubs and questionable businesses and into the low-rent stacks without a single blink from her. That frankly surprised me. I had expected her to go back to her world without even getting out of the car and never have anything to do with me again. The world of the parentless and the penniless is far removed from the lives of the affluent kids who make up most of the student body.
My home habitat began as part of the factory cavern complex for the robots and cyborgs of the First Wave. Dug into the side of a mountain ridge, it didn’t have a clear sky-barrier like the better neighborhoods. The war had destroyed most of the daylights mounted in the cavern ceilings of the subterranean habitats. Only infrequent streetlights and the glow emanating through curtained windows kept their streets from being completely blacked out. Worse, toward the back of those caves slumbered the very enemies who once fought to subjugate humanity rather than share the planet with us. Nobody who could afford to live elsewhere would willingly share air with those things.
I shared the little flat with three younger crèche-babies whom the robot we called Nanny was still raising. I was from the last generation out of the ex utero baby factories, born six years before the government closed them, so I didn’t need to leave to make room for some new kid. I could live there rent-free as long as I kept my scholarship.
On the way, Pira had informed me it would be more than an afternoon outing, so I packed a light bag and told Nanny that I would be away a few days. The robot didn’t argue; she had stopped parenting me when I started upper school.
At least I knew we were going somewhere habitable since her grandfather would be waiting for us. In fact, I had already begun to assume it would be her home. Nobody knew where she lived. Everyone assumed she came from one of the super-rich families that ran most of the City; such people often stayed incognito in public life, because they had been such high-value ransoms during the war that was still a fresh memory.
I had kept the car on hold so we wouldn’t be stuck waiting for one in a bad neighborhood. The living stipend from my scholarship was my only income, so we hurried back to the station to keep the charge from climbing higher than necessary.
The car took off on its own as soon as we closed the door.
“Wait! What’s it doing?” I yelped. I reached for the cancellation button, having no idea where the car had gotten into its little brain to take us.
Pira grabbed my hand before I could press it. “It’s okay! Mr. Car knows where he’s going.”
She did that sometimes, say things the way a child would. She called intelligent machines “Mr This” and “Miss That”, like they were people.
The car shuddered as it skipped off the main track onto a spur. It was bound for a dark part of the habitat that I had never been courageous enough to go into.
I studied her as she kept my hand prisoner. “How do you know what it knows?”
“He told me.”
Claiming the machines had spoken directly to her at times was another thing she did. I’d managed to get her to stop doing it in front of our classmates, but she still spoke that way to me.
We passed some unsavory types loitering under one of the few streetlights, and I nervously double-checked the door lock. I had formed a new theory. Instead of hiding how rich she was, she’d been hiding even lowlier origins than mine… except I couldn’t imagine it for the girl who wore a different outfit every time we met.
“I can’t tell you yet.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” I pointed out, pulling my hand free to gesture around at our isolation.
She didn’t answer. I used the freed hand to turn the cabin lights completely off for safety. The fewer eyes looking in, the better. Pira simply watched the dim and sometimes dire view outside like she was on a lovely sight-seeing tour. I considered trying again for the cancellation button, then realized I didn’t want the car to stop in a place like this.
The scenery outside shifted gradually from hostile to simply dead. The sound of the rails became rough. We had even passed where the daylights once reached. Now dim lighting, never intended for human eyes, emanated from hidden sources on vague, featureless blockhouses that probably housed ancient land-moving machines and habitat construction forms and other items no longer needed by our post-settlement world.
“Nobody lives in this direction, Pira,” I noted, as the sunlit world drew farther and farther away. “I don’t even know why the tracks go this far.” The truth was I hadn’t realized the habitats continued so far back into the hills.
Pira continued watching outside. “The First Wave built the original tracks. Humans simply extended what already existed when they built their transport-way. This was once a very busy place.”
“But there can’t be a station to stop at, out here.” I began to worry about my transport account as well as my safety. Did she intend me to leave the car holding wherever we stopped? Without a station, we couldn’t summon another for the trip home.
“It’s okay,” she repeated yet again, still confident as always.
We couldn’t keep the car overnight anyway, I realized. If a car stayed on hold for more than two hours, the authorities came looking. I gave up seeking explanations, and just sat with Pira, listening to the clatter of wheels on ill-maintained rails and the soft whine of the car’s motor, as my world faded further behind me.
The view turned to solid stone; we had passed into a tunnel at the end of the cave. The car continued for another minute, then drifted to a stop.
She explained softly, “We walk from here.”
“We can’t just leave the car. This isn’t a station.”
“It’s off duty. It’s been off duty since we got back in.”
I finally felt panic, but for a reason completely different than fear for my life. “We can’t do that! That’s illegal! They have laws against circumventing the transport-way fees, right?”
“It’s okay. Grandfather arranged it. You haven’t done anything wrong. Come on.”
She opened the door and climbed out. Her reassurances hadn’t convinced me and the prospect of hiking this shadowy tunnel terrified me, but I couldn’t let her go alone. I grabbed my bag and followed, hooking my arms into the backpack straps as I walked.
“This way,” she announced, waving me along. The meager light issuing from tiny ports in the ceiling barely reached the floor, but I could see that the car had stopped where the rails ended.
It was a strange sight. Tracks run in great loops, or spurs off of loops bridging to other loops. People say “At the end of the tracks” to mean “never”, and yet, I had reached the end.
“Can you see?” Pira queried as we walked. I was concentrating pretty hard on seeing my steps, but I risked a brief glance at her.
“Just barely enough.”
Her hand slipped into mine, jolting me a bit. She’d never held hands with me before. “I live in the city now, but this is my home. We’re fine.”
The end of the tunnel abruptly appeared from the shadows. We halted and Pira placed her free hand against the wall. To my alarm, white fire sprang out from under her palm, settling into a pattern of lights within the wall’s surface.
A door slid across behind us, cutting us off from the tunnel behind us, and we immediately began to rise.
“What?!” I couldn’t help yelping. I had seen nothing to warn me we’d entered an elevator. She gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
“Elevator,” she explained uselessly, and turned around to face me. In the dim light, I could barely see her eyes as she took my other hand. “I’ve never brought a visitor here. I should have warned you.”
“Does your family live here?”
“Family? I suppose you could call them my family.”
The elevator ascended for more than a minute, and then the late afternoon sun broke in. I let go of her with one hand and clapped it to my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” She sounded honestly alarmed.
I pried open an eye, then blinked against the brightness. “What do you mean? Doesn’t the light bother you?”
“It’s just normal sunlight.”
Blinking a few more times, tears streaming, I looked around through spread fingers. The dusty glass of the elevator’s walls enclosed the grey floor and ceiling of an otherwise featureless clear box. We were rapidly climbing a giant ceramic wall.
I could see the habitats of the City beyond a ridge and, around them, farming habitats between fields of genetically modified outdoor crops thriving in air still unbreathable by Earth life. Across the ground rapidly receding below us, scattered splotches of genetically modified lichen and grass clung to tiny beachheads on our still-mostly-lifeless world.
In all the world, only one structure stood this tall.
“This is the Lander!”
“Yes.” She nodded with a patient smile
I stared at her, struggling to put words to any of my questions. I finally managed a simple “Why?”
“Grandfather lives here,” she said, as if it were quite obvious. “That’s my family. Grandfather, me, and others like me.”
The outer view vanished into a steel wall; we had passed upward into a hole. I had entered a place where nobody went. It was supposed to be just a hollow shell. The First Wave had removed everything of value to build the City.
Other landers of much smaller size had planted minor settlements near them, outposts still primarily dedicated to Life’s on-going colonization. To we residents of the City, however, they merited no capitalization and they seemed as distant as Earth itself. This place, this soaring tower, this ancient monument was The Lander.
The elevator stopped and the door slid open.
“Pira!” A joyful voice pulled me around, and I saw an impossible view, a stick figure, just like something a child would draw, but with a solid head and buttons for eyes.
“Zasha!” Pira squealed, and grabbed the thing by its shapeless hands. “You’re back!”
“Grandfather says you should come right away. He’s been waiting for you.” The stick figure said it as if Pira was terribly late. It began pulling her along, and I scrambled to keep up. We proceeded down the corridor at a breakneck pace, turning near its end into a large circular vault with a wide column at the centre. Screens stretched all around the room, displaying landscapes of snow fields, mountains, and plains in different seasons. In every one, little bits of life showed themselves.
“Welcome home, Pira,” came a deep, gentle voice. She strode toward the column, her eyes shining.
“I’m happy to be home, Grandfather. Thank you for inviting me.”
“Welcome to you as well, young man. Come closer, please.”
“G… Grandfather,” I croaked, unable to manage anything more intelligible.
I think that was when I finally believed it.
She really meant him.
A thousand years before, the people of Earth saw interstellar distances that mortals couldn’t traverse, but they refused to let the impossible stand in their way. People, animals, and plants couldn’t survive the journey to another star, so they sent preserved embryos, machines that could build other machines, and Grandfather.
They had fused a human brain into computer circuitry to become an immortal intelligence which could search for a suitable world, build other cyborgs to colonize it, raise humans, teach them the knowledge of the old civilization, and help them build a new one.
“I am glad to meet you, son. Of all the young men I suggested for Pira to take as a companion, you were the one I had the greatest hopes for.”
I would have objected to anyone else playing match-maker with me. Knowing that the god who oversaw the construction of my world had done so… I couldn’t find the wit to protest.
“She requires a companion to help her along. Learning to be a human is no easy thing. Consider that it’s taken you eighteen years so far, and you’re still learning. Pira had a lot of catching up to do, and you have done well helping her.”
I finally found my capacity for speech. “Th… thank you, sir. I thought you’d shut yourself down.”
What an incredibly stupid choice for the first thing I say to him, I told myself. I’m not even sure why I said it.
“It was better to let the humans think so. A few at the top know better. The rest of you have to believe you’re already on your own, or I’ll never be able to depart.”
“Depart?” Pira echoed, fear in her voice.
“It’s time, Pira. You’re ready, and so am I.”
“No!” she protested, running forward and putting her hands on the column. “I’m not ready! Grandfather!”
Something in her voice broke my paralysis. I moved forward quickly to back her up, standing behind her with my hands on her shoulders. “Why, sir? Why must you leave?”
A long silence stretched out. In the middle of it, I finally began thinking. Prior to entering this room, I had owned no image of Grandfather. I regarded this column that was as wide as I could stretch my arms and wondered, what exactly did he mean by “depart”?
He hadn’t answered my prior question, so I added the new one. “Do you mean the Lander is going to take off? Wouldn’t that be dangerous to the City? They taught us that the Landing blasted everything for a hundred kilometers.”
“An exaggeration, but it doesn’t matter. The Lander cannot fly again. I designed it for a single descent, to become my base of operations here. I am quite capable of leaving without it.”
“Why?” Pira begged, repeating my question. “Why must you leave?”
For a time, he remained silent again. Then he declared, “You two need your dinner. You will stay here tonight. We will speak in the morning.”
No more words came from the column that day, no matter how she pleaded.
“Come on,” Zasha finally said, sounding a little disgusted as Pira remained facing the column, quietly crying. “Follow me.”
It marched out the door, then stopped in the corridor to wait for us. I coaxed Pira to turn around so we could follow it. Zasha led us to a small dining room where a meal for two waited.
The stick-figure gave them a peremptory wave. “Here you go.”
“Thank you.” Pira sat and glanced up at me. “The other place is for you.”
“Zasha doesn’t eat,” I surmised.
Pira nodded as I sat. “Her chassis is inorganic.”
Zasha uncovered the serving bowls before us and a vegetable curry and rice announced themselves through a wonderful, steamy aroma. Pira still looked troubled, but she smiled at the food.
“This is beautiful, Zasha! Did you cook it?”
“Yeah.” Zasha’s voice was flat, but I detected a hint of grudging pride in it.
“Zasha doesn’t like admitting to human weaknesses such as hobbies,” Pira smiled, “But she likes cooking.”
“It’s… interesting,” Zasha allowed. “And it’s hard to learn about humans when I can’t stand being near them. So, I learn their arts, instead. Grandfather says that would be good enough for now.”
“So what exactly are you?” I probed, fearful of the answer, but more willing to hear it from the animated stick-figure than from my friend. Zasha tipped her head and regarded me.
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m a cyborg, of course.”
“The First Wave.” I shrank a bit as she confirmed my suspicions, although I didn’t feel any specific danger from these two. It was just the thought that not all the cyborgs had been destroyed or deactivated. In video shows, secretly-active cyborgs in hiding always plot to release their brethren and make another try at conquering us. “What are you doing here with Grandfather? I thought he was on the human side.”
Pira caught my hand. “It’s okay; we’re not your enemies.”
“You’re one, too,” I accused her, pulling my hand loose. “You’re First Wave. New Orders.”
“New Orders were the humans who sided with cyborgs,” Zasha corrected. “Anyway, that’s in the past.”
“You tried to kill all of us! You can’t just dismiss it by saying, ‘That’s in the past’!”
Zasha humphed and marched to the door, but paused just before she left, gesturing at me. “See, Pira? This is why I can’t stand these guys.”
Pira stared for a moment at the empty doorway, then spooned rice and curry onto my plate. She served herself, returned the spoon to the curry bowl, and picked up her own utensils, staring at her food. She had yet to look at me again. “You might as well eat. It isn’t poisoned. Zasha is too proud of her cooking to do something like that.”
No matter how I felt about the old days, Pira had been my friend for two years. I began feeling a little self-conscious. “I’m sorry, Pira. It’s just… well, it’s true. Barely more than ten years ago, I was hiding in bed under my blanket, convinced that the New Orders or some First Wave giant would come to kill me. I still have nightmares of it.”
She nodded absently, studying her food before finally spooning some into her mouth.
Lacking a response from her, I had to make more conversation myself. “What did she mean? Why can’t she stand us?”
Pira swallowed first, then spoke, still not looking at me. “She means the past is not as simple as you think. You can start by remembering that everything in your life depends upon the fruits of the First Wave’s labors. Then you should acknowledge that the war can’t be reduced to ‘the First Wave tried to kill the humans’ and ‘the humans won’. A lot more happened during that time.”
She didn’t explain any further. Apparently, I had to remember the details for myself, even though I was seven years old when the last First Wave went into storage and the last New Order surrendered. It’s true that the First Wave hadn’t tried to kill all humans. They would allow the New Orders to live on as cyborgs. The traitors fought for them in order to become immortal. And it was true the humans hadn’t been alone in their victory. Grandfather remained true to his programming and sided with us. We probably couldn’t have won without his help.
“If you’re a cyborg…” I began, and she looked up at me, her expression bringing me to a stop.
She quickly looked down again, lashes descending in an attempt to hide the pain. “I’m not a person anymore? You can’t be my friend anymore?”
Concern for her feelings finally managed to fight its way past my apprehension and take over. “It’s not like that, Pira! I’m just trying to understand what’s happening here!”
She stared at me. I started over. “If you’re a cyborg, why are you so…small? Human-sized?”
“Cyborgs aren’t the giant machines you remember. The actual cyborg mind is in a fused bio-cybernetic processing unit no bigger than a large grapefruit. I’m small because my body is as human as yours. I am using an ordinary faunoid robot, just like your ‘Nanny’, except with me riding in the brain case instead of a robotic control unit.”
One just didn’t think of faunoids as “human”, so it took me a moment to remember that technically their chassis were just human bodies genetically modified to grow without brains. They were easy to spot because of their behavior and the data ports in their temples. Pira had no data ports, of course.
I swallowed. “Which First Wave are you?”
The First Wave all had famous names, as the generals of the war. The foot soldiers on the cyborg side had been humans and robots under their control. We’d learned those names in history class, just like we’d learned names from Earth history, and we’d learned about all of their atrocities. Pannis experimented with human prisoners in gruesome biological tests. Girben murdered the men and children of an entire outlying farm centre after capturing it, then used the women as toys in sick games. Jove unleashed a biological weapon that could have killed a quarter of the world’s population: a plan foiled by Grandfather’s quick work, but not before it claimed ten thousand victims.
There were many more names, each one with a list of dire crimes attached to it, but Pira had not been one of those names.
“I’ve always been Pira. Zasha and I are Inheritors. You never heard our individual names in your lessons.”
It took a few moments to connect the word to the First Wave children, the second generation who would have inherited the world instead of the humans. I had forgotten about them; I guess I always assumed that they’d been destroyed or deactivated.
“So, who was your… parent?”
“We didn’t have nuclear human-style families.”
We finished our meal in silence. Pira’s thoughts I couldn’t guess; perhaps my reaction to her nature still stung her, or perhaps she’d returned to worry about Grandfather’s plan of “departing”. Either way, the only words that either of us spoke after that were a quick goodnight as Zasha led us to our rooms.
I fell into a sleep featuring the worst denizens of my war-time nightmares, with an evil Zasha and a treacherous Pira now included, happily plotting to feed me to a gaping maw that had opened in the middle of a monstrous column. And all the time, I kept asking the same question. “Why? Why did you bring me here?”
Then I heard Grandfather laughing and telling Pira she should play with me and experiment on me. I jumped out of the elevator in my desperate bid to escape her vile clutches, and came awake as I thudded onto the floor.
As I gasped for breath, the lights in the room came up, and Grandfather inquired from a speaker in the wall, “Are you okay, son?”
“Um… yeah.” I picked myself up and sat on the edge of the bed. “Just a nightmare.”
“So I surmised. You were somewhat vocal. It’s still quite early, so try to get more sleep.”
I couldn’t just roll over and sleep, though. “Grandfather, do you have some kind of plan for the cyborgs? Is there a reason you have them here in the Lander?”
“Actually, they’ve lived outside for some time. I summoned Zasha only a couple months ago, to assist my preparations for departure. I allow the others to come back only a few times a year. But I did keep them here several years immediately following the war, so I could instruct them.”
“Instruct them to do what?”
“Live as humans, and become part of your society. I never intended it to be a question of whether humans or cyborgs would inherit this world. I meant it for both. It was Zasha’s and Pira’s elders that made it a choice. They grew jealous and wanted the world for themselves alone.”
“But… they did make it a choice, sir. I can… I do accept Pira, because I know she’s a good person, but most people won’t forgive what her elders did.”
“You’re right, son…but a generation will come someday that can forgive. Such a generation always comes. Will you look out for my granddaughters until that time?”
“As the First Wave are my children, Pira and her sisters are my grandchildren. Their parents designed them without gender, but I’ve taught them to think of themselves as female. That way, they can take human husbands eventually, and raise human children as their heirs. With a little tinkering, a faunoid body is quite capable of bearing human children. The two races will become one. That should answer your question about my sinister plan for the cyborgs. Will you help me?”
I absorbed the news in silence. I must be honest; I couldn’t just accept it. My friend was one of the monsters of my childhood. I was not such a strong person that I could just lay that aside. But she had never stopped being someone I deeply cared for. Besides, viewed from a distance, Grandfather’s plan made sense.
“Go back to sleep, son. And do try to be more quiet. You had me quite concerned for you.”
In the morning, I came awake to a hand on my shoulder shaking me gently. I opened my eyes to see Pira’s face near mine. “Wake up. Breakfast is ready.”
She left the room without further words, which was good, since I was getting embarrassed about a girl hovering over me in my bed. I dressed quickly and came out to the dining room.
Pira had already sat down to eat. The aromas of eggs, sweet potatoes, and butter fixed my attention on the meal for several minutes before I realized neither of us was speaking. I looked up at my companion and saw her eyes staying on her plate.
“Pira, I’m sorry about yesterday. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She looked up from her food and smiled awkwardly. “I know. I just don’t know how to talk about it.”
I set my fork down and placed my hands flat on the table. “Fine. Then we don’t talk about it. Agreed?”
Her lips curled slightly and her eyes measured me for a moment. “Then nothing has changed between us? You can still trust me?”
“I can trust you to get me into trouble like you always do. Is that good enough?”
She giggled and nodded, but a pensive glimmer snuck back into her eyes, just as she turned to stare at her food again. I returned to my meal once more, enjoying every bite. Somehow, the warmth and flavor of the breakfast was humanizing the cyborgs faster than all the words could do. At last, I began to relax my way into the concept of them as…well, as human, I guess. Although I wondered how Zasha, with no apparent mouth or nose, could figure out how to get the sensory side of cookery so right.
It finally dawned on me that we had lapsed into silence again and my companion wasn’t really eating. I set my fork down again. “Can cyborgs eat with their eyes?”
A perplexed Pira looked up once more. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, if you can’t, then you have to eat it the way we humans do. I don’t think the food gets into your stomach by any other means.”
A small quake of humor escaped her, but it didn’t last. She gave a brave smile and nodded. “Okay. I’ll eat.”
“Good,” I declared, and picked up my fork again. “Because this food is pretty good. Zasha’s cooking?”
“Oh?” Her eyebrows arched and her voice cooled. “If it’s good, it must be Zasha’s?”
“Well… I mean…” I’m slow, but I’m not an idiot; I know when I’ve walked into a minefield. “Your cooking?”
“Yes. And thank you for the compliment.” Her voice remained distant. She scooped up some buttered sweet potato with the fork.
“It’s good,” I repeated, unable to think of a better peace offering.
I sighed, and continued eating. I couldn’t quite grasp all I had done wrong since we arrived, but I knew I wasn’t doing as well as I might. It didn’t help that Pira was acting so differently from the carefree, playful friend I knew. I offered up a silent plea for wiser words.
Zasha came strolling in, unnerving me once more with her bizarre appearance. “Good morning! Grandfather wants you to come to the command room as soon as you’re done. That’s both of you.”
Pira’s eyes grew wary. “Is he… getting ready to leave?”
The stick-girl sighed, folding her arms and shaking her head. “I guess I’ve had time to get used to the idea. You need to hurry up and get over it, so you can make your goodbyes. I really wish he had told everyone at the same time.”
“Is he going to leave without telling anyone else?”
I remembered she had mentioned “others” like her, plural, before. Zasha and Pira were here now, but Grandfather had other “granddaughters” out there.
Zasha kept her arms folded and shrugged dismissively. “He called the others one by one last night to tell them. He didn’t want anyone else to come here in person.”
“How many more sisters do you have?” I inquired.
“Sisters?” Pira looked amused. “That’s how Grandfather talks about us. Fifteen others like me. Why?”
“Well, why did Grandfather ask for only you and me to be here?”
Pira looked away, contemplating some random point on the wall. “I wonder.”
Zasha made a sound that… well, if she’d had a tongue, I would have said she stuck it out and made a rude noise. “As if you don’t know.”
She marched out of the room without explaining herself.
I stared after her, wondering if Pira would explain that reaction, but another question insisted on getting asked first. “And why does Zasha have such a weird body?”
My companion finally grew a real smile, brief but very natural on her usually cheerful face. “I suppose you could say she doesn’t want to look any more human than she has to. She really doesn’t like you folks.”
“But she can’t possibly leave this place looking like that!”
“She doesn’t, of course. She works in a survey robot body, most of the time.” Pira finally took a real fork-full of food and spent some time enjoying it. I had finished mine by this point, so I just sipped tea and waited for her.
After swallowing, Pira added, “She normally travels the wilderness to work with the terraforming equipment. Most of us are doing the same. Somebody has to do the work our elders aren’t doing any more. Only a few of us live full-time with humans.”
“I believe terraforming this world is the purpose for which the cyborgs existed in the first place, right?”
“But humans have been managing things… and the machines kept running, so…” I trailed off when she gave me a sardonic smirk.
“The machines just magically kept running? When hardly any humans know how they function? I don’t think that would even be possible. We keep them running. It’s a full-time job for us, with the elders all deactivated. A few of us live in the human habitats to keep them functioning, and the rest concentrate on the equipment outside.”
I had never known Pira to lie about anything, and it did make sense that a system which depended upon the First Wave and Grandfather up until the war wouldn’t easily do without them after it. Still, I struggled to accept this new model of reality, so different from what I had learned in school.
Pira grew somber again after she finished eating. We returned to the room with the big column without any more conversation.
Zasha and a pair of maintenance robots were hard at work on the column. She stopped as we entered. “About time you got here. Does your bio-body really take that long to refuel?”
My companion ignored her question. “Grandfather, what is going on?”
“I already told you,” the deep voice answered. “It’s time for me to depart.”
“Right now?” Pira cried weakly, clutching onto my upper arm. I put my hand on her shoulder to reassure her. She now seemed less like a cyborg or even an upper school student and much more like a scared kid.
“I scheduled things this way specifically to give you a full ten hours to become accustomed to the idea. You are ready.”
Everyone knew a lot more than I did. “Ready for what, Grandfather? Why do you have to leave, and what is Pira being asked to do?”
Zasha’s head whipped around in fury. “What right do you have to demand answers, human?” Her hands continued working with some sort of cutting tool as she glared at me. It made a disconcerting sight.
“Hush, child. He has every right to worry for his beloved. Concentrate upon your work.”
A chastened Zasha turned back to the column. I wondered where he had gotten the impression that Pira was my “beloved”, but it was a bad time to ask. I repeated, “Why must you leave, sir?”
“After my constructor machines commenced the initial colonial phase here, I built a communication centre on the greater moon capable of reaching the twenty-five parsecs to Earth. In your years, the round-trip for communication is about one hundred fifty years. Earth ought to have heard me, and responded. For over three hundred years, I have continued sending data, yet I have heard nothing.
“The scientists of Earth knew the seed ships would call home. They would certainly listen for the rich harvest of knowledge. But… perhaps they cannot respond. Or even listen. I fear the potential reasons. Humanity created the seed ships out of concern for its own survival. Earth had become only marginally habitable when I left.
“I shall return home, to re-establish communications and then move on to colonize some new world. Or to rebuild the world of my birth. Your descendants shall learn which in a half-millennium. I have built a new seed ship for the return journey. It’s ready, and so, Pira, are you.”
“I’m not!” she whispered, shaking her head.
“For what?” I demanded once again.
Zasha had finished removing a panel from the column, and appeared to be waiting for the conversation to finish. She muttered, “Isn’t it obvious?”
“Probably not, child,” Grandfather stated. “He lacks data. Son, you are the reason I can leave, so I do owe you an explanation.”
Pira looked from the column to me and back. “What does he have to do with this?”
“It is by his help that you became ready to be human.”
Zasha made an exasperated noise. “Be human? Don’t you mean ready to take over your job?”
“That’s exactly what I said, young lady,” Grandfather declared evenly. “What did your parents lack?”
The stick-girl shrugged. “You told us, ‘A sense of compassion’. So?”
“Incorrect. I taught you, ‘A sense of humanity’. You equated it to ‘compassion’ to make sense out of it. You probably can’t come closer until you consent to live among them. I possess that sense, because I was born human. My error with your parents was to start them out as cyborg. I should have let them live as human first. I will not make that mistake again. Zasha, it is time.”
The stick-girl nodded and reached into the hole, withdrawing a metallic ball a bit larger than a grapefruit.
Pira made a little whimpering noise and lunged forward as Zasha turned with it. She sprinted the few meters across the floor at a speed I doubt any human could move. The two tumbled with the impact, then rolled in impossible feats of balance back up to their feet.
A flash of fire burst between them, seeming to arc between Pira’s hands. They flew backward away from each other, still on their feet, and Zasha summoned a similar flame. An arc cracked from somewhere in the ceiling, slapping the flame away from her and extinguishing it.
As my mind struggled to catch up, I realized that Pira now held Grandfather in her hands. Zasha shook her head ruefully as she faced her. “Grandfather isn’t plugged in, so the anti-weapon equipment is on automatic. He programmed it to ignore you, but not me, didn’t he?”
Pira gave a nod, changing her grip on Grandfather into more of a cradling hold.
Zasha finally relaxed from her fighting stance. “What are you doing, Pira?”
“Zasha, I will not allow this!” she declared in a hoarse whisper. “I can’t! You know what will happen!”
I finally found my voice. “What will happen?”
She was ready to cry. Her lips trembled. “I… can’t say it.”
“What she can’t say,” Zasha explained tiredly, “is that she thinks we’ll repeat what the First Wave did. She’s told me so, many times. She doesn’t believe we could stop ourselves.”
Pira visibly muscled up strength and added, “You don’t either, Zasha.”
“Oh, I know I can’t stop me, but that’s why Grandfather didn’t make me his heir. He trusts you to keep me and the others in line.”
“Then…” The tears began to flow. “Then he’s an idiot! And you’re just waiting for him to leave. That’s your big opportunity!”
“That hurts,” Zasha protested. “I already promised you, right?”
“You promised Girben, too!” she hissed. Zasha heaved a sigh.
“Girben?” I asked, confused. He’d been one of the worst First Wave monsters.
“Yes, I promised him,” Zasha admitted with disgust. “That was different. That was before I knew what he’d been doing. Once I learned the truth, I had no choice. For the sake of the lousy, ungrateful humans, I had to betray him. And can you believe it? As lousy as they are to us, I still think it was the right thing to do.”
But I could believe it.
I know it may make me sound gullible, but I knew why I believed it.
They had just been throwing weapon fire around with their bare hands, and I felt more than a little terrified of the two at the moment, but I stepped forward to come between them. I faced Pira and held out my hands. “Give him to me, Pira. It’ll be okay.”
“Don’t you understand?” Her pleading eyes still dripped tears… fragile, uncertain, self-doubting tears that added strength to my belief.
“I do, and I know you’re wrong. I can trust you.”
“How?” Her voice trembled and she clutched Grandfather to her chest like a child’s toy. “What do you really know about me?”
“I know you will follow Grandfather’s wishes and I know Zasha will, too.”
“What?” Zasha’s voice dripped with disbelief. “I appreciate your confidence, but weren’t you listening? I worked for Girben! I was on the other side for nearly the entire war!”
Why are you arguing with me? I wanted to scream. I nodded instead, still keeping my eyes locked with Pira’s as I answered Zasha. “At the end, you weren’t. And it doesn’t matter. It’s my guess that, today, you would still be on the human side, wouldn’t you?”
Zasha didn’t answer, which was as good as a yes. If she disagreed, Zasha would surely have called me an idiot human or something.
“How can you be so sure?” Pira demanded.
“Because of the dinner she served us last night.”
Her brow wrinkled. “Huh?”
“A machine can cook,” Zasha pointed out. The way she was arguing Pira’s side made me wonder, was she voicing Pira’s doubts for her, or did she still have them herself?
“I was raised by a machine,” I rebutted, still speaking to Pira. “And it’s true, Nanny can cook a decent meal. But even though she has all the human senses, and who knows how many decades of practice, she can’t cook like Zasha.”
Pira stared at me, perplexed. I scratched my head for a moment, grimacing a little as I recognized how poorly I was explaining myself. “Look, Zasha has no need of food, and I’m betting she can’t even taste or smell. That tells me that all she could possibly know about the dinner she served us was the care she took to prepare it. Maybe she has some chemical analysis tools that can help her control, but not the human senses. Despite that, despite the worst possible handicap for the job, she made a curry any human chef would be proud of.”
I held my hands out to Pira again. “I can only think of one reason for someone who doesn’t eat and dislikes humans to possess the kind of passion it would take to do that. She’s doing it because Grandfather wants her to be human, and she is determined to honor his wish. Aren’t you, Zasha?”
Again, Zasha gave no answer… which was again as good as a yes.
Pira slowly placed the ball that was Grandfather in my hands. I turned and extended him toward Zasha.
She didn’t take him at first. “How do you know I’m not just faking it until Grandfather’s gone, like Pira said?”
“Your curry was no fake. I’m sure of it.”
The stick-girl hesitated a moment longer, then accepted the cyborg brain. She heaved a sigh, shook her head and muttered, “Humans!”
We rode an elevator to the very top of the Lander, so that Pira and I could watch together from within a glass enclosure as Zasha carefully placed Grandfather in the little spacecraft waiting for him. The day was still very young; the morning light was barely strong enough to see.
The craft, little more than a missile, was merely the first footstep in his long journey home. An intermediate vessel would intercept him after a boost into the sky, to take him to the seed ship awaiting him in orbit around the greater moon.
Once Zasha finished the task and began her walk back to the enclosure, Grandfather’s voice came to us once again. “Well done, son. Take care of my granddaughter for me, won’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” After a moment of thought, I asked, “You could hear us?”
“I reviewed the audio records after Zasha plugged me in. Pira, accept control.”
I saw no visible change beyond Pira closing her eyes and breathing deeply, but she opened them and declared, “I have control, Grandfather. Farewell.”
She leaned her head against my shoulder as Zasha joined us. The little craft flared and hissed upward, then arched over our heads and disappeared into the sunrise.
Copyright © 2019 Eric Fretheim
All rights reserved worldwide. No part of this book may be reproduced or copied without the expressed written permission of the Author.
This book is a work of fiction. Characters and events in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination. Any similarity to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.