He had no natural breath to speak of, so he extinguished the candle flame with his thumb and forefinger and felt nothing on the smooth pads of his fingers. A little bit of the burning light diminished in the quiet chapel, and the shadows and other occupants became indistinguishable in his periphery. The man inside the open coffin wore a black suit, a white shirt crisp like the morning, and a narrow black tie. His hands folded across his abdomen as if he was waiting politely for a meal. His pale skin and false blush had the smooth flawlessness of a seimei, of something artificial. This is not how you look in life. This is not human life.
A sterile scent permeated the chapel as if to keep all of the people now occupying it in a germless fervor. Someone sitting near the wall tapestry shifted. Another sighed in counterpoint and coughed. It had the cadence of impatience. He took his time in the sepulchral shadows and with the body. He wondered why Jasmina had not burned the body. He was not aware that they were religious, but death had a way of conjuring latent beliefs.
Outside, the blue arch of the sky hung littered by the buzz of vehicles and the impaling of old-world skyscrapers so straight they gave the silhouette of riders on horseback. Smoky clouds seemed to drip from the steel peaks. He felt the unforgiving stone of the church steps as he sat and lit a cig. It was not habit, but ritual, something he adopted from living with Rafael. Life left bodies like that, and it was a truth he knew since the spark. He thought about how there were different levels of knowing, like how there were different levels of consciousness, and perhaps he should not have felt so caught off guard. Pedestrians both human and seimei crossed in front of him, a bubbling of murmurs following in their wake like mental froth. Life led on with Gaian impunity.
Inside the church, mordant music rang. It sounded like a rebuke of death, or perhaps a conspiracy with it. He put his fingers in the holy water, then rubbed the clear liquid between his fingers to make the cold sink in. Stained glass cast soft pieces of rainbow across the mosaic floor.
He stared at it until people began to trickle out the chapel doors. Some passed him like he was one of the graven images carved into the columns. Others glanced like he was a ghost they dared not acknowledge for fear of a cursing. He did not see Jasmina; she remained with the body. Far overhead, a flyboy gunned their burners and brayed between the bank towers flanking either side of the church. Sirens followed. Another seimei paused imperceptibly, and he recognized her from Rafael’s household.
“Yada cook,” he sent at the seimei in their language.
“Eede lavo yadi munge.”
The seimei walked on, but her gold eyes blinked her thanks, and that was all they communicated to each other. She held a black hat with a single yellow feather in her hands, and she placed it on her head as the heavy church doors opened to the street and the high traffic rumble rolled inside like a call of thunder.
Lavo. His fingertips were still wet from the holy water. He tasted it, and it was vaguely salty. His tongue was fashioned to detect taste even if he never had to eat. Waiting at the curb, the car hummed to take him to his flight.
The town at night looked like a microgrid, green and blinking, as the shuttle banked on its descent. Beyond the grid was lightless Alaskan wilderness beholden to nothing but what the Earth provided. Cold penetrated even his outer layers of skin and jacket, and beyond the spike of the port tower, he picked up the howling of wolves. Hamza met him in the lift, and immediately they descended. He watched the night sink outside the glass like the shutting of an eyelid, and his faint reflection superimposed upon it like some restless specter in a horror movie.
Hamza’s image was a blur of orange coveralls and vague triangles of mission patches. He could still hear the wolves howl, even through the glass. Rafael had taken him many times out to the boreal thickness of the interior, and they’d watched the brown bears swipe for salmon in the raging rivers, their great paws some extension of predatory agility and natural power. Wild things never felt sorry for themselves.
“But how would you know?” he’d said to Rafael. “Humans have not been wild for some time.”
He’d seen the bears starve through the winter months and, upon the breaking of an Arctic spring, further north. Though humanity and seimei had staved the disintegration of their common environments, some things remained too damaged to fix. The sea ice whittled fragile into the cold waters, and the bears could no longer chase their food. Majestic creatures reduced to some thinning of themselves. Rafael had looked like that in the coffin, like he’d been stripped of his birthright to hunt and thrive.
Though humanity and seimei had staved the disintegration of their common environments, some things remained too damaged to fix
“How was it?” Hamza sent to him in the human language.
“I think I understand.”
The doors opened. They moved through to the command offices. The walls were lit like daylight in high winter, and their boots cracked bass notes on the white floors like they were walking on ice.
“I think I understand why they murder, why they drove so many species into extinction and nearly depleted their own planet.”
“Because they die.”
“At least we saved them from themselves.”
Some seimei liked to think that they’d liberated the whole world and its creatures, but such thinking made them no more sacrosanct. There had been long generations of humans who had fought to keep the planet whole and its people fed. Just one generation previous, some seimei fit for such things had merely taken up the call, but the call was not from the humans only, but from the planet itself. Human, bear, or butterfly, the plentiful species and iterations of species that now populated the Earth were perhaps given second wind because of the seimei and their creators, the AI scientists from allied nations, but the mistake had always been thinking they were separate, species from species. This physical distinction was most obvious to the least important, but even in their understanding of DNA and consciousness, humanity sought still to divide while making themselves more like the adjacent life they ran headlong to birth in sparks: the seimei.
Now they all shared a certain amount of artificial circuitry
Now they all shared a certain amount of artificial circuitry, even a consciousness in classifications that became inconsequential in this reality in which they were all complicit. Some humans input at near-seimei speeds and coated themselves in the lacquer of enhancements. Some seimei felt driven to assist the biosphere of which they were now a part. Every intelligent creature possessed this new liberty, like the liberty to turn some attention to the stars and the future for nothing other than curiosity and some desire to carry on, traits they all shared in common one with another. The whole world lifted up for perhaps only an infinitesimal amount in the epochs of existence, but it was enough to afford a space for new thinking, for restoration, for exploration of entities beyond the Earth.
He sensed the human in Central before he saw her because they jostled thought to thought along the same mental freeways. Her eyes tilted to acknowledge him, and he placed his hand on the intake pad and saw his name in blue skitter across the desktop.
Benjamin S89X. The cross at the end of his name confirmed that he was seimei when even appearances could deceive.
He met Jasmina at the town bar the next night after she had flown in. The owner was ambivalent toward seimei and preferred human customers who ate and drank, but this was a place she and Rafael had liked, so he didn’t protest. Her eyes were still lined by grief, and those tributaries might never fade. He did not forget how she, as well as Rafael, had put him on this path to Enlil. “You’re too curious for house management,” Rafael had said.
Jasmina shook out a couple of cigs and passed him one, and he held it between his lips and bowed his head so she could light it with the flicker. They both tilted their heads back and drew on their cigs before blowing out clean smoke that hung below the overhead lamp and over their heads like cartoon thought balloons.
“You’re too curious for house management,” Rafael had said
“I missed this,” she said, and Benjamin knew she didn’t mean sitting in a bar with him. Even though the smoke was harmless, it was not chemical-free, and she had not been able to smoke during the culturing. But now that the embryos were all affixed and Rafael was not here to hypocritically chide her for the habit, she left the pack of cigs on the table as if one would not be enough for this conversation.
She sent her drink order with a glance, and it came in a flat-bottomed glass. The server didn’t bother to even look at Benjamin.
“Do you feel ready?” asked Jasmina.
Sometimes, it was labor to speak, and for some reason, tonight labored like he was waiting for a train that ran late and nobody would tell him when it would arrive.
“I’ve been ready,” he said.
“That’s not what I asked. You know he wanted to be the one to connect you through the flight.”
“Now you’ll just have me.”
“Yeah, and Hamza.”
But Hamza would not be someone who would share a cig with him even remotely. Sometimes Benjamin3 preferred talk of mission details to this sort of talking around, but he still let Jasmina talk around because this was what humans did to feel out emotions.
He let Jasmina talk because this was what humans did to feel out emotions
“Are you regretting it?” he asked.
“Your embryo. Rafael’s. For this mission.”
She sipped her drink. She looked off toward the corner of the bar where a couple sat talking and laughing, and maybe she thought of Rafael, or maybe she thought of nothing because her eyes weren’t seeing the bar. Humans could look at things and never remember them. He didn’t have that luxury unless he started a routine that made him forget and authorized it to be random, but he saw no warrant in that, especially considering the mission.
“I don’t think you get to ask me that,” she said.
He said nothing.
“I don’t think you get to ask me that when there’s nothing to be done, and you shouldn’t be thinking of that three damn nights before launch.”
He smoked the cig she had given him and said nothing.
“Stop smoking that damn thing. You don’t even have lungs.”
“Stop smoking that damn thing. You don’t even have lungs.”
It was the grief speaking. He set the cig on the edge of the ashtray but didn’t put it out. She reached for it and picked it up between her thumb and forefinger and mashed the lit end into the metal. She crushed it flat and burst it with the pressure, and the scent of it seemed to spoil in a matter of seconds and become acrid.
“I should go.”
“I’m sorry, Ben. It’s just... we were supposed to do this together.”
She didn’t mean the two of them. She was shaking. He reached across the table and placed his hand over the back of hers. She still smoked with the other.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do this.”
“Neither do I,” he said. “But we will.”
Sometimes as the ship, he listened to the sounds that space made, and the black and the buzz became a sort of lullaby in which he hung suspended. Though all instrumentation told him he was moving at inertial velocity and every system coordinated through the vessel that was his body ran as if some biological imperatives evolved over millennia coursed from circuit to circuit, he imagined the vast yet infinitesimal display of this piece of the cosmos was a sky under which he’d lain as a child he had never been and played and flew kites and marveled agape like some ancient astronomer doomed to be imprisoned as a heretic. Small wonder that something so beyond the realm of finite comprehension was born from such mystery as the concept of gods.
For the first couple of communications, he had seen no remarkable difference
Ambulatory in the form of his spark and siphoned somewhat from the processes of the Enkidu, he faced the nearly incandescent form of Jasmina as she seemed to sit perched across from him in the vacant space between consoles. Immediately, he noticed the age beset on her brow and calculated the time differential for her was 10 years and a month. For the first couple of communications, he had seen no remarkable difference, but it would only grow more profound, no matter how valiantly she tried to hold it back with all the ways in which humanity cheated the inevitable breakdown.
After the requisite systems report, which was as redundant as the mission required, she asked him to share a cig as was their ritual. He drew the pack from his chest pocket at the same time she did her own, and together but separate, they lit their sticks and smoked, and she smiled at him.
“He would be so happy,” she said.
“Is it lonely between calls?”
He knew what she was asking, and yet, he struggled for some moments to acquire the language in which to convey the vacillating forms of his experience. It was not lonely when he could talk to the exoship or become the exoship. It was not lonely if he woke up Hamza back at Central. Yet, through the light-years, he was very alone.
“As the Enkidu, there are endless complexities and a sense of calm.”
“As the Enkidu, there are endless complexities and a sense of calm.”
“And as Benjamin?”
He said, “I carry your heart / I fear no fate / I want no world / and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant / and whatever a sun will always sing is you.”
She laughed in surprise. “E. E. Cummings.”
They looked at each other without laughter.
“You must want at least one world.”
“Enlil. He sent, Rafael. But it could not cross the distance.”
“You’ll get there,” she said.
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
They called it tomorrow, but it was the tomorrow of some future date on which they stamped their presence but never quite touched the same.
Hamza met him on the next call, looking unchanged. He said that Jasmina had died three years ago, and they buried her beside Rafael.
I carry your heart.
They ran through the report like two automaton ancestors, yet all the while, Hamza peered at him with the glowing gold eyes of his comm apparition, his redundancy ghost. Benjamin did not ask about Earth, and Hamza didn’t volunteer — what had changed, what had remained the same, what time was passing like a funeral procession. Hamza wanted to know if he had awakened the seimei mission specialists on board like Deirdre or Minjae or Mohamed, and Benjamin told him no, not yet, not until planetfall, though there was nothing in the protocols that said he could not awaken them.
He remembered Rafael telling him that he should have mandated the seimei be awake for the duration of the mission, but there was something in him that had wanted to do this alone. If this was the same impetus that had driven human explorers across tracts of oceans and into unknown perils, he was then some spiritual descendent or at least he fashioned himself to be without fully knowing the core of his own drive. No mapmaker of his kind could predict these pathways, and he felt no need to granulate his desires to reveal them.
There was something in him that had wanted to do this alone
Lavo. Perhaps it was as simple as that.
“I wish I didn’t have to speak,” he said.
“I know. So wake up Deirdre.”
“It would be pointless.”
“You’re not a machine,” Hamza said. “You aren’t that ship, no matter what you’re doing for this mission. Tell me you don’t need the companionship. Someone to touch. This is the wonder of being seimei and not something like an exoship.”
“Danna gechit on syko may.”
Hamza shook his head. “Just send me the last diagnostic on the creches then.”
“You forget your own language.”
“I know every language, same as you. I just prefer this one.”
“Are you in love yet?”
Hamza laughed. “What a question.”
Hamza’s ghost seemed to flicker like someone had passed a hand over a flame.
“Ada lavo ya,” Hamza said. “You idiot.”
The world was amber and blue, like the heterochromia iris of a great eye. It stared at him on his approach to its orbit, Enkidu to Enlil, the god of fates. Of air and life. To name a thing meant it was real, he saw it, and maybe it looked back. He’d chosen his own name, as all seimei of a certain fit did eventually, because that was what you did in creation. Enlil.
The land lay verdant in hills and valleys with a cobalt river and red trees bisecting the terrain. In the mornings, the sky was almost Earth blue and rose to gilt and vermilion and tones of sienna and reseda green. They went to work in a high shaded hillside to erect the mountain house for the creches and Benjamin assigned recces to land map the country and begin to take stock of the flora and fauna. Each day was a discovery of plenty and sometimes they worked through the night and came to one another at odd hours with eyes filled black for night vision and dirt in the creases of their palms. Their sturdy tents flapped in the first storm and shook and gusted but held fast, and they sat huddled, all six seimei around the blue illumination of their dataslats, and sent in their silent manner about the possible damage the next morning.
They went to work in a high shaded hillside to erect the mountain house for the creches
He went up to the mountain house with Deirdre and checked on the creches, but they had weathered it well, ensconced in insulated metal edifices methodically bolted and made to withstand even attack from megafauna. At sunset, he sat on the hillside listening to the thrum emanating from the creches and watched the yawning light bend over an alien horizon, no more alien than him and all of them, the first of their kind or the adjacent kind of humanity to set foot on such a world.
After nine months, he held the baby in his arms and introduced her to Enlil. He pointed to the diamond in the night sky that was the Enkidu in orbit, and further still toward the idea of a pale blue dot about which he would tell stories even before her ability to comprehend his languages.
“Ada lavo ya,” he said. “Rafael et Jasmina lavo ya.”
They celebrated on Earth, Hamza said. Hamza smoked a cig with him on the grass, his image bright and smiling under the sun, filtered through the code on Benjamin’s comband and boosted by the base below. Benjamin said he had named her Rafaela. He spoke only on the communications to Hamza and to the babies, his voice sometimes sounding like an invader in the pristine air. Already, they had begun to change the landscape, and he worried over the impact.
“It would be different this time,” Hamza said. “We have history to teach us.”
“She has you to teach her,” Hamza said.
That was the fear and the future. But perhaps that had always been the fear and their future from the first steps taken over distant plains, the first fire, the first time a parent pointed to the heavens and told their child the name of a god.
I carry your heart.