by Nancy Kress
When the message from Seliku reached me, I was dreaming in QUENTIAM. No, not dreaming, that can’t be right—the upload state doesn’t permit dreaming. For that you need a biological, soft tissue of one sort or another, and I had no biology until my next body was done. I had qubits moving at c, combining and recombining with themselves and, to the extent It will permit, with QUENTIAM. I should not have been dreaming.
Still, the subprogram felt like a biological dream. Something menacing and ill-defined chased me through a shifting landscape, something unknowably vast, coming closer and closer, its terrifying breath on my back, its—
*Message from Seliku, magnitude one,* QUENTIAM “said” to me and the dream vanished. The non-dream.
*From Seliku? Now?*
*It’s not time for Seliku.* And certainly not at a magnitude one.
QUENTIAM didn’t answer. It gave me an image of Seliku gazing at an image of me from out of a mirror, a piece of rococo drollery I was all at once too apprehensive to appreciate. It was nowhere near time for me to hear from Seliku, or from any of my sister-selves.
“Akilo,” she said in agitation. Her image had the faint halo of real-time transmission. Seliku wore the body we all used for our bond-times, a female all-human with pale brown skin, head hair in a dark green crest, black eyes. Four coiled superflexible tentacles were each a meter long, the digits slim and graceful. It was the body of the woman we would have become had our creation occurred on a quiet planet—not that we could have been created on a quiet planet. We called the body “human standard,” to QUENTIAM’s great amusement. We didn’t understand that amusement, and It had declined to explain.
For my image, QUENTIAM had used my last body, grown for my fish work on ˄563, just before this upload. Four arms, tail, gills. I’d never liked the body and now I tweaked its image to a duplicate of Seliku’s. We gazed at each other within my usual upload sim, a forested bedroom copied from ˄894, where I’d once adjusted a particularly appealing species of seedings. It had been some of my best work. I’d been happy there.
Seliku said, “Akilo, you must come to Calyx. Now. Immediately.”
“What has happened?” She was scaring me.
“I don’t know what happened. I mean yes, I do, we do, it’s Haradil—you must come!”
I recognized fear in her jerky, elliptical blurtings—we all spoke that way when genuinely terrified. “Bej—”
“Bej and Camy are here.”
“Where is Haradil? Seliku,
“I… sorry, I’m sorry, I thought I… Haradil is at the Mori Core. Or she
“The Mori First One called me. The First One himself. He said that Haradil destroyed a star system.”
Stunned, I tried to assimilate this.
Seliku was more coherent now, calmed a bit by sharing the disaster. That, too, I recognized. She said, “The First One wouldn’t tell me except in person. You know how they are. Akilo, the star system was inhabited. There was life there.”
“Yes, although primitive. And Haradil… they’ve exiled her to a quiet planet for life.”
For life. For taking life. “I—”
“I’m in upload, my new body isn’t done—”
“I know you’re in upload! Come when the body’s done!” Anger, our habitual response to helplessness. Seliku’s image vanished without waiting for agreement; she knew that of course I would come.
I turned my share of our anger on QUENTIAM. *Why didn’t you tell me about Haradil when it happened?*
*You didn’t ask.*
*We have a group flag on anything significant involving any of us!*
*Haradil overrode it half a year ago,* QUENTIAM said.
Overrode it. Haradil hadn’t wanted her sister-selves to know what she’d been doing.
As children we had played at “death.” One of us would lie absolutely still while the others whispered above her, kicked her softly, pretended to walk away and leave her alone forever. The game had left us breathless and thrilled, like playing “nova” or “magic.” Children enjoy the impossible, the unthinkable.
I said to QUENTIAM, *When will my next body be done?*
*At the same moment I named when you last asked me that.*
*Can it be sooner?*
*I cannot hurry bio-nanos. I am a membrane, Akilo, not a magician.*
How had she, who was I, done such a thing?
I stood before a full-length mirror in the vat room of the station, flexing my new tentacles with distaste. This body had been designed for my next assignment, on ˄1864. After Seliku’s message arrived, QUENTIAM had directed the nanos to make some alterations, but I’d been unwilling to take the time to start from scratch. On ˄1864 the gravity was 1.6 standard and the seedings I’d been going to adjust were non-sentient, semi-aquatic plants. This body had large webbed feet, heavy muscles in the squat lower body, and relatively short tentacles ending in too many digits of enormous flexibility. Most of QUENTIAM’s last-minute alterations had occurred in the face, which was more or less the one Seliku had worn in her transmission, although 1.6 gravity dictated that the neck was practically non-existent.
“I hate it,” I said.
“It’s very practical,” QUENTIAM said. Now that I had downloaded, his voice came from the walls of the small room, furnished only with the mirror and the vat from which my body had come. “Or it would have been practical if you were still going to ˄1864.”
“Are you sending someone else?”
“Of course. It’s been nearly a thousand years since their last adjustment.”
No one knows what QUENTIAM calls a “year.” It doesn’t seem to correspond to any planetary revolution stored in Its deebees, which suggests that the measure is very old indeed, carried over from the previous versions of QUENTIAM. Some of the knowledge in those earlier versions appears to have been lost. I can’t imagine any of the versions; QUENTIAM has been what It is in the memory of everyone I’ve ever met, no matter how many states they’ve inhabited. It’s just QUENTIAM, the membrane of spacetime into which everything else is woven.
QUENTIAM Itself says Its name is archaic, once standing for “Quantum-Entangled Networked Transportation and Information Artificial-Intelligence Membrane.” I’m not sure, beyond the basics, what that encompasses. Seliku is the sister-self who chose to follow our childhood interest in cosmology, just as Camy and Bej chose art and I chose the sciences of living things.
A clone-set, like any living thing, is a chaotic system. Initial small differences, small choices, can lead to major divergences lifetimes later. That is why all clone-sets from my part of the galaxy meet every two “years.” The meeting is inviolable. One can’t be expected to keep track of lovers or friends; there are too many choices to pull them away, too many states to inhabit, too much provided by nano, over too long a time. There is always QUENTIAM, of course, but the only human continuity, the only hope of genuine human bonding, comes from sister- or brother-selves, who share at least the same DNA. All the other so-called “family structures” that people periodically try have been failures.
Well, not all. Apparently the Mori have, in the last thousand years, worked out some sort of expanding kinship structure to match their expanding empire. But it seems to be maintained partly through force, which is repugnant to most people. Anyway, a thousand years—QUENTIAM’s mysterious “years”—isn’t long enough to prove the viability of anything. I’m half that old myself.
Of course, the Great Mission also considers itself a “kinship structure.” But they’re not only repugnant but also deluded.
QUENTIAM said, “Your shuttle has docked.”
“How many others are going on it?”
“Five. Three more new downloads and two transients.”
“Transients? What are transients doing on this station?” It was small and dull, existing solely as a convenient node for up/downloading near the t-hole.
“They’re missionaries, Seliku. I’ll keep them away from you as long as I can.”
“Yes. Do,” I said acidly, even as I wondered what QUENTIAM was saying at that same moment to the missionaries.
Probably. QUENTIAM, of course, gives all people the information they want to hear. But It would do as It said and keep the missionaries away from me. I was not in the mood for proselytizing.
The wall opened and nano-machinery spat out my traveling bag onto the floor. I opened it and checked that everything was there, even though no other possibility existed. S-suit, food synthesizer, my favorite cosmetics, a blanket—sometimes other people had strange notions of comfortable temperature—music cube… I strapped the bag around my very thick waist, stepped tow ...