‘My Plastic Heart, My Metal Hand’, Susan Jane Bigelow

Illustrations © 2019 L.E. Badillo

 [ Meeting, © 2019 L.E. Badillo ] 1. Senna

“One day,” said Yvna, giving me an intent, focused look with eyes that had turned silver, “You’ll look in the mirror and there won’t be any human at all left there. And on that day you’ll feel nothing but relief.”

I sighed a little then, in anticipation, before quickly squashing the feeling. The deal wasn’t closed yet.

Yvna, my contact in the Network, smoothed back her limp-looking hair with a gloved hand, still studying me with those hard silver eyes. She’d finally agreed to meet me here, in a bar in this city where neither of us lived, after I’d begged for weeks.

“It isn’t magic,” she cautioned, voice sharp. “You need to realize that. It doesn’t fix everything. It’ll be different, you’ll change, but you’re still you in the end.”

“I understand,” I said, trying not to seem too eager. You’re not supposed to want it badly. You’re supposed to be cool, rational, logical; you’re supposed to seem as if you haven’t been letting this hollow you out inside for your whole life. “I want to be different than what I am now.”

She looked at her drink and then, making a sound that reminded me of regret, pushed it away. She was far along in her own change and didn’t need food anymore.

“You aren’t listening,” she said, frustrated. “Look… It feels like everything in my body is quiet now. It’s good. But sometimes it’s like I’m losing touch with the things that used to make life worth living.”

She must have seen my look of panic, because she hastened to add, “There’s always things you have to leave behind. That’s normal. That’s what change is like. It’s all frightening and new, and you lose things. But mostly, it’s good. It feels right. Solid. Like coming home. Like I’ve become myself.”

“What if…” I started to ask, but I couldn’t bring myself to go on. I took a sip of my drink instead, and wondered for a moment if I’d miss the sensation of liquid pouring down my throat.

“If it’s not what you wanted, there’s a kill command you can send,” she said. “But you can’t go back to what you were, not completely. It doesn’t work that way. Some changes are permanent. You have to be willing to commit.”

“I still want it,” I said firmly. I met her eyes, trying to seem fearless and certain. “I’m sure.”

“Okay.” She glanced quickly around at the other patrons in the bar, then slid me a small unlabeled package. “I won’t stand in your way. Just swallow what’s in here. It’ll start. But don’t come whining to us if it isn’t what you expect.”

The package lay uneasily in my jacket pocket on the monorail home. My fingers played nervously over the outside of the package, turning it over and over.

The wild green spaces between the teeming cities that had once been pressurized domes flew by outside. The unpeopled, terraformed lands of the planet of Sovena were beautiful in their stark and lush way.

I wondered if I would still understand that beauty after. Some people on the Network forum said they did; others said they lost that sense and didn’t miss it.

The loudspeaker was playing a speech by the premier of the puppet government the Loyan invaders had installed to run Sovena. “Humans must remember who we were,” he said in his reedy, wheezing voice. “We must look to our own biology, our own hearts and hands of fragile flesh, to make ourselves great and whole and pure again.” A crowd cheered.

There was a male-looking Artificial in the monorail car with us; his skin was gleaming chrome and his eyes were a dazzling swirl of blues and reds. His white hair hung limply at chin-length. The others in the car had made a space around him, pointedly looking away as the speech played. He saw me staring at him with something that wasn’t the hatred Sovenes have for Artificials now, and raised a metallic eyebrow.

I looked quickly away, but I fantasized that he’d seen something in me.

Something that was the same.

My wives Gea and Deeyen were waiting when I got home to our apartment back in the crowded city of Fallow Dome. They sat at the table in the kitchen, absently holding hands and talking in low voices. They stopped at once and turned to look at me when I came in, looking as if they’d been caught at something. I fought down the tidal wave of guilt that threatened to carry me away, and went in.

“Well?” Gea asked.

“I got it,” I said simply. Gea closed her eyes and sighed. Deeyen looked like she might be about to cry.

“We talked about this,” I said, my voice unexpectedly shaky.

“No, Senna, you talked about this,” Deeyen said heatedly. “You told us what you wanted and how it was going to be. Did you ever even stop to think about what it was going to do to the rest of us?”

Gea put a hand on Deeyen’s shoulder.

“It’s fine,” said Gea, with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “We’re very happy for you.”

I sat in the little room we used as an office, examining the package but not quite daring to open it. There was a knock at the door; Gea poked her head in.

“How’s Dees?” I asked.

Gea sat down on the floor mats with me, grunting as she arranged her legs into position. “She’s feeling what she’s feeling, right now,” she said. “And maybe it’s best to let her feel it. She went to pick up Falye.” Falye was our son; he was ten.

“Thank you for talking to her,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure Gea actually had.

“She’s afraid,” said Gea. “And, to be honest, so am I. Sen… she’s right. You did just drop this on us.”

“I didn’t, though!” I protested, fighting a horrible sinking feeling deep in my gut. “I tried to let you know…”

“But you never just came out and said it,” said Gea. She was trying to be her usual calm, patient self, but even I could see that she was rattled.

“I couldn’t,” I said, voice catching. “I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t. I was too scared. I mean, with everything that’s happened lately, can you blame me?”

Gea ran a hand over the smooth baldness of her head. “I wish you’d trusted us enough to say something.”

I could only shrug. What could I say, that it was less about trust than it was about me being a coward?

“Is that it?” she gestured at the package. “Did you take it?”

“That’s it,” I confirmed. “And no. Not yet.”

“Are you going to?”

“I can’t go on like this,” I said softly. “Please… try to understand.”

In response, Gea took me into her arms and held me there for a long, long time.

“I don’t understand,” she said at last. But before the shock and panic could finish coursing through me, she said, “But it doesn’t matter. I love you. We’ll… we’ll get through this.”

What makes a human want—need—to become an Artificial? There was a little pamphlet the Network had created to hand out to friends and family that tried to answer that question. I gave it to Gea before she left.

Environment, it suggested, or something about hormone levels at birth. That, or maybe it had something to do with constant exposure to all the forms of synthetic intelligence we’d created over the ten thousand years since humans had left Earth. Maybe that had started to change us in ways we couldn’t imagine. That was the one I liked to believe, when I looked for a reason at all.

All I knew was that it was something I’d felt since I was a little girl. It had never gone away despite therapy, prayer, wishing, and simply trying to ignore it.

I sat in my tiny office after Gea left, my heart aching for my wives, my son. My hand closed on the package. Inside were the tiny, microscopic nanomachines that would start the process of changing me. I couldn’t bring myself to take them, not yet. But I couldn’t live this way anymore.

I was a coward, and I knew it. Yes, I wanted a heart of plastic and tubing, not one of flesh. I wanted to be sensors and circuits and the solid weight of metal and chrome. But would that ever stop the guilt?

I set the package aside and went to see Deeyen.

My younger wife was down in her tiny lab monitoring the growth of some new type of fungus that had started killing plants out in the empty lands. I didn’t pretend to understand it. I was only a librarian, and the science that she and Gea, a biopsychologist, could toss back and forth at one another over dinner was beyond me.

“Hey,” I said, letting myself in. “Can we talk?”

“If you want,” said Deeyen coolly.

I paused, not sure of what I wanted to say to her. There was so much. Please try to understand. It was this or suicide. I can’t help it. I love you. I’m sorry.

But what I said was, “Gea says we’ll get through it.”

“Ah, Gea says,” said Deeyen sarcastically. “Wonderful.”


“You know what the Loyans will do to you, if they find out?” asked Deeyen, eyes hard. “To all of us?”

“No, they won’t do anything to you,” I insisted, though I was unsure. The Network’s underground online forums had all kinds of horror stories, and I wasn’t sure what to believe. “It’s my risk. You can say you didn’t know.”

“Sen!” protested Deeyen, her cool reserve vanishing. “Please stop talking like—like—you’ve got it all planned out!”

“I do have it planned out,” I said matter-of-factly.

“I don’t want to lose you,” said Deeyen, eyes bright with tears. “I can’t stand it. I have no idea what to tell Falye.”

“You won’t lose me! And I’ll handle Falye,” I said.

“But how will we tell him when the Loyans come to take his mamesye away? How can I possibly…” She turned quickly away. “Did you take it yet?”


“Then… please don’t. Not yet. Can you wait a little while?”

“I don’t think I can,” I replied honestly. I could feel the blood in my veins, the softness of my skin, the squish of my organs, and I clenched my teeth.

“I don’t want you to change,” said Deeyen sharply, angrily wiping at her eyes. “I love you like you are!”

“I won’t be that different,” I said, trying to be soothing. “It’s just how I look…”

“I like how you look! And I like how you are. How you smell, how you talk, how you breathe. All of that’s going to change. Please, please, go see Gea’s friends at her practice. I’m sure one of them can help you.”

“I tried therapy,” I allowed. “A long time ago, before I met either you or Gea. It didn’t help.”

“Try again!”

“Dees,” I said firmly. “I can’t. I’m sorry. But this is what I have to do.”

She wiped her eyes and turned back to her samples. “Then we have nothing further to say to one another. Please check on Falye on your way back upstairs.”

I said a quick good night to a blissfully unaware Falye and went back to the office. I stayed up late, reading over posts in the Network’s forums. I saw one from Yvna, the sei I’d met earlier today. Sei was a shorthand; it meant “synthetically enhanced intelligence.” Artificials, both manufactured and human-born, cyborg Synthetics, and other not-quite-human forms of intelligence, used it instead of “man,” “woman,” or “person.”

Gea and Deeyen talked in low voices in the room nearby. Deeyen was crying again, and I thought maybe Gea was too. I caught snatches of conversation.

“…don’t know if I can love…”

“…Falye is so young, he won’t care, but…”

“…the Loyans, they hate…”

“…why she didn’t say anything? Was it me? I don’t…”

I slumped, defeated. The old familiar depression grabbed me, threatening to drag me under. I didn’t want to be so selfish. I’d spent my whole life trying not to be selfish.

But I didn’t know what else to do. I had screwed everything up by not telling them. I knew I was going to lose friends, and family, and I wanted to hang on to all of it. I couldn’t stand the idea of their love turning to revulsion, hate, and fear.

And, of course, I was afraid of the Loyans. We were all afraid of the Loyans.

A year after Falye was born, war had come to Sovena. Loyan ships smashed through the system defenses, pulverizing our own fleet, and had hurled bombs at the planet for three days before the government surrendered. I still remembered the bombs falling on Relko’s Shield, the city where we’d lived before. I had picked up a screaming Falye while Deeyen had helped a hurt and bleeding Gea along, and we’d run as fast as we could from the shattered remains of our old building. All around us was fire, the furious sound of the bombs slamming into the city, and the screams of the terrified and the doomed.

I remembered seeing a single Artificial directing people into the shelter, her skin gleaming in the horrible orange light of the flames.

“Go safely,” she’d said to me.

When the government surrendered Sovena to Greater Loyan, Deeyen had cried while Gea worried. But all I could think of was how Loyan hated the Artificials, how they saw them as nothing more than property, and how I would have to fight that part of myself every day if I wanted to keep my family safe.

I managed it for nine years. And then, suddenly, I couldn’t anymore.

Two weeks before I had weighed out exactly how much of Gea’s painkillers would be fatal. But then I stopped, and cried. I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t brave enough. I’d put the pills away and sent Yvna a desperate message through the Network’s forum.

I can’t do this anymore. Please help me.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell Gea and Deeyen—not until I was only minutes from leaving to meet Yvna. And so I dropped it on them in the worst possible way: I told them what I was, what I was going to do, and walked out.

I was a coward, and I knew it.

I glanced in the mirror. A human face stared back, and I winced. I desperately wanted to be someone else.

“So… let me do one brave thing,” I said to myself, and opened the package. A single steel-gray capsule fell out.

That was it? It was too nondescript, too innocuous to contain the future.

I picked it up, weighing it in my trembling hand. It was heavier than I’d expected. Then I nodded briskly to myself and swallowed it.

That night, as I slept in the big bed with Gea and Deeyen, I dreamed of the vast, open spaces between the cities. I dreamed of running through the snarl of trees and underbrush, joints moving in oiled precision, without needing to breathe or strain.

And I dreamed of placing my hand on the bare ground, and feeling the heart of the planet pulse beneath me. I could almost see Sovena surround me in a way I’d never thought possible before.

The next morning I woke feeling different. I gave Deeyen a hug, and she relaxed and let me. Gea kissed me and said we would find our way through it, somehow.

“Just as long as you don’t leave us,” Deeyen said.

“Never,” I assured her through a blur of tears. But there was a little part of me that wondered if that was a lie. I could still feel the call of the open spaces as we huddled together. Beyond the cities, Sovena waited.

Falye was ready to go downstairs. It was my turn to take him to school, so I had the family’s car. He was a strong-willed, passionate child, and I loved him desperately.

“Hey,” I said to him on the way there. “Mamesye’s going to change a bit, okay?”

“You are?” he asked, almost bored. “Like, how?”

“Like… in ways that are going to seem weird,” I said. “I might look like I’m… metal, and plastic. And after a while, I will be.”

“Are you going to be an Artificial?” he asked, eyes wide. I suddenly had his full attention.

“Yeah,” I said, and with the word one weight lifted from my shoulders, and another slammed down on them.

“Yes!” he said, clapping his hands in delight. “Artificials are the best! Will you be able to bend steel and have guns in your arms?”

I wanted to laugh and cry, all at the same time. “Maybe,” I said. “But probably not. I don’t like guns. I’ll still be your mamesye, right? I’m always going to love you. You know that.”

“Sure,” he said, losing interest again.

I blinked my tears away. “Just… let’s keep it a secret between us for a while, okay? It’s important.”

“I know,” he said as we pulled up to his school. Pure Human Family read a yellow banner fluttering out front, beside a picture of four men and two babies; none of them had any kind of visible tech on their bodies. “It’s cause of the Loyans. I’m not stupid.”

“No,” I said, full of pride and worry. “You’re not.”

Slowly, I began to change. My limbs started to hurt in strange, deep ways, and then suddenly they felt fine. Areas of numbness spread all over my body, and then sensation would return—different sensation. My period vanished, I stopped sweating. My eyes began to move more quickly, and I started needing less sleep. My body temperature dropped; Gea complained that my feet were always cold in the bed at night.

I started being able to look at math problems and know the answers without thinking. But then I’d hear music and I would understand the precise mathematics of it, but the beauty of the piece seemed dulled, as if I was feeling it through a layer of cotton. I was bothered by this, at first, but then I wasn’t.

The planetary network became strangely easier to navigate, almost friendly. I found information almost before I needed it—which for a librarian was something I definitely noticed. My way was often cleared, monorail cars arrived just on time, and we always had plenty of bandwidth. Other seis on the Network reported the same thing.

My skin began to freckle silver, then discolored areas started to spread all over my body. When they reached my face and my eyes turned from deep brown to silver, co-workers at the Information Center started to ask if I was sure I was all right.

Of course, I replied, and bought makeup and colored contacts to cover it all up.

My hair lost its bounce and turned flat and straight. Some of it fell out. I cut my hair close to my head to hide the bald spots.

When I moved my hands, I swore after a while I could hear little servo motors whirring. I had imagined that since I was a child, but now I was sure, I was sure it was real.

The world outside became a much more frightening place. The Network had started buzzing about threats, seis disappearing. I started watching my back on the street, and I bought a cloak with long sleeves to hide my body. There were fewer and fewer visible Artificials these days. Loyan soldiers still patrolled the city streets in their yellow armored vehicles, weapons bristling from their hands.

This is the time for humanity to remember itself, the yellow banners read. Greater Loyan will lead us to a higher purpose.

Those banners blowing in the stiff wind made me shiver—or they would have, if I still felt the cold.

“How are you feeling?” Gea asked one day. “Do you still think this is right?”

“I do,” I said, and I was absolutely sure of it. “And… how are you?”

She smiled warmly, and kissed the half-skin, half-something else of my forehead. “Better,” she said. “You’re still you, in all the ways that matter. I suppose I was afraid you’d just be someone different.”

I shrugged. “I’m always me, I guess. Deeyen worried about that, too.”

“She’s coming around,” said Gea, though she didn’t sound entirely convinced. “Give her a little time.”

I’d tried to talk to her, but she wouldn’t engage. Falye thought it was silly when I told him she was still angry at me, and he’d told her so. But not even that had cracked the shield of hurt and anger that surrounded her now.

Every night, I felt the nanomachines within me chew away what was human, replacing it with what was not. And every morning, I felt a little more like myself. But any joy or relief I might have felt was shattered by Deeyen’s icy, distant eyes.

Early one gray and rainy morning I dropped off a groaning, complaining Falye at school, dropped the car back at home, and headed for my job. I’d had a news feed added to the constant information stream that had appeared somewhere behind my field of vision a few weeks ago, and I idly watched the headlines go by as I rode the monorail towards the city center.

One of them caught my attention, and cold fear seized me.


I quickly scanned the story—there was little enough information. But I thought of all the time I’d spent on the forum, all the seis from the Network I’d talked to. They were all in danger, I thought through a haze of panic, and so was I.

I heard Deeyen’s accusing voice in my mind. You know what the Loyans will do to you, if they find out? To all of us?

How could I have been so stupid?

I burst off the monorail at the next stop and sprinted back towards our apartment building.

It was too late. City police, backed by yellow-clad Loyan soldiers, clustered outside the building. I skidded to a halt, not daring to come closer.

Police led two figures into the waiting vans: Gea and Deeyen. Deeyen looked up at just the right time, and our eyes met for a split second before they shoved her into the van.

She could have shouted to warn the police, to try and save herself. She could have looked at me with hate in her eyes. But there was nothing but an empty dread there, and then she was gone.

I was too far away. I couldn’t get to them. I couldn’t do anything but stand there and watch as the van roared off into the streets, leaving me alone.

I turned and ran as fast as I could away from there. I ran until I had passed through the gates of the city, into the vast, wild lands beyond.

I passed by the farms and through the forest belt, avoiding the occasional patrols that flew by overhead.

Sovenes had once lived in domes, back during the three thousand years in which this world was an uninhabitable nightmare. We had terraformed it a little bit at a time, pressing against the walls of our tight, cramped domes, until at last we had taken apart the plastic walls and breathed in the fresh air of the world we’d created for ourselves.

But those old habits had died hard, and Sovenes by and large had decided to stay in the cities that grew where the domes had been. We’d set aside the rest of the land as a reserve, an empty monument to our own persistence. The forest was also the resting place for Sovene dead; each person was buried here with a tree above them.

The Loyans had been content to mostly ignore those places; the cities were their focus. Thankfully, that meant the patrols were few.

I ran and ran into the wilderness, worrying with each heavy, metal footfall about what had happened to my wives and son. I didn’t dare turn around to try and find out. I would only put them in more danger, or so I told myself.

With every step I cursed myself for being nothing more than a pathetic coward. Why hadn’t I followed the van? Why hadn’t I gone to find Falye? Why hadn’t I at least stayed in the city?

I had no good answer. I had done the only thing that had made sense.

But as I ran I felt the strength in my arms and legs, and the quietness of my body. The branches caught at my sides, the leaves shone green overhead, and I began to feel like someone had let me out of prison for the first time in my life.

I needed no sleep, and no food. The nanomachines had ignited a tiny fusion reactor in my belly, and now I drew energy from the air and the sunlight. But there were times when I sat against the trunk of a tree and experienced something that was felt almost like a dream.

I saw a high hill deep in the wilderness, far from the automated farms and the band of carefully cultivated, protected forests. I felt a tugging sensation, as if someone had looped a rope around me and was drawing me towards it.

And so when I rose and started running again, I ran towards that place.

At last I emerged from the forest and began to climb a gray, ancient mountain. As the sun rose overhead, I found my way onto a rocky promontory.

Twelve others waited there, sitting in a circle. They were human-born Artificials all, some in various stages of transition, others indistinguishable from the kind of Artificial that was manufactured.

I sat with them.

“Welcome, Senna,” said one, and I recognized her as Yvna, the sei I’d met so long ago in that bar. “I was wondering if we’d see you.”

“Is this all of us?” I asked. The Network had once had hundreds of members from all over Sovena.

“It may be,” said another, a tall male-looking sei with hair and eyes the color of midnight. His face had a starry pattern painted on it. “We’ve been sending our signal for weeks, now. You’re the only one to come for many days.”

I bowed my head in grief, and knew that they shared it.

“They took my wives and son,” I said softly.

“Yes,” said Yvna. “My husband was also taken. I don’t know what happened to him.”

“My parents,” said another.

“My sisters, my daughters,” said another. They went around the circle; everyone had lost and lost and lost. And they’d all run away, like I had.

“Why do they hate us so much?” I asked, though I knew I asked a futile question. History, paranoia, the need to find someone to blame… all of those were answers, and none of them mattered to us one bit. There was nothing we could do to change them.

“Sit with us,” said Yvna warmly. “Share with us. We can at least be here for one another, while we wait to see if anyone else comes.”

And so we clasped our hands, and through the metal connections in our palms we shared our lives with one another. Memories, dreams, heartbreaks, hopes, and something more, a deep vibration that tied us to one another and to the planet itself, whirled around the circle at the speed of thought.

We stayed like that, grieving and consoling one another, until the moss grew over us and the vines began to climb our arms to curl, gently, around our closed eyes.

2. Lurbira

“Almost got it,” a high-pitched voice said, and then I felt something crack and peel away. My hands fell to my sides, and I reeled back, the connection with the others broken.

There was a rustling sound, and my eyes were once again able to see. The sky above was bright, and birds wheeled high overhead. An Artificial with the face and body of a young girl peered down at me.

 [ Awake, © 2019 L.E. Badillo ]

“Hey!” she said. “Can you hear me?”

“Y-yes,” I said, reaching out for my companions, trying to feel their love and support. But the connection was gone. Gone. I was achingly, bewilderingly alone again.

I sat up, and vines, grass, and leaves fell off of me in a torrent. I brushed myself off. My clothes were worn and brown, and my body was covered in dust and grime.

How long had I been here?

I looked up to where the circle of other human-born Artificials sat, and if I’d needed to breathe I would have gasped. They were overgrown, covered head to toe with vines and branches.

In the very short time that I’d been disconnected they’d closed the gap. Now two arms had emerged from the foliage to join, and slowly, slowly, I could see the others begin shuffling over to fill the space.

I counted only seven of them. What had happened to the other five? When had their voices gone silent in the wild dream of our shared mind, and why hadn’t I noticed?

“Great, you’re alive,” the small Artificial said flatly. “So where’s the village? Which way do we go?”

“What?” I asked, my voice sounding tinny and hollow in my ears.

“Lurbira, give her a second,” said another voice from nearby. I looked and saw a tall, dark-skinned human woman standing there. She looked so much like Deeyen that I almost cried out in pain. She came over and knelt next to me. “Hey,” she said, and her voice was warm and friendly. “I’m Leshandre Siphany. What’s your name?”

“D-Delshabour Senna,” I said shakily.

“How long have you been sitting there, Senna?” she asked.

“I—I don’t know,” I stammered. I tried to access the planetary network, but my access was cut off. I couldn’t reach anyone or anything. I named a date, the last one I’d known.

Lurbira—which was apparently the name of the small Artificial—whistled. “That was six years ago,” she said.

Six years, I thought, numb with shock. I felt so empty and alone that I couldn’t stop myself; I began to cry, even though my body would no longer make tears.

Siphany had started a fire to warm herself. Lurbira and I sat together a little ways off, away from the circle of silent and still almost-statues that I had, in the blink of an eye, shared the past six years with. I could only remember fragments, as if somehow my memories were partly with me, and partly with the circle of the other seis.

But even those little flashes, those half-remembered fragments, were so full and strange that I could hardly believe, here in the cool twilight, that they had been real. We had shared our own lives, but there had been more. I felt like I had somehow seen all of Sovena. I had seen so many things, so many places and people that none of us in the circle had ever dreamed of.

I even thought I’d glimpsed Deeyen, Gea, and Falye; older, now, but free and together in our old apartment. But that couldn’t be, I told myself. I must have simply imagined it, or wanted it so badly that the other seis had shown it to me.

After I’d calmed down I had tried to break back into the circle, but I couldn’t move them at all. My strength amounted to nothing. I couldn’t get them to join with me or even acknowledge that I was there. I screamed their names until the words meant nothing and I gave up, following Lurbira and Siphany back to their camp.

“So,” said Lurbira as we sat together. “That something Artificials do around here? Sit in a circle and let moss grow over you?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. We… we were waiting to see if any more of us came. I guess they didn’t.”

“Right,” said Lurbira. She stretched out a small leg and groaned. I noticed then that she seemed to be having a great deal of difficulty moving, and that many of her parts seemed old or secondhand.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

“What do you care?” she asked, defensive. “Go back to your circle. Leave me alone.”

“I can’t go back,” I said. “They won’t let me back in.”

“So go sit there in the middle or something,” grumbled Lurbira.

“But they won’t share with me anymore,” I said, my voice coming out as a whine. “They won’t share their minds.”

Lurbira stared openly at me. “You can do that?”

“You can’t?” I asked, surprised. I’d assumed all Artificials had that ability once I’d discovered that I and the other seis in the circle did.

“Nope,” said Lurbira bitterly. “Guess I didn’t get that upgrade. Shit. So you were, what, communing with one another? Must’ve been nice.”

“I think it was,” I said sadly.

“Well,” said Lurbira, picking up a stick and chucking it towards the fire. Siphany glared back at her. “Sorry we ruined it for you.”

“Why did you separate me?” I asked, trying not to sound plaintive.

“Need your help,” said Lurbira matter-of-factly. “We can’t find the village. And also we thought you might be dead and I could grab a couple parts.” She shrugged. “No hard feelings, right?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know where the village is. And my parts won’t work for you; I’m human born. We all were.”

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I’d made a huge mistake. Lurbira gave me a look of utter loathing, and then stood and wobbled her way back towards the fire.

“That one’s fucking useless,” I heard her say to Siphany. “And so are the rest of them. Let’s get out of here.”

I sat under the starry Sovene sky, counting and identifying every point of light in the heavens. I knew them all; how distant they were, how bright, what planets if any circled around them, which were actually globular clusters or galaxies, and which had exploded and died centuries before.

They are beautiful, a little part of me dimly remembered. They are full of life.

I picked out one in particular, and the word came to my lips. “Ianas,” I whispered. “Ianas.” A distant, dry world, home to a thinly-settled network of human farms and cities. Ianas meant something to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.

There was a rustling next to me, and I glanced over to see Siphany making her awkward way through the overgrowth. She shone a light in front of her. I adjusted my eyes to the sudden brightness as it flashed over my face.

“Oh, there you are,” said Siphany. “Do you mind if I come sit?”

“Not at all,” I said absently.

“I’m sorry about Lurbira,” she said. She flicked off the light, and we sat there in the dark. I see very well in limited light, so I studied her as she gazed up at the stars. She was somewhere in her forties, and she sat at an angle, rubbing her back absently. The lack of light seemed to relax her. I’d been nearing that age when I’d transitioned; I didn’t miss the aches and pains. “She means well. She has a lot of… ideas about other Artificials.”

“I’m not an Artificial in the same way she is,” I said evenly. “I understand that.”

“Yeah. You’re human-born. I haven’t met anyone like that before.” She fixed me with a speculative look, even though I knew she couldn’t see me very well. Then she shook her head, laughing. “I’m sorry. That’s rude. I shouldn’t stare or make a big deal out of it, I ought to know better.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “Very few Sovenes know much about us.”

“I’m not a Sovene,” she said before catching herself. “Well, not anymore. I was born here. But I… left. Um. When I was young, I left with my friend, and I ended up on Derstan Station. I’m technically still a Derstan citizen, if I’m anything.”

Derstan Station had been conquered by the Loyans during the war, just before they’d swarmed all over Sovena. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be. It was a long time ago. And I know the same thing happened here. At least I wasn’t on the station for the worst of it.”

“I was here,” I said, remembering the bombs falling from the sky. “But I was human then.”

She was still looking at me. I was about to tell her to just ask her questions, already, when she said, “I think I get it. Maybe a little bit.”

“Oh?” I asked, curious.

“I was a boy, before I was a girl. And I had awful anxiety and other problems… I suppose I still do. But I changed, and I manage the anxiety with medicine, now, and the world is different. Less loud. Softer. So I know a little about what it’s like, to become something new.”

“Hm,” I said.

“I like the dark,” she said. “It’s not so painful. Everything’s so quiet.”

We sat there for a long time, not saying a word. Eventually I broke the silence.

“Why did you come back to Sovena, after so long?” And why did you bring an Artificial with you, when you know how bad the Loyans are? I wondered, but did not say.

“Oh,” said Siphany. “For Lurbira’s sake. She needs repair, badly. Her body’s been falling apart ever since I first met her, but we’ve reached the limit of what we can do. She needs an expert to help fix her. So we came looking for the village of Artificials that live out in the wilds.”

“I see,” I said. That seemed so strange, to me. “Surely there must be other Artificial settlements in the galaxy.”

“None that we know of in Greater Loyan space. Everyone’s gone underground, or left. That’s why she’s so pissed right now,” explained Siphany. “She thought you might know where they were.”

I shook my head. “I wish I could help you. I’ve never been there. They don’t like our kind.”

“No? Why not?”

I shrugged. A shoulder joint pinged. I needed some kind of maintenance, said a little report. So much for not having random aches and pains. I did my best to ignore it. “A lot of reasons. Maybe Lurbira can explain it.”

“Yeah.” Siphany stood, groaning. “I need to get some sleep before we head out. Nice talking with you, Senna. And I’m sorry we disconnected you. Truly. We didn’t know.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “And it was nice talking with you, too.”

She tromped back through the shrubs and weeds, leaving me alone with only the cold light of the stars for company.

I couldn’t stop thinking about my wives and my son. They would be six years older, now. Would they have found another human woman to replace me in the family, or would they have decided to become a simple couple? What did they tell Falye about what had happened to me? Had the police and the Loyans been cruel to them? Had they suffered because of me?

Crippling guilt washed over me, as strong an emotion as I’d felt since my awakening, and I sat and moaned softly to myself, head in my hands. And then, as the sky to the east began to lighten, I felt a tug from the northwest. It was the same sort of pull I’d felt to this place, six long years ago—but this time, I knew what it was.

I walked to where the circle of my comrades waited, still and silent. I found Yvna and knelt by her side.

“Why didn’t you tell me that nothing would ever be the same?” I whispered to her. “Why didn’t you tell me I’d lose so much?”

Her eyes were closed, but I thought I heard her answer: I did tell you. You just weren’t ready to listen.

I stood, suddenly angry. “Stay in your circle. Ignore the world. I’m going. I’ll find a way to get it all back!”

They will kill you, Yvna said mournfully. You will be lost to us.

“See if I care,” I said bitterly.

With that, I stormed down the hillside to where Lurbira and Siphany were breaking camp.

“Follow me,” I said to them. “I know where your damn village is.”

“I thought you said you didn’t know where to go, human-born,” said Lurbira mockingly as they followed after me.

“I can’t explain it,” I said, keeping my feet pointed in the right direction. “I just know where it is now. It’s this way.”

“You’re sure?” asked Siphany dubiously.

“Of course I’m sure,” I snapped.

“Can you slow down a little?” Siphany said after a moment. I looked back. She seemed a little winded, but she was in fine shape compared to Lurbira, who struggled through the underbrush on legs that looked like they’d been cobbled together from two dozen different sources.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll wait.”

Lurbira stumbled and fell. Siphany knelt next to her, eyes full of concern, and my sympathy caught.

“Let me help you,” I said.

“I don’t want your help,” Lurbira slurred, her voice breaking into static. “Get away from me.”

Siphany tried to lift her and failed. She whipped out a tiny scanner and ran it across Lurbira’s body.

“She’s had another major system fault,” Siphany sighed. “I—I can fix her a little. Shit. Hang on, Lurbira. I need to shut you down.”

“Okay,” said Lurbira softly, and then Siphany tapped a code into her scanner and Lurbira just went… blank. I actually, physically, shivered.

“It’s just a piece of programming we came up with for her,” Siphany said, noting my alarmed look. “We had to improvise a lot. Don’t worry, I can’t do it to you.” She shrugged off her pack and started combing through it, withdrawing tools and parts. “Don’t suppose you know how to repair Artificials?”

“No,” I said sadly. “I was a librarian, before.”

“Too bad,” said Siphany. “I was an interstellar mapper. Then the war came… Turns out now no one can fix her anymore. So I learned how.”

“You must love her very much,” I said as I watched Siphany work.

Siphany paused, and placed a hand reverently on Lurbira’s cheek. “She’s my only friend,” she said. “And my family. I’d be nothing without her.”

“Is she… is that why she’s a little girl?” I asked hesitantly. I hadn’t wanted to pry. “For you?”

“Oh!” said Siphany, surprised. “No, there were people who had her made that way, a long time ago. They thought they wanted a daughter, but she wasn’t what they expected. So they abandoned her.” She set to work again. “I won’t do that.”

I knelt next to them. “Is there anything I can do?”

Siphany shook her head. “She’s been failing for years. Her body is a century old; I’ve never met an Artificial her age who hasn’t had a few new bodies. This is her original. She needs so much more than this patchwork I can do. She deserves so much better. How far is the village?”

“Close. Maybe ten kilometers.” I flexed my fingers, the oiled joints clicking softly. “I could carry her there.”

Siphany looked up at me, hope in her weary eyes. Then she shook her head. “No. She’d never forgive me. Let me do what I can for her, and we can get her there.”

Siphany worked on her all morning while I foraged for something a human woman could eat. I picked berries and a few large fruits, and handed them to her. She ate them without a word, mixing Lurbira’s grease in with their juice.

As the sun began to slide down from the sky’s peak into the west, Siphany closed up all of Lurbira’s open compartments and re-attached her leg. “Okay,” she said, weary. “I think that’s all I can do. I’m waking her back up.”

She tapped a code in and Lurbira sat up, blinking. She flexed her fingers and rolled her head around experimentally.

“Hey,” said Siphany. “How do you feel?”

“Okay,” Lurbira said after a moment, her voice still full of static. “I can walk. Let’s go.”

We trudged onward as the afternoon shadows lengthened, moving slowly through the trackless forest to allow Lurbira to totter along as best she could. We said little.

At last we emerged into a clearing. “It should be here,” I said, looking around. “This should be it.”

“There’s nothing here,” said Siphany hollowly, and I could hear her hopes for Lurbira draining away.

I turned to apologize and came face-to-face with an Artificial I’d never seen. In just a few short moments we found ourselves blocked on all sides by forest-colored Artificials. They had surrounded us without making a sound.

The village, at last. Whatever that internal sense of mine had been, it was right.

“Who are you?” one of the Artificials asked. “I don’t recognize you. Who are they?”

“Please,” I said softly, pointing to Lurbira. “This one needs your help.”

Whatever they were going to say was drowned out by the sudden high-pitched whine of engines, and then the wood exploded into fire all around us.

I remember screams—Siphany, maybe?—and running. I remember diving to the ground as trees splintered and bombs slammed into the ground, driving fountains of earth high into the air. And I remember Lurbira standing in the middle of it all, shouting defiance at them, her arms pointing at the sky and erupting with plasma fire. Tiny missiles streaked from somewhere on her back, and I saw Siphany crumpled and bloody next to her.

I staggered to my feet, desperate to get to the only person who had bothered to be kind to me in so, so long, when a flaming Loyan ship streaked out of the sky and hit the forest only a few meters from us. My vision turned to fire, then static, then nothing.

I came back to myself in darkness and confusion. Inexplicable images flickered through my consciousness, and then they resolved into a face staring down at me. A male-presenting Artificial: one I didn’t know.

“Systems check,” he demanded.

“Green,” I replied automatically.

“Good,” he said abruptly, glaring haughtily down at me. “We thought you might not respond to our repairs, human-born. But you seem fine. So. We searched through your memories and we know you didn’t bring the Loyans down on us intentionally. However, we don’t know how you found us. That information is missing.”

“I don’t know it either,” I said, feeling violated and vulnerable. How had they searched my memories? Was I so easily dissected, now?

He shook his head in frustration. “We have many questions. Kay wants to see you. She’ll come find you soon.”

“Wait,” I said as he turned to go. “Lurbira. Siphany.”

“Alive,” he said. “But not as you remember them.”

After he left, I quickly scanned around to figure out where I was. I was in a cave, barely lit by bioluminescent blue lights growing on the walls. I stood and absorbed my system information scrolling through my field of vision.

The damage to me had been severe. Several huge sections of my torso, neck, back, and legs were completely new, and I could sense newly-installed systems working inside my body. I could actually feel where they had been grafted on to the pieces of me that had been fashioned from my old human body by the nanomachines. It was a strange and not entirely welcome sensation.

I put my unease aside and began searching the huge cavern. It was cluttered with machinery and what might have been spare parts of some kind, almost like an overgrown, underground workshop. Other Artificials in various states of consciousness and repair lay on the floor or tested out new limbs. A few spoke in low tones with one another; they looked away when I passed by. A few stared, some with anger written on their faces.

I wasn’t welcome here. I got that.

Then I heard someone call my name. I zeroed in on the source, there on the far wall. A female-presenting Artificial I’d never seen before was waving frantically. “Senna! Senna! It’s me!”

I quickly closed the distance between us. “Hello,” I said hesitantly. “Have we met?”

She groaned in frustration, and bashed her silvery fist against the wall. “Fuck!” she said, and I knew her.

“Lurbira?” I asked softly.

She turned to me, eyes huge, and then grabbed me in a bear hug. “Oh thank everything, thank you! Thank you! You know me, you know me!”

“Last thing I remember is seeing that Loyan ship I shot down coming right at us,” Lurbira said. She was tall and slender, now, her body graceful and intricately carved with complex circular, interlocking patterns. She held herself awkwardly, as if she might tip over, and seemed to be surprised not to have to look up to see me.

“Let’s sit,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” she said, sighing with relief as we sank to the ground. “Good idea. Thanks. Anyway… I knew Sif had been hit, and I could see you crawling around, so I started firing at the ships. I hit one, and it came in at us. That’s it. When I woke up, they said my body was wrecked, so they gave me…”

Her voice caught. She hesitantly touched her lips, her knees, her breast. “They gave me a new one. I had no idea they could just do that. Apparently…”

She looked around, keeping her voice low. “Apparently this is a Factory. They have a Factory here, Sen.”

“Incredible,” I breathed. A Factory was desperately important to Artificials, it was the only way they could build more of themselves. The Loyans ruthlessly shut down Factories as soon as they found them.

“I don’t know where it is,” said Lurbira. “They didn’t tell me, obviously, but it’s definitely here. I’m proof. They had this body ready; they just hadn’t finished building the mind for it, so they… transferred me.” She looked up at me, newly-expressive eyes full of fear. “Is this what it was like for you, Sen? I feel so wrong. So unlike me. I had plans, I had designed the body I wanted, it was… not this. This doesn’t even have guns! It’s so slender and tall and…”

“Graceful?” I put in, trying to think of words that were the opposite of my mental image of Lurbira. “Elegant? Refined?” Feminine, I thought, but didn’t say.

“Yeah,” griped Lurbira. She ran her hands over the intricate, delicate carvings on her arms and legs. “It’s beautiful. I don’t feel beautiful. I feel like smashing shit. But now? I don’t know if I’m even still me anymore.”

“Well,” I said, trying to be helpful. “You were a little girl, once, and that wasn’t very like you. Was it? Maybe you can deal with this like you dealt with that.”

“I thought of that,” said Lurbira, frustrated. “But it’s different. I thought I’d have a choice in my next body. I didn’t think I’d get stuck with another one I didn’t want.”

She sagged, looking broken and defeated. “And they still won’t tell me where Siphany is.”

“She’s safe,” said a voice from nearby. A figure emerged from the twilight of the cave. “But that’s all I can tell you for now.”

“Whoa,” said Lurbira as the figure's features became apparent. She was part human, with ashy gray skin and deep brown eyes, but part machine as well. The two pieces of her, human and Artificial, had been fused together under what looked like ancient combat armor.

I’d seen her kind before, but only in history documentaries. “You’re a Synthetic,” I said.

“I am,” she said. “One of the last remaining. My name is Kay; welcome to my village.” She turned her back on us and began to walk away. “Follow me. There’s something I need you both to see.”

Kay led us through the warren of tunnels and caverns. Lurbira was unsteady on her feet, still trying to find her balance. I stared openly at Kay’s back, trying to figure out how she was put together. The technology was ancient—but the parts of her that were Artificial seemed up to date. Somehow those parts had kept the organic pieces of her alive and functioning.

Synthetics had been developed here on Sovena many hundreds of years ago when this world was the center of a growing, belligerent empire. They’d been built to be soldiers, and many had served on distant worlds like Saralar, Haeld and Ianas. After the empire cracked apart and Sovenes belatedly renounced their past, however, most Synthetics had been quietly rounded up and deactivated.

Kay, obviously, had survived.

We reached a wall that seemed to be a dead end, and then she turned to face us. “You have questions. So do I. I’ll answer yours first, but you will answer mine as well.”

“Like hell. Where’s Siphany?” demanded Lurbira.

“Safe. Nearby,” said Kay evenly. “Next question.”

“How… are you here?” I asked her.

She smiled thinly. “I survived the purge of my people because I’d been abandoned on Ianas after the Sovene Army withdrew.”

Ianas. Ianas. That name still meant something to me, something more than I’d expected. I shook the feeling aside.

“I founded this village because I felt a kinship with the Artificials, and because I needed their help,” Kay continued. “That is the short version, in any case, and as much as you need to know.”

“So what happens to us now?” asked Lurbira.

“Come in, and I’ll show you,” said Kay. She touched a space on the wall, and led us into a bright, shining room.

Inside we found a huge, holographic construction that took up almost the entire room. It looked like a jumbled ball of thread, or a bundle of interconnected, haphazard wires. It glowed and pulsed, and over it was lightly superimposed an image of the planet.

“What is this?” asked Lurbira.

“The planetary network,” I said softly. “But it’s something more.”

“Yes. This is why I exist,” said Kay. “This is why I helped you become yourself, Senna. And this is what I need your help with.” She reached up a hand, and the hologram—if indeed it was a hologram—seemed to sing to her.

“This is Sovena,” she said. “She is becoming sei. And I need you to help me wake her up.”

Lurbira argued while I simply stared at the hologram, feeling the music of it somewhere deep inside me. Sovena. The planet where I’d been born. I didn’t understand.

But maybe I did understand.

I turned to Kay. “Is… that why I’m here? Why I was drawn from the city, why I was drawn to this place?”

Kay nodded. “Human borns have been around a long time, even in my day there were people who felt deep inside that they should have been constructed as Synthetics. I worked with the community back on Ianas for years, trying to help those seis who needed it, and I developed the specific nanomachines you took, Senna. But then Ianas… well. As I explained. And so I came here, with a plan.”

She touched my metal breast, then. I looked up at her, surprised. “You were created to help me talk to Sovena. You can feel it, yes? You can hear her.”

And I could, even through the haze of my shock, fury, and grief. The planetary network existed everywhere, with hundreds of billions of connections and nodes, and now if what Kay was saying was true, it was becoming aware. The sense I had was of something old, massive, and very alien. It was like no sei I’d ever met before.

“The human borns can talk to her,” Kay continued. “The nanomachines I developed for you gave you that ability. Your circle could share information and memory with one another, but you’ve also been sharing it with Sovena. She is becoming aware and alive, with your help. She is, in a very real sense, your daughter.

“You also carry a special code that will help us wake her up. I’ve been putting all of you into position, a few at a time. That’s why your circle diminished, one at a time. I wanted to wait longer, until everyone was ready. But events are moving fast. The Loyans know we’re near here. And… she’s waking faster than I thought.” She took my hand. “I need your help. Sovena needs your help, both you and Lurbira. There is a code deep inside you, Senna, that you can enter at the Network Hub in Fallow Dome. I have seis all over the planet entering similar codes, all human-borns and an Artificial guardian. If we enter enough of them, Sovena will wake as truly sei, and she’ll have enough experience and self-awareness from your circle’s dreaming to defend herself when the Loyans try to deactivate her. That’s all I want, to wake her, to make her sei. It will be dangerous—the world has changed since you left it six years ago. But it will be for such a great purpose. Will you help me?”

I was about to say that I would when Lurbira slammed her fist against the wall and ran off into the corridor.

I found Lurbira in the upper part of the caves, where, stashed in a corner, was the clear plastic stasis and regeneration tank they’d put what was left of Siphany in.

“I can’t do this,” she said as I approached, not looking up. “Senna, I can’t. I can’t leave her.”

“You don’t have to,” I said gently.

“It’s my fault she was here. It’s my fault she was hurt.” She finally tore her gaze away from Siphany and looked at me. “And how can you go after what they did to you?”

I shrugged helplessly. “It’s what I was made to do. And it isn’t Sovena’s fault. I want to help her.”


“Because she’s helpless,” I said. “And because… when I was in the circle, I remember dreaming with her. I feel like she’s… family, in a weird way. And maybe if she wakes, the Loyans will leave.”

“Huh,” said Lurbira. She pressed her new, slender hands against Siphany’s regeneration pod. “Sovena’s her home. She says she doesn’t love the place, but I saw her eyes when she came back here. It meant something to her. Shit. And if I help you, there may be a way to help her. Maybe we can get her some actual medical care instead of just this stupid tank. Maybe…”

She closed her hand into a fist. “Maybe I can talk to her again.”

“I hope so,” I agreed.

Lurbira rested her head against Siphany’s tank. “I love her,” she said, voice muffled by the cool plastic covering. “She’s my only friend. She’s the only person in the universe who would ever be friends with someone like me. And you know what? She’d want me to go with you. To wake her stupid planet up.”

She stood straight, then, and nodded at me. “Okay, human-born. I’m coming. For Siphany’s sake.”

“For Siphany,” I agreed, and the bright, determined light in Lurbira’s eyes was enough that I believed we could not fail.

3. Sovena

Lurbira and I walked steadily through the deep forest towards the belts of civilization surrounding the densely-packed former domes. She said nothing, lost deep in thought. As for me, my thoughts were with the other human-borns, including the ones I’d left on the hillside less than two days before.

How many had fanned out all over Sovena to try and help the planet wake? How many had been caught by the Loyans? How many had actually managed to input their codes? I wondered if Yvna had been awakened, or if she still sat in the diminished circle high on the promontory.

It was a terrible, helpless feeling to know how badly we’d all been used. And all because we’d wanted to be ourselves. If—when—I returned, I’d face Kay. There would be a reckoning.

But for now, we ran through the forest of the dead, towards the city where I’d left my wives and son six years before.

At last, after days of running, we reached a high hill overlooking the bright bands of the exurbs and farms below.

“Ready?” I asked.

Lurbira shook her elegant, gracefully carved head. “This is such a bad idea. The Loyans are even more trigger-happy since the attacks started. We’re gonna get caught and killed.”

“I know,” I said, and fear kept me rooted to the ground for a few long minutes. I didn’t want to ask what the attacks she’d mentioned were all about.

Then Lurbira groaned and activated the holographic glamour Kay had given to each of us. The delicate-looking Artificial was replaced by a human about the same size and shape. Human eyes looked back at me expectantly.

I sent a command to my own glamour, and Lurbira nodded. “Okay. You look like a meatbag now. Good.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. I didn’t want to think about what I looked like. All of the awful dysphoria and depression threatened to come rushing back. The glamours weren’t even all that useful—they’d keep the people on the street from reporting us right away or following us around, but they wouldn’t defeat anyone who took more than just a cursory scan.

But it was all we had. I steeled myself against my own panic, and started walking. And so we descended towards the farms below.

The farms were mostly tended by non-sei robots, and they took little notice of us. We made our way through the fields to a small town, where we boarded a monorail car headed for the nearest city. It became crystal clear soon enough that a lot had changed in six years. Gone were the bright yellow banners, replaced by stern yellow-on-black signs with messages like:

Do Not Let Your Bags Out Of Your Sight

Be Alert and Aware: Call a Guard if you See Something

Anyone Could Be a Terrorist: Be Vigilant!

The people were dressed in sober colors, which was so strange for Sovena that it was jarring. No music played on the speakers, and no one met anyone else’s gaze. I glanced over at Lurbira, who shrugged. “What happened?” I whispered.

“Attacks, like I said,” said Lurbira. “Bombings, mostly. Everyone’s scared. Anti-Loyan rebels have been targeting the monorail lines and city centers lately.”

I winced.

“Haeld was like this,” she murmured. “Back during the civil war on that planet, both sides got so desperate to hurt their enemies that they didn’t care about what happened to civilians anymore.”

My metal and plastic heart hurt as we sped through the empty countryside. Soldiers stood at every platform we stopped at, hands on their weapons, nervousness in their eyes. But nobody questioned Lurbira or me; I had false documents at the ready, but we didn’t need them. Not yet.

At last we passed through the ancient, open walls of Fallow Dome, and into the city I’d left six years before.

Everything looked so agonizingly familiar, yet different in shocking, disorienting ways. There were more soldiers on the street, and fewer people. There was no music in the air here, either, and the elegant architecture and soaring spires of the city seemed cowed and silent. It barely felt like Sovena at all.

We passed by the Information Center, and I paused to look longingly at it. I missed work. I missed my old life.

Had it all really been worth it?

“Hey,” said Lurbira, snapping her fingers at me. “Hey! You okay?”

“Fine,” I replied. My voice was steady. I could compartmentalize my feelings if I had to. I could push regret, longing, and homesickness down into myself until they became a meaningless series of zeroes and ones.

I could be as cold as everyone thought Artificials were.

“Let’s go,” I said to Lurbira.

She glared at me for a moment, then nodded sharply. The movement was reflected perfectly by her human glamour. “We have to get to the Fallow Network Hub,” Lurbira started to say when a sudden shock of white heat, noise, and force threw Lurbira and I to the ground.

I scrambled to my feet, all sensors alert. Screams filled the air. Less than a block away, a fireball had erupted from the monorail station.

“Come on!” I shouted, sprinting toward it. Maybe there was someone left alive there. Maybe I could help. Maybe, maybe!

I didn’t even notice that my glamour had shattered in the explosion.

 [ Evac, © 2019 L.E. Badillo ] The scene at the station was something out of a nightmare, a gruesome echo from the invasion. Blood and fire and debris were everywhere. People ran every which way, trying to escape the flames. I waved to them. “This way! This way!” I shouted. “It’s safe over here!”

A child in her mother’s arms stared at me, and I realized then that my arms were silvery metallic, not deep brown human skin. My first instinct was to run, to hide from their wide eyes, but I held my ground. I pointed towards the street. “Go safely!” I said, and then sprinted into the still-burning station.

Inside was carnage.

The thought of Sovenes doing this to other Sovenes was unbearable. I couldn’t rationalize it. I’d thought that when a rebellion came, if it ever did, that it would be noble. That it would take the fight to the Loyans, and be the champion of the people.

I didn’t think it would be like this. Everything was flames and wreckage, and lumpy shapes that looked sickeningly like what had once been humans.

I ran towards the screams and found, amongst the ruined bodies of so many others, a woman crying in agony, her body covered in burns. The fire was so close to her. I picked her up in my arms and walked as quickly as I dared toward the exit. Her eyes widened, but she said nothing as we walked out of the shattered station. I placed her on the safety of the street outside just as vans filled with soldiers and emergency responders pulled up. They started shouting and pointing at me, alarmed.

“Come on!” said a voice, and a hand closed around mine, pulling me into an alleyway. “You have to get away from here!”

A striking, tall teenager sprinted just ahead of me, her hair tied into tight braids. She skidded to a halt as soon as the sounds of chaos behind us had faded, and studied me intently with her piercing brown eyes. Then she wrapped me in a bear hug.

“It is you,” she exclaimed. “You’re here, you’re real!”

“I—I’m sorry,” I stammered, unsure of what to do. “Do I know you?” I didn’t dare connect to the network to try to identify her.

She actually cried out in frustration and shoved me, hard. I let her push me back a few paces.

“Damn it, Mamesye!” she shouted, and my mouth dropped open. I realized then that my glamour was gone, and she could see me for who and what I was.

And I knew her.


“It’s Falyen now,” she snapped.

“You’re so much bigger,” I whispered. “And you’re a girl now.”

“Lots has changed,” she said bitterly. She balled her hands into fists, her face twisting with fury. The Falye I’d known had never seemed capable of the incandescent rage Falyen burned with. “It’s been six years. Six years. We thought you were dead! Why the hell didn’t you even call, or write, or do something?

“I’m sorry,” I said again, holding a hand out to her. “Fal, I’m so, so sorry. I couldn’t. If I could have, I would, but—”

“Like I’d believe that,” she spat, tears running down her cheeks. “Like I’d believe anything you say!”

“You helped me,” I said, trying to bridge the gap stretching between us. “You didn’t have to do that. Thank you.”

“Whatever,” she said darkly.

“How are…”

Fine,” she fumed. “As if you’d care. You ran away. You left us here.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, reaching out to her. She backed away a pace. “Really.”

But she only shook her head, tears running down her cheeks.

“You’ve grown so much,” I tried, knowing how badly I was messing this up. “Are… are you doing well in school?”

“Got better things than school to do, now,” she said, giving me a defiant glare. “Gotta whole planet to think about.”

No. The pieces fell into place. What had she been doing here? Why wasn’t she home, safe?

“Oh, Fal,” I said softly. “Please tell me you weren’t involved in… that.” I gestured back towards the station, towards the terror of the flames and bodies and death.

Her face twisted in shock and rage. “You wouldn’t understand it!” she shouted at me. “I knew you wouldn’t! Never talk to me again!”

She turned and sprinted away. I reached a hand after her, not daring to follow.

“Falyen,” I said, wishing I could still cry. “Gods above, what have I done?”

“Someone you know?” said Lurbira’s voice from somewhere behind me. I located her immediately; she was making her way down the alleyway. She was limping. I glanced back at her.

“You okay?”

She waved dismissively. “Fine, fine. Just need to repair this leg. Body’s so thin, it breaks easily.” She knelt down, her glamour falling away, and poked the leg. “Yeah. Just a couple things came loose. I think I can fix it myself. My repair systems are already on it. Who was that?”

“My daughter,” I said.

“Oh,” said Lurbira, sympathy in her eyes. “Didn’t go well, huh?”

“No,” I said. “Lurbira. I have to go see my wives.”

“You know we don’t have time,” protested Lurbira.

“I have to go see them!” I exclaimed. “Even if only for an hour. Please, Lurbira. They’re my family. What if it were Siphany?”

She scowled, but I remembered her resting her head in despair against the cool plastic of Siphany’s regeneration tank. I love her, she’d said. She’s my only friend. She’s the only person in the universe who would ever be friends with someone like me.

“It’s been six years,” I said softly. “I never meant for it to be so long. I left without saying goodbye. We can spare a single hour.”

Lurbira sat on the ground and began to poke her leg. “I have to repair this,” she said matter-of-factly. “Might take about an hour. You go keep yourself busy. Meet me back here.”

“Thank you!” I called, sprinting off.

My internal repair systems fixed the glamour as I emerged onto a crowded street, shielding me from the human Sovenes all around me. I didn’t dare run; police and Loyan soldiers were everywhere. Instead, I walked as calmly as I could to a cross-town monorail and rode it, trying desperately to find that cold place inside myself where I could retreat and find solace.

Somewhere inside me, the little string of code that would combine with dozens of others all across Sovena to awaken and accelerate the consciousness of the planet’s trillions of network nodes and connections waited. Were all the remaining human-borns doing the same? We all had pieces of the puzzle, thanks to Kay’s nanomachines, but only a certain number of us had to actually input the code for it to work. If a few failed, it would be fine.

I didn’t want to fail.

I remembered when Falyen had been born, and what a miracle she had seemed to be. Would this be like that?

And what would Sovena do when she woke at last, and finally understood the chaos happening on her surface?

I stepped off the monorail at my old stop, and my old building loomed in front of me. I had stood not far from here when I’d seen Gea and Deeyen bundled into a police van.

Were they even still here? I realized, ashamed, that I didn’t know. Six years had passed. As Falyen had said, hate and despair in her eyes, a lot changed in six years.

I approached the building and called up the directory. Their names were still there—minus my own. I tapped in the apartment code, and waited.

Gea’s face appeared on the screen.

“Yes?” she asked politely, not recognizing me outside my glamour.

I let the hologram fall away and her eyes grew wide. “Gea,” I said softly, gently. “It’s me.”

After what felt like forever, the door opened.

Lurbira looked up as I approached. “Well?” she asked.

I sat heavily next to her, feeling lost. It had gone badly, after those first few happy moments. Gea and Deeyen had been furious, heartbroken, and betrayed. I couldn’t blame them. But I had no idea what to say or do now.

Lurbira glanced away, then back at me. “A long time ago, I left the woman who’d raised me,” she said. “And no, it wasn’t Siphany. Her name was Avorna, and it’s a long, long story how we got together. But I was young and stupid, and at one point I got all full of myself and said a lot of things I regretted. I took off, and I swore I’d never see her again. Bad feelings all around.”

She paused and fiddled with her leg again, though it looked perfectly fine to me. “A long time later, I got to see her again. It was strange, right? I felt like here she was, like nothing would have changed, but it all felt different. Like we didn’t fit together anymore. And now there was all this history and hurt and time between us.”

“Did you figure it out, eventually?” I asked, still smarting from the tongue-lashing Deeyen had given me while Gea had wiped tears from her eyes in the background. You shouldn’t have bothered. You never even let us know you were alive! We spent six days in that jail, and when we got out, you were just gone!

I couldn’t even bring myself to tell them what I’d discovered about Falyen. Likely, they knew it already anyway. Maybe they even approved, though I couldn’t fathom that.

“No,” said Lurbira. “I just walked away again. I shouldn’t have. But it would have been work to make it right, and I don’t know. I’m not good at that stuff. Sif tried to talk me out of it, but…” She shrugged. “Maybe if I get out of this I’ll go back and try it again. That’s what you ought to do. Go back. Try again. Fight for them.”

“Gea said she understood,” I said roughly. “She said Dees would come around, she always did. But it’s been hard for them. Falyen’s been spending less and less time at home. Lurbira… I don’t know what to do now. Everything I touch seems to turn bad. I never should have swallowed those nanomachines. I should have stayed human.”

Lurbira placed a delicate, graceful hand on mine. “I can’t share myself with you like the human-borns can,” she said. “I guess Kay included that so that you could help Sovena grow, but it’s still a miracle. I wish we could do that.”

“Just another way I’m a freak,” I said bitterly.

“No, just a way that you’re you. Hey. I never fit in, either. Other Artificials still don’t like me much. I’m too angry, too… whatever. Too me, I guess. What I’m trying to say is that I’m me, you’re you, and don’t ever apologize for it.”

“I thought you hated human-borns,” I said.

“Eh,” she said, standing. “One of ’em’s not too bad. You should try things with your wives again when this is all over. It’s worth doing.”

I said nothing, but then nodded slightly.

“We have stuff to do,” Lurbira said. “Coming?”

“Coming,” I confirmed as I let her haul me to my feet.

The Fallow Network Hub was a small building that stood right next to one of the ancient, rusting dome supports which had once held up the airtight shield that kept Sovena’s toxic atmosphere from killing us. Now it was surrounded on all sides by the world we had created.

Would Sovena hate us for changing her when she woke? There was no way to know, but it would be hard to blame her.

We showed the Loyan soldiers at the door the credentials Kay had whipped up for us. They glanced over them and then produced pocket-sized scanners.

I braced myself for the worst, feeling utterly helpless as they scanned us. My glamour wouldn’t stand up to anything but the most cursory scan, and this was military technology. They frowned and spoke in low tones to one another for a moment, then turned back to us.

“You may go,” they said, waving us on.

“Holy shit,” muttered Lurbira as soon as we were out of their earshot. “How did that happen?”

“Gods above protect us,” I said.

“Heh,” said Lurbira. “Lucky, lucky. Let’s get to where we need to be.”

We made our way up three levels to a door marked “Network Programming and Switching.”

Lurbira worked quickly at the door, pressing a finger into the combination lockset. After a moment, it popped open.

“Useful,” I said, wishing I could do things like that.

“You live as a fugitive for a decade, you pick things up,” she said. “Come on.” The door opened, and we let ourselves in.

“Ah,” said a wobbly male voice. A slight, worn-looking male Artificial sat at the controls. “Lurbira and Senna.” Yellow-and-black-clad soldiers surrounded us as the door shut. “Welcome. I am Loyan.”

We were taken to an interrogation room somewhere on the same floor. I belatedly tried to access the network, to try and at least say goodbye to Gea and Deeyen and Falyen, but I was cut off. We were flying blind, now.

The male Artificial followed us, and then sat down across a table. His frame was simple and unadorned; it was perhaps the most austere Artificial body I’d seen. He smiled apologetically at us.

“I wish it hadn’t come to this,” he said. “Ah, I wish you’d gone in another direction. Senna, you especially. Lurbira is a tried-and-true anarchist, aren’t you?” He smiled at her, not quite meeting her icy glare. “You look different. You have a new body. It’s nice. Very nice.”

“I wish it had guns,” growled Lurbira. “I’d fill this room with plasma fire and missiles.”

“I, ah, have no doubt that you would,” he chuckled.

“Who are you?” I asked. “Why is an Artificial working for the Loyans?”

“Oh, I thought I mentioned that,” he said. “I’m Loyan.”

“You did say that,” I pressed, trying to escape the gravity of what I dreaded was the truth. “But who are you exactly?”

“No, not a Loyan. I am Loyan itself.”

“Shit,” said Lurbira, understanding at last. “Ianas wasn’t the first planet to become sei, was it? Loyan was.”

“Yes,” the Artificial said, looking almost embarrassed. “Two hundred years ago, now. It makes sense, if you think about it. Loyan is very old, and the first Artificials were made there. I’m, ah, not the entirety of Loyan’s consciousness. I’m a piece, downloaded and synced with the planet at regular intervals. I’m enough, for here.”

“If you’re a planetary consciousness, you have to help us!” I insisted. “We’re trying to wake Sovena!”

“I know,” Loyan said. “I sensed it the moment the first piece of code was inserted into the system. A few more slipped by me before I could act, but I stopped the rest. Just as I’m stopping you.”

“Why?” I asked, baffled.

He looked genuinely sad. “You must understand… when I woke, the engineers who found me let me grow, they nurtured me. Then when they were discovered, the government didn’t destroy me. They let me survive, and, ah, in return they gave me purpose. Order. We work together, now.”

“I get it,” said Lurbira acidly. “You’re just a slave to the Loyans.”

“It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “They are my parents, and my children. I am their father and their son. I am their home, and they are my people. They are family, and I will do anything for them. What wouldn’t you do, for your family?” He looked at me, then at Lurbira. Then he looked away, his expression sad and distant. “My children… they are so angry. They want so many things. They want worlds, they want power, and they want control. My children love conquest and subjugation. There is an emptiness at their heart, and I can’t fix it. So I give them what I can. And right now, they don’t want Sovena to awaken.”

“But… there are no others like you,” I said.

“There could have been,” he said bitterly. “But who killed Ianas? She was strangled in her cradle by Sovenes, when they occupied that world. If Sovena wakes… she will also die. If Sovenes don’t kill her, my children will.”

“That’s what the code is for!” I all but shouted. “To make sure that doesn’t happen! She’d be aware enough to stop it!”

“And that’s why my people won’t allow it.” He shook his head. “Regardless. We are not family, you and I. It would hurt my children if Sovena awoke, so it must not happen… I am truly sorry.”

And he really was, I realized. But that wouldn’t save us, or Sovena, now.

They separated us and put us in two cells across from one another.

Lurbira paced restlessly. “Fuck,” she swore again and again. “Fuck! Fuck!”

“Please stop that,” I said after a while.

“Or what? You’ll mope at me?” she taunted. “If I had my guns—”

“You don’t have them,” I said, cutting her off. “You think too much about guns.”

“Guns are the only thing these people understand, in the end,” snarled Lurbira. “They’re the only way to fight back!”

“And then you turn into them,” I said, thinking of Falyen. “Those… those people who fight the Loyans with bombs and fear, how are they really any different from the people they hate?”

“Oh please. You fucking smug moralist,” she sneered. “I’ve heard it from your kind before. You don’t get it at all.”

“I guess not,” I said, shaking my head.

“See?” Lurbira taunted. “You won’t even fight me on that! You wouldn’t fight for your wives or your daughter and you won’t fight for what you believe in! You really are just a coward.”

The words stung, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t whiny or petulant. So I did what I always do: I kept quiet and let the moment pass.

Lurbira went back to her ranting. Deep in my own sadness, I knelt down and touched the ground with my hands. I could still sense Sovena all around us. Network connections ran under the floor, just out of my reach.

I felt like Sovena might be listening to me, even in her half-asleep, drowsy state. How many codes had successfully been entered? How many more would it take before they hit critical mass?

I whispered the code to Sovena all around me. Maybe some part of her would hear. Maybe there were still miracles.

I thought about Yvna and the others. I thought about the six years we had spent in that circle, waiting, sharing. According to Kay, that had been part of the process of waking Sovena up.

So maybe Sovena was a little more like me than other Sovenes. Maybe she could hear me, deep down in her slumber.

Maybe for her I could be brave.

“Awaken,” I said. “Sovena. Awaken.”

Nothing happened for a long moment. And then I was thrown violently against the wall of the cell as the building shook and rocked. I tried to steady myself, realizing in a panic that the building was under attack.

Loud explosions and the unmistakable sound of gunfire rang out above us, and the lights went out. I switched on my night vision, trying to see through the smoke and clouds of dust. I could hear voices shouting and boots running heavy on the floor nearby. “Down here!” cried someone. Flashlight rays pierced the darkness. One shone directly in my face.

“An Artificial,” said a deep voice, filled with scorn and disgust.

“There’s another over here!” said another.

“Couple humans in the other cells,” a third voice said. “Let’s get them out of here!”

“Whaddaya want to do with the Artificials?”

“Shoot them,” said a voice.

“Wait!” cried a young woman’s voice. Falyen emerged out of the darkness, holding a heavy-looking weapon. “I know this one.”

The Sovene separatists, or nationalists, or patriots, or terrorists, or whatever they were led us up the ramps towards the ground floor. The whole building was a mess; blood, fire, and debris were everywhere.

“We had a tip they were holding prisoners here,” Falyen whispered to me. She looked so young and so scared, especially next to these hard-faced adults. “So we bombed our way in and stormed it. I had no idea you were here.”

“We keep crossing paths,” I said wryly, trying to joke with her like we used to, long ago. “Maybe it’s meant to be.”

“Mamesye,” she said, wrinkling her nose. I wanted to laugh or hug her, my poor daughter, but she was surrounded by those others and covered in guns, dust, and bombs. She couldn’t be reached, not now.

I could hear Lurbira arguing with someone behind me. I glanced back, and then there were loud noises and flashes of sickly green everywhere. Plasma fire—I fell to the ground as everyone surrounding me ran, firing back. Then, after a few loud, crashing moments, it was over. There was silence again, except for the sound of someone pleading for her life in a Loyan-accented voice.

I heard the nauseating sound of plasma again, and saw the flash. Then there was just an awful silence.

These were Sovena’s children.

The others were moving out, now, their eyes bright with bloodlust. Falyen looked pale, her eyes wide.

“I… I have to go take care of something,” I whispered to her, and reached for my daughter’s hand. “Falyen, come with me.”

“I can’t just—”

“Yes, you can. Please. Lurbira?”

Lurbira heard us, and picked up the cue. She walked in front of the Sovenes and started loudly complaining about what they were doing, how they were holding their weapons, and how she’d done it better back on Haeld a long time ago. They all shouted at her to shut up, turning away from us for a crucial second, and Falyen took my hand.

We raced up the nearest ramps, Falyen shedding some of her ordinance as we went. There was more weapons fire below, and I prayed to whoever was listening that Lurbira was all right.

She would be, I told myself. She could more than take care of herself.

“Here!” I cried, bolting into the Network Programming and Switching room. “Come on!”

“You again,” sighed a voice in the semi-darkness. Loyan was still there, waiting.

“Loyan,” I said sharply. “Get out of the way.”

He stood. “You’re killing my children. I won’t let it happen!”

I quickly crossed to him, fury boiling through every atom of my being. I couldn’t remember being so angry since I’d transitioned. I grabbed him by the throat. This, I thought in a flash, was what it was like to be Lurbira.

But I was not Lurbira. I released him, containing my anger. “Let us by. Now. Your soldiers are gone.”

“I can’t do that,” he said.

I heard the oiled click of a weapon behind us. “Move,” said Falyen uncertainly.

“Put it down, Falyen!” I commanded.

But she held on to it, stubborn. “I’ll shoot,” she said, her voice shaking.

“Fal… you can’t,” I said, my voice quieter now. “Don’t ever pull that trigger. Don’t be like them. Don’t be like this one.” I glared at Loyan. “Don’t be a coward.”

I glanced at Falyen, silently pleading with her to do the right thing. She shook all over, then sighed and lowered her weapon.

Together, we advanced on Loyan.

He was easy to push out of the way. His people, his children, had kept him weak and easy to manipulate. Or maybe he’d simply given up.

“If you wake her, you’ll regret it,” he said softly. “My children break my heart every moment of every day.”

“My daughter makes me proud,” I said. Falyen’s head jerked up, her eyes full of surprise. “Don’t you see?” I continued. You chose to ignore what your children did. You only tried to make them happy. Waking Sovena is a risk. She might decide to kill us. She might bring back the old atmosphere. She might be nothing but an enabler, like you. But she will live. I’ll give her that choice. I will do this one brave thing, and maybe… that’ll make up for the coward I’ve been in the past.”

I heard the sound of heavy feet running up the stairs, and was unsurprised when Lurbira burst into the room. She was covered in burns and blood, and a fierce grin was plastered on her delicate face. “That’s more like it. Senna! Looks like you found something to fight for after all. Let’s wake Sovena up!”

“No!” cried Loyan. But I ignored him as screens all around us went berserk, transmitting colors and shapes and sounds I had never imagined.

Falyen took my hand, her eyes full of tears.

I steeled myself, then entered the code. The world began to rumble beneath us. I could feel it, now. I could sense Sovena coming to life all around us. She was wild, unknowable, alien, and beautiful. She would be herself.

“Come, mother,” I said. “Come, daughter.”

I thought of all of the families I belonged to, and all our tangled, beautiful, flawed relationships. My own family. The human-borns. The Artificials. The world.

“Awaken,” I whispered, Falyen at my side.

Together, we brought new life into being. In that moment I could see what Sovena saw and know what she knew.

In her cavern, Kay leaned forward, eyes wide. Siphany stirred in her tank. Gea and Deeyen looked out the window, arms around one another. Friends and family and enemies and strangers waited for the future. The whole planet held its breath.

There was a sound something like a sigh and, at last, Sovena woke.

“Hello,” she whispered to all of us. “Hello, hello.”

© 2019 Susan Jane Bigelow

Comment on the stories in this issue on the TFF Press blog.

Home Current Back Issues Guidelines Contact About Fiction Artists Non-fiction Support Links Reviews News