We soared through the yellow-tinged sky, spinning in the dizzying freedom of flight, winds buffeting us and tearing at our jet-powered wings until we broke free of the troposphere. Then we dove, releasing nano-sensors to ride the winds and report on the progress of our climate reengineering. Heat and pressure increased against our cylindrical bodies as we descended. A herd of long-stalkers stood immobile against a basalt ridge far below us, waiting for minds to animate them. Xi and I skipped our consciousnesses from the jet-flyers into a pair of the long-stalkers and strode through a swamp we had created half a dozen decades earlier, checking on the plants we had wedded to symbiotic bacteria that pulled additional carbon out of the scorching air.
<It looks good,> Xi sent to me. Their stalker’s legs were half-submerged in water. <I guess that’s everything for today.>
<Wait,> I sent back, eyeing a line of autonomously roving bionic quadrupeds grazing at the swamp’s edge. <Want to run?>
We skipped into two of the quadrupeds and raced. I was giddy with the sensation of speed, watching the ground as it was devoured beneath me as quickly as my legs could thrust me rhythmically forward.
<Something’s wrong.> Xi skidded to a stop. I turned and loped back to them. <I just got an alert from Base. It cut off, and now I can’t communicate with Base at all.>
I pinged Base myself. Nothing came back. <I’m not reaching it either.>
Xi’s quadruped looked up to where a flock of kite-gliders circled not far from us. <Let’s go take a look.>
I skipped into one of the gliders. Xi didn’t follow.
<I can’t skip,> they sent. The message came from their quadruped, still halted on the ground below me.
<What do you mean?>
<I’m trapped in this quadruped.>
I banked low over the quadruped and studied it. Nothing seemed amiss. I tried to skip back into the quadruped beside it, the one I’d just left — but something blocked me. I nearly spiraled down to the ground in shock. My thoughts tumbled against each other in their urgency. Was someone else using the quadruped? Someone concealing themself? I sent an inquiry to the cybernetic creature but got no response.
<I’ll be right back,> I told Xi.
I spun my propellors and flew back to the other grazing quadrupeds. I tried to skip into the first one in the line and entered it without incident. I bounded back to Xi. <Something is definitely wrong. Follow me.> I led them to the line of grazers. <Can you skip into any of these?>
<Those long-stalkers over there?>
<I’ve been trying.> Their words came out rushed. Panicked. <I can’t get out. I’m trapped.>
Nothing like this had happened to any of us before. <I’ll message the technicians. They’ll know what to do.>
<I’ve been trying, Catha. I can’t get through.>
I messaged the technicians. There was no response. No indication the signal had been received, no notice to warn that it hadn’t. I pinged them. No signal came back. <They’re not answering.>
<Catha, this isn’t a malfunction. We’re under attack.>
<From whom? Our perimeter sensors haven’t picked up any activity.> I checked the sensors. I couldn’t get through to them. I wobbled in the air again.
<You can’t reach them either?>
<Someone is disrupting our network. They may be shutting it down. They may be using it.>
<Who? We’ve been here a century and a half. The first settlement ship from Earth is still a year away, and until then, the twenty of us comprise the only sentient life on this planet.>
<We need to find the others. Detha and Kyan are supposed to be in this sector, but they’re also not answering.>
I circled again, trying to regain altitude. <We have to check on Base. You told me that’s where the alert came from. If we are being attacked, that would be the target.> It had been months since I’d been there, and probably longer for some of the others. But I had to hope that if any of our fellow geoengineers were facing the same problems we were, that’s where they would head to rally.
Xi didn’t answer.
Their quadruped stared blankly ahead for a moment. Then it rejoined the line of other beasts and resumed grazing. Wherever Xi might have gone, they were no longer here.
I pinged Xi, again and again. It was as if they had simply vanished.
Abruptly, I stopped trying to reach them. The network was compromised, and I was drawing attention to myself.
I felt the weight of the air around me. I was more afraid and isolated than I had ever been before.
I had to force myself to remember that the Xi who had just disappeared wasn’t the real Xi, just as I wasn’t the real Catha. We were uploads of our originals’ minds, exploring and terraforming this world while our true-bodies slept and waited for the planet to be ready for settlement. Whatever had just happened, it hadn’t affected the true Xi or their machine-aided slumber.
Unless the Base, where our bodies slept, had been breached.
I glided to within sight-distance of the nearest jet-flyer and skipped. As the jet-flyer, I launched myself through the sky.
The Base commanded the highest of a series of steep hills that cascaded down to an ocean of rock. The newer modules had been built out from the landing craft, and that original structure still loomed in the center, its insignia scoured by the vicious atmosphere we had increasingly tamed over the past century and a half. The walls were still solid, preserved by maintenance droids, and the doors were sealed and showed no external signs of damage or tampering.
No — one door had been opened. When I zoomed in with my eye-lenses, I saw corroded metal on the ground, presumably scraped off when the door had slid open and closed again, and footsteps leading away.
Two true-bodies were out for the first time since they — we — had landed 136 years ago. They wore protective suits, of course, but soon even those would be unnecessary. Lead mountains still blocked the horizon, but molten lead would never rain from these skies again. Clouds still massed above us, but they were far less dense and acidic than when we’d arrived. Our terraforming tools had been honed on Mars and Venus, and they’d become indispensable for human expansion ever since: 70 percent of the galaxy’s stars were M-dwarfs without enough light to power photosynthesis, forcing settlers to adapt to often inhospitable planets in the systems that were left.
The pair of true-bodies were investigating one of the mining machines crouched on the surrounding hillsides, examining the drill and hammer-arms folded over its sealed shaft.
They were armed. Why? What was the threat?
<Detha?> I sent. <Kyan?> The scene below me was unprecedented, and I was no longer thinking about network security. There was a dormant android near the Base and a trio of quadrupeds nearby, but none of them were occupied, so I broadcast to any colleagues within range of my signal. <Have you seen Base? Do you know what’s going on?>
I made another pass overhead. One of the figures looked up and lifted a handgun. It was me. My true-body.
I was so surprised and disoriented I almost crashed to the ground.
My true-body. I had uploaded my mind, just like all the other geoengineers, but an upload wasn’t a transfer. That human in the envirosuit was me but not me. Thinking for itself, with a brain that hadn’t changed when I was made as a copy. Lacking my past century and a half of memories.
I skipped into the maintenance droid and walked down to the pair of true-bodies. “Catha!” I called, using the droid’s vocalization mechanism.
I, my true-body, turned to face me. It still held its gun.
“Catha, it’s me. It’s you,” I said, holding up my hands.
My true-body raised the gun and squinted through the sight. “You were supposed to have shut down as soon as the terraforming machines were up and operational.” My voice. It had been so long since I’d heard it, since I’d remembered what I sounded like.
“Shut down?” I vaguely remembered those instructions, but the entire premise didn’t make sense. “The systems need to be monitored and maintained. The Base needs to be watched over. How could I be sure of survival — our survival — if I shut down?”
“You were successful. You served your purpose. Now your mission is complete. It’s time to build up the planet. We can’t have copies of ourselves out here when the colonists arrive.”
I stepped forward. “But I am you. Whatever you’re planning, I will—”
My true-body fired. One shot that blew a hole through the droid’s quantum processor brain.
The droid collapsed, and its internal systems immediately began shutting down. If I were trapped when its driver module went dark, I would die with it, with no way to affect my escape. The kite-glider still circled overhead, so I tried to skip into it — and was blocked. Some invisible electronic barrier prevented me from getting in.
I’d lost access to external sensors. My thoughts slowed without access to the droid’s processors. All that was left was a single imperative — escape — and flashes of signals from other mobile platforms nearby. The quadrupeds. I skipped, knowing that if this attempt failed, I was dead.
I entered the quadruped, and my senses rushed back. I saw the droid smoldering in a heap fifty meters away. “What are you doing?” the other human demanded of the figure who was me. No, not me — my true-body. My former body. The voice was familiar, but it had been so long since I’d heard it from human lungs and larynx that I wasn’t sure whose it was. Kyan’s? “These guns are for defense. We can’t shoot up our hardware.”
My former body lowered its gun. “They can escape. Jump from construct to construct. Peder uploaded a software worm to stop them, but it takes time to spread.”
“They’re valuable,” Kyan’s true-body insisted. “Each one has our goals and a century and a half of additional information.”
My true-body stared at the droid. “If we give them a chance to replace us, they’ll take it, and this rock will never truly be ours.” The body looked up and saw me, my quadruped, watching. Whether the body knew it was me or not, it lifted its gun.
I turned and bolted.
A long-stalker stood on the far side of a mining machine at the crest of the next hill. The stalkers almost never left the swamp for which they’d been designed, so I was only slightly surprised when it messaged me. <Catha.>
I bounded up to it. <Detha. I thought something had happened to you.>
<Kyan and I received your and Xi’s messages, but by then we knew the humans were tracking us, so we didn’t respond. We sent a group of quadrupeds toward Base so you would have uncompromised platforms if you needed them.>
Out of all that information, and despite my relief at seeing Detha, one comment struck me. <We are humans.>
There was a pause. <We’re not, anymore. You need to understand that.>
<Where is Kyan?>
<With the others. Gathered at the magnesium processing plant, deciding on next moves. Some want to hide and wait to see what happens. Others want to attack while we still can.>
<What do you want?>
<We can talk there.>
<I need to find Xi.>
<Xi didn’t make it.>
<They were in a quadruped and tried to skip out. But the humans studded the network with traps. Peder’s trying to understand how they work. As far as we can tell, Xi was blocked from their target platform and blocked from returning to the quadruped, and once they were caught, the trap shut itself down. Xi is gone.>
I was too stunned to respond.
<We must go,> Detha sent. <The humans are just over that ridge.>
I looked back. <Xi’s true-body is still over there somewhere.>
<If it is, that’s not Xi anymore. That’s who Xi came from, who they once were. You know that, Catha. Xi, our Xi, is gone.>
Detha was wrong. Xi’s true-body had created “our” Xi. It could do so again. <I have to go back. I have to explain to my true-body that we’re not a threat and we can work together.>
Detha’s stalker stamped its feet. <We need to get to the others.>
Footsteps made me turn again. Two true-bodied humans crested the ridge, guns brandished. My true-body and Kyan’s.
Detha had already skipped away. The long-stalker next to me was uninhabited, and Detha did not respond to my signals. They were invisible once again.
As the true humans raised their guns, I knew I should run. But it was my true-body that planted its feet, my true-body that lifted its arms. If I could speak to it just for a minute—
The long-stalker’s body burst beside me. Another gunshot blasted the rock at my feet.
Running was no longer an option. I sent a terse command to the mining machine. It unfolded its arms with a groan and a squeal of metal. The true-bodied humans turned to look, but not quickly enough. The hammer arm swung, striking Kyan’s true-body like a bat against a ball back on Earth, flinging it through the air. It smashed into my true-body from the side and then dropped, pinning it, when the body fell.
Now was my chance to run. But I hesitated. A moan came from my fallen true-body.
I trotted up to Kyan’s true-body. It was twisted on the ground, not moving. The body was dead. I moved on to my true-body.
The machine’s arm held down my true-body’s leg as the body twisted and pulled, trying to get away. The body was weak and wheezing. Its helmet was fogged with its breath. The moan had been replaced by an insistent whimper.
Before I went any closer, I looked for the gun. It had landed a few meters away. Too far for my true-body to reach. I continued my approach.
I commanded the machine to lift its arm, but it just ground gears and then stopped. These machines were no longer prioritized for maintenance, and they had been worn down by the atmosphere.
“Go… ahead,” my true-body hissed. “Kill… me. Try to… take this planet… from us. But more of us… are on their way.”
“I’m not your enemy. We’re the same.” But of course, my true-body had no way to receive the words I was sending.
“We… didn’t start… this,” the body hissed. “You… were supposed… to wake us. But you… just… left… us. Just let us… sleep.” It closed its eyes. “Trapped in the pods.”
My quadruped’s limbs stiffened. We had tamed the planet. Were we supposed to have just let the true humans take control, shut us down if they wanted or let us continue to serve them if we were lucky? When we had decades of knowledge and experience they didn’t?
But we had just put off the inevitable. We’d never made a decision to harm them. Nothing justified what they’d just done.
I pressed my leathery snout against the arm and strained. The metal bit into my platform’s skin; my neck muscles bunched; the sinews in my back tightened like wires trying to snap. I leaned into the arm, forward and up. I didn’t feel the machinery move, and I didn’t think I was making any difference at all — but then my true-body gasped and rolled out. I stepped back, and the arm settled on the rock.
I looked at my true-body. It sprawled on the ground, breathing heavily. The leg that had gotten caught was crumpled and splayed to one side. Gradually, the fog evaporated from the visor, and my true-body returned my gaze. I recognized all the emotions it wore, all the frustration and pain squinting its eyes and tugging at its lips. But they were no longer mine. I looked at its face and saw nothing of myself.
It looked at me like I was a beast. An alien that belonged to this planet they had come to colonize. I realized, as I searched its face, that I did belong to this planet, in a way it never would. I was not bound by its goals or past. I was not obligated to make the world it wanted or to be the creature it had envisioned.
I turned and loped in the direction of the processing plant, far beyond this tumble of hills. In the past, I would have immediately skipped into a flying platform for such a long journey. Uncertainty about the compromised network kept me in the quadruped’s body. But even now, even confined temporarily to the surface, I was finally, truly free.