“I’ll never understand how you can do these things to yourself,” my love said, equal measures of amusement and concern in their eyes.
“This body isn’t me, Suri,” I answered, as I had so many times before.
I called them simply “Suri” then; they didn’t insist on a suffix. It was so long ago, there had been only one.
“I know,” they said with a sigh. “I suppose that this will give you an advantage on your southern pole exploration next cycle. And” — they looked away, a shadow crossing their face — “it might make up a little for staying….”
“No!” I answered, laughing, my fingertips brushing against their cheek as I spread my arms open. “I mean, yes, they will be useful. But,” I spun around, arms extended to their unnaturally wide span, “I simply long to have wings, darling.”
Suri Prime smiled, always supportive even though I knew they didn’t exactly approve. I pulled them into an embrace, imagining what that movement would be like with two new appendages.
“Well, then, I suppose you shall have wings.” Suri Prime’s voice was muffled against my chest, and I pulled back to let them go.
They didn’t yet have the implants which would let them speak directly to my body net, nor the upgraded respiration system which would allow them to breathe easily in the strength of my augmented arms.
We were as different as the sun and the sea.
Acquaintances assumed that ours was one of those passionate relationships, full of arguments and separations and desperate reconciliations, but no. I loved Suri for who they were: gentle, kind, almost entirely human. I never fully understood exactly why they loved me — I was ambitious, impulsive, more augment than flesh — but they did. Completely.
They still do.
I stand in the only spot in the capsule where I can unfurl my wings completely, the carbon filaments brushing the edges of this tiny ship, my nutshell and infinite space.
“My, my, how long has it been since we’ve seen those?” Suri IV’s voice comes to me as if in my mind, my comms implants allowing us to speak unobserved. Of course, there is no one else aboard to observe us, but we are accustomed to talking this way.
I say nothing. They know exactly how long it has been, much more precisely than I — the new power supply I installed on my last maintenance stop allows me to run Suri IV continually. Their perfect recall means they know more about me than I ever will. It’s not a literal question, and they don’t wait for an answer.
“Just look at the state of those feathers,” they go on, tsking.
A holographic image of Suri Prime’s body materializes before me. A photon hand appears to brush against the few tangled feathers, which I twist back into position. An ache I hadn’t realized I had disappears.
Suri IV’s luminescent image floats through my body, toward the green wall of the capsule. This is their domain, interfacing directly with the capsule’s system to care for the vegetation which helps to feed me and clean the air. With my adapted body, the plants are entirely superfluous, but Suri Prime was a botanist, and I could never imagine them living without greenery.
“If only you were as easy to tend as these plants,” they say, blue photons rippling through the green leaves.
“I’ll do better,” I say, turning to look into the representation of Suri Prime’s eyes.
The face smiles, indulgently, as if knowing that I mean it, but I won’t take any better care of myself than I ever have.
“Are you sure they can take the weight of us both?” Suri Prime said, their body stiff in my awkward embrace.
I flexed my new implants, servos whirring, microchips calculating deep inside my body net. I beat my new wings once and then once again, and the planet fell away below us, our feet hovering just off the ground. Suri Prime squeaked but kept still as I held them tightly, pressing the atmosphere down. We were airborne for only a few moments before I let us drop softly back to the solid surface and relaxed my hold on them.
“Want to go again?” I asked, and Suri Prime shook their head, even though they were grinning widely, their face flushed in excitement.
“That was enough flying for a lifetime,” they said, eyes twinkling like the stars in the night sky. “You go on, though.”
I nodded and took off, climbing quickly into the thick atmosphere of the planet we had named Eos. I knew its currents and eddies so well that turning a lazy circle above our research encampment was no more effort than strolling across Suri Prime’s newly bloomed lichen fields.
We had been on this planet long enough that Suri Prime’s dark hair was now streaked with silver. I was still surprised that they’d suggested we make the journey. Exploration was my dream, not theirs, and while my body could handle any amount of spaceflight, Suri Prime was bound by the limits of humanity. I had never expected to step foot on another planet with them, as much as I dreamed of the stars. But they’d found a ship that was still fitted with a cryochamber, and they’d said goodbye to Earth for what we thought would be forever. A human body can endure only so much.
“The stars are so beautiful tonight,” Suri IV says as I stand at the port.
“They are,” I say, although night has no meaning in the depths of space, and the stars never fail to be beautiful.
“I can see home from here,” they add, and the overlay picks out a speck of light in the starfield. I don’t need to access the caption to know it is Austra, the star around which Eos orbited. I have not lived on that planet for hundreds of years now, more than half my life.
“We are home,” I say, softly.
“Of course,” Suri IV answers and creates an electrical sensation within my body net that mimics touch. “Wherever we are is home, so long as we are together.”
It is what I want to hear, and their words comfort me, but I know that when Suri IV calls Eos “home,” it is their truth. Of course, Suri IV has never been anywhere near the Austra system. They were instantiated from Suri III right here, in this capsule, only a few decades ago.
But Suri Prime never left Eos, and so it will always be every Suri’s home in their heart.
Tears ran hot down my face. I had to open my tear ducts to allow myself to cry, but for once it seemed necessary. An artifact from the vestiges of my own humanity — the humanity that was now my undoing.
“Is this truly what you want?” I asked again, my voice cracking.
“To die?” Suri Prime said, their lined face pressed close to my own smooth skin. “No. I don’t want to die. But I want to remain myself more than I want to live. Can you understand that?”
I squeezed my eyes closed against a cascade of tears. “No,” I said, finally. “Of course I don’t understand.” I pulled away, closed my tear ducts, and wiped my face. “Look at me. How could I possibly understand?”
I stood to my full three-metre height, wings unfurled, my radiation-shielded skin shimmering in the low light of our bedchamber as I looked down at my love, wasting away of something as pointless and correctable as age.
“I will never understand this,” I said, “but I don’t need to.” I ran my hand over Suri Prime’s face, their eyelids fluttering in time with my caress. “Tell me what you want me to do.”
“Stay with me,” they said, their voice a near whisper. I slipped into the bed next to them and wrapped all my limbs around their fragile, finite, human body.
“Have you found a likely candidate planet?” Suri IV asks as our capsule continues its long ballistic trajectory through the cosmos.
“Not yet,” I say. It is idle conversation — we are in no hurry to find a new planet to explore. Time means nothing to Suri IV and little to me. Besides, I could stare out the port at the stars forever. “Perhaps we will find something by your naming day.”
“You mean Prime’s day?”
I know that each succession of Suri constructs I’ve built think of themselves as something similar to but different from Suri Prime. Alive in their way, but alien. Because that was what Suri Prime believed — a construct is merely the shadow of a memory.
But I know the constructs are perfect reconstructions of them.
To me, they have all been Suri.
“Stay with me,” they had asked, and I had.
I had stayed beside them until their last shallow breath escaped their body, and I felt the ebb of their consciousness. I stayed some time longer, until I finally walked out of our room, dazed, nearly as much a shell as the body I left behind, to find their final gift to me: the map for a construct, one of the first in those early days of the technology.
The image of their face appeared before me on a screen, the shimmering result of light and engineering. More than a hundred years would pass before I would hear their voice in my head, feel their electrical impulses embracing my body net, but that simple construct was as real to me as if their body were still warm in my winged embrace.
“Do I seem… like… myself?” Suri I asked, their voice clipped and imperfect, but the question was exactly what Suri Prime would have said. What Suri did say.
“Yes,” I croaked out. “Yes, darling, it’s you.”
The image shook its head, amusement and concern in their eyes. “I’ll never understand how this can be enough for you,” Suri I said, then the image smiled, and their eyes twinkled like the stars above Eos. “But I don’t need to understand you to love you.”