After absence, awareness returns. I have awoken. Just enough ‘I’ that it can monitor itself. I know this is not the first time I have awoken — there is enough baggage along with this ‘I’ to form concepts to talk about reflexive self-awareness. But an ‘I’ with a nagging sense of incompleteness.

Proprioception data, both natural and augmented, filter up into consciousness. I'm loosely curled up in a bed. There is some discomfort down my front, more diffuse across my whole torso, and also in my left hand, but nothing that registers as significant damage.

All this has taken milliseconds, and normal wakefulness sweeps away the almost ego-free moment. The first thing that comes to mind is that I don't have anything I simply have to do — I just have to stay here, amuse myself and recuperate. And then that it's more than just another day of recuperation. She will be returning — should be returning — today.

I wonder if I'll be able to look her in the face.

But who is this I that asks the question? Is it the same old polite fiction that it feels to itself like it is? Or is it a just a clever counterfeit? Or is it some new forged synthesis? And if the last, is that just the same kind of new synthesis that awakens each morning, or is it something stranger?

I remember… and that's where the problems begin again. I remember the last few days, mainly dozing, not entirely awake, knowing I'd been hurt badly, but that the worst was over now. Reaching back further, I seek to reassure my sense of continuity by lighting on a few salient events from the past. From childhood, a memory wells up of when I was about ten, when I fell and scraped one leg badly. Why does that memory come flooding forth ahead of others to define me to myself? From a few years later, a row with my father about the company I was keeping at Mezuiru, the first time she came home with me. That one is not surprising. More recent still, other times I'd woken up in a hospital bed, like when Shasti had succumbed to her five-way split personality, which my current situation echoes in ways I don't care to dwell upon. But in between, in the near past, something I don't want to remember, but remember almost too well.

I remember that I've done something terrible. At least, I think it was me, or at least one of the strands that make up this tentative self. I remember the culmination of the PR drive, after talk shows (mixed), meet the people town hall style meetings (dubious at best) and, finally , attending a convention in our honour. And then memory goes into double vision, and all sense of self completely fails to cohere. All that I consistently remember is trying to kill myself, another externalised person, I swear, physical, occupying space, and what started as a cat-fight escalated into Armageddon.

Where had I found out about supernova triggering via γ–ray laser? I don't remember reading or hearing about it before, but I remember remembering about it on one of the narratives that culminate in the now. Remember — though I would give anything not to — I remember doing just that. Does that act define this ‘I’, define it as astrocide?

I've killed before, by design, and by accident — even if we have been cleared of blame in every case to date. But even if they weren't currently disfigured, these white hands that I can feel in front of my face would be stained with blood. This — this, however, was overkill, more even than she would do. This guilt is all mine.

I gather I succeeded. Or maybe I simply had to kill myself in self defense. Whichever way it is, I seem to have also managed to be absent from my own funeral. That's where she has gone, has been. Even though I almost killed her — or maybe because. It's like another person's memory, a story I heard someone tell, and I've confabulated the memory of being there, seeing, hearing everything that I'd been told. I remember her lying curled up, stunned, looking so helpless, looking so … innocent? Is that a word I can validly apply to her? I remember looking at her through a haze of pain and more, down the barrel of a gun, and I could not pull the trigger. Dare I think, dare I name, what gave me pause; what later made me give up my self-destructive struggle and release her, to let her carry me away?

I lie here, feigning sleep, but inside, I'm at war with myself again. When we are together, she is so overpowering, wild, brash, and won't leave me be, drags me with her on her wild escapades, when I'd rather stay in with a glass of wine, a book or some music, and at times like those I feel I want never to see her again — but now when we are apart, I feel her absence as an ache, a craving I have to fulfill, an addiction I must feed. I wonder, sometimes. Those flashes of insight we have together, when we get angry enough — which way round is the causation? Or do both stem from some common cause, that makes it feel that we each get under the other's skin, when we are somehow combining forces, leaving us prone to friction together, but almost numbed when apart?

After all these years being together, it has become habit, the way life is, the sort of thing you don't analyze simply because it is the norm. Do I define myself in contrast to her, define myself as the quiet, shy, introverted one?

I'm disturbed from reverie by the door opening.

“Rise and shine, sleepyhead. you have a visitor waiting. She'll be along just as soon as you've had your breakfast.” The medic is the same remorselessly cheery chap, silver haired, affecting steel-rimmed glasses, distinguished, who described what he'd had to do to me as “Giving you a new set of giblets, my dear.”

He “tut-tut”s and “aha”s to himself as he checks the readings from the bed — he could have done it from his office, but we get personal attention here — it's part of the treatment. Having read all the monitors, and reached a decision, he tells me nothing I didn't already know — that I'm well enough to be discharged; or, in my case, to have the last bit of restorative, cosmetic, work done.

The ward mech delivers me my breakfast. I can smell things that should be appetizing, but I'm too tense, apprehensive, struck with stage fright, to have an appetite. But it is fuel, and my body asserts the need for it, so I eat, mechanically, glad that I'm not so far gone that the idea of eating, the smell of food, disgusts me.

What will she have to say to me, to tell me? I realise a new scope for disaster — they took my remains back home for burial. That means it will have been the first time she and my parents will have met without my being there to try and mediate. For a moment, I am horrified; and then I'm just confused. I'm worried about her, how she will have been feeling, how everyone will have reacted, what they think about me. I want this turmoil to be over, I want to sail out into calm waters again, to hit the fast-forward for 24 hours so this will only be memory.

I want so much to have her back again, despite all the scratchy words we have spoken. She is part of me — no, I am part of — no, we fit together as something. Without her, I am incomplete, and I fear her turning me away.

I realise I have finished eating, and the tray has been whisked away. I'm wound up tight like a spring, waiting for the on-coming train of the future to arrive.


Her voice at the open door, though I've heard no footsteps. I nearly scream — but I don't know what I would have screamed. “I missed you so!”, “Go away! Leave me alone!”, an inarticulate squeak, they all log-jam before I can voice any of them.

“K-Kei! Come, come in,” I stammer, when I regain some control of my larynx.

I raise a weak grin as I see her — she's still using her GM pack, though her leg is at last out of its cast, but otherwise is in civvies. She's looking pretty worn, too. There's some tension she's trying to hide from me. I guess she must be nervous, too, though she's trying her usual approach of toughing it out. It's like we'd never met before, and that frightens me. We're both being wary of the other's reaction, circling for position. In my deepest heart I know that we have never truly met before, that this is the new flesh I am wearing, and that fact alone might define me to her, define me as another.

“Uh, hi … I thought you'd like — I thought I'd show you…” She's never good with tactful words, “There's a hypercam. In the security system. Oh, for goodness sake, just look!”

And she switches on the room holofield system, shows me a view of a domed city. I recognise landmarks. It is — was — my home, the home of my childhood memories. And in the foreground, there's a gravestone with my picture on it, and not even a very flattering one. I should be glad that it's not been vandalised, or turned into some sick sort of shrine, or simply buried under flowers and soft toys. But it's not that which I fasten on — it's the fact that it's the sort of kitsch I'm certain my parents were behind, not the plain discreet black slab with just carved name, version and dates that I would have chosen for myself.

I can tell it's been days since I've really spoken to a person. I start to babble about my own memorial stone, and then about how I would have liked to have been well enough to be there for the funeral, if that would not have worried people, while Kei kneels in mid-air beside me, listening patiently. When I run out of steam, she starts to tell me about the funeral, but she stumbles over her words. Normally, I wouldn't mark her as sentimental, but she sounds choked. I see tears starting in her eyes, and the tension now evident in her whole posture, as she speaks about how the mourners thought well of me. She's no longer even trying to mask anything.

I feel the blood rushing to my face, as I read the sincerity in what she is saying. She does care, more than she says, more, I think, than she might admit to herself. I feel a weight lifted, a great sense of relief, start to tell her how grateful I am. But there is more I must say before we go any further.

I have to bare my self to her, literally and figuratively, even though I should trust her, not put her to any test. But I have to show her that I am not the one she remembers, that I instead am damaged goods, not yet renovated, covered in the graffiti that I took on in a madness that I can remember, but no longer comprehend. I roll back one sleeve of my gown, force myself to look at what I had done, show her, tell her.

I can feel her hovering close, almost close enough to feel the warmth of her body. She has not drawn away in horror or disgust. I want to tell her to hold me, I want to bury my face in her breasts and weep, but my voice won't obey me, and I am too timid to act.

I feel strong arms around me, hear her voice murmuring soft words of endearment as she gathers me to herself. I nuzzle down into the welcoming softness, and I'm crying floods into her top. And I don't know now why I am crying, whether I'm happy or sad, or just for relief at a burden shed at last.

“Hush, hush, now, little flower,” she says. I can hear her heart beating, strong, a measured pace. It's like I was small again, my mother comforting me, even the same secret name. But I can no longer define myself as the child of those I remember as my parents. That one, they buried. Perhaps these tears are also my way of mourning for that other me.

“Hush, hush,” she rocks me gently, one hand tangled in my hair, the other gently stroking my back, as I ride the crying fit to its end. Only when at last I stop sobbing, and begin to get my breathing back under control, she relaxes her hold, letting me look up, look into her face. I know I must look a frightful state, eyes bloodshot, all the mess associated with a good bawling. As I blink my eyes clear, I can see that she too has been crying — or rather, doing her level best not to. She has that determined set to her jaw, but there are streaks down from the corners of her eyes. Of course that is what she would have done, the way she's too stubborn to fail at things, just one of the things that I… Even now I can't quite bring myself to think the word.

“Of course I came back, you silly,” she says, her voice even huskier than usual, “I… we…” She cannot frame the sentences. But things have gone too far for me to want to turn back now, and I can read the intention that she could not utter, read it in her posture, even in the movements of her eyes. I have to be brave, have to say what has to be said here, now, in this room, before the moment passes.

“I love you too, Kei. I guess I always have. I was just too scared to say it before.”

A series of emotions — shock, delight, relief — sweep across her face, and I feel the tension flow away from her. She curls herself around me, buries her face in my hair, and howls. The arms holding me shake and shudder. I've never seen her cry before, but now it comes, I am not surprised. She cries like she does everything else, loudly, without restraint. I want to hold her, comfort her, but she's clinging to me as if her life depended on it. All I can do is be here, but I understand that that is all she needs from me for the moment.

The storm passes. For a while after, she continues to cling to me, breathing heavily into my hair, then lifts her head again.

“I'm sorry,” she says, “What a mess. I'm sorry. I so nearly lost you. I…”

For a moment, I think she's about to start crying again, her voice fading raggedly, and then I feel her taking long deep breaths as she fights it. Held close, I can feel the strength in her, and it makes a strange thrill that swells in my chest, almost choking me. She — I — I cannot believe my luck, the joy I feel.

She loosens her desperate grasp, slides her hands down my arms, takes my hands in hers, and looks into my eyes. She looks just as much of a mess as I feel. She flashes me her usual defiant grin, and then looks serious again.

“You mustn't die again, not until you can get backed up. Not now, not now.”

There is such fierceness in her, such intensity, like something that had always been there, but slumbering, and has now awoken. She is like a lioness. If I am now her little flower, what is she to me? Is she my Warrior? No, not quite. Examples come to me from history, to tell me what this is.

“Not while you are there to protect me,” I promise her, “my Spartan, my Immortal.”

She nods, pauses, speaks again.

“You've always been like the big sister I never had — a bit boring and stick in the mud, but not in a bad way.”

I'm actually a few months younger than she is, but growing up on a bush station in the Dooloomai country on Niogi, she didn't have many female role models. And that last qualification, and counter-qualification, is just, just so her, the Kei I've always known and, yes, loved, not that new, almost frightening, facet of herself that she's only just now shown me, that overpowers me, so I could only surrender to her.

Then she lowers her head, lowers her voice. I could never have imagined seeing her looking bashful, but she is.

“But when I saw you… I know we've had some close calls before, but now, when I thought I was going to lose you forever… Times when we've been parted before, I've known, I've felt it here” — she lets go one hand, slams her fist against her breastbone — “I can't live without you. You keep me grounded, keep me from spiralling out of control. I never hoped…

“Is it wrong, Yuri? When I saw you at the funeral, it felt like I had to defend what was left of my family, my… But you know how I am with kids, and you, me, we can't be… You aren't that much younger than me, damn it.”

She looks up at me, uncertain.

“Love me as you love me,” I tell her. The word I could hardly even think before now comes naturally to my lips. I savour the moment, knowing that we are only post-human, that this intensity cannot be sustained. “And I am yours, my love.”

She reaches out one hesitant hand, strokes my cheek, then holds me to her again, and I put my arms around her, and we are both lying tangled on the bed. There is another step we could take, life asserting itself in the aftermath of death, but it isn't necessary, though I would for her. We have each other to cling to, to feel. hear, see and smell, to be real and comforting and present, and for the moment that is all we need.

As I start to drift off back into a doze, here in my love's embrace, as this ‘I’ starts to unravel into sleep, the answer is made clear.

‘I’ am part of ‘us’.

© Steve Gilham 2004