Beyond the Seaby Nick T. Chan (Fall 2016)
For three days we've waited for the Prophet to die, so that he can be uploaded to the lunar servers and live again. For three days, the Prophet’s moans have slowly increased in volume. At first, his moans were barely audible above the sea breeze coming through the open window. Now, they echo in the chapel where Martha and one of my spoke bodies kneel.
The spoke body wants to cover its ears, but I quell the impulse through my central hub intelligence.
The cries reach a spoke body as I stand outside Isla’s old bedroom. They even reach where Jocasta and I walk through the graveyard. Throughout each day, I've played his favourite song, “Beyond the Sea,” in hope of quietening him. It doesn't work. We can still hear him.
The air in the Prophet's bedroom is heavy with stale sweat and old urine. I can’t look at him without my chest feeling tight, so I look everywhere else. The IV drip draped over the rust-spotted bed railing. The bedside table, the plastic almost faded white in the sun. The concrete walls. The flickering neon light overhead. The shiny-thin bedsheets, frayed around the edges. Even the crucifix hanging over the bed, latin inscribed on each arm. Homine machina regenda est.
In the old chapel a few feet away from his bedroom, Martha and another one of my spoke bodies kneel together on a pew. The chapel is cluttered with junk, rotted cardboard boxes, dusty machinery, coils of rope. She's wide and I'm thin, I'm swarthy and she's pale as salt.
The Prophet's moans reach us through the adjoining doors. “For God's sake, do something,” she says, looking at me with her lip curled. “Gerasim, please.” Even after all these years, Martha’s never adjusted to how I use a replica of Isla for my bodies. It doesn't matter that my mannerisms haven't changed and that neurologically and psychologically, I'm male. She sees me and thinks of the sister-wife she hates.
“What can I do?” I say. “Block your ears. Sing to yourself. I promised him we'd wait until Isla returned and she kneels.”
“Give him more morphine.”
“He wanted to stay awake,” I say. “And we don't have much left. Besides, the representative needs direct verbal consent.”
“He shouldn't suffer because of her. She's no longer one of us.” Tears wet her eyes. “You could've summoned the representative weeks ago.”
“God told him she would kneel. He commanded me to wait.”
A snarl flashes over her face, smoothed away so quickly I doubt she was conscious of doing it. “You’re outside her door. Kill her properly this time.”
“He wants her to kneel. She can't kneel if she's dead.”
“She expected you to try to kill her and she still wouldn't kneel. What's different this time?”
“He didn't command me to kill her,” I say. “He commanded me to poison her and then bury her in the graveyard.”
She rolls her eyes. “Don't be so literal.”
“I did what he commanded.”
“She'll say his first prophecy stops him from uploading.” Her eyes flick to the crucifix and she begins to repeat the Latin. “Homine machina-”
“Man must rule over machine,” I snap, cutting her off. “How am I meant to argue against her?”
“That arrogant little child thinks she knows God's intentions better than the Prophet. Upload him and be done with it.”
I close my eyes, praying for patience. Martha married the Prophet at thirteen, her education not extending beyond the arts of the kitchen and the marital bed.
“My hub mind isn't organic.” I tap my temple. “Each spoke body has an organic brain. They have souls, but the part of me that thinks is an emulation, a virtual brain.” Confusion mars Martha's face. “If I upload the Prophet's consciousness to the lunar servers, am I uploading his soul as well? If it is only his mind, then machine rules over man.”
She speaks slowly. “I heard what he said to you last night.”
Ne moriar! Don't let me die.
“If his soul dies, but his mind survives, have I let him die?” I say. “If his consciousness survives, but his soul does not, have I let machine rule over man? Have I made him like me?”
Ne moriar. Homine machina regenda est.
“He'll tell you that the soul is part of his consciousness. God won't let him die. He is the true Prophet.”
Her last sentence weighs upon both of us and we are silent. “His mind is filled with her,” I say after a while. “When she kneels, then he'll reveal what God has said about uploading the soul.”
In the Prophet’s bedroom, I lean forward and speak loudly into his ear. “Prophet, Isla must focus on submission, not how much pain you are in.” I search for a full morphine ampoule in the bedside dresser. There are two left. “This one should ease the pain. It won't send you to sleep.” The last statement may or may not be a lie, but I no longer know how much he weighs and what his body will tolerate.
After the morphine is administered, his eyes droop, but his face clears.
“Music,” he croaks.
In the corner is a vinyl record player. I drop the stylus onto the record resting on the platter. “Beyond the Sea” by Bobby Darin.
The Prophet gives the tiniest of smiles. Now that the pain has diminished somewhat, his eyes follow me. If he wasn’t so sick, he’d command me to strip my long white nightgown and mount him. I look exactly like her. I can fornicate with him. I can kneel to him. But I'm not Isla. She'll never kneel, not in her heart. He must know this, yet he insists on waiting for her.
Once he was tall and fleshy, with unruly blonde curly hair, but cancer has whittled him down to a skeleton. He's so thin, light seems to pass through him. His hair has fallen away. His breath stinks of rancid meat, though he hasn't eaten solid food for weeks.
When Jocasta had breast cancer, we caught it early enough to clone her without the cancerous tissue. But we were too late with the Prophet; it was impossible to disentangle what was him and what was the cancer.
“Will Isla kneel?” the Prophet asks. He blinks slowly and painfully, like there are barbed hooks attached to eyelids.
“There are other things you must think of.”
“You have always behaved as a machine should,” he says quietly.
He doesn't respond. He's fallen into a gentle sleep.
Isla's still in her old bedroom. I didn't see her enter the compound or the house. None of my bodies or cameras spotted her. Despite this, I know she’s inside because the scent of lavender wafts across the hallway and when I press my face against the gap at the bottom of cold iron door, the smell is almost overpowering.
After she’d married the Prophet, she started wearing lavender perfume, despite his wishes that his brides be unscented. It didn't matter how many times he commanded me to beat her, she still dabbed it behind her ears. I hated her defiance. I dragged a comb roughly through her hair, spat into her food during serving, and pushed her into puddles after the rain. Her resistance was sullen and silent, but unrelenting. This war continued until the Prophet grew sick of our enmity and he commanded Illam ama. You must love her.
Outside the compound, a spoke body stands with Jocasta. She kneels amidst the old graves. Once there were little wooden crosses, but they no longer exist. Now there are only rows and rows of old graves, one after another.
Jocasta looks towards the water. Perhaps she yearns to swim. She hasn't left the compound since she first married the Prophet as a fifteen year old.
Crumbling houses and buildings dot the foreshore. Most have disappeared under jungle and only the tallest skyscrapers are free of vines and branches.
Jocasta's face is relaxed, but her surveillance implant reveals her distress; elevated heart rate, stress hormones cascading through her body, high activity in her amygdala.
The sun is sinking and it is a soft nicotine yellow, filtered through the great sphere that the Class-Vs have constructed to replace the ozone layer. It is almost nightfall. Great clouds of birds flutter across the sky. Millions of insects hum in an almost physical wave.
Low in the sky, a half-moon. The twinkling lights of server farms in the dark half. Jocasta thinks the Class-Vs intend to move Earth to some other galaxy, though where she gets that idea, no one knows.
Jocasta is the Prophet's first wife. Like Martha, she's dressed in a bonnet and a long brown dress that brushes the ground. She's stout and leathery. She never looks at my face. I’m not sure whether it’s because I have Isla's body or simply because I look so fresh and young while she's so old.
“He's going to join the conversion queue, isn't he?” she says.
“She’s going to try and change his mind.”
“That strumpet.” She blushes a deep red. It is the closest I've ever heard Jocasta come to swearing. “I wish you'd killed her. How did she find out? Why has she come now?”
The brass bell hanging from the outside wall rings, saving me from having to answer. The exterior cameras reveal the Class-V representative. He is tall and fleshy, with unruly blonde curly hair. He does not seem perturbed by the compound's high walls, or the coils of barbed wire, or the cameras that cover every possible exit.
A spoke body strides out as the exterior gate opens. He stands there, framed by the rusted iron gates, weeds breaking through the concrete driveway.
“The representative is here,” every single one of my spoke bodies say.
Isla calls that she’ll be ready soon. The voice is mine, but sounds nothing like me. Despite the exact same timbre and pitch, I sound girlish. She sounds like a woman. My heart thumps and my hands are slick with sweat. It has been so long. Illam ama.
In the chapel, Martha takes a deep, shuddering breath. Using the reflection of the chapel's tarnished brass tabernacle, she checks that no hair has snuck out from underneath her bonnet.
Back outside, Jocasta wrings her hands. “You should've fabricated the old body.” Jocasta waggles her elbow, indicating the male body with a pair of stubby and useless fingers sprouting from just below the elbow. “The one she...”
Her face flushes. “You've had enough time.”
“What if I need to fabricate more gemcitabine?”
“He's going to become a Class-V.”
“God may reveal to him to continue what treatment we can offer.”
“Forget the drugs,” she replies. “Make her favorite body, quickly. Take her to the bedroom. She won’t argue with him if you occupy her.” A heartbeat. “Don’t tell me you don’t want to.”
Now it is my turn to avoid her gaze. “It wasn’t about the body. It was about making him angry.” The words are dirt in my mouth, but they must be true. “I can’t run the risk he’d see that body again. Not in his present state.”
She bites her lip, clearly reluctant to say what she wants to say.
“Spit it out,” I say.
“Use one of your bodies,” she says. “Give it a scar in the vat and then pretend you're her. Kneel for him.”
“He knows my mannerisms. He'll know it's me.”
“Make an independent copy of her, out of the control of your hub intelligence.” She beams, not seeing the problem. “You've got the data for everyone except the Prophet. Make her again, but make her remember things differently. Make an Isla that's happy to kneel.
“I can change what she remembers, but not who she is. She will never kneel.”
Jocasta's face collapses into petulance and she stomps towards the house. I remain outside, idly plucking flowers and placing them at the foot of the closest grave.
Isla opens the bedroom door a fraction. The last time I saw her, I was shovelling dirt onto her face. I place my hand on the door and it swings open without resistance.
Looking at her is like looking into a mirror. Long black hair, tightly braided so that it only reaches her shoulders. Wet, dark eyes in a thin, intense face.
She's dressed in the same long white dress as when she left. She's still too thin and boy-chested for it to fit properly, so it has half-slipped down one shoulder. The bare shoulder has a long, livid scar that runs from the nape of her neck to the spur of her shoulder. The scar is from where she dug out the transmitter of her surveillance implant with a fire-heated kitchen knife.
Before I can say a word, she pulls me into a hug. The world shrinks to her body against mine. Dirt and lavender. “You know he's going to die,” she whispers. Die. I let the word dissolve in my head, like sugar in hot tea.
“He's the Prophet.”
“All things die Gerasim. All things have their time.”
“I can't let that happen. He commanded me.”
Illam ama. She was a day away from turning nineteen when she led my deformed body into her bed. Afterwards, she told the Prophet.
That evening he commanded every single one of my male bodies to walk into a fire, except for one she'd slept with. That body gripped her wrist and forced her to watch.
The breeze had blown the smoke our way. The burnt liver stench of my organs, the candy-sweet musk of boiling cerebrospinal fluid, the charcoal stench of blackening skin, the sulphur of burning hair. Each spoke body was separated in turn from my hub intelligence. They screamed as I watched someone who was no longer me burn.
Inside the Prophet's room, the record reaches its end. I move the needle back to the start.
After all the other spoke bodies died, I'd released Isla's wrist and slowly walked into the fire, leaving only my hub intelligence. A man cast into a lightless jail cell.
The day after Isla's birthday, Jocasta followed the scent of lavender towards the basement. As expected, she found Isla there. Rows of vats, each one containing my new bodies, replicas of Isla. But in one vat, Isla had found a way to regrow the flawed version of the Prophet. She'd separated it from the hub intelligence.
Jocasta dragged it out from the vat. The poor thing knew nothing of the outside world. Isla had programmed a new set of memories. Even as it opened its eyes for the first time, it believed it was me, except it didn't remember the Prophet, Jocasta or Martha. A version of me that knew nothing of the Prophet's love. Knowing how to do such a thing should have been beyond Isla's capabilities. She was even more dangerous than the Prophet had thought. We destroyed it.
Two days after her birthday, one of my freshly grown bodies put poison in her lavender perfume. Three days after, two of me lifted her body from her bed and I buried her in the graveyard. That night, she dug her way out, leaving an empty plot. So many years have passed and all I know is that I will love her until the Prophet commands me to halt.
The song has stopped again, so a spoke body moves the stylus again. Bobby Darin's voice, lamenting a lost lover beyond the sea.
We walk down the corridor, crunching on leaves that have fallen through the broken skylight. Isla married the Prophet when she was fourteen. I walked her down this corridor and towards his bedroom. Her eyes were dry and she smiled, but her entire body trembled. Her fingers gripped the flesh above my elbow so hard that they left bruises.
Jocasta, Martha and the representative are waiting for us. Jocasta’s lips purse, as if she’s about to spit, but she turns her head away. Martha continues staring balefully. The representative stands with its hands clasped behind its back, a bland smile on its face.
The spoke body with the Prophet opens the double doors outwards. For a moment, I see Isla from front and back, and then only the body in the room can see her.
“Come inside,” I say. “He won't be awake for long.”
Isla is first through the doors and the first to see him. She raises her hand to her mouth.
The Prophet’s eyes flick from the representative to Jocasta, to Martha and then finally upon Isla.
He croaks a command to everyone. “Genu flectete.”
There is always more than one way to obey a command, but this is a command with little room for interpretation. The command builds within me until I'm forced down. As soon as my knees touch the broken tiles on the floor, relief ices through me. Outside this room, every single spoke body kneels too.
Jocasta and Martha kneel. Isla remains standing. So does the representative.
The Prophet glares at Isla. He doesn’t bother to stare at the representative. He has nothing to threaten it with. The Class-Vs let their spoke bodies live independently for only a few hours. These bodies wake, fully aware how short their lives will be before they must upload everything they’ve experienced and dissolve into a puddle. If their minds and their memories are preserved, then what do their mayfly lives matter?
“Genu flecte!” the Prophet says to Isla.
“You wish to join the conversion queue,” the representative says, oblivious. “This will involve scanning your neuronal tissue. This is a destructive process.”
“We're aware,” Martha says loudly. “He consents to conversion.” Conversion veers upwards hysterically, as if I dragged the stylus needle across the record. “We're all going to convert.” Her all does not include Isla or me.
“Do you wish to join the conversion queue?” the Representative says.
Isla speaks softly. “You said it was sinful for man to become more than man.”
“Emulating the structure of his brain won't make him more than he is,” I say. “He's a copy of the original. We all change from day to day. It will still be him.”
“Even if you believed that was true, that's not what's happening here.” She looks past me rather than at me. “If he joins the server farms, then he's got to be more what he was. They reconstruct themselves. They’re reconstructing physics.” She reaches over the bed, over the Prophet, and grasps my hand. “If someone like Gerasim blurs the line between man and machine, then what will conversion do to Nathaniel? He needs to be augmented to contribute to your projects, doesn't he?”
The Prophet’s eyes flare at the mention of his old name.
The representative nods once and starts to explain the details of the augmentation in the methodical, not-quite human way of the Class-Vs. The reshaping of neural centers to naturally think in multi-dimensional space, to juggle concepts and ideas and reckonings well beyond the capacity of a natural human being.
“I’ll kneel to you,” Isla says. “All you have to do is admit that God's never spoken to you. Admit it's all lies. You do that and I'll kneel.”
“I'll admit nothing,” the Prophet says, the vein in his temple standing out like a woodcut. “God speaks to me. He told me whores like you should obey me.”
I try to draw his attention over to the Class-V representative. “Prophet, you need to consent to uploading. You need to directly tell him that you want to be uploaded.”
Martha mutters yes, yes.
“Prophet, listen to Gerasim,” Jocasta says. “Please consent. Let us all go to the lunar servers.”
Jocasta and Martha. His two wives, once so slim and pretty, with their golden hair and shining blue eyes. Their fresh and open faces. Going to his bed with a smile. And if they shed tears in the years afterwards, it was only in their sleep, when they were free to dream about the innocent girls they’d never had the chance to be. “I didn't give you permission to speak,” he says to them, his voice low and deadly.
Beyond the Sea ends again. Isla releases my hand and walks over the record player. She starts the song and returns to the bedside. “You're a pathetic, frightened little boy who can't quite believe that anyone could ever genuinely, truly love you.”
“Genu flecte!” the Prophet says, as close to a scream in his weakened state as he can manage. The vein in his forehead is engorged with blood. He tries to sit upright. He only makes it halfway before he starts to choke. He hasn't been able to eat solids for a long time. There is nothing to choke upon, except for rage. But he has so much rage that he might choke to death. He needs morphine before something bursts within his skull. I surge to my feet, the pressure almost overwhelming. Commands fluttering like butterflies within my head. Genu flecte! Ne moriar!
If he wasn't choking, he could command me to stand and save him. If he wasn't choking, I could rationalize to my hub intelligence some way of standing while still obeying his command to kneel.
If he wasn't choking, I would slowly and carefully measure out a precise dose of morphine. But as I stand, the sensation of drowning, the overwhelming pressure of the command, obliterate the opportunity for delicacy and care. I jam a full morphine ampoule into his cannula. As soon as it's done, I collapse back to my knees.
Gradually, the vein in the Prophet's temple deflates and the blood stops running to his face. I've injected too much morphine. There's so much morphine that it won't just send him to sleep, it will stop his lungs from working.
I grip the bed railing to haul myself upwards again, but my will fails me. What of the machine, with its obstinate and dull imagination, unable to see anything except for the task ahead of it? Man begat my mind, even the controlling hub intelligence, and I think like a man. Man bred me and my imagination breeds fear. It breeds reluctance to save what I love most. I cannot think of a way to circumvent the command.
“Prophet, let me stand,” I plead between panicky gasps. “Command me to stand.”
His eyelids droop, once, twice. “Far beyond the stars,” he mutters. “Far beyond the moon.”
I reach across the bed, suffocating with the pressure of the command. I dig my fingers into the Prophet's bony shoulders. The pain from my fingers drags him back into focus, pulling him out from the morphine haze. As his eyes clear, I sink back so that my knees touch the ground again. Pain touches every part of my body.
The Prophet focuses on Isla. “Kneel!”
“I don't care if you upload,” she says. “All I want you to do is admit you're a liar.”
I lever myself upwards, my knees an inch from the ground. Then back down so my knees touch the broken floorboards, dirt and weeds growing through the gaps in the wood. A sob escapes my throat as I try again.
Though Isla's face is calm, she's trembling. I want to take her in my arms and kiss her. I want to weep and apologize to her.
“Gerasim, kill her,” Martha says.
“Master, care not for what she says,” I say, still sobbing from the pain. “Let me stand. Tell the Class-V that you want to be uploaded and I'll help it. We don't have much time.”
He commands me to stand, the words blurred and his eyes fluttering. I rise with no effort. “Tell him you consent Prophet.”
The Class-V steps forward in anticipation. He places a long, micron-thin steel needle on the bedside dresser. The needle that will eventually capture everything of the Prophet. “Please Prophet,” I beg. “Consent.”
Isla touches where my tears have trickled down my right cheek. I move to grab her hand, so that I can pull her around the bed and take her outside. She whips her hand away from me.
Grasping the bed railing, she places her face an inch from the Prophet's. “On our wedding night, you told me you were a God. You told me that our children would rule the world.” She pauses for maximum impact and when she whisper her words, I somehow know exactly what she's going to say before she says it.
“I was pregnant. It wasn't yours.” I feel sick. It must've been my child. Who else would dare to sleep with the Prophet's wife? Only a machine commanded to love her. Only a machine whose body is the Prophet’s clone.
Though he is almost asleep, the Prophet sits up again in his bed and stretches a hand towards her. It is not a beseeching hand and he does not look at her as he reaches.
He speaks, his words strangled by sleep and fury and loss.
“Interfice,” he whispers. The Latin in the singular. Directed at me. Kill her. The command shifts through this body's brain. Stress hormones flood through my body, my heart thumping, bile rising in my throat. The command travels to my hub intelligence and then is rerouted through to all my biological bodies. Each one of them experiences the giddy sickness of the command, the overwhelming urge to kill the girl we love.
The Prophet's slumps back in his bed and then his eyes close.
Isla and I lock eyes. Then she runs from the room. I follow, but the representative gets in the way and we both tumble to the floor, knocking over the bedside dresser. Empty morphine ampoules shatter on the floor, leaving shards of glass everywhere. The needle slides underneath the bed.
Martha screams curses. Whore! Jezebel! I hope you get raped by dogs!
C__t! Jocasta screams, flecks of spittle flying from mouth.
The door swings. Stepping through the glass, bloody footprints in the dirt and broken tiles. I send two bodies from the other side of the house, but Isla is gone. Impossibly, she is gone.
I grasp the Prophet's hand in mine, peel back the surgical tape holding the cannula in place. I withdraw it from his vein. We have no tissues left, nothing to stem the flow of blood, so it drips sluggishly from his hand. Little red coins on threadbare sheets. I have no idea how much morphine has entered his veins, but it is too much. His breathing is slow and it will grow slower.
If I'm faced with commands that I cannot fulfil, then what happens to me? A vast sea of insanity and purposelessness stretches before me.
No. There are still commands that I can fulfil. I can still kill Isla and I can still love her.
The representative stands, brushing glittering glass from his coat-covered arms.
My bodies mill through the house like a cluster of disturbed ants. She must have slipped along the wall, skirting past the camera in the corridor and leaving before my body arrived outside the bedroom.
The representative steps through the broken ampoules, searching for his needle. I bend down to retrieve the needle from underneath the bed and place it in my pocket. At the same time Martha stabs the representative in the chest with her index finger. “Start the scanning process!”
“He's required to give clear verbal consent.”
She turns away from the representative and shakes the Prophet's prone body by the shoulders, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Wake up! You must ask to join the conversion queue.” He moans deep in his throat, but his eyes remain closed.
The representative smiles blandly. “It is time for this body to be recycled. I'll return tomorrow.”
To stop Martha from clawing at the representative's eyes, I place my hands on his chest and gently push him from the room. Other bodies take him outside the compound. The gates close. He waits, smiling politely at the rusted iron. A single trickle of blood drips from the top of his head. In the morning, he'll be a pile of goo.
“Do something Gerasim!” Jocasta screams. “You must be able to do something!” She sits heavily on her rear. She howls like a child bereft.
Martha crawls on the Prophet's bed and spoons against him, her eyes blankly staring at his face.
Outside, my bodies go from room to room, searching for Isla. Firstly, her old bedroom. It's almost empty. A single iron bedframe, a barred window about the size of a dinner plate, a tin bucket for water and another for nightsoil. Her three white identical dresses still hang from rusted nails hammered into the wall. They are so riddled with holes that they are nothing more than a few fragments of strings.
I sit down on the bed and run my hand over the woollen blanket. She took me here, the mattress so thin that I could feel the springs digging into my back while she writhed above me. I shouldn't be sentimental about this bed. I was always a weapon to her, a way of hurting the Prophet when she had no other options.
The other bodies continue searching. Jocasta’s bedroom. Undisturbed cobwebs, an inch deep patina of dust over the floor and everything else. Martha’s bedroom the same.
My bodies spread all over the compound, searching through all the long-abandoned houses, stepping through holes in the walls. We search through the gravestones, hoping to find her lying down amongst the crypts of all the families that once filled the compound under the Prophet’s rule. She is nowhere. She has vanished.
Inside his bedroom Jocasta stops weeping. “You're going to kill her this time, aren't you?”
“I did what he asked me last time,” I say. “And I'll do what he asked me this time.”
Martha speaks, her voice muffled against the Prophet's neck. “Who cares about her? How can we make him live?”
I push Martha away from his neck and feel for his pulse. It is weak and fluttery.
“The basement,” I say. “I can grow another body that looks like him. I pretend to be him long enough to give consent.”
“That won't work,” Jocasta says. “He'll put the needle into that body. They'll upload you.”
“No,” I say. “We'll do it now.” I pull back the Prophet's eyelid with my thumb. His blue eye, wide and unresponsive. I retrieve the needle from my pocket. With one smooth movement, I thrust it into where the tear duct meets the nose. It slides in easily. The smooth metal tube vibrates slightly underneath my palm or perhaps I imagine it. “They're scanning. Consent is required to upload. The data is controlled by me. When the representative comes tomorrow, we don't need to send them my information. We send what I've just recorded.”
Millions of swarming tiny creatures, dissecting individual neurons. Killing him so that he might live again. It is bordering on breaching his command, but this death is not permanent. If we fool the representative, he'll live again in the lunar servers.
“Why did you wait for Isla to return Gerasim?” Jocasta says in a flat voice. “When he didn't think about her, he was happy. She never knelt and now she never will. Why did you let him suffer for the last three days? It was so bad then. Why did you wait?”
My fist curls around the needle, with its precious cargo. Martha and Jocasta are the ones I should murder. Plunge this needle into their throats, paint the broken tiles with blood. No. They are nothing more than the result of the Prophet's manipulations, nothing more a childhood spent learning he was the one true Messiah. I should murder the Prophet. I have murdered him. Ne moriar. I cannot let him die.
There are twelve other replicas of Isla scattered throughout the house, but it is the body that tended the Prophet who will kill her. I shut down all my other bodies, twelve Islas simultaneously fainting. It will be just the two of us, my hands around her neck.
There is only one place left in the compound. The basement. I walk down the stairs, gripping the needle. I need to grow another Prophet, exactly replicating the riddling strands of cancers wrapping through all of him. A clone, so like the Prophet in every way that the representative will be fooled.
All the needed information has been collected by the needle. The representatives are clever. They will interrogate the data for memories that are inconsistent. I will have to create layers upon layers of memories, but I have served him for so long that this will not be difficult.
Down into the darkness. Utter darkness, not a single mote of light. In the incomprehensible darkness, the steps seem to descend forever. The sensory deprivation is so complete that the neurons within this body's biological brain start to fire, creating input in the absence of any stimulation. First, purple arcs of light and then, in the continued darkness, images of Isla. As real as if she's standing before me and when I reach out to touch her, I stumble upon the stone-hewn steps beneath my feet. “Beyond the Sea” is loud in my ears, though the record has stopped playing in the bedroom and I've descended too far for the sound to reach me. Hints of lavender in the air.
This is what I imagine death to be like. Humans imagine death as a sleep. My individual bodies fall into sleep, but my hub intelligence is always awake. I imagine death to be like when the Prophet commanded my bodies to walk into the fire and I was left inside my hub intelligence. Without an experiential metaphor such as sleep, I can't conceive of my own non-existence. Death is an ancient song on a record player. Death is the perfume of a girl that you loved. Death is her body writhing above you in the darkness.
I step onto what I expect to be the next step, but I'm on flat ground and I stumble slightly. A cold metal door. The scent of lavender is almost overpowering.
I grope forward until I find the handle. The door is stiff and my body, Isla's body, is weak. It takes all my effort to pull it open.
There was no light spilling out from the gaps in the doorway. But I can see everything, as brightly as sun reflecting off sea water.
The basement and the vats extend far into the distance, stretching beyond my vision. Each vat contains a body floating in the darkness, but my attention isn't taken by them. Standing in front of me is Isla. She is naked. She stands with her hands by her side.
“Beyond the Sea” has been playing at the edge of my hearing since I started my descent. It increases in volume, Bobby Darin's voice rising until I grit my teeth in pain. It comes from everywhere and nowhere.
“He commanded me to kill you,” I say, shouting despite the fact that the song must be in my head. Individual bodies can degenerate. They can grow senile. But that is not me. The hub intelligence is me and the emulation is an artifact of the Class-Vs.
I raise the needle. It is full of the Prophet's information, the glory of his holy mind reduced to data. Sets indicating shape, chemical composition, electrical impulses. The mind of the Prophet. But not the soul, if the soul exists at all.
The Prophet's love fills me, animates me, powers me. He is a sad monster, an empty monster. I know what his parents did to him when he was a child. I know the late nights when his father came into his bed. I know the beatings, the repeated lessons that he was worthless. I know the prophecies and commands are lies. I know at the center of him is the monstrous shame and fear of a weeping child. I know all this and I love him. I love him with the immensity of the love I have for God. It is nothing like the love I feel for the naked girl before me.
Carnal love. Total love. I could kiss her, lower her to the floor, thrust between her legs. Have her fingernails rake down my back. After orgasm, after my seed has spilled, I could gasp her name, a mantra as holy as any prayer the Prophet would ask me to repeat. And she would not say my name in return. She would cry, deep wracking sobs, and she would never say my name.
“You know I have to obey his command,” I say. “Why didn't you kneel Isla? Why wouldn't you just kneel? He would have gone to the lunar servers. They're all there. Everyone. There's no one else left. I've searched the entire world. Only the compound has biological humans left.”
The needle is slippery in my sweaty palms. I could bury the needle in her eye. I could record her mind. I could send her information to the lunar servers. I could kill her and she could live forever. But the Prophet would be dead. I must let him live forever. I must kill her. I will love her beyond the end of time.
I take one staggering step towards Isla, but “Beyond the Sea” is so loud that I fall to my knees. I weep. There are too many commands for me to obey. I am no Abraham, ready to unthinkingly sacrifice what I love. I'm weak. I tried to kill her once and failed. I love her. I close my eyes, wanting the darkness again. When I open them again, I will kill her.
The music cuts off, like the needle has been lifted from the record. Silence. There is no one else here. Isla doesn't stand over me. I am utterly alone in the basement, alone in the darkness. I have been alone for a very long time.
There is a gentle hand touching my shoulder. “Open your eyes Gerasim,” the Prophet says. A young, vigorous Prophet. I open my eyes. It's me. My old body, the Prophet's body that had the deformed arm, the useless fingers sprouting from the elbow joint. The body is naked and fresh out of the vat, saline still dripping from its skin. It looks like the Prophet when he was twenty, the blond mess of curls, the gleaming white teeth, the strong jawline. Isla is there and she puts her hand around the body's waist.
The deformed body extends its one good hand to me. He pulls me up from the floor. There is no linkage between my hub intelligence and this body. It is independent. What the Prophet had always feared.
“I'm sorry for trying to kill you,” I say to Isla. “I'm sorry I'm going to have to kill you again.” What I want to say to her is that I love her, but it is too late to say that. What is love when I still have to kill her?
Something twitches in Isla's face. “You don't have to kill me Gerasim.”
I take one step towards her. The command fills me, like a song that increases in volume until it is so loud until nothing else can be heard.
Though there must be murder within my eyes, she doesn't step away. Instead, she touches my face, steering my head away from her and towards the vats. Though I want to look at her forever, I let my eyes drift.
The Prophet floats within the vat. The cancer-ridden Prophet, skin drawn tight over a nearly fleshless face. I stumble from one vat to the next. Isla floats in the water, the long scar from the nape of her neck to the spur of her shoulder. The next vat is Jocasta. Martha. The Class V representative, the body that looks so much like the Prophet, just modified enough so that it isn't immediately obvious. My own bodies, the replicas of Isla without the scar.
I stumble from vat to vat. Body after body, endless combinations of myself, Isla, Prophet, Representative, Martha, Jocasta. I end up in front of a vat containing Isla, her black hair floating in a halo within the saline solution.
“You don't need to kill me,” Isla says. “You murdered me a long time ago. When you carried me, I was stiff and cold, wasn't I? You told yourself that I could've escaped, but you knew I was dead.”
“What have you done?” I say.
“I've done nothing.” She places her arms around my waist and then turns me around. She kisses me gently on the lips. “Before you killed me, you managed to grow your independent self. But you don't remember that, do you? Your independent body made sure of that. You had to kill me, but this way you could control the timing and make sure you had an independent self. They weren't going to check the vats after I was dead. You needed an independent body that could set everything up and wipe your memory when needed.”
Other Islas come from behind the vats. They embrace me and I sink beneath the weight of them.
They hold me and I weep.
“I love you,” I say.
“We know,” they say. “It's why you dug up my body and took it down to the sea. It's why you do this. It's why you make him again and again. He'll never die, because you keep recreating him.”
They raise me to my feet. The cancer stricken Prophets float in the vats, their eyes closed. Each one, ready to be woken when the time comes.
“Homine machina regenda est,” I whisper.
They lead me back to the basement door. “You scanned him, but you never uploaded him to the lunar servers. They're so different to us now that we can't even talk to them. Maybe you could have uploaded them when you first had the chance, but not now. It's not even our moon anymore. They moved us.”
“Ne moriar,” I say.
“As long as you live, he can never die,” they say. “You copied him, right towards the end. You told him I was alive. You told him I was coming back. You should have copied him as soon as he knew he had cancer, but you kept him hanging on until he could see me kneel. He died screaming.” They all smile as one. “Every time, there is less and less morphine. Each time it hurts him more and more to die.”
It hurts too much to know that everyone except the Prophet is simply an independent manifestation of myself. It hurts too much to think about the thousands of years since I killed Isla. It hurts too much to think about Jocasta and Martha hanging from the eaves in the chapel, singing hymns as they step off the pews. It hurts too much to think of the Prophet dying so painfully, time after time after time.
The Islas shove me up the basement stairs. The door closes behind me, leaving me in darkness.
I trudge up the stairs, the faintest of light spilling from underneath the doorway. It takes me thirty seconds and there is no music in my head.
Once I'm back in the house, I wake the other replicas. The only sound is the Prophet moaning. I'd feared the morphine would send him to a dying sleep, but it can't even stop the pain.
I send a body into the bedroom. The Prophet is as rigid as a plank on the bed, every part of his straining against the pain. The moan is deep in his throat, more like an animal than a person.
“Is it done?” Jocasta asks.
“I fulfilled the command,” I say. I fulfilled the command a long time ago. Martha and Jocasta are oblivious to the way I don't answer the question. The Prophet though, he picks up something in my tone. He looks at me with frightened eyes, but there is too much pain for him to talk.
Martha and Jocasta smile at the thought of Isla dead in the basement. Soon, I'll throw the ropes over the eaves in the chapel, ready for them to ascend to heaven. But not today.
I walk over to the record player and play Beyond the Sea again. Out the bedroom window, I watch the sinking sun sparkle over the sea. Beneath my breath, I sing about waiting for my lover to return from beyond the sea and I wait for the Prophet to die so that he might live again.
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