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Kaimu dug his skis into the snow and forced himself onto the steeper slope along the edge of the run. Michelle was behind him, and there wasn’t far to go. He was going to win.

A white-furred creature stirred at the sound of his approach. It rose up from the snow and stared, paralyzed, directly in his path.

The safety mechanism on his skis activated, but it was too late to turn. Instead, the skis treated the creature as though it was a ski jump. Kaimu landed, and the safeties shut off.

Several meters up the mountain, Michelle knelt in the snow. “You hit an Earther.”

Impossible. Before he left the Willflower, the tourist board had assured him that the glacier-covered Canadian region wasn’t populated. All the native Earthers were in a temperate band near the equator.

“Hominid Class 304. Organic component. . .100 percent.” Michelle transmitted her initial assessment to the rest of her collective, pausing briefly upon the discovery that the creature had no upgrades. The rest of her transmission was a stream of numbers relating to the creature’s condition. All Kaimu gleaned from the numbers was that the creature wasn’t dead. Yet. Blood stained its shaggy white coat and seeped into the icy powder. Kaimu stepped off of his skis. Cold seeped through his skisuit and chilled his feet. He trudged up the hill, kicking his toes into the powder.

“Can you save it?” he asked.

“Twenty-eight percent. My training is neurosurgery, and I’ve never worked on anything 100 percent organic before.” Michelle’s gaze was locked on the two parallel gashes in the creature’s torso, but most of her mind was elsewhere, searching for the knowledge she needed. To her, this was a problem, a challenge. He wondered if she was enjoying it.

Michelle turned away, and Kaimu stepped in for a better look at the injured Earther. Despite its blood-matted fur and diminutive stature, it was undeniably human. She, Kaimu realized from the gentle curve of her hips. She was undeniably human. Her fur was downy and short, more silver than white. The coarser, whiter fur that covered much of her body turned out to be clothing, cut from the skin of an animal. He shuddered.

“You’re in my way.” Michelle nudged him aside. She’d reprogrammed one of her skis to the smallest size, still unwieldy, but small enough to hold in one hand. She drew the sharp edge along the Earther’s outer furs, cutting away the clothing. Unable to see, Kaimu extended sensory tendrils, tapping into Michelle’s visuals and trying to grasp the severity of the injuries.

“Too distracting,” Michelle informed him. She banished his consciousness into a memory cache.

In the memory, there are three consciousnesses in Michelle’s body. Michelle, of course, and Jasmine, who isn’t so bad. Elliot, however, Kaimu finds deeply disturbing. Not the man himself, but the idea that Michelle is part male. Or that another man is in his girlfriend’s head. Kaimu tries to tangle himself with only Michelle, but the three are so intertwined he has no choice but to dissolve into all of them.

Kaimu recognizes the memory. He’s on planetside leave on Nova Terra, and it’s his first time visiting Michelle at work. She’s been easing him into her life. It’s a new experience for her, to share herself without drawing him into her collective. It’s new for him, too.

Michelle reviews patient data files while she waits for him to arrive. All around her, Hospital617 buzzes with activity. In physical space, the hospital is a cavernous room. One floor, no walls. In headspace, there is more privacy, walls that give the illusion of each patient having a separate room. As part of the staff, Michelle doesn’t bother uploading the headspace sensory inputs. Through her eyes, Kaimu can see the entire floor. Specialists of all sorts hover over their patients. Most of the work is upgrades—body reconstruction and routine anti-mortality treatments.

Neurosurgery team 8 to 27-12.

The woman in bed 27-12 is old. Not in the sense that Kaimu is old; his age is from the time dilation caused by his trips between the stars. The woman’s skin is wrinkled and blotchy, and her hair has thinned so he can see the top of her scalp. She is frail, her body is giving out.

Kaimu sees himself weaving across the hospital floor. He feels his kiss on Michelle’s cheek. Hears himself ask if she’s busy. She tells him yes, but stay anyway. So he does.

She goes back to the woman. Elliot crowds his way to the foreground with patient information. Noelani Lai. A flood of datapackets swirl around the name: age, medical history, anything that might be relevant to selecting a treatment. Jasmine dilutes herself into the hospital archives, matching Elliot’s patient data to other surgical cases. The mini-collective reconvenes and decides that the woman’s body is inoperable. Insufficient regenerative capabilities. Instead, they will re-wire her organics to allow her consciousness to disengage itself. She can be installed into a new body later, if she so desires.

Michelle peels away layers of skin and cuts through Noelani’s skull. The tissue beneath is predominantly organic, with traces of ancient wiring. More primitive than Kaimu. As a navigational officer, he’s had to upgrade to interface with the Willflower.

Michelle blends with Jasmine and Elliot so thoroughly during the surgical procedure that Kaimu can’t find Michelle at all. They become Jasmine/Elliot/Michelle. Jem. As the surgery progresses, the sight and smell of Noelani’s organics become mildly nauseating. The SmartDust that sterilizes the air leaves behind odor-causing particles because sometimes a strange smell can serve as a diagnostic tool.

Kaimu is relieved when the operation is finished, and he can pick out strands of Michelle again. She doesn’t bother to replace the slice of skull she removed, simply folds the skin back down over the wound.

Noelani floats out from her organics and into the vast interconnectivity beyond. Unused to such freedom, she loses cohesiveness, still existing, but commingled with the larger world. Jasmine observes, and notes the response as normal. Twenty-five percent of patients who are absorbed in this way eventually re-cohere. The remainder pursue a less individualized existence. Jem declares the operation a success.

Michelle—the realtime Michelle on the mountain—has shown him what she wants him to see, but now there is something he wants her to see. Awkwardly, since he isn’t used to manhandling other minds, he takes control of the fractional portion of Michelle that led him here. He binds them to the hospital recording of a young woman. The woman is Noelani’s granddaughter, Amy.

She hurries through the maze of hallways, filled with an overwhelming sense of worry. Not for Tutu, but for Mom. She remembers Tutu from her childhood, an energetic woman with long black hair who held her hand in Southside Park while they fed energy chips to the mechanical ducks. They’d gone every time Tutu came to visit, from the time she was two until the time Amy decided she was too old for ducks.

In the pre-op room, Mom is holding Tutu’s hand. Mom’s eyes are swollen and red, but dry. When she sees Amy, fresh tears roll down her face.

“Tutu,” she says. “Tutu, wake up. Amy is here.”

Amy puts her hand on Mom’s shoulder, half a hug because Mom can’t turn away from Tutu. “It’s okay, Mom.”

“She was awake. An hour ago,” Mom says. She pushes gently against Tutu’s shoulder. “Your granddaughter is here. Amy.”

Amy takes Tutu’s hand. It isn’t the strong hand that she remembers from her childhood. The surgeons wouldn’t fix her body; even Amy could see that Tutu was too old. They would save her by putting her into the collective, and she would be absorbed and lost. Amy can’t bring herself to say her goodbyes out loud. The words would be too final, and her voice would fail her. Instead she squeezes Tutu’s hand and thinks the word, goodbye.

Kaimu withdraws, taking Michelle with him. They drift back to themselves, and the warm hospital air shifts to the biting chill of the mountain. He has to pause and collect himself. Michelle doesn’t acknowledge his return.

“That memory meant nothing to you,” Kaimu said, disappointed.

“You used my access rights to get a hospital recording of a private individual. Those are only supposed to be used in the event of a malpractice suit.” She tried to sound stern, but Kaimu could tell that she was more amused than angry. “Besides, I’ve seen it before. Outdated minds thinking outdated thoughts.”

“Human minds thinking human thoughts,” he snapped back.

“I never said the minds weren’t human.” Her voice was quiet, sad. As though he had missed something, had failed some test. Her sadness diffused his anger, and he let the argument lapse into silence.

The Earther’s eyes were open, pale blue like the color of the sky diluted with white snow. They reminded him of his son, Kenji, before he disconnected from his body. He’d been six years old. Kaimu had married and divorced a few women in the centuries since, but he never fathered any more children. Michelle was right, he was outdated. He shook the memory away. The Earther’s eyes didn’t move except to blink. Her right eye was clouded over by cataracts.

While his mind had been locked away in the past, Michelle had finished work on the lower gash. Now she reprogrammed bits of her skisuit to serve as bandages. She pulled strips of suit from the back of her neck. The thick curls of Michelle’s hair would block the icy air.

Michelle buried her hand wrist-deep into the upper gash. There shouldn’t have been room, the Earther’s torso was small. She must have pushed all the organs aside. Orbs of blood dotted the blue-green fabric of her skisuit. The fabric refused to absorb the stain, so the globules floated like crimson buoys on a tropical sea. So much blood.

“Any updates?” he asked. She wasn’t transmitting assessments anymore. Maybe more of the collective was in her head now, eliminating the need to broadcast.

“You’re not helping,” Michelle responded.


This time, Michelle sends him to a memory in his own perspective. He recognizes where he is from the functionality of the space. Every inch is utilized, cozy and enclosed, but not cramped. He is cradled in the mind of the Willflower, his ship. He’s far more comfortable here than he was in the hospital.

At least, he is until he realizes when she’s sent him.

He is in the aft lounge. A group of passengers is gathered around the bar, downing colorful fruit-and-alcohol concoctions, killing time until they have to get into the stasis tanks. There’s an iridescent blue shiproach on the counter, and everyone places wagers on which dimensional coordinates it will take off from. The shiproach scurries about, seemingly uninterested in flight.

Off to Kaimu’s right, a section of the wall moves. His brain adjusts to recognize Dahnjii, his least favorite of Michelle’s collective. Dahnjii is a collective within the collective, like Jasmine/Elliot/Michelle but with seven minds mashed together. He is trendy and arrogant. His genes are spliced with chameleon or octopus or some other long extinct creature so that he can change color at will. He’s been hiding against the wall, and now he ripples with yellow stripes. Aggressive. Nearly all the members of Michelle’s collective seek novelty, but Dahnjii goes out of his way to make other people squirm so he can study their reactions.

“Hey precious,” he sneers, “want to join my collective?”

Kaimu doesn’t know whether he means his mini-collective, or the collective he shares with Michelle. He wants nothing to do with Dahnjii, regardless. “No, thanks.”

“You realize how dumb it is, to be with Michelle, and not the rest of us,” Dahnjii continues. He’s been in the med-ward for several days, and Kaimu isn’t thrilled that he’s back in circulation. “Like loving an arm.”

“An arm isn’t conscious, it’s not the same.”

“Fine, like loving an arm, and the little blob of brain that controls it.” Dahnjii turns his head. The left side of his skull is gone, replaced by a clear dome. The surgery he’s had done is a brainshaping, purely cosmetic. Instead of the normal folds of gray cortex, his brain has been molded into the form of a dragon.

“I’m getting it colorized tomorrow,” he says. Then he lifts the dome that covers the brain. “Want to lick it?”

Kaimu backs away, as though the exposed tissue will leap out and attack him. Dahnjii laughs, sticks his hand into his skull, and pets the dragon with one finger. The lounge has gone silent as all the drinkers admire the unusual design of Dahnjii’s brain. Novelty. The shiproach takes off, and Kaimu is the only one to notice.

“Cover that up. Nobody wants to see your little lizard,” Kaimu says.

Dahnjii’s fist smashes through his face. It is a strange sensation, almost painless despite the sickening crunch as splinters of bone are pushed into his brain.

The safety protocols of the ship lock down his mind. There are several seconds of blackness. The Michelle fragment skips him forward through time.

Kaimu is in his cabin. A few paces away, Michelle studies his most prized possession, a bonsai tree. It is centuries old, with roots that curl around a smooth gray stone before disappearing into a shallow layer of soil. The bonsai comes from a simpler time.

“If you lived in that time, you’d be dead by now. Or horribly disfigured.”

Michelle is in his head, monitoring him. He resents the intrusion.

“Okay, okay, I’m out,” she says, “I had to make sure the reconstructive surgery was successful.”

“That was barbaric,” he says. “Bastard could’ve killed me.”

“There’s a copy of your consciousness stored in the Willflower, so even if the body had been inoperable, I could have generated another manifestation, started from scratch. It would’ve taken longer, but death wasn’t really an issue. Dahnjii doesn’t like you, but he’s not a monster.”

“After what he did to me? How much of my brain did you have to regenerate? How much of my face?” He’s practically yelling at Michelle, despite the fact that she probably spent the last several hours putting him back together.

Michelle transmits the surgical data. She’s regrown seven percent of his cortex, mostly frontal lobe, and reconstructed his nose and his left eye. This isn’t the first time Kaimu has been badly injured. Over the years, almost 45 percent of his brain and body have been replaced. He doesn’t feel any different.

“If you have a ship,” he says, “and you replace it, one board at a time, and all the while it sails—is it still the same ship?”

The problem is from ancient philosophy, and it takes her a moment to find the appropriate reference. “Sorites. But the ships weren’t sentient then. It wouldn’t matter.”

“It matters to me. Whether it’s the same ship, and whether this,” he waves his arms up and down his torso, “is the same body, the same brain.”

“This attachment to your organics, it’s pretty neurotic. You know that, right?” Michelle puts her hand on his cheek. She means it in a caring way, not as an insult. “And while I don’t like what Dahnjii did, it’s not as vicious as you make it out to be. Not to him. Not really to me either, except that I know how much it bothers you. Dahnjii’s just upset that we’re here on the Willflower, in bodies for the whole trip, rather than going on the Roving Never and getting new bodies when we arrive at Earth. He almost left the collective over it. So now he’s frustrated and bored—”

“So it’s okay that he smashed my face and sent bone shards into my brain. Because he was bored.” How could Michelle refuse to understand?

“No. It’s okay because it’s just organics. Haven’t you ever smashed your fist into the ship’s interface console when you were frustrated?”

“That hurts my fist and doesn’t damage the ship,” he counters. “But yes.”

“Have you asked the ship how she feels about it?”

“She’s a ship.”

“And you think we’re the barbarian.”

Something happens, not in the memory, but in realtime. Kaimu can sense it through Michelle’s fragment. He tries to go back, but Michelle resists.


Kaimu is certain that something is wrong. Michelle is stalling him, keeping him off the mountain. He flings his consciousness forward through the memory cache, against her resistance. She lets him reach the point where they are preparing to ski, early that morning in their temporary lodge at the top of the mountain. The lodge is programmed with red walls adorned with replicas of ancient Japanese art—delicate cherry branches in black and pink, stylized blue tidal waves, bold black characters done in flawless calligraphy.

Michelle doesn’t care whose perspective he takes for this memory so he settles into his own mind. He sits on the floor and yanks on the legs of his skisuit, trying to push his toes down into the stiff boot bottoms.

“That’s ridiculously antique,” Michelle says, “And I have plenty of paint. You’re sure you don’t want some?”

Michelle is fresh out of the shower, naked and holding a jar of N-body Paint. Her skin is pink from the heat of the shower. The color of cherry blossoms. Sandy-brown freckles splash across her chest, trailing down her arms and up her neck. He loves it when she wears the freckles.

“Well?” she asks, holding up the paint.

“No, I’ll wear this,” he points to the suit. Uncomfortable as it is, at least his private parts won’t flap around while he skis.

“Suit yourself,” she says.

Michelle orders up a cushion, and sprawls herself across the squishy blob that emerges from the floor. Comfortable, she opens her jar of paint and applies it to her legs with smooth strokes. Kaimu halfheartedly tugs on his suit, but his attention is focused on Michelle.

She’s programmed the nano-fiber paint to a shifting pattern of blues and greens—sunlight filtering through ocean waves. She paints her way down her thigh, coating the indented curve on the back of her knee, the swell of her calf. By the time she gets to her foot, he’s dropped his skisuit, and simply stares at her, making no effort to dress himself. She knows he’s watching, and takes her time, painting the ticklish arch at the bottom of her foot, then swirling paint around each toe.

He takes the bait and stands up, his legs encased in the suit to mid-thigh, but the rest of the suit dangling down.

“You’ll get pretty cold, skiing like that.”

“You’ll get pretty ravished, teasing me like that.”

“I’ll get pretty ravished after skiing, you mean.” She’s finished her legs now, and starts painting her way up from her hip. “I’m already painted from the waist down.”

“I can think of a few ways to get that stuff off.”

“But you won’t,” she says, “because you’re a gentleman, and I enjoy the anticipation.”

“You enjoy teasing me all day.”

She laughs. “That too.”

Kaimu watches himself suit up. The Michelle fragment apologizes, but doesn’t explain why.

Kaimu flies down the slopes, his skis skimming over the fluffy snow. Michelle is behind him, taunting him to go faster. Adrenaline pumps through his system and mingles with an urge to impress her. He gives up on turning and points his skis straight down, letting the pines whiz by in the periphery of his vision. Single trunks blur together, their individuality stolen by his speed. He is the wind in air that stands still. Tendrils of his mind reach backwards for Michelle, to share with her this beautiful chaos of falling.

The green wall of treeness to his right closes in, swerves in front of him. Fear replaces excitement and he cannot turn. A single tree separates itself from the others, unmoving despite his speed because it stands directly before him. It looms over him.

Against his volition, his feet shoot upwards and sideways, twisting his body inside the skisuit. He hears the smack of skis on wood. A glancing blow, the safeties on the skis automatically avoiding a harmful collision. His skis reconnect with the snow, back under his control, slowed now, and traveling at an angle to the slope, redirected by the tree. Michelle lets out a whoop behind him, as though he’d skidded off the tree on purpose, a trick to impress her. He slows to a stop, and turns in time to see her mimic his trick, intentionally and far more gracefully. She stops on the hillside above him, spraying him with snow in the process.

“Good trick,” she says, smiling.

He relaxes after that, knowing that the skis can rescue him from his own ineptitude. In short order, they reach the bottom of the mountain and cuddle together in the anti-grav chute that propels them back to the top. From above the tree line, he can see mountains in every direction, monuments of ice and rock reaching up to the sky. “Down the other side this time?”

“Race you, meet up at that rock,” she says, and dumps the coordinates to his navigation system.

“You win.”

“I’ll give you a head start.”

“Okay, I—”

“Go!” She gives him a little shove, sending him over a ledge and onto a steep mogul-covered slope. The skis recognize his inability to deal with the bumpy conditions, and swerve through the bumps. He gets the hang of it, and the safeties turn off again.

Now me!” Michelle is too far away for speech, so she transmits. Even so, there’s no way he’ll win with such a tiny lead.

Still, he can at least make it challenging. He bends his knees and tucks down to decrease his wind resistance. A smattering of trees dot the slope as he gets lower, then denser trees close in around the run. He watches them carefully this time, scanning the slope ahead of him so he’ll have plenty of time to turn. Avoid the green. Michelle hasn’t passed him yet. He risks a glance, and she’s farther back than he expected. If he can avoid plowing into the trees, he might even win.

The run curves, and Kaimu turns to follow it. He can see the rock in the distance, and Michelle is still behind him.

Something moves.

He’d have seen it sooner, but it was white and he was watching for green. It’s running out across his path. The skis slash sideways.

The safeties on his skis are old, and to avoid overloading them, he’d simplified the obstacle-detection by specifying that he and Michelle were the only humans on the slope. His breath sticks in his chest as the blades tear through fur and flesh. It is worse in memory than in realtime.

Finally, Michelle releases him.


The Earther was dead. Her unfocussed eyes reflected the empty sky. Kaimu’s freshly relived memories mingled with the realities of the present.

“You should have let me stay,” he told Michelle.

“You wouldn’t have understood what I was doing,” she said. “You don’t understand what’s happening now. Look.”
She pointed to the Earther, to the wound that stretched across her chest. Several ribs had been broken away. Her heart and lungs were rearranged, shoved off to the sides to gain access to her spinal cord. Blood pooled in the cavity. Michelle had never tried to save the Earther’s body. All along, she’d been working her way down to the spinal cord. Trying to pry the consciousness free before the body died.

“She’s completely organic. Why would you even try?” he asked.

“You started organic,” she said. “All it takes is time. Time to map the pattern of neuronal connections, time to record the firing patterns.”

“But we’re on a mountainside, you used a ski to cut her open for godsakes,” he said. “You should have operated on her body. How could you possibly record everything you needed to save her consciousness? And even if you could, she’d never make it on the network.”

Michelle held up her arm. There was a cut on her wrist. “I reprogrammed some of my peripherals to do the recordings.”

He needed to see what she had done, to understand, but she was blocking him out. “It’s my fault, not yours,” he said. “I’m sure you did all you could.”

She still refused to let him in. He’d never experienced this before. Sometimes he had blocked her out, when he wanted privacy, but she had always been open. He missed the closeness of being tangled with her mind. She must have felt this same frustration, when he had closed himself off. From now on, he’d try to be more open to her, less stubborn.

“You don’t have to hide from me,” he said.

“It worked.”

“You put her on the network? And she adapted to that?”

“No.” She put her hand on his shoulder. He could barely feel her touch through the stiff fabric of his skisuit. “I started out that way, but I learned something from you. To me, a body is nothing, but to you, or to her . . . I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry,” he echoed. Then he realized what she’d done. “She’s there. With you.”

Michelle nodded. “I’m almost done teaching her my body. Her body.”

“What about you?”

“I—” she started, but then paused. “We. We are going to merge more fully. Distributed existence was interesting, but it’s time for something else now.”

“You’re leaving me.”

“I couldn’t bring you, even if you wanted to come,” she said. “I’ll miss you, even with your strange ideas and your locked off mind. But you aren’t ready. And that’s okay. Besides, she’ll need you.”

“But we . . . Stay a little longer.”

“And what about her? Leave her trapped in a body she doesn’t control?”

He took her hand from his shoulder and brushed her fingertips against his lips. He had always known that she was beyond him, but instead of trying to grow, he tried to force her to come to his level.

Michelle withdrew. He sensed her in the network, mingling with others, dissolving and changing. He felt her brush against the edge of his consciousness, briefly, a goodbye kiss to his mind. Then she was gone.

The Earther stood before him, not moving. The body was unchanged. Michelle’s stunning red hair, her long legs, the exposed patch of neck where she’d peeled away her N-body paint. There were freckles there, hiding on the pale skin beneath a curtain of curls. But the woman that stood before him didn’t carry herself with Michelle’s confidence. Her posture was bad, and her eyes darted in all directions. He was still holding her hand. He let go.

Kaimu waited. He didn’t know what to do, whether he should say something. Whether she would understand it if he did.

The Earther looked up at him.

“I am Beyla,” she said.

That was all. Nothing that came later was relevant; the jury collective didn’t need to see it. Kaimu wouldn’t have to relive it, though what came after was less painful than the accident itself and his final moments with Michelle. The jury deliberated for several seconds, unusually long, but for a mind as slow as Kaimu’s it wasn’t even long enough to worry.

No penalties on any of the charges. The tourist board acknowledges the non-death of the Earther Beyla. You are free to go.

Beyla sat beside him and held his hand, blissfully unaware of most of the proceedings. Out of the corner of his eye, she still reminded him of Michelle, but Beyla wore the body differently. No longer fearful, as she was those first moments on the mountainside, but solemn, because the body was a gift. Was she the same person she was before? Hers was a ship replaced, not board by board, but all at once.

Kaimu sometimes searched for traces of Michelle, but she was gone. She was not a ship at all; she was the ocean, deep and vast, with a form forever changing in waves of green and blue.

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