‘Who Wants to Live For Ever?’ evolved from the ending of a much longer story that was written for a competition prompt.
“Mum, are we there yet?”
As my son asks the question for the 17,810,311th time, I wish once again that my circuits would allow me to scream.
They don’t, of course. When the robots downloaded our thoughts, memories, and feelings into our android shells—“guaranteed forever (warranty invalid beyond event horizon of black holes)”—they didn’t provide a “scream” facility. Why would they? With their logic and math and inherent drive to learn, they did not understand the need for emotional release. They did not appreciate its importance.
But we should have.
It began with the early humanoid robots on Mars. Self-replicating, programmed to learn and improve, they went on to explore Jupiter’s moons, perfected plasticised metals, and solved the equations we needed to build the first interstellar spaceships. Humanity sent them out to mine planets and asteroids and they returned to offer us immortality.
The message was everywhere—on the spacewaves, the ’net, personalised hover-ads, old-fashioned billboards: “Boldly Go! Download your consciousness into a plastitanium body, and travel the universe!”
There were robots on the news, shining and precise: “We will establish registration centres in every city, for those who wish to take advantage of this infinite lifetime opportunity.”
Robots on the streets, large and loud: “Anyone who prefers to remain human will be allowed to do so. We wish only to gather recruits for our exploration of the galaxies.”
“Who wants to live forever?” they asked, and humanity—stupid, unthinking fools that we were—answered, “we do.”
Bob and I both worked for the Euro-Asian Space Agency back then. Oh, nothing high profile, not astronauts or anything glamorous; but even so, his Marketing Administrator post and my job in Astral Charting were enough to get us bumped up the waiting list. Right now, if I still cared enough to access the right memory circuits, I’d be able to recollect the feel of Bob’s skin and hair, the smell of the aftershave he wore for the dinner parties where he liked to drop our prioritised status into the small-talk: “All three of us—Ange, little Tommy, and me. They’re taking scientists and astronomers first, naturally. And their families.” There was only ever one topic of conversation back then, so the casual boasting wasn’t difficult. How those people must have loathed us, with our smug pretence that we really didn’t care about getting ahead.
How they’d be laughing now.
After all, we were supposed to be intelligent people. Why did we not give more thought to what it would mean to “scan” and not “see”, to “receive” and not “hear”? Why did it not bother us that we would never again be able to taste or smell or touch properly? Why didn’t anyone ask us about that? If we’d just taken a step back and looked at the spaces between the promises, the implications of what we were doing would surely have made us think twice. But we didn’t. It was as though the entire human race had been gripped by a fever that wiped out doubts and questions. All we saw were the positives. All we heard were the notes of the old rock tune: “Who Wants to Live Forever?”
Talk about being careful what you wish for!
“Won’t it be wonderful?” I’d gushed, as I brushed out my long, auburn hair for the last time. “Exploring the universe, making new discoveries, tracking down extraterrestrial civilisations…” I’d found a thread of unwanted silver, separated it from the red-gold it was nestled in, and gave it a tug. “Never having to worry about grey hairs.” I’d dropped the offending strand into the bin. “Or fret about getting old.” I’d shuddered, remembering poor old Grandpa in the Care Home, where the only thing he could still do for himself was breathe.
Bob’s gaze had met mine via the mirror—he’d had lovely green eyes back then, before he opted for the deep purple orbs of his android form. “You have ordered the ‘extras’ haven’t you, darling?” I asked. His memory back then! Couldn’t remember what day the bins were put out if I didn’t remind him, but I’d trusted him with the order because Tommy had managed to fall off his hover-board just before the options came through, and I’d had enough to do, coping with the hospital and the crying and the broken bones.
I knew he couldn’t see the point of adding hair, eyebrows and lashes to our basic humanoid models, but he hadn’t argued. After all, we had no other use for our savings—we were off to the stars!
As for Tommy, he thought it would be fun to go and look for aliens, though his excitement had climbed exponentially when he discovered that the rest of his education and more would be pre-loaded into his new database.
“You mean I won’t have to actually learn anything? I can just…access it? Like clicking on a ’net link?”
The robot at the registration centre had answered, its faux-mouth moving as it spoke. “On the contrary, there will be much to learn, young man. Your database will contain only those facts that are already known. The universe contains much that is not known. To explore is to learn.”
It told us about our android shells, with their touch-sensitive sensors and scanners; about our family spaceship where we would not need air, gravity or sustenance; about how interesting it would be to float in the atmospheres of gas giants, or skim the coronas of suns. It explained the “hibernation” mode, which we could switch to while we crossed the interstellar voids, and how to uplink to and download from Information Central, where every byte of accumulated knowledge would be stored.
It told us everything we wanted to know. But we didn’t ask it—or ourselves—the right questions.
Which is why I’m explaining to Tommy for the 17,810,311th time that we can never get “there”, for we have no specific “there” to travel to. But Tommy will ask the question again in a few thousand years’ time. For, although he can calculate pi to a million decimal places, and tell you the gravitational dynamics of the binary stars we’re currently orbiting, his thought patterns will always be nine years old. He can learn, but never grow; accumulate data but never truly develop. That incessant chatter he’d have grown out of and the persistent questions he already knows the answers to if only he would take a moment to access his databanks, along with the silly jokes and pranks that are part of growing up—they’re all still with him. He can’t physically mature, so his consciousness can’t either, and the jokes—as well as our patience—wore out a long time ago. We actually left him switched to “standby” for a few millennia, made some star-stops without waking him, but then we felt guilty, as illogical as that was, and we missed him. His absence made Bob and me realise how little we had left to say to each other.
“Shouldn’t we wake Dad? He’d like the way the molecules combine in the infrared spectrum.” Tommy points at the display panel that stretches halfway around our ship’s semi-circular control room, then floats across to the matte-black touch-tile beside it and slides a finger to zoom the picture. Tendrils of solar gases spiral from the small blue star toward the larger yellow star that is consuming it. They’ll destroy each other eventually, just like the stars in the last binary system we visited a hundred thousand years ago. And the one before that…and the one before…
Did I ever think this was interesting? Beautiful, even?
Galloping Galaxies, even the aliens we’ve encountered have been boring. Gas-guzzling jellyfish with the brain capacity of a Terran cuttlefish, some sentient mosses, and a rock-burrowing worm. Before the Information Centre went silent ten million years ago, it had available reports of other intelligent life out beyond the Fornax constellation, but by the time we got there, the suns had gone nova and there was no one left to talk to.
Poor Bob, I suppose it’s not his fault that I got tired of the constant complaining, the literally endless blame game—“You said you’d ordered all the extras! And when did you last clean out the engine pods?”—“You got hair, didn’t you? What’s an eyebrow or two matter? And why can’t you clear the fuel waste?”
I unplugged his power supply from the main stardrive about ten hibernations ago, before he could do it to me, and woke Tommy instead.
Giving up on the idea of waking his father, Tommy pushes off from the wall and floats diagonally across the room to activate the sensors on the Communications board. Nothing. Only the hum of the stars and the static hiss that is a universal constant. “No messages. Again.” His mechanical shoulders move up and down, and I read it as a shrug. Is he disappointed? Or simply unsurprised? There’s so little body language to assess that even after so many millennia I can’t gauge his thoughts or feelings unless he tells me what they are. And what child ever does that?
The other androids, who followed us into this nightmare moved out of range or fell silent thousands of years ago. We’ve kept sending messages, more in hope than expectation that we’ll ever get a reply. In an ever-expanding universe, the chances of our finding anyone else of earth origin are infinitesimal.
“I’m bored,” says Tommy, and once again I wish I had the ability to scream.
“Why don’t you run an analysis of the particle streams?” I suggest. “If they’re suitable, you could go out and surf the solar winds for a while.”
Another mechanical shrug. “It’s no fun anymore. Anyway, I can always just access a recording.”
“Well, then, do that if you’d rather.”
“Can’t be bothered. I know what happens.”
So do I. We’ve seen every type of star a hundred times, visited and logged millions of planets, seen everything this universe has to offer us. What else is there to experience? Where else can we go?
Who wants to live forever?
Not me. I haven’t wanted that for a long time. If only I’d had logic circuits before we decided to become more than human. Or less than human…
The notion is illogical, and I delete it.
“We’ll move on, Tommy,” I tell him. “Come and hibernate. It’s a long way to the next destination.”
There is no animation in his android features, but his blond fringe floats forward as his head tilts back to look up at me, and his bio-mechanical hand automatically pushes it back in an unmistakeably human gesture. I’m glad Bob at least managed to order the hair.
As we glide through the corridor to the hibernation pods, I access my memory of how Tommy looked on the morning we went to sign up for this–the way his freckles stood out against his pale skin, the broad grin creasing his face—and I reach out a hand to brush against the plastitanium shell his consciousness now inhabits. The sensation of touch is there, just as the robots promised, but there is no warmth, no pleasure in it, and I pull my hand away. As I strap him into his pod, he chatters on like any child looking forward to another adventure. “Where are we going, Mum? Edge of the universe? Andromeda-Milky remnants? Maybe we can find a star going supernova? I like watching those.” He places his hands together for a moment, then pulls them quickly apart. “Bam!”
The corners of my redundant mouth turn up in a facsimile smile. “We’re going to journey’s end, Tommy,” I tell him. “We’ll finally be ‘there’.”
His face literally lights up as his surface electrodes register his excitement. “Wow! When? Is it far? Will the robots be there?”
“I don’t know what’s there, Tommy. It will be a surprise. But the sooner you switch to ‘standby’, the sooner we can find out. Okay?”
The artificial muscles in my back hum as I bend to give Tommy a kiss that neither of us can truly feel, and I automatically recheck his straps to make sure he’s properly secured. When Tommy’s hibernation light engages, I float back to the control room to set our destination and to take a last look at the system we’re leaving. The human part of me remembers how it felt to be awed by the beauty of the twin suns, while my robot circuits continue to analyse the orbits of both stars and the gas giant planet that wobbles perilously between them. Like warring parents fighting over a child, my human side thinks. Maybe not so beautiful after all.
It’s time to go. Disconnecting the ship’s fail-safe is a minor problem, readily overcome by a little applied mathematics in one of my sub-routines.
Setting the coordinates is easy: zero-zero-zero. Galactic centre. The middle of a supermassive black hole. A new adventure with no guarantees.
Strapping myself into the pilot’s seat, I analyse my circuits. They are at optimum levels for the first time in centuries.
Time to start the engines.