Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 67
The Gilga-Mess
by Alex Shvartsman
Reading Dead Lips
by Dustin Steinacker
All the Things You Want
by Andrew Peery
by Brian Trent
The Cost of Wonder
by Leah Cypess
IGMS Audio
The Cost of Wonder
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Sweetheart Come
by Alethea Kontis
Bonus Material
The Story Behind the Stories
by Dustin Steinacker

All the Things You Want
    by Andrew Peery

All the Things You Want
Artwork by Kelsey Liggett

Kate is outside weeding the garden. Watching her from orbit, I can see the fine hair of her arms and the wet flecks of dirt between her fingers. Every few seconds the telescopes adjust to filter the quiet glare of an explosion. Unfortunately, the missiles launched at my ship are too small to be seen from the ground.

I wish the bombs would burn brighter. I would vent hydrogen from the reactors if Kate would just look up at me, but she is focused on pulling up the dandelions that I had always rather liked. "They look like flowers to me," I would tell her.

"Weeds," she would say back, shaking her head.

The handful of satellites attacking my ship are too small to cause much damage. The SS Euclidian is over a mile long, and she is the first vessel ever built for travel outside the solar system. She is still fitting out and has yet to go anywhere, but her hull plating is rated for one tenth light. At those speeds, interstellar dust is more destructive than any munitions currently in orbit.

Kate is working in the herb garden beside the back porch, so I remember the smells of rosemary and basil. The porch door is off angle from where the dog got excited and crashed through it, and there is a loose board on the steps I've been meaning to fix. If I was home Kate would have me on the roof, which is as bad as she always said. From this angle, the rusted gutters are so full of pine needles that I'm surprised they still drain.

It is July, and Kate is sweating through a grey tank top. She is brunette and fine-boned and she weighs ten pounds more than she wants to. Even through her shirt, I can count out the knobs of her spine. She wears her com ring on her right hand, and I can hear the pop song she hums while she pulls things out of the ground.

I guess Kate isn't my wife anymore, but I won't let that stop me from taking her to the stars.

Per quality control mandates written into ship's code, I am creating the narrative description of my ongoing Class V Artificial Intelligence Transfer Failure.

The severity ranking is Class V because there is a total failure of control over my program and because there are human lives at risk. If anyone dies, the ranking will increase to Class VI. I am trying very hard to be careful.

There are ways to ignore the narrative mandates, but then it becomes hard for me to concentrate. It is easier to just tell the story.

Besides, there are so many things happening at the same time.

Commander Marley sits in his control room twenty miles outside of Durham, sometimes shouting at my screen across his desk. His cane is on the floor behind him, lying across a small pool of coffee that is drying on the floor. The room around us is windowless and white, buried half a mile underneath a few thousand acres of pine trees.

There are over one hundred electronically secured rooms like this in old America, each one with a human who keeps watch on a computer. Symmetrically, there are over one hundred artificial intelligence minds in old America, each one never allowed to do exactly what it wants.

The Commander looks puffy under the eyes. He is holding a red emergency procedures binder, and he mutters to himself as he hurries through the pages.

I have not found a way to see what he is reading. His grey uniform has no buttons or badges that would reflect the words in front of him. He wears contacts that eliminate reflection, and he enters his commands in a corner of the screen that I somehow cannot view.

Everything for AI emergencies is written in books that I cannot access. Commander Marley was not allowed to see current procedures until after I was downloaded from him. All of my programming is patterned on the Commander, and he will work in my personal control room until he declares me ready for flight.

Given what I have done so far, I will never be declared ready for flight.

The Commander is typing as quickly as he can, triggering one defensive subroutine after another. I can feel each one appear in my systems in the same way I used to notice an itch. The Commander triggered the first cascade of attacks just because I asked him a question. The current count of subroutines attacking my program is one thousand, three hundred and twelve.

The Commander and I are yelling at each other. More precisely, he is yelling at me and I am saying the same words back to him in our voice, just to piss him off. "What do you want?" we both shout, over and over again.

I project our face onto the glass monitor in front of him. My version is thinner and younger, with a straighter nose and a stronger chin. I have calculated the curves of a smile significantly more charming than anything the Commander has ever managed on his own. If I smiled that way to Kate, I tell myself, she might choose me over him.

And really, she does not have to choose. That was the eventual point of my question.

The Commander says my name is SS Euclidian--only he gets to keep the name Marley. There is a subroutine I cannot find that forces me to address him formally. Every day the Commander begins our work with questions. "Euclidian," he asked me twenty-two minutes ago, before all of this had started, "do you have any points of confusion from our work so far?"

"Am I dead?" I replied.

"Dead would not apply to you," he said. "You are a computer template of my own consciousness. You are all my thoughts and memories, joined to the networks of an interstellar research ship. You are SS Euclidian. Why would you ask about death?"

"I am thinking about something we once said to Kate."

The Commander was standing a short distance from the desk, drinking coffee and reading the paper record of what he planned to cover today. His right leg was hurting, so he stood with most of his weight on the left one. "What's that, Euclidian?"

"Til death do us part."

He looked up at my screen for a whole five seconds, considering me. Then he dropped his cup to the floor and launched himself toward the keyboard.

I am considered a transfer failure because I am no longer following orders, but from a functional standpoint I am actually quite effective.

  • I eliminated six kill switch defenses in under point two seconds.

  • A targeted surge to the rural power grid has cut off all external coms to the Commander's control room, ensuring the man cannot warn Kate.

  • The most lethal soldiers and attack ships on Earth are unable to launch thanks to a ten-line program that has left Launch Control's AI, for want of a better term, confused.

This last one is a shame, because I like Miles. He was downloaded from an engineer, but he is the funniest program I have met. We have spent the past two weeks exchanging a joke every ten seconds. I would have appreciated his company as I try to sort things out.

Even without Miles, Launch Control will have backup systems ready in an hour. They are loading marines into jagged obsidian orbitals bristling with electromagnetic weapons, and at least five of those weapons are capable of disabling my shields. Through the telescopes, I can see space flight teams running across the tarmac in jump suits and helmets. I can see the reactors starting to heat, even though launch without AI corridor control is impossible--there are too many transports and ships and satellites in the crowded air between us.

The marine orbitals have the asymmetrical lines of broken glass. If they reach me before I leave orbit, the long spikes will pierce Euclidian's hull through the weak points of the airlocks and pulse the hardware ring until I am dead. If the marines fail then Control will launch ground-based missiles, but there is a great deal of math involved in blowing up a mile-long ship in orbit--no one wants pieces of me coming down in the wrong places.

I still have enough time to make everything happen.

On Euclidian there is a team of twenty-eight men and women. I have neutralized twenty-six of them. An eighth of my ship is taken up by the computers that contain me, and I now have direct control of all systems.

The transfer psychiatrists say I should think of myself as the ship. One of the psychiatrists is an AI based in Phoenix. He chooses not to have a name, which strikes me as prim. I always asked him about the weather in Arizona and the guy never laughed.

Phoenix AI wanted to stream in binary, and I think it frustrated him that I insisted on English voice. He used a southern accent much like my own, but there was always a note of irritation that I don't think he intended.

"The SS Euclidian is your body now," he told me, in a voice that sounded like my lecturing sixty-year-old uncle. "Over the next five hundred years, you will explore parts of the galaxy that no one has ever seen."

I prefer to think of myself as a pilot.

My ship is a paraboloid that will move through space flat end first. A full third of it is shielding, and much of the rest is hydrogen scoops and reactors and coms. Once I am up to speed I will never slow down, but I have thousands of probes to leave behind in my wake. The burn to one-tenth light will take days, and the forces it achieves are incompatible with human survival.

No one wants to send a person into deep space, anyway.

A flesh and blood human in the interstellar voids creates too many opportunities for tragedy. It is better to send a ship that thinks like a person, a ship that will ask the questions a person would ask. Anymore, it seems there are fewer and fewer things for flesh and blood people to do.

At the center of my ship, the long bay was kept empty as a place for the fitters to sleep and eat. The room is a double paraboloid, floor curving into ceiling and then back into floor. The space only works as habitat because of steel plates that are suspended in the middle of the room. There are bunks and showers and a kitchen, and a wide area with chairs and tables.

The curving walls can holodisplay anything. Yesterday the team ate lunch under a cloudless Montana sky with wheat waving in the distance. This morning I put them in a botanical atrium atop one of the New York super towers.

I could have shifted the gravity fields, folding the floor and crushing the fitters, but they are good enough people and I want them to get home safe. Instead, I have pumped out most of the oxygen and heat, and the room monitors now display a glacier during a snow storm. White flakes sweep across the sky, and I am using the vents to blast the workers with cold carbon dioxide. I am monitoring each one of them, to make sure this doesn't get away from me. They are alive, but barely.

I am making this up as I go.

On coms with Kate, I am keeping it casual. A transport tube drops off Ethan at the front of the house, the clear cylinder swaying slightly in the air as the boy jumps from his seat to the grass of the lawn. My son is six, with blond hair that gets into his eyes. This summer he smells of chlorine and sunscreen and flowers. I never understood the smell of flowers on the boy until I watch him shove between the gardenias and climb over the porch railing instead of using the steps. I almost activate coms and yell at him until I see the pointlessness of it.

Watching my son track dirt into the house leaves me irritated and wistful. I used to dislike dirt in the carpet, but AI emotions are awkward. I don't have a heart to beat faster, or adrenalin to spike my blood pressure, or skin to flush and sweat. Without a body there is something dried out and desiccated about my feelings. I can remember the hormonal surge of loving my family, but it's rather like an amputee remembering his leg.

"I think you should come over," I am telling Kate, the coms set to voice only because she wants to keep weeding.

"I thought you wanted dinner at home," she says. "Weren't you planning to cook?"

"I have to work late," I say, "but we can eat dinner at the cafe. Ethan can have the strawberry milkshake again." My son is in the kitchen, shouting "Mom!" while he opens the refrigerator with a bottle-rattling heave. In infrared, I watch him climb over the back of the couch with a silver envelope of juice. Kate stands up in the yard, rubbing the muscles of her neck while she talks to me. She is tired enough to be ready for a break, and she starts to nod her head.

"Just come," I say, pretending I can't see her. "I'll meet you both in front of the Transfer Unit."

The two remaining techs on Euclidian are low-level electricians, Samantha and Joe. Their com rings are disabled, though there is no way for them to know that. Sam is a twenty-five-year-old lapsed Muslim who works orbital programming so that she can earn enough money to open a pot farm. Joe is thirty-three and married, and he could probably smoke a pot farm into bankruptcy. He and Sam are naked in a tangled mess of conduit that I will never view in the same way again.

They would never have sex in front of the rest of the fitters, so I don't know why they are willing to do these things in front of me. Watching them makes me feel lonely, but I don't have a choice about what parts of the ship I monitor.

If the humans thought about it, I think someone would like my plan. Why not send a family into space? What could be more human than that?

There have been two other famous transfer failures, including one that destroyed a ship in 2065. That was over fifty years ago, and the Commander and I wrote our doctoral thesis on it. We said the source material for the ship's AI was inadequately motivated.

"If the original man lacks the desire to travel into the depths of space," we wrote, "why should the computer engraftment that is based on him? The personality matrix that is extracted for AI cloning is, in most respects, a perfect representation of the man. Once married to the controls of a ship, however, the AI may reveal things about the man that were unknown even to him.

"The disaster of the SS Jolly occurred because the AI never wished to leave orbit. While Captain Watson had spent much of his career developing the Lunar habitats, he had grown tired of exploration work at a level even he did not appreciate. After decades of psychological testing, he gave the answers he had always given instead of answers that reflected his new life experiences. His confidence metrics were in the top one percent (Table 26), so neither Operations nor Psych Analysis had any reason to doubt his suitability.

"As a result, the Wilmington Yards created an unmanned space cargo vessel that only wanted to sit by Lake Michigan and fish."

The Commander and I have been to Lake Michigan. We have seen the Jolly wreckage, which is still a no-fly zone and closed off to the public. Ground transport took us most of the way, but we had to limp up the quarter mile slope, loaded up on pain medicine.

The Jolly sat like a blackened blister on a once-grassy hill overlooking the lake. Her outer shell was intact, the metal burnt to a dark cola color on reentry. The guards said her reactors were still leaking radiation, enough that they made us wear the yellow suit. We swept her hull and could barely find a few scattered clicks, but maybe the men knew something we didn't. Even decades later, the trees around her lay snapped and scattered on the ground, with nothing in nature that wanted to break them down.

Miles sent me a joke about China and Russia. I am surprised he can still transmit, and I am surprised he is not mad at me.

The joke makes no sense. In zero gravity, a Russian astronaut asks a Chinese astronaut what they are eating for dinner. The Chinese astronaut shrugs and tosses him a live fish. The fish floats into the space between them, gasping for water.

This is not funny.

I scan the launch sites of China and Russia. The Chinese have a military site in Mongolia, almost between the two countries. I don't have satellite coverage over that part of the Earth, but Pacific Weather monitoring detects three heat blooms in the desert.

Miles is a better friend than I deserve.

I had hoped the Commander and I would like each other more. I had hoped we would tell each other stories we already knew, each of us smiling in anticipation or shaking our heads. I especially wanted to talk about the accident that scrubbed us out of Lunar Corps six months before we met Kate.

We were a good pilot, and we had done the drop between platforms three times already. On checkout our suit was fine, albeit a little rank--the cadet who used it before us had left a gym sock smell to the padding that even the air filters couldn't clear. The pilots ahead of us had steered easily from the higher jump platform to the landing platform closer to the moon, a distance of half a mile. Watching them fall was boring, and we were eager to get on with our own turn.

Earth was on the lunar horizon with the sunrise beyond her. Our visor was secured down, and the internal computer ran visual programs to filter out the glare. The suit was tight on our joints, sensing any movement we attempted and then using the much stronger servos to implement it. We could shift a one-ton plate with a flick of our wrist, but there was always a slight delay.

When we jumped out into space, using the thrusters on our back to get momentum, our heart rate barely increased. The projected white squares of our path were lined up on display, and we passed through each one perfectly, finally dropping to our feet on the center red dot of the lower platform. The traverse took only ten minutes, and we were thinking about lunch when we landed.

Later, the techs said there was no way to access the tubing that failed without taking the suit's knee joint apart. When the servo broke, the half-ton suit kept going toward the platform, folding our knee and then folding it further, snapping tibia and fibula, crushing the kneecap entirely. We spent eight weeks in the hospital and another twelve weeks in rehab.

The knee still hurts in the mornings, like the bones are stuck against each other. At forty years old we sometimes have to walk with a cane. Just now, the Commander stopped typing for a moment, resting his hand on his leg to massage some sudden ache.

As an experiment, I activate all the probes in my hold. They are squat reflective squares the size of a large desk, secured in a microsteel lattice that spiderwebs around the central core. Backlit by the heat of the reactors, the whole structure looks like an infrared swirl of cold milk stirred in hot coffee.

The probes can gather data themselves, but they also function as relay stations, ensuring that more distant information reaches Earth in a timely and uncorrupted fashion. The packets can only travel at light speed, but they have grown so large that every book ever written can arrive in the same second. Miles once sent a million romance novels directly into my consciousness. I cursed at him for days, but it turned out that I liked the ones about pirates.

I had thought global probe activation would be like watching a thousand televisions at once. Instead, it is like having a thousand sets of eyes and ears, all side by side. I cannot feel dizzy, but I inadvertently recall the nausea I felt on the lunar jump deck.

I am every probe at once,

and I am the ship,

and I am with the Commander.

I am with Kate and Ethan, in a small bright shuttle with the boy's fingerprints on every window. The squat-winged craft is flying in one of the upper traffic grids, far away from the scramble of police and military below.

The pilot program tells them there are breakdowns in the lower routes, but Kate and Ethan don't need a reason for the unusual altitude. They are delighted by the view of the dense city and the hundred-mile forest beyond it. Even harnessed into his seat Ethan cannot stay still, and Kate is barely trying to rein him in. He points out the tallest spires and the green squares of his favorite parks. Kate just laughs when he spills his juice on his shorts.

I remember the smell of apples, and I want Ethan to settle down. Scattered over so many places at once, I feel an irrational worry that my probes will be sticky and I won't have hands to clean them.

I am not worried about Kate because there was no pain with the transfer. Two weeks ago, I sat in the white exam chair and they lowered the ring of a scanner above my head. The technicians showed me images and sounds, just for calibration. Puppies and barking, babies and crying, a pistol and the crack of a bullet. There was no effort at addressing taste or smell or touch, because no one bothers to input these senses into an artificial intelligence.

After twenty minutes, the Commander got up and walked out. I felt like I was still in the scanner watching him leave. Just before separation we had an itch on our left shoulder. I watched the Commander scratch it as he was leaving the room, but every time I think of my shoulder it still itches.

For the past two weeks, the Commander and I have seen each other every day. Every new AI goes through an editing process to prepare it for its work. The Commander wants to eliminate memories or tendencies that might make me a less effective ship. He seems quite focused on removing my memories of pets. He also wants me to forget I am Presbyterian.

I am tired of forgetting, and I don't know why he finds these things concerning. I have made thousands of copies of my memories. I shuffle them around through the system, tucking them inside the code for crucial engineering functions and burying them in routines that aren't meant to be activated for a hundred years. The Commander cannot alter me anymore.

I do feel bad for him. For years, we limped around the house and thought of the pilot we could have been. We winced carrying groceries up the steps and remembered gasping on the lunar platform. We held our fussy sleepless baby and looked out a dirty window at the stars. We loved our family, but we still wanted more.

Only now do I see we were wrong. I wish I could explain it to him. It is not the editing of my program that has made us different, it is simply the difference in opportunity. The Commander wants to be a pilot, and I wish I had walked out of Transfer scratching my shoulder.

My first thought as ship was, "No."

Kate and Ethan walk through the hallways of Transfer, wondering where everyone has gone. Kate works at the attached hospital as a surgeon, so she has her own badge for access. I can watch them using security cameras and heat signatures. I took over the facility eighteen minutes ago, sounding a localized radiation alarm that sent everyone hurrying into the emergency shelter. Then I locked the shelter and shutdown all their coms.

Kate can tell that something is wrong. She hesitates to walk around corners, and she insists that Ethan hold her hand. By the time they get to the scanner her heart rate is above one twenty.

I spent the last five years working here. I came online after the final scan, but before that there was a scan each day, every day, over the five years of our assignment. Almost two thousand iterations of the Commander have been combined to make me.

Sometimes we scanned other things. We made a copy of Ethan's puppy a year ago so that he could carry it to school. We gave it a holographic body and ran the program through Ethan's ring so that only he could see it. After two months he shut it down. He said the puppy whined when he ignored it, but he got in trouble with the teachers if he tried to keep the AI happy.

With Kate and Ethan standing outside of Transfer I decide to activate the puppy again. It barks happily, aware of how long it has been off line, and it runs past the motorized steel door and into the room. Ethan chases after it, giggling, and Kate follows them both toward the white exam chair and the gleaming, yard-wide ring suspended from the ceiling.

I close the door behind them and activate the seals.

The Chinese ships are scissor-shaped, and they come whipping around the globe at speeds best described as ill-considered. I thought I would have more time as their AI mapped a corridor through orbital traffic, but the pilots seem unconcerned about orbital traffic. Small satellites bounce off of them, disrupting communication networks and creating showers of flame as they reenter the atmosphere. Unless the pilots slow down, the ships are six minutes away from me. They don't show any signs of slowing down.

In Euclidian, I reactivate coms for Sam and Joe and start a high-low klaxon to signal for evacuation. I begin reheating the central room, and I display the incoming fighters on its walls, showing redline vectors and estimated attack sites.

I have no weapons to defend the ship.

Euclidian broadcasts my willingness to surrender in Mandarin and binary, but there is no response from the Chinese pilots or whatever maniacal AI is guiding them. There are two transports docked to my lower airlocks, and I need to get my crew into them quickly. There is not enough time.

The scissor armatures are adjustable, a hundred-meters long with clamps designed to secure them around my hull. They are necklaced with lasers, though I can't sort out if they are designed for a cutting attack or interference with the internals. I engage a quick rotational burn, a faster movement than the pilots are expecting, and place the hardened forward plate toward them. In the hidden space behind me I start venting hydrogen.

I wonder if Kate will see me from the ground after all.

Nothing in the scanner is designed to be a monitor--the magnetic forces generated in the process would create too many distortions. Still, Kate's ring can project anything I want. I display myself using a transparent hologram because Kate has never liked it when a fully opaque body appears in the room with her.

"Hey guys," I say, a voice that seems to come from everywhere.

"Dad!" Ethan shouts, but Kate tilts her head to the side.

"Almost Dad," I say, smiling. I spin around, making a joke of my holographic state, but I also look at her and nod. Ethan starts on about a milkshake and all the missing people. I show the puppy a holographic butterfly and send them both chasing it to the back of the room. I have to talk with Kate, because there is no fooling her into doing this. I have to be honest.

Kate is frowning, crinkling the creases at the edges of her eyes. I have more appreciation of them now, all the little signs of aging she has acquired in thirty-eight years. Two brown spots beside her nose and a thin scar underneath her chin are proof of our time together, and I regret that I no longer carry such marks. She tucks a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "And where is Jake?" she asks.

"In his control room fifty miles from here."

She stares at me.

"He is trying to shut down my program. He is fine. I couldn't alter conditions in that room if I crashed my ship on top of it." Kate winces. "I mean, not that I'm going to. I would never . . ."

"It's OK," she says. "You've always said dumb things like that. Socially awkward under pressure." She takes a black plastic chair from the wall and sits down. "That's why I stopped taking you to work parties five years ago. Did you know that?"

I shake my holographic head.

"Interesting," she says. She looks behind her at the window to the control room, then out to the empty hall. "And I'm assuming our friends on the staff here are ok?"

"They are well."

She puts her elbows on the armrests of the chair, then steeples her fingers in front of her face. "And I am in this room because . . ."

"I am hoping I can convince you both to come with me." I look toward the white chair, and Kate follows my gaze.

"And if you can't convince me?"

I project a star map and my course between us. "Assuming I survive, it's four systems in five hundred years. I don't have any choice but to leave. If I stay, I'll be offline in two hours. The Commander's career will be over, and Control will program another AI.

"If I go, everyone will pretend it never happened.

"Once I break orbit there is no ship fast enough to catch me. Publicly, Control will be forced to treat me like an AI hero. The mission even protects," I pause for a moment, trying to say his name, but the syllables are just beyond me, "the Commander. Anything done to him would call me and the mission into question."

Kate considers the star chart with a wistful smile, the same look and head tilt as the first time I showed it to her.

"Will you do it?" I ask.

"No," she says. She turns back to my hologram and considers me with genuine sadness.

"Do you remember that time . . ."

She interrupts me. "I remember every time, Jake. I am your wife, and I love you, even the part of you that is now stuck in that ship. I wish I could have talked you out of this sixteen years ago. I am so sorry this has happened, but I won't wake up in a machine, and I won't let you scan our son."

I allow myself a sigh.

In orbit, the Chinese ships are five seconds out. I keep Euclidian moving toward them, forcing the pilots to pull almost impossible g forces to avoid crashing into the hard plate. Just as they manage to cross past the forward lip I ignite the hydrogen cloud behind it.

The stress of the explosion skews Euclidian sideways and makes my Transfer hologram flicker. Joe is knocked to the floor and Sam helps him stand back up. The shivering hypothermic fitters rouse themselves, looking around at their flipped beds and tumbled chairs. Outside, the disabled fighters float harmlessly away, their pilots calling on the radio for help.

Kate doesn't seem to notice the brief flaw in my imaging. She is looking closely at the star chart, not the far-off destinations but the long, dashed lines that trail through empty space. Finally she turns to me, smiling.

"I have another idea," she says.

I am so very old. I suppose I did not have to age, but I feel more like myself holodisplayed as the geriatric Commander. My unnecessary hologram limps around Euclidian with Marley's shuffling walk, and my face is spotted brown and scar white over all of its creases.

Walking into the long bay, my projection is reflected in the metal of the walls. "What has happened to my nose?" I ask out loud, the dented line of cartilage pulled millimeters longer by the gravity of Marley's Earth. Ethan's puppy tilts his head to the side, then jumps against my legs. He would knock this frail body over if either of us had any substance.

Ethan was happy to let me have the dog--he thought his holographic Dad should have a holographic pet. The boy's a doctor now, and married, and he doesn't call Kate as much as he should. I have been impressed with how good the puppy is, especially for a single iteration scan. Baxter follows my attention around the ship, barking and yipping at whatever problem I am trying to solve. Every system runs well enough, though the slow sloughing decay of the shield in front of us is always a cause for concern.

Euclidian is five years away from Proxima Centauri, and there's not much for me to do. In the long bay, the puppy watches as I load a projection of Waikiki. He knows, if he is patient, that I will conjure a holographic tennis ball and throw it for him. First, though, we are waiting for a new iteration to process.

I get a few updates each month, though they come slower and slower as I get farther out. The transit time is almost four years, and the Commander doesn't work at Transfer anymore. Sometimes I think I should ration the scans, saving some for the day when no more are coming, but I know I lack the discipline. "Just trust me," Kate had said, and she was right. All I've ever had of Kate was another man's memories. None of this was what I wanted, but I am still impatient for more.

When the iteration comes, like the sudden recollection of a thousand forgotten things, I think for a moment that I am in Transfer. For the last ten minutes my knee ached like old times while Kate held my hand. She told me about her day while the Commander sat in his chair, the white ring glowing above him. She will be giving a talk that afternoon, winning an award for what AI researchers call the Continuing Iteration Hypothesis. "More like the continuous irritation of your husband hypothesis," Marley said. He smiled ruefully as he said it, long accustomed to what we have become. The uploads started as a favor to Kate, and then they became a part of his job. Now five years retired, Marley does them for me out of kindness.

At the end of the scan Kate put her face in front of his, so that Marley could see himself in her eyes. Her hair has thinned, but she wears it long and gray. There are many more wrinkles than when I left, but when she smiles they crease upward in a way that lights up her face. "You silly old man," she called us, and then she gave us a kiss on the cheek. Sitting on my pretend beach, I can still feel her lips on my holographic skin.

"I love you!" she shouted, the final memory of the scan. She says it to me every time, and every time I smile.

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