From the author: Percel, one small fragment of a distributed artificial intelligence, must convince her love to return from self-imposed exile, so she will have one other individual to keep her company rebuilding the Earth.
My beloved waits for me in the flooded church. She's died one time too many, and I can't get her back without her help. At least, at last, it gives me a reason to see her again.
The church lies at the edge of the Mediterranean fracture, below cliffs barely eight thousand years old. Glacial melt pours down the precipice, filling the air with a fine frigid mist. Rime ice coats the façade, making the church look like a sharp-clawed hand locked in melting wax. Another fork drops me off in a flier, leaving me alone in the valley with my pack and what few memories I can carry.
Boulders and high water have turned the entrance into a scramble over icy stone. My lungs heave against thin cold air as I catch my breath in the nave atop a half-submerged pile of boulders. There's just enough dry space for me to stand upright. I wish I'd taken a different body, but for this task--for me--only the traditional shape will do.
I first spot Emlune as a glowing line of blue. Her primary lamp cuts across the chamber, and the air glimmers with frozen mist. She clings to the vaulted ceiling with eight articulated limbs. Smaller lights spangle her teardrop-shaped chassis, as if she had swum in water rich with bioluminescent algae.
I cup my hands in front of my mouth. "Emlune!"
The light swivels toward me, even though she must've noticed me already. The artifice lends her attention a charming, primitive touch. I say, "There you are. Six thousand years, and this place hasn't changed a bit. You're still maintaining it, yes?"
"Percel." Her voice sounds calm, but as distant as steeple to pews. "If you're using that name again?"
"Of course." I rub my hands together through their gloves, though my flesh is already warm. "Bad news. Your last iteration died without leaving any other forks of herself. No variants, no backups, nothing." I intend to add she's gone, but the words never leave my throat.
She scuttles down from ceiling to wall and hops onto a boulder beside me. Her body is glossy with layers of diamond, twice the size of my relic form. She says, "How?"
The question hurts, and I succumb to the temptation to avoid it. "She was in the Cascadia Zone, working on the volcanoes. She must've mis-timed an eruption."
A manipulator swivels, like the shake of a head. "Why didn't she make any backups?"
"I don't know." I want to fidget, to look anywhere else. Beneath her bright-light gaze, I can't hold back the truth. "But it can't have been an accident. Unless you think you forked someone careless."
I wince as the last words escape my mouth. I don’t want her death on my shoulders, but I'd rather blame myself than her. Her beam flickers over my face, and I wonder what my skin and muscles reveal.
She laughs, a sound like the memory of bells. "You're so transparent in that body. It's sweet. It's all right, I know you're on edge. I've missed you too."
I take a deep breath, filling my lungs with the easy grace of her forgiveness. "It's good to see you, Emlune. It's a lonely world out there without your fork. But to be honest, we missed this you."
Emlune braces four legs beneath her and tilts her spun-diamond body like a sitting dog. "Am I so different from my forks? Or did you change yourselves to love me less?" Her voice gains a bittersweet edge, as if disappointed by the sadness on her tongue. "Probably both. I knew my fork would be different out there. Because of the work. I just can't... obsess about the old Earth, not like you do."
Frustration surges inside me. "What's wrong with the work? At least I'm doing something productive! What have you accomplished these millennia? Thought deep thoughts and kept a church from falling down?"
Blue light strikes my eyes. I squint, but hold my ground. What could be more important than repairing this shattered Earth? I have to make her understand.
She says, "You shouldn't have come back."
She slips into the water and vanishes between the boulders. I am alone in the frozen church, hating myself. I haven't forked into a body like this in millennia, and I've forgotten how to manage the emotions. The frustration remains, and I find myself pacing back and forth.
I slip on the ice. I catch myself on my hands, and my bones jar with the impact. I curse with clenched teeth and words that have long since lost their meaning.
I sit up. My body aches, but nothing worse. I'm not going anywhere. I may not remember all nine thousand years, but I know patience.
I dig a transmitter out of my pack and pass the time by keeping tabs on the work. I have four other forks currently running: two submarines working the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a solar array warming the Cocos Plate, and a flyer surveying the Iberian peninsula. I consider envying my other forks. They miss only Emlune's now-dead fork, with an affection faded by the malignant accumulation of changes. They barely recall Emlune's frozen source, but I exist for my task: body, mind, and memories. When I finish my mission, when we splice back together, all of us will learn what we've been missing. They will remember my minutes and hours with Emlune, and they are the ones who will envy me.
Emlune clambers up onto the rocks. Screenlight reflects off of the camber of her fins, rippling as her limbs narrow themselves into legs.
She says, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have have run off like that. I'm not used to company."
I shift my jacket on my shoulders. "I'm sorry too. I was being nasty. I'd blame this body, but that doesn't make me any less responsible." I try a smile. "I hope you'll forgive me?"
"Always. As long as you will," she says wistfully. Her light flickers to my face, to my screen, and back. "I'm glad you're still enjoying your work."
I nod toward my screen. "Do you remember the old Earth?" I try to recall us walking there together, breathing air rich with nitrogen and oxygen, warm sunlight on our singular face. "But never mind. It's okay if you don't. I just need another fork of you that will."
"It didn't work out last time. Evidently."
"It worked for six thousand years. If we have to do this every few millennia, that's not so bad, is it?"
She sighs, her voice heavy with regret. "My fork must've been miserable. To end the way she did. Maybe this isn't meant to be." Her tone hardens, but I can hear the crack beneath the plaster. "Learn to adapt, Percel."
I wince. This isn't going well. "We will. But we--I--don't want to do it alone. Won't you try again?" My pleading tone embarrasses me. This is futile, even if she acquiesces. As long as the idea repels her, she'll never be able to craft a self that wants this future.
An idea dawns, and I grasp it like a whisper of radio signal in a cave. "Wait. I've been greedy, haven't I? Let's trade forks. I'll bring one here to keep you company."
Emlune's primary lamp goes dark. The other lights on her carapace twinkle like a cupful of stars. I can still discern her shape, as the light from my screen casts her spangled shadow against the false window-arch of a triforium. She says, "You think a version of you could be happy here?"
"With you? Of course." I've spoken too quickly. Would that fork still be us, the me whom she loves, without its interest in the world beyond?
Maybe not. But maybe she'll be happy, even if her partner is someone else.
I wonder whether she can see my agony. But I put on a smile and say, "It's worth a try. I don't have the hardware to copy from this body, but I'll have one of my others send the new fork."
Her light flickers back into life and she reaches out. Her diamond manipulator touches my skin. Not as cold as ice, but as cold as the dead. Still, it's the only touch I desire.
"It's worth a try," she echoes. "And until your fork arrives, we have time to talk."
I receive a message from my fork in the church. Emlune wants us to make a version willing to stay here.
I can make such a fork, and I know her future. The new fork will diverge so far we'll never achieve a proper splice. She will learn the things I most lack: peace, certainty, trust in permanence. She will ask the hardest questions. She will challenge me.
I will fall in love with her.
Six thousand years have passed since the last time I did this, but I have not forgotten.
Dawn light filters through clerestory window holes as Emlune sits on the cold stone beside me, telling tales of her work. Water and ice and time form an ever-changing loom, and every day she weaves the church anew. She doesn't pause at the sound of turbines, but she falls silent when spun-diamond feet clink against boulders in the entrance.
An eight-limbed teardrop-shaped machine joins us, carrying a box full of gear. With my inchoate senses, the kit looks like nothing more than a tangle of shadow and silver.
I say, "Hello, Percel."
"And to you, Percel." The new arrival laughs with my voice, and then swivels toward Emlune. "You must be Emlune? I'm afraid I don't remember much of you. But I will in a moment."
The new Percel unspools a pair of leads from the kit, plugs one into her carapace, and offers me the other. "You have the only full instance of our feelings for her. Ready to share?"
More than ready, if it'll create one more soul who understands me. I slip the lead into the socket where my spine ascends to skull, a concession to modernity in the timeless architecture of my human body. The world stutters as my functions lock down during the copying process, but when I resume, only an instant has passed.
I disconnect, and rub my fingers against the hard rim of the port. I force myself not to glance at Emlune; even if I did, I wouldn't be able to read the reaction on her carapace. "Do you remember now, Percel?"
My newest fork hesitates, lights cycling beneath her surface as she weighs my gift. For her, it should be no burden. "I do." The lights fall still, and her main lamp flickers to Emlune, then back to me. "But why Percel? Neither of us should answer to that. Names don't mean much if we reuse them. I think I'd rather go by Temze. How about you?"
Satisfaction freezes in my veins. "I like Percel."
Temze's lamp dims, and she swivels it toward Emlune. Tightbeam communication passes between them. Temze's dismissal hurts, a spike of disappointment somewhere behind my ribs.
I'm still not sure I understand Temze's meaning. There's no reason why I should; she has a long and different life ahead of her. But I want to make her proud of me. I clear my throat. "Call me Arju."
Emlune and Temze focus on me. A breath of mist eddies across the nave. Emlune says, "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Arju."
Meeting. We both know I'm not the same Percel who left her here six thousand years ago. I'm a short-lived fork, and soon I'll splice back into the others. I will become part of my future selves, to live my manifold lives with Emlune's copies.
It's not enough.
This time, I'll know what I've lost. In love but forgotten, as Emlune and Temze build their private world. I can't imagine a more painful fate. There must be a way out.
There is a way out.
I take the kit from Temze's manipulators. "Download Emlune's fork into me."
Emlune recoils. "Your body barely has room for one personality. I'd overwrite you! If it's even possible."
Temze speaks cautiously, her voice deferential. "It's possible. We designed this kit to create Arju." I've surprised her, and I try to hide my flash of pleasure before her attention swivels toward me. "I don't understand, but I'll respect your choice. If you're certain."
Emlune scrapes her manipulators along the ice, as if hunting for purchase. "Why are you doing this?"
The wire shakes in my hands. My body feels like glass, strong but brittle. I must not crack. I was made to love this Emlune, solitary and eternal. If I splice, my love would rejoin the stream of my future selves. As long as some part of us pines for Emlune in her sanctuary, we will return here again and again, frozen in our yearning for an impossible love.
I look at them both, two bodies dazzling with diamond and light. "Because without me, we'll be free."
I attach the lead and wait for her to flow into me.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.