From the author: Home a spinning sentience, a wondrous habitat. Habitats, what arrogance! Once, long ago, before my race grew tired of space travel, that was their purpose. World ships modelled on cetaceans -- deep brained and singing, bellies full of verdancy.
The ground shook again, a premonitory shuddering that lasted uncomfortably long and stretched up into the sky. Sophie and I exchanged glances as the quake settled down and Home apologised for the inconvenience.
"It's going to get much worse," I said and gripped Sophie's hand, maybe a little too tightly because she pulled away. "Do you think, we're ready?"
"No-one’s ever truly ready." She sounded so tired that I glanced at her quizzically. The dark-brown perfection of her eyes, the crooked twist of her lips.
"I’m tired, Sean."
The faux-sun was dimming for the night and birds were flying home. The air was cooling, gently, gently. Spring, and the wind down was upon us. Home was shifting, changing into something that would have no room for us. She whispered in our dreams of her transformation, of the deeper changes that would find their way to the surface in a few days, making it -– in a burst of sudden violence -- impossible to live here.
Soon it would be just us again.
"We're all tired."
She laughed, and touched my face.
"Oh, Sean. Have you ever felt so weary, so damn tired that it's no longer worthwhile?"
My face tightened and I stared into her eyes.
"Yes," I said. "The first time that I lost you."
She cried then.
"Oh, my love. I try to forget."
"Two thousand years and I will never forget. Sophie, memory is all we have." My hand brushed her cheek, wiped away the tears and brought them to my lips, the taste of sorrow. "When did you morph the tear ducts?"
I looked at her more closely then and realised that she was sweating. A small increase in sensitivity and I could pick up the steady beating of her heart.
"No wonder you're so tired. You're going retro!"
"Yes," she said. "But I was tired before all that. Well before any of this began."
And then I knew. Sean, old Sean, always so slow on the uptake.
I pulled my fingers from hers, stood up and walked away. I did not cry, my body was not engineered for tears –- hadn't been for a long, long time.
"I'm sorry. Come back, please."
I barely heard her.
In Drift everything is ice-cold, ponderous and crushing. Logic tells me it's impossible. Sensitivity has been shut down. There is nothing to register absolute zero, just the readings on the virtual screens, just a flickering on the edge of vision that slows to a once a week blink in time with the potential sail's billowing. And what bones I possess are nothing but Cache, but still I feel chilled to them.
The Universe is so damn big and sometimes you Drift and you Drift alone; and the one that you love is somewhere. Somewhere but not beside you; and the nearest particle is five kilometres distant and no bigger than a skin flake; and still you do your readings and analysis, hoping beyond hope that it is -– faint spoor -- and that it's hers.
Empty, big frozen nothing beside the crowding in of your thoughts and even these are slow and cold, so cold.
I lost her and I thought that was it, and then I'd found her again.
Sophie caught up with me an hour after the faux-sun had turned itself down. Flying by wing, silent so I didn’t see her until she was almost upon me. By then I'd had a while to think, to burn and rage.
I'd run to the other end of Home, where the small mountains begin, and climbed the nearest one turning my sensitivity right up, so every foothold and grip burned. Pain became my tears, a mind-numbing release. I'd even reduced my lung capacity, so I lay panting on a ledge when she brought her wing up beside me.
"Sean, this macho bullshit doesn't suit you."
She shivered and I found myself, despite it all, putting my arms around her.
"Cold up here. How did you find me?"
"I needed to be alone." As she shivered against me I increased my integumental temperature –- to warm her too human skin -- and lowered my own sensitivity. "But then, that's what I will be soon."
"Sean, I'm sorry."
"Sorry doesn't make it better."
My grip on her tightened. "I don't ever want to let you go."
"But you will, Sean,” she said matter of factly. “I'm just so tired and love isn't enough. Nothing is."
We sat there, on the ledge face, looking down towards the village its lights flickering warmly. Ninety-five people in our clan. Once there were two thousand; things wear out, things wind down.
"When you were gone, I thought you dead," Sophie said to me. "I thought there was no way that you could have survived."
"I never lost hope."
"But I did. Jesus, Sean, you weren't transmitting, you'd locked up and the stars there were so damn noisy. I couldn't find you. If you hadn't drifted close enough to a star, your systems wouldn't have thawed, you'd still be drifting, frozen and, for all intents and purposes, dead."
And cold, colder than thought, colder than death.
"So I know what it is like to lose a loved one. I know how you will feel."
I brushed her face with my fingertips, felt the roughness of her new-human flesh and wondered how I could have missed this. I was self involved, so damn self-involved.
"No, you know how you felt. I'm not you."
Home a spinning sentience, a wondrous habitat.
Habitats, what arrogance! Once, long ago, before my race grew tired of space travel, that was their purpose. World ships modelled on cetaceans -- deep brained and singing, bellies full of verdancy. But they had changed; abandoned they had remade themselves. Ostensibly they were still harbours of life, but once where they had merely been organs, recreations of Old Earth environments, now they were sentient and followers of their own paths.
We'd been adapted for space travel, but this was truly adaptation on a huge scale.
We came upon Home, and her pod of about twenty-- gathered and grazing on the edge of a solar system rich with dust and heavy elements -- quite by accident.
Empty, they drifted, as my clan drifted, through the galaxy and beyond. Not sure why, except that it seemed better than an existence swimming on the edge of the Central Deep –- the black hole at our galaxy's core.
I have seen the metropolises there, less tangible than smoke, vast as whole systems. Ghosts flit and play and warp and weave. Engines turn and fire. I was given an opportunity to dwell in that intangible empire, we all were. I refused, did not even leave a copy, or a window. I could not bear the thought of parallel lives, of it growing scornful of what I had chosen to do.
Why travel? The laws of physics remain the same in any sector of the universe.
We later discovered we were lucky to find her at all. Her pod was about ready to break up, each to go its own way. She drew us in with old comtalk and greetings.
She was the youngest of her pod; the only one not truly acquainted with the emptiness of the infinite. She was lonely and garrulous.
Home spun before us and we were welcomed by a puckering of her airlocks and the chatter of an infant.
From the beginning she warned us that it was not forever, that sometime in the future she might change, until then we were welcome to journey with her, to shelter from the cold.
I woke to morning light and looked down into the valley, at the house Sophie and I had made, then turned my gaze across the habitat. The ground swept up and around. Above us Home's tiny sea gleamed in the faux-sunlight. A small sailed craft was crossing her, so tiny in the distance and that was nothing to the distances we'd travelled.
Majestic and intimate, we had spent the last two hundred years here. It would all be gone in a matter of days. But, for now, the Faux-sun burned with Springtime brilliance and the air was warm and still. I felt Sophie stir beside me.
“Better that this happened when it did,” I said. "The planet is suitable, but the core is highly volatile. There is a lot of hard radiation.
"She is a drifter too."
There was no sun out there. We were between galaxies right now. Deep space, empty space, this world burned like a beacon in all that darkness. Like us she had been ejected from her solar system and cooled down as everything does, even one's fervour for life.
I'd seen the probe's relays, inhabited them for a while, we all had.
Black skies, liquid oceans with a scum of ice. On the major Northern landmass five huge volcanoes were erupting constantly; the whole continent was sprayed with their ejecta. We could survive there. Rest a while before we began our greater Drift.
Of course there is a big difference between surviving and living.
Were Sophie to walk on the surface of that planet in her newly morphed form she would die within a handful of seconds. But she had no intention of ever leaving here.
"Shall we go home?"
Sophie looked at me.
We’d built the houses to remind us of what we once were. Here we let our defences down and were almost like our ancestors. Our bodies, which, modified, could survive in cold hard vacuum, did not need these places, but something else seemed to.
And soon they would be gone.
Like this palpitating flesh, it was an oddity and a reminder of what had once been so familiar.
There was an air of uncertainty and excitement, as well as, of course, sadness about the village.
Change, things were about to change again.
Only one day to go.
Sophie gripped my hand.
"Scary isn't it," I whispered.
"Yes," she said.
We could all feel it. Home's whisperings and sadness and more than a little fear.
When Sophie slept I looked up at the ceiling and the shadows shifting there.
"Home," I whispered. "She's staying."
"I know, Sean. The universe has worn her out."
"It wears us all down eventually. Change, everything is in constant flux, to stay still takes so much more effort than moving. I'm tired too, just not ready."
"Everything ends, Sean."
"That's a question for the poets."
"If you're around at the death of the universe please ask one for me."
"If you're there. I might ask you."
"If I'm there."
“I am sorry. I will miss you. But excitement fills me also. Such potential; new networks open up. Knowledge. I wish I could explain, but words fail. I wish I could take you there, to the deep space that I am going.”
“We’ll find our way.”
“Yes. Perhaps, I will be waiting.”
Preparations were completed; new forms more suitable to the nearby planet were grown on the outer surface of the habitat. One by one we would upload to them, then tumble free.
Sophie rejected my offer to make her a body next to mine. An out should she decide at the last minute that her decision was the wrong one
"I have made up my mind. I'm not going."
We both knew that she was frightened. That having an escape route would be too hard.
The last day came and I woke with a sick feeling in the place where my stomach once was.
Sophie lay pressed against me, I gazed at her, stored the image from as many different angles as possible and hurled it deep into Cache, I did not want to forget nor did I want to remember, not too soon.
"I will miss you," I said.
"I know you will." Her eyes were wide and old, human eyes - not the milky-white pools of the Drift or the silver of the first exoskeletons or even the green and mauves she had toyed with on Callisto, when we were young and fashion was all.
We'd changed so much. My fingers touched hers, gripped them tightly. Not quite human flesh against perfect reconstruction.
"Existence, has become an addiction for you, hasn't it?"
"Maybe," I said. "I just want to be there for the End."
I shook my head.
"Because I want to know what happens, I want to experience it. Because I'm stupid, I don't know."
Together we watched the last of our Clan leave. With each upload a body would fall, another humanoid scattering on the village green.
The creatures of the habitat began to migrate, shifting to places where resources were most needed. A flock of starlings flew overhead, to be swallowed by a cliff face. Rabbits melted into the ground, a forest ejected itself into the Faux-Sun.
Though I’d always known every element of Home was merely that, it still startled me to see it so obviously displayed.
Sophie took my hand and led me to a shaded spot and pulled me down.
The sun was warm on our skin as we kissed. I switched everything but the simplest feedbacks off, felt the grass beneath us, the spring-warm wind. I buried myself in her and she held me, so tightly so passionately. We made love, over and over again, not saying a single word just drowning in the depths of each other's eyes -- the fears and hopes and endings.
Epiphanies come not too often in a relationship as long as ours. Eons pass and you become reflections. Eons pass and profundities are worn down. And then you say goodbye.
She kissed my cheek.
“You had better go, my love.”
“Yes, but-“ She pressed a finger against my lips.
“Don’t spoil this with words. Just go.”
I nodded once and she smiled. On that perfect Spring day I looked upon my lovers' face a final time.
Then I discarded my body – left my love to this final change for that was all I could do - let it fall next to hers and woke in the cold of space, my rubbery flesh stinging. My eyes awash with information, stars gleamed chill and distant.
The habitat shivered beneath me. Great knots of flesh burst from Home'ssurface. Areas went hot and cold all over the place.
I leapt from her back and into the void, Home spinning slowly behind me.
Home distorted, I felt the weave of her thoughts tear, unbind and reform. Saw her flicker in the darkness of space and then, with a triumphant cry -- all frequencies rang with it -- she was gone. A burst of exotic particles the only trace of her departure.
I spread my potential sails and drifted awhile.
I felt tired, worn out, but I had miles to go before I slept.
I would see the End -- whatever that might be -- and, maybe, my lover's face.
"There's no place like home," I whispered into the cold and followed my clan down towards the planet burning so far away.
This story originally appeared in Aurealis.