2820 words, short story
Your Right Arm
His name was Jagdeep. He did not believe in ghosts.
“Did you kill the last human?” Teng asked, her eyes avid, curiosity making her quiver. Rasakhi knew the question was inevitable, but this did not stop the sigh. Four of Teng’s hind-legs wove indigo and tan-dyed mengkuang strips into the mats that were everywhere on the nursery ship. Teng shivered as she worked. Rasakhi did not bother to remind her that the cold was just an illusion, encased as Teng was in a silver praying-mantis chassis. Rasakhi had evaded cybernetic enhancement her whole life, fearful of that gap between her consciousness and the supplemented consciousness of augmented parts.
It was always cold on this ship.
Rasakhi welcomed the chill. It reminded her that she was still encased in flesh, failing though it was.
“I lived with him, as you well know,” she said to Teng. No one would remember her triumphs as a navigator. Everyone would remember her in relation to the last human.
“But do you remember how he died? Did you kill him?” Teng asked again, seemingly unaware that she was being repetitive.
Rasakhi looked away from the engineer. Just beyond them, fledgling apsaras moved marbles from groove to groove carved into long congkak boards, a game they had taken with them from the nusantara. On a sanded platform, other children played hopscotch, jumping from square to square as they sang counting songs Rasakhi had taught them. Above them, the lights glowed a muted green, soothing optically enhanced eyes that were trained to look for patterns in messages that floated before them all of the time, but for more material things, like chairs, and corners. The earliest engineers quickly learned the importance of adjusting the lighting on every ship.
“Jagdeep was running from the force that imploded the last human colony. We did not do that. It was not in our best interests to drive humans into extinction. It’s far better for you to ask if I remember the first time I met him. The first time I met him was the day that Jagdeep was put into a humanoid biotech replacement unit. I do not even know if he had any humanity left on the day our eyes first met.”
Teng’s look was inquisitive to the point of intrusion. The apsara-hybrid engineer had transferred to Rasakhi’s sector three months ago, and had not wasted time in befriending the retired navigator who ran the nursery ship. She seemed completely insensible to the fact that her presence was not wanted. Teng was not the first and would likely not be the last who would want to unearth the secret behind Rasakhi’s life with Jagdeep.
“Did you love him, Rasakhi?”
“I am surprised by the question, Teng. Love is a human emotion. It is not an emotion we are conditioned to acknowledge. How do you go from asking if I killed him to asking if I loved him? I don’t understand these wild connections you’re making.”
“Apsaras were bred for love on the world we came from,” Teng said, her visored eyes insistent upon knowing the truth, “we were also bred to kill the things we love.”
“Yes, apsaras are also voluptuous dancers who are somehow lighter than air. We also shimmer when we dance.” Rasakhi said with some irony, throwing Teng a wintry look. “Say rather, that we were bred for the pleasure of humans. Love is a different thing altogether.”
“I have never shimmered in my life, not even when I had a complete apsara body,” Teng said, smiling, “but it is true. They bred us from the bunian that they stole to serve as court-dancers and companions. But that means that we have human DNA, don’t we?”
“We are not trained and conditioned to acknowledge human emotions,” Rasakhi said.
“Have you truly never loved, Rasakhi?” Teng sounded wistful. Rasakhi reminded herself of how young the engineer was. Be patient, be gentle, she told herself.
“If we feel an emotion, how do we label it? The way that humans label such things? I know amusement. I know that I am happy with companionship. I know what it feels to have a void when someone has left you. I do not know if that is the same as knowing love.”
Teng said, “We do not mate. We used to, when humans were necessary. But then they became redundant, and so did biological functions.”
“Well then. There’s your answer. Why do you ask me about an emotion that is redundant to our kind? The bunian ensured that none of us would ever need to mate again. Not the bunian, not the apsara, nor our sisters, the bird-clawed Khinnaree. All we require is companionship, and community. We have the consensus, we have the engineering wherewithal to ensure that we shall never go extinct. So why would we have a need to kill?”
Teng looked bashful, “The songs the humans sing about love. They are so sad and so beautiful. There are so many of those songs in the Sound Library. I listen, and it makes me feel strange. I always wondered how it actually felt. I tried talking to the converted humans but in their biotech systems they have forgotten all of those things.”
Rasakhi’s obsidian eyes softened as she looked at the younger apsara, “They are no longer what they used to be. Upon conversion, consciousness changes. They no longer have the depth perception required to parse emotions, or sense-data. Emotions, if they exist, exist as phantom limbs. As ghosts. The memory of an emotion, simulated upon cue. And yet, these memories are the backbone of our colony’s cultures.”
We had time before that last asteroid obliterated earth. Ample time to prepare.
The sun was younger when we first took to the skies in our first machines, made of wood and bronze, borne upwards by a fleet of armored garuda. We had no need of science then, we were fueled by sakti and by the benedictions of the holy bird, the Jentayu. This was not to last, as our magics faded, and we learned that we too, needed to master science and engineering.
The sun was older when the first super giant solar flare knocked out our strongest shield. For millennia, we had escaped the path of comets and asteroids. Narrow misses.
Sudden solar flares that could have knocked out our power supplies, and our magical reserves. The solar flares, and all manner of cosmic exigencies failed, because we worked overtime. All of us. The Khinnaree admirals, the bunian and apsara engineers.
We were safe until the sakti that held our shields up got weaker and weaker, while the asteroids came by more frequently.
I do not remember the first navigator who guided the first fleet of ships strong enough to transport all of us and all of the humans away from the solar system. I do not remember the day when humans were made aware of our existence. I do not remember the first human fleet of ships, or the first space war between our kind and the humans, several solar systems away from earth. But I remember accounts of that exodus. I remember enough to tell you about it as though I was there. Even if I must supplement that account with details of my own imagined recollection.
Jagdeep was the last human colonist. He had taken the last fighter pod, and had crashed into our fleet. He sustained serious injuries. This was not a fleet of soldiers. We were navigators and scientists. We were cybernetic engineers. We were astro-botanists and DNA scientists. There was no need to harvest his DNA immediately—the bunian and apsaras had evolved long ago. They had augmented themselves, and could replicate well enough. There was no need to do anything to the last human, except to watch him die.
Or to allow him to live.
Mercy was not a thing exclusive to humans.
The bunian, the apsara, and the Khinnaree had long learned that their bodies had attributes that allowed them to flow easier into the cybernetic interfaces built by the human fleets. They had adapted easier to it, and their engineers had pillaged human technology in order to forge better bodies for members of their colony who had lost their limbs. They began to do the same for the humans that they had rescued or had vanquished.
The first night we met, I watched as the engineers fitted Jagdeep to the biotech units that replaced his left arm and the entire side of his torso that had been incinerated when his ship crashed into our fleet. It was a painful process. He cried, often. I held his right hand as he looked pleadingly up at me, for mercy, for death. They replaced his limbs, one by one. Except for his right arm.
His right hand, to hold my own.
We used a humanoid frame for his body. He did not choose, like you, to be in an insectoid carapace. He clung on to his humanity. Jagdeep did not take to the replacements as easily as the others. He was too weak, too fragile.
When he could walk, we would walk. I brought him to the sprawling courtyard in my apartments. I astonished him with the grandeur of our plantations and of the ecosystems we had replicated and preserved. And he taught me of the ways of planting that they had improved upon.
And he would tell me things about his life.
He was trained as a fighter pilot, but he yearned to be a gardener. They had greenhouses in their fleet. Small, crude things built into abandoned storage halls. They grew yams, and water spinach, and tapioca. Some even tried to cultivate rice, but it was a very different kind of rice from the paddy fields of earth. We tried to improve on that, Jagdeep and I. We grew lentils and spices. He cooked for me dhal curries and parathas. Out of respect for my mate, I too became vegetarian.
We were happy.
We lived together, apsara and human, the first such union since our combined fleets had left earth’s solar system.
And the last.
We turned their kind into hybrids. They thanked us, one by one, as we switched them off as humans. We connected their consciousnesses to various biotech parts if they were still functional, or to our monolithic mainframes when nothing could be saved of their bodies. Their sakti bolstered our own embodied magics. We watched as consciousness dissipated, to be replaced by pattern recognition and simulacra of consciousness that became our communications systems between ships. They became bodies that could not decay. We harvested not just DNA from their bodies, but sakti, that force that had fueled our floating cities on earth, and kept them invisible to human eyes.
When age took first his kidneys, and then disease gradually weakened his heart, we knew the engineers would come for him. It was their last chance to get the last batch of pure human DNA, and of human sakti. They would attach his consciousness to one of the monoliths that fueled our ships and our communication systems. He would live on in the fleet.
On that last night, we sat together on my bed, his right hand in my left hand. I kissed him on the mouth gently, so as not to exert his heart. His eyes begged me again.
He asked me to smother him with a pillow, to do anything before they severed him completely from humanity, before his heart was replaced the way his kidneys had been replaced, before his brain was severed from his body.
“Did you do it? Did you snuff him out?” Teng’s silver praying mantis fore-legs were busy at work on a second mat, but her eyes were hungry. Rasakhi’s softening regard towards Teng was halted by those eyes.
She said, “Why do you suppose we do this? Why do we reproduce a past none of us actually know? Why do we memorialize the humans that we have turned into machines?”
Teng shook her head, bewildered. “I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“Why do you ask me questions about remembrance, and of love, when you do not even bother to ask why we play congkak, and weave mengkuang and rattan mats, long after they have lost their relevance? Why do you ask me if I killed the last human when we continue to profit from their systemic death? I did not kill the last human, Teng. We did that.”
I could not smother him. I wept in his arms, both organic and inorganic. He cried silently into my hair. We fell asleep. In the morning they came for him. I clung to him and screamed into their faces. His eyes begged at me.
I scrambled and fought them all: bunian, apsara, claw-footed Khinnaree. Yes, even the Khinnaree in full-berserk mode. I kicked, I bit at them.
Perhaps I have Khinnaree blood somewhere in my ancestry too.
His heart expired during the struggle.
They confined me in my quarters for a year.
I did not kill the last human, we killed him.
They taught us how to kill. They taught us how to enslave, how to colonize, how to exploit.
A long time ago, when the first bunian princess was stolen by the first man who dragged her away from her celestial robes, we learned the price of being valued for how we looked.
A long time ago we learned to transform into tigers, into owls, into trees to hide from them. We learned how to grow wings, to become swan-maidens and owl-vampires. Some of us turned into the chicken-feet Khinnaree of the Himmapan. Some of us became nenek kebayan, old women of the jungle who drugged wicked men with malicious potions and dispensed sage advice to virtuous warriors.
We learned to build machines, to live in the sky. We learned to harvest the sakti that made us beautiful and powerful. We used that celestial force to create weapons and ways in which to ensure we would never again be stolen.
We stole back the women they stole from us, the ones they bred with humans to create apsaras, my ancestors. We stole their kind to propagate our own. We became an empire of bunian, apsaras, and Khinnarees.
We did not learn love from the humans. We did learn nostalgia, that step-cousin of memory. But our relationship with humans has always been complex, for they are bred into us.
We used our technology to protect them as well. To protect the planet we shared.
Jagdeep gave me comfort. I held on to the memory of that comfort for a very long time in the year that they had me confined. I yearned to return to his arms, to touch his right arm, to cradle his right palm within the warmth of my own. I knew that what was left of him was now encased in a silver cylinder, with no surface of skin left for me to touch. With no consciousness, no qualia left to recognize what we shared.
All that was left of him were algorithms and the processing of external stimuli. Simulating sentience.
He learned from me the apsara ways of silence, and of meditation. We meditated a lot when we did not work in the gardens and plantations together.
Those human songs you asked me about?
He sang some of them for me as I strung together cempaka chains for our mutual amusement.
When they released me from confinement, I was honorably discharged. Retired. They sent me here to be a nursemaid to fledgling apsaras.
Teng watched as the aging apsara stood up, walking towards the wall that showed them the stars surrounding the void that was a dead galaxy.
“He fuels this ship,” Rasakhi said.
“I know,” Teng said, “I tend to his unit. It is the strangest thing, his unit. It is always so cold. He sometimes speaks. But often he does not.”
Ah. Rasakhi gave the younger woman a speculative look. She said, “All of the humans that we captured or rescued did not believe in ghosts. So strange, considering that we exist, and now they don’t, except as hybrids, a blend between machine, apsara DNA, and human parts. They would have done the same to Jagdeep, except that his body had deteriorated beyond help. And in that last struggle, his heart expired. They punished me for that. Not for killing him. He would have made a far more superior model if he possessed a functioning heart.”
“It’s getting even colder. How is that possible? I keep double-checking the calibrations on the heating system. They’re always in order.”
“It’s always cold on this ship. It will always be this cold.”
Rasakhi did not articulate the reasons behind the temperature. It was not needed. She met Teng’s eyes. In the end, this at least was understood.