As the final iteration of Avani Grey sinks into the darkness, I can’t help wondering if she will be the last of us to die.
The water claims her, drawing her printed body down to drift like a sleeping fetus in the womb from which she was never born. I wonder whether she knows that she is the last of her kin, if her soul can somehow sense the final severing of itself from this duplicated and version controlled replica of herself, or if the lights of mortality simply flicker, fade, and blink off like a dying lamp. Maybe it’s just an inversion of her unnatural birth: One instant she exists. The next she’s switched off.
Gone, like she never existed.
Like the rest of us were to begin with, but may never be again.
I trudge back along the dock towards the shore. The snow continues to fall in irregular curtains, whipped about by the cold wind which gusts down from the North across the broad grey expanse of the lake. A mountain of heavy clouds loom there, threatening to bury the blood and wreckage of the last few days beneath a purifying blanket.
Above, one of Javier’s drones skitters past, pursued by a brown hawk, which seems to have taken it for a peculiarly large starling. I pause to watch their dance until, in a moment of blighted triumph, the hawk catches the drone in its talons. Blood and feathers burst in the air like a red and brown firework as the drone’s propellers cut a gash in the hawk’s chest and neck, the pair of them tumbling to the earth in a tangle of torn flesh and shattered gadgetry.
My eyes fall on the water lapping at the dock and my daemon whispers that it is not too late to turn around and stride out to the far end, then to drop into the water, to swim north-west through the cold mountain lake until I can swim no more, then to surrender to the cold embrace of the water. There, somewhere in the midst of a welcoming doom, I could watch in icy detachment as the sky slipped further away above me and faded into the blessed darkness that I’ve craved for so long.
The sound of applause rings out, shattering my reverie.
And there she is, again: Avani Grey.
She’s dressed in the same flowing orange evening gown as all the other variations I’ve killed today. She walks across the lawn towards me, tracing the path of her dead twin’s footprints in the snow, not even sparing a glance for the heap of mingled flesh and circuitry surrounded by a growing pool of red where it crashed to the earth.
“You’ve done well, Talbot. Better than I had even hoped.”
“Who the fuck are you?” I breathe, too weary to raise my voice.
“I think you know the answer to that.”
Three more slow, painful steps bring me back to land. Despite what my daemon tells me, today is not the day for that long, final swim. I face Avani, waiting in silence for her to speak again. Standing here, unseasonable snow settling upon my eyelashes as its purity cools the white heat of my fury, I find a sort of peace in the resignation.
I release my fear and any pretense at wisdom I might possess.
I surrender to the emptiness and inaction, finally allowing myself to be carried along by the flow of life around me, rather than trying to force myself into action. It’s a peculiar feeling, this lack of feeling. A suicide of sorts, but of my ego, rather than my body. I don’t want to take action, whether to kill myself, or defend someone, or force myself to keep on living.
I simply want to wait until whatever may come will come.
“Do you know who I am?” Avani calls, her orange dress and black hair streaming away from her in a sudden gust of wind. Like me, she stands utterly still, seemingly unaffected by the chill or the passage of time.
“I’ve got an idea,” I reply, after a long while.
“You must have questions.”
“Not really… Iris.”
She applauds again, her voice rising up in crystalline laughter as the snap of flesh on flesh cracks the air. “Well done, Talbot. How did you know?”
“You’re still alive. The only reason for Iris to lie about how many there were was if she wanted me to stop killing with one of you still breathing.”
I start walking up the lawn, leaving Avani, Iris, or whoever she really is standing in the snow behind me as I trudge towards the cruiser parked behind the house. Breathing deeply, I taste the underlying fishy scent of the lake, the decaying wood in the forest, and the fresh cut grass beneath the lingering stench of spilled blood. The daemon reaches a talon into my mind, trying to stir up my old fears, but I push it back, breathe in the crisp air, and continue to walk quietly across the lawn.
“You’re not finished yet,” she calls after me.
“You don’t get to decide that.”
She catches up easily, tripping over the shimmering grass in her orange dress like a dancer swaying across the stage. She stops in front of me and produces a small pistol from beneath the many layered curtains of her dress. She points the gun at my chest. Her lips twitch, then settle into a sort of sad smile.
“Maybe I need to tie up loose ends.”
I keep walking. The desire for death has left me, but I’m not afraid of it. I shoulder past her and continue towards the cruiser. She doesn’t fire the gun.
“I’m still here, Talbot,” she calls after me. “The job isn’t finished.”
“It doesn’t matter. None of this does. For all I know every one of those god damn YuriCo executives could be backed up in a server farm somewhere. That’s what your technology has done. It’s removed the finality of death.”
“That’s what I wanted. After the plague—”
“You know that’s not true[ Go back to their discussion. She thinks the plague devalued humanity. Talbot thinks we never valued one another to begin with. ]. We’ve had this argument before, Iris.”
“Not… not exactly. Not us.” Her voice almost cracks.
I turn to see her standing a stride away, gun still pointed directly at me. I look past the barrel and watch those deep green eyes quiver. It could be an act, micro expressions playing on my emotions in an effort to gain my trust, but I have the feeling that there is something genuine in her face this time.
“There were three strains.”
A nod. A flicker of something deep in those eyes.
“Your personality, it was fractured more than once, wasn’t it?”
“I was conflicted about how to handle the transfer technology, so I decided to use it to help me solve the problem.”
“Three different variants.”
“Technically, there were only two. I am the original, Talbot. I hold in my head both the ambition and the altruism. The whole of Avani Iris Grey, all neatly packaged in a single person, contradictions and all. That’s why I arranged for my better self to escape in the cyborg body, and posed among my more ruthless selves until I could arrange this meeting.”
“So, now what? Are you going to kill me and take the company for yourself? The rest of the board is dead. The tech has been released, but you could still be the preeminent experts in implementing it.”
“I want you to finish the job,” she replies, her voice falling to a whisper.
She steps closer and turns the gun around, offering it to me.
I grasp it. The lock chirps, accepting me as a user. By the weight of it there are at least a dozen bullets still in the magazine.
“I’m afraid, Talbot. I already lived through the plague, I don’t think I can face another upheaval of this magnitude. The storm that’s coming will be like nothing the world has ever seen. We can’t even predict what will happen.”
“After all this, you don’t even want to see what happens.”
“I don’t want to be present for the transition. You said it yourself, Talbot: With this technology death no longer matters. This is not the end for me.”
“Oh? You have another dozen imprints running around out there carrying your memories?”
“I’m the last one, and the first. The original. What I’ve got is a backup plan. I placed encrypted portions of my original backup into the source code that you released. Some day, far in the future, when all of the upheaval caused by this tech has sorted itself out, they will be reassembled and returned to life, imprinted on a new body in a better world. I will live to know the true impact of my life’s work.”
I raise the gun and aim at the bridge of Iris’s nose. Her eyes twitch inward, the instinctual panic at being threatened overriding all of her intellectualizing and plotting. There in her eyes I see all of the hope that she had for changing the world, but also the fear. Avani believed that she could remake the world, but after all the chaos and death we’ve both seen she is too afraid to take bold action. Too afraid that she would be caught up in the fire sparked by her invention, just as the engineers of the plague were slaughtered by their own disease and their grand vision for salvation was thrown upon the ash heap of genocides.
Fear is the beginning of wisdom.
My finger tightens on the trigger.
Iris closes her eyes.
I fire a single bullet.
Then, with a scream that wrenches all of the fear and revulsion from the very core of my soul I pull the trigger again, and again, and again, emptying the magazine. I eject the magazine and throw the gun away with a final roar of rage.
This day of blood and water and cold will be a new baptism for my soul. Whatever comes next, be it blood, or fire, or the bleak black midnight of my tattered soul each morning, I will face it. Fear is merely the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of it.
Iris opens her eyes.
I grasp her by the chin and step forward, tilting her head up, pressing my body against hers, and glaring down into her wide eyes.
“You’re not getting off that easy. If I have to keep on living and watch the world burn itself out again, and again, and yet again, then so do you. And I’m damn sure going to keep living.”
I release her and turn away, striding through the cold of the waning day towards the cruiser.
I’m finished drowning.