The Symbiosis

by Mac Tonnies

(Note: This story has never been published, probably for good reason. I once sent it to SF genius Rudy Rucker, who accurately noted that there's no real action and too much sitting around. But I'm happy to say that he liked the ending. Illustration by Zakas.)

Franz sat at the base of the frozen river, arms crossed on bony knees, eyes alert beneath black-rimmed glasses tinted the same unremarkable gray as the overcast. A sim girl sat near him on the frozen ground, pale hands clenching and unclenching so that the soil dribbled through her fingers. Franz was aware of, but did not feel, the cold; as a sim, he was designed more for appearance than feeling. He feigned breath, felt the thumping of a synthetic heart in his chest.

Across the river, buildings sheathed in dirty ice and rampant lichen clawed feebly at the sky. No pedestrians moved on the cracked sidewalks. Cars, where visible, boasted wounds of rust and shattered windshields. Lichen feasted on the ancient vinyl interiors, fetus-like in metal wombs.

Franz examined the river, eyes widening in quiet hunger. Slowly, he removed a rusty straight-razor from the ground and slashed expertly at his left wrist, the blunted stainless steel rasping against the plastic tendons beneath the rubber skin. Lubricant beaded on the wound and froze, leaving a partial bracelet of amber jewels. The severed skin hung loosely, and he pushed it back into place with a stab of regret.

The sim girl--Franz didn't know her name, or if she had a name--watched with her brow creased in disapproval. Franz glared weakly in her direction and pretended to lose himself in the threadbare pattern of his slacks, looted from an abandoned shopping mall more than a year ago.

The girl rose gracefully, the pneumatic hinges in her knees and ankles not yet clotted with the debilitating lichen. She--Franz assumed it was a she--was naked, her diminutive brown frame not quite human. By intention or for economy? Franz wondered, shuffling his shoes on the hard ground. She had no vagina; her groin was a featureless slope of flawless soft plastic, immune to the encapsulating chill. Her physique was feminine, though boyish--some fetishist's ideal, Franz assumed, although the absence of genitalia puzzled him. Her face, though pretty, had a disconcerting unfinished look to it, as if the synthetic flesh had congealed too suddenly to her musculature.

Her eyes glowed murky green, and her mouth seemed perpetually fixed in a simian pout that left her narrow lips nearly colorless. As if the dye hadn't taken, Franz thought, not for the first time. He'd milled around the city with the sim for a week--not, he told himself, for a need for companionship, but for the sheer solipsistic relief of having someone else to feel distinct from. Without her, the silent spires and dead cars seemed to become an extension of his own mind, an artifact of perception that had to be rubbed away like the floaters that plagued his sight after waking from a night's artificial sleep.

She approached him with her usual precise gait--precise even for a sim--and stood statuesque in front of him, one bare leg planted between his own as if defying him to take some unspoken initiative.

Franz found himself standing up, obliging her presence. He was six feet tall, rail- thin and continually ill-at-ease, preferring the tumult of his own mind to the mute disaster zone of the city. Nevertheless, he allowed the city to define him, its broken streets and cluttered alleys a passable schematic for his own endlessly laboring thoughts.

Franz coughed mechanically into his fist, bracing himself against the sim's shoulder with his free hand. The contact didn't appear to upset her, or even surprise her, and he felt relief.

She somehow enjoys our nearness, on some level, Franz mused, the corners of his mouth drawing tight as he considered another day of strolling iced-over boulevards. The straight-razor sparkled glumly at his feet, a testament to its own uselessness.

Together, they began to walk.

#

Franz was an educational litbot, designed to emulate a forgotten 20th century writer. He had the memories to prove it: convincing enough scenes from coffeehouses, endless cobbled streets. He had, apparently, feasted on the very scenery he loathed.

His contemporaneous life in the city juxtaposed cruelly with recollections of Prague. The sim walking beside him (bare feet stepping, unharmed, on broken glass mingled with ubiquitous ice) served as a temporal anchor.

"Where have the people gone?" he said aloud, not sure which language he was using. At least twelve of them lay at his CPU's disposal, etched into the fabric of his self like inscrutable hieroglyphs. Sometimes, when he thought hard enough about the strange gray loneliness that had descended on the city, he recalled a very brief period of havoc and death--a horrific memory sequence he wasn't equipped to deal with. Franz suspected he had never been intended to function as a self-maintaining sim, and relished his own perseverance with a combination of awe and disgust.

At least now I know for sure I'm artificial, he thought grimly, examining the scar on his wrist. He watched blue veins pulse in accord to his meaningless heartbeats.

The sim girl paused next to a ruined storefront, hands loose at her sides as she fought to decipher the faded awning. The steps--what was left of them--were marble, or a passable facsimile. She climbed to the shattered glass doors, neck craned, nimbly balanced on the balls of her feet. Franz watched the play of her muscles with a troubling sense of his own frailty. He windmilled his arms to keep the lubricant in his shoulders from freezing.

Apparently satisfied that the store was empty (as if it could be any other way...), the sim rejoined him on the sidewalk, addressing him with luminous eyes. The glow--both verdant and sickly--reminded him of the phosphorescence that smudged the horizon sometimes late at night. Isotopes, he thought vaguely, feeling his grasp of continuity falter. The beating of his heart was like something chewing needfully inside him, bloating itself on metal and silicon.

Coughing distractedly, he sat down on the crumbling marble steps.

#

He must have shut himself down, programming his skin to wake him upon the first muted rays on dawn.

Franz opened his eyes. He was reclining drunkenly on the steps while the sim girl sat next to him, moving an unopened carton of cigarettes from one hand to the other with the blind precision of ritual. Franz realized she was looking at her wrist. With a start, he saw that she had carved a ragged, festering gouge in it with a piece of broken glass. The sim-skin had melted, caulking the wound shut to prevent infestation. Visible beneath the furrowed skin, scaly artificial muscle throbbed and flowed, bright as chrome despite the gray sky.

Franz sat up, furious at himself, wishing the girl would dissolve into the night in which she'd found him a week ago, silent and unknowable. He watched the cigarette carton's transit from one hand to the other and wondered how much longer his pneumatics would hold out. Once the germicidal sim-skin had been broached, particulates in the air began to chew away at the delicate computational hinges that granted him lifelike movement.

Franz knew from seeing other sims lying in the streets, limbs mottled with lichen, expressions waxy and serene as their guts were flayed from within. Sim corpses were immediately recognizable from their human counterparts: they didn't rot. And their deaths had the look of rehearsed events, limbs bent in appropriately tragic angles, skin bared to the perennial winter cold.

The demise of the sims, accelerated by the ever-spreading lichen, seemed adeptly suited to the city's unsympathetic parameters. Time froze them into passive extensions of the icy walls and glazed concrete . . . galvanized to bear witness.

But to what? Franz wondered, losing himself in the narrow, cobbled streets of his mind. He looked closer at the faces and buildings implanted in his memory and watched them begin to unravel, revealing themselves as unruly wireframe caricatures that flickered like failing fluorescent light. He pondered a future sans the convenience of a past.

All is pattern, he repeated to himself. I still exist, so long as there remains the capacity to experience beauty. But the words sounded mocking and insincere in his mind and he immediately went about trying to erase them from consciousness.

He turned to the sim girl, newly entranced by the thin rasp of cigarettes against the inside of the carton. The wound on his wrist had darkened ominously, like some forbidding stigmata.

Slowly, barely aware of his intentions, he reached out to grasp the girl's restless arms. The carton fell, skidding on the sidewalk like a tiny, out-of-control car. The sim's head swiveled toward him, eyes fixatingly green. Franz noticed for the first time that she had no eyelashes. Her lids, unlike human lids, were bunched oddly into the sides of her almond eyes like curtains waiting to be pulled to thwart the glare of twin suns.

"Neither of us can last long now," he said with deliberate calm. "Our wounds will become infected; our motor systems will fail." He relished the apocalyptic urgency in his voice and wished the sim could be made to share his dreadful certainty.

"If we're to survive," he continued, pronouncing the last word with steely contempt, "we need to do something."

Although the girl hadn't spoken to him before, it didn't surprise him when she did. Back when sims were common, there had never seemed much purpose to dialogue, except to construct an illusion of civility for any humans that happened to be overhearing. Now there was no one left, and old imperatives had shifted.

"Power sources are scarce. When's the last time you saw a fusion battery?" Her lips didn't quite move in time to her words. Here voice was subdued and unremarkable, touched with a vague exasperation.

"We have all the energy we need stored inside of us," Franz said, reeling with self-doubt. "The issue of self-preservation calls for more than scrambling after batteries like insects searching out crumbs." He rocked back and froth, biting his lower lip so strongly the fleshy veneer split with an audible pop. Pale blue silicon gel oozed from the wound. His lip deflated, pallid and withered like a worm driven from its burrow to dry on the sidewalk.

"Who created you?" Franz asked, for the first time realizing how unbearably curious he was. He had subconsciously assumed the girl had been custom-designed as some sort of sex doll, probably an import from the orbital consortiums.

No genitals... He examined the sim's small breasts with urgency so abrupt and intense she flinched.

"Why do you want to know who made me?" she asked, the exasperation in her voice focusing into concern.

"I've never seen anything quite like you," Franz stammered, touching one of her nipples with a quivering hand. It retracted into her breast as if independently alive, leaving a shallow pit that puckered shut, fusing before his eyes until there was no trace of tissue differentiation. The other breast followed suit; in seconds she was transformed from something approaching female into a minimalist parody.

"I was designed for extraplanetary use," she said, emotionless. Her nipples rematerialized. "The skin is a utility and a defense system--against temperature, vacuum..."

She looked at Franz with suddenly mournful eyes. "I think I may be immune to the lichen, as well."

She offered her arm to Franz, who cautiously took her hand, turning it so the underside of the wrist was exposed. The self-inflicted wound was gone.

Astonished, Franz looked at the gash in his own wrist. Veins of bloodred lichen had already formed, snaking into the wound like deadly rivers. He wrestled away a pang of alarm. He had knowingly courted death. Baring his internal systems to the airborne lichen was merely hastening the inevitable. He imagined his own dead face, ashen under a glaze of ice and snow.

Maybe entropy results in some ultimate peace, if only we allow it, he thought, unconvinced. Enduring in the face of the city's grisly odds promised only a procession of cold, wasted streets.

The girl stood before him on the steps, legs minutely spread for balance, hands clasping the androgynous curve of her hips. She bowed her head in thought--or prayer. "Watch . . ."

Her body dissolved, fizzing and churning, briefly assuming solid forms that were more abstract than organic. Franz made out an arsenal of utilitarian forms: scoops, pincers, suction cups... Her skin was liquid, cascading around a slight metallic endoframe like a sentient ectoplasm, immune to gravity. She extended frail arms that became membranous wings, which collapsed, molten, fusing to her sides as sharklike fins . . .

And then she was herself again. She seemed strangely embarrassed as she sat down on the cold steps, the heat from her flesh melting a patch of ice. Water clung to her thighs and dripped, forming tiny icicles that she brushed away with annoyance. She hugged her knees to her chest as if conscious of the cold.

"I'm effectively multipurpose," she said quietly. "The original concept was to include as many functional forms as possible in one aesthetically acceptable unit." She squinted at the overcast. "You can't see it from here, not anymore, but the moon is in that direction, pitted and airless. Empty."

"You long for it," Franz realized aloud. He remembered the silver moon vigilant above the sublimely haphazard roofs of Prague. He reached into his cache of artificial memories, pained by images of living, bustling human beings under a hospitable sky.

He retrieved the file he was looking for: Men in white, mummy-like suits standing on the moon's gray surface, hunched under the weight of their backpacks. The image was evocative and strangely bothering, like an ancient photo of long-forgotten ancestors, captured in a moment of time forever inaccessible.

"What do you remember?" Her breath--of course, it wasn't really breath, just mechanically displaced air--was hot in his ear.

"I'm not sure. It was long ago. Before this--" He spread his hands, encompassing the street, itself an expanse of consummately lunar gray.

She moved abruptly so that her lithe arms (human-looking now, he noted with relief) straddled his sunken torso. She pressed her face into his own, speaking in a husky, modulated whisper: "You don't remember."

Her eyes narrowed into hypnotic slits. Franz recognized them as quantum tunneling sensors; she was reading his mind, diving effortlessly through the pool of his memories. She bifurcated and branched until his mind seemed to pulsate and buzz with her presence.

"It's been so long . . . I don't remember what happened here." He heard his voice, tinny and unconvincing like a transmission from another world.

Green light; a paradoxically sensual ache spreading through his mind. His limbs spasmed mindlessly on the ice and broken glass, tearing his clothes.

He thought he felt the sim's versatile flesh wrapping around him, womblike, encasing him in a pliant shell of machine warmth. Tendrils wriggled into his ears, up his nose, latching onto interface ports he had long forgotten existed.

#

He floated in darkness, bodyless.

The earth, green and blue and scabbed with brilliant white cloud, tumbled into view beneath him. Something strange caught his attention; something large and fiery materialized out of the blackness, leaving a column of red vapor as it raped the earth's atmosphere.

The sim's voice, boundless in the cosmos she had seeded in his vision: "The Earth was struck by a large asteroid nearly three-hundred years ago. No one saw it coming. Slamming into mainland China, it killed billions in moments. But the worst was to come.

"Misinterpreting the chance collision as a deliberate attack, space-based weapons systems were ordered to reciprocate. A nuclear exchange ensued, leveling the few population centers not already shaken to their depths by the meteor strike . . ."

A blur of missiles whistled through the atmosphere, their detonations small but bright as arc-welders as they lofted countless tons of radioactive soot into the still-trembling sky.

The image dissolved into a wireframe approximation that flickered off, leaving him in the virtual space of each other's minds. There were no colors, only shades of mutual terror and loneliness.

"We almost made it," the sim thought to him, her words rendered into photonic whispers that filled the space between them as solidly as a chunk of masonry or rusted metal. The girl's proximity was overwhelming, unlike anything he had ever experienced. Their synapses twined and bonded. Franz felt their selves congealing into tentative new patterns.

"Colonies were being planned for the moon. Homo sapiens possibly could have survived, given a few years' warning. But the impact changed everything."

"Stranded," Franz thought, imagining the fiery, portentous clouds that he had seen just before the sim's appalling reconstruction had ended.

"Stranded," the sim affirmed, "albeit immortal."

The girl's mind released him and he seemed to fall back into physical reality, dourly assessing his torn clothes. His left arm refused to respond; a quick diagnostic check confirmed the presence of invasive lichen.

He managed to crouch, left arm dangling uselessly, veined with decay. "You may be immortal," he said, glancing up at the building's cracked facade. He displayed his infested wrist with morbid triumph. "I most certainly am not."

"Together we can change circumstances," she said, eyes wide and appealing. "So long as we can experience beauty."

Franz laughed bitterly. Thick fluid swelled in his throat and leaked warmly from the edges of his mouth, steaming in the cold. "I never wrote that," he said, tempering the hate in his voice with what he hoped sounded like reason. "Someone just wanted me to think I had."

The girl pretended not to hear. "I propose a symbiosis," she said, kneeling on the filthy ice. She began to change into a fleshy, enigmatically contoured insect, fragile-looking grappling claws crowning all six doubly jointed limbs. Her human face receded into the body with a pneumatic sigh, nose and mouth vanishing as the eyes expanded, casting a viridian glow on the ice, transforming the desolation into an emerald tapestry.

Her back became a broad shell capped by the vestigial bumps of her spinal column. Entranced, Franz watched the shell divide in two, forming a tapering slit that writhed muscularly before opening to reveal the glint of electronics. Tendrils extended from the fissure's rounded lip, beckoning with the dreamy undulations of an anemone.

Franz, bathed in green light, removed his head from his torso. Motors buzzed in protest as the skin of his neck expanded and tore, bloodless. The fragile stump of his spinal column sprayed a fine mist of lubricant into the air. It alighted on his disembodied lips, black and sour as ink.

His body sagged and fell into a twitching, bony heap on the frozen pavement. The tendrils radiating from the beetle-like shell grasped his head, hefting it as precisely and gently as an archaeologist might transfer an ancient and invaluable sculpture to a padded shipping crate. The shell closed and fused into a seamless oblate.

Tendrils plunged up Franz's nose and thrust eagerly through his ears. He reentered the urgent landscape of the sim's thoughts, his memories and desires mingling with his host's in a spontaneous neuronal tide.

The insect-like body began skittering down the street as if trying to outrun an invisible predator, clearing broken glass from its path with deftly flicking spatulate antennae.

Brittle, nascent wings detached from the insect-thing's gleaming thorax, as scintillating and elaborate as stained glass.

Through a momentary rift in the clouds, the moon glowed full and orange.

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