Sometimes at night, with Kevin curled up against me, I think about you. I think about you and I can’t sleep but all I want to do is sleep. All I want to do is sleep because sleep resets my emotions and I don’t want to think about you.
I remember when you first came to us, a pilgrim. You reached the top of the steps on your twentieth birthday and I saw you spinning around the mountaintop, looking out at the whole world, out to every horizon. It was a clear day, a summer day. You have a summer birthday. I don’t think that matters anymore, but I can’t make myself forget.
We told you what we told every pilgrim: if your health wasn’t bad, you had to stay with us a year before we’d lead you into the depths, before an angel would show you to the sapphire gate. Before we’d let you upload your mind, before we’d incinerate your body. One year with us so we knew that you knew that you were certain. A lot of people call the wait “purgatory.” You didn’t and I don’t.
We caught one another staring so many times we made a game of it, laughing and turning our eyes from one another for just a second before staring again. Then one day it escalated to tag, and we chased each other like we were children, and you tackled me and I skinned my arm on the rocks and you pinned me down and I don’t remember which one of us broke the awkward silence first but I remember that one of us asked and we kissed. You’d never kissed a girl. I’d never kissed a pilgrim. And the air smelled of clover.
I was Janna and you were Hannah, and for the whole of the year you made everyone pronounce your name like it rhymed with mine. Janna and Hannah.
One day you asked me to come with you. I can’t get that day out of my head. It was springtime, and we were at the foot of the mountain loading our bags for the long hike home. You said it simple. “Come with me.”
And I agreed, because I’d misunderstood.
“Where?” I asked. “We’d have to go far. I don’t know what the others would do if they saw me again. We sign up for life.”
“Come with me into the machine,” you said. “Live forever with me.”
I got that vacant look on my face. You never saw it much. Kevin sees it a lot. He hates it.
“I can’t,” I told you.
“You upload when you’re old anyway, don’t you?” you asked.
“I’m not an angel,” I said.
You waited for me to explain.
“Every guardian stands watch over eternity,” I said. “Some of us think we watch over heaven. They call themselves angels.”
“What is it you do, if you’re not watching over heaven?”
“I guard machines full of the programmed echoes of personalities. I guard eleven billion programs that think they’re people. They’re not in heaven. There is no heaven, least of all in a computer.”
“You think I’m killing myself,” you said.
“I do,” I told you.
“If it’s as awful as all that, why do you do it? Why be a guardian?”
“Sometimes I think that the kindest thing I could do would be to cut the wires,” I told you. I was being cold to you. I’m fairly sure it was the only time I ever was. I’m fairly sure because sometimes I think about everything we did together and everything I ever said to you, as if that could help me make sense of what happened. “But I won’t break the machines, and I’d kill anyone who tries, because what I think about it doesn’t really matter. Those people put copies of themselves there in limbo, and we agreed to guard them. I maintain the machines because by doing so, I guarantee they’re the only machines of any kind in the world. Everyone who wanted computers and clocks and industry uploaded themselves and left the rest of us a scorched and sacred paradise. If we shut down the machines, then people who want those things will build them on Earth again, where they don’t belong.”
“People like me,” you said.
“People like you,” I agreed.
And that probably should have been the end of us, there at the base of the mountain, with the spring’s chill in the air between us, but we stared at one another sadly until our fingers intertwined and we never talked about it again. I blame pheromones and first love. And we climbed back up the six thousand stairs and we reveled in our bodies when they ached from the climb and we reveled in our bodies when we touched that night under the thick wool covers in my quarters. And I never understood why you went to the sapphire gate and you’ll never understand why I didn’t come with you.
I talk to what’s left of you sometimes, but it wouldn’t be fair to tell you any of this. After all, I’m going to grow old and die, and you’re already dead and you’re going to live forever.
And Kevin snores and he doesn’t know what to do with my body, and I think I love him, but every time summer comes around I catch the scent of clover and it’s like you’re over me, your lips poised just above me. The thought of you washes over me and I’m drowning and I get so desperate that I storm down the grand staircase to the server room and I call your name and you always make time for me, but I don’t tell you what’s on my mind because you don’t want to hear it and it wouldn’t do either of us any good.
You’re dead and I can never bury you.
I think that’s love.