"But hey. We're only human."

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Being Human
By Mark Bourne. Short story originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Dec. 1993. All rights to this story have reverted back to the author (me). Distribution in any form without written permission is scowled upon. I like to know about these things, so please ask before assuming. Thanks.

          “VROOM VROOM!” TAN SHOUTED. Her vast cigar-shaped body floated overhead on a cool Puget Sound breeze. I reeled in my tongue from off the street, reared up on my back peds, and looked upward. She wiggled her tail rudder in that way she does when she’s playing at being sexy.
          “Johann, lookit me!” she called down, giggling.
          She sucked in her dorsal fins and inhaled so deeply that her huge cheeks bulged like…well, like balloons. Holding her breath, she smiled at me with a tight-lipped crease that stretched from ear to ear (that is, port to starboard). Now fully swollen with air, she paused to let her nannies do their work inside her whale-sized stomach. She winked a sky-blue eye as big around as my entire body, then with a long fart that sounded like a chorus of coughing tubas, rocketed up and away over the Seattle sunset toward the Mt. Rainier Festival. Her exuberant “Wheeeee!” followed her into the distance.
          A passing bus looked annoyed, crinkled its nose at Tan’s perfumed exhaust, and increased its stride down the boulevard, as if ushering its passengers away from the local riffraff. Snob. Soon, Tan was lost among other bobbing gnats near the mountaintop.
          She’d grown up so fast. I couldn’t help but smile, then resumed licking the curb, savoring the fruity tang of the dust and dirt before letting my nannies digest them. Kids these days!
          Tan was in better spirits since her morph. Higher spirits, I should say. Her new bioform suited her buoyant personality. But two centuries of nanotech and designer genes hadn’t changed everything. Soon she’d be brooding over how broad her dirigible waistline looked or whether some cute boy, girl, or neut would ever ask her out on a date. She’d already come to me for “adult advice.” (Her parents had set out for the Oort Cloud farms before Tan was born. I heard they were doing well; still, they should have been here for their child’s first morph. But whenever I told her so, Tan just laughed and called me “oldtimer.”) I recalled my own adolescence with a wispy mix of nostalgia and loathing. It happened before my morph, back in my clunky old birthbody. Like Tan, I had been an idealistic, dreamy-eyed kid with stars in my eyes. I guess it’s just all part of being human.
          I lapped up a pile of wind-strewn leaves cluttering the curb. Old leaves, gone toward a licorice flavor. I chewed slowly. And thought. I liked to think while I worked. Would I miss Tan’s long, black ponytail? Or the feel of her palm on my back when she squatted next to me during our long talks about life and growing up and what her first morph should be? Or were we drifting apart?
          I sighed and swallowed, sniffed around for anything that needed cleaning. There was mildew growing on the oldtime building across the street. Taxis and transports and servicers stepped over me as I trundled to the brick structure and performed the task that best suited me, right down to my genes. Banana. All mildew tastes like banana. Always. This part of Seattle was still the cleanest in town after — hoo! — my almost thirty years on the job. But where was that old satisfaction in a job well done? Why did the streets and buildings and sidewalks all look and taste the same to me now?
          I gazed up at the glittery-gold, snowy peak of Rainier. Which of those flitting specks was Tan, drifting freely among her friends at the Festival? Would she pursue her dreams, whatever they might be? Or would she wake up one day, years from now, to realize that she had filed them away somewhere and never bothered to look at them again? A hollow cave of regret opened inside me — a wide, empty place that even the nannies couldn’t convert to something useful or ornamental.
          I shat a pile of uncut diamonds into a collector, then trudged homeward, watching the sidewalk pass between my peds. For the first time since my long-gone youth, I ignored the now-and-then nourishment littering my path.
          “Howyadoin’, Johann, you ol’ scumsucker?” said House, sphinctering the door open and turning on the porch light.
          “Fine, you thin-skinned shack of shit.”
          It was an old game. He could tell my mood was glum, and I inwardly thanked him for trying to cheer me up.
          “Any messages?” I asked. Not today, I thought.
          “Not today,” he said.
          In the main chamber, he grew my favorite overstuffed chair from the floor so I could sit and put my peds up for a while. I climbed into it and listened to the soothing brrum brrum of House’s heartbeat. His pulse throbbed warmly around my body. I closed my eyes and gently stroked the arm of the chair. He responded with massaging rhythms along my spine. It felt good.
          When I opened my eyes, he had opened a big, brown pair of his own near the holoprint on the wall (a portrait of me before my morph. Red hair, toothy smile, astride my father’s shoulders. My father never morphed, and never understood my choice of vocations. He died before he saw how my talents made this city shine. Perhaps he would have become proud of me. Like I said — nostalgia.) The eyes blinked once and focused on me. “How was your day?”
          “Fine. The usual.”
          “Did you see Tan?”
          “Briefly. She didn’t have time to talk.” The place seemed so empty these days. But, of course, I could never tell House that. “She looks good.”
          “That’s good. I miss her.” House always liked Tan. “It was fun having a kid around when she was here. I still have the play room. Remember when she used to tickle me by drawing on the walls?” He chuckled. “But then she found new friends who aren’t as dull as us—”
          “We all grow up sooner or later.” I didn’t like the surly timbre of my voice. There was an uncomfortable pause while I tried to think of something to change the subject.
          House beat me to it. “So. What’s the problem?” he said.
          “Eat shit.”
          “Not my job, I’m afraid.” He extended a soft, pink nipple from the ceiling and dangled it in front of my face. I turned away from it, knowing how much he hated rejection.
          “Please tell me,” he said, masking the hurt poorly. “You’ve been so distant lately. For weeks. We don’t talk anymore. I’ve never seen you this low before, not in all the years we’ve been together.” His eyes turned toward the floor, and the wall wrinkled with deep frown lines. “I’m worried about you.”
          Dammit. His pouting always worked on me. I softly scritched the chair.
          “It’s nothing,” I lied. Oh, what’s the use? “Just feeling old, I guess.”
          The wall got smooth and the eyes doubled their diameters. Twin eyebrows formed as upraised arches.
          “Old? You were juved just two years ago! And your nannies are guaranteed for the duration of this lifetime.” If I hadn’t known better I’d say he sounded patronizing. “Johann, my sweet, silly love, you’ve got at least a hundred years left on that dirtbag body you’re wearing.”
          A hundred years. As my unmorphed, long-dead father used to say: shoot.
          We both breathed silently for a long moment. When he spoke again, his voice was a plaintive whisper. “Are you tired of me?”
          Shit. I didn’t want it this way. I wasn’t prepared for it. I didn’t know what I wanted. Only that it was something else. The chair hugged me tight, and I squeezed back. We held each other for a long time before I squirmed to leave.
          “I have to go,” I said.
          For the first time, he didn’t help me to the floor.
          “First, will you tell me something?” he asked in a soft, pained voice.
          “Of course.”
          “Is there another house?”
          I stroked the nearest wall with my tongue, the way he liked. He had always been insecure. “No, of course not.”
          I hated hurting him, and I hated what was happening between us. I wanted to apologize, to stay in his warmth and take his nipple. But I was vulnerable to backpedaling, to finding my comfort in familiar places. That, I realized then and there, was the source of my problem.
          When he opened the door for me, I could hear his heart beating fast.

          Precipitation wasn’t scheduled in Seattle for another week, so the twilight sky was clear and deep in all directions. To the southeast, Mt. Rainier was aglow with Festival colors. A slender crescent moon hung overhead, its nightside sparkling with the tiny bright beads of cities and villages and flyways. A telescope would have picked out the slow glints of sailing ships on the Sea of Tranquility. Years ago I had called Luna home. Gazing upward, I didn’t halt the wistful memories that poked their heads around the corners of my thoughts. I could practically taste the orange-peel bite of lunar dust blowing in the nearside air.
          Folks of my bioform are not uncommon in those places humanity has remodeled for its comfort. After my morph, I was Luna’s best spit-and-polisher ‘tween Armstrong City and Starside Towers. Back then, oh I had plans! The moon was just a stepping stone, you bet. To Mars and the ‘roids and the gas giant metroplexes. To working my way from place to place with a job I loved and a body custom-designed for the task. My chosen profession was secure. No matter where humanity spreads itself, from the transient empires of oldtime Earth to the hundred twirling worlds of the solar system, we’ve always needed someone to do the cleaning.
          Like so many others, even those who respond to the “Be All That You Can Be” jingle of the morphing clinics, I fell victim to complacency and familiarity. I settled down. Developed a routine. Sure, I had my diversions; it’s hard to be a hermit on Luna. Joined a cooking club. Subscribed to magazines. Watched travel documentaries. Entered a porn net that catered to morphs. Every year I did the New Seas/New Sites submersible cruise. In short, I dug myself a rut and pulled the moondust in after me.
          Eventually, Luna became too small, too crowded; but by then more distant shores — Mars, the Jovian bubbleburgs, Faraway Station — had lost their exotic appeal. I returned to Earth, met House, and let life become orderly, predictable, and (worst of all) comfortable.
          Now here I was, staring up at the stepping stone I never got around to using. Beyond it, Mars and Jupiter were mocking red eyes against the stars. I absently snatched a strand of spider silk from the air and let it melt in my mouth. What could I have done if, back then, I had taken that next step? Perhaps discovered treasures beneath the Martian crust with the Polar Caverns Expedition. Or created mountain-size ice sculptures in Saturn’s rings. Maybe right now I’d be assisting the Uranian Transformation.
          What if I were Tan, with an entire life and its boundless potential still ahead of me?
          But I’d missed my chances, made my choices. Nothing could refabricate lost time.
          The sky above Rainier was sprinkled with stars, and tiny artificial fires moved among them. I looked toward the Festival lights and imagined Tan soaring and diving with her new, young friends.
          It was time to morph again.
          Yes! That was it! If I didn’t like my life, why not start over with a new one? From now on, life was on my terms, dammit! New vistas and adventures! Look out, worlds — here I come!
          Change makes me nervous. I’d squirted out a puddle of warm carbon tetrachloride before even realizing my peds were wet. Mortified, I glanced around for witnesses, then padded quickly away and boarded a chatty transport bound for the mountaintop.

          Morphs were only a fraction of the Festival’s population. But they were the only people worth seeing. Too often, mundanes bumped into me with their knees and feet, saying “Oh! Excuse me!” and smiling uncomfortably before hurrying on. Others never even looked down. They had a farmy smell that squatted on my tongue. Tourists.
          Folks of myriad vocations and aesthetic preferences strode, fluttered, or wheeled around me. I particularly noticed the mix of standardform bodies with animalform physiognomies, a popular trend that I hadn’t paid attention to before now. A wolf-headed woman in a flowery dress sat cross-legged on a table, reading poetry to a small audience. A baboon clad in Elizabethan finery played a complex board game with his tiger-headed opponent. The baboon moved a game piece and declared “Citadel in six moves!” His opponent twitched his whiskers and growled, then pushed his yellow fedora back on his head to scratch an ear. His gray trenchcoat accented the yellow and black fur rippling down his chest. “Again? Fuck,” the tiger grumped, showing fangs.
          A pair of anthropomorphic bears clad in red and white skated on a pond kept iced over year-round for just such indulgences. The reflections of tree lights on the ice gave them a dazzling arena. They approached one another, each curling an arm around the other’s waist, and orbited their common center before spinning apart on their own courses and pirouettes, slicing the air with the sssshik of their silver blades.
          “Beep beep!” I jumped, startled, and stepped away in time to avoid being run down by a cobra on a unicycle. “Sssorry!” the cobra called back, ribbony tongue lapping the air.
          A nude man and woman, feline in face and fur, spread a picnic blanket beneath a tree. They pointed to Luna overhead, whispered things I couldn’t hear, then kissed and stroked each other’s moon-glossed fur.
          I wondered: what sort of animalform could I choose? Snakes and other reptiles had no appeal for me. Cats were too common, too trendy. Fur might be nice, though. A rabbit, maybe. No, that wasn’t me. A lion? Something fierce and aggressive from mythology? I’d have to think about it.
          I stopped to listen to an all-morph chorus. A woman offered me a mug of sweet, dark ale that poured from one of her tits. I accepted and repaid in kind by cleaning and polishing the cartload of mugs and bottles that followed her. Children played, shouted, ran about.
          A light snow was falling. Billions of carefully designed flakes reflected the Festival lights in flecks of gold, blue, amber, green. They fell alongside the walkways and public spaces, building ever-changing sculptures of colored ice. Miniature fairy tale castles, statue-portraits of people standing near, still-life scenes from history and legend. They grew, melted, and reformed under the guidance of some hidden master artist, who probably studied at one of the arts institutes orbiting Saturn. Maybe I should apply there. I was considered creative, once. When I was young.
          Where was Tan? A few hundred meters up, at the mountain’s peak, a cluster of dirigibles and smaller floaters hovered near a campfire. I pushed my way through a grove of legs, then stopped, astounded. A sparkling ice statue had formed nearby. It was of me. Its frozen face stared toward the mountaintop, a mask of apprehension and anticipation.
          Tan saw me as I trudged up the slope. She drifted down. Her bulk eclipsed the stars.
          “Hi!” she said when she was near enough to avoid shouting. Firelight painted fitful patterns across her hullskin. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? Let me take you up to my friends. Oh, Johann, they’re all so fantastic. And almost as smart as you.” Her old smile had not been changed by her morph. It was merely much larger now.
          “I need to talk with you first,” I said.
          “What’s the matter?” She settled to the ground, pressing a long, shallow crease in the snow.
          The words hung in my throat. “I need advice.”
          “You’re coming to me for advice! Oh, Johann, thank you!”
          “For what?”
          “For being my best friend since I was little. For letting me tag along during your rounds, and always knowing the right things to say when I needed it. Even when you had to scold me. And for now telling me that I’m grown up and we’re still friends. Thank you.”
          I blushed, then took a deep breath. “I want to morph.”
          “But you don’t know what you want to be when you grow up. I remember this conversation.” She was one sharp lady. I wondered what it felt like, being a balloon.
          I watched myself reflected in her mirror-blue eyes. “Do you know what wanderlust is?” I asked.
          “You better believe it. It wasn’t fun, knowing my parents wanted to be out there more than with me. I really can’t blame them, I guess. They did their duty for the survival of the species, then sent me greeting cards from the far edge of human space. It must be wonderful to see the whole universe above your head, then look down and there it is again, beneath you.”
          “You always did like to talk about traveling.”
          “It’s in my blood, I guess. You told the most wonderful stories about distant places. Sometimes I couldn’t tell which were true and which were made up. But I loved them all.” She reached out with a slender arm and laid her palm on my back. “You made a difference.”
          We talked for a long time. Of lost opportunities, of youthful ideals and dreams, and of a life spent ignoring the world around me. After a while, we just looked out over the Festival. The sounds of music and laughter and, above all, people bounced and blended around us. Seattle was an illuminated quilt to the northwest. Tan scooped me into her long arms and lifted me to her skin. The ground dropped away from us.
          “I want you to meet some people,” she said.

          Tan’s friends included a nano designer, a cloud composer, two passenger carriers with literary aspirations, and a veteran spacer. Like Tan, the composer had only recently morphed for the first time. The spacer was in his third bioform. They hovered near the campfire, chatting about trivial things and philosophizing about weighty social issues. I got the impression that they all had known each other for a long time — animated gas bags floating motionless or moving about with gentle waves of their membranous fins. They rolled and yawed as they conversed, exposing different surface areas to the warmth of the flames. I wondered what protective shell lay beneath their skin to keep their flotation sacs from overheating, but figured it was rude to ask.
          They invited me to join their conversations. Often, their topics were far out of my depth. But they never talked down to me or made me feel dumb. I told a joke. They laughed. They coaxed me into talking about myself, and soon they were circled around and above me, listening to my tales of the city streets. Mine was a world they had never thought about before, and that aspect itself excited them. They nodded and looked thoughtful when I explained my desire to morph again. The spacer said he had been there himself.
          “Friend,” he declared in a rumbling voice singed by age and experience. “What you haven’t done with your life is exactly what most folks haven’t done with theirs. That’s been true since all the way back to the oldtimes. What you got going for you is that you know it. And that’s the first step in making life start happening to you.”
          I looked at Tan, buoyant among her friends. She was whispering to her companion, the young nano designer named Orin. They hovered awfully close to each other. He whispered something back to her; she smiled and nuzzled against him. They stroked each other’s fins in a way that didn’t look entirely casual. That hollow empty space in my gut returned. She would never again be that street kid I had known before her morph.
          “Johann.” Orin was looking at me. “Tan has an idea and I think it’s a good one. I believe the others will, too. How would you like to come with us?”
          I wasn’t sure I liked the way Tan pressed against his body. “Oh? Where to?”
          “To the Starside morphing clinic. I’m a bioform specialist there; or I was until I quit two weeks ago. After some time there, we’re heading out. To the stars. The frontier scouts are bringing back incredible reports. We’re going to be among the first to see what’s out there.”
          “Incredible” was an understatement. The newsnet was cluttered with vids sent back by the scouts. But the whole thing tasted funny to me.
          “So where are you going to get a ship?” I said. “The c-buster drive hasn’t been around very long, and starships don’t grow on trees, you know.”
          “They do now.” He floated closer. “The design is encoded and templated. I created the fabrication programs myself. A fleet of first-wave ships is crystalforming now. All they need are the crews.”
          I gave him an inquisitive look.
          Tan glided forward. “That’s us. All of us. We’re going to morph together into a single bioform and move into one of the hull casings. We’ll be the brains, guts, and heart of our own starship! Imagine it, Johann — we will be a starship.” Even on her new face I could see the passion, the commitment. “We’ve had this planned for some time. I wanted to tell you weeks ago, when I saw how unhappy you were. But Orin said we shouldn’t let the word get out before he was sure we could do it. I needed to morph once to check my adaptation phase. We morph in two days. We ship out a week after that.” Her huge eyes moistened. “You can come with us if you like.”
          There it was. My chance. And for not just the solar system, but endless solar systems beyond. A lifetime of missed opportunities would become so much trivial time-serving.
          “I’m not comfy with the idea of a group morph. No offense, but I hardly know any of you, Tan excepted. And I’m not one for crowds.”
          The old spacer bobbed above Tan and Orin. “Don’t blame you a bit, no sir. You think it over. It’d be good to have you along, though.” A ragged chorus of agreement sang out around me.
          I looked up at the starry splash of the Milky Way. Mars and Jupiter were dreary, familiar places in comparison. One of the scouts had even reported evidence of another — nonhuman — presence out there.
          “Okay.” And that was that.
          With a squeal of delight, Tan swam overhead in a rapid climb. When she reached apogee, she twirled along her long axis and, for a moment, I heard the laughter of the little girl I had known. The one who used to visit me.
          “Wait!” I cried into the darkness.
          Tan drifted down, wearing a concerned expression.
          “What about House?” I said.
          For a long moment, I stood there listening to the campfire, the mountaintop breeze, and the rich concoction of sounds from the Festival.
          “I can’t go,” I finally said.
          Tan’s eyes were pleading.
          “I can’t leave him. Not now. We’ve had a lot of years together. There’s too much invested in our relationship to just leave him like that. I owe him at least that much. We used to share everything. But lately I—” I let the thought trail off. “Hell, I’d be leaving the whole fucking solar system!”
          Tan studied me. “Is his happiness more important than your own?”
          I stopped and thought. My mirror images in her eyes sighed. “No. But it’s as important.”
          She seemed to think about that real hard. I looked at her and Orin, her chosen partner who would weave them all together into the most intimate family humanity had ever produced. He pulled her close against his side, and it looked right. The others gathered around them, and membranes undulated between them all. She reached down and pulled me against her soft undercarriage. Like everything else about her, Tan’s goodbye hugs were much bigger now.

          During my trip off the mountain and all the way home, I avoided looking up at anything — the Moon, the stars, those far-traveling points of light — that might distract me from my path.
          House didn’t say a word when I entered him, but the intimacy nook was open and waiting. I stepped inside and sealed the flesh after me. My world was close here, skin-close. Familiar. There was no light, but as the warm, moist walls wrapped around me, I knew where to reach for the nipple, and I took it.
          When I awoke late the next morning, I told House that I had to go away for a while.
          “But I’ll be back in a week. Promise.” I gently stroked him and played my tongue across a firm protuberance. “Then we can talk, like we used to. We can start over. The next time you see me, I’ll be a new person.”
          “Oh?” He shifted me to a new position “What kind?”
          “I guessed you were thinking about morphing,” he said. “That’s all right. Whatever makes you happy is the important thing.”

          The week vanished under a cloud of sedation and reorientation. At the Seattle morphing clinic, my new bioform was uncomfortable and cumbersome, like new shoes all over my body. My mind told me that my guts had been removed by a two-year-old and put back in rearranged, my peds were replaced with enormous things that were in the wrong places and moved in awkward ways, and I had new body parts that didn’t do what my old parts did. I couldn’t wait to show House.
          A superbly crafted sunrise tossed ribbons of gold and blue across the city. I visited familiar avenues and boulevards, making a point of not looking down or sniffing out telltale odors. The city felt new, freshly alive, reborn. I said hello to passing taxis and street vendors. None of them recognized me, but my voice hadn’t changed much, so I could feel their double-takes against my back. For the first time in too long, it was a good morning. I tried singing, but the freshly minted vocal chords refused to allow it yet.
          My mood was shattered by a hammerblow the instant I turned the corner to my street. House was gone. There was nothing of him there. Just a geometrical empty space between the flower gardens.
          How could he have left me? We’d agreed to talk it out, to start over. If he didn’t want me to morph, he could have contacted me at the clinic. But not this. No note. No token remembrances. No House. Confusion, hurt, and anger made new pains in new places, and I fell to the sidewalk in a parody of my former self. I didn’t want to break in a new body this way, but I squatted there on the curb and bawled.
          When my new physical responses had run dry, and I sat there wondering what one did to report a runaway home, a shadow fell over me and the rest of the block. I looked up. Sunlight glared off the crystalline hull and c-buster drive of a starship hovering overhead. Tan! She and her shipmates had waited to say goodbye one last time.
          I asked her where House was.
          “Here I am, you gawky bag of meat.”
          The voice from the hull was House’s. The ship descended toward me. Its lifter fields whipped the air into a dozen tiny whirlwinds.
          I stood shakily. Delight and anger mixed together in my throat and came out as “Why?”
          “Tan called the day you went to the morphing clinic. She said she wanted to be sure you hadn’t changed your mind.”
          “What did she tell you?”
          “Everything. I was hurt because you had gone to Tan with your problems. Then she told me what you gave up to stay with me. I thought about that a long time.” A miniature cyclone coiled around my body, almost blowing me off my feet. “I decided to go with her to Starside. Orin did the work himself. I think he did a good job, don’t you?” A ladder descended out of the crystalform shell. “Remember how we used to talk about traveling together?”
          Whatever made me happy was the important thing.
          “Tan and her friends got a head start,” he said playfully. “Let’s go!” Then worriedly. “If you want to.”
          I stepped onto the ladder and let it carry me into his body. On the way up, I watched my reflection in his mirror-polished belly. The red hair and toothy smile would take getting used to. We were starting over. House (Ship?) and I had some adjustments to make. And talking to do.
          But hey. We’re only human.
          Vroom vroom!



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