Ages of Man
by Alexis Ames
Nothing lives on the edge of the solar system.
Nothing organic, at least, which is why AX-983 has to run a quick diagnostic to make sure his photoreceptors aren’t malfunctioning. They aren’t; the data his brain is receiving is accurate. An adult human male is strapped to the table. A real human—one who is alive, breathing, and visibly frightened.
“He’s perfectly healthy. There were no errors in the DNA at all,” the trader, B-423, says as AX inspects the human. The human’s eyes, a dull gray, track AX warily.
“DNA?” AX asks. “Where did you get it?”
It had to have come from Earth, of course, but how had it managed to survive for almost two hundred years? The DNA sample must have been in some kind of stasis, perhaps a cryo-chamber. It doesn’t matter, not really. What matters is that AX is seeing a human for the first time in two hundred years, and he isn’t hallucinating.
B doesn’t answer. “I grew him a year ago.”
“Can he speak?”
“Yes, of course. He’s been taught three different Earth languages.”
“You haven’t taken proper care of his body.” AX notes how thin the human is, how his legs and arms are atrophied and how AX can count every rib through his paper-thin skin.
“I feed him nutrition supplements every day,” B says. He senses AX’s interest, and adds, “His body is functional, his organs are healthy. He should have a normal human lifespan of a century or so. I’ll sell him to you for the price of your ship.”
He’s a fine specimen, perfectly average, and AX knows that he will never get another chance at this.
“How many others know about him?”
“That’s unfortunate for you.” AX shoots him in his central processing unit, and B crumples to the deck. “But I thank you for that.”
The human stares at him, wide-eyed.
“Don’t hurt me,” he whispers. “Please, I don’t -”
“Hush.” AX approaches him, cups the human’s face in both hands. The human’s warm flesh heats his mechanical fingers, and the human shivers at his touch. “I would never kill you. You’re very special to me. You’re going to come back with me to my ship, and I will give you a wonderful life. You’re going to be my Joachim.”
For as long as AX had known him, Joachim sported a jagged scar along one cheekbone. He could have had it repaired—a few minutes with a dermal regenerator would have been more than sufficient—but outright refused. It had nothing to do with his dislike of medical procedures, which AX knew all too well. Rather, Joachim had always said that the scar made him look rugged, and the memory of how he had received it was not one he wanted to erase. Keeping the scar honored it.
This new Joachim has no such scar, of course. His skin is the same tender, pale pink of a newborn infant’s, smooth and unblemished, unmarked by a lifetime of wear. There are specialized UV lights on board the spaceship that AX will use to give him the same tan that Joachim’s skin held even in the winter months, of course, but the scar is another matter.
“Please hold still,” AX tells him. Unnecessary, of course, given that a thick strap across his forehead and another across his chin holds Joachim’s head in place. AX strokes his thumb across the unmarred cheekbone.
The brand-new human, who has likely never felt pain in his short life, screams behind closed teeth as AX gouges out a chunk of his flesh. After, AX cleans and dresses the wound—no sense in giving this new human body an unnecessary infection—and smoothes his hair from his forehead.
“There, now,” he murmurs. “Was that so difficult?”
“You said—you said you wouldn’t—”
“I said that I would never kill you, and I promise that is true,” AX tells him. “This pain is necessary, but it is also only temporary. Once I finish all the modifications, you will be free of it. Trust me. It’s all I ask of you.”
The human’s eyes are wrong.
AX grows a new pair of eyes in the lab for him. It takes him weeks to get the color right. Joachim’s eyes had been the deep blue of a summer’s day, the vibrant azure of Neptune, the cobalt of Earth’s oceans. Temperamental, mercurial, changing constantly with his moods. This new human—this new Joachim—has eyes the color of slate, as dull as the deck plating and walls of the ship.
Joachim screams when AX blinds him. The sound crests and breaks, redoubles as AX scrapes the excess matter out of his eye sockets, becomes surreal and unhinged. The noise stops only when AX turns off his auditory receptors, and after that, the human passes out. Thankfully, he remains unconscious as AX carefully inserts the new eyes, deploying thousands of nanobots to connect the optic nerves and repair the damaged tissue.
He wakes after almost twenty-four hours, and bloodshot eyes blink up at AX-983. Beautiful eyes, gentle eyes, Joachim’s eyes.
“Hello, Joachim.” AX strokes a thumb across his jaw, feels the ripple as he shudders. “It’s so good to see you again.”
The healing process for humans is a lengthy one, and every human body responds differently to trauma. Joachim sleeps, wakes, and then sleeps again. AX brings him sustenance every six hours and helps him eat, as the restraints prevent him from holding the spoon himself.
“Would you like anything else, Joachim?”
“Why do you keep calling me that?” His voice is a thin rasp.
“It is your name.”
“B-423 never called me that.”
“He was a fool who didn’t realize what treasure he had in you,” AX says firmly. “You are Joachim.”
“I don’t understand.” He looks distressed, and AX wishes he could make this easier for him. “Who is Joachim?”
“It’s the name of a human I once knew,” AX says. “Someone who was important to me. Now, it is a name that belongs to you.”
“What happened to him?”
“He died,” AX says simply.
Obviously, Joachim has some concept of death, no doubt due to the unsavory trader who ruled over the first year of his life. He visibly pales.
“I’m sorry,” he whispers.
“It’s the nature of things,” AX says, though the first Joachim died much too young. He had at least four decades left to live, AX estimates, before he was robbed of his life.
“I will die, too,” Joachim says softly.
“Not for a long time,” AX says firmly. “I will make sure of it.”
“But I’m not him.”
“Not yet,” AX agrees. “But you will be. I’ll make sure of that, too.”
Joachim swallows hard, and he flinches away when AX reaches out to him.
After the eyes, the most glaring issue with Joachim is his height. He stands six centimeters shorter than his namesake, so that will need to be fixed as well.
“What’re you doing?” Joachim’s speech is slurred, and he’s valiantly fighting the medication AX had injected in order to render him unconscious. The drugs are costly, and AX would prefer to use them only when absolutely necessary. As Joachim fights to stay awake, AX allows himself a brief moment of fond reflection. The original Joachim had hated hospitals and medical procedures as well – at least, when he was the one on the other end of the procedures. The new Joachim’s struggles will eventually prove fruitless, of course, but AX is heartened to see this spark in him.
“Hush,” AX murmurs. “Relax.”
Joachim wrenches at the restraints that keep him bound to the table, using what remains of his flagging strength for one last burst of power. It’s useless, of course, and he soon falls unconscious.
It takes AX almost ten hours to insert the metal rods into Joachim’s spine and legs that will add the necessary centimeters. It’s longer than he expected, and Joachim starts to come around after only half that time. AX doesn’t have more of the anesthesia to spare, and so he’s forced to mix chemicals from the engines in order to make chloroform. It’s primitive, but it will have to do.
He doesn’t dare render Joachim fully unconscious with the chemical, not with the medication already in his system, so he administers it to Joachim in small doses. Joachim floats in a twilight haze, not fully aware of his surroundings and not completely unconscious, mumbling under his breath and twisting weakly against the restraints. AX cuts through flesh and sinew, muscle and bone, inserting the rods quickly and efficiently.
When he’s finished, he stitches Joachim back together and uses a dermal regenerator to smooth over the incisions. The marks are erased completely from his skin, as though they were never there.
There are few places on the spaceship that the new human can go, and there is certainly no escape for him. Nonetheless, AX keeps him restrained in the lab. Joachim is unfamiliar with this world and its technology, and AX isn’t available to watch over him every moment of every day.
Someday, when Joachim is ready. Someday, AX can let him free.
AX adds what comforts to the lab he can. He installs a bed, with the kind of plush mattress Joachim always preferred. He makes sure that the temperature remains a steady seventy-two degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and at night drops it to sixty-eight. He provides this new Joachim with an abundance of soft, warm blankets at night.
A stray memory file surfaces, of Joachim curling up against AX in the middle of the night, savoring the warmth that his mechanical body put off. AX allows himself to replay the memory file twice through before carefully filing it away again. Someday, perhaps, this Joachim will seek the same kind of comfort in him, and AX will be only too happy to provide it.
“Good morning,” AX says. “How are you feeling today?”
Joachim licks dry lips.
“Hurts,” he murmurs.
“Excellent. That means that your nerves are transmitting signals properly to your brain.” AX peels back the bandage on his face, inspecting the initial wound. Precise as he had tried to be, the injury is half a centimeter too short. At least that is an issue with an easy remedy. He pulls out his knife and digs out an extra half-centimeter of flesh, holding Joachim’s head still with his other hand while he gasps and tries to recoil. “Now, now, none of that. I’m doing this because it is necessary, you must realize that. Hold still—there. Much better.”
Tears leak out of the corners of Joachim’s eyes. AX brushes the moisture away with his thumbs.
Joachim needs a new face.
Or, more accurately, Joachim needs to look like Joachim. The strand of DNA had grown a human, but he is a random human, one that looks very little like Joachim. His facial structure is all wrong. His features must be altered. Higher cheekbones, ones that are more prominent. A stronger jaw. Slightly crooked incisors. More hair, and strands that curl instead of the ones that currently lay limp across Joachim’s forehead. AX scans Joachim’s ears and compares them to the photographs he has of his Joachim in his databases. He’s pleased to discover that the ears, at least, won’t need to be altered much. He will need to trim down the lobes, but that’s an easy procedure.
AX operates twelve times on Joachim’s face, breaking bone and inserting metal plates, widening his face and squaring his jaw and bringing out his zygomatics so they are more prominent. A dermal regenerator seals the incisions and erases the scars that would have inevitably formed, but the operations take their toll. Joachim’s face becomes swollen, bloated, red and angry.
“Why are you doing this to me?” Joachim speaks the words from vocal cords that are raw from screaming. “What have I done?”
His face is swathed in bandages. AX spends hours at his bedside, alternating between pressing cold and warm compresses against his face, trying to bring down the swelling and ease the pain. He hates that he has to put Joachim through this ordeal.
“It’s only temporary, my dear,” he murmurs. “We are so close to being finished. Please, try to relax. You will heal faster if you rest. Would you like some soup?”
“I want to go.”
“Go?” AX asks, puzzled. “Where would you go? This is your home. You belong here, with me. I will take care of you always.”
Joachim lets out a broken sob, and AX kisses his forehead soothingly.
Joachim’s shoulders are too narrow. AX snaps his clavicles, operates once again in order to insert metal rods that stretch his shoulders and chest. When he’s properly healed, exercise will build up the muscle that the original Joachim carried naturally on his broad frame.
AX then turns his attention to Joachim’s hands. The rod of Asclepius is easy enough to ink onto the inside of Joachim’s left wrist, precisely where the tattoo had been on the original Joachim’s body. Dark hair already peppers the backs of his hands, which is as it should be, but his fingers don’t betray the lifetime of hard work that the original Joachim’s did. AX uses a hammer to shatter the bones of his left wrist. Joachim howls.
“Hush, my love,” AX murmurs. “This, too, will heal. The human body shows a remarkable capacity for resilience, haven’t you realized that yet?”
He takes Joachim’s right forefinger and snaps it, and then breaks Joachim’s third finger in two different places. He sets them, and though they will heal, the evidence of pat injury will always be there.
How often AX had studied the original Joachim’s hands! He found them endlessly fascinating, which was odd, because they weren’t wholly remarkable except for the fact that they were Joachim’s. His were hands that stitched broken and torn humans back together, hands that soothed, hands that brought mewling infants into the world or ushered elderly patients into death. AX had loved those hands. He knows he will come to love these as well.
The scars on the original Joachim’s back had been cut into his skin with a whip.
AX purchases a similar one at an underground market on Oberon. He suspends Joachim from the ceiling of the lab, in a harness he designed precisely for this purpose. Joachim’s back is bare, exposed, and a cry is punched from his chest with the first blow.
“The original Joachim, the one whose name you carry,” AX says between blows, “was drafted into a war. Humans were always fighting wars. It’s one of the reasons they died out as a species.”
Three more blows in rapid succession, and Joachim screams.
“He was captured, and he was tortured. I must replicate those injuries on you,” AX says apologetically. “I assure you, this is not enjoyable for me.”
He whips Joachim until the deep welts on his back split open and leak blood. Joachim screams himself hoarse. By the time AX is finished, he has run out of air, and he will be hoarse for days. AX cleans the wounds and dresses them. He could have numbed Joachim for this, but it wouldn’t have been an authentic experience. The original Joachim hadn’t been anesthetized before his torture, and so this one couldn’t be, either. He will carry the memory of this pain with him forever, as his namesake did.
“I’m not him.” Joachim’s head hangs limp, chin touching his chest. He speaks to his abdomen, his words thin and brittle. Sweat-damp hair falls about his face. “I am not Joachim.”
AX places a finger gently under the human’s chin and tilts his head up. His pupils are wide and black, nearly eclipsing the not-quite-blue of his irises.
“Not quite yet,” he agrees. “But almost.”
“I have another adjustment to make,” AX tells Joachim one morning.
He finds it fascinating that, the moment the words have left his vocal processors, perspiration breaks out across Joachim’s forehead. The psychosomatic response is swift, which is a good sign. Joachim’s cognitive functions appear to be completely intact, which is nothing short of incredible, considering how long that strand of DNA must have been in stasis before B got his hands on it.
“Please—no more, I can’t—”
Joachim breaks off with a choked cry as AX cracks the pipe across his face, breaking his nose in three places. This is a relatively easy adjustment, at least. He had been with the original Joachim when his nose was broken, and still has the complete memory file of that incident. From that, he was able to calculate the precise angle of the blow, the amount of force that he would need to exert, the exact location he would need to strike.
“There,” he says soothingly, wiping the blood from Joachim’s face. He sets the break imperfectly and then uses cold compresses to soothe the worst of the pain. The original Joachim’s nose had healed badly, so this one must as well.
“He’s dead,” Joachim says thickly.
“Yes, he is.”
“He’s dead, I don’t understand why I have to be him, why I have to be here – “
“You are here,” AX interrupts, “because I will not allow time to get the better of me.”
“I don’t understand—”
“I spit in the face of time,” AX snarls abruptly. Even he is surprised at the anger that surges through his circuits. “Time took him from me. That fragile, useless human body broke down, withered, died. He promised me he would be at my side forever, and he died. So I have resurrected you, Joachim. And I will store your genetic material so that I may grow another when you die, and then another, and another after that. Each time, you will be Joachim. Each time, I will make you perfect.”
Joachim stares at him.
“I’m sorry that he died,” he whispers. “But I can’t be him. I can’t—I’m not—”
“Then what are you?” AX demands. “Who are you?”
“I—” But Joachim falls silent, closing his mouth abruptly over the words. He’s staring at AX-983, wide-eyed and alarmed. “I’m—”
He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know, because he’s never been anything, not until AX brought him on board this ship and gave him a name, a face, a purpose.
“You are Joachim,” he says. “And you are mine.”
Joachim has nightmares.
AX had cameras and other surveillance devices installed in the lab so he can monitor Joachim’s condition from anywhere on the ship. The human tries to keep himself awake, and always inevitably fails. He sleeps in fits and spurts throughout the day, never for more than a few hours at a time, and always jolts awake.
Sometimes, however, his mind traps him in the nightmare. He thrashes on the table, writhing against his restraints, and doesn’t wake up. AX-983, who can’t stand his obvious anguish, wakes him when it becomes apparent Joachim won’t be able to do it on his own.
“What was it about this time?” he murmurs, using a damp cloth to wipe the sweat from Joachim’s forehead.
“You can tell me.”
Joachim closes his eyes and leans slightly into the touch. AX is startled, and no less thrilled.
“I was trapped,” he murmurs. He opens his eyes, but can’t meet AX’s gaze. “It was dark—I couldn’t move. The walls started to close in. I tried to push them away -”
He breaks off.
“You’re safe now,” AX tells him. “I promise. Nothing will happen to you on this ship. I will always be here to take care of you.”
Slowly, carefully, AX loosens and then releases the restraints. For the first time in months, Joachim is able to move his arms and legs freely. He looks at AX blankly, and then slowly sits up. He swings his legs over the edge of the bed and lets his feet dangle. As tall as he is now, the bed is still high, and his toes don’t quite brush the floor.
“Thank you,” he murmurs. His shoulder brushes AX’s , and he doesn’t pull away.
Joachim takes his first tentative steps in the lab. When he stumbles and falls, AX is there to catch him. He sits there for several seconds, his breathing ragged, half in AX-983’s lap and half on the floor.
“You can,” AX murmurs against the shell of his ear, eliciting a shiver from Joachim. “You will. It takes practice.”
Joachim huffs. “You make it look so easy.”
“It will someday come as naturally to you as breathing.” AX helps him to his feet. He keeps his hands under Joachim’s elbows, just in case. “Let’s try it again.”
Eventually, Joachim walks. Soon, he’s exploring the ship with AX-983, investigating all the nooks and crannies, asking questions about literally every bit of technology that he sees. He’s entranced by the cockpit, by the auto-doc, by the powerful engines that cut through the vacuum. He’s struck speechless, though, by the view from the portholes. There had been none on the trader’s ship. He’s never seen the stars before.
“It’s beautiful,” he breathes, fingers pressed lightly against the glass, as though he means to brush them against the glittering black.
The original Joachim had loved the stars, too, but he had been forced to love them from afar. He was bound to the Earth. AX never got to show him this, never had the chance to take him into the desolate, empty, beautiful void.
“Can we visit them?”
“The stars?” AX asks. “No, they’re much too far away. It would take many years to get there.”
Joachim frowns. He still has trouble grasping concepts like the passage of time, and aging. With no seasons, and no turn of the Earth to govern his days, time has little meaning for him.
“There is one star we can visit,” AX says, and Joachim looks at him, hopeful.
“It’s called Sol. It’s the star that gave life to your ancestors.”
Another blank look. Another concept that has no meaning for him. No matter. Joachim will learn. AX will teach him. They have an entire human lifetime together.
Earth has largely recovered from the blight of humanity. The air is breathable, the oceans are thriving, the forests are returning. Billions of species populate the planet, from the highest arid peak to the crushing depths of the ocean, and not one of them is human. Not one of them remembers a human.
AX lands the shuttle by the coast, less than a mile from where the original Joachim was raised, and helps the human who now wears his face down the short ramp. Joachim stands and stares for a long while at the water, the sky, the stretch of pebble-strewn beach.
Two hundred years after the last human walked the Earth, Joachim sinks his toes into soft sand, closes his eyes, and draws in a lungful of salt-laden air. The water laps at his feet.
“I am from here,” he says. I am, AX notes. Not he was.
“Yes,” he says. “You are.”
“It’s beautiful.” Joachim frowns. “But there are no stars.”
“Not during the day. The light is too bright. You will see them at night, when the sun sets.” AX rests a hand on the small of his back, and Joachim leans into the touch. “This is where we will live.”
“Yes,” Joachim murmurs. “We will live here.”
He begins to walk up the beach, strolling in the direction of a strip of rocky land that juts out into the sea. AX follows. The salt air isn’t good for his joints, but Joachim is content here, and that’s all that he cares about. Joachim is here, with him. After two centuries, his life has finally been put right again.
“Who are you?” he calls to Joachim’s back. The human throws a mischievous look over his shoulder.
“I am yours.”
AX lengthens his stride to catch up. “For how long?”
Joachim holds out his hand, and AX takes it. His skin registers at precisely thirty-four degrees Celsius, the same as the original Joachim.
“Always?” he asks, almost tentative.
A thrill goes through AX’s circuits at that. The two hundred years he spent without Joachim will someday fade to nothingness against the vast expanse of time. He has created Joachim once from this strand of DNA; he will do so again, over and over, every time this human’s body fails and dies. He will wrestle Joachim back from the brink of mortality, and he will win each time.
“Yes,” AX says, curling his fingers around Joachim’s, “forever.”
About the Author
Alexis first picked up a pen when she was eleven years old and hasn’t put it down since. Science fiction is her preferred genre–more specifically, exploring the ever-evolving relationship between humans and technology. Her sci-fi stories have previously appeared in publications such as Prismatica Magazine, The New Accelerator, and The Corvus Review. In her spare time, she runs, hikes, reads, and dreams up ways to torture her characters. You can find a list of both her published and upcoming stories at alexisames.home.blog.
About the Narrator
Kitty Sarkozy is a speculative fiction writer, corporate customer service trainer, voice actor and professional robot girlfriend living in Atlanta, GA. She has a rather non-specific set of questionably useful skills, a plethora of hobbies, and almost enough cats. When not writing or on the phone, she stays entertained as a background actor and rogue. Follow her adventures at kittysarkozy.com.