The old man sat and watched the day wane.
He knew he was dying. He could barely climb the rickety steps of the brownstone, breathless and shaking. He could feel the press of gravity in his bones. The door to the balcony was beyond his strength.
At first he hid his frailty from his daughter, feigning weariness or small colds, but he knew she realized when she asked him to move a small plant to the windowsill and he dropped it. Afterwards, she was doting, even opening small jars of pre-processed food for him.
“Dad’s got arthritis,” he heard her whisper into the phone. He stared out the window as she flipped through a glossy magazine, the blare of the newsfeed deadening the ambience.
It was early spring and he’d neglected to plant any of his bulbs. The winter had been hard, screaming outside the windowpane, flipping his deck furniture.
The first hint of uploading came weeks later. Shyia was on the porch, watering a small clump of yellow daffodils he had purchased pre-planted. The breeze was strong and crisp but the sun wide and warm. Everything brighter, more alive than it had been in months. He watched her work, absentmindedly flipping on the screen.
It booted through the introductory adverts, surges of flashy life-planning consultant logos, cheap consumer gadgets with gilded edges.
Then a doctor in a white lab coat, head on, like an old Errol Morris documentary, speaking of “the time of change”, “graceful transition,” “new seasons,” “natural progression.” Uploading.
The old man harrumphed, turned back to watch Shyia. But she’d caught the voice as well. The hose was down, coiled like a rubber snake, her flipflops planted on the brick tile.
She stared across rooftops.
“Dad,” she said. “How’re you feeling?”
He didn’t say anything. Pulled himself up the two stairs and onto the patio, breathing hard. Sunlight hit his arms, craggy and mottled, the scars where they had burned off cancerous growths.
“Shyia,” he said, his voice caught in his throat, like gravel.
“What do you think about that?” she said.
“Dad,” she said. “On the TV. What the doctor was talking about.”
“Oh, that,” he said. “Wasn’t really paying attention. I was watching you, how nice you look out here in the sun.”
She picked up the hose again. Offered it to the old man. “Why don’t you water some?”
He took the nozzle, adjusted the flow to a hazy rain, and began to drench a row of azalea bushes lined against the brick wall.
“We don’t have to make a decision now,” she said. “But think about it. I think we could get a free consult. You could see what it was like. They have virtual headsets.”
“Shyia,” he said, turning to her as the water ran. “I’ve no interest. When I’m gone, I want to be gone, not holding on in some videogame half world. Wouldn’t be right. Your mother would not approve.”
“Dad…” she said.
“Besides. It’s terribly expensive. You’d have to sell the brownstone and there wouldn’t be anything left for you. Or those grandkids you keep promising me.”
He could see her face was pained. But he felt his gruffness was justified.
“It is for those grandkids,” she said, reaching her hand out to touch his arm. “That’s why I’m even considering it. They could have a real chance to know you. Learn from you.”
He let her run her palm through the soft gray hairs on his arm. Then he cut the water and began to coil the hose, groaning.
The breeze picked up and the newly born yellow petals shook gently, drops of water glistening in the overhead sun.
The old man sat and looked across the deck.
Shyia was watering the buckets, the hose sputtering, pumping the sun-warmed water. She was eight months pregnant.
He knew the sun was out, full of vital energy for the plants to absorb and grow – his own solar panels expanded and angled.
“Dad, what do you think of those new Model Eights? I was reading about the gyroscopes they have for internal balance.”
The old man tilted his solar panels, which now served as arms, in the nonchalant stand-in for a shrug.
Finished with the watering, Shyia dragged the hose to the corner of the deck, grunting as she bent to roll it up. One hand on her very pregnant belly.
“Let me help you with that,” he said, rolling forward, servos whirring. He extended his grasper arm, gently took the hose out of her hands and spun it quickly into a perfect spiral.
“Thanks Dad,” she grinned, patting the small dome that served as a ‘head’ on the rover. “I know you don’t like the networlds, Dad. So I’ve started saving for an upgrade.”
The networlds – Las Vegas on psychedelics, miles of transhuman orgies and revelry. With his limited skill he’d attempted to construct a model of Manhattan, but rendered a cruel simulacrum, all hard angles and glare. It lacked so much: the breeze wimpling the wall of ivy on the brick, cascading to the courtyard like gentle lapping waves; the water towers with subtle hints of decay, warped wood beams.
“Shyia,” he said, amping up the stern undertone in the voice synthesis. “The baby. That’s what important. Not the model of rover.”
She nodded, scrunching her nose, running her palm down the bulge.
“Was that a kick?” he asked. He’d seen the imperceptible shiver in the fabric of her shirt.
“It was, Dad,” she said. “It was.”
The old man sat and watched the baby crawl.
She was nearly a year old, inquisitive and curious, crunching a brown leaf in her tiny fist. He would have smiled if he could.
Shyia was gathering the dead husks and leaves into a pile to throw away. The sky was billowed with autumn clouds and when the sun angled through it still felt hot on the patio.
“Brooklyn,” he said, softly cooing.
She turned her head, blonde ringlets and watery blue irises. “Peekaboo!” he said, blinking the few controllable LEDS on his chest. The child laughed, reached out to touch them.
“I moved my backup,” he said.
It took a minute for Shyia to register. “What’s that, Dad?”
“I moved it. Here, to the rover.”
“But, Dad. That’s dangerous. The datacenter exists so that…”
“So that I can never die,” he said. “I know why Shyia. I don’t like that buzzing limbo one bit. It’s hellish and dark. Here I have the sun, human contact. The people I love.”
“Dad, another month and I’ll have enough for the upgrade. Those AX-19s with the hybrid senses, the realistic epidermis. I think you’d like that, Dad.”
The old man didn’t say anything, but watched the sky. The sun already on the wane, closer to the horizon this late in the year. Another month and the storms would begin and he’d be relegated to the closet and horrid networlds.
Shyia took the silence as a cue to change the subject.
“Brooklyn was accepted into the West Side Prep nursery. It’s very prestigious.”
“And expensive,” said the old man. “I don’t need that AX-19.”
Shyia breathed deep. “Ok, Dad. I’m going to run inside real quick. Watch Brook for me.”
“Ok,” he said.
The child was playing with the brick wall, running her palms along the rough stones and the lines of mortar. Her lip was curled – the same as Shyia when she was thinking. He loved them both, even here and now in this half-life.
He offloaded the note into a shared drive location, emailed Shyia. It would make sense to her, everything finally clear.
“Peekabo,” the old man said, rolling towards the baby. Brooklyn crawled forward, drawn by the large flashing light. The old man blinked it in a rapid patter of reds and blues.
He’d routed his internal drive to the button, along with a format command. The hardwiring of the rover prevented a deliberate self-destruct. But he could always get creative.
“Peekaboo,” he said again, sing-song. She giggled, reaching out, tiny fingers searching.
They clumsily ran along his metallic chest, the cracks in the plastic exoskeleton and raised logos.
“Come on,” he whispered as he felt her finger depress the button, holding his very life cradled.
She laughed and he watched her eyes as the drives began to wipe, his memory seeping away in rapid white swipes.
Then all was gone save his tiny, thin synthetic conscious. The ghost in the machine. Without any point of reference of the city, the patio, himself, this little girl. He could only watch her eyes in wonder, marvel at her, childlike once again.
Then the cycle completed, he heard the scrape of a leaf across the deck, a final joyful giggle.
This is what it feels like to finally die, he thought.