CladeA Post-Self Anthology



Jonathan Miller — 2364

Hands ran through the earth.

Calloused hands found the root and pulled.



Stubborn thing.



The thistle came free.

John pulled it to the side and threw it in the pile with the rest. He looked at his flowers, periwinkle, blanket flower, scarlet flax. There was a dead stem, the petals eaten away by some bug or animal. He grunted in frustration and pulled it up by the roots, throwing it in the pile for composting.

This was where he felt at home. Here, where the birds chirped and the wind blew. Here, with the smell of his flowers and the hard-won fruits of his labor. Here, with dirt under his nails and fingers brushing the dirt free. Flecks fell down, leaving his hands mostly clean.

A message pinged for attention.

Liam <3: AVEC soon?

Once upon a time, John would have smiled and felt giddy seeing a message from Liam. Today, he let out a sigh and felt his stomach twist with guilt for that feeling.

John: Be there soon.

He stood up, knees creaking. He grabbed the basket of weeds and brought it over to throw into the compost.

Inside, he went to his vid screen and launched the command to start the call with Liam. The mere existence of the Audio/Visual Extrasystem Communication was the only thing that made this bearable. And even then…

“Hey darlin',” Liam drawled.

“Hey!” John smiled.

Liam looked the same as he did when he uploaded. Preserved in time, in a time before the talk, before the pain, the fight and the lonely nights. But there weren’t those creases that pulled his mouth down, that sat by his eyes. He looked better than all the times they spent at various doctors and specialists. Looking for… relief. Not even a cure, just relief. He looked better than all those days curled up in bed waiting for the current flare-up to stop.

“You’re looking good,” Liam said.

“Bullshit! I’m getting grayer every day. Got called Gramps last week.”

“You’re still handsome to me.”

“I know,” Liam smiled. “I’m surprised you haven’t changed your appearance by now.”

“I’ve gone back and forth. Sometimes I make myself younger or change eyes and hair. But with you… I want to look how you remember me.”

But you don’t.

“I know.” He paused for a moment. “I’m happy I get to see you as ever.”

“How’s my girl? How’s Cassie?” the video flickered for a moment, distorting Liam’s face and making his voice sound… off.

John frowned. “Not good. She’s not grooming herself as much as she used to. She’s having a harder time jumping too. I’m getting worried about her.”

“Oh baby… Please give her some scratches from me.”

She wants you back home.

“I will. She still curls up in your chair. I think she’s still hoping you’ll come back through the door and pick her up like you always did.”

Liam sighed. He looked over and there, where there was nothing, a copy of Cassie appeared on the desk right next to Liam. It was Cassie as she was a few years ago, her fur better groomed, her meow a sweeter chirp than Cassie had, like it was from Liam’s memory more than how Cassie actually behaved. It struck John as… wrong. It made his skin crawl looking at the facsimile of their cat.

“I know she wants me home. I… I don’t regret doing this. But I—”

John shook his head. “You don’t need to explain yourself to me, babe. We talked about it so much. I know all your reasons, and we made this decision together.”

“I know. I just… it’s hard.”

Of course it’s hard.

John reached out and rested his hand on the screen. He could still remember the touch of Liam’s skin on his, the way they held each other that first time, nervous, excited, home. They were themselves home together, as young men, into adulthood, and then… they stopped moving together.

But he could still remember how good he looked in a suit at their wedding. He remembered the way his brow scrunched up when light hit his eyes in the morning. He remembered how peaceful he looked when John held him, even in pain, there was something about their togetherness that seemed to help.

“No more pain though.” John forced a smile, getting his memories out of his head for a moment. He had plenty of time for memories.

“No pain.” Liam nodded. “I feel tingly sometimes. Like, I felt pain for so long that my body—my mind—still expects and almost wants it again, which is fucked up. But it’s better.”

“That’s all that matters.”

There was a long moment of silence, that filled the space between them before.

“I love you,” Liam said.

“I love you too.”

“How did the deacidification project go? I know you and the group were really hopeful for the latest push would make the WF pay attention.”

John shrugged. He grunted in frustration as the memories of their latest efforts came back to him.

“Not great. The Western Federation is still freaking out over Artemis. They don’t care about anything we try and say. They’re stuck in the same talking points and arguing and finger pointing as ever. Some people are talking about it more but it’ll take time.”

Time I don’t have left.

Liam nodded, but his eyes seemed distracted. He shivered slightly, and John knew from their talks before that Liam just got a sensorium ping. That frustrated John. They were always good at staying present with each other during their dates and time together. But John could tell Liam wasn’t here on this topic. Liam didn’t seem to care about the effort that the two of them spent decades on anymore. The Earth Preservation Society didn’t matter to Liam anymore.

All Liam cared about was the System. And John felt left behind. He couldn’t follow there. He wouldn’t. It wasn’t right for him. They’d spent their whole adult lives together working towards trying to save something in the Earth, anything!

Liam was supposed to try and work through the Artemisians' data to help with finding information they had that could help clear the atmosphere. But once he got into the System, he was so distracted by everything else that their hope for the future seemed brushed aside by Liam’s new world.

Liam didn’t have a horse in the race anymore.

John tried to be angry, but instead he was just tired.

“So, why don’t you tell me about the garden while we work on dinner. I want to hear if you killed my peppers.”

Liam didn’t even have a response to John’s comment. He just moved on. It was an obligation to talk about, not something he actually cared about anymore.

“One time! That only happened once! Don’t you try and pull that card on me.”

“I was gone for 3 days! It was actually impressive you managed that.”

“I made it up to you, didn’t I?”

Liam opened his mouth but froze. Artifacts disrupting the image. The link wasn’t at stable as it could have been. It was the price that John and Liam paid for living out in the country. But the country still had vestibules of air that was less polluted, where growing any of your own food was even possible. The air was better for Liam too. They worked hard to make a phys side relationship work.

So many doctors, uprooting to the country, physical therapies. But in the end, the choice for a comfortable life became obvious. And painful.

Liam uploaded. And in three years, John and Liam had a relationship that was entirely emotional. He slept alone again, the thing he hated most about his life before Liam. He couldn’t squeeze his husband’s hand while they both read their own books. Or sneak up behind him and surprise him with a kiss. It was an ache, one he still felt. Video calls with his husband helped, their evenings together were the highlight of all of John’s days. He didn’t know if Liam had forked in the system, and he didn’t want to ask. He didn’t want to know if, while his husband was spending time with him, another version of him was out doing… more exciting things. More interesting things. That scared John, a fear he’d voiced once, and wouldn’t do again.

“—made it up to me. You know that.” Liam finally said, the link connecting again.

John kissed his fingers and placed them to the screen. Some clever bastard had figured out a way for some gestures to be passed along sys side. Liam touched his lips and grinned. He shivered for a moment and looked down. Liam had told him that sometimes when John would touch his screen, his sensoria would act up. Like he could feel a kiss that wasn’t there. It wasn’t supposed to happen, there was nothing in AVEC that would allow for that kind of sensory input to be felt by the person in the system. Maybe it was all in Liam’s head… or the System’s idea of his head.

John brought the vid screen to the kitchen. Liam moved through his space until they were standing like mirrors in the same space. Liam had recreated their home together in the sim. He even included the creaky floorboard that John had finally gotten around to fixing. He never told Liam, knowing that his husband worked too hard to make sure the exact timbre of the creak was right in the sim.

John sent the menu he’d had prepared for them to Liam. His eyes lit up when he saw it.

“Butternut squash, Brussels sprouts in white wine, and baked potatoes. Very good choice, my dear.”

“I’ve been known to make them.”

“Now and then, yes.” Liam grinned.

Their evening continued together, both of them talking, laughing and sharing stories of their days, of old friends, and remembering all they had before everything changed. In some ways, it was like nothing had happened at all. It was like they were still living together, like the last 3 years had passed without pain or frustration. Without John’s inner thoughts being uncharitable. He was hurt by the decision, but could live with it, for Liam to be happy.

In other ways, in more painful ways, John felt further apart from Liam than ever. He forgot the word for taskers again, and Liam got frustrated at having to explain things about the System again. It was a battle to fight and to have the conversations about what was what over and over again. John felt pain in his temples and called it a night early, not wanting to start another fight. He took something for his head, and went to sleep.

When he woke early in the morning, John reached out and touched the space beside him. The spaces where Liam should be. He sighed. It hadn’t gotten any easier to wake up without his husband beside him. Not dead, just gone.

With the sound of John’s movement, there was a shift from the bottom of the bed. The calico padded on the bed over to John. She bumped her head to John’s scruffy chin. Her little mrowl was raspy, the sleepy girl just as tired as John was.

“Hey princess,” John smiled. He reached a hand for her head. She leaned into the scratches, her eyes closing as her soft fur was rubbed in tribute to her regal demeanor. It was fitting for how Liam always treated and talked about Cassie. She was his baby in truth.

“I know I’m not him. And you can’t understand that he’s not here anymore… Soon it’ll just be me.” He sat up, putting his back to the headboard. Cassie took advantage of the increased real estate and rubbed her head against his chin. She stood on his chest, nuzzling into him for a moment, until his pets pushed her down to lay on him.

“It’s not fair. This isn’t fair. Liam… I know why he did it. I know why, Cass, but I still… I still hate him for leaving me like this. I hate that I’ll never see him in the morning anymore. I hate that I can’t see him. I hate that he uploaded. That he chose the coward’s way out. He left us. He left me.

Cassie slow blinked at him, a low rumble in her throat. The feel of her fur on his stomach helped him a little.

“I just want him back. I want him here again. This... this isn’t what I agreed to. This isn’t what I imagined our lives to be like. The System was right for him, but it’s wrong for me. It’s wrong for us! I… I don’t want to be…

“Is that even living, what Liam has? It’s not real. It’s just an illusion. A delusion…”

Cassie blinked at him again.

“He’s gone, isn’t he? I… I should let him go.”

Cassie blinked and John sighed, sitting up in bed. She moved off of him, jumping onto the ground. As John started to get dressed, Cassie kept moving around him, rubbing against his leg. He smiled and kept petting her, happy that she was still there. John walked past the mantle and stopped. He looked at the urn there, sighing for a long moment as he read the inscription. This was something he kept secret from Liam. This was something for him.

The money he got for Liam’s upload was put to good use, keeping John secure and into a trust for environmental reform. Liam made it clear he didn’t want his remains kept or spread. He didn’t care about his body. He wasn’t dead, after all!

But John had it on his mantle under his wedding picture, the inscription etched into his heart as much as the piece of metal.

Liam O’Connell

Born: 2315

Uploaded: 2361

After his morning tea was finished, John went out in the cold morning. It was time to get outside. Get his hands dirty, to be among the grass and the garden that he and Liam worked hard to grow together. This was where he felt at peace. This—Earth—was his home. He wasn’t a hippie, he didn’t feel like he had a bond with nature, or that everything was perfect, it just made him feel at peace. The noise of the world, of his thoughts, of his pain went away when he was here. Liam left to get rid of his pain, and John worked the garden to keep his pain away.

It was lonely, and things would never be the same without Liam here. But this was his home. His place was phys side, Liam’s was sys-side. One day, John wouldn’t wake up anymore. One day, Liam would be a widow. And he had a plan in place so Liam would be informed of the news when it came. But Liam… would be the widow that John always thought he would be. Passing that off to Liam… it felt unjust. It felt cruel, passing something like that onto his husband. But John was a widow himself in many ways. His husband, the man he’d married and spent decades with was gone.

And one day, the System could fail too. Some corruption in the data, power failures, disasters… Liam could be gone too. Nothing was permanent. He knew that every day he woke up to a burnt orange of a sunrise through hazy smog. Or fighting to keep his garden alive enough with soil that seemed to be dying as much as he was.

It wasn’t enough for John. It hurt. Losing Liam hurt. But he could hold onto the idea of Liam. He’d said his goodbyes in his mind long ago. What they had now was a pale shadow, a love that no longer felt real. He loved Liam, but not enough to follow him, into that world, apparently. His world, this world, was enough, and John wanted to be here until the end.

Everything had to end at some point.[]{#anchor}

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