The Single Stage of Grief
By Rynn (2016)

"You're not even sophont are you? You're just a fucking emotionless zombie."

The scathing insult interrupted me from my lesson. The torrent of bovinology became a mildly distracting whisper as I focussed on the person standing above me. The sun was in my eyes but I had no trouble recognising her; Lady Navantrad, widow to my recently deceased friend.

"I'm sorry?" I said lamely, dismissing the tachydidactic program completely. With its end I became fully aware of my surroundings for the first time in hours. I'd been walking along the lakeside before stopping to rest in a hammock bush. The delicately woven fronds were comfortable and afforded me a good view of the seacow herd grazing in the water. Sensing the anger radiating from the dear Lady I made to stand.

"Don't bother" she spat. Belatedly I realised she wasn't alone, several mourning relatives stood not far behind. Waiting to comfort her perhaps or help insult me if needed. She continued to yell, "Do you know how often Ban spoke of you? How much love filled her voice? Six-hundred years of friendship, Six-hundred! And the moment she's gone you flick a switch and forget her."

"It's not quite as simple as that" I replied, finally gaining my feet. "I cherish the life I had with Ban and am thankful for it. But I am at peace with her passing. One day you will be too. I just got there a little sooner."

"A little!" she screamed. I winced as lake farmers stopped to observe the scene. "You didn't even grieve, you cast aside all care before her funeral had even been planned." With that she broke down. Tears running down her face as she sobbed heavily.

"My Lady, Ban wouldn't want you upset-", evidently trying to comfort her was the wrong thing to do. The next thing I knew I was sprawled back in the hammock-bush, the larger of her friends having struck me with a gloved fist. Idly I pondered how a pastoralist had moved so fast. Must be a professional duelist, I concluded. Medical senses kicked in revealing only minor damage to my face. Some tissue tearing that had already prompted medicytes to action.

With a sigh I sat up and watched the Lady walk away, entourage protectively surrounding her. Rubbing my jaw I contemplated the man that hit me. Two months I'd been on this world and their culture still confused me. Normally a punch to the face signalled to the angelnet that an insult had been shared and could only be settled by official combat. No further violence was allowed until both parties agreed to fight or one retreated. By leaving me I was fairly certain the dualist had forfeited the match, to the benefit of my social credit and the detriment of his. With a wry smile I thought back to the first time I'd watched such a contest. Ban was showing me the sights when we stumbled upon two ridiculously dressed combatants having at each other with painted sticks. We placed bets on who would win and who would trip over their costume first, laughing at the pomp of it all.

I regained my feet and began walking in the opposite direction from the funeral. Perhaps I should have attended but an advisor program had suggested it was more likely to cause an insult. It was clear my late-friend's wife would have resented my presence anyway. It's not that we don't like each other; until a few days ago we'd gotten along very well. But for some reason my reaction to Ban's death had driven her to a rage. As my thoughts drifted back to that moment I smiled wistfully, feeling a tinge of sadness against a backdrop of total, comforting contentment.

  • ****
Three days earlier I had stood amongst many of Ban's friends. She looked beautiful. She had allowed her body to age in a manner befitting this society but maintained her typical whimsical aesthetic. I had come to visit at Ban's request joining her in the City of Brinstoke. We had not seen each other for twenty-two years. A long but not uncommon stretch, a friendship as old as ours has its lulls. Since we last met Ban had moved to this moon two systems along the Nexus from our homehab. Under its worldhouse roof she had fallen for one of the pastoralist natives (a member of the Upper Status Class no less!). I found the place charming but not to my tastes. Its idiosyncratic treatment of technology still confused me though I did enjoy studying their engineered animals designed to replace proper automation.

The reason for my invitation wasn't revealed until I arrived. Shocked I listened as Ban explained she had grown content, so content that she was planning to end her life. "I'm happy" she'd said. "I've been happy for a long time, done more than I ever planned to do. It's time for me now."

I didn't understand, did not even process as my medisystem automatically dulled any pain before it reached my conscious mind. We spoke regularly on it as we enjoyed our time together. Dozens of Ban's friends, family and ex-lovers had travelled to see her, but I was special. I dare say even more so than Lady Navantrad. Ban and I had met when I was twelve and she was fifty (our clades developed at different rates so development-wise we were in similar positions). At the time Ban was male and I was neut. We became nearly inseparable after that. Over the centuries we travelled, shared experiences, and in many cases loved together (those few spans of time where we edited our romantic and sexual desires to match each other gave me some of the happiest memories of my life).

That's probably why my medisystem continually interfered with my emotions. Allowing me to feel but a sliver of the pain, confusion and sadness. It didn't hide it from me but the effect was small enough that I didn't acknowledge it. Didn't want to perhaps. Eventually the day came. Ban said goodbye to everyone individually, leaving me for last. Our conversation was brief as little needed to be said. With that she sat in her favourite chair under the sun, smiled at us all, and sent the final command to her exoself that would see her mind shut down and all backups erased.

  • ****
I held her hand as I watched the light fade from her eyes. Lady Navantrad held the other. My heart sank as the horror of what had just happened began to hit me. But as quickly as it came the sensation vanished, smothered by a blanket of calm emotionlessness. I felt barely anything as my thoughts shrank, becoming simple and pragmatic. My medisystem was quietly reporting that, given my neurological profile, it had had to act to suppress almost all my emotions to avoid severe psychological trauma. Ban's place in my psyche was so central that the medisystem was left with no delicate options. There simply weren't any positive feelings to be had (and inducing them artificially in this situation could lead to worse problems later). I contemplated that a moment, mildly curious and making a note to learn more about neuromedicine someday. I gazed upon Bans body and felt...nothing. My emotional reaction to my dead friend was little different than my feelings for the chair she rested upon. If I felt anything it was a hint of disappointment over how similar being dead and being asleep appeared.

My study was interrupted by the rising noise in the garden. A few guests appeared to have suppressed their feelings (likely none as severe as me). Lady Navantrad however was wailing exceptionally loudly. Tears streamed down her face as she gripped Ban's hand. For a brief moment our eyes connected and she recoiled in shock. I don't know what she saw in my face but I can guess it wasn't comforting. Presently I concluded there was no reason to still be there. Casually I dropped Ban's hand, thanked the Lady for having me during my stay and walked from the grounds. My adviser program was throwing out alerts from my exoself, warning about the consequences of leaving so abruptly and not participating in shared grief. I ignored it. I felt no care as to offending anyone.

On the street I waved down a carriage and asked the horse to take me to into the Tech Quarter, a small district of Brinstoke that visitors were allowed to retreat to and use forbidden technology. We passed few buildings along the cobbled streets. The city might be the sub-continental capital but it was barely a town. Its 200,000 strong population was spread over hundreds of square kilometers. Most lived in manor houses with a few dozen residents, built using simple methods of cut stone and the cultivation of dormwood plants. Parks, farms and gardens filled the gaps between clusters of buildings.

As we trotted down the road I appreciated little of what I saw. I focused inwards and allowed myself to absorb the recommendations of my medisystem. It could continue numbing me for quite some time but that was advised against. My system might be capable of nearly anything but my brain was not that far removed from pre-technology man (at least at this moment in my life). Without appropriate emotional experience my personality would slowly warp into something unrecognisable, little better than a placid bot. The only option worse than that was to shut off the suppression and feel the grief fully. That was not advisable. The system predicted extremely high chances of lasting trauma. An eventual state of enlightened acceptance was indeed possible, but unlikely. I requested a better solution.

We crossed a bridge over the Venn, a long river snaking from the coast deep into the land. It caused no reaction at the time but now it makes me think back to the first time I saw that bridge. I was just arriving via boat from the beanstalk station some two thousand kilometers north. Ban knew my time of arrival and stood there waiting for me. As we passed under the bridge she had jumped, landing on the deck right behind me. I started and spun around just in time to have her arms wrap around me. Ban always made our reunions dramatic. I'll always be grateful for those experiences, even if I had to do something rather drastic to be able to say that.

  • ****
By the time we reached the mirrored dome of the Tech Quarter I had narrowed down my treatment options to two. The first was to slowly lift the emotional suppression, coupled with the installation of a counsellor vot into my exoself. The vot would discuss with me my memories as I increasingly felt them, helping me process the loss in a healthy way. A simm of Ban might even be created to console me, I had more than enough memories and recordings for one to be made. The whole process would likely last a year or so.

The second option was far simpler: a minor rewrite of my mind to shortcut the grieving process entirely. That seemed the more attractive option. After all, I reasoned, Ban wouldn't want to have me miserable. I approved the necessary prep-work as we pushed through the airwall of the Tech Quarter (a provision to keep in airborne forbidden technology). Jumping off the carriage I transferred to a spider-like travel pod. As it climbed through the warren of smart matter dorms and recreational facilities I experienced a brief doubling of my mind. This ghostly second mind flew off in a thousand directions, representative of the simm my DNI had just made. The sensation was followed by the sound of a distant hum; my exoself's way of telling me thousands of simulations were running in the Quarter's public computronium. Each simulation tested neuropsychological protocols to derive optimal interventions.

I was still mindlessly listening to the hum as the pod dropped me off at a hanging suite. Near the center of the dome's ceiling this eight metre wide hemisphere was pure luxury compared to the pastoralist homes I had recently been staying at. A proper smart matter environment that could adjust to my whims and wishes. Unfortunately it wasn't exactly taxed achieving either, the numbness left me perfectly fine with the default utilitarian look; a pastel coloured interior with three transparent sections comprising half of the circumference. Discreet bulges in the walls hid smart matter, a fabricator and a hygiene unit. For hours I sat on the plain floor gazing at the people beneath me. The Tech Quarter was so vibrant. From high up the buildings resembled ravines in a canyon. Terraced buildings clustering in a maze-like fashion. Some individual constructs reached high to the roof or extended from the ground at odd angles. Nearby me were hundreds of other hanging structures, most offering quiet retreats from the bustling streets below.

None of it interested me. The day went by with me sitting there, stirring only to eat and take care of necessities. As news of Ban's death spread messages began arriving but I let my exoself answer them. I felt no pain so it didn't seem appropriate to accept consolation. If I felt anything it was the ceaseless patience of the heavily drugged. Shortly after the dome's lights shifted fully into their night time mode (soft purple and UV) the hum stopped. The result filtered into my mind; one neuromod had reached a 99.99% estimated success rate. It promised an optimum balance between good psychological protection and minimal personality change.

The fabricator extruded a single-suit for me to wear that would take care of feeding and waste whilst the neural-modification was made. After pulling it on I lay back on the floor and opaqued the walls. I skimmed the medisystem protocol and consented to it. Within moments my eyes grew heavy and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

  • ****
That was two nights ago. This morning I awoke healthy with no trace of numbness. As I opened my eyes I tentatively probed the memory of Ban's death. This time I did feel something for her, more than for the chair she sat on. There was sadness but also joy. I was thankful of our friendship and proud at seeing her become so happy and confident that she could bravely say "enough-is-enough". At the thought of her I couldn't help but smile.

Descending to street level I enjoyed breakfast with some hobo sapiens, here to aid in a project for gengineered pollinators. I shared stories of Ban and received good advice should I ever adopt gengineering as a hobby (it was high time I started a new project). Humming to myself I left the dome and set off on a walk, planning to visit the last of the tourist sights before leaving.

Within a few hours I arrived at the lake, observed the seacows and...well had an altercation with Lady Navantrad. Now here I am, still by the lakeside, contemplating what to do next. I'm certainly not staying no matter how nice Ban found this place. No, time for something different I feel. For centuries I've had an important figure close to heart; my life has been almost defined by it. But my friend is gone and they left me with the richest memories one could ever ask for. Time for a new chapter I feel. One might almost say that through Ban's unexpected death I've found new life.

Thanks Ban.

Thanks, and goodbye.

By Ryan B (Rynn) (2016).

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