The headquarters of the Inter-Dimensional Police. A massive building, magnificent, full of bustling people from every version of Earth that can be imagined. A place I never thought I'd be standing in. A place that two days ago, I wouldn't have believed existed. But two days ago, I didn't have a trainee uniform with an IDP patch. I didn't have a mentor named Otto, who could hop dimensions as easily as most people walk through a doorway. I didn't have a sense back then of how big reality really is.
And this crowd seemed to fill all of it. For half an hour, I'd been scanning the masses, picking out black uniforms and searching for anyone who looked young enough to be a member of the trainee group I was to be assigned to. “Is he one of them?” I asked Otto, and pointed at a pale young man with a brown ponytail at the base of his head. But he didn't look like someone who felt as out of place as I did. I watched him walk with almost inhuman smoothness between the lines of pedestrians. He was probably addressing their concerns, taking in reports of illegal traveling, clarifying passport information, and lecturing them that this is the Inter-Dimensional Police, not some travel agency. “He's not really young enough though, is he,” I said.
Otto laughed. He laughed a lot, and when he wasn't laughing, he had this expression of pure calm. The only time I'd seen him get really excited was when taught me this foreign science, explaining that I had a void-sensitive atom buried in some permanent cell in my body. That it gave me a connection, the ability to hop dimensions with just a thought. “No, he's definitely not young enough,” Otto said. “He's twice my age, or more. Say, Arty!” he called, and the not-so-young ponytail man looked our way. Otto waved him over.
“No, no, what are you doing?” I tried to keep from turning red as we walked to meet him halfway. “And how can he be fifty years old?” I hissed.
“Why don't you ask him? Arty loves to talk.” With a wink, Otto patted my shoulder and walked away cheerfully.
Arty stopped in front of me. “Can I help you?” he asked in a smooth voice. Almost as smooth as his face, and his hands, and his hair.
“It's Otto... he told me you're twice his age,” I said, and suddenly I was terrified that this would insult the calm young—or young-looking—man. “And I was wondering how that's possible. I'd heard that most dominant species age at pretty much the same rate. And you look... very young. But also very human.”
“Yes, your mentor was close to correct. I'm actually over three times his age.”
“Holy cow,” I said under my breath. I followed him as he stepped over to another line of people, stamped a passport, and handed it back to a civilian woman. He kept walking down the line, looking at every slip they showed him. No, this guy definitely didn't feel new and awkward and alone. “Your name is Arty, right?”
“That's what most people call me. It's more of a nickname, and is sort of a play on words.” He glanced at one man's papers for a fraction of a second, then pointed him to another line, the one for people with witness reports to file. “It is short for 'artificial.'”
“Artificial?” That had to explain how perfect he was. “Are you a member of the IDP? An actual policeman?”
“I've been a member for a little less than sixty years. But I'm not technically on the IDP force. My unique citizenship case prevents me from legally traveling, and therefor from participating in policing. It's unfortunate,” he said, “as I have a very high intelligence-quotient. I'm also strong, and generally efficient. And I obviously age much slower than an ordinary person.”
“They won't let you go on missions?” I'd even been on a mission, a hostage situation on my first day. Otto had seemed to think it would make me feel more comfortable, more like a part of the group, if I were to join him a mission right away. I realized now that it had only made things worse. Every little mistake I had made had me feeling like an incompetent loser. They let me go on a mission, and not Arty? “Is it because you're... are you a robot?” I asked. “Or like... a test-tube baby? Sorry. A person grown in a lab, I mean.”
He turned and looked at me for just a moment. “I'm a sort of combination of the two.”
I flinched away from him, and instantly felt horrible for it. But the idea of a robot with a deceptive outer layer of flesh was a bit disturbing. I tried to regain composure. “But if... if you're so efficient—and I guess a cyborg would be—then why don't they make you a real policeman?”
“Cyborgs begin as ordinary beings. I am not that. I was bio-engineered in a factory with many others. My skeletal frame, skull, teeth, and joints are made from various metals. My spinal cord is made of artificial fibers. Many of my organs are synthetic. We are made essentially by growing programmed flesh on a frame. You know how one becomes a traveler; an atom that is connected to the space between dimensions happens to exist permanently in the body.”
“Oh. I get it. I guess that could happen to any living body. Even... programmed flesh.”
“Yes. I really wasn't meant to be a traveler at all. I am quite a big fluke.”
Join the club, I thought.
“The IDP could not have a walking flesh-puppet on the loose, traveling at will. That's how I ended up here.”
I wondered if 'flesh-puppet' was supposed to be a joke. “But I don't understand why you can't be a policeman like the rest of us.”
He was turned away, and seemed to be counting hole-punches on some red-headed woman's ancient-looking passport. “You have not been aware of other worlds for very long,” he said to me finally. Then, amazingly, he sent the red-haired lady my way.
I pointed out for her the passport line. “Only a few days.”
“Well, some very advanced dimensions have very advanced robots, who are recognized as citizens as a separate life-form, a separate species. There are also folks grown in a laboratory from embryo to adulthood. They typically have pre-coded DNA, and somewhat limited functions as life-forms. But no matter what species their DNA is based on, they are considered a separate division of the genus. There was a massive civil rights movement a few decades ago. Now they have little or no equality problems, and can be recognized as ordinary citizens. But I...”
He turned and faced me this time, leaving an old man holding his passport out to nobody. “I'm not considered a life-form. I don't have citizenship, so I'm caught in an unfortunate limbo. I think some do not understand that I am conscious. I am, after all, completely artificial.”
I realized my mouth was hanging open, so I shut it. He turned away, but not to hide emotion. That I was sure of. It was so casual, so calm—he was simply going back to his duty, the duty he must have had for sixty years. And they'd never let him move on? Never let him be a part of the force, a part of the group? Have a partner, or a trainee to teach, like me? Some didn't even understand that he was conscious?
He must have glanced at me and read my expression, because he said, “I'm not so bitter as a humanoid would be. I don't experience emotions with quite the intensity of other people. Think of it: that would probably inhibit my ability as a policeman. And I don't miss the company of others as much as you would, so it's appropriate that I am the one to take on singular duties, such as night-shifts here at headquarters.”
And you live much longer than others, so maybe it's best if you don't form actual friendships with people. After years of making excuses for the people excluding me, years of making sure they didn't look bad for only being logical about my incompetence, the thought rolled out of my brain automatically. Even now, as a traveler-of-worlds among other travelers-or-worlds, I still couldn't do things right. I stared at Arty's sleek ponytail, letting out a sigh that I tried to keep silent. Would either of us ever feel like a functioning part of this group?
And as I walked along behind Arty, I realized that I too was reading passports and pointing people on their way.