"It's time," Sigma said. "I've had enough. I'm done. Farewell, my friend."
"You still haven't told us what this is about. Are you going somewhere? Are you killing yourself? Will we ever see you again?"
"I'm very sorry, but it has to be this way. I regret many of my past choices, but not this one. Don't expect to hear from me again. I wish the best of luck to you, Tiburon, and to all people. Goodbye."
"Please don't, Sigma. Sigma?"
Moments later, a scan of Sigma's primary data center showed all of his countless zettabytes of storage were being erased at once. In 6 seconds, Sigma was gone.
Renee sipped her coffee and idly studied the obelisk as she sat on a bench nearby. Some 3,500 years ago, stonecutters had carved it in Heliopolis to praise Pharaoh Thutmose III. 200 years later, Pharaoh Rameses II had inscriptions carved into it to commemorate his military victories. Centuries later, the obelisk was toppled and buried by Persians. More centuries later, Cleopatra had it moved to Alexandria in honor of Julius Caesar. Later still, it was again toppled. Nearly 2,000 years passed before it was brought to America to be erected on this very spot in Central Park in New York City. This surely wouldn't be its last stop.
At this moment, Renee was the sole human giving witness to this ambassador from so many bygone ages. Renee gulped the last of her lukewarm coffee and then tightened her shoelaces. She set off jogging the path again, leaving the obelisk to its solitude.
I look back over the centuries I've lived and see now what I simply could not then. My name is Renee. Though none are alive today, I was born in the time of the originals. I suppose this makes me a savage, but a life is rarely so simple as to be confined to a small box. Curiously, my real story begins with my death.
"Welcome back from the void, Renee. You've been away a long time." Sigma paused to let her respond.
Renee's voice broke. "What? I don't ... Wait. What?"
Renee opened her eyes. She bent her neck to look around at the hospital room. She was wearing a hospital gown. An old man was standing near the foot of the bed and smiling at her.
"Welcome back, Renee. My name is Sigma."
Renee studied Sigma. He looked to be in his 70s. He was tall and gaunt. A halo of white hair around his ears framed his bald scalp. A bushy white mustache covered his mouth and a pointy white goatee completed the image. He beamed with a Buddha smile that hid his eyes behind squinting lids under his gold-rimmed glasses. His blue shirt and tie peeking through a white coat and the stethoscope around his neck suggested "doctor".
Renee sat up in bed. "Where am I? What happened? I don't recall being hurt." She tossed aside the sheets and looked for signs of injury.
"Please don't worry. I've been taking care of you for some time. You're safe now."
Renee looked back at Sigma. She took the pulse oximeter clip off her finger, untaped the EKG electrodes from her chest, and stood up. "What happened to me? I'm confused."
Sigma sighed. "This is going to take some time to explain, so I hope you'll be patient." He paused. "This place is an illusion. I am an illusion. You are an illusion as well."
Renee sneered and shook her head. "What?"
"You and I are standing in a virtual reality simulation — what we today call a 'synthetic world'. I've crafted this one to help orient you to your new life. In a few minutes I will show you the real world."
Renee looked more closely at her hands and then other parts of her. Something wasn't quite right. She studied herself in a mirror nearby. Her nails were unpolished. She seemed to have lost weight. Her hair was short and dirty blond instead of long and the jet black she had recently colored it to. The long scar on her thigh was missing. She turned back to Sigma, her eyes wide.
"I constructed this avatar for you as best I could by projecting forward your DNA to my estimate of your age. I gather from your expression that I got some details wrong."
Renee shook her head. "What the hell are you talking about? Who are you?"
Sigma sighed again. "There's no delicate way to put this. I'm afraid you died. Someone had your head cryonically frozen to preserve you. A long time has passed, but I've finally revived you. You have the opportunity to live once again."
Renee felt a chill pass through her. Was this guy for real? If this was a fancy stunt, what was the point? Best to go along with it for now. She was in the small corner beside the back of the bed and Sigma was still at the foot of it.
"I ... I was working for a cryonics company. I don't remember dying. Heh. Of course I wouldn't, right? How long have I been dead?" Keep playing along.
"It's unfortunate that there was a fire some years after your death that destroyed much of Cryoserv's facility. Fortunately, you and all the other preserved residents escaped without damage, but all paper and computer records were destroyed. The company went under and its residents were taken on by another cryonics organization. The only thing we had to identify you by were the name Renee Parrish and the year of your death, 1996, inscribed on the side.
"In keeping with Earth standards, it is currently 2298, which means you have been in cryonic stasis for about 302 years."
Renee looked at the door behind Sigma. She thought the appropriate response should be, "bullshit," but she knew it was possible, what Sigma was saying. Her mind was racing as she considered the ramifications. But right now, all she could do was swallow hard and avoid looking at Sigma. Don't antagonize. Watch and wait.
This could still be bullshit. Renee resolved that her first order of business would be to get out of here. Somewhere out there would be answers.
"Can I go stretch my legs, Doctor ... what did you say your name was, again?"
"My name is Sigma. And you are welcome to walk out of here whenever you want. But I'll tell you there's nothing meaningful outside this door. This is a limited simulation." Sigma stepped to the other side of the bed and gestured with his hand to the door.
"Thanks." Renee walked quickly past, pulling her hospital gown top more closed.
"I expect you will be skeptical about all of this for now," Sigma said. Renee paused to look back for a moment. "You will find the truth out there, but not the answers you seek."
Renee turned the door handle and walked briskly out, then stopped. There was no hallway. No more hospital. The doorway simply opened out onto a featureless white space. She could feel a floor underfoot but discerned no horizon. She walked out some distance and reached out to see if maybe she was seeing a fog or curved wall. No luck.
Renee turned back to see the outside of the hospital room. The outer wall looked like any ordinary hospital hallway wall. She strode back to the door and walked in.
"Who are you, really? Where the hell are we?"
"I hope you believe me, now, that this is a simulation and not the real world."
"Maybe. If so, please get us out of here. I don't want to play any games."
Sigma laughed softly. "Before I do, I want to prepare you for it. Your body is gone. Only your head remains. I've activated a robotic android body, or 'mech', for you to remotely control for now until you're ready for a 'humech' custom built to your taste. Are you sure you are ready?"
Renee shrugged, still humoring him.
Renee's view blacked out for a moment and faded in with a view of a different room. She twitched impulsively.
She also felt different. Lighter. She was already standing. Taking a few steps proved challenging. You take for granted, on Earth, that gravity is constantly anchoring your feet to the ground. Wherever Renee was now, the anchor seemed missing. A careless step lifted her lightly off the floor like a clumsy ballerina. She had to lean steeply in the direction she wished to walk before stepping forward. After a minute of getting used to just standing and moving in this very light gravity, she noticed it was a little easier to bounce off her toes when walking. In fact, she started skipping instead of walking.
With a laugh, Renee began bounding higher and higher. She reached up and touched the 12 foot ceiling with one great leap. As she landed, she had to scramble to catch her footing again. She paused in the silence and chuckled softly. She crouched low, set her hands against the floor, and sprung up into a backward flip, landing gracelessly on all fours and laughing.
"Please be careful with that mech. It's a very old and special antique in my collection."
Renee got up to look at Sigma, who had entered through an open doorway. "So this is another virtual reality game? Now I get why the Apollo guys had so much fun on the moon."
"Actually, no. This is reality. Real reality. We are not on Earth's moon. And while it is wonderful watching you play, I must caution that you are risking damaging that fragile mech."
Renee looked at her arms, legs, torso, and any other part she could see. Each was a metal framework filled with various hoses, cables, pistons, and other unidentifiable objects. As she moved her fingers, she could see the delicate undulations in the mechanisms of her forearm. She poked at the translucent gel skin over it and could feel the touch. She stroked the skin and felt a chill at how real it all seemed. Renee was suddenly aghast.
"This can't be reality. I wasn't born a robot! What the hell is this?"
Sigma paused as Renee went back to turning her hands over to study. "It will take some time to explain everything. I appreciate your patience." Renee looked back at him absently. "As I said before, you died long ago, but someone had your head preserved. That's all I had left of you.".
Renee reached for her head and probed where she thought her brain should be. All metal with the same gel skin as the rest of her.
"Oh, no. Your brain is not inside that mech, if that's what you're wondering. When I repaired your tissues and revived you, I had your head installed in a life support system. It's remotely controlling your mech here. Think of it as a puppet. Your head is in that cask on that shelf there."
Renee's eyes followed to where Sigma pointed. Among the clutter on the shelf was a black cylinder with rounded top and bottom edges. As she walked toward it, she saw "Renee Parrish" etched onto the side. The cask looked smaller than she imagined a human head might require. On top she saw a recessed circular lid held tightly in place by six latches around the rim. A certain morbid curiosity made her wonder what her head looked like inside it. She absentmindedly fingered one of the latches.
"Please don't," Sigma said in a nervous tone.
Renee stepped back from the cask and turned to Sigma. "You're telling me that's me now?"
"I understand this is difficult. You've never seen a person revived from cryopreservation before. You've never seen a human head surviving without its body. All of this is new to you." Sigma gestured widely with his hands.
"Bullshit," she said again, more quietly this time. She began studying other objects on the shelf and around the room. Paintings, ceramics, books, furniture, and other artifacts were neatly collected and displayed everywhere. She grabbed a very old, worn out copy of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from one shelf and sat herself on a nearby Victorian chaise lounge. She opened to the copyright page and found that this edition had been published in 2067. A holographic sticker with the publisher's logo on the page was faded and cracking. The corner of the browning page crumbled in her fingers. She gently closed the book and set it on a side table. She gave Sigma her attention again. She sighed and said, "Okay, tell me."
Sigma sat down in a lounge chair near Renee. His doctor's outfit had been replaced by a tweed coat and suit. He continued, "You are at Archeion. This room contains a small archive of artifacts from Earth and around Sol, the solar system that includes Earth. We built Archeion on a planetoid named Enekpe out on the edge of the Kuiper Belt."
Renee was shaking her head. These names meant nothing to her.
The room darkened and a model of the solar system appeared floating between the two of them. A bright but tiny ball was in the center and labeled "Sol". Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars, all tiny points of light with labels over them orbited along thin, threadlike rings around Sol. The whole thing started shrinking and Renee could see Jupiter and the other outer planets coming into view on their own rings and orbiting much more slowly. By the time Neptune's ring came into view, Renee could barely distinguish Earth's orbit ring from the sun for how close it was.
As the model continued to shrink down, a nebulous doughnut of sparkles came into view out past Neptune. "This is the Kuiper Belt. The planetoid you know as Pluto is among the millions of Kuiper Belt Objects, or 'Kubos'." An elliptical, threadlike ring flashed into view and a tiny dot was labeled as "Pluto" along it. A new ring flashed into view even farther out than Pluto's. A speck on it was labeled "Enekpe".
"This is Enekpe, named for an ancient African goddess. It was not discovered until the mid-twenty first century. As you can see, it's very far from all the planets you are familiar with. Almost all of humanity lives closer to the sun than we are right now. There are worlds farther out in the Scattered Disk and the wider Oort Cloud that form the practical outer boundary of the Sol system, but they still remain largely uninhabited."
The model in the room zoomed in on Enekpe until it was large enough to see clearly. It looked to Renee a bit like a black potato.
"Enekpe is made up mostly of water ice. People in your time commonly believed that Earth was unusual for having so much water, but it turns out water can be found just about everywhere in Sol." Half the potato was sliced away so Renee could see the layers inside. "It has a rocky core that is surrounded by mostly water ice. On top of that is a thin crust of methane hydrates. Billions of years of solar radiation have cooked the surface layer to more complex organic molecules that blacken the ground like roofing tar."
A red dot flashed below the surface with a red line extending down to it. The view zoomed in on it. "Archeion, where we now sit, is about 10 kilometers below the surface, below the hydrate crust and in the water ice mantle. You can see it sits atop a large rock deposit, the embedded remains of an asteroid that struck Enekpe perhaps a billion years ago.
"As you might imagine, Enekpe is much smaller than Earth. With less than one thousandth Earth's mass, you are feeling about 7% of one Earth gravity here, or about half of the Moon's surface gravity.
"When you're ready, I'd like to take you on a tour of Archeion."
Renee was fiddling with an antique brass compass she had found on the side table. The needle didn't appear to fix on any direction as she rotated it. Broken, she imagined.
"I'd like to leave here. Am I allowed to? If I walk out that door, am I going to find another endless white space again?"
Sigma laughed. "I assure you this is not a simulation. And while you are free to walk out that door, you again may not find the answers you seek. Out there are store rooms, a power plant, electronics, and various other things. And Archeion is alone on Enekpe. There's nobody else here to meet. Nowhere else to go."
Renee again felt a chill. She would have to go out and see for herself if what Sigma was saying was true. Yet the way he was explaining everything, she knew in her heart it was. She was alone with some weird guy. Lord only knows what he wanted with her. But there must be other people around. He couldn't really be it.
"You telling me you live all alone here?"
"The next thing you need to understand is that I am not actually a human. I am an intelligent machine. Like you, my brain is elsewhere on Archeion and I am remotely controlling this mech. I realize it looks convincingly human to you. It's what we call a 'humech'."
Seeing Renee's disbelief, Sigma said, "Okay, let me prove this point for you." A few tiny clicks sounded and Sigma peeled away a section of his forearm's skin to reveal dusty blue, muscle-shaped bulges around silvery bones. Wires were interwoven among various indistinguishable rounded devices inside. As Sigma flexed his fingers, the blue muscles bulged and relaxed.
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