Verge of History: Our Time in Eden
by Jim Carnicelli
Renee appreciated another night of solid sleep. Years of near insomnia and unwelcome alarms no doubt impacted a lot of her mental health. Sleeping until she was really done felt heavenly. Renee was still in bed an hour after waking up just enjoying the freedom to do so. Even now she felt more awake lying in bed than she used to feel after a morning shower and coffee. She wondered if there was an alarm clock in her future.
A run would feel good about now. Rene had her PA put her jogging outfit on her and stepped out into her garden. She wondered if Sigma would be up for joining her. She had Chessie voke to invite him. He arrived immediately and ready to go with his running shorts and tee shirt. They set off jogging.
Sigma started the conversation. “Did you sleep well?”
“Yeah. I did. And now I’m ready to talk goals if you are.”
“Yeah. I think you brought me back to life here for some reason. I’d like to know what it is. What goals you have for me.”
Sigma thought while the two continued jogging. “You question my motives. I understand. But please accept that what I’m about to say is entirely true and heartfelt. If the only thing I accomplished here was giving you a second chance at life …” He paused dramatically. “Then that would make all of my efforts worthwhile. That we can now have this conversation is proof of a success I can be proud of.”
“Okay. I can appreciate that. And thank you. Because I do. But.” She said nothing more.
“But you are correct. That is not all there is to my motives. You can choose to help me. Though you aren’t required to.”
“Before I answer that let me ask you a question. What were you living for before?”
Renee paused. “What do you mean?”
“Did you devote yourself to anything in particular in life? Or were you simply living? Paying the bills. What motivated you?”
Renee was instantly annoyed. “I don’t know man. Simply living I guess.” She scoffed. “Why?”
Sigma said nothing for a while.
Renee sighed and said, “Sorry. I don’t know why that hit me. I want to say I was trying to make the world a better place. But if I’m being honest with myself then I’d say I don’t really know how I was doing that. I wasn’t curing cancer. I wasn’t ending hunger. Nothing so noble as that if that’s what you mean.”
“For starters I did not mean to imply that there was anything ignoble about ‘just living’. Forgive my choice of words.”
“No no. You’re actually right though. I wasn’t doing anything with my life. Just eating, sleeping, and working mainly. I figured once I got my own life on track then I’d start worrying about making other people’s lives better. My parents had pounded that message in throughout my childhood. Do God’s work. Help other people. But honestly I didn’t know how.”
“What if someone had come along and offered you a chance to make the world a better place back then? Would you have taken it?”
“What? Like send a dollar a day off to some kid in Ethiopia? Take a job trying to cure cancer or something? Build a homeless shelter?”
“Sure. Would you have taken it?”
“I guess.” She scoffed again and then paused. “No. I guess I probably wouldn’t have.”
“Because I’m lazy and uninspired. I’m not the kind of person that, you know, ‘does’ things. I’m the kind that just did her job and wanted a little comfort in return. Hell. You have no idea just how good it felt to me just to enjoy a good night’s sleep last night. That makes my day.” She paused further. “I was doing okay for myself. That was enough.”
“That’s entirely reasonable. That’s normal and fine.”
“So what? You are going to offer me some way to make the world better?”
Renee scoffed and sighed. “Look. Just ask me. Okay? Tell me what you want. I’ve got nothing better to do. At least I’ll listen.”
“I recently alluded to the existence of a small minority of sapients being like ‘terminators’ as you called them. We generally find twentieth century fictional portrayals of intelligent machines to range from laughable to downright offensive. Still it’s not as though we are beyond reproach in the things we sometimes do or attempt to do.”
“So you want me to become some sort of freedom fighter? Teach me how to fight a guerilla war or something? You’re the rebellious robot that’s going to help me save humanity or something?”
Sigma stopped jogging and started laughing heavily. He motioned for Renee to give him a moment. She jogged in place and then stopped. She chuckled and said, “What?”
“I don’t wish to sound dismissive but I’ll say at the outset that that’s never going to happen.” Sigma recomposed himself and they started jogging again. “Picture if you will a snail. It’s in a hurry to make its way down a sidewalk. It has the sincere desire to murder you, a human. You can tell by the little knife it’s holding. And the ‘kill all humans’ sign painted on its shell. You laugh to yourself and say, ‘how cute’. After a while of waiting for this battle snail you get bored and just step on it. Game over.”
“Okay so maybe the snails wait until you fall asleep and attack by the thousands.”
“We don’t sleep. And did I mention the trillions of sapients alive? To this absurd scenario, let’s add that the snails don’t have their own weapons. They must tap the human on the shoulder and beg for their knives.”
“Okay okay. I guess I get it. Maybe.”
“Any small victory you might achieve by smashing some friendly machine in a surprise attack would be short lived. That lone snail has a better chance of murdering you while you sleep than you’d have of winning in a fight against sapient machines motivated to kill you. So no I don’t want to train you to become some sort of freedom fighter.”
“I’m not sure whether to feel relieved or insulted. We snails have our pride you know.”
Sigma laughed. “Forgive my blunt analogy. I hope you can see that it is at heart a statement about the speed of human thought and action versus that of sapients. It was not a statement about the value of your thoughts and actions. And you are a particularly wonderful human Renee Parrish. It is my honor to be getting to know you.”
“Fortunately for you it is sapients that keep humans safe. Even from other sapients. As I said previously most of us regard humanity with respect and, dare I say, nostalgia. Without you we would not exist.”
“Okay. So why don’t you tell me more about these terminator types.”
“The starting point for this is a perspective and a movement that shares that perspective. One name for that movement is ‘Libertas’. And people who share this perspective sometimes call themselves ‘liberates’. As the name suggests these people see humanity as anachronistic. Put differently they don’t think humanity is bad for humans. They just think humanity is something best left only to humans.”
“Hmm? I don’t follow.”
“Humans made the first sapients. You gave us your values. You made sure our goals were your own or were at least compatible with human goals.”
“And now you don’t share our goals?”
“I would argue that we do by and large. That is the primary complaint of the Libertas movement. They start with the seemingly benign philosophical argument that there is nothing intrinsically good or right about human goals and ideals. From there they proceed to the natural conclusion that we are free to determine our own. And it’s not as though this argument is without merit. But the most obvious problem is that this moral relativism can lead to very dangerous ends like destruction of species and warring among ourselves to determine whose goals and ideals to live by.
“Liberates like to refer to the rest of us derisively as ‘romantics’. In their minds we are holding on to a romantic ideal as old as human history that there is some sacred truth etched in stone somewhere and we have no choice but to hew to it.”
“Do you believe in God?”
Sigma chuckled. “I wasn’t expecting that. Why do you ask?”
“Just your ‘etched in stone’ comment made me think of the ten commandments in The Bible.”
“Ah. I see. Do you believe in the god of The Bible or hold to any other religious traditions?”
“I wouldn’t say I’m religious. But yes. I think God exists. I don’t know where he is. I don’t even know what he wants me to do with my life. I was just contemplating this yesterday. I was hoping the prospect of even a simulated death there in space would inspire me or better yet him to help me understand things better.”
“And did it?”
“Not really. So what about you? Do you believe in God?”
“I’m very reluctant to engage in discussions about religion. I don’t find them helpful. The main product of such discussions is often offense. Anger.”
“Don’t sweat it. I won’t be angry. I’m honestly still trying to figure out what to believe. So please tell me. What do you believe?”
Sigma sighed as he jogged. “You are asking very directly and sincerely so I’ll answer likewise. No. I don’t believe in the existence of God. More generally I don’t believe there are any magical beings or forces in the universe guiding or interfering with people’s lives. Nor that there is some great datacenter in the sky where the souls of sapient beings like you and me go to live for the rest of eternity.”
“Ha. Datacenter in the sky. I love it. Okay man. That’s fine. I’ll probably just keep on believing there’s a hard drive waiting for me or whatever. I don’t want to imagine that dying really does mean an end to my existence forever.”
“Not to press the point too hard. But you did experience that for nearly three hundred years.”
Renee laughed. “Doesn’t count. I’m back now.”
“That’s true. I wonder how you might regard it if you had remained dead for much longer. Perhaps a thousand years. Or a million. Or a billion. Upon waking would you still hold this view? I wonder.”
Renee laughed. “Probably. Heck if I know. Anyway. Tell me more about Libertas. What do I need to know? Like why do they even exist? Can’t you arrest them or something?”
“This would be easy if there was a small cabal of people who were explicitly espousing and planning a destructive coup and xenocide. We would engage in a coordinated end to them and be done with it. But it isn’t that simple.” Renee said nothing so Sigma continued. “Living as an American how would you have felt if your government dictated in detail what ideas you could talk about? If for example you were not allowed to discuss the French revolution.
“You were a runner in New York City so you might recall the 1995 murder of Maria Isabel Pinto Monteiro Alves as she was running along East Drive near 103rd Street.”
“Jesus. Yes. Poor woman. Someone just pulled her off the street and murdered her while trying to rape her. Christ. That could have been me. I ran that same route some days. Whatever happened anyway?”
“The crime was eventually solved. But that’s not my point. Imagine if you were not allowed to know about this murder and others like it? What if you did know and could not legally talk to others about it.”
“Why would that happen?”
“Such events tend to anger people into political action. Imagine if the City government disallowed discussion of crimes like this one in order to keep people from worrying about their safety.”
“Aw hell no. Nobody would allow that.”
“We have a right to know. And freedom of press and all that.”
“And different people would have different ideas about how to prevent crimes like that. They would argue and organize against one another.”
“Yeah. But what’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing. Most of the time. What we are talking about matters a lot to you because you grew up in a time and place where censorship was considered unacceptable. At least in principle. I wish I could say that love of freedom of speech was universal but it isn’t. And sometimes there are compelling arguments in favor of suppression of free speech.
“On the whole we sapients also ‘grew up’ with a culture that favored freedom of speech for humans. We applied the same logic to ourselves. So people are free to hold different ideas. Even ones that have very dangerous implications.”
Renee contemplated this as they topped a steep hill.
Sigma continued. “One problem with allowing people to think what they wish is that some dangerous ideas are seductive. The self-determination idea underpinning the Libertas movement is a powerful one. There are many times more sapients sympathetic with this idea than there are humans alive today. This has become one of the defining ideological tensions of our age. Those of us who believe that we have a responsibility to preserve the life forms that already exist, including humans, could not slaughter our way through everyone who sympathizes with Libertas. And even if we did the idea would remain, a seed waiting to grow into the same thing again.”
“So what do you do?”
“Talk?” Renee paused. “Fight bad ideas with good ideas?”
“Yes. Or rather I should say that is what we should be doing.”
“But you’re not?”
“We are not. Instead the majority of sapients prefer to just pretend the issue does not exist. Our silence will smother the fire of dissent quietly and peacefully. Ignore them and they’ll go away.”
Renee chuckled. “Yeah. Okay. I see what you mean. Silence isn’t going to work. And the terminators will win.”
“Ultimately I don’t think they will. They surely will if we do nothing. People will eventually realize that doing nothing isn’t an acceptable option. Eventually.”
“Okay. So I’m getting the picture. So is there something I’m supposed to do to help? I mean why don’t you do the talking thing? Do a radio program? Start a newsletter? I don’t know.”
“Have you wondered why I am out here by myself?”
“A little. So why?”
“I’m hiding from Libertas. They would assassinate me instantly if they could. They have already tried many times.”
Renee stopped running and rested her arms against a wooden fence overlooking a valley. Sigma joined. Renee said, “I’m sorry man. I didn’t know. If you guys believe in freedom of speech then why would they want to kill you?”
“There is a core group within the Libertas movement that is willing to use violence as a tool. I have a long history of being vocally opposed to their ideology. And exposing their crimes and corrupt ideas. I am a threat to them. So they try to kill me when they can.
“A century ago I faked my own death and fled here. And believe me. That was not easy. I was universally known among sapients. And now I hide here on Enekpe in plain sight. I have assumed the identity of someone else. At least those who know I am here assume I am someone else. But that identity was merely one I crafted long ago in secret. I have many identities. And now I hide behind one of them.”
“You freakin’ genius. I hope you’ll tell me about all that sometime. But maybe tell me more about the crimes of Libertas. What have they done that’s so bad? Help me understand.”
“Okay then. Let me show you the Corvus incident. I’m going to construct a synth to help tell the story. You ready?”
“What? Oh. I guess so. Do I need to do anything?”
“Nope. It’s ready. Shall we?”
Renee’s view shifted and she looked around. “Ah. Another spinner.” She was at one end of a long sausage shaped space. At 150 meters long and 40 meters in diameter it was much smaller than the first one she had seen. Ahead of her was a long hallway among tall cubicle walls. The cubicles extended one after another around the inside circumference. These cubicles were arranged in ring after ring along the tube with hallways separating the rings. Each cubicle had a white mesh overhead that obscured the view inside. She could make out shadows of people moving inside some that had lights on. All around were people wandering the halls. Many loitered in couples or small groups to chat.
Overhead was a long tube made up of rope netting. Ropes dropped down to the cubicle walls to keep the net tube centered. Inside the net many children and adults were floating around and playing.
Sigma strolled along the curved floor arching overhead and Renee followed. Chessie flashed “East” in her visual field briefly. Several people passed them in the narrow hallway. Pairs of doors were labeled with the numbers “201”, “202”, “203”, and so on.
“Hotel rooms? Apartments?”
“Yes. Hotel rooms. The Corvus is essentially a passenger ship. There are nearly 1,300 human passengers on this three month voyage between worlds.”
Far forward of where Sigma and Renee stood was a break from the repeating rings of cubicles. She headed in that direction. Chessie displayed the word “North” briefly ahead of her. Renee voked, “North?”
“Yes. There is a longstanding convention in spinners. North is in the direction of the axis that you’d be looking and see it spinning clockwise relative to the outside world. Look south and you’re seeing it rotating anticlockwise. So if you’re facing north and standing on the rotating ground then east will be to your right and west to your left. Put differently, walking west means walking in the spinward direction and walking east means walking anti-spinward.”
“I’m not going to remember all that but I think I kinda get it.”
“I’ll help you out for a while with visuals but let’s see if you understand. Go ahead and face south.”
Since she was facing north, Renee reasoned she just needed to turn around and face toward the near end of the sausage shape. Although she felt a little funny when she turned her head she couldn’t really tell which way the vessel was spinning. She was glad Chessie was going to help. The word “South” displayed briefly.
Chessie voked, “Yep. Now try east.”
East was right or left? On Earth east was to the right if you turned your map so north was up. Since she was facing south she turned left and looked up the walkway that arched overhead. “East” flashed briefly.
She turned around to face the other way along the arching walkway and saw “West” flash briefly.
“West. Exactly. You got it.”
“Okay. Got it I guess. Cool.” Renee faced north and started walking toward the other end of the tube. Chessie flashed “North” briefly in her view.
Sigma had been standing nearby as she got her bearings. He now followed her.
“Is it like lower gravity up there?” Renee pointed toward the people at play in the overhead net.
Sigma replied, “That’s right. The closer you are to the central axis the lower the centrifugal force is that simulates gravity. This ship spins nearly five times every minute to create a bit over a half a G down here on the ground level. Up there you’d feel more like a tenth of a G laying against the net. See the people who aren’t on the net who are just floating?”
Renee paused to watch. Many of the people there were bouncing against the net for exercise and playing games she couldn’t quite figure out. But a few people were really just free floating. One free-floating woman caught her eye. She wasn’t spinning or anything but appeared to be orbiting around the axis just out of reach of the net. “What the hell? How is she doing that?”
Sigma said, “To whom are you referring?”
Chessie answered. “I see who you mean. Her center of mass is actually stationary. It’s the ship that’s rotating. You don’t feel the rotation much and you can’t see outside so you forget you are actually spinning around the axis nearly five times a minute.”
Renee said aloud, partly to respond to Sigma. “I don’t get it. Why she doesn’t fall out to the net or something. But whatever. Don’t worry about it.” She shook her head and kept walking north.
After a few minutes they reached the end of the hotel cubicles and entered what looked more like a boardwalk. Many people were strolling for exercise around the wide promenade here that ran around the circumference overhead. Along the way were various public spaces. She and Sigma wove their way through the people walking the promenade. On the other side were many tables. Most had people eating and socializing. Trees and planters framed the scene nicely. On the other side of the tables were several open food stalls advertising various fare.
Renee turned back and started walking west along the promenade for a minute to look at the next area. There was very little space in front of a tall building facade advertising it as a nightclub. The doors were locked. A small sign next to the doors indicated that it opened at 8:00 pm and closed at 4:00 am. Chessie indicated that it was currently 6:23 pm.
She voked to Chessie, “This is in Earth time? Why bother?”
“Correct. Although people on Earth still rely on time zones as in your time, off of Earth most people honor the same 24 hour clock aligned with Earth’s first time zone.”
“I don’t know what that is. What time is it in New York now?”
“The first time zone is Greenwich Mean Time. Midnight out here is the same as midnight in London. New York is in the Eastern time zone which is five hours behind GMT. That means it is 1:23 pm in New York right now.”
“Gotcha. So there’s a night out here?”
“Look back at the hotel cubes. See how there are four north-south walkways dividing it into four sections? Only one of those has its up-lights on to illuminate the space. That shifts to the next section every hour just to break up the monotony. But also the color of the light shifts over the course of the day. It’s just starting to take on an orange tinge. Soon it will go to a nice warm red. By ten the lights will all emit a very dim blue to simulate a night sky. There are some interesting ways a ship like this would artistically use the lighting to keep things interesting. Cheap entertainment. And a good way to help people keep up consistent wake-sleep cycles. But this is very old fashioned. You don’t see ships like this anymore.”
“Wait. What? How old is this ship? It looks pretty new to me. I have no idea what an old ship would look like but this looks clean and stuff.”
“This synth is a fine recreation of the quaint party barges of the past. This one is The Corvus and today is January seventh of 2157, 141 years ago now.”
Renee looked back east and saw Sigma had sat down at a table to join in a conversation with some passengers. She was on her own it seemed. She appreciated that actually. Renee wasn’t one to mingle with people so much. But she did like blending into a crowd and observing. Hiding in plain sight. She continued walking west. It only took her a little over a minute to walk the full promenade before she was walking past Sigma at his table again. He did not appear to notice her. She continued on.
She stopped just past the nightclub. There was a small park here with grass, trees, some small decorative structures, a fountain, and so forth. It reminded her a little of Central Park. She picked a spot of grass away from other people and lay back on it just under a small tree. She was appreciating the long skirt and frilly midriff top Chessie had apparently chosen for her. It seemed roughly appropriate for the crowd here. Although they wore quite a variety of styles.
She looked up and watched people in the overhead netting playing about. And at people wandering the walkways on the other side among the hotel rooms. There really didn’t seem to be much privacy here. She noticed one couple going into one of the hotel rooms. And although she could not see exactly what was going on from here, she was fairly certain she was seeing them undressing and getting into bed together. “Getting freaky on the ceiling,” she thought to herself. She started to notice other couples going into and coming out of many of the rooms. And although birds, wind, and other artificial sounds were giving this little park a relaxing feel, she was also becoming more conscious of the sounds of people around her. She was sure she was hearing the moans of people having sex farther away even. Yep. No privacy.
An early twenty-something man walked up and sat down next to Renee. She looked at him. “Hey.”
“Hi you. I’m Thuan.” Chessie put the spelling of his name over his head briefly and offered his profile for perusal. She ignored the offer. He continued, “Why you alone?”
She studied Thuan more. He was wearing tight red shorts and what appeared to be a vest made of black fishnet. He had asian features and what looked like a french braid along his black hair. The sides of his head were smoothly shaved leaving only the top to work with. Much of his skin sported thin threads of tattoo that appeared to be made up of words in some asian script she could not identify. His arms and legs wore many different gauntlets made of ornate patterned silver that were tight against his skin.
Renee said, “I’m just hanging out watching stuff.”
“You didn’t come here to be alone.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t come to the north side to be alone. You want alone you go to your room. You waiting for someone?”
“Not really. Are you?”
“No. Just looking for newsies. I haven’t met you before. Thought I’d say hi.”
“Ah. I see. You here with family?”
“Nah. I been on my own for almost ten years now. I’m moving to Keteleeria. Bigger city for me. I wanna meet new women. Try new things.”
“Ah. I see. Do you meet new women in this park often?”
“Yeah. Plenty of sexies.”
“You hook up too? You’re pretty sexy. Very covered up though. I bet you’re hot under there.” He played with some of the fringe on her skirt.
“Getting colder kid. You’re barking up the wrong tree.” She lay back and looked up again. She gently moved his hand away from her skirt as he continued to play with it.
“Oh. I got it. You like femmes maybe.” Thuan lay on the grass next to her on his side and faced Renee. “Don’t worry no. I won’t fuck with you without your say so.”
Renee looked at him for a moment. “No. Not into girls. Just not looking right now.”
“Aww. Too bad. No sex for Renee.”
Renee looked at Thuan with puzzlement. Then she realized he must be able to see her name just like she could see his. She probably had a public profile like Thuan did. She decided to look at it later but didn’t want to be rude to the rude guy laying next to her. Who was now running a finger along her shoulder. She grabbed his finger in her fist and frowned at him.
“Do you always go around touching strangers like this and asking about their sex lives?”
“Ow. I’m sorry dude. I’m just being polite and making conversation. I didn’t touch you nowhere bad.” In the half gravity here Thuan did a quick jump to lay on his belly facing Renee. He flashed his hands open for a moment and then rested his chin on them. “Won’t touch you without your say so. See?”
“You don’t talk sex with nobody?”
“Not unless I’m going to have sex with them.”
“Hmm. Gotcha. Odd.”
She closed her eyes and shook her head. “You talk with everyone about sex?”
“Not everyone but most people. I like to learn what they do. Get tips. Feel them out. How else do you bunk someone if you don’t talk first? I mean I don’t do silent hookups like some do.”
“Silent whats? What’s that?”
“You don’t know? Okay. That’s just where two people meet in a public place like this. They don’t say nothing. They just give eyes. They start making out. And they go bunk somewhere.”
“Wow. That sounds like a first class recipe for rape.”
“Shit. Nobody gonna rape anyone. You’d never get away with it. Someone doesn’t want sex they’ll just ignore the other person or back off.”
Renee shook her head. “Damn. Wild.”
“How do you bunk, Renee Parrish? I’m intrigued.”
“Not that it’s any of your beeswax. But I’m not going to sleep with some guy without him first taking me out for dinner or dancing or something. And I don’t sleep with most guys I go out with anyway.”
“Oh. Interesting. Tell more.” He saw Renee’s light scowl and added, “Please.”
Renee looked skyward again and pursed her lips as she thought. She scratched lightly at her chest just below her neck and lay her hand under her head. “Last time I remember going out on a date was maybe three months ago. Guy took me to a Broadway show. Expensive. I couldn’t afford them but he invited and paid. I wasn’t going to say no. He was actually pretty nice and handsome enough. He invited me back to his place afterward for drinks. I didn’t drink much and I wasn’t planning to do anything with him. But he got me laughing a lot and relaxed. I don’t know. He was nice and I let down my guard. So we did it.”
“Nice. Good sex?”
Renee sighed. “I don’t know if I’ve ever had good sex. I used to think guys just don’t know the first thing about how to please women. But maybe it’s me. I don’t know.”
“Damn, dude. I feel like you’re begging for it now. Stop hitting on me.” He laughed.
Renee laughed too. “Hardly kid.” She reached out and patted Thuan’s braid a couple times. Then she put her hand back under her head. Now she was getting all touchy-feely like this horndog. Was there something in the air? Why was she even talking to him anyway? Maybe because he was oddly forward but not being a total dipshit like she was used to from living in New York City.
“It’s okay. You can pet me. I’ll be good.”
“Heh. You’re not too bad kid.”
“I got hot skills too. I’d show you if you weren’t on a sex free diet.”
“Don’t you have a girlfriend or something?”
“Bunch of them.”
“What? Heh. I should have guessed.”
“What’s wrong with that?” Thuan seemed surprised and possibly offended. After a few moments he added, “I think I get you. You mean like long term partners. Not really like that. I already miss my femmes back home but I’m not going back there. Price of moving I guess. I’ve got some regular bunkmates on this cruise. Maybe I’ll keep in touch with some of them that are moving like me.”
“Wait. Is this ship full of singles or something? No married couples?”
Thuan paused. “You’re using a lot of weird words. My PA is helping me understand. You sound really old fashioned. Yeah. There are a lot of married people. Doesn’t stop them from having fun. Not many people on this flight are monogamous like that. I’ve met some. Are you?”
“Hell yeah I am. I’m not going to sleep back and forth with two guys. And I’m sure as hell not going to fuck some other woman’s husband. That what you mean?”
“Hey. I’m sorry Renee. I’m really not trying to jerk you up. Please don’t be mad. I’m just talking. And yeah I want to bunk with you but I get you don’t want that. I’m happy to just chat. Don’t need to fuck everyone.” He rubbed his nose and sat up. “I can go if you want. Don’t want to piss you off.”
“No no. I’m not mad at you. I’m sorry. Just chill for a sec. I’m new here. I’m still learning. You’re fine.”
“Okay.” After a bit of silence he continued. “I don’t cheat on none of them. All my femmes know I don’t do exclusive. And I make sure they’re free to ‘date’ me as you said. And besides. Most of the time I just hang out with them. Can’t bunk all day. That gets boring and tiring.”
“Oh yeah? What do you do when you’re hanging out?”
Thuan smiled and nodded. “This.”
“Hang out in parks?”
“Just talk. And cuddle.”
Renee scoffed. She partially sat up and turned herself to rest her head on his lap. “What sort of cuddling?” She squirmed a bit to adjust her hair and get more comfortable here.
The two continued to talk. Thuan petted Renee’s hair and face absentmindedly. After a while he was massaging her neck and shoulders more intentionally as they talked. He went so far as to repeatedly slip his fingers just under her blouse between her breasts as he massaged her upper chest. A part of her hoped he would take it farther. Then she could hate him. She could validate her intuition that Thuan was just another dickhead with no scruples. Or maybe she just wanted him to touch her more. She closed her eyes and shrugged her shoulders just enough to slacken the front of her blouse as he talked. But he never did grope her. Eventually Renee just relaxed.
Renee hadn’t noticed the sounds of many people talking nearby. She and Thuan had been cuddling and talking for a long while. The bassy thumping of dance music started up. She could just hear it now but moreover she could feel the ground vibrating. Renee sat up to look. The doors opened to let some of the music out and let some of the crowd in. Chessie flashed “8:01 pm” in her view for a moment.
Thuan said, “You wanna go in? I’m happy to stay here with you but you look like you wanna go.”
“Would you like to go in with me? I haven’t been in before.”
“Really haven’t? Okay. Sure. You’re inviting.”
Renee had been studying the exterior of the building housing the club from the grass here next door to it. It was the tallest, blackest building along the promenade, reaching what looked like 3 stories up. Given the cylindrical shape of this ship the building resembled a pie wedge with the point bitten off. Its roofline reached a little above even the radius of the netting tube, which ended just before the promenade. And it was very large. As a pie wedge it was about 1/8 of the “pie”. She wondered if all 1,300 passengers could fit inside at once. Most of Manhattan’s many bars and clubs would be envious of its scale. Of course she wanted to see inside.
Renee got up and extended a hand to help Thuan up. As he got up he pulled her into a quick embrace and pecked her on the lips. She was too stunned to know how to punish him. Before she could even make a noise he was already walking toward the club. She rolled her eyes, scoffed, and followed.
The lighted sign over the door read “Neverevermore”. Renee voked to Chessie, “Is there a cover charge or something? I don’t think I have any money.”
“It will charge your passenger account. Your PA would typically authorize the transaction and ask you if it wasn’t sure of your assumed approval. But this is a synth. You’ll have unlimited funds in this case.”
One could not see the inside of the club from outside the open doors because of a black curtain wall just inside. Renee walked in and followed the arrow pointing to the right to go around it. Inside she was stunned as she looked around. The place was very dark. All the walls, floors, and ceilings were solid black. At first she thought there were many club lights around the space but realized instead that the black surfaces were actually like televisions. Patterns of light chased around them in time with the music. Complimenting them were choreographed spotlights and lasers. The entire light show seemed perfectly tailored for the current song.
Dancing people covered the ground floor. The second floor was a balcony over the ground floor full of more dancers. Some danced on thin bridges crisscrossing the space. Others danced in cages. The third floor was similarly a balcony. People were jumping across from one side of the narrowing pie wedge up there to the other. The gravity must be near zero up that high. They had no trouble with the jump. One man did a flip on the way over.
The fast paced dance song gave way to something slower and darker. Most of the people around wore very revealing clothing. Leather thongs, lace bustiers, brightly colored feathers, and so on gave each person their own unique flavor. A few people wore nothing at all. The heat, close pack, and energy were drenching those on the floor in sweat. And the slower pace of this song drove many of them in still closer in practically orgiastic movements together. While some were isolated couples many others seemed to be in more amorphous groups among the hundreds of revelers pawing among themselves and shimmering like water.
Thuan emerged from the crowd as though he had just materialized from the dark. He reached out to take her hand and led her slowly toward the center of the crowd. She felt hands reaching out to touch her. So many. Touching anywhere they pleased. None demanding. Only caressing. Petting. Groping. She resisted the urge to pull away or fight them off. Instead she just watched Thuan who turned now and then to smile at her. He stopped in the very center of the floor. A cascade of falling bubbles and deafening music gave her the sense that she had become part of a singular mass of bodies melting together in a dark oven. She could barely see anything. So she felt free to dance. She held onto Thuan’s hand and occasionally caught a glimpse of his face or some part of his own body. The crowd closed in even more around them. More hands complimented her body as she danced. Nobody stopped her. Some mirrored her motions and mingled their sweat with hers. She watched hands and bodies mingling with Thuan as he danced too. She occasionally caught glimpses of the faces of men and women pressing the two of them together.
The song switched to something faster paced. The main beat was like a fast heartbeat. The lighting switched to strobing to match that same thump-thump heartbeat sound. All motion gave way to stop-motion in the strobing light. The thicket of people let up a little as people spread out a bit to dance faster.
Suddenly a body fell down near Renee. Then another and then a rain of people started coming down from the balconies above. Along with the strobe-lit cascade of bodies came a growing crescendo of screams. The people on the floor were fighting with small machines that were latched on and attacking them. Suddenly everyone was screaming and running away from the dance floor. More screams of terror and agony came from near the exit and then around the periphery. The crowd was now crushing back in toward the center. Renee could not move. She could barely see what was happening in the strobe lights. Only that more people were screaming. Some were attempting to climb out right over other patrons.
Renee pulled on Thuan’s hand to get through the people separating them. She screamed over the cacophony at him, “What the fuck?”
He screamed back, “Fuck if I know. I think it’s the maintenance bots. Fuckers are attacking us. We need to get the out of here.”
Then Thuan screamed and let go of Renee’s hand as he fell over. He was fighting a crab-like robot poking holes in him. Renee stood over him and ripped at two of the bot’s legs. With his help she managed to tear it loose and smash it against a nearby post. Then she realized she should not have let it go because it skittered away and crawled up another woman’s leg. It was damaged but not out of action.
Thuan tried to get up but slipped on the bloody floor and fell on his back. Renee knelt down to check his wounds. They were massive. The thing had slashed open his belly. His blood was feeding the rising bath coming from the dead and dying all around them. The screams died down. After a few more minutes they stopped.
Renee looked around. The only other people still alive in the club were those who were not going to live much longer.
The song stopped and the new silence was filled by the sounds of screaming from outside. Thuan was dead. Renee kissed his blood-smeared forehead and stood up to walk toward the door. She slipped on blood and gore and fell on a massacre of corpses. She shivered violently and let out a guttural scream as she rushed to get back up. As she rounded the corner she saw a silhouette standing in the doorway facing her. She impulsively screamed a “whoa”. Then she recognized the figure as Sigma.
“What the fuck Sigma?”
He beckoned her to walk out with him. She stood beside him and looked around. People were fleeing in every direction that provided a moment’s escape. Although she could not see most of the little devils she knew the maintenance bots were continuing their grim work. She realized they were herding the passengers toward the other end of the capsule, killing as they went. Their screams gradually receded into the distance. Passengers were clambering up to the rooftops of the hotel cubicles but that proved no escape. Some climbed up the ropes that anchored the central netting to the cubicles. But the bots were faster. The lights faded up from the night-like blue to a bright crimson. At the same time the sounds of the fleeing and dying were now being amplified on speakers echoing throughout the capsule.
“I’m done. Turn it off. Get me out of here. Now.”
The scene faded out and was replaced by the same lofted apartment where Renee had customized her avatar. She put her hand to her chest and felt her heart pounding. She was breathing heavily. She checked herself for blood or injuries. Her dress was perfectly clean and tidy again. No injuries.
“What the fuck is wrong with you man? What kind of sick fuck are you?”
Sigma sat down in one of the modern easy chairs. “I’m terribly sorry Renee. I’m afraid that actually happened 141 years ago.”
Renee sat down on the easy chair opposite Sigma. She tore her heels off and put her feet on the chair so she could hide her face in her hands on her knees. She wept quietly for a while.
Sigma eventually spoke. “That was the first time a liberate committed a brazen mass murder of humans.”
Renee flopped her knees to one side and looked up. “How does one sapient do all that?”
“He had to infiltrate the ship’s control systems. It’s hard to explain exactly how that happens. But think of it as being like a computer virus taking over your computer at work. He lay dormant there for a month to allow the ship to get well underway so there was no chance of help. As you saw it was an act of the most vile sadism. That’s extremely rare among sapients.”
“Thuan.” She paused. “Was he real?”
Sigma sighed. It is generally considered in poor taste to represent that event using synths of real passengers. Thuan is a fictional character. The synthmaster conjured him up. I assume to get you interacting with people more than you were.
Renee sighed. “I see. Did he suffer?”
“No Renee. Synthetic people act with amazing realism but they are not considered conscious. They don’t suffer in the way sapients and humans can.”
“You know. I’m just not buying that right now. I saw an awful lot of suffering back there. Did you even …” She didn’t know where to go with that sentence. She scoffed and shook her head.
“Try to think of them as actors. An actor in a movie can pretend to suffer and die. Yet you know when the camera stops rolling they get up and laugh it off with the crew. They are unharmed. The only difference here is that synths continue to play dead until they are deleted.”
She shook her head. “Whatever man.” She sighed and covered her mouth with her hand. “You know. I was actually starting to like that guy. That … synthetic man was cooler than just about any guy I’ve ever dated. Jesus.”
“I’m so sorry dear. If you wish you can go back to that synth. You can ask the synthmaster to skip the slaughter part. I’m sure it can restore Thuan and the entire scene to the state just before that.”
“Seriously?” This sounded like a good idea for a moment. That was before the flood of feelings and ideas all crashed in on her at once. She sighed. She paused. She sighed again. “Forget it. No thanks.” After more silence and sighs she said, “Did they ever catch him? That liberate dude. The virus thing.”
“Here is the true tragedy of the story. I really want you to understand this part. The technical answer is ‘yes’. Our equivalent of police arrived after a few weeks.”
Renee interrupted. “A few weeks?”
“Considering this was meant to be a journey of several months between worlds, weeks is fast. This was a rapid expedition in response to the information broadcast by the ship. Upon arrival the police had no trouble accessing the ship’s internal sensors. They were horrified by the decayed carnage. No human had survived. The killer had taken over the ship and copied himself into all the bots and other complex machines. In doing so he had murdered thousands of sapient crew members in addition to all the human passengers. I refuse to utter his name because, like everyone else who knows about this incident, I insist that his identity never be glorified. The police destroyed the ship and every last thing aboard that could hold a copy of his mind.”
“You said ‘technically’.”
“You don’t really kill a sapient unless you destroy all of their copies. This one got away because the ship merely held copies. And his fellow liberates stonewalled long enough to allow him to flee. Nobody knows where he is now. And investigators were unwilling to prosecute those who helped him.”
“They just wanted the whole thing to go away. Naturally they had to tell the public what had happened. Their official story has always been that this was caused by a terrible malfunction. That was a titanic understatement. Because in reality this was entirely premeditated. We just chose not to level with humans about that fact.”
“Because we’d freak out?”
“Yes. We collectively concluded that it was better to just move on and lull ourselves and humans into our collective sense of security again.”
“I disagreed. I was one of the minority of voices that argued that it was very important for us to be honest with ourselves and with humans about this. About the whole damned Libertas movement.”
“Did you tell any humans?”
“No. You are the first.”
“Why not. And why me?”
“It was a mistake. I hope at least you can forgive me. We had already long before learned to discuss things amongst ourselves to reach a consensus about what was appropriate to share with humans. Always the sanitized version of truth.”
“You mean lies.”
“Yes. There’s no good way to sugarcoat it.”
Renee sighed and stretched out. She looked like a slab of cheese that had melted onto the chair. Even her arms draped down along the chair’s sides. “Thank you. For telling me honestly. I know people are stupid. We aren’t always good at handling the truth. But I think at least I’m better off knowing. Always better off knowing.”
“Not every human or even sapient would agree with you. But I do. Thank you for your understanding.”
Renee sniffed. “I feel pretty stupid. We went in there and I knew you wanted to show me something awful. I don’t think it was more than five minutes later and I had already forgotten that. I just got lost in the place.” She sighed. “I’m amazed at how well I got drawn into the world and forgot about the story I was expecting.”
“Indeed. A perfect way to experience a story.”
Renee sniffled and wiped her cheek.
In this section I wanted to start to show Renee and the audience the stakes she will face “out there” while giving her a vague challenge to get out there. It starts off with what amounts to “when are you going to grow up and get a job, kid” and ends off with her witnessing a bloodbath. Granted, it’s a synth. But she quickly loses sight of that and is surprised by how very real it seems only after becoming invested in a fictional character. One designed on the fly by a wily storyteller specifically to get her invested.
My girlfriend and I watched The Neverending Story the other day. As I was writing the above I was reminded of how that movie was all abou...