Renee had switched her view to a forward camera to watch as Aurora approached Kalju a while back. The spinner had slowly grown from a dim point ahead to a pale glowing ring. At full zoom she could now make out some of the details. Against the star studded black of space Kalju was defined first by bright white lines ringing its overall shape. Or were they pink? Sandwiched between the outer and inner light rings were six concentric rings of dimmer blue light. She could just make out figures walking around in those halos. Walkways she guessed. The center of the spinner was mostly empty space. The two light strips defining that inner tube of open space reflected off its reddish mirror-like metal surface. Two thin spokes connected a small central cylinder to the larger spinner. She could make out faint blinking lights on that central piece and figured they would be docking there.
As Aurora drifted ever closer Renee could make out more details. The whole outer skin of Kalju appeared to be made of the same highly polished rose tinged metal that was easier to see on the inner loop and central dock because of the lighting rings. The glowing walkways were full of people. Once Aurora was perfectly in line with Kalju’s axis she gradually increased her own rotation to match Kalju’s three revolutions per minute rate. A minute earlier everyone in the walkways was just spinning in the same direction to Renee. Now she could make out each individual person walking in one direction or the other and those just standing around. One or two people seemed to be pointing out at Aurora, though she was still a couple kilometers from docking.
Renee voked Chessie, “It’s actually not as big as I expected. Did you say ten thousand people?”
“Kalju is fairly compact. Its 9,813 human residents reside in relatively small apartments that make up about 78% of the interior space apart from its water and biomatter reserves. Its outer shape is roughly a cylinder that measures 88 meters in diameter and 115 meters in depth. For a comparison you may be familiar with, you could stretch a football field across its diameter and almost across its depth.”
“Dang. That’s small. I hope it’s not too uncomfortably crowded. How big are the apartments?”
“Apart from a few special units there are three main sizes. A single person apartment is 24 square meters. A two-person is 35, and a three-person is 50.”
Renee grunted. “Damn. How big is that in square feet? I’m kinda used to that from apartment hunting.”
“258, 377, and 538 square feet respectively.”
“What the fuck? Seriously? Three people in 538 square feet? That’s insane even by New York City standards.”
Chessie laughed. “I know what you mean. But keep in mind they spend most of their times in synth cradles that take up most of their apartments. They don’t have kitchens. They don’t have laundry rooms. And they aren’t allowed to have large physical wardrobes or collections of objects.” Chessie paused a moment. “I count 583 pedestrians on the six floors of walkways on this side. I bet there’s a similar number on the other side. Together they probably are the majority of people who are outside of synths right now. And there’s a good chance some of them are in synths while their PAs walk their bodies. Everyone else is tucked into their cradles.”
Aurora eventually passed beyond the grooved face of Kalju so Renee could no longer see the walkways full of people. She had folded up her solar arrays and many other protrusions in preparation for docking. She eased forward slowing down in pulses from attitude adjustment thrusters. And then Aurora and Kalju extended their docking rings to kiss. Renee heard and felt the initial clunk and the whizzing of motors clamping the two machines together. Now attached they pulled each other into a sealed embrace and hooked up various ports.
Aurora voked, “Welcome to your new home Renee. At least for now. You ready?”
Renee laughed. “I’m actually kinda nervous hun.” She breathed a few sighs. “Let’s do it.”
Renee’s view switched to her humech. She felt the pressure pads releasing her. She wasn’t controlling her mech just yet. Aurora must be managing this part. The charging ring released her. Her arms guided her tightly stretched shape around some other cargo and racking and through a tiny hatch above her. She was still floating in zero gravity here along Kalju’s axis. She ascended into a larger space apparently designed for human occupants. Still floating upward she felt her mech come back under her own control.
“You can take it from here.”
“Got it. Thanks dear.” She reached her arms forward to guide herself through another floor hatch above. A small but bulky hatch opened ahead of her as she approached it. She caught handholds on either side of it and made her way through a double hatch assembly. On the other side must be Kalju’s docking bay. It was a large and well-lit cylindrical space. On the opposite side Renee could make out the scurrying of floating machines offloading cargo from a ship docked there. Or so she assumed.
Renee was startled as a machine came from behind her head and greeted her. “Welcome to Kalju Renee Parrish. Let me assist you in boarding.” He reached out a foam-covered handle for her to grab and gently pulled her out of Kalju’s hatch which closed behind her. She followed the machine’s lead as he offered her a place for her feet. He gently hugged her with foam covered clamps that conformed to her torso and then floated his way toward the center of the cargo bay. She could hear a hissing breeze from air jet ducts swiveling about around this personal ferry.
The ferry said in a cheerful tone. “No bags. No other passengers. You’re making my job very easy.”
Renee smiled. “Glad I can make your day better.”
Renee’s little ferry attached himself inside some sort of elevator. She had noticed two of them on either side of the cylinder’s middle. These must go down to the main structure. After a minute of descent Renee was starting to feel a light tug from the artificial gravity created by Kalju’s spin. And at last the ferry relaxed and let go of Renee as the elevator doors opened. “Second floor and transit terminal.”
“Thanks for the ride.”
“My pleasure Renee. Enjoy your stay.” The doors closed behind her.
Renee looked around the brightly lit lounge-like room. It actually reminded her a little of an airport departure gate. Although there were no windows. The space was mostly empty but there were a few people hanging out on the lounge furniture and elsewhere. As she looked around she could feel the slight effects of Kalju’s spin on her balance. She was feeling fairly comfortable with the nearly half G of gravity here, having experienced zero G and low gravity environments in the months since her rebirth at Archeion.
Chessie displayed glowing arrows to lead Renee toward a highlighted door on the other side of the room. She leaned forward to continue walking the path laid out.
A tall man nearest the elevator addressed Renee as he stood up. “Fair mint. Beauty. Velkomin. Huanying guanglin. Bine ai venit. And warm welcome Renee.”
Chessie had been offering English translations for the non-English variants of “welcome”. “Oh. Well thank you. You waiting for a ship heading out?” She looked around as though for a departure board.
“Not such. I’m waiting for you Renee. You look you needing a welcome lay. Let me induct you. Fresh fuck before you dive into synths.”
“Pfff.” Renee put out her hand and rolled her eyes. “Fuck off.”
Renee felt an arm resting on her back and turned to see a topless woman clad in a bikini and very tall heels towering a few inches above her. She said, “Tsk tsk Yurislav. Can’t you see this sweet thing don’t want dick. She like soft femme who knows how to make her happy.”
Renee shrugged her shoulder and gently elbowed some distance between them. As she backed away she looked around. A completely naked man covered in body tattoos and a big smile was walking up behind the woman. Others around the room were watching Renee patiently with their own smiles. “What the fuck? I’m not interested guys. I just want to get to my room.”
The woman shrugged and strolled away. Yurislav said, “If you change your mind you voke me.”
Renee’s impulse was to kick him in the balls or at least unload a bucket of sass on these horrible people. But she realized that ten thousand wasn’t that many for even a small city. She probably would run into them again. She didn’t want to antagonize anyone. Right now she just wanted to escape. She walked as quickly toward the elevator as the half gravity let her. She put a hand up and looked away as a man near her destination stood up with a smile.
“Just to say hello Renee. Welcome.”
Renee stopped and sighed. She turned to face Quang Hoang. Like all the others his name was floating above his head. “Look. Quang. I know you can see my name but you don’t know me. Don’t pretend you do.” Quang looked stunned. He didn’t know how to respond. Renee snorted and shook her head. She continued on to the elevator. Its doors opened and she stepped inside. “What the fuck,” she muttered to herself with her face in her hands as the doors closed.
Chessie voked, “This is common at many ports. Some people consider it a prize to be the first to fuck a newcomer.” Renee chuckled softly. “And I know this is still new to you but almost everyone you meet will greet you by name. It is not typically considered rude.”
Renee sighed. “Okay. I guess I overreacted. That kid. He didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t give him a chance to I guess. But the others really rubbed me wrong. So … ‘presumptuous’ is the word.” She pursed her lips and shook her head. “Whatever.”
Renee looked around the elevator. There were no buttons and no indication of what floor they were on. But Chessie was showing the ascending floor numbers as they continued. The elevator stopped at the sixth floor. She stepped out. The gravity was slightly stronger here.
Renee voked Chessie. “Did we just go up from the second floor to the sixth floor? I thought we went down from the dock thingy in the center.”
Chessie displayed a wireframe schematic of Kalju in front of Renee. A dotted line animated to show the path she had taken all the way from Aurora to here. “That’s correct. Floor numbers in spinners typically start at one nearest the center and increase outward. They increase as you go ‘down’ in the gravity sense. Your apartment is here on the second lowest hab floor. Floors one and eight are mainly bulk storage and manufacturing. Your apartment is this way.” The model disappeared and the path of arrows returned.
Renee walked north for a while and then west following the arrows. She marveled at the curving hallway as she walked. The walls looked and felt like highly polished red granite inlaid with brass laurels. The floor was a white carpet with dusty blue margins and flying bird silhouettes as details. Overhead was a continuous red-tinged metal ceiling blurrily reflecting the people walking by. A few looked at her but all moved along. She had half expected to see something very techy out of a science fiction movie. Instead it just looked like some posh hotel in lower Manhattan.
She reached the final arrow bending toward a mahogany paneled door. None of the doors had any markings. Chessie displayed “63209” on this one. Renee reached out for the handle and felt a soft click and grinding sound before she felt the lock release with a light clunk. She could not turn the knob but she pushed the door open. The room faded from black to light as she walked in. The door closed behind her and she heard the motorized grinding as it locked again.
Renee looked around and scoffed. The room was smaller than a couple parking spots. At the far end was a freestanding rack with what looked like a charging ring at its center. Along half of each side wall were open closets and shelves. The posh surfaces stood in stark contrast to the poverty of space.
Chessie voked, “I had them remove the synth cradle and install the charger. That freed up a bunch of floor space for you. One benefit of your humech.”
Beside the entry door was a door to a small bathroom. Like everywhere else the surfaces were beautiful and perfectly clean.
Chessie voked, “When you find yourself feeling cramped here just remember where your mech was stored for the last three months.” The two laughed.
Chessie voked, “There’s an orientation vid. You ready to watch it?”
“Oh. Heh. I was hoping to go for a walk or a jog around the block. Can I do that first?”
“Of course. I can fill you in on some of the highlights as you go if you want.”
Renee started jogging west along the corridor outside her apartment. A few people looked curiously but nobody stopped her. As she sped up she felt heavier. She thought about it for a minute and realized she must be going around the circular hallway in the direction of spin and thus going faster than everything else on this floor. She wondered if running in the opposite direction would make her lighter. She turned around and gave it a try. By the time she was up to a full run she was struggling to keep hitting the floor cleanly. She was so light now that she was bounding in long steps. “Wow. Wild.”
“What? The changing gravity? If you are curious the gravity on this level when you are at rest is about two thirds of a G. When you were running west you hit a little over a full G. Running east you hit just under a third G.”
“Cool. Hey, I saw a bunch of people at the windows from outside. Where is that?”
Glowing arrows marked out a path. “Both ends feature promenades that offer the only direct views of space. There’s not much to see outside but you’ll find a lot more people out there.”
Renee made her way to the end of one of the straight hallways. A door slid open and the sound of conversations drifted in. People were frequently walking past. She eased her way through the door, which slid closed behind her.
She stepped aside and leaned back against the dark blue carpeted wall that ran all along the promenade. The other side was a continuous window with no dividers or seams. It looked out on the slowly spinning expanse of space. The hallway here was maybe wide enough for three people to walk side by side. But pedestrians were strolling in both directions. Mostly staying to their right to pass others. A few people were standing up against the carpeted wall and a few more were against the window. Nobody stood in the middle of the hall because it was not wide enough to.
Renee looked one way and then the other to watch people walking by. Some nodded to her but most just carried on. There were couples and small groups that tried to stay close enough to carry on their conversations. More of them were silently walking alone.
Renee was stunned by the wide variety of attires as people walked past. One woman was clad head to toe in what looked like vinyl and leather and wore thin blackout goggles. The next man wore some sort of evil overlord suit festooned with brass buttons. The next woman appeared to be naked and sporting only airbrushed body paint. The next man wore a black leather thong, chaps, and vest topped off with a military-style black leather cap. The ensemble jingled with silvery chains holding it all together. The next woman had powder white skin and hair and sported genie pants and a bikini top. Several men and women walked past wearing brightly colored skirts. Renee chuckled to herself as a completely naked couple walked past.
Almost everyone here was young. Most appeared to be in their twenties and thirties. A few looked like late teens and a handful looked to be in their mid forties. Renee remembered that this was an adult-only world but was surprised to not see old people. Sigma had said that most people were effectively immortal now. Perhaps that meant they could stay forever young. Chessie confirmed her suspicion. She would not be able to guess someone’s chronological age by simply looking at them.
There was no way Renee was going to be able to jog along the promenade with so many people packed in. It was a tight space. But there was something surprisingly intimate about it. Renee felt genuinely excited. A part of her wanted to reach out and strike up a conversation with these people. But she wasn’t ready just yet. She strolled along with the crowd and glanced at people’s names as they walked past. She read some of their public profiles. There was something intoxicating about being able to peek in through the open doors of the lives of passersby. People-watching in The City had always been fun but the people walking by had always been locked doors that could only be opened by talking to them. And that was just something Renee was loathe to do. And now this felt almost perverse, like she was some Peeping Tom armed with a cloak of invisibility.
She realized she was going to have to edit her own profile soon.
Renee heard a sharp sound that reminded her of one car rear ending another. Ahead of her a white spray of shards of the window glass spattered two people nearby. Everyone in the hallway flinched. The two caught in the spray hunched over in apparent pain and walked away from the hole in the window that was now sucking air out in a steady wheeze.
No more than two seconds later Renee saw a spider-like robot leap up out of the crowd and stick to the window. Renee couldn’t make out exactly what was happening but it immediately sealed the hole stopping the sucking sound. Seconds later a team of humanoid mechs made their way quickly past pedestrians to tend to the injured. One carried a bloody young man past Renee. Another walked aside a woman who was bleeding a little as well. Several others who did not appear injured were also walked away.
Chessie voked, “Wow. That is quite rare. Meteors are a challenge. Things out here are often moving very fast relative to one another making even small objects more dangerous than bullets. Most of them are easily seen and deflected or destroyed before they can hit a place like this.”
The crowd had gone mute for a minute there. Once the injured people were escorted out of the promenade the murmurs began and people started walking again. One bot was vacuuming the last of the glassy shards on the floor while another stepped away from the hastily patched hole. She wondered if they would have to somehow replace the entire seamless glass or what.
“But some of them get through? This doesn’t seem like a safe place to be now.”
“Yes some do escape detection and hit. You may be able to see how the acrylic window is actually multiplanar. The gaps and special coatings on the different layers ensure that anything that hits will explode into a less dangerous spray. Most of them would get caught within the layers but this was apparently large enough to break through. The shattered bits of acrylic aren’t all that dangerous. Those people will be fine. In truth nobody is in very significant danger. And lesser window strikes will only happen maybe once or twice a year. Kalju maintenance tells me that you just witnessed the second worst micrometeoroid hit in their 25 year history.”
“Lucky me.” After a minute Renee asked, “Could a meteorite kill people in their apartments here?”
“Not really. Something larger could escape detection and hit the window here and possibly kill someone if it were moving fast enough but that’s extremely unlikely. In any case it would then hit the inner wall here. There are no apartments on the other side. It’s mostly food storage and preparation as well as other light manufacturing. And remember how I mentioned that the first and eighth floors were bulk storage and manufacturing? All this serves as very good protection against micrometeoroids. Even if all power was to go out and active protection was to go down, humans would be very safe in the rest of the hab. The promenades are the only places humans are a bit vulnerable on Kalju.”
“Huh. Okay. Cool.”
“For what it’s worth you were more at risk of dying from a meteorite strike walking around on Earth than these humans are out here. Of course your whole mech can be destroyed and you’re still safe since your head is aboard Aurora.”
“Oh yeah. Right. You know. I didn’t even think about that.”
“These humans are at greater risk out here from cosmic radiation. The acrylic doesn’t stop enough of it so they are exposed to some. But the bulk matter all around that protects humans from micrometeoroids also protects them from most radiation. And whatever damage their tissues acquire when they walk the promenades is easily healed later.”
“All that and a bag of chips.”
“Nevermind. Dumb expression.”
Renee returned to her room and started watching the welcome and orientation video. A lot of it featured terminology unfamiliar to her. But she didn’t care enough to ask Chessie for clarification. Mainly it was boring. What made her laugh most was how much time it spent trying to highlight how this adult-only community was full of appropriate-for-all-ages entertainment. Nothing says “sex and violence contained within” like over-the-top Disney-esque imagery of people having safe and platonic fun.
Renee had always been a poor student. Now was no time to change that. She decided to bail on the rest of the presentation and hunt on her own for a first synth to visit. Just as she was about to hit the virtual pause button the video changed to show a cartoon-like synth that screamed “Care Bears” to Renee. She laughed and decided to follow the teleporter link.
Renee’s view changed and she found herself in a deserted version of the candy world landscape. A pink bear greeted her and explained that she would be required to take on a theme appropriate avatar. Of course she did not have one so the greeter offered her a selection of options. After five minutes of selection and customization Renee was all beared up. She felt a little shame at finding herself oddly adorable. It wasn’t too far off from one of her favorite childhood stuffed animals.
Renee strolled around the pastel landscape a little. She sat under a tree on a knoll very near the candy trail she had just been on so she could eavesdrop on other stuffies as they wandered by. She edged her way to the periphery of a picnic area where several dozen of them were gathered and just chatting. She could barely listen in on some of their conversations over the cheery music playing from a cartoony radio on one table. A few individual bears waved or greeted her by name. She replied to be polite but sincerely did not want to engage these people. Many of them had extra squeaky voices like Chili’s greeters that had inhaled helium.
Renee chuckled softly. What ever would her journal reflect about this place? Would Sigma feel like vomiting too? She then wondered if she were to vomit here would it look like sparkles, rainbows, and candy? Perhaps she would have to test this sometime.
Renee felt loads better back in her normal avatar. She decided it was time to do some shopping to spruce up her virtual wardrobe. Chessie indicated that most of the millions of clothing items were free. Some humans sold their own custom creations for money. Most free items had been devised by sapients. Renee was surprised to find they actually looked nicer to her. What’s more Renee could request customizations from a synthmaster running this or that shop.
Renee ended up spending several hours accumulating all sorts of clothes, makeup, and accessories. The process was intoxicatingly fast because she needed only select something to try on and a duplicate of her avatar would appear instantly sporting it just like she was. She could see how it looked and felt on her and as a third person observer. She had come to hate shopping before. The money drain. The uncomfortable subway and shopping crowds. Cringy clerks. Finding correct sizes. Changing rooms. All gone.
Eventually Renee felt exhausted. She realized there was no meaningful “done” to this. She simply had to stop and back out of the shopping synths. She decided to take stock of her purchases. When Chessie teleported her to her wardrobe synth she let out a hearty laugh.
“Oh my God! How much shit did I buy today?”
Chessie giggled. “Over eleven hundred items.”
“Jesus. And now I have no idea how to organize them. How am I going to ever find anything?”
“I’ll do my best to help you find things you wish to wear. But I think I get your meaning. You want to be able to browse it all like you would a closet or dresser.”
“Yeah. I guess. Is that normal?”
“Sure. I know you’re getting tired. Why don’t you let me try to organize this for you. Go ahead and rest.”
Renee giggled. “You’re the best, Ches.”
Renee teleported to her home synth and eyed up her big bed. She realized she had been awake for nearly twenty hours now. Half of that was before Aurora even docked. Aurora was now floating somewhere near Kalju along with other ships. Kalju’s dock was only large enough to keep two ships docked at once. It was wild for Renee to remember that her head was actually out there aboard Aurora while her mech was here aboard Kalju and her conscious attention had mostly been in synths since her arrival.
If Renee had wanted to meet real humans she realized she hadn’t exactly accomplished that yet. Maybe the teddy bear thing was a waste of time. At least it was good for laughs if unnervingly cute. But she was going to have to find better places to visit. Her temporary residency was good for one year so there was plenty of time. No rush.
And she was going to have to work up the courage to actually talk to people. It suddenly occurred to Renee that the sapients at Archeion had no trouble introducing themselves to her. They were helpful and friendly. So far the flesh and blood people in Kalju’s halls and the stuffie bear synth acted more like the city people she was used to. Not rude. Not yet at least. Just aloof. Keeping to their cliques. The only people to genuinely reach out to her were the assholes in the terminal upon her arrival.
In any case Renee needed a nap. She had stopped paying much attention to the clock. She was glad that Earth standard time was observed widely throughout Sol. At least she would not have to deal with jet lag or some wacky local time system. It was now 5:28 pm. She resolved to try being more social after a light sleep.
Renee woke up nearly ten hours later. So much for a nap. She wondered if Kalju synths had bar close times. Were people still up after 3:00 am drinking virtual coffee to stave off virtual hangovers from virtually partying all night?
Renee voked her PA. “What do you think Chessie? Where’s a good place to visit now? I’d like to try actually talking to real humans finally.”
“There are a few hundred thousand public synths registered on Kalju. A little over a thousand are active with a total of eleven thousand visitors right now.”
“Wait. What? I thought there were less than ten thousand people on Kalju.”
“Humans. I can’t tell exact numbers right now but it’s likely that most humans here are asleep. So most of the people in synths are sapients.”
“Right right. So what do you suggest? Sapients are cool and all but I really do want to meet some human people.”
“I’m consulting with some sapients now. Here’s a short list of places they think might best fit your needs.”
Near the top of the list Renee saw a summary for a synth called “Carousel Coffeehouse”. That sounded appealing. She spent a few minutes choosing an outfit and cursing her large new wardrobe. Thus chosen she blew out a sigh and teleported to the cafe. “Let’s do this.”
Renee arrived just outside the open doors to the cafe. She inched forward and looked around for a minute. It had a quaint hometown look she had seen popping up in upstate New York towns in the 1980’s. The place was fairly full with upwards of 30 people seated at plain wooden tables. They didn’t look like 1980’s coffee shop patrons. In fact they seemed quite a mismatching of people who had come from very different eras and fantasy realms.
Where to start? Just sit down at a table and start talking? Everyone was already talking to others or quietly reading or doing other things. She’d be interrupting. And she still marveled at the very idea of starting conversations, which some people did with ease. Not Renee. She resolved to start by ordering a drink. She would decide which table to invade while waiting for it.
Renee was thankful that there was no line at the counter given how busy the cafe was. She looked at the menu for a minute. Not a bad way to stall. And she hadn’t really eaten or drunk much in synths since her recent rebirth. So interesting to be able to control that. She knew she could have Chessie cause her to feel thirsty or hungry. A cup of coffee here would be a convenient disguise. Like some novelty moustache and glasses. The barista smiled and waited patiently. She ordered an oolong tea.
Renee leaned back against the counter and casually looked around the room again. A few people caught her glance. She looked away from each. No need to be a creep by staring. She was just an ordinary person here for a tea. She nonchalantly nodded at a hairy troll-looking man with a battle axe who smiled at her from a table near the far side of the long counter.
After a couple minutes the barista presented Renee with her tea and bade her to have a good day with a friendly service smile. The barista walked away to continue cleaning and organizing without requesting payment. In fact there wasn’t even a cash register apparent. Nor prices listed on the chalkboard menu. And now that she had her security blanket she still didn’t have a plan of action. Maybe best to just leave.
Just then an Asian woman with maroon-highlighted black hair waved to her. “Hey. Jiaren. Come sit with us.” Chessie showed “jiaren” translated as “beautiful woman” in Renee’s view. “Come on. Sit.”
Renee looked around. The woman was addressing her. Chessie floated the name “Xiao Yuan” over her head. Renee smiled and took the invitation to sit next to her.
“Jiaren. Why you standed at counter?” She laughed. “Why not sit and order?”
Renee looked around confused. “I didn’t know I could. Didn’t you get your coffee up there?”
Xiao laughed. “Coffee girl is just for show. You just wish up what you want here.”
Renee bit her lip. “Oh. I didn’t know. I’m new here.”
The man sitting next to Xiao asked, “Where you from? It’s different there? Have to order at counters?” The name “Lacag Stewart” floated over his head.
Renee chuckled and paused. “I actually just woke up a few months ago. And I just arrived yesterday. At Kalju I mean.”
Xiao backhand slapped Lacag’s arm. “Told you Yin. She was corpsicle. Speaks old English.”
Lacag looked between the two. “Yeah? Frozen? You’re how old?”
Renee was taking for granted that stepping into a conversation would allow her to mostly listen. She didn’t expect to become the center of attention right off the bat. She sipped her tea to buy herself a moment. It was already a perfect temperature. “I’m 35. But I guess you mean when did I die. 1996.” She took another sip.
Both of the others looked surprised. Xiao said, “Woah. 302 years. Such old baby.” She laughed.
Renee wasn’t sure how to take that. She smiled and looked around at the other tables.
Lacag said, “You were right. Corpsicle. Good meeting you Renee. You don’t meet many revivals.”
Before he could continue asking more questions Renee jumped in. “Likewise. Nice to meet you guys too. Where are you both from?” She couldn’t tell if they were a couple. She hoped her question would directly or indirectly answer that. But more importantly she wanted to deflect and listen for a while.
Xiao said, “I was in Kalju from opening. 25-and years. Lacag only been here 3 years.”
Lacag added, “I comed here from Kerala.”
“Oh really? On Earth?”
Lacag laughed. “No. I never been in Earth. Kerala is spinner.” He nodded. “Ask it.”
Chessie was adding little notes to help Renee understand. She clarified that “ask it” means “ask your PA about it”. Renee was starting to wonder if people always just asked their PAs instead of sharing knowledge with each other. Chessie also showed a few images of the Kerala spinner and its location within Sol.
“Nice. Maybe I’ll visit it someday. Were you born there?”
“Yes. I was birthed there. And lived all 54 years there before Kalju. You can believe?”
Renee did the math. This 57 year old looked like he was 30. She wondered how old Xiao was. She looked 21 but could not have been here for 25 years unless she was at least 16 upon arrival. “How about you Xiao? Where did you live before?”
Xiao cocked her head and smiled with a squint. “I lived in this and that. You heared of Bacchus?”
“No. I haven’t heard of many places actually. It’s all new to me. I only know Earth and … where I was reborn.”
Lacag asked, “Where in?”
“Oh. You wouldn’t have heard of it. Just a small kubo. Named Enekpe.” She wasn’t sure if she should be so free in giving this detail away. But Sigma had said he had a pretty airtight story. And this question was going to inevitably come up again and again.
The other two paused for a moment. Renee figured they were looking up the name. Lacag said, “Yeah. Never heard of. Small kubo.”
Xiao added, “Wow. So small. No humans in there?” She paused another moment. “No humans ever there before you?”
This was getting uncomfortable. This instant access to information about even the darkest corners of the universe was going to make keeping a tight story difficult. Renee needed to satisfy their growing curiosity while steering them away from this topic. “Yeah. The owner is a sapient named Seshat. She said someone had secretly donated my frozen body to her. She revived me and sent me on my way. She suggested I start here.”
Xiao laughed. “Kalju?” She nodded still laughing. “It’s funny. You just a baby. And just born again. And she send you to sex colony. She thinking you need fucking over.”
She and Lacag were laughing to themselves. Renee chuckled as well. Lacag leaned forward. “You haved first welcome fucking yet? I am happy giving you it if you want me.”
Before Renee could respond Xiao put her hand on Renee’s arm and added, “Or fuck me Jiaren. Or both if you wanting small group. We good pair.”
Renee laughed nervously. She had no idea what to say. “Wow. So forward. Okay.”
Xiao said, “Ya? Let’s do.”
Renee’s eyes widened. “No! Wait. Sorry. I didn’t mean that.” She gently freed her arm and took a slug of her tea to give herself a moment to think. “I just want to talk guys. I haven’t had sex with anyone. This is all new for me. I didn’t mean to give the wrong impression. I can go if you want.”
Lacag and Xiao were backpedaling with their gestures. Lacag said, “We’re sorry Renee. Everyone is not sexing all times. Take your time.”
Xiao added, “Ya Renee. Sorry. It’s a joke.” She leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. “I’m biggest fuck slut. But I’m here relaxing now.” She leaned back again. “A girl needing time to relax too.”
Renee laughed and nodded. “Yeah. Don’t want to explode. Eh?
“So you were at … Bacchus before? How long? And what was it like?”
Xiao nodded and thought. “Thirteen years. I liked living in it. Hot like Kalju. It’s a party city too. Manys more peoples. But it’s old now. Kalju has the best synths I ever seed.”
Lacag said, “I didn’t knowed you were in Bacchus that long. Lots of people here lived in it too. They sayed it goed south. Especially when Kalju opened up. Were you there when Kara Utama visited? Ah yes. You said you were before. Did you meeted her?”
The two got lost in Xiao’s reminiscence of a famed concert by Kara Utama. Chessie gave Renee some background into Utama’s vocal career and noteworthy scandals. It was nice being able to keep up. She was going to lean heavily on Chessie to keep from getting lost with three centuries of cultural references to catch up on. But she was more appreciative of being able to sit back and just listen for a while.
Renee sipped the last of her tea. It was still a perfect temperature. Synths definitely had their benefits. She asked Chessie to have it refilled. Voila. More fresh tea. She wrapped her hands around the warm mug and continued listening and learning.
Lacag eventually declared he was exhausted and needed to go. He had been yawning quite a bit and slowing down in the conversation. Xiao got up and gave him a passionate kiss. Still sitting he wrapped his hands around her back. He petted her sweetly and squeezed her butt. With the side of his face between her breasts he said, “It was pleasure meeting you Renee. If you want me just voke. I like seeing you again. Time to crash sleep.”
Renee waved. “Same here Lacag. It was really nice meeting you. Good night.”
Lacag rapidly faded away. Xiao sat down again.
Renee said, “I take it you’re not going with him. Can I ask? Are you two married?”
“Married?” She put her hand on Renee’s arm and laughed hard. “We just fucking friends. He’s good man. Sweet body and skilled sexer. Fun talker.” She chuckled again. “I’ve not been married for long time. Are you married?”
Renee laughed in turn. “Oh no. Never married. No kids.”
Xiao explained that she had children who were adults now. For some reason she was dodging questions related to her age. She wouldn’t even reveal how old her children were. Renee figured she must be at least 41 but was probably older if she had adult children. Renee was surprised as their conversation turned to what it was like for Xiao to raise her children. Not only was she in synths during labor to avoid the pain. She had also largely turned raising her kids over to sapients and her kids’ personal assistants. And Renee was starting to get the sense that this was fairly typical. Despite Renee’s gentle prodding Xiao wouldn’t talk about her own upbringing. Renee had so much to learn.
Renee had already enjoyed over an hour of conversation when Lacag was here. And now she and Xiao carried on for another couple hours. Renee felt even more comfortable with this arrangement. She was surprised at how much she was willing to open up and answer Xiao’s questions about her life before she died. Thankfully Xiao didn’t ask many questions about her time at Archeion.
Here they were, two women from such different worlds. And yet Renee was feeling a comfort that had been most unusual for her in the past. Xiao exuded a natural charm Renee was envious of. And every time she put her hand on Renee to laugh or emphasize some point Renee’s felt an unexpected chill. She couldn’t help but be reminded of how touchy-feely Bunny had been. What would snuggling this bubbly little Asian lady feel like?
Eventually it was Xiao’s turn to go. She had been yawning for quite a while. But clearly she was suppressing it to keep talking to Renee. Renee was fine after her 10 hour nap. She had expected to meet a bunch of people but was happy to have just had some great conversation with two.
And now Xiao was standing up while covering her mouth to yawn big. Renee decided that it was safe to touch Xiao given how much she had been touching Renee all morning. She stood up and gently patted Xiao’s back just below her shoulder blade. “It was really nice meeting you.”
When Xiao finished yawning she lit up with a bright smile. She grabbed Renee’s face with both hands and pulled her down into a deep kiss. Renee was startled. Other than Bunny giving her a few pecks on the lips Renee had never really kissed a woman before. Xiao’s mouth tasted faintly like strawberry. Renee surrendered to the moment and put her other hand around Xiao too. Xiao eventually pulled out of the kiss and was now petting Renee’s neck and her upper chest. She looked up into Renee’s eyes and quietly giggled. “Better voke me Jiaren.” She winked and quickly faded away.
Renee didn’t realize she had been holding her breath. She let it out in a long blow. She bit her upper lip and giggled. Looking around Renee noticed some people were glancing at her here and there. She voked Chessie to teleport her back to her home synth.
I visited lots of towns on Earth before I died. Each one had its own way of being different and special. I’ve only been on Kalju (and conscious for it) for a few hours now, but this place is surprising me like no other already. And I feel like I’m just inside the foyer waiting to enter the main hall. I’m excited to see what comes next.
I journaled earlier about my somewhat embarrassing sexual explorations on the trip over here. I still don’t know what made me slut it up so much but it was sure a bunch of fun, mostly. I knew Kalju was “adult” but I’m actually a little worried that I’m going to be considered the local prude here. No sooner did I walk through Kalju’s front doors than a bunch of men and women propositioned me in ways that would make a New York cat-caller blush. A little later I went to a coffee shop synth and was hit on within minutes. I convinced the two people I sat with that I just wanted to talk and thankfully they went with it. But the girl who stuck around longer surprised the hell out of me by giving me a sloppy kiss before leaving. I never asked for any of this.
But I’ll admit I kinda like her.
So Renee has finally arrived at her first human habitat. This section is just the start of her story at Kalju though. Although I’m eager to introduce Renee to the more salacious side of this adult world I thought it would be fun to ease her into it slowly. I did think that it would be fun to surprise Renee with cat-callers on arrival. And then to have nobody else she runs into behaving like that. At least for now. One key goal here is to immediately show that this small city has diversity of personality and behavior instead of having a monoculture.
One essential element I strive for in this story is to get the reader to feel like this is a real world they can directly experience. Something as banal as a dock...