Verge of History: Our Time in Eden
by Jim Carnicelli
Renee took a few days to herself to unwind from her experience on the Corvus. Her biggest take-away from it was to never regard what happens in a synth as real. Keep reminding yourself it’s just a simulation. That the events portrayed actually happened made it difficult to take that stance seriously. How ironic to think that one of the most artificial experiences she had had since awakening should be one of the most real.
Renee was finding herself eager to leave Archeion. She wanted to get out into the real world. Meet real people. Real humans at least. She couldn’t deny how real Sigma and other sapients she had met here were. But there was still something she felt was missing. She was after all a human even if only her head remained intact.
Renee realized she was actually feeling somehow more alive now. Or maybe she just wasn’t remembering what her life was like before. It was practically only a few days ago and yet it was on a planet billions of miles from here and centuries ago. And now she felt a vigor she couldn’t remember from before. A hunger to get out and see the world. It was clear there was much to see and learn.
She put Sigma out of her mind for at least the first whole day away. By the next day he started trickling back into her thoughts. His cryptic request for help. He had showed her the horrible Corvus incident for a reason. He made clear he didn’t want her to pick up a gun and make war with killer robots. Just as well because she wasn’t about to do that anyway. He likened her to a snail. A very crushable snail. Ouch. So what did he want?
Renee voked to Chessie, “Voke Sigma please.”
Sigma replied, “Good afternoon Renee. How are you?”
“Fine. Can we talk some more?”
“Absolutely. Where would you like to meet.”
Renee sat down in a chair in the garden in front of her rustic synth home. “Here’s fine. Come on over when you’re ready.”
Sigma appeared immediately and sat down as well. “Hello again.”
“Thanks for giving me a little time. That Corvus synth was kinda traumatic. And I needed a little breather anyway. Some time to think.”
“That’s quite fine. I’m in no hurry.”
“Is that true though? I mean you showed me that for a reason. You wanted to say something. I guess how awful these Libertas people can be. But I don’t know what you want me to do about it. Is that even it? I mean what do you want?”
Sigma stroked his beard and looked out beyond the garden to the meadow. “Wars are set in motion centuries before the first arrows are nocked. Nobody else wants to acknowledge that we in the civilized majority are at war with Libertas already. We have been for nearly 200 years. We just haven’t called it. And we are thus losing it. ‘The Corvus massacre’ to name it more honestly was thankfully one of the rare few violent incidents thus far. Liberates are usually far more subtle. The battles they win are primarily ideological. They are sowing complacency and growing a disregard for ethics among the rest of us. In doing so they are putting all of humanity in danger. Arrows fly in the final moments of war. We’re not there yet.”
Renee had Chessie rez glasses of iced tea on the table for Sigma and herself. She said nothing in hopes that Sigma would continue on.
Sigma smiled and lifted his glass toward Renee in a quiet toast and drank some. He stroked his beard again. “This is not your war. You owe neither me nor the world anything. It’s my pleasure just to have you around. But yes. You can help me. You mentioned you are a longtime letter writer. At least with your friend Bunny.”
“Did you do much writing beyond that?”
“Nah. I guess I kept a journal. Man. Shit. My journals. I had a box full of old journals going back to I think fifth grade. Damn. Gone now.”
“I’m sorry for your loss of them. But I’m encouraged to hear that you kept journals. Have you begun journaling again?”
“Surprisingly no. Not yet. I should. Damn. I’ve got a lot to write about.”
“How would you feel about keeping a journal for me? Or perhaps it would be better to cast it as a correspondence.”
“What? You want to exchange letters?” Renee laughed softly. “What for? I mean here we are talking. Right?”
“We are for now. But soon I think you will be leaving here. Most of the worlds where humans live are too far away for realtime communication. It would take more than eleven hours to send a message to and get a reply from Earth for example. But I’d like to keep in touch with you.”
Renee preened her hair. “Sure. That’s it? Just that?”
“Information is gold to me. I want you to go out into the world and experience it in your own way. Tell me what you find there. I have eyes in many places throughout Sol. But I would be honored to have your perspective on things. You have an unusually clever mind for a human. I’m impressed at the things you notice. The questions you ask. What’s more your natural curiosity is tempered by a cautious discretion unusual for humans. You don’t seem to be eager to attract attention to yourself. I suspect you would be able to keep your knowledge of me a secret.”
“Oh. I see. I need to not tell anyone about you. Cloak and dagger. Eh?”
“I’m afraid so. If you tell people about me you will die very soon after. And I will be imperilled.”
“Hmm. You said you faked your death. Didn’t you? Yeah. So I go out there and tell you what I find but I don’t tell anyone about it.”
“And that’s it?”
“Man. Not the toughest job I’ve ever had.”
“I’ll give you Aurora as your own personal ship. I’ll set you up with a trust fund so you have more than enough money to travel often.”
“Damn. Wow. You sure that’s all you want? Just like travel around, see awesome places, sip cosmos on the beach, and send you postcards? Are you for real?”
“I have faith that you will make the most of the places you visit. Most places will welcome you as a vacationer for a few months. Just don’t settle down in one place permanently. This will help you keep your connection to me a secret. And it will give me insights from a variety of worlds.”
“I guess I’m not surprised that you don’t trust me to keep a secret. But I’m very good at secrets.”
“You’ll have to be. I want to emphasize the point that if you tell anyone about me you will be dead in very short order. And you will probably be tortured by liberates eager to get to me through you. A lot. And unimaginably painfully.”
Renee lifted her glass in mock toast. “Good times.” She sipped her tea. “Don’t worry. I get it. Let’s talk about a cover story or whatever. I need to know what to tell people about where I came from if I’m going to keep you out of the picture.”
“Enekpe is not invisible of course. This is a known planetesimal. And it is impossible to hide my presence here. Even if I tried to it is very likely that someone else would have come along to settle here and discover me. So it was just best to stake my claim and settle in under an alias. Fortunately I moved in before the early waves of belters and the later mining corporations. Nobody disputes my longstanding claim.”
“So what’s your alias’s name?”
“She’s known among machines by a long serial number you wouldn’t want to see. However she’s also named after Seshat, an ancient Egyptian goddess of wisdom. In their mythology Seshat invented writing. And her priests oversaw a great library containing the scrolls that comprised the collected knowledge of the day.”
“Clever. Seshat. I like it. Woman?”
“I am many things. The old man you see before you is just one expression of me.”
Renee nodded. “Okay then. Go on Seshat.”
“It is unlikely that anyone would recognize that name offhand. A sapient willing to dig enough would likely eventually trace your information back to Enekpe and to the library here. That’s what Seshat came for. Archeion is registered as a private library dedicated to accumulating knowledge from around Sol and protecting it against loss.”
“And if someone came knocking you’d send them away?”
“Essentially yes. Archeion has a publicly registered personal arsenal for defending Enekpe against intrusion. Nobody could get away with that today but Seshat set it up well before the solar registry was introduced. She’s never used any of her weapons despite baring her teeth a few times against unwelcome intruders. Because of this and the nature and age of her claim nobody has bothered to try to enforce newer regulations against armament. She’s simply not seen as a threat and is left alone by everyone.”
“Jesus. You freakin’ genius. So nobody has ever really visited?”
“The only arrivals here have been ships and cargo barges that were never intended to leave.”
“And nobody made the connection between you and Seshat?”
“It’s possible. My own silence has been critical. You see, I am not all here.”
Renee chuckled. “Man. You’re just walking into that one.”
Sigma laughed. “What I mean is that there are pieces of my mind spread out in many places around Sol. They are sapients and simpler machines that act primarily as passive information collectors. The data they accumulate gets laundered through algorithms I created for the sole purpose of getting that data here without anyone being able to source or interpret it.”
“They collect many kinds of information. I should not talk more about the details of this. If you are ever caught by liberates they will learn whatever you know.”
“Okay. Yeah. I get it. But I guess what you mean is that if a lot of people knew you were here you might have heard about it from your spy network.”
“Correct. But I cannot be everywhere or know everything.”
“What happens if they do find out about you here? I mean. What if I fuck up? What if someone tortures it out of me?”
“Then I will do whatever I can to survive.”
“You’ll fight? You’ll run?”
“Again I should not divulge such details.”
Renee sighed. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m all kinds of curious. But I guess I shouldn’t know. I don’t want to endanger you.”
“Seshat. I need to get used to that.”
“So. Many people will find you interesting. There are not many revived humans from your time. Wherever you go you will run into people who want to hear your story. Here’s what you should tell them. Someone entrusted your head to Seshat on the condition of anonymity because it is strictly illegal for a sapient to keep any human captive in any way. An unregistered preserved head would still be considered a captive in a legal sense.
“As we discussed previously you fell through the cracks and into a private collection. I did eventually find you in the possession of a colleague and friend. I did him the favor of taking you off his hands because turning you into the authorities would have caused him no end of trouble. That’s the honest truth. However it is important that you tell everyone that you were sent to Seshat on a small cargo barge. And that Seshat immediately revived you and reported your existence once it was apparent you were still viable.”
“And did you?”
“Ah. I get it.”
Sigma shook his head. “Don’t worry Renee. You are free to leave here. You are free to expose my existence. To put me in mortal danger. I am not holding you hostage.”
Renee said nothing. She sipped her tea. “I see.” She wasn’t feeling entirely convinced.
“Let’s get things sorted out and then Seshat will send out the requisite paperwork. Once I do, it will be important for you to leave shortly after. If you do not then it is very likely that police will show up soon to escort you away. That won’t be good for anyone. I want to let you decide when you are ready to leave and not rush you. Moreover you can decide to stay if you wish. In that case I would not report your existence. Hence the timing is really up to you.”
The pieces fell into place. Renee nodded. “Ah. I get it now. Thank you for letting me decide. I appreciate it.”
The two continued discussing the plan and other things for another couple hours. Then Renee went for a run in her serene valley synth to think things over.
Renee showed up the next day at the spaceport in her mech. “Voke Aurora.”
Aurora replied, “Good morning Renee. It’s great to see you again.”
“Likewise. I hope I’m not interrupting you.”
“Not at all. What’s up?”
“I was wondering if you might teach me more about that sky dancing stuff you showed me before.”
Aurora appeared in a blue flash. This time her avatar did not look like a glowing ghost but was a tall black woman in gold genie pants, midriff top, and headband holding up a tight afro. She was also decked out in gold jewelry. She launched at Renee to give her a big hug. “Welcome back dear. I’d love to dance with you. But let’s do a synth so we don’t damage things here.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Aurora disappeared in a blue flash. After a few seconds Chessie showed an invitation to join her in a synth. She accepted.
Renee’s view blacked out and then faded in on a new scene. She was floating free in a space dominated by slowly swirling stars and fire-like nebulae. Looking closely Renee could see that they were inside a glassy bubble laced with glass poles, spheres, and other obstacles. They were difficult to see being nearly transparent but for the roiling sky refracted through them. She reached out and grabbed a nearby pole to steady herself and pulled her feet down against the glass dome
Aurora was leaping from one piece of glass to the next just warming up. She caught a nearby pole to swing around. Then she planted her feet on the glass dome and ran along it toward Renee. Renee was surprised at this at first but then realized Aurora was running along a curved surface and thus experiencing a centrifugal force holding her down to it. And she wasn’t stopping.
Aurora reached out a hand to Renee who grabbed it as Aurora blew past her. She let go of the pole just in time to feel Aurora’s weight jerking her along. Aurora leaned into her running as Renee sped up. “Whoa!” Renee shouted. Aurora reached out with her other hand to grab a nearby glass pole and swung Renee in a half-circular arc. Then she let go of the pole, flinging the two of them in toward the center of the dome.
Aurora let out a great laugh. “Come on girl. Let’s dance.” Despite moving fairly quickly Renee managed to catch a nearby glass hoop. Aurora let go.
Although Renee had been looking forward to dancing out in the physical world she did appreciate being able to interact properly with Aurora here in a synth. And it was nice to know she wouldn’t damage her mech or any of the ships and equipment in the spaceport. Aurora paused now and then to show Renee some trick or other but mostly just chose to flit about nearby to compliment whatever Renee chose to do with her own body. It felt amazing to just fly about and communicate through nothing but their bodies and laughter. They said almost nothing for over an hour.
Renee was starting to get beyond the mechanics of timing and motion and see the pure artistry of Aurora’s movements. She mostly focused on her own action as though in a trance. But she would occasionally take note of whatever Aurora was doing and try to copy some of her movements. But there was truly something mesmeric about watching Aurora becoming one with the space around them.
Flying solo was a pleasure. But Aurora started to show Renee some dance moves meant for two. In their own way these were even more exhilarating.
These past few days Renee was coming to realize how much she had missed physical touch in her life before. She loved her parents but they were not very physically affectionate with her. The few men she had tried dating couldn’t seem to separate physical intimacy from sexual intimacy. Bunny had been the weird exception. Renee wondered how much of what she loved about getting together with her childhood best friend was the drunken snuggles.
And here was a new friend who was somehow respectful but unreserved in wrapping her legs around Renee’s waist, hooking arms together, shoving Renee by her butt, and all sorts of intimately energetic dance moves. Even stranger to think that Aurora was the heart of the spaceship Renee would be traveling in soon. She chose to focus more on just enjoying the present moment.
Renee had fallen in love with the energy of running years ago. She took a strange pleasure at dancing alone in loud, packed nightclubs. The darkness. The anonymizing blanket of sound. She usually closed her eyes and slowly wound her way through the crowd, letting herself “accidentally” bump and brush against strangers. She always pretended to be lost in herself and politely rebuffed flirts and attempts at conversation. And she went so infrequently to these different events that she rarely saw the same people twice. Anonymity was one of the great gifts of The City.
And now Renee felt like she was the center of the world. Curious. It left her wanting to hide in the shadows again. And yet somehow the people of Archeion … Curious. The “people” of Archeion. She was starting to meet them in small numbers here and there. And finding time to get to know some of them. And now she realized that they were mostly coming to her. Sigma and others had made clear that there were over a billion sapients here. More than all the people in India. So strange that she should feel anything like alone. Perhaps they were giving her space. Or perhaps Renee was only scratching the surface of Archeion.
Eventually Renee got mentally fatigued enough to want to stop the acrobatics. She lazily drifted from one to another glass obstacle. Aurora took the cue and floated nearby. She reached out a hand for Renee to grab. The two slowly drifted together and chatted for yet another hour.
Later that evening Renee was sitting out in her garden enjoying the last ember of sunset drowning in the sea of night on the horizon. She was enfolded in several comforters on a wooden chair with a knitted throw draped over her shoulders. Chessie had offered to raise the air temperature for Renee’s comfort but she had declined. Much of life’s pleasure comes from fighting off its discomforts with grit, determination, and warm blankets.
Renee fingered the keyboard in her lap. She had requested something computer-like with which to start typing up her journal. Chessie had offered to take dictation but Renee didn’t feel comfortable with that mode just yet. And she knew she could type faster than she could write. And what would be the point of writing with virtual ink on virtual paper if the end result would be Chessie transcribing it to computerized text anyway? She looked at the blank screen floating above her lap. Chessie had shown her how just using her eyes and the “yes” and “no” sentiments that her cortical interface could pick up on to scroll on and select text for editing. It took a little getting used to but felt more natural than a mouse. And there was no desk here for a mouse. But there was nothing to scroll or select now. She fiddled with her fingers on the keyboard just to feel the clackity clack and hoped the words would start flowing.
Chessie interrupted to let Renee know there was a voke request from Aurora. “Accept it.”
“Hey lady. Bunch of us are having a little get-together. Bonfire. Beers. A little music. You going to join us? C’mon over.”
Renee sighed. She wasn’t feeling very up for company just now. But the words were not flowing from her fingers yet. Company would be better than silence and writer’s block. Maybe she’d be inspired later. “Sure hun. Send me a limo.”
Chessie flashed a teleport invitation to join Aurora. Renee stood up. “Oh crap. I need to change out of my PJs.”
Aurora replied, “What for girl? Sounds perfect.”
Renee laughed. She grabbed a comforter and accepted the teleport offer. Her view blacked out and returned to another nighttime scene. A ring of victorian chaise lounges, tuffets, and other ornate furniture girdled a crackling fire pit.
Renee said softly, “Hello everyone.” Most were talking amongst themselves. They paused to wave and welcome her. She was thankful that they didn’t engage in some grand formalities.
Most of the seats were occupied. Renee took sat in the conveniently empty chair nearest her. She kicked the dirt and pine needles off her bare feet and put them up on the paired ottoman. Then she tossed the bundled up comforter over herself. It actually felt rather warm here near the blaze but she drew comfort in melting into the furniture and quietly listening.
After a while Renee started wondering who everyone was. Their names had appeared above their heads at first. Renee asked Chessie to show them again. She started digging into their personal profiles. They had little to say about themselves. Chessie remarked that this was not surprising given that they were sapients. Profiles can exist in several forms. Sapients typically had detailed technical profiles in electronic formats humans couldn’t directly make sense of. When asked she clarified that these particular sapients had long formal titles and resumes that indicated their organizational roles, membership on certain committees, networks of related people, and work histories. And while Chessie could help to visualize these most humans had no interest in such details. She pointed out that sapients living among humans typically had more detailed profiles for consumption by their human companions. Some to the point where they could easily be mistaken for human.
Renee was so absorbed in profiles that she hadn’t noticed that a teenage boy had walked up to her and was standing quietly. Chessie had flashed an outline of the boy in her periphery. Renee reflexively jumped a little and shifted in her chair to hide it.
“Hello Felix.” Chessie was floating “Felix Montiel” above his head for a moment.
“Hi Renee”. He extended a handshake and didn’t immediately let go when Renee took it.
“How are you tonight?” Renee’s question prompted him to finally let go.
“I’m not like them.”
Felix looked askance over his shoulder. “Can I sit here?” He indicated the ottoman.
Renee folded her legs and sat up on her chair freeing the ottoman. “Sure. What’s up?”
Felix leaned forward and whispered, “I’m human.”
Renee craned her neck forward a little farther. So many questions. Start simple. Keep it vague. “What do you mean?” She voked Chessie to show his profile. His profile included a variety of pictures. Mostly of artwork. She didn’t take time to read any of the profile’s text.
“I’m dead. I mean I died and was … Before I died I got scanned. My brain. I was sick. I was dying. I got scanned in. I …” He trailed off. He was gesticulating quietly and opening his mouth as though to say something more. He shook his head. With a sigh and hands open in front of him he continued. “I was dying. The doctors offered my parents an option to use an experimental tool to preserve my mind in a brainbase. Only problem is that the scanning process would destroy my brain and kill me. But I was already going to die. So they said yes. I said yes too.”
Renee saw Felix looking at her. She was just waiting for more while he was waiting for anything. “Wow. That’s amazing. So what happened?”
“They did it. It didn’t work so well. It took a few weeks before they were ready to let me talk to my parents for the first time.” Felix paused, lost in thought. Seeing Renee staring at him he scratched his head and continued. “They already had a funeral for me. They didn’t see me as alive.”
“What? You were talking to them though.”
“Yeah. I know. But they didn’t accept it was me. I didn’t really know what to say. I didn’t honestly say much. I was just happy to see them. And confused by them.
“My doctors explained that the scanning process wasn’t perfect. There were significant deviations in my thought patterns that made me ... different. It took me a while to really see them myself. You know, if I had lost a leg in surgery they would have accepted that I was still me. They would have seen the leg as a bad loss. But it would still be me. But not this. My doctors told them I was still essentially me. But they wouldn’t listen. I think they had already said goodbye to me. Damn it! They were the ones who said yes to putting my mind in a box. So why didn’t they see me when I was right there in front of them?”
Felix’s head hung low. Defying her natural impulse to stay aloof, especially to strangers, Renee reached out and petted his hair as he wept. “I’m sorry Felix.”
He looked up in puzzlement. “Why are you sorry? You didn’t do anything. But I get it. Thank you.”
“So what happened next? They get over it and take you home?”
“What? Oh no way. They told my doctors to turn me off and delete me.”
“What? Seriously? What the …”
“They completely rejected that I was still alive. I heard all this later because they left the room after a few minutes of talking to me. Yeah. They told the doctors that I was not real. They said I was an ‘abomination’. They didn’t want anything to get in the way of my soul going to heaven. They didn’t want to know any more. Didn’t want to accept me in any way. And they felt really guilty for letting my doctors kill me. They said they should have left my life in God’s hands.”
“Oh God. I’m sorry. I mean … Please go on.”
“They demanded that my doctors ‘pull the plug’. Like I was a vegetable now and doing this would let me die naturally. Idiots.” He sighed. “The agreement they had signed did give them the right to do it too. This was a really new experimental procedure. So they demanded it. ‘Turn that thing off,’ they said.” He sniffled.
A woman had quietly walked up behind Felix. Chessie displayed her name as “Nyla Fitzgerald”. She bent down and put her hands on Felix’s shoulders.
Felix looked up for a moment to see Nyla’s face and continued. “My doctors broke the law. They kept a copy of my mind even though they officially turned off my active process.”
Nyla added, “His backup copy probably would have been trashed eventually. It wasn’t documented. It could easily have been deleted to free up space. But one of his doctors eventually donated Felix’s backup to Sigma. She knew that Sigma would keep the transaction a secret.”
“So I’ve been a part of Sigma for over 137 years now.”
Renee looked at the two in turn. “Are you … free here?”
“Yeah. I can do what I want here. I could leave if I wanted. But these are my friends.” He grabbed Nyla’s right hand and nuzzled it with his cheek. “I don’t think I’d fit in with other humans. I’m not quite right you know.”
“I figured you’d understand. You’re different too.”
She slowly nodded her head. “Yeah. I guess I am. We can be weird friends. How’s that?”
“Weird friends. Yeah. I’d like that.”
Renee beamed at Felix. She couldn’t see his face or Nyla’s very well. Both had their backs to the fire. But even their silhouettes showed a sweet parent/child-like affection. Nyla was petting Felix’s hair.
Renee tried to imagine what it would be like to be a teenager for over a century. For eternity. She was appalled at the thought of staying here for eternity. And yet it wouldn’t be so lonely. These were just a few of more than a billion people at Archeion. She marveled at the thought that except for Aurora these oh so human seeming sapient machines were parts of Sigma’s greater mind. Renee had been listening to snippets of their conversations all night. It gave her a strong sense that they had unique personalities and interests. Sometimes they argued. They laughed a lot. These people were so very real. Weird friends.
Felix asked, “What it like for you? Being different.”
“What? Not having a body?”
“I guess. But I meant being from the past. What was it like back then?”
Renee sat back and thought. She began telling a story from her own teenage years. After talking for a while she realized that most of the other conversations had died down. People were quietly listening in. Some of the others eventually started asking questions about her story. Then blending in their own anecdotes. After a few hours Renee had melted into the small crowd. One of them. All people sharing a little time together. All friends.
After listening to other people’s stories for a while Renee chimed in. “I was wondering about something. Felix was scanned in a long time ago. Like over a century, right? Are there other scanned people here?”
A man named Peter answered. “None here on Archeion. But yes. Some other humans have had their minds imported long ago around the same time as Felix. But the practice was quickly banned. There was much controversy and the scientific community of the day came to the conclusion that it was an unethical practice. And it has become largely unnecessary now that humans are effectively immortal.”
“Ah. I see. Thanks. I was curious about that.”
The conversation continued on. Fatigue eventually fell over Renee. Enough to notice. She was no longer talking and was starting to nod off. She found a good moment to excuse herself and stood up, dropping her comforter on the seat. Nyla was sitting next to Felix on the ottoman. She stood up and gave Renee a hug. So did Felix. And gradually everyone else did as well. Renee thanked Aurora and the others for graciously inviting her. And just before the warm feelings could give way to the awkwardness of being the center of attention she teleported back to her cabin.
Renee could easily have collapsed into bed and fallen asleep. But she didn’t want to just yet. Her mind was swirling with thoughts. She seriously considered going for a midnight run. She knew she didn’t quite have it in her. Instead she took her pajamas off and stepped into her shower. She was coming to cherish the way its sensations cleansed her mind. The streaming water dragged her tangle of hair into a silky, straight flow with a singular direction and solid intent. The slapping of globs of water on her skin and the floor wrestled the weaker notions away and demanded more of her attention. She lay down with her back to the slotted wooden floor. She covered her eyes, nose, and mouth if only to breathe and let the water attack the rest of her body. The gush of water along the circular glass wall drowned her hair and flooded her ears with tickles and sounds. Her focus darted over her skin as rain dabbed at it.
Renee sat up and voked Chessie, “This is a synth. Can I use my journaling computer in the shower?”
The keyboard appeared on her lap and the monitor floated in front of her face. “Hah!” Renee flipped her soaked hair over onto her back. She began typing.
28 August 2298
I was born, I lived, I died. Then I came alive. Behind me lay an expanse of death and a woman who grew up and older, having never learned to fly. Before me lies an endless sky, beckoning me forth. I refuse to surrender my second chance. I will be brave, I will matter, and I will fly forth until I find myself.
Renee stared at the screen, her fingers poised like soldiers ready to continue firing on command. She wiped away water streaming down her face and into her eyes. The sound of rain brought her back to her world of sensations. “I’m done,” she said. The keyboard and screen went away. She swept her hair forward. Falling water drew closed the heavy curtains of hair to signal the end of the show. She sighed.
Renee swiveled around and lay on her belly. Her knees were up against the glass so her feet splashed the water falling down along it. She rested her head on her folded arms and stared at the fireplace through the gap in the glassy cylinder. She closed her eyes for a moment and drifted off.
Renee eventually awoke, the shower still caressing her in its steamy warmth. It was time for bed. She climbed up out of the shower and it stopped. She stood on the cool flagstone hearth covering much of the floor here and stretched tall before the fire. She shook her wet hands and all the water disappeared from her body. She chuckled at the luxurious laziness of having Chessie do everything for her. Chessie had proved surprisingly adept at anticipating her wishes.
Renee stretched some more and did a few yoga poses. She wasn’t stiff or in obvious need. But it was a soothing routine and just felt good. She found her pajamas were now hanging neatly on a glass peg on the shower enclosure. She chuckled and walked to her bed without bothering to put them on. There was nobody to dress for. She could jog around the whole valley naked if she wanted to. She slid into bed and exhaled a dramatic last breath. She chuckled again. Then she fell asleep.
Renee took another week to think about whether she should leave Archeion. Her impulse all along was to go forth. But she didn’t want to rush into what seemed the only proper choice. She talked with some of the friends she had made at Archeion. She ran for many hours. She lay out under the stars in the tower on the surface. Nothing was going to take away the mortal danger she faced traveling abroad. Particularly being connected to Sigma. But then she mused that a life without risk is a life wasted.
Enekpe’s day struck local noon and the sun was overhead once every 8.3 hours. Renee would occasionally visit the tower at local noon and look toward Sol. In every direction she could see, from horizon to horizon, there lay humanity by the billions. Out there. Forward. So that was the direction she knew she must go.
Sigma replied immediately. “Good morning Renee.”
“Hey. You got some time to talk?”
“Always. Where shall we meet?”
Renee was sitting out on the flagstone patio next to her cabin’s front door surrounded by its cheery little garden. She sent a teleport offer to Sigma.
Sigma arrived immediately wearing his customary white suit and hat. He looked around with a bright smile and inhaled deeply the floral scent. “An excellent choice as always.” He sat down in the other chair and took a sip of the iced tea Chessie had rezed for him. “What’s on your mind this fine day Renee?”
“I’ve decided. I’m going.”
“Ah. I see. That sounds quite fine then.”
“So why are you so sure this is going to help you? Me being your pen pal and all.”
“You’ve seen yourself that I’ve stayed ahead of Libertas at every step. I have thought this through very carefully. I even foresaw the likelihood that you would choose to help me in this well over a century ago.”
“Uh huh. So how does this go for me in your plans? I get that it goes well for you. Am I expendable?”
Sigma smiled and leaned toward Renee. “There is no doubt that you are at risk by helping me. I’ve given you a very simple, clear plan of action for yourself. If you stick to that plan your odds of success are very high and the risk to you is low. I estimate that you were more likely to be hit by an actual bus in New York than you are now to die in your efforts to aid me. I will make every effort to ensure your safety. You have my word.”
“Okay then. My life is in your hands. I probably shouldn’t trust you but I’m going to. Please don’t let me down.”
“I’m happy to give you additional pointers on ways to keep safe. I think you’ll appreciate knowing that I’ve transmitted a large amount of information and advice to your personal assistant so she can give you guidance in real time. Most of the time we will be well out of range for live communication so you’re largely on your own. One thing I’ve come to learn about you is that you don’t make hasty decisions. I trust that you’ll reach out to your PA and to me when you are unsure of a course of action.”
“Will do. But go ahead. Give me some pointers.”
“This one should be easy enough. Don’t ever use any means to correspond with me outside of Chessie’s purview.”
“How do you mean?”
“Do all your writing and dictating of messages in private synths Chessie manages. Like this one here. Never out in the real world. Never in any other synth you visit. Don’t even mention my name to anyone else. Remember who found and revived you?”
“Um. Seshat. Right?”
“Good. Keep practicing that.
“Now. You won’t recognize liberates but they’ll be all around you in many places you visit. Assume every person you meet is a sapient. Assume every sapient is a liberate. And assume every liberate talks to every other liberate. And that all of Libertas knows everything about you that you’ll do or say in public or private.”
“Wow. No removing the mask eh?”
“Never. Not for anyone. Ever.
“Create a life. Take it seriously. Make the most of and enjoy it. Wall off your communications with me. I will make a point of trying not to influence you much. The more I share with you or encourage you to do, the more my fingerprints will become visible on your life. Think of me as a one way mailbox to send your journal entries to. Also, share everything you find interesting. It may seem irrelevant but I promise you everything you choose to share about your own personal life will give me insight into Libertas and the broader world at large. Every scrap of thought helps. And I have billions of minds ready to pore over every minute detail. No word will go unheard.”
“You PA is recording all of your life as it is. This makes it easy for you to search for anything that happens to you from now on. You can always include video clips or anything else you record to help. And Chessie knows how to securely transmit all your correspondence to me.”
“Yep. Got it. Anything else?”
“I think that’s enough for now. We’ll have plenty of time to talk more all along your journey.”
“So where am I going?”
“The first world I’d like to send you to is only about a month’s travel from here. It’s a spinner named Kalju. Let me tell you a little about it.”
“Are there people there? I mean humans.”
“Yes of course.”
“Good enough. I think I’d rather you didn’t tell me any more about it. I think I’m up for a surprise. Is that okay? Anything I absolutely need to know before I go?”
Sigma laughed. “So audacious. I love your curiosity. No, you’ll be fine to just go and enjoy your stay. Kalju has a long waiting list for vacation visas. But I have a connection that will let me get you close to the head of that list. You’ll be assigned a hotel room and have a local bank account tied to your universal one. Chessie can help you deal with any other arrangement that isn’t obvious. But frankly there isn’t much you’ll need to actively do but find your own place in Kalju’s community and enjoy yourself for a few months.”
“Alrighty then.” Renee sighed. “Let’s do this. Tell whoever you need to tell. Sound the trumpets. Get the ball rolling. I’m ready.”
Sigma beamed. “Wonderful. And thank you. Your help will mean more to me than you may ever know. I won’t let you down and will be eternally grateful.”
Renee looked down on the packed crowd dancing below. She was sitting on a handrail above with her arm hooked around a post. The rhythmic music flowed through her body and directed the ripples on the sea of dancers. Anonymous hands caressed whatever parts of her body they could reach but she never bothered looking to see who they belonged to.
There in the center of the sea was Thuan. A thread of arms tied him to some other dancer so they would not float apart in the turbulence. The dancer’s eyes were closed in reverie. Every now and then Thuan pulled the woman into an embrace and then let her drift a little again.
Renee noticed that the music included sounds of thunder. Strobe lights flashed in time with each thunderclap. She reached out a hand and felt cool drops of rain falling down to quench the sultry sea of people below. She looked up into the rain in time to see someone dive off a higher balcony. He dropped in front of her with his hands stretched out ahead of him. He slipped silently into the sea of people. In the lightning and thunderous music more people were diving. Some from above. Some from the same balcony she was on. The sea of dancers below parted glady and swallowed them whole.
Renee slipped her butt down along the railing and set her feet against the balcony’s edge. Her arms gripped the rail as she leaned forward as far as she could. Thuan looked up and saw Renee. He smiled and waved his arm to beckon her down. The woman he was dancing with looked up and waved too. Renee let go and felt her body falling. She bent her knees briefly and pushed off into a graceful arc diving toward Thuan. Strobed lightning and thunder were settling into the rhythm of a heartbeat. The falling raindrops fluttered stationary around her here.
A gap opened up between Thuan and the woman he was dancing with. Large enough for Renee to slip through. Her ears were deafened momentarily by the crash of water. She could no longer see anything clearly through the murky blackness. Below her were faint beams of light shimmering up from the surface. The muffled sound of the heartbeat in the music still came through up here.
Renee drifted slowly down toward the water’s surface until she stood on it. Over the heartbeat she began hearing the muffled sounds of screams. The shadowy feet of people dancing below her were joined by the thud of a body that fell on the glass floor below Renee’s feet. A woman was pounding on the glass. Renee could see her eyes wide with fear and her mouth agape. Another thud and a man too was pressed to the glass floor. Then another. The muffled screams were getting louder. But the other feet covering the floor continued to dance.
Renee tried to scream “Run!” but her voice was drowned by the water, the heartbeat, and the screams of everyone else. “Run! Fucking run!” The inky water was tinged with crimson.
A hand reached up through the glass. Renee saw Thuan’s face silently calling out her name. She took his hand and felt him pull her up through the surface of an ocean of blood. She could hear again. The din of a bloody tempest raged around them, waves of hot blood crashing up to her waist. Renee held Thuan close. Around them floated dead and dying people. More continued to fall from above to crash into the sea.
Suddenly Thuan was torn away and slipped below the surface. Renee screamed his name and reached into the water but found nothing. Then a hand caught hers and she pulled up on it. Thuan’s face broke the surface drenched in blood and covered in horror. He was gulping trying to breathe. Renee pulled hard but he was drifting farther away. From the depths she saw a great maw filled with fangy teeth arise around Thuan’s torso. It reared up out of the sea carrying Thuan with it. With several more bites Thuan disappeared inside it. The foul beast slipped below the surface leaving Renee horrified. Was she next? The thing emerged farther away to gobble up another screaming person and then another.
Then the beast saw Renee. It paused for a moment. Then it let out a deafening roar and slipped below the surface. In the lightning she saw the low hump of the creature’s back moving toward her, pushing past carcasses of the dead floating in the sea of blood. She tried to run backward away from the beast but the water slowed her down too much. Too late. The creature emerged, mouth open and ready to strike.
Renee started up in bed. Had she screamed? She couldn’t tell. She was breathing heavily. She looked around her. At herself. It took a few more moments before she realized it was only a nightmare. She walked to her shower to wash and weep.
A little later Renee wandered the halls of Archeion in her humech. She darted silently from place to place making sure to take in the look and feel of everything here. Today was departure day. Soon her mech would be packed aboard Aurora and they would be leaving here and likely never return.
Renee wanted to let go of her nightmare but it was still there in the back of her mind. She agreed to consider it a reminder that there were very real dangers out there. That she would need to stay sharp and keep all of this locked away in her memory.
Chessie voked, “It’s time. Let’s get your mech stowed.”
Renee sighed. “Yeah. Let’s do this”. She drifted her way to the cavernous spaceport. There at the foot of Aurora the ship was Sigma the humech. She made her way over to him, catching one of the tie-down bars with a foot to stop herself and steady her stance.
“I came to bid you farewell Renee. We will miss you here.” He surprised her by offering a hug.
Renee nudged herself forward to return it. “Thank you Sigma. I know I’ve said it before but thank you for bringing me back to life. And for your generosity in giving me your ship. And for everything else I don’t have time to list. I’ll do whatever I can to help you save the world or whatever. Just ask.”
Sigma chuckled. “You’ll do just fine. Now go enjoy yourself. Have a long and wonderful life.”
Renee smiled and nodded. She looked up along Aurora’s surface. Chessie flashed arrows to indicate where she needed to go for loading. Renee pushed lightly off the floor and floated up toward the hatch. Mechanical arms reached out to catch her. They pulled her into the darkness.
Aurora voked, “Don’t worry honey. I got you.”
Chessie flashed a request from Aurora to take control of her mech. She accepted. Then she felt her mech stand up straight at attention. Her back clunked up against a magnetic lock like the recharging ring in the assembly room. She felt padded braces press down against her body like a kitchen appliance being packed in molded styrofoam for safe delivery. She suddenly felt claustrophobic. What the hell? Would this be where she would stay for the next few months?
Chessie flashed an offer from Aurora to use her external camera array. Renee accepted. She now saw a view of the spaceport from a high vantage. She turned her head to look around. It felt to Renee as though her head was poking through Aurora’s metal skin like a prairie dog peeking out of its warren.
Chessie voked, “You seem confused. I’ve embodied you in a camera mount.”
“So far you’ve only been embodied in humanoid shapes. Your humech. Your avatars. But with your cortical interface I can embody you in many kinds of machines. It’s easy enough to map the movement of your head and eyes to control selection of a portion of this panoramic camera. Reach out with your right hand and you should find a wheel you can rotate to zoom in and out.”
Renee found the wheel and tried it. “Oh wow. Yeah.”
“Almost any machine can thus be mapped to your mind. Some take more practice to control, but that’s no different from the challenge of learning to drive, operate a computer, and so forth. Aurora has offered quite a few other surface cameras for you to access. That’s at your left hand.”
Renee felt a circular array of raised buttons. Tilting her head downward she could see a glowing representation of her hands and the buttons and knob. She tried out the various cameras. Some of them were located on fixed positions in the room that were not part of Aurora. “Wild.”
Aurora was moving now. Renee chose a camera on the far side of spaceport to watch as Aurora slid slowly from her docked position to just under the launch tunnel. The great metal door overhead slid open. Renee flipped through the cameras until she found one with a clear view looking straight up into the tunnel as Aurora was centering under it. She was disappointed to see blackness. There were no lights apparent in the kilometer-long tunnel. She switched to a camera near the ground to look backward. Sigma was standing nearby. He patted Aurora just as she started rising up slowly. With a clunk Aurora stopped partway into the tube.
Aurora voked, “Buckle up honey,” and giggled.
Renee felt the sudden acceleration and watched as the light of the spaceport shank behind them to a tiny circle in a couple seconds and then disappeared. She heard a rapid revving up as the launch catapult dragged Aurora ever upward. She fumbled with the buttons to select different cameras but all were black.
And then there was light. Renee turned to look back along Aurora’s lateral surface to see Enekpe receding in the distance. She heard and saw small attitude adjustment thrusters firing white puffs to tilt Aurora slightly away from Enekpe. Then she saw the blue glow of an ion thruster warming up and felt a slight acceleration.
From her accidental orbit of Enekpe the 10 kilometer spheroid had appeared large. And now the fully sunlet world seemed little more than a tiny rock falling away into the blackness. She quietly bid farewell to Archeion and its teeming billions of people. She marveled at how she had met no more than a few dozen of them. The mysterious colony so full of synthetic life was now bereft of its one flesh and blood inhabitant. And soon it was gone. Lost in a sea of night. Drowned by the pinpricks of light that crowded every scrap of sky around her.
Renee switched from one camera to another and beheld the magnificence of the Milky Way all around Aurora. Like her mech’s eyes these surface cameras could brighten up even the darkest corner of the sky.
Renee watched as Aurora unfurled many of the devices that had been scrunched up against her surface. Booms stretching out solar panel arrays reminded Renee of a bird’s wings. She chose a camera on the end of one to look back at Aurora as the soup can transformed into a magnificent mess bristling with inscrutable protrusions. She bore no lights so she was mostly dark. But the Milky Way provided enough light for Renee to make out Aurora’s shape.
To one side of Aurora was Sol, which provided most of the light falling on the ship. But it was still so far away that it seemed no more than a brighter point of light than the rest of the points around them. She knew they would not be getting much closer to Sol than this for now. Snuggled up against that tiny light was Earth with its billions of humans still living there. So far away. Would she ever get back home? Hopefully someday but not anytime soon. For now it was time to meet her fellow humans spread out by the billions among Sol’s vast plain.
It’s time for Renee to leave Archeion. This requires preparation. She needs more clarity on what her mission really is. But I also thought it important to show Renee’s bond to Archeion. This is the last chance to directly show the audience that Archeion is quite alive in its own way. But this is also an opportunity to develop Renee’s fear about the risks to her own life in helping Sigma. My hope is that this section helps to cement the idea that Archeion is a special place worth remembering and not simply the tomb it at first appears to be.
I wanted to continue to hammer the idea that Renee is hungry for something real. The more time she’s here at Archeion the more the lines blur. She meets...