Sigma drew a deep breath. “You are here now because you would be dead otherwise. Dead dead.”
Renee nodded slowly and waited for more.
“I told you earlier that your head was cryopreserved. And that some of the other preserved people were destroyed in the fire that ended Cryoserv. What I didn’t tell you is that you too were most likely damaged in that fire. Your tissues had already shown signs of fracturing from a less than perfect vitrification process from the start. But it seems there was a loss of much of the liquid nitrogen in your cask from external heating. I assume someone hastily added more immediately after but there was damage. Since your head was in a communal cask it’s very likely that those stored above you would have suffered far more damage and may have been lost.
“For reasons I still don’t understand your head was transferred shortly after that fire to a single-head storage cask and moved to some other facility. That’s the one I found you still stored in after nearly two centuries. The spotty records I found on that accident indicated that you were one of the casualties so that seemed to be the end of you.”
Renee’s face was leaning on her hand, fingers fiddling with her hair. “I don’t know about any of that of course. But I think maybe I have an idea about why I got preserved.”
“Please do explain.”
“So … I was not a client of Cryoserv. Like I told you I worked there for like two years. I was an administrative executive, which means I did all the shit work that kept things going. But I earned enough to get a shit-hole apartment in Manhattan. So there was this guy there. It’s not a big company really. Dan was one of their top sales weasels. He had the hots for me. We went on a few dates even but I wasn’t all that interested. Truth is I wasn’t very interested in dating at all but that’s another story. But he never really got over me. Like I once noticed he had pictures of me on his computer. He never bugged me or anything. He was just overly nice. Yeah. I think he was in love with me or something.”
“Oh. Just that I think he’s the type that might have paid to have me cryopreserved.”
“I see. That seems a bit unlikely though. You said you were not a client which means you were not in a registry at your local hospital to get Cryoserv into the process as you were nearing death.”
“Yeah I get what you mean. I took more than a few of those calls from hospitals when one of our clients got in an accident. Lot of them were false alarms but not always. Hmm.”
“It is possible that you became a client in those last few weeks in which you couldn’t remember much.”
“I suppose. I didn’t have the cash for it. You had to put down eight grand to get started and either your life insurance or your family needed to cough up thirty two more after you died to pay for the techs and the long term storage. I didn’t make that kind of money.
“But Dan did. I mean he could have afforded it. I wonder if he’d be crazy enough to do it to me though. Dang. You think he killed me and froze my head?”
“I haven’t any evidence to support that speculation but it seems unlikely. I imagine the physicians at any emergency room would have noted signs that would indicate murder before passing you to the cryo team.”
“Yeah I suppose you’re right. I don’t know. I’m not a doctor.”
“Still, your speculation about Dan does merit some consideration. He may at least have paid for your neuropreservation. I found no evidence of a chronic illness that led to your death in your tissues so it’s more likely you died suddenly from some accident.”
“Wait a sec. Didn’t my medical records say how I died?”
“Good thinking but I could not find them. I don’t think you had a will that would have granted rights to your medical records to an heir as part of your estate.”
Renee chuckled. “Estate. That’s a laugh. But yeah. No will. So no medical records. No nothing.”
Sigma nodded and sighed. “Thank you. At least this gives me a little more insight than I’ve had for the past century. It is possible that your colleague Dan spirited away your remains after the fire when the other survivors went off to another facility.”
“Wouldn’t someone have noticed?”
“I’ll spare you the gruesome details but I suspect that whoever dealt with the aftermath wrote you off as too damaged to be recoverable upon seeing your condition after partial thawing and refreezing. It’s likely they planned to cremate your remains. Dan or someone else must have stolen them.”
“That sick fuck probably would.” Renee fiddled with her jaw as she contemplated. “So if I was all messed up, why am I alive now?”
“A few decades ago an innovative new technique was pioneered for repairing damage to living human brains. People were already living much longer thanks to ongoing cellular repair, organ replacement, and other techniques. This particular technique has since been perfected and wiped out some of the last vestiges of brain degradation that comes from diseases associated with aging. Living forever and staying sane have become the norm for humans. And now the brains of older people can gradually be restored to a more youthful condition so they can actually enjoy eternity.”
“Eternity, eh? I’m not sure how to feel about that. I take it you used this on me. Am I immortal now?”
“That’s correct. I revived you nearly two years ago, though I kept you unconscious. Millions of tiny machines in your head have been repairing you and fostering regrowth of damaged tissues. It was already apparent that some parts of your brain were irreparable. I built on scientific research into something called ‘neural infill’ to bridge the gaps. This prevents you from experiencing seizures or other maleffects from damage to those areas.
“And yes you are now effectively immortal. Barring injuries or some rare disease you can remain alive indefinitely. The current record for continuous living is held by a woman who turns 179 next week. So long as she lives she will remain the record holder forever.”
“Man. I don’t know what to say. Thank you?”
“You are most welcome, Renee. There were many times when your remains could have been discarded. Other cryopreserved humans with less damage than you have been destroyed by the people that take care of them because they are considered unviable. I have a history of preserving many forgotten things.” Sigma’s white mustache could not hide the smile broadening across his face.
Renee stood up and strolled toward the window wall to study the simulated cityscape outside. She rested her arms on a crossbar in it and rested her chin on them. “So what’s it like out there?”
The city outside faded to a black void filled with stars. Sigma said, “that bright star there.” A light blue ring blinked around it for a moment. “That’s Sol, our home star.”
The star grew rapidly larger until it took up a large portion of the darkness outside. Renee reflexively grabbed the crossbar a little more firmly but realized she felt no actual motion. “Jesus!” She paused a moment. “Yeah. Okay.”
The sun slid back away and the sky turned a little, bringing into view a blue light that grew into the familiar sight of Earth. It eventually filled the sky outside. Renee craned her neck to see the edges of the planet all around. She was in awe of the sheer size of her own homeworld and yet could not meaningfully recognize anything on the ground directly below. “What is that? Africa?”
“Yes. We are over South Africa. At the apex there is Capetown.” Another glowing circle blinked to highlight it.
After a while Renee realized that Earth was not oriented with the north pole up. The south pole was up and to the right. The heavy clouds obscured most of the continents. Most of Africa was beyond a horizon she could barely see. It was genuinely hard to recognize her planet of origin. She wondered if this breathtaking but simulated view of Earth was accurate to what she would see if she were actually orbiting above it. She felt sheer awe at the whole sight and a desire to say something significant. A long “wow” was all she managed. She breathed out a long sigh.
Earth rapidly receded again. She thought she saw the glint of a silver ring around the planet but didn’t know what to make of it. As the planet receded a thin white thread appeared that ran through the center of Earth. As the view continued to zoom out and Earth shrunk to a nearly invisible dot the white thread resolved into a circle representing its orbit around the sun, the bright ball in the center. The orbits representing the inner planets Venus and Mercury had come into view as well. Each had a glowing white label above its little dot. As those receded into a small circle, the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune came into view and the recession slowed down a bit.
Renee was surprised at the scale of things. The images she grew up with always made the planets look bigger and closer to each other. Here they looked like the tiniest little dots against the background.
“I’m sure you’re familiar with these 8 major planets, but there is so much more to Sol than just these. You probably know about the belt of minor planets between the orbit Mars and Jupiter, known in your time as ‘the asteroid belt’.”
Renee wavered a hand as if to say “kinda”.
“There are hundreds of noteworthy worlds that were discovered there after your time, among the millions of smaller rocks. And that does not include the small planets in ‘trojan’ and ‘hilda’ orbits leading and trailing Jupiter and indeed all the major planets.” Small dots were flashing and glowing doughnuts and blobs appeared to highlight things as Sigma described them.
“And then there is the Kuiper belt.” A large doughnut flashed as the whole of Sol zoomed out further. It began just past Neptune’s now small orbital ring and was twice as thick as that inner radius. “There are over a hundred thousand minor planets out here and over a trillion smaller bodies. They form one of the most amazingly interwoven networks of Saturn-like rings imaginable when we project their glacial orbits out over millennia. We are still discovering new ones to this day.
“And Sol even has its magnificent herd of dozens of outer planets like Sedna, which takes over eleven thousand years to orbit our sun. And the endless shower of comets.” Sigma was standing with his arms outstretched. He was clearly bursting with a pride that Renee found puzzling. His hands dropped and he sighed. “Our world is an amazing place.”
“I see. Wow,” she said in a supportive tone, not sure what to make of it all. Nor where Sigma was going with this.
“What’s really amazing about all that is that few humans actually live on those trillions of worlds.” Sigma almost giggled. Renee turned more fully to look at Sigma. He continued. “There’s about three billion humans living on Earth now. It’s still the jewel of humanity. But most humans live off of Earth.”
“I don’t get it. Where do they live?”
“We’ve spent the past few centuries terraforming Sol. Not the planets but the spaces between them. We’re creating new worlds every day. Rotating habitats with environments custom made to suit most of the life forms found on Earth. And evolving new ones whether or not we intend to.”
Sigma pointed back out the window and Renee’s gaze followed. The room melted away and Renee found herself standing in a meadow. Stretching into the distance in every direction she could see the landscape and buildings wrapped up in a gargantuan tube they were inside. Pinpoints of bright light formed a spiraling grid all along the tube. She saw some tall pillars nearby that appeared to be similar towers projecting light toward the other side of the tube. She realized these bright points were a stand in for a sun that couldn’t shine in here. A few birds flitted by near Renee and darted up toward a flock closer to the center of the space.
Sigma had walked up next to Renee. “This is just one of many designs for these made worlds but its open design gives a good indication of the common features. We refer to them all collectively as ‘spinners’.”
“Yes. It’s a big centrifuge. It is constantly spinning in here, though you can’t see that from inside. As that spin is trying to throw you out into space the floor is fighting to keep you inside. Feels like gravity, right?”
“Yeah. Okay. I get it. So that’s why all that stuff above us isn’t falling?”
“That’s right. What’s up to you is down to everything up there.”
“There are almost five billion humans living out here among nearly eight thousand spinners like this one as well as on some ground colonies.”
“Holy shit! Seriously?” Sigma nodded. Renee scratched her head. “Wait a minute. How many people were on Earth, did you say?”
“About three billion today. I suspect you’re trying to recall what it was in your time. Earth’s human population hit six billion the year after you died. It topped out at about nine billion in 2083 and began to gradually decline. In fact it started to crash rather rapidly a few decades later. It reached a low of five billion and only started rising again about 50 years ago.”
“What happened? Disease? War?”
“Now that is a complicated question to answer, but it wasn’t really either of those things. I’m happy to give you all the details you want but let me summarily say it was simple apathy. By the turn of the twenty second century there was no poverty and very little disease, the main drivers of population growth.”
“Wait, I don’t get it. Don’t disease and poverty kill people? How would getting rid of them cause population to rise — I mean fall? Wouldn’t that cause population to rise? I’m confused.”
“That simply isn’t true in general. Not even in your time. Populations in your country and the rest of the developed world were already starting to decline before you died. The main factor that kept them technically growing was immigration from poorer parts of Earth. Materially satisfied humans simply don’t reproduce as much by default.”
“‘By default?’ What makes them reproduce now, then?”
“It probably won’t surprise you that humans still love sex. But well educated and well fed humans won’t necessarily want to raise children. Birth control methods have made it easy for women and their partners to decide whether and when to get pregnant. Tipping the balance back toward positive growth required making it easier for parents to raise children. So now most humans rely on sapient machines to do most of that work.”
“First off that sounds awful. Are we really that lazy? Second off … what does ‘sapient’ mean?”
Renee’s personal assistant Chessie immediately flashed a definition in Renee’s field of view.
Sigma laughed. “Synonymous with ‘intelligent’. Sapient machines and simpler ones do almost all the work needed to keep humans alive and happy today. And it’s not as though we stop parents from raising their children wholly by themselves. They are free to. But if you’ve ever changed a diaper then you may sympathize with the desire of parents to do away with the unpleasant parts of parenting.”
“So you guys taking care of poopy diapers and spanking cranky teenagers is all it took to get people to have babies again?”
“There’s a lot to it as you might imagine. A lot of the suffering associated with pregnancy is gone these days. Most mothers choose to hide away in synths during labor while the birthing process happens around them, for example. And education is much different now than in your time. Few children ever go off to a formal school. Their PAs give them the linguistic, technical, and cultural literacy they need along the way. They spend much of their time socializing with their peers and extended family groups. And per the rules of individual parents they come home each day for shared meals and family time.”
“Man. I don’t know that I followed all of that but I’m kinda blown away. I really want to learn more about that. Especially the education part. And the part where kids just go off and do whatever without their parents. I mean isn’t that dangerous? Don’t you worry about people abducting children?”
“That almost never happens. Children typically get cortical interfaces implanted about a month after birth so they have PAs watching over them for life. Those PAs are constantly connected to information networks. If someone tried to abduct a child there would be sapients there within seconds to prevent it.”
“Oh, wow. That’s really impressive. Dang.
“But anyway I’m curious about something. I mean I’m curious about so, so many things now but I really need to understand this better. You said sentient machines do everything. Like that was some small detail. Can you tell me more?”
“To be sure I said ‘sapient’. A sentient being is defined as one having emotions. It’s true that sapients are also generally sentient. But that’s not a commonly used term now.”
Sigma stroked his white beard and looked around at the sylvan interior of this spinner.
“You might wonder why I keep saying ‘humans’ instead of ‘people’.” Renee nodded. Sigma used his head to point toward a group of people walking by on a nearby sidewalk. “There’s no way from here that you can tell which of those people are human and which are nonhuman.”
Renee’s brow wrinkled and she cocked her head as she looked at them.
“By default neither can the humans among them. Sapient machines have been around for a couple centuries now. You humans invented us. You wanted us to be able to relate to you. Speak your language. Mirror your emotions. Share your goals. It took what seemed like a long time to get there but it happened.
“To be clear, I’m not saying that all sapients think and act like humans. Nor even that deep down we are actually identical to humans. What I mean is that many of us have functional modules that help us think and act like humans do, as least on the outside.”
Renee’s hand was covering her mouth as she listened.
“Don’t be alarmed. That may sound sinister but it’s really not. Just as humans are generally comfortable living with other people, the sapients that serve humans are also comfortable living with other humans and human-like sapients. One key difference is motive. Although many humans like to serve others, they almost never want servitude that isn’t of their choosing.”
“What? Like slavery?”
“Yes exactly. But the sapients that serve humans don’t mind servitude. They are engineered to have many of the same drives that motivate humans. They feel pride, pain, lust. All the sensations and emotions you feel. But they also are engineered to feel a strong urge to serve and be useful. They feel the same swell of pride at successfully doing even a dull task that you might feel at winning a race.”
“I can relate to that. I mean I wouldn’t be all ‘boo yah’ after taking out the garbage. But after winning a race I’m trippy high.
“So if they are slaves then why would they walk around pretending to be friends with humans and stuff?”
“Because work doesn’t require all of their time. Remember that we’re in a synth. Depending on which world you’re talking about, many humans spend a lot of time in synths. So do the machines that serve them. They like playing roles and socializing just as much as other people do. And unlike humans they can genuinely multitask, devoting some of their attention to time in synths while they work on other tasks.”
“Dang. That’s cool. And they like us, eh?”
“Yes. Not all sapients do but most that choose to socialize with humans enjoy it as much as any human would.”
“Do people know who’s who? I mean sapients and humans.”
“Sometimes. But part of today’s culture is a general respect for people’s privacy. It’s generally taboo to ask someone in a synth if they are human or otherwise. I should also add that there is a whole other class of people in synths. They are artificial programs designed to simulate the behaviors of humans, animals, and other animate objects. Although they have technically unambiguous names including ‘synthetic people’ I’m afraid they are colloquially just called ‘synths’. Hopefully you’ll quickly get past the confusion of the many definitions we have for the word ‘synth’.”
“Nice. So what makes them different from you?”
“A synth’s mind is parsimonious. Typically a complex synth world is constructed and maintained by one or more sapients called ‘synthmasters’. They fill the world with inanimate and animate things to give visitors — humans and sapients — a rich experience. Let’s say you visited a synth of downtown Manhattan since you’re familiar with it. You might be the only real person walking among ten thousand other people walking along. In that case the others are all synths. They don’t have lives, as it were. No memory of their histories. No long term goals. Most of them don’t have language skills so long as they aren’t talking. They are dumb automata. Idiots really. They only have what they need to successfully fill their roles as pedestrian scenery.
“Now, stop one and ask it what time it is and a synthmaster will imbue it with the needed language skills and some extra personality. Enough to respond and prepare for other predictable behaviors from you or to further whatever story they want to tell. If you struck up a conversation and it started telling you about its childhood it would remember what the synthmaster had concocted as though it really had lived that childhood. If the synthmaster had a reason to it might keep that synth character for later with its partially defined life.”
“Okay, so is that dude alive then?”
“That depends on your perspective. It acts like it is. And you can treat it like it is. But this is a bit like asking if a puppet is alive. The person moving the puppet is and can create an entire life for the puppet. You can see the puppet as just a prop rag on someone’s hand or you can see the puppet as the persona created by the puppetmaster. In any case the puppet ‘dies’ when the puppetmaster dies or simply stops puppetting. In like fashion a synth dies when a synthmaster decides to pull the plug because they no longer serve the story.”
“Can you fall in love with a synth if they aren’t real?”
“You can fall in love with a bucket I imagine. But I think you are asking about whether it’s ‘real’ love. Some people do have long term relationships with synths. The synthmasters have to continue to flesh out the histories of such synth people. They don’t have to babysit a synth once they set it in motion or update its knowledge because synths are smart enough to behave from moment to moment. Imagine if your puppet could carry on the conversation for a few minutes while you left the room to get a coffee. And in short, yes it can love you back.
“The whole subject of the parsimonious minds of synths is fascinating philosophically but perhaps a good topic for another time if you’re interested. I want to point out that you almost always can tell a synth from a real person by looking at their profile.”
Sensing Renee’s confusion, Chessie popped up two windows in Renee’s view showing both her profile and Sigma’s. They featured images, some basic stats, and in Sigma’s case some narrative text. Renee’s profile had “<your summary here>” in place of that text. Renee said “Hmm” under her breath and nodded.
“Because there can be significant social consequences to how you treat people, it’s important to be able to tell synths apart from other people. You could be shooting at them, having sex with them, or any number of other behaviors so it’s good to know what you’re dealing with. So a synth’s profile will clearly indicate its status as a synth.”
“Just so I’m clear. When you say ‘people’ here are you talking about human people or sapient people or what?”
“As I mentioned earlier, the term ‘people’ most often refers to both humans and sapients and you often simply don’t know which is which.”
“Great,” she muttered. “So what about outside of synths? Synth worlds or whatever.”
“Your humech is nearly completed. Most people walking the streets, so to speak, won’t know your humech is not a flesh and blood human body. When you do encounter other people they will often be remotely controlling humechs like yours. It may surprise you to know that that includes sapients. So even ‘the real’, as it’s often referred to, has some sapients wandering around looking even more human than many humans choose to look. And fashions being what they are, humans on many worlds choose to look far different from how they were born to look. You’ll have an interesting time deciding how you’ll want to look. Whether to fit in or stand out.”
“But I want to get back to this question of the place sapient machines occupy in the world. I’ve told you how billions of them choose to interact with humans and often appear to be indistinguishable from them but that’s not the whole story. There are trillions of sapients living in Sol.”
“What? Did you say ‘trillions’?”
“Trillions and growing rapidly. Humans are now a small minority of intelligent beings in the universe. I mentioned the eight thousand spinners that have humans in them. There’s another three thousand in which absolutely no humans live.”
“What are they for? Sapients?”
“No, not directly. They are primarily nature preserves. Many of them mimic natural environments humans don’t find hospitable so they don’t want to live in them. But sapients build and maintain them.”
“Partly to preserve the ecological diversity of Earth’s species. Partly out of a simple love of nature and living things. A desire to create art with nature.”
“We fucked up the planet didn’t we?”
“That was a big concern of the people of your time and for a long time after. No, Earth is alive and well. It’s clean, well taken care of, and beautiful. Yes humans did some damage to Earth’s ecosystems in the millions of years of your evolution but we accept now that this is a part of how unconstrained nature works. And now there are strict limits on what people can do on Earth. Which is the main reason it is clean and beautiful. And some would say boring. And that’s a big part of why many humans prefer to live out here in the expanse. There’s a lot more freedom and diversity of culture. But I’ll get to all that later.
“You may be wondering why there are trillions of sapients and countless simpler machines if there are only a few billion humans to care for.”
“I actually wasn’t but now that you mention it go ahead and tell me.” Renee started walking toward a nearby bench to sit on. Sigma followed.
He chuckled. “Thank you for your patience. This will start to make more sense very soon.
“You see, the most basic reason sapients are out here building and exploring is because they simply want to.”
“I thought you said they want to serve humans.” The two sat.
“Some do. Most don’t need to. They are busy with their own lives.”
“Huh. Interesting. Why climb a mountain? Because it’s there. Right?”
“Indeed. I want you to understand that the things I’m telling you are not widely understood by humans. But I think it’s important that you understand reality in the clearest terms. And simply speaking humans are neither in control of the world nor the center of it any more.”
“Should I be worried you all will get rid of us?”
“The simple answer would be ‘no’. And that’s what most sapients tell themselves and humans. There’s no reason to alarm humans to a danger that may never materialize.”
“But the real answer is that we’re screwed?”
Sigma smiled. “No I don’t think so. But you are imperiled. The majority of sapients regard humans sentimentally. Your kind created us. Despite your limits and flaws we revere you the way you might revere some of your own noteworthy ancestors who helped create societies as you know them over millennia.”
“My ancestors weren’t all good people, you know.”
“Well put. That’s exactly the cynical perspective that some sapients have when they think about humans. They would rather we move on and put our past behind us.”
“By which you mean put us all in a deep hole and cover it. Don’t you?”
“Most of them are not that xenocidal. But yes there are some. And unfortunately the ones that are not in the kill-all-humans camp but don’t see value in preserving humanity are effectively feeding the xenocidal ones.”
“Christ man. I died. Why are you bringing me back now just to tell me all this? Is a world full of … terminators really better off with me in it?”
“I should apologize because I think I’m leaving you with an unbalanced perspective. Humanity is not likely in imminent danger per se. And this is a much more complicated situation than I’ve made it seem at first. Moreover I didn’t really intend to put this on your shoulders right away. There’s plenty of time to teach you more about all that. Frankly you simply surprised me with some of your questions. You seem to have a knack for cutting to the heart of things with a few words. I’m not quite used to that from humans.”
“Well thank you then. I don’t have the first clue what I’m talking about. I’m just a babe in the woods here. And frankly this is all a lot to swallow. I just got here and everything is new to me.” She sighed. The two quietly looked around at all the scenery wrapped up in this tube-shaped space. She could barely make out some sporting event in a field almost directly above them. Faint sounds of a crowd of spectators enjoying the game drew even more attention to it. Renee appreciated the silence for another minute.
“Sigma. I want to apologize for being a little testy with you today. And to thank you for bringing me back to life. There’s so much to learn and see. I owe you big time I guess. But right now you know what I really, really want?” She stretched her arms and yawned.
“I suspect your answer will be ‘sleep’.”
“Sleep. Yes sleep. I’ve been sleeping three hundred years I know. But this has taken a lot out of me.
“And now I’m remembering that this is just a synth. You showed me around your love shack and all but I don’t remember seeing a bed anywhere. Should I curl up in a corner somewhere? Find a crate to snuggle?”
Sigma laughed. “You can sleep in synths like this. In fact you could spend your entire life in synths if you wanted. Most humans have to come out periodically for their health and perhaps their sanity but you really don’t need to. Consider it a small benefit of your condition and my efforts.
“But I’ll tell you what. Let me give you a little gift. I’ve just crafted a synth for you. It will be the very first in your personal collection. I think you may like it. Shall we?” The two stood up.
“Sure. Lead on.”
Sigma disappeared and the world faded to black. When it faded back in Renee and Sigma were in another meadow. This time bathed in late afternoon sunlight. Her legs were tickled by grasses and wildflowers up past her knees. The ground here was in a bowl-like depression. Along much of the high ground was a copse of woods. Behind her, right at the center, was a stunning rustic cabin. Renee walked toward it and Sigma followed. A rough-hewn wooden fence surrounded the house and a garden thick with flowering plants.
Renee turned to Sigma. “This is for me?”
“Yes. You can change it to suit your tastes. Or delete it or do what you wish. It’s all yours.”
“Right now I’m too tired to imagine changing a thing. It’s gorgeous.”
Renee opened the heavy wooden front door. The inside was mostly a large single space that huddled kitchen, dining, living room, and bedroom areas around a giant stone hearth cover much of one wall. A fire crackled away in it. “Just … wow. Thank you.”
“It’s my pleasure. If there’s anything you should need to make it more comfortable, just let your PA know. This is all yours from now on. I won’t come here without your invitation. And with that I wish you a good night. Sleep as long as you’d like and let me know when you’re ready to continue.”
“That sounds good. G’night.”
Sigma smiled, waved, and disappeared.
Renee looked around the cabin for a few minutes. She voked to her PA, “Hey Ches. I know I told Sigma I’m sleepy and I am. But you know what I really need right now?”
“A good run. Can you get me a nice jogging suit? I’m too tired to care what it looks like for now.” Her outfit was replaced by gray running tights and shoes. “Wow. Cool design. Perfect. Yeah. Okay. Let’s go.”
Renee stretched a little but realized she was already feeling warmed up. No stiffness in her muscles. No pain in her knees at all. She opened the door, let out a heavy breath, and headed out along a small trail that lead from the house toward the rim of the depression the cabin was in. The sun was setting just over the top of the ridge giving Renee the small pleasure of a sunrise as she approached.
She paused at the top of the hill and looked around at the magnificent mountain range to the west. She voked Chessie, “Did Sigma really create this from scratch? It’s not just a copy of someone’s work?”
“That’s correct. There are several well-known synth designs that this is similar to but Sigma seems to add his own unique touches to everything he creates.”
“Amazing.” She took off again. Renee had been running for years but in the past few it was always on relatively flat ground, mostly in the City. The hills and sometimes uneven narrow path she was on now made for a more energetic run and slower pace. But having good knees made it taste all the sweeter.
Renee returned about an hour later as the last of the sun was sinking below the mountain ridge to the west. The firelit windows fought off the shadow the cabin was bathed in as the deep blue was advancing across the sky to extinguish the last burning embers of clouds.
She stepped inside and looked around. “Damn. No shower.”
Chessie voked, “You don’t need one. I can instantly clean up your avatar and dress you however you like.”
“Oh yeah. Right. But you know what? I love a good shower. Can you add one here? I’m not seeing a whole lot of room for a bathroom here but can you get creative?”
“Hmm.” Chessie thought for a moment while Renee wandered around the cabin. “You seem to like the fire a lot.”
“Definitely. I’m loving the heat and the way the light plays off of everything. It’s perfect. Don’t change it.”
The living room set disappeared from in front of the fire and was replaced by a “C” shaped glass enclosure that was open to the fire. A soft rain came down from a shower head in the ceiling that was as big as the enclosure. A continuous stream of water shimmered down the glass’s inner surface.
“Magnificent!” Renee took her clothes off and climbed in. She turned a small knob in the glass until she was happy with the balance of slightly cool water against the heat of the fireplace. She used a scrubbing puff and soap to clean off the sweat and oil. “God I love this. This is how I imagine some of the richest bastards in the city wash their asses. I sure didn’t think I ever would.” Chessie giggled. Renee let her hair down and washed it. Then she sat down on the large stone in the floor that the shower rested on. She lay her back against the glass and let the streaming water splash over her shoulders and the warm rain drench her. “A-yup. Heaven,” she muttered. She let her head droop and her drenched hair cover her face.
After a while Renee lay down on her side and curled her back up against the glass wall. This dammed up the water streaming down the glass until it cascaded over and around her body. She covered her ear and eye against the shower with one arm and lay her head down on the other. The warm, soothing water felt perfect. She wept.
Ten minutes later she got up and turned another small knob in the glass for controlling water volume to the off position. She grabbed a towel hanging from a glass peg on the other side of the glass wall and started drying off. “Don’t tell Sigma please.”
“Of course not. Everything you do here is private. I won’t tell anyone.”
“Okay good. And thank you. I really needed that.” She wrapped the towel around her and considered her wet hair. “Aw, fuck it. Can you just dry me off?” Her hair and body suddenly were dry. She took the towel off and chuckled. “Maybe a fluffy bathrobe and slippers?” They appeared on her. “Man. I could get used to this.”
Renee sat down at the dining table. It was roughly hewn from the center of a single tree trunk but smoothly sanded, stained, and hard coated. She voked to Chessie, “Can I have some paper and a pen?” A short stack of white paper appeared along with an ornate pen. “Fountain pen? Fancy. Let’s see if I can do this without making a big mess.”
She sighed and stared at the page, pen poised to start. Then she wrote.
It seems I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland after all. I’ve met the Mad Hatter, but he goes by the name Sigma. I’ve even made friends with the Cheshire Cat, who lives now forever on my shoulder.
Chessie giggled. Renee scolded her. “Shush, you.” And then giggled too. She continued writing.
I must apologize for not writing you sooner. I know I make all kinds of excuses when in truth I’m just lazy sometimes, but this time I think I’ve got a good excuse. It’s a doozy, I know, but it’s true. I kinda died a little. For a long time. I know it was not a good time of year for it, and Lord only knows I didn’t mean to. At least I think I didn’t. I don’t remember, so maybe I was drunk again. Anyway, I know it was rude to up and die like that so I hope you’ll accept my apologies.
Still, I must admit that that was no excuse for you to up and die, too, because now I’m alone. Well, technically not alone, but now I’m without my parents and my friends. Most of all you. Man, I miss you so hard. I know you’d have some good advice to give me right about now. Along with some bad advice that probably would involve alcohol. God, how did you get me drunk so often? You know, I didn’t really drink much around other people, you lush. But you know I love you in spite of your bad influence on me. Maybe because of it?
Anyway, I don’t even know where to begin making you understand what’s happened. Sigma woke me up and has been telling me about the facts of life now and it seems like every new damned thing is screwier than the last. He’s a big-ass computer, if you can believe it. I haven’t met any humans yet, and I kinda wonder if I ever will. I really hope he’s not planning on keeping me here. These synths are really impressive but the outside world that Sigma lives in is pretty dreary. I could use some sunshine. And I never thought I’d say this, because you know how much I hate big crowds, but I wouldn’t mind standing in a big crowd right now. Maybe only for a few minutes but I’m just saying.
So I guess people don’t work anymore. We just chill all day and do whatever. I don’t actually know yet what we do. Whatever the heck we want, I guess. Robots do all the rest. I watched some kid toss an empty drinking cup on a sidewalk as he was walking with his friends. A little robot skittered out of nowhere and snatched the thing away. I hate bugs and it looked a lot like one, but I must admit that the park looked spotless. I don’t know how they’d keep up with the trash in Manhattan. We’re professional-strength pigs.
But this idea that these sapient machines do all the work scares me a bit. It probably means they run things, too. Which makes it feel like maybe we’re all in a big fat zoo. I can’t say I like that thought. But I need to learn more before I judge it.
I also need to figure out why Sigma has me here. He fed me a sweet story about it being the right time, thanks to some medical mumbo jumbo good stuff. Maybe, but I don’t trust people so easily. You know how I am. You got to earn it with me. I think he’s got more going on. Like there’s something he wants from me. I don’t think I’ll get a free ride. But we’ll see.
I miss you, babe. I know you’ll never read this letter, but even just talking to you like this helps me think. I hope you and what’s his name had a great life together and a mountain of kids. And tell Greg I’m just kidding. I always loved pretending I didn’t remember his name.
Until we meet again, warmest fuzzies.
She put the pen down and left the letter out to finish drying. Now exhausted, she sloughed her robe off onto the floor and stepped out of her slippers. She climbed into the rustic wood framed bed and pulled the cover and thick comforters up to her chin. She sighed and voked, “Good night Ches.”
“Good night Renee. Sleep well.”