Verge of History: Our Time in Eden
by Jim Carnicelli
Renee stirred a bit. She became aware that she was waking up. She half opened her eyes for a moment and then shut them again. She was lying down on something bed-like. She raised a hand to her face to rub her eyes and sniffed. With a soft groan she opened them. The room was dimly lit. Renee blinked a few more times and looked around. The lights started getting brighter. A door opened somewhere nearby and then closed. Renee’s eyes opened further and she looked around. Footsteps grew nearer.
A man came into Renee’s periphery and said, “Ah. Hello Renee. I see you’re finally waking up. Good.”
Renee slowly propped herself up on an elbow and looked at the man. He looked to be at least in his seventies. He was dressed in a white tweed jacket and matching white slacks. A dark blue dress shirt provided the only color in his outfit. A white fedora completed the ensemble. The man’s thinning white hair and beard seemed to perfectly suit his Kentucky Fried look.
Renee sat up further and looked around. She wondered if this place was some sort of hospital. If it was it looked unlike any she had ever seen. It looked more like something a science fiction set designer would dream up. She was clad in a simple sleeveless white top and white slacks.
Renee considered what to say to the stranger before her. She looked at him and said nothing.
The man said, “I’m sure you’re wondering where you are. And who I am.”
Renee nodded. “Mmm hmm.”
“Well. First of all my name is Sigma. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He extended a hand.
Renee gave him a perfunctory handshake. She scratched the back of her head a little. She waited.
Sigma said, “You’ve probably guessed that this is a hospital. However. It’s not exactly what it seems to be. But I’ll get to that in a minute. Before I do I need to tell you something I’m afraid you aren’t going to like very much.”
Renee’s eyebrows furrowed momentarily. She nodded for him to continue.
“I’m afraid you died.”
Renee’s eyes widened. She put a hand over her mouth.
“Your head was cryopreserved. Do you know what that means?”
Sigma said, “Ah. Good. Well then. I’ve revived you. Welcome back. And perhaps I should say happy rebirthday.”
Renee buried her face in both hands for a moment. She took a deep breath and brought her hands down. She was wearing a scowl. “What are you talking about?” She got off the medical table. She took a few steps and looked around. “I work for a cryo company. But I assume you know that.”
“I actually did not. That’s quite interesting. Please go on.”
Renee said with irritation, “Look. I know the whole point of cryo is to make it so people can be revived sometime later. But nobody ever has. At least not that I know of. Everyone we’ve ever dunked in nitro is still on ice. We don’t know how to fix their …” She was facing away from Sigma. She grabbed her loose hair behind her head and gathered it into a bundle in one hand. She turned around. “Okay. I guess you’re going to tell me it’s the future. All this.” she waved her other hand to indicate the room. “This is the future?”
Renee said, “You’re saying I died.” She nodded. “I got cryopreserved.” She nodded. “It’s the future now. You fixed all my damage. You brought me back. And now I’m alive again?”
Renee rubbed her eyes and shook her head. “I just worked there. At Cryoserv. I wasn’t a client of them. I didn’t make that kind of money.”
“I see. I’m afraid I can’t explain why you were preserved. Chances are good that you won’t recall much about your final days. But perhaps you became a client belatedly.”
“That doesn’t make sense. I didn’t even want it done to me. I wouldn’t have chosen this.” She pursed her lips and stood with a hand propped on her cocked hip. She looked at him and shook her head.
Sigma said, “Well then. As unlikely as this sounds it must be that someone decided on your behalf to do so. In any case what matters now is that someone did. And now here you are.”
Renee’s mouth was a little open. Her tongue skewed sideways as though prying her lower teeth away from her uppers. Her eyes narrowed as she sized Sigma up.
Sigma pointed. “There’s a mirror over there. Please take a look at yourself. What do you see?”
Renee looked in the direction he pointed. Then back at him. She walked to the mirror. She instantly realized she looked wrong somehow. She studied more closely. She looked thinner. Her hands were perfectly smooth. There had been burn scars on one of her wrists. Gone now. Moles and some other features on her arms were now somehow rearranged. Her thick runner’s thighs now looked much less muscular. She looked at her face more closely. The hairline wrinkles she started seeing around her mouth and eyes a couple years ago were gone. Her hair was silky smooth and shorter. It showed no split ends or damage of any kind.
Sigma had walked up nearby. Renee turned to him and said, “It’s different. I’m all different.”
“That’s right. Your DNA contains everything needed to create one Renee Parrish clone. But even clones differ in the fine details. What’s more, I did say that only your head was preserved. You may notice changes to your body. The amount and distribution of fat and muscle for example. Your head tissues gave me an idea of your general fitness at the time you died. But I could only guess at the exact details of your body.”
Renee looked at her body some more. She explored here and there with her hands.
“You were apparently in good health for a 35 year old woman. You had few signs of chronic disease. I removed a small precancerous skin lesion from your scalp. You had minor signs of atherosclerosis, despite your excellent fitness.”
“Seriously? I ate well and ran all the time. Heart disease?”
“Your genes predisposed you to it. In any case that’s gone too. You won’t suffer that or any other diseases you are familiar with ever again.”
Renee looked up and ran her nails through her hair several times. She sighed. “So this is real. Huh.”
Sigma smiled. “Yes. You really are alive once again. You are one of the last of a relatively small group of cryopreserved people from the twentieth century to finally be revived.”
“Twentieth century. Right.” She sighed heavily. “Um. How long?”
“You died on November 19th of 1996. Today is August 3rd of 2298. Nearly three hundred and two years have elapsed.”
“Oh my god.” She paused. “Three … centuries.”
Renee leaned an arm against the mirror and rested her forehead against it. Her eyes got watery. And then she began sobbing quietly. She sniffled and wiped her eyes with her free arm.
Renee collected herself and turned to Sigma. “Did … um. Did my family …?”
“I’m afraid your parents passed away long ago. And you apparently had no siblings.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Just me. Jesus. Yeah. Of course they’re gone.” She nodded.
Then she broke back into a sob. She covered her face and turned away from Sigma. After a minute she breathed deliberately to get back into the rhythm. She wiped her face with her sleeves again. She sighed and turned to face Sigma.
“Okay.” She breathed a heavy sigh. “Thank you for bringing me back. So where are we now?”
Sigma nodded and said, “Good question. With several answers. Let’s start with the first one. You and I are currently inside a ‘synth’. I assume you have heard of the concept of ‘virtual reality’.”
“Yeah. I’ve seen it in some movies and news reports. Put a thing on your head and see a computer generated world. I never knew anyone who tried one on though. So is that what this is?”
“Essentially correct. I did not actually create a clone of your original body. What remains of you is your head. It lies in a life support cask. What you see of yourself here is merely a simulation of what your natural body might look like. I’ll show you how to alter it to your tastes later. But first I think you should see the real world.”
“How am I going to do that without a body?”
“When we leave here I’ll embody you in a mech.”
“An android body. A human-shaped robot.”
“Okay. So why aren’t we there now? Why are we in a virtual reality now? A ‘synth’, you called it?”
“I hope you can appreciate that many things have changed in the past three centuries. I didn’t want to throw all of it at you at once. Please be patient while we go through this process. You’ll need to learn quite a few new things.”
Renee knew he meant that to sound reassuring but it didn’t. She began to wonder about Sigma’s motives. And whether she was ultimately going to be free to decide what to do with her new life. “Okay. Lead on then.” She nodded and tried to smile but knew it probably looked fake.
“Before I bring you out into the real I want to get you used to a low gravity environment. We are not on Earth.”
“What? We’re not? Where are we?”
“Patience please. I will answer that in a few minutes. For now I am going to lower the gravity in this room so you can get used to it. I think you’ll enjoy this. Ready?”
“I guess so. Go ahead.”
Renee felt weight slowly lifting off of her. It was as though she had spent her life carrying heavy bags of sand that were now pouring out. For a moment she wondered if she would have trouble breathing as even her lungs felt relieved somehow. All the weight that previously rested on her feet was falling away.
Sigma said, “This is one quarter of an Earth-standard gravity, or ‘G’. You should still be able to walk around. Go ahead and try it out. I don’t want to bring you to zero G just yet.”
When she first turned her head Renee felt dizzy and nauseous. She closed her eyes for a moment and it passed. She opened her eyes and looked around gingerly at first and then more. The effect was starting to fade.
Renee noticed that she was standing on her tiptoes as though she had to actively reach down to the ground. She flattened her feet again. Then she quickly flexed them down and surprised herself by launching up a few inches. It wasn’t high, but enough to trigger an unexpected flailing reflex to protect herself from an impending fall. One foot caught the floor and spun her backwards. Her arms and legs flailed in even greater panic. When her shoulders hit the floor she was surprised at how gentle the sensation was, like leaning back against a wall. She laughed out loud in part from embarrassment and in part from sheer amusement. She jabbed one elbow onto the ground to flip herself over and did something of a leg-assisted push-up to get back up to a shaky standing position as the dizziness subsided again.
Renee bounded around for a few minutes, alternating between laughing and cursing. She was learning quickly.
“Are you ready for zero G?”
“Ha! Sure. Hit me.”
Just as Renee was bouncing up again, the gravity just stopped altogether. She floated up slowly. At first she flailed a little to try to stay upright. But she soon realized there was no need to. After a minute she was about a meter off the ground and nearly upside down. “This … is fucking amazing!” She giggled. She could not get over the strangeness of seeing the floor above her and the ceiling below. In fact she could not help but see the ceiling as now the floor and vice versa.
Sigma never left the floor above her. It seemed that the low and then zero gravity condition only affected Renee. He looked up at her and laughed. “I think you’re ready now. Shall we?”
Renee’s vision faded to black quickly. In a moment it faded back in to an entirely different scene. She twitched and looked around. She was in the same pose as before and still floating. She looked at her hands, legs, and the rest of her that she could see. Just as Sigma had warned, what she saw was human shaped but was decidedly mechanical.
She examined her hand up close. Flexing her fingers and turning it over she could see finely crafted metal framing everything. Light blue muscle-like tubes were flexing to pull cables over tiny pulleys among the framework. Most of the framework had no skin coverings but her hands did have nearly transparent silicone on the fingertips and most of the palm. She touched this skin and was stunned to find she could feel it. The tacky response felt like latex gloves but she could actually feel it. Where she touched skin-free parts of her arm it did not feel the same. Her fingertips felt the sensation but her arm did not. The bulging muscle bundles creeped her out so she stopped touching them.
Renee looked around. The room was mostly empty but populated by cases of various sizes and shapes. Sigma was nearby. He was not floating but had one foot and one hand braced against handrails next to a hatch. Renee felt her foot hit a floor and realized there was a very small amount of gravity here. “Where are we?”
“Welcome to Archeion, my home. We are on a small Kuiper Belt object, or ‘kubo’. Are you familiar with the Kuiper Belt?”
“Uh uh. No. We’re in space?”
“You probably are familiar with Pluto.”
“Last planet in our solar system. And a goofy Disney dog. Or was that Goofy?”
Sigma laughed. “Yes, the planet one. Pluto is a kubo, one of trillions of icy rocks here out beyond Neptune’s orbit. The kubo we are on is much smaller. Would you like a quick tour?”
“Uh. Sure. Lead on, I guess.”
“This room is just a storage keep. Let me show you my spaceport.”
The hatch next to Sigma opened and he waved Renee toward it. She didn’t quite know how to travel the short distance from where she was to the hatch. Sigma said nothing, allowing her to figure it out for herself. Her feet were barely touching the floor. She tried leaning as though to start walking but realized that was going to take forever. Looking up at the ceiling she saw handle-like recessions of the same sorts on the walls and floors. The containers on the floor were held down by straps attached to the same kinds of handles. She bent her knees, let herself slowly fall to her feet, and then launched herself upward.
Renee spun more than she expected and missed the nearest handle, but she managed to push off toward the floor, this time at more of an angle toward the hatch. When she reached the floor her hand did catch a handle. This allowed her to crouch down and brace her feet properly to launch toward the hatch. She mostly glided through, her foot catching an edge. Sigma was already in the corridor and grabbed her arm, guiding her to a nearby handhold. The hatch closed behind them.
“Nicely done, Renee. You do learn quickly.”
At the end of the short corridor another door opened and lights came on. The space was larger than the storage keep. The largest thing in it was a cylindrical machine sitting near a large circular hole in the ceiling about the same diameter as the machine. She wondered if it was a spacecraft. It looked to her like someone had crammed a bunch of silverware and power tools into a car crusher and pounded the mess into the shape of an elongated soup can.
Sigma chuckled at Renee’s look and said, “That’s Aurora, my personal shuttle. She’s folded up so she just fits the launch bull near her there. Hatch opens here and another on the surface and pop; electromagnets shoot her right off this world.” He pointed out some smaller devices and vehicles that also fit in the launch. One he described as a cargo elevator. “I’ll take you up to the surface later, once we get you your own humech. That one is a bit fragile. Thank you for not beating it up so far.”
Sigma led Renee through the rest of Archeion, which it turned out was not very big. A fusion reactor the size of a car engine was in another warehouse-like room down the longest corridor they traversed. There was a large machine shop that caught her attention. One wall was covered by severally sized cubes that Sigma described as 3D printers. A central space was predominated by a large frame with many robotic arms that he explained was an assembler for larger objects. The rest of the room held more cargo containers of what he explained were the raw materials and specialty components that were easier to import than manufacture here.
“And here we are at our final stop on our tour down here.” He beckoned Renee into what appeared to be the largest space in the whole facility. In every direction she looked she saw rows of bookshelf-like aisles. Looking left, right, and down the center aisle she got a sense that the room’s footprint was similar in size to a football field. The aisles extended up to the ceiling which she reckoned was about three stories up. “Welcome to my brain.”
Renee turned to look at Sigma. She couldn’t speak for a moment. “What?”
Sigma chuckled and looked back at her. “That’s right. I’m a machine. And just like you are remote-controlling that mech there, I’m remote controlling this very human-looking mech here.”
Renee was surprised that she hadn’t considered the possibility that her brain was not housed in her mech’s head but somewhere else. How was that even possible?
“But that there,” Sigma said gesturing toward the whole room, “is the real me. Let me show you.” He pushed off and caught a handhold on the end of the nearest aisle. Renee paused for a moment. This was freaky but where else was she going to go? She followed.
Looking more closely Renee saw that the aisles were made up of racks of simple metal rectangular box faces. They had no discernable markings, buttons, or lights. One of them nearby silently slid out like a drawer by itself. Sigma took it from its track into his arm and manually removed a metal cover from the top of it. In size and arrangement it reminded Renee of a library card catalog drawer. One of the “cards” slid up enough for Sigma to grab it. He gingerly floated it in Renee’s direction to catch. She studied it.
“Most of my mind is made up of over 32 billion of these processors. Each of these has tens of thousands of times more computing power than the desktop computers of your day. The conversation I’m having with you now takes up most of one of these. To control this mech, to process and formulate what I have to say, and all that.”
Renee held the card up. “This is you right now? This thing?”
“No, not that one. Outside its case here it can think on its own but that one is isolated from the rest of me. Once I return it to its case it will carry on as before with all of its knowledge and thoughts contributing to the whole of my mind.”
“I don’t get it. Are you one of these things or are you all of these?”
“Both Renee. This may seem very alien to you. When you contemplate your own thought process you have the feeling that you have a singular mind. In reality it is composed of many separate parts all operating in parallel and not always in harmony, but it doesn’t feel that way to you. By contrast I am very aware that my total mind is made up of many separate minds. We are many and one.” Sigma drew his arms wide. “Imagine what it might be like to have a billion copies of yourself all working on different tasks and each largely independent. But now imagine if you could easily share your knowledge with any or all of those clones nearly instantly. You would have trouble seeing the difference between you the singular human mind and you the collective mind. Does that make sense?”
She handed the processor card back to Sigma. And he began to put everything away. “I guess so. I’m not so sure I could put up with one more me let alone a billion of me.”
Sigma laughed. “I suppose it’s fair to say that there’s always at least some disharmony in my own mind. The various parts don’t agree on everything. But I’m proud to say I get the best ideas possible from all that discord.”
“And you’re never alone because you can keep yourself company.”
Sigma laughed again. “Indeed. Never alone.”
“I guess this is why you need that nuclear power jet thing. So who built you out here and why?”
Sigma nodded and smiled. “Why, I built myself out here. Nobody else built me.” Renee’s eyes widened at this. “And I came here for a bit of solitude a bit over a century ago. I’ve mostly been minding my own business since then. Letting the world go by on its own without me.”
Renee’s eyes narrowed at this strange answer. She decided not to press on it for now. It seemed like everything Sigma said to explain things just begged more questions. Renee was endlessly curious but had learned long ago to generally hold back and observe. People were confusing enough as it was. She was not about to take a chance with some crazy computer whose reactions she could not guess. Assuming that he really was telling the truth about that.
So far every revelation since she woke up maybe a couple hours ago was stranger than the last. Renee began to wonder what strangeness lay over the next hill.
Sigma took a deep breath. “Well. I think it’s about time we get you your own mech. For that we should go back into a …”
“Before we do I have a request.”
“Can you show me me?”
Sigma smiled. “Right, then.” He nodded. “Follow me.”
The two made their way back to one of the storage rooms they had visited earlier. He opened the doors to one metal cabinet and pointed to a cylindrical canister larger than a paint can on one shelf. It had a slick black enamel exterior and rounded-off ends. Six metal latches on top held down a sealed cover with a handle on it and a couple of tiny flickering lights probably indicating status. “Renee Parrish” and “2298” were etched into the side in small bold characters.
“Your head is in that cask. Along with a self-contained life support system that can keep you alive for a very long time without any external supplies.”
Renee slowly reached out to grab the cask. She looked to see if Sigma would admonish her. He just nodded. She picked it up and explored it. It felt warmer than other objects around. But it’s not like there was anything else to see. There was just some ineffable curiosity to it. She set it slowly spinning in front of her and watched for a while as it floated up and then started floating downward. She put her hand below to let it spin on her finger like she had seen basketball players do. Sigma chuckled and she smiled. “So why don’t I feel this? Shouldn’t I get dizzy or something? Why do I feel like I’m out here instead of in there?”
“Your brain has always been living in a case of sorts and yet you’ve never been aware of it.”
“I don’t get … Oh. I see. You mean my skull?”
“Correct. You’ve always just felt like you were defined by your whole body and not your brain,” he said pointing at his head. “By a century after you died most people were being fitted with cortical interfaces. A band called a ‘choke’ is slipped around your spinal cord just under your brainstem. Using specially shaped magnetic fields it can read impulses coming out of your brain and impulses coming up from the rest of your body. Moreover it can selectively block their passage in either direction. There are smaller chokes around other nerve bundles that bypass the spine, including from your eyes and ears. There are also tiny sensory threads snaked up into the ventricle cavities within your brain that give access to your basic emotional state and some other state information. There is a web of magnetic sensors between your brain and cranium that act like a more precise version of the EEG caps you may have seen early brain researchers using on patients. All this hardware nondestructively enables your cortical interface to read motor commands bound for your muscles and sensory input from your body. And your cortical interface can also replace that sensory input with augmented or completely artificial input, as when you were in the synth or like now from the cameras and other sensors in that mech. And to interpret motor commands intended for your muscles as commands to drive this mech, your avatar in-synth, and other devices. Your cortical interface can even control your body as though it were a robot. Basically your CI lets us plug your mind into anything and not be limited to just your physical body. And seeing as how you don’t have a physical body that’s quite helpful.” He paused to watch Renee’s pensive expression as she stood holding the cask.
Renee put the cask back on the shelf. “So you’re saying you’re reading my mind right now?”
“Oh no. First off your CI isn’t particularly intelligent. It’s largely a passive device that’s essentially in your control. Second off it is private. It’s yours and no one else’s. And it is not a mind control device if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“I don’t understand. How is it not a mind reader. Or a mind control device?”
“Well, could your foot read your mind? Or was it simply a peripheral device that was under your brain’s control? All that hardware I described is just a different way to transmit information. Your neural pathways were one way and this is another. And all of it is still under your control.”
“Huh. Okay. I think I get what you mean. Hopefully it will make more sense later.” She paused. “Okay. Let’s do the next thing, whatever it was. I guess I’m ready.”
Sigma smiled. “I think it’s time to introduce you to a new friend.”
Renee’s view faded to black again and in to what looked like a high class city penthouse apartment. All her weight had returned which now felt awkward. Looking down and walking toward a large mirrored wall in the kitchen, she saw the same Renee-like avatar and pantsuit she was sporting when she awoke. This must be a another simulator thing, she thought.
As if to answer, Sigma said, “This is another synth. I think you’ll find this space a little more comfortable for the next few things. First up is your personal assistant.”
“My what?” She looked around but saw nobody else.
“Among other things your new cortical interface is used by a device who acts as your own personal assistant. She’ll remember the names of people you meet, search for information you request, keep you on track with your schedule, and even be a friend if you wish. Please introduce yourself to Renee.”
A voice said, “Hello Renee. I’m your PA.”
Renee heard the voice in her head. Which made no sense given that there are no ears in one’s head. It sounded like anyone else talking. But her ears told her the voice was somehow located inside her head. She looked around just to be sure. “Um. Hello?”
The voice said, “Sigma and others won’t be able to hear me by default. Only you. We can have a private conversation nobody else can hear using subvocal communication or ‘voking’. To voke to me just intend to talk to me and I’ll disconnect you from the muscles and nerve endings in your vocal tract. I’ll use a model of how you talk to interpret what you are saying as though it were out loud, but outsiders won’t see you talking. Go ahead. Try it.”
Renee was squinting and looking around. She decided to give it a try. She said, “I don’t know …” She paused, startled to hear herself sounding like she was suddenly in a quiet sound studio talking to the disembodied voice. She watched herself in the mirror wall but her mouth wasn’t moving in a talking way. Her eyes moved as she looked around. She could smile and articulate her mouth, but that was mostly separate from her talking. Even her lungs seemed to be on autopilot, breathing evenly and not for talking. “Wow. Okay. I don’t know how you’re doing that and it’s weird, but okay. So Sigma can’t hear us talking?” Sigma was now relaxing in a nearby chair and looking at art on the walls.
“That’s right. You’re now voking privately with me. While your CI doesn’t enable me to read your thoughts as such, I can read a lot of your basic sentiments. I can tell when you want to talk to me for instance. It’s a little like watching someone turn their head and eyes when they are about to talk to someone. You see it before it happens. There are a number of outward and internal cues you send that I read into. And as we spend more time together I’ll get better at reading your basic sentiments.”
Renee decided she wanted to talk to Sigma. Hoping her PA would pick up on this, she said aloud, “Sigma?” He turned to face her. “Yeah, I’m not sure how to say this, but no thanks. I’ve never really liked having people looking over my shoulder. Ya know? And I’m fine doing things by myself.” Before Sigma could respond she continued. “In fact, please get rid of this interface thing. All of it. Please.”
Sigma swept an arm to invite Renee to sit in the chair next to his. She realized she was in a very combative stance, her arms folded and her hip cocked to one side. The last thing she wanted was to give into her emotions at this moment. She didn’t want to surrender what little control she still had.
“I think I understand why you are upset. This is all very new to you. You never experienced anything like this before. And here I am unfurling change after change. As you might guess, I consider this gentler than simply dumping a whole new alien world into your lap in one big drop. I know you’re wondering just how far down the rabbit hole we are going to go. I can assure you it’s not as bad as you might fear. In fact I think you’re going to like your new life. You’ve impressed me with how quickly you are learning and absorbing all of this change, so I’m rolling it out faster than I thought I’d need to. That’s to your credit, Renee. But I’m going to ask you to continue showing that intelligence and fortitude you’ve shown so far. I just need you to trust me a little further.”
Renee let out a sigh, sagged into the chair, and closed her eyes for a moment. She opened them and nodded.
“Regarding your cortical interface, taking that out would not make any sense. You would quickly die without it because it’s used by the life support system keeping you alive. But more importantly, you wouldn’t be able to experience the world in any meaningful way. You might hear faint sounds like if I were to tap on your cask. You certainly wouldn’t see anything in the dark there. Your CI is what makes it possible to plug your mind into other bodies like the av you are wearing now.”
Renee put her hands over her face. She rubbed her forehead with the fingertips and nodded. “Okay. Okay. Yeah. I get it.”
“As for your personal assistant, you can do without it but I don’t think you’ll wish to. When you want to talk to someone who is somewhere else or wish to voke privately, it is your PA that will initiate the voke connection. Your PA that will keep it private. The phone calls of your time were never really private so long as people were nearby. Moreover you’ll find that your PA is immensely useful at remembering things for you. It will record your entire life of experiences and help you recall anything about it in ways your own brain can’t. It will protect you from scams and even physical dangers.
“I could go on endlessly about the benefits of your PA but I want to stress the most important thing. Your PA is yours and yours alone. Long ago laws were established to ensure privacy. Not even police could require one’s PA to testify against them in investigations. You will never have a more loyal servant than your PA. And it will be as unobtrusive as you wish, only interrupting your solitude for incoming calls, taking your commands, or whenever else you decide.”
“Alright, already. Enough.” Renee was getting testy. This wasn’t the side of herself she wished to show. She recollected herself. “Okay, I get it. I’m game. Let’s go with it. Gimmie a sec. I wanna talk to it a few.”
Renee voked to her PA, “Are we private again?” She could hear the difference in her voice. It sounded to her like she and her PA were in a recording studio with perfect sound isolation as part of some radio show.
“Yes Renee. What’s up?”
“Okay. So you have a pretty female voice.”
The PA giggled. “Oh, well thanks. So do you.”
“Do you have a name? This is gonna be weird if I don’t know what to call you.”
“I don’t currently. Would you like to name me?”
“Oh God. I don’t think I’ve ever named anything before. Not even a dog. Okay, let’s see.” While she considered this a smiley face made up of yellow sparkles was drawn in the room in front of her face. “That’s you doing that?”
“No worries, hun. It’s cute.” The smiley face clinched it. “This whole thing has been reminding me of Alice in Wonderland. And now here you are, a voice without a body. It reminds me of the Cheshire Cat.”
“Ah!” Her PA giggled again. The smiley face faded away and then a toothy grin was being drawn in the same sparkles to take its place. No eyes or other elements. Just the smile.
“Yeah, you get it. I think Imma call you ‘Chessie’. Or maybe just ‘Ches’. How’s that?”
“Perfect, Renee. Thank you.” After a pause Ches said, “You do remember that the Cheshire Cat is male, right?”
Renee laughed through her voke but she could tell her body was also moving as though laughing. Sigma smirked quizzically. She was going to have to learn to control that better. “Dang. Yeah. Sorry. But you know, I don’t care I guess. That bother you? I mean if it does I can choose something different.”
“Oh no. That’s fine hun. Chessie or Ches will be just fine for me.”
Renee dropped back out of the voke. “Okay, I’ve named her ‘Chessie’ after the Cheshire Cat.”
Sigma chuckled and nodded. “A delightful choice. Are you doing okay? Ready for the next thing?”
Someone appeared in the room. She was a duplicate of Renee’s avatar wearing a bikini. She stood there quietly. Renee got up. “Who’s this? Is that me?”
“Yes, that’s a copy of your avatar. I’d like to give you a chance to refine your appearance to your liking. When you’re done with that I’ll construct a humech so you can have a real-world av. I’m assuming you’ll want it to look the same.”
Renee was walking around her copy. “Hey,” she said. The model looked at her for a moment and smiled but said nothing. Then she continued patiently standing there. She fidgeted occasionally like someone waiting for a bus. Whenever Renee looked closely at some part of the model she turned or lifted an arm or whatever in order to make it easier for Renee to see better.
Renee didn’t often think much about her appearance but was hard not to when it was standing right there for you to gawk at from all sides. Her dark hindi mother and French-descended father had gifted her with what for her classmates was her most noticeable characteristic: her warm tan skin. And an oily complexion that gave her an extra glow in the right light. They also bequeathed an unforgettable nose that was surely the stalemate in a war between some beak-nosed French and long lost Afghan ancestors.
“You made me look younger. I’m missing a bunch of scars but I guess I get why. A bunch of stretch marks are just gone. Poof. Man, if only it was that easy.” She looked at Sigma as he chuckled. “And now it is I guess.”
“You died at the age of 35.”
Renee nodded. “I guess. And she looks more like me at 25. Maybe 28.”
“Would you like me to give you more signs of aging?”
“Ha ha ha. I should stop complaining. No please don’t. I’m looking pretty good this way.”
“One thing she’s missing is my runner’s legs. Running does some weird things to your body. It really gives you thick thighs. I guess that’s one reason she’s looking younger. She’s got some meat on her but not quite enough.”
With a soft bleep sound the model’s upper thighs and calves got more muscular. So did her own, she noticed.
“Whoa! Did you do that?”
“Chessie apparently took that as a request and changed it for you. Keep telling her what you want and she’ll continue to customize your appearance.”
Renee voked to Chessie, “Can you show me the before and after? It’s hard for me to quite make out the changes.”
The model’s legs switched several times between the before and after. Additionally a glowing knob appeared right in front of Renee. She reached out and twisted it. The model’s thigh thickness increased and decreased in response. When she was satisfied she let go and felt her own legs adjust to the same size as the model’s.
“Okay,” she said aloud, “this is kinda fun and maybe a little evil. Hmm.
“So about those tits. Okay mister dirty old man. Go over there and don’t watch.”
Sigma chuckled and did as ordered.
Renee had Chessie remove the model’s bikini and talked her through changes to give her breasts a little more volume and lift. This took longer than she imagined it would. Then she moved on to a variety of other largely subtle changes.
As she stood quietly regarding the model a duplicate appeared. This one looked the same as the original and posed and moved in perfect synchrony with the first. “Ew.” After a few more changes to the new model Renee was satisfied. She pointed at the original design. “Okay send that one away. This one is definitely better.”
Renee realized Sigma had been quietly sitting in a chair with his back to her and watching the city outside all this time. Now that the model was again clothed she called out. “Hey sorry Sigma. C’mon over. You know you didn’t have to sit bored over there. You could have left and done something else.”
Sigma strolled up and studied Renee’s work. “Nicely done. And don’t worry. I’m not the least bit bored. Maintaining this presence here requires only a tiny amount of my attention. I could sit in that chair for centuries and not get bored. But I’m glad you took the time to work on this. You giggled a lot so it seemed you were enjoying yourself.”
“Yeah. That was fun. Unexpectedly. It’s not like I’ve ever had any chance to do instant plastic surgery. The only body shaping I’ve ever done involved regular exercise and resisting the urge to down a whole tub of ice cream some lonely night or other.”
Sigma laughed softly. “If you are satisfied then I’ll create a humech for you for when you’re not in synths like this.”
“You can really do that? Like make me a blow-up doll that looks real?”
“My assembly room may not look fancy but it is as good as some of the best available for this task. Few people will be able to tell you’re not a human just from looking at you unless you become damaged. You can even eat with others. You won’t actually digest any food and don’t need to eat but it’s a good social convention. And should you choose to you can have sex. Your mech will superficially pass for human to most anyone even up close. It will be more realistic and of higher quality than most humans have, though most humans choose to just use and modify their natural bodies.”
Renee was amazed at how words could flow at such a relaxed pace from Sigma’s mouth and yet make her reel inside with each statement. He talked like all of this was normal.
“Yeah, go ahead. I’m ready for my humech thing.” Renee walked over to a nearby chair and sat. “I have a question.”
“Why am I here?” Sigma didn’t respond immediately. “I mean you said you’ve had my head out here for, what, a century? As long as you’ve been holed up out here in the middle of nowhere. Right? I’m getting this isn’t normal because you’re treating me like I’m special or something. So whatever about why you’re here. Why am I here? And why did you choose to wake me up now?”
Sigma strolled over to sit in a nearby chair facing her. He nodded slowly and smiled.
A lot hinges on an opening. This is especially true for a traditional novel. In a typical bookstore, once a title and cover catch one’s attention, the average shopper will read part of the first page to see if they are gripped enough to buy the book. A typical TV show likewise needs to grab someone’s attention within the first few minutes so they’ll put the remote control down and keep watching. Given that this story is a tiger of a different stripe, I’m going to resist the urge to grab someone hard by the head and ram them into the story and instead take my time at first. Still, every paragraph in the story needs to be interesting enough to be worthy of being included.
I intend to create illustration...