Sensations softly fell upon Renee one by one like the first drops of a rain. A cool nip of breeze on her face. The wind-blown sound of rustling grasses. The musty smell of wet earth. The orange glow of a sunset prying her eyelids open.
Renee blinked, inhaled deeply, and looked around her. This was no place she was familiar with. She had been sleeping with her back upright against a rock. All around her were green and brown grasses and gray stone outcroppings like this one punctuating rolling hills. Distant tree lines occasionally broke up the stark horizon. As she slowly stood up she was surprised by her knees. Years of running and ignoring the pain from grinding them down had taught her to stand up using her arms more than her knees. The pain was expected so its absence was notable.
Renee brushed a little dirt off her butt with her hands and then looked at them. Most people didn’t notice the small burn scars on her forearms but she now realized they were gone. She didn’t recognize the pantsuit she was wearing or her shoes. The more she looked at and felt herself, the more she noticed the things that were wrong. She looked and felt basically like herself but not exactly the same as earlier. She wished she had a mirror.
Renee’s wandered around this spot some more. Her surroundings were beautiful, but it was apparent she would find no answers here. Nothing but this endless moor about. She set off walking in the direction of the closest tall hill in hopes of spying a nearby town. For someone used to wearing sneakers for long walks and runs, she couldn’t decide if these casual flats were better or worse than going barefoot.
Renee was so lost in the swirl of questions about her present condition that she almost ran into the tall figure now standing before her. “Whoa!” She stepped back a little and squinted.
“Good afternoon, madam,” he said, tipping his hat with a broad smile.
“I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t see you there.” Renee regarded the old man in his dress suit with its white jacket and hat and no tie, all worn with the casual comfort of a lifetime.
“Think nothing of it, young lady.” His pleasant and yet formal demeanor carried through in his English accent. “Is there anything I can do to help you, miss? You look like you might be a little lost.”
Renee’s head darted about. Seeing nothing but moor around them, she turned back to the stranger. Whether friend or foe, it seemed talking to him was better than continuing to walk blindly. “Um.” She feigned wiping her nose for a moment and sniffed. “Where are we?” Her eyes looked back up at the man, though her face didn’t follow suit. “And, um, who are you?”
“My name is Sigma. It seems we’re both out for a walk and enjoying a very fine sunset.” He paused for a moment, smiling around at the scenery. “Might I inquire as to your name?”
“Sigma. Huh. New name for me. Interesting. My name is Renee. And that was not much of an answer.” Renee shuffled and looked around some more. She pointed an outstretched arm behind. “Look, I just woke up back there. I walked for a few minutes and here you are. Don’t you think this is a little strange?”
Sigma chuckled. “Renee Parrish, it is my great honor to at last meet you.” He bowed, resting his hat on his belly.
Renee took a step back. “Wait, what? Shit, you do know who I am, don’t you? What’s going on?” She was prepared to start running back to where she had come from. But why? The man before her was the only obvious source of answers at the moment. Just in case, she considered how she might fight her way out of this. She started circling to the other side of Sigma because the hill she had hiked over was the only place she wouldn’t be able to see any other attackers coming from.
In a low voice Sigma said, “I assure you that no harm will come to you while you are in my company. Please don’t be alarmed.”
He straightened his back and breathed deeply. With a smile he continued. “You asked where we are so let me give you the more proper answer you deserve. I hope you’ll bear with me because it’s not an answer you’re going to believe at first.”
She folded her arms. “Try me.”
“You died in 1996, 302 years ago.” Sigma paused. Seeing Renee’s silent stammers, he continued. “Your body was cryopreserved upon your death. Or, more accurately, your head was.
“Don’t be surprised if you can’t recall your death. People generally don’t unless they had a prolonged passing where they prepared for it. Your remains give no indication of that, so your death must have been sudden. There’s no sign that chronic illness played a significant role, so perhaps it was an accident or … perhaps not. In any case, you probably didn’t suffer long before passing.”
Renee was pacing with her forehead in her hand, nodding a silent “no”.
“Please accept my apologies, Renee, for being the bearer of this grim news. But on the other hand, it’s my pleasure to welcome you back from the grave. You are one of only a few hundred people from your time to be cryopreserved and survive. There were nearly six billion people alive the year you passed. Almost every one of them is long gone now and yet here you stand.”
A storm of thoughts were contorting Renee’s face, threatening to burst from her mouth. She said nothing.
Sigma asked, “How do you feel? Please don’t be afraid to …”
“Three hundred years?”
Sigma paused but Renee said no more. She was still not looking at him. “That’s right. Today is August third of 2298.” He chuckled. “Needless to say a lot has happened.”
Renee sighed. “I’m … different.” She swept her arms to indicate her body. “I look and feel different. Your story sounds crazy. I’m not one to buy crazy stories. But I’m different. So whatever the truth is, it’s probably crazy too.” Tears withheld no longer but Renee remained stoic. “So how did I … die? Huh?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know that. Moreover, I’m afraid I don’t know much about you at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“You lived in a time when record keeping was spotty at best. You may have had a cellphone and used the World Wide Web of the day.”
Renee nodded but wavered an open hand as if to say “kinda”.
Sigma continued. “Well, I found no evidence of you leaving a footprint on the Internet. What little I’ve found amounts to school yearbooks, an obituary, tax records, and so on. You died not long before people started living more of their lives online, so I simply don’t have much to go on.” Sigma chuckled. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to get to know you the old fashioned way. What do you recall?”
Renee picked up a stone she had been eyeing up and dusted it off in her hands, studying it. “I don’t know what to tell you. I lived in the City. New York City, that is. Er. Does it still exist?”
Sigma chuckled again. “Yes yes. Quite a beautiful old city. Many parts of it from your time still remain even. Perhaps I’ll show you what it looks like sometime. But please do go on.”
Renee studied the rock further. “Heh. Well I worked there too. At a company called Cryoserv. But I bet you knew that.”
“In fact I did not. That’s very interesting. Your head was cryopreserved by your employer then. The main reason I couldn’t know that is that Cryoserv’s office was destroyed in a fire. Many of the casks containing people preserved like you were destroyed. I don’t know why you in particular survived but all of their paper and computer records were also destroyed. A manifest of the survivors was hastily made. Your name was on it but scratched out. All the the survivors were taken in by another cryopreservation facility. All but yours.”
“I sincerely don’t know, but I’d love to find out. In any case I discovered your remains in a private collection — something that is strictly illegal, you see. The owner turned you over to me about a century ago, if only to get you off of his hands. And now I’ve revived you.”
“Is that why my body feels different?”
“Yes, quite. I have your DNA and could determine an awful lot about your condition from your remains, but I wouldn’t know about acquired characteristics like past injuries or tattoos. Moreover I’ve spared you from some minor diseases you suffered. For example, you had a small precancerous skin lesion on your scalp that might well have metastasized as you grew older. And despite indications that you got regular exercise, you had signs of heart disease. You won’t miss any of those things I’m sure.”
“Small miracles, eh?” Renee tossed the stone aside. If Sigma had been afraid she might throw it at him he didn’t show it. Who was this guy? “So you’re a doctor?”
“Not technically, but from your perspective I might as well be. I’ll explain soon. So much to explain.”
Renee’s eyes watered. “My parents?”
“Long dead of course. I’m sorry. It seems they lived well and shared fond memories of you in their online lives.”
Renee sniffled and wiped her face. “You know, I had no kids. No living siblings. It was just me. And them.”
“And now it’s you. You’ve managed to survive the fate of not only your family but also of most of humanity. You have a chance to live again.”
Renee was already walking back up the hill she had come over. Sigma watched her and strolled slowly after. Renee sat down at the crest and stared at the setting sun. She wept into her arms resting on her knees. At first silently and then without reservation. By the time she stopped and looked up again, Sigma was standing beside her, quietly watching the sun set.
Renee shook her head and said, “I just don’t know what to say. Or do.” Sigma said nothing. “Where are we, anyway? Can we get out of here? You got a car or something?”
Sigma extended a hand and Renee took it to stand up. “Yes, we can leave now. Give me a moment to explain. I don’t want to frighten you.”
Sigma spread out his arms. “This,” he said, “is a simulated world, what we call a ‘synth’. In your time you might have called it ‘virtual reality’. In any case, it’s not real. I’m about to take you out of it and show you some of the real world.”
Renee said nothing. What was there to say? She just looked around some more, trying to see if she could perceive any fakeness in things. She couldn’t. It all felt as real as anything.
Sigma continued. “Further, you don’t have a body, per se. We’ll be creating one for you to suit your tastes soon. But in the meantime I’m going to temporarily embody you in an antique mech I have available.
Renee muttered, “Boy, this just keeps getting better.”
“The mech was originally designed to be a human-shaped android, but it will feel a bit alien at first. Also, you will experience weightlessness.”
“What? What does that mean?”
“We are not on Earth. I will explain more in a few minutes once we are on the other side, so to speak.”
“Because you have probably never experienced weightlessness — aside I imagine from brief moments on certain amusement park rides — I want to ease you into that now before we transition.”
“If you are ready, I’m going to gradually reduce the gravity you feel here. Are you ready?”
“Uh. I guess. How do you change gravity?”
Renee immediately 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 ground and spun her backwards. Her arms and legs flailed in even greater panic. When her shoulders hit the ground 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 into 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 two meters off the ground and nearly upside down. “This … is fucking amazing!” She giggled. She could not get over the strangeness of seeing the ground above her and the sky below.
Sigma never left the ground. 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.”
“When were you born?”
“Oh, September 11th of 1961.”
“The cask your head was originally stored in had your name and the year 1996 stamped on it. The Cryoserv fire happened in late November of that year. I don’t know what date you died, so you were either 34 or 35.”
Renee paused looking at Sigma. “You know, I don’t know. I know my birthday was coming up. No, I did have my birthday. Had dinner with an old friend and stayed up late drinking. I miss her. I don’t remember anything after. I know I was getting ready for the New York Marathon. November 3rd it was going to be. Or did I already run in it? I don’t remember.”
“It’s okay. You are likely to forget many of the event memories you formed in the last few months of your life. So it sounds like you died somewhere between mid September and late November 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?”
“Ches 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.