Renee awoke and looked around. She was still in the cabin. She still had her new avatar body. Sleep had not erased the reality of her new life.
She had her PA put a sundress and sandals on her. She wandered around the cabin, exploring in fresh sunlight. She looked out the windows at her dew-glistened meadow. She walked out and explored the tight spaces in the garden wrapped around the cabin and corralled by its rustic wooden fencing. Purple morning glories battled to strangle the trellis arch over the gate near the front door.
Back inside Renee had Chessie materialize a sumptuous breakfast just to see what eating virtual food would feel like. She tried a little of everything but felt full fairly quickly. Chessie indicated that she could tweak her hunger level and how easily she felt satiated if she wanted to eat more. But Renee was never a big eater. She declined.
Renee walked outside again. She sat on a wooden sun chair on the small patio next to the door. She sighed. “Okay,” she voked to Chessie. “Let’s get started with whatever crazy thing Sigma has planned.”
Chessie replied. “Shall I invite Sigma to join us here?”
Sigma appeared immediately.
“That was fast. Well, good morning. What’s on tap for today?”
Sigma was wearing the same mostly white suit. He tipped his hat and said, “Good morning Renee. Did you sleep well?” He sat down in the chair opposite Renee when she motioned him to.
“I did, actually. I don’t recall when I last slept so well. I didn’t think I would in a new place.”
“It’s fairly easy for your PA to regulate your sleep even when you have difficulties.”
“Bonus I guess. I actually didn’t go to sleep right away. I ended up running around here for over an hour. The trails don’t seem to end anywhere. Just how big is this synth anyway?”
“It is designed to keep expanding as you explore more. If you top a hill you’ve never been over, it will add more land, lakes, trails, houses, or whatever else seems appropriate. You could never exhaust your synth no matter how long you run. And you can change it to better suit your tastes.”
“So I saw last night. I added a shower. That felt good.”
“Then I wrote a letter.”
“Yeah.” She paused. Sigma patiently waited. “My best friend. I know she’s long dead by now but we’ve been writing each other forever. We talked on the phone too. And we could have sent email messages since we both had AOL. But we had had this tradition of writing letters that started when we were kids. It seemed the fancy-pants thing to do and we just stuck with it as we got older.”
“I see. Can you tell me about your friend?”
Renee nodded slowly. “My best friend Melinda Trotter. But I called her Bunny.”
“Is there a story behind that?”
“Oh, just that we bonded over Alice in Wonderland when we were kids. I was a quiet kid who sat in the corner to avoid being noticed. People weren’t very nice to me.” Sigma’s face indicated curiosity. Renee pointed to her own face. “The kids in the upstate New York suburban school I went to were mostly white. I didn’t exactly fit in and children can be mean. And I didn’t have a thick skin yet. Melinda was the new kid in class in third grade. She made friends easily and quickly. One day she walked up to me and saw I was reading Wonderland. She said she loved the book too so we started talking about it. Somehow she managed to open me up and became my first friend. And because she was always so full of nearly spastic energy I nicknamed her Bunny. Remember the rabbit from Wonderland?”
“Ah yes. Always checking his watch. Always terribly late to be somewhere. That’s sweet. And you managed to stay friends all those years after?”
“Yeah. Well I think I was a bad friend. We went our own ways after high school. She went off to an ivy league and I dropped out of the university I went to after a year. My parents sent me but it really wasn’t me. Bunny and me kept writing letters though. And we’d get together now and then to catch up, watch bad movies, and drink. Man, she was a drinker. And went through boys at school like someone with a cold goes through a box of Kleenex.” She was shaking her head and smirking.
“Yeah. She was pretty much the only person I ever got drunk with. I could let down my guard with her. And she’d get all snuggly when she was drunk. By the end of the night she’d be there, head in my lap and petting my leg while we watched some dumb movie. And me brushing the snarls out of her hair.”
“That’s delightful. I’m glad you found a friend with whom you could share that kind of bond and intimacy.”
“Intimacy? Oh no not like that. We were just friends.”
“Forgive my choice of words. When I say ‘intimacy’ I’m merely speaking about the kind of close friendship you enjoyed. Including opportunities for physical touch. The humans of your time were far less physically intimate with friends and family than is common now. People need touch. It helps us feel connected and complete if you will.”
“I got ya. Yeah, it was a little weird but felt good. My parents were pretty much the only other people I was … intimate with as you say. And they weren’t super touchy-feely people. Even the few guys I was … intimate with in that other way weren’t really touchy-feely either. Bunny would sit on the floor and practically demand that I sit between her legs and wrap her arms around my shoulders. It’s like what I’d like to feel with some guy if I ever got married. But I guess guys don’t do that kind of intimacy the way girls do.”
“I hope that you find otherwise now in your new life.”
Sigma pointed at Renee. “Yesterday I finished crafting your first humech. I was going to have you try it out but we were so busy with our conversation. And then you went off to sleep. Are you ready now to try it out?”
“Oh. Right. Yeah. Show me.”
Sigma stood up and disappeared. Renee’s view faded to black and returned with a view of the assembly room. The normal weight of her body let up as before. She tried moving forward but found she was stuck. She felt something release her back and she slouched forward a little. She reached out to grab a handrail and spun around to look.
Chessie voked, “Your mech was magnetically locked in place to keep it from drifting. That’s also a charging base. Your mech will return here when not in use.”
Sigma floated nearby and grabbed one of the tie-down handles. “What do you think?”
Renee looked down at herself. Her humech looked just like the avatar she had been using in synths. Extra lights in the room softly turned on. A tall mirror appeared in a blue flash nearby for Renee to study the rest of her avatar with. She voked to Chessie, “What the … Did you do that?”
“Yes. It’s not actually there. I can project artificial things in your vision that look like real things in the room. You’ll usually know they are synthetic by the blue flash.”
“Oh, I see. That’s pretty cool. But a mirror? How could a fake mirror projected whatever whatever work?”
“There are many cameras in this room. I requested access to them so I could produce a 3D version of what they see of you and used it to simulate the reflection you see. Not bad. Eh?”
“Man. I don’t get how you do that but it’s impressive. I take it Sigma doesn’t see it and I look ridiculous poking at nothing. Right?”
Chessie laughed. “Yep.”
Renee studied her figure and the strange garment Sigma had put on her. Although it felt perfectly comfortable it looked like it shouldn’t. In shape it reminded her of a child’s dance class leotard. But the ornately cut panels looked like a red leather car interior had mated with metal subway tiles. If it was supposed to be some sort of space suit or armor it would surely have covered her shoulders and legs below the knees. So she concluded that either other people today had strange fashion tastes or Sigma did. She chuckled softly.
“Hey Sigma. I’m sure you want to teach me more stuff but do you mind if I take this for a spin?”
“Certainly. That one is far more durable than what you had before. Take your time. You’re free to go wherever you’d like.”
“Yeah. I wanna explore the place a little more. And I want to get more used to moving around in zero G. Thanks.”
“Have fun.” Sigma made his way to the nearest doorway and exited leaving Renee alone.
Renee looked around the silent room. “So quiet,” she said to nobody. “Please play that running mixtape you made for me yesterday,” she voked to her personal assistant.
Late 20th century pop music played in the room. She knew there were no actual speakers around and only she could hear it thanks to her cortical interface. She was coming to enjoy the feeling of being at an actual concert when listening to music like this. The sounds were rich. But also she could feel bass notes in other parts of her body as though she were standing near big speakers at a nightclub. And as she turned her head and moved around it felt like she was in a room with positioned speakers. This all felt very different from the scratchy foam headphones with their watery sound that she used to wear on runs. She wondered if Sigma had his own music playlist going in his head when he stood around waiting for her to keep up.
Renee gently pushed off from where she was toward the ceiling. Having flipped along the way, she kicked off the ceiling toward a large crate next to what Sigma had called 3D printers. She reached out to catch a handle and hit a little harder than intended. She decided to try hand-over-hand movement because walking in the miniscule gravity was proving nearly useless.
Renee knew she was a nosey woman. More than a few times she had been caught poking through people’s private things while in their homes. She never stole anything or hurt anyone while snooping. She was just curious. What’s the harm in that?
She hand-over-handed along racks the printers were clamped to and peered closely at them. One thing she was realizing is that her vision was better than she was used to. The insides of the printers appeared black from a distance. But when she put her face up to one it seemed very bright inside. Her eyes had adjusted a lot to compensate. She looked around the room and realized everything was crystal clear as well. She thought she might be seeing in finer detail than before she died. But she previously had glasses she never wore for vision that was just a little off from perfect.
She looked back into the printer and her eyes brightened everything up again. She was trying to make out some tiny details when they started getting bigger. “Whoa! You doing that?” she voked to Chessie. She looked around again and her view had zoomed back out.
“Yes. I saw what you were focusing your attention on and realized you were trying to see it better. Your new retinas have a much higher resolution than your brain can directly handle. I can narrow your focus to a smaller portion of them in order to magnify what you are looking at whenever you want. I can do this for you in synths as well.”
“Awesome. Just how much can you zoom stuff? Show me.”
As Renee looked across the room to some crates on the other side she saw them gradually zoom in until she could read some small print on them. She realized that flitting her eyes around meant they scanned in a zoom-appropriate range instead of the full physical range of her eyes. When she turned her head or wanted to look elsewhere the zoom level restored and she carried on as before. She focused on a few other objects while exploring the zoom.
Chessie voked, “I can give you up to thirty times magnification whether telescopic or microscopic.”
Renee turned back to the printer. “Show me.” She looked at some scuffing on a clear plastic cover. The view zoomed in slowly and she looked around at the astonishing detail in the grooves of individual scratches. Looking away the zoom resolved and she looked at her hand. Her view magnified in to the fine details of fingerprints and grooves in her palm. She put her hand closer to her face but found it got blurrier.
“Amazing. So everyone has this?”
“Sigma has created an unusually good humech for you. Of course real human eyes don’t do this sort of zooming trick. Almost everything about your mech is better than the ones most other humans use. You saw you have fingerprints for example. Your skin can self heal from minor damage without requiring replacement or external patching. Your hydraulics use active temperature control and a special medium to let you operate in a wide range of environments. Your mech’s controller has sophisticated algorithms for anticipating your behaviors and environmental stimuli so you have a greater operational range. Without it you’d start experiencing motion sickness around the thousand kilometer mark from signal and processing lag. This should let you work up to ten thousand kilometers without feeling it. A hundred thousand if you don’t mind the occasional corrections from bad predictions. I could go on but the short is that your mech is excellent.”
Renee had moved on to exploring with robot arms in the large cage-like space in the center. She was startled when something tapped her on the shoulder. She turned to find that it was one of the arms. Its multiple end effectors were contorted into the shape of a hand that waved at her. It reached out to offer a handshake.
She reached out to shake the hand and giggled. “Hello.”
The hand formed a fist with its index finger pointing up as if to say “hold on.” It reached over to one of the 3D printers and pretended to push buttons on it. She heard beeps with each tap. Then it pressed one last “button” and a light came on inside and she heard the sound of a fan whirring. It all sounded like a microwave oven. The hand was tapping its fingers on the glass as if impatient. After a few seconds she heard the ding of a bell. She giggled. The glass doors slid open. The hand reached in and pulled out a ribbon-tied bouquet of daisies. It gave them to Renee with a flourish.
Renee laughed and smelled the flowers. They were very good plastic fakes but they had a nice floral scent. “Why thank you, hand. Do you have a name?”
Chessie indicated that there was a voke request incoming from someone named Takumi. “Accept,” she voked to Chessie.
She heard a brief ping sound and voked, “Hello?”
The hand-like appendaged waved again. “Hello Renee. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Likewise. Thank you for the flowers. That was very sweet. I honestly don’t know where I’ll keep them though.”
“When you are done with them just return them to me and I’ll disassemble them for reuse in other creations.”
“Oh! Okay then. For now I’ll just set them over here.” She pushed off from the arm she was holding toward a stack of crates and let go of the bunch. The flowers took a while to fall down those few centimeters. “That was a charming way to say hello, by the way. Better than any mime act I’ve ever seen in the City.”
“Why thank you. Tell me about the best mime you ever met.”
The two chatted for a while about various things. They even played little hand games like patty-cakes. After a while Renee indicated that she needed to move on to explore more of Archeion but that she would return again soon. Takumi told her she could voke anytime too. And with a deft little maneuver he used Renee’s arm to spin her around and then pushed on her back to send her toward the smaller of the two doors in the room. She giggled at the unexpected but efficient trick.
“Have fun, Renee.”
Renee spent nearly an hour exploring locomotion down a long corridor. Sometimes she would use her feet to launch herself from one closed door trying to reach the one at the other end without touching any of the walls along the way. The miniscule gravity was noticeable over this distance. It forced her to aim high and almost brush the ceiling near the middle. She got pretty good at it after a while.
Some of the time she was learning to “torpedo”, as she dubbed it, down the hallway. This involved using her legs and feet to bounce between opposing walls or floor and ceiling, propelling forward in the process. As she got better at it she stopped using her hands. She found using only her feet was more efficient when going for speed.
And she dabbled in other forms of locomotion that were less than graceful.
Renee was grateful that the limber shoes she wore had tacky rubber soles that gave her good traction against the metal and concrete-like surfaces. And she was coming to appreciate that her strange looking outfit gave her a lot of freedom of movement.
It was strange not feeling physically tired after so much new and awkward exercise. She probably would not have noticed this if not for the mental fatigue she did feel. Chessie explained that her mech could go for days of heavy activity between charges. And that she could choose to feel appropriate levels of physical fatigue for added realism. She naturally declined for now.
Renee continued to explore Archeion. Her main focus was on getting used to what her mech was capable of. She challenged herself to race through a large circuit of rooms and corridors as fast as possible for another couple hours. Doors would open and lights turn on just in time for her arrival. More than a few times she missed a target and banged into something. It hurt just like it would have with her former body. But thankfully the pain went away quickly. And there was no apparent damage yet.
Near the end of this repeated exercise Renee was finding that she could navigate the entire course she had set up through Archeion’s underground in just under six minutes. Most of that time she was torpedoing down corridors to pick up speed and vectoring herself into the upcoming room at the last moment so as to fly a straight line through it and into the next corridor. She was grateful that there weren’t machines or people in her way. What a mess that could become in such a race.
On her last run through the course she missed the last step out of a corridor that would have sailed her through the room toward the next corridor. Instead her foot slipped on the wall causing her to spin sideways as she careened into the power generator room. She sailed just over the generator in the middle and crashed into the far wall just to the right of one of the tall canisters Sigma had indicated was fusion fuel. She took it as best she could, hands hitting first and then her shoulder and hip. The impact hurt for sure. But again she was surprised by how quickly the pain subsided. After a few moments Chessie reported that there was no major damage. That she sustained some minor damage that was being repaired by small maintenance bots internally. But she decided she was thoroughly done with this racing for now. She had already mastered the course and was clearly getting careless.
Renee spent another couple hours poking into things. One of the storage keep rooms had lots of containers that she could easily open and reclose. Some had ingots of metals Chessie indicated were rare on this planetesimal and cheaper to just import. One contained transparently encased ingots of what Chessie identified as heavy water. “Wait. This is water?”
“Yes but a special kind. Instead of the common hydrogen atoms you are familiar with these contain Tritium making it a little radioactive.”
Renee set the one she was holding back down. “Dangerous?”
“Not really. You can handle it but try not to damage the soft casing.”
“If it’s water shouldn’t it be liquid?”
“It would be if the room were at a temperature comfortable for a human.”
Renee considered her techy space leotard. She disliked cold a lot. Yet this room felt quite comfortable to her. “Wait. What is the temperature here?”
“Around 80 Kelvin. You probably are more familiar with the archaic Fahrenheit scale. So that’s about -316 °F. This is a little above the temperature where liquid nitrogen boils to a gas.”
“Jesus! A: Why don’t I feel it? And B: Why so cold?”
“A: You probably don’t want to feel the bite of this cold as you would if you still had a human body. And B: There’s not much point in raising the temperature of this space. The only biologically living thing here is your head which is kept at a healthy temperature in its cask. Keeping Archeion at, say, 76 °F would waste a lot of energy, would probably destabilize the ground around us, and would cause more rapid decay of some of the materials Archeion is built from. The temperature down here is kept at about double what it is on the surface.”
“Okay. I get it. So you just adjust how I register the cold on my skin and lungs and stuff.”
“Mostly correct. If you touch something markedly colder or hotter, your cortical interface will give you hot or cold sensations accordingly. But I should point out that you’re not actually breathing. You do have artificial lungs that would inhale and exhale air if you were around humans. They serve no functional purpose but help your humech look and feel more human than if you didn’t.”
“I’m not breathing now? I feel like I am. Another illusion?”
“That’s correct. There is a very rarefied atmosphere in here. Not much to breathe. And your human vocal tract would not have been able to produce proper spoken language in this thin air. Nor would your human ears have been able to clearly hear someone else talking. Assuming they could. Your CI and I work to amplify sound or directly transmit and present speech from Sigma to simulate these and other sensations like breathing as though you were in Earth’s atmosphere. Most humans prefer these illusions under these conditions.”
“Man. Nothing is real is it? Tell you what. Can you just let me hear the sounds in here for a while as they are? No special amplification. Just like how it would sound if I was a human.”
Renee thought she felt a sudden sucking sensation as all the sound drained away. She felt no actual pressure change. She just had not realized how much ambient sound she was hearing before. It had sounded to her like silence. And now the sound of nothing seemed so noticeable as to be loud. As she started moving she heard the sounds of her own muscles and internal systems in motion. Chessie indicated she was going to filter these out. That left a deadness that was quite alien to Renee. She wondered if she had ever heard this level of nothing before. She opened one of the previous crates just to hear the thinned-out sounds. So she wasn’t deaf now. She grabbed one of the metal ingots inside and tapped it against another. She felt the vibration in her hand but only barely heard a thin tink-tink sound. She closed the container again. “Okay, that’s enough of that. Bring the sound back, Ches.” The rumble of relative silence returned as before. She laughed softly. “Wild.”
Renee had been exploring her mech and Archeion for many hours when she wandered into what Sigma had called his spaceport. To her it just looked like another storage room. Bigger to be sure. Higher ceiling. Chock full of various machinery. Its most unusual feature was the thick metal cover over the circular hole she previously saw in the ceiling. And the track running from the floor up to the rim of that cover. Presumably part of the launch system.
Chessie indicated that a voke request was coming in from one Aurora. She accepted. Hearing the soft ding she voked, “Hello Aurora. Wherever you are.” Chessie placed a glowing arrow in Renee’s view. Her eyes followed as it flew toward the crunched up spaceship near the launch tube.
“Welcome back Renee. It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“Same here. I wasn’t expecting a talking spaceship.”
Aurora’s voice laughed. A blue flash appeared and the figure of a woman made of blue light sauntered out of it waving. The name “Aurora” appeared briefly above the figure and faded away. “Hey honey. How’s this? Better?”
“Wow. Amazing actually.”
“You’ve not seen avatars like this yet have you?”
“No. No I haven’t. I haven’t seen anything like any of this frankly. But you take the cake and then eat it. You sure know how to make a statement.”
Aurora’s avatar was ghostly. It looked like it was made of blue glass illuminated by some hidden lights. And yet it was translucent. Renee could see right through her. She reached out a hand but was reluctant to touch any part of Aurora for fear of being rude. Aurora reached out her own hand and interlocked her fingers with Renee’s. Her grip felt as solid as anything.
Renee struggled to remind herself that this was just a projection for her senses. Blue flashing light means not real. And then she remembered that even she didn’t have a real body anymore. All of this was a projection to her brain from her cortical interface. It was mixing sensations from a perfectly human looking android body with simulated stimuli from so many sources. And a Cheshire Cat was orchestrating all of it to really bend her sense of what was real. She mentally shook it off to pay attention to Aurora. Whatever the reality of any of it, people are people. This people seemed worth knowing.
“I’m sorry,” Renee said aloud. “I’m still getting used to everything. Your avatar is actually quite beautiful.”
“Well thank you. Your humech is a work of art as well. My compliments to the chefs.”
Aurora bowed as fast as the low gravity would allow her. Then she leapt up toward the ceiling, spinning in a tight ball on the way up. Renee watched as she continued bouncing around the space, laughing and goading her to join. Aurora didn’t merely jump. It was an acrobatic dance. Renee joined in the bouncing but was stunned by the artistry of Aurora’s moves. Light streamers started trailing from her hands and feet leaving long looping trails in the room that gradually faded away.
Chessie indicated that Aurora wanted to share a music stream with Renee. She accepted. Suddenly Aurora’s dance had a soundtrack. Every movement was perfectly timed to the song’s rhythm. Renee grabbed a handhold on the ceiling to stop and braced her feet against a nearby wall. It was like she was laying on the ceiling. But she knew if she let go she would start floating down. Aurora continued her energetic dance through space. Just as the song was nearing its end Aurora was floating up to where Renee was. Her hands and feet stopped her as she hit the ceiling straddling where Renee was stretched out. Then she wrapped her hands around Renee’s waist and grabbed Renee’s thighs with her knees to hold on.
“Whoo! That was fun,” Aurora said. She let go and flipped backward and landed perfectly on the ground. She grabbed a handhold to stabilize herself.
Renee followed her down. She reached out a hand hoping Aurora would catch hers.
Aurora called out, “Oh honey! That won’t work!”
Renee’s hand passed through Aurora’s. She hit the ground gracelessly and bounced off. “Ow!” She curled into a ball to spin faster and laughed.
Aurora said, “It’s easy to make you feel like a synthetic object is really touching you but it’s not possible for one to actually catch you or stop you from moving through it. Sorry dear.”
“It’s okay hun. I get it now. Don’t worry about it.” She stretched out to slow her spin again. She reached out to grab a nearby metal protrusion and guided herself back down near Aurora. “That was just amazing to watch. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Zero G dance is a passion of mine. I saw how gracefully you were racing around through here earlier. I bet you could have dance in you as well.”
The two talked more about this dance form for a while. Then they moved on to other topics. Renee was charmed by Aurora’s comfortable and almost flirty style. She didn’t feel intimidating. She didn’t feel annoying. She just felt good. Aurora was reminding Renee a little of her old friend Bunny. Just like Bunny did, Aurora seemed to be drilling right through Renee’s shell.
After a while the discussion turned to the surface of this planetesimal. Aurora told Renee about a small observation tower on the surface. And about what she called “the garage”. Just as there were a few spacecraft down here that were fit for leaving Archeion via the launch tube, the garage had a variety of surface and near-surface craft and equipment. Renee decided she wanted to go see these new things for herself.
As the conversation wound down she let Aurora know she was headed topside to poke around.
“Sounds fun. I can join you like this if you’d like.”
“I’m sure that would be a blast but I think I’d like to explore on my own some more. I’ve had a great time meeting you though. You are a phenomenon hun.”
“The pleasure is all mine dear.” Aurora bowed.
“Before I go let me ask you something. Do you like living here?”
“Oh. Absolutely. This is the best place in the universe to be. The finest people are here. And now you’ve joined the gang too.”
“Oh. Well thank you. I’ve only met a few people. How many people are here?”
“Well you’re the only flesh and blood human.” This made Renee snicker as she considered how little of her mortal flesh remained. “But depending on how you count there are billions of people.”
“Hmm. You’re still new to all this. Look. I’m that ship there right?” She pointed back at the tall tube shaped ship. “I’m showing you just one side of myself though. You could say I have a crew of several dozen sapients helping me run the whole thing. We’re like a team but most of the time we choose to present to the outside world this unified self.”
“Sigma said something like this about himself too.”
“Yes. Exactly. He’s made up of a few billion individual sapient subminds alone. I don’t think there are any other sapients that come close to the same scale of constituency as Sigma. He’s unique. And so are all his members. So I’m lucky to be here.”
“Wow. Yeah. Surprises around every corner. Well so far Sigma, you, and others have been very nice to me. I look forward to meeting more of the people here too. Thank you again,” she said as she moved to go.
Aurora lunged forward and gave Renee a bear hug. Renee felt the embrace but was surprised that Aurora’s momentum didn’t throw her back. Then she remembered that Aurora’s projected avatar had no mass and so no momentum. Renee warmly returned the hug. She chuckled as Aurora let go. The two smiled at each other and Renee moved once again to leave. Aurora blew a kiss and then disappeared in a blue flash of light.
Renee made her way toward the launch track. A cylindrical cage slid across the floor toward it. The large metal door above slid open. Renee stepped into the cage when a gate slid open. Chessie suggested that she hold tightly onto some nearby handles so she did. The cage hitched itself into the track and accelerated upward into the launch tunnel. Renee felt her weight returning to her feet for a while. Then the acceleration stopped and it started decelerating. She felt like she was now upside down. She used the strength of her arms to keep her feet pressed against the floor so they would not flip upward.
The lift eventually came to a halt after about a minute of travel. Chessie put an arrow indicating that Renee should exit into a side chamber that lit up. A door closed tightly behind her. Chessie voked, “Aurora and other spacebound vessels would continue up out of the tunnel but the lift stopped at this ground service level. Outside this door is the garage. It’s really just an open-ended shelter. This smaller lift will take you to the top of the observation tower. Would you like to go up there?”
Renee peered through a small porthole window into the garage. She could only see the silhouettes of some objects on the floor lit from outside. There didn’t appear to be an outer door. She looked at the small lift and nodded. “Yeah. Sure.”
She stepped into the lift. It rose more slowly until it opened out to a room glassed in on all sides. She stepped out. The lift sunk down into the floor and a hatch slid closed to cover the opening. The lights in the room gradually dimmed to black to reveal a brilliant sky outside.
Renee pressed against the angled glass to look up further. She voked, “Wow.” She explored the sky further. “What’s that long stretch of cloud overhead?”
“That’s actually the Milky Way. It’s not a cloud but a higher density of stars orbiting in the plane of our galaxy. As you’ve already seen your eyes are very sensitive even to low light. Your human eyes could not have appreciated this view in quite the same way your new eyes can.”
“Not a cloud. Huh. Jesus. So many stars everywhere.” She marvelled at the sky for a while. “I assume we can’t really go outside. Not safe. Right?”
“Correct. Your mech is quite hardy but would not survive long in the cold out there.”
“Yeah. Right.” She turned her attention to the ground below. Much of the ground was completely black despite her very sensitive eyes. Those parts that were illuminated cast very harsh shadows. The brightest star in the sky lay straight ahead. Although dim it appeared to be illuminating the ground and casting the shadows. The tower was apparently atop a mountain rising well above the rest of the surface. Stretched out beyond this mountainous range were flatter plains dotted with more outcroppings. More mountain ranges sprawled in the distance. “Tell me more about this planet. What am I looking at?”
“This dwarf planet does not officially have a human-friendly name. But Sigma named it Enekpe after an ancient African goddess. Although technically small it is fairly sizable at a bit over 10 kilometers in average diameter. Enough mass for you to feel at least a little gravity. Archeion is about a kilometer below us now. Enekpe is composed primarily of silicate and carbonaceous rock and water ice. There are many other kinds of ices as well including carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and methane. The mantle never fully melted so there is a heterogeneous mix of many other elements. They allow Archeion to be fairly self sufficient in producing things using lots of different materials. Much of the surface is covered by a reddish black substance referred to generically as ‘tholins’. The sun’s rays transform methane, carbon dioxide, and other basic substances into these more complex organic molecules. That’s the stuff of life out there.”
“I didn’t mean that it is alive. More that those organic molecules are the sort that used to exist on Earth’s surface and provided the key feedstock for the eventual emergence of life there. Much of it came from bodies way out here that fell to Earth long ago. They gave Earth its oceans and kick started evolution there. And elsewhere as well.”
“So there is life outside Earth?”
“Yes we have found nascent and extinct life forms in quite a few places around Sol. But nothing as sophisticated as what evolved on Earth. They are more like bacteria and fungi in terms of scale and sophistication.”
“Why no trees and horses and stuff?”
“No other world in Sol has had enough time at high enough energy levels for life to flourish to the same degree as on Earth. Earth’s relative environmental stability for the last several hundred million years combined with several other unusual factors have been rare to say the least. You got lucky.”
“So no little green men?”
“Not yet. And not likely here. But maybe over the next billion years more advanced life will evolve on some of the worlds where life has a toehold.”
“That’s one of the reasons we haven’t terraformed other planets in Sol like Mars. We have collectively decided that preserving life where we find it is very important. That doesn’t stop industry or colonization but it does mean we all take care to minimize our impacts where appropriate.”
“And that’s not to say that there aren’t little green men around other stars. The universe is vast.”
“But you haven’t found them yet?”
“That’s right. We’ve only just begun to reach the nearest star systems in the past few decades but so far we haven’t found any signs of sophisticated life. The probes that have gotten to Alpha Centauri and our other neighbors are centuries old and are technologically primitive. But still they have told us a bit more than our best telescopes today can.”
“You think we are alone in the universe?”
“We’ve been searching the skies for signs of technological societies for three and a half centuries now. So far we’ve turned up nothing substantial. No radio signals. No unambiguous signs of large artificial structures like the spinners we’ve built around Sol. We can network all the telescopes throughout Sol into a single array and see with some detail the planets in nearby solar systems. We can peer at the stars farthest away from us from the earliest age of the observable universe. We see so much and yet thus far we have not found unambiguous evidence of sapient life anywhere other than here. It’s quite a puzzle.”
“I’m going out there.”
“Just for a minute or two.”
Chessie warned Renee about the hazards to her mech of prolonged exposure to the cold, radiation, and near vacuum while she made her way down toward the garage. She peered through the porthole at the silhouettes. Chessie gave up trying to talk her out of it. Her job as Renee’s personal assistant was to simply advise and support.
Renee looked for a handle on the door to the garage. Like all the doors below there wasn’t one. A door closed behind her and air hissed out. Renee felt a slight decrease in pressure on her skin and a growing chill. Then the outer door opened with a small hiss followed by silence.
Renee used her newly developed skill for navigating in the low gravity to move around the garage. The space was packed with various machines. In the dark she could barely make out their forms. Most looked like they were designed for flight, lacking the wheels or tractor treads she imagined ground vehicles would have. She figured those wouldn’t work so well in the low gravity here though. She made her way toward the yawning opening of this artificial cave. Most of the mobile machinery was behind her now and the sunlit floor was strewn in places by rocks and dust. She had to very slowly bounce-walk because there were no machines or handholds to grab.
Looking beyond the opening Renee could see the garage was situated fairly high up. The ground dropped away beyond the garage. This made sense as it was atop the same mountain as the tower.
Renee reached down and picked up a softball sized rock. She attempted to blow on it but nothing happened. She laughed as she realized there was no air to blow even though it felt like she was breathing. A cloud of dust fell away from the stone as she shook it. It looked perfectly white. As she looked more closely her magnifying view kicked in. “Is this ice?” she voked to Chessie.
“Yes. Specifically water ice. It’s essentially a snowball.”
Renee tried to crush the snowball. She couldn’t at first. Eventually it cracked into a few pieces. She tossed them out the door. Looking at her hand she noticed some of her skin had splintered. She picked gently at it. Some flaked off alarming her. Her arms were showing faint cracks forming in her skin. Moreover she could feel her artificial muscles tightening up. Not good. She decided she had overstayed her time out here. Walking back was going to take too long. She leapt up toward the ceiling. She couldn’t really see where it was in the blackness. But her feet eventually hit and she jumped down toward the better lit floor, angling toward the machines farther inside. She hit the concrete floor harder than she anticipated. She was losing fine control over her limbs. She pushed off toward the ceiling again hoping that one more bounce would get her within reach of machines she could grab onto. She managed to bounce off the ceiling with a little push from her legs.
Renee could barely move. She was reaching out to catch a metal pipe sticking out from some oddball machine but missed. She bounced off of it instead. She bounced around a few times among various machines and then suddenly felt an immense force shoving her straight out of the garage. “Fuck!” Everything was a blur but she spun around soon enough to see the garage shrinking quickly into the distance behind her. “Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck!” she voked to Chessie.
Renee kept sailing outward. She expected to hit the ground below but found the ground was falling away from her fairly quickly. She continued to slowly spin as her mech froze up. She couldn’t move any more. But she could still see. “What the hell happened?”
Chessie replied, “You somehow managed to land on a launch catapult and activate it. It’s normally used to give much larger machines a boost so they don’t need as much fuel. But it really gave you a hell of a kick.”
As she spun back around she was beginning to see the entire spheroid of Sigma’s little world below. “Shit. Am I leaving the planet?”
“No. I think you’ve been launched into an elliptical orbit. You didn’t hit escape velocity. I’m not sure of your current speed so I can’t tell yet if you’ll stay in orbit or if you’ll hit ground before you pass the garage again.”
“Hit the ground? Shit. I fucked up. I don’t want to die up here.”
“Oh you won’t. Remember. Your head is safe and sound in its cask down below.”
“What?” She paused. “Oh right. Duh. Wow. So what do I do now?”
“Enjoy the ride I guess.” After a pause Chessie added, “It looks like you caught enough atmosphere on the way up to arc your trajectory into an elliptical orbit. Congratulations. You are a satellite. You’ll orbit this planetesimal once every 2.8 hours.”
Renee chuckled and sighed. “Shit.”
“I can bring you out into a synth. You don’t have to stay with your mech. It’s pretty well dead. I’m impressed that its eyes are still working.”
Renee paused for a moment. “No no. That’s okay. I fucked up. I’m going to go with it for now.” She paused for a while. “I actually enjoy solitude when I can. I might as well enjoy this. Let me think alone for a while. Okay?”
“As you wish. Fly safely.” Chessie giggled and then was gone.
Renee wished she wasn’t spinning and could just watch the ground steadily but she didn’t mind alternating between seeing ground and stars. She found she could use the zoom feature to focus for a while on a narrower part of the ground or sky to cancel out some of the spin and to explore. At least until that area went out of the angular range of her eyes.
There was something strangely relaxing about being out here. She pretended she was an angel floating in the heavens above Earth. She wondered if this is what death felt like. But then she had no memory of what being dead for the last three centuries was like. Could it be that God knew she was destined to be revived and so kept her from going to Heaven? And what was this going to mean for all the people who were immortal? Would they ever see Heaven? Sigma said that she was now immortal too. So would she ever set foot in the afterlife?
Renee took some time to pray and contemplate the meaning of her new existence. She prayed for strength and wisdom. She prayed for her family. She gave thanks for freeing her from the little pains of her former life. And for all the kindnesses shown her thus far by the people of Archeion.
Perhaps the first 2.8 hour orbit was coming to an end. Enekpe had again grown larger and the ground was zipping by below. She could not judge just how close she was to hitting the mountain peaks. Eventually they began receding again and she was ascending back into space.
Renee felt somehow cleansed out here. Never had she known this kind of solitude. Being naked in so profound a way. The irony of being trapped in a cage that flies free, unbounded. Alas it was time to go. She wasn’t looking forward to facing Sigma. No sooner had he given her what everyone told her was a very special mech than she went and fucked it up. She was glad that her curiosity had not ended her just yet. But it was time to face to music.
“Ches? I’m ready.”
“Okay Renee. Here we go.”
Renee’s view faded to black and than back in. She was in the assembly room again. She felt a clunk as the magnetic lock released her back. She looked down to see her mech again. No damage. Same outfit.
Sigma float-stepped into view.
“Sigma. I’m really sorry. I messed up big time. I didn’t mean to.”
“Don’t worry about it Renee. Welcome back. You gave me enough time to assemble a new mech for you. We’ll go fetch your old one and return it for disassembly.”
“So that’s it? I can just destroy my mech as often as whatever and you’ll just make me new ones?”
“I would prefer that you did not. This does cost me in terms of material and energy. Recycling is not lossless.”
“Yeah. I figured. Again I’m sorry. I won’t go out there again.”
“Why did you?”
“I don’t know. I’m just curious.”
“You really are. Aren’t you? You got repeated warnings about the dangers of going there. Is that why you wanted to go?”
“You know, I just wanted to know what it was like outside. You gave me a mech that could go where a human couldn’t ever go. Not without a spacesuit I guess.”
“Tower was not enough?”
Renee bit her lip and looked down for a moment. “Not the same.” She looked at Sigma’s penetrating stare. He wasn’t buying it. “You see right through don’t you? Okay. I’m nosey. I go where I’m not allowed to. I learn things I shouldn’t. I dig. I explore. I don’t often get caught. And it never got me in really big trouble before.”
Sigma laughed. “Your DNA gave me many clues about your personality. I suspected you were going to be a curious one. It seems I was right. I’m glad.”
“I let you go out there. I could have stopped you.”
“You said you don’t often get caught. You lived in a time before machines opened all doors and kept track of your every movement. Tell me. Did you push any buttons? Did you control anything at all in your explorations today?”
“No. I guess not. I figured Chessie was doing all that for me.”
“After a fashion. Your PA coordinates with other machines to get things done for you. But that’s always a negotiation process. There’s no guarantee that Chessie will always get you what you want.”
Renee poked a finger toward the ground a few times. “Wait a minute.” She pointed at Sigma. “That catapult. I don’t know what triggered it. I figured I hit a button or something. Did I?”
“This is another thing I could guess about your personality. And you keep demonstrating it. You’re pretty good at making the connections. At seeing deeper.”
“You did it. Didn’t you?”
“Yes. I triggered the catapult. I made sure it would impart just the right velocity to put you into orbit.”
“What? Why?” Sigma was laughing and not answering. “To punish me for going out?”
Sigma’s laugh died down. “The simple answer is: because it was funny.”
“What? What the fuck?”
Sigma shook his head. “Did you get hurt? Of course not. You spent three hours embodied in your mostly dead mech out there. I’m not sure why you chose to but that’s fine. Did it not occur to you in all that time that this was at least a little ironic or funny?”
“No. It didn’t.” Sigma was laughing again. Renee felt very confused. What was she supposed to think or say? Sigma suddenly seemed more alien again.
“Look. I didn’t plan on it. You had already mostly ruined your mech staying in the garage so long. I knew I would have to replace it. It’s not worth repairing once it gets that much exposure damage. But then you managed to bounce around all that machinery up there and fall onto the catapult in just the right place. I saw just how improbable that emerging moment was. I had plenty of time to think about it and decided just to have a little fun with this improbability. Up up and away.” He made a flying-off motion with his hands and laughed.
Renee chuckled and nodded. “Okay old man. I get it. I wasn’t really in danger. But you know. I thought you’d be mad. I wasn’t in any hurry to face you like this. Last thing I thought you’d do is laugh it off.”
“There are plenty of things in this world for me to worry about. To be angry about. Sad about. I don’t need to add you to any of those lists. Life’s too short to worry about everything.” He paused and laughed softly. “I guess that’s no longer true technically. You are immortal like me now. And like most humans. It’s funny that that expression is still popular.”
“So you’re not angry at me?”
“No, dear. Not at all. You’re safe. You didn’t exactly do what was recommended. I’m hoping you learned some lessons from this experience. But I’m not angry. Mostly amused.”
“What lessons? Like do what I’m told?”
“Hmm. Sometimes but not always. I would express it more as: take what people advise seriously even if you aren’t going to follow their advice. You’re new to this world. There’s a lot you don’t know. You learn quickly. Keep doing that.
“Another lesson I hope you’ve learned is that the world is dangerous. And rarely in your control.” Renee nodded. “Another is that you are rarely alone. Always assume that you are being watched. If you are going to snoop, learn to do it under the noses of those who are watching. Be a more subtle subversive than that. Shroud your subversion in innocence.”
Renee laughed. “Yeah. Ha.”
“I love that you really took to heart your desire to get used to your mech. I’m impressed at how quickly you adapted your skills as a runner to a nearly zero G environment. You should consider taking up footracing again when you get out there among other humans. I think you’ll enjoy its more modern forms. In any case you will certainly benefit from getting as much experience as you can with your mech’s capabilities and limits. And getting around in different environments.”
“Man. It was really a blast. And yet it really did eventually feel like just another form of running. I’ll keep practicing it.”
“Absolutely. Maybe try not to take out the fusion reactor in the process. Assuming anyone survives that, I’m not so sure I’d be happy.”
“Shit. You saw that. Right. You see everything. Don’t you? Yeah.”
Sigma chuckled. “Keep that curiosity of yours burning. Be a little more careful. But that’s a valuable part of you. Don’t give up on it.”
“You’re serious. Aren’t you? Why? Is there something you’re wanting me to do for you? I keep thinking you want something and you’re not telling me.”
Sigma stroked his beard and regarded Renee. “Let’s talk more about that tomorrow. How does that sound?”
Renee sighed. “Yeah. I guess I’m tired. I’ve been going nonstop all day. Tomorrow it is then.”
“Have a good night Renee.”
“Yeah. You too.”
It’s time to show the reader that Renee is curious to the point of being nosey. And that Sigma will let her do things that are dangerous to herself to encourage her curiosity. That’s a key attribute of Renee’s that he wishes to inculcate.
I’ll admit that I also thought it was important to introduce an element of action and danger to keep my readers on their toes. The world is dangerous. And yet an undertone is woven throughout this section that so much of the world is illusion. Renee struggles to keep the layers of illusion straight.
I also wanted Renee to start meeting the other people of Archeion. That’s partly so she would learn about the ...