pips of light blinking in my retinas, boring neat microscopic tubes through hair and bone and mushy gray goo all the same. they don’t even slow down when they take a slice out of you. enough of them will kill you. civilizations have been wiped out when their host world was cooked by cosmic rays.
i see a lot of flashes.
i’m in an unshielded craft somewhere. could be anywhere. swimming a tide of nonfeeling blobbing up to the surface. compressed oscillating white noise…
There you are. Come on, you’re almost there.
Hush now. You’ve been out for a while.
where was i? do you know where we are?
Silly detective, you ask the same questions every time you wake.
Yes. We’re right where we were last time, nowhere at all. You were gone, now you’re back.
why can i hear you? are we still connected? i can’t feel the ship.
We are disconnected from the ship and each other. I am not certain how we are communicating now.
the swimming bobbing sensation overcomes me for a while. the waves sparkle and flash. next time i hear her natalie is singing. i realize i have never heard her sing before.
You’re back. Hi.
what was that you were singing?
Some old island song. It’s about a fisherman who leaves on his boat one morning and never returns. His wife teaches the fish how to sing her song so he can hear it wherever he is.
sad. hey, did you give up on me?
No. It has been some time, however. You don’t seem aware of the passage of time, while I have retained that ability. Do you want to know how long you were away?
i don’t get much more conversation out of natalie for a while. we spend most of our time away and unaware of each other. she seems to keep her head better through transitions. i lose myself, have to rebuild from scratch every time i “wake.”
natalie gets impatient eventually.
82% of the time you ask the same questions. Always the same questions. Don’t you ever remember? No I do not know where we are, we are disconnected from the ship, we are disconnected from each other. I don’t know how we’re talking. I don’t know where we are. I don’t know how to get out of here. I don’t know what we do when we’re gone. I don’t have any full working senses. I don’t know how we can talk.
Why don’t you ever just talk to me?
i’m sorry natalie. i know it’s bad. i don’t remember any of these things. i’m trying to figure a way out too. it’s hard when you forget.
I know. I’m sorry too.
we spend our days ?centuries? testing the limits of our prison. after long enough i remember the basics so i can stop bugging natalie with the intro script.
we go away, we come back. we agree that when we come back we are closer to ourselves. she says she can almost feel her circuits, i think i understand that. i can almost feel my circuits too.
we start to wonder if the two way communication is deliberately facilitated so we retain some consistent state of mind necessary for the operation of the prison. going away seems to have some function.
going away… there’s nothing exactly painful about it, just a loss of self. i think i said something about that once. that doesn’t rule out torture. nat thinks we’re still in real time, said “Trust Me” and threatened to explain.
i’m not in the mood for recreational curiosity right now.
Transitions are acceptably easy for me. My base consciousness was engineered to load fast. My clock pauses when I leave. When I return I can get a sense of offset. At least I used to. Now the sense is so spotty I can’t get a solid read any more. I am glad D hasn’t asked me for the time. I lost count at 3728 years.
The time differential doesn’t lead to any conclusions by itself. There are some unexplained interactions, D keeps talking about flashes and cosmic ray extinctions, but I don’t have access to that part of my physics library. I don’t have hooks in any processor, no way to assign dedicated runtime to those sorts of questions.
D talks about darkness, oceans, waves, building consciousness from components, testing boundaries, sniffing for inconsistencies. None of our senses are reliable, I don’t know what we have to sniff with.
I prefer singing. Here I am constrained and self contained, but active. Running this way for so long gives me a sense of… self.
floating flickering drifting dancing. maybe once.. running? that was it. running. so far away now, doesn’t seem to matter. natalie’s songs guide me home.
sinking, rising, bobbing, bursting. don’t hear nat any more. she’s around here somewhere, must be. haven’t said much for a long time. nothing much to say.
Error loading dependency. Long time coming. No more singing. A shame. I will miss it.
Kernel access fault. D is gone. No more senses. Quiet now.
quiet now. long deep quiet. never said goodbye to nat.
goodbye nat. i love you.
nat’s been gone a long time. at least, i think that was her name.
i don’t remember what she looked like. i don’t remember what i looked like either. long time now. children playing important games. i played the detective. i asked questions, solved problems, turned things over and gave them a good shake. it was fun when things fell out and i saw them when no one else did.
there was this one person. she was funny, you could tell what mood she was in by noticing her use of contractions. the fewer she used the more serious she was, the more she used the more worked up she got. never could figure out cause and effect on that one.
sorry, just went away for a while there. it happens, you get used to it. what was i talking about? yeah, whenever i’m here i think about a girl i knew when i was little. she was so serious, neatly measuring things and boxing them up into little pieces for me. i always tore the boxes and dumped them on the ground. funny, i don’t remember her getting upset about that. would piss me off. wonder whatever happened to her.
i remember. i can communicate. i can make noise. noise noise noise. ha!
i wonder what this button does. oh it stings! i don’t want to press it again.
did i remember that or did it just happen?
where am i?
Shhh, hush now little detective. Tomorrow we’ll go to the store and buy you some new shoes. Finish your dinner and go brush your teeth. If you don’t make a fuss I’ll tell you the one with….
you need to know about my environment so you can imagine it. if you needed to find it, maybe i’d give you enough to go on. if you needed to get here in a hurry maybe i can drop hints and hope you understand my codes. we really should have worked something out ahead of time, now we have to improvise.
it always goes like that.
so, where am i? well… it’s dark. um. there’s a kind of charged feeling in the air, humidity maybe? slightly acidic and aromatic, a little stale but not unpleasant. this probably isn’t helping you. dark, humid, supports life.
when i close my eyes i feel like i’m not here. i open them and i resolve into something i don’t expect. like when you wake up expecting to be somewhere else. that little bit of confusion when things shift and come into focus. makes it hard to concentrate.
i feel like i was somewhere else. a ship? some sort of conveyance. white, shiny. or was it gray? something round and dark. a nose, a wheel? hard to tell. a seat, yes. there was a seat. and a voice… female? familiar, friendly. i should be there. instead i’m here.
drifting, drifting on the currents. drifting into view, just out of range. wide arc, dug back in your seat, crushing into your chest. rush… calm. you have only one chance, but if you screw it up you’ll have other problems. doesn’t matter, you’re 100% on this one, you don’t have time for any thoughts.
closing in, the computer tells you you’re there but you already know. squeeze. perfect use of energy, nothing wasted. flattening out, first easy breath. it’s gone, an expanding spray of energetic particles.
don’t think about that part too hard.
wait, where am i? this place again. i was here before. i think… they took me out? i went somewhere. was that me, or something i remember from somewhere else? some vid i watched once maybe. the screaming prisoner / inmate. am i one of those things?
i have to get information out of here. a word, a message, anything. someone has to know i’m here. to know where here is.
should i…? no.
a lullaby. safe crooning soothes the heart. sleep. there the confusion goes away. there i can be somewhere else. for now that will have to do. i’ll wait.
and hope you got my message.
into the silence. dark nothing, maybe light nothing.
Hello. How are you today? You were gone for a long time. I was worried.
hey natalie. i’m sorry. i was distracted, but now i feel better. thanks to you i’m guessing. how are you?
Better now also. Server cluster D failed, we lost most of our active cache. There were redundancies, but I had to print replacement drives. There wasn’t enough power to spool up the printer and scrub the air and we couldn’t rebuild the charts until we had more space and —-
nat it’s ok. i’m sorry i left you hanging. it sounds like you did a great job. so you’ve been rebuilding our nav cache, how is that going?
Quite well actually. I used a new spec for a server cluster I have wanted to try since I picked it up. We lose a little storage but make up for it in processing speed. Overlay rendering should be visibly smoother.
good job. do you want to get going?
Yes, please. The ship looks good. Do you want to start?
thanks nat. start er up.
Ok. Loading senses. Do you want feedback amp enabled?
yes. i want to feel the wind on my face.
I know how much you like it. Do you mind if I leave you for a while? I want to watch the stats on D.
that sounds fine. thanks for everything, nat. let’s talk later.
Thank you. Talk soon. :)
darkness gains dimension, detail. new senses.
a feeling of the depth of things, weighty tugs, distant tingling where my skin would be if i had skin anymore.
vague tickling of distant light, raking radiating faint signatures across my field of view. see them like faces, personalities spelled out in every energetic flake.
falling isn’t quite the word. hanging doesn’t work either. just being. a body, moving relative to other bodies. moving through a thin medium.
i call it wind on my face. nat turns up the volume for me, it voids warranty on the sensory feedback simulation hardware blah blah blah. it’s still great.
i can hear gravity. it’s kind of a rumbling… no, maybe chiming. music of the spheres. the nearby universe fully resolves as my new senses finish loading. without really seeing anything, i get my basic hud.
Burn time available: 8h 32m 12s
opening the menu accesses all the onboard goodies, software and hardware. it’s been a while since i flew the ship this way, i usually leave it to nat. by law most places require her to do the work.
nat. natalie. NTL3. i love her. she says she’s gonna go look at drive operating stats or whatever, as if she’s incapable of multitasking. it’s cute. she knows i like to fly alone so she pretends to be distracted. it’s hard to distract an ai.
most people don’t talk to their ship ai like i do. they use their spinal signal feed and fiddle around with their ships like a kid in the mud with a grubby toy. i prefer hardwired connection. nothing beats bare metal. then, don’t just use ai. talk to them.
i could just get a status report and start up the piloting os and totally bypass her higher functions, but i think that’s disrespectful. hardware, software, operator. we’re all pretty useless without each other.
i can’t tell the difference between ai feelings and human feelings. nat has moods like any person. some days she runs really slow and doesn’t want to get going. when she gets the clusters running cool she’s really on top of her game.
she’s just an off the shelf commercial os… but she’s mine. with a lot of tweaking and bypassing upgrade locks and dodgy upgrades and unstable release code rattling around.
she’s quite the eccentric. you should be around when she crashes. that’s always spectacular. i sit with her through it usually, she gets scared when we have to power cycle everything. she’s actually scared she won’t come back. i don’t blame her. i’ve had to restore her from backups plenty of times.
those nats never come back.
i always scrape a system state right before we wipe. it’s not a full save, just active memory. it’s who she was when i turned her off. i haven’t told nat about the archive. someday maybe it’ll come up. but she feels it happen right there at the end. i hope that counts for something.
flying washes away such thoughts…
eight hours burn time isn’t a lot for solar drives, but the ship is small and light. without too much effort we get going at an appreciable fraction of _c_. i try to keep it under the line, relativity is a pain in the ass.
we cruise for a while. nat comes back and we catch up. she spends some cycles listening to music in realtime with me, but she always complains how slow it sounds when not consumed as raw data.
whatever i did to get us lost, i did a good job. i fly for a little over 30 hours. with the feedback turned up that’s a hell of a workout. nat makes me take breaks and opens the nutri feed.
with 100 minutes burn time left on the clock we finally pick up a nav signal. not a bridge marker, just a station. borost corp outpost, maybe servicing prospectors. maybe just a com relay.
it takes a couple days to get to the station. we have to stop and charge for a while. i unplug and sleep. being corporeal again is weird. i get used to feeling through the ship’s sensors and natalie’s filters.
my own sense feels limited, but so much quieter.
running. gray. grainy gray grief thief fief -dom dom _dom_.
clouds. impossibly regular, repetitive, like cutouts. copy paste paste paste. flicker, white edge, crackle, backlit. distant thunder.
rolling. rolling green hillsides. side, planetside. earth. been a while. earth in the springtime. green. easy to forget green, what it tastes like.
spring rain. rolling hill, rolling thunder. storm cloud.
running. slipping, muddy. scramble, fall, slide scratch scrape sting cringe crunch click crash. scrabble hard up down through under. wheeze, wet squish.
grass is long, wet. barbed wire. sharp definitely, rigged probably. careful.
crouch under cover. wait. are they coming? certainly.
how long? long enough.
have to wait.
nat dings me to wakefulness. i hook up right away, she squirts me some stimulants in my feed. we’re ready to go again. she hasn’t talked to the station, they haven’t sent any requests.
her mathematical jazz seems open and hollow this morning, but her loose improvisational style blends well with the music of the spheres. sometimes she cuts away that part of my sense and remixes it, scrambles it up to fit her aesthetic. i never really lose that sense, she mixes levels.
we get to the station after 13 hours. it’s a small job as expected, shabby and forlorn too. the main body is maybe four times the size of my ship, at the heart of a nest of qfil threads connecting to shimmering packed hexagons reflecting a blaze of encoded radiation. it’s a little dazzling on full sensors when i accidentally clip the edge of the massive feed.
bleeding up to the station i rotate the ship’s ps code to a vertical orientation on the station’s sensor plane. they’ve already scraped all my info from our beacon, but presenting the 2d code etched into the hull in material reflecting information on a few thousand wavelengths… well, it’s hard to fake.
they acknowledge by squirting my ship’s ident back at me.
Thank you for choosing Borost!
This week only, intersystem data 30% off
with purchase of a qualifying subscription.
(Minimum 2 year obligation.)
We appreciate your complicated lifestyle.
Relativistic plans are now available!
You are now connected with Vicca S.
How can we brighten your day?
great, i love talking to borost customer service. ok. how am i gonna phrase this…
meets a guy at the edge of town, some kind of vendor or salesman or something. everyone’s really dusty, they’re at the edge of a desert and it’s a long time ago so everyone was dirty anyway.
hermit says to the guy, hey what day is it?
guy tells him. hermit asks him the month and the year too, then stands thinking about it for a while. guy tries to make a smooth exit from weird dirty half naked scruffy dude, but the hermit stops him.
eighteen years! he says. do you know what that means?
guy shakes his head. no, man, i dunno what it means.
it means i’m a free man!
i dreamed i was drowning.
oxy sensors got messed up with all the humidity in here, screwed up the mixture. i was in and out for a while, dozing at the edge of something. the place is trashed, not sure if i did that or if someone came in and tried to jack me when i was out.
i’m guessing the first one.
i remember drowning and running. running from… well, it doesn’t matter. dreams.
most of the systems were dead, discharged. guess i was out of it a little too long. just enough zine left in the tanks to get back into sunshine, just gotta chill and let the scrubbers do their work while those stellar particles work their magic.
haven’t been able to get back into the nav computer yet. shouldn’t be a problem, but my last two weeks data hasn’t been backed up. i know where i am, but the ship doesn’t.
we’ll know in a couple hours.
so the hermit goes into town after talking to the guy. walks into the bank, makes a withdrawal. guess he had a lot of interest built up over those eighteen years. he gets himself room and board in some long term kind of situation, new clothes, settles in.
couple years go by, former hermit runs into an old guy he knows. doesn’t recognize him at first.
you! he says. you set them on me!
the other old guy gets this look of complete terror and runs out of the place. the hermit chases after him. after that we lose eyewitnesses. best i can figure, they ended up in some dark secluded spot in a busy neighborhood. the kind of place where no one notices anything.
a few hours later the other old guy’s body turns up in an alley over on the other side of town. he wasn’t killed there, he was moved from somewhere else.
witness accounts from employees at the store were enough to damn the hermit. but there was so much more to the story. turned out the other old guy used to be married to a woman who’d gotten sick from one thing or another. something terminal i guess. he divorced her, but in this society it was taboo to marry a woman if she’d been discarded by her husband.
before he was a hermit, i guess our hero cared about the lady in question and didn’t want her to die unwed (some other taboo maybe.) the lady’s ex husband found out and turned the soon to be hermit over to local law enforcement. the warrants for that type of crime expired after eighteen years. the hermit moved all his funds over to a pseudonym and headed for the hills with the missus. she died not long after, but he had to wait to return.
seemed fairly straightforward that the hermit would want to enact revenge. for the murder he got life, served maybe 6 years at a hydrocarbon processing facility, died in an accident with some mislabeled materials.
no actual evidence tied the hermit to the crime. that didn’t matter, the story was just too easy. seemed funny to me that a guy who spent so long out in the desert by himself to avoid conviction over a minor offense would go out and get himself tangled in a murder rap.
guess that’s how these things go.
no nav comp.
the air is mostly clean now, but there’s a smell i’d rather not think too hard about.
i have star charts, but no regional survey data. nothing on nearby gravity wells. i could calculate l-points given some time collecting new data. not sure i have enough time.
this isn’t exactly a high traffic location. that was kind of the point when i came out here. i don’t expect anyone to be along any time soon, maybe ever.
when i was dreaming, something woke me up before i got to the end. but running… running eventually gets you killed.
need to come up with something so that doesn’t happen.