PS - Sorry for the long gaps in between posts. I know I tend to go quiet for a bit.
“Ms.West--no, Ana, ” my supervisor stared me down the eyes with a grave look. “I can’t within good conscience approve something like this for you. It’s too dangerous. Haven’t you considered the risks?”
“Sir, with all due respect I am strongly suggesting that you reconsider your stance on this.” I couldn’t lose my opportunity now. Not miss out on something this big. “What this means as my contributions to being a Frontiersman and for Interstellar is something I can’t pass up on.”
He stared back at me with an unwavering face, hardly different from how it looked a few moments earlier.
“How many Frontiersmen are there now? Nearly a million? I was born too late to explore Earth, too late to explore the solar system, and born too late to explore the galaxy! The entire galaxy has been if not literally then virtually explored, and we have confirmed zero traces of life. Suitable planets for colonization have already been plucked by China, America, Russia, Japan, Korea, Britain and more! But for the first time, we can finally step out the front door and explore an even greater horizon!”
“Ana…” he didn’t care to try using formalities this time, years of chemistry making it difficult. “I can understand your enthusiasm, but you’re an important engineer to your current shipment crew already. Why can’t you be content with already being able to visit a handful of solar systems? Billions would kill for that alone!”
“Sir I can’t be moving metals, water and food for the rest of my life. I’m more than qualified to move on to something bigger and better. I’m sure there are plenty of people who could fill my current position. We’re talking about making history here! Something a mere fraction of the entire human population will be able to experience within this lifetime.”
I could see his handful of digital pens laying idle against the insides of his decorative mug, much less his hand actually going near it. The holo-document on his desk shone its blue light ever so slightly on his prickly chin.
“Three-hundred, Ana. Three-hundred Frontiersmen get to make this expedition which is nothing short of suicide. All this is is just packing a bunch of explorers up on a ship and jump-gating them into the unknown. You’d really want to take that plunge into darkness? It’s a lottery to win your own death!”
He wasn’t the first to tell me it was suicide, but deep down I knew even with that risk in mind this was something I had to do. If I didn’t take the leap now, my chance at excitement and escape from a mundane life would be over. I could see he was trying to get through to me, but that wouldn’t change how I feel.
“Ana, the teams that they’ve had calculate the risk factors for this sort of mission,” he swiped his fingers in an empty space and a tiny blue holo-document appeared. “Nearly across the board results are inconclusive or completely open-ended. The only return they can guarantee for this crew is one based on the efforts of the people riding that ship! There’s no rescue crew and limited contact. Once you leave the galaxy you’re on your own.”
“I’m 29 sir. I’ve been with Interstellar since the day I turned eighteen. You know it and I know it that there’s nothing left for me. The connections I have keeping me here are the relations with my crew and you. My actions can’t be selfish when there’s no one I would be leaving behind here. It’s always been about me bettering myself, and this time is no different.” I almost hated my own words a bit there, disregarding my crew I’d spent years with already and my longstanding supervisor. But they were just coworkers. Nothing else.
“Even if I’m not chosen, I still want to toss my name in the hat. I think my chances are good at least, and I would hope you think the same. Paired with a recommendation from someone of your standing, that only helps all the more. But either way, I can’t keep making the same trips for the rest of my life.” My final efforts fired beams of hope from my eyes and into his, and I had to hide a smile when I could see the walls were starting to crack.
“What this means to you, and how willing you are to go for it is something I can’t understand.” he said briefly. “Off the record Ana I can’t condone this and truly wish you wouldn’t sign away your life like this, but legally I can’t refuse you. Not forever at least.”
My eyes followed his reluctant hand as he grabbed one of the pens and its tip illuminated on contact with human skin.
“And you’re sure this is what you want?”
“More than anything.”
With a sigh he opened a drawer and put on a pair of lenses. Glasses I think they were called. After scanning it over and with a soundless uninterrupted stroke he signed his name off on the holo-document and floated it in my direction.
“Thank you, sir.” The tension in the room was washed away by my newfound gratitude for his aid.
“Make no mistake, I don’t support what you’re doing. Or at least I just can’t figure out why. And...would you mind not staring so much?”
“Oh! Ah...sorry about that.” My eyes tend to get careless whenever he wears those things. They were one of few relics of the past that made their way to present day somehow. “Haven’t you considered getting a nanite job on your eyes at some point? Aren’t those things an inconvenience?”
“There’s a style to them, you know.” He always took the defensive whenever I commented on them… “Besides, everyone tries to hide their problems nowadays and use nanites to fix whatever they don’t like about themselves. Our imperfections are what make us beautiful.”
Out of respect I hid another smirk as his words were completely lost on me. But I chose not to poke and prod him any further.
“By the way, you’ll have another delivery to make in a week’s time. Use that time to think about whether or not you really want to go through with something like this. Maybe consider your alternatives while you’re on ice.”
“Alright and will do.” I pinched the document and ported it into my armlet’s data storage, causing the hologram to dematerialize. I gave my supervisor a goodbye as I walked to the door and it slid open for me and closing on my exit.
People stood shoulder to shoulder and then some as the city echoed with noise pollution. I couldn’t make out a single conversation as everyone’s words toppled over each other. The glass dome above me was covered by the flying ships and skyscrapers. It was almost laughable to think our ancestors only had at most a thousand of these in their lifetime.
The telltale beeping noise rung alongside the monorail as the suspended train soon followed after. As prophecy dictated, crowds of passengers trying to exit collided with the ones trying to enter and I managed to snake my way in. Everyone grabbed on to a bar or handle as their conversations carried out casually just like outside the train. I could feel myself longing for a seat to sit in, as only the public trains outside Interstellar’s property accommodated travellers. Rather, everyone around me was donned in the same gray skin-tight work-suit with identical with the company’s logo printed on the back. Not the prettiest of course, but the suit had its utility and no one was exactly competing for fashion. Living on a worksite that’s the size of a small city meant you weren’t going to see much differentiation in clothing. Not that I cared.
I browsed the news feed on my armlet, never really expecting to see anything new. It was all the same. Either reported murder, corruption, typical overpopulation counts or view-bait articles that couldn’t even get the dumbest of people to open it up. They couldn’t even be trying at this point. Surviving Tree Spotted outside Government Domain? Honestly. The last plantlife organism that was spotted was over thirty years ago and it was only a weed. Everyone knows that the only trees the public can see now are the ones in the holograms. Everything on this washed up planet besides humans and livestock has either died off or made itself scarce. Reminds me when China shipped off the last of its pandas where they might actually have a chance at living.
Whether it was day or night didn’t really make a difference. Clouds had long since been the only thing we could see for a while now. I heard it was after the third industrial boom our ancestors really pushed things over the edge. Not like they could have fixed things by then anyways. Neon lights invaded your eyesight wherever you looked and something was always trying to catch your attention. Despite being a business-owned territory even Interstellar wasn’t shy to let advertisers through its doors. While its population were mostly Interstellar employees plenty of residents were still making their living off of our paychecks. Despite moving at high speeds, I counted the fifth Coca-Cola ad like I always had on my occasional trip back to housing.
A few more stops later and we had finally reached mine.
In a female voice borderline robot and human, it sounded, “You have now reached Eden, please exit the doors on your left. Thank you.”
Eden. The name felt so cheap and tacky. It was probably the farthest thing from it, despite being such an appropriate name. Right off the monorail I could already make out a few poster bots, clad in the skimpiest clothing their manufacturers could have put on them. Other than their almost metallic looking skin, they had been made to capture the ideal fantasy of anyone attracted to the female body. It almost felt weird to see something synthetic with bigger breasts than mine.
“Just get off of work? Why don’t you spend some time with me, hm?” One of the bots made a seductive coo towards some guy passing by. Sure enough he gave her a look which was enough for her to grab him by the arm and lead him back to her den. Artificial or not, excluding the vast minority that actually lived here most were definitely coming for pleasure.
“Hey sweet thing, how about you?” I could feel the delicate brush of a finger on my shoulder. I turned back to see another female bot staring back at me. Her hair was a neon pink bob cut with bright blue lips, lashes as long as my nails and piercing eyes. She was built to know nothing of the concept of fatigue, flawless in every way with only one directive on her mind. Sex.
“Not my type.” I coldly replied. I always tried to avoid these interactions, otherwise I’d have five more blocks of this to go through on my way home.
“Don’t be like that hon. I can show you a good time…Just for you I can give a discount.” She tried to caress my hand, which I firmly pulled away. Of course this didn’t bother her though, as she drew me in closer. “Male or female, I can always accommodate my customer’s desires you know....No matter the request.” she took it upon herself to lean closer to my ear.
Her playful motion to the crotch reminded me why I hated these things so much. The only thing that mattered was getting business and shame meant nothing to them. Hell, they probably didn’t have the capacity to learn it. True intimacy was a dying breed now that these things existed. Why invest time into a longstanding relationship when there’s a quick fix waiting nearby? I kept walking and didn’t look back.
“Bye-bye!” She called from behind as her voice trailed off. My guess was she already found someone else to try and latch on to. I was just another moneymaker for her, without a face or name. Just like what I was to everyone else in the world.
I did better to avoid the catcallers from then on as I passed the familiar bars and sex shops into an empty, slim winding alleyway. I opened the door next to the one with an actual working light.
“To think after being gone for this long they couldn’t have even fixed a damn light…”
My lobby was a small square space with only a self-service kiosk built in the wall and a set of stairs. Security had always been lowkey here and that didn’t seem to change in my absence. On the fifth floor and in front of room 537 I opened a wide eye for the retina scanner.
“Identity: Ana West. Access granted.”
The door slid open and I walked inside, the same lights turning on upon my arrival like they always had. From the entrance alone I could see everything that mattered. My kitchen, bathroom, closet and virtual space. Serving as my bed and entertainment, the virtual space was thankfully a perk for being a Frontiersman. A luxury anyone with money could enjoy only that I got it for free.
“Good evening, Ana! It’s good to have you back!” A blue dot came to life on the panel attached to the wall.
“Hi Eva, good to see you too.” My house AI. Granted I’d only been here a handful of maybe twenty times or so in the span of about six years.
“It’s been, SIX MONTHS, since you last came home! It is currently MAY 28, 2212. Should I update you on any past news or messages you might have?”
My ears always cringe whenever Eva uses numbers in her dialogue. Past the preprogrammed phrases, the sudden shift in tone whenever she tried to pronounce numbers was jarring. I always told myself to upgrade her voice model but I knew I’d never be around here often enough to use it.
“That won’t be necessary. Just get the shower running for me please.”
“Right away.” Upon her reply like clockwork I heard the shower spring to life.
I had already started to unzip my suit. After being back on Earth for a few hours I was already starting to feel clammy. It was weird to think I felt more comfortable on a ship than a planet, or at least this one. Thankfully the suit was fullbody, so the feet were built like shoes too, meaning it was one less thing to take off. Dropping the suit to the floor and my undergarments next I stepped into the bathroom. I could hear the compartment near the floor open up and the vacuum suck up my clothes.
“Thanks, Eva.” Regardless of being a robot, common courtesy was something I tried to apply everywhere. As long as they weren’t trying to seduce me…
While I showered, Eva started to play ambient music in the background, which I didn’t object to. Having something to listen to in the background was always nice, as the silence always felt the noisiest.
The music died down for a second, meaning Eva probably had something to say.
“Should I prepare something for you to eat Ana?”
“I’m fine. Just hook me up to the nutrition feed when I go on ice.”
“Do you mean cryostasis?”
“Yes, I do.”
Eva didn’t respond when I could hear the music turn back to its normal volume. When I stepped out the water turned off for me and two towels were already waiting. Wrapping myself I looked into the fogless mirror and stared at my long black hair. Only then did I notice I never took my armlet off when in the shower, but it didn’t really bother me as much as a blunder more than an observation. These things were built to handle just about any harsh weather condition you could put them through. Nearly everyone’s lifeline in the galaxy, it was your ID, wallet, phone, computer and served just about any other use you’d have for it. To be honest, I can’t even remember the last time I took it off.
“Eva, send my GATE request form to Interstellar admissions for me. It’s on my armlet.”
There was a moment’s pause before she replied, “Done.”
“Thank you.” I finished drying off and could see the pair of underwear waiting for me. Apart from what I wore underneath, my work-suit was the only set of clothing I had. Yes there were a few pairs, but they were all identical.
The virtual space was already prepped for me when I stepped out of the bathroom. I laid down into the imprint left in the plastic cushions, to the point where my body felt like a plug being inserted into a socket, only I felt only snug and not rigid. The top closed over me as a mask gently pressed against my face.
“And when would you like to be scheduled for awakening?” Eva’s voice came from inside the machine.
“A week from now.” I barely flinched little when I felt the iv insert itself into my arm. The virtual space started to hum ever to slightly, as I could feel a familiar chill growing on me. Each breath became slower and felt longer than the last. Pressed against my eyes was a monitor that I couldn’t tell was just a screen had I known. Already immersed I watched the loading circle dance across the screen until I couldn’t feel my hands and feet anymore. Quickly the sensation traveled up my spine, until even my face felt like it was fading away. Everything went dark.
“Ana? It’s time to wake up now.”
My eyes opened, as I was laying down with my cheek pressed into the arm of a couch. I wasn’t tired, no. You never felt tired when you first entered the system.
“Did you sleep well? It’s been a while, you know.”
“I haven’t been gone for that long you know,” I sat upright on the couch, swinging my feet from off the ground. My hair was still proportionate to my new size.
“While six months might be seamless for me, I don’t think the same can be said for you.”
I was silent while he sat in a chair from across the room.
“But, I know you never come here unless you have a reason,” he pulled out a pair of those glasses things from his suit pocket. It must have been from my subconscious seeing my supervisor wearing them so much... “So I take it you want to talk?”
“Kind of.” I looked him over to see if he’d changed his appearance at all. Sure enough though he hadn’t changed the simulation much since I was last here. Still in his suit, with brown smooth-looking hair and a leg propped up on the other. “I submitted my application for the GATE expedition.” I wasn’t looking for any praise, or anything for that matter. I just felt like telling him. That’s what these therapy simulations were for anyways.
“That’s right. I do recall us talking about that last time. You’re happy, aren’t you? That you have a chance at going?”
“Mhm, definitely. But that’s just the first foot in the door. No guarantees I’ll be accepted. I don’t suppose you might have any advice for me, would you Claude?”
“I would tell you to stay neutral for now. Don’t have any expectations for better or worse, but cherish what you have now as well.”
“Neutral as always…” I blew on a hair dangling from my head. Although I suppose it was nice to have someone or something to bounce my thoughts and feelings off of, Claude was more of a filing cabinet that helped me organize myself more than anything. He’d never sway me left or right.
“You’re your own person Ana. Take control of that.”
A cup of something materialized on the coffee table in front of me.
“Tea?” I asked, bringing the mug into my smaller-than-usual hands.
“Your favorite.” Claude didn’t bother to pretend with me by drinking his own.
I took a sip and relished the drink at perfect temperature.This simulation was Claude’s sandbox and by extension mine. Even though it was all fake, the virtual space could immerse you on a whole other level, to the point even though I was unconscious everything felt just as real.
“So how long are you in cryostasis for?”
“A week.” I took another sip.
“And how long do you think you want to be here for? A day, a week? Month?” His voice never came off as demeaning or rude, simply monotone with the ever-slightest tinge of interest. And that was another perk being inside of your own mind.
Days in real-time could be compressed into hours, minutes or even seconds. Some of the newer models could even slow a second in the real world to a complete year in this one, where you could live multiple lifetimes over in the span of 24 hours. It was hard to comprehend doing something like that, how out of place you could feel. I always kept the timespace in here one to one though. I never wanted to feel like I was losing or cheating time.
“I’m not sure how long I want to be here for. But I want time to pass like normal.”
The bright sun flooded the white carpeted room from the large windows. Just beyond I could see other buildings, before there was a glass dome and so much building pollution. This couldn’t have been a recent setting. The 22nd century maybe? No. The 21st?
“Is it too bright for you?” Claude could see my right eye wince a little from the light.
“No, it’s fine. I like it this way.” Feeling the warm glow on my side was pleasing.
Everything in the room was white in some way. The walls, the floor, ceiling, and even the furniture. Accented by silver, everything looked untouched of the outside world. So pure. I looked at my own dress which ran down to my tiny calves. However the only contrast in the room was my black hair and Claude’s suit. I couldn’t remember if it was the same color as last time.
“How come you decided to wear a black suit this time?” I quizzically asked, digging my feet into the plump cushions.
“An interesting question,” He answered, standing up from his own seat. “Do you not like the color black? Maybe you don’t like how I look anymore?” Suddenly, a blue ripple started from the top of his head as the wave traveled from head to toe. Followed by the ripple Claude’s figure transformed into someone completely different, until he was an entirely different person altogether. Now his skin was tan with a completely different face, wearing some shirt checkered in dots and baggy shorts.
“Better?” he asked in his new, deeper voice.
My frown did the talking for me.
“How about a form a bit more female?” he said, quickly becoming a her as his male figure shifted with another change into that of a female. With darker brown and flowing hair, she was now in a button-up tucked into an ankle-length skirt. “Do you like this?” She asked in a strikingly much more feminine voice now.
“Change back.” was all I said, growing impatient. Claude changing into so many things was never amusing. It was just a reminder of how temporary this all was, and it felt as if I was talking to a new person.
Soon Claude was back to normal, with the same face, gender, height and hair as before. “Have it your way,” he blankly spoke while he returned to his seat.
“You know, you’re so good at changing your own appearance and our surroundings. Why can’t you change how I look?” It was that time to address the elephant in the room again.
“We’ve talked about this before. Only you can control how you look in these simulations. However you choose to appear is entirely up to you. You need only change it.”
The same explanation was always annoying. His words on loop never changed. Ever since I started going into these therapy simulations, I haven’t once gone into them looking like how I do in the real world.
“How old am I this time, then?” I felt tiny just like every other time, only it was a decent medium right now. It wasn’t the youngest I’d ever been in here, but certainly not the oldest either.
“If you’d like here’s a mirror to see for yourself.” I held a hand opened and a small mirror fell into its place. “But when I reference your annual checkup records and full-body scans I would say your body is approximately 3,045 days old or about eight years old right now.”
Once again I couldn’t argue with this guess, seeing as he was a supercomputer after all. With a finger I poked at one of my soft rosy cheeks to confirm for myself. Being drastically regressed like this didn’t affect me so much anymore. Not after it’d happen so much. While I didn’t know how old my body would be I at least had some expectations now going into this. And it wasn’t ever an inconvenience since Claude could accommodate me in any way I needed, but it was puzzling nonetheless.
“This likely has to do with something in your past. Maybe family perhaps? My database references a few thousand pieces that might give some insight if you’d like.”
“Don’t even bother.” I sighed. I couldn’t remember anything of my childhood, only when I was a kid housed in one of Interstellar’s orphanages. The memories were probably somewhere in my mind, but neither Claude nor I had the money or power to access them. Memory retrieval technology did exist, but it was reserved for only government officials or society’s true elites, both of which I did not belong to.
“Regardless of those issues though, I want to remind you of the progress we’ve made already. It’s good for you to talk like this to someone.”
“Uh-huh.” I wasn’t even looking at Claude. The look on my face was an open book at this point, just as unconvinced as was my supervisor earlier this afternoon.
“About this GATE expedition,” Claude started to switch gears. “The probability of return is either unknown or close to zero. Do you still want to go knowing this?”
“I do. I can’t take doing the same job over and over without going anywhere.”
“And you’re willing to risk your life for that? To feel fulfilled?”
“I’m not happy now.” came out in a dejected voice. “I have no friends or family. It’s just me, you and Eva.” Not that the latter hardly counted. Claude was the one I talked to the most and even then he was just a digital being.
“And what about your supervisor and crew? Haven’t you been with them for a long time? You wouldn’t miss them if you left? They wouldn’t miss you?”
“Not enough. I think both ways beyond being on a first-name basis we’re just coworkers. Or they at least aren’t enough to make me stay.”
“Have you ever considered finding a significant other then? Maybe it’s romantic satisfaction you’re lacking?”
It irked me whenever we revisited topics like this. The answers would never change and the record would stay on loop. “There’s no one here I can be with and I’m sure your database can support that. Everyone at Interstellar has work on their minds. Me included. People my age now are either already settled with someone or find the sexbots more appealing.” My words may have felt like they were with malice and bitterness, but it became something I’d grown to accept. “To find love I’d probably have to leave Interstellar, and that’s something I’m not prepared to do.”
“So you’re at a potential impasse, it seems?”
“Guess I am.” I cupped my head in my hands, slouching in between my legs as they stood on the couch.
“But is your solution to fire off into space? Hoping to find a solution to the problem by moving farther from it?”
“I don’t know.” My brows furrowed toying with the question. Every once and awhile Claude could have me doing a double take or take some serious contemplation. “But I know that whatever I need isn’t on Earth. Maybe even the galaxy for that matter.”
“And if you don’t find anything? The success you were hoping for? The intimacy you want to pursue?”
“Then that’s it, then.” I could find a much better answer than that.
Likewise, it was another rare moment when I could keep even Claude quiet for a few moments.
“Would you like any more tea?” It was his sign of shelving the discussion.
“No. I think I’m ready to go back to sleep for a bit.”
“Should I put you into cryostasis again?”
“Not yet. I want to fall asleep on my own here first.”
A blanket and pillow dropped into my lap while Claude excused himself from the room. For all I knew he got rid of his physical body the moment he stepped behind the door, but I didn’t care enough to check. Right now I was more focused on getting comfy. It was almost strange in a way; falling asleep while asleep. I watched the canvas-white clouds stroll by the buildings while I drifted away for the second time, only at my own pace now.