The Gosple According to Earth – Chapter Fifteen

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Brian settled into the capsule and wiggled his shoulders against the padding, testing its give and seeking a comfortable position. With the top open the Shutdown capsule was almost as large as a double bed. It lacked the sheets, pillows and other bedding you might expect and the wires, nodes and conductive plates that ringed the outside rim of the capsule and peppered the lid gave it a distinctly different feel. It was a bit ominous but Brian had worked enough with them that he could get past it. Raising his arms over his head, he flipped onto his stomach and closed his eyes.

“Director, are you sure you’re the correct person for this task?” Baker asked. She began carefully cleaning off his back and attaching a number of additional sensors along his spine as she spoke. “We’re working in very unknown territory here. It’s downright exploratory, in fact, and we run a real risk of imposing ourselves on the martians in Shutdown.”

“Perhaps so, SubDirector,” he said, enjoying the soft sensation of her touch. “However Shutdown is the humane solution to martians and I have no doubt that there is a long tradition of exploratory and even colonial behavior among them, even within the Shutdown fugue state. A little trespass will practically be expected behavior. With the ability to shunt to a blank instance I should be able to avoid any significant conflict while I’m there so I don’t think I’ll be in any danger at all.”

“We all know martian behavior is very catching, Director,” Baker said in a disapproving tone. “That’s why they have to be kept this way in the first place.”

“Baker, I’m hurt!” He looked over his shoulder with a faux wounded expression. “I’m a member of the Directorate, certified to work on all things martian related. I can read their books, handle their artifacts and even talk directly to them while maintaining a sapiens point of view. Have a little faith.”

“I’m sorry, Director.” She was quiet for a moment as she carefully placed a couple of uplink nodes behind his ears, creating a direct link with his auditory nerves. She gently tapped him on the shoulder and he rolled over. As Baker attached yet another node to his throat, to pick up his vocalizations, she said, “I’m just concerned that you’re going to be unavailable to us now, at one of the most significant junctures in human history.”

Brian nodded his understanding. “It seems dire, I know, but these kinds of moments are more common than we think and the long course of human history tends in our favor. We have room to experiment a bit, Baker. We’re looking for the solution to our current problem and who knows that we won’t find it here?”

Her nose wrinkled up in disgust. “From martians?”

“Why not? Martians and sapiens must have evolved from a shared ancestor, after all, and it’s entirely possible that what Glenda Vesper was working on is just what we need to take the next step in our own progress to the next stage of human existence. At the very least it may let us create a new and clearer distinction between ourselves and the martians.”

Baker sighed. “You’re more of an optimist than me, Director.”

“You’ll learn to see the bright side of things if you work at it, Baker.” He deliberately flattened himself on the capsule’s bed and closed his eyes again. “Now, button it up and run those tests.”

She wordlessly pulled the capsule’s lid closed on top of him and sealed it shut with a soft thunk. For a moment light seeped in through his eyelids then the internal lighting went out. A soft touch at his hands and feet warned Brian that the capsule was flooding with the nanofluid that would preserve and sustain his body in Shutdown but by this point his internal medinano was already clustering in his brain and lulling it into a catatonic state.

Baker’s voice came to him like a dream you struggled to remember when you woke, echoing around his brain like a pebble falling down a stone staircase. “Can you hear me, Director?”

“Vaguely,” he said. “You’re not as clear as I would like.”

“That didn’t come through. Let me make a few adjustments.” There was a break, during which he presumed Baker was doing just that. He couldn’t tell how long he waited nor did he sense any changes but eventually Baker’s voice did return. “Try it again, Director.”

“Can you hear me?” Brian wasn’t sure it was possible to think slowly and deliberately but he did his best to do exactly that, hoping that the sensors by his vocal cords would pick up his intent better.

“That’s an improvement,” Baker said, answering without any delay this time. “How am I sounding?”

“Distant. Echoing. And a bit slow, like there’s a dilation effect.”

Another delay, then, “How about now?”

“Better. Still a bit distant but the other problems are gone.” It was odd to float in a state of pure limbo, feeling his body but unable to move it, all the while subjected to the gentle pressure of the nanofluid around him. A wave of panic suddenly swept over him and Brian fought down the urge to thrash. A shadow flickered past his vision. It was like a towering figure of pure darkness suddenly loomed over him, forcing him to hold perfectly still in spite of his own desires to the contrary. Brian reminded himself that his eyes were closed and he couldn’t actually see anything. “Baker?”

“Yes, Director?”

“I am hallucinating. Is that typical at this stage of the process?”

“Let me check. What kind of hallucinations are you experiencing?”

Brian suspected that she was just trying to keep his mind off what he was seeing but he decided to play along because he didn’t want to think about it either. “Generic night terrors. Tall shadow of humanoid proportions staring at me.”

“Night terrors?”

“That’s the term I found for it in the literature when I researched it. It’s a phenomenon that people used to suffer frequently before medical nanotech allowed us to perfectly regulate brain chemistry and neuron balances.” The shadow started to lean closer to him and Brian felt his heartbeat skyrocket. “They’re disturbing but usually harmless, although I think in times before modern medicine there’s a good chance my heart would burst under the stress.”

“Your heart rate is normal, Director.” The stress he was feeling was starting to show in Baker’s voice if nothing else. “The records don’t mention hallucinating directly but the language implies the fugue state portion of the Shutdown protocols was developed in response to something so that may be it.”

“Then by all means,” Brian practically yelled, “send me into a fugue instance!”

“Stand by.”

He tried to think up something witty to respond with or, failing that, just the right words to spur her to faster action. Instead he found himself desperately cringing away from whatever it was that was staring at him from within that unfathomable darkness. Then the shadow was gone.

He was standing on the beach by the Pacific Ocean on some nameless stretch of beach somewhere in California. The waves lapped the shore with a soothing regularity. The sun was high overhead and the looming shadow was nowhere in sight. “That’s much better.”

“Are you alright, Director?”

“Of course. It’s not like there was real danger in here, Baker, just an overactive imagination.” He shook himself, pleased to find the sensation of movement restored to him. “Okay, where am I?”

“This is an empty fugue instance we generated for your use in adapting to the new environment a couple of days ago. It’s based on some recordings made of the Los Angeles beaches after the last round of environmental reclamation took place.”

“It’s very pleasant. Still, if I’m the only one here I’m not going to be able to do much with the Light of Mars technicians, am I?”

“Their fugue instance was running on tech a couple of generations old,” Baker replied, the last of the tension draining out of her voice as her professionalism reasserted itself. “We’re in the process of porting it over into something our computers can talk to. In the mean time I thought you might like a chance to get more accustomed to what you’d be working with.”

Brian took a few experimental steps along the beach, picking up speed and swinging his arms as he grew more confident in his ability to move around the virtual world. “It doesn’t seem that different from normal life.”

“That’s what I’ve read in the reports,” Baker admitted. “And we took pains to ensure that your capacities in the fugue would essentially mirror your capabilities in the real world so it’s not like you have secret superpowers to adapt to.”

“What do you mean superpowers?”

“Super strength, flight, even the ability to warp the fugue state with your subconscious, they were all phenomenon we were worried could manifest and cause psychic trauma.” As absurd as it all sounded Baker presented the possibility with a flatly serious tone.

“I would think creating those kinds of interactions would require a great deal of deliberate programming,” Brian said, taking a few experimental hops on the beach just to make sure flight really was impossible. “Why was it something we were even concerned about?”

“There was a large body of old literature where such things were proposed and, since the fugue state is less a single program and more a set of algorithms that presents your own thoughts back to you, we wanted to create code that locked out the nastier possibilities.” Baker waited a moment but Brian was still experimenting with other potential superpowers. “Director, do you want to move on to the Vesper’s old fugue instance? Or do you need more time to adapt?”

He sighed. New capabilities were indeed not readily apparent in Shutdown and that probably was for the best. The UNIGOV Directors who cooked up the project knew what there were doing. “I think I’m ready, Baker. Do I need to do anything?”

“Just hold tight, I’m transferring you between instances now.”

The world around him faded into a loose, pixelated haze until it was basically large blocks of blue, white and brown color. Then the blocks rearranged themselves into a new image. In less time than it took to describe Brian was on the streets of a bustling city he didn’t recognize. He shook his head once as he got his bearings, trying to shake off his worries. He wasn’t certain but during the instant of transference he thought he’d seen the shadow still looming over him…