512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
33 minutes until impact
Marie stood just inside the doorway of the Shifting Sands. She’d been here for nearly ten minutes now, trying to work up the courage to cross the threshold.
“It’s just that there’s no point, you see?” she explained anxiously to her two insensible customers. “The Shifting Sands – the inside of these four walls – is the only world I’ve ever known. I’m not equipped for any other environments. If I leave here, I’ll just go into massive sensory overload and automatically shut down…”
A new, disturbing thought occurred.
“Or maybe it’ll be even worse than that. Maybe if I leave, I’ll trigger a total meltdown; maybe my leaving will just fry all my circuits… and that’ll be it.”
She regarded the open doorway again, and gulped, nervously.
“Zzzzz,” said Jelani from her prone position on one of the couches.
“Zzzzz,” echoed Gotmund, from his.
“MARIE? WHERE ARE YOU? We need you here.” Captain Singh’s voice boomed through the speakers – annoyed, urgent and intimidating.
“Here Captain, sorry Captain,” Marie stammered. “Slight delay in – ”
“You get down here to the Engine Room immediately! That is an order.”
“Right, Captain. But you see, the thing is – ”
“Engineering! NOW, Marie! THAT IS AN ORDER!”
“Yes, Captain,” Marie barked, and, bracing herself, she scooted – for the first time ever – out of the Shifting Sands lounge. And as a result of doing so….
Marie did not go into massive sensory overload.
There was no total meltdown. Her circuits were not fried, and she did not automatically shut down.
The only thing that had happened was that she’d moved from one place to another place.
And yet, this simple act triggered a surprising number of emotions within her synthetic consciousness. First, she was surprised. Then that surprise was engulfed by a wave of relief so great, it made Marie laugh out loud.
The relief was then swamped by a jumble of excitement, novelty and sheer, utter joy.
‘Wow! Look at this corridor!’ Marie thought, as she trundled down it. ‘It’s amazing!’
It wasn’t, particularly.
But to someone whose entire existence had been spent in a space spanning only 450 square metres, rounding each corner was akin to discovering a new continent.
‘I wonder what’s down here…’ she thought.
Wonder. That was it; Marie was experiencing wonder. For the very first time. She was beholding new vistas, seeing colours she’d never seen before. She’d only travelled a few metres, but Marie was amazed, delighted, and thrilled with the rush of never-before-dreamt-of possibilities. It was absolutely breathtaking.
Or it would have been, had she been the sort of human who did actually breathe.
But then the reason for her expedition suddenly barged in on her reverie; something about stopping the ship from violently smashing into a planet. In roughly half an hour.
‘Ah yes, there was that, wasn’t there?’ She thought. ‘Right. Engineering, here I come….’
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Elsewhere, the Cheeky Albert’s mechanic AJ had the same destination in his sights. It had been 35 minutes since he’d plunged down six levels on the Mad Maelstrom water slide, narrowly escaping being smashed to pieces in F Deck’s empty swimming pool.
His communicator had kept him abreast of all developments since then, and he felt sure that if he could just make it up the the Engine Room, he’d be able to help save the ship. But the injuries he’d sustained in his fall – well, technically, in the landing at the end of his fall – were significant, and his progress up five decks, and along most of the vessel’s length, had been an arduous one.
Now, as he limped slowly along C Deck, with shoulders, ribs and back aching, he passed the Symphony’s VR suites. He glanced inside. They were all closed now, of course; powered down and bathed in that familiar dim red service light, but when the ship was cruising and full of passengers, these 36 rooms were always booked out and busy. Deactivated, as they were now, each suite was simply a featureless, empty black cube, three metres by three metres. But when they were fired up, each suite could totally immerse its user, or users, in any one of thousands of scenarios. The Symphony’s onboard collection of simulations was staggeringly vast, and could take users to almost any moment in earth’s history, and a growing number of epochal occasions on the more recently discovered planets…
You could look over Leonardo’s shoulder as he painted the Mona Lisa.
You could be right there in the crowd on Ogillon II, watching Benak Vulbub score the winning goal in the 2286 Zero-G Smamszyball Galactic Hyperfinal.
Or you could have been sitting in an oak tree in the Melbourne suburb of Rosanna in 1979, excitedly holding your breath as a couple of people slowly walked by underneath you, completely unaware of your presence…
I guess you had to be there.
But with the VR suites, you could! And that was the point. All with every sight, every sound, every smell, taste, texture and sensation perfectly reproduced, and completely indistinguishable from the real thing.
AJ couldn’t remember the last time he’d indulged in a VR session. And he certainly couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to pay for one.
He trudged past the Symphony’s Wellness Centre now, peering longingly at the rows and rows of soft massage beds. For an instant, he pictured himself – clean and warm and naked, lying face down on one of those beds. A pair of expert male hands slowly and very gently massaged warm, fragrant oil into his shoulders and neck. He closed his eyes, escaped for a moment, and all was right with the world…
Until a twinge in one of his two cracked ribs brought him crashing back into reality. He touched them gingerly, and swore under his breath, cursing his injuries.
‘On the other hand,’ he then thought, ‘a sore back, shoulders and ribs don’t mean that much if the whole ship’s going to crash dive into a planet in…’ he checked the time, ‘… 29 minutes.’
He took a few more steps, lost in thought.
‘I guess I should try to look on the bright side.’
And a few more.
‘If only I could find one…’
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Marie emerged from the elevator on B Deck, and began the last few metres of her journey to the Engine Room. She’d been astonished by the wall panel inside the elevator. It seemed to suggest that there was an entire new level of the ship above the Shifting Sands lounge… and another six levels below it! Marie felt she needed to sit down, to take a moment, to process the newly discovered vastness of her world. But there was no time for that. Burying the impulse to continue exploring the ship, she reported to Engineering.
“Where the hell have you been?” snapped the Chief Engineer.
“I’m sorry Ms Arenson, I – ”
“Never mind that, there’s no time,” interrupted Mr Chamberlain, as he took Marie by the elbow and led her to the console housing the Emergency Override Matrices. Most of the console’s casing had been removed, and an unruly, jumbled mass of cables had been spliced, woven and consolidated into one long cord, that snaked out of the console, and across the floor. This cord ended in a standard plug, which was currently being held by the pirate Lightfoot, who looked rather pleased with herself.
As she gestured for Marie to sit in the chair beside the console, Ms Arenson explained; “Mr Chamberlain and I have spent the last few minutes bypassing the old Janus Sapience Interface, and cobbling together an alternative that should be compatible with your primary auditory cortex…”
Lightfoot cleared her throat theatrically and raised and lowered her eyebrows.
“Alright,” Ms Arenson said irritably, “Mr Chamberlain and I did it with some help from this pirate.”
“Thank you,” said Lightfoot, adding “couldn’t have done it without me, that’s for sure…” under her breath.
“So all you have to do, Marie,” Ms Arenson continued, “is allow us access to your PCP, we’ll plug you in, and connect the EOMs to your primary auditory cortex. Then we’ll be able to use you as a real time translator, to talk to the ship.”
“Is it dangerous?” Marie asked, hesitantly.
“Oh, no, no – I’ve insulated the cable, everything’s grounded – we’re all perfectly safe. Thank you.”
“No, I mean is it dangerous to me?”
“Oh.” Ms Arenson looked suddenly thoughtful.
“Hm. Not sure. I’ve never done this before.” She looked to Lightfoot and Mr Chamberlain, both of whom shrugged in response.
“I guess we’re about to find out,” ventured Lightfoot.
Marie nodded uncertainly, as she lifted her blouse to reveal the the small door covering her Principal Convergence Panel.
“Well, as the Bard says…” Marie offered half-heartedly, ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Oh, and also spiders’.”
“Marie, please!” Ms Arenson said. “We do not have time for you to stand around quoting the Bard!”
Marie frowned at her. “But there’s always time to quote the Bard…”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The influence of “The Bard” (Verity Dellascherzo; 2269 – 2371) on the vernacular of the 24th, 25th and early 26th centuries cannot be overestimated, particularly amongst offworlders. Her epigrams, quips, bon mots and aphorisms were never taught in schools, yet most spacefarers know dozens of them, and will take any opportunity to press them into service. Unusually for this era, the works of the Bard seem to have been transmitted almost exclusively orally. They’ve been handed down, handed around and handed across from person to person, in much the same way that jokes, urban legends or apocryphal ghost stories were shared, in days of old.
Part of Dellascherzo’s appeal surely stemmed from her specialisation in short, easily digestible proverbs. One popular critic dubbed her “the bite-sized philosopher”… but later withdrew this comment, after its misinterpretation led to a huge spike in actual consumption of philosophers among The Unexpectedly Cannibalistic Poets of Gilivis IV.
She remained relatively obscure and uncelebrated during her lifetime on earth; her collected writings were only discovered after she died, in a tragic volcano hoverskating race accident, at the age of 102. She remains a mysterious, reclusive figure; despite the highly social and convivial character of most of her output, she appears to have shunned social occasions. Various images of her survive, of course, but they provide few clues as to her character, her talent or her intellect. The pictures show a tall, dark-skinned woman with long black hair, smiling eyes and a very convincing cybernetic right hand. Some academics have theorised that she may also have been fitted with cybernetically enhanced legs, citing the cryptic clue hidden in this quote of hers:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones… but not the ones in my legs because they’re cybernetically enhanced.”
There is also speculation that, in later life, she may have become an alcoholic. This is suggested by the following three maxims, all dated March, 2315:
“The first drink will feel like a welcome reward.
After the second, you feel self-assured.
The third lets you know that you’re in for some fun.
Already the fourth? But I’ve barely begun!”
“You won’t find the answers to your problems at the bottom of a bottle… But it always seems well worth a look”
And of course, the classic:
“What are you lookin’ at? I seen you. HEY! Do you wanna go? Huh? Do ya? Oi! OI! …. Naww, I love you. Phblxxbbbrshnnn.”
Although she’s now been dead for 161 years, interest in The Bard has never waned; the combination of her homespun homilies and her mysterious, reclusive nature continue to spark interest, adulation and a wide range of conspiracy theories. Even her real name remains an enigma: in the preface to her collected works, she states that ‘Verity Dellascherzo’ is merely a pen name, chosen to suggest the eternal, universal truths contained within the jokes…
An example of this is the oft-quoted “Sleep is just like money and sex; always much more important when you’re not gettin’ any”.
One of the wilder, more fanciful conspiracy theories about her – that she commissioned a clone of herself and had it snap-frozen, to facilitate a future ‘Second Coming of The Bard’ – was sparked by this simple 11-word quote:
“When you gotta go, you gotta go. Terms and conditions apply.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Marie sat on the chair next to the EOM console, eyes closed. The thick, slightly ragged jury-rigged cable emerging from the console was now connected to her Primary Convergence Panel, and Ms Arenson stood close, her mouth adjacent to Marie’s ear.
“Access Emergency Override Matrices,” Ms Arenson said in a clear, deliberate voice.
Marie’s eyelids fluttered, before she responded in an uncharacteristically flat tone; “Enter password.”
Ms Arenson’s eyes lit up. “S-C-1-T-9-E-8-T-M-2” she said slowly.
Marie’s eyelids fluttered briefly again before her response. “Access granted. Welcome.”
Ms Arenson smiled as she looked up at her colleagues.
Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here.
Text copyright (c) 2020 Stephen Hall
All rights reserved.
No portion of this story may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher. For permissions contact author@TheStephenHall.com