The blue centaur paused at the apex of a grassy knoll, intent upon a passing butterfly, the long iridescent plume of its mane sweeping out behind it in the still air. The season was late, and she hoped the insect might be a nondescript. After a moment of observation, she found the insect’s classification in the shared files. She did not need to, but she still sighed.
She stood for a moment, looking into the distance which her moderate elevation allowed. She chose to limit herself to the near infrared and ultraviolet beyond the visible, as a restriction in the apprehended spectrum allowed the occasional brief surprise. Any surprise would be welcome. She spotted a small heat plume to the north, and trotted over to see what might be raising it.
When the centaur reached the top of a low depression in the plain, she almost laughed aloud. There was a gigantic hallucigenia there, nearly two meters long, lifting rocks with its forelimbs and peering under them with a pair of googly eyes mounted on its foremost anterior spines. The centaur called out a greeting, then galloped down the slope toward the blue and pink pastel monstrosity. The hallucigenia swivelled its eyestalks to regard her and wobbled along on its multitude of legs to meet her. Both knew that there was no danger in this meeting, because danger had been removed from life for more than a thousand years, ever since the Great Decoupling. When your intelligence was distributed across myriad incorruptible server farms, sending your body of the moment rushing to meet a monster held little terror.
“What a wonderful external you’ve got,” the centaur said when they were at a conversational distance. The front of the hallucigenia split into a broad and goofy grin which matched its cartoon eyeballs.
“Thank you! Your mane is fabulous!”
The centaur turned to present a profile and streamed her hair out to its full length, trying to show the scintillation to best effect. “It’s not really impressive below 400 nanometers or above 750, but it’s great at gathering solar charge.”
The hallucigenia’s eyes flicked to and fro, independent of each other. “Nice work. Nanotubes?”
“Yes, it’s…” She faltered for a moment, the technical details of the filaments and their contraction actuators were easy to visualize but a serious chore to articulate. “It’s easier to show you. Let’s synch.”
The centaur chose to perceive radio as a sound, a low bird-song warble rather than the screech of modems she’d heard in the archival files. Once she established a connection with the hallucigenia, the metadata on the response packets for the transfer brought the disappointment of recognition. “Oh, hi, Sun Mi.”
The hallucigenia turned fire engine red. “Hey, Steve. Long time, no see, huh?”
“I guess.” The perfect recall that everyone now endured gave the lapse as seventy-two years. It wasn’t too soon for a decent conversation, and Steve tried to stay polite. “Seen anything interesting?”
Sun Mi’s eyestalks gave a wobble, and its body shaded down to grey. “Not much. I found a previously uncatalogued variant of lichen in the Calgary ruins about a decade ago. I was still flying then.”
“Still the pterosaur?” There was a tone of amazement in Steve’s voice; no one held onto a body that long.
“Oh, no.” The broad, gap-toothed grin came back. “I was a swarm of bumblebees.”
“That sounds neat.”
“Yes and no. You get an amazing field of vision, but it was a pain in the ass reforming the group after windstorms. I always lost some elements. It wasn’t worth the effort in the end, and I started on terrestrial forms.”
Steve nodded, although she wondered if Sun Mi’s imagination wasn’t slipping. When they had first met five hundred years earlier, they had hit it off wonderfully, Sun Mi as a kirin and Steve a moderately-sized interpretation of Talos, the bronze guardian of Crete. They had travelled together for a couple of years until, inevitably, each had heard all of the other’s stories. The whole time of that partnership was utterly fresh in Steve’s mind, as was every other memory since her uploading.
“Maybe I’ll give flying a try again,” Steve said. “It has been a while.”
There was a pause that stretched out. Sun Mi broke it. “Well, I guess we might as well get trotting. Good luck, Steve.”
“You too.” She waved and set off at a canter. Good luck, indeed, she thought. They all needed it; the luck to find some novelty in a world so thoroughly familiar.
Once a month, Steve left the physical world to check out the forum digest. Some people checked the news daily, and others actually devoted part of their attention to the shared virtuality all the time. That was too much contact with others for her taste.
Scanning through the news, Steve let out a little gasp at one item which had appeared just two days since her last check. An emigration. Her body was in a power-absorbing shut-down, so her head-shake had no physical manifestation. She knew the émigré, but she knew every human being at least at second hand by now, so that was not the source of her sadness. It was the simple fact that one of those remaining people was now gone, yet another loss to the ongoing collective experience, which as unrewarding as it had become would suffer from this small attrition.
She wasn’t entirely surprised, though. Augustus had been withdrawn for quite a while, checking messages but not sending any. It was either emigration or suicide for him, although if there was a difference only he knew it. She supposed there must be a little excitement attached to emigration, returning all of one’s eggs to a single basket, having no dispersed back-up for the personality that rode in a starship’s onboard computer.
The destination listed was at least half-way sensible. Augustus was not following one of the colony slowboats as some had, not so desperate for a conversation with someone new he was willing to take a chance on a colony having flourished ahead of him, or of finding it inimical when he arrived. His stated course was due galactic south, skimming the Small Magellanic Cloud without actually aiming for it. If Augustus were judicious in using periods of dormancy, he would see some authentic wonders on his long trip. There was some small attraction at the thought of seeing the whole galaxy from above.
Steve sent a bon voyage message out on the frequency Augustus has indicated as the one he would monitor. She didn’t expect a reply.
After a week of virtual living, Steve was pleased to have a new body once again, and stood for a moment in the production bunker’s output lobby to examine the results. Another centaur, this time with quicksilver skin and a jet black crest of hair. The human torso was that of a fantasy hero, broad pectoral muscles and rippling abs, and the equine body bore wings with unobtrusive jets hidden among the feathers to allow hovering and near-sonic speeds. Steve nodded at himself. It wasn’t very original, but it would allow for some fun and reckless experiences.
The body itself was the result of a reckless experience, the previous one lost through being a spectator at a fight. Two people who found the world was not big enough to stand the other’s presence had announced a duel to the death, their personalities locked into the bodies they would fight in. It was not a sort of thing that happened very often, and Steve had felt driven to attend. It had been an interesting spectacle, two spiky monsters lumbering towards one another on the open prairie like grudge-bearing hillocks, right up to the point that one revealed it was actually a murder-suicide by triggering an electromagnetic pulse device.
The discontinuity of the EMP had ended for Steve with a return to the omniscient captivity of the clouds, a vast sensorium composed of various feeds from around the planet and no direct control of any of them. Steve had sighed inwardly, lacking equipment to do otherwise, and sent off the orders to a production centre for a new body. Then, because omniscience was a little overwhelming, Steve had retreated into a simulation of Regency England to await completion and get the hang of identifying masculine once again.
Steve had lived in the virtual for almost a whole objective year once, without a body in the real world, and there was always some residual hint of its essential unreality that he had never quite gotten used to. The senses in those worlds were in many ways closer to natural than those provided by the bodies he had built, limited as they were to the original human range. But the whole time had felt vaguely wrong, regardless of what worlds he had tried and what apprehended personae he had worn into them, as if there were a subtle metadata stream that constantly reminded him that there was nothing below the horizons. He knew there were some who had walled themselves up entirely in virtuality, performing the necessary self-mutilations to forget that it was just a simulation. Perhaps they also lost the sense of wrongness he felt, although he thought it more likely they became the sort of people who spent a lot of time hanging around with philosophers, arguing about how one would know if life was reality, or simulation, or a butterfly’s dream.
The glint on the desert floor resolved as he descended into a robotic rover, a silvery bath-tub trundling along on eight wire wheels. Steve laughed aloud, wondering who in the world had revived the concept of retro-charm. Landing near it, ahead and to one side of its path, he called out a greeting.
It gave no response, not even swivelling its cameras in his direction as it hummed past him. Steve tried electronic contact; it wasn’t likely someone would choose to leave off audio sensors, but it was possible.
After a moment, Steve took to the air again, his shining handsome features twisted into the expression of one who has mistaken an onion for an apple. The RF contact had left the equivalent of a lingering bad taste. The rover was not a whimsical experiment with retro aesthetics, but an unimaginative use of an existing template. One of the world’s artificial intelligences had produced a minion for its own inscrutable pursuits.
Like most people, Steve had a dislike for the AIs because they had been such a disappointment. Now that people could think just as fast, they were no threat, and they were occasionally useful in their ability to concentrate on a problem; twice in Steve’s lifetime, an AI had pointed out an inconveniently large object bearing down on the planet and raised a timely alarm. They were, however, no good as companions and none had any interest in becoming better at it. No one on Earth had been in an organic body for centuries, but there was still some residue from the habits of hormones that informed the way people thought. It could be saved in a machine, but it could not be taught to one.
Steve circled above the rover, watching its slow progress across the sand. He had not considered the failure of AI to cure the global plague of ennui in a long time, and there was something in his current contemplation of the matter that lodged in his attention. He spun in the air, the line below him slowly extending, feeling around in his thoughts for an idea that might take root. Sunset flashed from the rover below as the idea budded and put forth flowers which promised to be fruitful.
Steve whooped, performed a tumbling spiral, and bent his course toward the nearest production centre. He was, he realized, going to need a lot of equipment.
The preparations had taken a long time, nearly two hundred years, but Steve had been willing to put in the work to get it right. A mistake might not make itself felt for millennia, after all, and she didn’t want to have to start a second time after that much effort. Everything was in place, awaiting only her signal to activate the first group of robotic predators. The island had been cleared of its indigenous carnivores, which would not have been enough of a challenge and might have competed for food.
The population had dropped alarmingly, down to barely seven thousand human intellects. More emigrants, more duels, and a lot of simply pulling the plug on the backups and committing some kind of flamboyant suicide. The ones who had chosen to jump into virtuality and brick over the door from their side were still around, but might as well be dead for all the good they were. Steve felt some pride at having rescued a couple of people simply by suggesting what she was working on, with its possibility of an interesting future. When she announced it openly, it might give the human race something to live for.
Her drones followed her, a train of rounded boxes passing through the air over the ocean. Her current body, one which she meant to hold onto for a long while, had been inspired by Hindu mythology. This had not been an act of pure whimsy, as she thought having plenty of arms would be helpful in the work to come.
The drones grounded, sides swinging up almost the moment they were down. The troupes of lemurs scampered out. They ran towards the small stand of trees nearby, some of the few Steve had suffered to remain on the island, and they ran more on hind legs than otherwise. Some of the preparations had been genetic, and these lemurs would be happier as terrestrial creatures than their arboreal grandparents. They were also capable of more complex vocalizations, and some gibbered amusingly as they ran below Steve.
She smiled. One day, she thought, that will shape up nicely. By then, she would have finished her studies in comparative theology properly. By the time her creations were capable of understanding such things, Steve wanted to be sure that her commandments to them would be sensible.
Dirck de Lint writes in Regina, Saskatchewan.