There's nothing like the start of the New Year to get us thinking of the future. And what does the future look like? We issued an open call for short stories — the only requirement was that they be set in the future, whether that future was dystopian or bright, separated from the present by the space of a few moments or several light years. These are the stories we received.
Presenting: Future Fiction. With art by Satwick Gade.
It was a bright, clear day in Vonsen, brighter and clearer than you have ever seen. The Vonsen was one of the best hot-spring areas in Neo-Nippon. The idyllic surroundings around the hot-spring might easily make you think you were in ancient Japan. Only the people seemed to indicate otherwise.
For example, if you took these three people soaking in a sunlit corner of one of the side pools of the steaming spring waters. Sure, they looked mostly like normal people, incredibly beautiful normal people. The gorgeous woman, the handsome man, and the strong-faced woman — or was it a delicately-featured man? You might just think they were foreigners visiting a Japanese resort. But then you'd see the man's moving tattoos, the woman's mirror-like eyes, and the androgynous person's rich purple skin. Something about them was definitely off.
The woman talking to the purple person was saying: “Actually if you ask me, Jin, I don’t even think you should attend; if Dezzi was mean to you earlier, they’d be mean to you again. It’s so petty, so what if you don’t like the same memovies as they do? That’s a stupid thing to base their impression of you on. You’re still a better maker than them. How many makes does Dezzi have with more than a thousand instance sales?”
The purple person, or Jin, sighed, “Oh they have some with a few hundred instances, but that’s not the point, Reve. They’re still the convener of the fictionalist maker’s meet, I’ll still have to friend them if I want to join the community. What do you think, Pol?”
Pol’s tattoos seemed to speed up when he spoke. “Look mate," he told Jin, "I told you that Dezzi was bad news when I heard they were a part of a fourth gender community back in 2231! And it’s verified, I couldn’t believe it so I had it logchecked! Even if that was, what, seven years ago? I just don’t trust those folks.”
Reve’s silver eyes widened. “Really? Ugh! These people should be made to watch some documentaries about the horrors of the gender wars. And we’ve come long past that now! It’s just,” she pointed at herself, “She,” then indicating Pol, “He,” and finally Jin, “They”. “That simple! Or if you are a neo-equalist it’d be they, they, and they. But every few years we’ll have these bunch of folks coming up with new gender definitions and weird pronouns.”
Reve was building up a lot of steam, and her voice turned shrill as she mimicked, “‘We have the right to be addressed as we wish!’ Nyah nyanya nyah! Really? Haven’t you been taught the NovaHuman manifesto? ‘The only right a Sentient Sapient has is the right of choice, all else are privileges.’ So yeah, anyone can address you any way they like! It’s your choice how to respond to that or not! I mean how does gender even matter? I was genderless before, and I got this avatar just a few months ago. I’m biologically male, why would that even matter in a virtual world?”
Jin crinkled their purple nose, “Ew! Too much information. What are you, a meatlifer? Are you going to tell me about your meatshell’s diseases too now?”
Reve scowled back: “Ugh! I was just giving an example, don’t be so sensitive, you’ll turn into a flesh-denier. Your brain also sits in a meatbody, wherever in the virtuworlds you be! It might not concern us, but the world outside Virtual Reality also exists, VR isn’t everything!”
Pol stepped in to mediate. "Guys, ease up. And no dissing meatlifers please. They’re the ones who’ll take care of us if something happens to our bodypod clusters. Even I do my 10 hours a week of cluster maintenance with a mech avatar, but they’re the last line of security if everything fails.”
Jin sighed, “Yeah, fine, but you don’t have to be an alarmist about it. I have enough credits to pay a proxy instead of doing maintenance duty, I just don’t like going to the old world. I had to live in my meatbody for two days last year when my cranial link malfunctioned. It was horrible without VR — meatsense is almost like sensory deprivation! Instead of cluster duty I’d rather consume some good stories and make some of that into a real thing any day!”
Jin’s skin turned a deeper purple in excitement as they spoke: “So I came across some beautiful stories curated from the Old Testament Bible and found this one about a guy called Absalom who had a tree for his hair. So I’ve created this hair mod — I call it AbsaHead!” Jin gestured in the air and their head sprouted a beautiful miniature tree, growing out like hair.
Reve almost squealed, “Eeeee! That’s so cute! Will you gift me an instance?”
Jin snorted, “Thank you, but no, buy it for twenty thousand credits, support my making.” Reve’s grin turned into a pout.
Pol shook his head — one could tell he was a very head-shakey kind of person — then sighed, “Well, it’s a decent make, the story metadata sure helps, at least you’re going to make some religion revivalist very happy, or they’ll come screaming at you for perverting their stories, depending upon their interpretation of your interpretation.”
Reve interjected, “Well, screaming at Jin is only possible if said revivalists come out of their religion mandated virtuworlds. But that’s still fine, if you’d done this in the old world days, they’d have tried to kill you because you insulted their stimming beliefs!”
Jin shuddered, “It’s hard to think someone actually believed those stories were real. I mean, fine you like those stories and you want to live your life based on them, peachy! But they’d actually harm others for not believing in their stories? And all the old stories! So much drama over who stims with whom!” Jin’s skin took up a bluer tone as their gaze turned forlorn, "So many people were killed for such silliness.”
Pol patted Jin’s head tree, “It’s alright, there there. Not so many people died, at least not as many as compared to the blight. And definitely not as many as in the next apocalypse that will happen.”
Reve frowned. “Don’t start with that alarmist stimming garbage again, Pol, please! Look, it’s fine, our predecessors were uncivilised and ignorant, they destroyed the surface of the old world, that was their fault. We shouldn’t stay stuck on the blight, that was over a century and half ago! We’ve come a long way from there, the virtuworlds are beautiful, tamper-proof, our meatbodies are safe in the pods, the seawater-powered sustenance factories can produce resources to maintain the meatshells for an eternity. Life is much better and we should look towards a good future. Don’t sour the mood with your Next Bad Thing theories.”
Pol huffed, “The lessons of history are clear, we’ve already ruined the planet, we should leave it, or one day something will go wrong and we’ll just vanish! You forget that the word eternity originally meant forever, instead of just a few thousand years. The stupid Eternity Certification System twisted that word’s meaning. Yes, our virtuworlds’ infrastructure is eternity certified, but that doesn’t mean forever!”
Jin made a face, “So much negativity, look, the megacorps have done the calculations, we don’t have the infrastructure to leave, and even the science is clear, it’s simply not possible to spread out like the old stories used to romanticise about.”
Pol’s tattoos sped up even more at this point. He spoke in a rush: “Don’t talk to me about science alright? Do you know there are less than two hundred active scientists who’re not researching VR tech? We hardly even know what’s happening beyond the surface anymore! There hasn’t been a major breakthrough in non-VR science in years now!”
Jin sighed, “It’s too expensive, and we took enough precautions when the virtual age began. Population is under control and stable at a billion, our minds are well fed, life is good. My progenitor even chose euthanasia after a happy, sated life at the ripe age of a hundred and ten, the old satellites are keeping watch outside. There’s nothing to worry about. Look around, this richness of experience, this quality of life, you think we could have it if we were out in the barren wastelands and empty oceans of the old world’s surface trying to escape the planet in futility? We’re not living well forever anyway. And our experiences get richer every passing decade! Speaking of living well,” [at this point, Jin perked up and their skin turned redder as they said in a singsong tone:] “who’s up for a party in Old York in a few hours? I have some invites!”
Reve grinned, “I’m up! I love Old York. Such a lively world, terribly expensive though, too high data traffic. Doesn’t Nils stay mostly in Old York?” She waggled her eyebrows at Pol.
Pol smiled shyly and shook his head, “They’ve been in New Shanghai for the last few weeks, they rarely come to Old York nowadays.”
Jin gaped, “Weeks? That’s the most expensive virtuworld-server ever! I once went to a party in New Shanghai for five hours! Just the data rent there was astronomical! Oh well, Nils is a very popular person, her credit generators have credit generators I bet. I last met them when they were a she, when did she change avatars?”
Pol’s smile turned shyer, “Nils got a new one designed about a month ago from Jorgen Mohsif.”
“The Jorgen Mohsif? The fifth highest ranked Avatar Maker? Whoa! Nils is doing really well then," Jin exclimed "No wonder they don’t have time for Old York… Hey Pol, why’s it called Old York anyway? Sounds so Old World.”
Pol made a disgruntled face. “Stupid developer joke, the designers of the virtuworld based it on their vision of the old world city called New York… But since it was already called New York...”
“...They called the world Old York instead,” Reve completed the sentence, “But it’s nice to hear about Nils, so how does a loser like you be mates with a mover and shaker like Nils?”
Pol shrugged, “We’ve been cluster-mates since childhood, we were mates before joining VR. We’ve always kept in touch since.”
Jin nodded, “You also had a child with them, if I’m not wrong.”
Pol nodded. “Yeah, when I was notified of the possible donors, Nils was there on the list.”
Jin smiled, “Nice, can’t wait to meet the kid when they join the virtuworlds. Any idea when that’ll happen?”
Pol smiled back. “I visited the kid with an Avatar a few days ago, their final cranial implant is almost done settling, they turn 10 in a few months.”
Reve shook her head fondly at Pol. “Look at you, all shy and giddy at your first progeny, I already have second gens in the worlds, they grow up so fast.”
Jin nodded, “I’ve met your progeny, he’s a good person.”
Reve waved the compliment away, “Nah, stubborn arse is what they are, not a he anymore, I used to like his old avatar. The new one’s too tacky. They’ve gotten into heavy mods and stuff, saw them a few months back, was sporting extra arms and fur and the fancy newer dual genital mods." She added with a smirk: "Told them to go stim themselves!”
Pol guffawed, “Ha! That’s such an old world joke! Nils’ new avatar has the dual genital mods too, I’ll tell them this one.”
Jin was looking at the other two a bit slyly now. “All this stimming talk sure has gotten me all worked up. What say — should we have a quick stim together before the party starts? I have a good virtuworld in mind.”
Pol shrugged, “Sure, I don’t mi—”
Both Pol and Jin vanished from the hot springs, leaving Reve sitting alone, flabbergasted.
She opened and shut her mouth a few times, then finally spoke: “Huh, that was rude of the two, didn’t even tell me which world they went to.” She mentally hailed them but got no response, she looked around, the Vonsen was suddenly looking quite empty, a lot of the others also looking around sheepishly. That was very weird. She got out of the pool and checked the eventfeeds while drying up. Nothing stood out in the feeds to her that would warrant the thinning of the crowd there. She sent off a logcheck to track and find out what was the cause, but it wouldn’t come back to her before a few hours, logchecks on mass data were notoriously slow to complete.
“Oh, hey Reve.” A melodious voice shook her from her thoughts, she spun around to face a vision of grace and beauty: they were androgynous but with luscious curves, highlighted by skin patterns varying from a beautiful teal to a burning orange in places, with glowing hair like flames underwater. Each and every part of their body, from the width of the waist to the slight bulge of the mammae, was exquisitely proportionate, including the dual genitals that Reve had seen so badly designed on her child — it looked like it was made for this person. It was unimaginable how much data rent and special subroutines it would cost just to keep this avatar synchronised! If it were not for the easily recognisable face even with the deep orange eyes, Reve would have thought this was an administrator or a megacorp tycoon!
“Oh, uh, hi… Nils!” Reve managed to stammer, “Wow! You’re looking great!”
Nils smiled beatifically, “Thanks, Jorgen customised this for me. Um, do you know where Pol is? He’s not responding to hails. I wanted to call him to New Shanghai because the data-rent dropped suddenly, he’s never been there and I’d have liked him to visit. Uh, you can come too, if you want!”
Reve shrugged, “He and Jin were talking about stimming and suddenly bailed on me. I guess they’re too busy stimming to respond to hails.”
Nils frowned, “That’s odd of him; anyway, let him stim in peace then.” Then her expression turned confused, “Wait, what do you mean they bailed on you? Didn’t they ask you too?”
Reve nodded, “Jin did but they logged out of Vonsen without telling me where they went.”
Nils’ eyes glowed. “That’s very rude of him, would you like to stim with me instead? New Shanghai has this beautiful rooftop garden where I love to stim.”
Reve smiled with mild trepidation. “Let me check the… Whoa, only fifty credits an hour? That’s cheaper than some beta worlds! Sure! I’d love to stim with you.”
Nils’ smile was blissful; they nodded, pinged Reve an address and vanished.
Reve’s grin seemed to stretch from ear to ear, she took some time to go through her dormant mods and switched on the best erotic enhancement mods. She rarely used them — firstly because keeping ero-enhancement mods always on resulted in desensitisation, and secondly, because of the high data rent they cost. In her thirty seven years of life she’d sure acquired some wild ones. Well, now was the time for them because a chance to stim with a high social-ranked person like Nils was extremely rare for a... well, a plebian like her. And that too in the best virtuworld of all. She was so going to parade this in front of Pol and Jin when those two returned her hails. Well maybe not Pol; he must get to stim with Nils all the time, being clustermates and co-progenitors to boot.
As she waited the half minute it would take for the mods to sync with her meatbrain, she noticed that even the rest of the people in the Vonsen had vanished. She did a quick check: Yes, the whole server was empty. Well, it sure made sense because with the extreme drop in data rents that top-tier virtuworlds were showing, everyone must have crowded on to those. There must have been some glitch. Reve sent a logcheck query to find out what happened; this would take even more time as millions of others must have sent similar queries.
She didn’t like crowds much. But this was about Nils! She wouldn’t complain. Reve mentally prepared herself for a huge crowd and hit a transfer to the address Nils had sent. Tingly feelings of heightened anticipation and desire already leaching into her from the activating mods, her world spun and darkened as the server-switch process kicked in.
She had expected an instant resumption of her senses, clearer and brighter than usual, in a top-tier virtuworld like New Shanghai. Instead, Reve’s consciousness returned, unexpectedly and painfully slowly, to a very limited, almost alien sensorium. It was like the first acclimation day to a very bad avatar. But she knew this feeling, she knew this from distant memory. The undeniable crispness of the senses, however limited, was absolutely unique. She was in meatspace. Not she, in meatspace Reve was a he.
It took Reve quite some time to dare to open his eyes. A blank ceiling met him, absolutely unlike the roof of the bodypod he expected. He remembered old lessons and checked for all the connections that should have connected him to VR, and there were none: all the sockets, including the feeder, breather and excreta tubes.
Either this was a massive prank, or a terrible act of biohack terrorism (the last of which had happened way before he was born), or, as his senses and occam’s razor told him, he was in the old world, in his meatbody, out of his pod, on a bed, in an otherwise empty room.
Bodily urges that he only remembered from childhood, before-VR-link memories, plagued him. He unsteadily rose and staggered to the door panel to the left where hopefully there’d be a bodycare room. Thankfully, the door slid open on touching the panel and there were the necessary… receptacles, for excreta. His first reaction was to kneel at the… what was it called? Commode? His first reaction was to kneel at the commode and hurl his insides out… What followed was half an hour of abject misery where he was dependent on his faint memory on how to tackle the facilities of this tiny room.
Meatspace... no normal human expected to visit meatspace ever after the age of 10, unless something was extremely wrong with the body, or the cranial link VR implant — and no, meatlifers were not normal people. After that gruelling session in the bodycare room, he finally turned back towards the door he came from, and came face to face with a stranger.
The man looked almost, but not quite, ugly — by his sensibilities; but he was reminded that this was meatspace, people looked much more, um... imperfect, here. The man was tall though, lean with stringy muscles, there were the ports of the feeder implant below the collarbone, a fine fuzz of brown hair on the head, a bit more body hair than normal and he had clean looking, vanilla genitals... On second thoughts he wasn’t that bad looking at all for someone with zero mods. Somewhat like the retrofetishist avatars. On third thoughts, what mods? He was in stimming meatspace for blight’s sake!
He was going to ask the person about what the stim was happening when he noticed something odd: the man was mimicking, almost mirroring his expressions. It was then that Reve realised he was looking at himself. The door was a mirror.
After a while of staring transfixed at and talking nonsense to himself (which, as Reve thought, need never be mentioned to anyone else), he opened the door and went back to the room. The place was climate controlled, so thankfully there was no need for body coverings. (He remembered some old world revivalists who wore full body coverings as accessories even in VR, crazy people with crazy ideas!) With nothing else of interest in the room, he went for the only other door, the one near the foot of the bed.
The door opened smoothly, he walked out into a cavernous chamber, with lots of equipment and screens, like a high-tier maker’s workspace. He looked around, most of the equipment and the data in the screens didn’t mean anything to his low bandwidth meatsenses. But at one corner he finally found what he was looking for. Another person, working with a black cube about ten inches to a side.
From behind, they were possibly genderless or female, he couldn’t tell... close cropped hair, a slightly more shapely physique than his (which was the first clue, bodypods maintained only the bare amount of muscles for emergency meatspace visits). He cleared his throat loudly. The other person spun around to look at him.
They, no, she was definitely female, of somewhat androgynous proportions though (he remembered some trivia about most avatars being exaggeratedly proportioned), with slightly asymmetric features. She had on a pair of spectacles, gloves and a utility belt. Not completely unattractive in that whole retro-imperfectionist way. Anyway, all these thoughts were secondary, his panic had subsided back in the washroom (there was a tiny label on the panel, he’d noticed later, who notices labels which don’t float?), but his curiosity still had the better of him. He swallowed once, trying to decide what to ask.
She took off her glasses, tucked them into the belt and spoke first, while walking towards him, “Ah, you’re awake. Welcome to Reality One dot Oh,” she said, adding with a smirk, “Or as you call it, meatspace.” (That was his second clue.)
Before he could even decide what was an appropriate response, he noted that she had absolutely no implant ports anywhere on her body, and it finally all clicked into place. “You’re a meatlifer!” He blurted out, then immediately felt guilty — was that insulting to her? It must be, it was a derogatory term in VR after all. He tried to recover some poise, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean that! Um, what do you call yourselves?”
She laughed indulgently, “We call ourselves people, generally.”
Now he felt even worse, and the guilt brought his panic back, “Uh, right, sorry, so… I’m sorry but who are you? Where am I? What happened?”
She finished laughing and sighed, “I’m no one important, thankfully, I’m just a researcher. We’re in the Ark, it’s the only Oceanic Research Outpost that was active. As for what happened, well, as they used to say in the old world, faeces happened! Look, it’s a long story, why don’t we sit down and grab a bite? You should be famished after VR disengagement syndrome. Also, here, I had this fabricated for you, this should help you feel better and answer most of your questions too.”
She rummaged in her belt pouch and produced something which looked like a giant thumbtack, a coin-sized disk with a spike coming out of it. His memory tickled him when he noticed the spike: that was a wireless VR connector; he grabbed at it and pushed it spike first into the cranial port on the back of his neck.
Suddenly, his world became a bit more real, colours became more vivid, metadata was everywhere, he could finally see labels. It was not as good as being in a virtuworld, but it was definitely a step up from ‘Reality One Point Oh’. His eyebrows raised at the timestamp, it had been three days since he set out to meet up with Nils.
He eyed her and there were no labels, and remembered also noticing no hole on the back of her neck, though at that point it could have been covered by her short hair too. “You don’t have any implants?”Reve blurted out.
She smiled wanly. “None; I have a genetic condition which makes my immune system really sensitive and it rejects any implants. I was even allowed to be born only because people with this trait have really good survival rates and also make for hardy cluster maintenance staff. How else do you think a mere researcher would be able to revive you from your pod properly or even have enough resources to travel to this outpost to begin with? Emergency cluster maintenance staff are very highly paid. Anyway, I’m hungry, let’s eat.”
She led him to the refreshment table where there were some bar-shaped snacks and a water dispenser; she handed one of the bars to him: “Here, nutrient bars, tastiest things ever!” He bit into one and blanched, they tasted horribly bland. She munched on them like they were indeed delicious. He quickly dialled up his taste buds via his VR controls and changed the taste to a refreshing, minty, savoury flavour that he liked much.
As he ate, he sent out a flurry of logcheck queries, which completed and gave him answers blazingly fast because the whole outpost’s infrastructure was dedicated to just giving him answers. What he found almost made him hurl out the food again in shock.
Three days ago, right before Pol and Jin had vanished, the Yellowstone Supervolcano erupted in the old world, sending powerful shockwaves through the planet’s crust, powerful enough to create earthquakes which shattered through all the protections and crushed underground server farms and bodypod clusters all over the world within half an hour as the shockwave travelled. Even the few meatlifer communities who tried to live on the surface perished in the resulting quakes, or at least their communication equipment did. The offshore resource factories, which stood on the ocean bed, were also destroyed.
Three days ago, humanity had perished. Pol was ultimately right, but he didn’t live to know it. Reve had lost everything, but all he could feel right then was missing the chance to stim with Nils. He smiled a bit, then cold shock hit him.
As his panic attack passed, the researcher person watched him go through the whole process with sad eyes till he got his composure back. He asked the next question that his logchecks could not answer, “How did we survive?”
She shrugged, “Pure chance, there is only one research outpost not connected to the earth’s crust — this one. And I was the only one here to set up some testing equipment manually, because I find it easier to work with the hardware here directly... everyone else would use this place remotely through their implants. And your bodypod cluster was in a complex which had gone under the sea about fifty years ago, but it withstood that fine, eternity certified after all... the earthquake cracked open the same eternity certified complex like an egg. All the pods which weren’t crushed or stuck had disengaged and started floating up; sadly, all of them but yours obeyed their emergency programming and opened immediately upon disengagement from the network.”
She gave him a long look before continuing, “I checked the logs from your pod. I rescued it from the sea following a distress beacon a day after the eruption. You, you survived because you’d initiated a server change right at the moment the pod was forcefully disconnected, your pod mistakenly kept waiting for the new server connection, and kept you under forced unconsciousness. The emergency system glitched for that same issue and the pod remained closed. You survived because of that, if you’d been conscious, you’d have manually opened the pod and drowned too.”
Reve let out a deep breath, “Any other survivors?”
She let out a somewhat deranged laugh, then took out her glasses from the belt, put them on. She gave him a data packet. “Here, read this.”
He checked out the data, it was a summary of logs. Apparently, there were a bunch of high-tier, filthy rich people, whose bodies were in a new ultra-high-tech secret cluster just opened a few years ago for megacorp tycoons and admins and such... they had survived. They had survived, and they had a plan to evacuate earth on a giant rocketship. Their plans weren’t concrete enough after evacuating, but they did the humane thing and sent a broadcast for any survivors who could join them. No one responded. They launched yesterday, and the launch station logs mentioned that their rocketship exploded minutes after takeoff.
He frowned, “Didn’t you respond to their hail?”
She chuckled, “And do what? Did you even see their plan? They were a bunch of rich kids trying to run away! Their rocket was fabricated from pre-blight plans, pre-blight!” Her mirth turned into a scowl. “That’s about two centuries old tech! And they’re not scientists, they have no idea what it takes to make tech work in the real world! 100 percent simulation success doesn’t mean a thing if you haven’t tested it in reality!”
He raised his hands in surrender, “All right, all right, I was just asking.” He sighed, and asked the final question, which he was the most afraid to ask, “Could we have prevented this? Or even have prepared for this? Did we even know this could happen?”
She sighed again, “That’s what I’ve spent the last two days researching, sifting through history. The rocketship guys as a last move released the keys to all the satellite data banks and cryptlocks before they launched. I’ve queried them, looking for clues… You see, after the blight, or what the old world people called climate change or global warming… The surface was destroyed, we polluted the air and the water beyond rescue, whole food chains collapsed, and humanity entered a crisis, 95 percent of the 10 billion of us then died within those twenty years... the history during that time is sketchy, but it’s gruesome, it also brought an end to the gender wars and the religious believers, the ones who remained didn’t have time for any of that, they had to survive.”
Reve listened with rapt attention; none of these were completely unknown facts but the context was entirely new.
The researcher took a deep breath before continuing, “There was one last push for science, to find a way for us to continue, that is when the resource factories were invented, that turned our futures around, oxygen and food produced from water and some basic minerals. We moved underground because we’d poisoned the air. VR tech became wildly popular soon after, and our whole focus shifted there, bodypod tech advanced and the virtuworlds were created. We collectively moved into the ‘worlds’, leaving the real world behind, never to return from there. Any science other than VR science plummeted, and that’s when all the eternity certified infrastructure started setting up. We made three mistakes.”
She lifted one finger, “First, yes, this supervolcano had been mapped by pre-blight scientists, they’d concluded that it wasn’t a threat for the next few hundred years, but that was before the blight. All of that, and a lot of other potential calamity research was destroyed or heavily redacted and labeled as alarmism by the pre-blight administration. By the beginning of the virtual age, all that was noted from those papers that it wasn’t a threat.”
She lifted a second finger, “Pre-blight research and philosophy also had urged us to try to spread out. But post-blight we really didn’t have the capacity to try to do that without making everyone work in a mad rush to achieve it. And being underground, with that low morale, the megacorps, the only remaining entities with any administrative capacity, obviously pushed for more and more VR, more and more hooks and lies to keep the people happy and their corporations running.”
She lifted a third finger, “We failed to listen to our own wisdom. Do you know that there is an old world saying, Do not put all your eggs in one basket? Well, we did, and this was the obvious outcome, if it wouldn’t have been the supervolcano, it could be a meteorite, or a geomagnetic storm, or whatever. Just like the megacorp tycoons who blew up mid air yesterday, we were too short sighted to see through our own lies.” She sighed, “Anyway, I’ll get back to work, you do whatever you want to.”
Reve really had nothing to do but sit and ponder over the enormity of what happened as the researcher went back to working on that black cube. After an indeterminate amount of time, he got up to her and asked, “What are you working on?”
She smiled, “An epitaph.”
“An epitaph, and maybe a seed. You see, there had been some real research in the field of rocketry even in the VR age... a small rocket assembly was designed which could be easily fabricated and deployed to send up to twelve kilograms of payload to high orbit. This was under review process from the megacorps, and was made using real scientific testing and over-engineering. I easily had enough resources in this outpost to fabricate and send up one of these rockets after I unlocked all the facilities of this outpost using the dead tycoons’ released keys. The rocket assembly is fabricating since yesterday, will be done by tonight.”
Reve could only gape and nod along.
She continued, pointing at the black cube, “What I’m doing is another piece of over engineering, this is true eternity-tech! I’m making this shielded holocrystal and reader combo which will survive even if 90 percent of it is destroyed, it’ll theoretically have a half life of almost a billion years. I’m going to store in it an abridged human history, an assorted collection of our best works, and these babies that I scrounged from the databanks.” She gestured as Reve received a data manifest.
His not-silver-anymore eyes widened as he realised what he was looking at, “Are these...?”
She nodded triumphantly, “Sixty five thousand, five hundred and thirty six complete human genomes, collected across three hundred years.”
“How can I help?”
She shrugged, “You’re a VR guy, can you handle data?”
He grinned, “Like you wouldn’t believe.”
He worked on it overnight, till he couldn’t stay awake anymore. When she woke him up, it was next evening, “Hey, hey wake up! It’s ready to go! Up, up! Rise and shine! I thought you’d want to see this, the launch is in ten minutes.”
He shook himself awake, “How do we see it?”
She pointed at her glasses, “There are observation cameras topside, we’ll catch the feeds on these.”
He thought for a moment, then stood up. “I want to go up there.”
She frowned. “In the open air? Sure it’ll not kill us immediately but we’ll damage our lungs badly, it could even kill us in a few hours of exposure.”
He shook his head. “I’ll still go. I checked anyway, there’s about two weeks of resources for the two of us here, after that there’s nothing to do. I’ll go see it launch.”
She sighed and checked something through her glasses, then she smiled, and sighed again. “Well, the temperature is within tolerance, no need for extra coverings. Let’s go.”
Reve was going to argue for her to stay, but a look from her stopped him, an he followed her out.
When they stepped out of the airlock on top of the floating research station, the view was something he could honestly say he’d never experienced in VR. A sky of roiling dark clouds was highlighted with blood red from the completely crimson sunset. He had slight trouble breathing, but it was worth it.
The rocket blasted off, and within a minute vanished through the clouds.
“Well,” she said, panting a little, still looking up, “what now?”
“Do you want to stim?”
“You know, it’s polite to offer your name before you ask that.”
“I’m Reve, Reve La’Tor, and you are?”
“They called me Mada AO,” she said with a smile, unclasping her utility belt, “and I prefer the old world term much more than ‘stim’. So yes, Reve, I’d love to f—”
High above a dead world floats a beacon, a tiny cube that absorbs sunlight, and repeats one message loudly in all frequencies:
“We were Humanity/ We overcame a lot/ But failed to master/ Long term thought. This, is our story.”
Arko Sen is a User Experience specialist, who — when not taking money to tell people how to do their jobs better — is an optimistic nihilist and prone to bouts of inadvertent philosophy. Follow his work here. He tweets @NesQuarX