by Jay O'Connell
Illustrated by Eldar Zakirov
“Who brought me back to life?”
“I can’t tell you that.” The heavyset woman in the beige chair across from me was middle-aged, with neat, tightly curled hair and laugh lines radiating from the corners of a pair of dark, compassionate eyes.
My tongue felt thick and sticky in my mouth. “Well, that effing sucks.” I took a sip of water.
I couldn’t get a rise out of this woman, a serene social worker type. I wasn’t sure if I found her bedside manner reassuring or annoying.
“And you were never dead. You were archived. Like a video on pause. We don’t say, ‘brought back to life’ either, or ‘resurrected.’ We say ‘restored,’ or ‘rebooted.’”
“How was I . . . archived. What is that?”
“You were caught up in an industrial accident, a catastrophe. Your body was preserved for thirteen years.”
Christ, rebooted? More computer metaphors taking over the language. Great. “So, it’s 2055 and I’m still twenty-seven. But I was born in 2015?”
“You were paused for thirteen years. Think of the archival state as a coma—”
“—a coma that fixed my back. Regrew my teeth. And detoxed me.”
“Yes. That kind of coma.”
“Tell me who you people are again. Sorry. This is confusing.”
The woman radiated patience. Despite myself, I found her presence calming. “I’m Asha, your restoration counselor. I’ll get you up to speed on what’s going on out there.” She gestured at the cloudless blue framed by the office’s huge picture window. “So you can take care of yourself.”
“Um,” I said. I’d been doing a crap job taking care of myself, but that was my business. The last thing I remembered was passing out cocooned in trash behind a dumpster.
I’d come to, stumbling down a corridor, naked under the soft white robe I wore now. Asha had lead me here, to this empty room with its window and the rectangle of blue sky and the potted ferns in the corners and the two welcoming beige chairs. She’d held my hand until coherent sentences could form. My memory shivered and stuttered like an old, gas-powered car on a winter morning.
“Can I check out?”
Asha sighed. “You can sign a petition for immediate release. If a judge decides you’re not a danger to yourself or others, you can leave. If you’re temporarily committed, you can appeal the judge’s decision to the Zeitgeist. That will take five seconds. But why not use our services? We don’t bite. You’re prepaid for a five-day rehab. Beats sleeping rough.”
I snorted. Like Asha knew what sleeping rough was like.
“And what is the Zeitgeist?”
“The Zeitgeist is what the catastrophe that archived you evolved into. This is a longer conversation and our time is almost up. For now, just think of the Zeitgeist as the circled Z icon in every computer interface: a digital assistant.”
Great. Another AI slave bot. What did you want to bet they’d given it a woman’s voice?
Asha’s seriousness bugged me. I didn’t want to attend her support group. I hated groups. “I’ve been on ice for thirteen years. What’s the big deal? I’ll watch a few videos and get up to speed.”
Asha shook her head. I wished she had a notebook or computer or something, but no. She just looked at me. Unnerving. Asha had told me the interface glasses and mobile devices I was used to had been replaced with implants in people my age. Direct neural feeds. So her computing environment was always available, driven by tiny eye movements and subvocalized commands.
Was she really looking at me or was she filling out forms? I shivered. Wearable computing was off-putting. Implants were worse.
“Did you learn about exponential change in school?”
I nodded. It had struck me as arrogant, thinking you could predict the future. People made the future, and people weren’t reliable. I knew that much.
“You’re wired to think linearly. You adjusted to accelerating change your whole life, but your brain perceived that change as a straight line. It isn’t. Change is a curve with an ever-steepening slope. Change gets faster as it gets faster.”
I sucked at math and didn’t want to talk about exponents. “I don’t believe in your Singularity. Zeitgeist. Whatever. Why am I here? Tell me in short sentences.”
“The Zeitgeist didn’t know what you were for. It didn’t understand where you fit in the scheme of things, or its plan, assuming it has one, which is still up in the air, thirteen years after the Catastrophe. You weren’t deleted because the Zeitgeist never deletes anything. It makes an archive—”
“Has everyone been brought back?”
“No. About 50 percent of the archived have been rebooted.”
“Why is that?”
“Restoration is very expensive.” She quoted me a figure, and converted it into a currency I understood.
I whistled. That much coin would pay for four years tuition at a private university! No way could Mom have scraped that together. I knew this for certain, what with my unpaid student loans and all.
So I asked the question I found most troubling. “Who would pay that for me?”
“I don’t know,” Asha said. “The Zeitgeist preserves the donor’s anonymity. I’m sorry.”
Someone dropping mad coin and saving my loser ass was harder to believe than waking up in the future. “This is effed up.”
Asha nodded. “You’re right. It is.”
The Zeitgeist sounded like bullshit. Like science fiction.
I hated science fiction.
Illustrated by Tomislav Tikulin
by Jerry Oltion
Melissa could have taken the landing as an omen. Right from the start, things started going wrong. The docking collar didn’t release evenly, which put the shuttle into a slow tumble that had to be cancelled before she could thrust away from the mothership. By the time she got that under control, the LIDAR had lost its lock on the landing site. She reestablished that easily enough, but their orbital velocity had already taken them well past the optimum entry point so she had to thrust extra hard to compensate. The shuttle hit the atmosphere at a steeper angle, which meant harder gee forces and more turbulence bouncing her and François and Gary around. And so on like that: little annoyances all the way down.
Their target site was an open field near what looked to be a fairly sizeable city. It was walled like a medieval castle, with a sprawl of housing and industry around it that suggested the walls were more ornamental than necessary nowadays. It was at the confluence of two rivers, and many roads spread out like spokes from the hub of a wheel, clear evidence that this was a center of commerce. It was one of only half a dozen cities on the planet that showed electric lights at night, indicating a level of civilization at least slightly elevated beyond the hundreds of other cities. As good a choice as any for first contact.
A puffy white cloud drifted right over their target just as she was making final approach. “What do you think,” she asked as she dropped toward it. “Do we descend on agrav or go for maximum awe?”
“Oh, the maximum awe, of course,” Gary said. “Start from a position of power.”
“Awe it is,” she said, keeping the fusion drive lit as they dropped into the cloud. From inside the shuttle they just saw a bright blue flickering maelstrom through the viewscreen as the exhaust reflected off the myriad water droplets and ice crystals, but Melissa had seen enough torch landings to know what it looked like from below: A tiny spike of light entered the cloud, and the cloud exploded. It was usually loud as hell, too, with the ionized plasma triggering lightning and thunder as well as the drive’s own roar in the dense low-altitude air.
They punched out the bottom of what was left. At two hundred meters she switched to agrav so they wouldn’t light the field on fire, and descended quickly to hover just a few meters above the waving stalks of grass or crops or whatever. She lowered the shuttle a meter at a time until she got a contact light on all three feet, then let the ship settle in.
The port-aft leg kept settling long after the others.
“Badger hole,” Gary laughed. “Try again.”
So much for impressing the natives. Sighing, she lifted the shuttle up, slid it a few meters sideways, and settled back down. This time it remained level.
“Deploying bio-goo,” François said, acquiring the momentary blank stare of someone using a mental command link. An outer port opened up and an arm extended the synthetic cell culture out into the air. Through a monitor stuck to the curving wall beside him, they watched the white petri dish for telltales, but it stayed white well past the one-minute safety mark. If there were dangerous chemicals in the air, they were within the concentration that the explorers’ lung filters could compensate for.
Melissa aimed a camera toward the walled city and directed its output to the main viewscreen. Figures were moving rapidly to and fro along the top of the wall, and along the streets she could see. They had definitely stirred up the ant hill.
Zoom in on the wall, she thought, using the inner voice she reserved for commands, and the camera complied. Now the figures took on shape: blunt brown cylinders with multiple arms and legs and smaller knobby appendages all along their bodies.
“Caterpillars,” Gary said. “Oh, boy. Why do we never get the planet of Amazon temptresses?”
“Because the home office knows how you would disgrace the corps if we did,” François said. “Come, let us see if we can talk to these caterpillars. Maybe they will turn out to be beautiful butterflies, eh?”
Gary snorted. “I’ll stay here and mind the store.”
“Fair enough,” Melissa said. Someone needed to watch over the others from a position of safety, ready to protect the contact team with the ship’s defenses if the natives turned out to be hostile.
She got up from the pilot’s seat and gathered their equipment. A first contact team’s standard gear consisted of flesh-colored skinsuits that doubled as tactical body armor, a handful of grape-sized diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and gold nuggets, hummingbird-sized surveillance drones, and a microwave pistol. It seemed pitifully little for establishing first contact with an entire alien race, but experience had proven that too much technology was generally intimidating. Besides; they were here to learn the language, say “Hi,” and report back home; it didn’t take much to do that.
The skinsuits matched their wearers’ skin tone. Melissa’s was dark brown, Gary’s darker still, edging toward black, while François stood out pale pink by comparison. All three looked like blurred, Bowdlerized nudes. Previous contact teams on dozens of other planets had learned that brightly colored clothing merely complicated the process of learning to communicate, and explaining the reasons for covering some parts of the body and not others led to uncomfortable discussion of taboos and inhibitions; concepts far too complicated for an initial conversation. It was simpler to just let the aliens assume they were seeing the landing party in their natural state.
The contact team had already suited up before leaving the mothership. Melissa strapped on the hip bag containing her other gear, while François did the same.
“Ready?” she asked when they were both done.
“Buck naked into the unknown,” he replied.
“Corlexi, are we go?”
“We are go,” the lander’s computer replied in its androgynous voice. Melissa felt the assurance in her mental link, too. A sense of rightness and readiness settled over her. She assumed the tinge of anticipation and anxiety was all her own, but who knew?
She pitched her voice to command, saying aloud so everyone knew what was coming: “Lower the ramp.” A gentle hum sounded from beneath the airlock, and a moment later the lander rocked a little as the ramp dug into the dirt. “Open the inner door,” she said, and the airlock door split apart.