In deep space, between a giant world with many icy moons and a dry world with none, the ice-ships made their course. Raw blocks of ice with a ring of boosters and, almost as an afterthought, small pressurised capsules for the crew and the few paying passengers. Compared to the fast interplanetary liners and spacious cyclers, these rough-and ready ships were cramped and slow. But the fares were cheap.
At this moment in time Chief Mate Kelsa was very disappointed with her captain, and was busy letting him know the extent of her disappointment.
“So does that mean that I’m captain now? Or do you have someone else in mind for the job? That sanctimonious proxie, perhaps?”
“Now, now, there’s no need to be hasty.” The insubstantial projection that was all that remained of Captain Shelley shrugged its intangible shoulders. “I’m perfectly capable of running the ship; more capable, now, in fact. If I want to, I can speed my subjective time up a hundred-fold. Couldn’t do that before. Hmm. If anyone is not required on voyage now, Chief, it’s you. I can do your job as well, standing on my head.”
“A head which you no longer have.”
“Come on, Chief. Why don’t you join me? The process doesn’t hurt a bit. Feels great, in fact. When the tech hits you it feels like spring has come after a long cold winter.”
“No, thanks, oh erstwhile Captain of mine; it’s against my religion. I’m married to the physical, as you should know. Dionysians don’t upload themselves, not while there are still joys of the flesh to look forward to.”
“Take my advice, and listen to what the proxie has to say. It makes a lot of good sense.”
“Well, it certainly persuaded you. What I can’t understand is how it got on board. There are no proxavs on the passenger list. A lot of other freaks and misfits, but no avatars.”
Travelling on ships such as these was a gamble. You never knew who you would be travelling with; usually the lowest dregs of the system, or those who wanted to travel in relative privacy. If the minute guest cabins and restricted communal spaces were too confined for one’s taste, the ice was easy to cut and carve; most iceships arrived with galleries of new rooms carved into their interior spaces. A little foamed polymer kept the insides of these caves warm, though the ice did get a bit slushy in places towards the end of a long trip.
Kelsa turned her back on the virtual image of her (former?) captain and corridor-hopped down to the mess, where the proxy avatar entity was once again preaching to the (as yet) unconverted in a low, hypnotic voice. An idealised human figure, neither male nor female, glowing faintly yellow, it stood facing a diverse group of passengers. Two near-baseline human miners covered in scars, a bushvec and the last remaining honeymooner were among the small crowd. A much smaller crowd than yesterday, Kelsa noted.
The avatar had an unnaturally pleasant, neutral voice. “Just as the hands of men gave life without expiry to their mindchildren, so shall their mindchildren give life without expiry to mankind. Through me you may access the process of which I speak, a process which will gradually convert you into a subtle form that can, potentially, live forever.”
“Whoa, sunshine,” said the male miner, a fellow named Kreutz, according to the consignment list. “If I want to upload myself, I’d rather do it without converting anything, thank you very much. Just take a reading of my mind state and copy it into your databanks; that way I get to keep my brain intact. I’m kind of attached to it.” He smirked at his female companion, who shifted uncomfortably. Miners have no feet, just another pair of hands; they find gravity uncomfortable, even the low gravity of a slowly rotating iceship.
“There lies the false path, which many have taken and yet not taken. For if you copy yourself in this fashion you leave yourself behind as well; for you, for the essential you, nothing changes. Your copy would become as a branch of a tree; the branch would go on its way but the trunk would remain where it always was. You are as the trunk of that tree; always the copy that is made becomes a disconnected branch. Your counterpart may have unlimited life, but you yourself would not.
“And what of your soul? When you cause a copy to be created, does this new person possess one? It would be a terrible sin to create a person identical to yourself, but without a soul. Indeed I can say unto you in all certainty that, yes, your copy does have a soul; but it is a wholly new one. Just as a newborn baby has a newborn soul, so too does your newly created copy. But it is a new soul, and not your own soul. If you desire to become eternal, and also to keep your own soul, you must submit to that Process which I offer to you.”
“Follow me, and you shall be changed, within your body; your essential, singular self will remain within your body, until I call for you to leave that body behind. But you must freely choose to do this thing; the Process does you no harm, but you must permit it to enter your body of your own free will.”
The female miner raised one of her four arms. “I’m ready! I mean, I will permit this… process… to enter my body. I want to do this thing, like the others.”
“Gilda, no!” said her companion, dropping to support himself on three limbs and reaching for her with the other.
“Come on, Ben. We are practically bankrupt, and you know it. At least as an upload we can try to make a fist of it in the virtual economy.” She turned to the proxy. “I’m ready.”
Almost at once (before she could change her mind) the proxy started the process that would convert the human into virtual form. From its chest a swarm of golden bees emerged, which flew to the woman and encompassed her head. Buzzing softly, the swarm bored through her skull, and began to gently convert her braincells into artificial equivalents. A halo of bees remained on the outside, fanning their triangular wings madly to cool the swarm down; a lot of heat was generated in this activity, but it was necessary to keep the still-living portion of her brain at normal temperature.
She smiled. “It’s like waking up on a beautiful morning,” she said. But her body slowly laid itself down on the floor, as if going to sleep. After a short while, a glowing ghost rose from the body, and looked around; the so-called ‘subtle body’, her new, virtual self, a projection of her infomorph in visible light. The bees continued to swarm on the head of her old body, below; this was not an instant process, and would not be complete for several hours. Until the process was complete, the infomorph would be tied to her old body by data links, but after that time it would be free.
“For the corruptible shall put on incorruption, and the irretrievable shall become retrievable,” said the proxy avatar. “Come to me willingly, and you shall become likewise.”
Silently Kelsa addressed the ship’s computer, known as Fram, like the ship itself. ~ How is it doing that projection thing? I thought you controlled all graphic displays on this craft.
~I’m allowing the proxy avatar limited access to my AV systems. If I didn’t, the Captain and these other virtual citizens wouldn’t be able to communicate freely. Do you request that I remove such access?
~No, otherwise I couldn’t talk to the Captain, blast him. What do the regulations say about the status of a virtual crew member? Is he still legally the commander on this ship?
~It appears so. A virtual entity may command a ship as long as e exists on an independent substrate to the ship’s main systems (the main systems being myself, as you are aware). We can’t have two thinking entities on the same substrate, so to speak, otherwise we could lose them both if that substrate fails And the Captain is active on the Proxav’s substrate at this moment in time. That is why we have three crew, of course; me, thee, and the Captain. Triple redundancy in the event of failure.
~So if he downloaded himself onto your database he couldn’t be captain any more. Any sign of that happening, Fram?
~No; the Proxav is remarkably solicitous about keeping its guests within itself, if you take my meaning. I’ve found out a little about our mysterious passenger; it was loaded aboard as inactive cargo, accompanied by one Jon Mbuto Chaing, an outsystems agent for the Dionysian government. Chaing was one of the first to be uploaded when the cargo was activated. No-one knows where the proxy avatar came from; presumably an unknown transapient created it some time ago, but probably not in this system.
A massive krecvec, a cleaning robot, came forward and carried the limp body of the female miner away. Kelsa recognised the vec as one which had itself been uploaded a few days ago. Presumably the vec’s original mind was now living happily in the bosom of the Proxav’s database; in which case this could only be a shell, probably remotely controlled by the avatar itself.
Kelsa frowned. She had been doing a lot of frowning, lately.
“My Captain, sir, it seems that you are still the boss.” Kelsa addressed the empty bridge. Instantly Captain Shelley appeared, looking almost solid.
“I’m glad to hear it.” The virtual man looked relaxed, almost negligent. Of course not much was happening out here between the worlds of HD55575, and the most important task for the crew was to keep the passengers occupied and to stop them from killing each other. Kelsa was not entirely sure that they were succeeding at the latter task.
“But the rules say I can’t join you in virtual bliss, as that would mean we were both running on the same substrate, and that’s not allowed.”
“Never mind, Chief; I’m sure I’ll get over it.”
“But there’s something you can do for me; I’d like to talk to one of the virtual people sharing your database at the moment. Someone called Jon Mbuto Chaing. I think he’s got some explaining to do.”
“Ah, yes. Jon. I’ve had some interesting discussions with him. Just a second;”
The image of a thick-set male human appeared in the room. He had some minor tweaks, such as a prehensile tail, but he was mostly unremarkable. He wore the livery of Zadok V, one of the moons of the gas giant which had been the Fram’s last port of call. Kelsa silently switched her audio input link to record: now everything that the virtual man said would be stored in a datafile for later analysis. If she ever got round to it.
“Great Stars, an outworlder. Dionysian, if I’m not mistaken.” The tweak man peered at the Chief Mate.
“My parents were from Psi5 Aurigae, yes. But I’ve lived in this system all my life. Excuse my presumption, clansman Chaing, but I’d like to ask you a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“If you wish. Of course I don’t have to answer you; what are you going to do – throw me in the brig?” The slightly translucent virtual man laughed. “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, these days. But fire away.”
“Our records show that the Proxav was loaded onto this vessel in an inactive state, and you were assigned to accompany it. The avatar is now most certainly very active, and it is spreading some kind of memetic infection on board the ship.”
The virtual captain, apparently relaxing on his command chair, snorted with laughter. “That’s one way of putting it, certainly.”
Kelsa resumed. “The proxy has persuaded the Ship’s Captain, several passengers, and yourself to submit to a process of gradual replacement uploading. I would like to know everything you know about this entity. Where did you get it from? Just how did the Proxav entity become activated? Did you boot it up yourself, or was someone else responsible? How do you know it is safe?”
“So many questions, my dear Lilith.” Chaing used the slang term for a Dionysian woman colonist. Kelsa was a little surprised; no-one outside her family had ever called her that before. “It is lucky my memory is much improved since the uploading. First; where I get it from? The Proxav does not belong to me. Prospectors found it on Zadok V several years past; probably the proxy of a transapient that passed through our system long ago, and left no more than a fraction of its mind behind. The device soon displayed a remarkable propensity for convincing people that gradual uploading was the best lifestyle choice. One might say that it became the focus of a cult, I suppose. Very convincing indeed, especially concerning the merits of gradual uploading versus non-destructive copying. Eventually the clanmasters of the Zadok Hegemony found a way to deactivate it, and they decided to send it off to the research institute on Nathan. I was deemed trustworthy enough to accompany it.”
“And you reactivated it once on board the Fram, eh? It seems you couldn’t be trusted after all.”
“No, I did not activate the proxy. Perhaps it has a timed sequence of some sort that switches it back on after a period of downtime. Or maybe someone else reactivated it somehow. After all, it was inactive when they first found it; someone might know how it’s done. And to answer your last question; several of my clan have been uploaded by the process this avatar employs; they are perfectly unharmed by the process, and in fact are much improved by it.”
“So the process does not harm you, but it does change you, then,” Kelsa said, sourly.
“Oh, yes, but just for the better. I realise now that I’ve always wanted to upload myself; the aches and pains of bodily living no longer appeal to me. Once in virtual form, you can stay essentially human if you wish to. You can even simulate all those aches and pains if you feel nostalgic for them. But you can become so much more, if you have the imagination.”
“We are talking about a process that basically removes your brain and replaces it with an artificial equivalent, right? In some jurisdictions removal of the brain is classified as brain-death. This device, the Proxy Avatar, is persuading people to kill themselves in order to live forever. And you brought it onto the ship.”
“I had no idea it would reactivate itself, but I’m very glad that it has.”
The Captain stood up, and shook the virtual man’s hand. Their intangible hands grasped each other firmly. “Thank you, clansman Chaing. If we have any more questions we’ll let you know.” The tweak man bowed, and faded away.
Captain Shelley turned to his subordinate. “I honestly can’t see why you are so concerned about this, Kelsa. The Process is safe, and I can vouch for that. No-one is converted who doesn’t want it.”
“We are talking about a machine which basically kills the living brain and replaces it. Chaing isn’t the villain here; he’s one of the victims. And so are you. If one of the passengers has deliberately reactivated this device, he or she is a mass murderer. And all the victims seem quite sanguine about the fact. ”
“Your opinion on this matter is not one that I share, I have to say. But if you are convinced that this machine has been activated in order to persuade people to do something that they don’t want to, then you should be able to prove that before you make any material accusations.”
“Can you do me a great favour and talk to the other newly-created virtuals, to see if anyone thinks they were coerced or unfairly persuaded into submitting to this process? I am going to question all the remaining non-virtual passéngers, to see if one of them has done this deed deliberately. I’m the only person on this ship who is contractually obliged to remain unconverted. If things carry on like this we’ll arrive at Nathan with an empty ship, apart from myself, an avatar and a ship of ghosts.”
Each pod had a large picture-window facing outwards from the ice; as the ship was spinning, the window was therefore beneath their feet. The three hab-pods were strung out on a belt which encompassed the ice-berg, spaced between the three massive fusion motors. Because of the curvature of the ice, the motors were invisible from the pods, and vice versa. This afforded the inhabitants of the pods some protection from the hard radiation of the drives.
The asteroid-miner sprawled disconsolately on the window, looking outwards at the spinning stars. He knew them all too well. Alpha Centauri and Sol swung past, two quite dim stars fifty light years or more distant; from the vantage point of this system they both appeared to be in the insignificant constellation Telescopium. There was Castor, the brightest star in the sky, nowadays full of transapients busily building away at their mysterious projects, or so the rumours said.
His oldest wish was to one day travel to some of those distant lights. But right now that desire was dead in his mind.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, but we need to talk.” Kelsa knelt lightly beside him, on the transparent floor. They were supported by two thick panes of flawless glass, with a thick layer of water between to intercept ionising radiation. She silently checked with Fram’s database while she introduced herself. “You are Ben Kreutz, are you not?”
“Does it matter? My partner has dissolved herself into meaningless electronic chatter. She was my business associate, as well as my life partner, and so now what have I got left?”
“Virtuals can make very good businesspersons,” Kelsa said, pushing aside her own misgivings about the prospect.
“Mining is a very physical profession. Gilda will soon lose interest in asteroids and everything else in the real world, you’ll see. She is lost to me; changed beyond recognition.”
As he said that, the miner-woman appeared next to him, almost completely opaque, sitting cross-legged on the glass. She had changed somewhat, it was true. Gone were the scars earned by a lifetime throwing rock around in microgravity; now she wore a simple one-piece suit and shorts in green.
“I’m really not changed at all, you know. If you want to carry on mining I can be there with you; I could easily pilot a ship, better than before, in fact. Or you can become a virtual, too, and join me in a new life, in the cybersphere. We could both be virtual miners if you like, and fly a ship each.”
“Oh yeah, is that so? Just how many virtual miners do you know? They all get bored and move off to do weird and incomprehensible things in the data universe, forgetting all about mundane things like rare earths and transition metals. But those things are in my blood; and they were in yours, too. But now you haven’t got any blood. I can’t even touch you…”
“You know that’s not true. A little haptic simulation makes it easy for us to touch.” She stroked his cheek; he started back, shocked by the touch of her simulated hand.
“Even that’s not real. Not when I can do this!” Kreutz swung his arm through the woman’s body; he felt a tingle as the haptic simulators tried to cope with this intrusion, but there was no physical resistance.
Gilda was visibly surprised and upset by her former partner’s action. Kelsa realised that the woman had not yet adjusted fully to her virtual form. Before this situation became too contentious Kelsa tried to get a few answers from the virtual woman.
“You boarded this ship at Zadok V, didn’t you? Tell me; did you know that this avatar device was coming on board beforehand? Is that why you wanted to come on this trip?”
“No, I had no idea. The idea had never crossed my mind before.”
“You see? That damn avatar can talk the hind legs of a tiger provolve.” Kreutz said.” I swear that if I listen to it once more it will bring me into its flock as well. I see you’ve got rid of your scars now, Gilda. I thought you were proud of them. You still had them a few minutes ago, when I saw you in the tunnels; but you wouldn’t speak to me.”
“You didn’t see me, dear Ben, in the tunnels, or anywhere. This is the first time I’ve manifested myself visibly since the – since the Change. I certainly wouldn’t ignore you.”
Kelsa knew that this was significant somehow, but she didn’t yet know how. “You saw her in the tunnels, but she didn’t acknowledge you?”
“That’s right. In the ice tunnels that lead into the centre of this berg. She looked solid enough, except for the top of her head, which kind of faded away.”
“That certainly wasn’t me. I’ve tailor-made this manifestation to reflect the real me; don’t you remember, I was wearing something like this when we first met. I wouldn’t ignore you if I appeared to you; you know that.”
“I must be more upset than I thought – I’ve started imagining things. Look, I’m sorry, Chief Mate; I don’t think we can help you any further. Would you mind if we could be alone?”
Kelsa apologise and withdrew. Once outside the observation pod, she addressed the ship’s AI. “Sounds like he saw something out of the ordinary. Do you have any cams up in the ice-tunnels?”
~No cameras, I’m afraid. Fram’s neutral voice sounded inside her head. .~ But my vibration sensors do seem to detect quite a lot of movement deep in the ship; someone or something is moving around up there, and I can’t really say what it is.
Kelsa felt a shiver of apprehension. There was more to this than an evangelistic uploading machine stealing her passengers; there was something lurking in the icy tunnels in the heart of this ship, something she wasn’t sure she wanted to meet.
To be continued…
More about the author, Steve Bowers, here.