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January 2019 Prompt
By Doug Blackford
The Endless. That’s what they called it. It was easy to see why. The cold air was almost painful and the acrid taste of ozone was bitter on my tongue, but they barely registered in comparison to the sweeping vista of clouds. The smell of rain came and went as air currents carried it to my nose and then away again. The whisper of the wind was the only thing that balanced the silence. The endless ocean of clouds in every direction balanced my soul. I knew it wasn’t real — that it was just electrical signals being pumped into my brain, but that didn’t change how it felt. It wasn’t even a true reflection of reality. There was no breathing at this altitude and the cold itself was deadly. There were definite advantages to virtual reality, but it was all just a sales pitch — a sophisticated sales pitch.
I had stood on the peaks of Mount Everest and K2, and had even been to the “Top of the World” on Olympus Mons. They were each impressive in their own right, as every peak was, but the view on this one had an air of mystery the others lacked. It was, for lack of a better word, otherworldly.
I gestured with one hand and adjusted the virtual interface to begin the narration. The female voice was sultry without being provocative, with just a hint of a Jamaican accent. It was too perfect to be anything except an AI voice, but damn if it didn’t sound authentic. I wondered what information in my profile prompted the accent.
“Hello, Sebastian. Thank you for considering Starline Industries for your travel needs.”
Nice touch. Make it personal.
“Terra Centauri is roughly 4.3 light-years from Earth in the Alpha Centauri system. As the first and closest of the three known habitable exoplanets, we have been there the longest. All basic needs are established with educational, corporate, and government services available.”
“Are those needs and services included in the cost?”
There was always a catch. I had actually had to buy my own air when I trekked Olympus. You’d think a travel package designed for Olympus Mons on Mars would include air, but no, not so much. It’s not like you can do without it, so yeah, always a catch.
“Excellent question, Sebastian. Basic needs such as housing, food, water, air, medical care, and anything else needed to ensure your safety, security, and survival are included in the basic package during transport and while on planet. Things you can actually live without are not. You can, however, upgrade from the basic package to include better or additional services.”
There it was. When they said basic, they meant you’ll-be-miserable-but-you’ll-live basic. I’d done enough traveling to know what wasn’t being said.
“Shall I continue?”
“Due to the indigenous life on the planet, surface travel is regulated carefully and by permit only. Our presence is mostly restricted to habitat constructs in order to minimize damage and contamination of the natural biome. The planet is slightly cooler than our own on average, but is fully capable of sustaining Terran biologicals.”
“What kind of indigenous life?”
I knew what the public data said, but SI might have more updated information.
“Plants analogous to our own, but completely different species. Although some microbial fauna have been discovered, thus far there has been no sign of more complex life forms. Is that a sufficient answer or would you like more scientific detail?”
“No, that’s good. Thanks. Proceed.”
“The highlight of our most popular travel package is what you are experiencing right now. Centauri Mons is the tallest mountain in the Centauri system with a height of just over 11,320 meters. That makes it taller than any other known peak except for Olympus Mons on Mars.”
“Been there. Done that.”
It wasn’t that I was bragging. It was just a statement of fact to prompt the AI to not tangent off in that direction.
“I know. You are quite the accomplished mountaineer and archaeologist. You’ve conquered the highest peaks in our system. I think you might enjoy the challenge of expanding your accomplishments to include another star system. You’d be the first person to conquer every peak over 8,000 meters in two systems.”
“Nice try, and I’ll admit I’m tempted, but you’ll need to do better than that. Convince me.”
“If you insist. Challenge accepted.”
I knew it was just me projecting my own expectations, but I swear I could hear a smile in her voice when she said it. AI agents had become virtually indistinguishable from actual people in the 70 or so years since the Precursor technology had been discovered. That discovery in my early teens was what had driven me to become an exoarchaeologist. I was pushing 90 these days, and even though I was projected to live to around 220, give or take, climbing mountains was for young people. As a middle-aged male, I had other priorities. Still, that view was stupendous.
“Give it your best shot.”
“As an exoarchaeologist, you are no doubt aware of Precursor artifacts having been discovered in several locations in system — Luna, Titan, Mars, Ceres, Vespa, and even right here on Earth once we knew what to look for and how to look for them.”
The VR slowly shifted and morphed to simulate versions of each environment she named.
“I know about them, yes. Are you saying they have discovered artifacts on Terra Centauri?”
Of course I knew about them. I had studied most of them. I had even discovered one of the several that were located on Mars. If they had found artifacts on Terra Centauri, that would have huge ramifications. There were several theories regarding the Precursors, but no real evidence about where they had come from or where they had gone. They were obviously an interstellar civilization, as our own star drives had proven based on their technology, but no other evidence had been found regarding any star system other than our own.
The VR showed a recently uncovered obelisk in one of Earth’s jungles. It appeared unmarked by the passage of time. I could feel the humidity and smell the eucalyptus of the jungle. The simulation began shifting again, but the obelisk remained. All of the plants changed to types I didn’t recognize, and the humidity dropped considerably. There was a strange scent that seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“I do not have access to that information, so can neither confirm nor deny such a discovery. It is not an impossibility for Precursor artifacts to exist on Terra Centauri, therefore, it is certainly possible that they do. If they do, but have not yet been discovered, imagine if it was you who discovered them. As a certified exoarchaeologist, you have access to special packages that are unavailable to non-certified citizen travelers. Would you like to hear what packages are available to you?”
“Special packages? What kind of special packages?”
I knew she was using logic manipulation, but it was still intriguing. I had accessed the SI node more out of curiosity than anything else, after having heard that SI had the best VR representation of The Endless. My curiosity was now aimed in another direction. The AI was good and had piqued my interest.
“In addition to the citizen travel packages, you are authorized to apply for three special packages according to your certifications. Technically, they are called science packages, but we just call them the professor, researcher, and resident packages. Unlike the traveler packages, which you pay for, science packages are paid for by a sponsor.”
I knew how sponsorships worked. I’d had several fellowships and grants, not to mention the countless contracts I’d worked over the years.
“Do any of them have open sponsorships available?”
“Yes, Sebastian. Each science package has sponsors open to candidates who meet their certified qualification needs.”
“Tell me about the packages.”
It wasn’t that I was seriously considering traveling over four light-years to another planet, but it wasn’t that I was totally set against the idea either. I was curious. Always had been. There was always more to know. Mother Sabine used to tell me that some feline DNA must have gotten into my mix. I had thought she was serious up until my early teens, when I figured out what she really meant. I did get my DNA checked, though, just in case. No feline.
“The professor package is for Centauri University and includes a one- to three-year work visa to teach at the university. Various fields of study are available, including exoarchaeology.”
“No, not ready to hang up my boots just yet.”
I might be middle-aged, but I was still too young to retire to a classroom.
“The researcher package includes a three- to five-year work visa and has interested sponsors in the university, corporate, and government sectors. The fields of research available depend on which sponsor accepts your application, but all three sectors include at least one exoarchaeology research position.”
“Both field and lab research positions are available across the sectors. Would you like more detailed information on this package, Sebastian?”
“No. Not right now, anyway. Tell me about the last one you mentioned. The resident package?”
“Immigration requirements have been modified to now allow certified individuals to become permanent residents of Terra Centauri. This fact has not been advertised to general citizens due to the probable over-response of applications. Only certified individuals that fill a specific need are considered for permanent resident status. Considering your skills, accomplishments, and certifications, as well as the ongoing search for Percursor artifacts, you are a prime candidate for the resident package.”
Why would I want to move there? An even better question might be, what benefit would being a resident provide?
“Why would I want to move there? I get that it’s prime territory for an exoarchaeologist, but what possible benefit would be enticing enough to actually move there? I would think a field-researcher position would be perfectly adequate.”
“I’m glad you asked, Sebastian. Pending a successful application, you would be allowed to live on Terra Centauri for a probationary period of five years, after which time your probationary resident status could be converted to permanent or you could return to Earth. During that first five years, you would be obligated to do some guest lectures, teach some classes, and perform some research. You would have a little more freedom to pursue the research of most interest to you, and not just what was assigned to you. After the five years, should you stay and become a permanent resident, you would be allowed to form your own research expeditions. Also, you would be given first-class accommodations on your trip there, if that matters.”
“Really? My own expeditions after five years? I can’t do that with the researcher positions?”
“I’m afraid not, Sebastian. All research expeditions are supervised by resident experts and conducted according to their requirements and goals. As a researcher, you would answer to them. After five years, you would be one of them. The five-year arrangement is to provide adequate time to become familiar with the planet and its eccentricities. If there is more to it than that, I do not have that data.”
I had earned the seniority and experience to form and lead expeditions in many places on Earth, but nowhere else. True enough that I had been the lead scientist on expeditions to both Mars and Luna, but they were someone else’s expeditions — the United Western Alliance for this one, Luna Corp for that one, International Solutions for another one. It took decades to earn my name on Earth. It would take decades more to earn it for the rest of the system. Earning it in five years was …
“Five years? Really? What’s the catch? There’s always a catch. I mean, besides having to become a resident. Who is the sponsor? Oh, never mind. It would have to be the government. Right?”
“I’m sorry, that information is classified. I can provide details and I can submit applications on your behalf, but I cannot access or reveal specific sponsor names. The system is set up so that specific sponsors are anonymous until after your application is accepted. At that point, things progress according to their process and they will provide you with all pertinent information.”
For that kind of benefit, the name of the sponsor didn’t really matter all that much. It mattered some, but probably not enough to be a deciding factor. I had accessed the node for The Endless strictly for my own entertainment, and now I was actually considering moving to another planet. How did that happen?
“Five years. Seriously? How long do I have to make a decision?”
“Open positions cannot be reserved or held open for potential applicants. You have until someone else is accepted for the position. That may not happen for another year or more, or it may be filled within the hour. Applicants are considered in the order of their application. I will tell you that although I am currently hosting 7,237 other virtual tours of Terra Centauri at this time, none of them are potential applicants for a resident package.”
Could I move to another planet? Should I move to another planet? It wasn’t like I had any permanent attachments. Friends, sure. Peers and colleagues, of course. No family, though. No offspring. No significant other. Not anymore, anyway. In fact, not even a current contract or expedition. There was nothing really keeping me on Earth. I had been off-planet for years at a time before. This wasn’t that different.
“You win the challenge. Do it.”
The seventh time was just as spectacular as the first. No, as spectacular as the second. The first time had been a VR experience. It had been an exemplary simulation, but it hadn’t compared to the real thing.
I had made the trip from The Ark to the summit of Centauri Mons every year since I’d landed. I’d had to beg a ride for the first five years, but since I’d converted to permanent resident, the research skiff at my disposal ensured I could go on my own timetable. I had cut it close this year. The ion storms were due in less than a week, but I had an expedition scheduled for right after, so this was my only available window.
The voice in my head startled me out of my reverie. It had been good while it lasted. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted peace. The environmental suit was so advanced that I hardly noticed it. Terra Centauri got first dibs on all of the latest advances. It was almost like being alone atop the mountain, except I was never truly alone anymore.
One of the requirements I’d had to agree to when becoming a resident was getting chipped. It wasn’t the same as getting an identity chip. That was just an implant under the skin with my SIN and other information — medical, security, financial, everything that defined my data print. No, this was a chip in my head. It had two primary functions. One, it connected me to the network. Always on, always connected, anywhere on or around the planet.
The second function was an IA, an intelligent assistant, that existed in my head. Every resident had a version of the IA in their heads, but user customization ensured that each one was unique to them. It had proven quite useful, but it also bugged me to no end. I preferred it that way. I never wanted to get so used to technological integrations that I began thinking they were part of me. They were part of me in a literal sense, but they were not me. They were separate. I had intentionally tweaked my IA to be sarcastic, blunt, and profane. He was a pain in the ass and I didn’t like him very much. He didn’t like me very much, either, so it worked out great.
“You’re going to die.”
That was obvious. So was everyone at some point, but I doubted he had just stated a fact like that out of nowhere. Something had prompted it.
“Why do you say that?”
“I am detecting an ion wave — no, wait. Yes. I had to verify the data burst with satellite sensors. Farside Arcology has gone dark. It sent out a data burst just before signal loss, and satellites confirm that an ion wave front is progressing. You. Are. Fucked. Wait, so am I. Shit.”
The storms were one of the planet’s “eccentricities,” as I had once heard them called. They were always preceded by a wave front, but usually not by more than a few hours. They had never been categorized as separate events. That meant the storms were early. That also meant I was screwed unless I found shelter at a lower altitude. The storms themselves were seldom lethal to biologicals, though they could temporarily scramble your neurological system and generate substantial shock voltage. However, they could completely fry unprotected electronics. Considering that my very survival depended on working electronics at the moment, now was a bad time.
“We need to go.”
I was running before the words even left my mouth, not that I needed to say them aloud. Pita had the skiff flight-ready by the time I was in the pilot’s seat, and I was halfway down the mountain before I asked my next question.
“Time before intersect?”
“On your current heading, seventeen minutes. You cannot make Oceanus Prime.”
“I know, but I might be able to reach the canyons.”
The next few minutes lasted forever, but went by too quickly.
“I don’t want to die. Go faster.”
“We’re not going to die. Damn!”
A ground stroke reached up and killed the electrical systems. The skiff turned into a gliding brick.
“Help me level her out! We’re going down!”
When I opened my eyes, I saw a wall with strange carvings in front of the windscreen.
“Welcome back, Bas. I rebooted hours ago. It seems you’ve discovered a Precursor site.”