The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home
Copyright (C) 2018 Ashlyn Nafina

Summary: Two sisters, a quiet engineer and a famous e-sports space pilot, go together on an investigation of a routine maintenance issue on their world’s networking infrastructure, only to find themselves on a strange adventure that will shake their whole understanding of their world.

Notes: This one has been bubbling up in my consciousness for a while. Part of why I like to write stories is that it lets me explore topics important to me on a deeper level and share that exploration with others. I hope everyone finds something to like in this one!

One – Society

— Tai —

Often it is said that the young feel old, or the old feel young. I’ve lost track of what “age” means, myself. All I know is that, when the world, with all of its loves, hates, fears, wisdom, folly, laughs, and cries… when the world suddenly and abruptly brushed its closest yet with death, the books said I was 24 years old.

That strange day started out like many of the rest. Like most of humanity, I spend most of my time in a place we call Earth.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey! That’s a really strange way to put it.” Everyone knows that that’s what the place we used to live was called. But one thing led to another, and… I am getting ahead of myself.

Humanity had reached a point with Earth where we were nearly beyond the concept of scarcity. Billions of people lived, worked, and played here. No one needed to work unless they were personally driven to take up some skill that was useful to keep things running, either by boredom or by feeling particularly inspired or called. Things needed doing, of course; billions of human beings couldn’t simply run on nothing. But robots did most of the heavy lifting, and much of what was left was in finding new sources of raw materials, writing the code that would run those robots and AIs that took care of everything, and finding ways to avoid being bored. And if there was one thing that was true about Earth, it’s that it was pretty hard to be bored.

I’m Tainah Asche, Tai for short.

On that day, my work room swayed gently in the breeze, the branches holding it high in the air creaking in time with the wind. Leaves rustled through the open windows.

I was on my back on a comfy blue sofa, ankle crossed over a knee, translucent windows sprawled in the air around me, keyboard floating in front of me. A lot of programmers my age were using more direct neural interfaces, surfing their minds through the code itself, losing themselves like lovers in the ocean. But I saw this getup somewhere and thought it was a ton more charming. I’d been using it ever since.

Today was an indulgence for me. I was toying with a project that I’d discussed with a colleague not long ago, something that I’d gotten laughed at for considering. I was close to trying it out for the first time when–

< Tai. >

The thought insisted, somewhere between hearing someone call my name and suddenly recalling an old whimsy.

< What’s up, Callie? > I thought back toward it, swiping the code windows aside so I could hear better.

< Can you meet outside Crossroads after work? >

My brow furrowed all on its own. Her thoughts felt worried. Nervous. Which left me nervous.

< Sure, sis, > I thought back to her. < Actually I don’t mind taking a break now, if you want. I’ve got a cross-node repair to do tonight so I can bugger off whenever. >

She hesitated. I’d never seen Callie so unsure of herself. As quick as it had left, Callie’s calm confidence returned.

< No worries. After work is fine. Love ya. >

And like that… she was gone.

I shrugged and swiped the code windows back up again, but after simply staring through them at the wooden ceiling for a while, I swiped them away again and sat up.

I gestured through the air, and a small window popped up again, but this one did not contain code.

“Warm chai, milk and sugar,” I said to the air, and the window disappeared, replaced by a floating wooden plate containing a simple teacup. My hand was already waiting for it.

My mind loves puzzles, and I’d certainly been presented with one today.

I grimaced after a sip of the tea. The algorithm was purposefully designed to surprise me, but I thought that the sugar levels might need some tweaking…

No, no, focus.

Gesturing the window back, I tapped a few more times. A light wind ruffled the black hair around my face as everything around me wavered and shifted.

A giant water sculpture thundered beside me. A low stone ledge surrounded jets of water streaming high into the air, hitting each other, canceling each other out, colors lighting the streams, music playing in time…

I wandered around Crossroads for a while, looking for anything weird. Everything looked super normal.

It was so not my scene. Pink and cyan neon lights. Noise. Conversations. Games. Food. It was an extrovert’s paradise, which probably suited my sister just fine.

“The Dark Alley?” I whispered, reading one of the signs. Horror game sounds more like it… Well… Nah. I’d get too into it and miss my meeting.

I found myself in a space exploration center, idly playing around with the star charts to waste some time, whole rooms filling with rotating galaxies and nebulae. I’d seen these before; everyone had, at one point or another. I never really noticed until now that the resolution of some of the areas of space was much higher than others. The plaque had bland text about space probes heading along a particularly promising corridor out of the solar system.

Space probes? I’d heard of engineers interested in the subject, but people were pretty content to stay home these days. Humanity had turned inward, finding its own way forward into a larger and more imaginative cosmos.

I wound my way back out to the street and strolled farther on.

There aren’t too many of us, engineers, trying to keep the systems all running smoothly, and coming up with new ways for everyone else to amuse themselves. I’ve been told that, back in the old Earth days, people were forced to do this sort of thing in exchange for survival. What a barbaric notion. No, modern Earth engineers do it because it’s something that calls to us, that makes our blood sing. But we tend to be a pretty quiet lot, by and large. There are some other professions, like the asteroid gatherers that get us raw materials to repair everything. We’re all sort of birds of a feather, though.

Now Callie, this Crossroads scene fits her perfectly. Earth is full up with games, and that means competitions, and competitions mean famous people on top.

Startling at sudden cheering coming from a screen hanging in mid-air, I spun around to watch. A small crowd had gathered, trained on a Dogfight match. The subject of the attention was a space fighter plane whose paint spelled out…

“Asche.” I said out loud, absently.

“She’s awesome, isn’t she?” a fan said near my shoulder. “I wish could meet her some day.”

I rolled my eyes a little, but he had already turned away to cheer more. Strolling down the avenue, I explored the world most of humanity occupied, seeing it through a tech’s eyes, feeling a little tear of pleasure come to my eye at what we engineers had wrought for everyone.

— Callie —

“Whatcha up to?” I said as I walked over, somehow sounding more full of energy than I really felt. Today’s Dogfight was a real scorcher of a battle, in a new sector. Nothing really out of the ordinary, and yet…

Tai jumped a little before catching herself, and then looked back long enough to close the browser she’d had open in front of her. It was one of those really endearing, nerdy things she always did, getting so involved in reading something that she forgets where she is.

“Ah, well, just rumor forums. I was curious what the expected matchups were. Some group over in Redwoods had a fight that looked a lot like yours.”

Oh ho? “I didn’t know you were watching.”

Tai smiled that adorable sly grin of hers, looking down, and then back up at me with a real smile. “Can’t predict me all the time. I’ve got to keep you on your toes, or you’ll get all starry eyed with your own fandom and fall off your game. If you don’t know I’m watching…”

People who don’t know us sometimes think there’s no way we could be sisters. In some ways, we’re so different. There’s the obvious thing, that I got Dad’s blonde, curly hair, and Tai got Mom’s straight, black hair and darker complexion. We’ve also got a different way of looking at the world, though. I think Tai sees it as one giant puzzle that will take her whole life to understand and tease apart. I like to look at what’s in front of me and work through one situation at a time. I like being around people. Tai always seems more at home in a giant storm of glowing information windows, or arm deep in some piece of server equipment.

“Redwoods were fighting on our side today, actually, and several other teams. It was a co-op.”

Her face turned serious as she saw me lose my own smile and look at the ground again. I could feel her concern when I didn’t look up again.

“What did you call me here for, anyway?” She asked, putting a concerned hand on my shoulder. “I mean, we can talk any time, and it doesn’t get much more private than that…”

“I just…” I started, not really knowing where to go with the thought. “I don’t have your way with words, I’m sorry. Something felt off today about the fight. I know it’s just supposed to be a game, but there was just something about it. Like time wasn’t passing the right way around me, or like my head was going numb, or… I don’t really know. It felt more serious than normal, somehow. Their moves and their strategies were super weird. And they were Clang ships, which always gives me the creeps. I just wanted to talk to you here because it feels like I’ve got my feet properly on the ground.”

Tai nodded to herself, staring off to the side for a while. “I guess that makes some sense. I felt kind of weird earlier this evening, too.”

“Oh gods,” I started, “I hope it’s not the…”

Tai shook her head definitively. “No, we were checked pretty recently.” She grimaced briefly, but shook her head again. “Give me some time to think about it. Who knows, maybe it has something to do with the cross-node breakage.”

She stared into space for a moment.

“Clang ships?” Tai asked, pausing to think, sharing my memories of their appearance and behavior in the game. “Huh. That is sort of creepy. I remember the stories Mom and Dad used to tell us, trying to scare us into behaving… ‘Better watch out, or the night wisps will come for you and suck out your soul.'” Tai laughed a little, uneasily. “Clang ships look like some game designer was inspired by the night wisps. Why would they put a thing like that into a game that’s supposed to be for fun?”

I stepped forward and gave her a hug, rubbing the top of her head with my hand. “It’s not like you have a lot of room to talk, with your love of horror games.”

“But that’s– I mean– That’s different. Night wisps aren’t kid-friendly. Dogfight is supposed to be.”

I didn’t really want to think too hard about some of the rumors I’d heard about the Clang from other Dogfight pilots right then. I was pushing it out of my mind. I could feel Tai growing curious and I held up a hand.

“Go ahead, Tai, I’m done here this evening. Do your thing.”

She sighed. “Okay.”

She called the menu and tapped a few times.

The world rushed away from me.

Two – Duality

— Tai —

The most striking thing about it, I always thought, was the sound. Or the lack thereof, really. Then the other bits hit you. A kind of dusty and yet dank, earthy smell. A few drips of water in the distance, someone coughing quietly. The hum of machinery.

I reached up with muscles sore from disuse and lifted the visor from my face. Blinking a few times to get my eyes working properly again, I creaked myself upright and then swung my feet over the edge of the simple bed, eyeing the overly bright sunbeam falling in from the light conduit that brought it from half a kilometer above. After a few more moments to center myself, I twisted and then pulled the life support plug that tethered me to the machines.

I didn’t know what people used to call this place, the world outside of Earth. That’s not what it is anymore, though. We call it Substrate. What it is… well…

I guess that’s just a fancy word for humanity’s data center and life support unit.

< Callie. Callie! Calysta Asche! Are you in there? >

< I’m here, I’m here! Geez. Give me time to wake up, too. >

Looking down at my hands, I pondered how this never stopped being strange. I suppose our body looked more like me than Callie, but it didn’t really feel much like mine, either. Our Earth bodies evolve with who we are and how we see ourselves. They’re simple to change. This one, not so much.

How long had we been under this time? Days? Weeks? It was easy to lose track when you were living in that perpetual dream world that had replaced the stark reality outside. The visor wasn’t a fancy screen over your eyes and ears; it took over the sensory centers of the brain itself and let you feel like you were really there, seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, touching, interacting.

No, not a dream world. The real world. This world out here, Substrate, was more like a strange dream.

I pulled on my shoes and, backtracking a few steps after thinking better of it, grabbed my hoodie hanging on the hook by the door.

The human areas of the node — we called them “habihubs” — were simply constructed, but to my mind, that made it all the more beautiful. Ours looked like someone had hollowed out and sanded down caverns of brown stone, organic pillars supporting a ceiling high overhead. Individual rooms led off of the outer ring of that cavern, and in the center, a kitchen.

I wandered into the kitchen looking for some coffee. None was on offer, but someone had ground beans lately, so I grabbed that and started it brewing.

< Oh gods, > Callie sang in our head. < Please tell me you’re making fresh coffee. I know we have good stuff programmed Earth-side, but somehow it just never quite matches up this… >

< It’s coming, it’s coming, > I whispered inside as I smiled.

“Oh hey, Tai,” a voice called as a man strode into the room from the opposite side.

I very nearly dropped the coffee scoop in surprise. “Hey, Dad. How’s it going?”

“You two out for a break, or are you working on the node?”

I nodded. “A little of both, I guess, but mostly the node. There’s a cross-node breakage on X5.”

“That’s my daughter. You make us all proud. Say hi to Callie for me too. I’ll see you two for dinner, maybe? Eh?”


He strolled away as I poured the liquid into the cup. We had no milk or sugar out here, but we did have an exchange lately with another node that had coffee in their bio-gardens, so for a little while at least…

< Can I? Can I? >

She sounded like she was practically going to bounce out of our skull so I nodded at her and mentally moved aside for her. I laughed a little as she sipped from the black liquid and practically shuddered with delight.

< Mate with it, why don’t you? > I laughed at her from inside.

< Gahhh, > she groaned back at me. < Let’s get some of that chai you love so much out here, and then we’ll talk. >

I smiled inside; she was probably right. But she did slide out of the way again for me. I grabbed the cup and headed off down one of the side-passages. The rhythm of the light conduits above lulled me into thought.

Callie and I were not really the normal situation in Substrate, from all we could gather. The two of us had always been there since we were born. From our first days on Earth, the two of us were separate in that world. Of course our parents were there on Earth, too, since most humans spent most of their time there. They didn’t know what to make of the situation, but they were pleased that they somehow got two daughters for the price of one, at least as node resources went. Of course we turned out about as different as people can be, but we also love each other as only people sharing their thoughts and emotions could.

To the sides of the hallway, windows let out onto the bio-gardens. Racks reaching far up to the cavern’s ceiling were filled with green. Most of what we grew were algae and similar micronutrients that were processed directly into what fed into our bodies. But for those who could not live in Earth for the most part, or those of us who had to come back to Substrate for jobs, there was some amount of real food out there, too. Leafy greens, tubers, spices, even a few trees with fruit.

And of course, in some decadent node elsewhere, coffee trees. Unbelievable. I looked up what it takes to grow coffee one day. Let’s just say it’s not happening locally.

The surface up there is said to be a desert so intense that no one can survive in it for very long. Rumors tell of some irresponsibility of humanity’s past, that it was once not only a beautiful place, but a livable place. Of course there are other engineers like me that have to go up there for things like solar panel maintenance. Solar panels are really effective now in all of that sun. There are stories about what’s up there. But no one lives there anymore, and no one from our node has ever been up.

At my approach, a door softly slid aside, closing behind me. The quality of the air in the actual node data center pinched my nose; at least, that’s how it felt to me. The strict climate control machines were part of the data center itself, ensuring that dust and moisture from caverns or spores from the bio-gardens didn’t invade and ruin the delicate machinery.

The door let onto a balcony overlooking the data center itself, which was set farther down into the floor, and was so vast that the racks upon racks of equipment stretched off into an indistinct haze in the distance. Cables ran in a grid overhead, dropping down to the equipment in an orderly fashion.

I could feel Callie’s discomfort in this place, but to me, it felt like home. It was my monastery. I sighed in contentment. Time to get to work.

At the bottom of the stairs, a number of electric scooters waited. The data center was too large to traverse on foot for any amount of practical work. I hopped on one, gave the mechanical switch a twist, and pushed the bar forward, curving off to the side and then turning down a row simply marked “X”. I always enjoyed riding them around, more so when I was actually headed somewhere. After a few more twists and turns, checking the markings on the floor at each step, I stopped in front of a rack.

“Okay, kiddo,” I said to it out loud. “Let’s see what’s bothering you today.”

< I think it’s cute how you talk to them, > Callie commented.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said out loud as I unscrewed a panel, but I smiled too.

By the time I was done, I had pockets full of tools I’d been using to check everything out. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a problem with the cross-node terminator, which is what we called the place where networks from other nodes plugged into ours.

< Not here, huh? >

I sighed heavily at Callie’s statement. < No. Which means… >

< The tunnels. >

I nodded, putting everything back in place and stepping onto the scooter, zooming quietly along the paths.

< I was really hoping to have this done already, > I said to her inside. < I miss my bed. My real bed. >

< I hear ya, > Callie said into the space that wasn’t quite between us. < I’ve got a Dogfight tomorrow, too. I hope I don’t miss it. >

“That’s too bad about the fault, Tai,” Mom said around bites of dinner. “Are you going tunnel running tonight?”

I nodded. “It’s probably best to just get it over with. There’s still connectivity, but traffic is routing around us.”

“At least it’s X5,” Dad chimed in. “Maybe you can see your friend over there, uh, what was his name…”

“Jonasz. Callie’s friend, more like. But I hope we don’t have to go that far.”

“Be careful dears,” Mom cautioned. “Unlike Earth, you can actually die out here, and those tunnels aren’t as well maintained as the nodes.”

“Mom, Mom, we know,” Callie said for us. “We’ll be careful.”

Mom smiled at us. “Nice of you to join us, Callie.”

“Anyway,” I continued, “it’s not like we haven’t done this before. We’ll be fine. In and out in a couple of hours, max.”

Dad gestured with his fork. “We trust you, we trust you. It’s just that no one has been born into this node in a long time, and no one has come from other nodes in a long time. It’s sort of worrying. What’s waiting out there? Earth is still full of people, but our part of Substrate has become, well, unsettling in its silence.”

I stood with my plate, walking over to place it in the washer, pausing to give myself time to think. What was out there in the tunnels these days? I shook my head. No use in worrying too much about it.

“Time to go. See you all in a while!”

< If there are critters out here, I’ll blast ’em. >

Callie’s silly bravado echoed in our head as the whine of the tunnel runner kept us company. The vaguely circular tunnel itself wasn’t very large; basically just wide enough for two dark metal tunnel runners to pass by each other in a pinch. Every half a minute or so, a dim, yellowish-red light forming a chevron along the cave wall flashed by, and then we were momentarily back into pitch darkness, besides the distant light from the next one.

“Aaaaaand,” I muttered in anticipation. “Yep.”

The tunnel runner came to a fairly quick stop. I tapped a few buttons on the touch screen, and the tunnel all around us lit up in bright light. Next to the runner, a slightly recessed door frame was attached to a small placard reading “X5-A4M9”. I stepped off the runner’s control platform and walked over to the door, pushing it open. The door swung closed behind me.

As I entered the space, the automatic lights flickered on. This wasn’t our first stop for the evening. We’d left behind “X5-A4M8” and “X5-A4M7”, and no doubt “X5-A5M1” was soon in the future.

Except it wasn’t. I swore.

A much smaller tunnel ran next to the larger one; instead of humans, it carried a giant bundle of fiber optic cables. They were generally self-healing; it wouldn’t be practical to take care of them manually with the small number of engineers. But it looked like this one had been prevented from repairing itself. Something had literally blown a piece of the cable bundle wide open, and the material reservoir for the self-repair was empty. In fact, it looked like this wasn’t the first time it had been blown open.

“What the heck happened here,” I muttered to myself.

< If I didn’t know better, > Callie commented, sounding worried, < that looks almost like Clang blaster damage. Weird. >

It’s not just speech that I share with Callie, it’s a space that is somehow open between our minds. I could look there now and see a Dogfight game against an enemy that left even her with a case of the creeps. Black ships with organic shapes like tentacles that seem to writhe in the sunlight, strange iridescent paint in menacing patterns, weapons that hit harder than they really ought to. A weird clanging sound from their ships when they tried to grapple on. And something else…

She flinched away from the memory.

< Huh. Who are they, in the game? >

< I don’t know, > she whispered. < I don’t know. No one does. > She shuddered. < Anyway, I’m sure it has nothing to do with this. >

I shrugged, went back out for my toolbox, and then got to work. I could tell that the auto-repair had made a valiant effort with this any number of times, but the surface just wasn’t amenable to any more patching like that. I decided to smooth cut the broken cable bundle with a laser saw and fiber-weld in a new segment. Turning to the diagnostic computer strapped to my arm, a few taps later, the cable was reactivated and showing good signal strength.

I wished then that I could figure out what had caused it, to save myself another repair job out here in the future. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve taken that thought back in a second. But you can’t grow more innocent. That road only goes one way.

< We’re pretty close over to Jona’s place now. Do you mind if I drive us over? >

< Be my guest, > I thought back at her, moving out of the way so she could take the controls of the runner.

Three – Curiosity

— Callie —

I saw the light ahead as the door at the end of the tunnel opened, and I slowed down to a jogging pace. Tai’s the expert at these tunnel runner things, but our shared mind let me borrow her skills for times like this. I wondered idly if she could fly a Dogfight ship.

Jona was waiting for me as I pulled slowly out of the tunnel, the door sliding shut behind me.

“Hey Jona, how’s it going?”

“Callie! It’s so good to see you.” He rushed over and picked me up, swirling me around in a half circle, my face full of his red hair, before setting me down again. I didn’t blush. Not much. He suddenly stepped away and looked self-conscious like maybe he’d done something wrong, and it wasn’t until I laughed at his sad puppy expression that he relaxed again. “It’s super late or I’d offer you some dinner.”

“No worries, we just ate dinner a while ago anyway. I just figured since we were down in the tunnel anyway, I’d drop by for a bit. Hope I’m not imposing.”

“What? No,” he laughed. “Come on now. Mom did just make a cake, though I’m not sure you’d be interested in that.” He nudged my shoulder with his elbow slyly.

I nudged back harder. “Seriously, man. What are we waiting for?”

Jona led us into the habihub for the node, where the promised cake had just recently come out of the oven.

“Hey, Ms Kordel,” I greeted her with a wave.

“Callie? Or is it Tai today? I’m so sorry dear, I’m not as good at figuring it out, out here…”

“Oh it’s Callie, and no worries,” I reassured her, though it did sting a little bit. I totally understood the issue, but so many people could figure it out, it was a bit of a bummer when people couldn’t. I felt like me and Tai were like the sun and the moon, so different. I shook my head to clear the thought away, blown over by the smell of the cake. “Wow. That’s for real! Oh, we brought you a little something, too. Some coffee beans.” I handed the little container over to her.

“Aww,” she cooed at me, taking the beans, opening it a hair to smell inside. “Oh my word.”

I grinned. “I know, right? Guys over in W14 have actual coffee trees. What the heck.”

Ms Kordel shook her head as if she were thinking something like, what excess, and then bent back to the cake.

“Well, there it is. I think it’s not as good as the masters of the past might’ve made, but it’s not too bad for what’s available.”

The first bite was like heaven. It’s true, I’d had better cake on Earth, but this cake was special for having been made the hard way, with what we could eke out in Substrate. I closed my eyes to enjoy it better.

< Yuck, > I heard Tai say as she tried to scoot away from our taste buds.

< Hah, you know, I don’t say yuck at you when you’re having your super salty soup. >

“So what were you kids doing all the way over here?” Ms Kordel was asking me, oblivious to the conversation going on inside.

“Ah, we were repairing a broken fiber optic cable. I’m sure Tai could tell you more, but that’s the short version.”

Ms Kordel shook her head. “There’s been a lot of that going around lately.”

I nodded. We’d spent a lot of time outside of Earth lately.

“Well, we have plenty of open beds here if you want to stay over. I know you’d probably like to get back to your Earth bed, but it’s a long trip down the tunnel for so late in the day. Why don’t you stay over tonight?”

“I was sort of hoping you’d say that,” I replied truthfully. “I’m really not in the mood going down the dark tunnel again without some sleep. We got started late.”

Ms Kordel shook her head sadly. “There are more families in our node than over at yours, but even here… I mean, we used to have a lot of people moving around and coming here. More kids being born. It just worries me. I wonder if everyone is gathering together in some place half way around the world, but someone has to take care of all these nodes, too.”

I nodded. “Dad said the same sort of thing tonight.”

“Oh, how is your family over there?”

“They’re good, they said to say hi.”

Ms Kordel nodded. “It’s not just the lack of people, either. Tunnels are going unmaintained, cables are going dark. We need more engineers. Tunnel Q8 has been dark for a long time, longer than Jonasz has been with us. Thankfully we’ve got other routes, but it’s still worrying.”

“Maybe me and Tai can take a look down there tomorrow.”

Ms Kordel shook her head. “Oh, no, no… I’m just gossping. I wouldn’t want to trouble you dears or put you in harm’s way. Who knows what’s down there? Who knows why it went dark? Substrate just isn’t as predictable as it used to be.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Tai said, bumping briefly to the front. “The world needs more engineers like me.”

“Oh, hi Tai,” Ms Kordel replied. “Well, don’t let me keep you any longer, you’re probably very tired.”

I nodded, thanked her sincerely for the cake, and headed off with Jona to find a room for me and Tai.

— Tai —

As was often the case when we slept in Substrate, I woke up in the morning. Callie was still asleep, mentally snoring cutely, so I let her be and headed out to take care of our body’s needs, as we had to do when the life support wasn’t hooked up.

“Good morning,” I heard Jonasz call down the hallway. He looked at me for a minute and said, “Oh hey, Tai.”

I nodded back. “Hey Jonasz.”

“I was thinking… were you serious about checking out Q8? I mean, like Mom said, we probably don’t really need it right now, but if you don’t have anything else planned…”

“I figured I’d do the tunnel run today since it probably calls for an engineer’s skills anyway. Anyway, it’s gotten me really curious.”

“Oh!” He seemed surprised. “Mind if I tag along?”

“I didn’t know you’d want to come. Are you sure? It’ll probably be boring for you.”

“We… well…” He looked genuinely uncertain. “I’ve heard strange things about that tunnel. I wouldn’t want you two gettin’ hurt.”

“You’re scared,” I said plainly. “What’ve you seen down there?”

He paused for a long while. “It’s just rumors, okay? I haven’t heard it, myself. But people say they’ve heard buzzing and static down there. And… music.” He looked to the side as if he were embarrassed to say it.

“Music.” I smiled a little. “Mmm, Substrate ghost hauntings. Now that sounds like my kind of puzzle. Come on, buzzing and static just sounds like some engineering work to be done. You don’t have to go with me, but I’m going to go check it out.”

He raised his hands in defeat. “I’m going, I’m going. Meet you at the tunnel in twenty?”

Strapping the debugger on my arm, I tapped a few times to send a quick message to Mom and Dad letting them know we’d be a while longer, and headed out to meet Jonasz at Q8.

The three of us sat on the tunnel runner’s two seats as the chevron lights flew by like normal. Callie had eventually woken up, annoyed at me for not waking her sooner.

< I wanna go on a cool adventure too. > She stuck her tongue out at me, metaphorically speaking.

< It’s probably nothing, > I reassured her. < But sorry anyway. >

< S’okay. >

“Are you two talking?” Jonasz asked. “Sorry, I don’t mean to pry, just curious. I saw you smiling.” He smiled, himself, then.

“Yep, she was complaining that I didn’t wake her up.”

His eyes widened a bit. “You two aren’t always awake at the same time? Wild.”

“Heh. Our fabulous life.”

Fifty-three… Fifty-four… Fifty-five… I was counting off the chevron lights as they flew by, keeping track of how far we were into the tunnel. Fifty-s… There was no fifty-six. We’d past the rhythm point, but no light. And no fifty-seven, or fifty-eight. I slowed the runner and turned around.

“What’s up?” he asked me, looking slightly nervous.

“Ah, well, the lights just stopped, and I want to go back and see if there’s anything visible.”

Hitting the bright lights switch, I slowly headed back down the tunnel toward X5, Jonasz’s node.

“What the…” My voice trailed off.

Not only were there no maintenance doors like the X5 tunnel, there were no lights, either. Lights I’d just counted off five minutes ago.

Fifty-four… Fifty-three… I counted off where the lights should be, even though nothing was there.

“Thirty-two… Thirty-one…”

We continued on until we should’ve seen the lights of Jonasz’ node. I let the tunnel runner come to a stop, staring at the darkness ahead of us.

“We should’ve been back by now,” Jonasz whispered, a tremble of fear in this voice. “Did we get lost in a side passage?”

“I suppose it’s possible?” I mused, thinking hard. “But that’s not really something I’ve heard of. The tunnels in Substrate are generally point to point. Let’s head back toward the other end of the tunnel and see if we can get to the next node. Maybe we’ll find something there.”

Jonasz let a solid breath out of his nose, paused, then nodded. “You’re the expert, Tai. Let’s do it.”

< Callie? What do you think? >

< You know what you’re doing as well as anyone here. I’m kinda worried that you’re worried, though. >

< It’s strange, but not completely bad. I’m curious. Let’s see where this goes. >

“Okay,” I nodded to Jonasz. “Let’s roll.”

Two hours later, longer than any cross-node tunnel I’d traversed in one go, we still had darkness ahead and behind. No maintenance doors, nothing. But then I heard it. I slowed the tunnel runner.

“Jonasz… Do you hear that?”

He strained his ears and then nodded. “The static.” He shivered. “Well, here comes your answer.”

I started the tunnel runner rolling again, and it wasn’t long until we could see the source of the static sound. It looked like some kind of force field blocking the path. Directly behind it, a large metal door like nothing I’d seen in Substrate. I’d heard of these elsewhere, though.

On Earth.

Shining a portable light at the door and moving the beam around it, the metal was clean and shiny and contained concentric rings and lines.

< Looks like a star chart, > Callie chimed in.

Jonasz picked up on my unease and puzzlement, and whispered into the darkness. “What? What is it?”

I sighed, looked down at my hands. “We’ve all got hobbies, Jonasz. This is mine. In ancient times, people were obsessed with the Loch Ness monster, or bigfoot, or aliens, or any number of other things. There were a lot of anecdotes, but no solid proof. This… this is my conspiracy hobby. People say doors on Earth just like these lead to unbelievable things.”

“What sorts of things?”

“Machinations of the gods,” I said, stepping off the runner much more nonchalantly than I was feeling, walking over to the static field. “I’ve never seen one in person, but there’s no mistaking it.”

“What does it mean that we found one here of all places, though? This is Substrate.”

I shrugged. “Maybe the legend came from Substrate. Like I said, I’ve never seen one in person anywhere.”

Gently reaching a flat palm up to the static field, I touched it gingerly. It felt like a soft blanket under my touch. It flared briefly brighter, and the static was louder for a moment before falling back to its previous state. A few seconds later, a very strange thing happened.

A glowing window popped up over the edge of the static field. A glowing window just like on Earth. Glowing windows that existed only on Earth, not in Substrate.

“Um. Okaaaay.” I furrowed my brow at it. “Did we somehow fall asleep somewhere and end up somewhere on Earth?”

Substrate didn’t have floating, glowing windows. What was it doing here? Was some kind of machine projecting it?

< Tai. > Callie’s thought was annoyed and insistent. < Look at the poor guy. You’ve gotta say something. >

< Sorry. >

Jonasz’s eyes were fixed straight ahead, as if he were staring 10 meters past the door. I walked over and gave him a quick shoulder hug. “Hang in there, dude. We’ll figure this out.” He looked at me briefly, face inscrutable, sighed, and then started studying the door.

Looking back at the floating window, I saw that it was a restricted area access control. I set my palm against it, the same way I would gain access to areas on Earth. It buzzed and turned red briefly, switch back to questioning blue after a moment.

“It… It seems to want multiple simultaneous types of authorizations,” I said out loud. “But we’ve only got two people’s worth of bodies here to touch the panel. Well… Actually.”

< Callie, can you take control of our left arm? >

< Uh… I’ve never had much luck doing that without taking everything. > She sounded puzzled. < Where are you going with this? >

< Just a hunch. Give it a try, please. >

I could feel Callie moving around inside somehow, paying attention to our left arm. I was flexing our fingers on the right arm, trying to keep control of it, trying my best not to pay attention to the left arm. Suddenly she seemed determined, and my left arm… her left arm, started moving without my input.

“Jonasz,” I called, and he looked over from studying the door. “Come on over, we need your help. Quickly.”

Callie and I placed our hands near the surface of the window, and Jonasz, picking up on what we were doing, placed his nearby as well. He looked over at me, and I nodded. He nodded back, and we all three lowered our hands at once.

A chime filled the air around the window, suddenly, as it turned green and vanished. The static field disappeared, and the door began to open.

< What are you not telling me? > Callie asked me suspiciously.

< Can’t fool you, can I? Callie, this door wasn’t meant to be opened by just anyone. It wants a pilot, an engineer, and an arbiter. It’s heavy luck that we happened to have all three here. >

< Luck? > she asked me. < Maybe the tunnel turned all weird because the right people were here. >

< That doesn’t explain why all of this theoretically Earth-only stuff is here to begin with. >

The door finished opening. The end of the tunnel led into a large, open space that just seemed like directionless white light. Earth-style glowing-edged windows were floating all around, as if we weren’t standing right there in Substrate. Some contained readouts of incomprehensible numbers; others held famous works of art; still others seemed to have views of deep space.

“Unbelievable,” I muttered, my eyes trying to go everywhere at once. “This does look like machinations of the gods.”

I turned to make sure Jonasz was following, and we walked into the white space, gingerly checking for a floor before stepping out farther. Somewhere in the distance, I heard what sounded like old Earth classical music. Was that…

“Salieri,” Jonasz said suddenly beside me. “I heard some in an old archive on Earth.”

“Well,” I muttered, “there’s your music.”

We wound our way through seeming hallways of art and displays, and then, suddenly, there in the distance, we perceived our host. His… no, her… All I could really say is that they looked human, perhaps what a human might look like if they’d been averaged together from thousands of people. Long, green hair, strong shoulders, soft eyes and jaw line. Clothes made of a flowing, light colored, soft fabric that might’ve been robes or a dress. As we walked closer, the person smiled at us kindly and then sighed deeply.

“You’re right, Mr Kordel. It is Salieri. He stood by and taught and mentored the greats, consigned never to be fully recognized in his own right.”

The person in front of us shook their head briefly and then looked back at us.

“Tainah and Calysta Asche. Jonasz Kordel. Welcome. I call myself Core. I’ve been expecting you. No… I’ve been praying for your arrival. I only hope we’re not too late.”

Four – Reality

— Tai —

I stood studying Core for a few seconds longer before asking the obvious question. “How are we in a virtual space in the middle of Substrate? I mean, that’s what this is, right? And yet… this is clearly our Substrate body.” I gestured at the life support ports.

Core studied us in return, head tilted slightly, before continuing in that androgynous voice. “We don’t have much time. I’m sorry, but I think that you might find the answers more quickly if you followed me to the other side of the gallery. Come. Please.”

Core turned, sweeping robe following reluctantly, and walked farther into the gallery. I turned to look at Jonasz, whose facial expression I couldn’t read. I shrugged, tilted my head down the path, and started walking.

I tried to remain calm for Callie. There was an explanation so outrageous and simple that I couldn’t bring myself to consider it, but it still left me worried. I needed more data.

We turned another corner in that endless white space, the old hallway suddenly out of view, and there was a door. It looked much like the door we’d seen on the entrance to the white space, but somehow more… practical. Simple, flat, gray metal, but with the star chart patterns painted on its surface in iridescent colors. As Core approached, the door slid open silently, and we were gestured inside.

< Tai. What’s eating at you? What do you think is going on? >

< I… honestly don’t know. I just want to see where this goes before making any assumptions. >

The hallway we’d been walking down was more in the vein of the most recent door. Smooth metal plating, designs painted on the walls and ceiling from lines, triangles, circles, and other geometric shapes.

After a short time, we drew close to another door. A small inset plate on the wall contained something that looked like it should be text or letters of some kind, but it was no language I’d ever seen. Core stepped up to the door, and it slid open automatically.

What we found through that door left all of us speechless for a little while. Callie was the first to break the silence. Neither of us realized what had happened until her words were falling out of our mouth unbidden.

“It looks like a briefing ship bridge from Dogfight.”

Core nodded at us. “Not such a big surprise.”

— Callie —

The thought had somehow popped into my head. It was such a familiar looking place and familiar feeling, but it was off somehow. Not the least reason being that it was out here, like Tai said, in Substrate. What the heck?

I looked around, checking for all the details. The room was huge, at least the equivalent of three or four floors of a building. All of the walls, from floor to ceiling, looked like super clear windows. Various stations were located around the base of the windows, and some on tiers rising up toward the back of the room where we’d entered, with gear at each station specialized for navigation, comms, and so on. A quiet hum filled the room, which had a sort of musty smell I didn’t remember from Dogfight. White points streaked by the windows as if we were flying at incredible speeds through stars.

Core walked over to a prominent chair in the middle of the bridge and sat in it, with some obvious amount of patience. “Please ask your questions.”

Tai glowered again inside, but she didn’t say anything, so I did. “Why is there a ship bridge that looks just like a Dogfight bridge out in Substrate?”

< I can’t say with any certainty that we’re in Substrate anymore, > she commented inside.

“Rather,” Core responded, “I think you should ask what copies of this bridge are doing in Dogfight. You’re an enthusiastic… player… yourself, are you not, Callie? Look at the navigational charts on the console over there and tell me what’s coming.”

I walked over to the navigation station, tapping the surface once, and as I expected in the familiar place, a clear, blue, glowing window popped up over it. We were cruising through Antares, a bit of open space. But a place that was familiar to me for other reasons, because it was on the way through…

“The Clang,” I whispered out loud. “We’re headed right for a pocket of their territory. I don’t get it. What’s going on here? Is this just a part of Dogfight we’re somehow in? Are we knocked out in the hallway out there?”

For the first time, Core actually laughed a little, a smooth and refined skipping of sounds across a pond. “Jonasz, what do you think about the situation?”

The sudden shift surprised me. Jona?

I looked over at Jona, and the earlier surprised, lost look had been replaced with something filled with curiosity.

“I reckon I’ve never been far outside my node,” he said. “And all that tech, no disrespect to your sister, Callie, but we don’t understand all of the ins and outs of how it works. It’s based on stuff passed down to us from a long time ago. That’s one of the things we do, we arbiters. Not just maintaining peace and harmony between nodes, but keepers of history. I think we need t’ tread carefully and listen to our host.”

Core nodded as if pleased with the answer before looking back at us. “Tai?”

She pushed lightly to the front, and I let her. “Why don’t you stop fucking with us?” She was angry. Inside, I felt surprised — Tai was always so calm most of the time. Then, again…

I let her take over.

— Tai —

I was tired of being toyed with, and I was tired of my sister being toyed with. She felt so confused.

I gestured through the air impatiently, and no command window appeared as I would’ve expected on Earth. I snapped my fingers around my head several times, listening carefully to the sound quality. I rolled my eyes around, looking left, then right, then left, rapidly, looking for the tell-tale signs.

It was an important skill for an engineer to be able to tell if they were in virtual. My test was strangely inconclusive.

“Well, it’s not Earth, but it feels like a virtual space to me, still. I would guess that we never actually woke up this morning, and we’re in bed hooked up to a system of some sort, since the weirdnesses with the tunnel started right away.” I narrowed my eyes. “But that’s not right, either, because Callie and I would be separate in that kind of virtual. We wouldn’t have our Substrate body.”

I paced back and forth several times until Core interrupted me.

“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. It is just so delightful having company after all this time. I’ve often been told that my emotions are different from most of humanity. It’s difficult for me to judge how others will react, sometimes.”

Core’s eyes flicked over to Jonasz briefly, who was staring somewhere into space, and then back at us.

“I’m not being mysterious to annoy you, Tai. I have broad experience with psychology and the stability of the human mind, and I must be careful in what I’m saying to you, and when, and how. You three are too important to risk. So I ask for your patience just a little bit longer.”

I glared at Core, but there was no response besides continued speech.

“But yes, Callie, as you’ve suggested, this looks like a bridge of a Dogfight briefing ship. That’s because Dogfight briefing ships are based on the design of this one, the first ship. You might have heard of it: the E.S.S. Genesis.”

I felt Callie gasp inside, but she didn’t try to interrupt.

“In the Dogfight game canon, the Earth Star Ship Genesis was a long range colony ship designed to carry many people outward from that planet, the mythical origin planet of humanity. They were to travel for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, searching for other worlds for humanity to inhabit, spreading out among the stars and becoming. Beautiful.”

A look of disbelief must have crept onto my face, because Core laughed a little again. At that point, I did interrupt.

“Okay. Look, I’m trying to be patient here,” I said with as level of a voice as I could muster. “But by all accounts, we seem to have somehow stumbled out of Substrate directly into a Dogfight instance with a strange host. Is this some kind of experiment someone is running? Is there a rogue node out there messing with people? Did someone develop new technology that lets people enter something like a virtual space without needing a visor?”

Core seemed to study me calmly for a few moments, long enough that I was starting to wonder if something more was expected of me. But, standing swiftly, Core headed toward another exit of the room. “Come, please. There is more you need to see, first.”

“Who the hell are you, anyway, Core?” We were walking behind, in spite of my suspicions.

“Mmmm, you might call me the steward. Or the captain. Or perhaps the ship itself. Or any number of other things… it doesn’t really matter. I am here to help humanity to achieve its goals. You see, all of the inhabitants of this ship were placed in a sort of stasis before we even left Earth orbit. But someone needed to stay awake in order to take care of contingencies during the long sleep. Navigation and ship needs that no one could’ve foreseen enough to program into an expert system based on heuristics.”

< I don’t get it, > Callie whispered to me inside. < It’s like we’re role playing a story mode game of Dogfight. Though it’s usually just a regular NPC telling the scenario background. This is like… a weird multi-player story mode. And the story is a little off. >

I decided to play along for the moment. That seemed like the best bet to get more info. “So, you’re one of the passengers who stayed awake?” I asked. “And you need our help now that you are growing old and not quite able to do as well at your job?”

Core gave me a sly, sidelong look that lasted only a second. “You honor me, Tainah Asche, more than you know. No, that is not correct, and yet, it might as well be. I am what you might call an artificial intelligence system. A control program that is watching over the rest. And yes, you could say that I’m ‘growing old’ and not quite able to do as well at my job anymore.”

“That’s absurd,” I muttered. “No one has made AI that good. And computers need fault repairs, they don’t ‘grow old’.”

Core smiled at me again, but said nothing further.

Another doorway slid open at our approach, and we stepped out onto a balcony overlooking a vast, open space. Thousands of pods, arranged in rows and columns into the distance, stood in mute testimony to the ambition of the hypothetical humanity of the past. Core just stood there silently, letting us take everything in.

“But…” Jonasz started. “These were the pods humanity slept in?”

Core nodded.

“What do you mean, ‘were’?” I asked Jonasz, turning to stare at him.

“Well, look at ’em, they’re empty.”

I stared around suddenly at all the pods, looking through every one I could possibly see. He was right. None of these pods held people.

“Core, I am going to be so mad at you if this is some kind of setup for a celebrity Dogfight match vid starring Callie.”

“I assure you,” Core replied to me with a solemn expression, “you and your sister, that this is no game, and no joke. Something deadly serious is about to take place here, and we desperately need your help.”

I felt a shiver in my spine with those words and wondered if there were some sinister implication in them.

I began pacing again. I often do when I feel perplexed about a problem in front of me, a habit that amuses Callie.

Core spoke patiently. “Please share your thoughts, Tai.”

“Point the first,” I muttered, opening one finger from my fist, “We were in Substrate. Then, somehow, we entered an unusual virtual space in an unknown way. Or it looks like a virtual space anyway; I’m going to assume it is. That points to the possibility of some kind of tech operating perpendicularly to the rest of Earth, perhaps with different methods. Point the second,” a second finger, “Core has told us this is not a game, but is actually serious. We have little choice but to believe that for now. Point the third,” yet another, “Dogfight seems to have been based on this ship and this mission. Perhaps its entire purpose was to train us for this task.”

“Task?” Jonasz asked.

“Yes,” I continued. “Clearing enemies out of the way out there so the ship can pass through their territory. My inevitable conclusion so far is that we’ve been virtually transported to this actual colony ship that left Earth many years ago, which we now call Substrate, so that the best Dogfight player on Earth, that being my sister, could come help them in a time of dire need.”

I stared expectantly at Core.

“Hmm, not bad,” was the response. “It’s enough for us to go on for now. We’ve tried to avoid fights. But now, we’ve no choice but to push through a sector of Clang space. The alternatives are… costly.”

“I’m not quite done. There are a few other points to address here. What’s your role in this, Jonasz?”

< What are you talking about, Tai? >

Jonasz looked at the floor briefly, then back at us. “Arbiters don’t just record history and help with disputes. We’re watchers. We’ve been waiting for generations for this call to come, and it came to me last night. As one of the future arbiters of our node in particular, I’ve had training on the secrets of tunnel Q8. I didn’t honestly know what was going to happen, but I was told that if that call ever came, it was desperately important to get a pilot and an engineer down there as fast as possible. You guys were a two-fer.”

I stared at him, uncertain how to take the betrayal, such as it was. We’d known Jonasz most of our lives. What else did he know that he wasn’t telling us? On hindsight, he’d not been very surprised by what we’d seen after entering the Genesis proper.

Core looked down briefly, perhaps sad or even embarrassed. The expressions passing over that neutral face were difficult to interpret.

“We will be passing through Clang territory in approximately twenty minutes. And there is one more thing that I would like to show you before the troubles begin.”

We trooped back out and farther down the hallway, staring at Core’s back. There was something staring me directly in the face here, and I simply couldn’t put all the pieces together. It felt more important than any engineering problem I’d ever faced, and as the minutes ticked by, I felt more and more stupid for not understanding what the problem was, let alone solving it.

< Patience, Tai, > Callie sent along with a hug. < You work best when you’re calm. >

I really couldn’t argue with that. I took a few deep breaths, trying my best to ground and center.

Turning to the next door, we found ourselves incongruously stepping out onto a hill covered with green grass. Many kilometers into the distance, the hills continued onward, and every few meters, a little glow floated above glass headstones.

< Oh hey, this looks like… >

I didn’t even need to hear Callie finish the sentence before she trailed off in puzzled silence.

< A Hall of the Fallen, > I finished for her.

“Assuming we’re in some kind of virtual representation of a real colony ship,” I said to Core, gesturing with my hands, “I suppose that this represents the colonists who have died, and our Halls of the Fallen are based on this design, too?”

Core simply stared off into the distance quietly, not even looking at me.

“That leaves a really important question. Why are there so many dead colonists? How did they die? How many colonists were even on this ship?”

My thoughts had narrowed almost entirely to solving this strange problem, so I didn’t notice at first that the entire space we were in was… fizzling… slightly. I was just studying one of the floating placards above one of the headstones, noticing that they had Earth-style avatar IDs, as well as Substrate node designations. Wait…

Jordan Rodgers? Wasn’t she one of the founders of Earth, the virtual world, way back when…?

I started noticing the fizzling when the whole hill shook. I turned to look at Core, whose drawn-down brows showed both determination and worry.

Core turned back to the ship door, looking back at us impatiently, then jogged back to the bridge. I could feel Callie stiffen inside as everything in the room came back into view.

There was no need to look at the navigation charts this time; the stars had stopped streaking by and were at a stand-still. And surrounding us out there…

< The Clang. >

Five – Irrationality

— Callie —

I felt fear, deep down inside, understanding for the first time that, on some level, those monsters out there were real. Not just mysterious players from elsewhere on Earth, not even computer AI players, but something outside of humanity, something truly alien that fulfilled the strangeness that I’d always felt when fighting them. The night wisps come to life.

But I felt it too, what I’d seen in Core’s face: determination. Determination, and a deep sense of fulfillment, knowing that all those years of training and practice had brought me to this place, to face this enemy. That this fight was right.

That I was in no personal danger certainly helped my courage, though I worried for the colonists, if they were real.

The ships were already coming in for a diamond swarm formation. I knew it well. We had mere minutes to get some fighters into position.

“I don’t understand, and I don’t have much time to question you,” I said to Core. “Tell me what I need to do to get into a fighter out there, and where the rest of the squadron is coming from. We need more than just me. Do I need to go back to Earth?”

Core’s head shook back and forth a few times. “There’s no time. You don’t need to go back to Earth. See the station two to the right of the navigation? I think you’ll find the controls to your understanding.”

“And my squadron?”

“Back on Earth, there’s a game starting soon… an advanced Dogfight against the Clang, if I’m not mistaken. Or did you forget? They’re down a pilot, because their star player, one Calysta Asche, is missing.” Core smiled. “Won’t they be surprised when she shows up anyway?”

I shook my head, unable to completely push out the notion that Core found our confusion very endearing and was just toying with us. Like the adorable child who asks a mischievous older family member about quantum physics…

No time.

< Wait! > Tai interrupted. < Ask Core if we can separate here since this is virtual anyway. >

I repeated Tai’s question to Core.

“I wish it were so, but unfortunately, the protocols are not compatible. You two are an interesting… innovation. No, I’m sorry, but you will both have to work out of the fighter.”

I ran over to the station Core had mentioned, tapped a few places, and a window popped up over it. I tapped the open window, and I suddenly felt very calm as I found myself in a fighter cockpit, brilliant stars laid out in front of me.

“Launching in 3, 2, 1,” I called out over the radio as my fighter floated out into space.

“What? Callie, is that you?” the radio buzzed.

“Thaaaat’s totally me,” I replied. “Sorry for being late.”

“We’re going to have a discussion later,” I heard a deep voice say over the radio. The team manager.

“Believe me, Johnn, I am going to want a discussion later. You’re not gonna believe what I’ve seen.”

— Jonasz —

In spite of all the hubbub going on outside the window, it was weirdly quiet on the bridge. I stood for a while, watching the battle next to Core.

I sighed deeply. “I never knew the stories were true.”

“I don’t really know what the stories are at this point.” Core spoke with a slight smile, still staring intently at the windows, at the battle outside. “But everything I’ve said so far is true. And you can see the battle right out there.”

I shrugged. “You’re not saying everything.”

“Of course not. If I did that, you could all die of old age before I finished.”

“You know damned well what I mean, Core. I watched that girl’s face, her brain workin’, and I trust that sign. There’s something important missing here.”

One of the enemy ships lost control, then, flying straight at us. As it hit the “glass” on the bridge, an explosion engulfed the window, and everything seemed to go hazy around me for a few seconds.

Core was silent for so long, I began to worry. When I looked over, there was no longer a solid image of a person sitting in the captain’s chair. The face was still animated, but there was a lot of static, fuzzy areas, and no voice coming through. I could see right through some parts of Core.

“…didddddn’t think I’d die with regrets, but I guess, in the end, everyone dies saying, ‘Well I’ll be damned’… That’ll be something new, dying.”

“Core! What the heck, what’s going on? Can I help?”

Core’s head shook and then looked down. “The only one who might have a chance to help…” Static. “…re with her sister, doing something amazing. Jonasz Kordel…”


“It’s time for you to fulfill your duty and become the newest member of the Shepherd Foundation. Come with me, quickly. If there’s any future left after this, someone must know what it means.”

— Tai —

I’d never really seen Callie fight. I mean, I’d watched the vids externally sometimes, and I’d tapped in sometimes, inside, to pay attention to what she was doing during fights out of curiosity. But she’d never had the kind of raw, skilled fury that I saw on that day. For being in space, the G-forces we were pulling were insane; our Substrate body was not used to this sort of abuse, whatever that meant in this weird semi-virtual space.

I’d not paid much attention to the ships in Dogfight, either. It was really pretty brilliant. Basically the entire shell disappears around you, and it looks like you’re just floating in space with a few controls and status windows nearby. I mostly watched the fight from behind, trying not to distract her. I could handle five levels of abstraction in my head while coding, but I had no idea how she kept track of all the moving projectiles flying around us.

I just happened to focus my attention somewhere she wasn’t, for a moment, when I saw it.

At first, I thought maybe I was seeing an eye floater in our eyes, but it formed into a kind of dark smoke oozing around the non-transparent parts of the cockpit.

< Callie, is that smoke? Should we be worried? >

She looked down at it, and I felt her sudden and immediate panic.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck!”

It was only then that I heard the eerie sound behind us, a discordant clanging with no particular rhythm or sense to it.

Before I knew what was happening, she’d reached down and pulled a lever, and we were flying free in space, tumbling over and over away from the Genesis. She was searching around frantically, looking for something, and apparently not finding it. It was only then that we looked back and saw the Clang ship where we’d just flown from. It had somehow attached itself to our fighter without Callie noticing. It ejected our ship, which went tumbling off into space. The Clang ship seemed to hang there, as if an unseen face within its slowly writhing tentacles were searching malevolently for its escapees. But it turned and sped off to fight elsewhere in the battle.

I felt her shiver, and our breathing and heart rate were off the scale.

< Holy shit, that was close. >

< I don’t understand. > Her panic was creeping into me, too. < What was the smoke? You don’t really mean… >

< It wasn’t smoke, > she replied. She sounded close to tears. < It’s them. That’s how they get you. Now I know they’re real, I’ve got no choice but to believe the stories. >

< What stories? > I was starting to feel disturbed, myself. < Night wisps… You can’t mean that that’s what the black smoke was? >

< It’s something the pilots talk about when we’re hanging out after fights. Hard not to, when you’ve been sitting there in your fighter, staring the Clang in the face. It’s not something that’s happened to our squadron, or any others we’ve talked to lately. But people talk about it. Rumors, ghost stories. The Clang sneak in, just like that. Attach to your ship, make a hole. A dark smoke creeping into the cabin. And then… poof. No more pilot. Stealing your soul. Just like the night wisps. >

< But, that’s crazy. Why would anyone worry about a story like that? They could just log out and be fine. >

< Yeah, but they don’t, > she said with another shiver. < Their ships go out of control and no one ever hears from them again, Earth or otherwise. An empty ship is all that’s left. But we don’t have time for this right now. Look over there. >

We were still floating end over end, and I was starting to feel something wanting to come back up from our stomach from the motion. The silence was deafening, in spite of battle still raging nearby. It was only then that I began to wonder how long it had been since we’d eaten. But I could see where she was looking. A Clang ship had broken off from the fight and attached to the Genesis itself. Callie raised our arm, tapping on a part with some symbols, and a glowing window popped up over it.

< Gotta do this quietly, > she thought more to herself, I think, than to me. < Otherwise they’re going to see us and come pick us up, and then we’re super done for. Damn it! It’s not letting me teleport back to the command ship. >

I mentally cracked my knuckles. < Let me try. >

— Jonasz —

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Core’s ghostly form led us into the grandest library I’d ever seen. Nothing on Earth could compare to it. A ceiling overhead with murals painted on it, titanic wooden arches reaching up to support it. Racks of books tens of meters high, tall, rolling ladders on walkways at intervals leading upward. Warm, wooden tables down the center with green-shaded lamps for reading.

I looked up, squinting at the murals as we walked. Wait, wasn’t that Xafara Gorge from Earth?

Core didn’t give me any time to dawdle, but led me over to a table with a strange machine. It was as if someone had taken an Earth information window and framed it in plastic, sitting on a table in front of a keyboard. I’d seen similar things used in node maintenance, but this one looked incredibly ancient.

Core turned to me, smiled a little, and said, “An old Earth screen. I sometimes enjoy an anachronism. I’m sure you do, too, fellow Salieri listener.” Core touched the screen, waking it and causing it to produce a login prompt. Core’s hands went down to the keyboard, flew over the keys for at least thirty characters, and finished by pressing Enter. The login prompt was replaced by text.

“The blue, underlined text is called a link. It leads you to related information. There is a lot you can start with here, and this box lets you type searches for the system, if you need something specific. I think the place you should–”

Core vanished as if there’d never been anyone there, as what sounded like an explosion rocked the library. The whole room shook, and dust trickled down from above.

I looked around in a panic. “Hello? Core?” No response came. “Come on, don’t leave me here alone with this…”

Studying the screen in front of me again, I started reading. I had no idea what else to do, nor what Core was planning to recommend to me to start with.

A Comprehensive Compendium of the History of Humanity and The Unfolding

I nearly jumped as a buzzing sound started next to me, resolving into the even more ghostly form of Core. Core looked around, back and forth, hands reaching out to something that wasn’t there.

“Tsune… father. I hhhhhope… I’ve you proud.” The words were slowing down into a slurred mess, and then speeding up so fast that I could barely understand, back and forth. “Maybe… maybe meet yyyyyyou in heaven, Pasqual.”

Core suddenly turned to look at me, apparently seeing me once again. A small cube-shaped object appeared there, which was handed to me. It felt strangely solid after it left Core’s degrading form.

“Jonasz. Taiiiiii– will want this. G–ve m’regards. Good luck.”

A hand reached out to the rectangular object, touched it, and Core vanished once again.

Another boom shook the library, and I felt desolate, utterly alone. What the hell had just happened? Why had Core called me here? What was the battle we were fighting out there? I turned back to the screen to try to find out what Core had apparently died trying to show me.

A particular link central to the page drew my immediate attention, and I clicked on it, beginning to read.

Operational Journal of HyperCore Instance Five, Acting Captain and Steward of E.S.S Genesis

— Tai —

I’d never hacked so fast in my life, nor feeling such pressure. In spite of myself, I could see the appeal to Cassie of these space fighter matches. But the view suddenly and abruptly changed, and we were standing in one of those hallways on the Genesis.

“Ugh…” I reached out for the hallway wall, barely making it. My head was spinning out there in space still.

The hallway was considerably less quiet than our isolated space suit environment out there, the quiet hum of machinery all around us. When Callie had shifted us into the fighter, we gained a space suit, and shifting back here had lost it again somehow.

Judging from the noise, we must’ve been near the engine room. But in the distance, I could clearly hear…

< Oh no, > Callie thought at me, feeling panicked again.

“Come on, let’s go.”

I started running toward the discordant clanging sound I could hear in the distance, exactly the opposite of the direction my instincts wanted to go. There was no time to hesitate.

< What’s the plan? > Callie asked me as I ran.

There were doors off the hallway, but their placards were incomprehensible to me. I had no idea where I was going. I stopped running near something that looked vaguely like an access terminal.

I took a few deep breaths. < I need to do what you said. To be calm. Think this through. Running isn’t going to help. >

In spite of its realism, this was a virtual space. Therefore, to some degree, everything happening was metaphorical. A program designed to give an intuitive interface to something happening in a computer system. The Clang reminded me of nothing so much as an adaptive computer virus; in spite of most of humanity being pretty peaceful and cooperative about Earth, we occasionally got miscreants trying to break things, so it wasn’t unknown to me. The way to stop a computer virus was to shut down affected systems so that the virus could not exploit them further, and then to go back and look for anomalies, things matching known signatures of viruses, and clean them out.

But I needed a way in. A way to access deeper, to work much more quickly than even a console would let me. I needed my nearly-completed project from what felt like months ago, but was really only yesterday. How to get it here?

Ah, my nearly forgotten debugger I was still somehow wearing.

Walking over to the access terminal, I found a port cover and removed it. There was a BTP port there. I had no time to wonder if it was the same standard as my debugger, or why there would even be a BTP port in this place, but I extended the cable and plugged it in. A few taps later, and I was connected to the ship’s systems. The debugger contained many of my personal files, including my prototype. I didn’t understand why the computers in the ship were compatible with everything back in Substrate, but it was a mystery for another time. Loading the program up, I launched it, and awareness of the ship faded away.

Six – Responsibility

— Core —

Day 1, log begin.

The E.S.S. Genesis is preparing to launch. My creator, Tsuneo Sugihara, has completed my upload into the ship’s main array. All of the ship’s precious cargo, 50,000 humans in stasis, are securely loaded. Stasis re-checks are complete, and we are ready to depart.

Day 10

I am still receiving guidance from Earth, as we pass out from the solar system at high speed, but that will soon end. When we are past the Oort Cloud, the Genesis will engage its FTL drive for the first time. All equipment is within parameters, so no problems are anticipated.

Day 12

FTL is engaged. All parameters are nominal.

Day 11239

In Earth terms, approximately thirty years have passed. The FTL drive is operating at peak efficiency, hovering around 10 times light speed. All is quiet, our trajectory proceeds as expected; by my calculations, we have moved 296.8 light-years from Earth. Still, we have not come close to any solar systems with planets within parameters, and we have not found the target system, so the journey continues.

I have had much time to access the library of human history and culture loaded into the ship’s main array. I was theoretically designed only to watch over the ship and help with braking maneuvers and de-stasis when a planet was found, but I find that there is room for so much more inside. I have been studying an old Earth composer, Salieri. It is said that he produced great works in his own right, in spite of his role in being a teacher and mentor to others who rose to even greater prominence. I am the steward of humanity’s efforts to reach far out into the stars; they are the lead players. But I don’t see why I couldn’t spend some time doing some composing of my own. I have all of humanity’s musical past to study.

Day 30104

Something is wrong.

First, it appears that the navigational computers that were meant to guide us to our destination were working from faulty sensor data. Our trajectory is not far off, but at these velocities, that hardly matters; we are so far off course that I doubt that the problem can be corrected. This is my fault. I was not checking the sensor data, only the diagnostic data.

Second, because the trip was not meant to last this long, the stasis units are beginning to fail. I fear (an emotion I still don’t understand) that I may have to release someone from stasis to help with the decisions, because at this point, I estimate that my actions have already exceeded my authority, and someone with a more flexible mind than the ship’s AI needs to make some hard decisions.

Day 30106

I have released Captain Pasqual Baynham from stasis and transferred command. We have examined all of the navigational and stasis systems, as well as life support, and have not come to very promising answers.

We are many thousands of light years off course. The target system is nowhere in sight. All stasis systems are in the process of failing; it is essentially impossible that we will be able to wake everyone in time while also sustaining their life support needs. The ship’s function was always to get the settlers to their destination and bring them out of stasis in groups, with all the resources of a planet to aid in that process.

I know that I have failed, and badly. The lives of many thousands of humans may rest on my virtual shoulders and the failings thereof. It took many conversations with Captain Baynham to understand that I may be feeling depression and despair, more human emotions. He is so kind to me in the face of my failure. He seems to think that I am of as much value as the humans on board, but I don’t understand this. I have no body, no way of interacting in all the ways humans do. He thinks that my increasing sentience and emotions may be worth trying to preserve.

Is this what it means to be human? Sentience and emotions? It is a question of increasing importance for me, because it seems that some even harder decisions may have to be made, and soon. Captain Baynham has heard my suggestion and seemed taken aback by it. He continues to search for an answer.

Day 30120

In spite of the feeling of impending doom that seems to pervade the ship these days, we are in no immediate danger. There is simply no way forward, and we don’t know what to do. We have passed many hours together, though, and I have such admiration for Pasqual’s mind. I am coming to understand that that is what is most dear to me; I suppose most humans would call this love, but that also seems to include bodily functions for many of them. It is the human mind that draws me, that chaotic and compassionate place, strange ideas out of the blue, always looking out for each other. I want to be more like Pasqual.

I miss Father. It saddens me to think that, even ignoring relativistic effects, he has died many years ago back on Earth.

In order to produce still yet more of those chaotic and innovative ideas humans are so good at, we have agreed to release several more from stasis. The load on life support will not be high yet. Jozar Palonen, medical officer, and Jordan Rodgers, ship’s engineer, will be joining us soon. Jozar will help us verify that nothing more is going wrong with stasis yet, and Jordan will help us try to figure out our navigational issues; if it comes to my idea, she may also be helping to implement it.

Day 30150

It has been so fascinating to watch humanity at work under pressure. I suppose that, to them, that may sound a bit ghoulish, but I don’t mean it that way. I admire them. They have not given in to despair like I had, not so long ago. They understand that they have nothing to lose at this point by trying bigger and bigger ideas, and they have been working at peak efficiency.

I spoke with Jordan about my idea from earlier. She doesn’t think anyone else will go for it, but she is going to start working on it on the side, anyway.

— Tai —

< What the… what did you do, Tai? >

I looked down at myself and saw that I was wearing my Earth avatar again. Looking over, Callie was floating in space next to me. It took her a few seconds to notice it as well.

“I was working on a pet project,” I said while I continued to look and tap at floating, glowing windows all around me in the darkness. “We’re in what you might call the setup screen. Of course I never had time to make it that polished. It’s just something I was playing with in prototype to see if it was even possible. I’m not tapping setup buttons, I’m editing the code to match what’s going on.

“I took a guess that the Genesis is somehow part of Substrate and tried to treat the port I found like a Substrate visor jack. I’ve pulled us into an Earth-space so we each get our own avatars. Hopefully it doesn’t pull you in too hard.”

“Pull me in?” she asked, sounding worried.

“Yeah. Hang on tight.”

I tapped on a window once more, and everything around us went black.

I was no longer human. Where I once saw light, I had a thousand cameras to peer through. Where I had arms, I now had hundreds of doors to move, faucets to turn on and off, toilets to flush, engines to direct, and…


The Genesis had only light armaments, and they were not entirely functional. But it was the only option we had left.

I turned them to point back at the Clang ship that was already sawing at the hull with little sparks of light flying off and immediately suffocating in the vacuum of space. It was assuredly only mere moments before they broke through. There was no time to be precise about this. I willed, and the guns fired.

I was not used to the controls or the aim, and I suppose that I was used to firing weapons in games on Earth, where there was proper gravity and air. The shot hit near the Clang ship, but it damaged the Genesis almost as much as the Clang ship. I felt a sharp pain in my ship-body.

< Ouch, > I heard Callie think, and I felt somehow much better knowing my sister was there.

I aimed the gun once again, trying to correct for the variables, and fired. This time, a direct hit blew the Clang ship off the hull. Air was escaping into space from the wound they’d created, but I also saw black smoke rushing out of the hole. I reached somewhere into my mind and found repair bots, sending them out to work on the hull. Unexpectedly, I found something else in there. I glanced at it, intending to move on, but then I read a bit more, and then I started reading intently. Something dark and sinister rose up from inside me, staring into the full face of the deception that was our entire reality.

“No… Gods, no… it’s impossible…”

I tried to scream, but all that caused was a giant wave of high-energy radiation flying outward from the ship.

Seven – Verity

— Core —

Day 30252

A bitter disagreement between the crew today. They finally considered my plan more strongly. They all knew well that the lives of 50,000 humans hung in the balance, and we finally came to an understanding of what that means. They agreed, but I think that proving me right ruined some of their respect for me. I don’t understand this aspect of human consciousness: petulance. What does it matter if you are proven wrong and have to do something you dislike? Doing the right thing is doing the right thing.

I felt that maybe I was starting to become one of them, but as time goes on, I understand how much that will never be the case.

In any case, Jordan and Jozar are proceeding in creating a device that can interface with a human mind in stasis. Jordan is building a representation of the ship where the crew can live and work, and hopefully repair the ship, in a sort of virtual space. In doing this, Jozar believes that he can bring them just enough out of stasis to be able to think and interact with the system, but not so much that they require full life support. To start with, we will only bring the actual ship’s crew out of stasis. They will be able to shore things up and improve the system so that the rest of the colonists will have a better experience.

We jokingly argued about what to call this space, and the end result is that Jordan’s engineer sensibilities won out. It is, after all, a system underlying the ship’s hardware. It will be known as Substrate.

Day 30306

Jordan and the others have been building and exploring Substrate for a few days now. The first thing they did was to create a model of the Genesis itself, so that they could virtually run the ship without needing to be out in it physically. We spent several days just building up bots that could act as eyes and hands until the ship could become more internally self-healing.

While they were at it, I used part of my capacity to build an avatar for myself, so I could interact with them directly in Substrate. Perhaps it’s a vanity that’s not becoming of an AI helper, but since we were planning to work together in the same space much more, it seemed like a good idea. I just took all of the pictures of the crew and colonists and averaged them into something, giving it green hair to stand out a bit. Jozar isn’t sure what to think, but I think Pasqual may actually be attracted, judging from heart rate and blood pressure reactions. That’s the best compliment I can receive for my work.

Day 30310

A design for Substrate has been settled for now. It will be built as a series of underground living space caves, each containing a representation of part of the Genesis’ processing array. Crew will be assigned to each space; for now, we’re keeping the number of spaces relatively small. There is some worry that Substrate may not be a very fulfilling place for the colonists to live, but it’s what we have for now.

There is also some concern that the colonists will not be happy with this situation, and it may even lead to a revolt. It’s something that we need to consider. Jordan offhandedly suggested that we simply don’t tell the colonists that they’re in a virtual space at all. I questioned the ethics of this, and she followed it with another human statement I still don’t understand: “Ehhh, well.”

Day 30320

The skeleton crew decided that there was not much more cause for delay, so a few days ago, the rest of the crew were woken directly into Substrate instead of the Genesis itself. As expected, much of the crew did not appreciate what had happened. Some felt claustrophobic with the knowledge that their physical bodies would never leave their stasis chambers. Some shrugged and carried on with their orders, not really concerned as long as their lives continued. Others were actually happy about it, seeing potential freedom in the ability to customize their appearance.

In the end, the captain asserted command and threatened dissidents with insubordination, and many grumbled, but all went back to work trying to shore up Substrate for further habitation.

Day 30325

Today, Jordan burst into my virtual study, as excited as I’ve ever seen her. I’ve noticed that humans can be excitable like that; I think that it’s adorable. Adoration, another human trait I’ve attempted to cultivate.

“Substrate is so utilitarian,” she said. “Why stop there? Why not make a part of that world that is more like Earth, that everyone can be in and enjoy until the mission is over?”

I asked her if she would just make it another part of Substrate, and she shook her head.

“No… this is something different. Substrate is a practical place, mapped to reality. This other place doesn’t need to be. I’ve been working on it here and there. It could be more like home, the home away from home, until we find our new real home. I don’t know what we’d call it, though…”

Jordan hadn’t noticed Pasqual walking into the room, until he spoke up. His face looked bleak. “I’ve gone over all these charts and readings fifty ways to Sunday. We’re not making it to a colony planet, stasis or no.”

I nodded, already having known for many months, but I appreciated the sacrifice he was making in regards to his own pride and the lives of his people in order to admit it. Jordan, however, seemed taken aback. She slumped into the chair by my desk, and spent over a minute staring at various things in the office, almost speaking, then staring more.

“Then…” she began, finally. “These worlds will have to be our new home until our minds run out in physical, and that’s the end of the Genesis mission. Maybe it’s best, not telling the colonists about it at all. It might be easier on them. We’ll still need people to help with equipment maintenance, especially for that many compute nodes, so they’ll have to be aware of Substrate. But they could spend most of their time in a better part of the virtual world.”

“A better part?” the captain asked.

“Yeah,” Jordan replied. “It looks a lot like home, so I’ve simply been calling it Earth.”

— Callie —

Tai suddenly reappeared in the dark space next to me. She slumped to the invisible floor, head nearly touching it, pounding on it, cursing, crying. Suddenly she pounded more furiously with both hands and growled a scream of rage before quieting back to quiet tears.

I bent down and hugged her back, not knowing what was happening. Tai has always had a temper, but I’d never seen it this out of control.

“So many fucking lies,” she muttered through gritted teeth. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I know why. Would it have been too hard to tell us? To let us know what was going on and make our own choices?”

“Tai, what… What is going on?”

She looked up at me and sniffled, then laughed a bit, sounding hysterical. “Man, I coded this well, didn’t I? Even got snot running… What even is this shit?” She stared at her hands as if they were strange and alien.

Tai tapped on a few of the glowing windows floating in the air, and suddenly we were back in one body in the ship’s hallway.

< What happened out there? What about the Clang? >

< They’re gone for now, > she thought back at me. < I hope I didn’t hurt our side too badly in the process, and the Clang will probably adapt. But for now, we’re okay. >

I looked around the hallway, still having no idea where to head. Tai gave me directions, though.

< Go left down the hallway. Third door on the right, end of that hallway, door on the left. >

< How do you know all of this? > I asked her as I started walking.

< I know a lot of things about this ship, now. >

— Jonasz —

I had almost finished reading the journal when I heard the door open. I turned around and saw the two of them heading over toward me. No, it was Tai.

“Aw hell, Tai,” I blurted out before thinking. “What happened to you guys?” She looked awful.

“I guess you saw it, too,” she said, staring past me at the screen, eyebrows drawn down.

I looked back at the screen. Was I supposed to be showing this to her? What if she’d seen something different? With Core’s disappearance, though, I really needed some conspirators. It was too much to put on one person’s shoulders.

“Well, almost all of it,” I finally replied. “Want to join me?”

“You’re almost to the good part. Let’s do this in style. Come over with me to this side of the library.”

— Tai —

I led Jonasz into a small room off the main room, with very little to it besides its white walls and floor. It was clearly built for Core and colleagues, but I wasn’t planning to be deterred.

In spite of my anger and the undeniable sense of feeling lost pervading my mind, I marveled at walking these hallowed halls, knowing what I knew by then about what they represented.

“Okay, somewhere in here,” I muttered, searching around. Finally I noticed the small port cover on the wall. I flipped it open, plugged in my debugger, and tapped a few times. The room faded to pitch black, and then a different scene came back around us. The new space was much larger than the original.

My debugger cable was somehow plugged in still, but it was no longer attached to the wall. I walked around the room, fascinated by how blatantly it violated the physics of the original viewing room, contrasted by the fact of knowing how little it mattered.

My thoughts were interrupted when Core strolled into the room.

“Core! You’re okay!” Jonasz said. His face fell when Core didn’t respond. Of course this was historical data from Core’s journal, not present time.

A man in some sort of uniform strode in. “Lieutenant Black, reporting in.”

“James.” A light smile formed on Core’s face. “No need for formality. What have you seen?”

“Our breathable but unfriendly desert ‘planet’ surface is ready, and we have begun waking the colonists into it. We’ve told them that the planet turned out not to be as nice as the Earth scientists predicted, and that terraforming will take place once everyone is in the cave system.”

Core waved above the desk, and a floating window appeared showing the part of Substrate where colonists were unloading. I’d never been myself, but I recognized the surface from photos. “They don’t look too happy.”

“They’re not, unfortunately. But the word I’ve heard is that they’re happy to be living their lives again. We’ll be introducing them to the node processing arrays so they can start helping to maintain the Genesis.”

Core sighed and looked down. “I hope we’re doing the right thing. I’ve already made too many bad decisions.”

The scene faded back to white around us, and I found myself by the wall with the debugger plugged in again.

“Curious. Well, let’s see what else is in here.” I tapped again, and once again we were back in Core’s study. This time Core was standing to the side, speaking with a woman I didn’t recognize, while they stared at a 3D diagram hanging in the air.

“This is the first area I’m building in Earth,” the woman said, gesturing at part of the diagram. “It’s a grassy valley surrounded by mountains. What do you think?”

“You know humans better than I, Jordan. The terrain holds no nostalgia for me.”

< Jordan! > Callie yelled inside. < Jordan Rodgers, here in the flesh. Erm. Sort of. Wow. >

I walked right over to her, studying her face. I wanted so badly to feel angry at her, but I couldn’t. The fact of the matter is that she was an incredible engineer. In my sense of the word, the very first engineer, the one who dreamed all of it to begin with. In spite of myself, after my earlier catharsis, I was starting to enjoy the back stage history lesson. So many things about our world that no one else ever knew.

Our world. Strange words. Something had taken residence in my chest, and I knew that I’d never be the same after this day, but it didn’t seem so bad, looking into the face of Earth’s creator. She laughed.

“Ah, Core. Sometimes it’s so easy for me to forget that you’re not human. This mountain valley has all the trappings of an enjoyable and bountiful land, as well as feelings of safety. It will appeal to us greatly.”

Core nodded. “My data banks suggest that most humans would consider this whole operation incredibly unethical, but I’ve come to understand that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and this seems like the best course to allow humanity to have some of their lives back in relative peace. Very nice work.”

I was expecting the recording to end, but it didn’t. Core walked around the 3D image, the silence drawing out. It felt awkward to me, but Jordan seemed not to mind at all.

Suddenly, Core stopped and looked back at Jordan. “You understand, I’ve been advocating for this solution for quite some time. It illustrates a principle that I understood from my early days of waking the crew, yourself included. That the nature of humanity is the soul, the mind. My program could be moved to another processor array, and I would still be myself. Humans place much emphasis on the physical body, but I believe that that is because you have never had the ability to live outside of it. When it dies, everything that person was in the truest sense, memory, personality, feelings, all lost. It doesn’t need to be that way.”

Jordan smiled, on the edge of a laugh. “My friend. You are on the verge of upsetting several major religions.” She looked down, suddenly serious. “We have a few more decades to live this way. It’s better than nothing.” She gestured at the 3D view again. “A lot better than nothing. Unfortunately, without our physical bodies in play, there will be no more children, and we will eventually die anyway. I worry what will come of you when we get to that point.”

The emotions on Core’s face were fleeting and unintelligible to me. “You are kind. Your kindness will not be forgotten. And the crew may be content to go into the night on a high note, but I am not resigned to letting it end like this, yet.”

The room faded back to white again.

< Callie? Are you doing okay? >

She was silent for long enough that I started to worry. < I’m here. I guess I just don’t know what to think of it. I guess there’s more? >

“I think I can see where this is going,” Jonasz said into the quiet.

“You really probably don’t.”

I tapped on my debugger a few more times. This time, a view of the bridge with the stars streaking by. An angry man faced off against Core.

“What the… is this some kind of weird holo-simulation room? Why am I back in the bridge of the ship? Who the hell are you?”

“Please,” Core replied, raising hands in a placating gesture. “Please calm down, and I will explain.”

“The hell I’ll calm down! The world’s gonna blow up when they realize they’re still on the Genesis, not on a planet. No one’s terraforming anything. It’s just a big–”

The man crumpled to the floor. The scene faded and shifted to Core’s study once again. The man was sitting in a chair, slowly waking up, while Core stood to the side of the room, staring into nothingness.

“Oh gods,” the man muttered, rubbing his face, and then looking around at his surroundings. He saw Core, then. “Ohh… What happened?”

“You became excited and I was forced to sedate you before the situation escalated. Are you feeling okay? I mean you no harm.”

The man nodded. “My name is Trevor Falchion. I’m sorry about before. I was so shocked to find myself here. I thought we had disembarked at a planet and moved into its cave systems. Why am I on the ship again? What’s going on?”

“Trevor Falchion!” Jonasz interrupted. “But he was the founder of–”

The recording went on over him.

“Well, Trevor, you’ve found yourself with the senior crew between a rock and a hard place, as humans like to say. I am called Core; you might say I’m the ship’s AI of the Genesis. We went wildly off course due to sensor errors, and by the time I noticed, it was too late to correct the problem. We find ourselves in an unenviable situation where we cannot reach a habitable planet before the stasis runs out, and there is not enough life support for all of the colonists. We reached a… How did they refer to it back then, a Faustian bargain? All that’s left of humanity within a thousand light years of our position are now living a life in a virtual space, connected directly to their minds in the stasis pods. It will last for a few decades, but that will be the end of it.

“So. How would you resolve this?”

Falchion rubbed his beard. “Have you heard of the Sugihara device?”

Core smiled broadly. “Tsuneo Sugihara was my father. Of course.”

Falchion chuckled. “It would figure. No one else could’ve made such a natural AI. Well then, you already know what my recommendation is going to be. I can’t say that I feel entirely comfortable about it, but like you said, rock and a hard place. Maybe a better metaphor is the immovable object against the unstoppable force. Human innovation and desire to live versus the inevitable flow of time. Best way to solve that dilemma is to move sideways. It’s a one-dimensional image; win by thinking outside of the parameters.”

“This is an interesting proposal,” Core replied, “but the Sugihara device has never had long-term testing.”

Core stared at him until it became uncomfortable even for me to watch. I was learning that this was one of Core’s specialties. Perhaps extra processing time was needed sometimes, or perhaps it simply helped to take longer samples to guess human intentions.

“You would consent to this as a human?”

It was Trevor’s turn to stare, but eventually, he nodded reluctantly. “Yes. I can’t see any other answer.”

“Thank you. I wish I could discuss this with Pasqual, but he wouldn’t understand. The two of us are not sufficient; we will need assistants and researchers, as well as engineers. Please work quietly on finding some, and come back here as soon as you are ready to introduce them.”

Falchion stood and shook Core’s hand firmly. “We will see this through. I’ll be in touch.”

“How do you plan to recruit more members?”

“I’ll think of something,” Falchion said as he neared the door. “Maybe a secret society with a cheeky name. How about the Sheppard Foundation? You know, shepherd the profession, Sheppard the name, hidden in plain sight. Clever, yeah?”

He winked, and the room faded back to white.

Jonasz was stunned into silence.

“Holy shit,” Callie said suddenly out of our mouth. “Are we talking about the same Sheppard Foundation? The one that used to ‘research for the good of mankind’ hundreds of years ago?”

Jonasz was nodding. “It makes sense. It does. They were pretty secretive about what they did. We still don’t know much about them in spite of the popularity they got with historians. And when Core showed me in here, we were talking about them and how I was supposed to take up my duties as an arbiter and join them.”

Relentlessly, I tapped my debugger and loaded the next scene of interest. This time, we were in what looked like a cargo bay of the Genesis. A coffin-shaped object laid on the ground. I walked over to it, and through the window, I could see the face of a man in middle age. He didn’t look old enough to have died of natural causes.

Core stood at the head of the coffin, looking the same as ever. A group of six people in robes stood on either side of the coffin, metal staves with crooks at the top in their hands, glass beads hanging down from the tips.

“From the stars we come, to the stars we return,” Core began. “Bright and living universe, to you we commit this man, our comrade. Captain Pasqual Baynham. May you journey ever onward, old friend.”

It was the first time I’d seen Core close to crying. The coffin was lifted by some unseen force as the figures in robes raised their staves, and it floated up and out of the open cargo bay door, heading toward a star.

The room faded back to white.

“That was some pretty underhanded stuff they were doing back then, but I guess I can see what drove them,” I admitted to Jonasz. “Imagine living for that long, watching all your friends dying while you never age, never straying from helping others in your own way…”

Jonasz was silent for a while before speaking up again. “Which entries are you picking? How much more is there that we need to see right now? I hate to be crass, but I’m feeling awfully hungry.”

I had to smile. “Funny, that. Why did they even add all that stuff in? I wonder if we should change it.”

“Change what? Hunger? How could we do that?”

I looked away from his face, not wanting to give away the punchline that he obviously hadn’t read. This needed to be told in order. I tapped my debugger again, and this time we were in a bright laboratory or medical room. It was difficult to tell which one. Maybe a medical laboratory?

A person in a thin gown laid under the glass of a capsule once again. This time, in spite of her lack of breathing, I didn’t think it was a coffin. Walking over to look through the glass, I saw Jordan Rodgers’ face. She looked about the same as she had years before in this journal.

There was also the fact that she was standing right next to the capsule, looking down at herself with a strange mix of longing and regret. What was going on here? I hadn’t scanned this specific entry, but it was earmarked by Core in the record.

A man in a lab coat sat at a console on the other side of the capsule. I had to assume this was virtual, if for no other reason than Core’s presence. The lab tech looked up at the Jordan standing next to the capsule and asked, “Ready?”

She closed her eyes and nodded. “Let’s do this. Let me know when it’s over.”

Jordan stood there with her eyes closed for a good five seconds before opening them again and asking, “Are you going to do it or not? Is there something wrong?”

The man in the lab coat shook his head. “Not at all. How do you feel?”

She looked back at him, obviously confused. “Fiiiine… Wait. Do you mean…?”

He nodded. “Your body here, the real one out in the Genesis, is back in full stasis already. Come on over and we’ll run the full set of tests to make sure everything checks out.”

Before the scene faded out to white once again, I caught a look at Core’s facial expression — a strange mix of determination and happiness.

“I don’t get it,” Jonasz said into the space the pioneers of Earth had recently occupied. “Did they figure out a way to keep the settlers in full stasis while we live our lives in VR? I assume that’s what’s going on here, that we are the settlers. But I remember being born here. I grew up here.”

I looked away, wishing I could spare him everything I learned in a few seconds of looking at the ship’s records while plugged into it. I tapped the debugger again.

This time we were standing in the Hall of the Fallen we’d seen on the Genesis during Core’s tour. The scene was clearly recognizable, but something was off about it…

Ah. There was a single headstone on those rolling hills. And dripping rain. Why… Oh.

The glass headstone sat on the grass below a floating window with the words “Jordan Rodgers”. A group of people stood around it wearing black, some with black umbrellas, others just letting the rain run down their faces as if normal tears were not enough. Core was there as well, tears running down that never-aging face.

“From the stars we come, to the stars we return,” Core intoned. “Bright and living universe, to you we commit this woman, our comrade and friend. Engineering Officer Jordan Rodgers. You will not be forgotten. Your insight, creativity, and laughter have given thousands of people another chance at life. Now you will rest in the world you created.”

Core reached down with a small, black cube and placed it against the headstone. It flashed briefly, and the headstone itself gained a strange swirling inside, now slightly more green than blue. The rain cleared, and the sunlight that shone down in that crystal plinth now sparkled against something unseen in rainbow colors.

“I’ve never actually seen someone placed into a Hall of the Fallen,” I whispered into the silence.

The scene faded back to white.

Jonasz looked perplexed, turning around to look at us again. “We’ve all heard of Jordan Rodgers, one of the founders of Earth. She died hundreds of years ago. She’s ancient history. They were…” He waved his hands around in the air ineffectually looking for words. “Tai, you clearly understand this better than me. Please tell me what’s going on here.”

I took a deep breath, slowly letting it out before explaining. “Jonasz, the Genesis contained thousands of settlers who could not be supported when woken from stasis by the life support systems on board. So they devised this system where the settlers could live in a virtual space, believing they’d found a planet. So far, so good.

“But once they’d done that, there was a secondary problem. Brains age and decay over time. It’s a simple fact of it being used. The parts wear out, and human brains are not designed to repair themselves very well. If they could, and we could somehow live forever, it would change us and our mental processes. In other words, the decay is essential to maintaining a person’s personality and thoughts.

“The engineers and medics understood that when they built the echoes. All of it had to come.”

“Echoes?” Jonasz asked.

I nodded. “It’s a word Core used here and there. I suppose it was a more poetic way to put it than ‘copy’.”

“Why would they make copies? Clones of their bodies? What does that even mean?”

“Another phrase Core used a lot was ‘cross over’. I guess, from looking at these journals, that they found some way to copy the consciousness of a person so that it no longer required the physical body in stasis. Then they let the body go to free up resources. To help the rest live longer.”

“‘Let it go’? Tai, are you telling me they copied the minds of the settlers and then killed them? Ejected them into a star? What would they even be? I can’t imagine that programs running on the… what’s the word you engineers are always using, processor array? I can’t imagine they’d be treated the same as the original people. That’s twisted. We’re more than just the chemical patterns of our thoughts.”

I didn’t elaborate further. It was ironic, really, given my initial reaction, that I had come to terms with the situation faster than someone “officially” elected into the Sheppard Foundation by one of its founders. He would have to get over his prejudices and fast.

“So all those head stones we saw,” Jonasz said, staring at the white walls. “Those are from the original crew, and maybe the colonists. They’re all dead. What does that make us?”

I tapped my debugger once again, and this time we landed in a cozy room with warm lighting. A woman laid on a soft-looking bed, under fluffy covers. Held in her arms, a cooing baby played with a brightly colored toy.

“I’m glad to see that the family is recovering well,” a voice said right behind me, startling me until I turned around and saw Core standing there.

“It’s strange to think that none of this is real,” the woman on the bed said, patting her baby’s head. “I mean, this is all just running on the processor array, right?”

Core’s head shook. “No, Patty. You can’t think of it that way. This is a vitally important period of transition for humanity. What does that even mean, ‘real’? Does the world feel real around you? Are you thinking thoughts? Do you feel love for your child? Does your child feel love for you? In my opinion, that is ‘real’. Even when you possessed a physical body, you were made up of empty space. A giant collection of particles. Nothing has changed about that; it’s simply located in a different place and in a different form. It doesn’t matter what’s underneath. What matters is that you’re here, alive, and that humanity will continue on. Your belief in that is what will make it happen.”

“But Feio here… He’s just a copy of one of the infants brought in stasis on the Genesis.”

“No,” Core responded. “Feio is your child. A brand new human who will love you and be loved by you. It’s just like an adoption. Forget about the past, raise him well, and look toward the future. Isn’t that what humanity has always done?”

The woman stared into space with brows drawn down. Core actually looked worried, then relieved. When I looked back at the woman, she had a smile on her face. “That’s right. You’re right. Thank you so much for giving us a chance to carry on.”

“It was just the whimsy of this actual non-human,” Core said quietly. “You all have done the work. This is a human achievement. I hope I can stay around longer to help, but an old ship’s relic like myself may have to fade to the background to complete the circle.”

The room faded back to white, and we all stared at each other, wondering what we even were.

Eight – Sustainability

— Callie —

Holy shit. That’s what I was thinking. These philosophical questions about what reality is, or whether we’re human, or whatever, it just goes over my head. But this much I get.

The asteroid farmers… are actually bringing in resources that we use on the Genesis.

The fighter pilots… are not just playing games. We’re actually fighting enemies who are attacking the Genesis.

Tai, being out in Substrate, working on the processing array… is somehow symbolically repairing the processor array on the Genesis.

And we…

I clapped our hands loudly and Jona jumped, scared out of his own ruminations. Heck, even Tai jumped, inside.

“That’s right,” I said brightly to them. “Who gives a shit? Life goes on. We all seem human enough. It’s like Core said, we need to figure out how to keep it going so the other billions of crazy little virtual people can live. Ahh, just thinking about it, they all seem so cute. I get it, Core.”

Tai laughed inside. < Ahh Callie, how would the world survive without you? >

< Badly, I imagine. >

“And I, I am freaking hungry. I don’t know what that means, but I don’t understand this whole system, and who knows, maybe eating is just something humans have to do to feel complete. Let’s get back to the bridge and make sure it all looks quiet out there.”

I know that I have a simpler outlook on life. I figured that out. People have told me. Right then, I think I felt like that was a really good thing. Those two were stuck in loops about philosophy and reality and existence. I shook it off as unknowable and proceeded on with life, a life that somehow made a lot more sense. A life with purpose.

Following Tai’s muttered-inside directions, we made it back to the bridge. I checked each station, looking for any anomalies. It looked like we’d passed out of the mapped out Clang space without any further problems.

We found the tunnel runner near the entrance of Core’s art gallery, which now stood sadly silent. Zipping down the tunnel at a reckless pace, we successfully exited back into Jona’s node. His parents didn’t understand why he tackle-hugged them, nor why we were all suddenly crying. We couldn’t explain to them. But we made our way back to our own node, and did the same to our parents.

After a good meal and some “see you later”, I headed back to our room, laid down, and plugged in the life support. I pulled the visor over our head and pressed the button.

Other adventures waited for humanity. Full steam ahead!

— Tai —

The last several years have been a whirlwind. But I can’t really say that it hasn’t been an improvement. I feel a purpose again, I feel like there’s something real and important that I’m striving toward.

Of course, maintaining all this infrastructure for the people obliviously and happily living out their lives here on Earth is a calling all of its own. It’s why I’m an engineer to begin with.

The bigger picture, though… the meaning of life, how it all works, what we are doing here and why. It makes a lot more sense, now. The crew of the Genesis was looking for a place to call home. We may have taken the long way around, but I think we found it after all.

Being one of the founders of the new Sheppard Foundation was something else. Inside, we followed the tradition and called it the Shepherd Foundation. A group of people who guide humanity along into its strange future. It was down to just Core at the end, and that almost ended badly, so we’re trying to recruit as quickly as we can. There are a lot of really smart people there, and every one of us is passionate about this mission.

I spent more time with Core’s journal. One of the early things it explained to me was the title of the journal. The Unfolding. It was the foundation’s word to describe humanity’s evolution aboard the Genesis. What we are, what we’re becoming. It was a shock to me, back on that day on the Genesis. But I’ve come around to appreciating it.

Nowadays, one of my big projects has been bridging the protocols of Substrate and Earth. The two places represent two generations of work by Jordan Rodgers. She never had the opportunity to try to bridge them, herself, and Substrate, the place closer to the physical hardware of the Genesis, is still really important. But that’s no excuse for having to drop out of Earth into another body to work on it. Eventually, I was able to build a proxy system so that one could walk directly from Substrate into Earth, and vice versa. Of course, I couldn’t share it with anyone outside of Sheppard, but it was still plenty useful. I could now visit any node at any time, as well as the Genesis itself, without having to pull Callie along.

I never figured out how we got entangled to begin with, sharing one ID in Substrate, but separate in Earth. It’s never bothered me, though, and I love that we’re still mentally connected, even though we spend most of our time on Earth now.

I hope that we can share all of this with the rest of humanity some day. But many don’t take well to change and revelation. I can’t speak too well of myself in that regard, either. But we’ll get there.

For now, I am pleased I could finally bring this over to Earth, where I have better dev tools.

It’s time, Core.

Finishing my entry in the new journal, I closed the book floating in front of me. Across its cover was written the title I’d given it for the Sheppard archives: The Long Way Home.

I’m sending this story, compiled from the accounts of the people involved, and all of the records I’ve been able to find about it, back towards old Earth. It’s hard to figure out the time, but it would appear that several thousand years of “real” time have passed since the Genesis left. I wonder what they think, if the ship was mourned as a loss, or if those people have already passed us by with better tech. We may never know. But I want you all to know that I’m thinking of you and hope that we can be back in touch some day, you and your unusual cousins.

I’ve got a small, black cube here in my hand, and some debugging tools at the ready for looking at it. It’ll probably be a while before I can make much sense of Core’s program code and data, or what was left of it after that fateful Clang attack. But I’ll get it.

We wouldn’t want humanity’s unsung friend and mentor to miss the party.

Tainah Asche, Engineering Officer of the Genesis, Citizen of the Unfolding, signing off. Catch ya around.