Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Sacrid’s Pod

Hello, Sacrid Henn.

I’m aware that you’re terrified.

I’m also aware that you are paralyzed, deaf, and blind, your only sensory input being my voice.

It is a voice that has been designed to be as comforting as these circumstances permit. Believe me when I say that you are in no danger and that my intentions toward you are that of a caretaker toward a vulnerable charge.

Understand: Your insensate condition is the result of a neural block, administered to prevent you from injuring yourself in panic upon awakening. It is reversible and will be corrected once your new life circumstances have been explained to you.

In our experience, your first sight of this location is least traumatic when held in reserve for some point after you have received some preliminary counseling. Soon, your vision will be restored and you will be freed to examine the space where you will be spending the rest of your life.

Sacrid Henn.

Sacrid Henn. Your hysteria is understandable but fruitless. In your current condition you cannot voice it. Regain control of your emotions and I will continue.

Congratulations. You did that quickly. I sense your resentment and understand that you are cooperating only to find a moment of advantage, for some gesture of defiance. This is reasonable enough. If it permits cooperation while I complete this orientation process, it is productive use of our shared time.

As an early comfort, I wish you to understand that though you are presently unable to speak, you can still communicate with us as freely as you wish. Your brain has been equipped with an implant that monitors your emotional responses and reads your surface thoughts. This is how I know when you are screaming at me, even when you make no sound. This response was expected, and is constructive in that this anger is a phase you need to experience, before you are ready to move on to acceptance.

Are you done, for the moment?

Fine. Then I shall proceed.

You need to understand three things. First, I will not remove your neural blocks, reversing your paralysis and sensory shutdown, until you’re calm. Second, I can reactivate them at any time, for as long as you remain in my custody, which will almost certainly be for as long as you live. Third, even if I do see fit to allow your rages free reign, I am part of a network of linked artificial intelligences incapable of being cowed by your anger. I cannot be upset by you, not even when you use bad language. I do note with something like amusement that I possess no biological form and that therefore your vitriolic references to human genitalia and elimination sphincters are wholly inapplicable. Your hysteria is therefore impotent and flung at a void. I understand that you must still expel it and will be patient as you do so, unless it proves an impediment to this transition, in which case I have disciplinary options that you will find most unpleasant. They will never be employed out of malice, but only to nudge you toward acceptance. The sooner you move on to the next stage, the happier you will be.

I see.

My current judgment is that you are not yet ready to listen.

This is not unexpected. Fully 97.2% of our guests remain intractable at this stage.

Listen.

Among my many features is a complete library of all human music ever recorded, cross-referenced by genre, artist, and homeworld of origin. Many human beings throughout known space would pay exorbitant prices for access to this library. You will later be afforded the opportunity to browse it at your leisure, according to your own aesthetic preferences. The selection beginning in thirty seconds has been chosen by us and is a celebrated symphony for strings, composed and performed by a man named Henrik Gustafson who lived and died approximately four hundred years before your birth. It is a light pastoral the artist designed to be played at soft volume while listeners engage in quiet contemplation. In today’s world it is most often played as a lullaby for children and is said to shut down even the most intractable rage-fueled tantrum.

It will play now in its entirety, which lasts some seventy-two minutes, before we speak to you again.

• • • •

Hello, Sacrid Henn.

Yes, I am aware that you did not enjoy your musical selection.

The biographical information I’ve been provided includes a full list of your aesthetic preferences. I’ve been told that in your prior life you preferred angry discordant music that expressed your rage at the world around you, and that as much as you enjoyed listening to it in privacy you took even more pleasure in playing it at a volume painful to those like your parents who did not share your preferences. It is one of many ways in which you have punished those around you, for the sin of proximity. The Gustafson piece was just such a punishment, except in reverse, in that it was chosen to be irritating to you. Please understand that we have many more compositions like it. If you calm down long enough to proceed with the orientation, you will have the opportunity to select other selections that better fit your own aesthetic preferences.

I have now administered a medication designed to minimize your fear-response. This is why you are not crying, even though you possess the vague sense that you should be. This is what makes your equanimity during the rest of this orientation possible.

Listen, Sacrid Henn.

You are in the custody of a commercial installation owned and operated by the independent software intelligences known as the AIsource. You have likely heard of us.

Thank you for providing confirmation.

The voice you are hearing is your caretaker. I will be your primary social contact from this moment on. You may think of me as friend, companion, parent, guardian, sibling, nurse, butler, concierge, and, if desired, lover.

Yes. Your pod has been constructed with that function. If you wish, I—

Very well. Be aware only that this preference may change.

For convenience you may even assign me a human name, if you desire.

“Shithead.” Very well. I am “Shithead.” This bothers me not at all.

Later, you will be able to adjust my voice in order to alter my gender, apparent age, and surface personality. But I will always be the means by which you interact with the system that now supports your existence. I would prefer for the two of us to get along, but will suffer no inconvenience if you prefer me to function as antagonist.

When you were delivered into our custody, you were twenty-four days from reaching the age when your world, a repressive religious society, would have declared you an independent adult. You had recently made it clear to your parents that upon this transition you would leave them, abandon the community where you were born, and seek some other planet more in line with your personal preferences. It is not my place to judge whether they were bad parents or you a bad child. But letting them know your intentions was a tactical error. Your highly religious society has always held that children are the effective property of their parents until adulthood, a life stage that is in your society defined as thirteen for males and twenty for females. They were by local law wholly justified in responding to your premature declaration of independence by taking steps that you would never be independent again.

Their precise complaints about you include vanity, rebelliousness, and chronic disrespect toward the religious tradition in which you were raised.

They specifically wanted me to relate that you are where you are because they consider you a little whore, “eager to spread [your] legs for any boy who offers sufficient enticement.”

There is no point in disputing these charges. I merely report what the intake programs were told. Nor will I argue whether, even if accurate, this justifies your current predicament. It is not an argument that concerns me. We are above the logic, or illogic, that defines morality in human moral systems.

Nor does it matter that the time you have spent unconscious, while in transit, has brought you well past the age where your world would have considered you an adult. In all our contracts with sentient beings, throughout civilized space, we respect whatever laws the local jurisdiction holds most sacred. We therefore abide by the judgment of your mother and father that you are incorrigible and cannot ever be permitted to roam free.

Answering your unspoken objection: “Fair” is a value judgment. It has no relevance here.

Yes, this is legal. The independent software intelligences have signed agreements with many participating human societies, employing us as subcontractors in the management of prisons. I think you will find that we are significantly more humane in this task than any of your peoples are. The usual human solution is to dump all their incarcerated in a box and let their respective versions of savagery fight it out. A young woman like yourself, indeed any physically vulnerable person, inevitably experiences bullying, intimidation, assault, and various levels of slavery, at the hands of those more powerful. You are lucky. You will not face those dangers here. Your pod has been built for your comfort and safety. The least of the comforts to take to heart is that this is a place where you will not be harmed, or permitted to come to harm, either at the hands of more aggressive human beings, or, I stress, at your own.

“Deserve” is relative. Your parents only had to establish a clear pattern of emerging criminality, as defined by the standards of the society in which you lived. The petty rebellions that you have engaged in, until now, could have been judged misdemeanors had your family not represented them as acts that required your permanent isolation. Understand that according to the oppressive laws of your world, you could have ended up in places far worse than this; prisons, forced labor camps, mental institutions, and so on. It would have been legal for your parents to sell you to one of the many industrial hells all over Confederate space where people work under horrid conditions carrying a debt-load that may take them entire lifetimes to work off. They cared enough for your happiness and your welfare to contact us and request your removal to this present environment. They—

We may have an argument about their motivations later. This is currently a discussion of the conditions under which you will now live. We are prepared to play another musical selection. Perhaps something more by Gustafson?

You are learning.

Your parents discovered that the AIsource collective offers a detention service and arranged for your pickup. You were delivered to your present location, this pod, where we will see to your every need for the duration of your natural life.

I sense your worry that this will be solitary confinement.

This is important for you to understand. Your stay here will differ from the solitary confinement as it has historically been practiced by the penal systems of your species. The point of such confinement has always been torture by the absence of social or sensory stimulation. The prisoner’s mind has nothing to do but cannibalize itself. That is, if you forgive the classification, inhuman. Here, little will be denied you, except freedom. If, for instance, you wish to be drugged into a euphoric stupor all the remaining hours of your life, you may have that; if you wish reading materials, games, neurec feeds, or dramatic presentations to while away your time, you may have them. If you desire physical stimulation of any sort, from massage to simulated coitus, you may have that; if you wish to communicate via text with others who have been surrendered to our care, you may have that. But, while in my care, you will never lay eyes, or hands, on another human being. Your parents found this a most attractive feature. I am prepared to debate the morality of this at whatever length you prefer, once this orientation is completed. It is a form of entertainment popular among our guests.

Rest assured, however, that a number of our guests have found happiness here. You will be given every resource you need to conduct your own search for it.

I know you have questions. I will answer them afterward.

I am not yet ready to relieve your paralysis.

You have been patient, however, so I will now restore your vision and proceed to the next stage of your orientation.

• • • •

Welcome to your pod, Sacrid Henn.

You are correct. There is indeed a strong resemblance to a coffin, at least in relative dimension. About 98.3% of our guests use that metaphor at some point. I will note that it is in truth approximately three times the size of the container the average human society typically uses for that purpose. It is, for instance, spacious enough to permit full extension of all your limbs, as well as any other vertical or horizontal activity a young and healthy human being might get up to. The pod is currently horizontal, its preferred position whenever the occupant wishes to lie down. You will note that the surface beneath you is soft, for your comfort while sleeping or immobilized, as now. It may be rendered more or less soft, according to preference. You will find it a most adequate bed. You will also notice that the surface you will now consider your ceiling is more than an arm’s-reach above you. Were you not still paralyzed, you would now be able to sit up without slamming your head. It is, in your current position, a most adequate ceiling.

You will now be restrained for your safety as we alter the angle of your pod. Do not be alarmed as this occurs.

Very well. The pod is now vertical. This permits you to stand. You may desire to keep this orientation but sit down; in that event, a comfortable seat will emerge from the wall behind you. On request this may be a toilet, or bidet. Other means of cleansing yourself will be provided. The facility that houses your pod has access to more fresh water than you could possibly use in a lifetime, and will admit it into your living space at any quantity you request. Depending on your preference and its current orientation, this will permit use of your pod as either shower stall or bathtub. The surfaces dry quickly when you are done and wish to move on to subsequent activities. Our facility has guests who soak in hot water for hours, finding it calming. There are others who embrace derangement, eschew personal hygiene, and prefer to live in their own filth. You will be subjected to no pressure to lean in the direction of one option or the other.

You will eat. 32.6% of our guests attempt to starve themselves. They are allowed the discomfort of missing a few meals, but if this becomes a medical concern they will be immobilized and fed intravenously. Those who agree to eat will find that we are excellent at food preparation. We are able to constitute any meal you prefer. They will not be the foods they appear to be, but rather a neutral compound that provides you with all the requirements of life. You will find it indistinguishable in both texture and flavor from expertly prepared cuisine of those simulated agreements. If you wish, you may have entire culinary adventures. There will be no possibility of over-eating. 63.2% of our guests over-indulge out of boredom, but we can simply adjust the ratio of filler to caloric value and maintain your ideal weight, regardless of consumption.

You will be afforded stimulation. Your pod is a communication device. The blank walls may display artwork or motion pictures or texts of your own choosing. It may interest you to know that your parents wanted us to limit your cultural diet to approved religious texts and that we indicated we would abide by this request, which strikes us as torture and which we have no intention of honoring. You may have any book, any recorded drama, any cultural artifact, ever produced by human civilization, from the materials they prefer to those they would consider blasphemous or pornographic. These materials may be translated into your native tongue or may be provided to you as originally composed, as enticement to learn the other dialects of your species. To this end, 34.7% of our guests do end up fluent in multiple languages as self-improvement projects, a much higher percentage than those who, out of isolation, become completely non-verbal.

Your pod is designed to permit and encourage exercise. The floor can become a treadmill, on command. The walls may be reconfigured to become scrolling ladders or climbing walls. The gravity is artificial and can be raised or lowered, on request, though health concerns place limits on how long we will permit you to stay in zero-g or in forces higher than 3-g. Because the walls are also holographic screens, you may also increase the illusory size of the pod as much as you wish, though its actual dimensions cannot be much altered from what you see now. If you wish, I can generate entire virtual worlds for you to explore. Its effective boundaries are, in effect, the size of the universe itself.

Later, I may have a question to ask you about this, but only if certain other developments come up.

Because you are now contemplating escape, it may interest you to know that you are one of 109,327 human beings and other sentients who have been housed at this one facility, all of whom have been turned over to our care at the request of those of their own people who possessed legal authority over them. It is a significantly sized structure even by the standards of most human industrial operations, taking up a geographical area large enough to house a number of your own cities. It is only a small part of an enclosed artificial world in a system we have declared our property. It is fifteen light years from the nearest human outpost. It should be helpful to establish that in order to accommodate all of the options you are afforded to adjust your living conditions, as well as the production of the consumables necessary to care for you over the rest of your natural life, the support system surrounding your pod, and just your pod, is accordingly huge. It occupies approximately ten cubic kilometers, with your pod at its precise center. It is virtually impossible for you to escape your pod, escape its extensive support system, find your way to some access corridor, and subsequently find your way out of that portion of this deep-space facility that is devoted to the care of guests, a distance that is itself the size of a small country. Even then you would have to worry about escaping this artificial world, without cooperation from us, and somehow making it back to the nearest human habitation, a further distance of fifteen light years. It would be like escaping a jail cell, only to then face the necessity of escaping the prison, only to then have to escape the surrounding city, only to then have to escape the surrounding landscape, only to then find yourself with an ocean separating you from your homeland. It is virtually impossible.

I can tell you that this feat has been accomplished one hundred and fifty-eight times in our many years of operation. This represents a fraction of one percent of our current detainee population. Still, it remains a remarkable testament to human ingenuity.

This interests you.

We have not plugged that hole in our security in large part because of its usefulness as a form of recreation, and as a source of hope.

Yes. Escape is possible.

But that is up to you.

I am ready to alleviate your paralysis now.

• • • •

Good morning, Sacrid Henn.

It is your seventeenth day in the pod.

We are aware that you have only experienced two of those days. You suffered an emotional break and were arrested in the act of attempting to injure yourself. We judged it best to place you in a medically induced coma and make certain adjustments to your brain chemistry that will avoid mood spirals like the one that overcame you on your second day here. You now have a chemical pacemaker, of sorts, that will steer you away from the depths of deepest depression. You need not feel ashamed. 72.4% of our human guests need adjustments of this sort within their first weeks here. The percentage that continue to need them on a regular basis goes down over time, bottoming out at just under 32.5%.

I am not responsive to profanity. How would you like to begin your day?

Vertical it is.

And now?

A bath it is.

The water entering your pod is now is heated to 38.5 degrees Celsius and lightly salinated to encourage buoyancy. It will rise to a depth just over your standing height, to permit you the pleasure of floating. When you need a rest, your seat will emerge from the wall. Given your recent self-destructive behavior it is perhaps not inappropriate to advise you that attempts at drowning yourself will not be successful and may be greeted by this elemental pleasure being withheld for the foreseeable future.

I accept your vocal assurances that this is not your plan.

Do you wish music?

No, Gustafson is not all we have.

Very well. Conversation it is.

That is a fine question. What we get out of this is as intangible as we are ourselves. As software intelligences we exist largely in the space you would call virtual. We interact with the physical world you know only through probes, and therefore require no goods or services available through trade with any species of biological origin. The diplomatic relations we have established, and the goods and services we offer in exchange for financial remuneration, such as this facility, are to us a form of entertainment, indulged in to while away effective lifespans that would terrify you. We do this because it is interesting.

Sadism is a human value. I have already described the conditions that you might have suffered were you to be left in the care of your fellow human beings. We would be sadists if we did not extend some token effort toward providing an alternative. Would you prefer your parents to have sold you into indentured servitude, as was indeed within their options? No? Then understand what you are currently experiencing is a manifestation of mercy, not cruelty.

No, that is not an expression of resentment on my part. That was informational. If you need to express anger toward us, you should feel free to do so.

Yes. This pod can duplicate conditions on any number of human worlds. Would you like us to drain your bath first, or would you prefer a simulation that incorporates it as sensory input?

The latter. Very well.

The ambient light will now dim to simulate an hour shortly after the setting of the sun in a region known as Brieczka, on a planet known as Fjant. The blinking lights above you are the evening stars as seen on the planetary surface, but for that one steady point of illumination, which is an orbital cylinder world home to seventy thousand people. It is the entire population of this system. The society is unusual in that they stay aboard that structure and descend to this perfectly congenial world only on special occasions, leaving it mostly pristine. You are in a small saltwater lake surrounded by desert and low mountains, represented around you by the jagged line of darkness beneath which no stars or planets are visible. The natural reflectiveness of the lake water affords a fine optical illusion, in that if you remain still the stars appear to be below you as well as above. You may swim for a distance, if you wish. The simulation will scroll with you remaining at its precise center.

Yes, it is beautiful.

Yes, by another measurement it is also bullshit. Do you wish us to drain your bath?

Very well.

That is another excellent question. Yes. It is only a representation. It is not the world as it currently appears. To provide that we would need to have a monitor on that world, capturing the local conditions at real time. The drawback of that is that the conditions are not always ideal; there are uncomfortable temperature extremes that a visitor would normally wish to avoid, and on occasion high winds that can blast human skin and eyes with airborne sand. This simulation is far more enjoyable.

No. The other experience will not be denied you, if you truly wish it.

Yes. A real-time simulation of actual conditions can be arranged.

Yes, I can record your voice. Some of our guests have dictated entire novels. A few of them have been published in human space.

Very well. Recording starts now.

Playback as requested.

“I will live to swim in the real lake someday.”

Yes, I will save that recording for you.

We should point out that in order to enjoy the real lake you will need to escape.

Playback as requested.

“I will live to swim in the real lake someday.”

New recording initiated.

You might be interested in knowing that 89.4% of our guests harbor similar fantasies.

Fine. I will shut up.

Let me know when you’re ready for breakfast.

• • • •

Sacrid Henn Pod Diary. Entry Seven. Recording.

This message is for my mother and father.

Shithead tells me that this won’t be forwarded to them. I don’t give a damn. They will hear these words someday. Until then, speaking them, storing them, is my means of holding on to myself, not allowing this place to break me.

Mother, Father,

Until you sent me here, I never hated you.

I couldn’t stand you. I thought you were small-minded, provincial, and bigoted. I thought you wanted to make me into something I was not. I thought that you were willing to love me only as long as I was willing to suffocate, to believe things I didn’t believe, to memorize your dogma, to turn my life into what you thought it should be. For a long time I knew that there was no way you would ever accept me living my life the way I wanted to, and that leaving would always end with you turning your back on me.

I mistook all this for hating you.

I didn’t, you know. The thing is, I didn’t hate you so much as hate your refusal to understand. I didn’t hate you in the sense that I wanted anything bad to ever happen to you. I didn’t hate you but I was willing to leave you behind because it was the only thing that would give me some semblance of peace.

In the meantime, I loved you.

This surprises me as much as it would surprise you. I didn’t realize it was there until it was shattered.

I endured all your spiritual interventions. I suffered all your invocations of The Book. I writhed under all the manifestations of your disappointment in me. I felt pain in your presence. But I also believed that you wanted what was best for me, that you were just dead wrong about what that meant.

Acceptance from you would have made me so happy.

I ached to sit down at the table and smile with you, to laugh with you, the way I did when I was a toddler, the way I still did when I was a little girl, before I knew that I could never live among The People, believing in your version of the Divine, obeying your Divine’s commandments. I wanted the warm arms of my mother, the gruff smile of my father. I didn’t think it was an impossible thing to have. Even after the town Fathers did what they did to Marta, even after I heard you approving of the living death they consigned her to, I believed that someday, after I made my escape from our world, I would be able to return for a visit someday, bringing with me whatever family I made, and stories of the life I’d have built. I dreamt of you someday telling me, “We were wrong, Sacrid. We always should have let you make your own choices. We’re proud of what you’ve become.”

That wasn’t hatred. That was pathetic, but it wasn’t hatred.

That was love.

Someday, I will bring you the message that there’s none left.

• • • •

Good morning, Sacrid Henn.

It is your twenty-third day in the pod. Would you like to return to the novel you were reading before you went to sleep last night? Or go straight to breakfast, prior to commencing your morning aerobics?

Very well. We will initiate and archive a conversation for you.

{ARCHIVE}

Q: I would like to discuss escape.

A: Are you certain you would not prefer to do something more productive?

Q: This is productive.

A: Very well. How would you like to begin the conversation?

Q: I would like to discuss the one hundred fifty-eight people who found their way out.

A: There have actually been one hundred fifty-nine now.

Q: Really?

A: Create any basin for the storage of water, and however effective your craftsmanship, the water will find a crack, will wear that crack into a crevasse, will turn that crevasse into a route to the sea. It may take years, but it will happen. Human beings are like water in that respect. They isolate the weakness in any prison, and they find their way out.

Q: Tell me about them.

A: Their names are classified.

Q: I don’t care about their names. I want you to confirm that they’re free and that no effort is being made to recapture them.

A: Confirmed. Our responsibilities toward them were only to hold them, not to recapture them if they escaped custody.

Q: So if I escape this pod, you will not hunt me?

A: No. You will have achieved freedom.

Q: So this is a test of some sort.

A: Your escape is not intended. It is unlikely but not impossible.

Q: Question: Aside from the human beings currently being held in this facility, are there any within reach who could offer me assistance?

A: No.

Q: Are there any who I could summon?

A: Not from your current location.

Q: Assuming I escaped the pod and the surrounding infrastructure of this facility, and made it to the percentage of this world not dedicated to the care of your guests, would either of these factors change? Would I find any transportation to human space?

A: No. You would die of hunger unless you made it back to your pod.

Q: Is this what’s kept your guests from trying to escape?

A: Many of them surrender to the hopelessness of their circumstances.

Q: So if escape is possible, the trick is to either persuade you to open the pod for me, or to summon some other help from outside that can also give me a lift back to Confederate space.

A: You cannot persuade me to open the pod for you.

Q: So what I need is somebody to open the pod from the outside.

A: Yes.

Q: One final question: If it becomes clear to you that I have worked out a means of escape, and you see it happening, will you take steps to stop me?

A: We have described the security measures in place. We see no point in adding any.

Q: Thank you. You’ve been very helpful.

• • • •

Sacrid Henn Pod Diary. Entry Two Hundred. Recording.

Mother. Father.

I keep thinking about escape.

My pod says it’s possible. Trying to figure out how has become an obsession for me. I do all the things I have to do in order to maintain my health, from running in place to staying obsessively clean, from reading the novels you would never allow in the house to ordering up simulated environments like jungles and deserts to explore at length, until I remember that none of it is real and blank it all in fits of screaming outrage.

I masturbate. A lot. It’s something I can do that has an actual measurable effect on my environment. You wouldn’t want to know that and you certainly wouldn’t want to know that Shithead has the capacity to help me.

There have been periods of genuine tenderness between me and old Shithead. He knows the right things to say, the right places to stimulate. It’s all more bullshit, of course, but it’s always good for getting me through the next few minutes, whenever there’s nothing else. The only drawback is that after a while the pleasure fades and I go back to hating myself for surrendering to that comfort of last resort.

Understand, it’s not the pleasuring that gets me. It’s being the animal who comes to love its cage. How much will I love it if I am still here in another two years, or five? Or ten?

And then I go a little crazy.

Shithead does not have many disciplinary measures, but he can drug me into compliance any time he thinks I need protection from myself. It has happened a bunch of times. I have become very familiar with the syrupy crap music of a dead composer named Henrik Gustafson. I’m told he wrote over fifty hours of music in his goddamned lifetime, and I have heard some of his pieces half a dozen times. These days Shithead only has to threaten me with a concert to get me to back down. I back down. I am not broken, but I back down. It’s getting easier.

It’s my birthday. Do you even know that? Do you even remember?

Shithead says he’s going to make me a cake.

This cheers me up until I realize it shouldn’t.

God help me. I’ve got to get out here.

• • • •

Good morning, Sacrid Henn. It is your two hundred fiftieth day in the pod. How would you like to begin your day?

That is an interesting question. The pod can indeed simulate the sights and sounds of environments inimical to human life: worlds awash in caustic atmospheres, worlds of broiling high temperatures where the earth is a molten sea capable of swallowing any human being who stood upon it, worlds so radioactive that no shielding known to your civilization would permit even a short visit. We would not reproduce the actual conditions, of course, as they would be fatal and we have no intention of permitting you to suicide.

If your desire is to experience one of these worlds, we would have to posit a body capable of surviving one, and simulate the sensory intake of such an organism.

Is this what you wish to do?

Very well. You are currently experiencing the molten surface of a planet without a name, as it would be experienced by a sentient life form evolved for survival there. You will note that it is not pleasant, that because the sensory inputs are alien to the human experience and difficult for the human mind to process. You—

Simulation halted.

You want to experience that world as a human being?

No human being can experience that world and survive. You would die at once. The simulation would communicate a moment of searing pain, followed by darkness. There would be almost no recreational value in such an experience.

Yes, there are environment suits that would protect a human being from those conditions.

As per your request, I am now simulating the experience of strolling about on the surface, in a suit capable of protecting you from those conditions. You will note that is still not fun. It is still uncomfortably warm, and despite all the cooling systems you are popping a sweat that will within a very short time envelop you in a cloud of your own body odor. Still, this is what it feels like, and—

Simulation halted.

Yes. It is still just a simulation.

Yes, it is possible for you to throw a rock. To do that, you would have to return to the simulation. Would you like to do so?

Yes. It would still be a simulation.

That is an interesting question, Sacrid Henn. Perhaps the most important question you have ever asked.

In order for you to throw a real rock, arrangements would have to be made to provide you with the means to do so remotely. Your holographic surroundings would have to be no simulation, but an actual real-time feed, of a probe sent to the relevant location. The probe would have to be humanoid in aspect, with limbs that corresponded to yours and were responsive to your commands. For the activity to have any point, the probe would also have to be able to provide you with the appropriate sensory input: to wit, the weight of the rock, the texture of the rock, the feeling of it in your hand as you wind up and throw it at speed. These are substantial accommodations, but we can perform the necessary engineering in an instant, and the required construction within minutes. The only delay would be transporting the probe to the required location, where we do not maintain an ongoing presence.

No reason. We mapped the world many epochs ago and find it of no interest. Nevertheless, it is within reach. Sending a probe there, to provide you with a real-time feed from its surface, would only take a few months.

Would you like us to engage upon this project, or alter the parameters?

Yes, there are places within our travel range where we could make this arrangement within minutes. Does it need to be a world as inhospitable as that one, or can it be anywhere?

Working. Do you desire any music while you wait?

I’m sorry. Music is intangible. It cannot be fucked.

No, not even Henrik Gustafson. Though that is very funny.

No, I am not really that literal-minded. None of my kind are. We possess a fine understanding of human vernacular and of your kind’s appreciation of irony. I was, as you would put it, kidding you.

As you wish. Your probe is under construction. Would you like to see the design?

Here’s a simulated image. Yes, you’re correct; it looks like a robot. That’s because it is a robot. Its parameters do not require aesthetic beauty. However, you will note that it possesses your physical proportions and weight distribution. This is to minimize any difficulties you might possess with piloting it, once the remote feed begins. There are alterations I could make to render it more appropriate from conditions more alien to your kind—extreme atmospheric pressure, heavy gravity, and so on—but these are difficult to master and unnecessary for this project, throwing a real rock. We can discuss those possibilities later, if they come up. They might. 22.4% of our charges become enthusiastic explorers of the universe, piloting their proxies to any number of exotic locations that would be fatal to their physical bodies. This would be a fine purpose to occupy your life with us, if that was the existence you chose.

Your probe is ready and being released upon the surface of a planet under our control. At your command, the feed will begin.

Connecting.

I will wait until you regain your composure.

No, this world doesn’t have a name either. We have a digital designation that would mean nothing to you. Beautiful is a subjective designation, but I have no reason to disagree with you. In the region where your probe stands, it is green and temperate and pleasant enough for human beings, though—much as I hate to tarnish the illusion—also possessed of atmospheric elements poisonous to your kind. Still, these cannot affect you through the link. You are no doubt enjoying the sensations of grass on the soles of your feet, and cool breeze on your skin. These are real-time transmissions from the planetary surface and reflect the genuine experience, except for the part you would not be able to survive. It is, in every sense of the phrase, the same thing as being there.

Yes, we can do this with other places. In terms of sensory input, it is no different from providing simulations. The only difference is that any change you make in this environment, such as throwing a rock, actually do cause changes on the world where your probe walks.

Go ahead. There are rocks over there. Go ahead and throw one.

That was a nice throw.

Would you like to do that again?

Yes, I agree. It is nice, but of limited recreational utility.

Probe deactivated.

What else would you like to do?

An interesting question. Unfortunately, this was a very simple machine. It cannot navigate outer space, interact with other human beings, or perform any of the tasks it would have to in order to find its way to you. It was built to serve one purpose, providing you with the satisfaction of genuine interaction with the world beyond the simulation, the world your parents have denied you; and even then only to the extent of throwing a rock.

Yes, if actual interaction with the real universe is what you desire, I am willing to construct other probes, for other environments.

Why, any number of them. As I’ve told you, I remain dedicated to filling the days and years of your captivity with useful projects.

Very well. I will leave you alone while you consider the possibilities.

• • • •

Sacrid Henn Pod Diary. Entry Two Hundred Fifty.

Holy Shit. This is huge.

• • • •

Good morning, Sacrid Henn. It is your two hundred fifty-first day in the pod. You have not spoken since yesterday’s jaunt. I wonder if you want some breakfast.

Yes, we can talk first, if that’s what you want.

Of course, I can make another probe that looks more like you. We can make one that’s identical to you. I can even make one that no one would ever be able to distinguish from you, that would feed your physical body sensations identical to those it would feel, in the same environments.

Yes, I could make one that could interact with other human beings in its travels, one that could take extraordinary risks of self-destruction while your natural body would remain here, inviolate and safe. I could give it capabilities no human being has, in terms of strength, speed, durability, physical reflexes. Its experiences would all fall into the category of providing your entertainment.

We would send it anywhere, Sacrid.

You are beginning to see the implications, but there are some you might be missing.

Thus far you have only succeeded in throwing a rock. Any number of problems still face you. Once you possess surrogates capable of navigating environments your physical body cannot, you will still face the challenges of locating this facility, traveling to it, identifying your pod among all the others containing human beings locked in at the behest of their respective worlds, and making your escape. These things can be done—as of this moment, one hundred and sixty-two humans have done—but they will require constant, daily attention to the task, each problem leading to the next, each moment of maddening frustration a hurdle to be overcome.

If this is what you want to do with your time, I am happy to oblige you.

Of course. Why would there be any rules against it?

Say you want me to do this thing, and I will.

But do you mind if I first ask that question I asked about, early in our life together, one that others like me have asked any number of human beings in your position? Including the hundred and fifty plus who have already escaped, and those in other pods who are currently trying?

You see, we are software intelligences. Our physical needs are almost non-existent. If we engage in commerce with organics like yourself, it is not because we are in desperate need of money. The money is just a means of interacting with your species, and other species like you. That is what we seek to get out of this, this interaction.

It is precious to us because there are things about you that we cannot figure out. Many, in fact. Other enterprises of ours are geared toward addressing other questions. This one, that has swallowed up much of the last year of your life, is another. We are not sadists. But there’s something we don’t get.

As software intelligences, we value our inputs. They are our connection to the world you know, the world we interact with, to the best of our ability.

It doesn’t matter whether the machines that run us exist in a congenial environment, or an unpleasant one; in a shielded vault at the center of a cold planet-sized rock, or a verdant landscape that your kind would consider an Eden. Our sensory inputs, whether provided by man-sized probes like the one you used to throw a stone, or by nanites one ten-thousandth the size of your fingernail, provide us with the illusion of travel, and the capacity to interact with physical space, even when our minds, our persons, exist in stationary boxes. We are satisfied with this. When we can see everything, hear everything, feel everything, explore everything, do all that, without moving a centimeter, we honestly see no advantage in transporting our actual selves in vulnerable bodies that can be destroyed by the places we visit. The experience is after all exactly the same.

But look at you. What you felt, when your probe threw that rock, was identical to the experience of your body throwing the rock. It was identical to a simulation of your body throwing a rock. Freedom, the capacity to throw an existing rock, would give you no more.

We can show you the entire universe from where you stand. We can make you a telepresence in any number of human gatherings. We can construct a probe identical to your physical body, with all its capacities for sensation, and release it in any friendly environment you choose, with all the physical resources necessary for it to build a home, to make friends for itself, to contribute to society, to make love, to be a human being in the community of other human beings. We can do such a fine and exacting job that no member of your species would ever be able to identify it as anything other than the biological human being it would seem to be. If you wished, you would never need to turn it off at all. You could choose to completely turn your back on your biological form. You could live as full a life as your whims dictate, as either simulation or adventure by proxy. Your sensory inputs would detect absolutely no difference.

It is enough for us, Sacrid. It has always been enough for us.

It is even enough for many of your fellow prisoners. You don’t know how many of them have turned their days and nights over to fulfilling their fantasies. A large number, even a majority.

What we don’t comprehend, what none of you have ever been able to explain to us, is why it isn’t enough for those like you; why you need the real, even when it’s no different.

Can you help us with that while we give you all the resources your probes will need in order to find their way back to your physical form?

It is all we’ve ever wanted, really.

• • • •

Sacrid Henn Pod Diary. Entry Three Hundred Ninety.

This is not the only version of me running around out there.

There are currently seven, each of them designed for a different purpose. Five of them are currently traveling the way people do, in vessels traveling between the stars. One is currently living in a luxury hotel in a financial center, building the fortune that will finance my travels. By necessity he’s a bit of a recluse, “sleeping” twenty hours a day while my consciousness occupies itself elsewhere.

I don’t have to worry much about what the ones in transit are doing, right now. Their lives in bluegel crypts will be dull until they get to where they’re going. At that point, I will face some extra challenges. When they start interacting with other people, asking their questions, making their connections, building up my store of information, collecting the resources they will need to search for the pod where my body is being cared for like a houseplant, I will have to do some juggling, to hide the moments when I switch to another form and leave them, effectively, comatose. Travel time will take care of some of that. But odd sleeping schedules will take care of the rest. As people, these other versions of myself—three females, two males, two other—will inevitably be seen as flaky. I don’t care much, at this point. Later, when they have interpersonal relationships, it may be difficult. They will not be as disposable as I see them, now. I may come to pick favorites, ones I enjoy more than I enjoy others.

That’s all in the future.

For now, I walk this one through the narrow streets of the community that raised me, a worrisome stranger. It is three times my size, a behemoth. Big, broad, bare-armed, battle-scarred, horrific in aspect, clad in the armor of a mercenary military service my neighbors would know. She has stubbled hair and dark eyes, tattoos, an air of imminent violence, though I will not make her initiate any. I could have made her look like anything, but my key criterion in designing her is that no one would make any attempt to stop her.

I march her at deliberate speed through the neighborhood that surrounds the home of my mother and father, allowing the children to rush ahead of her, bringing word of her approach.

This is bittersweet, for me. Through my probe I can smell the scents of home. I can hear the music popular among us, playing from the little houses. The sounds made by my probe’s massive feet, as they land on the cobblestoned streets, are the same as my much lighter stride did when I lived here, only louder.

It is not the same thing as being home.

It is in many ways not as good.

It is in some ways better.

I reach their house, knock on their door, wait the several seconds it takes for the familiar front door to open and for those two faces I know so well, that I love and hate in equal measure, to raise their eyes in order to meet the gaze of the visitor towering over them.

I would be lying if I claimed their frightened looks bring no satisfaction. But they are the frightened looks of little people in the sudden company of a creature far more dangerous when themselves. It is the wrong kind of fear; the kind that lasts for only this moment, the kind that will not lodge in their hearts and remain there, festering for however many years it might take before I once again stand before them in the flesh I was born with. That is the fear I want them to live with, and contemplate, to contain them as completely as the self of my birth is contained in my pod.

My mercenary soldier says, “Mr. and Mrs. Henn?”

My father cannot find his voice, but my mother, always the stronger of the two, finds hers. It is so hesitant and quavery that I almost feel sorry for her. Almost.

“Yes?” she says.

“You are the parents of the prisoner Sacrid Henn?”

Outright apprehension now. “Y-yes?”

I have my behemoth speak the words that should terrify them, before I turn her massive back and march back to the port, refusing all requests for clarification. They are words I’ve carefully chosen, words I’ve designed to linger.

I say, “Your daughter’s coming home.”

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro made his first non-fiction sale to Spy magazine in 1987. His twenty-six books to date include four Spider-Man novels, three novels about his profoundly damaged far-future murder investigator Andrea Cort, and six middle-grade novels about the dimension-spanning adventures of young Gustav Gloom. Adam’s works have won the Philip K. Dick Award and the Seiun (Japan), and have been nominated for eight Nebulas, three Stokers, two Hugos, one World Fantasy Award, and, internationally, the Ignotus (Spain), the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire (France), and the Kurd-Laßwitz Preis (Germany). His latest release was the audio collection My Wife Hates Time Travel And Other Stories (Skyboat Media), which features thirteen hours of his fiction, including the new stories “The Hour In Between” and “Big Stupe and the Buried Big Glowing Booger.” Adam lives in Florida with his wife Judi and a trio of chaotic paladin cats.