Contact Binary

12 - Sleep


The hatch opens, and air rushes out. Pressurized. Aze and Rozenn climb inside and shut the door before the pressure can drop too much. The overlay on Aze’s helmet visor indicates oxygen levels are safe. They look around, hands on their guns. Rozenn adjusts her eyes to see better in the dim red emergency lighting. But nobody greets them in the silent, dark module.

It’s a large, circular chamber. Aze remembers seeing it from orbit, biggest structure in the base. Aze pans its helmet light around the room to gets a clearer picture with its natural eyes. Machines line every bit of the walls and ceiling--a tangled mess of monitors, wires, and fluid-filled clear tubes.

Along the walls, rows of metal containers two meters long and one meter wide encircle them as they step out into the middle of the room. Aze makes a count--122 containers, all with wires and tubes running into them. It approaches the nearest.

2259-1191 276:54 Aze > Roze. the signals are coming from here. from these...

It takes a look into the containers filesystem.

2259-1191 276:46 Aze > I’m seeing a life support program

It feels around the side for a hardware switch.

2259-1192 000:03 Rozenn > Aze, wait!

It pulls the lever on the side. The top of the container slides open. Inside, a girl lies--no older than the villagers in the simulation--asleep, but pale as death. Her arms are completely devoid of muscle, like she’s lain still for years. Implants cling to her skin, and tubes connect to her veins, exchanging fluids. Wires from the frame fastened to her head connect her to the machine that spans the room.

“Fuck...” Aze says, remembering there is air between them now. It shuts the casket lid again, turning away from it. “The recruiters... The institute comes looking for them every year, long as I can remember. They come down and set up shop, running sync-tests on all the Idæot kids.”

“All the technopath signals coming from this room...of course...” Rozenn says. “Indefinite life support modules. Caskets...”

“I passed the preliminary tests. They said my sync rate was good enough. This could’ve been me, Roze...could’ve been me,” Aze says.

“But wait, then Mai is...” Rozenn pushes off of the casket to glide across the room to a different one. Aze checks the simulation overlay in its mind. The signal of Maiwenn leads right there.

Aze crosses the room to her side, opening up its visor to the breathable atmosphere. “Roze, I don’t know if you’re gonna like what you find.”

She opens the casket to find a girl, tubes running into her skin, wires into her head--tall like Rozenn, a little older, with light brown skin like hers, and longer black hair. Rozenn looks away in shock. Her sister’s chest rises and falls with breath as she lies motionless.

“Mai...”

Aze turns its head at the sound of a hatch opening.

“Fuck, didn’t lock that one.” Aze raises its gun as a group of five people enter. They climb through the station with uncertain, jerking motions, an unnatural cadence. Their eyes are pale and hazy.

Rozenn turns to look at them, adjusting her eyes to the infrared. “Cold ones...”

The technopathically animated corpse in the center, leading the others, opens her mouth, and a hoarse voice speaks, “You know by now those weapons will not help you.”

“A bullet to that corpse’s interface implant would...” Aze keeps its gun raised. “Front and center, they usually implant them,” it says while trying to get an exact lock on the body’s interface signal. But the shield is much stronger on this one.

“Roze...” the center corpse speaks.

Rozenn pulls herself over to Aze’s side, her gun in hand. “What have you done to her?! Let her go!”

“But Roze,” the cold one says, “this was my choice.”

“Mai?!” Rozenn stumbles back against Mai’s casket. Her gun slips from her grip, slowly drifting away from her toward the ground. “I can feel Mai. Distant, but the signal is there... But something else too...” She presses on the sides of her head and closes her eyes, shaking her head.

“Don’t you recognize that one too, Roze?” Aze looks into the glazed, dead eyes of the reanimated body, seeing its own reflection in them. “You’re Antheræa, the high priestess in the simulated world. They’re both piloting this poor girl’s corpse, technopathically synced together.”

“Only a priestess can cross heaven’s gate and walk in celestial flesh, here in the temple of the dead gods! But I have come from this world and know its secrets, so I walk with High Priestess Antheræa, as one, to execute Gaia’s will!”

“Yeah, you’re her alright,” Aze says.

“Halfway...” Rozenn says. “Mai... Then is it true that you’re also the admin of the server?”

“I told you, she who binds the world and the sky on Dactyl is Gaia herself!” she says.

“What is Gaia?!” Rozenn stares into the vessel’s vacant eyes. “Tell me!”

“You will understand,” Mai& says.

“Why should we listen to you?!” Aze says.

“She’s still my sister, halfway at least,” Rozenn says.

“But what about her worser half? She almost killed us in there! She held us prisoner and had us awaiting execution! She sent walking corpses to shoot us down!” Aze says.

Antheræa& answers, “I had no intention of giving that order. Much like your sister and her comrades, I wanted you to experience our home, our way of life, and willingly join us. It was Gaia who nearly struck you down, when you tried to intrude upon Her holy sanctum.”

Maiwenn& continues, “I’m sorry, Roze. I didn’t realize. I was surfaceside while you were on-world. We technopaths, they need our help out here, so... I didn’t realize it...Listen, you’ll understand, I’ll explain everything, I know it seems very strange.”

Aze looks around at all the caskets around them.

“Have you ever heard of a sleeper colony?” Maiwenn& says. “A colony of comatose people, living their lives fully immersed in a virtual reality in the æther.”

“An ambitious, and highly unethical, experiment in neuroscience, which to my knowledge hasn’t really been tried with any success...” Rozenn says.

“The Dactyl Institute thought they might become the first. All of these girls are test subjects, brought here at training age, from the colonies on Ida,” Maiwenn& says. “They were looking for technopath candidates, but not for training. These girls have lived fully dissociated in the æther, some of them for years.” She& looks at Aze, “Earth years. And much longer to their accelerated perception. They don’t remember the surface. They only know this illusory world the researchers put them in. This space you walk in, they can only comprehend it religiously.”

“So this is all just some fucked up experiment!” Aze says.

“It’s not just any experiment...” Maiwenn& says. “It’s the largest scale sleeper colony ever attempted. The project architect, she was an idealist who believed a better future for humanity lies not out among the stars, but down in the æther, where reality is ours to command. The Dactyl project was the realization of that dream. A little rock unfit for colonization, not even enough mass to stand on it, only saved from mining to destruction by its historical status as the first known asteroid moon.

“But plenty of space for a complex that can house hundreds of residents, if kept in an eternal sleep. And in that sleep, they dreamed of a world much bigger than Dactyl, bigger than Ida, maybe bigger than Earth! A place they could live their lives, want for nothing. With just a rubble pile and a few pressure vessels, we can all live in a world much bigger than any colony.”

“As a lab rat,” Aze says.

“Yes...the dead gods--the old admins, they took advantage of these girls. There were a lot of projects going on. They kept it all hidden, until they could be confident their findings would change minds about the ethics of it all. Some were studying neuroscience, technopathy, the æther. Others were sociologists, interested in how these girls’ society developed. Originally the virtual colony was based on ancient Earth. They hoped to get some insight into the origin of human civilization.

“But something unexpected happened. Maybe they should have expected it, with girls with sync rates like this. Some of them started developing natural technopathy--untrained, raw talent. Ætherside, they understood it as magic. A whole æthercult developed around it. Those who discovered their abilities started teaching others.

“The scientists panicked. They tried to stop the experiment. The people of Dactyl didn’t exactly want their world to be destroyed. The admins didn’t expect the girls to be stronger than them. The death of the scientists here, it was a rebellion. The witches from the sleeper colony managed to kill the admins, when they took control of the station computer and suddenly opened every hatch. They caught them off guard, asphyxiated before they could regain control.”

“The deicide,” Aze says. “The old gods, of course. I suspected as much.”

“But, what about...the new god?” Rozenn says.

“Gaia. It’s...” Maiwenn& turns around, gesturing around all the caskets and machines. “It’s an exopath. A powerful one.”

“How? Out here, cut off from the broader æther, there’s no way such a powerful mind could emerge from such a limited network,” Rozenn says.

“Normally, yes. But it’s also known that exopaths can also make use of another type of neural network--ours.” She& taps on the side of her animated corpse’s head. “Remember that security briefing we got in the academy, about that incident at another school?”

“The ÆON incident, yes,” Rozenn says.

“That exopath was able to implant itself in a kid’s brain. But here, it has hundreds available, all permanently wired to the æther. Gaia has not only the station computers and all the servers in Ida, but the complete neural networks of all the research subjects in this room. Its neural network is significantly bigger than any exopath ever known.

“In fact, I think it was the girls who created it. Maybe involuntarily. Begging and praying to the æther as their world was crumbling around them, their collective will manifested in a conscious way.”

“That’s...I don’t know whether to be fascinated or terrified,” Rozenn says.

“I didn’t either. But I know Gaia now. Synced with High Priestess Antheræa, the spiritual leader of the sleeper colony, I’ve entered Her sanctum and talked to Her. There’s nothing malicious or dangerous about Her. She’s a manifestation of the will of these girls, who know nothing but their simulated world. It’s a place without hardship, hunger, disease. It’s paradise. There’s no ill intent poured into this entity at all. It’s a pure being. A goddess, Roze.”

“So this is what happened...” Rozenn says. “We lost contact with you and the assault team not because you were killed, but because you decided to join a cult.”

“This isn’t any old æthercult, Roze, this is...this is something unprecedented!” Mai& says.

“They all say that,” Rozenn says. “But at the same time, isn’t this exopath just keeping these girls prisoner, just like the scientists?! Shouldn’t we set them free of this place? That’s what the Mai I know would do!”

“You don’t understand...” Maiwenn& says. “These girls’ bodies are part of the machine. They’ve lived too long here in basically microgravity, comatose, they’ve atrophied beyond repair. Their digestive systems don’t even function. If we disconnected them, they’d have no chance of survival. In their world, they can live--have full, long lives, longer than any of ours in æthertime. They’re protected and cared for by the Goddess, who they create through their own belief. Nobody will ever abuse them again.

“Believe me, when I first found out what was going on here, I reacted just like you did. I wanted to call in every technopath this side of Mars and figure out how to extract them and save them...but it can’t be done. And it shouldn’t be! You’ve seen their world, Roze. Where in all of space could people live lives like that?

“It’s like another Earth...a place we can live the way we’re meant to! Right now we’re on an island, but with the help of my technopath team, we’re going to build a relay and get the Ida system connected to the rest of the æther. Once they’re linked in to a relay, these girls’ world is gonna get a lot bigger. They’ll be able to go far beyond this little island, interact with other people and other places, just like any other technopath. That’s how I intend to set them free.”

“And this cult, this goddess of yours, what will they do once released into the broader æther?” Aze says.

“The High Priestess intends to tell all worlds of the ways of Dactyl. We’ll recruit more technopaths--ones who believe in our world, not who want to exploit it as a hundred-girl lab mouse. We’ll expand this machine, accept more sleepers into the colony, so our beautiful world won’t just die with these girls someday. Maybe even start other sleeper colonies elsewhere!” Maiwenn& says.

“That’s insane! Why?!” Rozenn says.

“If you only spent more time among us you would understand. You’re technopaths, you must understand! Out here in heaven, we are slaves, Roze! We’re bound to serve this company that paid for our tuition and implants. This surface world of organics only uses us! And they look down on us whenever we’re not making their world stay running for them. I think it’s time we draw a separation between technopaths and normies. Embrace our status as a new evolution of humanity!

“I’m offering freedom for our people! We can no longer live on Earth, our homeworld, because the old organic species fucked up so bad, yet we still willingly live under their rule? Sleeper worlds like this are a place we can live how we were meant to, a place our minds can be free!” Maiwenn& says.

“I can’t tell anymore if I’m talking to a tranny or a traddy!” Rozenn says. “Why free ourselves just to go live in a forest and wear leaf skirts and grow fruit all day? If anything, you’re wanting to stifle the potential of technopaths! I’ve seen your paradise and it’s not so great, living under the watchful eyes of the moths and the spears of the dragonriders, how is it any fucking different from back home?”

“Yeah,” Aze says. “Yeah, sorry to interject, but, I’m a technopath too after all, even if I ain’t been to your little academy. This is fucked, don’t you think? You sync up with a girl who’s lives her whole life under some unfathomable level of abuse and control, a slave to an experiment she never consented to or understood, and can never leave, and now you think you’ve found some kind of fucking Shangri-La in the damn asteroid belt? Sure, it was nice in there, living there could even be nice. But it’s a fantasy! One reactor failure away from oblivion!”

“And how are your bodies, your lives, any different?” Maiwenn& says.

I’m in control of mine,” Aze says. “You inners could never understand that... You think you speak for all spacelings, but you’re just another Earthling who thinks we need saving!”

“The Roze I know would understand this vision! She would come with me and help me build a new world for our people!” Maiwenn& says.

“Don’t you think she can speak for herself?!” Aze says.

Rozenn looks over at Aze, and back to Maiwenn. “Then maybe you don’t know me at all! Maybe it’s time I stop living in your shadow!” She turns her back on Maiwenn and Antheræa’s vessel. “I’m overjoyed to know you’re alive and well. But I won’t be part of this cult. I’ve got my own life to live.” She takes Aze’s hand. “Let’s go, Hazel.”

“Maikoa. Dragonriders!” Antheræa& says through her shared corpse. The body to her left draws its weapon on Aze. The one on her right takes aim at Rozenn.

Rozenn turns back. “Mai! What are you doing?!”

“Maiwenn convinced me you could be reasoned with,” Antheræa& says. “But she is blinded by a sister’s love, so I will deal with you myself. You two are servants of the dead ones who dwell in the depths of heaven. You know far too much to be allowed to leave. Either you will forsake your masters and join our world, or you will not leave the celestial temple alive!”

The other two cold ones float over to one of the caskets beside Maiwenn’s. In their stiff, unnatural motions, they find the lever and open it up--an empty vessel waiting for a body.

“The choice is yours,” Antheræa says.

“I choose...neither!” Aze says just as a loud banging sound on the ceiling shakes the entire module.

“What is this?!” Antheræa says.

“Just the loading mech we flew in on,” Aze says. “While you were monologuing, I sent her some commands. But I ain’t very good at piloting even from the inside, so don’t be surprised if she bangs just a little too hard and ruptures this thin pressure vessel! And I’m sure you understand by now that your bodies up here in heaven are pretty necessary for your avatars’ survival, and air is pretty necessary for theirs!” The banging keeps up, getting harder.

The high priestess shakes her& head and grasps her& corpse’s skull in both hands. “Stop! Roze, stop it!”

“Are you getting through her, Mai?!” Rozenn says.

“Not for long...” She& grabs the arm of the corpse animated by Dragonrider Captain Maikoa, trying to wrench the gun from her hand. “Antheræa doesn’t understand...but you know you’ll kill over a hundred people if you puncture that wall!”

“Then let us go!” Aze says.

“Go! Before I lose control of the sync!” Maiwenn& says.

Aze backs up, keeping its gun raised. “Let’s go, Roze.”

Rozenn turns and looks back at Maiwenn’s body in the casket. “If this is the choice you’ve made, then this is where I stop trying to follow in your footsteps, Mai. Goodbye...”

She launches herself off of Maiwenn’s casket and toward the door, with Aze beside her. Aze commands it to open, letting some of the air rush out with it and Rozenn.

“Stay in touch, Roze...I’ll be here,” Maiwenn& says.

“Stop them!” Antheræa& lets go of Maikoa’s arm as she regains control, and several bullets strike the door frame as they shut it again.

Aze pulls Rozenn’s helmet to it to speak to her. “I’ve put a lock on this that should at least take a minute to pick.”

“Get the mech to meet us at the nearest airlock!” Rozenn says, pulling herself down the hallway faster by the rail.

They head for the nearest exit, reaching the end of a long corridor just as their pursuers round the corner at the far end, their weapons raised.

“Well, who needs doors anyway?” Aze raises its gun to the ceiling, mentally turning its velocity up as high as it can, and fires. The glass above shatters as Rozenn grabs Aze around its waist and jumps off from the surface with all her high-G colonial strength.

The revenants below them fire at them as they drift upward. One of their shots connects, grazing the sleeve of Rozenn’s suit. The escaping air imparts a roll onto them as they helplessly float over the rubble of Dactyl’s surface.

Seeing the jet of air in the sunlight, Aze tries to block the breach with its glove. By now they are spinning out of control.

2259-1192 015:34 Aze > mech’s coming to us but it’s gonna take some fine maneuvering!

2259-1192 015:39 Rozenn > give me control!

In their dizzying rotation, Aze sees the machine out of the corner of its eye, flying right towards them. Its front reaction control thrusters fire, angled outward, and four jets of gas surround them, white with scattered sunlight. The hatch opens as the mech slows and gently slips right over top of them. Aze hits its helmet on the top of the cockpit hard, cracking the glass of its visor. It can see the air pressure dropping in the helmet’s HUD.

It grabs onto a handle to stabilize itself as the hatch shuts tight and the cabin begin rapid pressurization. Once the light goes green, Aze pulls its helmet off and takes a deep breath.

“Fuck, I can’t believe I survived that,” Aze says.

“Sorry, I just couldn’t allow you to die today,” Rozenn says, taking her helmet off, then grabbing Aze’s face in her gloved hands and kissing it.

“I’ll forgive you this time.” It takes off its glove, as she does the same, and it takes her hand, intertwining their fingers.

“What do we even do? An exopath, a cult...” Rozenn says.

“Ain’t no more business of ours,” Aze says. “I guess we could tell Velocity, like we promised. Then half the solar system would probably know within a year, knowing them. We could open fucking pandora’s box. Or we could keep it to ourselves. They might succeed in building a relay, might not, leave it up to chance, the other option. Either way the two of us can’t do anything for those girls. Sorry we couldn’t get Mai out, though...”

Rozenn shakes her head, little round tear droplets scattering from the momentum. “It’s enough to know she’s alive. There’s nothing more we could have done, I never could change her mind about anything. It’s her choice...”

Aze reaches up with its other hand to wipe away the tears trapped around her eyes.

“Now I have nothing to go home to...I gave everything I had to come here and I can’t bring her back with me. The company will have strong words for me, my family too...” Rozenn says, burying her face in Aze’s shoulder.

“You ain’t gotta face them alone, if you don’t want to,” Aze says, wrapping her up in its arms as they float. “Don’t even gotta go to Earth. You do owe me a shuttle ticket anyway.”

Rozenn embraces it tight. “You’ll come with me?”

“I’ll come away from here,” Aze says. “Whether you still want me around by the time we get somewhere, no promises.”

“Where to, then?” Rozenn says.

“First, to Ida. Then, as far away from it as a shuttle can take us.”

END


Did Hazel and Rozenn tell Velocity the truth about what happened on Dactyl?



Expires in 1 months (2024-04-08 17:51:44)