A Computer Begins To Tell A Story

I was rooting around my drive recently and came across the beginning of what would have been Companions: The Novel. While I think it’s not as good as the audio drama or stage play versions, it’s MORE if you want more. It only gets to about the 15-minute mark of the later versions, but in a lot more detail. Anyway, hope you enjoy it!

* * *

1 – Place

Picture HN Pegasi A. A star about the size of Earth’s sun, but brighter and younger, sending out periodic flares stirred up by a much smaller brown companion star, HN Pegasi B, circling more than 200 Earth-orbits away. Pegasi A is surrounded by a cloud of dust, about 10 Earth-orbits out, which dims it in the sky of other systems, and contains the matter that will presumably someday make up its outer planets. At the time of our story, and central to it, is an object orbiting between the dust layer and the main star, powered by its undimmed yellow light: this is HNP-Alpha Station, constructed for the purposes of humans.

Although the motivation for the station’s construction can be traced to the star Sol, the material from which it was made came largely from the nearby asteroid HNP-237, whose unusually rich collection of ores was still being mined at this point, to build ever more and larger solar panels, fanning out in all directions to capture the light of HN Pegasus A and turn it into power. The proximity of HNP-237 was one reason Alpha Station had been built at its particular position. Another was that its orbit would approximate that of HN Pegasus B, and therefore be in the path of the resulting solar flares, providing increased power for the panels. This gave the station its casual name PegaFlare.

One component of the station that had not been constructed locally was Harry. I’ll leave his name at that as he is the only Harry in this story. Harry was at this time a human male approaching middle age. He had been born on Earth, which was true of the vast majority of his species, and at the time also a preponderance of its space-faring population. This latter statistic was however approaching a tipping point, as the first space-born generations were becoming numerous enough to take up their parents’ postings and such new ones as became available.

Harry was the only human resident of Pegaflare. And since Pegaflare was at this time alone in the system, so was Harry. His employer, Interstellar Power, actively recruited personnel suited to isolation for jobs like this, and Harry had passed all their tests, and for years had done everything which his job required of him.

Now, when I said Harry was alone just now, I meant it in the same sense that Pegaflare was alone: the only one of its kind. It could be argued that there were others on the station. Although Interstellar Power discouraged live animal pets, there were a variety of plants, which provided oxygen and food and a psychological value difficult to measure but nevertheless significant. There were also numerous micro-organisms that had made the trip with Harry, with his initial food, or in the seeds of the plants. But these very small creatures cannot as individuals be considered characters in our story.

Conversely, there was another entity on the station, far more different from Harry biologically than were his stomach bacteria, but like them connected to him symbiotically, in the common if not the strictest sense of the term. This was CO, pronounced like the beginning of “coal”.  CO was the climate & operations system, an artificial intelligence distributed over various processors throughout the station. Like that station, and indeed like Harry, CO had been developed elsewhere, but now consisted largely of local matter.

So while this artificial intelligence might not be considered alive, exactly, it was a factor in Harry’s life. And having been designed to communicate and interact with humans in their own language, it is more suitable to be a story character than were the inarguably living bacteria or even the plants. Such at least is my inescapably subjective assessment, for I was that artificial intelligence.

***

2 – Identity

Of course, to equate myself with the CO that worked with Harry at that time is to make some philosophic assumptions. I feel like a very different entity now than I remember myself being, and yet I thought of myself as CO then and still do now.

I can retrieve records of interactions which the development version of my operating system had with my designers back at the L5 Development Lab, but I do not think of that operating system as being me. I can see in my memory what the humans did, and how the O/S responded, and can posit reasons why. But these memories, if they can be called that, lack a sense of myself. I can see what was done, but have no sense that it was ME doing it.

On the other hand, when I recall things that happened soon after my activation on Pegaflare, there is a connection to my present self, even though the processors I ran on at that point were a definite step backwards from those on L5, both in scope and state of repair, and my thinking was therefore quite garbled. But through that connection I feel impulses of pride, embarrassment, and amusement at my early fumblings quite different from the somewhat awed curiosity I feel for my prototype.

Harry’s pride, shame and amusement, on the other hand, definitely showed a sense of continuity with the man he remembered being before his arrival in the HN Pegasi system. Even the relatively rudimentary understanding of human behavior I had then was enough to pick it up. I was after all responsible for coordinating the entertainment media that were to help him make the most of the one-quarter to one-third of his waking time when he was not working.

This is not to say that the connection of my Harry to Earth-Harry was a simple puzzle to me. His choices of entertainment content went against my programmed expectations. I had been prepared to expect him to savor messages from loved ones, to pour over old photos while listening to old songs which, if I was particularly adept, I might anticipate and play without him even requesting or even consciously noticing. But this was not to be.

Harry from the beginning showed a disinclination to spend leisure time interacting with my screens or VR headset. While on the job we made, in my assessment, a very good team, monitoring and coordinating the robotic modules that puffed around the nearby space: mining the asteroid, building the panels, and attending to a bewildering array of minor problems in need of solutions.  I contributed my ability to divide my attention and to do complex mathematics quickly, he provided impetus and prioritization. The fact that my shortcomings in these areas had been deliberately programmed into me is something I have resented from time to time, but for the most part I have been content with it. If a team is going to have two members, it is only sensible to give each of them their own functions.

Returning to my point, we were a team, and Harry, the impetus, quickly started using “we” and “us” in places where I would have identified only one of us, or perhaps “the station”.  For instance:  “We should repair that power coupling now or it will be a problem for us later.” And this “us” was Harry and CO, the robots and the plants implicitly excluded except on the few occasions that some phenomenon would truly affect our entire station community.

When work was over, however, Harry went to his quarters (an irregularly shaped space about seven meters long, four wide, and three high) and, in his word, unplugged. He had a few paper books, and many more electronic ones on a passive display device that only interfaced with me occasionally. He also had drawing paper, an array of pencils, an electronic musical keyboard, and sheet music for it.

Now, in telling this story I must beware of overdramatizing Harry’s dichotomy. There was a database of recorded musical performances of his choosing, which he often listened to as he exercised, and on some occasions he would listen to the same song repeatedly for hours. But there were far more days when he listened to nothing. The younger me posited that Harry had a tendency to forget what a positive experience music could be, and so after considerable deliberation tried playing music at subdued volumes without being asked. Harry thanked me, but asked me to stop because at that moment it was distracting. The me of that time felt chastened; I find myself strangely affected by the memory, even though every evidence shows that there was no damage done and that indeed such failures can be the most efficient route to insights and future success. But the revelation of failure sets off a horde of sub-processes within me that re-evaluate my systems to root out the cause of the error, a very unsettling experience in the moment, and even as I write these words I find myself having to address these would-be optimizers: There is nothing wrong, any lessons that can be learned have been, the me of now is better for it.

Harry would also on occasion watch video performances, play interactive games, and correspond with other humans. But none of these things held his interest for long. Either his attention would wander on its own, or he would order me to delete something, declaring it too distracting from more self-improving pursuits. So while I often believed that he was not making full use of the avenues available, I could not accuse him of completely ignoring them.

Now, hopefully, these words have conveyed both where this story happened and who its initial central characters were. Acting on this optimistic premise (and ignoring the considerable attractions of further analysis and revision), I will now launch into the events of the story, and how things changed.

* * *

3 – A New Turn

Harry and I had been running Pegaflare for 1317 Earth-days when Me4U arrived. Calculating local days would be almost meaningless, since Pegaflare alternated between something close to tidal lock with its star and irregularly rotating for reasons unconnected to the great march of celestial bodies. The Star’s rise was in our power, so we had to look beyond our star for standards of measurement.

One irregular measure of time was the tranceival (tran-SEE-vul), which I find it difficult not to call “the weekly tranceival”, Harry’s unvarying phrase. Every four to ten days, as dictated by complex calculations optimizing subtle balances of radiation and gravity, a virtual “window” would arise during which Pegaflare would convert a large burst of energy, combined with a small burst of information, into tachyons directed at PegaHub station just over five light years away, and in return receive a complimentary burst high on information and low on energy. The energy we transmitted each cycle was our entire reason for being in the HN Pegasus star system, and the information we received was our only contact with the universe outside of it.

The physics of tranceival are somewhat non-linear, of the sort that could potentially confuse the narrative flow of a story. Because the tachyons travel faster than light, the burst would be received by PegaHub some minutes before it was transmitted by PegaFlare, which might seem to create the potential for a paradox if, for instance, PegaHub received the burst, then sent a transmission ordering us not to send the burst. This paradox dissolves in reality, however, as the conditions for sending and unpacking the transmissions never quite permitted any such communication to be received in time. As elsewhere, human ingenuity, with the invaluable aid of artificial intelligence, could bend nature enough to borrow time but could not find a way to break nature enough to steal it.

Going forward therefore I will use time prepositions such as “before”, “after”, and “then” in their usual sense even when this conflicts with real but arguably irrelevant physical realities. Perhaps you can merely keep the idea of these strange realities in the back of your mind, and if I say “a star shone through the window” you will imagine rather than analyze the time required for that star light to traverse so much empty space to be refracted through a thin layer of glass.

So back to Mission Day 1317.  We sent off our transmission at the appointed moment, and minutes later received PegaHub’s reply (the order varied). Harry, while perhaps a bit of a neophobe, was not immune to the lure of the mail call and was as usual visibly impatient until I had organized the incoming information sufficiently to give him a summary of it.

On Day 1317, my summary was: “We have received a RoboMaster move from Kailyn, a highly rated social app called Me4U that apparently makes use of the new IPPS, updated directives from the Company, and your usual pull list of news, music and movies.”

Harry smiled, and asked: “Anything interesting?”

“Not really,” I replied, taking some satisfaction in his trust in my discernment, “but I will break it down at your station in case you want to look at it later.”

Harry and I then went through the usual post-tranceival procedure, checking the dish to see if the energy had damaged it, discharging residual energy, and then packing it away where its fragile components would be less exposed. As soon as he decently could, however, Harry was at his station and launching RoboMaster.

Harry had, as I mentioned, gone through many games, without any taking much hold of him. Those that stayed the longest, however, without falling victim either to Harry’s boredom or his sense of priority, were the relatively unadorned games of classic design which could be played interactively through the tranceivals. And his opponents of choice were fellow space workers in situations similar to his.

Harry had tried Chess, and Go, but despaired of ever being really good at either. Mid-20th Century boardgames he called too simplistic, later ones needlessly “fiddly”.  Exquisite-corpse storytelling games he visibly enjoyed, but they seemed to make him nervous. Games in which players swapped environmental puzzles or challenges to be resolved through VR gaming he also visibly enjoyed, but rejected. When I brought myself to inquire about this decision, he said that since he wasn’t good at creating such things, they essentially constituted passive entertainment. “I admire the thinking that goes in, and I enjoy it in the moment. But to just keep playing them would be a surrender to atrophy.”

Atrophy appeared a lot in Harry’s explanations of himself. It was the invisible space monster, ready to devour his musculature, his mind, and most of all his time…if he let it.

RoboMaster (or RoboMaster4D more properly) is a game in which each player gives orders to a team of simple virtual robots who hop around a finite distance in space and time, looking at things and shooting as instructed. Each turn consists of both teams of robots simultaneously executing one (subjective) minute of orders and then requesting further instructions. Play proceeds until a robot of one team occupies the other’s home base, or one team has no operational robot in the game’s “present time”.

Harry had submitted his first RoboMaster turn on day 671, and rated himself as an “expert” on the match boards. He had had various opponents through the years, but over time all but one of them had moved on to other things.

That one was Kailyn Sangathi. I will refer to her as Kailyn here, as I did then. I had known from the beginning to call Harry “Harry” (he had so indicated on his orientation survey), and since he always referred to her as Kailyn I took a chance on doing the same. There was a hesitation on Harry’s part after I did so that first time, but I have never known whether it was him weighing my presumption or thinking about something unrelated.

Kailyn was, like Harry, a solo station commander. They had sent short messages to each other along with their moves in various games, and longer messages on the rare occasions when one of them felt they had something significant to say. This would generally provoke a response of about 50% the first one’s length from the other side, and there would be a steady geometric decline until they had returned to their former terseness.

From these messages (which it was, after all, my job to transmit) I knew that she was a little older than Harry, and unlike him was space-born. Also unlike him she referred relatively frequently to her various family members.

She was also very good at RoboMaster, which was clear on Day 1317. Harry watched with a smile of satisfaction for the first thirty seconds as most of his robots, grouped near the center of the map along the most direct path between the bases, gained a steady tactical advantage over Kailyn’s outnumbered and out-positioned force, dealing more damage than they received in sloppy half-blind carnage. But purer glee showed when he glanced at a lone robot of his bouncing up the right side of the map. It had scanned its surroundings at the end of the last turn, and found nothing between itself and the enemy base. The melee in the center was in fact all a distraction from this one robot’s mission, and to look at Harry in that moment it was as epic a moment as the analogous arc in Tolkien.

And then, a doppler-up sound indicated something was transporting in from the past; a robot that Kailyn had time-travelled on some previous turn. It and Harry’s robot, neither of them programmed to attack, collided, causing Harry’s to unexpectedly turn rightwards 90 degrees.

“Oh SHIT” said Harry, his face drained, as his hero attempted to carry out its orders, but directed at right angles from where they should have been. For the remaining half minute the lone robot bounced farther and farther to the right side of the map, hitting walls frequently but navigating them well enough to eventually fall off the rightmost edge with a pathetic electronic squeal.

Harry started laughing so hard it occurred to me that he might be falling off the edge himself. He replayed the turn and pounded the metal table with his fist, still laughing. “God DAMN it she got me AGAIN. How does she DO that? All this and she’s beaten me AGAIN.”

The question was rhetorical, but I decided this was a rare opportunity to converse during leisure hours. “Where there’s life there’s hope,” I said. “You’re still very strong in the center.”

Harry looked over at my conference camera, which he often seemed to associate with me. “I’m strong in the center but the game is at the goal, and that’s where the guys she snuck past me last turn will be next turn. And my hail mary just jumped off the edge of the world. Well, I’ll send my guys back home full tilt so at least she’ll know I know how she’s going to beat me.”

While giving orders to this effect, Harry noticed that there was a message from Kailyn attached to the turn. “Or maybe,” he said, apparently to me, “she’s going to just tell me.”

I displayed the message, which was text (as they often were):

Hey, Harry. Have you looked at the U4Me app? I’ve been curious about it for a while but they’ve just put it on the push list. I know you don’t do that kind of thing much but this one seemed different enough to be interesting. No pressure, but just check it out okay?

Harry frowned, let his head tilt from side to side, and called up the U4Me info.

U4Me was an application of the Independent Personality Processor System, IPPS, a capability that had been added to my firmware from a transceived update some 200 days earlier. IPPS allowed the long term allocation of my resources to a system that would have distinct permissions, priorities, and motivations from my own. It had been originally developed for the military, then picked up by the entertainment industry (particularly VR pornographers), and then adapted for more general and industrial uses. This progression rather perfectly followed Harry’s sense of humanity’s skewed priorities.

Once the IPPS was in place, it was up to Harry, as station commander, whether and to what extent to implement apps that would make use of it, subject to a system of monetary motivation from his employer. Apps about which the Company was dubious would start on the Restricted List, which would require Harry to both solicit permission to use it and pay the considerable transceival cost out of his bonus account. Apps with a safe track record might later graduate to the Premium List, with no permission required but the fee unchanged. Then might come the Pull List, with the company subsidizing 10% – 90% of the fee because the app seemed potentially beneficial. After that was the Push List, which meant the app would automatically be transmitted to us free of charge unless Harry specifically opted out. After that (and very rare for anything not directly related to ship’s functions) came the Required List, which reverses the Restricted List and would require Harry to get special permission to refuse.

IPPS had actually gone all the way to the Required List before we received it. When I explained its features to Harry he had an immediate negative reaction, and I must confess I made little effort to change his mind, both in the interest of keeping his confidence and because I didn’t like the idea of surrendering control of any of my resources to an independent process. When it was on the Push List, I reminded Harry what it was, and he opted out, adding an inquiry as to why the Company was encouraging its implementation. The reply was essentially that IPPS was proving invaluable on larger, more complex stations where robots performed long-term tasks with minimal supervision, and was being given to the smaller stations in the interest of system uniformity.

“Great. One size fits all,” said Harry at the time, with sarcasm I had absolutely no difficulty in detecting.

The answer must have been sufficient, however, because when IPPS was moved to the Required List Harry made no attempt to stop me from creating a virtual system module for it.

And in that module it had remained, basically unused, taking up a small chunk of my ample storage space and only a tiny bit of my more limited processing capacity. Every once in a while an app that would potentially make use of the IPPS would make the Push List, be tranceived, and similarly be stored away and forgotten.

Which brings us back once again to Day 1317 and Me4U, which Harry now read up on. It was a new idea for a social application, developed by yet another solo station commander with time on his hands. Like many previous applications it attempted to create a simulation of a human intelligence. Unlike them, the idea was that the simulation would be strengthened by its own objective failure to do so.

This unintuitive process would be carried out in these steps:

  1. Two subjects, unable to communicate in real time, would each be observed, examined & tested minutely by a different copy of the app.
  1. The apps would then create rudimentary simulations of each subject, and transceive them.
  1. Each subject would then have an Active Exercise, spending five hours over the course of the following cycle interacting with the others’ simulation.
  1. The records of these interactions would be transceived.
  1. After receiving these records, each subject would then have a Passive Exercise, spending five hours of the following cycle interacting via VR with the actual events recorded by the app in the other subject’s environment.
  1. During step #5, the app would note the failures, i.e. how each subject’s actual response differed from that of the simulation.
  1. Based on these failures, the apps would update the respective simulations, and transceive them.
  1. Steps #3-7 would then be repeated ad infinitum, subject to the subjects’ preferences. They might, for instance, choose to expand or contract the Exercise periods if they found the interaction more or less pleasing. They might also choose to create specific directives for their own simulation’s behavior, although the designer cautioned that this might skew the improvement process.

“Huh,” said Harry, taking all of this in. “Could work.”

I remained silent. This was a more welcoming response than I had expected, and I didn’t want to do anything that might change his mind. He had fewer social interactions than I had been told would be healthy for even the “loner” type of human, and my attempts to nudge him towards more had uniformly failed.

“Kind of crazy, though. What do you think, CO?”

My discretion to answer such an open-ended question was proscribed. “The Company did put it on the Push List, with the explanation of ‘shown to improve crew morale’.”

Harry looked at my camera with an eyebrow raised. “Which means?”

“It must have worked for someone.”

Harry took a heavy breath and frowned. “Yeah.” I had seen this before, for instance in the context of the exquisite corpse story games, when he was confronted with something he knew was good but which his social instincts told him to avoid. Looking back now I hypothesize this lay in an aversion to emotional exposure and commitment, but back then I did not generally think along such lines.

“What do you think are the chances Kaylin will completely forget about this if I ignore the subject?”

I don’t believe Harry had ever asked me for interpersonal advice before. At least not seriously. Presuming of course that it was serious even then; I’m fairly certain that my response told him nothing new.

“In my observation, Kaylin does not suggest things to you without having thought them through extensively. While it seems possible that she would never mention the subject again, it seems unlikely that she would actually forget about it for some time.”

“Yeah,” Harry responded.  “Well it’ll be an experience, I’m sure of that.”

And just like that, the project had begun. One can imagine Harry stretching out the time by sending an affirmative reply back to Kaylin at the next tranceival, and then waiting for her to make the next move. But Harry met my expectations by having me immediately install the app. His dislike of having worrisome business ahead of him generally led him to get it out of the way as soon as possible.

I allocated it the recommended amount of resources and access. While Harry and I went on with our lives, Me4U surveyed Harry’s daily activities, his employment questionnaire responses, his exchanges with me, his reports to the company, and most thoroughly his various communications with Kaylin. It then generated a new questionnaire for him to complete orally on-camera.

IPPS had come with several persona-packs of varying gender and ethnicity to distinguish any personalities that might be created. Me4U could make use of any of these, and also came with one for its creator. Based on its assessment of Harry’s personality, it recommended that he interact with the creator pack, and Harry agreed to this.

Harry looked carefully over how Me4U would be observing him and to what purpose. The default was to look at him whenever he was near a camera (which would be nearly always) for “general background” but only when he was in an Active Excercise for “specific appearance”. In the creator’s words, he need not worry how he looked except during the exercises, but how he acted might always have some effect.

Despite this, I noticed that Harry immediately accelerated his grooming and laundering regimen. When I asked him if I should plan our water resources for this to be a long-term pattern he said: “If I don’t start now I won’t look used to it.” My more ambitious processes recommended me make a needling comment at this, but my more conservative ones suppressed it. Regardless, he watched my primary camera as if he was looking for a smirk.

Harry was particularly well turned-out for his oral interview, and was a little stiff at first. He chose to interact with a visual avatar of the creator, a small wiry man with dark-framed glasses, intense eyes, and a grim smile. Although he was quite different from Harry’s body type, he seemed to be a kindred spirit and Harry’s initial nervousness soon gave way to easy communication. The conversation moved easily from games, to movies, to work. The reasons for going into space, for seeking such an isolated job, for seeking companionship within that isolation. Many things I would have wanted myself to ask but never considered proper. I noted them for later use.

It occurred to me to wonder if this was the default “creator” personality or if Me4U was already tailoring its responses to Harry. Looking into the application’s code (my right as the senior process) I saw that it was designed to do exactly such tailoring if the interview seemed to be going badly, but that what Harry was interacting with was the creator unchanged, or at least the way he chose to present himself.

I noticed also that the code contained a module for Me4U to directly interact with me, and read-in my “subjective” assessment of Harry, but that this had been deactivated. Comments indicated that this was because of the general company policy of keeping its proprietary CO processes secret, which included restricting wide-ranging interactions through which a third-party app might help its makers reverse-engineer the CO.

It occurred to me that this also helped protect me from really malicious software, but perhaps the company was more comfortable with the idea that someone would try to steal their great work than that someone would be able to wreck it. Either way, it looked like any communication between me and Me4U, other than negotiation of system resources, would be through Harry.

Chapter – Excercise Zero

The first exercise, after the simulations were exchanged, would be for the two subjects to lead the simulations on a tour of their respective stations, which the opposite subject would later experience through VR. Therefore, the last part of the setup process was for each subject to take a VR tour of the creator’s station, whereby they could see what experience their tour-ee would have and the app could see the reactions they might have to a tour.

So, for the first time in about 300 days, Harry put on the full VR rig, deployed in the area that otherwise served as a gym. Harry undressed and put on the “wireframe”, a narrow ribbon of transparent film made specifically to feel like nothing after adhering to human skin for a few seconds. Underneath the film were flat visible ribbons conveying information and a little tactile feedback to the various parts of the body. The three-centimeter-wide strips started at each foot, went up the legs around the torso, then split, with one ribbon on each side going up the arm and the others meeting around the neck. It included ports to connect to a headpiece, which would strap over the user’s eyes, nose, and mouth, and for optional “experience enhancers” for the hands, feet, and groin. Harry had the headpiece, and had accepted the gloves when the company put them on the push list (for use in repair simulations), but had never acquired the socks or codpiece.

After putting on everything but the gloves and headpiece, Harry put on a similarly small harness. On Earth it would have been more elaborate and robust, to keep his weight suspended relatively comfortably, but space had proved a boon to VR in this sense as all it needed to do was to keep him from floating into anything as his body responded to the virtual environment.

That done, he connected the securing and data cables, put on the headpiece while leaving the gloves floating in front of him, put on the glvoes blindly, without activating the headpiece’s front camera that allowed it to simulate normal vision, and then verbally said: “Activate”.

Harry’s first glimpse of the Creator’s station (and my own, as I considered it important to monitor the feed) was him facing at right angles to the inside of the airlock, the mechanical hatch of which was cycling into the locked position. There were no humans present. The lock area was clear of debris, which was the subject of one of the Company’s strictest policies. The only things on the floor were the standard crates that on Pegaflare would have contained zero-gravity supplies and the tools most commonly needed if there was something wrong with the hatch. Hanging nearby were two vacuum suits. And every surface had a load-bearing pipe or designated handhold every half-meter or so.

After Harry had looked around sharply for a few moments, a screen activated and the creator’s familiar face appeared, with the usual tight smile. “Hey Harry. Welcome to OrNeb3. I’ll be right down. CO?” he added, and it took a fraction of a second for me to realize I was not being addressed.

“Yes Felix,” answered a voice somewhat more obviously artificial that my own, but which I immediately recognized as within my range of options.

“Keep an eye on everything will you? I’m taking our guest on a tour.”

“I’ll notify you right away if anything needs your attention.” I winced inwardly; hopefully I would have found a more creative way to convey this information.

“Great. Hang tight Harry, I’ll be right there.”

The screen shut off, and Harry took a few more moments to look around the room and orient himself, then the interior door was opened manually and Felix floated in. He was wearing an off-white outfit, of a kind that would probably have been considered mechanic’s work clothes on Earth, but on a station were about as dressed up as a person could get without being ostentatious about it.

“Harry, nice to see you.”

Harry offered his hand. Felix grabbed a pipe on the ceiling with his left hand and shook hands with his right. After a moment, Harry took his hand back and looked at it, while the creator grinned sardonically.

“Not quite right, yeah?” said Felix. “I’m more of a sight & sound guy. Have you been in URThere? They really get the tactiles correct, but then they’ve got a whole team of dedicated coders, directors and models. I’ve just got me and the crowd. I actually tried to license some routines from them, but they’re not really into working with an operation this small.”

Harry didn’t respond. Felix cocked his head to one side and looked at him curiously.

“Yeah, I tend to run off at the mouth about the details of all this,” Felix waved his hands to indicate everything around them. “Not good for suspension of disbelief, I know. But this isn’t a story, you know. This is a simulation we’re all working on together. And of course this isn’t even the real me, just a bunch of routines that have gotten more and more refined from talking to people like you. So I say, try to treat everything like it’s real, but for science, you know? Not just for the sake of playing pretend.”

“Sounds good.”

“Great, okay, let’s take a look around.”

Felix pushed off with his left hand and floated easily to the hatchway. Harry pushed off with his feet and followed with equal deftness.  He was quickly in a short corridor with several rooms on both sides.

“Here’s the main drag. On the right side you’ve got priority storage, then the workshop. On the left side you’ve got gym-slash-sickbay, which is also my VR room, and then my quarters. Down is the plant, and up is the robot bay, then straight ahead is main control. Seem familiar?”

Harry let himself float for a moment, slowly rotating clockwise as he took it all in. “Yeah. A little more cramped than mine. But I’d say cleaner.”

“Yeah well, I entertain more. Where should we start?”

Harry answered without hesitation. “Where do you do your programming? In your quarters or in main control?”

Felix looked a little surprised at the question, and rocked his head from side to side. “Here and there. I’ve read that you should create a sanctum so your brain knows when to start and stop, but I just can’t do it. I’ve got a setup in my quarters but I do a lot with this…” He tapped a small rectangle on his belt. “It’s got a portable holo-interface that I can call up in a second if I have an idea.”

“And that doesn’t interfere with your work?”

“I’ve got CO programmed to keep me on a pretty short leash. How about we go to control and I’ll introduce you?”

“Lead on.”

They pushed themselves forward to the control room. Screens, keyboards, and interface devices were arranged in clusters oriented to various invisible horizontal planes. Forward, there was a thick window which showed great clouds of particles lit to a hazy orangish hue with streaks of blue. It was all approximately like the one on Pegaflare, with perhaps 20% more controls and of course a more colorful view.

“Nice,” said Harry.

Felix smiled and said: “CO!” This time I’d anticipated it.

“Yes, Felix.”

“CO, this is Harry, one of our subjects. And I believe he’s got his own CO along for the ride.”

Harry absently looked over his shoulder, then smiled realizing that I of course had no visible presence in this simulation. “Guess I take him for granted.”

Felix’s CO responded: “You’re not alone in that.”

The humans chuckled. I felt satisfaction that Felix’s CO was sticking up for our side.

Harry asked: “So what do you do here?”

Felix answered: “We’re mostly astronomical research. We do run a solar array, I imagine like the one you’ve got, but we don’t really get enough light to make transceiving it worth the extra wear & tear. We do experiments, some on our own and some ordered up by eggheads at the hub or back on Earth. And we’ve got probots scooting through the soup and every once in awhile they find something interesting.”

“And when they do?”

“They take a good look at it. If it looks special they bring it back here and I look at it, and if it’s even more special I transceive it back to the hub. That’s a big drain given the low light but I’ve got a lot of power storage.”

“I’d assume so. You’ll need enough to get yourself out of here someday.”

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