User:Robotech Master/Paradise Forever
|Paradise story universe|
Author: Chris Meadows
AUGUST 18, 2064
James shivered impatiently as the autocab pulled up in front of the gate to the Lundh Institute. No sooner had it pulled to a stop than he waved a hand at the biometric reader embedded in the front windshield, authorizing it to charge his account. Without delay, the slim fox-morph extracted himself from the seat and walked over to check in as the cab whirred away.
The gate guard ran his Q-scanner wand over James to verify his quantum signature. One thing the Change researchers had found with the advent of the Q-changer was that no matter what Change someone might take, there was a portion of the quantum scan that was never altered—and that couldn’t be duplicated by someone else Changing to a similar form.
The scientists were still a bit hazy on exactly what that portion represented, much as Watson and Crick had only been able to guess at the functions of any random bit of DNA, but that didn’t stop all sorts of religious groups from claiming that science had finally found verifiable evidence of the existence of the “soul”. The Catholic Church had so far refused to take a position on the matter.
James’s “soul” apparently checked out; the gate guard nodded and buzzed James through. James idly wondered, if it was his soul, what would change the appearance of that portion of his signature. Would sinning a lot stretch it out of shape, and then confessing the sins bring it back into true? Or would just repenting of the sins be sufficient? What kind of sins would be the most effective? Did it go by type or magnitude? Would a ‘deadly’ sin be more effective than the ordinary garden variety?
That train of thought was sufficient to carry him through two security checkpoints and all the way up to the lab where he worked, and where a pretty big experiment had been planned for today—potentially the biggest thing he’d been involved in since he’d started working here three years ago. He sighed. If only Gran’ther could see him now.
The lab was a sterile edifice, furnished in gleaming off-white with windows set high into the wall. In the center of the room was a pedestal where the equipment he would be testing today resided. It resembled a slimline version of a “Manned Maneuvering Unit” from twencen NASA: a thin, polished silver metal and ceramic backpack with two rods extending to the front. Each rod was tipped with control-studded handgrips, meant to be manipulated by the wearer. A tube raised from the left side of the pack then bent 90 degrees forward, ending in a small glass plate—the device’s holographic interface projector, with back-up 2-D head-up display. It was currently projecting a test-pattern in the air.
In one corner of the room, a pair of larger holoprojectors were in operation, showing the same thing they showed to every one of the quantum labs—up-to-the-moment projections, approximations, of the two extant Q-viruses, for the purpose of monitoring any potential effects caused by the quantum emissions from Institute experiments. James grinned in his nervousness and walked over to them. “Hi, guys, how’s tricks?”
Of course, the viruses didn’t answer, or even look at him. Assuming they could “look” at anything. They appeared as vague humanoid figures made up of smoky fractal patterns—as if they were the overlapping forms of dozens (or, perhaps, billions) of different people at once. Their shapes were always changing, protuberances growing or shrinking that resembled male or female genitalia (sometimes both at once) on the gender-change virus, or horns, ears, muzzle, tail, paws on the species-change virus. They never looked the same from moment to moment, or (apparently) to any two different people at any given time. And at the moment, they were acting the same as they ever had.
James chuckled and walked back to the center of the room to begin strapping on the pack. When he’d first come to work at Lundh’s labs, he’d found the figures distinctly creepy, standing there like ominous dark ghosts. But over time, he’d grown used to them,
“Quantum signature check: confirmed,” a soothing female voice murmured in his ear. “Welcome to Q-Jump System, Operator James Slater Mattiaz. Running startup checks…complete. All systems operating within normal parameters. Would you like some delicious cake?”
James chuckled, and gave the countersign. “The cake is a lie.” It was an obscure joke, based on one of his gran’ther’s old computer games (to which the lab’s decor really did have more than a passing resemblance). In a way it made him feel closer to Chris, although he’d been dead for over a year now.
“Q-Jump Pack ready for operation,” the voice said, then subsided. James grinned, glancing over the holographic display in front of him. In its short-range mode, it was showing a miniature replica of the lab itself, though in a cutaway view in which he could look down from above at the scientists in the observation room in the wall.
As he watched, one of them—a female raccoon in a lab coat—bent over the instrument panel and pressed the intercom button. “Hello, James! Are you ready for the big day?” It was Dr. Constance Franklin, the head of Project Q-Jump.
“You bet! I could hardly sleep last night!” James replied, knowing directional mics in the wall would pick up his voice at its normal level.
“I hope you won’t fall asleep during the test,” Dr. Franklin said drily. “Let’s start with the usual baby-steps.” A laser pointer activated, indicating a spot on the floor ten meters away from James’s current location. “Whenever you’re ready.”
“Right.” James nodded, initializing the controls and positioning a carat in the holodisplay to match the pointer. Once it was marked, he flipped up a safety cover with his right thumb, then mashed his thumb down on a red button marked “COMMIT”. And then—
—the lab flickered, and he was standing ten meters closer to one of the walls.
“Excellent! Hold on a moment while we check the sensor results and recalibrate.”
“Affirmative,” James replied. He glanced over to his left; the jump had also moved him closer to the Q-virus holoprojectors at the corner where the near wall met another. Was it his imagination, or had the figures just flickered a bit?
James frowned as he waited, zooming the hologram in on the scientists and glancing at the displays they were studying. As near as he could make out, the readings on their control boards were all normal, with no unusual quantum fluctuations. It must have been his imagination; the instruments were sensitive enough that surely anything unusual the viruses did would have registered.
In the hologram, Dr. Franklin glanced up at him and waved, and James chuckled and zoomed back out again. Of course the view from his HUD was replicated on their control panel, too. “As you can see, all readings show normal. Ready for the big test?”
James glanced up at the observation window. “If you mean, am I ready to jump to the next room over, sure. You know, it wouldn’t take any more energy for me to jump to the moon or even the other side of the universe, right?”
Behind the window and in miniature on the holodisplay, Dr. Franklin shook her head. “Now James, you know that’s not true. As my colleagues in the theoretical division demonstrated, power drain is minimal but does increase asymptotically with distance, with targeting accuracy decreasing along the same curve. You might be able to jump to to the edge of the galaxy, but not ‘halfway across the universe’—and you would not be able to choose your destination with any precision at that distance either—and you wouldn’t be able to jump back without recharging the pack first. Since you’re not wearing a space suit, perhaps you should confine yourself to the next room today, hmm?”
“I could still jump to, say, Highside Station with nearly pinpoint accuracy and no extra energy usage,” James pointed out.
Dr. Franklin chuckled. “Baby steps, James. Baby steps. We’ll worry about jumping outside of the facility once we’ve exhaustively tested jumping within it. For now, target on the beacon in the next room and jump when ready.”
James sighed. “Understood.” Well, he hadn’t really expected to be handed the keys to the freeway so soon after learning to drive in the parking lot. And again, it was an honor just to be taking part in even such a basic experiment. It was a really promising line of research, too—an entirely new form of quantum teleportation that didn’t suffer from the dual-memory effect, and didn’t need a receiving station at the other end. If it scaled up, it could revolutionize the future of space travel. But how well it worked at longer distances still remained to be seen.
For a moment, James was tempted to defy instructions and set the destination to somewhere farther away. But the temptation passed quickly—they’d just override his controls and recall him, and then he’d be off the project. “Right,” James muttered, flicking the hologram over to the next room and centering his target on the beacon. “Baby steps.” He centered his thumb on the “COMMIT” button, took a deep breath, and pressed it.
It happened in the last split-second, after James’s brain had already sent the impulse to his thumb to press down. He was looking around the room one last time, fixing an image of it in his head to be replaced by the similar but different room he was jumping into, when his eyes flicked across the two smoky statues of the Q-viruses.
They’d both grown pairs of dim red eyes he’d never seen before. And they were both looking directly at him. In that moment, James tried to abort, but it was too late—his thumb was already mashing the button down.
“Oof!” James blinked into existence a foot above the ground, and stumbled to his knees as he dropped onto the grassy turf. The control grips dug furrows in the grass, preventing him from falling flat on his face, and the shock traveled up the rods and jarred his entire upper body. “Whoa…what…?”
He looked dumbly down at the green grass in front of him, contrasting festively with the red-orange fur on his arms. After a moment, he shifted his weight back, pulling the grips out of the grass and staggering to his feet. “System, status report.” The holographic display was absent. The glass backup screen was blank. “System?” He shifted the handgrips, tried some of the controls. No response. The device’s power was completely drained.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” James muttered, looking up. He was in the middle of a grassy field, maybe the size of a football field. There were sidewalks surrounding or threading through it, a few trees here and there—some kind of park, he guessed. The buildings surrounding it were low, but not quite “squat”. He didn’t recognize the design, but the curves were aesthetically pleasing, guiding the eye along like a good work of art.
Beyond the buildings were some paved streets, and beyond the streets buildings rising higher—apartment buildings, perhaps, and further on skyscrapers, all of the same unfamiliar architecture. Only—something wasn’t quite right about the horizon, James realized. It took a moment, and looking around a bit more, for it to sink in. The city seemed to extend in all directions, sloping gently upward as if he was in a bowl. Only, the bowl didn’t actually seem to have a lip. It just faded into the attenuated blue of miles of atmosphere, the blue you saw looking down from a high-flying plane—in all directions.
Beyond the city he could see green fields, lakes, rivers, and eventually, barely through the blue, seas and islands, and other continents, fading into that bright blue haze. Then, impossibly, detail faded back in above the blue, with more seas, more continents, and on, and on, growing ever smaller and smaller until it was impossible to pick out the details, fading into a sort of uniform bright blue-white that in turn faded into azure blue again if he craned his neck back and shaded his eye against the sun. And it was like that in all directions.
A wave of vertigo overwhelmed James, and his knees wobbled and gave out again. As he stared once more at the grass in front of him, he mumbled, “All right, something tells me I’m definitely not in Kansas anymore.”
It took a while for the vertigo to wear off. Every time James looked up and let himself see the whole world impossibly stretching out above him, he had to look right back down again and breathe until he got himself under control. Eventually, he found he was able to clamber back to his feet again and walk around as long as he didn’t try to look up too far. If he just focused on the nearest buildings, he could pretend he was just in some unfamiliar city.
A very unfamiliar city, with no visible inhabitants. But worry about that later. James shoved the control grips for the jump pack up into their at-rest position, and swiveled the head-up display plate out of his way, then set off to find any signs of life.
Actually, there were signs of life all around, and it seemed to be normal earth life. At least, the animals he saw scurrying up a tree sure looked like squirrels. And farther off at the other end of the park, it looked like a couple of whitetail deer were coming out to drink from a pond. It made James feel obscurely better, like there was some kind of link between him and normality after all. If the squirrels had three eyes or the deer had antenna instead of antlers or something, James knew he probably would have just lost it.
As James came to one of the low-slung buildings at the edge of the park, the door at the end of the sidewalk whisked open in front of him. Motion sensor, probably. The interior was tiled in a neutral mosaic pattern, with stairs leading down to a kind of stone walkway with a stream babbling through it, with enough stepping stones to make getting to the other side an easy exercise. There were benches along either side of the stream, and occasionally trash receptacles as well. On the other side, similar stairs led up to exit doors at street level.
“This is kind of tranquil,” James said. “Rather nice, really.” The babbling brook broke the stillness, and for a moment James didn’t feel quite so alone anymore. He glanced at the benches, but tempting as it was to pause and enjoy the ambiance for a while, there was still a mystery to be solved here. James jogged down the steps, across the stream, and up again and out the other side.
He found himself on a city street, similarly devoid of people. Spaced along the sidewalk were a number of cars—or at least they seemed to be cars; they had about the right shape. They didn’t have any wheels, though, just landing skids. James approached one, and a door-shaped hole appeared in the side of it as he reached out to touch it. There were seats inside, and controls of some kind.
James braced his hands across the top edge and peered inside. “Hmm. Okay, I’ll bite.” He unbuckled the Q-jump pack and held it sideways across his lap as he clambered in, then rested it on the other seat. As he tried to make his bushy fox tail comfortable, pondering Q-changing back to human just so he wouldn’t have it in the way, a tail-hole appeared in the seat to accommodate him. “Huh.”
As he settled in, the doorhole closed as seamlessly as it had opened, but James suspected it would open again when he tried to get out. He looked around for a moment for seat belts, but didn’t find any, so he examined the controls instead—then started in surprise when the car rose off the ground and hovered in place with a gentle hum.
James smacked himself in the forehead. “Well duh, what did you think it did? No wheels.” After a bit of trial and error and jerky movements, he managed to work out that the pedal was an accelerator and the stick controlled direction. There didn’t seem to be any “gears”; you simply pushed the pedal down harder and went faster. There were other controls on the dash, but they only seemed to be for secondary systems like heaters. There might be some kind of GPS there, too, or auto-pilot, but James decided against trying to activate it. It might take control of the car away, and he wanted to be sure he could decide where to go.
It turned out that the car had other safety features than seat belts—when he first tried to turn, he over-corrected and would have slammed into a building on the opposite side of the street but the car simply bobbled like it had run into a cushion, and righted itself again. At the same time, James felt the air around him briefly solidify, preventing him from slamming his head into the glass.
Once he got the hang of the controls, James looked around to find the very tallest of the nearby buildings. Maybe he could get a better view from up there and possibly find signs of life. Or at least get some better idea of what he’d gotten himself into. Once he found it, he sent the car whirring through the streets in that direction.
Along the way, he passed many streets full of houses, then businesses and shops. There were other cars parked along the streets, and hovering orbs that flashed red, yellow, or green like traffic lights. Some of the buildings seemed vaguely familiar, yet not quite right. It took a little time for James to twig why that was. It was as if they were doing faux-period kitsch of 20th or 21st century architecture, like the fakey old-English stuff that people did when they wanted to suggest a medieval theme. “Am I in the future?” he mused. “And these are people’s idea of what twencen stuff looked like?” He glanced over at the pack. “Did you throw me forward in time, too?” But it had no answers for him.
The tallest building took on more detail as he came closer, and it seemed even taller the closer he came—the weirdness of the horizon made it difficult to judge perspective from afar. From up close, it looked impossibly tall—it might well reach several miles into the air. There were blinking lights on top, and every so often along the side—warn-offs for aircraft, he supposed, though he had yet to see any of those.
He stopped the car in front of one of the main street-side entrances and got out, making sure to grab the jump pack before leaving the car all the way. As he pulled it out and buckled it on again, the car sealed itself and trundled off to find a vacant parking spot by the side of the road amid other vehicles of its kind—perhaps those were the charging stations for whatever powered them.
Charging stations...hmm. “I wonder if I can find some kind of power supply I can use to charge the pack back up. Maybe I could see where I am, or if I can get home.” He frowned. “Or I could at least use it to explore this place.” It felt odd to say it, but he’d trust the Q-jumper more than he would strange alien cars—at least he knew what all the Q-jumper’s buttons did.
The skyscraper’s lobby wasn’t really strange or alien. The style was different than he was used to—the designers had favored gleaming metal surfaces contrasted with polished wood grain walls and accents—but a lobby was a lobby, and from a form-follows-function sense, there were only so many different ways you could design it.
The front desk was easily recognizable (though it was empty), benches and seats, something that looked like a piano save that it was round with three keyboards spaced at even intervals around the sides, and a bank of elevators at the far end of the room. There were even potted plants—healthy and well-trimmed ones, that showed no signs of either dying out or overgrowing their pots to take over the lobby. It was as if the place was under meticulous care by an army of custodians even now, but they were nowhere to be seen.
Of course, this wasn’t really a great mystery if you thought about it, James realized. If they had hovercars with built-in safety bumpers, they probably had self-repairing automation sufficient to care for the needs of a city like this until the end of time. Heck, they’d had that kind of stuff even in his day, though not quite so seamless as this. It didn’t necessarily mean there were people here. James shivered, shook his head, and strode over to the elevators and punched the button. He hoped there was a car nearby; he didn’t want to think about how long it might take an elevator to arrive from the top floor.
But the doors slid open almost immediately, and stilling a twinge of uncertainty about confining himself in a tiny room, tail swishing nervously, James stepped inside. The controls were nothing so prosaic as a bank of buttons. It actually seemed to be a diagram of the building itself, marked off into ten sections color-coded by spectrum. The bottom chunk was red, above it was a red-orangeish segment, a more orangey one, and so on, all the way up to violet at the very top. James reached out and tapped the violet section, and it expanded to fill the screen, subdividing into ten more sections. James tapped and zoomed twice more before being able to select what looked from the schematic like an observation deck at the very top.
Then the elevator doors opened, and with another twinge of vertigo James realized he was looking out into that observation deck. It hadn’t even been ten seconds since he’d made his selection, and he’d felt no sense of inertia at all. “…whoa.” James steadied himself against the door, then stepped out into the room.
The first thing he noticed about it was that it was thickly carpeted, with a substance that seemed to have a texture somewhere between velour and shag carpeting. He suspected it would feel good to bare feet. The walls and ceiling were made of glass so fine that only a bare reflection told James there was anything at all between him and thin air. There was furniture scattered every so often along the wall, too—sofas, chairs, tables, benches—
—and several of them were occupied. And as James stared at the occupant of the sofa across from the elevator doors, he got a bigger shock than any he’d had since his arrival on this world, up to and including the strange inside-out landscape. It was a dog-morph, but not just any dog-morph. It was a very familiar black-and-tan rottweiler. And though the last time he’d seen it, four years ago, its muzzle had been nearly solid white instead of the tan it was now, he absolutely could not mistake the shape of that face, the lay of its ears, or the intensity in its eyes for any other person.
As the dog raised his head and met James’s eyes, their muzzles dropped open at about the same time but it was James who found his voice first. “...Gran’ther? Is it really you?”
“It can’t be…James?” The rottweiler James knew for Christopher Mattiaz blinked. “Don’t tell me you died, too?”
James stared, his ears poking straight up as he considered the import of that question. If Gran’ther Chris was here, then…had he died as well? Could something have gone that badly wrong with the jump experiment that it had killed him outright, and he just thought it had ported him?
“I don’t…I don’t know,” James said honestly. “I don’t think I did. At least…if I did, it would be really weird for me to end up in Heaven wearing the Q-jumper that killed me.”
“This isn’t Heaven,” Chris growled. “I don’t know where it is, or how we got here, but it still seems to be the mortal world, or at least a mortal world. We still have earthly needs and desires.” He turned his head and glanced to another bench a few yards up the hall, where a female rottweiler-morph was sitting, reading a book, and a faint smile lightened his scowl. “In fact, rather more of certain desires than some of us remember having in a long time.”
James followed Chris’s gaze, and stared. “Is that—Gran Leslie? She’s here, too?”
The rottweiler nodded. “For whatever reason, a number of us who knew each other back in the old days all ended up here, or near here, over the last few years. We all came to the tallest building we could find to look around, and ended up running into each other—it seems like a natural human impulse to gravitate to the tallest spot.” He shrugged. “So we’ve been staying here, at least for now, to meet up with the other people who drift in. We spend a lot of time on this floor, since it’s the first place newcomers think to come.”
“Gran’ther…I…it’s…” James closed the distance and put his arms around his Gran’ther. “It’s good to see you again.”
Chris returned the embrace, seemingly at a loss for words himself. After it was over, he wiped at an eye and said, “C’mon. I’ll take you around to meet the others.”
A few minutes later, James had followed Chris into an observation lounge replete with plenty of tables, sofas, and comfortable chairs. A number of other Changed were there, too, scattered around reading, playing cards, or gazing out the windows into the sphere. A group of them had clustered together on a ring of sofas and chairs, with a place left for James. These were all familiar to James from his time at the Institute, though he’d never seen any of them so young in anything except the archival news stories from the early days of the Change.
To James’s left on the sofa were his gran’thers Leslie and Chris. Leslie had been delighted to see him, exclaiming just as she’d used to, “My, how you’ve grown!” James had only been 14 when she’d died, so he’d grown quite a bit larger than when she’d known him. It was a little incongruous, though, for those words and that tone to be coming from someone who only seemed a few years older than he was now.
On another sofa to their left were a pair of deer Changed, each with quite an impressive “rack” in his or her own way. The woman was Janice, nee Jerome, Slater, aka J.S. Her husband was Dr. Thomas, nee Tara, Janssen, aka T.J. The initials marked them as Veil-era Changed, since that was the shorthand that had evolved among gender-Changed to remind other Changed to be careful with their pronouns—nobody except other Changed could see their new gender, so calling someone “obviously” female “he” tended to raise eyebrows.
When the Veil had collapsed, everyone could see the new gender, so there wasn’t as much need to be careful anymore—though a less-common usage had carried on for a while as a way to let the rest of the world know one’s involuntary gender-changed status. That had largely faded away, too, as people got used to the idea of mutable gender, and the Q-changer had abolished it altogether since nobody had to remain a gender they didn’t want to be.
The Slaters, or Janssens, or Slater-Janssens, or Janssen-Slaters (they’d been a couple, had a son, and then gender-Changed before actually getting married, so there was a little confusion as to who was supposed to take who’s name) had been a part of the same overall Changed community as Chris, and had been involved in a number of Lundh Foundation functions even though they hadn’t directly been members of the board. They’d been killed in a plane crash on the way back from a Foundation fundraiser in Australia in 2045, after which their life and times had been memorialized in a holo-miniseries called (for no clearly apparent reason) Paradise.
In the chair across from them, at James’s right, sat another of the “initialized” Changed—a young Canadian cougaress James knew as J.F., or Joey Ford. Seeing her had been another shock, since she’d died only the month before after a long illness. James had taken a week off to spend with a grief-stricken Shayna, since J.F. had been her gran’ther. But Joey was J.F. only half the time; like Chris, she changed every year, though she only had two Change forms and her gender-change was synchronized to them. When Joey had died, he’d been in his other form—a male goat Changed.
Joey had been working in Changed advocacy and counseling from his, or her, earliest days, seeking out the newly-Changed and helping them get over the shock. After the Veil had come down, he had joined the Furry Party of Canada (whose popularity surged after a significant fraction of the populace had become furry) and served several terms in Parliament. During his tenure, he helped pass a number of pro-Changed bills, including funding for the Lundh Foundation, then took a seat on its board after leaving office.
It stood to reason that a lot of the more active Changed from that era knew each other, as there had been a lot fewer of them in those days—but the few that existed had ways of finding each other since the Internet had been maturing just when the Change was first hitting its stride. In fact Walter Lundh, the bull Changed for whom the Lundh Foundation had been named, had been one of the powers behind the very earliest, most secret Changed webring which had found Chris and his friends. As the numbers of Changed grew, it expanded into the more open networks joined by Janice, Thomas, Joey, and others of their generation.
And taking up the last seat between Joey and James was Dr. Alice Reams, a lioness-Changed of Chris’s generation. She had dual doctorates in quantum physics and astrophysics, and had been on the team that had cracked the Q-virus codes and developed the original Q-changers. Perhaps as a result of early exposure to imperfectly-shielded Q-changer prototypes, she had developed one of the rarer Change cancers and died five years before.
After introductions had been made, and everyone had finished saying how nice it was to see each other again, James asked, “So what happened? How did you all end up here?”
“Several years ago, as nearly as we can make out, Janice and I and a number of others just…appeared here,” Thomas said. “We found ourselves scattered at various places around the city, and made our way here.”
“Others?” James asked.
“Other Changed and a number of humans—some we knew, some we didn’t,” Janice said. “And all of them either remembered dying, or their last memories made it plausible they could have died shortly afterward.”
“Since then, there’s been a trickle of new arrivals,” Thomas continued. “From the spacing, apparently they show up as soon as they die in the ‘real world.’ There’s a couple hundred in the city so far.”
“I got here a little over a year ago,” Chris said. “But Leslie arrived at the same time they did, and had to wait for me.” He reached over to pat his wife’s hand, and she smiled at him.
“It wasn’t so bad,” Leslie said. “Since Janice and Thomas were together, I had faith you would be here sooner or later. And here you are.” They smiled at each other like newlyweds, and James felt a little uncomfortably like he was witnessing a private moment.
“And I only got here last month,” Joey said.
“You’re all so…well, young,” James said. “How did that happen?”
“We’re not sure,” Thomas said. “We just showed up that way. It’s why some of us thought it might be Heaven, Nirvana, or whatever our expected afterlife was at first. Then, well—” He waved a hand at the panorama through the windows behind him. “Nobody’s conception of heaven ever included a Dyson sphere. Except maybe Freeman Dyson’s.”
“Even Dyson’s idea didn’t work like this,” Dr. Reams said. “This is just the kind that shows up in science-fiction stories because it makes for great spectacle, even though it’s physically impossible. Gravity doesn’t work that way—everything should be falling toward the sun.” She shrugged. “But it isn’t. Go figure.”
“Almost makes you think someone intelligent is behind all this, doesn’t it?” Janice remarked.
“I don’t think there was ever any question of that,” Dr. Reams said. “Just the fact that we’ve all ended up here—even those of us who died years apart—is proof . If this is a full-sized Dyson sphere, with a radius equivalent to Earth’s average distance from the sun, it’s got two hundred fifty million times the surface area of Earth. Never mind just those who’ve died—if you distributed all ten billion people on earth randomly over that entire surface area, an area the size of the whole planet Earth would have just forty people in it. There are several times more than that in just this one city.”
James whistled. “That’s just…amazing. I have a hard time even imagining numbers like that.”
Dr. Reams nodded. “We all do. We can throw zeroes around, but we can’t imagine even how big Earth is in relation to ourselves—and here we have two hundred fifty million of them. Beel-yuns and beel-yuns of square miles.” The others chuckled appreciatively at Reams’s affected pronunciation—another reference James was too young to get, he supposed. “We’re going to have a really hard time exploring more than an infinitesimal fraction of it all in any immediate timeframe. Yet here we all are, together in one tiny part of it.”
“Not to mention that we all seem to know at least a few of the other people already here,” Joey pointed out. “The odds against that have to be astronomical.”
“So here we are again: sixty years later and ‘ROB’ is still the only explanation,” Thomas said.
“You know I hate that term,” Chris growled. “Always have. Even if whatever is doing this has powers we can’t comprehend, I still say that there’s a natural intelligence behind it. And, like all of nature, it is used by God to further His will.”
Joey raised an eyebrow. “So what you’re saying is, no matter who or what did this to us, God made him do it?”
“‘God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform,’” Janice quoted.
“Of course, just because I believe all this is the work of God’s will doesn’t bring me any closer to figuring out what He wants of us,” Chris admitted with a shrug. “So I suppose it may not seem that useful to the rest of us.”
“What are you doing to try to find out more about this place?” James asked.
“We’ve sent some expeditions out to explore, look for signs of habitation or radio signals,” Thomas said. “Sort of our own SETI project in reverse—instead of looking for life in space, we’re looking for life in our world. Maybe other people or furs from home got put in other cities.”
“Walter’s leading one of them,” Chris said. “If there’s one thing he’s proven good at, it’s finding Changed, so I think he’s the right man for the job.”
James blinked. “Walter? Walter Lundh? He’s here too?”
“For some value of ‘here,’ yes,” Chris said. “He left last year; we hear reports from time to time. Nothing solid yet, but saying there’s a lot of ground to cover would be an understatement.” He chuckled. “But it was certainly a surprise when I first arrived here. Good thing I was in my bear phase at the time. Walter was waiting, and had a fairly large bone to pick with me.”
“Oh?” James asked.
“Yes.” Chris grinned. “You know how secretive Walter’s original network was, right? Paranoid enough to insist people not post ‘real’ photos of themselves on the Internet, even though other Changed were the only ones who could see them?”
“You’ve mentioned that a few” dozen “times,” James said, ears twitching with a suppressed chuckle. It had been one of Chris’s favorite stories about the “good old days,” especially as he’d grown older and his mind had started to wander down memory lane more often.
“I had just put it down to the usual post-Change paranoia of the day,” Chris said. “But it turns out perhaps another reason is that Walter was—is—very, well, shy. He just wanted to fade into the background and not be remembered for his work except maybe as a footnote in some history book.” The rottweiler leaned back on the sofa as he warmed to his story. “That’s why he decided to start a research foundation by bequest, instead of while he was still alive. His original name for it was just going to be something generic like the Foundation for All Change Research, or ‘FACeR’.”
“Oh, no…” James said, as the implications began to dawn on him.
“Oh, yes.” Chris grinned. “Since I was his executor, I figured that he deserved recognition at least posthumously, so I renamed it. I can’t say I had ever expected to have to explain my decision to Walter in the flesh.” He chuckled. “That poor man, enduring years here of random furs coming up to him to shake his hand and tell him how grateful they were for all his efforts. I honestly think the only reason he waited so long before going exploring was that he knew I’d show up sooner or later and he wanted to be here to give me a piece of his mind when I did.”
James remembered all the pictures he’d seen of Lundh—past his physical prime, but still a very powerful and physically imposing figure. Then he imagined that Lundh in the flush of youth. “Um…so what did you do?”
Chris smirked. “Oh, I just took the bull by the horns.” The practiced way in which everyone else in the nook groaned led James to suspect this was probably not the first time Chris had told that story.
“So how did you get here, James?” Joey asked.
“The Lundh Foundation was testing this prototype quantum jump pack,” James said. He patted the device, sitting on the couch beside him. “I was just supposed to be teleporting to the next room. Then the Q-viruses…well, they looked at me. And I think they saw me.” He shivered.
“They ‘looked at’ you?” Chris asked.
“Well, the holographic images did. You know, the ones they have in the labs for monitoring?” Chris nodded. “Well, they just sort of grew eyes and looked at me. And then maybe they sent me here. Wherever ‘here’ is.” James shrugged. “I do know that the pack is supposed to have enough power in it for a jump of several light-years at least, and the jump completely drained it.”
“You think that you just jumped spatially, and not in time or to some other universe altogether?” Dr. Reams asked.
“Well…Joey, Chris, when did you guys last Change?” James asked.
“Yesterday, actually,” Chris said. “For the second time. The first was a couple of months after I got here.”
“Same here,” Joey said. “Can’t say I’m exactly looking forward to having a period again, but gift horses.”
Something that had been bothering James suddenly came clear in his head. “Gran Leslie? How are you still keeping up with Gran’ther? I thought your normal Change form was…” He trailed off. Actually…come to think of it, he wasn’t even sure what her normal Change form was. Since he’d been born after the Q-changers were invented, he’d never seen her as anything but whatever Chris was at the moment. In fact, he’d thought for the longest time that it was normal to have grandparents who were always exactly the same Change, even when they Changed into different things every year.
“Strangely enough, there are Q-changers here,” Leslie said. “Or at least, the gadgets built into this place that make food or other things for us on request can make them, too. Still can’t make a decent pizza, though.”
James nodded. “Well, Change Day was yesterday on Earth, too. I still have a trace of the celebration hangover.” He grinned, his vulpine tongue lolling for a moment. “And Chris being a dog fits with where his cycle was when he died. Same for Joey and a cougar. That takes care of both time and universe, unless some other universe would have the same Q-viruses working in it.”
“Point,” Janice said.
James reached over and fiddled with the pack. “This thing is supposed to recharge automatically from available tachyons or neutrinos or something technical like that, but if you have a power jack around here I can recharge it faster. Maybe I can find out where we are.”
“How does that work?” Thomas asked.
“It’s sort of the quantum equivalent of GPS. It takes a reading on the fabric of the universe and extrapolates from that where we are. It has to do that in order to be able to target a jump.”
“Sort of like Google Maps meets the Total Perspective Vortex,” Janice suggested, and the rest of the older generation chuckled. James didn’t get this reference either, but promised himself he’d look it up.
“Just a second.” James hit one of the control keys. “I think I’ve got enough power to boot it up at least.”
“Quantum signature check: confirmed,” the female voice said. “Welcome to Q-Jump System, Operator James Slater Mattiaz. Running startup checks…complete. Warning: power extremely low. Charging required. Would you like some delicious cake?”
James grinned. “The cake is a lie,” he said. Chris chuckled.
“Warning: Power insufficient to jump. Charging required.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.” James adjusted the pack so that the holographic display would project the image into the middle of the circle of sofas, then brought up the navigation display. “Now let’s see where we are.” The image that appeared was of the sofa nook and everyone sitting around the display. “Okay, let’s zoom out by a few orders of magnitude.”
The skyscraper appeared, then the city, then more of the surrounding area. The curvature of the surface became visible, and James stopped for a moment. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Dyson sphere.” He worked the pan and zoom controls, scrolling over the surface. At a level where the continents were barely visible, it still went on and on forever.
“It’s just so big,” Janice murmured.
Thomas smirked. “That’s what she said.” Janice hit him.
“Okay, let’s go out further.” James worked the controls again, and they were examining a nondescript grey sphere from the outside. Further yet and the sphere vanished and nearby stars appeared, and more and more of them, and then an arm of a spiral galaxy, then the whole thing.
“Hmm. Okay, let’s see where earth is in relation to us.” James tapped in the code to locate the starting point of the previous jump—and the galaxy suddenly whizzed out of one side of the projection. James blinked. “…huh?”
Then a different spiral galaxy hove into view, with the carat indicating a location within one of its arms. “Wait, hold on.” James zoomed out again, a few more times, then hit the “current location” key. “We’re…in the Andromeda Galaxy?”
“How far away is that from Earth?” Leslie wondered.
“Two point five…million light years,” James said. “Give or take.” He looked at the pack. “They said this thing was only supposed to jump ten thousand, max.”
“Maybe they misplaced a decimal place…or three?” Leslie suggested.
“Well, theoretically you should be able to re-enter at any point in the universe,” James said. “What takes the power is the extrapolation of the target. The further out you go, the more power it costs and the less accurate you get.”
“Maybe the Q-viruses gave you the target,” Joey said. “They had to know about this place already, given that they’re changing us here just as easily as they did back home.”
“If I charge it up, I wonder if they’ll give me the target back,” James said dazedly.
“That’s…interesting,” Chris said. “Whatever resurrected us, then, definitely did it within the same universe. Very far away, but if we started traveling from here in a straight line, theoretically we would eventually reach Earth.”
“But even if we traveled at a thousand times the speed of light, it would take 2,500 years to get there,” Dr. Reams pointed out.
“That’s…really far away,” Jetfire said.
“So whatever agency brought us here must really want to make sure we don’t have any way to tell the people back on earth what’s happened to us,” Chris continued. “Even if we managed to send a radio signal strong enough to be received, mankind would be a memory by the time it reaches Earth.”
“That’s a pleasant thought,” Thomas said.
“James, if you think the pack can get you back to earth, I wonder if you might be willing to let one of us take it back,” Chris mused. “Imagine the impact it might have if someone known to be dead suddenly showed up alive again, fifty years younger.”
“Do you really think that’s a good idea?” a new voice asked. A whitetail doe stepped around the corner from the next nook, a paperback novel held in one hand. Like Janice, she had a very curvaceous but all-natural figure—the sort of figure most often associated with TG Changed. “Pardon my intruding—I was reading over there, and your voices carried.”
Chris raised an eyebrow. “Haven’t seen you around before.”
“I keep to myself a lot. I’ve seen you, though,” the newcomer said, leaning against the back of a sofa. “I’m J.S.—but since you’ve already got one of those, I guess you can call me Joni. Mind if I join you?”
“It’s a free Dyson sphere,” Joey said, and the others nodded assent. Janice cocked her head for a moment, looking at Joni a bit oddly.
Joni dropped her book on an empty seat next to James and turned back to the others. “Anyway, as I was saying, I’m not sure it would be a good idea for someone who’s ‘died’ to go back—or at least anyone famous. Can you imagine the religious wars it would spark, especially if he talked about the Dyson sphere? Can you imagine the Dyson sphere suicide cults?” She shuddered.
“Don’t you think that’s a little unlikely?” Janice asked.
“Do you? If you had absolute proof that after you died, you’d wake up on a Dyson sphere with the equivalent of two hundred fifty million earths to explore, and you were any kind of social misfit at all, do you think you wouldn’t be tempted?” Joni asked.
Chris considered, then growled in assent. “You have a point. It wouldn’t be good to lead anyone astray.”
Joni slid into a vacant seat between Thomas Janssen and Joey. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this place since I got here, and I have my own theory, if you’d care to hear it.”
“Shoot,” James said, his fox-ears swiveling forward in interest.
“Well, to begin with, you have to understand that we’re living beings in a simulated universe within a post-Singularity cloud of computronium,” Joni said.
Janice snapped her finger-hooves. “Now I know where I’ve seen you before! You were at Tall Tales, weren’t you? Only you were male, then.”
“And you were spouting that same cornball theory then, too,” Thomas remembered.
“It’s the only theory that fits all the available evidence,” Joni said. “But it would take too long to explain, and that’s not important right now anyway. We can argue about it later. For now it’s just a base assumption, okay?”
“Go ahead,” Chris said.
“A lot of this I’m interpolating or outright making up.” Joni chuckled. “Like the best historical fiction when you get down to it. But I think in some future earth—25th century, let’s say—things look very different from the 2000s. The Singularity has happened, and a lot of people have evolved to a higher plane or otherwise wandered off, leaving a world that can take care of itself as a park for the humans who stick around. A mostly empty park, kind of like the city out there.” She waved a hand toward the windows. “And other diversions, like quantum computers that can recreate entire universes inside themselves.”
“She’s got a great imagination, I’ll give her that,” Thomas muttered. Janice elbowed him.
“A lot of humans retreat into these pocket universes. Including one fellow who’s been fond of 20th and 21st century historical reenactment, and decides to download a universe set to that time period from a repository and fiddle around with it.” She waved a hoof-hand. “I’m calling him a human because it’s more romantic that way. Could just as easily be some post-Singularity intelligence who likes the 20th century for reasons of his own. Anyway, whoever he is, it’s just a game to him, so he isn’t really as careful as he should be about security. And the 25th century has its share of script kiddies, including some higher-order life forms who like to poke the anthill.
“By the time he finds out, it’s too late—a couple of particularly pernicious intelligent viruses have snuck into the mix. And it’s too late in another sense, too, as the time he’s spent in the universe has brought home to him that there’s not really any difference between his ‘sims’ and ‘real people’—because they are real people. So he can’t just reformat and reboot—it would be genocide. Likewise, he can’t mess with people’s minds, because they’re people. But he can’t remove the viruses, as they’ve woven themselves too deep into the universe. He can’t just let the viruses run rampant, either, because it would be total chaos. So he comes up with the Reality Distortion Field, which later degrades gracefully into bubbles and pockets and everything else, as sort of an airbag for the reality crash.”
“That’s an interesting…theory,” Dr. Ream said. “And I suppose all the physical laws are that way because they’re programmed to be that way?”
“In imitation of the ‘real’ world, yes. Or ‘realer’ world, anyway, since no one’s saying this one isn’t. Who knows, maybe the outside universe the computer’s in is running inside another computer in another outside world? Turtles all the way down.” Joni shrugged. “And the Q-changers and Q-porters are basically just function calls on undocumented APIs.”
“That still doesn’t explain this Dyson sphere,” Joey pointed out.
“I was coming to that,” Joni said. “It must have been weird for the guy who created this, well, Paradise—” she nodded acknowledgment to Janice and Thomas “—to watch his private little fantasy suddenly turn into a whole universe. A shared universe, since it didn’t exist for only his pleasure anymore.” She cocked her head, an odd expression on her face. “And maybe he grew attached to some of the people in it. Didn’t want them to just die and never see them again. And since he had root privs on the cosmos, he just made this place, where he could reload their savefiles without affecting the natural development of the home world.”
“What proof do you have to support this?” Leslie asked.
Joni shrugged again. “Don’t claim to have any. Just a few odd guesses based on weird things about the Change. Like how it will change our bodies, and all existing photos and documents of us, but it won’t touch our own or others’ memories of us. And, of course, the fact we all end up here after we die.”
“I’m not sure I like it,” Joey said. “It seems to mean we’re all ultimately just playthings of some jerk with a root shell.”
“No, not playthings,” Joni said. “Playmates, maybe. He hasn’t done anything arbitrary or disruptive, like faking a Second Coming or openly declaring himself Emperor of the World. That seems to be the whole point of sticking this sphere all the way out in the Andromeda Galaxy—making sure that what he does in Vegas stays in Vegas. I think he feels responsible for the universe he created, and wants to take care of it. And the people in it.”
“If this science-fiction story of yours is true, and I have to admit it makes as much sense as anything else,” Chris said, “then he has the power to bring us back to life again whenever we die.”
“That worries you?” Joni asked. “I rather like the idea of functional immortality. But I guess you’re worried about the afterlife.” She shrugged. “I imagine if you really don’t want to be brought back, he’ll respect your wishes. If he cares enough about us to set this whole thing up, he’s probably paying attention.”
Chris thought about this for a moment, then shook his head. “I can’t do that. Choosing not to live would still count as suicide. And while it’s one thing not to be in your right mind when you end your life, it’s another to make the decision rationally ahead of time.”
“Anyway, we’re here now. Does it really matter how we got here?” Joni waved a hand at the glass observation windows behind her. “Two hundred and fifty million earths. Who knows what’s out there? There could be whole worlds, or world equivalents, full of creatures of myth and legend—dragons, unicorns, kitsune, vampires, werewolves. Worlds from fiction and fantasy, and historical recreations of all centuries. Worlds where the Veil still exists. Worlds where Change never happened. Worlds with seas of fire and continents of ice. Worlds we can’t even imagine. And no matter how long we live we’ll probably never see all of it. I can’t decide whether it’s exciting or intimidating.” She chuckled, getting to her feet. “Anyway, it was nice meeting you all. I think I’m going to take a little walk.”
“Uh, yeah, see you around,” Janice said, as Joni walked away.
“Well, that was certainly random,” Leslie observed. “Do you buy any of it?”
Thomas snorted. “Pure science fiction. She—he, back then—was spouting off much the same thing at Tall Tales, though it hardly stood out amid the general craziness of all the other theories people had.”
“As I said, it makes about as much sense as anything else does,” Chris said.
“Though we can’t exactly put most of it to the test,” Janice pointed out.
“It would tend to explain the motivation behind some of the stranger things that the Veil and the retcon effect did,” Dr. Reams said thoughtfully. “It changed the environment to make the world internally consistent, but didn’t mess with our memories—and if we believe Joni, that would be because the world’s creator respected us as people.”
Thomas snorted, his ears flipping back. “Some ‘respect’. Letting us go through hell for years.”
“It doesn’t really change anything, though,” Chris said thoughtfully. “Even if Joni is right about the level of control that this glorified sysadmin has over our world, he is still a finite being. And there’s no reason to assume that this finite being actually created us, rather than just having some power over us. And it doesn’t mean we aren’t still creatures with souls, and thus, creatures in need of a Savior.”
“And the very lack of intervention does seem to lend credence to the ‘respect’ theory,” Dr. Reams said. “If he hadn’t forced the pace to be very gradual, who knows what might have happened?”
As the others talked, James reached over and picked up the paperback book the deer had dropped—The Edge of Time, by David Grinnell. He flipped it over and looked at the blurb: They had created a miniature universe, but could they control it? Then he looked thoughtfully after the departed deer.
The conversation eventually wound down, and Chris showed James to one of the residential areas of the tower. There were hundreds of rooms available, only waiting for someone to move in and claim them. James took a small apartment, which had sleek, futuristic, but still quite recognizable amenities: bed, shower, toilet, kitchenette. There were also some not quite so recognizable, such as the “replicator” that could produce almost any small item, such as Q-changers. James played with it a little, then flopped back on the bed. It had been a long day.
Even though James thought he should by all rights lie awake well into the night (or what passed for night on this sphere) thinking over the implications of what had happened to him, his body had other plans and he was soon out like a light.
The next day (or equivalent thereof) found him back in the observation lounge, looking out over the empty city. He had the room mostly to himself, until a reflection in the glass told him someone had come up behind him. “Morning,” Dr. Reams said.
“Hey.” James nodded to her, still looking out into the world. “This is such a crazy place.”
Dr. Reams nodded. “I know.” She walked up beside him, and glanced out at the view for a moment. “It just feels wrong for everything to be so quiet and still. There should be people out there.”
“If things keep on going like I hear they have been, I guess there will be sooner or later. Does this place even have a name yet?”
“Not one we’ve given it. Nobody’s really cared enough to try to puzzle out what the street signs say yet.” Dr. Reams regarded him thoughtfully. “And what about you? Have you made up your mind yet whether you’re going to stay or try to jump back to Earth with your Q-jumper?”
“It’s a good question. I don’t know whether I could get back. Hell, I don’t even know why I ended up here.”
“Mmm.” Dr. Reams considered. “Well, from what you said, and if the relevant parts of Joni’s theories are true, it seems to me that the viruses may not be too happy about having been gentled by the R.O.B.’s safety measures. In that light, perhaps they thought they could throw a monkeywrench into things: bring you here, send you back, let you tell the world about the new afterlife.”
James snorted. “Like that would happen. They’d lock me up like an early-generation Changed. Though if that is the case, that means I probably have a safe ticket back home. Unless the R.O.B. doesn’t want me to get there.” He shrugged. “I think I’ll stick around for a while before I try to go back. The Q-jumper could be pretty useful for exploring this world—unless the viruses or the R.O.B. override it and send me back home on the first jump, I guess. But that’s the chance I take.”
“I know Chris and Leslie will be happy to have you here,” Dr. Reams said.
“Uh-huh.” James nodded. “Of course, I don’t like to think about what everyone on earth is going to think since I vanished. Probably throw a major wrench into the Q-jumper research program, too. And I’ll have some explaining to do when I do go back.”
“I don’t think that anyone in the program would want you to risk yourself unnecessarily,” Dr. Reams said.
“You’re probably right.”
The two of them stood there a while, looking out the window. Then James mused, “I have to admit, though, there are worse places to be stuck. Technology to see to our every needs…whole new worlds to explore. This place really could be a Paradise.”
Dr. Reams nodded. “And we’ve got our whole lives ahead of us to explore it. Maybe more than that, if we come back again after we die again. With all those years, decades, centuries stretching out in front of us…this could be a Paradise forever.”
Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Relics”
“The Last Ghost” by Stephen Goldin (99 cents, Smashwords)
The Edge of Time by Stephen Grinnell (pseudonym for Donald Wollheim)
Riverworld by Philip José Farmer
The Future is Paradise
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