Vacation is officially over, and I’m back at work! Some have expressed an interest in the background story of Steel Souls, so I’m including the fourth chapter here in its entirety. Jump past the break to hear more about how the world ended up in this sorry state. Watch carefully for some tantalizing hints about what will happen next! Keep yourself up to date with the Midweek Muse newsletter here.
“I was born twenty-three years before the Great Catastrophe. I had the great misfortune of living in the wastes of the Antarctic as a child. As you might imagine, growing up in the ninth circle of hell did nothing to encourage communing with nature or any of that crap. So I, along with most who shared my misfortune, turned to the virtual reality CyberNet at an extremely young age, and never looked back. For us, it was the ultimate escape. We forgot the sub-freezing temperatures, the cramped, stinky corridors, and the interminable tedium of our lives. In fact, while we still had biological bodies, the ‘Net became a serious health hazard. People would spend all their waking hours online, and then some. They would forget to unplug and eat or exercise. Their bodies would literally waste away, eating themselves up from the inside. The authorities tried everything to reverse the trend, but none of us spent a second more than they had to in the “real” world. Obviously, I was no exception. I began typically enough, immersing myself in online games and social networking sites. But soon enough, I became bored with such pedestrian activities, and started exploring off the beaten path. I hooked up with some hacker groups and learned the my way around – and through – security systems. As a result, I became very good – among other things – at navigating the backwaters of the ‘Net and poking about where I didn’t belong. I knew about the dolphins’ work with soul transference before most, and it fascinated me. A way to ditch my frail shell of a body and spend even more time on the ‘Net? Yes please! I used my considerable skills to track down their research base and wrangled and invitation to it. Boy, I’ll never forget that – a dolphin base is quite a thing. Not comfortable, but fascinating:”
The wind from the chopper blades whipped the surface of the sea into a frenzy, marring the perfect midnight blue of unimaginably deep water with artificial whitecaps. Beyond that minor disturbance however, the ocean was completely featureless. Not a rock, not a buoy, not a boat as far as the eye could see.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” The helicopter pilot asked, yelling above the sound of the rotor blades. “There’s nothing here!”
“This is the coordinates they gave me,” Maya replied shortly, shivering inside her down jacket. The past few weeks had been a nightmare for her. She’d never really enjoyed living in the warrens and towers of Antarctica, but at least it was warm there in the underground living quarters. Ever since she’d stepped outside, she’d been cold, no matter how many layers she wore. She hoped to whatever god there was that the dolphins had proper environmental control. She shook herself out of her reverie. “Maybe they’re just late. They are dolphins, after all. Our ways are not their ways, you know.”
“Whatever,” the pilot replied impatiently, completely missing the poetry. “I don’t care what kind of ‘ways’ they have – we don’t have enough fuel to stick around here much longer. About five minutes more.” As if in response, a more serious disturbance began to make itself known in the sea below. At first, the only indication was an increase in the number of waves rushing about below the chopper, but their size started increasing as well, until an actual swell built up – a veritable mountain of water that grew and grew, finally overreaching itself and popping in a huge rush of spray. What came into view then resembled nothing so much as a giant, city-sized …
“Dolphin!” Maya cried in delight, spotting several normal-sized dolphins cavorting around their mothership. As always, they appeared carefree and rambunctious: leaping, spinning, and generally showing off – always chattering away in that singsong language of theirs. “Look, I think that’s supposed to be a helipad!” Maya pointed to a flattish bulge that had formed behind the enormous blowhole on the back of the gigantic dolphin city. It didn’t so much rise from as grow out of the slick skin of the deck. However, it was flat, and it was big enough to accommodate the chopper, so the pilot brought them in.
As Maya stepped from the helicopter, which hadn’t even spun down its blades, she marveled once again how bloody cold this outdoors thing was. As she stood there shivering, she wondered how she was going to get into the vessel. Her contact had been frustratingly vague – as dolphins tended to do – but she had always trusted that things would become clear as she went on. But now, as the rotor blades increased their speed and the chopper started to lift away, she began to fear that she really would just be left here in the middle of the ocean – forgotten as the mighty ship beneath her began to sink below the waves. She would fall into the freezing ocean and live out the last minutes of her life getting colder and colder. No! She wouldn’t go that way! She shook herself again, in determination this time, and began walking toward the nearest edge of the helipad. As she moved, a doorway rose from the deck in front of her.
“Please enter the hatch so we can dive, Miss Maya,” a voice said in her head.
“What the hell?” She replied stupidly. Of course she’d used wireless communication before – her implants were set up for it and it was an easy way to access the ‘Net without full immersion – but she’d never had someone initiate a wireless link so completely and suddenly before. “Um, I mean, of course. Er, if it’s not too much trouble, who am I talking to?” True to her word, she moved toward the entrance and stepped inside, relishing the warm air she could feel welling up the stairs.
“My name, you could not understand, and certainly could not pronounce.” There was a definite chuckle underlying these words.
“Try me.” Maya replied defiantly.
“Very well,” and a sudden screeching, trilling sound hit her inner ear: headache-inducing, but beautiful – outwardly simple, but with subtle complications that seemed to go on forever. Maya loved the dolphin language and indulged in it every chance she got.
“Let’s see, I caught some second-string harmonics, so you’re from the eastern seas. Third order trills suggest Australia, though I’ve heard those up near Japan as well. You used to be an elder in your pod, but have since split from them to pursue your own work. That must be difficult. You’re obviously a scientist, and the honorifics suggest you head your own project. Congratulations.” Maya said with a definite sense of satisfaction. “But you’re right, I couldn’t pronounce that if my life depended on it. What should I call you?”
“Well done, young one. I can see you haven’t neglected your learning, as so many do these days. My human name is Bill, though I hope we can converse in my native language someday. If our research succeeds, perhaps that hope can become a reality. Come, I’m waiting for you down on Deck 58. I’m sure you are up to the task of finding your way?”
She sure as hell was. Maya strode confidently down the unfamiliar corridor, and within minutes had hacked into the local ‘net, hunted down the schematics for this colossus wherein she would be living for the foreseeable future, and had found the best route down to the Soul Transference lab on Deck 58. “At least it’s warm,” she thought as she headed that way.
Maya took a deep, steadying breath as she settled into The Chair, which did not resemble a normal chair as much as it did a huge, metal throne festooned with wires and cables of varying colors and thicknesses. She let the breath out with a whoosh as she reached up and pulled The Crown down toward her head. This also didn’t much look like a monarch’s hat, but was instead reminiscent of an old-time hairdresser’s dryer – if such a dryer were designed by a madman who thought the height of fashion was fiber-optical cables stuck in at almost every angle imaginable. Her momentary calm fled her completely when she rested her arms on the bare metal of The Chair’s arms and allowed the manacles to click into place about her wrists. She shuddered with excitement and – if she was being honest with herself – just a wee bit of actual fear. She and the other scientists had worked hard for months to construct this physical manifestation of their theories. She had complete confidence in those theories, and in the engineers who had created the equipment. However, it was one thing to be intellectually confident in something, and quite another to submit one’s own fragile being to a machine’s tender mercies. “How are things looking, Dr. Bill?” She asked to cover her nervousness.
“I can tell you are nervous, little one. You needn’t be. We both know the procedure is sound, and we’ve been through it a hundred times in simulation. Now, just take another of your patented deep breaths and calm yourself. We’re almost ready.” Bill’s untranslated speech came screeching and trilling through the speakers. She was in a water-free room of course, so Bill couldn’t be there in person, but he looked in at his charge from the dolphin-friendly room on the other side of a thick, waterproof window set in one of the plain, metal walls which surrounded her.
“Yeah, except this time it’s for real. I’ll go to sleep here, and wake up in … no as that!” Maya gestured toward the irregular stone which lay inconspicuously on the table in the middle of the lab. It glistened under the lab lights in a multitude of colors. Sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes an impossibly deep purple.
“You know that thing, as you implied, is a living piece of Gaia herself, just as you are – different only in physical composition. If our first test volunteer can’t overcome her bigotry toward what she sees as non-living, what hope do we have of anyone else accepting the Transferred? I know you can do this. Just remember that you will still be yourself. Your soul will still exist, just as it does now, no matter your form. Now sit back and relax, we’re ready to begin.” Bill’s melodic voice was soothing, as always, and Maya did as she was bid.
Beyond the glass, Bill swam around and around. Despite his advice to his young assistant, Bill couldn’t contain his own excitement as the instruments around him sang out their results, assuring him that all was in place, all was proceeding according to plan. He mentally reached out and into the systems themselves. He gave power to the transformers, and made sure the connections with the first ever human Soul Gem were sound. “On my mark, then, Maya. Three, Two, One, Mark!” Never one for ceremony, Bill let it go at that, and threw the virtual switch.
Energy began building in The Chair, and the lights traveling between the walls of the room and The Crown ceased their random ramblings and began moving in a concerted motion. Tangible energy began building, and Maya’s entire body seemed to shimmer. The shimmer moved in waves, up from her feet to her head, where it swirled about in a miasma of eye-watering color. Bill sensed the moment was almost upon them, and indeed Maya arched her back, and then fell back, the body completely still. But the swirl of energy that haloed her head did not diminish. In fact, it grew in intensity and almost seemed as if it would like to rocket away. It shivered, but before it had a chance to escape, Bill increased power to the attractors, and the cloud of sparkling color began to slowly make its way along the cables that led from The Crown straight to the Soul Gem on the nearby table. As it moved closer, the machinery hummed louder, an amplification that was echoed by the increasingly energetic motions of the Soul as it lowered over the Gem. Both light and sound finally built to a crescendo as the cloud and rock finally touched. The resulting explosion of sound and light rattled the walls, and blinded the dolphins looking in, but none looked away from the awesome spectacle before them. Finally, the show ended and the Gem sat there, seemingly inert, though those with the proper senses could tell that it was practically vibrating with potential and life.
“Anything from the communication channels yet?” Bill asked eagerly, though he had those piped directly to his desk, and knew he would hear them as soon as they manifested.
“Nothing yet, Doctor,” one of the human assistants answered as they studied their own sight-oriented instruments, “but I do see that connections are forming. I think we’ll hear something soo …” She was interrupted by what they were all waiting for – the first communication from the first human transplanted from their delicate shell of flesh and blood, and into a lasting body of stone. Each listener held their breath as they waited to see what Maya’s first words would be. It took a moment for them to realize that she wasn’t actually saying anything – she was screaming.
Maya closed her eyes – at peace at last. She felt the hum build up around her body as the process began. She felt her whole body tingle as each cell voluntarily gave up its connection to Gaia. These connections, when added all together, formed the soul of the human being known as Maya. Apart, they were less than nothing – even a rock had more soul – but together they were special. Maya didn’t fret as she noticed the loss of feeling in her extremities because she was actually floating above her own body. Seen from this angle, she didn’t know what she was worried about. What was that piece of meat anyway? Nothing. All it did was get cold all the time. It stank. It was soft and weak. No, her true self was here, floating in space, just the way Gaia did. She was about to float off and see what there was to see, when she felt her new self being pulled from the blessed weightlessness, and along the cables. She tried to fight, but not too hard. She knew this was the way it was supposed to go, and quelled her disappointment – and her fear. She couldn’t suppress a tremor of trepidation, however, as she was gently forced down toward the stone that was to be her new life. Just as she had looked at her old body in disdain, so she considered her new. It was so still, so hard, so unforgiving, so boring! How could a little rock like this possibly hold all of the life that she had to live? Now she did begin to struggle – though she knew it was futile – to push with the best of her intangible strength away from the confinement that physical being forced upon the soul. She wanted to be free! She wanted to fly through the air – through the stars! But, inevitably, she was pulled down and finally touched the stone in a burst of …
Pain! Indescribable pain! She felt like the entire universe was pushing down on her at once. Not as a weight, but as a dizzyingly infinite number of sensations. Sights, sounds, touches, tastes, smells, and others she could not put in any known category bombarded her from all sides. She stood up for it as long as she could, but eventually she felt herself swelling up with the impossibility of it all. Swelling and swelling until she finally exploded in the only response she could imagine – a never-ending scream.
The rest of the laboratory simultaneously exploded into action. Dolphins madly swam about, frantically listening and responding to their instruments. Humans raced from terminal to terminal, doing their panicked best to determine exactly what had gone wrong. Their salvation finally came from one of the new interns – a bright young dolphin by the human name of Mary. “The sensory inputs! They’re all messed up – no filters at all. She’s feeling everything!”
“Well turn them down this instant!” Bill barked, greatly relieved something had been found.
Maya’s scream slowly transformed into a bubbling laugh as she felt the innumerable sensations finally start to fade to manageable levels, and she began to figure out how to control them. She also began to appreciate being alive again. All the sensations, the sense of purpose and possibility, were so much more exciting than just floating around aimless that she could barely believe she had even entertained such thoughts.
“Maya, are you ok?” Bill’s melodies broke through her reverie, and brought her back to reality. Right, this was an experiment after all. Now, she had to perform her duties as a scientist.
“I’m fine, this is incredible! The sensors are perfect. I can feel, hear, see, taste, and smell perfectly – better if I increase the gain. It was a bit … intense at first, but I think it’s under control now.” Maya would have grinned at this, but remembered that she didn’t have a mouth. “Ok, fellas, first course of business – get me connected to the CyberNet! I’m ready to go home!”
“And the rest, as they say, is history.” Maya leaned back in a virtual chair and took a drag on a virtual pipe, creating impossible shapes with the smoke that dribbled out of her mouth. “I had a good thing going with Bill’s group, and of course we had a lot of tests to run after the transfer – a lot of ways to streamline the process. We were so close to getting it perfect when we heard of the virus. Of course, we realized that our Soul Transference was the only chance life on Gaia had of continuing. I’m sure you both faced your share of chaos and fear during those troubling times, but believe me when I say that you have no idea how difficult it was to be on the other end of that situation. We were all running around like chickens with our heads cut off (metaphorically speaking in my case, of course), frantically trying to get everyone on the planet transferred before they were swallowed up. Obviously, the city-ship couldn’t even come close to servicing the entire globe, so we did our best to get the specifications of the transfer process out to as many people as possible and hope they could fend for themselves. You all know that we were more successful than we could realistically have hoped for. Billions of souls were saved, from all walks of life: humans, dolphins, cats, dogs, monkeys, anyone who could get to the transfer centers. But …” Maya’s voice cracked as she remembered, “trillions more didn’t make it. I didn’t work in one of the land-based centers, so we didn’t have the rioters bodily throwing themselves at the gates like they did, but we did have swimmers: poor bastards using their last strength to drag themselves up the superstructure only to disintegrate into their component elements as the virus finally caught up with them. The dolphins had integrated a lot of biotech into their ship, so of course we lost that too. In the end, the poor thing barely limped along, huge pieces of her simply missing. They finally got her back together again, but by that time I couldn’t stand to be there anymore – too much pain and misery. So, I executed my signature move: I ran away. It wasn’t easy without a proper body, but – believe it or not – I really am a people person and I’ve always found a way to get the help I need. I spent the succeeding years scraping by. I worked legitimate CyberNet jobs when I could find them, and hacked and stole when I couldn’t. I never heard directly from Bill again, but a few years ago, I started seeing strange things on the ‘Net: little easter eggs in some of the lesser known sites I frequented, and strange objects, images, and words which kept popping up on my own nodes. You don’t mess with my nodes without some serious chops, and I had to know who was behind it all. I put my own considerable skills to the task, and though I could never track down where the easter eggs were coming from, I started putting them together and treating them as a puzzle. As I did so, I became more and more convinced that they were some sort of message to me. Bill was always a huge fan of puzzles, and he was a damn sight smarter than I ever will be. So, when I could not figure it out, I also became convinced that the message was from him. I figured he must be trapped somehow if he was resorting to such esoteric means of communication, and it became my personal obsession to figure out what happened and track him down. I followed clues all over the planet. Every time I thought I had gotten close, I ran into a dead-end. It was so frustrating! Eventually, I was quite certain I was very close – he had to be somewhere in North-Eastern Asia. The band I was running with at the time lived very close to the edge – we were constantly running low on power cells and the materials necessary for everyday repairs. So, over my protests, we stopped in Japan to do a little scavenging – similar to what you were doing, I suppose. Boy what a hell-hole that place is. I remember it before the Catastrophe: a bright shining beacon of a city that was always ahead of its time. Of course, with all the organic material – I’m talking about people here – mixed in with those soaring towers of metal and glass, combined with the volcanic and tectonic activity that has always plagued that small area of the world, Japan was the hardest hit in the Catastrophe. There were countless explosions triggered by the sudden masses of hydrogen released as the virus broke the organic compounds into their component atoms. Those explosions – occurring on top of fault lines and volcanic fields as they did – triggered massive earthquakes and eruptions that were rarely matched elsewhere on the planet. Seeing the horrific wasteland that country has become always throws me for a loop, and that instance was no exception. That’s not an excuse, but I definitely was not at the top of my game when the bandits hit us. We were much farther south than you were, but they still spotted us and attacked. Of course we fought bravely, but we were no match for their firepower. Those they could subdue, they did, and the rest they annihilated. I was one of the former. I have found that the absence of a full physical body has focused my energies in the virtual world wonderfully, and I am not exaggerating or bragging when I say you’ll be very hard-pressed to find a hacker better than me. But, it also leaves me with a pretty significant, and obvious, handicap. So, the bandits had no difficulty capturing and detaining me. As soon as they realized what I was, they put me to work – always restricting me to the local ‘Net, and always, always under the threat of terrible pain delivered directly to my physical body, or destruction of that same. It was horrible.”
Maya took a deep, shuddering breath, the hologram of her old story-teller avatar shivering slightly as she brought herself back under control. “But I am nothing, if not resilient, and I promised myself early on that, though I would cooperate to gain their trust, I would never, ever let them break me. So, I did their dirty work. I broke prisoners, like you Musashi. I hacked the systems of travelers that came through for information. I did anything those dirty bastards asked of me. They never truly trusted me, as I feared they wouldn’t, but they did loosen their death-grip on me just enough to allow me to realize that I was even more restricted in my movements within the local CyberNet than I had previously suspected. I began to suspect that there was much more to this bandit group than met the eye. Looking back, I suppose I should have guessed sooner, seeing how far their reach over Japan extended. They have resources you wouldn’t believe. When I gained that all-important micron of freedom, I used it to explore the local ‘net. I was so cautious, it took me months to find anything at all beyond the inconsistencies that had first piqued my curiosity. I still don’t know all that’s going on in that place, but I do know that there’s an entire separate base under the one we escaped from today. I couldn’t find much information about what’s happening in that secret area, but it must be incredibly important. The bandits patrol and raid Japan, but they don’t get their supplies there. They are well supplied from some outside source, and to me that says serious money and power are invested in whatever is going on down there. I know I’ve been wrong before – oh so many times I’ve been wrong! But this time I just know I’ve got it. I feel it in my … well, in my gut. I know that Bill is down in that secret base. He’s trapped, just like I was, but even as a prisoner, I know he’s doing something wonderful, something that will change the world forever. That’s why I must beg you for your help, that’s why we must find some way to infiltrate that place, figure out what Bill is doing there, and – if at all possible – rescue him and his research so the rest of the world will know about it too!” Maya’s avatar had stood up and become more and more heated over the past couple minutes. At these last words, she raised her arms toward heaven as if she were some sort of prophet, and just stood there, taking in great heaving breaths. The rest of the company just stared – completely stunned by the sudden ferocity of their story-teller.