Chapter 18

I am warm.  I am comfortable.  The air is thick and rich and I breathe it like a lamb drinks her mother’s milk.  I feel life filling me; it is joyous.  I’m smiling.  I crack open my eyes.  I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing but that’s OK—I am comfortable.  Nothing hurts and I can breathe.  Everything is quiet too.  It’s wonderful being dead.  If I had known what death was like, I would have died long ago.  At least I’m here now.

I pull my head up to see.  The pillow behind me helps by pushing gently.  Nice touch.  Everything is shades of red; the walls before me and to each side, the ceiling.  The floor is obscured by a thick carpet of moving red dust.  But there is soft light and it is warm.  Yes, I am comfortable.  My nose itches so I scratch it.  I scratch it with my right hand…no gloves.  How about that.  And I am not wearing a helmet.

I have no helmet!  I sit up in a panic.  My helmet is on a shelf to my right, along with my gloves, neatly stacked one on the other.  For a moment I’m not sure…wait, I’m dead, why do I even need a helmet?  And yet my helmet is here with me.  Did I take it with me into the afterlife?  No, that don’t make sense.  None of this makes any sense.  Why is all this hardware here?

But I can breathe.  I check my wristy (guess I took my wristy into the afterlife too); my oxygen is at 42 percent and climbing.  How?  I twist around to look at the side of my backpack, where the oxygen connector is.  There is a hose attached to it.  I touch the hose and feel the subtle vibration of fluid moving inside it.  The hose is filling my tanks.  But looking more closely, it’s a crazy kind of hose.  It comes directly from the floor below me, and looks to be made out of the same reddish material that comprises the entire room.  And there ain’t no metal hose connector; the hose just overlaps the oxygen port on my backpack—as if it just reached up and swallowed the port—while pumping high pressure gas.  Even the most expensive metamaterials can’t do that.

I must be inside the Kestrel.  Nifty Jim’s pirates must have found me and taken me back.  The drone reported my position.  I already know they got technology we don’t have.  Maybe I can make a break for it while they think I’m still unconscious.  But just when I think I got it all figured out, I spy something else.

The shelf on my right has a protrusion, like a tall bump, or a thumb.  Too big for a thumb, but that’s the shape.  It’s that same dark red color as the room.  This thumb has eyes.  At least they look like eyes.  Silvery, crystalline eyes—two of them.  Like the eyes the monster in my dream had, if it was a dream.  If there was a monster.  There was a drone, of that I’m sure.  I turn over on my side to face the thumb.  The eyes on it move a little to keep me in sight.  They’re staring at me.  It’s alive.  Maybe I should be afraid, but I’m not.  The little thumb ain’t threatening.  In fact, it’s kind of like…kind of cute.  “Hello?” I say to the thumb.

Ciao Straker,” comes the reply.  The sound ain’t coming from the thumbish thing.  It’s coming from…everywhere.  From the walls.

“Who’s there?” I ask, looking around for the voice.

“It is me, Sophia.  I see that you have awakened.”

“Sophia?  You found me here?”

“It is you who have found me.”

I know I ain’t hallucinating no more.  I’m lounging on some kind of couch which is made of the same red stuff that covers the walls and watches me from a thumb.  I touch the couch with my hands and it is smooth and yielding, just as I felt earlier on the walls in the tunnel.  I can smell the rich air that surrounds me and its slightly electric aroma; I sense all the little details of existence that convince me I’m not dreaming.  Or dead.  But that means that this is all real, but it can’t be.  In any case, I’m real glad to hear from Sophia again.  So I tell her.  “I’m glad to hear from you,” I say.

“Are you sure?” she asks, with a touch of frost in her voice.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I say.  “I’m sure.  I was a jerk.  None of this is your fault.  I’m sorry.”

She takes her sweet time but eventually replies, “I forgive you.”

That’s the best thing I’ve heard in a long time, so I tell her that too.  Then I ask, “Where am I?”

“You are where I told you not to go, naughty boy,” she says.  “And now you will carry the burden of unneeded knowledge.”

“Knowledge?  All I know is that I’m in a big red room…how did I get here?”

“This is where you fell.  We constructed the chamber around you.”

“Really?  I’m surrounded by this…weird kinda red stuff…and I’m being watched by a big thumb with eyes.”

“A thumb?” she chuckles.  “Oh, that is funny.  That’s why we like you so much.  You bring us a fresh perspective on things.  That makes us happy.”

“Well, that’s good, I reckon.  But this thumb thing has eyes that look kinda like…well, there was a monster, I think.”

“Yes, there was a monster.  I’m sorry.  I was only trying to scare you away for your own good.”

“Wait…you sent the monster?”

“Well it would never have hurt you, Straker.  It was merely a construct of the materia, like the thumb you see, and everything around you.”

“Materia?” I ask.  Never heard of it.

“I am translating words, of course.  Materia is the best word I can find for it—for the physical part of our being.”

“Materia is the red stuff?  Is it a mineral or what?”

“Oh no, materia is…it’s like a machine.  Or perhaps, more properly, ‘machines’.  This is difficult to explain.  Think of a device no bigger than the smallest cell in your body.  This device can manage energy, it can hold information, and it can communicate with and bind to other machines of its kind.  Now imagine billions of trillions of these machines, enough to fill a cave.  Enough to comprise part of Hrothgar’s interior and surface.  Think of them as individual neurons forming a cortex.”

“Really? And you control this stuff?”

“In a manner of speaking.  I know it must seem strange to you.”

“Yup.  Hard to figure.”

“Honestly, it is a machine.  It’s a very wonderful, a very ancient and brilliant machine.  It can take any form, or any color, it can think.  It can make judgements just as you or I might.  It is alive.”

I think for a minute, trying to imagine all the implications of such a machine.  “Can it hide in space?” I ask.  I’ve been wondering why we were never able find the source of Sophia’s transmissions.

“It can hide anywhere.  It’s all just a matter of light and dark, color and texture.  It can absorb light, it can absorb radio waves, it’s wonderful!”

I nod my head.  If her materia can do what she says, that explains why we couldn’t find it.  And although it seems fantastical, after all I’ve seen I’ll believe most anything.  But I got the feeling that I’ve just scratched the surface.  I have a million questions.  “And you?” I ask, “You, Sophia…where are you?”

“I am here, with you,” she replies.

“But where?  In another room?  In the walls?”

Silence.  For a minute I’m afraid that she’s going to get mysterious again, but she eventually answers.  “Straker, are you sure you want to know?”

“Hell yea, I’m certain.  You been driving me crazy for months.  You drove Dr. Kapoor crazy, and his wife crazy, and Katya crazy.  A little truthsomeness is in order here.”

“All right then.  This is not easy for me.  I am…embarrassed.”

“What?  Just tell me.”

“You’ll think it’s strange.  You’ll think that I am strange.”

“I won’t.  I swear.”

Another pause, then she speaks.  “All right.  When there is enough materia in one place, it can host a personality.  I am a personality.  That is how I exist.  I live within the materia—in the sense that my mind exists here.”

I shake my head, still not getting it.  “Your mind?” I ask.  “But where are you?  You the person?”

“The materia is my body.  The materia is my home. I share it with the intelligence that is native to the materia. I call him Structure.  We are partners.  Structure rarely speaks, but it is he who watches you.”  I look over at the thumb.  It stays mute, but its shiny eyes blink at me.  The upper part, the head, tilts a little in an inquisitive bit of body language.

“I was once like you,” she continues, “I had a physical body, just as you do.  It didn’t look like yours, of course, but I could see the sky and breathe and touch and feel and I had all the emotions and difficulties of a living thing, just like you.  All intelligent beings have these things in common.”

“So you were an alien?” I ask.  “From another planet, not human?”

“Excuse me, but you’re the alien here.”

Fair enough.  “But now you’re living in the materia?” I ask.

“I uploaded, as you might say.  Every person of my race wants to explore.  It is our way.  If so honored, some of us get the opportunity to do so.  We travel to distant stars to gather knowledge, stars that take a thousand years to reach, and we do it in the only way possible for living things; we join with a machine.”

I shake my head.  “Really? Are you…comfortable in there?”

She chuckles.  “Oh yes.  It’s quite nice, once you’re past the upload.”

“What was it like?  To upload?”

“Oh, that part was terrible.  It was traumatic. It was a big change to everything I was used to, even my own body—I just can’t really describe it.  But I trained for it and knew what to expect.  That was a very long time ago.  Now it’s all I know.”

I have to cogitate on this for a while.  After what I’ve seen and been through, I have to admit that a mind living within a big reservoir of red putty makes as much sense as anything else I could come up with.  I think hard about the implications of such a strange way of living.  “What happens to your body when you do that?” I ask.  “Does it go on to lead a normal life, once your mind was copied into the materia?”

“Oh, no,” she replies, as if shocked by the thought.  “My mind is not a copy.  There is no living on; the body dies.  Even if we could do it, it would be immoral to allow more than one of the same mind to exist.  To my people, that would be unspeakable.”

I shrug.  “Oh.  Sorry.  Didn’t mean to offend you.”

“I know,” she replies, a sweet lilt in her voice.  “I can only imagine how this must sound to you.  As for me, it’s the first time I’ve ever tried to explain it.  On my planet, we all grew up understanding this.”

“It’s just so far out, so…”  I start to say ‘weird’ but catch myself.  She’s obviously self-conscious about it with me.  “It was easier for me to believe that you were conning me, but for what reason I could never figure.  You’ve been kind to me.  You saved my life.  I’m trying to believe.”

“Yes.  Such a big gap to span, and so quickly.  I tried to avoid this, but you have a way of opening closed doors.”  We sit in silence for a moment, only the flow of gas into my tanks making a sound.  Then she speaks again.  “Would it help if I came to you?”

“Came to me?  Ain’t you here already?”

“I can be closer.”

Closer?  That sets me aback for a second, not sure what to make of it—but in my gut I just trust her.  “Uh…sure,” I say, not knowing what else to say.  “Yes, if there is a way, I would like to meet you.  After all this time.”

“All right,” she says, with the hint of a lilt in her voice.  “I’ve got something I can try.  I’ve thought about it and I think I can do it.  I only hope it doesn’t upset you more.”

Within seconds, the red ground dust about three meters to my left begins to rotate like a small whirlpool.  In the center of the swirl, a vertical column of materia forms.  The column grows majestically, twisting and thickening and rising higher and higher as the dust around it churns and sparks with flashes of static electricity.  I swing my legs over and sit up on the couch.  I can’t stand up; the hose filling my oxygen holds me back, and for the first time I notice another slender tongue of materia attached to my electrical connector.  It is charging my batteries too I guess.

The red sprout of materia is now over a meter high and still rising.  Two crystalline eyes develop, looking like a larger, writhing version of the thumb that’s been watching me.  A horizontal slit opens below the eyes and a protrusion pops out where a nose would be.  It is a face, rounded and crude, like something formed from clay, but churning and changing and defining itself as I watch.  It is a strange and creepy sight.  I’m feeling apprehensive but also curious.  Then I remind myself: she did save my life; why would she harm me now?  The mass grows larger.  Shoulders appear, the bump splits into three sections, which become arms and a trunk, a feminine bulge in the chest.  I can make out hips, lumps for hands, and another split divides into legs as the red accumulation rises and rises, then levels off.

I am mesmerized as it starts to take human form. It’s like seeing complex pieces taking shape in the big printers back home, or like an invisible artist sculpting a woman’s body.  But there is no printer, no artist; the slithering red goo is forming itself, and it’s happening quickly.  A gummy person stands before me now, her skin pulsating, forming, filling out, as the bones and muscle beneath the skin form their delicate joints and contours.  A broad flap of materia behind the head separates and lifts and splits, then those halves split and resection recursively over and over, each split finer than the one before, twisting furiously like a tangle of tiny snakes, the snakes becoming worms, the worms becoming threads, hovering up and over her head as if blown by a hurricane wind from below.

The doughy woman-thing holds her still forming hands to her face. The crystalline eyes blink and study the hands in fascination.  The writhing tangle above her head falls gently down to her shoulders in fine, straight, reddish hairs and is still, just as the face solidifies to a form that is distinctly familiar, human, and female.  All at once, a wave of color sweeps over her entire body, starting at the head and rippling downward, pink mocha flesh for the skin, dark brown for the hair, light pink for her nipples.

She is fully formed and completely naked.  Only her eyes betray her strange nature: they are still silver colored.  She takes two steps in the red dust, her delicate feet making a quiet tearing sound as they break away from the floor.  She walks to the nearest wall.  The wall instantly transforms into a shimmering, full length mirror.  The woman admires herself, turning left and right, primping her hair, smiling a broad smile with brilliantly white teeth.  She turns to me and sees my stare.  Her eyelids pop up in alarm; she crosses her arms over her breasts.  “Structure, clothing please!  He is just a boy!”

A new wave of liquid materia plunges up from below, sweeping over her skin, twisting and bubbling around her shoulders and arms, coalescing into a simple sundress.  The dress turns canary yellow before my eyes.  “And makeup, please.  And the eyes should be brown, like my exemplar.”  Within seconds, her eyes acquire a distinctively dark, catlike eyeshadow and mascara of her namesake, her irises turn brown, her supple lips turn ruby red and her almond-shaped fingernails turn red to match.

She is complete.  The red ground dust flows away, right and left, as when Moses parted the Red Sea.  There, smiling and standing in this strange red room millions of kilometers from Earth, a young Sophia Conti stands before me, a composite of a dozen period movies, looking every bit the 1960’s Hollywood movie star.  It was creepy to watch, but now that the transformation is complete, I am transfixed.  She is dazzling; the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.  “You see why I picked Sophia, è d’accordo?” she asks with a playful smile, her voice musical, and coming from her mouth, not the walls.

“Um, uh…wow.  Nothing else to say, just wow.”

“Yes, yes I do love being a woman,” she says, primping her hair, touching her own skin, turning this way and that, admiring her own image in the mirror.  “I love these hands,” she says, “so delicate, so capable, and so many fingers to choose from!  I love the fact that the human moves about on only two legs.  This is like magic to me!  And with bones inside the body; so elegant, so practical!”

“Um,” I say, glancing at my own dirty, scarred hands, then hiding them under my thighs.

Sophia looks down and studies her feet.  “Toes are kind of ridiculous, though.”

She’s right.  What the hell do toes do anyways.  “We all have them,” I say.

She looks at me and smiles broadly.  She walks over and sits next to me.  “You still have a little time until your oxygen is full, yes?”

With effort, I pry my eyes off of her to check my wristy.  “I’m up to 70 percent,” I say.

“Hmm, yes, it’s not very fast I’m afraid.  We have to make the oxygen for you from water, and there is not so much water on this asteroid.  But you’ll be full soon.  I will keep you company until then.”

A part of me ain’t anxious to be getting on.  It sounds strange but I really like being here with Sophia; it’s not her looks—I can’t forget that her body is artificial—it’s how she treats me.  It’s nice being here with her.  She’s a friend.  A freakish, alien, dangerous, beautiful, sexy, loving friend.  But I remember that the captain and Katya and Louis need my help, and the other part of me wants to go to them as quick as I can.  Who knows what Gristle and the other goons are doing to them, even as I sit here with her.  But I can’t leave yet.  This is a first-contact situation—she’s an alien intelligence and I’m the first one ever to talk to her.  I should learn as much as I can from this woman.  For science.

“Can I ask you a question?” I say.  “Why did you start talking to me?  Why me?”

“Ah,” she says, laying her head on my shoulder, and speaking in a whisper, “I was lonely.  The galaxy is vast.  There is much emptiness out there.  I’ve been here with Structure for so long, so very long; watching, analyzing, recording.  He is a good companion but where is the friendship?  Where is the laughter?”

She looks over at the materia thumb; it looks back at her.  “Structure is ancient and wonderful. But he is a machine.  He does not know what it’s like to love or hate, or feel an itch, or to feel small in a big universe.  I was lonely.   I had…given up.  I’m not proud of this.  I slept for a very, very long time.  But Structure never sleeps.  When he heard your song, he awakened me.”

“My song?  But it must seem so, so strange to you.”

“Not at all.  Loneliness, pain, love…these things are universal.  I heard your pain.  Your pain gave me life.  There was someone like me.  I was no longer alone.”

It’s funny but I know how she feels.  I’ve always been the odd one at Shacktown.  In her way, she’s an outcast too.   “I think you’re the first person to ever like me.”

“Oh Straker.  You push people away.  You’re afraid of being disappointed; I have been watching.  How can you ask others to like you when you don’t like yourself?”

I’ve heard preachers say things a lot like that, now here’s an alien telling me to love myself.  But I ain’t the only one.  “I think my people have some of the same problem,” I say.  “Everybody in Shacktown seems angry all the time.”

“This does not surprise me,” she says.  “Your race is just beginning the long journey to a much larger existence.  It will change you, just as it changed us.  But the hardest part is spiritual, not technical.”

I think on that.  We are silent for a little while. The strangeness of the moment melts away in the quiet. She looks at me with a gentle smile in her eyes.  It makes me feel warm inside.  She curls up in a ball next to me, her delicate feet tucked under her.  For a while we just sit there together in silence.  It’s peaceful, here with her, with only the swooshing sound of the gas filling my tanks to counterpoint the quiet.  How I wish she were human, and we were together on Luna, and everybody was at peace.  “This is so nice,” I say.  “I wish I could stay longer.”

“Yes, yes, but you must go as soon as your tanks are full.  Your friends need you.”

“I’m not sure they are my friends.  I betrayed them.  I helped bring the bad guys to us.  What a dumbass I’ve been.  I thought I was gonna have a new life, but I don’t even want to go to Malapert no more, now that I know what they are really like.  I don’t know what to do.”

“You should go back to your home in Shackleton,” she says.

“They hate me there,” I reply.  “Ever since my father scammed the whole town and took all their money.  They think that I’m somehow a part of that.  But he abandoned me too!”

“That’s not true,” she says.

I start to retort, but stop myself.  What’s not true?  Is she trying to be nice?  I look down, feeling the anger rising again, after all these years.  The betrayal. I thought I was done with all that.  I thought I had become hardened.  I am embarrassed for Sophia to see me this way, to see all the frailness and problems that are part of being human.  But she somehow brings it out of me.

“You still wear his bracelet,” she whispers.  “You could have disposed of it but you didn’t—and after all you have been through.  That says something about you.”  She reaches down and touches it, lifting the weight of it from my wrist.

“He gave it to me,” I say.  “I should have trashed it long ago.  But they made it from the metal of the first stroid mined by the Consortium.  It’s steel—first solid asteroid steel.  It’s historical.  I just couldn’t throw it away.”

“It’s not solid,” she says.

“What?  Of course it’s solid.  Just feel how heavy it is.”

She sighs.  She turns and looks at me with her eyebrows pushed close together, her lips curling to a frown.  She looks sad or afraid for some reason.  “Straker,” she whispers, “there’s something I think I should tell you.  I haven’t told you this yet because I don’t want to add to your pain, but…”  She stops and looks down.

I tilt my head.  She’s holding back something back.  “What?” I ask.  “What is it?  Tell me!”

“Oh,” she sighs.  “Oh Straker…your father is dead.  He was killed.”

I stop.  I take a breath.  “What?” I ask, incredulous.

“He is dead, Straker.  There is a small spot—it’s between Haworth and Shoemaker craters.  The spot is off all by itself, where the regolith is darker than it should be.  This is where the dust has been disturbed.  The disturbance is not from mining.”  She pauses again.

“Go on,” I say, trying to sound calm so that she will continue.  “Please.”

She looks at me sadly, then nods.  “You can see it in satellite pictures.  I have looked at all of them, going back many years. There are old rover tracks in the regolith between that spot and the main airlock at Malapert.  The tracks first appeared on the day your father left.  The disturbed area appeared on the same day.  It hasn’t been touched since.”

“Are you saying…” I start, but my voice catches.

“You will find your father there,” she says.

I am shaking.  “But the travel records, the videos of him boarding the flight to Earth, the records, the investigation…”

“All fake, Straker.  All fake.  It was an impersonator in those videos.  Whoever he was, he used makeup and prosthetics to look like your father.  But he was slightly shorter, and his walking gait was very different.  Go get the videos and see for yourself.  I don’t think your law men tried very hard to find the truth.”

I feel the blood drain from my face.  I can’t believe her…I mean I don’t want to believe her, but in my gut I know instantly that it’s true.  I want to scream No!  I want to rip off my suit and slam my head against the rocks.  But the violent feeling passes quickly.  I feel a darkness pass out of me as a new realization hits me.  He never left me.  In my heart had I harbored a fantasy of finding him and confronting him and killing him myself.  Now everything is different.  He was killed.  I was so, so wrong.  So horribly wrong.  I am ashamed.

Sophia is watching me intently.  She kisses me sadly on the cheek.  “I am sorry Straker,” she whispers, “I hope it was right to tell you.”

I am weeping.  Sophia touches my cheek.  A tear falls to the tip of her finger.  She holds the finger close to her eyes and studies the tear, fascinated.  The fluid soaks into her skin.  She closes her eyes in concentration.  “I hope…I believe your life will be better now.”

I wipe my face with the back of my hand.  I nod.  The truth has set me free.  Pops never left me.  He was taken.  He loved me right up to the end of his life.  He was my dad and I am his son.  Everything is different now.  Everything is clear.

My wristy makes a little bell tone.  My tanks are full.  “It’s time,” I whisper.

Sophia stands solemnly and smooths her dress.  She looks at me with concern.  “Will you be all right?” she asks.

“I think so,” I say.  “Yes, I know I’ll be OK.  I’m a lot better now.  Thank you.  But I gotta go and there’s fighting to be done.  I’m just a lunie.  I ain’t as strong as that freak from Earth.”

“As long as you are near the materia, Structure will help you.”

That’s a surprise.  “Really?  He will help me?”

“Of course!”

“Isn’t that against the prime directive or something?”

She chuckles.  “I caught that, a cultural reference!  No, silly, there is no prime directive.  We make judgements, we make choices.  That’s what makes it all so hard.  But we like you.”

I shake my head.  “Thanks, but there is no materia on the other side of the asteroid where the ships are.  I need a weapon.”

“Yes, yes you do.  I have no gun to give you, but Structure will come with you, if you will let him.”  I look down at the putty thumb.  It’s looking back at me, with an expression as earnest as I figure a little thumb can manage.  I don’t know what good it will do to bring it along, but I need all the help I can get.

I reach my left hand down to touch it.  It does not resist me.  “OK,” I say.  And with that, the thumb responds by forming into something like a long bendy pencil.  It wraps itself around my wrist and slithers up my arm.  It’s a strange feeling but I hold my arm steady.  The putty coils around my wristy, covering it in a fine red film.  The two little eyes disappear, and the mass changes color, refining its shape, until it takes on the metallic appearance of the wristy, complete with buttons and display.  It’s a little bigger than a normal wristy but they’re not all the same size anyways.  “That’s very clever,” I say, with a chuckle.

“Oh, you have no idea,” replies Sophia.  “You will find Structure to be indispensable.  And your friends will never know he’s there.”

The conversation lags for a moment.  Neither one of us wants to say the inevitable.  I’m sure I’ll never see her again.  But it’s time.  “I guess I better go,” I say, reluctantly.  The oxygen hose falls away from my backpack with a hiss and a bust of vapor, then it is quiet.  The electrical cable detaches itself and falls away.  I stand and embrace Sophia.  The animal part of me enjoys the embrace a little too much.  She sure as hell feels human, but this ain’t the time.  “Thank you,” I say, and I mean it.  “That’s the best thing anybody has ever done for me.  Thank you.  I’ll never forget you.”

“Nor I you,” she replies, hugging me back.  We stand there, frozen, for a brief moment.  I hug her tighter, then step back.  She closes her eyes and clasps her hands together as if to pray.  “I wish the best for you.”  She smiles sheepishly and steps back.  Her body slowly absorbs into the wall.  She watches me the whole time, holding up her hand in reluctant farewell, until she is gone.  In her voice, the walls whisper one last time: “Ciao, mio amore.”

Again, I am alone.