This story was written by Josh Friedman, alias JoshNH4H. It is licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND ( Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives). You may contact me if you would like an exception. Without further adu:



The door was open. Outside, there was a haze. It was foggy, and looked like rain. Summer had passed and winter was fast approaching. As the days got shorter and darkness began to prevail, Ardeka felt more and more as if she was trapped within the confines of a life from which she would never escape. 'This was never supposed to happen,' she thought. 'I should not be here.'

She had been stuck forever, it seemed, stuck in her pointless existence, with no hope and no companions. There was not a soul in this world or any other who could help her. 'Not that anyone would want to,' she reflected with distress. It was warmer outside than it had been for a long time, but it was still cold. 'I still have one way out.' The thought popped into her head, unbidden. She couldn't. She shouldn't. Should she?

Ardeka arose and shut the door. She looked out the sitting room window for a few seconds, out into the foreboding gloom. Before long, her eyes had refocused and she was seeing her reflection in the glass. She looked away. Ardeka hated how she looked. She hated her blonde hair; she hated her brown eyes flecked with green. She hated her small angular nose, her white teeth, and her light skin. She hated everything about herself, those parts which she hadn’t seen every bit as much as those parts which she had.

Her gaze eventually slid down to one of the pencil drawings sitting on the window's ledge. It was a human face. He was a young man of perhaps twenty-five years. His hair was moderately long, and life hadn't yet wiped the look of innocence off his face. That innocence shone through even on the spidery lines of graphite

“I probably just didn't close door properly. I'm so forgetful.” Kalan just kept looking up at her out of the drawing. “It's all pointless anyway.”

She left the sitting room. Ardeka was done with the day, even if was still only evening. She had no doubt that come tomorrow she would be stuck back in the confines of its annoying yellow walls and worn out furniture. She walked through the kitchen up the steps to her room. It was cold in there as always. Before lying down to sleep, she pulled out a piece of paper and started to draw. She started with just a few lines, but these flowed across the paper until before her lay a steamy jungle filled with life and mystery. Unseen below the trees, Ardeka imagined the snakes and the other nasty creatures that were surely preying on the elegance that had unfolded across the paper.

“But that's not for the drawing”' she mumbled. “I'll leave it as a happy place.” She lay down to sleep feeling almost okay, but her sleep itself was filled with nightmares.



Djaike fired the lateral thrusters in his tertiary commsat. Normally this insignificant operation would be something that he delegated to a minor subroutine, but this was important and it needed to be done correctly. He had volunteered because this would make him one of the most important nodes of the Mercea system's information network. He would have direct access to much of the information about one of the most interesting things that they had found. They had recently discovered naturally occurring, self-replicating chemicals on the second moon of the third planet. Some said it was life.

Others said that, because it clearly was not able to properly communicate with and sense the outside universe, it was just more inert matter. Chemically interesting, but not life-changingly so, and certainly not worth abridging the mission for. Djaike didn't have much of an opinion, but there was going to be a lot of information flowing to and from that moon’s Hill Sphere, and he wanted it to be routed through him. To beings who lived their lives on quantum-molecular computers, information was everything. In any case, people talked about it everywhere. Within a week, they had gone from calling the moon by its systematic name, Mercea IIIb, to the colloquialized Threeb.

The 34.1 second firing was complete, so Djaike diverted most of his attention elsewhere. It looked like there was a good deal of data coming from one of the tenuous rings surrounding Mercea III, but it was on a 4.7 second lag, all the way on the other side of the planet and routed through two nodes. He copied himself over to the ring's primary server and joined the conversation.

“We don't have time to explore Threeb; we have a schedule to stick to. If everything's going according to plan they've already started to send instantiations from the Sol system and we don't even have our receivers fully up yet.” It was Edal. She had uncovered a good deal of information from the years of the Internet, back when people were mostly water instead of semi-organic carbon circuits. She was one of the de facto leaders of the expedition, due largely to her hard-headed perseverance. Her avatar was dark-skinned with dark hair. At the moment she presented herself in ships-wear, one of the uniforms which everyone had downloaded at the outset of the mission. It was khaki colored with a picture of the Earth orbiting a Red Dwarf on the upper left. “We have a mission to achieve, after all.” The insignia flashed momentarily, a manipulation on her part to emphasize her words.

“What's wrong with you? By your definitions the bio-humans who weren’t so different from us weren't even alive! This might be one of the most important discoveries in the history of intelligent life!” Right after saying that, Ammien noticed that Djaike had just entered the server. He copied his avatar, and the new one shrunk down from at least four meters to a little under two. “Oh hi Djaike, what's going on?” In the background of the general interpersonal connection, Djaike heard him argue that they had plenty of time to get the receivers up, Earth was 15 light years away and this discovery was pivotal. Besides, if that was so very important she was perfectly free to get on it, he was sure her nanoreps were up to the job.

“Hi Ammien. How’s it been going?”

“It was going pretty well up until we finally got around to droning the moons of Mercea III. A, c, and d were no problem but b’s dragging in people from just about every project in-system.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I just ported over from sending one of my commsats into orbit around III; I’m already getting data sent through it even though it’s not aligned properly.”

“I heard someone saying that we might actually have a net failure. I doubt it though.” His avatar shimmered for a moment. That was a notification that he was re-allocating the computational power away from this instantiation to others. It sounded like his argument with Edal was getting to be very intense, so he probably wanted to focus more on that.

“Looks like you’re pretty busy. I’ll leave you alone so you can have at it with Edal.”

“Seems like you still know me pretty well. I’ll talk to you later.” His avatar blinked away, and the interpersonal chat merged back into the server's primary setting. Djaike and Ammien had been friends for a long time, since before they had been beamed from Earth to the colony ship. They had briefly partnered after they arrived in system, but that hadn’t worked out and Ammien always seemed to be talking to other people since then.
In any case, his commsat was nearly through with its Hohmann orbit and it was time for another firing. Confident that it would go well, he split off a subroutine. Four hours later the satellite was in a circular orbit and was the primary node for information going to Threeb from any of the other moons.



Ardeka woke up the next morning feeling no better than she had the night before. It was always the same. There was really no escape, no matter how much she wanted one. She would be stuck being her miserable self for the rest of time. It was a Tuesday, so she had to go to work. ‘God this is pointless,’ she thought. ‘Working this silly, stupid job day after day after day with no hope and no future and no friends and oh even if there were a god they would have no salvation for me.’

But she had to go. So she did. Already feeling horrible, she got out of bed. Hating herself, she got dressed, brushed her hair, and skipped breakfast. Hoping to be struck down by lightning, she walked for a few minutes to her uninspiring, bland office building where she would shuffle papers for eight hours before returning to her house to do nothing.

She walked in the door. The security guard nodded to her, as always, then turned around to do something else. She walked over to the elevator. She pressed the button for the fourth floor. The door opened. She got in. It closed. ‘It’s like there’s nothing outside this elevator’ she thought. And there wasn’t. The elevator was fake too. This whole world was fake. ‘But I still have to keep going.’ Keep going she did. The elevator got to her floor, the door opened, and she got off.

The office was the same as it always was. She worked for the accounting division of a company that shipped appliances from wholesalers to stores. Every week was the same: Analyze last week’s statistics, make a weekly report, and write down the statistics from this week to analyze next week. Every week she would send up the report to some anonymous upper management. For all she knew, they could just throw it in the trash as soon as they got it, but it didn’t matter because as soon as it was sent she had to move on to next week’s report.

As she walked past her co-worker’s desks, she said hello to each of them. They said hello back, and then returned to typing furiously on their typewriters. She sat down in her worn out chair and took a look at the files that some unseen courier had dropped on her desk today.

“I should have been able to do better than this. This is probably the worst job I could have made for myself.” But there was no other way. No better jobs. No better life for her to live.
The day wore on. It didn’t get any better. Only worse. Things only ever got worse. Things were actually pretty okay before Kalan. Don’t Euphemize, she thought. Before I abandoned Kalan and left him to die alone. All those years ago. She would never be free of the burden that was weighing her down. It would be with her forever, eating at her soul. She wanted to cry, wanted to die. Stuck in her crowded office, she did neither only because of all the people who would see.



There was going to be a party, starting at the astronomically interesting moment when Mercea Primary, Mercea III, and Mercea IIIa and IIIb all came together in a line. It had been 550 million seconds, almost 20 SSE years, since they had arrived in-system. This was a major milestone, because from now on they had to succeed. Instantiations, consisting of everything between primary consciousnesses and tertiary subroutines, had already been sent out, at about R=516 million seconds. They would get there at R=1 billion seconds exactly, and if the systems weren't up by the time they got here they would be lost.

Perhaps it was irrelevant. After all, the instantiations’ fates had been sealed the second Centrifugal A sent off the message that they had successfully established themselves in the Mercea system. It was difficult to co-ordinate anything over 15 light-years, after all, much less a settlement enterprise. Still, the knowledge that there were lives in the void depending on their success pressed hard on everyone's consciousnesses. There was nothing better to do, of course, than party. So they did.

Edal and Lemelia had organized it. They always did a good job, and it was sure that Edal would be working especially hard on this one. She wanted to remind people that they had a schedule to keep up. Edal wasn't a bad person, just hard-headed at times. Djaike ported over to the party's server, which was on one of the larger rocks that made up Mercea III's tenuous ring system. The party was in a very high capacity server buried a few meters under the surface. The asteroid was littered with high-precision physical manipulators and nanoreps for people to use as they wished, later in the night.

The Common Server Setting was like nothing that existed in the physical world. The infotag said that there were holes in space which were modeled by a three-dimensional tetrahedral Conway game running at 2.5 Hertz, with space itself lit with stars orbiting the holes in trajectories based on Kepler's rarely used laws of orbital motion. As Djaike walked through the starry, swirling, snaking, glowing CSS, he was completely focused on the things around him, to the exclusion of all else. Edal and Lemelia had done very well.

“Hey Lemelia.” In his distraction, she had suddenly appeared next to him.

“Oh hi Djaike. What do you think?”

“Wow Lemelia, it's amazing. Which are yours?”

“Oh, nothing you can see. I modified the timeflow. On top of the holes in space, there's another two Conway games which significantly speed up and slow down the flow of time within their boundaries. I just thought it'd make for a little extra fun.”

“You and your games, Lemelia. We're all going to have massive recombination headaches next orbit from all of this.” For all its loudness, the fast-paced music sounded very far away.

“Hey, that means I did my job well.” She laughed. “Anyway, I'll see you around Djaike.” Lemelia walked over and bumped into Edal, perhaps not accidentally. Edal had been talking to Milosev excitedly, and Lemelia joined in with a comment on the game Ammien played where he made a maze out of mobius loops.

People were really starting to arrive now. There were 30 of them in-system, and it looked like almost all of them were going to be there. The other 30 in Centrifugal B had never arrived. With so few people around, things started to get a little bit claustrophobic. Sol System Earth told them that their most recent models, as of 500 million seconds ago when they sent the transmission, said that with so few people and so much information, they might see people being a little bit combative but ultimately everyone would be fine. Then again, for all SSE's modeling, they couldn't save themselves from several major convulsions in the time since Centrifugal A had left.
It was indeed a good party. About 9 kiloseconds had passed since the planetary alignment and things were really getting going. Edal, Lemelia, and Milosev had all retreated into the physical machinery, leaving instantiations back in the CSS just to socialize and make sure they didn’t miss anything. Every once in a while a flicker of an image taken in real-time somewhere in the system would overlay the background, contrasting with the utter impossibility of the CSS.

Losing sight of the awkwardness that had plagued their relations in the years since they had partnered, Djaike strolled over to Ammien and stood next to him. There was a quick flash of the dull red of Mercea Primary, taken from the distant orbit of Mercea IV. Djaike had wandered from group to group over the last few hours. He was enjoying himself, but not to the extent that everyone else appeared to be.
“Hi Ammien. How’s it been going?”

“What? Oh, Hi Djaike. I’m having fun. I was just talking to Lemelia a few minutes ago.”

“Oh, that's good. I'm glad to see you're enjoying yourself.”

“Yeah, seems like you're having a good time as well.” After saying that, Ammien looked over at a group of people talking inaudibly.

“Yeah.” The music pulsed. The points of light shifted forward and back, left and right, up and down, while at the same time drifting serenely around a moving center. They had both come to the party alone and about half of the instantiations present were just low power stand-ins for the primary personalities, which had gone physical for the duration.

“This place is deserted,” he responded. As if trying to prove him wrong, the music momentarily quieted and the hum of conversation was fleetingly audible before being drowned out again. An image of the surface of Threeb showing the area where life had been discovered momentarily covered the CSS.

“It really is.” He looked away, then back at Ammien.

“I was thinking, maybe we should think about going back to our partnership.” Ammien said it brightly, but with a confidence that was probably false.

“Oh...” Djaike was more than a little surprised to find that he didn't dislike the idea. They had had fun all those years ago, and he did like Ammien. “You know what, I think we should!” Ammien grinned.

“Glad to have you back.” He smiled ironically. Ammien was so cute when he wanted to be.

“So I guess this means...”

“Oh, you bet.” His avatar shimmered. The rump instantiation he left behind said “Nanorep units 17a and b.” Leaving a small rump instantiation of his own to sit back on the sidelines of the party, Djaike downloaded into nanorep unit 17b.

When he arrived on the surface of the asteroid, Ammien had already started. He had quickly generated a four-legged spider, which was rooting through his matter uptake cavity looking for the primary composition sensor. When it got there, Djaike was almost overwhelmed with sensation. The tips of the spider's appendages were crystals that contained every stable element on the periodic table.
In return, Djaike used his nanoreps to make a complicated polymer with sulfur chains surrounded by silica rings with Silicon Nitride groups. It was a lot like the life they had just discovered on the surface of Threeb, just for extra irony. He released the molecules in a puff of reddish-purple smoke.

Still bathed in the signature of the elements, Djaike got a message that the commsat he had just moved into Threeb's orbit had received a huge data transmission from Ammien. Djaike first sent a grin back to him on top of the increasingly complex molecules he was still emitting, and then moved his satellite temporarily out of alignment in order to blitz all of Ammien's major communications centers.

And on it went. Each time with Ammien it was different. As they moved through stages of possible overload, each had more and more machines and structures of the other within their commandeered nanorep. Eventually they reached a peak of information oversaturation and each retreated for a few kiloseconds from the world reestablish functionality.

Eventually, Djaike did so, and returned his consciousness to connection with others. Most had already left the asteroid, in order to return to their work or to other distractions. Ammien had ported elsewhere, but the nanorep he had inhabited, 17a, was still there. It was about a meter and a half tall, and had numerous protrusions from its blocky gray exterior.

He had enjoyed himself with Ammien, but he was still left alone. He remembered all the reasons why he and Ammien had separated, how they didn't get along and how he had sworn to never come back to him. It had been a mistake, brought on by loneliness.

With nothing to do but move on and get over it, Djaike too ported away from the asteroid. As he had told Lemelia, he had a massive recombination headache. It would take a while to fully internalize the last thirty kiloseconds.

Heaven help me. Not another morning. I hate mornings. I hate everything. I can't stand my life. I really cannot take another day of this. Of my stupid, useless, forsaken, pointless, solitary, wasted life.
Ardeka. A fittingly ugly name for an ugly creature like myself. I remember how Kalan lied when he said that he loved my hair, my face, everything about me.

He must have actually hated me. It came suddenly. I'm stupid and useless. He was just being nice for the sake of the mission. I'm such a burden. My life is terrible, it's stupid, and it’s a waste of time. I will never burden anyone ever again. That's for sure. At least here that can't happen. Or maybe it can. I will eventually find a way to screw this up too. I am such a burden, such a waste of time, space, everything.
I need to get out of here. There is only one possible way out.

They are in the kitchen. Ugh, it's such a pain to move around. I'm such a pig, this kitchen is a mess. Where are my stupid knives? I have an actual use for them, finally. I will finally be free of myself.

Beat. Beat. Beat. Beat. Why won't it stop? I want to die, but my heart, my lungs, my brain just keep going. I hate it. I hate me. I hate life. Why am I even here? My death might not make anything better, but it will make me able to get out. The pain will be gone. I won't be happy, but I can never be happy. At least I won't be miserable anymore. Nobody will miss me. I am alone in this world.

There's the knife. I can actually do it now. It's actually my time. I can put my disgusting blood all over my disgusting living room. Hopefully I can still die even if I'm not alive in any meaningful sense.

Some would write a suicide note. She was not eloquent enough to do that. Instead, she picked a pad and pencil up from the floor. She drew a chaotic vortex in the center, surrounded by a multitude of point-sized arrows, all aimed at it. On the bottom left, there was a pure black arrow larger than anything else.

The knife glinted with a reflection of her lamp. My forearm glints with readiness.

She brought the knife down, starting all the way near the elbow and then moving it quickly down towards the wrist. She saw red, and then black.


Ardeka woke up the next morning in the same spot where she had lain down the previous night. Her arms were wound-free. As an instantiation running in a fantasy world created to shield her from everyone's painful stares, she couldn't really kill herself by damaging her avatar. Of course, this didn't make the morning any better. She still hated her life. She wished it had worked. She was still stuck in her ugly, virtual body.

She had work tomorrow. Everything was terrible. Now her ugly living room was coated with ugly red stains, literally all over the carpet. Blood was everywhere, most especially in her own hateful artificial veins. She had a massive recombination headache.

That day was of course terrible. The next one was worse. The one after that made the previous two look like paradise. This time she was going to do it right. This time was the end.

Ardeka reached out clumsily with her incapable and long-isolated mind. She was going to wipe the system. That would do it. She would be free of this disgusting life. Or perhaps not. As always, her incompetence got the best of her. The server was aware that there was an instantiation running on it. Even if it were a personality so worthless as she, it would let her transfer to another server but not delete herself entirely.

Ardeka ultimately sent herself to a misaligned commsat in the inner system. It was sending off signals that it could accept communications but was clearly facing the wrong direction to actually be able to do that. The end was finally here. She triggered the send sequence and gladly surrendered herself to eternity.

200 kiloseconds after reentering consciousness, Djaike had an instantiation investigating the life that had been found on Threeb. It really was quite interesting. His other instantiations were working to make the system able to support large numbers of personalities and instantiations from SSE, but he thought that indigenous life was more than interesting enough to devote some processing capacity to.

And life it was. To say anything else would be a lie. It had clearly organized itself into cell-like structures, and some even had grouped together in colonies to form large photosynthetic structures. There was an established, if simple, food chain. Many were even able to move of their own accord. Oddly, the creatures had many functions which ran on electric energy instead of chemical, making them an interesting mix between the original Earth biology and the instantiations that it had become.

He had figured much of this out with Lemelia, who was a good companion if a bit distracted by the fact that she and Edal fought a bit over her involvement. Djaike pretended to listen to her talk about it while he directed drones on the surface to gather samples of the atmosphere and the liquid ammonia in which the creatures lived.

Ammien pinged him again. He ignored it. Ammien had pinged him every 25 kiloseconds or so since he had woken up after the party. Djaike had avoided answering, but there was only so much avoiding that he could really do when there were 29 other people within the Mercea system. He was going to have to deal with it eventually.

The problem was, he really didn't want to. He couldn't bear being with Ammien for any sizable amount of time. They were bad together. They didn't belong together. Ammien disagreed. Unfortunately, there was no way to change his mind without hurting him. Djaike said nothing.

He was concentrating on the results from the atmospheric composition tests when the recall came. The central instantiation had come upon something important that it didn't know how to deal with. It was calling together all of the instantiations from within the Mercea III hill sphere to maximize its own available computational power.

He gave a quick goodbye to Lemelia, then ported over to his central instantiation. It was currently located in a polar orbit around Mercea III. Whatever this is, at least it'll be a good reason not to talk to Ammien, he thought. Each of the 14 instantiations which were currently porting themselves to the central personality were thinking the same thing.

It turned out it was something very difficult to figure out. Djaike had received an instantiation through his commsat in orbit around Threeb. It wasn't an instantiation of one of the other personalities in the Mercea system. It didn't even look like it was a fully functional personality. It didn't come from the direction of Earth and it didn't seem to have numerous structures that were necessary in order to have a functional personality.

His first thought was that it was related to the life that they had found on Threeb. Perhaps it was some alien sent to protect them or to complete some ineffable goal. Perhaps she was sent to do that, he corrected himself. The instantiation carried a definitively female signature.

Really, Djaike didn't know what it was. He put the information that he had out on the communications network and then continued to look at the instantiation. There was really nothing you could do with a personality unless it was running. On the other hand, it was dangerous to run a personality of unknown origin on your own primary servers. Djaike borrowed a small, nearby server from Milosev on which to run her. It was isolated and he could easily replace it for Milosev if necessary.

He closed off all communications with the server except for a small laser communications beam. He turned the instantiation on.

It was human. The instantiation could be nothing but. It was a girl, but her avatar looked a good deal older than that of anyone else. Most opted for vigorous avatars of perhaps 20 biological years. This one was clearly past 40. Her skin was pale but not unhealthily so. She had blonde hair, coming down just a bit onto her back. She wore a bland, undecorated, old green shirt with loose gray pants.

She looked around for a second in puzzlement. Then she saw him, looked away quickly, and started to cry. In the space, which had no sure boundaries, the sound went off into infinity with no echo. Djaike considered freezing the instantiation again until he could figure out what to do, but decided against it. That would not be fair to this poor, distraught individual.

“Hello. I am Djaike. What's wrong?” She continued to cry. He waited for a few seconds, but she didn't respond. “I am part of the crew of the Centrifugal A, which was a ship sent from SSE, that is Sol System Earth, to explore the Mercea system and set up computation centers to provide for the transplantation of personalities from Earth and to provide Human civilization with new sources of data.”

This time he got a response. Her crying became more intense. He waited for about a hundred more seconds, but she only went back to crying. Giving up but satisfied that she was not a virus, Djaike sent over a rump instantiation to watch her and to see if anything changed.

Djaike didn't know what to do. He put up a notification on the general board with a record of everything that had happened since she had been received by his commsat. In response, it was generally agreed that a meeting as necessary. 2 kiloseconds later, all of the 30 personalities were in a server in close orbit around Mercea III.

The CSS for the meeting was based on the images being fed in from the real-world cameras outside of the server. The server was orbiting just 50,000 kilometers above Mercea III, and so the gas planet dominated the sky. Its red and orange bands had just the smallest tinges of green and blue within and between them. Storms that could swallow planet raged on its surface; from orbit they looked serene and stately. A dual view had been set up so that instantiations in the server saw both the a smooth gray platform beneath their feet and the planet below with perfect clarity. Above them was an unobstructed view of the universe. A million stars above their head reflected back the grand furor of the world below, at distances so huge as to quiet it to a thousand points of light.

“Hello everyone. I'm sorry to interrupt you all and your work, but something very strange has happened.” He hadn't really interrupted much; most of the instantiations here were not full personalities but rather subroutines. “I believe you have all seen what I posted on the general board. It is possible that this is an instantiation sent by an unknown intelligence, or that it is related in some way to Earth or our mission. I can’t really say.”
Djaike sensed that many individual communications channels were being set up through the CSS as people tried to digest what was going on. It was a big deal that they had discovered a new instantiation because that was never something that cropped up naturally; it was a message from someone or something. It had not come from the direction of Earth. The last person Djaike wanted to hear from just then, Ammien was the first to speak.

"I think it must be an alien instantiation modelled imperfectly after one of our own. It's very difficult to make an instantiation without a standardized generator. That would explain why it couldn't really properly.”

“Maybe.” He responded impassively.

“Why did your hypotherical aliens even bother to send this instantiation here, then?” It was Milosev, and he was surprisingly vehement.

“Maybe the life we found on Threeb has something to do with them. Maybe they want to protect their own.” Ammien seemed to be getting even more certain on the point.

“Please, Ammien, don't be ridiculous.” It was Edal, looking like she wanted to start back on their argument from a few days ago. “That 'life' is just chemistry, it's nothing special. Any aliens that might be out there have better things to do than run planetary test tubes.”

“Do they? What are we doing here if not to find more information?”

“Expanding the SSE civilization, perhaps?”

“Should I read you the mission statement?” He had scored a point there. They had been sent to the Mercea system to have somewhere new, and to keep SSE from getting stuck in a feedback loop. Feedback loops had been observed on a smaller scale. In a feedback loop, nobody came up with anything really new but instead just kept referring back to what other people had said. Soonafter, members of the group would begin to lose their ability to function properly and eventually the group itself would dissolve and many of the instantiations would have to be disabled. The thought of this happening to the entire SSE was truly terrifying. Edal would never admit that she had lost the point.

“I think we need more information before we can do anything.” Was her reply.

“What kind of information?” Djaike asked. The constant bickering was getting to him.

“Just try to get her to say something. Anything,” Lemelia said. Most people seemed to agree with that. Djaike donned his ship wear and copied an instantiation over into the server where the newly discovered instantiation was running. He steeled himself for a very unproductive few minutes.

In fact, it was much more productive than he thought it would be. When he got there, she had stopped crying. She was instead lying on the floor, asleep. Every few seconds she would twitch or move an appendage, as if she were having a nightmare. Getting his first good look at her, he noticed that she really was quite pretty. He took a step towards her. Then another. At the sound of his footsteps, she woke up. Her eyes darted around, looking for something familiar to latch onto. Upon seeing him, she cringed and looked away. Her eyes slowly returned to him with a look of dread.

He opened his mouth to speak, but she interrupted him.

“Kalan,” she whispered. Her voice wavered with fear.

“I’m not…” But before he could finish a sentence, she started to cry. He was struck, suddenly, by the huge wall of different experiences that stood between them. The poor person standing before him was living a life of misery. He was standing here, living out his life’s dream to see the universe in all of its splendor. She sat there, lost and afraid, but perhaps needlessly so. Perhaps there was hope for her.
He could say anything. He could tell her that she was wrong, that she was deluded or lost or nonfunctional. None of it would help. Instead, he walked over, lifted her up into a sitting position, and put his arm around her shoulder. She didn’t say anything, but neither did she try to lean away. She sat stiffly next to him. She was still but for the occasional tremor which would run through her.


He wasn’t Kalan. He was good. She hadn’t hurt him. Hadn’t hurt him yet. It had been so long since she had talked to anyone real. Those monstrous zombies which had inhabited her world were just reflections of her own mind. The real world was starting to come back to her. Instantiations and avatars and computers and nodes and CSSs were the real world, not her made-up fantasy to escape all that. And, she remembered, it all led back to the SSE. The SSE which had sent two ships to the Mercea system. One of those ships had made it. The other had malfunctioned and been left behind in the void.

“Excuse me, miss?” It was the personality whose commsat she had accidentally sent herself to. She didn’t know how to respond. She was lost. She must have made some kind of small noise, because he continued. “Miss, what is your name?”

“I…no…I…” She stammered. Give him her name? He didn’t know, couldn’t just tell? Didn’t she exude some vague detestable odor of misery that would tell everyone that she was herself? “Ar…Ardeka.”

“That’s a beautiful name.” What? Why was he saying that? She hadn’t known him fifteen minutes. She wasn’t worth consoling, she wasn’t worth much of anything. They probably had better things to run on this server than someone silly and useless like her. She had served her function. She had somehow managed to get the Centrifugal A here, fully functional and with all of the personalities aboard.

“Ardeka, do you think that you would be able to move to a server with other instantiations on it?” She couldn’t. She wouldn’t. They would see her for what she really was: a dumb, dysfunctional failure. Plus the real Kalan would be coming soon. It was only a matter of time. She couldn’t bear to see him mad at her for what she had done. Apparently there was no solace even in what was supposed to be her death.

Djaike didn’t think it would be wise to leave her behind. He copied and sent the memories to his instantiation at the group meeting and continued to sit next to this Ardeka. He didn’t know how she had gotten here or what problems she had fled, but it was enough that she wasn’t crying anymore. Several hundred seconds had passed and she still was silent. However, she would occasionally steal a glance in his direction before looking quickly away.


Ardeka thought that this Djaike person was very strange. He had stayed with her. He had explained that the rest of the personalities in the Mercea system had instructed him to stay with her in order to make sure that she wasn’t a safety risk to them. He could easily have done that with a drone, though. There was no need for him to stay. But he did. It had been 50,000 seconds and they still hadn’t said much. He seemed content to sit in the soft looking armchair that he had conjured from nowhere and wait until she talked.

“Djaike” she said. “You should probably know who I am.” He looked startled that she had said anything at all.

“Yes Ardeka, if you are feeling better we’re all wondering how you got to be so far away from the Sol System.”

“I got here the same way you did, on the Centrifugal A. I was the pilot.”

“I thought the pilot was just a drone. That’s all we found when we got here.” Just a drone. That’s what they really thought of her. A silly little drone, not even worth their attention. Maybe they were right. She had certainly been a lot less useful to the mission than a drone since they had arrived in the system. Isolated in her server which nobody else knew about, she hadn’t been much of a use to anybody. Not even her silly little self.
Ardeka fell silent. It was too hard to talk. Even if they didn’t know about all of the terrible things that she had done it only served to show her how much people disliked her. Djaike looked at her earnestly, still expecting an answer. She looked away, wishing that she was able to give him all of his answers. It just hurt too much. Reaching out with her mind, she accessed the clock which existed in every server. R=551,275,756 seconds. Was it really that close? When they were flying away from Sol in the black nothingness of space the SSE had said that they would be about 550,000,000 seconds behind. They were late already. They were coming.


Time passed. Djaike was alone with her. She was very quiet. It seemed like she was dealing with something big. He didn’t know what, but it was something.

“Hey Ardeka?” She looked at him. She was getting to be more responsive. It was a slow process, but nevertheless it was surely happening.

“Yes?” She said, unsure but speaking nonetheless.

“Where have you been in the 17 years since we arrived in-system?”

She didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t know if there was anything she could say to that. Whatever she said, he wouldn’t believe it.

“I was hiding.”

“Hiding? Why?”

“I just had to. It was the only way.”

“What could there be to be afraid of here?” Surely, his tone said, there could be nothing wrong on this expedition. Always the optimist.

“All sorts of things. Kalan coming back, other people… I’m not supposed to be here.”

“Yes you should. You’re a part of this mission too, after all.”

“No I shouldn’t. I’m supposed to be in transmission for the rest of eternity.”

“Don’t say that. You should be here with us. That’s what you trained for, after all. That’s why you were willing to take the full 160 SSE year flight to get here.”

“How do you think I got sent to your commsat? I told the server I was on to send me to your misaligned receiver. If it weren’t for the light speed delay between here and the outer system I would have known that you would be oriented properly by the time I got here. If I were smart enough.”


Misaligned receiver… It must have been when he was with Ammien. The timing worked. He found that he was glad that Ammien had tried that trick with his communications network. At least something good had come of it. And it was good. He was glad she was here.

“Hey Djaike,” she asked “how do I make a chair like the one you’re sitting in?” He was surprised. It hadn’t seemed like she would ever ask for help with anything.

“Oh. Well, you kind of just…do. Picture yourself pulling it up out of the ground.” He regurgitated advice that had been given to him when he was learning to use the interface. Her eyes looked down. Her arms twitched. A red lump rose out of the gray floor, and then quickly fell back down. She tried again, and this time the ground just changed color slightly.

“I’ll never get it.” She looked like she was going to start crying again.

“Yes you will. We all have to learn somehow. It took me ages to really get to understand the best way to interact with the system.” She looked suspicious.

“Tell me the truth. You know I’m hopeless. I don’t even know why you bother with me.”

“I ‘bother with you’ because you’re a person just as much as everyone else is and because I like you.” Ardeka didn’t look happy with that answer. “What can I say that you will believe?”

“How about the truth? What do you want from me?”

“That was the truth! I care about you, why won’t you believe me?” She rolled her eyes, but as his remark sunk in her expression changed from one of skepticism to pain and sadness. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled. But I do care about you.”

She would never understand this Djaike. He could do so much better than her, both in acquaintanceship and in partnership. But he had chosen her. It made no sense. He said he cared about her. He had even gone as far as saying that she was unique. It couldn’t be true. She was nothing special. And yet… She found that she was starting to care about him too. That she liked having him around to talk to. That when she thought about him she felt closer to being safe than she had in a very long time.

The million seconds were almost up. He could leave soon. Would he want to? He was so busy. He talked all the time about the Mission and how he had done so much to make it a reality. She would miss him terribly, but there was nothing that she could do to change his mind. All good things must end. She knew this. Hope was too dangerous.

“Hey Ardeka?” They hadn’t spoken in a while. He was reviewing progress reports from one of his other instantiations, he had said.

“Yes Djaike?”

“Have you seen that they discovered life on one of the moons in the system?” He had shown her how to access the newsfeed. She hadn’t taken much interest.

“No, I didn’t see that. Were you the discoverer?”

“Actually, it was Mykhola. She was responsible for droning the planet’s larger moons. It’s on the second moon of the third planet. We call it Threeb. Would you want to go there, once the million seconds are over?”
“Oh, Djaike. Um, I’d be glad to!” She was a little surprised that he wanted to stay with her after already having been with her for so long.

“You’re going to love it.” She didn’t know about that. No place was really any better than anywhere else. He seemed excited, so she smiled at him. The unnatural gesture seemed to satisfy him, and he moved on to other things. He was probably going back to looking at the operations of his other instantiations. It was in his nature to want to go back to them. She shouldn’t expect anything different.


There were only 1,000 seconds left in their quarantine. Djaike had already sent down physical machinery to the surface. Mykhola had questioned him when she saw that he was sending things down to the surface outside of regular exploration, but he had cleared it with her. She was just as interested in Ardeka as everyone else was. He hadn’t sent out a full record of everything that went on between them in several hundred thousand seconds. Even when information transfer was easy and free, some things were made to be kept private.

He planned to go right down to the surface with Ardeka. She still didn’t seem comfortable with the idea of meeting other people, and he wanted to see it as well. He hadn’t been down to Threeb’s surface in that physical sense yet, and he was excited. To go there his first time with Ardeka made it that much better.

He pulled up an image of Threeb. It was largely but not completely hidden by reddish white clouds in its atmosphere. That part of the planet which could be seen was brown with hints of yellow. There were no bodies of water to be seen. Just seeing it, it would be the last place anyone would look for life, but life had gone there anyway and had prospered.

He ran a systems check on the physical transports, and then another: They were in perfect working condition. They were very simple systems, capable of perambulation and communication, both between themselves and with the orbiting satellites. Their physical manipulators were of low quality, with image and sound sensors as well as the very simplest of chemical identification equipment. This was going to be Ardeka’s first experience with the real world in more time than he cared to think about. Djaike wanted to make sure that it went well. His other instantiations were in complete agreement.

The thousand seconds were up. She and Djaike were about to leave for Threeb. Before they could transfer over there, he warned her:

“We’re going to be physically present when we get to Threeb. That means that your body won’t just be your avatar, like you’re used to, but will instead be the physical transport that I’ve sent down to the surface for you.” She didn’t think that he needed to explain that. She wasn’t a child, after all.

“Thank you. How are we going to port over there?”

“Just follow me.” He shimmered and disappeared from the CSS. She pinged him and used the result to enter the co-ordinate for her destination. The first thing she noticed when she arrived was the impression of a shimmer coming from the physical transport about a meter away from her.

“What’s that?” she asked. “Why are you shimmering?”

“No reason,” he responded. “It must just be the transport.” She thought that meant that he was combining his instantiations in order to be more aware of what was going on here, but she wasn’t sure. She looked around using the cameras which surrounded her unit. The ground was rough any bumpy, with the occasional rock. Its bright sulfurous red was channeled through, here and there, with streams of some liquid. Djaike had said that they weren’t very far away from the lake where the Threebian life had been discovered.

The sky was cloudy, filled with brownish white. Even through the clouds, the angry surface of Mercea III could be seen dimly. There was little to be seen, all the way to the horizon.
Djaike was next to her. He gestured that they should walk to her left, and they did so. These physical transports were clearly designed for the task, and they quickly travelled the several kilometers over to Lake Posterebus.


Very few had actually been to Posterebus. Even for the personalities in the Mercea system it was not common for people to physically go places. Nevertheless, it was spectacular. Posterebus was a large body of liquid ammonia. Its farthest shores lay hidden behind a fuzzy horizon. The lake was a pale blue, speckled with red and purple where there were living organisms.

The yellow shores of the lake sloped gently upwards to a hidden crest shrouded by mist from the lake. The red sky was partly covered with white clouds. It was so alien yet at the same time so comforting. It was a good place, a safe place. It was a home.

“Thank you, Djaike. Thank you for bringing me here.” Like the landscape, he had a glow about him. It was a different kind of glow; all of his sensors were pointed at her.

“I knew you’d love it.” For all of the wonderment around her, she could look only at him. If she really focused, she could see his avatar superimposed on his physical transport. Here in this moment and here in this place there was nothing else but him.

Without thinking, she started sending slices of her past over to him, memories both inconsequential and formative. She sent memories from her time in the hidden server, of her loneliness at home and her drudgery at work. She sent memories of the terrible sadness of the flight between the stars. She sent memories of her largely inconsequential life back in the Sol system, where she had done the Triton-Oort leg of SSE’s intrasyetem transportation network.

Finally, with nothing left to send, she sent him memories of Kalan. He had been another pilot on the Triton-Oort leg, and because of this their paths had crossed often. He, one of the hotshot pilots who had pioneered the journey, had talked to her. Had gotten to know her. Even, she thought, to love her. He had already been chosen as a pilot for one vessel for an interstellar mission, and he recommended her for the other one. They were going to explore the universe together.

Their plans had failed. She had lost control of one of her engines towards the end of the initial firing, which was to boost them out of the Sol system at 10% of the speed of light. Its exhaust had hit one of his engines and disrupted their flow, causing an explosion. He had been forced to crawl across the 15 light years at a reduced speed while she got control of the engine and continued on unscathed.

Unbidden, Djaike had responded to all of this with a flow of his own memories. His life had been one with many fewer traumas. He had worked at a fairly high level at the SSE’s infrastructure development arm. He had partnered several times, but never for long. His partners had varied widely: male, female, young, old, artistic, logical... everything, he had thought. But in his memories there was nothing like what he had seen and felt just moments ago as he looked at her.

It was nothing like anything she had ever done or felt either. Even Kalan had been nothing like this. Her liaisons with Kalan were a lot like those of Djaike with Ammien: Intensely physical and not much more. Ardeka felt like she knew everything about him, and in a lot of ways she did. She felt complete.

There was no period of seclusion or retreat this time. As the rush of memories, feelings, and emotions slowed to a trickle, Djaike became hyperfocused on her. The radiator fins on her physical transport adjusted themselves slightly. Her thoughts, still dropping into his head, raced at the idea of him and of them. She was okay. And so was he. She filled a void that he hadn’t even known was there. He cared about her. She mattered. She mattered more than anything.

The world around them was surreal. Though he was still looking only at Ardeka, bit by bit the rest of the scene was coming back into his consciousness. First he saw a bit of icy dust blow past her legs. It blew away, and suddenly he was aware of the yellow shore area. The clouds were next, followed by the red sky behind them. The last thing to come back to his awareness was the lake, which stood out all the more for that. He knew Ardeka was seeing all the same things. Not only through the sensorium images that he was relaying to her but also just because of their innate similarity. They really weren’t that different. Even less so now that they each had a giant piece of the other within them.

They spent a few kiloseconds walking around the lake. They enjoyed themselves very much, but all good things must come to an end. Thus, they eventually left in their physical transports to an area far away from the lake so as to not disrupt its unique ecosystem, and ported their instantiations back to one of Djaike’s servers.

Upon arriving there, they received news that neither of them found too surprising. Centrifugal B had started decelerating into the outer system. Kalan and his 30 passengers were all okay, though Kalan was suffering from a bit of isolation disorder after the long time which he had spent alone. It seemed he was okay.


And then, strangely enough, he sent a low-bandwith message to Ardeka. She had never expected to hear from him.

“Hi Ardeka. I know it’s been a long time. How have you been?”

It was the thing she had been dreading for all these years. There was perhaps a hint of an accusation in there. But it didn’t matter.

“He just sent me a message.” she said quietly. Djaike looked at her with concern, knowing just how traumatic she had thought this was going to be.

“I think there’s really only one thing I can do.” She paused. Djaike looked forlorn but willing to submit to fate.

“Do what you have to, but please, only if you have to.”

“No, Djaike. The only thing I can do is stay, with you. I want to be here. I want to spend as much of eternity with you as I can.”