How long is a piece of string? In my case, it’s about eighty-five thousand kilometres. That’s the distance from the Anchor in Heinlein all the way up to the Lentil, that impossibly huge lozenge of frozen comet that flies like a giant’s kite on a piece of spiderweb over the lunar equator.
I was there when the tether first made moonfall, spun out from Partway Station in twenty-four barrel-thick lines, each one three times as strong as it needed to be. For every kilometre that went down towards the Moon, another kilometre reached up towards faraway Earth. In those days, the gondolas that carried the work-crews up the wire from the grey lunar surface to the black empty sky were little more than steel cages with plastic seats. You strapped in and said your prayers and tried not to look at the ground falling away under you.
If you were lucky you made it up to the top of your tether. A few crews didn’t make it in the years I was out there. If your gondola failed before you reached Partway, the Moon would reclaim it with such excruciating slowness that you’d have plenty of time to contemplate the crater you’d make in the bright regolith below. If you made it past Partway before the brakes failed or the gondola broke up, you’d go accelerating up the wire until you hit something or were thrown out into space on a flat trajectory all the way to Earth. Partway Station hung in geosynchronous orbit, and both ways out on the wire were down.
It was while I was working on Tether Fifteen that my granddaughter, Eden, came to tell me my wife was dying. Even in those days Partway was pressurised and working its way up to being the Moon’s main spaceport, ferrying people up and down the wire to Heinlein, opening up the Moon to anyone and everyone who thought they might want to get rich in the HeeThree mines, or disappear into the dark warrens of Bradbury or L-City.
After Penny died, I felt like doing some disappearing myself. I took some of the shore leave I was owed and hung out in some of Heinlein’s blackest pits. Maybe the least rat-infested was a bar on one of the lower levels called “The Harsh Mistress”. I had an app I’d downloaded that could simulate drunkenness, and I liked to sit at the bar with a paper cup of rotgut in my hand, artificially hammered out of my skull.
In those days the bar was owned by the Drew sisters, real beauties, tough as tank-grown steak and always ready to listen to a sob-story if the customer kept buying drinks.
“I should’ve stayed with her,” I told Carlotta, who happened to be behind the bar that night. “I didn’t have any business doing this.” I looked down at my robot body in disgust. I was big, strong, practically immortal. “Sometimes I’d swap it all if I could just go back and make a different decision.”
Carlotta looked interested. She moved closer. “You must have known it was going to happen. You’d go on and she’d… you know…”
“I thought she’d change her mind and do it too. Right up to the end I thought she’d change her mind.” But she wouldn’t. She didn’t believe in any of it. She said her husband had died and I was just some kind of copy. Not him. Not really.”
When I had my mind uploaded into my new, robot body, I cried. The pain of arthritic joints was gone, the wool that had clouded my thoughts for so long was gone, the weakness of wasted muscles, the sagging skin, the dimming eyesight… All gone. I was young and strong, vigorous and clear-headed. I cried because until all that pain and feebleness had vanished, I hadn’t realised just how old and beat up I really was.
I wanted Penny to share it with me, have her mind uploaded too, become young again and live forever. With me. I still loved her so much. But she stayed behind and let me go on alone.
“Thing is,” I told Carlotta. “I had a dream.”
“Sure. Everybody’s got dreams.”
My dream was to fly to the stars. And I was making it come true. That’s why I was up there doing grunt work on the tether. Once they flew the Lentil in and attached it, they’d start building Alltheway Station on the Moonward side. The biggest structure ever assembled in space. One day, it would be as big as Heinlein itself, with just as many cubic metres of habitat under pressure. On the Earthward side, though, they were going to build the Starseeker, humanity’s very first, honest-to-goodness starship. It was going be crewed entirely by uploads and AIs, three hundred immortal explorers on a journey that might take centuries, travelling from one candidate world to another, looking for the ideal exoplanet for Earth’s first colony.
Uploads are perfect for a trip like that. Centuries don’t matter. We don’t need air, or water, or plumbing. And, because you’ve got to be filthy rich to be uploaded in the first place, we’re a self-selected group of highly-educated, self-motivated go-getters. But part of the deal was that we work for pin-money for decades building the tether and building the ship to earn our place on the crew. It weeded out the dilettantes. You’ve got to really want to go to spend so many years out there on the wire, or down below in a sink-hole like Heinlein. Even back when Penny died, it was only the hardcore dreamers that were left.
People like me.
I got into a fight at The Harsh Mistress that night as I recall. Heinlein was a pretty lawless place at the time. The UN Permanent Force hadn’t taken over the policing of the town yet and the only law was company security and they didn’t give a damn if anyone got mugged or raped, as long as it wasn’t on company premises. So you kept your eyes open and stayed out of trouble.
I was too deep in my own sorrows that night to see what was building. The first it registered with me was that some guy started shouting. I roused myself in time to see a bald guy with gang tattoos being hit across the face with a baseball bat. I recognised him as the Mistress’s bouncer. Then I realised there were two other guys with the batsman and one of them was hugging Carlotta but not in a friendly way. She was fighting like a wildcat but her admirer was a tough SOB. The kind you get a lot of out here.
“Hey!” I shouted and climbed off my stool. I wasn’t a fighter. I was a businessman. At the time of my death I’d been seventy-eight. But since I died, I stood two-and-a-half metres tall and weighed two hundred kilos. I had arms that could bend steel bars and a skin so tough you could shoot bullets at it with no permanent damage.
“Get lost, zombie,” the guy holding Carlotta said. “This is none of your business. Just finish your drink and keep out of it.”
“Put her down,” I said, “and I’ll let you walk out of here alive.” I wasn’t used to talking tough and I probably went a bit over the top.
“What’s it got to do with you, zombie?” the batsman asked. He sounded genuinely offended that I had butted in.
I ignored him. “I said, put her down.”
The batsman flew at me, fast and high and swung the bat at my head. Drunk and clumsy, I didn’t come close to blocking the blow and the bat connected with my skull, knocking me right off my feet. Of course, it was the Moon, so I settled pretty slowly to the ground. Also, it’s only the dumbest upload who keeps their brainbox in their head. Mine was deep in my chest where it had the maximum thickness of nano-goop flesh to protect it. The only real effect of the blow was to remind me that I should maybe turn off my inebriation app and give the matter some sober reflection.
I got to my feet. Grabbed the batsman, took away his bat and threw him at a wall. Then I stomped over to the other two, knocked one aside with a swift back-hander that nearly took his head off, and faced the guy holding Carlotta.
He looked seriously scared, as well he might, but he had the presence of mind to pull out a knife and hold it to Carlotta’s throat.
“Back off!” he yelled. “I’ll let her go, but you just back off, do you hear?”
I grinned at him, not for melodramatic effect or anything but because I’d seen Carlotta pulling a small pistol out of her skirts. She reached behind her and shot him in the ass, just like that.
He was screaming and bleeding a lot when I threw him and his two buddies out into the street. By the time I got back inside, Carlotta had adjusted her wardrobe and was as cool as ever.
“Drinks are on the house,” she told me. Then she looked down at her employee who was still on the floor. “And if you ever need a job, I’m always on the lookout for a good bouncer.”
When you get uploaded, you have two choices. You can opt to live in one of the brain bins – big computers that house hundreds or thousands of other uploads in massive virtual worlds – or you can be put inside a robot and stay out here in the real world. Some of the brain bins have a bad reputation. Not the kind of place you’d like to spend eternity. Some of them are very exclusive, like Omega Point, an invitation-only club for the wealthiest transhumans. I’d been rich, but not that rich. So I picked embodiment. Like I said, I had a dream, and it didn’t involve sitting in a box pretending to climb Everest for the next thousand years. I was going to the stars.
You get used to a robot body. Especially one like mine. It’s basically a load of nano-paste that will auto-configure itself into human form. Well, more-or-less human. Driving it all is the brainbox, a little quantum computer that houses your essence, your mind, everything that makes you who you are. You’ll notice I didn’t say ‘soul’. The religious types back on Earth get pretty wound up about uploads and the idea that modern science can keep a soul from flying to Heaven, or Hell. They’ve trashed a couple of brain bins over the years and made it uncomfortable for people like me. Moving into space is the natural way to go for an upload. Even some of the brain bins are building themselves orbital platforms and moving off-world.
You don’t get used to being not quite human, though. The idea that a woman will never again look at you with desire, that you will never again feel a tender touch against your skin, that the withdrawal and distrust you see in almost every human face has replaced openness and approach forever. So you turn down your emotional responses – because you can do that now – you turn off your sexual urges, but most of all, you stay away from living people.
They flew the Lentil in right on schedule. Orbital dynamics runs like clockwork – and then some. For that great slab of ice, it was the end of a twelve year journey. A whole comet, rubble and ice, had been put inside a tough polymer bag. They’d nudged its orbit out of shape with a bunch of ion drives and then, while it was being warmed by the sun at the aphelion of its solar flypast, had spun it up so fast it flattened into a gigantic plate, two kilometres across.
We’d been watching it approach for months, a tiny star that eventually grew into a disc that blocked out the whole sky. I felt a visceral pang of loss the day it occluded the Earth. I’d grown used to seeing that little blue marble hanging up there like the promise of home all those years and its absence was a shock. For all our billion-dollar technical sophistication, my fellow uploads and I hung on the wire like anxious apes staring up at the space where our homeworld should have been in awed silence.
Everything about space engineering is massive these days. The tether was so big it dwarfed the sky bridges of Earth, Partway Station, that tiny bead of light far above me, was the biggest habitable structure ever built in orbit. Yet already they were building a new spaceport atop the Florida Spacebridge that would be twice its size and Titan Engineering had plans for an orbital refinery way out around Saturn that would eclipse them both. The expansion into space had created boom times for Earth and hardly an economy on the planet wasn’t running at full steam to service the vast new mining sector and turn its products into consumables.
It was an age of visionaries, an age of new frontiers, bold enterprises and expanded horizons. The sky, at last, really was the limit. And Alltheway Station was the biggest, most exciting project of them all. A space habitat the size of a city, flying out there on the end of the tether like a humongous bucket swung around on an unimaginably long string. People living on the Moonward side would have their own gravity, courtesy of centripetal force, and ships on the Earthward side would get the boost of being flung out into space when they undocked. One of those ships would be the Starseeker. And I was going to be riding her all the way to the stars.
Catching the Lentil was a tricky business and damned hard work. Its trajectory brought it near the end of the tether only briefly, its velocity almost matching ours for just a short while. In that window of opportunity, rocket engines mounted all around its great circumference and the dozen space-tugs that were grappled to it, had to slow it down and bring it into perfect alignment with our crews so we could fix the twenty-four tethers to their allocated anchor-points already attached to Moonward side. Calculations showed that, even if we only got twenty tethers hooked up on that first attempt, the Lentil would stay put and not tear itself loose. As it was, we got nineteen attached within the time allowed and then watched and prayed as the Lentil slowly swung down and then lifted away from the Moon, seeking a higher orbit that would better suit its tiny relative speed, stretching the tether to breaking point, stretching my nerves with it.
But the tether held, thanks to the ages-old engineering practice of adding big margins. I felt it heave under me, felt the subsonic twang as that stupendously long bundle of carbon nanotubes took the strain. We all hunkered down in our safety cages and hung on for our lives as the hour-long oscillations ran up and down the wire. But the tugs and the weight of the moon it was now pulling, finally managed to slow the great orbiting mass of ice to the required speed and we grabbed up our tools again and raced to get the last five strands of the tether attached. What with the continuing vibrations in the wire and the long upwards surge as the Lentil, having arced down towards the lunar surface, rose to its new and permanent position high above Heinlein, it was a miracle that no-one was shaken loose, or that any of us had the strength left to wrangle those final strands into their housings and bolt them down.
I was emotionally spent by the time it was all over. I’d been out there for forty-eight hours straight and when the call to down tools came, I climbed off the stanchion I’d been working on and stepped down onto the surface of the Lentil. I walked a few paces away from the tether and then lay on my back looking up at the Moon, far above me. The tether swept away into the sky, massively substantial where I lay but rapidly dwindling to a tiny, silver thread, and then to nothing. Suddenly, a thought struck me. How small we were, all us people. How tiny. And yet we had captured a comet and tied it to a piece of string like a big balloon to float forever above the Moon. I started laughing. It was the most ridiculous, ludicrous thing imaginable. I lay on the surface of that magnificent joke, laughing like a madman, until the foreman bellowed over the comm for me to shut the fuck up and get my ass down to the gondola “’cause some of us would like to get off this damned wire before we all go fucking crazy.”
She had a way with words.
Once the Lentil had been locked into place and stabilised, the work changed. For most of the crews, building the service tunnels and laying the foundations for Alltheway was what filled their days now. For me and a couple of hundred others, it was the Starseeker Project. It took place in a dock like no other space dock you’ve ever seen and, inside the great lattice of locally-forged titanium alloy, humanity’s first starship was being built. We lived in a strange, upside down world, with a sky-sized ceiling of ice above us and a safety net below, That net was the only thing between us and the three hundred thousand kilometre fall to Earth.
Of course, we didn’t have the technology on the Moon back then to create the fancy metamaterials, the complex optronics, or even the plastic door handles that went into the Starseeker. Most of it was shipped up in crates from Earth, unloaded at Partway and then carted up the wire from there. I was an old hand by then and I ran my own gang of fitters. We worked on the engines, mostly, not the big torus that ran round the ship’s middle for generating the warp field, but the good old-fashioned fusion engines that we would use for short-range manoeuvring.
You’d think that people would grow close, working out there for year after year, risking your lives every day, among fellow uploads with the same dream or, at least, the same good reasons for putting Earth behind them. Well, it didn’t happen. You work with people day in day out like that and you grow intimate, of course, you learn things about each other, your secrets slowly reveal themselves, you get so you know them like your own family. But it doesn’t necessarily mean you get to like them.
Partly it was because everyone, including me, had their emotions turned down so low they were practically robots anyway. It was the only way to survive it. Trust me. But it was also because most of us just weren’t chummy types. Most of us were hard-nosed sons of bitches. We’d clawed our way up to the top of some heap or other, collecting all the money we could along the way. Then we’d taken that money and bought ourselves immortality with it. We didn’t feed the poor, or save the planet. We gave everyone the finger and had our minds uploaded into state-of-the-art artificial bodies.
I realised that about myself when my wife died. She was right, I could have had longer with her if I hadn’t needed to escape death before my mind began to fail. I asked her to do the procedure with me but, when she said no, I went and left her anyway.
It’s a hard thing to acknowledge that ugly selfishness inside you. But now I could see it everywhere, especially in the cold mechanical eyes of my fellow uploads.
Yet Mike was OK. His real name was Ahmed, but he liked to be called Mike. He was the son of a Middle Eastern Prince which sounds great until you realise how many of them there are and how far from the throne that left him. Of course, he would never gain the title now. His deeply religious country was very strict about allowing soulless abominations to join the monarchy. But, as he told me, he’d rather be a live upload than a dead zealot.
I’d seen plenty like Mike on the wire, children of wealthy families who’d lived their whole lives in a bubble, spoilt rotten, and entitled to the core. They didn’t usually last long out here. They gave it up and joined a brain bin somewhere so their dream life could go on uninterrupted by work or tedium. Mike stuck it out, though. He had become really hooked on the Starseeker Project and wanted as much as I did to be among the first ones to go beyond the solar system, exploring the stars.
I asked him once how he became a zombie and he laughed and said it was all to impress a girl. What he meant was, he’d been racing his Lamborghini Estoque 3, drunk driving at two hundred kilometres an hour with a coked up call girl in the passenger seat giving him a blow job and two more in the back seat – for later, as he put it. When they pulled him out of the wreckage, they managed to keep his brain alive long enough to upload him. He was the only survivor.
The experience seemed to have woken him up. In fact, from a few things he’d said, I got the feeling he was relieved not to be that guy any more. I think the life he’d been leading had scared him. Now he was just one of the team and I was someone he could share his feelings with who wouldn’t ignore or ridicule him.
It was from Mike that I got the first clue that things weren’t going well.
A cargo of hull panels was overdue. It had happened before and I wasn’t too upset about it. My team went out on the scaffold anyway. There was always plenty to do. I told Mike to work on fixing up some cable harnesses and he gave me a dirty look and stalked off. Later, when I asked him what was biting him, he said, “I don’t know why they bother to keep us working.”
“Well,” I said, slowly. “I guess it’s so we can get the ship built.”
He studied me, as if to see whether I was joking.
“We didn’t get the shipment from Earth yesterday.”
“We didn’t get one today, either.”
“Yeah? Well let’s see if we get one tomorrow, shall we?”
“What are you saying?”
“Don’t you watch the feeds?”
I shrugged. Actually, no, I didn’t. Not often. News from Earth just didn’t interest me any more.
I watched them that night though. As soon as the shift was over, I hurried to my room and started scanning everything I could find. I didn’t have to look far. It was all over the major news aggregators. China had defaulted on a debt payment. Three of the biggest banks in Europe had immediately put themselves into receivership. It was expected that US banks would follow suit within the next day or so. It was yet another global financial meltdown. The kind we’d had every ten years since I was old enough to remember. It looked like a bad one. Governments were already talking about stimulus packages, or austerity measures, depending on their ideological viewpoint. I cut off all the chatter and sat back on my couch, anger and fear already growing in me like tumours.
By the time the morning came I was watching old sit-coms, grimly trying not to think about the project. A broadcast message from the project office came through just as I was leaving for work. It was the project manager, a human, his face giving nothing away. He said no-one on the project was to report for the morning shift. Team leaders were to assemble in warehouse four for a briefing in fifteen minutes. I played it three times, trying to get a hint from the inflection of his voice, the shift of his gaze. The heart I no longer had felt like lead inside me.
“I’m sorry,” he said, yelling over the noise as the room erupted into cries of outrage. “Goldilocks Ventures has gone into liquidation. There’s nothing we can do. Their assets here – the temporary space dock, the habs and warehouses, the fabbers and tools – will be sold off to pay the company’s creditors.”
“This ain’t right,” someone shouted. “Some of us have put years into this project.” There was a general growl of approval. “This ain’t just a collection of second hand goods to be disposed of. This is our lives.”
There was a lot more shouting along the same lines – and I agreed with everything they said – but I could see a lot of people, like me, weren’t joining in. They knew as well as I did that projects like this, however special, however important, were just lines in a ledger when it came right down to it. Hell, I’d shut down enough loss-making businesses of my own in my time. Sure, you think about all the lives you shatter when a factory has to close, or a division has to be scaled back, but you tell yourself it’s for the best, that you have a duty to the shareholders, that sometimes you need to amputate a limb to keep the patient alive. That kind of crap.
It was a miracle that the Starseeker Project had ever found investors in the first place. If I was honest with myself, I had always known it would be one of the first things to be sacrificed if the global economy went belly up. But I’d hoped that things could just hold together long enough to get the Starseeker underway. Once those moorings had been cut, we’d have been free. And Earth and all its squabbling, needy billions could have gone to Hell in a handcart for all I cared. I’d have been part of something new and pure, gliding through the cosmos like a condor soaring above the Andes.
“What about the Starseeker?” someone asked and everyone fell silent. We all looked out through the open doors to where the ship stood, white and still, peaceful as a swan, not knowing that the hunters were gathering, sighting down their gun barrels.
The deputy project manager swallowed hard and stepped forward. Even through her environment suit I could see she didn’t want to upset people any more than her boss had done already. “Goldilocks Ventures is considering offers from interested parties. I just heard that a Heinlein-based restaurateur has already made an offer.”
The mood in the room turned bitter. Someone nearby said, “A fucking restaurant.” Another said, “Like an old railway carriage diner.”
The PM broke it up and sent us all home. “Until further notice,” as he put it.
I hung about with a group of other uploads and we did some back-of-a-fag-packet calculations to see if a staff buy-out might work. God knows, we’d all been rich enough when we were alive. Some of us still had plenty. Yet it was soon obvious that those of us who hadn’t blown their fortune on becoming immortal, had , like me, tied up most of what was left over in trusts for family members. Those who were still running businesses Earthside, or had healthy investment portfolios, were getting very bad news from the boards of their companies and their brokers.
Our impromptu meeting broke up with everyone feeling much worse than when it started. I saw Mike up on the scaffold and went to join him in staring at the ship.
“Wouldn’t your father sell a couple of his space yachts and refloat Goldilocks?” I asked.
He laughed. “He’s already been on the phone to tell me every cloud has a silver lining.”
“A silver lining?”
“Yeah, now I won’t be wandering round the galaxy like a lost soul. I can come back to Earth and help manage the family’s business interests from a brain bin in the US.”
“Ah. I take it that doesn’t appeal.”
To my surprise, he shrugged. “It’s not like there’s much else I can do.”
“The Moon’s an expanding economy. Earth’s still going to need our HeeThree and rare earths. Go to Bradbury. They’re always looking for uploads to work the mines.”
Even as I said it, I felt an ache deep inside. That kind of life had seemed OK while there was a point to it all. Building the wire, building the Starseeker had been mindless grunt work but I was happy to do it so long as it was for something so important. Without that, immortality looked more like a curse than a big adventure. I wondered what the second-hand market for nanite robots was like. Would the one I had fetch enough to get me into a decent brain bin?
I didn’t see Mike again. Two days after the big announcement, he took the gondola up to Partway and caught a shuttle back to Earth. I waited five more weeks until my severance pay came through from the Goldilocks Ventures receivers. Then I too rode the wire up to Partway and caught the regular gondola down to Heinlein. I travelled with at least a dozen other uploads from the Starseeker Project but none of us felt like talking.
Heinlein is a dump. You’d have to be crazy or desperate to live there. It is built into a warren of ancient lava tunnels beneath the lunar surface. The founders learned how to make a dirty-grey concrete by mixing regolith with a clay-like by-product of the mineral mining that had first brought people to that ungodly spot. They used it to line the lava tunnels, to build walls and roads, even to make furniture. Compared to bringing anything up from Earth, it was cheap and easy. Anything not made from concrete is made from scavenged packing crates and cannibalised freight pods. So the whole city feels like an underground shanty-town.
Which is what it is, I guess.
Of course, some people live better than that, with real furniture – wood even, if you’re the Mayor, or a crime boss – in houses that look like they were designed instead of thrown together by a chimp. But that’s just some tunnels in the highest levels. Once you’re past there, as you go deeper, the memory of neat and tidy soon fades. The lowest level of all they call the Sump. You don’t want to go down there. Trust me.
Even the bar at The Harsh Mistress is made of concrete. The tables and chairs used to be made of the ubiquitous packing crates, but, since the Drew sisters took over, there are more real titanium chairs every year. It makes the place look too classy for the kind of bums that hang out there if you ask me.
I waited by the entrance for Carlotta to finish serving a couple of customers and come over. We sat at a table by the door and she listened to my tale of woe.
“Well, I’m glad to be able to help you out,” she told me. “You know I owe you. And you know giving you a crap job won’t come close to repaying the debt. But I’m glad to do it, anyway. When can you start?”
I looked around the room at the handful of drunks that comprised the mid-morning clientele. There didn’t seem to be any rush.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll go find myself a place to stay first. How about I come back this evening and you can tell me my duties and my hours?”
She nodded slowly, watching my face. “I don’t mean to pry, but why does a man like you want to work in this shit-hole? You could do a lot better than this.”
A man like you. I turned the words over in my mind, liking the sound of them. I don’t think any living human had shown me that much respect since the day I walked out of the hospital that did my uploading.
I shook my head and smiled. “No, I don’t think I could,” I told her, and I meant it.
Coming down the wire, I’d had a long time to think. I was upset, but not because of the loss to humanity or to science that the scrapping of the Starseeker Project had entailed. I was upset because I couldn’t get away, because now I’d be stuck here and I’d have to face a long, long lifetime of living with myself and the decisions I’d made. The truth is, I didn’t give a damn about the Starseeker’s mission. Finding new worlds, maybe settling one and opening up a vast new frontier for humanity would have been the ride of a lifetime. It could have filled a thousand years. It was a nice, simple, uncomplicated thing to do.
And then it occurred to me that I’d been there before. When I started my business, I felt that same sense of vistas opening up, of an adventure beginning. I threw myself into it and loved it. It was clean and simple, risks could be calculated, progress could be measured. With little more than addition and subtraction, I could plot and chart vast areas of my life. Instead of dealing with the grubby complexities of real life, I had found a world of simple abstractions to live in – profit, loss, risk, returns. It was pointless, really, a meaningless game I was childish enough to enjoy, something that kept me occupied eighteen hours a day while life churned and tumbled chaotically outside the tinted windows of my limo.
The collapse of the Starseeker Project was just a spill in someone else’s game of Monopoly. It didn’t matter to me on any level. Except, finally, I’d realised what I had been doing all those wasted years. I could go off now and find another grand project. I could start importing something the people here needed – God knows it wouldn’t be hard to find something – and build myself a new empire, write myself a thousand-year plan to dominate the market here, then on Mars, then on Europa, then on to some other star system, and on and on across the galaxy. I could do it. I knew I could do it.
But immortality has a way of focusing the mind. It makes you stop thinking in terms of what’s possible, or what’s fun, or what’s challenging. Instead, you start wondering about what’s important, what matters, what any of it would mean.
I’d still been two days from the bottom of that endless gondola ride when I realised I had better stop doing things and instead spend some time looking and learning. I needed somewhere to rest up for a while, maybe a very long while, and just bump along, just let the random motion of people and events nudge me around for a bit, feeling my way, finding out about myself. Now that I’d committed myself to a life without end, I needed some place I could go to get to understand this world I’ll be shackled to for such a very long time.
And then I remembered Carlotta’s offer.
“You didn’t ask what the job pays,” she said as I got up to go.
“Pay me what I’m worth,” I said, pausing in the doorway.
A man came in as I stood there. He was a mean, ugly man with mechanical augmentations on both arms and some kind of sensor embedded in his right temple.
“Fucking zombie,” he grumbled as he pushed angrily past me and made for the bar.
I gave Carlotta a grin and left. Behind me I heard her calling, “What’ll it be, Mister?”
by Graham Storrs