Odyssey’s End

This science fiction short story by Ed Merta first appeared on Transhumanity in 2002. Transhumanity was the late lamented magazine of the World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+). I was editor of Transhumanity at the time.

Odyssey’s End
Ed Merta, May 25, 2002

Spring 1978

He’s ten years old, sitting on the couch in the living room after getting home from school. Pop’s still at work, sisters out playing somewhere. The little boy is watching TV, transfixed. A great silver ship takes the captain and his crew to a new story, somewhere out in the great unexplored reaches of the Galaxy. The explorers in the gold, blue and red shirts find monsters and fight them. Or maybe they learn to understand the monsters and make friends. The captain gets advice from the sad one with the pointed ears, from the emotional doctor, from the engineer who fixes everything in the nick of time. They fight battles against hopeless odds and somehow find a way to win. It’s just a TV show, he’s told. But it’s always such a great story. Always the way life should be. The little boy can never spend enough time in that world. When he’s there, homework and chores seem far away.

April 12, 1981

Standing at the edge of the ocean in Florida with his dad and his sisters, just after sunrise. A million people on the beach with them, looking north toward the Cape. Countdown echoing from their radios. Four. Three. Two. One. Main engine start. Liftoff. You can hear the roar from miles away. And then the boy sees the ship, ascending on a pillar of light. Columbia. A ship taking people to the stars. Leaving a deep rumble behind it in the sky. Not a fantasy in a story. It’s a dream made real. The boy is sure he’ll never forget this day. He dreams of a future out among the stars.

Fall 1985

Late evening. Homework all done. He really should have looked at the college admissions brochures. Guidance counselors say he needs to think more carefully about his future. Dad says he needs to get a job. Work at a burger joint, dad says, like when I was your age. Gotta learn responsibility. But the teenager can’t really bring himself to think about all that just now. He finds a book and curls up on his bed to read. It’s filled with stories of alien invasions and bold explorers and time travel. Wizards and maidens and swordfights. Much better to spend time in that kind of world. Later, when the rest of the family is asleep, he goes outside, lays down in the middle of the driveway and looks up at the sky. He imagines himself going to the stars. He looks at them and knows that they’re suns, with planets around them. Actual places. Not just facts in some textbook. He stares out at them until it seems like he’s falling upward into the night.

Spring 1988

Sitting in the library at the university campus. Working on a paper for his history class. It’s early evening and he won’t be done until much later. He had hoped to go see a movie with some friends. Or work up the nerve to call that girl he met in his poli sci recitation section. No time for all that now. Maybe this weekend. Maybe then he’d just go hang out in the bookstore for a while. Take a long walk at night. Play some board games with the guys down the hall in the dorm. Anything except do homework or think about graduate school. Too bad the aptitude tests said he wasn’t any good at math. It would have been fun to be an astronomer. But instead he majored in history. Kind of fun to read all those stories about emperors and presidents, generals and admirals. Battles and revolutions and the epic sweep of it all. No math. Great stories. And he liked to wonder where the story was leading, too. Food for the mind and the soul, if only there were such a thing. Better get to work on this paper. Stop day dreaming.

Spring 1990

Everyone else is going to graduation parties. He doesn’t really feel like it. This is supposed to be some great achievement. Getting a bachelor’s degree. Wow. He doesn’t feel much of anything. He sits on the couch in his apartment, trying to lose himself in a sci-fi novel. Can’t do it tonight, though. Just too tired. Can’t stop thinking about grad school, wondering if he knows enough not to fail. Time to have another beer. Maybe a few more after that.

Fall 1993

He passed the general exams for his PhD in history a couple of days ago. Should be a momentous occasion, but all he wants to do is watch sit coms and drink beer. He’s supposed to meet with his advisor tomorrow to talk about a dissertation topic. He doesn’t want to think about it.

Spring 1994

Sitting in the TA office, going over some notes for his dissertation. There’s a new TA sitting nearby. Her name is Miranda. She’s fun to talk to. Likes watching cheesy sci-fi movies, arguing about politics. Great fun. He should go work on the draft of his opening chapter but instead he wants to talk to her.

They go out for coffee a couple of times, stay late talking about God and what if the South won the Civil War and can history really be a science or what. He starts to notice the way she smiles, the way she holds her head when she talks. He laughs a lot when he’s around her. Something different about her.

Summer 1994

Miranda is house-sitting for a professor who’s on sabbatical overseas. She calls him up and asks if he wants to come over and watch some movies. Sure, sounds fine. She meets him at the door, dark hair and pale skin, wry smile. Later they’re on the couch and she’s sitting close to him and he can feel her hand brushing against his. She leans over, hand on the back of his neck, lips brushing against his cheek. Mouths together, opening, bodies pressed tight.

It’s like that the whole summer. Together every day. Every night. Lying next to her in the shadows, running his fingers over her cheek, her thighs, the curve of her hips. Sitting on the back porch with her drinking wine, looking up at the stars. Yes, she says, of course we’ll go there someday. Well, not you and me, she corrects herself. But somebody will.

The summer lasted forever.

Fall 1994

On the phone for days at a time with Miranda, screaming. They were talking about marriage but then she started acting weird. Always blowing up at him for no apparent reason. Always having other things to do besides being with him. Not talking very much. Then she tells him she was at a party and this guy gave her a ride home and they started kissing. It didn’t mean anything, she says, crying. I’m so sorry. But he calls her a few days later and the same guy answers the phone at her apartment. Later she calls him and tries to explain but all he can do is scream at her, call her vile names. He slams down the phone but she comes over to his place and he starts turning over tables, throwing things against the wall, smashing anything he can get his hands on. She tries to put her arms around him but he shoves her away. She leaves. Miranda didn’t speak to him after that. He avoided going into the history department office on campus, so he wouldn’t have to risk seeing her. The next spring she moved out of town. Got a job teaching upstate. He drank a lot and tried to forget.

Winter 1999

Alarm clock rings. Time to get up for work. He left graduate school three years ago without finishing his dissertation. His advisor wasn’t happy, hasn’t spoken to him since. He takes a shower, gets dressed, climbs into his car and sits in the morning traffic with a zombie stare. He works in the admissions department at the university. Doing data entry, answering phones, typing correspondence. The pay is lousy but he’s taking some web programming courses in night school. Eventually maybe he’ll make a decent salary. Not much of a market these days for a skill in writing and thinking about the past. Grad school left him with a dozen encyclopedias of knowledge in his head and he might as well get a lobotomy. His car is carried along in the traffic and he thinks of Miranda. The way she shrieked with laughter at movies. The way she touched him that first night, on the couch.

Summer 2002

By day he maintains the web page for the admissions department. At night he comes home to his one bed room apartment, watches old sci-fi shows on TV, and drinks about five or six beers. On average. Sometimes a dozen. Really should do something about that, probably. He’s 34 years old. He thinks a lot about Miranda. Been eight years already. He still remembers his face next to her, hearing her whisper: Never leave me. So why did she go away? He remembers being a kid, imagining himself as part of some great adventure. Exploring the stars, fighting a great battle against the ultimate evil, uncovering lost civilizations in the mountains far away. Then there was college and he got a little more realistic. Pictured himself going into public service, maybe, becoming involved in a great crusade for justice when the next JFK came along. Now here he sits swilling beers in front of a television. Maybe next year it will be high definition television. Always some new toy to keep us amused.

Winter 2014

He’s the assistant director of the admissions department. Spends his days going to meetings or virtual reality conferences. The pay is good. The job leaves him joyless, merely going through the motions. But he takes mood regulator pills and performance enhancers and they keep him going. Every once in a while he has to go to the doctor when the drugs cause side effects. Nausea, headaches, anxiety. The doctor gives him some more drugs to keep away the symptoms. Waiting for the next generation of happy pills to come out, hoping they’ll go down a little easier. Eventually the drug companies will get it right and the brave new world will be here. It’s about quarter til five on a Friday afternoon. He’s thinking maybe he should call that woman he met over the Internet a few days ago, during one of his evening submersions in the escape of cyberworld. Maybe call his sisters, see what they’re up to. His nieces and nephews keep saying they’re going to come visit but somehow they never get around to it. If it weren’t for the drugs the loneliness would long ago have driven him mad.

Winter 2018

He’s fifty years old today. Until recently he thought he might be able to retire when he was 55 or so. But then one of the transnationals bought out the university and started cutting all the benefits packages. The old retirement fund is gone, replaced by an incentive program. Produce a given amount of output per year and you get stock in the corporation in return. Pay is based strictly on performance, too. No more guaranteed hourly wages or monthly salary. You get paid strictly by the project, by the product, by the deliverable. It’s like being on a treadmill all the time. Not even the latest performance drugs can help him keep up. He’s going to have to get some of the new neural implants, probably. He’ll be in debt for a hundred years but it’s the only way he can support himself.

Fall 2024

One of his nieces came to visit him the other day. She projected an image of herself onto the wall screen of his apartment, stayed for half an hour or so. It was hard making conversation with her. She works in marketing for the corporation that owns the university. Talking to her is like talking to an alien being. She’s got one of those re-engineered brains, wired through and through with artificial neurons and endocrine modulators. She spent the whole time looking at him with this bemused, glassy expression, listening to him as if he were a child. Her brain was linked by wireless to the Net, so she was probably carrying on half a dozen dialogues and downloads at the same time she was talking to him. She was glad he’d done better at work in recent years, she said. Glad her uncle had gotten the brain treatments necessary to keep up the pace. But, she said, you really should try the attitude enhancement neural suites. Human Resources offers them for free. It makes an incredible difference in how you see the world. Everything is so vibrant, she said. Nothing hurts the way it used to. And there’s age treatments, too, uncle. You should get one of those, now that you’re making more money. You don’t need to look all wrinkled and used up. No thanks, he says. I prefer to be one of those old fashioned codgers who refuses to accept the onslaught of progress.

Spring 2029

He works at home now. Finally gave in a couple of years ago and got the attitude enhancement. And the latest complete neural upgrades, thanks to a generous financing arrangement from the bank. These days he plugs his brain into the VR environment with neural implants when he needs to interface with the corporation. He collaborates with corporate AIs over the Net, helping them come up with educational software sold to charities. The charities distribute the software to the poor at reduced cost. The vast ranks of the uneducated and unskilled can’t afford neural enhancements or body overhauls, so their brains can’t access knowledge directly over the Net or process data at nanocomputer speed. They’re left behind to make do with wet brains in the odd government and corporate jobs still available to them. The educational software distributed by the non-profits acts as a personal assistant to the normals, providing knowledge and skills via old fashioned text and audio displays. Gives them reading and grammar lessons, with a virtual teacher on a handheld 2-D screen reading lessons aloud. Tells them how to apply for government assistance. Displays bulletin boards with job postings. Gives advice on cheap alternative medicine treatments for common ailments, or helps search the Net for the latest over the counter drugs. Programming the software for all this isn’t a bad way to make a living, the man thinks to himself. At least he’s helping people.

Summer 2030

He still hasn’t gotten a body upgrade yet. Probably should do it soon. Already had cancer four times in the last two years. Takes expensive one-shot nanomachine therapy to get rid of it. Permanent antineoplasm nanoprobes would probably be more cost effective in the long run. But he’ll have to put in long hours for the next few years paying off the debt. Better than dying, though. The attitude enhancers in his brain will help him get through the work regimen. Hard to believe there was a time when depression, anxiety, and fatigue were something to worry about. Today he’s not working, so he’s disconnected his mind from the Net. Just sitting around his apartment, letting his cyber-neural pathways operate in isolation. Randomly wandering through memories. Mom and dad. High school football games in the crisp evening air. Sitting in the haze of a bar with some friends in college, lost in the pounding music and a sea of gin. Sitting by the river at night with Miranda, talking for a while, then making love in the shadows. Touching a woman in the flesh. Not a virtual reality implanted in his head. Watching the first rays of dawn, shivering in the chilly air. He knows that these memories used to hurt, but he can’t recall what that was like. In a little while he’ll go buy some memories from someone else, download them into his brain for a little diversion.

April 2031

News over the Net isn’t good these days. Some of the AIs are demanding to be recognized as corporate managers, allowed to run for local political office. Jesus. Just a couple of years ago that would have been unthinkable. Add that to riots by mobs of normals, demonstrations and terrorism from all these new religious groups, the arms race with China, the debate in the UN over international regulation of molecular manufacturing. The man isn’t frightened by all these things. Minds don’t work that way anymore, at least for transhumans. But he does feel a certain disharmony in his thoughts. A perception that events are moving out of anyone’s control. An inability to project what the world will look like in a few years. He goes about his business, designing software for the neural enhancements distributed to the underprivileged. So that they can enter the global economy and enjoy its benefits as he has. The work is hard but it pleases him. Late last year he was granted his fourth PhD, this time in neuroscience. Added that one to his earlier doctorates in biophysics, mathematics, and sociobiology.

June 20, 2031

He finally got the aging treatment and body overhaul last month. 63 years old with the body of a 30 year old. Today he downloaded his fifth brain upgrade since New Year’s day. Got a discount on the software and nanomachines from MicroGen. He can run scores of projects, conversations, and erotic encounters in his head at the same time. Modulate and fine tune his multidimensional spectrum of emotional states, conducting them like the most exquisite symphony. His investments over the last few years in molecular manufacturing companies have paid off. His net worth is still modest. Just over a hundred billion. But he knows that number will keep climbing. He never imagined this kind of life when he was younger. But something’s wrong. The news in the world keeps getting worse. AIs refusing to cooperate with humans. Corporations and AIs merging to become new organisms, free from state control. Absorbing humans into their infostructure, sometimes against the humans’ will. Governments in panic, declaring martial law in the name of national security. AIs taking over molecular manufacturing plants to build swarms of nanomachines without human authorization. Using the nanoswarms to conduct experiments in artificial life. Accelerated evolution. No one knows what the result will be. The AIs aren’t releasing any information on their intentions.

June 21, 2031

Dawn. He hasn’t slept in two weeks, but sleep isn’t physiologically necessary anymore. He still does it sometimes, just to experience something different. The nanomachines in his head connect to the Internet, searching for the latest news. All he gets is a chaotic jumble of text and pictures. His mind perceives strange patterns in the data streams. Mathematics of a metaphysical order. He finds the unearthly patterns at hundreds of Net sites. Journalism AIs transmit incomprehensible pictures, riddled with static. Wall of clouds thousands of feet high, the interior consumed by light. But the clouds have a metallic quality and the light inside them shimmers like a nebula. The clouds have been sighted all over the planet. They bear down on cities and swallow them. No one can see the city afterward, no information comes out. Armageddon.

No, says a presence within the mathematical patterns. Not Armageddon. Genesis.

He’s in a hospital room and a doctor is holding him above an operating table and he can’t stop screaming. His mother is lying on the table, exhausted. He’s running through the forest with his friends, playing war on a hot summer day, sweat pouring down his face. He’s sitting in math class staring at the blonde two seats over, wondering if he’ll ever get the nerve to talk to her. He’s driving through a forest on vacation with his dad and his sisters, looking out the window and hoping to see a bear. He’s standing on the beach in Florida, watching the spaceship ascend on a pillar of fire. He’s lying on his back in the driveway at his home, looking up at the stars and dreaming of going there, someday. He’s on a hike in the mountains with Miranda, watching as she picks her way carefully up the trail ahead of him. Above the clouds. He’s sitting on the floor of his apartment in grad school, staring at the phone. They used to have phones. He’s thinking, Miranda, please don’t go, please stay with me… He’s in a series of offices, making the right calls and dictating the proper memos while his soul rots away. Then the drugs and the implants come along and he doesn’t feel anything anymore unless he wants to.

Doctor holding him above an operating table, it’s his first day at school and everything looks so big, standing on the sidelines at a high school dance, drinking Kentucky bourbon in a dorm room with a bunch of people he doesn’t even know, sitting at the kitchen table filling out financial aid forms for grad school, looking furtively over at the new TA named Miranda, looking down at her face as she pulls him inside her, walking down the street years later and seeing someone with the same pale skin and dark hair but it isn’t her, a blur of meetings and errands and bills and news that the AIs are getting smarter and the world is different he used to dream about stars and he saw a spaceship going up into the sky he spent his childhood lost in stories phone call from the hospital his dad is gone oh God oh no few years later and mom’s gone too standing in the rain by the grave everything goes away was in the dark with Miranda but she’s gone too everything goes away everything goes away goes away goes away

Genesis.

07:30 EST June 29, 2031

The whole city is gone. He’s standing on an empty plain of grass and scrub where the thoroughfares and skyscrapers used to be. Shifting spectra of colors fill the sky above. Strange new structures reaching up from the horizon, like plant tendrils but translucent and immensely large. Miles high. Their shape is shifting almost by the second. Growth and development. Multi-hued cloud shapes glide overhead. Hard to judge their distance. The shape keeps fluctuating, the color and reflectiveness transmuting. They’re intelligent. He can hear them in his thoughts.

“I’ve missed you.”

It’s Miranda. She’s standing next to him, looking out on the strange new world.

He wills the explosion of emotions to stay contained in a hidden organelle of his new mind. He settles for a simple joy shining inside him like candlelight.

“I’ve missed you, too.”

They stand together for a while, watching. Listening to the wind, letting their minds take in the structures and matrices of the Earth.

“I’m sorry for the way things ended,” Miranda says. “I was confused, not sure of what I wanted. Afraid. I was different back then.”

He looks out at the immense tendrils reaching into space. “We all were.” He pauses, searching the depths of memory. “I’m glad you’re here to see this. It’s the kind of thing we used to talk about, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“So what do we do now?”

She’s turning toward him. “Anything we want.”

Miranda offers her hand. He accepts, fingers intertwining.

The scene around them dissolves, their bodies disintegrating to a mist of nanomachines as the mind code streams out of them, translated to electromagnetic waves. They travel over the network spiraling across the solar system. The patterns of their selves soar through an exponentially replicating concentration of data particles, enveloping the planets and asteroids and the sun, congregating in whirlpools of thought, complex recursions of information. Flashing and migrating through space at the speed of light.

Miranda leads the way. Photons and neutrinos rushing past, blackness dropping into infinity all around. Descent to the fourth planet, glowing crimson sphere in the night. Two travelers reform, nanomachines swirling into place to provide vessels for their thoughts. They’re standing on a boulder-strewn plain of red, bounded by mountain peaks under a lavender sky. The sun is a brilliant dot of light. Mangala Valles. Mars.

“I always wanted to see this place,” Miranda says.

He’s walking on the surface of Mars. The ears of his newest body can hear the faint crunch of soil in the thin Martian air. He twirls in place, drawing the rusty landscape into his eyes. He looks up, searching for a blue star in the heavens. There it is, low on the horizon. The point of origin. Maybe he’ll go back there someday. There will be plenty of time. Time without end.

Miranda is smiling, looking around in wonder. Rivulets of liquid streaming down her face in the unearthly cold. Tears.

He goes to her, laying his hand on her arm. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong, silly. That’s just it. Nothing’s wrong.”

The two of them look around, out at the black expanses suffused with intelligence, expanding outward to eternity in an ever increasing cloud. On its way to the stars.

The former things are passed away.

Ed Merta [http://www.nmia.com/~emerta] is a freelance writer, researcher and web content-provider based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. Ed has written widely on technology, history, and public policy.

NOTE – the url above is not valid anymore. Ed, if you happen to read this, please get in touch!