Apollo 23: Chapter 1

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Apollo 23: Chapter 1: Himalia


From Guide to Inhabited Star Systems:

In human mythology Jupiter took Himalia as a lover. The best known "child of Himalia" is Jill Lyons, although only historians note that the woman known as "Jill Lyons" was given the name Sakir Querkad by her surrogate mother. Little is known about Jill's early life before her arrival on Earth...



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Sakir Querkad realized that she had dozed off and now, upon waking, she found her hand resting on top of the cold metal ashtray of the armrest. For how long had she napped? Her respiratory tract was raw from the assault of tobacco smoke that filled the airliner's passenger cabin.

In her third year of Observer training Sakir had learned about the damaging health effects of tobacco. She had asked why it was necessary to replicate details like tobacco smoking in historical simulations. Her instructors had confidently stated that she need fear no ill effects from the smoke, that only in the context of a primitive medical technology like Earth's were diseases like cancer a problem. Instructor Olsheng had said, "Our medical nanites seek out and remove cancer cells before they have a chance to form tumors."

Upon learning that she lived inside a simulation of Earth as it existed almost a century in the past, Sakir had given up hope of becoming one of the lucky Observers who were assigned for duty on Earth. So why were disgusting features of the past included here in the simulation? Some of the most annoying aspects of her life were never explained and Sakir had come to accept and try to ignore them.

The sun light had shifted while Sakir slept and it came through the window at a new angle. Sakir leaned her head forward, raising it out of the pillow of her long blond hair and used a thumb to push up the sun shield, making it easier to see the blue Atlantic Ocean spread below.

In the seat next to Sakir's was Lieutenant Maxwell Rundel. Sakir would have been happy to just ignore him.

Lieutenant Rundel noticed that Sakir was awake and commented, "You're back with me." Sakir could not tell if he was amused or irked that she had gone to sleep rather than continue talking to him. The smell of alcohol reached her from the lieutenant's breath. He'd started drinking half an hour into the flight and seemed intent on helping to exhaust the on board supply of liquor.

Sakir felt only slightly guilty at having dozed off while her loquacious travel companion had been talking. She turned her head and took a glance at the lieutenant's neatly pressed military uniform and the profile of his large-nosed Nordic face. Sakir again noticed what looked like a razor nick on his jaw. His empty scotch whisky cup rested on the fold-down tray in front of him.

Sakir had spent weeks anticipating a chance to discover interesting and clever friends during her visit to England and she was initially pleased to find herself seated next to an Englishman. However, Sakir had soon realized that she was starting the trip unfortunately and unavoidably saddled with a dull and boring soldier who smoked and drank and talked endlessly.

The roar of the jet engines and the hum of the airplane's ventilation system had faded from her consciousness, but now she again became aware of the background noise inside the airliner. Lieutenant Rundel had no trouble making himself heard and Sakir could well imagine him barking orders to fellow soldiers.

Sakir had a naturally thoughtful and quiet disposition and, even after five years working for the Agency, she was still uncomfortable speaking to strangers and in front of an audience. She was certain that the nearby passengers were unavoidably listening to the lieutenant's loudly stated opinions and she suspected that they could not avoid trying to also hear her side of the conversation. Sakir had not been comfortable with the lieutenant's overly familiar questions, and before falling asleep she had dodged several of his lines of inquiry. For professional reasons, Sakir preferred not to draw any attention to herself.

Before speaking Sakir swallowed to moisten her dry throat and remembered to use a British accent. Sakir was testing to see if she might be able fake an acceptable accent. Not wanting to encourage more conversation, she muttered, "Sorry, I did not sleep well last night." Sakir noticed that the lieutenant was ogling her legs. She was cold and rubbed her hands over her thighs. Her knee-length skirt had shifted, revealing almost all of her legs. Sakir was tempted to ask for a cup of water, but she was reluctant to do anything that would increase the likelihood of having to use the airplane's restroom.

For a moment Sakir thought about the on-going fashion trend towards shorter skirts and the fact that she had spent time the previous evening depilating her legs and bleaching her hair, which was not naturally blond. Now she could feel tiny stubs of hairs starting their growth back out of the follicles to the surface and wished she had worn stockings just for the added warmth. Sakir briefly contemplated the wisdom of a mammalian species that adopted the custom of battling its own biological nature. Why should men be forced to have clean shaven faces and women try to deny the reality of hairy legs? She wondered: why does it have to be so cold here? Sakir glanced at the hair on the back of the Lieutenant's hand where it rested on the armrest between them.

Sakir was a bit embarrassed that she even went as far as bleaching the naturally dark hair on the back of her hands. Half way through college she had learned how to use the dumb blond stereotype to conceal her scholarly nature. Now, almost all of her professional colleagues were robots pretending to be men, but Sakir conveniently continued to use little tricks she had learned to shield herself from male gallantry. Sometimes she wondered if the robots derived pleasure from playing the role of male chauvinists. They were exceedingly good at it and vicious towards women who demonstrated their skills, particularly intellectual talents that they themselves lacked.

Before Sakir had fallen asleep she had engaged with the lieutenant in the sport of trying to judge who was a robot. Since most of the "people" in their world were robots pretending to be human it was exciting to find another person. Robots were essentially impossible to identify by sight since their synthetic surface was a nearly perfect replica of the human body. However, there were other ways to test a robot. As a student of human language and communication, Sakir was able to make subtle shifts in her accent, and those changes had been noticed by Phillip right away and commented upon. Robots never did that outside of speech training sessions, so Sakir felt certain that Phillip Rundel was human. She was still puzzled about why a human companion had been provided for her flight to England. Given the tiny number of humans in the simulation, it hardly seemed likely that there would be two humans who needed to travel to England today. And why simulate a British soldier?

As obnoxious and tiresome as the lieutenant was, his presence did somehow give Sakir a feeling of security. Sakir was a bit worried by the recent hijacking of an airliner to Cuba. With the war, the Pueblo incident, the assassinations of King and Kennedy, Sakir found herself wondering if she might be subjected to some harrowing experience within the confines of the historical simulation. So far, she had led a peaceful life, but along with her innate discomfort at dealing with strangers, and given her very limited experience flying Sakir could not stop speculating about the possibility that an airplane or automobile crash involving herself could suddenly be engineered into her life.

Now Phillip was continuing to talk about the war and Sakir's eyelids again felt heavy. She was sick of the war and rather disgusted by his enthusiasm for all aspects of the military. For a moment she chided herself for caring about the stupidity of a war that was now decades in the past, but it was her duty to be fully immersed in the simulation and play her role. Sakir could not deny her personal dislike for war and killing. She noticed him expounding a bizarre theory about the war, "...just a way to keep up military funding and test new weapons systems."

Sakir felt sickened by his casual attitude about war and killing. She tried to dismiss his theory, "Nobody would sacrifice seventeen thousand soldiers just for war games."

Phillip chuckled, "Seventeen thousand dead a year? That's nothing. Twice as many died in driving accidents last year in the States. I can tell you are not from a military family." Then as a kind of afterthought: "What is most intriguing is that you don't have any family."

He had previously asked if she was married and she had ignored his question. Now Sakir teased, "I just take off my wedding ring when I travel."

Lieutenant Rundel laughed and then began a ponderous monologue on the topic of open marriages.

Sakir was annoyed at the idea of a stranger paying attention to her marital status, but she tried to dismiss the matter from her thoughts. She wanted to have a fun trip, a kind of working vacation, and she resolved not to let the lieutenant ruin her mood. She turned and looked out the window, wondering what a real ocean looked like from this height with a few clouds casting shadows from the sinking sun. She knew that they were deep inside a tunnel and her view of the Atlantic was only a simulation, but it was a fully convincing simulation.

What sounded like the Captain's voice came over the passenger cabin speakers, "Phillip Rundel and Sakir Querkad, please come to the forward cabin."

Sakir, startled by the intercom announcement, looked at her watch and noted that the flight should not end for several more hours.

Turning back to Phillip, she saw that he had already stood up. Sakir asked, "What's going on?"

Phillip held out a hand towards her and commanded, "Come on. Let's see what this is about."

Too dazed to do otherwise, Sakir stood up and followed him down the aisle. All the other passengers were seated and seemed unaware that anything unusual was happening. In all likelihood the other passengers and the flight crew were robots.

They quickly reached the little alcove behind the crew cabin door, which was closed, but the side door was open. A stewardess stood next to the open passenger door, a smile frozen on her face as if they had just landed in England. The in-flight simulation continued, but the engines were now silent and there was no wind. Without a word to Sakir, Phillip stepped out of the airplane and passed through the projected image field of the simulated ocean, clouds and sky.

Sakir felt slightly dizzy. It had been years since she had last stepped out of the Earth simulation for an orientation session and she could not imagine why she and Phillip were now being taken out of the simulated flight to England. Sakir asked the stewardess, "What is going on?"

The stewardess responded with robotic deliberation, "Watch your step. Have a nice day."

Looking for a floor or stairs under the simulated sky, Sakir stepped through the doorway. She passed through the image field and emerged in a dimly lit raw metal gantry that was now linked the simulated airplane. Sakir saw Phillip at the other end of the gantry and she hurried to catch up with him. He waited for her in an airlock at the far end of the gantry. As soon as she stepped into the airlock the outer door clanged shut and Sakir felt her ears pop. The back door of the airlock opened and Sakir followed Phillip into a small room.

Sakir found herself in what reminded her of a dentist's office, but rather than dental equipment there were devices of unknown purpose and function. Then suddenly she remembered an image from her Elementary Cultural Orientation class, more than a decade previously. Sakir whispered, "This is a spaceship!" She turned around and watched the door of the spaceship seal closed then she finally found her voice and asked, "Phillip, what is this? Where are we going?" She no longer bothered using a British accent.

For about 15 seconds Phillip gave his attention to the control pedestal. Phillip finally turned back to Sakir and replied, "Thank you for following me off of Himalia. Here, you may properly refer to me as Robot Velse."

Sakir asked, "A robot?" Resentment at having been tricked sparked to anger. Sakir demanded, "Why did you trick me into thinking that you were human?"

Velse allowed an external view of space to be projected before Sakir. "Look. We are in a spaceship and are now departing from Himalia. I was told to ease this transition for you. I wanted to try to make you relax and trust me before we reached the spaceport. It seemed best to let you imagine that I was human."

Sakir gave her attention to the projected view of space outside the ship. She had been exposed to such holographic data projections in school, but now she was startled by sharp detail in this view into outer space. Himalia and Jupiter appeared to rapidly shrink as the spaceship accelerated away. Sakir felt no motion as the spaceship's graviton compensators fully insulted the passengers from the ship's rapid acceleration.

Velse continued, "We are going to the asteroid...Hektor." Velse hesitated slightly, trying to be careful about the need to both deceive Sakir yet not say too much. Velse had long been based at Hektor, and most of the humans who worked there still refused to use the name "Hektor", preferring the name that had been given the asteroid long before Earth humans ever used a telescope. However, Velse decided that it was best for Sakir to simply learn and use the names for moons and asteroids that had been selected by astronomers on Earth.

Sakir had often imagined a day when she would leave Himalia and travel through space. She knew the fundamental facts of space travel from her schooling, but as the years had gone by she had become resigned to a lifetime of Observerhood on Himalia. The full importance of what was happening finally began to impact on her core brain systems and now her knees were shaking. Sakir sat down on one of the flight couches. She muttered, "I've never heard of Hektor."

Still trying to put Sakir at ease, Velse also sat down. "No reason you should have. We'll be there soon enough and you will meet Commander Deltarshi. She will explain everything to you, but it should already be obvious that you are entering into a new phase of your life."

The comfortable life she had known flashed in her memory and Sakir asked, "Am I allowed to contact my parents?"

The robot shook its head. "Your parents will believe that you have flown to England, as planned." Velse did not bother to mention that Sakir had already been replaced within the Himalia simulation. Deltarshi would soon explain to Sakir that she was just one member of a group of clones. Velse was not even tempted to mention that rather delicate issue now.

Sakir wondered why there was a need for such deception. She had long fantasized about being sent to Earth as an Observer. Very few Observers ever went to Earth, but when they did it was an occasion for celebration and a matter of pride for other Observers to be associated with one of the lucky ones who actually went to Earth. Sakir struggled to imagine where she was being taken with such stealth...and for what purpose.

Still annoyed by the robot's behavior, Sakir pointed to the Velse's face. "You even faked a razor cut. Why did you have to trick me rather than just tell me that I was being reassigned?"

Velse passed a finger over the cut and it was erased. "The other participants in the Himalia simulation know nothing of our destination. Sorry, but I was forced to sneak you out without warning."

Before Sakir could formulate her next question, the robot continued, "Commander Deltarshi will introduce you to your new existence. Take my word for this: you will soon learn secrets that cannot be shared with your parents or anyone else on Himalia."

In the external view, Jupiter had dwindled to a spark among the stars. Velse inactivated the viewer and sent a brief message to Deltarshi, using his built-in hierion-based communications equipment: Sakir Querkad has been extracted from the Himalia Simulation. We are on route to Hektor.

Deltarshi's response came back almost instantly: How is she adapting?

Using its internal communications circuits, Robot Velse replied: She is rather dismayed and anxious to learn what will happen next.

Deltarshi simply confirmed the robot's orders: Put her to sleep if she becomes agitated. Tulghik and I will speak to her as soon as you arrive.

The exchange between Velse and Deltarshi only took a few seconds during which Sakir said, "You failed to anticipate that I would be irked by your deception. Now we must share an uncomfortable flight to Hektor. Further..."

Through long experience, Velse knew that humans from simulations often harbored resentment of the robots that they were forced to live with. Velse now triggered the nanotes inside Sakir's brain so that they eased her into sleep. Velse watched the snarl depart Sakir's face and the robot pushed her body into the embrace of the flight couch. The robot said quietly, "I anticipated everything."

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