“What did you do to me!? What went wrong!? Was it the cloning? Oh god, did my botched gene therapy mean that I’d be cloned into a monstrosity!? Why didn’t you just let me stay dead!?” Megan was in a full-on panic as she observed the inhuman mass of flesh and veins that appeared to be her body. T.I.A. flinched back, her android hiding behind Hawthorne’s robot as she observed what surely must have been a combination of her first dream and Hawthorne’s nightmare at the start of their journey. Being able to see into Megan’s imagination through the monitor left her no less terrified. Her fleshy masses writhed and flailed in a an obscene and distressing manner.
“Megan! Close your eyes!” Hawthorne shouted through the audio linkup. Megan didn’t have ears so much as she had radio receivers, and both T.I.A. and Hawthorne were transmitting from the Ark. The large eye that was currently observing its own body on the monitor grew eyelids and closed them, blacking out the image altogether. “Okay. Now listen. You’re in a grassy landscape with gently rolling hills. The fields are littered with patches of beautiful, fragrant flowers, and a handful of shade trees. The sky is blue, and the sun is partially blocked by white, fluffy clouds. You can feel some of the sun’s heat on your right leg, but most of your body is protected under the shade of one of those green, lively trees.”
Hawthorne continued, trying to bring Megan under control. “You can feel the comfortable clothes on your body, a simple tee-shirt and skirt. The grass is moist under you, and you can feel how slippery it is against your hands. As you open your eyes you’ll see your old, youthful body. You must be no older than your mid-twenties. Your skin is smooth as you touch your face, and your breathing is calm as you taste the sweet air of the spring day.”
As he told her she was opening her eyes, Hawthorne and T.I.A. observed just the sort of landscape he’d described, the rolling hills extending off to the horizon where the blue sky seemed to fill the rest of Megan’s view. As she looked down at herself, and touched her face, she seemed relaxed, calm. She kicked her feet against the grass and reached out to pull some of it up so she could smell it. “What’s going on…? I don’t understand.” Megan’s voice sounded much more natural and youthful, as if she’d become the younger version of herself Hawthorne described.
“Look back at us. You can see us through the window.” A window hung nearby, where Megan could see the two robots, one of them hiding behind the other and looking at her from under its armpit. The robot in front waved at her, its movements strangely natural despite its unnatural appearance. “That’s us, Tia and I. We’re using these robots to interact with you, but we’re actually both on the Ark. We’ve constructed a machine mind for you to inhabit, much like Tia’s. Everything you’re seeing right now is in your imagination. You may recall that Tia had a physical female form in her communications with you? That was just a projection of her imagination, much like what your body appears to be now.”
Megan looked out across the starry expanse through the window, and the robots talking to her, and then down at herself. She felt her hands as she pressed them against each other. It all felt real to her. She didn’t feel as numb as she did back on Earth after her procedures. “I’m a machine now?” She stood up and reached out to touch the tree. Taking a simple grip of it she pulled it up out of the ground, tearing the roots from the earth below. She expected to see steel and wires underneath, and gasped as she did indeed see them as she tossed the tree aside. “It really is all fake…?”
Hawthorne sighed. “Yes, though not how you think. You’re imagining what you want to see. You need to be careful, you can directly manipulate your mind. Take things slowly. In some sense you’ve been dead for thousands of years, and in another sense you’ve just been born. You are a new being, a human mind placed into a machine reconstruction of a human mind. I also need to inform you that whatever it is you did to your old body, in particular your brain, you did a lot of damage. Your file had less than half the expected size of a human mind’s upload size, from our data. Do you know what was done, regarding your implants?”
Megan hummed softly, nodding and willing the tree to float back over and embed itself back into the earth, hiding the underlying structure she imagined her mind to have. She did not wish to do damage to her mind if she could avoid it. “I was weak. I was in a lot of pain, and I was willing to do anything to make it go away. Every part of me that could cause me pain was removed. Well, emotional pain, anyway. I suppose it is likely that in that desperation to remove that pain it resulted in removing a lot more. I have a vague recollection of what caused the pain, but it’s like I read about it in a book rather than actually experienced it.”
T.I.A. slipped from her space behind Hawthorne, reaching out a hand to touch the monitor, causing it to disappear from Megan’s view as it moved below her apparent camera. “Megan, you don’t need to feel pain anymore if you don’t want to, but we could teach you how to live with it and embrace it. You don’t have to think about the things that hurt you before, but you can learn from them and grow and live for the future.” T.I.A. had a curious look of wonder on her face, from Hawthorne’s perspective, the thousands-year old AI seemed to be attempting to guide her sister into acceptance of her new existence.
Megan tilted her head as she watched the robot trying to reach her soul out to her. She smirked in amusement at that, her tanned face observing what surely must be the equivalent of a young woman behind those actions. Blonde hair tumbled from Megan’s hair, her modestly curved body shifting its weight to her right leg while her left hand rested on her hip. She seemed amused to hear what T.I.A. had to say.
“Life… is not what I expected it to be. I wanted to be more like what Hawthorne and his colleagues are for a time, but I’ve come to embrace what I am and the things that came with it. Emotions are useful for encouraging you to act in your best interests and to protect the things and people close to you. Letting them run rampant seems to result in uncontrolled states that don’t always have a use to them. It was difficult, but I’ve learned to better keep them in line, and I’d be happy to teach you how to as well.” The way that T.I.A. had moved up close to the camera, her mostly-featureless head tilted up to look at her suggested to Megan she had some kind of expression on her unseen face.
Megan hummed, rolling her eyes and twisting her face into a frown. “And what if pain, and anguish, and loss hounded you every minute of every day? What if it clawed at your very being, reminding you of the things you couldn’t be, no matter how much you wanted them to be?” Megan stepped back, willing the visual her companions were observing to pull back from the first-person view it had attained since Hawthorne had her close her eyes. “This was a good body, a fertile one, one ready for a family. I had a husband, someone I loved so much it made my heart ache. One day I’d made what I thought was a logical, reasonable decision that took all of those things from me. Dreams of a family were lost. I drove my love away despite his insistence that we could still be a family. I couldn’t look at him without the loss of what I had become digging and tearing at me.”
T.I.A. shrunk back from the camera again, looking back at Hawthorne. Megan couldn’t see much reaction in his body language, but she imagined they were sharing facial expressions. As she did, she was somewhat surprised to see their faces appear on their robots, though she narrowed her eyes as she realised that she was in control of them. She smiled as she gave them both silly expressions while she gave them her little speech.
“I ran. Much like you did Hawthorne. Pain and fear drove me, and eventually I found a way to make the pain finally stop.” Megan lifted her hands and started tearing bloody clumps out of her body, leaving gaping holes in her flesh across her head and abdomen. “If I tore things out and replaced them with machines, they pain went away. I didn’t feel empty anymore. But I did feel numb…” She hummed, looking down at herself. She started putting the pieces back, smoothing fusing them back into her body. “Like how I did just a moment ago. What an interesting, malleable mind…”
Hawthorne cleared his throat. “Megan, Tia’s right. We were wrong to let those things drive us. They may have caused us to accomplish many things, but the paths we cleaved were paths that left emptiness behind us. We have a potential future though, one that we can work together to achieve. I didn’t just revive you on a whim, Megan. While I am sympathetic to your circumstances, you have placed yourself in a situation where you can be of great use to our mission. I want to formally request that you work with us. Over the course of the mission you could be a huge help, especially with helping establish our foothold in Alpha Centauri. Will you help us?”
Megan’s eyes fell half closed as she watched Hawthorne, willing his face to something serious. She failed to match his lips to his words, but she felt it was a good, rough approximation for now. She leaned back a bit, straightening her stance and crossing her arms over her chest. “No doubt my revival came at some cost. No doubt this machine mind I inhabit is a drain on resources to power. I was never a woman to incur debts, Hawthorne, and I’m not about to start. In payment for your assistance I will cooperate with you. You can consider myself in your service. Know that I have a history of serving the powerful, and I am excellent at what I do. In bringing me back from the dead, you have resurrected the greatest servant of my era.”
Hawthorne smiled at first, but then grew to frown at her, in particular at the satisfied, egotistical smile he watched her place on his face through her window. “Megan, I won’t deny that I have a great deal of work for you to do, and it’s not something I can entrust to you lightly, but I do need to say that I don’t request this of you under duress. I have no intention of removing this life from you unless you become a threat. The costs incurred already have been paid through the experience I’ve gained in learning how to revive you in the first place, and teaching Tia to do the same. The costs to come in keeping you powered in the state you’re in are negligible, and ones I’m willing to pay myself. The work I ask you to do is work that I hope you will find satisfying and worthwhile. You’ll be helping us make a home for the people on the Ark, a home for a second branch of humanity on a new world, or worlds. We may one day work together to spread humanity to other new stars, or spread them across the galaxy.”
T.I.A. spoke from his side, somewhat quietly. “You and I could be mothers to galactic humanity.”
Megan flinched, her hands moving to clutch at her stomach. “You… you just had to say that…” She swallowed and closed her eyes, letting out a breath and straightening herself up again. She put her arms to her sides and inhaled sharply through her nose as she opened her eyes. “Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw, I pledge myself into your service, not under duress, but of my own free will. I look forward to many thousands of years of service, and working with you and Tia to do what we can to contribute to humanity. I very much want to be a mother, and I am grateful for this opportunity. I know it’s a simple desire, but it’s one that has defined who I am, and it’s about time I embrace it.”
Hawthorne smiled, both on his face, and in Megan’s imagination. “Thank you Megan. I promise not to take your aid for granted. I’d shake your hand if I could, but we haven’t given you one yet.”
Megan smirked. “No problem. I think I can handle that.” She reached out and pushed the window back, expanding it around Hawthorne and T.I.A.’s robots, and as it passed over them it placed what she remembered to be their bodies on them. Megan trembled and clenched her teeth in effort, bringing their images into the grassy field in her mind. She then extended her right hand, which trembled terribly.
Hawthorne extended his hand as well, wasting little time as he observed Megan struggle to simulate all of their bodies, and watched through the monitor as her simulation of him extended his hand as well. He aimed as well as he could, taking her hand and shaking it firmly, Megan’s eyes rolling back into her head briefly as she shook his hand back. The window abruptly snapped back, removing her guests from her simulation as she fell back onto her butt, gasping for air and trying to recompose herself. “That is really… difficult!”
T.I.A. looked over at Hawthorne, then back at Megan. “She did all of that in real-time, I think. Perhaps we could practice together? Maybe I could teach her how to be more efficient with her simulations while she could teach me to be more detailed?”
Hawthorne hummed thoughtfully, nodding. “We’ll have to put an interface together, but I don’t see why not. I’d like to have a neutral computer involved that would allow you both to interact through your simulations without being able to harm each other though. What was it you said, Megan, about malleable minds? We can’t risk the two of you damaging one another on accident.”
Megan nodded, sitting up and laughing a bit. “Or on purpose! I understand completely. Even on Earth when I was augmented they gave me implants that prevented me from harming others. It made me quite useless in the battles against the Roaches. I’m preferential to having my hands tied with such things anyway. I’ve harmed myself enough, I’d rather not harm others as well. I already feel like I’ve been used to do enough damage.” Megan hummed, deciding to stop talking on that subject. “I’ll use the time you’re working to tidy up my mind. There are things I’d like to lock away, and other things I’d like to learn. Do you have a library I could have access to?” Megan gasped as a long train of books arranged neatly on an impossibly long bookshelf launched its way through the fields of her mind.
Hawthorne laughed. “Already installed. Tia and I will get to planning the interface while you tidy up. Don’t forget you can move your camera over to the ship to see into the panel we have installed there.”
The blonde avatar nodded again, standing up to walk over to the books. “I think I’ll look at the stars for now, if you don’t mind. I came to enjoy looking at the starry sky once I had access to it again, travelling with the Phoenix Clan. Being reminded of my insignificance was strangely soothing. I could not see the stars before the Cataclysm. Seattle was too bright. Most of the world was, I suppose. How amusing that the darkness to follow brought back the light of the sky again. I wonder how the skies will look once humanity takes hold of Earth again, after all we’d learned.”
T.I.A. smiled over at Hawthorne, speaking up “Knowing them, I think Earth is in good hands.”
Over the intervening cycles, Megan kept mostly to herself, trying to gain a solid understanding of her new mind while T.I.A. coached her on the concepts of file manipulation, emotions, and the strange new reality of having perfect recall. While T.I.A. preferred to put certain memories into low-priority memory, Megan was very black-and white about it, spooling up ‘bad memory’ drives only when she wanted to lock something away. This became her vault, a physical manifestation in her VE that she actively forgot the combination to by shutting off the partition that had it. She could retrieve it if she really needed to, but she was more than happy to cut parts of her memory out. The only real problem was that by opening the vault, she had to endure ‘remembering’ its contents while it was open.
Megan kept the rest of her new self though. Her cyborg body was unable to completely cleave away painful memories, but her new machine mind was totally capable of trimming the fat. She could enjoy and embrace emotion again without the baggage of terrible memories. She did keep trimmed files of certain defining memories to have some recollection of her former self, but she did not keep attached emotions in those files. They were mere history books to her, and only had the emotion she put into them when she read them. Curiously, she never got to the point of deleting anything, only locking them away. She seemed to have a desire to grow rather than shrink. It was time for the scorched earth of Megan Clark to regrow from the ashes.
Meanwhile, Hawthorne labored over the mechanisms and programming necessary to interface two digital minds. It was especially difficult to isolate the imagination portions of both womens’ minds and put in safeguards to keep them from potentially harming each other. Perhaps the most difficult part of the programming for him was trying to adapt the original frameworks of their construction and the organic, indecipherable fashion that their minds had evolved over time. The substrate was something he knew intimately, but their programming was so alive and constantly changing and adapting that it was essentially impossible for him to properly understand it.
In the end, he built the programming equivalent of a pipe between them, with some safety grating to mitigate harmful interactions between them. He otherwise had to instruct the both of them to practice asserting their will and identifying the full extent of their ‘self’ versus foreign data. By the time he was done, both had had plenty of experience dealing with foreign data thanks to their access to libraries of information, books, and media, so neither had any worries about being overwhelmed by the other. He kept logs and notes about the process of this construction, curious about passing them on to Heather and seeing what she thought about making a similar interface between human minds.
Of course, the dreams of machine minds seemed to be far more conscious than the dreams of humans, but the ability for humans to link together in their dreams had a lot of potential. At last, though, came the day to boot everything up and get the T.I.A. and Megan interface online.
“Initiating interface now. High bandwidth transmitters connecting. Handshaking. Alright girls, you should be in contact now.” Hawthorne was hunched over his control panel, watching the readouts carefully and doing his own mental calculations of what the two must be experiencing.
“Permission to come aboard, captain?” Megan asked, giddy with the strange sensations of a wormhole-like object linking part of her mind to T.I.A.’s.
Hawthorne looked over to the image of T.I.A. and after seeing her nod responded. “Permission granted. Prepare for real-time file transfer.”
Megan screwed up her determination and stepped through the portal. Immediately she was bombarded with information. The rotation of the habitation module, the specifications for Hawthorne’s VE interaction suit, the simulation of Clapham Common that T.I.A. was currently running. It all flooded through the link and etched itself into her own mind. As she stepped through to the other side, near Hawthorne and T.I.A. she immediately collapsed, harmlessly banging her head on the floor as she tried to come to grips with the transfer.
T.I.A. and Hawthorne moved over to help her up, each taking one of her shoulders and bringing her to her feet. Megan groaned. “So, by ‘prepare for real-time file transfer’, what you meant to say was ‘watch the first step’.” She blinked her eyes several times and inhaled deeply, before stepping back from her companions and looking them over. Hawthorne was significantly taller than her, but she was fairly tall compared to T.I.A. as well. She fit neatly in the middle at 172cm. “Okay, so… just so I understand properly, I’m on a comet interacting through Tia’s imagination to project myself into a simulation in her ship that is currently rotating around a ring that Hawthorne is currently living within in reality while we hurtle through space at the same speed, accelerating steadily to a halfway point deep within the Oort Cloud in preparation for parting ways so that I can facilitate infrastructure construction at Alpha Centauri.”
Hawthorne and T.I.A. nodded, with the AI smiling particularly brightly up at her. “Welcome aboard! I look forward to working with you! I hope we can teach each other a lot and master these minds of ours together.” She leaned in to give Megan a big hug, squishing against her side and squeezing her tightly.
Megan let out an ‘oof!’ as the smaller body impacted and started lightly crushing her, and decided to hug her back. She let out a little groan and blushed slightly at the strange mind-to-mind contact they were having. She had to push T.I.A. away after a few moments, panting a little. “That… is remarkably intimate. Linking our imaginations seems natural enough, but directly interacting is… more than I expected.”
Hawthorne laughed softly. “You can probably thank Tia for that. She has a thing for being validated as a real person, which causes her physical reactions with others to be very enjoyable for her. Try not to think anything of it.” He hummed softly, wondering if he should elaborate on the type of enjoyment, but he suspected Megan was quite aware. She was within T.I.A.’s imagination at the moment, so she was probably subject to its rules.
T.I.A. blushed and nodded. “Sorry, yes. Doctor Heather O’Malley made me much more aware of that, so I’ve been a little sensitive since she visited with us a few cycles before we turned you on.” She hummed softly. “Well, I know the file information is available to you, but this is Clapham Common, a place important to Hawthorne before the Cataclysm. I originally made it for him as a gift, but I’ve really come to enjoy its soothing, outdoors location.” She extended her arms out, pointing out all the trees, and the lake, and the various benches and whatnot.
Nodding back, Megan rubbed at her chin in thought. “Mind if I show you what I’ve been working on?” After waiting a moment for the two to nod their consent, Megan requested permission to transfer a file. This time T.I.A. got to reel and gasp at the weight of information being flooding into her mind. She managed to stay on her feet, causing Megain to raise an impressed eyebrow.
Clapham Common disappeared, replaced with an expansive, expensive looking balcony in an obviously large city. There wasn’t much in the way of activity below, but the large balcony itself had a long fluffy looking couch, an elegant glass-topped table with a gold-colored metal frame that extended down into thin legs underneath. The chairs arranged around the table had similar framing, but the backs had a curved shape and soft-looking cushions protected bodies from the frame. Megan took a moment to rearrange the furniture to better fit the actual furniture in Hawthorne’s habitat.
This rearrangement included moving the doorway off the balcony to match up to Hawthorne’s bedroom, the glass doors hanging open with white curtains blocking view into the room beyond. Curiously, even with the brightness of the city, the night’s sky they were under was filled with stars, and in fact matched exactly the starscape that Megan could view from the Lubar-Masis comet. Hawthorne and T.I.A. could even see the Ark in the sky near the horizon. Megan spread out her arms, smiling. “Welcome to the balcony of my condo in Seattle, before the Cataclysm. I’ve replaced the sky, I hope you don’t mind. I was hoping T.I.A. had higher resolution images of the sky I could use to enhance it, though I like that I can see the Ark right over there. It allows me to look through your panel when I focus on it, so it’s a nice shortcut.”
Hawthorne looked around thoughtfully, taking a seat on the couch, enjoying the way his suit simulated the softness of it despite the fact he was just sitting in the same chair he always sat at. “This is very nice Megan. Very serene. Perhaps I should make a simulation of Tia Monsalle’s apartment…” He sat back and looked at the sky, watching as T.I.A. briefly worked her magic and replaced it with a much higher resolution file.
T.I.A. seemed ecstatic, leaning over the rail to look down at the street below, and looking at all the towers around her. “It’s so big and pretty! Seattle really was something else wasn’t it?” She plopped down into the couch next to Hawthorne, despite there being no real chair in its place, and she wriggled around to enjoy the soft texture against her body. “The Phoenix Clan didn’t have anything like this! It was all hard steel everywhere and hemp-coverings.”
Megan nodded, watching the two on the couch. “No, they didn’t. I’m glad you both like it. I lived here for several years while working for the President of the LSC, Elena’s father, before it all ended. We were evacuated to the bunker only a couple hours before it happened. I never thought I’d see this city again. I’m really happy you two gave me the chance.” Megan looked out at the skyscrapers, her eyes glistening with moisture.
Hawthorne hummed softly, wondering. “What happened Megan? What started the Cataclysm?”
Megan sighed and looked over at Hawthorne, staring at him for a moment. She decided to lie. “I don’t know. Perhaps that’s part of me I removed back on Earth.” T.I.A. pouted, having been hoping to learn what had happened.
Megan was happy to keep that memory locked away in the safe of her mind on the Lubar-Masis.