It was easy for Hawthorne to forget, in a simulation like Megan’s Columbia Trail game, that he was actually limited to two small rooms on the edge of a spinning ring surrounded by the lethal vacuum of space. “I think this sort of simulation will become vital for humans travelling in space over the long term in the future. I’ve really been able to relax and handle this situation a lot better because of your Virtual Environment and now Megan’s game. Seemingly natural surroundings seem to do a lot to soothe my mind. It reminds me how I would go to parks when I was feeling overwhelmed by research and work back on Earth.” Hawthorne mused softly while he sat in the defensive turret atop the caravan. They were on the move, closing in on Panama, though he was really sitting in the swivelling seat in his cabin.
T.I.A. walked alongside the caravan below, the walls of the cars extended outwards to provide cover from the sun. Hawthorne even had a small canopy over him to protect him, providing he didn’t let his limbs hang out too far. While in reality T.I.A. and Hawthorne wouldn’t be able to have a conversation from such a distance and with such an obstruction without shouting, she was able to speak to him through her usual speakers, circumventing the realism of the game somewhat. “Megan and I were talking about something like that. We could design some computers intended to produce something like our Virtual Environments, purpose-built for only that purpose. Furnishing users suits and contacts might prove a little difficult, unless they’d be willing to share, but we might eventually be able to make uniforms and perhaps glasses for that purpose.”
He nodded at her, swivelling in his chair a bit to aim the railgun off into the distance, a monitor displaying what the gun’s cameras were seeing at various distances, preventing some tunnel visioning. “If we extrapolate that idea somewhat, we could utilize some cybernetic engineering towards those purposes, implanting the sensors of a VE suit into the skin of people, and perhaps replacing their eye or enhancing them with VE-capable implants. People undergoing such a procedure would more or less be permanently hooked into the simulations, allowing a crew of such cyborgs to navigate their way though beaches or parks while they’re actually moving about a cramped space ship. It would be a simple matter to map the physical objects in reality to virtual ones, not unlike old VR games back on Earth.”
She scoffed a bit with him unable to see her shaking her head. “Surely there is some benefit to unhooking from such a thing once in a while. Someone living in fake spaces forever could not possibly be healthy. They have to experience reality once in a while.” She hummed softly, thinking. “Actually, maybe such people would do just that when they are on vacation, perhaps on a space station or on a planet. I suppose the simulations don’t need totally take over reality either. They could be used for simple displays, advertising, providing information in an emergency… There were efforts to install such things on Earth, Augmented Reality signage and advertising, but the infrastructure never got put in since the initial costs were always deemed too expensive.”
Hawthorne laughed at that idea. “I cannot tell you how much I wish I’d be able to just flip a setting in my eyes and suddenly not be able to see any of the advertising around me. They had monitors and posters in my university, advertising teachers and their classes, grade point averages, and the like. When they started putting the average incomes of graduates on those ads, it drastically altered the focus of a lot of people choosing classes. There were more than a few lawsuits brought to teachers that advertised their numbers inaccurately. I appreciate that the university was trying to make whatever money it could, but it seems to fly in the face of the idea of educating the best and brightest to handle the biggest challenges of the world. I can only imagine how many geniuses went undiscovered because they ended up in high paying fields instead of higher mathematics and sciences.”
T.I.A. shrugged and smiled, watching some of the others walking around her and waving at others who were under the cover of other cars in the caravan’s chain. “Probably less than the number of geniuses that had their intellect smothered due to being diagnosed with developmental disorders and medicated into mediocrity. Back on topic, though, I guess if a crew wanted to be permanently jacked in to their ship’s VE, it would be their choice. I can’t imagine, with the kinds of people you brought on this journey, that there will be much in the way of forced augmentation. As long as it’s something people choose for themselves, I don’t see much issue with it.”
“Good point. I’d like to see a free culture develop. I wonder how much the technologies invented after we left will change them. If our efforts go the way we hope, we’ll have animals where they didn’t expect animals, and perfect virtual reality for them to enjoy and work with. Hang on.” Hawthorne quieted down as one of the screens on his monitor started flashing. He tapped it with one hand while adjusting the aim of the gun with the other. Cameras swapped to zoom in, allowing him to catch sight of an Iron Roach burrowing under the sand ahead of them. Swiping the image, he sent it out to the other gunners, as well as the scouts and Elders. “Here we go.”
An alarm sounded as red lights flashed, and everyone leaped into action. Civilians clambered into the open cars wherever they were, and from within they would shut the walls down to secure them inside. The scout cars that were arranged around the caravan in a loose circle pulled into a tighter formation, allowing Vasille and Thorne to direct their forces and coordinate on the sighting of the enemy. A handful of the caravan’s gunners rotated their guns, trying to pick up on other ambushes while the others focused on the distant roaches. Over the intercom came a steady, feminine voice that Hawthorne and T.I.A. recognized as Jessica.
“Attention Phoenix Clan. We have detected roaches at twelve-thirty, almost dead ahead. We’re going to plough right through them, so everyone stay in lockdown until we give the all clear. Take care of anyone who might have been hurt getting inside, and take stock of your water and rations in case we’re holed up for a while. Try not to panic, and we’ll get through this. Our scouts and gunners have this under control.” Her voice cut out, leaving the frightened civilians to wonder how things would turn out. Some of the cars were over-stuffed with people, but the hardy people managed to keep panic at bay.
Hawthorne calmly kept track of the mound of sand that housed the hidden roach ahead. Anticipating more, he fired a warning shot with his railgun, as per protocol, and watched the distant sand blow apart as the high-speed projectile hit the sand. Hawthorne reported to the other gunners, “Target did not scatter. Additional movement indicates more roaches. Please take care. Reloading.” Hawthorne monitored the reloading and recharging process of his railgun, a soft thunk indicating a new slug had been loaded into the weapon and a meter kept track of the electrical charge flowing into the weapon. The caravan being underway meant that the guns took longer to recharge, lowering their rate of fire noticeably.
A pair of explosions from additional rail shots further up the caravan uncovered their foes, causing them to unburrow and spread out to take cover behind whatever rocks they could find. The roaches ahead of them knew far less about their weaponry than the roaches that dogged at their heels, so these ones thought that those rocks would be appropriate cover, rather than deadly shrapnel. Clouds of sand tore away from the caravan as the scout cars launched ahead, and through Hawthorne’s screen he could see the teams of three arranging to fire upon their cover.
One after another the rocks exploded, sending pitch-black limbs, gore, and carapace flying as the roaches hiding behind them were shredded by the shattered stones. A handful of the roaches fled their cover after seeing what happened to their allies, only to be run down as Vasille’s cars stunned the roaches with lightning guns and destroyed them with close-range slug fire. Hawthorne marvelled at their efficiency, and within a matter of minutes the lockdown was being cancelled and crews were being dispatched to harvest parts of the roaches.
“Wow.” Hawthorne jumped as T.I.A. spoke from over his shoulder, floating next to him and totally breaking the rules of the game. “They’re really good at this now. Not even a chance of a casualty this time…”
Hawthorne reached out to tickle the floating girl, only to blink as his hand passed through her. “Ah, are you still down in the car and just taking a peek from up here?” He turned back, watching as one of the larger ‘mother’ vehicles of the LSC moved out to retrieve meat and metal from the roaches. The meat would be used for fertilizer and the metal would be recycled into equipment and ammunition.
She nodded at him, humming. “Good eye, spotting them. Considering where we’re at, that was probably the last group in front of us. They’re supposed to come from behind after we get to Panama.”
He nodded back, smiling. “Good to know. We’ll be stuck for a long time trying to bridge our way through. I’ll talk to Sherry and Jessica about making sure we have our best eyes out at night watching for them to sneak up on us.”
T.I.A. shrugged. “They’d have done that anyway, but since it’s a game you’re probably right in making sure to tell them. I have to get back to the kids. Lots of scraped knees climbing into the cars.” She vanished away into sparkles.
If it wasn’t for their ability to speed up time in the game, Hawthorne would have been exhausted by the time spent bridging the rivers and terrain in Panama. The other gunners and the scouts all looked worn out, the roaches always hounding them at safe distances in the dark and hiding during the day. They seemed content to follow them, the smartest ones hoping to ambush the caravan when most of them were sleeping. It was not uncommon for railgun shots to wake people up in the night, though lockdowns were less frequent since the caravan could be circled up defensively.
Crossing through Panama brought relief as the caravan proceeded towards South America, the end of the game coming in the near future. Megan seemed to lack much information on some of the events leading to the Floral Roaches joining them, the details obscured by distant meetings of Elena and the scouts with their new allies. Pulling into Medellin meant Hawthorne had to really get back to work as they started building emplacements and defenses to help repel the Iron Roaches when they came.
Everyone was working together like clockwork. Even the children did their best to help find scraps of metal and concrete for the adults to recycle as their fortress went up. Hawthorne consulted with the Elders on defensive positions and information on how to best place the Tesla Coils, and otherwise everything seemed to happen on its own. By the time the battle came, it felt like almost no time at all. Months and years of being chased were finally coming to a head in one enormous fight.
T.I.A. was sitting with Hawthorne at his railgun, helping keep track of the power systems spread throughout the caravan while he handled the gun. Their forces were arrayed below as he double-checked the new weapons system they’d installed for this defense. Rail-launched shells were part of his arsenal now, allowing him to blow holes in the enemy lines rather than just handfuls of lined-up roaches. “This is probably the last event, you know. We might be able to put this behind us. Are you okay with how this went? We both sort of fell into these roles, but I’ve really enjoyed being with you like this.”
T.I.A. leaned into his side, snuggling under his arm for a moment. “I’ve had a great time. Helping with the children’s been a dream come true. It was nice leaving all the machinery to you considering I’ve had that role for thousands of years. I just didn’t expect the chickens to be so fun and friendly though! They get treated like pets a lot more than they do livestock. Such wonderful little animals. The kids were the best though. Everyone was so different at different ages. I think I have a good handle on how to handle them if I ever need to be a nanny.”
A soft chuckle came from the aging Hawthorne. “Be careful with that kind of thinking, they might just take you up on the offer if you want to be a babysitter or nanny. We have a lot of career-oriented types along with us, and we want everyone to learn how to be parents and enjoy it if possible. No reason you couldn’t facilitate vacations for them though. I love the idea of all the kids growing up loving Auntie Tia.”
She scoffed, giggling and reaching out to poke his cheek. “And they’ll call you Grandpa Crenshaw.” She hummed. “You should take some time taking on the nanny role if we ever play this again, it will be good practice for you, just in case.” She quieted down as she slipped back to her screen, looking around and noticing a storm approaching. “There’s the storm.”
He welcomed the distraction, not wanting to address his likely child with Tia Monsalle. The idea of being in his late sixties and trying to be a father was very complicated. “We should expect some level of problems. That almost stopped her upload, right? We should try to wrap up the fight as quickly as possible.”
T.I.A. nodded and watched as the two armies started to square up. Hawthorne led things off, firing a shell into the mass of roaches, and then all hell broke loose. Megan hadn’t actually been part of the battle, so she had no idea how it progressed, so things fell into chaos as Iron Roaches slammed into Flora Roaches, and weapons fire rained down into the black mass of insects. Tesla coils raked through the enemy lines, attracted by the iron in their carapaces, and the storm above roiled and assaulted them with wind and flashes of lightning.
Megan had guessed correctly as lightning struck the coils, powering down parts of their grid as rain came down in sheets, making it hard to see targets. It got much darker as flood lights went out, and people had to see by the flash of weapons fire. A final lightning bolt struck the Beta Facility car on the top of a nearby hill, causing it to explode in a brilliant fireball. Hawthorne, T.I.A., and Thorne all screamed out in horror as they realised Jessica had been killed for a final time in their gameplay, leaving them sobbing as the scene faded out.
Hawthorne and T.I.A. looked confused as light returned around them. They were dressed differently and all their friends were around them in a U-shaped crowd. They stood in the center while the cyborg Megan stood before them. Looking down at themselves, and at each other, Hawthorne and T.I.A. realized they were dressed like a bride and husband. Great pains had been gone through to dye their hempen clothing black for Hawthorne’s suite, and white for T.I.A.’s dress. Jessica looked particularly pleased, as if she’d made out the form-fitting, revealing dress herself.
Hawthorne’s mouth was agape as he realized what was going on, only for Megan to start speaking. “Friends and Family, we are gathered here today to witness the joining of two spirits who pine for one another. The binds that tie us are our salvation, and it is through these links that we’ve survived everything that has plagued us. No one would be faulted for losing themselves to fear and despair over the course of our journey, but every time we’ve been there to help find each other again. These two have found each other in the darkness, and together we bring them into the fragile light of our collective fire.”
Megan continued as T.I.A. and Hawthorne started wiping at their eyes, the emotional swing of watching Jessica die and finding out they were properly getting married hard to handle. Megan seemed to anticipate this as she rolled along. “Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw, and Tia have shared their light with each other, but from today on they will be each other’s light entirely. I am pleased to stand here before you two with the privilege of bringing you two together in blessed matrimony. Hawthorne.” Hawthorne stood stiffly as he was address, clearing his throat. “Do you take Tia as your wife, to light her way, as long as you both shall live?”
“I do.” Hawthorne spoke clearly and firmly.
Megan turned to address T.I.A., her body jerking awkwardly. “Tia, do you take Hawthorne as your husband, to light his way, as long as you both shall live?”
T.I.A. was on the edge of tears, much less composed as she wailed out, “I do!”
“Hawthorne and T.I.A. have pledged before us their everlasting devotion. Do we, the Phoenix Clan, acknowledge their love and accept them beneath our wings?”
As one, the collected voices of hundreds all spoke aloud, startling Hawthorne and T.I.A. with the volume. “We do!”
Megan lifted her arms above her head. “Then, with the power vested in me by the Elders, I pronounce Hawthorne and T.I.A. wed. Everyone, embrace your new family!”
Hawthorne and T.I.A. gasped as everyone closed in around them, smothering them in hugs and kisses as the two were squished against each other, a flow of people offering congratulations and all manner of touches and kisses. Many of them made their intents known as hands groped or pinched at the couple, leaving them panting and blushing by the time they pulled away.
Megan spoke again, now in the normal, human form they knew her as. “Hawthorne, you may now kiss the bride.”
Hawthorne nodded and swept up T.I.A. into his arms, giving her a deep kiss as everyone around them erupted into cheers and celebration. T.I.A. clung to him tightly, tears spilling from the corners of her tightly-shut eyes.
T.I.A. 1576.001: “I can’t believe you did that! That was a wonderful surprise Megan! That was the best surprise ever!”
Mother 1576.020: “Ah, so you found the secret city of roaches then, where humans and roaches coexist in perfect harmony. How did you like it?”
Mother 1576.023: “I am just kidding, how did you like your wedding?”
T.I.A. 1576.039: “You know very well we didn’t find any such thing! You married Hawthorne and I! That was too amazing! The timing was a little awkward, being right after the battle, but that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever been a part of.”
T.I.A. 1576.042: “Dammit Megan, you know how long it takes these messages to arrive. I absolutely loved it though. That was a really thoughtful thing you did for us!”
Mother 1576.061: “I am happy to hear it. I made that whole game just for that purpose. I hope it caught you by surprise the way I intended? I expect that last bit will not be in the version I share with the colonists. I will also have to adjust the difficulty, since I put it together with the assumption that a real engineer would be working in it and not just a normal player. It might make for a good educational tool to teach that kind of work to children though. In the meantime, I have a wedding present for you. Sending the data now.”
T.I.A. 1576.080: “What!? There’s a bunch of comets ahead that are going very slow? How is that possible? I have to ask Hawthorne about this next cycle! We’ll be coming into the region in four cycles, right? Are you okay? Have you encountered any dangers?”
Mother 1576.099: “I have, absolutely. I am fine though. My hull is more than tough enough to handle a light pelting. I have measured and mapped the trajectories of the objects though, so that you can defend against them. If I were to take a guess, it seems as though this is a region where the Sol and Alpha Centauri Oort Clouds overlap, and the gravity interacts strangely. From my understanding, their low speed should cause them to fall in towards their home stars, but the pull from the opposite star has them trapped in freefall between them, arresting their movements.You should be able to commandeer them with fair ease.”
T.I.A. 1576.119: “That’s amazing! We’ll have so many resources at our disposal! I’ll prepare a bunch of takeover packages to pull them into our power. I probably won’t be able to get any of them to you since you’re going so fast, but they should be able to arrive with the Ark by my estimates.”
Mother 1576.139: “Take care not to prepare too many. Accelerating those objects towards Alpha Centauri will take a great deal of time, leaving them out of your reach for hundreds of cycles or more. You do not want to risk running out of materials while waiting for them to arrive. The Phoenix is not as massive as the Lubar Masis was, nor are many of the objects you are about to take. The marked objects are ones I intend to take, with the intent of using them to provide water on a planet if we need them.”
T.I.A. 1576.159: “Okay, I’ll take these ones then. Do be careful with them, and have them coordinate with me so we don’t overlap their courses.”
Mother 1576.179: “Understood.”