Monday, June 10, 2013
by Fred Warren
The claustrophobia was gone. Anya and Vicky had been guiding John through the restoration of his senses for what felt like several hours, and he could talk back to them now. He was still surrounded by thick darkness, but he could feel tactile feedback from his skin as he lay prone on some smooth, warm surface that conformed to his body’s contours, and when his nose itched, he could move his arm, hand, and fingers to scratch it. The air moving through his nostrils and into his lungs was cold and left a faint metallic tang at the back of his throat.
He knew all these sensations were part of an unimaginably complex computer simulation, but it felt so real. His consciousness was slipping into the Dreamers’ virtual world. It was frightening—and exhilarating.
He heard a series of high-pitched chimes, then Vicky and Anya began chattering excitedly to one another.
“Stage Three alert? You have got to be kidding me.”
“How could they have been overwhelmed so quickly? It must be a mistake.”
“No mistake. Look at the external feeds, Miss Sherikov—here, here, and…wow. There.”
“This is awful.”
“Cromwell doesn’t give a rip about the colonists. I want to see him explain this to Captain Aziz.”
“Hush. We told him we’d help if things got out of hand.”
“This is way beyond out of hand.”
“What’s the matter?” John called out. “What’s happening?”
Anya’s voice swirled around him. “Victoria and I must attend to a minor emergency that will require our full attention. Continue to lie quietly in place and limit your movements. Father Sukahara will monitor the remainder of your integration into the network and begin your orientation.”
“But I still can’t see anything!”
“Oh, quit bellyaching.” The disdain in Vicky’s voice was palpable. “Vision is the most complicated piece of the interface, so it takes the longest. If we energize the connections any faster, it’ll fry that lump of oatmeal you’re using for brains.”
“Sukahara’s the chaplain, right? Wouldn’t it be better to have somebody with a technical background at the controls?”
“Well, if we get a power surge, you’ll need someone to administer Last Rites, and…”
Anya cut in. “Stop it, Victoria. John, Father Sukahara has sufficient medical training to keep you stable in the event of a mishap until we can return.”
“The process is almost finished. Relax. You’re in good hands.”
A rush of cool air flowed across his body, and a tapestry of sound unfurled within the void. Leaves rustling. Birds chirping. A high pitched buzzing that waxed and waned in the background. The whisper and chuckle of water. The smell of flowers, intense and sweet. A strange, hollow knock that repeated at a long interval.
Then, a new voice—a soft tenor. “Hello, Mr. Milton. I’m Jiro Sukahara. We met at the welcome banquet a few days ago, though I’m sorry we weren’t able to exchange more than pleasantries.”
“I remember. I was surprised to find a chaplain there. Why are you part of all this?”
“It was a nod to tradition on the part of the original crew. Some of them were devoutly religious. All of them recognized a need for someone with whom they could discuss delicate matters in complete privacy, outside the military command structure, without fear of disclosure.”
“Wouldn’t a psychologist have served the same purpose?”
“The crew wanted something more than expertise in treating mental or emotional distress. They knew they’d have to make difficult decisions…life and death choices on behalf of the people under their care. Their technical skills weren’t sufficient. They needed a moral and spiritual compass.”
“And now? Do they still feel that need?”
“Hmm. Not as often as I’d like. Anya and Victoria consult with me the most.”
“I’m having trouble imagining Vicky seeking advice from a priest.”
“Beneath her bravado is an anxious little girl who misses her father terribly. She’s been forced to grow up much too fast, and her responsibilities weigh heavily upon her.”
“She hides it well enough.”
“I wish she wouldn’t. It would help her to be more open to others about what she’s feeling.”
John decided not to argue that point. “I hear a knocking sound. What is it?”
“It’s a shishi odoshi, a traditional garden decoration from the land of my ancestors on Earth. You’ll understand better once you’re able to see. I’ve arranged to bring you into my personal space…my virtual residence, you might say. I thought it might ease your orientation.”
“I think my vision’s coming back now. Is this some sort of test pattern? I’m seeing orange fish and white birds with long legs on a blue background.”
Jiro chuckled. “No, that’s not part of the process. Look closer.”
It took a few moments for John to realize he was staring up at a delicate watercolor painting of birds and fish cavorting in a broad blue lake. It formed what seemed to be the ceiling of a room, though the proportions were odd. The place was warm and sunlit, filled with the flowery aroma he’d noticed earlier, plus a pleasant, spicy odor he couldn’t identify. Turning his head to one side, which caused a brief moment of mild vertigo, he could see the light filtered through the pink-blossomed branches of a huge tree visible beyond the threshold of a wide opening. It made the space feel more like a porch than a living room.
There were no furnishings aside from the cushion that supported his body and a low table at the center bearing a stack of thin books on one side. Several large sheets of paper and a collection of writing instruments—brushes?—lay in a loose pile on the opposite end of the table. Jiro knelt behind it, and he was as John remembered him—a small, solidly-built man with close-cropped black hair and facial features similar to the Asian genetic subgroup on Avenir. He wore a dark blue robe decorated in the same pattern as the ceiling.
“Ah, it seems the integration is complete. Welcome to my home.” Jiro smiled, his face as warm and comforting as the room, and every lingering suspicion that all this was an illusion vanished from John Milton’s mind.