Object 98


2078, Sol System

The whole world lay before me, a patchwork quilt of fields and woods and streams. I might imagine I was on a plane gazing downward, yet with a slight tilt of my head I could trace the path of a stream as it gently curved along the walls of the world towards me. Walls that joined together with the ground I was sitting on.

One week. That's how long they say it takes you to stop flinching when you look at the sky and see a lake suspended above you. Asking questions about newcomers isn't such a good idea when you're so obviously one yourself.

It’s much easier to leave Earth than it used to be. Reusable rockets, laser launchers, and mass drivers, have all opened up the new frontier, especially with energy as cheap as it is today. But there hasn’t been a proper exodus yet; most people get their fill of zero-G after a week in orbit, and in any case, solid VR is just as fun and plenty more convenient.

The problem with solid VR, though, is that it can't disguise where your physical body really is — on Earth, light-minutes away from places of interest to your occupation or your loved ones. And if your body is still on Earth, it remains under the jurisdiction of states and powers you may disagree with.

One month. That's how long it takes your brain get used to the idea that walking in a straight line for a day can bring you right back to where you started. It’s also long enough for your agents to get settled into local private networks and begin collecting personal data.

After a brief obsession with man-made stations and spacecraft, everyone realised that it made far more sense to just hollow out one of the thousands of suitable rocky asteroids in the Belt, spin it up to produce a comfortable gravity — typically a shade lower than 1G — fill it with organics and water mined from nearby, string a fusion-powered lightline through the centre, and seed it with bacteria, algae, plants, fish, animals, birds, and anything else you might want to throw in. Many biomes would aim for an 'Ascension' mix that included endangered and recovered species, but not all were so concerned with Earth’s problems.

The first few biomes were fraught affairs — there were all sorts of bust-ups over what orbit they should be moved into, which government structure to put into place, where the rivers should go, and so on — but the next hundred went much more smoothly. With most biomes being kilometres long and with space enough for entire towns, there were soon millions of people weaving corkscrew patterns between the planets, humanity's ultimate insurance policy against extinction.

One year. You'll be so adjusted to biomes’ artificial gravity that you can use their unique Coriolis effects to your advantage in sports. Sports are a good way to meet new people and gain their confidence. After a year, if there was a legitimate criminal or terrorist target, you should have dealt with them by now. If not, it's time to move on.

Like most kids, I thought that by simply murmuring a world to my glasses I could know everything about anything or anyone on the planet. That was our ‘peace dividend’ the Age of Excess left us, the millions of satellites and aerostats, the billions of sensor-clad drones and humans, and trillions of localisers and agents.

I also thought it worked in reverse: if you can't find it online, then it doesn't exist in reality. Then I found out that Susie Kirkwood was badmouthing me behind my back at school — off-network. We’ll always have secrets, I learned.

One decade. All the biomes begin blending into one another, with their quaint little villages and their toylike farms and their peculiar rituals. In your few trips outside, the sun grows smaller and smaller. One of the best ways of keeping a secret is keeping it as many light-minutes away from Earth's net as possible. Only the most curious and most determined of investigators would put up with that kind of time lag.

It's not so bad, being far away from Earth. It means you can be closer to interesting things, like Europa or Saturn or the JANA telescope array, things that need close and quick supervision. And if you tweak your biome's orbit right, you can be on a perpetual grand tour of the system, and who wouldn't want that?

Then there are the biomes that always stay out on the edge, the ones that don't invite tourists. Most of them are harmless. The monasteries and the retreats have perfectly good reasons for being stand-offish. They’d rather not get distracted by the frantic hustle and bustle of the inner system. I can respect that.

And then there are the others, the ones trying to create their own miniature utopias away from prying eyes.

It was on my fourth trip that my agents heard about the cults on Isben. We don't know how it happened; twisted religions, AI worship, desire modification gone wrong, who knows, because by the time I cracked the biome, all the data was wiped and everyone had disappeared. It can happen easily enough if you're not taking calls from home.

Sometimes I'd get there in time to stop things before they started. Sometimes I'd reach a biome and only find thousands of dead bodies. The cost of humanity’s insurance policy is that the best and worst of us are brought into terrible focus in each of our thousand gems strewn throughout the system.

Like I said, they won't open the door to just anybody. You have to insinuate your way inside. You'll need to change your face, change your identity, and for a while, change your soul. And if you want to learn their secrets, you'll need to keep your own.

I've heard there are a few of us out there trying to prevent atrocities; or at least, stop them from spreading. We have some friends with unusual abilities who occasionally deign to help us. Most of the time, I think they have humanity's interests at heart.

One lifetime. It's not enough to save a fraction of the lives that need saving. But just one will do.