Author’s note: I’m grateful to Metal for providing the inspiration for this story. It is set in a thinly disguised, probably recognizable fictional universe (hint: it rhymes with “car check”), so if you’d rather call the simspace a “holodeck”, you have my blessing. It’s a long story (11 chapters) and it starts slowly; please be patient!
Unical date: 3752.563.21
[Framing shot: a space station in orbit above a yellow-orange gas giant planet. Cut to interior of station.]
“I know this isn’t the best of circumstances,” Commander Shizaki said, “but there really is no other choice. We must make do with what we have.”
Lieutenant Sam Green tried to keep his face impassive, allowing only concern to show, a slight creasing of the skin between his eyes. “I understand. Bareem needs to return home, of course. But… are you certain there’s no one else who could make the trip with me?” Don’t show even a trace of enthusiasm, not a hint.
The commander shook his head with regret. “No one, I’m afraid. This station’s normal complement is eleven staff, and we’re down two as it is so we were already stretched thin even before this emergency. The need to get Lieutenant Farquhar home for his father’s funeral pushes us to the absolute limit. I’ll be sending Lieutenant Urkenzie out in our one available interstellar-capable ship to take him back to Kerangia and then return. That’s a fourteen-day round trip, and during that time we’ll have to shut down parts of our operations. That will result in angry communications from research teams all over this sector, each one of them in high dudgeon over the absence of data they were expecting us to provide. I anticipate at least one court case to be filed over the fact that our staffing shortage meant missing out on the once-in-ten-thousand-years opportunity to, I don’t know, capture the spectral signature of a snout-nosed pulsar or something equally absurd. The case will of course be dismissed as frivolous but it will still be a tedious bureaucratic hassle.”
He put his hands flat on his desk. “But that is my problem to deal with. Yours, of course, is to get those tribronium plates to Kappa Redulans. Those people are in dire need, and compared with that, the conniption fits of inconvenienced researchers don’t even register.”
“Of course, of course,” Sam agreed. “Main power system destroyed, backup teetering on the brink of collapse, which means no air recycling and no climate control after it fails. And so far away!”
“Yes, as far from this station as this station is from Earth. And there are no other bases between here and there. Not even an outpost. Your delivery is their one hope of rescue.”
Sam found himself torn. On the one hand, there was a powerful urge to just get moving already. After the explosion, the eight surviving people at Kappa Redulans were in desperate need, with only a damaged backup power system keeping their station habitable. If it failed… well, that didn’t bear thinking about.
On the other hand, there was nothing Sam could do at this moment to speed the process along. He and Bareem had arrived at Research Station R-98 an hour earlier and Commander Shizaki’s crew was now handling the loading of supplies for the rest of the trip, cannibalizing their own equipment to help save Kappa. He wanted to be there helping, but his unfamiliarity with R-98’s layout meant he would mostly just be in the way. Besides, this wrinkle with his co-rescuer’s need to turn around and go back home had to be dealt with just as much as the physical preparation. As a result, he was itching to move but had nothing useful to spend his energy on and instead sat, fidgeting, in the commander’s office.
“When I was recruited for this emergency delivery mission, they told me it was going to be a long trip, but no one could say why Kappa Redulans was built so far away. Do you know?”
“Oh, it’s the classic answer for why anything is where it is: location, location, location. The Redula system is a complicated multiple with something like twenty gravitationally-bound stellar-mass objects and countless rocks and iceballs. The system includes one neutron star and one black hole with roughly the mass of Earth’s sun, very unusual. Lots of interesting high-energy particle physics to study. And a spectacular view, I’m told. The whole thing is enveloped in a cloud of dust and gas and when those high-energy particles strike the cloud, it glows spectacularly, like the northern lights on Earth only on a much vaster scale. I’ve seen photos, but those who’ve been to the Redula system say there’s nothing like the experience of being in Kappa’s observation dome with that magnificent sky surrounding you. You’ll have to tell me about it on your way back.”
The brief moment of lighter mood faded and his voice once again took on a more somber tone. “Of course, this is not a tourist trip. If the power fails and the shields go down, all those high-energy particles are going to stop being an interesting physics project and turn into a lethal sleet of radiation. They’ve lost navigation control as well, so they can’t move the station to a more sheltered spot.”
“Ah,” Sam said. “So it’s not just a matter of fresh air and climate control.”
“Right. Those shields must stay up or it’s all over. No battery backup is strong enough to supply the energy they require, so you absolutely must get these tribronium plates to them.”
“I will. It’s fortunate that you’re able to spare some of yours.”
“It will be a hardship to do without them, but only a temporary one. It’s much easier to get a resupply mission to us than to Redula. One is already on its way, in fact, scheduled to arrive in five days. We’ll be fine. But you can’t wait that long, of course.”
“Right, I need to be going as soon as the ship is loaded.” He felt the urge to be on the move grow stronger once more.
“Another hour at most, they tell me. Speaking of your ship, it’s a marvel! It’s clearly not a Starmada vessel… is it your personal craft?”
“Mine? I wish! Starmada requisitioned it for the emergency. The owner will get it back once this crisis is over. He was not at all happy about loaning it out, I understand, but he’ll be fairly compensated for the inconvenience. Of course, if you’re rich enough to afford a starship, I can’t even imagine what ‘fair compensation’ for borrowing it means. But yeah, it’s amazing, isn’t it? Nice little pleasure yacht for gadding about. It’s got everything we’ll… or well, rather, that I’ll need for this trip.”
Specifically that simspace, he thought, but did not say out loud. No need to mention that at all.
“But the reason they commandeered it is the engines,” he said instead. “Hugely overpowered for the size of the ship. I should be able to shave five days off the usual travel time, getting there in only twenty days instead of twenty-five. And that’s pushing the engines up to their nominal limits. I might even be able to do it in less, but there’s the risk that I’d overload them and burn them out, and then I wouldn’t get to Kappa at all. It’ll be a judgement call as the journey progresses as to whether to try to squeeze a bit more speed out of them. If the situation at Kappa takes a turn for the worse, maybe I’ll risk pushing the engines into the red.”
The commander’s communicator badge chimed. “Commander, we’re about fifteen minutes away from having Lieutenant Green’s ship loaded.”
“Understood,” Shizaki replied. He stood up. “It seems that the estimate of another hour was excessive. You can shave another 45 minutes off your estimated arrival time. Every little bit helps, I guess. We should get you ready for departure.”
“Sounds good. I’ll go say good-bye to Bareem and then get ready to go.”
They traveled through the research station’s narrow corridors. “I truly regret that we can’t spare anyone to accompany you on the journey,” Shizaki said. “I know this puts more burden on you than you would otherwise have to bear, but…” He trailed off.
“It’s fine,” Sam said. “An extra pilot would be good to have as backup, but the trip only needs one. Besides, you’ve already contributed more than enough in the way of supplies. I’ll manage the trip on my own.” He was reasonably certain – or perhaps he was just wishing – that his tone of voice was conveying apprehension rather than glee at the prospect.
“Thank you,” the commander replied. “I wish you a safe and speedy journey. Go save those people.”
“Aye aye, sir.”
Unical date: 3752.563.19 (two days earlier)
“I gotta say, for a luxury yacht, I sort of expected more, oh, y’know… luxury?” Lieutenant Junior Grade Bareem Farquhar said, gesturing with both arms at the Spartan surroundings.
The exterior of the Pyrellia’s Wing was all sleek lines and smooth curves. The interior, on the other hand, looked more appropriate for a cargo transport than a rich man’s plaything. It contained four cabins of bare-bones utilitarian design: minuscule nooks arranged along the outer walls with barely enough room to fit a cot in and still leave room to stand. Two of them were large enough to contain double cots – or one-and-three-quarters-sized cots, more accurately – but still had very little floor space. Drawers recessed into the walls served for storage. The yacht could technically sleep six, but only if “sleeping” was the only thing the cabins were used for.
The dining area, likewise, was compact and equipped with basic furniture and supplies: a table with chairs for four, a small sink, a refrigerator and freezer (both empty), a few plates and items of cutlery in a small cabinet. There wasn’t much, but the tiny space made the setting feel cluttered all the same. The synthesizer was the sort of model you’d expect to find in a low-budget hotel lobby, offering choices of three hot beverages, seven cold, and a menu of approximately twenty different meals and snacks.
There was also a transport deck with capacity for two and a bathroom area with two toilets, one sink, and one standing-room-only shower. The rest of the space – a cavernous expanse that took up about two-thirds of the habitable area of the ship – was open, empty, and bare from floor to ceiling. Its sides were all similarly plain and unadorned. It would have seemed like a cargo hold except for the fact that the ship had an actual cargo hold further astern.
Only the command bridge was furnished in a manner befitting the elegant, graceful look of the Pyrellia‘s exterior. This room, at the nose of the yacht, contained state-of-the-art controls and furnishings that exuded understated luxury. The engines, it had been explained to the pair during their briefing, were massively oversized for the ship, which was the reason the ship had been commandeered for this mission. They were panthers attached to the spine of the ship, loaded with power ready be unleashed at the touch of a button or even the utterance of a word. The inertial dampeners were robust and finely tuned enough to ensure that whatever horrendous acceleration the ship experienced, the bubbles in its occupants’ champagne flutes would barely deviate from their steady vertical rise. The controlling AI was so sophisticated that it could operate about 95% on its own with no attention from a pilot required. As for the human-interface portion, there was a console of sleek design and understated elegance with an imposing yet comfortable captain’s chair to sit in while using it.
Lieutenant Sam Green was not wealthy himself, but he knew enough about how wealth and the trappings thereof worked. True wealth displayed itself subtly. Gaudy shows of gilt filigree on chair arms or bejeweled drinking goblets were tacky, the sort of gauche display that could be expected from someone newly arrived into money. True wealth, on the other hand, would be evidenced by, say, a small, innocuous portrait on a wall that turned out to be a Sonnamme original. The command center had the hallmarks of this sort of understated display. Sam suspected that the leather of the captain’s chair, for instance, was neither a faux substitute nor a synthesized copy of true leather. Rather, it was very likely to be the skin of an actual animal that had lived and breathed and walked. Such material was hideously expensive these days and illegal on most settled worlds. Only on the newest frontier colony planets, where populations were low and scattered and law enforcement was of a style befitting the Wild West, could genuine leather be obtained directly from its source. And since most people couldn’t tell the difference between the real thing and a synthesized copy, that made it a perfect vehicle for a subtle illustration of the owner’s power and status.
So why wasn’t the rest of the ship outfitted the same way?
“I know what you mean,” Sam replied. “No expense spared on the engines and the AI system, but the decor is straight out of Alcatraz.”
“It doesn’t make any sense!” Bareem complained.
“Oh, I bet it makes sense to the owner. We just haven’t figured out his method yet.”
Shortly afterward, having explored everything there was to explore, they headed to the dining nook for dinner. Bareem selected “Protein Patty #2 (Fruits de Mer)” from the synthesizer while Sam chose “South Asian Medley”.
“Can I have a bite of yours?” Bareem asked halfway through the meal. Sam obliged him with a sample. “I knew it! There’s no difference. They taste exactly the same! I bet if you closed your eyes and I switched plates, you wouldn’t even notice that you were eating fake crab cakes instead of fake curry. What the hell? How could the owner of a yacht like this be willing to eat this garbage?”
Sam shrugged. “Not much we can do about it,” he said. “We’re committed to this for a good long while. Two days to RS-98, then twenty more to Kappa Redulans.”
“Yeah, I know,” Bareem moped. “Then another twenty days back to civilization. I wonder if my shoes would taste better than this?”
They spent the night in separate cabins, opting for the two with the double cots just for the slightly larger space they provided. It was a long, uncomfortable night.
The following day, the mystery became clear.
Unical date: 3752.563.20
After a night of tossing and turning, Sam managed to fall asleep toward morning and thus woke up well after Bareem. He had breakfast alone and it was just as unsatisfying as dinner. “Protein Patty #1 (Breakfast Bounty)” failed to taste anything like sausage, and the substance that the synthesizer produced in response to the command “coffee” was so bad that Sam didn’t even drink half before tossing it back into the synthesizer to be recycled.
He returned to his cabin afterward to try to pass the time by reading a trashy pulp novel on his pad. It was rot and he knew it, describing the adventures of Captain Jack, a swashbuckling space pirate implausibly plundering his way through the starlanes, leaving a trail of broken hearts, fist-shaking merchants, and outwitted law officers in his wake. It was pure garbage, written with breathlessly hyperbolic prose and enough plot holes to supply an entire Swiss cheese factory, but it was fun and absorbing and didn’t require much mental effort to read. For Sam, the Captain Jack novels were escape, and escape was exactly what he needed in this bland, grey environment.
A knock sounded at the flimsy door.
“Open,” he called, the door obeyed. On the other side was Bareem, bouncing like a puppy. Sam rose to meet him but Bareem wouldn’t stand still, bounding into the room, hopping around in a quick circle and leaving again, beckoning Sam to follow. “Oh, you were right, my friend, you were absolutely right. Come on, you gotta see this!”
“Right about what?” Sam said, but Bareem was already gone. Sam emerged from his tiny cell to see Bareem practically skipping down the short hallway. He turned the corner and found Bareem waiting at the door to the vast empty space, which looked exactly as vast and empty today as it had the day before. The entered and Bareem closed the door behind them.
“Watch this,” he said, eyes filled with glee. “Pyrellia, resume program.”
Immediately, the grey walls around them disappeared, replaced with an infinite horizon all around. The two men found themselves standing near a shore. Before them a rocky cliff spilled down and away to end in a churning mass of white-tipped water half a dozen meters below. Above, a magenta sky loomed. This was not the deep purple of a post-sunset evening on Earth, but a redder hue that earthly skies only saw near dawn and dusk. Here it was not twilight; the sun stood high in the sky, an electric-bright pinpoint of light rather than a disk.
“It’s a simspace!” Sam exclaimed.
“Exactly!” Bareem answered in a satisfied voice.
They were standing on a flat patch of rock. Brush and small trees – desert foliage – grew all around, stretching thick, waxy leaves up to the purple sky. A pair of chairs waited nearby, aimed out toward the ocean. The sound of the crashing breakers filled the air, though not so loudly as to make speech impossible. The whole scene was beautiful, but unsettlingly so, as though the beauty was designed for non-human eyes. Which, as he thought about it, was probably just the case. That reddish-purple sky… some race somewhere probably found that color soothing, but for Sam it raised the hackles on his neck just a bit. The scene was exotic and fascinating, beautiful even, but not a place of comfort and relaxation.
Next to them was a pool swirling with water that poured in from a stream higher up the rocky hill behind them and drained by another stream that led off to the ocean below. Wisps of vapor curled up from the pool.
“Go ahead, dip your hand in,” Bareem urged. Sam bent down and touched the water: warm, bordering on hot. The perfect temperature, in fact, for sinking a weary body into. Much better for bathing than the tiny shower with its limited supply of… oh! Understanding suddenly blossomed in Sam’s mind.
“You got it,” Bareem said seeing his expression. “This is why the cabins and the kitchen are so crappy – no one ever uses them! I bet the owner spends all his time here, simulating other places and times for everything he does… eating, sleeping, playtime.”
“Of course!” Sam agreed. “That has to be it. The only reason the cabins and kitchen exist at all must be to satisfy some legal requirement. Whatever jurisdiction this ship is registered in must have regulations saying something like ‘any vessel of type blah-blah must contain lodging facilities suitable for…’ and so on.”
“Yeah, so they’re there, but the owner spends all his time in here, meaning, he spends all his time anywhere he wants.”
“How did you figure it out?”
Bareem grinned and shrugged. “I asked the ship’s AI what the big empty room was for. Kind of obvious in hindsight, we should have thought of it sooner. Although it wasn’t as simple as that, really. There are two AIs on board, one for the simspace and one for everything else. The two systems are completely separate apart from a tiny low-bandwidth channel, so in a sense it’s really an isolated room within the ship. Everything is separate: climate control, gravity, interface, controlling software, so it took me a little bit of sleuthing to figure it out. And when I did, I just asked the simspace to launch whatever sim the owner had last run. Speaking of which… Pyrellia, what is this simulation?”
A warm voice responded. “This is Raffik Island on Schezaria in the Proyannis system.”
“And what does the owner of this vessel use it for?”
“I am not authorized to answer that question.”
Sam shrugged and would have let it drop, but Bareem was apparently filled with curiosity.
“Pyrellia, request full control of –”
Sam stopped him with a hand to the shoulder. “Bareem, we don’t need to know that. We’re invading the guy’s privacy enough just by being on his ship at all.”
“I’m not gonna violate the guy’s secrets. I just want to know what this rig is capable of. Besides, it might not even work. They granted us full control to the ship’s systems, but the simspace system is separate so it might not even recognize our authorization codes. But I want to try because either we use the simspace or else spend the rest of this journey eating crappy food, sleeping on crappy beds, bored out of our minds. You don’t really want to do that, do you?”
No, he really didn’t. “Okay, fine.”
Bareem repeated his request. “Fingerprint, retinal scan, and authentication code are required for full access,” the voice replied. “Please use the console on the bridge.”
Grinning at Sam, Bareem said, “If my hunch is right, this is what that low-bandwidth channel is for… authentication. Wanna tag along? It doesn’t matter if you overhear my code. It does no good without the finger and the eyeball to go with it. Besides, they gave you the same admin access as me.”
They left the simspace and walked to the bridge. Just inside the door was the console. Bareem placed his index finger on a pad and his right eye up next to the scanner that waited unobtrusively there. “Peter Paper pecked a puck of purple poppers,” he said.
“Access granted,” the AI confirmed. This one’s voice was different, a distinctive, slightly nasal contralto.
“I hope you never need admin access after you’ve had a drink or two,” Sam told him as they walked back to the simspace. “In fact, I’m amazed you were able to say that sober.”
“An altered tongue-twister for a passphrase… just a little extra security,” Bareem said. “Now, Pyrellia, what was this simulation used for?”
“Mr. Featherstone uses this simulation for bathing and relaxation.”
Bareem glanced at Sam. “See? Nothing awful. I wouldn’t mind a nice soak in that tub myself another time. But for now… Pyrellia, what did Mr. Featherstone do for dining?”
A virtual screen appeared in the air in front of Bareem containing a long list of names. Sam glimpsed a few: Redwall, The Silverine, L’Auberge Tremont. “What are you in the mood for?” Bareem asked. “Was your breakfast as crappy as mine? How about we make up for it with a good brunch? Pyrellia, take us to wherever Mr. Featherstone last had brunch.”
The roar of the ocean subsided and around them the purple sky and tan rocks faded from view. In their place an elegant dining room materialized, white tablecloths and burgundy napkins, piled draperies and thick, lush carpeting.
“Wow,” Sam said, looking around at the quiet bustle of diners and waitstaff extending out far beyond where he knew the edge of the simspace to be, the illusion of depth and distance flawless. “Feeling a little out of place here in my uniform.”
“It’s a sim, they won’t care. We can dress up in costumes next time. Right now I’m hungry!”
As if on cue, an impeccably-dressed maître d’hôtel approached them. Sam’s feeling of out-of-place-ness doubled as the man glided up to them, giving every impression of sneering at them without moving the muscles of his face so much as a micron. Or perhaps that was all in Sam’s imagination? “You must be guests of his lordship,” the maître d’ said when he arrived. “Would you care to be seated? Or perhaps you would care to wait at the bar until his lordship arrives?”
“Ah, his lordship, regrettably, will not be joining us today,” Bareem said with a glance at Sam, “but he sends his compliments. He also, uh, asked us to convey to you how much he enjoyed brunch the last time he was here and suggested we might appreciate the same.”
The maître d’ gave a tiny bow and gestured them over to a table. “Very good, sirs.”
Forty minutes later the two officers were stuffed to the gills, having consumed slivers of smoked salmon, crepes with blueberry compote, spring greens frittatas, herbed onion tarts, savory leek and bacon pies, eggs and cream cheese en cocotte, warm moist rolls that breathed steam when cracked open, apple muffins… and the best-tasting cup of coffee Sam had ever encountered.
“I don’t think I can move,” Sam said.
“Me neither,” agreed Bareem. “Pyrellia, load up Mr. Featherstone’s favorite beach scene, please.”
The restaurant swiftly disappeared and was replaced with a classic tropical beach: palm trees, white sand, turquoise water. The table had disappeared but the chairs they were sitting in remained since removing them would have sent the two men sprawling on their asses. The dark wood furniture and ornately-embroidered cushions were glaringly out of place on the warm sand. The men rose and Bareem had the chairs replaced with more suitable ones, low to the ground and able to recline.
“Feels weird to skip out without paying for the meal,” Sam said.
“Yeah,” Bareem agreed. “But you get used to it. At least, I sure plan to get used to it over the course of the rest of the trip!”
“Bareem, remember: the reason we’re here at all is to get those supplies to Kappa Redulans. This isn’t a pleasure cruise or a vacation.”
“I know. But look, the ship is going to get there when it gets there. We’re going to be pushing the engines as hard as we safely can but even so, the ship is so smart it’s going to fly itself the whole way there. We pilots are on board for undocking at the beginning and docking again at the end and that’s about it. Maybe a bit of grunt labor at loading and unloading. Unless something goes wrong, we’re more cargo than crew. And the only reason they’re sending two of us is in case one succumbs to food poisoning on the way, which I would argue is much more likely if we keep eating that slop from the synthesizer. We’re stuck here for twenty-one more days… why not enjoy the trip?”
Sam dithered for a bit, but it was tough to poke any holes in Bareem’s reasoning. He was right – they were stuck on board with no official duties to perform until they arrived at RS-98 to pick up the supplies that Kappa Redulans needed, and once they were under way again they would have nothing to do for another twenty days after that. It was a classic situation that would be familiar to military men from long before the spacefaring era began: hurry up and wait.
So they could wait in tiny, dimly-lit cabins eating packaged sawdust… or they could wait on this gloriously comfortable beach and dine on foie gras and caviar. It really was not a hard decision to make.
“OK. You’re right. I’m just going to go get my book.” He made to stand up, but Bareem reached over and stopped him with an arm to the chest. “Belay that, sir,” he said, patting the ground between the two chairs. “Pyrellia, beam Lieutenant Green’s book from his cabin to this patch of sand here.”
Obligingly, the pad containing Captain Jack: Across The Orion Nebula and a dozen more titles in the series shimmered into existence right next to Sam’s chair. He reached down to pick it up but Bareem was quicker. Sam tried to grab the pad from him, but Bareem held it out of reach until Sam gave up trying and leaned back in his chair.
“Captain Jack and the Tyrant of Tarantulon,” Bareem read, scrolling through the titles available on the pad. “Captain Jack and the Vault of Shadows… oh, Captain Jack: the Trouble with Trybbels, puh-leeeeze.” He looked dramatically away and dangled the pad out toward Sam as if it were a banana peel or a soiled diaper. “Man, any other time I would say I don’t know how you can stand to read that crap, but right here, right now, that sort of mind-rotting drivel is exactly what the situation calls for, so here you go, enjoy.”
Sam grabbed the pad. “Hey, I happen to like mind-rotting drivel!” They settled in, nestling their heels in the soft sand and letting the very real-feeling sunshine warm their toes.
“You know what,” Sam said a few minutes later as puffy white clouds scudded by overhead, “you were right about getting used to this. In fact, I think I already have.”
Over the course of the rest of the day, they explored the capabilities of the simspace, which were vast indeed. Just the brief interaction with the restaurant staff had been enough to indicate that this was a top-of-the-line model. With the cheapest systems, you might get good-looking scenery, a convincing illusion of solidity but no actual substance. If you tried to touch an object, your fingers would pass right through it, and woe befall you if you attempted to sit down on the illusion of a chair. As for characters, they were believable enough as long as you kept your interactions with them simple. These days, such low-end systems were more accurately described as “holotanks” than actual simspaces, but the term “simspace” had originally been applied to the technology back when it was fresh and new, and now inertia and tradition kept it from changing.
Mid-price systems – which were the best that Sam had ever encountered in his own personal experience up until now – used the same technology as transporters and synthesizers to provide actual solidity: chairs you could sit on, glasses you could hold in your hand, characters you could touch who displayed a reasonably sophisticated range of behaviors and vocabulary. It was possible to push them to the point where their ability to sustain a conversation could not keep up with an actual person’s but you had to work at doing it. Modern simspaces were a giant step up from holotanks and there were tens of thousands of programs available to be experienced in them.
The simspace on Pyrellia’s Wing had capabilities as far beyond mid-price systems as those systems were from holotanks. The way that maître d’ had sneered at them without making an overt display of it… that was sophisticated programming. Unless it had all been in Sam’s imagination, of course, which seemed more and more likely every time he thought about it. Starmada uniforms, while comfortable and practical for everyday shipboard use, were hardly suitable for high-end dining establishments and it was probably his own discomfort that had caused him to imagine the simulated man’s simulated disdain. The environment had been so convincing that he had really felt immersed in it, forgetting entirely that he was in a simspace at all. The equipment was that good.
And so it was for all the other environments they explored. A casino. A museum. A vast subterranean cavern eerily lit by glowing crystals. A scorched plain baked by twin suns (Sam had felt sweat beading on his forehead; was that from actual heat or just the convincingness of the display?) A habitat built from a hollowed-out asteroid, spun up to provide centrifugal “gravity” against the outer walls so that the horizon curved away and upward to either side, curling around and meeting overhead in a dizzying defiance of his brain’s expectations of how horizons were supposed to work.
Then, once, a dimly-lit chamber, lots of burgundy velvet all around. Flashes of skin, both human-colored and not, writhing off in the corners. A sultry voice asking what sort of wares the two visitors might be interested in sampling…
“Pyrellia, end program!” Bareem called loudly. The simspace powered down; the illusions were replaced with grey walls, and they were left standing in the enormous open space at the center of the ship. “Oops,” he went on, turning to Sam who was still trying to re-orient himself to the fact that in all their explorations, they had never actually moved more than a few meters from where they were currently standing. “Now that would definitely be intruding on Mr. Featherstone’s privacy.”
“Ah,” Sam agreed, somewhat flustered, his brain and lips running on auto-pilot. “Yeah. Right. For sure.” His distress wasn’t due to those glimpses of skin; Sam was not bothered by, and in fact had no interest in the curvy, squishy bits of flesh that he had seen before Bareem had shut the program down. Seeing it displayed so brazenly left him feeling vaguely uncomfortable, but not distraught enough to stammer.
The reason he was stammering was because the sight had gotten him to thinking about other types of flesh… firmer flesh… harder flesh… flesh of a type that he found appealing indeed. He was also thinking of the way that this simspace seemed able to replicate just about anything at all, and to do it most convincingly. It was the combination of these two thoughts that had gotten him so tongue-tied as to limit his vocal output to one or two words at a time. Surely it would be no trouble for this marvelous simspace to be able to conjure up a scene similar to the one they had just bailed out of with such unseemly haste, but with different body shapes for the supporting characters, right? That he would enjoy very much. And yet, that idea was something he was not at all comfortable sharing with his fellow traveler, who almost certainly did not have the same interests as Sam (though they had never actually discussed the issue). Not to mention that this was a work mission!
It was a darn shame the two of them would be sharing the whole ride together. Sam could think of all sorts of ways he could put the simspace to use, but all of them would be much more enjoyable without an audience. Maybe he could try to subtly suggest some sort of time-sharing arrangement? And yet the risk of discovery, the secret of his darker tastes being made public…
As it turned out, no such arrangement was necessary. They arrived at RS-98 to find grim news waiting for Bareem, news that left Sam with very mixed emotions indeed. Sympathy for his friend and colleague, of course, that first and foremost. But underneath that, where it would not be seen: heart-pounding excitement and anticipation.
What, exactly, were the limits of what this simspace could do?
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Disclaimer: This story is a purely fictional account. Any relationship to any real person living or dead is coincidental. The author is grateful to Metal for the inspiration and to slavebladeboi for the valuable help and insight he provided reviewing this story before its release.
Copyright © 2022 by POW. For spam prevention, an animal name has been added to the author’s e-mail address. Remove the animal name to get the actual address: POWauthor zebra at yahoo dot com. This story may be freely copied and distributed so long as it is copied in its entirety, unchanged, including the author credit information and disclaimer. Other POW stories are available at https://powauthor.wordpress.com. The author welcomes feedback.