Steph stared blankly at the blank screen in front of her. She struggled to remember what she had been doing before she took her fifth bathroom break of the morning. She gave the mouse a tentative flick, trying to jog her memory. The screen became a mess of code and she remembered that she had been procrastinating.
She had worked at SpaceHive for 3, maybe 4 years, she couldn't remember, and after being automatically promoted from Junior Developer to Waggleer after the first year, she had stopped. All the positions with SpaceHive followed the same theme. Networking was called Waggle Dancing, all the way up to the CEO who was the Hive Queen.
She maintained and upgraded the network software for Catchers, deep-space drones that attached themselves to asteroids and guided them into near-Earth orbit. That was the business plan anyway. SpaceHive had initially made enough money from investors and through government initiatives to launch a fleet of control satellites and a single drone. They managed to land Drone-1 on a promising asteroid, but then the money had dried up. Without a large enough space industry, there was no need for raw materials in orbit, and so no need for large asteroids to mine.
The last she had heard of it, marketing was trying to spin any ideas they could to Silicon Valley and Hollywood. They had proposed putting a datacenter inside the international grey area of an orbiting asteroid to avoid any kind of legal or privacy laws. Zero-G porn had already been done, but maybe the nearly-zero-gravity of an asteroid would produce the perfect 'bounce'.
People had initially resisted the idea of pulling asteroids towards Earth, citing the usual concerns of planet-wide devastation and human extinction.
Thankfully for Steph, the pressure of calculating the difference between missing the Earth completely, smashing into it and perfect orbit, was not part of her job. The core control systems for the drones that guided the asteroids were written by the real rockstars of programming. Their calculations were triple-checked by ex-NASA mathematicians and programmers. She was left to maintain communications and generally waste her time.
She was debating whether taking a sixth bathroom break would raise suspicions when a disembodied head appeared over her cubicle.
"Stephie, the feed is down again, I need you to make this an A-1 priority and move forward on this, OK?" said the head with a smile that could curdle milk.
"Sorry! I'll get on that right away! Sorry!" Steph closed her browser and made her most apologetic kicked-dog face up at her boss's hovering head.
"Uh-huh," her boss said while checking her smartwatch. She glanced up, "That reminds me, I got a notification that you've gone off-piste on your endorphin track, is anything the matter?"
A few months ago, everyone at SpaceHive had been issued with activity tracking bracelets as part of a new plan to bring "energy and synergetic dynamism" to the company. Her boss Jynnyfyr and the other hive core members had gone on a company retreat and came back speaking a foreign language of tracks and sprints. Employees were politely encouraged to use the company gym or exercise outside office hours while using pedometers. If they didn't, their manager could dismiss them for not being dynamic enough.
Steph had tried using the company gym for a week or so before discovering that she could achieve the same effect by using her vibrator. More accurately by attaching her pedometer to her vibrator and leaving it on for half an hour.
Last week its batteries had died.
"Yes I've been trying a new… piste and it isn't registered by the latest firmware," she hazarded.
Her boss was already entranced by the glowing rectangle on her wrist and didn't seem to notice her attempt at speaking her language.
"Ok let me know how that works out. But you need to track it." And she left.
With her boss gone, Steph slumped back in her chair. She looked around for a pen, found one and scrawled "Batteries" on the back of her hand. She threw the pen back and it hit a stack of tiny glass jars at the back of her desk.
Her boss's previous management technique, before evidence-based dynamism, was Jamming. In the weekly stand-up, the team members were encouraged to, like a band, come up with ideas by jamming on each other's riffs. Or riff on each other's jams. To inspire them, each week they received a small pot of jam with an inspiring flavour on the side. Her pen had knocked over "CANberry". In the first meeting she had opened the jar and began eating it, but Jynnyfyr said "if you eat your ideas, how can they grow?" So the rest on her desk were left unopened.
She didn't dislike her boss as such. In a way she admired her ability to try new things without the baggage of self-doubt or intelligence. Jynnyfyr's current fad was Goga™, which had been invented by someone in California who took the thousand-year-old yogic practices of exercise and meditation, and added a Segway. It wasn't exactly a Segway, instead it was called a Goga Board™, cost $699.99 and came with a 30-page health waiver form.
In the interview, she had made up some BS about always dreaming of being an astronaut. Of staring up at the stars and dreaming of flying between them. In reality she rarely looked up at all, and the idea of going into space seemed suicidal. Keep your head down and nobody will invade your personal bubble. She wasn't totally non-functional, she knew the mind games you had to play to get people to like you, to give you a job. But she drew the line at actively socialising with people from work.
High school and college hadn't been a problem for her. She got good enough grades to avoid criticism, but not so good that she stood out. However after college, she realised she had no clue what to do next. It was as though for her whole life she had been following a road, and it had suddenly run out. She had never had to forge her own path before so she felt completely lost. If she kept her head down she could look at where she was and where she had been. But looking up and ahead was terrifying. She went to work, came home. Paid her rent, went shopping, watched TV and wondered why she was alive. What's the point of it all?
"OK, coffee, snack and music. Then I can get down to it." she thought to herself. 30 minutes later, fresh cup of coffee in-hand, and armed with the new knowledge that Boards of Canada was, in fact, not from Canada but a Scottish electronic music duo consisting of brothers Michael Sandison (born 1 June 1970) and Marcus Eoin Sandison (born 21 July 1971), she started digging into the problem.
There was, in technical terms, a whole lot of crap coming in with the regular signal to their primary satellites in orbit. She began to check the signal received by each satellite in turn, and noticed that only a small group were receiving the messy signal. She grabbed her notebook and absent-mindedly wrote "full of crap" and added the three IDs of the problem satellites. She contemplated getting another cup of coffee, but if her boss saw her, she would inevitably ask if the problem had been fixed. It would be relatively simple to change the receiving system to use only the good satellites and ignore the crap-filled ones until the problem resolved itself. Not a particularly interesting task, but nice and predictable. Perfect.
An hour later, and with more knowledge of Musical Groups Established in 1986 (Cypress Hill, Goo Goo Dolls), she was done. It was five-thirty. Still another hour and a half before she could reasonably sneak out of the office with a well-practiced guilty expression on her face.
She pulled up the transmissions from the full-of-crap satellites. They were still complete gibberish. The noise could be caused by anything, most of which she had been told about in her first training session and had subsequently summarised in her head as "stuff breaks". But the chances of three satellites all breaking at roughly the same time seemed unlikely. Against her better judgement, she decided to investigate a bit. Taking a mental inventory of the tools at her disposal, she decided, with reckless abandon, to calculate the difference between the noisy signals and the regular signals. The process was just difficult enough to be interesting, but not hard enough to feel like real work. She saved a portion of the good and bad signals, typed "diff normal.txt crap.txt", and promptly knocked her coffee clean off her desk.
The difference between the two signals was clearly a pattern.
Six months later, things were a total mess. After discovering the signal, everyone had reacted differently. The rocket-scientist programmers had at first laughed at her for thinking she could find extraterrestrial intelligence just by doing a simple diff. They had looked into the signal themselves and reluctantly confirmed to her bosses that she was right, there was some kind of repeating pattern.
The first thing that the legal team did was to classify the signal as a corporate secret. Everyone had been made to sign a nondisclosure agreement positively overflowing with "we will sue you and your children forever" legal threats.
As far as they were aware, neither the public nor any other telecomms companies had noticed the signal. If they had, they were keeping quiet about it. While marketing was working on a way of monetising a signal from outer space, Steph had been put in a team with most of the elite programmers deciphering The Signal to see if it contained anything of worth. She was treated as some kind of joke mascot within the project. She was the idiot savant who had stumbled across the most important discovery in human history, completely by accident. They let her work on the smallest, most trivial part of the project, and gave her a modest pay rise.
The Signal, with audible capital letters, was apparently coming from a red giant around 13,000 light years away. It was composed of layer upon layer of individual patterns. The lowest frequency contained the most simple signal, and was the one that Steph had first discovered. It contained a repeating pattern of the first prime numbers, followed by the atomic weights of common elements.
The next layer took the ELITEs a week to decypher. It was the same signal from the first layer, but encoded to save space. By this point Steph was completely out of her depth.
The third layer was encoded in the same way as the second, so while they could decode it, its meaning was at first completely incomprehensible. It was like being able to read the characters of a foreign language, but having no clue as to the meaning. After months of trial and error, they discovered that the third layer described materials and methods for constructing a machine.
The thing standing in front of them was apparently naked, but as its body was a constantly-moving defocused mass of pink fuzz, it was hard to tell. Steph's eyes wandered down and found it just as difficult to tell whether the being was any gender either.
It held up its hand, "I come in peace."
"Is this some kind of joke?" said one of the ELITEs.
They had spent the last three months constructing the machine described in the third, fourth and fifth layers of the Signal. They repurposed the old server rooms in the basement and brought in more and more experts from different fields to help construction. At first they had no idea what they were making, but it became clear that it was some kind of holographic projector.
The increased staff had been noticed by the tech industry news of course, but according to their "inside scoop" (leaked by Jynnyfyr) it was for a new kind of virtual reality golf SpaceHive was setting up on one of their captured asteroids.
The being, still holding up its hand, looked around the room with a puzzled expression. "Oh, you have a lot less limbs than I was expecting." It looked down at itself and gave its legs an experimental wiggle. "Huh, so do I."
Jynnyfyr was in the room, and immediately took the Chief Talking To Aliens Officer position. She rattled off a list of questions. "Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you mean, less limbs?"
The pink fuzz became a softer haze, like candyfloss and reformed facing her. It answered her questions in similar bullet point fashion.
"I don't have a name, I am a HELPER. I just appeared so I can't really come from anywhere. Yes I was expecting around eight. Is this normally how you question people? In sets of three?"
One of the ELITEs jumped in, Steph thought his name began with a Rick. "We detected your signal coming from a distant star. Did you come from there?"
"Yes, it would seem so. I am a HELPER. I am sent to civilisations that have contacted us for more information."
Everyone began talking at once. "A helper? Is that your species name?" "Information on what?" "We never sent you a message."
The helper's fuzzy form split even further and became three separate pink humanoids, each facing a person. "No, it is my function." "Information on how to reach us." "Clearly. You must have intercepted my signal."
"I can instruct you how to send people from your planet to us."
It was lunchtime, two weeks after they had first turned on the projector and talked to HELPER. The ELITEs were busy implementing the changes that HELPER was telling them. Or rather, that the HELPERS were telling them. One pink-fuzz HELPER copy was standing next to each of them, telling them what changes needed to be made, helping them with calculations, or telling them about some obscure aspect of galactic history.
Steph was testing some of the scanning equipment in the room that allowed HELPER to see and hear them. Before her own copy had grown tired and wandered off, she had been asking it about the teleportation process that the HELPER was trying to make them construct. More specifically, about what could go wrong with it.
There was no way she would be the person to be sent through the teleporter, but her mind was already revelling in the blank canvas of teleporter deaths. What if only half of her was teleported, leaving the other half to fall to the floor with a wet splat? Maybe the teleportation process would reconstruct her in some kind of Dali-esque mess of features and limbs.
She often imagined that as the moment of death approached, time would slow down for her and her last excruciating milliseconds of existence would stretch to feel like millenia. How would this work with teleportation? Would she feel her skin, muscles and bones being taken apart cell by cell? Perhaps she would see her vision twist and melt as her eyes were broken down into their component atoms and whisked away.
She finished writing the next series of tests, hit return, and was suddenly staring at the ceiling.
She had the curious sensation of being at the wrong angle. The few times she had woken up in a bed other than her own, staring at a different ceiling, she had always felt that the world was at the wrong angle. The light coming in the window was hitting the wall at precisely the wrong angle. She was herself as always, but the world had somehow shifted itself under her overnight. This was like that but a million times worse.
She tried to sit up, and felt her legs swing down underneath her, banging her heels into the floor. She dropped a "Fug!" Curiously, the half-formed expletive floated gracefully away from her, rather than falling to the floor as it had countless times before.
"Hello, greetings." said a familiar voice, from somewhere above her head.
She looked up to see HELPER upside-down, looking down at her, from what was not up at all.
"Where am I? What the hell is going on?" ran through her head, but her lips managed to produce "Whufgh?"
"The transfer is complete, welcome to the space station Blargl Life Insurance, orbiting the planet Fripp.
While this was completely accurate, it was not really information that she could even begin to process.
Steph looked down, if it was really down, at her body. She was wearing kind of form fitting off-white bodysuit, parts of which shimmered in the light. Emblazoned across her torso were the words "Blargl Life Insurance". It was clearly custom-made to fit her, and yet she didn't seem to fit in it at all.
She tried again with the words thing, managed to convince her lips to really pull out all the stops and the word "clothes" slid out from her face.
HELPER looked puzzled, "Your clothes? Those were not part of the scanning process. We had to optimise the amount of data being sent."
This was again completely lost on Steph. She ignored it. Instead she tried to look further down towards her legs, but they blurred into the room that was spinning around her.
The part of her brain that had been making such a racket finally managed to wake up the part of her brain that had been basking in wonderful ignorance. This wasn't Earth. She had been teleported.
"This is wrong! I was… just a test…" she managed.
"You were not selected to represent your planet?"
"No! Send me back!"
"This is highly irregular. No matter, there is a protocol for this kind of eventuality. You have been sent, therefore you are the representative of your planet."
"Send me back, I never wanted this! Someone from SpaceHive can take my place."
"I'm afraid that is unlikely, as you and everyone at SpaceHive is likely dead by now. Maybe your planet should have picked someone with a better understanding of physics. This station is 13,000 light-years away from Earth."
Steph treated HELPER to her blankest of blank expressions.
"You were sent here at the speed of light. 13,000 years have passed since you left. If we did send you back, it would take another 13,000."
Steph finally noticed a little warning light flashing in her head that had appeared a minute ago.
"Wait, did you say everyone at SpaceHive is dead, including me?"
"Correct, 13,000 years have passed, and in all likelihood human lifespans are not ye-"
"You said including me. But I'm here. I'm not dead." Steph said, feeling she was stating the obvious somewhat.
"You are here yes, but the you that initiated the transfer on Earth 13,000 years ago is likely dead."
A horrible realisation swept across Steph's rather tattered mind. "You're saying I copy-pasted myself across the universe?"
"Well part-way across the galaxy, but essentially yes."
It was a well-known problem within the galactic community that exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations was much slower and more boring than advertised. It was possible to accelerate huge starships to a respectable percentage of the speed of light, but the contents became a good deal flatter than they were generally comfortable with.
The first few ships to attempt to travel between stars were usually less than halfway to their destination when they were overtaken by a faster ship that was designed, built and launched in the time following their departure.
The galactic community came to the conclusion that the whole process was far more effort than it was worth, and that the new life and new civilisations should, instead, boldly come to them.
Civilisations that seemed promising would be sent a message instructing them how to teleport themselves to the nearest galactic station, and the station would await the response, reconstructing the first beings teleported from the civilisation.
Teleportation in general went through the usual stages of a new technology. Before teleporting was even within the realms of practical science, philosophers, sooth-sayers and other thinkers of thoughts began to wring their hands over the moral implications of the technology. If a theoretical Alice were to theoretically visit her theoretical mother via a theoretical teleporter, her body would be scanned and digitised for transfer. This information would be sent to the teleport-reconstructor that her mother had, at great expense, placed in her own house, for her daughter to visit her just once in a while. The information would be used to create an exact copy of the Alice that stepped into the original teleporter. This copy, Alice-A, arriving at the destination would have an uninterrupted stream of consciousness from her birth to being greeted by her mother.
It is worth noting that the original terms Alice-1 and Alice-2 were deemed derogatory by the Clone Rights Movement, who said that being marked with the suffix "2" made them feel like second-class citizens. They demanded a notation that was equal in importance to the original, and decided that the original should be Alice-1, her clone is Alice-A, and subsequent clones are Alice-α, Alice-I, Alice-あ etc.
The problem is now you have two theoretical Alices. The original is not destroyed in the transfer process. To truly "move" Alice from her starting teleporter to her mother's house, one would have to destroy the original, which is theoretical murder and causes more hand-wringing.
While all the moral hand-wringing was going on, scientists and engineers built a teleporter and cloned themselves for fun.
With the technological barriers passed, and the moral hurdles neatly ignored, the final practical problems needed to be solved; what to do with all the clones of people. If they were separated by a large enough distance, two copies of the same person could run around without causing too many problems for society, and without causing too many existential headaches for the clones themselves.
Steph's head and body were spinning, currently in opposite directions.
"Everyone I know is dead. Has been dead for 13,000 years… What if I'm the last human alive?"
A gurgling noise from Steph's lower half broke some of the gravitas of the situation.
"Was that my stomach? How do I even have a stomach?"
HELPER was still upside-down, looking at her. It was less of the unfocused fuzz it had been back on Earth, but was still disconcertingly pink.
"You're still a human being, more or less. You were scanned and the data sent here, but you were reconstructed as you were. I believe it was just before lunchtime when you hit return. Let's go get some food, I'm starving."
The maître d' was resplendent in its teal-and-blorange evening wear. It, or Steph hazarded, he, was the same height as two ducks stacked end-to-end, with roughly the same number of beaks. He was perched behind a hovering lectern that wobbled in the air, sometimes so violently that he almost lost his balance.
"Oui ?" he quacked.
Steph had taken pride in her self-control in not being taken aback by the appearance of the maître d'. She considered herself a modern metropolitan woman with friends of many flavours.
The maître d' using French caused her mouth to drop open.
Unphased by the gawping lumpy being in front of him, the maître d' focused his attention on HELPER. They exchanged a few words and he guided the two of them to a table with an excellent view.
As the maître d' floated off, Steph whirled to HELPER, "Why was he speaking French? What? How?"
"Huh? It's not French it's Galactic Standard."
"That's French. I know French. He said 'Oui'. And I'm sure I heard a space before the question mark."
"No no. It bears some similarities of course, but no they evolved completely separately. They're totally unrelated."
"Then why are you talking to me in English?"
"You booted me up with knowledge based in English, what do you expect?"
Steph slumped back in her chair, defeated. Suddenly the menu caught her eye and she found that she could understand most of it. "Roasted something of something", and "something of the day" lept out at her. She couldn't just let the French thing slide.
"Don't you have some kind of universal translator?"
"Why? What for?"
"To let everyone speak to each other!"
"But everyone speaks Galactic. Why would we need translators? It's really very simple to learn."
She allowed her attention to wander and listened to the buzz of the other patrons around them. A pair of slender, elfin beings to their left were arguing in galactic. Or it seemed they were arguing, she couldn't quite tell.
She let the scene wash over her and surrendered to the insanity of her predicament. This morning, according to her severely-dented internal clock, she had eaten jam on toast and washed it down with cold tea left over from last night. Three hours after that, she ran a program and teleported a copy of herself across the galaxy. Now, 13,000 years into the future she was eating "lunch" surrounded by aliens.
After a meal of something entirely unlike chicken, the waiter reappeared.
"How will you be paying, monsieur?"
HELPER glanced up at him and smiled, "I have no idea!"
"Very good. And you, mademoiselle?"
Steph suddenly remembered the concept of money, much like people forget gravity until the are faced with 40-foot drop.
"Er, I don't think I have any money."
HELPER's smile evaporated and it hissed to Steph.
"Shhh what are you doing?!"
HELPER turned back to the worried-looking maître d', turned its smile up to a manic full-beam and asked for a little more time to settle the cheque. The maître d' moved to hover at a polite-but-insistent distance away.
Steph hissed back, "I don't have any money!"
"Ok, I guess I need to explain how money works here. We use Quantum Banking. As galactic markets grew in complexity and size, we needed faster computers to process the billions of transactions taking place every second. Quantum computing held the solution."
Steph brightened up, "Oh I've heard about quantum computers!"
"So you understand it?"
"No, not at all."
"Look, according to quantum physics, elementary particles like electrons can end up in a superposition of states, so long as they are not observed. You've heard of Shrödinger's cat right? In that thought experiment the cat is hidden in a box and ends up in superposition of both dead and alive states, so long as you don't open the box. The second you do, the superposition is collapsed and the cat ends up in just one state."
"And quantum banking is that but with money?"
"Yes, so you do get it!"
"No. I mean I get the cat thing. But how does that work with money?"
"With quantum banking, your bank account is the box and your money is the cat.Everyone is in a superposition of being filthy rich and flat out broke. The key is to never check the balance on the account."
"That's ridiculous! If you had no money, your bank would tell you and your card would be declined, surely."
"Only if they themselves check the amount in the account. Banks and businesses promise to never check the balance to keep it in a quantum superposition."
Steph felt she was losing a grip on something very fundamental. "That makes no sense! How does it work if there's no money?!"
"You think that banks on Earth moved around truckloads of cash?"
"No of course not, it's all digital."
"Exactly. And you think the programmers who made that software didn't make mistakes? Money would get created and destroyed all over the place. With this system there is precisely the right amount of money at any place in the system. If someone ever did look at the balances.
Steph thought about this for a bit. "Actually, I used to go for weeks without checking my balance, back on Earth. So I guess I was using quantum banking anyway."
"No that's delusional banking. We tried that for a bit. Doesn't work as well."
The waiter, who up to this point had been the model of patience, issued a well-trained polite cough.
"How will you be paying, Monsieur?"
"I have no idea."
"Very good. And the young lady?"
"I… Don't know."
"Excellent. We wish you a bonne nuit."
The two of them stumbled out of the restaurant and flopped down on a nearby bench. They were quite out of breath from carrying the extra few kilos they had put on in the last hour or so. While HELPER was preoccupied picking at something in its teeth, Steph took the time to look around the plaza they found themselves in. She was, despite her quietness, an avid people-watcher. Much in the same way a bird is an avid cat-watcher. She was acutely aware that everyone else had their own hopes and dreams, and she was eternally hopeful that none of them involved her.
Looking across the plaza, she saw an alien shaped like a toaster bobble up to another being, shaped like a wispy nothing, and shove it violently into one of the fountains. An angry-looking shape materialised with a buzz, above the toaster's domed head, and then faded away.
"That… toaster just pushed someone into a fountain! Nobody seems to care, isn't that a crime here?"
"Not really, if the toaster has enough karma. I guess karma's the word you'd use for it."
Steph felt another explanation coming, but was too full to protest.
"The Telnetians invented it originally, they created an implant that could record good deeds. If you did something that was beneficial to society, and not directly in your self-interests, you would receive a number of karma points. The more significant the act, the more points you would receive. From something as small as picking up a piece of rubbish, to diving in front of a car to save a child. Those points were taken into account if you ever did anything wrong. Someone who had done a lot for society, and had a large karma balance would be allowed to spend those points instead of paying a parking fine."
"That sounds like a good idea! Nobody likes seeing good people be punished."
"Yes, so the system spread and was soon used throughout the civilized galaxy. As the system grew, some people started to make earning karma points their full-time employment. There was a black market in selling karma points to individuals that had gone into the red and needed a quick boost to their reputation in order to avoid the attention of the authorities.
"Yarple Fuhh was the first being to be acquitted of first-degree murder through karma points. He had spent half a lifetime being the model citizen, saving people's lives, cleaning the streets, devoting his time to youth projects. It was all in preparation for revenge on the Redosian that murdered his wife.
"By this point the black market in karma points was out of control. People were making their living being good citizens, while others were able to buy their way back into good repute by purchasing karma points on the black market."
"My god, so you scrapped the system?"
"No of course not, we just regulated it. The Karma Stock Exchange was set up and people were able to freely buy and sell their points, with a small cut of every transaction going to the galactic government.
"If people tried to make a quick buck by doing too much good, the value of their acts would drop on the stock market, and the system would balance out. Similarly the price would go up as criminals and other insalubrious individuals tried to buy up karma points. It works much better now."
They were still slumped on the bench when Steph sat up with a jolt.
"Wait. I arrived here a couple of hours ago, and it took me 13,000 years to get here, right? Wouldn't that mean that other people who left just after me would be arriving now? What's happening to them?"
"Um, yes I suppose they could be," mused HELPER, still picking idly at something stuck in its teeth. "But they won't be reconstituted. Your planet was only allocated one arrival slot."
"What? Allocated? I don't get it, you don't have enough materials to reconstruct people or something?"
"No, the market of beings has to be strictly controlled, if the supply of beings outstripped demand, their value would plummet."
"The value of people? Wait forget about that," Steph refused to be side-tracked, "Can't we just request another slot or two? What if Earth is trying to send more people!"
The HELPER had braced itself against a being the size of a small truck and was using both arms to pick at whatever was stuck in its teeth. It finally gave up with a small harrumph.
"Fine, we'll go to the BUREAU. Though I don't know what good it'll do."
They left the plaza with HELPER leading the way and Steph gawping at each new being they passed. They wove between increasingly shabby and run-down buildings until they reached a dead-end with a nondescript door. Upon close inspection Steph could just about make out BUREAU written above the door. They stepped inside.
The being behind the counter was large, round and seemed like it would very much have preferred not being than being.
Its nameplate simply read "Ffffffff".
With her new-found confidence from the restaurant, and with HELPER preoccupied with whatever was deeply entrenched in its teeth, Steph felt like flexing her language muscles.
"Good afternoon, I would like to request permission for receipt of an incoming transfer from Earth."
Is what she assumed she said, but the being heard,
"Hello, I want ask to have a coming massage from dirt."
Fffffff exuded an aura of ennui with renewed vigour.
"What." it replied in a voice that practically screamed disinterest.
Steph was unsure as to which part of her speech was unclear and tried again, picking words she knew and throwing them on the table like a jigsaw puzzle.
"Please I want someone to come from dirt. Teleport. Please." she said with what she aimed to be an apologetic-yet-hopeful smile.
"The permission form for receipt and reconstitution of an incoming person is number 962522-?."
"Thanking." Steph stuck out her hand expectantly. "Please?"
"I don't have the form. You have to request the form."
Steph seemed to understand the game. "I request the form. Please."
Ffffffff did not have eyes but it rolled its entire body inside its semi transparent casing.
"No. Form requisition requests is another department."
HELPER stepped neatly past Steph and casually laid an arm on the counter.
"Hi", it glanced at the nametag on the desk, "Ffffffff, my friend here is rather simple. She just ported in from some backwards dirtball and has some important colleagues who may be arriving. I'm sure a well-put-together spheroid like yourself could explain the whole thing."
Ffffff rolled counterclockwise inside its carapace, which apparently meant something like a blush.
"It's incredibly simple. To apply you fill out forms 28272-∧ and β-673-69, along with proof of residence on the planet, translated into galactic standard, the signature of your birth unit."
"That sounds simple enou-" began HELPER before he was cut off.
"To get form 28272-∧, simply deposit two gargs of bodily fluid with a yeoman on your local planet, and wait two to sixteen weeks for processing. Form β-673-69 will then be sent to you."
"I can't get proof, my planet is 13,000 light years away!" wailed Steph.
"Well you should have thought about that before you came here."
Utterly defeated, they left Ffffff to deal with her next victim.
"So what happens to all the people that are sent here, but don't get materialized? What happens to their information?"
"Oh don't worry. The energy from any unmaterialised data transfers is used to power the station."
"Those might be some of the most important scientists on earth! Being sent to save me!"
"First, they're not people, they're just a stream of photons, the originals are still back on Earth. Or were back on Earth. Second, they probably don't even know if you made it. For Steph-1 on Earth, she hit return and nothing happened. The test program was successful."
"That's horrific! They travelled across the galaxy for 13,000 years, past countless stars and through nebulae only to reach here and be used to boil an egg."
"I know! Makes you wonder why anybody tries to go anywhere really."
The light outside the BUREAU was at once blinding and refreshing. Steph leaned against a wall and sighed.
"So according to them, I don't exist. What's the point? Why am I even here?"
HELPER stepped out of the gloom after her and said with a grin,
"If it's getting too much for you, you can always get someone else to do it for you."
Steph couldn't be bothered to fight it.
"What are you going to tell me now?"
"You can rent out your life for a while and take a break. People who want to take a break from their own lives now and then like to rent other people's for a bit. You know, get out of their head a bit and live in someone else's. It's called AirHead.
"There's a quick procedure to be altered to look like you and have your memories implanted, and then for all intents and purposes they are you."
"Holy hell that's horrific! Does anyone really do that? They must warn their friends and family before they do it though? That someone else will be taking over their life for a while?"
"No of course not, that would ruin the entire experience. It has to be completely authentic."
"How can you be sure who anyone is?"
"What makes you sure that anyone is anyone, anyway?"
Steph stuck her tongue out at HELPER, "For all you know I might be doing that right now, I might be someone else. And you'd never know."
"It's possible," HELPER conceded, "but it seems highly unlikely. I can't imagine anyone paying to be you right now."
With little else to do, they found themselves in a cafe somewhere, killing time. Steph stared out of the window.
"So that's it. I'm stuck here forever," she said to nobody in particular. "I could go back to Earth but what's the point? Even if I get approval from those bureaucratic slugs it'd be a completely foreign planet. Assuming if it still exists. And would it even be me that arrived there? It'd be another copy of me wouldn't it? Wouldn't I be stuck here? How does anyone deal with that?"
HELPER was making shapes on the table with the remains of its drink. Steph wondered if it really needed to drink, and where the liquid went.
She stared out of the window again, and noticed a being staring intently at one of the water fountains outside the cafe. It was wearing a large flowing robe covered with thousands of tiny reflective shards. The light from the central sun was refracted through the water fountain and hit the shards on the being's robes, creating a dancing pattern onto the ground.
"What's that guy's deal? Is he meditating?"
HELPER looked up from its table-swirlies, and in the direction Steph was pointing.
"That's a Simulationist, and I don't think it's a 'he'."
Steph waited for the inevitable explanation, but for once, it didn't come.
"Come on, what is a Simulationist?" she asked testily.
"Oh, you don't have them on Earth? It's one of the galaxy's most popular religions. They believe that the entire universe is a simulation being run by a higher form of life, from outside the universe."
"I've heard of thought experiments like that on Earth. But wait, they actually believe that?"
"Yes, they believe that if we can communicate with the controller of the simulation, the Eternal Experimenter, they will stop the experiment and we will all be transported to their reality."
"Okay… So why is he, it, staring at the fountain?"
"They believe that it is impossible to communicate directly with the Eternal Experimenter, and so they try to show their knowledge that reality is a simulation by causing computationally-intensive things to happen at all times.Calculating the simulation of the water and light in the fountain is very expensive, and by staring at it, the Simulationist is making sure the Eternal Experimenter can't 'cheat' and skip any computation."
"They theorise that any parts of the universe that are not being observed by people are being calculated in a cheaper way by the system. So they have made it their goal to make the Eternal Experimenter use as much processing power as possible. Essentially their plan is to annoy the experimenter into stopping the experiment, or at least upgrading the system on which it is being run."
Steph wondered if she would feel better or worse if she turned out to be a data point in someone's grand experiment. If it was true at least all this would have been for something.
A few days passed on the station. Steph had been given a place to stay along with her re-materialisation allocation. She used the computer built into the wall to requisition something approximating a bed. Every evening she bid HELPER good night, and every morning it knocked on her door. She had no idea where it slept, if at all.
She felt like staying in her room all day. She hadn't asked to come here and exploring a huge station filled with unknown life-forms terrified her, but HELPER would drag her out to get food and inevitably they would spend the day looking at things on the station.
They were walking through one of the park-like areas of the station filled with purple foliage, when she was suddenly struck by a sense of claustrophobia. She could see the inner ring of the station far overhead, and to her it seemed that it was rushing towards her.
She started hyperventilating and sat down with a thump on the stringy grass.
"This place," she heaved, "it's so fake. Can't we get out of here?"
She fell back, staring at the glass far above. Through it she could see the purplish-blue planet Fripp that the station orbited. She pointed up.
"Can't we go there? Is it habitable?"
HELPER thought about it briefly before replying. "Yes, I think you'll be fine there. The teleport station is just off the main plaza." he said and held out a hand to help Steph up.
She recoiled in horror.
"Oh no, no way am I being teleported again. That would mean a copy of me would be left here wouldn't it? There's no way I'm making more copies of myself to run around."
"Technically the new copy, Steph-α would be created on the surface of the planet and you, the first copy Steph-A would remain here."
Steph took a moment to parse this and her eyes grew wide. "So I wouldn't even be transported! I would still be here!"
"Well that's debatable, it depends on what you consider as 'you'. According to the new Steph that would appear on the planet, she is 'you'. You just have to consider —"
Steph interrupted with a wave of her arms. "No. No way. I'm never getting in a teleporter again."
She had been thinking about her other self ever since she had arrived. It felt like having a friend living in another time zone. She wondered what Steph-1 was doing right now, whether she was going to lunch at work, whether she had even noticed that the test had sent a copy of herself across the galaxy. But in reality the Steph on Earth had been dead for some 13,000 years. She had no idea what kind of life her original Earth self had lived.
"Surely there must be another way to get there. Can't we take a spaceship or something?"
HELPER raised its eyebrows in surprise. "I suppose so, I hadn't thought of that. There aren't many in use any more, but I might be able to find a small shuttle we can borrow. I know where we could start looking."
They took one of the train-sized elevators round to the other side of the station, where the only remaining hangar bay was still in use. The huge vaulted ceiling overhead reminded Steph of the few churches she had been to on Earth. Strewn around the decks of the bay like discarded toys were small, sleek-looking vessels. There was no dust in the air to settle on them, but they looked completely abandoned.
HELPER was stopping every now and then to check the ships with a hand-held device he had grabbed by the entrance to the hangar.
"These are useless, someone's drained their power. Probably for something actually useful." It shot a glance in Steph's direction, but she was too busy looking at the shuttles.
"So people still fly ships, it's amazing."
"Some crazy people use ships, but nobody flies them, that really would be crazy."
Steph's explanation sense started tingling, but HELPER was already launching into another monologue.
"You think they would allow people to fly ships manually, next to a station with millions of beings on board? One wrong move with those flabby bits of bone and muscle and you could decompress part of the station. That in turn could knock the station out of orbit, and turn the entire thing into a fireworks display as it burned up in the planet's atmosphere. So no, nobody flies them manually. There are systems in place specifically to stop anyone from trying something so suicidal."
They wove their way in between ship after ship until they came to one separated from the rest. It looked far older than the rest, but shinier. It looked like the kind of ship a 1960s science-fiction author would make, if that author was also a magpie. It was covered in fins with mismatching paint and chrome.
A group of beings stood in front of the ship. They were a variety of shapes and sizes, but all of them wore matching onesies of different colours.
HELPER saw them and groaned.
"Oh great. Shipsters."
With the advent of teleportation, the galaxy went through a new renaissance of communication and travel. Planets that had previously taken thousands of years to travel between could be visited in a hundred via teleportation. The galaxy celebrated the convenience and simplicity of teleportation, no matter the existential crises.
As people realised the impracticality of space travel and switched to using teleporters more and more, the space industry collapsed, leaving entire planets covered in rotting hulks.
Some ships survived, and eventually it became cool to own an old shuttle to go for a joyride to a nearby moon.
Some took this hobby to an extreme. They bought up ancient, gigantic ships and made the thousand-year voyages between star systems. Generations lived and died onboard these ships, all with a cult-like obsession with the retro stylings of the ships. The self-titled "crew" of these ships would wear period uniforms.
She considered herself an expert in interstellar travel, mainly based on her extensive knowledge of science-fiction. But the shuttle looked it would be more at home in a 1950s comic book.
Looking at the ship, her imagination woke up and began creating an impressive list of ways to die, based on her science-fiction knowledge. The front view screen could be hit by a micrometeor, smashing it and causing the room's air to be shot into space and them along with it. The heat shielding could fail and they could incinerate in the planet's atmosphere. The ship's engines could explode during descent, spreading them as a thin paste over a ten-mile radius when they hit the ground.
The HELPER was already talking them into Galactic French-not-French. Steph sidled up to one of the friendlier-looking uniformed aliens and tried in her best French-not-French.
The being was bipedal, a head taller than her and had intricate facial hair above its eyes, that it had fashioned into something like a handlebar moustache. It was dressed in a yellow onesie. It looked down at her and raised its brow-stache.
It waved at the rest of the aliens and hooted, "She thinks this is the ship!"
Steph began to grow red.
"No no no, this is the shuttle. The ship is hundreds of times bigger than this."
At this point the captain came over and started rambling about the ship that was apparently docked outside.
"I found the old thing in a little oubliette a few light years from here. You probably don't know it. It's an original, over a thousand years old. They don't make them anymore. I had to custom-order the fins myself."
HELPER rolled his eyes. She could see him trying, and for the most part failing, to hide his contempt for the crew.
"Yes yes it's all very quaint. Look, we just want a ride to the planet. This being has just teleported here, you'd get a lot of karma for aiding someone so clearly helpless."
The captain's eyes lit up, but he played it cool.
"Excellent, excellent. Everyone, prepare for an away mission to the planet below! Star date 126-, I mean tomorrow, at 0800 hours!"
Back in her quarters that evening, laying on her soft-but-lumpy approximation of a bed, she thought about her future life aboard the space station. Until she could prove she existed with some kind of documents from Earth, she would not be considered a real entity. She could try to rough it on the planet below, it seemed habitable enough.
Maybe she could join the group of shipsters and sleep for thousands of years as they travelled between stars. She was already unmoored from her time by 13,000 years, what would be the harm of a couple of thousand more?
Or she could take up the HELPER's suggestion of teleporting herself somewhere. She reminded herself that she would remain here too, but she was beginning to gain some comfort that part of her might be in a better place, having more fun than her. She could even teleport a copy of herself back to Earth.
She began to think about how far she was from Earth and felt a wave of panic rising up in her chest. She had no home. Her real home, back on Earth, was gone. She had no safe base to return to and the pressure of being completely and utterly alone in this alien place began to crush down upon her.
She tried to calm herself down by reminding herself of the few trips she had taken abroad, back before she had started working. She had enjoyed the new experiences but the relief she felt when she returned home was more pleasurable than the entire vacation.
She felt the floor lurch under her feet. Starting in the distance, people's clothes began to flap wildly, and in an instant a wave of hit her in the face, knocking her to the floor. HELPER recoiled from the shock, stumbled but managed to stay upright.
It was the next morning, and they had been walking towards the trains to the hangar bay, for their 0800 rendezvous with the shipsters.
Sirens were starting to wail across the station, the sound bouncing off the invisible ceiling above sounding like the echo from a distant mountain.
Steph, sitting on her bruised backside, managed an eloquent "What the fu-" before being cut off again as the ground shifted violently under her, dropping her a half metre before stopping her again.
HELPER again, catlike, landed on its feet. "At the risk of stating the obvious, something's hit the station. We need to evacuate."
They were at least 20 minutes away from the docking bays by the elevator system, and who knew if that was still operational.
Despite herself, she turned to HELPER, "Do you think we can make it to the docking bays? Maybe there are some Shipste-"
"Not enough time."
"Are there lifeboats or something?"
"There has to be some way off this bloody thing!"
"Teleporters. That's where they're all heading." HELPER said and pointed over her shoulder. Steph's face, already a mixture of panic and fear, added horror and awful realisation into the blend.
People were half-running, half-stumbling past them, steph turned her head and looked up through the glass ceiling to the far side of the station. Through the supporting struts and reflections on the transparent inner hub, she could just make out many streams of beings converging on the same point.
In the end, there was a queue.
She was happy, in a way. Even as the station continued to lurch and groan like a drunk, beings of all shapes and sizes lined up in an orderly fashion.
"Even the end of the world is British." She murmured to herself.
As they neared the front of the line, she saw each being in front of her tap or grunt instructions to the computer and step onto the scanning pad.
Some couples embraced before they stepped onto the pad, for others it seemed routine. She wondered how many times they had teleported themselves, or if the question even made sense.
For after each flash of the scanning beam, the being was still there on the pad. Each of them unceremoniously stepped off and made way for the next person. Some walked past the line back towards the plaza, others merely sat in a corner and waited for the inevitable.
Their luminous double would already be flying at the speed of light to a safe harbour somewhere. Most places would be somewhere safer than an exploding space station but even that was not certain. Given the distances it was impossible to tell whether there would be anything at the other end to catch their signal. They could be left to continue into the infinite inky blackness of space, barely any different to the radiation poured out by stars every second.
As they waited, there was the occasional staccato of an explosion, followed by a rush of air, cut off by a loud boom as parts of the station sealed off another decompressed section.
Steph had been engrossed in watching the beings in front of them go through the process, when suddenly she turned to HELPER.
"Where are we going to send ourselves?"
"I was wondering about that. I know a couple of other stations and planets in reputable systems. One even has pinkish-brown bipeds that look a bit like you. Then there's always the option of Earth."
"I can't decide, how can you even choose something like that? I don't know anything about those places!"
"You don't get it, we can send ourselves to all of them. That's what most of these other people are doing. Sending multiple signals to different sites. For redundancy. A rogue comet could get in between here and the destination, and you'd be reduced to briefly warming a tiny patch on the side of rock. They'll be so far apart in space and time that you'll never run into yourself unless you want to."
Steph stared at HELPER, she was angry that even after all this time she could still not get her head around teleportation.
"Fuck it. Why not."
Finally it was their turn.
HELPER stepped onto the pad. The light flashed. It stepped off.
Steph stepped onto the pad. The light flashed.
Her vision was blurred, full of stars. She rubbed them and HELPER's face swam into view.
"Did we make it?" Steph asked.
"We won't know for another few thousand years, and I doubt we'll be around to hear the answer. We're still on the station."
Steph didn't know what she expected. She half-hoped that somehow her consciousness would magically appear at whatever destination she had been beamed to. After all she had her memories of her life before the station, she remembered pressing the button at the other end, why shouldn't she be the Steph that appeared at the other end?
HELPER seemed to notice her pained expression, "I'm sorry. I explained before that you are not moved to the destination, you are only copied." HELPER had a look somewhere between kicked puppy and concerned parent. She guessed it was attempting to look sad.
Someone behind her poked her in the back, and she stumbled down off the pad and into HELPER. She pulled away and saw a dark patch on its chest.
She realised she was crying.
"I still don't understand. I understand the technicalities, I can imagine the science, but I still don't understand how you can teleport people. How can something so cruel exist? If you can create life so easily, how can you feel loss when it is destroyed?
"To be willed into existence somewhere you know nothing about. Only to be snuffed out so soon after. And I've condemned many other Stephs to the same fate? It makes no sense."
"Who gave you the idea that the universe made sense?"
And with that, she was ripped from HELPER's grasp, as the teleportation room depressurised. The air screamed and howled and faded to silence. Beings were thrown into space like confetti.