The looming of Oasis filled the viewport.
Only a thousandth of it could be seen from this approach, but what there was glittered against the Darkstar Sea with bright promise.
After two years between ports, shore leave would be delicious.
We had twenty-four hours to make the most of it.
"Where do we start?" I brought up the tourism manifest. "Here's one: 'The Trembling Leaves of Borgeson have flowers the size of a cargo hull that bud, blossom, and fade in the breadth of an hour.' Or look: 'The Grimpshank boast such regenerative finesse and such sumptuous meat that they roast themselves and serve you from their own flanks, table-side.'"
"Nah," Larch said.
"This: 'A musical performance (adaptable to any aural structure) so sublime that many of our patrons opt to be deafened on the spot.' They must want it to be the last thing they ever hear."
"Or maybe they want to be sure they don't go through it again."
He shrugged. "Not for me."
"What about people watching? Like we used to do when we first . . ."
Larch let his bangs fall over his eyes.
"You're staying onboard the whole time we're docked at Oasis?" I tried not to gape at him. I turned back to the viewport and watched Oasis swell. We had been lovers for so long I didn't know him anymore. Who knew when we might be back on this orbital incline? Maybe never. It's not like I had to try out their hallucinogens or try a prayer out on their pomp of deities or pursue the inevitable, reckless offers at mating—but come on; who wouldn't take a peek? "Look, 'There are over three thousand lifeforms present at any given time.' Fantastic, right?"
Larch cocked his head, researching something. "Three thousand one-hundread and twenty-six at the moment. Impressive," he said. "If you want a flood of impressions you can't hope to digest in a lifetime."
"There's more to life than milking imagination. You need to feed your external senses."
"I've been enjoying, you know, honing in."
"We could go dancing."
"We can dance here."
"But we don't."
"Anyway." Larch stood. "There's a game on."
Not the game again. "Tell them you'll be back tomorrow." I clasped his shoulders. He laughed it off, but when I let go he swiveled and skipped away, waving with his fingers.
Channel him, I thought to my PAIA, a.k.a. pMoi.
With a tingle, our agents connected.
pMoi: Cowardly deeds.
pLarch: Mine doesn't have the empty holes that your's does.
pLarch: In psychic armor. Your human keeps threatening to leave. One day she will. Admit it: she's going out to look for alien love.
pMoi: Crass. What about that game yours has played every day for a hundred days. Talk about being absent.
pLarch: She could join in.
pMoi: Take the game to Oasis with you if you can't leave it behind.
pLarch: That might not result in the quality time you seem to be after.
pMoi: Didn't you say he could play the game anywhere? Walking, talking, whichever.
pLarch: True. But—
pMoi: She dares him.
Do I? I thought to pMoi. Is that a good idea?
Yes, pMoi whispered within.
pLarch: A dare? He’s considering.
The conversation between our PAIAs lulled. Oasis filled the viewport now. I didn't know where to look. To keep a relationship solid you need to share a common ground of experience, don't you?
pLarch: He'll bring the game to Oasis so long as she joins in.
Join the game? What had pMoi gotten me into this time? Well, wasn't that the whole idea? Your personal artificial intelligence agent knew you better than you did and played your representative where you were too shy to tread. I wanted to trust it, but disappearing into some game on my one chance to see Oasis was a high price. Still, it would be worth it to get Larch out of his narrow little world even for a few hours. Might give the relationship the boost it needed. What else can you work with other than what's in front of you?
All right, I thought to pMoi, I'll do it.
pLarch: Deal and done. He'll meet her at the pods with the other players.
Other players? I thought to pMoi. Not them.
pMoi: This is not a solo game.
I don’t have any social mods, I thought to pMoi. Maybe we should cancel this.
pMoi: You have been considering this game for some time, know it or not, so I have taken the liberty of preparing all the necessary modifications. Shall I install them?
I have been, have I? I thought to pMoi. What installations? This affects you?
pMoi: It makes me outrageous, pMoi thought back.
You already are.
pMoi paused a beat too long and thought back: It enables me to lie.
Now I felt a drop of poison. What's the point in that?
pMoi: It's a sublayer necessary to create the fictional augmentations.
I traced my finger along the viewport. Do what you must.
Larch met me at the airlocks where an exuberant stream of other sailors were crossing over to Oasis. The mothership, Plantagenet, couldn't risk docking with Oasis itself. Too many unknowns. It was the first time I could remember having to queue up for a pod.
The last of Larch's gamers arrived. I had been introduced to all of them before. I think. They were all of a type and blended together in my mind. This one had too much hair where he shouldn't have had any and visa versa. He chucked Larch on the shoulder. "A game with seven. There's a challenge." He winked at me. "Hard to get a seventh."
I demurred. "Oh?"
"Most can't filter out the chatter. The pChatter." He raised his eyebrows and shot a look to Larch who coughed from the effort of suppressing laughter.
What is going on here? I thought to pMoi.
pMoi wound into my thoughts: They think you're going to bail from the game. The chatter can be rough. However, the other mod I installed allows me to hold conversations on your behalf with the other PAIAs in the game without subjecting you to the chatter. It's not strictly against the rules, though I've opted not to disclose our use of it or they'd probably install a circumvention.
Thanks. pMoi was the best. It was good to have someone looking out for you. Yet, something subtle in its tone had changed. It was looking forward to this challenge. Have you started lying?
pMoi: No. However, I'll point out that this would be my answer in any case.
The mods are reversible?
pMoi: Yes. However, I'll point out that—
The gamers clambered into a pod with bags of gear. There wasn't quite room for all of us and I had to sit on Larch's lap, which made elbows fly into ribs and eyebrows dance. What was I thinking? Larch was a dear friend, sweet when you got him alone. He was often my choice for lover, but he had some issues picking friends. I had really hoped to share something special on Oasis. But with this pack of flatstone losers on our heels? They seemed intrenched, determined to maintain their status quo. Well, I had one thing going for me: Oasis.
The pod launched and I was pressed into Larch. He kissed the back of my head.
Oasis grew. Its crystalline outcroppings spread to all sides. Ships came and went from its docks like bees from a massive hive. We approached alongside every kind of far-going vessel you could imagine: spindles, waywarps, trawlers, echostix and thousands of pods from our ship, Plantagenet, which shrank behind us. It was strange to see it dwarfed: we hired out for planetary exoduses and system mergers and were not accustomed to thinking of ourselves as small. It receded to a mote.
I had expected the game to begin when we got there. Actually, my hope had been that there would be too many distractions and the game would never get started. But, as soon as the pod had launched the gear was out. They strapped on oversized helmets and pulled thick-wired gloves up to their elbows.
I can't believe I'm going to be seen with them.
pMoi: You don't care about that. Who's going to see you? You'll be one of them. Indistinguishable.
Larch held out a helmet and gloves.
"I really need gloves?"
"Gauntlets," Larch said. "Come on, you might like this."
I sighed and inclined my head.
He lowered the helm on to my head. It felt like we were going into battle.
The helm squashed my neck with its weight and right away I wanted to lean on my hands or lean back on Larch to take off the pressure, but none of the others seemed bothered and I was tired of them making sissy-eyes.
The first thing that surprised me was that, once I had it fitted right, it didn't look like the inside of a helmet at all. I had expected some endless stream of charts and figures, but instead my vision was clear. It must have used photosensors on the exterior and projective layers on the inside to propagate the illusion. Of course, there were augmentations. Every player had an avatar's head in place of their real one. Beside me sat a Mantis and a shimmering blue cube.
I turned around to face Larch.
A Minotaur stared back at me.
The Minotaur grinned, showing long yellow teeth. The tongue looked bloodied.
"So what am I?" I asked, touching my head but feeling only a helmet.
His voice came as a growl—it was unmistakably Larch, and unmistakably Minotaur.
"Here put these on," He said. He helped me into the gloves. "Feel again."
This time when I touched where my head should have been was what felt like a great big penny.
The Minotaur brayed.
"What did you make me?"
"I didn’t do anything. You're a big green two dimensional smiley face. It's the default."
pMoi: If I may ask, what do you want your avatar to be?
"Can I be anything?"
Larch nodded, a disturbing gesture from the beast. "Most people pick something they think will intimidate the others."
pMoi: It can be anything that isn't taken by another player.
Can I look like myself?
pMoi: It's certainly not taken.
pMoi made the adjustment and a plume of light erupted over the helm's field of vision.
"Boooooring," Larch growled.
"No," the Mantis snapped. "I'd say she's got the right idea. That is intimidating."
The pod filled with every kind of laughter except for mine.
I could never tell Larch's friends apart. They blended into one another any time I thought of them. They revealed their game names with great ceremony, but those were just as forgettable, all misbegotten with multiplicative syllabics and sudden apostrophes. I thought of them as their avatars looked: Larch the Minotaur, Mantis, Spiderbutt, Blue Cube, Moon Crater Pockface, Bonfire, and Me. What a menagerie—and yet to anyone outside the game we'd look like a backwater race that hadn't adapted to the common core atmosphere and was forced to wear a suit at every port. I couldn't decide which was worse.
When does this stupid game start?
pMoi: It already has. In fact, you've earned three points.
None of the others seemed to be doing anything more than maintaining a giddy, idle banter about passing ships. Larch, I was happy to see, seemed suitably entranced by Oasis as we passed under the first of the filament iceveils.
How did I get points?
pMoi: Well, all us PAIAs have been getting to know each other.
Of course they were. I wasn't used to not being privy to pMoi's conversations. But that explained why the others seemed so inattentive—they would be eavesdropping on the pChatter, dropping in the occasional thought. They’d assume I was doing the same.
Do I need to do anything so they don't catch on that I'm not listening?
pMoi: Just keep zoning out like you usually do.
pMoi knew me so well. How does this game even work?
pMoi: Shall I tune you in? We're reviewing the latest game patches.
No, no, no.
pMoi: Don't worry, the game's intuitive. You'll catch on.
I was about to drill pMoi for a few more details, just the basics of the game so I didn't look like a complete idiot, but the docking sequence had started and this dance of gravitational micro-tides was fabled. Ships veered past each other in a dizzying spiral, and, damn the game: this was beautiful. As a navigator myself I marveled at the coordination of intelligence that could manage the simultaneous landing of so many vessels in continual overlap. More than once we came nose to tail with a five-spline Epliman that was on a similar descent trajectory, but every time it seemed we would collide unseen gravitational fluctuations brushed us apart with angel breath. An uncountable number of ships coiled in helical descent.
The helmet had one cool feature: ghost images of whatever I was focused on would trail behind. A swarm of Babeetlemits dove on the far edge of our dock and the helmet traced the shadow of its structure through time. Fascinating. The longer I focused on something the brighter it got; likewise, the less I attended to something the dimmer it became. Not that I could see how that related to any game.
The gamers laughed at nothing and waved their hands aimlessly. A bolt of spraying lights passed between Larch and Blue Cube. Mantis juggled a dozen chocolate-swirled worlds complete with orbiting moons of ice-cream. Every so often Moon Crater Pockface stole a moon or Spiderbutt would scarf down a world whole. It was like hanging out in a dorm room with a bunch of tripping friends that had taken all the doses before you got there.
pMoi whispered within: You just lost five points.
You can go negative? I decided right then, as our pod clipped into the dock with a reassuring fugue of magnetic echoes, not to learn the game at all. I'd keep the helm on as promised—I certainly enjoyed the tracer effect—but I wouldn't waste my time on Oasis trying, of all things, to rack up imaginary points. I said I'd play, but I never said I’d try to win.
Our idents had been cleared with immigration on the ride over so we were free to join right in with the throng that poured into the maze of vaulted passages that led to the wonders that awaited in the hollows of Oasis.
I pressed into the crowd of lifeforms, not waiting for Larch or the gamers who hung back by the pod double checking each other's gear.
Many of the lifeforms arriving wore full-body suits, so I didn't feel as self-conscious as I'd feared about being ensconced, enturtled, encased.
The gamers hurried to catch up to me. Larch tried to hail me directly through pLarch's connection to pMoi.
I told pMoi to make up whatever excuses it needed to and to not bug me again about it and hurried to lose them. I passed a tank of aqueous flautists and ducked between blasts of an ambulatory laser sculpture.
The gamers strung out behind me, pulled apart by the tide of the multitude.
Life forms of every kind hustled around me: the scuttling machine husks of Tarmlin Peasies, the grasping tentacles of the Vine Handlers, a clutch of snail-shelled Osselisks. There were many beings who's identity or biology was shrouded by full-bodied suits. The top of the crowd waved with antennae, halos, appendages, breathing tubes and the tips of wing.
I wriggled my way through the press until I stood face-to-toe with a massive yet gorgeously still being. It held an impossibly elegant position. A plaque beside it updated the mu-moments since it had been maintaining the pose without variation. It was into twelve digits. Longer than I could hope to live.
pMoi interrupted my thoughts: Not a bad move. A suggestion: you'll score much higher if you—
Shut it, I thought back. You track the game if you want, but keep me out of it.
pMoi: No point updates? Not even rank promotions
pMoi sounded disappointed and it made me want to laugh.
Nope, not even rank promotions. Definitely not. Seriously, don't mention a single detail or I'll cancel your upgrade subscriptions.
pMoi: Touchy. No need for threats. Consider yourself understood.
I had expected more of an argument from pMoi. It loved tracking stats and grids of minutia. It over-explained them to me in the most mundane of situations, but this time pMoi said nothing more. pMoi's most reliable weakness was its love for upgrades which it bathed in more often than I showered. And, to be clear, I'm clean. There would be plenty for it to track in the game without me. This would actually be a welcome respite from pMoi's nattering. Maybe this was why the gamers played the game. I felt a spark of kinship until I remembered that they were actually listening to the increased pChatter. On purpose.
I returned my attention to the elegant being and found that it had moved—I wouldn't have noticed it except for the helmet's tracer enhancements. No one else had seen it; or no one cared—they wandered by and shot mementograms, not even waiting long enough to let the holographic dry.
The being radiated a faint blue from its spherical joints. Without warning it swayed forward, setting its tapered limbs gracefully into the few available openings in the crowd. The sweep of its many towering protrusions left a trail in my helmet's vision that let me see the inflection points of its choices. It navigated the bustle of startled lifeforms with balletic ease.
My helmet translated a nearby conversation. I couldn't match the voices with the lifeforms, there were too many.
"See, you never know when one will move," said one.
"How lucky we are," another gushed. "I must broadcast to my fans. They'll want to know I was here when it happened."
"When what happened?" said a third.
A breathless Minotaur asked, "What's this plaque for?"
The crowd dispersed. Nothing more to see here. Oasis's many other attractions seemed to absorb their attention almost instantly.
I scrambled away from Larch under the thick folds of a Treg patrol and followed the towering, elegant being. I studied its stride with the help of the contrails in my helm. My gauntlets left a motion trace, too, I realized. Focusing on these two tracers, I ignored the crowd as best I could and sought to match the being's gait. Though I was an order of magnitude smaller I found I could move something like that magnificent being. It was like dancing.
Larch had caught up with me again. His horns bobbed in the periphery of my vision. He was stuck on the other side of a threesome of Kachiks whose broad shoulders could not easily be passed. The Minotaur beckoned.
I wished he would take a hint and leave me be. I had done my duty by our friendship in getting him onto Oasis. Later we could spill stories to each other over drinks. He could haze me all he wanted for my atrocious game play. For now I didn't feel like running tagalong with a pack of nucks trapped in make-believe. I was drawn on by the most entrancing, mysterious thing I'd ever seen. I had to catch the pose-breaker.
See you, suckers, I thought a little too loudly and pMoi sprang up.
pMoi: See me what?
Not you. Go back to your game. Wait—what is the name of that lifeform that I'm following.
pMoi: That old thing? It's a Genz.
pMoi scuttled away into the recesses of my mind. I shouldn't be harsh; it had pulled me out of many intractable jams in the past.
I danced faster to keep up with the Genz. What world was it from? Why did it stand poses at all? Why had it broken one after so long? I wanted to know everything about it, but there was no way I was going to kill my concentration with another conversation with pMoi.
The Genz vaulted over the heads of the other lifeforms. It seemed to move much more slowly than I did, yet it had covered far more ground; an illusion of size.
I narrowed my vision to focus on matching its stride.
The helm obliged by dimming the other attractions and distractions—many of which I had already seen on other worlds and stations, to be honest, though never all at once: Haptips with their tiresome claws, Eldorts and their once-hilarious habit of levitating on farts, Kachicks and their serrated, interlocking smiles. The Genz, however, was entirely new to me. I was disgusted that others hadn't taken more of an interest in it. Barbarians. Soon the other forms around me dimmed into a shadow world, only visible enough so that I didn't run headlong into them. As I picked up speed, I was given a madman's berth—or maybe that was for the Genz.
The Genz stopped, pivoted, and faced me.
Had it seen me follow? Did I represent a threat? Well, I would show it I was a kindred dancer, that I alone appreciated its elegance, that I aspired to a token of its presence. I skidded under it trying not only to match the tracer path it had left in its wake but to riff upon it. My fundamental frequency of motion was tighter and I could work in the occasional brisk variation that I hoped would prove an intriguing contrast.
The Genz stared down at me—it must have had its eyes shut while posing. It gazed at me a single translucent eye that held an eye within an eye within an eye, each one a sparkling cascade of raw intelligence.
And what do I look like to it, I wondered.
pMoi whispered within: A puny human with disproportional gauntlets and matching helm. Do you realize you’re the only—
Shhh, I felt a rush of shame at not being my authentic self before this fantastic, alien mind.
It blinked—or that's what I thought was happening at first: its eyes collapsed in, one on the other, and reappeared on the other side of its body. The Genz continued onward, away from me.
So much for first contact.
I hustled to follow in its path. My breath came short and a stitch in my side disillusioned me of any further claim to elegance. Wait, I wanted to call out, teach me, show me.
We traveled through bazaars that an hour ago I would have killed to see, through pleasure dens and halls of knowledge where the crowds encircled great orators, each advertising a different secret to everything. There was no longer any sign of Larch or the other gamers.
The Genz's stride was long and there were moments when I lost sight of it, but I was determined.
I ran, dodging and weaving through the crowd.
The helmet tilted on my aching neck.
I held the helmet up with my gloves clamped to either side, to keep the tracers straighter as I ran.
At last the Genz disappeared from view entirely.
I slowed to a walk, then stopped. My consciousness relaxed to include more of the world of Oasis that I had been ignoring.
Long galleys of fabric waved overhead in rich, translucent colors. Something like confetti fell from the distant rafters that the lifeforms around me scrambled to catch. Interleaved through it all were tracers of motion that hinted at something massive that everyone, collectively had avoided recently. The Genz. In this way I tracked the being long after it had gone before me.
The clues grew further apart. My hope became fainter.
The path eddied out into a crush of possibilities at an unbearable intersection.
I had been stalking the Genz for hours, yet it had felt like minutes. I slumped, exhausted.
My hyper-focus receded. Time to take stock of where I was. It wouldn't do to get lost on Oasis and have Plantagenet sail without me.
I blinked back the darkness, waiting for the dimness of the ignored world to recede. It didn’t.
It was simply that I had wandered into a genuinely dark hangar. A ship catapulted above me into the void between two fragile constellations. The ship's motion was familiar—the Genz. It was gone, then. To home or to its next performance or to die. I would never know.
A thrum on the gangway behind me made me spin, gauntlets up.
"Leave me alone!" I thrashed out, consumed with rejection. If Larch had followed me all this way why hadn't he helped? He was following me around like some panting pup.
No one was there and I felt the fool: I was the panting pup limping after the Genz's shadow.
A sphere rocked on the gangway. It looked like one of the Genz's joints.
Is that for me?
pMoi answered. It's a... let's say, a Genzic postcard. It seems to be for you.
I reached out to touch it with my gauntlets.
A vibration surged up my arms and filled my helm, my vision distorted into a field of lavender trills. A wail of tension gnawed my ears.
I broke contact. It was some unendurable otherworld chant not made for my physiology. Maybe I was incapable of understanding it.
Translate it, I commanded.
pMoi shrugged in my mind: Can't help you with that one. There are no indices of Genz-song. It would be like trying to translate a waterfall or a planetary conjunction or a nova's eminence. It is what it is.
There isn't a message? I hated the whine in my thoughts.
pMoi: They've never repeated any sound they've ever made and they aren't interested in commerce of goods or notions, so their language has never been decoded. Hopefuls call it a "postcard." It's academic name is "Genzite." It's a mystery. It could be an oracle . . . but it could just as well be an artifact of a docking protocol. Nonetheless, there are those who would canonize you for a peek at it and there are art collectors on Oasis who would pay you a planet's ransom in exchange.
pMoi faded. Back to the game, no doubt. Docking protocol? Sell it? My PAIA was such a Philistine. I hadn't tried everything yet. Far from it. There was a message here. For me.
Maybe I was approaching it wrong. I touched my helm to the orb.
Its shriek-wail filled my head
I rolled aside before I passed out and fell to my knees to break contact.
I hated Larch. How could he use such a powerful tool as this helm for a mere game? Couldn't he see that the helm itself was a wonderful tool? That it could be used to understand the chronically misunderstood? To synchronize with alien minds? To live beyond our selves?
A sense of purpose warmed me. I would study the orb. Spend my life at it. I triggered it again and let the sound wash over me. I concentrated on the sight in the helm of the vibration that the sound made on my gauntlets. The air shimmered. The vibrations left trailers that rippled above my hands. A form emerged, a form in time. But it needed a larger medium than my hands to work through, to evolve in.
Four hours left of leave before the last pod returned to Plantagenet. Had it been so long? Where have I been? Here this whole time? I pulled my numb hands away. My throat was parched and my stomach ached.
Are there any other Genz on Oasis?
pMoi returned with a flat: No.
I need a pool of water.
pMoi: I know what you're thinking. The Genz don't have water on their world. They wash in mercury.
Is there any here?
pMoi: Everything that is anything is here.
Where then is my mercury?
pMOi: There's a vat two sectors inward.
pMoi projected a map in my helm and I went searching.
Eventually I convinced the merchant—with three month's pay—to let me dunk my Genzite in his vat of mercury. The merchant backed away on all sixes and crouched behind a stand of slumbering Kachik.
My head pounded from the constant wailing of the Genz-song, but I hadn't found any way to carry it that didn't trigger its message. No one around me could hear it, it seemed. Further proof that it was for me alone.
I lowered the sphere into the vat.
It floated on the silver surface. Nothing more happened and the merchant laughed nervously.
I reached into the vat with my gauntlets and pressed it down with both hands.
Ripples came vast and expanding. The walls of the vat trembled.
"Stop," The merchant cried out.
I ignored him and honed in to the vibrations following their motion through time with the tracers in my helm.
And with every loop the standing waves multiplied. Their trailers and tracers in the helm's view-field showed an emerging form in time that blinked and saw.
It was a Genz eye, rendered in vibrating mercury and witnessed through the elongation of time. And it saw me seeing.
They told me I had been entranced for hours. The merchant's bill confirmed it. I have no clear memory of what passed other than a deep communion. When I came to, I was being fanned by a Minotaur.
Mantis said, "Larch, try taking off her helmet, man."
It was a relief to breath fresh air and yet I felt the loss of the tracers keenly; my vision was too still, too remote; the slice in time too slight. I tugged at the helm to put it back on.
"Easy. We have to go," the Minotaur growled. "Last pod’s waiting."
The mercury tank had sprung a leak from the vibrations and a clean up crew had quarantined the area. They barked at us to leave or remain in the cordon.
I caught at the merchant's robes as we passed. "The Genzite!"
He pushed me away, sullen. "It's contaminated my mercury."
pMoi whispered within: The Genzite dissolved. So much for buying a planet...
Larch led me back toward the docks, propping me up as they ran. "We thought we'd lost you."
When we reached the pod, he took off his helm, as did the others, and it seemed they did so with great ceremony.
I don't think I'd ever be able to explain what had happened to me—but they didn't ask any questions and I brooded in silence.
I had met an alien mind. It had acknowledged me. It had chosen me. I was transformed. Nothing would ever be the same.
I owed these guys for finding me. I would have been stranded. Maybe they weren't so bad after all.
"Sorry," I said. "I ruined your game."
Larch blinked in disbelief. "Are you kidding?"
The gamers hid in nervous laughter.
What's that about?
pMoi whispered within: Oh, now you want the details?