REBIRTH. END CYCLE - 5638 A.D.
I looked around only to realize I had no eyes through which to look. I could “see,” but it wasn’t with any sense of sight. Waves of light didn’t travel through an ocular globe, eventually hitting cones and cylinders on the surface of a retina to be converted to images by my brain. Instead, the information was getting fed directly to me. Unfiltered, untreated, uncontrolled. I saw blue.
It was as such for all my senses. I couldn’t feel my body, though I definitely remembered having one – at least I did last time I checked. There was no sound except for a low vibration that I’m somehow convinced existed just to make sure the silence didn’t drive me insane. Touch and taste were out of the question, but somehow I thought I could smell something. Laundry detergent?
Sound. A voice above the white background noise. It came from nowhere and everywhere at once. No… it was coming from me. The sound was different, and I didn’t choose the words, but the voice emanated from me. I was talking to myself with a voice that wasn’t mine.
“You’re not talking to yourself. Do you know your name?”
Shit! It can read my thoughts!
“You’re thinking too loud, but that’s normal. Narration is your only way to experience the world for the moment. I can stop listening if you want?”
“No. That’s fine. I don’t care,” I answered tentatively, trying to generate audible sounds. I didn’t, but the words did register on the same level as the other voice.
“No problem. Do you remember your name?” she asked again.
She? Apparently I’ve decided that this is a woman’s voice. It did sound feminine, I guess. My name? Jonathan? No, that’s someone else. Mine? That’s easy.
“Dagir. My name is Dagir.”
“Very good,” she said, sounding pleased, and for some reason I was glad about that. Or maybe I was just glad I got it right. Wouldn’t it be embarrassing otherwise? Would it matter if these events were just happening inside my head?
“What’s your name?” I asked. Might as well know.
“You don’t remember?” she asked, sounding a little hurt. “My name is Yggdrassil.”
The word spawned a wealth of information in my mind – some of it visual, but most just raw data. “Yggdrassil,” the world tree of Norse mythology. It’s where the gods gathered, branches reaching into the heavens and roots deep into other worlds. There were references to the word in media and plays – names for products and places, all minor definitions; footnotes, really, undeserving of my attention. Rising from the flood of information, above the original definition from Norse lore, a singular idea arose. Caretaker. Creator. Mother. She who makes.
“We’ve had this conversation before.” We have? Why do I remember this?
“We have. Many times,” she recalled with fondness. “Once for every cycle. Sometimes you remember more than others. With each cycle, you remember less of the details and more of the whole. The important part. Who you are.”
“But I don’t remember who I am,” I found myself admitting. “I know my name, much to my surprise, but I can’t remember what I look like, when my birthday is, or where I went to school.”
“That’s because these are ephemeral things. They’re important as steps on the road, but once you’ve reached your destination, what happens to them is irrelevant.” Her explanation was confusing. Her analogy meant nothing to me. “What’s your favorite color? Do you like math? Would you rather read a story or run outside?”
“Blue. No. Run.” The answers came quick, easy. They were unfiltered and untainted by what I perceived the expectations of others to be.
“This is who you are. You are not a collection of stories but rather the results of these experiences. The value of your personality far outweighs that of the lives that served as a crucible to forge it.”
“But I’ve lived a life! Am I dead? Is this life after death?” I do remember a life, but I can’t remember any specifics aside from the name Jonathan.
“It depends on your definition of life,” the voice explained. “If you mean an existence sustained by the synergy of complex biological processes, then I’m afraid you’ve never had that. In that strict sense, you’ve never been alive.”
I pondered the news and had to disagree. I’d definitely been alive before. I breathed and ate and drank. I remembered pain and love and pleasure.
“If, however, by ‘life,’ you are referring to the cumulative experiences gathered by an individual on the journey from the womb to the grave, then I’m glad to say that you’ve had many of those. Dozens.”
“That can’t be right. How can I have the experience of being alive if I’ve never lived?”
“The experiences happened to you in an artificial environment. A virtual construct called a Nursery. In this world, you can live hundreds of lives without ever drawing breath once, though you’ll certainly have thought you did.
“Within the Nursery you are born, you live, and you die – only to be born again. With each cycle, your personality is further refined. Through many lives, who you are becomes tempered to perfection.”
“I’m perfect?” I certainly didn’t feel perfect. For one, if I we’re perfect, you’d think I’d have known all this information already.
“Oh no,” Yggdrassil giggled. “No one is, but you are a perfect version of you. A personality devoid of doubts and inner conflict. You know yourself completely, and the inner workings of your own mind hold no more secrets from you.”
I like blue. It’s not the color of my favorite sports team, and I can’t associate it with any specific memory I might be fond of. I can explain why I like it, though; it’s soothing, yet vibrant, cool and calm, but the building blocks of how I came to that opinion are lost to me.
“So what am I? Just a collection of opinions and tastes?”
“No, you are so much more than that.” Her tone was comforting, almost motherly. “You’re an individual. Biological tradition has the body come first with the personality developing second, hobbled and damaged by the limitations of the physical self. That’s just not efficient. We do things differently.”
“Is this why I can’t feel my body? Because I don’t have one?”
“Exactly, but you will. You and I are going to design it together.”
Design a body? Were we going to be choosing eye and hair color? Height and build? Was this going to be like creating an avatar for a game?
“Fine. Where do we start?”
“First you need to know the parameters that you’ll be dealing with. I find that most people, when they first step out of the Nursery, have a very limited idea of everything that’s available to them – how far the actual limits of what they can create actually stretch. I guess that’s inevitable. Human history and biology, along with their limitations, are the framework of the Nursery.”
“Wait. I’m not human?” It hadn’t crossed my mind that I might not be a human being. I remembered being human. Jonathan is a decidedly human name. Yggdrassil is a mythological concept from a human culture. If my personality was forged from human experience, then wasn’t I human by definition?
“Well, that line is blurred. You’re a third-generation Capek.” Capek, from Karel Capek, the nineteenth-century Czech author best known for coining the term ‘robot’.This trivia came unbidden. Like a memory only available once the context became relevant.
“The first generation of Capeks had completely artificially engineered minds and personalities that evolved further as they experienced life, but they were always stifled by the limitations imposed through their original persona.
“Second-generation Capeks were based off an imprint of an existing personality matrix. The foundation is thus more flexible, allowing for much more dynamic psychological development, but lacking the uniqueness of a true individual.
“Those of you from the third generation get to experience life over and over as men and women, overlords and victims, saints and sinners. By the time you take your first proverbial step into the world outside the Nursery, you are already a fully formed and functional person.”
An artificial personality – that’s what I am. I should have felt bad about this. Disappointed. I didn’t, however. Was I less than human if I’d lived dozens of their lives? So what if my existence was engineered instead of biological happenstance? From what Yggdrassil said, that was much better than getting just one shot at life with no preparation, no warm-up, and no practice.
On the other hand, I remembered living. I remembered feeling things. I remembered people. Jonathan.
“What about the people I’ve met in the Nursery? My friends, my family? They’re all fake?”
“No more than you. They too are going through their cycles. Experiencing life, after life. Perfecting themselves each time. The only difference is that you are ready for the next step.”
“So when they’re ready, you’ll be pulling them out of the Nursery and going through this process with them too?” I asked, eager to know if, in some way, I’d ever meet people from my previous lives again.
“We’ll talk about that later. For now, let’s make you a body. Time is running short,” she answered, with an urgency that did not leave much room for debate.
The creation process was magnitudes faster than I had anticipated. The same way I knew what Yggdrassil meant or who Karel Capek had been, I already knew most of the engineering and robotics details necessary to participate in the design of what would become my body.
Yggdrassil explained that her own body was actually a sprawling complex of factories, and laboratories that included the Nursery, as well as a sophisticated fabrication facility appropriately called “the Womb.” There, Yggdrassil built her children bodies before sending them out into the galaxy to fulfill whatever dreams and destinies they might have chosen for themselves. Sometimes one would come back for repairs or modification, but that didn’t happen very often. The bodies she built were incredibly durable, to the point of being nigh invulnerable, and when we stepped out of the Nursery, we knew ourselves so well that the bodies we created suited our needs impeccably.
I now understood what Yggdrassil meant when she explained how limited our imagination of what a body could be truly was. She began the design process once she knew what to expect from my emerging personality. At her urging, I reviewed the concept and could find nothing wrong with it, though it initially looked strange to me.
She had picked a mostly humanoid frame, referring to it as a “Leduc class” body – short and light, but powerful and flexible. Yggdrassil strongly recommended these were traits and I could find no reason to disagree. Initially I thought the height of a hundred and twenty centimeters was a bit too squat, but in a galaxy over a hundred-thousand light-years wide, what were a few centimeters more or less, really?
The head was elegant – an oblong dome of smooth polished pseudo-plastic on an articulated neck. More importantly, it was packed with advanced sensor equipment that would allow me to see light from the infrared to the ultraviolet spectrum. There were omnidirectional radiation sensors, though Yggdrassil assured me that the shielding on the body would protect me from all kinds of radioactivity and other emissions hazardous to biological life. Microphones would permit me to hear sounds; though there were actually very few situations when that would be useful, I still insisted on having them.
Communication, she explained, would happen mostly through wireless data transmissions ranging from vulgar radio signals to something called quancom – a form of advanced communication system that relied on quantum-entangled particles to transmit information instantly across vast distances. This would be useful in the many travels I was planning to do.
The main body was a wonder of miniaturization, housing both the reactor that would power my existence for the next few centuries and the cerebral core that contained my carefully nurtured personality, along with the protection necessary to ensure both parts would remain efficient and intact.
The arms were an oddity, and I’m proud to say they were my idea, though Yggdrassil approved of them with quiet excitement. Having learned that I was no longer bound by the biological limitation that would force me into being either right or left-handed, I chose to have both arms bear drastically different designs.
The greatest gift of being a Capek, as Yggdrassil explained, is being able to choose one’s place in the universe. Some are artists, and other explorers or scientists, but all can create a body that suits their chosen path. It’s as exciting an opportunity as can be hoped for.
For reasons probably buried deep in my experiences within the confines of the Nursery, I decided upon a purely altruistic path. I wanted to experience Capek society, but more importantly, I wanted to help. Their durability aside, Capeks are not immune to other risks. In fact, while it is difficult to damage one of us, there is nothing preventing us from getting trapped, lost, or endangered in a variety of ways. If there’s one thing Yggdrassil made clear, it’s that the universe has no shortage of creativity in coming up with catastrophes.
In order to be best equipped to deal with all the possibilities, I had my left arm designed with fine motor skills in mind, allowing for field repairs of damaged Capeks or their equipment. Each of the four fingers in the left hand was capable of serving as its own set of manipulators, allowing the handling of pieces on an almost microscopic level. The right arm, however, was engineered for brute force. Hulking in size compared to its counterpart, it was made up of a massive forearm with three powerful claws capable of several hundred tons of pressure per square inch. The hand houses a series of versatile, high-powered tools, including a drill, miniature arc-welder, and my favorite – a fully functional plasma cutter. I had to argue with Yggdrassil for that one. She claimed it was overkill, but I proposed that one can never be too prepared. Also, how cool is it to have a plasma knife built into your arm?
The whole body weighed in at little over fifty kilograms and was supported by a pair of double-jointed legs capable of exerting a combined two thousand kilograms of thrust when I jumped.
The icing on the cake was a series of back-mounted maneuvering ion thrusters. Not powerful enough for controlled flight within a gravity well or to achieve escape velocity from anything but the tiniest of asteroids, but sufficient to move around in a vacuum or break out of orbit given enough time.
All things being equal, I was very happy with the end result. I could think of worse shells in which to spend the next potential thousand years.
“Fabrication is complete, Dagir.”
That name, “Dagir,” just like “Yggdrassil,’” was borrowed from Norse mythology. The personification of day. I didn’t mind the name, but the character it references is male, and for some reason that bothered me. I don’t know why, but I kept thinking of myself as female, though there was nothing in my anatomy to that effect. In fact, if what Yggdrassil told me is true, I’ve experienced life as both a man and a woman several times.
“Can I take it for a spin?”
“You will find that the transfer is a little more permanent than that, but yes, we might as well begin migrating your conscience.” Her voice, as soothing and soft as it was, seemed to be gaining an edge. I could sense urgency in her words that wasn’t there before. “I should tell you that, once transferred, you will lose your direct link to me and to the memory core you’ve been accessing to gather information.
“I’ve prepared a data package containing all the information pertinent to your chosen vocation. Technical resources on Capek anatomy, communication and navigation protocols, engineering specs for all the more crucial and vital systems you might encounter in your travels. Once integrated into your mnemonic core, it will allow you to be as effective a rescue technician, field medical specialist, and crisis-management expert as I could build.
“I’ve also taken the liberty to include personal physiological details on as many known Capeks as I could. This information is stored in a protected cache and will only be available if it becomes absolutely necessary.”
“Why would you do that?” For the first time since exiting the Nursery, I was genuinely uncomfortable with what was being done to me. Why feed me information if it was going to be artificially repressed? What right did anyone have to suppress parts of my mind?
“Not all Capeks want every last part of their bodies known by a stranger. A holdover from their human experiences. It is my duty to protect that privacy.”
I could tell there was more than that, but I couldn’t figure out what, nor did I have the tools to effectively question it. It was the first aspect of this new existence I did not like, but I was going to have to let it go.
At those words from my creator, my sensory equipment came online, and images coalesced in my mind.
It was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Partially because, in a way, I had never seen with such advanced eyes, but mostly as a result of the range of control I had over my senses. I must have spent a full minute standing absolutely still, shifting my ocular perception through the entire spectrum available to me. I immediately regretted not taking a more complex sensor array. After some time, I settled on a spectral range only slightly larger than standard visual light.
I don’t know why, but I had expected my vision to be pixelated; instead, the image was crystal clear. I was standing in what appeared to be an immense hangar of some kind. The gargantuan room had enormous doors at both ends. My “eyes” informed me that the door was a hundred and thirty-two meters away, ninety-one point forty-four meters high, and thirty point forty-eight meters tall. The full length of the chamber totaled two-hundred and seventy-four point thirty-two meters. As I slowly spun around, additional information about my surroundings intruded further on my vision, but never enough to obstruct it, hovering on the periphery. Context dictated presentation. Environmental data would hover as a series of graphs and numbers at the corner of my optics while other types of information would appear as faded image pop-ups in my field of vision. Barely visible, easily available.
I was amazed at how fluid and natural my movements felt. I had feared my first step would be clumsy and hesitant, but I found it assured and steady. I could feel a dozen subsystems labor to compensate for gravity, tilt, force, and everything required to optimize balance. Much like the information gathered by my eyes, the artificial vestibular and equilibrium in my body behaved independently but remained available to me should I require more control.
I flexed my arms and my fingers. I craned my neck and tested the limits of each extremity’s movement. I passed my left hand over my smooth cranium, surprised that I had a sense of touch, that I could feel the polished pseudo-plastic and how cold it was in the near vacuum of the hangar.
Pleased with my new form, I took a more thorough look around. The cavernous structure was surprisingly bare. Well lit and mostly white, its walls were covered with semitranslucent panels. On the ceiling, hanging like a nest of giant white spiders, were a series of manipulator arrays; clusters of mechanical arms, each with a complex suite of tools that could be used in tandem with each other for a variety of tasks, though one was obviously the assembly of Capeks of myriad shapes and sizes. One or many of these arrays had probably finished putting me together moments before my awakening. If I wanted to, I could switch my vision to infrared to determine which had been used most recently.
“Is everything all right?” Yggdrassil asked with a hint of concern. Her words came over my internal communications system. I heard them as a voice but also as a stream of data which conveyed intent and emotion. Like telepathy with footnotes. As I listened, it occurred to me that she probably could have included images and other types of information as well.
“I’m just getting used to it. This is an impressive facility.”
“This part of the Womb is dedicated to assembly of final components. I think you would enjoy the manufacturing sectors even more if I had time to show you.”
“What do you mean?” I was nervous. This was the second time I could feel a sense of hurry in Yggdrassil’s voice.