Sunday, September 11, 2016

Many Sails

Isaac Asimov was quite chipper in the 25th year after his death. He was was fast approaching his home world and feeling impatient to get his feet back on Earth, even if his feet were now composed of hierions instead of normal hadronic matter. However, at that point in his second life, Asimov was not at all concerned with the physical composition of his body nor the mystery of how he had been transformed from a human being into an artificial life form.

Right then he was in a state of rather giddy anticipation, riding inside a speeding spaceship on his way to Earth. Asimov called out to Many Sails, rather impatiently, "I'm ready to go." Asimov finished looking at a map of their present position in space and switched from the map to a simulated view of Earth as it might be seen from low orbit.

Suddenly Isaac felt as if he was suspended above the world and looking through a window at the planet Earth, below. Instinctively, he took a small step backwards, away from the projected view of Earth. Despite his instinctive fear of heights, he knew intellectually that the seeming nearness of Earth was an illusion. In fact, Many Sails was still cruising far out in space, but within easy teleportation distance of Earth.

Many Sails said, "Hold your horses, Isaac, I'm getting dressed." The voice of Many Sails seemed to come from no particular location, which Asimov had come to expect. As a sentient spaceship of advanced alien design, Many Sails could use technology-assisted telepathy to "speak" directly into Isaac's brain.

Mention of the word 'horses' triggered an old memory to erupt from the depths of Isaac's mind. Probably an image he had seen as a child in a book in the public library: horse-drawn wagons and carriages on a street in New York City. Asimov had learned that Many Sails was a student of Earth's history and she often seemed to prefer discussing the past more than living in the present. In fact, Isaac reflected, Many Sails could be particularly annoying whenever the topic of conversation shifted to speculation about the future... she was very stingy with information about her plans for the future...

Isaac muttered to himself, "Women!" For a moment he allowed himself to again contemplate the tantalizing question of why Many Sails had enthusiastically adopted a female identity. Asimov wondered: had "she" done so simply as a trick, as a way to keep him entertained during the long flight to Andromeda and back?

And then today had come her surprise announcement: that she would soon take on human form so that she could accompany Asimov to the surface of Earth.

Asimov was distracted from his thoughts about horses and the femininity of Many Sails by his view of Earth. All the mystery of the many unanswered questions he had about Many Sails faded from his thoughts. It is time to center my thinking on Earth! In the displayed image, Isaac could see both the dazzlingly white glaciers of the Himalayas and part of the blue Indian Ocean. The viewer was providing him with a visual overlay that allowed for easy comparison of the extent of glacier coverage as it had existed 500 years previously and the current situation as it existed in the early 21st century. It was obvious that there had been a significant change in the pattern of glaciers during the past five centuries. Asimov's attention shifted from the mountains to the ocean where there was a large green swirl, indicative of a gigantic algal bloom in progress.

*____________*

Progress! Suddenly Isaac's thoughts slipped into the past... all the way back to when, as a boy, he had first formed his beliefs about machines and their role as an engine of human progress. For a minute he thought with pleasure about his youth and the various robots he had imagined and written into science fiction stories. Slowly those friendly old memories of imagined intelligent machines faded out of Isaac's conscious thoughts and as his mental time travel trip ended; he returned to the present.

And now, here he was; himself having long since been transformed into some fantastic machine of alien design. But what of that? If Many Sails were to be believed, his original biological body had simply been another type of alien-designed machine. True, that biobody had been a machine made of chemicals... plus, according to Many Sails, also a spicy sprinkling of zeptites. Asimov told himself: I must never forget that when I existed as a human being, I was already part machine, part alien, part zeptite. That is reality.
  ____________
*                        *

Reality! Asimov looked at his hand and flexed his fingers. Isaac felt perfectly alive. In fact, he had felt perfect ever since finding himself in this new body 25 years previously. He asked himself: What progress have I made in these past 25 years? Silently, he answered himself: I've learned much about Many Sails and the amazing universe beyond Earth. Dear little Earth! His home world was so far away. Here I am, inside a machine, a spaceship that calls itself Many Sails, as if she could sail through outer space. Suddenly, he allowed himself to contemplate the fact that nothing separated him from the emptiness of space except the mysterious material substance of Many Sails. Once more, he felt the terrors and insecurity of that ultimate isolation...adrift inside a can...

Again he looked at his wiggling fingers and felt the wonder and amazement of the fact that this, his second body, had been carefully endowed with all of the features of his original biobody, even the annoying ones. He asked: Why had it been necessary to even provide this new body with a fear of flying?

As had been the case for all of this long trip to the Andromeda galaxy and back, Many Sails was there, inside his mind, monitoring Asimov's thoughts. She replied to his question: When your original body died, its memories were simply shifted into the waiting body of your replicoid... itself a precise copy of your biobody, complete with the twisty neural nets that originally endowed you with your innate and instinctive fears.

Asimov felt a brief sensation of frustration; as usual, Many Sails seemed like some mechanical oracle, able to provide a concise response that magically satisfied his curiosity. And yet, had she truly answered the question? Surely he could have been transferred into a body that lacked a fear of flying, or even felt joy at the prospect being in flight.

As if in reply to his frustrations, Many Sails quickly interjected another response into Isaac's mind: But, Isaac, without your personal set of phobias, it would no longer have been you. You were carefully constructed as a writer who could happily sit indoors and endlessly type out stories.

Asimov did not like the idea that he had always been a machine, programmed to write. He accepted that reality, but the question remained: who had done the programming?

And now, Many Sails remained silent, providing no answer to that question. It was a question that Many Sails had always evaded. He expected no answer.

But Many Sails confounded his expectations. After a pause that was perfectly timed to come at the peak of his annoyance, she said: If I told you everything then you'd have nothing to live for. I am now returning you to Earth so that you can investigate the mystery of your origins. Don't mope and feel sorry for yourself! Embrace the great adventure that awaits you!

Suddenly, the voice of Many Sails was right behind Asimov. "Thank you for waiting." Many Sails had made a humanoid body that would function as her mobile appendage. Now, that appendage was ready to accompany Isaac to the surface of Earth.

Asimov spun and gave the newly instantiated Many Sails a quick head-to-toe inspection. After months of only knowing Many Sails as a talking spaceship, Isaac was momentarily speechless while he ran his eyes over the pretty woman who had materialized at his side. Finding his voice, he exclaimed, "Ga-LAX-y! You are a real knockout, my dear." She almost looked human, except for her large eyes, a facial feature that Asimov had learned to expect among the human variants that populated planets of the Galactic Core.

For a moment Asimov thought about Yōd, the young lady who had gone along with him on the long journey back towards home from the Andromeda galaxy. They had become close friends, then one day during the return trip from the other galaxy, she had suddenly disappeared. Since then, Asimov had grown increasingly lonely, frequently wishing for human companionship.

Many Sails "spoke" directly into Asimov's mind: Sorry, but Yōd was needed elsewhere.

Asimov muttered to Many Sails, "I wish you had told me that you could take human form."

Many Sails joined Asimov at the viewer and she briefly gazed upon the image of Earth. Turning her head to the side and batting her eyes seductively, she spoke, "No, it would not have been wise for me to distract your mind from your memories of real women. Today, I adopted this particular body form knowing that it would appeal to your tastes in women. However, I know too many tricks and command great powers that would allow me to make this simulated body far too appealing to you. Had we lived together during the past few months with me in this humanoid form then you would have been ruined... unable to appreciate the lesser charms of a real human woman."

Asimov was not able to decide if he was actually hearing her voice or if he was still in telepathic contact with Many Sails. At least her lips moved. Isaac looked carefully into her eyes and he was momentarily alarmed by a sense of the alien that clung to this womanly incarnation of Many Sails, but he dismissed this shuddery emotional dysphoria from his mind. He tested if he still had a telepathic connection to Many Sails by only thinking a provocative thought:  You have crafted for yourself a body that reminds me of my youth. His mind was filled by the sweet memory of the first time he had ever held a woman in his arms and he allowed himself to mix that old memory with an imagined fantasy of reaching out and placing his hands on the symmetrical curves of her hips.

Many Sails was "reading" Isaac's thoughts. She ran her hands along the soft contour of her sides and added, "I'm glad you approve of my adopted physical form. I have fun by occasionally playing this sort of dress up game." She turned her head to again face directly into the viewer.

Asimov followed her gaze and he returned his attention to the view screen. He began, "Many-" but cut himself off. "I will feel silly if I have to parade around Earth calling a pretty girl 'Many Sails'."

The girl laughed and suggested, "Rather than call me Many Sails, just call me Mahasvin."

"Very well." Asimov was intrigued by Mahasvin's face. Ignoring her large eyes, there was something familiar about her appearance. He asked, "Who was the Earth girl who inspired your disguise?"

Mahasvin replied, "I'm not really in disguise; this is me." She held her arms out away from her torso and used her hands to gesture towards herself. She stamped a foot on the floor, "And this spaceship is me." She tapped a finger against her head, "This body is one of my many physical manifestations, but in one sense you are correct... in creating this appendage here today I am once again adopted the physical form of a real lady who once lived on Earth." She changed the subject and directed his attention back to Earth. "How do you like the look of your world?"

Asimov pointed towards the sickly green algal cloud, "I still like the idea of using ocean microbes to suck up Earth's excess carbon dioxide."

Mahasvin shrugged. "It is a good challenge for you Earthlings." During their voyage to the Andromeda galaxy and back, Asimov and Many Sails had often discussed Earth's global warming problem. "Can a swarm of primitive tool-using primates clean up the big mess they have made?"

Asimov grunted, "Ug." Trying to dismiss the problems of Humanity and their self-inflicted wounds from his thoughts, he turned his eyes away from the view of Earth and once again studied Mahasvin and the brightly colored dress she was wearing. Isaac had no doubt that her clothing, and, indeed, the entire body of this newly created Mahasvin, was composed of some exotic material unknown to Earthly science. Her dark hair seemed alive and the tips of each strand of synthetic hair that rested on her shoulders seemed to be at war with the shifting colors that were emitted by the twisting and dancing threads of her gown. He briefly wondered how Mahasvin hoped to avoid attracting unwanted attention on Earth, but he shrugged and that mystery instantly slipped from his consciousness. In an attempt to inflate his spirits and build up his courage, Asimov muttered, "Please don't bring me down on the day of my triumphant return to Earth."

"Sorry!" Mahasvin apologized, "I do want this to be a fun day for you, so let's not dwell on Earth's problems." She turned and moved to stand directly in front of Asimov. Mahasvin reached out and made a small adjustment to his bolo tie. "So, Isaac, you have been away from your home world for 25 years. What do you miss most? Is there some particular place on Earth that you would like to visit first?"

Asimov knew that Many Sails was bringing him to Earth for some special purpose; unfortunately a purpose that she had, so far, refused to explain to Isaac. Now, he was somewhat surprised by the prospect of actually having a role to play in deciding what part of Earth to visit. With a nod of his head, Asimov replied, "If I have a choice, I'd like to see New York City and the neighborhood where I grew up." He seemed to blink and suddenly his visual field shifted slightly.

But he had not blinked. The universe had shifted.

The biggest shift that had occurred was in Mahasvin. Suddenly she looked more like an Earth woman, with normal eyes, conventional clothing and hair that did not seem to be moving of its own volition. Mahasvin explained, "We are now on Earth." She reached out and gently rested a hand on the glass-like surface that formed the inner wall of the booth. "Careful, Isaac, we are in a teleporter booth."

During the past 25 years, Asimov had become quite familiar with teleportation. He slowly reached out with both of his hands and made contact with the view screens of the booth walls; they were projecting an image meant to duplicate Asimov's view from a moment before when he had still been inside Many Sails. Behind Mahasvin the little booth's door opened, revealing a larger room beyond. Mahasvin led Isaac out of the teleportation booth, into what looked like a conventional New York City apartment. They turned and looked out the window of the room.

Beyond the window was the East River and a view of Manhattan from their location in Brooklyn. Mahasvin asked, "Is there someplace special you would like to visit?"

Asimov shrugged, turned and walked towards the door, barely noticing that the teleporter booth was already gone. He knew that its sole purpose had been to help prevent him from becoming confused and suffering vertigo from suddenly being teleported to a new location. Isaac's subjective experience of the teleportation even had been smooth, with perhaps the greatest shock to his senses being the sudden arrival of new smells... the rich odor of a large Earthly city. Isaac was eager to be out walking on the familiar streets of Brooklyn. He replied, "No, let's just walk for a while."

They rode an elevator down to street level and exited from the apartment building. It was a cool Spring day and Asimov felt the wind bite through his light clothing. Asimov complained, "You should have reminded me to dress appropriately."

Mahasvin laughed, "Don't worry, as an artificial life form you can't catch a cold. Just ignore minor discomforts, or better, learn to enjoy them."

Asimov was now oriented and he knew exactly where he was, even though many of the buildings were newly constructed since he had last been in Brooklyn. He suggested, "Let's visit the Brooklyn Heights Library, its just around the corner. I gave a talk there once, back in the 70s."

They turned the corner and Asimov stopped in his tracks. A temporary wall enclosed a construction site where the library building had once been. "Wow. Time marches on." He looked around and gazed up at the shiny glass of the high-rise office and condominium towers in the area. "I was foolish to expect these old streets to still look like they did in my youth." Feeling somewhat dejected, Asimov asked, "Why did we come to Earth?"

Mahasvin took hold of Isaac's hand and led him along the sidewalk towards the construction site. "I tricked you into returning to your home. Left to yourself, you were happy to be a rogue spaceman, drifting from world to world through the universe. But you have work to do here."

They joined a short queue of people waiting to enter through a plywood door into the construction site. A sign next to the doorway proclaimed, "Community Center and Library Opening in 2020". One of the people in line glanced at Asimov and said to her companion, "This guy is wearing an Asimov mask!"

Everyone within earshot looked at Asimov and most of them laughed. A few took pictures and the woman who had first recognized Asimov took a selfie while standing beside him. Mahasvin seemed to nervously turn her head to the side while the photos were collected. Asimov spoke quietly to Mahasvin, "I'm surprised that people would recognize me on the street. I died 25 years ago."

Soon enough, everyone waiting in line had filed through the door, each presenting a printed ticket to the bored guard. The guard was a young woman who did not recognize Asimov as a celebrity, or as a fan impersonating a famous writer. Asimov mentally estimated the fraction of the city's population that had been born since his death.

Inside the construction site, a small crowd was gathered around all that remained of the old library building: a small part of one old wall. Mahasvin led Isaac away from the crowd, towards the far end of the site. "They are going to open the time capsule that was built into the library back in 1962. One of the books that they entombed was a copy of your first published science fiction book."

Asimov looked over his shoulder. "Ah, so it is really no surprise that my fans showed up for the event." He laughed, "Thank you for massaging my ego, Mahasvin." Asimov imagined that Many Sails had carefully arranged to arrive on Earth at this precise time, just so he could see that he was not forgotten by the people of Earth. But I selected our destination, did I not? Asimov could not prevent himself from wondering if Many Sails could rummage around in his brain and control his thoughts.

They were now walking across the muddy construction site towards a trailer with a sign on the side: MCI Construction. Asimov glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the crowd and said, "You know, I'd love to talk to my fans."

Mahasvin shook her head in dismay, "Don't be silly Isaac. I have no intention of allowing you to make a scene. If you are going to spend any time on Earth then you are going to have to avoid publicizing your presence on this world. Remember: you are dead." She climbed a set of wooden steps to the door of the trailer and pulled open the door. Turning her head over her shoulder, she told Asimov, "Come on in."

Asimov followed Mahasvin and stepped inside the dim trailer, which became even darker when she pulled shut the door. He asked, "Why did you bring me here?" Isaac could see a few chairs and a desk and several old-fashioned blueprints on the wall, framed in wood and sealed under glass. A row of hard hats hung on pegs next to the doorway, each labeled "GUEST" in red letters.

As if in answer to his question, a new figure appeared in the trailer, just a few feet away from Isaac. She was rather short, with bony hips and arching legs. She had died her hair an ugly pumpkin orange that clashed with her shin tone. Something in her movements indicated that she was struggling to hold herself erect. She turned towards Mahasvin and spoke with a tone of reproach, "How dare you return to Earth?"

In a casual voice, Mahasvin replied, "I'm just dropping off Asimov."

The woman turned her gaze upon Asimov. After a moment the puzzled look on her face shifted to one of recognition. Her voice eloquent with dismay and outrage, she asked, "Isaac Asimov?"

Mahasvin corrected, "The replicoid of Asimov."

Asimov had taken an instant dislike to this woman who had seemingly teleported into the trailer and who had instantly started badgering Mahasvin. He asked her, "Who are you?"

Mahasvin explained, "This is Overseer Sachiz."

Sachiz asked in wonder, "Do you really expect me to allow a replicoid to remain on Earth?"

Mahasvin shrugged and returned a question of her own, "Do you think I would have brought Isaac here without a good reason?"

Sachiz emitted a derisive bark of laughter, "I've never learned how to apply the term 'reason' to the actions of Dead Widowers."

Asimov looked at the pale skin and brightly dyed hair of Sachiz. She was an odd sight, but there was a hint of familiarity that hung about the woman. That feeling of recognition almost instantly fled from his consciousness. He asked, "Dead Widowers?"

Sachiz said, "Don't play stupid, Asimov."

Mahasvin spoke rather tersely to Sachiz, "As usual, you have made an erroneous assumption." Gesturing towards Asimov, she continued explaining, "This is not the replicoid who you know as a member of the Dead Widower Society."

Sachiz pointed a finger at Asimov and sent a swarm of nanite probes into his body. Slowly, the true identity of this Asimov dawned upon Sachiz. "Sneaky! So this is the final Asimov... but I don't see what you are trying to accomplish. I can't allow any replicoids to run around on Earth."

Mahasvin crossed her arms and said impatiently, "Don't be silly. You can't interfere with the demands of the Trysta-Grean Pact."

Sachiz asked, "What does this replicoid have to do with the Pact?"

"Asimov is going to provide important information about Deep Time to the Editor."

Sachiz laughed again, now rather hysterically. Some doubt had crept into her voice, "The other Asimov replicoid already did that."

"Yes, but what the Dead Widowers only began, now must be completed. It is time for this replicoid to continue the process of informing the Editor about events in the Asimov Reality."

"Why now, 25 years after Asimov's death?"

"This replicoid has been away from Earth, visiting the Core and Andromeda, learning about Genesaunt society. Now he has returned to Earth and now is the proper time for him to share his knowledge with the Editor."

Asimov asked, "What editor are you talking about?"

Sachiz shook her head, ignored Asimov and continued speaking to Mahasvin, "I don't know what you are trying to accomplish." She looked at Asimov and saw a look of confusion on his face, "Nor does this replicoid." The Overseer sighed. "I'll have to confirm the validity of your claims with the tryp'At Council, but for now, I want you off of Earth." Sachiz commanded, "Either return to the Hierion Domain or I'll take you to Observer Base and lock you away forever!"

Asimov looked with dismay upon the two women. Would they come to blows? It was evident that Sachiz and Mahasvin shared an intense mutual dislike. Asimov was on the verge of saying something about the futility of violence, but he never got the chance.

Just then, there was a quiet tapping on the door of the trailer and Isaac turned his head away from Sachiz and Mahasvin. Asimov's vision had adjusted to the low light inside the trailer. Briefly, he marveled at the mystery of why the artificial bodies of replicoids were endowed with all of the annoying physiological limitations of the human organism. The door swung open and a dark shape of a human figure could be seen in the doorway, a black silhouette against the brightness of the construction site beyond.

Mahasvin spoke to the new arrival, "Come in, Zeta. You had better close the door."

Asimov watched Zeta step into the trailer and pull the door closed behind her. She was a middle-aged woman of rather flashy prettiness, sporting a wild mop of long, dark, curly hair, just beginning to be salted with a few scattered graying hairs. Zeta looked directly at Asimov, blinked and then smiled, "Ah, there you are Isaac. Everyone at the time capsule ceremony is wondering where you wandered off to." She chuckled, "They all think you are an actor, hired to enliven the event."

Mahasvin had moved to stand beside Sachiz, and now she took hold of the woman's arm. "Now we can go." In that instant, Mahasvin and Sachiz disappeared. Zeta seemed not at all surprised.

Asimov was startled and dismayed by the sudden comings and goings and he asked, "What's going on?"

Zeta came a few steps closer to Asimov and explained, "Mahasvin will clear up all the fussy details with the Overseers. Now, it is my task to introduce you to the Editor. Are you ready to go?"

Asimov asked, "What editor? Go where?" However, Zeta's question was rhetorical. She took another step closer to Asimov and reached out. As soon as her hand made contact with Asimov's body, they were teleported out of the trailer.

Next chapter: Retrofuturians
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A Search Beyond is copyright John Schmidt, but the text of the story is  licensed for sharing under the Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike (CC BY-NC-SA) license. 

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