tagNovels and NovellasBattle for the Known Unknown Ch. 02

Battle for the Known Unknown Ch. 02


Chapter Two

Godwin - 3749 C.E.

"Frankly," said the consultant as he hovered cross-legged in the air beside Paul, "you're not doing especially well for a man of your age."

"What do you mean?" Paul asked nervously.

The doctor consulted the holo-manual at eye level by his side. "You're nearly eighty years old, aren't you? That's an age that might once have been considered relatively old. We would normally expect someone of your age to be perhaps thirty to forty percent bio-plastic. But you are very nearly seventy percent. That's a shocking percentage. I'm fifty years older than you and I'm barely over the fifty percent mark."

Dr. Patel looked nothing like a man half a century older than Paul but, except in the genuinely young, appearances were a very poor guide to age. Like Paul, he was well-built with a healthy sheen to his light brown skin. His straight black hair flowed over the shoulders of his silver suit.

"You lead an extraordinarily sedentary life, don't you?" the doctor remarked. "Most of my patients do rather more exercise than you, I should say. I don't think I need to do further analysis for evidence of lack of exercise. You have all the advantages of an artificially fit frame and yet you do nothing to maintain it."

"What's wrong with that?" asked Paul, knowing full well the reply.

"Life expectancy is generally determined by how long you can maintain a reasonably high proportion of your biologically determined mind and body. However much DNA coding can be tweaked to lengthen life and however advanced the technology to replace or reanimate worn parts, once you are less than ten percent biological your life expectancy is, to use a phrase, in the hands of the gods. Your systems could undergo catastrophic failure at any time and you would then die. This is especially likely if you have a low proportion of native neurons. That, however, is one area where you aren't doing so badly. Not better than average, but not far short of it."

"And when I get below a certain level of neuron activity...?"

"Plastic neurons are less stable than the biological variety however much your memory or capacity for logical reasoning can be enhanced. You should be grateful you were born with sufficiently high synaptic proficiency that you have neither required nor requested any significant enhancement. But don't be complacent. The human being isn't the brain alone. The body is rather more holistic than that. When the overall quality of your physical system dips below a certain level of biological stability, there is a corresponding dip in neuron longevity."

"What are my chances, doctor?" Paul asked.

"Not good, I'm afraid," he remarked. "It may well be that you've already expended two thirds of your total life expectancy. Or to put it more bluntly, I'll be surprised if you live for as many years as I have."

"Do I need more biophysical augmentation?"

"Sadly, yes," said the doctor. "To compensate for your lack of physical exercise, you will most definitely require further muscle enhancement. Furthermore, we'll need to regenerate what little is left of your biological liver and I think, to be on the safe side, you'll need a total refit of your bone structure. It's getting somewhat rigid and fragile."

"Again?" Paul moaned. This would be his third skeletal refit in two decades. It was the most time-consuming and unpleasant regenerative treatment he'd ever endured. It was worse than ocular replacement, testicular enhancement or cuticular re-engineering.

"You don't want to suffer from lumbago, do you?" the doctor asked.

"What will all this treatment do for my life expectancy?"

"It won't prolong it," Dr. Patel admitted. "But the alternatives aren't good. Be grateful that such treatment is possible. I wouldn't like to live in one of those rogue colonies that don't practice regeneration."

"Like Hubbard?" Paul guessed.

"Or for that matter Rapture, New Kabul or Aleph," continued the doctor from his elevated position by Paul's shoulder. "The poor souls who live in those communities have miserably short lives and if you look at them... their bodies are scarcely advertisements for the supposed virtue of turning back the clock on progress, are they?"

"I guess not," agreed Paul, who nonetheless had some sympathy at the moment for those who'd never had to undergo the pain and inconvenience of a skeletal refit.

"So, why is it that you lead such a sedentary lifestyle?" asked the doctor. He consulted his holo-manual. "You've opted to work, I see. Good for you. But what is data mining? It's not an engineering or geological occupation, is it?"

This was a joke. There were no natural rocks on Godwin and the nearest sizeable celestial body was several light hours distant. Paul smiled, though he was too anxious about his imminent skeletal refit to fully get into the spirit.

"There's a technical aspect to it," he answered. "Basically, I devise and implement algorithms to uncover patterns in the vast repository of historical data that is stored throughout the Solar System."

"Surely that can all be done by machine," remarked the doctor. "The statistical analysis that's used to understand crop yield and to predict turbulence on the financial markets: isn't that all done automatically?"

"Well, yes," Paul admitted. "But there's nearly two thousand years of machine-held data and much that was never transferred to digital form from the millennia before. The earliest machines stored data in magnetic polarisations, laser-beamed dots and silicon. There is no simple way to collate and analyse all that ancient data without knowing how it was physically stored and organised. Most of the more primitive media wasn't designed to survive more than even a few decades, let alone two thousand years. You have to use a lot of ingenuity to regenerate data from compact discs, nano-carbon tubes and the like."

"I see," said the doctor. "And what use is all the data you extract?"

"To be honest," Paul confessed, "most of it is only academic interest, though I did make some interesting finds regarding twenty-first century pornography that surprised a lot of people. It was a lot more prevalent than you'd imagine from reading the standard texts on the subject."

"I'm sure it was," said Dr. Patel who was rapidly losing interest. "Well, I'll try and get you booked in for treatment. It's a busy schedule as you might imagine, but with a bit of imaginative 'mining' of my own I'm sure I can come up with some acceptable dates."

Paul was feeling dazed at the prospect of further regenerative treatment when he left the doctor's surgery. It had got to be rather too frequent and it was increasingly difficult to recuperate from its affect as he got older. Nevertheless, he was sure it was a price worth paying. After all, he was superficially still as fit and healthy as he'd ever been. His research into ancient computer records only confirmed to him how very lucky he was. Not for him the degenerative diseases or visible aging of earlier centuries.

Paul understood that Dr. Patel, like most people he'd ever known, considered his archaeological research into the stored data of earlier centuries to be a total waste of time. After all, what could people in those ancient years teach people of the 38th century? They used to live rather less than a hundred years. For centuries they were restricted to only one planet. And for much of that time they acted in denial of the impact of their actions on this same planet. However it wasn't so much what people in the past thought they knew but what they collated and didn't understand that Paul found to be most interesting. These earlier societies didn't have the means to fully analyse the vast volume of data, measurable only by impossibly large numbers, at their disposal. There was also the fact that the most interesting data had been classified as confidential by government agencies for sometimes several centuries.

At the moment, Paul was investigating a curious phenomenon that has been observed in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries which at the time was known only to these secretive government agencies. Typically, they were totally ignorant that other agencies, sometimes belonging to the same nation states, had gathered data on the selfsame phenomenon.

Paul would normally travel the five kilometres or so back home by sky pod, but today he decided to take the doctor's advice and have some exercise. It wasn't that he wasn't fit and healthy. Indeed, if he wanted to, he could probably run a circuit around the circumference of Godwin, but such exercise was wholly out of character for him. He arched his head up to look at the sky, where five kilometres above was the colony's central hub from which radiated the light and heat that kept the community alive. If he chose to, he could run to the other side of that hub in just three or four hours and his head would then point down towards the ground he was currently walking on.

The walk home was along the shore of one of Godwin's many lakes. A third of the colony's habitable surface was composed of lakes on which floated islands where a tenth of the colony's population lived. One thing in relative abundance in the Outer Solar System was water. This was extremely convenient for the colonies in the Kuiper Belt as it was one of the handful of things that was absolutely necessary for life to exist. It was stored as ice in the two hundred metre shell between him and the outside of his cylindrical world where it was part of the protective shield between the colony and the incredibly low temperatures of Outer Space. It also housed the colony's administrative functions which were mostly managed by robots.

Like every day of every year, it was a mild temperate day troubled only at the exact same time of each day by rain that sprinkled from the hub above. As Paul idly gazed at the boats bobbing about in the lake, he was careful to keep to the path and not stray onto the grass. Although such carelessness wasn't illegal—nothing was illegal on Godwin—it could invite severe reprimands from one of the many self-governing syndicates. Every blade of grass, every leaf on every tree, and every one of the animals that roamed or flew about in Godwin's cylindrical interior was precious and was maintained with extraordinary care. The colony was several weeks, even months, of space flight away from the next nearest source of replenishment.

Paul often wondered what it would be like to live on a planet. He'd not once left Godwin in all his eighty years and for the most part he was disinclined to ever do so. Most planets were inhospitable places with either too much or too little gravity. And, as if gravity wasn't enough of a problem, there was the hostile climate and lack of breathable atmosphere. Even though Paul's archaeological studies were principally focused on humanity's earthbound days more than fifteen centuries earlier, even that was on a planet that was mostly too cold or too hot, too wet or too dry, for anyone to live in quite the predictable comfort that Paul took for granted.

He passed many houses along his route home and many were pretty much the same as his. Most were three or four stories high and, unless occupied by a family, had just a single apartment on each floor.

His perambulation took him through a glass tunnel which wound through one of the forests that were as necessary as the lakes to the ecological balance of the community. Although barely a kilometre in length, this was the most memorable part of his walk. Here he could see elephants, lions and antelope in a tiny microcosm of wilderness. None of the animals who lived fifty meters beneath him were aware that their lives were circumscribed within the bounds of a long pencil-shaped structure, revolving at a precisely defined rate, almost as far from their original homes as was possible in the inhabited Solar System. And the colony was itself a very long way indeed from the Solar System's final frontier. And beyond that, only robotic craft had ever ventured very far and humans hardly at all beyond the bow wave of the heliopause, well within the orbit of the Oort Cloud's furthest speck of dust.

There were no prescribed hours to Paul's working day. His was work he could pursue whenever and for however long he wanted. Sometimes he would spend days at a time, pepped up with artificial stimulants, cocooned within the university campus following a train of investigation until he finally had to succumb to nature and retire home for sleep. Equally as often, he might not visit the university for weeks on end while he either underwent regenerative therapy or just didn't feel sufficiently bothered. His wasn't an occupation that demanded constant attention and he often felt that because it was such a solitary pursuit of so little measurable significance to anyone else in the colony he could easily abandon it altogether and no one would notice.

Today, however, he felt rather more like recreation than work. And what better recreation was there than to return to the virtual world that had become his greatest obsession when he wasn't data-mining and to which he must be its most frequent visitor, at least within the confines of the Godwin colony.

Everyone on Godwin had access to the countless virtual worlds in the Solar System, given the constraint that the colony was several hours' transmission from Earth orbit where most such universes were devised and from which they were broadcast. Most people only dipped into these virtual worlds on an irregular basis, if at all. But Paul was an addict. He'd lived a substantial slice of his life in virtual space ever since he was a moody reclusive teenager and this was a habit he'd never been able to shake. The virtual universe he'd stayed most loyal to and which consumed the highest proportion of his waking life was the obscure but still intermittently enhanced Nudeworld.

What it was about this particular virtual world that captivated him, Paul didn't know. His psychoanalyst, on the few occasions he saw her, told him that it was a critical key to his personality and asked him many questions about his fixation on a virtual universe that was nothing more than a representation of the 33rd century, when it was first launched, different only in that nobody wore clothes.

"It's the delicious oddity of it," he explained.

"Odd, it certainly is," Dr. Mkose agreed. "But to follow the same game for over sixty years and in a universe so different from today: that's what's most strange. If nudity is your kick, and there are no laws proscribing it, then why not pursue it for real? What's so great about a time five centuries ago when Godwin hadn't yet been founded and when capitalist economies had their last renaissance after centuries of obsolescence? It just seems bizarre."

"I like the way that century harked back to the early days of the industrial revolution, from Adam Smith to the days before climate change dramatically changed the Earth's economy for the next few centuries. It was an exciting time when stock markets opened again, when people took to wearing blue jeans and listened to ancient music like dubstep, opera and jazz, and when there was a craze for two-dimensional visual entertainment."

"Exciting it might have been," said the psychoanalyst, "but it was retrospective even then. Wouldn't it be better to actually engage in a virtual world set in the actual time that was celebrated? Why not enter a world of traffic chaos, nuclear bombs and rising sea levels, rather than its later idealised shadow?"

"I don't know," Paul sadly admitted. "I guess I'm less attracted to the reality of those days than its later reflection. Rather like the United States of America was an idealised vision of Classical Rome and Greece, or the way Neo-Communist Canada was to the Soviet Union, the later manifestation was somehow rather better than the original."

Dr. Mkose had no opinion on such socio-political musing. Her brief was to understand why Paul should find consolation in an imaginary world rather than the real one around him. Obviously, she couldn't tell him that his chosen leisure-time activity was in any way wrong. That would be wholly out of step with the anarchosyndicalist ideology of Godwin (although disagreeing with the colony's ideology was also perfectly acceptable). It was Paul's mental health that was her concern. She could have analysed the data on his neuron chart but hers was a profession that would only describe behaviour as abnormal or unbalanced if it caused Paul any visible distress. And this, it was clear to everyone, was not the case.

Whether she liked it or not, Paul wasn't unhappy with his chosen lifestyle and immersing himself in the real world wasn't going to make him any happier.

When he got home, almost the first thing Paul did was step into his virtual portal, let it strap him in and then surrender his consciousness to the artificial constructs that had been devised so many centuries before he was born.

"Awake at last!" exclaimed Blanche, his virtual lover in this bizarre universe. "You've been dozing for days."

Paul nodded. Like so many avatars in this capitalist-engendered universe almost the first thing she said was a reprimand that he'd neglected his obligation to return to this virtual world. Perhaps in the days when such virtual worlds were associated with economic indicators (as they still were for a quarter of the Solar System's population) it had been necessary to build consumer loyalty to the product. In Godwin, it was a quaint relic of an age when such things were thought important.

One way of knowing whether the avatar you interacted with was real or simply a programmatic construct was by observing his or her sleeping habits. Real people tended to drop in and out of wakefulness in Nudeworld according to their real life commitments. Only the truly obsessed, at a level far greater than even Paul, could engage in this world for a full waking day. The virtual avatars, however, had a much more predictable rhythm. If they possessed anything other than an artificial intelligence they might have found it strange to observe people in their midst who came into wakefulness at irregular intervals and stayed awake for barely two or three hours. There were many people dozing in Nudeworld, especially as its popularity in the Solar System waned, as sleep was the designated state of anyone who wasn't currently active.

"You look lovely today, Blanche," said Paul as he admired his lover of so many years. And indeed she did. Although she was an artificial construct that could have looked exactly as perfect as Paul would like, she was designed to appear natural to someone from the 33rd century. People in those days had rather less sophisticated regenerative surgery at their disposal. Her skin had slight imperfections, her teeth were ever so slightly uneven and her eyes were slightly too far apart.

But Paul loved her.

In truth he loved her more than any real woman he had ever known. She was also, of course, naked. Everyone was naked in Nudeworld: however absurd and impractical it might seem. There were real communities within the Solar System— apparently growing in number—who practised naturism as a way of life, but Paul never expected he'd ever be able to visit such places for real. The Solar System had a huge extent and space travel was a luxury few people in Godwin had the opportunity to enjoy, unless the expense of it was deemed to be in some way for the greater good of the colony.

"You look beautiful, too," said Blanche with a broad grin on her face. "What do you want to do today? There's an exhibition of paintings at the gallery. We could watch a movie. Or we could go for a walk in the park."

All these options were rather more exciting than they sounded. In each case, the activity's pleasure was enhanced by the fact that everyone would be unclothed. The paintings in the art gallery, for instance, might consist of paintings by real life artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough or Cocker identical to the originals except that not one stitch of clothing troubled the models they painted. The movie might be a classic from any era, the twentieth or the thirtieth century, and these too would be wholly nude. And as far as the voyeuristic pleasure of a walk in the park was concerned...

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