The Last Life of Kyra Sant
Chapter 3: ...and then there was Ru
At the afternoon session I sit front and center in the auditorium. I don't need Arjun and Ava distracting me. Unfortunately they sit in the front row as well, and given the curved auditorium their laughing interactions unfold in my periphery. I inwardly sigh and focus on my visor, where I pull up my notes and document this morning's training.
Miriam walks to the podium, poised and graceful in her maroon instructor uniform. "By now you have no doubt gone through a gamut of new-to-this-lifetime experiences. These experiences have deep emotional footprints in our cross-time psyches, as often there is much left unresolved at the moment of death. And yet while we acknowledge the intensity of these experiences, researchers are required to hold all experiences with objectivity.
"In primary school you were taught to view your thoughts as clouds that are temporarily hiding the brilliance of original awareness. So too researchers must behold any experience as a particular configuration of consciousness floating through and obscuring ultimate reality. We must not grasp onto or resist any experience, or cling to any emotion that may arise. We must remain oriented in our center.
"In addition to experiences with intense personal emotional charge, new researchers are often put off is simply the utter strangeness of what they experience, particularly when merging with the consciousness of alien entities. And so today your training will be in VR, where you will be acquainted with some experiences of common alien species. The narration will provide context on what is going on, and help you to begin gaining a sense of familiarity. So, please attune yourself to your visor and we shall begin."
I settle back into my chair and am immersed in the experience of various alien species talking, learning, working, harvesting, mating, laying eggs, hatching....
I'm already familiar with the training from the leaked researcher training files; I've watched it a dozen times. But I use the session as an opportunity to monitor my emotional response to the material and take note of anything I've forgotten.
The life cycle of the alien species that looks like praying mantises plays out. Miriam's right, I think. Aliens are fucking weird. Wait, is that aversion? I stand back from my experience and correct my thinking: I embrace every experience with equanimity. It's hard to unlearn being yourself, but that's what the job calls for.
The training completes on my visor screen. Miriam reminds us of our current training targets and dismisses us. I shake off the strangeness of the experience and reorient myself to the day. It's day 6 of 10 in the week, and that means my evening session is karma duty. Metta Corps might not have as big an impact on society as they wanted, but karma duty is definitely their doing. Everyone, no matter their rank, has to complete ten hours of chores around the colony each week. Karma duty is supposed to unify space colony society. Mostly, though, karma duty just sucks, and the rich often pay their way out of it through back door deals.
In the karma duty hall we line up in neat rows. Oren, the red-faced shift manager, walks in. Next to him is a lanky muscular guy I've never seen before. His black hair is cut in a way that’s not too common in these parts. A black paintbrush stroke tattoo encircles his right bicep in a shape reminiscent of an ouroboros.
Oren doles out assignments to the rows. I'm about to leave with my row when he calls to me.
"Mouse, we've got a new arrival. Show him the ropes on 14E."
I sigh. 14E is waste processing special ops. It's not fun and will take even longer with someone new. Why was I being punished?
I walk to the newb. "Ok, let's get this over with." I motion him to follow me down the corridor.
"What's 14E?" He asks.
"Waste processing special ops." He chuckles.
"What's your name?"
"They call me Mouse." Might as well own it.
"What's your real name?"
I glance at him, but he's looking straight ahead. "It's Kyra. What's yours?"
"Like kangaroo?" Kangaroo is a type of robot that carries other robots.
"Like Ryuusei. My father is proud of some far-diluted Japanese ancestry. But I guess everyone's a mutt now."
"Ru it is."
We get to the elevator and I let it scan my iris to gain clearance to the utility floors.
As the elevator descends, I don't try to fill the silence. I don't know what he's after with this small talk. I don't need a friend.
We arrive at the waste processing floor and don protective uniforms.
"We shouldn’t have to do this,” I complain. “But the comms are shot in several of the waste processors. Robots could do this, but we need them for the things humans can't do."
He nods. I don’t really need to explain—it's the same everywhere. Our society used to be thriving, affluent, technologically elite. But that was before the first wars. Now we spend our day filling in for robot vacancies.
I start at the first tank, logging the monitor information into the report on my visor. I’m halfway through before it short circuits. "Ugh, this monitor keeps going out."
Ru unscrews the unit and takes out the circuitry beneath. He takes some solution and a cloth from his pocket. In a few minutes he puts it back together. It comes back online.
"Whoa, how did you do that?"
"It's just grimy. The grease in the air isn't the best for electronics."
"How did you know how to do that?"
"I'm an engineer. I fix chips."
"You do? Why'd they send you out here instead of New Singapore? Or one of the radium colonies?”
"I didn't say I was good at fixing chips."
My laugh surprises me. We walk to next tank. This one’s operating properly and I log the information.
"What do you do?”
"Researcher. Well, in training."
"Wow. One of the brave."
"Not really. Just wanted to escape."
"More constructive than zeva addiction."
"Zeva's pricey. Not a lot of scholarships for zeva." He laughs.
I show him what I'm doing on the report. "Not so different than on Cyrus-A," he says.
We go to the next tank.
"So you've come here to fix this all, automate it so we don't have to be stone age carrier pigeons?"
"Engineering's got bigger priorities."
"Central system chips. We don't know how to make new ones. If the one we have dies, the whole colony will shut down.”
This might be classified information. I had heard that was the case but it was just a rumor.
"How did we lose the information on how to make them?"
"The usual suspect. Dendrites see us as they see themselves—one organism. So they've been attacking our brain, corrupting our databases. Over time we’ve lost enough of the information and the people who know it. It happened slowly, we didn’t see it at first. But suddenly we go to make a new chip and we can't."
"This is why you became an engineer? To try to save us?"
"We were a great civilization once, Kyra." The way he says my name floods my system with dopamine.
"I hadn't pegged you for a patriot."
"Everyone's gotta live for something. The daily sludge doesn’t do it for me."
"I think they've got extra federation flags on 2C. You can decorate your bunker with them."
He ignores my jab. "What do you live for?"
I pause, filling in the information. "In innerspace… the colors are amazing. And, I guess novelty. Getting to experience new things, new sensations, new perspectives."
"You don't care about the war?"
"We win or they win. I'm partial to us but they’re conscious too. I just experienced most of their lifecycle, it’s not so different. Besides, we all just die and live again.”
Ru looks contemplative. He doesn’t try to continue the conversation and I don’t either. We finish and take the elevator up to the barracks
"Ok, I'm pretty sure I'm this way. Thanks for showing me the ropes, Kyra. See ya around."
The door clicks shut behind him and I stare at it. I've spoken more to Ru than anyone in a long time. It feels good. Too good. I have an overwhelming sense that something in my foundation is cracking.
I have perfect control, I think. This experience washes over me like any other.
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