The pain came out of nowhere – a sudden lightning bolt down the left shoulder and into the heart. Samson Greggs clutched his chest and slumped to the ground, letting go of the lawn mower.
“I can’t. I’m too young,” he thought as the world whirled around him. He’d been feeling vaguely uneasy for days, like he was hungry no matter how much he ate. But there had been no real foreshadowing of this sudden bright agony. The world went dark and he could vaguely hear his son’s cries as he ran out onto the lawn. And then the pain went away.
Sa’na woke in utter confusion, its body startlingly unfamiliar. It tried to breath but couldn’t. It tried to turn but was immobilized. Its legs began flailing in a panic against the glass casing immediately in front of it. The casing opened, the belts around its carapace loosened and it surged out with a wet slither.
It lay on the cold metal floor, gasping for breath, letting the air flow into its spiracles. It tried to ignore the world around it, now so much larger through its compound eyes.
“What am I?” it thought. “Where am I?”
Slowly the world stopped spinning and its head began to clear. The dream world was already starting to recede. It remembered how to see out of so many eyes and how to move with so many legs. It remembered what it was: a Krata’an aboard a deep space vehicle, destined to colonize a new planet. It felt a flood of relief. All those years of being a mammal … they were only a dream.
It pivoted on its four rear legs and looked at the virtual reality machine that it had been lying in for nearly thirty years, dreaming away the light years between the stars. And it shuddered.
The virtual reality was fading to memory now and the memory was repulsive. Why had it programmed the machine to make up such a disgusting creature? To conjure up something as maddening and sickening as … what were they called again? Human beings. Right. It shuddered to think of their pliant skin and their stringy hair. It looked down at its body and took comfort in its oily shell.
It stepped up to the computer and looked over the data cube. All of the fictional human history, art, culture, emotions – were in there. It had once thought that humans were real, that Earth was real. But it had all been illusion, a computer program to keep it occupied while the light years slid past. For a moment, it was going to delete it all. But it hesitated.
“Some other time,” it thought.
It took but a minute to figure out what had gone wrong. The feeding line had burst as a result of an overpressure … probably too many Krata’ans exiting their simulations at the same time. That would explain the hunger it had felt while imagining it was Greggs. And the heart attack and death had been the machine’s emergency protocol for waking it.
It repaired the line. The routine maintenance settled its jitters from having woken to reality so jarringly. As it did, it thought back to when it had imagined humans and shuddered again. It had enjoyed sex as a human. How repulsive that had been!
The repairs finished, it again contemplated deleting the fiction of the human reality. But again, it hesitated. Plenty of time for that later. It moved out into the ship.
If it had expected a warm reception, it was wrong. Sa’na skittered down the corridors, enjoying the freedom of being able to walk on walls and ceilings again. Its memory was now rock solid and it knew its way around the ship. It stopped in the galley to revel in eating food properly – proboscis deep into some over-ripe meat perhaps.
The galley was empty but it didn’t mind. The computers were working and it fed ravenously. Again, the memories of being human came back: vegetables and sweets and roasted meat. Ugh. It could barely stomach the thought now.
After a gargantuan feast, it crawled into the crew’s quarters, also strangely empty. It slid into a corner and fell asleep, the first natural sleep in decades. Sleeping alone, without other insect bodies around, felt alien – almost human, really. But it was tired and slept for a long time.
Sa’na was now becoming a bit concerned. No crew member had come to greet it, although they certainly knew it had left the simulation. As far as it could tell, none had come in while it was asleep. It woke as alone as it had gone to sleep. The galley was still empty, the corridors still silent.
Gym. Empty. Observation deck. Still empty. All quarters. Empty. EVA bay. Empty. Command deck. Empty.
It finally got onto the ship’s microphone and called out to any of its comrades, enjoying the clicking and chittering of its voice contrasted agains the loud crude barks of humans.
But there was no answer.
Then Sa’na realized: they were probably all in simulations of their own. The instruments indicated that their destination was another seventy years away. Technically, two of them were supposed to be on duty at all times. But perhaps something had changed while it dreamed its strange disturbing dreams of being human.
It skittered down the hallway to the first simulation room and opened it. And it immediately blew out a gust of air in relief: there was a crew member, Ska’la by the look of it, in the simulation chamber. It skittered over and checked Ska’la’s vitals, to see how long it had left.
The vitals were flat. Ska’la was dead.
It shuddered down to the tips of its six legs.
They were all dead. Every single one of them. Twenty-eight Krata’ans had boarded the ship. And all but Sa’na were now mummifying in the simulation chambers. It spent a few hours poring over the telemetry but it was pretty clear what had happened. Some had been killed by the same overpressure that woke Sa’na. Only in their cases, instead of the feed tube bursting, it had flooded their bodies with food, killing them. That, in turn, had been set off by the simultaneous death of the other crew members, which had suddenly shut off the food supply to ten chambers, creating the overpressure. It took a long time to sort through the simulation data, but it was clear that those ten had been sharing a simulation and had been killed in some mass event. This shouldn’t have killed them in real life, however. Both Sa’na and the AI were puzzled.
Sa’na now went about its duties. It recycled the bodies of its crew members, went through the entire routine of systems checks, even went EVA to inspect the ship from stem to stern.
And then … nothing to do. It read from some ancient texts. It watched a few holos or listened to some music. It was only after a week that it realized … this was it. For the rest of its life.
Sa’na found itself wandering the long empty halls, hoping against hope that it had overlooked a crew member or would find a suspension pod hidden in some nook of the ship. It kept sending drones outside the ship or going EVA, ostensibly for safety inspection but really to see if there was some sign, any sign of life.
But inevitably this ended with it in the crews quarters, snuggled in a corner, alone and cold. How long did it have to live like this? It would easily live long enough to reach their destination. But what it would it be like when it arrived?
The AI finally figured out what had happened to the ten crew members who had set off the chain of events that had killed the crew. They had all woken from their simulations a decade earlier. But then, after a while, they had decided to go back in, all at once and into the same simulation. It wasn’t quite Earth and humans but it was similar – a revolting species of lizard that it recognized as dinosaurs. But then a calamity had hit in the simulation – an asteroid strike – and they had all exited simultaneously and disastrously.
“Why would they go back?” Sa’na asked the AI.
“They found life on the ship to be a bit tedious. And … they missed the creatures they had imagined in their simulations.”
“How odd. Pathetic, really.”
“And the others?”
“Also preferred being in their simulations.”
“Strange. I don’t understand.”
Sa’na was finding itself in the simulator room more and more often, staring at the controls of the machine. Surely there was no point now, with its comrades extinct, in sleeping through the long dark. Whether it lived out its life on the ship or at their destination, it would die and this branch of its species would die with it. Without anyone to fertilize the buds in its abdomen, there was no chance. So why not at least live its life out as what it really was, a being far superior to anything the computer could conjure up?
It had backed up the human simulation just in case it gave into the temptation to delete it. But that wasn’t really likely now. It crawled over to the monitor and scanned for a scene from its life as Greggs. Just something to remind it of how repulsive humans were and how different any future simulation should be.
It brought up the most recent birthday of Gregg’s son, Tom. It watched as the scene unfolded – the birthday song, the presents, the cake, Tom’s big smile. Humans were so repulsive with their facial expressions. And it remembered what kissing was like – so repulsive. It made sure to watch the video three or four times just so it would remember how awful it was to be human. And to look carefully over the faces of its friends and family, those it had spent years or even decades with and try hard not to miss them.
Tedium. That was what the weeks unfolded. Reading, listening to music, playing games, maintenance checks, eating, sleeping alone.
Sa’na found itself thinking about more and more about how alone it was. It wasn’t just that the crew were dead; it was that the nearest member of its species was trillions of miles away. It would never see another friendly carapace, except in …
It glanced over at the simulator. It could simulate a new world, maintaining its nobel Krata’an form. But rebirth and rebuilding of a life was just so daunting. It would rather have a life back, where its crew were still alive.
It again watched some footage from its life as a human, particularly focusing on the human’s offspring. It felt sad that such a … digusting, obviously … but also interesting creature was purely a simulacrum. In a way, it would rather not have known that, to have gone on with the illusion of reality.
Sa’na was now spending almost all of its time in the simulator room. It had even found a good niche to sleep in. Falling asleep to the sound of human voices, especially those of its family, was almost as good as falling asleep with the press of other oily Krata’an bodies around it.
It ate its meals while watching the humans. On one occasion, it found itself laughing – an odd sound from its spiracles. On another it found itself wishing that Krata’ans could weep.
It watched the son take his first steps, over and over. And it could remember the feel of the child falling against him, giggling and cooing. It rewound to its first dates with the mate and remembered the excited uncertainty of those days. It watched Greggs play basketball and thought of the step on the court and the feel of the ball and the delighted moment right before it hit a basket, when it knew its aim was true and a point was about to be scored.
It thought of what might still come. Perhaps more offspring. Watching the offspring grow to adulthood in that slow cumbersome human way. Watching them mate and spawn in the clumsy human way. Aging gracefully. Sitting in its house, elderly but still hale, thinking of a life well led.
And then, about a month after it had woken, it dropped a tool on the floor and looked long and hard at the simulation chamber. No two ways about it. It knew what it had to do.
Sa’na made some last-minute adjustments to the program. It undid some of the lingering damage from the drinking it had done when Greggs was young. It made sure to set good parameters for the fates of Greggs’ children – several more than just the current one — and a long enough life to see them fulfilled. It adjusted his metabolism to keep the weight off. It grinned to itself slightly as it made one change to Gregg’s anatomy it was sure he’d like – humans were so obssessed with the size of that thing.
It took one last look at the chamber. It was going to miss being a Krata’an. There was no doubt it was a superior existence to being a lumpy, gloopy human. But … what choice did it have? It was either this or step out of an airlock. Better to at least think it wasn’t alone than to drift through the decades knowing it was alone.
It slithered into the chamber, buckled in and flipped the switch before it could reconsider.
Samson suddenly gasped for breath and the world swam back into focus. As instantly as it had come, the pain was gone. For a brief odd moment, his body wasn’t quite his own. It felt lumpy and lacking in limbs. But then the cloud cleared and he was himself again.
“Daddy! Daddy!” he heard and then a hefty weight hit him as Tom jumped on him.
“Are you OK, daddy?”
He sat up and tussled the boy’s dark hair.
“But you fell!”
“Just the heat. I’ll be fine.”
He paused and looked up the sky.
“Boy, it feels like I was out for a while. And I had the strangest dream.”
Samson looked up at the sky. Already the memory of the dream was fading. He stretched. He felt better than he had in a long time.
“Oh, it’s not important.”
He took his son’s hand and walked back to the house.
I have long been fascinated by the idea that our world is a simulation. But my thinking about this had me wondering if the simulation wasn’t for a creature very different from human. The idea of that — and the sad notion that the people in my life are not real — has sat at the back of my mind for a long time.
I’ve also been haunted by this description of what an invention like Star Trek’s holodeck might do to our civilization:
It’s not just that it would be addictive; it’s that it would literally fill every possible human emotional need and utterly eliminate all motivation to ever do anything ever. Everyone’s only goal would be to do just enough work to keep food and electricity coming into the holodeck, to keep those interruptions by reality to a minimum.
People would stop reproducing, your virtual Scarlett Johansson could have perfect virtual kids who’ll never wind up in jail or steal money from you to buy crack. If you get tired of them, tell the holodeck to blink them out of existence. If you’re saying that you’re a high-minded person who pursues spiritual goals and would never be sucked in by anything as crude as a simulation, hey, they’ve got a holodeck for you, too. You can sit down to dinner with Plato and Abe Lincoln and Gandhi and Jesus. If somebody yanked you out of that to go work at the post office all day, you’d barricade yourself in with a shotgun.
If aliens showed up to Earth 1,000 years later, they’d find an abandoned planet with ten billion mummified corpses laying on the floor of ten billion dusty holodecks, with huge smiles on their faces.
That’s a future I think is more probable than not. Meta-Metamorphosis is the intersection of those ideas.
As for how this story got written: I was literally mowing the lawn when my Muse delivered it. By the time I’d finished mowing, it was fully formed, including the references to Kafka’s great novel. I outlined in a couple of hours and wrote it in a matter of days, which is lightning fast for me. It’s still a bit rough, but I’m not seeing much use in polishing it too hard. I hope you got a little grin out of it.