Chapter 3: Persistence of Memory

The mission consisted of four years of acceleration, two years of retrofit, and another four years of deceleration. That was the plan, insane as it seemed, but it’s how they could travel great distances without aid from the Pansapient Federation. It had been two weeks since the crew was released from their acceleration tanks – a process that typically took a month. For the past four years, the crew of the Sagittarius underwent extensive simulation training, forcing years of firsthand experience into their subconscious with all the delicacy of a jackhammer.

During the recovery period, the Sagittarius crew took much-needed time to recover from the grueling training that had left their minds in a state of psychosis and their bodies weakened from lack of mobility. The neural simulations had been as traumatic as a growth spurt for their brains, causing headaches, disorientation, and even bouts of amnesia. The crew found solace in the quiet confines of their racks, seeking rest and time to sort out their memories.

Voidsman Third Class Evelyn-Betty Walker lay in her rack, listening to the conversation of her teammates around her. They were seated around a table in the middle of the room, discussing their experiences and the impact each had on their perceptions of reality. They soon discovered that not every Marine or Voidsman went through the same simulations. Walker assumed they would all be locked away in the same virtual world. Many had participated in months-long missions ranging from ship-to-ship combat to full-scale terrestrial invasions, leaving many traumatized by the experience.

Every time she died, or a scenario mercifully ended, she would glimpse the real world between her grounding tones. She yearned to hear those beautiful auditory tones that pulled her from the Human Mind Register, if only for a moment. She had a scant moment in those glimpses to escape her imprisonment in the register. She didn’t have long, but it was long enough for the terror to set in just before being plunged back into the thick of some space battle, picking up pieces of where her shipmates left off.

“You know,” Taylor mused, “it’s hard to tell what’s real and what’s not anymore after all those simulations. I mean, how certain are we this isn’t another simulation?”

O’Brian sighed deeply, rubbing his temples. “You know what I can’t get out of my mind? How old am I? Seriously, is it our biological age or the age we feel inside? That felt way more than four fucking years.” He shivered as a painful memory crept into his thoughts.

Walker pondered their words, staring at the riveted metal plates of the bunk above her. “I think age is just a number. What matters more are our experiences and the memories we’ve created. That’s what shapes us, whether from a simulation or reality.”

As the conversation deepened, Taylor leaned into the group and said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the Human Mind Register. It’s bizarre to think we’ve spent so much time connected to the system. I feel we’re living those simulations, even though we’re told they’re just dreams.”

O’Brian nodded thoughtfully. “Sometimes I wonder if the memories and experience we gained in the simulations are truly ours or belong to some fabricated version of ourselves. I keep thinking they’re borrowing someone else’s experiences and implanting them in our minds. It felt too real just to be a dream. Yet… every time, I didn’t feel like it was me.”

Walker’s brow furrowed as she thought about their words. “I see what you mean. However, I think our simulation experiences are just as valid as our natural experiences. I mean, we still learned and grew from them, even if it wasn’t our physical selves going through it.”

Taylor shook his head, unconvinced. “But it’s like reading a book or watching a movie. You’re experiencing someone else’s story, not your own. Is it the same with the simulations? Are those memories and experiences ours, or are we witnesses to someone else’s life through their eyes?”

O’Brian raised his hand to his eyes and stared at his palm. “Maybe the simulations are like alternate realities? We’re just tapping into those other versions of ourselves. In that sense, those experiences could still be considered ours from a different perspective.”

Walker rolled over in her rack, considering the idea. “That’s an interesting way to look at it. So, in a way, we’re just exploring different facets of ourselves and even different possibilities of what our lives could have been under different circumstances.”

Taylor leaned against his chair back, his hand covering his mouth and slightly pinching his upper lip as he thought. “I guess that’s one way to make sense of it. But it still feels strange to think that we’ve lived so many lives, even if they were only simulations. Yet shouldn’t we be severely traumatized? I didn’t know I was in a simulation inside another simulation, and I watched all of you die over and over again. O’Brian, I saw one of those aliens chop off your head and rip out your spine in front of me.”

“No wonder I have such a bad headache,” O’Brian half-joked, rubbing his temples.

“Seriously, you’d think I’d be huddled up on my bunk, afraid to come out after seeing some of the things I saw,” Taylor pointed out.

“Then maybe it was only a dream,” Walker said, only partly believing it herself.

As they drifted off to sleep that night, all their minds were clouded with images of the experiences and questions they would find no answers to. But through the shared inability to articulate what had happened to them, they found a sense of camaraderie and understanding that helped to ease the burden of the traumas they had endured. In a world where the lines between simulation and reality were blurred, they found comfort in the certainty of their bonds with one another.

When Walker felt better, she resumed her regular duties working in ship maintenance. She missed working with the ship’s complex network of organic and mechanical systems. The systems required constant attention to maintain, which helped to keep her mind focused on something other than her time in the simulations. The slip-space bubble the ship used to travel at hyper-relativistic speeds caused issues with several electrical components. The ship’s systems could not shield against slip-space radiation. To combat the problems, a redundant hybrid mechanical-organic system was invented to offset the hazardous effects.

One day, while Walker was inspecting the life support systems in the engineering section, she received a notification on her personal data pad to perform a certification check on one of the combat Voidsuits. The Voidsuit certifications were scheduled periodically throughout the journey, but the combat Voidsuits were not typically part of her rotation. However, it wasn’t uncommon for random spot checks to be issued.

She made her way to the suit storage area and began her inspection. Each of their forty-four Mark I combat Voidsuits were stored in individual lockers. Each locker was equipped with an automated diagnostics system, making her job typically a lot easier. In this case, the inspection was for a 280-point check, which took longer but was necessary to certify that a suit was ready for deployment.

Walker unlocked the first locker with her authorization code, and the Voidsuit rotated outwards into the room.

“Diagnostic mode, 280,” she ordered. With a diagnostic chirp from the sensors, the Voidsuit straightened up as if an invisible body was standing within it and marched to the diagnostics table in the middle of the engineering bay.

She began her inspection by running her fingers over the suit’s hard shell, feeling any signs of damage or wear. Then she removed the link-pack assembly at the waist of the suit to access its internal diagnostic ports. Connecting test leads, she began to verify the functionality of the life support systems, ensuring that the oxygen regulators and temperature controls were functioning optimally.

While inspecting the suit’s portable data loader, she found something odd. The suit’s cyber security hash did not match the ship’s record. It had the same signature fifteen times in a row, but on the sixteenth row, there was an abnormality. Staring at her data pad, her eyebrows folded downward, puzzled by the oddity. She removed the data loader, determined to find the cause, then settled into a seat at her workbench. Line by line, she began analyzing the suit’s code. It was relatively simple for her to see the difference and locate it to a sub-system, finding the issues in the suit’s environment system.

Walker continued to scan the ship’s central computer system from her data pad, searching through maintenance logs, cross-referencing them with personnel records, and trying to identify anyone who might have had the opportunity and motive to introduce the rogue code. However, her search came up empty, without a clue who added the code or why it was there. This was not normal, nor was it possible. The code couldn’t have been changed without pulling the data loader from the suit, and opening the locker, which required authorization. There was no record of anyone opening the suit’s locker since the last inspection.

“I need to report this immediately. Something’s not right,” she thought as she searched for Lieutenant Marlo. As she left the room, she sealed the E-bay behind her. When she turned to continue down the corridor, she walked directly into the Caleban.

The Caleban – Walker had completely forgotten about it. How could the alien have slipped her mind? Not only was the Caleban the only alien she had ever seen before, but she was also responsible for showing it around. She was also ordered to report directly to Lieutenant Marlo or Captain Casteel should it do anything unusual. Though, what was unusual for a human-shaped, floating ball of sentient energy to the three of them?

When she tried to walk past it, it barred her path. “That could be classified as unusual for sure,” she thought.

Communication with the Caleban was always challenging, considering it technically resided in the 4th dimension. Its speech was a cacophony of words from different points in time, layered over one another, making it difficult to understand. Walker stared into its face, taken aback by its constantly changing images. Its face was easier to focus on when no one else was nearby, but it was still difficult for human eyes to adjust to. The deep part of the human brain that was designed to recognize faces would go haywire looking at it.

“Excuse me, but I have something urgent I need to inform the captain of,” she croaked, desperate to alert her superiors to the mysterious code and get away from this unnerving creature. Still, the Caleban persisted in blocking her. “Please move!” Walker demanded more firmly as she prepared herself for the onslaught of noise from the creature. However, nothing came. The Caleban stood there, watching her.

Walker decided to bolt past the Caleban. She needed to report her findings to the captain. In response, the Caleban reached out with lightning-quick speed and touched her gently on the forehead. The gentle tap sent her hurtling wildly into a 4th-dimensional space where time unfolded around her awareness with infinite clarity and detail, enveloping her in all directions.

Inexplicably, Walker found herself experiencing her entire life all at once, living every moment from birth to death in one moment, this moment, forever. In this space, her emotions made themselves manifest as tangible entities. Sorrow enveloped her like a freezing fog while joy pirouetted through the air like shimmering sparks. Love radiated warmth from the cherished memories of her past while fear slithered from the shadows of an uncertain future. Regret clung to her like a stubborn stain, refusing to be erased by the passage of time.

This 4th-dimensional realm stretched like an infinite kaleidoscope of moments, each connected to the next in a complex web. Walker could see the various paths her life had taken, the decisions she had made, was making, and the people she had encountered all coexisting in an ever-shifting mosaic. The experience was both wondrous and disorienting as the boundaries between past, present, and future dissolved around her.

“No,” Walker thought, welling up and cultivating her entire life’s determination to bring herself back, to make herself unshakable. Amidst the swirling chaos of her life’s moments, she searched for the memories of the Sagittarius and the urgency of her mission, grasping onto them as lifelines. They became her anchors, allowing her to navigate the 4th-dimensional space, find her way back to the present moment, and pull herself through the rip in space-time the Caleban had created.

Plummeting back into her lower reality, her body slammed against the deck plates of the Sagittarius. Walker opened her eyes, everything around her flashing in an aurora of colors. “What the….” Her vision cleared to the sight of the Caleban standing above her. She sprang to her feet, ready to confront the Caleban.

“She possesses the required attributes for transposition. Acceptable,” the Caleban intoned.

Before she could respond, a familiar tone sounded from the base of her neck, accompanied by a soft glowing light in her peripherals. It was her grounding tone.

Walker closed her eyes, wanting to scream. “You have got to be shitting me.”

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