SLEEPWALKER • by Julia Nolan

The sharp line between day and night blurs on Europa. The light from Jupiter is brighter than that from the sun, though both illuminate, trading dominance over time. The interplay of lights is so enchanting that it’s hard to believe it’s no more than a simulation of how our progenitors once lived.

It’s my real memory that reminds me I’m in a simulation, one I’d begged for to cure myself of my foolish nostalgia for the past. My false memories inform me that my host, Lance, traveled to Europa for his anniversary with his wife, Penelope, who’d dreamed of exotic worlds. Lance agreed, hoping to compensate for the long hours she spends alone by giving her the trip of a lifetime. It is a scene ripe for marital discord, a reminder that things are better now that we are no longer ruled by biochemical impulses.

Still, love surges through me when Penelope twines her arm through mine, as we stroll down a street lined with trees and galleries. She asks, “Do you remember when we first met?”

I don’t. The false history I’m given never contains all the endless minutia that make up the AIs I meet in my simulations. They’re modeled on the records of real people, although are undoubtedly incomplete recreations.

She continues, oblivious to my silence. “We synched right away.” Her auburn hair blows in the breeze generated by the ventilation system. “Even before you looked at me, I knew you’d be the one I’d marry.”

“I felt the same way.” The words are polite, but that does not make them false. Europa is lovely in the twilight, but the moon’s beauty pales beside that of the woman beside me. I turn to Penelope and catch a glimpse of her sparkling eyes. It’s odd how tastes continue over the centuries, passed down from ancestors who had reason to prefer that their women be full-lipped and fertile. I no longer have their needs, yet I maintain their desires. I want to kiss her. I want to wander beneath the light of Jupiter forever. I wonder whether I might find a way to make that possible.

***

Penelope has a healthy appetite, which shows on her full hips and the slight rounding of her stomach.

“You’re different today,” she says between bites of the pasta she ordered.

“I’m on vacation,” I say.

“You weren’t like this yesterday.” Her words ebb into one another through the slur of alcohol. “Today you’re very… thoughtful.”

“It’s nothing.” I focus my attention on my food. I consider the wine, but choose not to indulge, as I fear that it will make me drowsy. The longer I stay awake, the longer I will remain in this simulation.

“I think I like it. Perhaps we should vacation more often.” The waiter appears and she orders dessert. I choose the chocolate cake. It reeks of cinnamon. Europan cooks historically over-spiced their food to disguise their vat-grown ingredients, so my simulation pretends the same.

“I’ll take coffee, too,” I say, before the waiter leaves. When he returns, I drink, hoping the jolt of imagined caffeine will keep me tethered to this world.

***

I postpone the inevitable as long as possible. I discover that my host has a stash of stimulants and use these to augment the coffee. I wash pills down with espresso and force myself to move to remain alert. It seems ridiculous that a post-human should need to sleep, especially when living in a dream of a dream. Yet some needs are universal.

By the third day, every imagined nerve begs me to let it rest. I push on, wanting to remain in this life as long as I can. I realize it is not worth the effort when even the sight of Penelope, newly wakened, stirs nothing in me but annoyance. I sink into bed beside her and decide that it is time to sleep.

***

When I awaken, there’s a cold slab beneath the sensors on my back and a hundred pinpricks pierce each of my optical centers. My arm pistons, bending delicate servos towards my optics so I can pluck out the emitters one by one. I drop them on the table and they ping, sharp and musical.

There’s a whirl and an attending bot hovers close, blades spinning like the orbits of stars. The safety bot — the being designed to keep me from slipping too deep into dreams — beeps in binary code, asking whether my trip was a success. Did I enjoy myself? Did the simulation mesh with historic texts —

I cut it off. “Can I go back?”

There’s another series of beeps, a query. Why would I want to return to such a primitive time?

I don’t care to explain how my feelings have been augmented by my simulated reality. Still, it is not the reality I want, so much as the woman within it. “Can you bring her back?”

There’s another series of queries. What is ‘her’, which her, why her? The bots are primitive. They keep us safe from being swept into dreams, but they know nothing of primal, sapient emotion.

So I don’t answer. Instead my hand reaches down, in imagination soft and fleshy, in reality strong and precise. I pick up the sensors one by one before replacing them in my optical sockets. They sputter sparks of flame, vivid as fireworks across visual receptors. I wait for the scene to return, but visuals remain static. Beside me, the bot whirls and beeps. My auditory input remains tethered to the real world — another fail safe. I’ll find a way to fail dangerous soon. But for now, I pull out the input cables before righting on my treads and rolling off towards my mundane life.


Julia Nolan is a chemical engineer with a love of the bizarre. In addition to writing, she adores costuming and has a fondness for music and languages. Her work has appeared in “Penumbra” and “Mars Dust”, and she has an upcoming story in “Stupefying Stories”.


This story is sponsored by
Odyssey Writing Workshops — Dedicated to helping writers of fantasy, science fiction, and horror improve their work, we offer one of the top workshops in the world each summer; live, interactive online classes each winter; and many free resources.

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