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Tuesday, 8/15/11 – Human Touch

Jason checks his watch then visors his eyes with his hand and looks out across the white sands to where Ann plays in the glimmering surf. Lean and athletic, Ann flows with the waves in long, easy motions. Three days of island sun has dusted her coconut skin with cinnamon and streaked her chestnut hair with hues of orange and lemon.

Relaxing back onto the chaise, he feels his own skin warmed and tightened by the sun; not burned, but close enough to consider calling Ann to come and slowly rub his back and shoulders with something cool and soothing. He imagines the breathless sensation of her thighs, still cool from her swim, straddling him while her fingers weave wave-like patterns of his frayed nerves. He could breathe the scent of salt and sea from her skin and feel the ocean’s steady rhythm move inside her.

As pleasant as these sensations would be, he is content to sit and quietly admire.

Jason’s admiration is not only for Ann, her physical beauty, and her ability to please him. He is awed by the sunlight flowing like warm honey on his skin, and the sand, soft and white as talcum powder, and the cloudless blue sky setting itself, weightless, on the tops of gently folding turquoise waves.

It’s been five years since his ship peeled itself away from the Arendon Cluster, engaged its light drive, and followed a set of clockwork commands that guided it out to the edge of the Brontaes Nebula. Five years alone in empty space with only holo-vids and occasional corporate media feeds for company.

When he first left orbit, the space inside his starhip seemed as vast and empty as the universe around him. Now, after mining the asteroid belt encircling the Brontaes, there is less than one hundred square meters of free storage space remaining. A space that he calculates will take less than eighteen months to fill.

Eighteen months then back into cryo for the hundred year trip back home.

Jason smiles at the thought of going home, and of the incredible wealth waiting there for him: his reward for all these years alone.

His smile widens as he listens to the surf, feels the breeze, smells sea salt and tropical flowers, and sees Ann emerging from the waves and walking toward him. The scene is complete, not a single sensation has been left out. Everything is perfect.

Almost.

Jason knows that if he looks closely, there will be a seam in the scene, a portal marking the entryway back to the airlock and the cold metal gangway connecting the company’s vacation vessel to his starship. He knows that the company cannot suspend mining operations for the years it would take to transport crews back home for vacations. He knows that the beach, the sky, and the water are all illusory projections and that all he need do is key a command into his communicator and this beach could instantly become an Alpine ski slope or a rustic lakeside cabin.

Water moves like mercury, gathering and splitting, as it rolls from Ann’s hair, over the softly woven cords of her neck, to gather in a small pool above her sternum before spilling between her breasts and running in rivulets down, across her underbelly and into her soft down.

Jason could have spent his vacation with anyone: there are hundreds of others lying suspended in cryo creches outside this vacation pod. He remembers choosing his vacation destination and the process of selecting Ann.

She takes a towel from the back of the chaise next to Jason, but before she begins drying herself, she leans over and kisses him gently on the lips. Sea water drips from her hair and runs knife-edge sensations, searing and icy, across his chest.

Tasting the sea, Jason knows that he has chosen well. If nothing else in this world is real, Ann is, and she is perfect.

As Jason reaches out to touch her, a cloud-like shadow passes over the sand, bringing with it the sizzling sound of rain and the smell of ozone.

“Did you…”

Before he can finish his question, the sky shatters and shards of blue are pulled up and away into the now-exposed gray steel girders that rib the vacation vessel. Like a watercolor scene in a downpour, colors of sand and sea gather then swirl in a vortex that is pulled down into an invisible drain.

Jason feels the vacation vessel shudder and buck beneath him as his chaise begins to melt. Ann, caught in the current of color, is being pulled away.

“Ann!”

In one motion, Jason peels himself from the dissolving lounge and grabs Ann. As the scene is pulled away, Jason holds tight to Ann with one hand and grips the edge of the portal with the other. In moments, Jason’s vacation drains away leaving the cold metal reality of the vacation vessel.

“Are you OK?”

Wide-eyed, Ann moves in slow motion, surveying the vacation vessel’s internal organs with a no-no-no shaking of her head.

To himself more than to Ann, “Ok. Ok?” A statement, a question.

Jason starts his assessment thinking about a meteor. The next hundred thoughts occur at the same time, overlapping and indistinguishable from one another. In an instant, Jason knows with unpleasant certainty details of their situation that will take him hours with his communicator to confirm.

His first thought is to take Ann through the portal to the safety of his mining ship. From there, they can do a complete assessment and send notifcations to the company of their situation. His attempts to open the portal using the keypad on the doorframe are unsuccessful. Even after entering the override code, the keypad flashes red.

Using his communicator is no more effective, emitting a flat beep after pressing the command sequence to open the portal.

Jason steadily punches commands into the communicator trying to activate systems in the mining ship.

His ship never responds.

Looking up, he notices Ann sitting huddled and shivering on the floor. The nakedness that she wore so invitingly on the beach now looks cruel and uncomfortable. He looks around for the towels and realizes that like the sea and sky, they were also projections. Just like Adam, Jason notices himself and goes in search of something to cover their nakedness.

Clothed and fed, Jason lies awake listening to the soft sea sounds of Ann sleeping beside him. Mechanically, his mind categorizes everything he knows about their situation. Somewhere, hidden in all of this information, is an answer. His mind struggles to make sense out of seemingly contradictory information. Whatever the solution, it will take a mind greater than his to find it. If only…

And there was his answer.

Jason could have chosen anyone to accompany him on his vacation. He could have chosen someone incredibly beautiful, like Ann, or someone brilliant. Asleep in the cryo creches are hundreds of people who can help. He just needs to tell them to wake up.

He moves his arm and Ann stirs. Without waking, Ann lifts her head and rolls over. Jason slides his arm out from under her and slips out of the sleep couch. He walks over to the computer console on the wall and types the code that will access the vessel’s crew roster.

Searching for the right member takes only a few keystrokes. The activation sequence for re-animating a crew member from cryo used to take several days. Advances in technology reduced that to several hours. Now, he is surprised to find that re-animation will take only minutes.

Sheets on the sleep couch rustle as Ann rolls over.

Jason verifies his selection: Dr. Edmund Russell.

The sleep couch creaks as Ann sits up.

Jason presses Enter and initiates the re-animation process.

Ann stands and starts walking to where Jason sits in the glow of the computer screen.

In the odd, silver-green light, Jason watches Ann take one step, then, as if feeling faint, she falters. Her next step is a series of ill-syncopated movements as her skin liquefies and is pulled back into a fine mesh frame covering her android underparts.

The mesh frame shifts and the skin oozes back out. Ann is no more, in her place is Dr. Edmund Russell.

Jason stares, his scream caught in his throat.

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