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©2018 - S y l v a n S c o t t


The world-setting (containing the space-station Alternity: One, the Fluxx, DarkStar’s Expanse, and other landmarks within this story’s context), and the characters of David “Prime” Foster, David “Rat” Foster, David “Copper” Foster, David “Fountain-of-Youth” Foster, Dave “DarkStar” Foster, Davina “Cayenne” Foster, David “Binary” Foster, and others are owned by Sylvan Scott/David J Rust. This story may not be shared or edited without the express written permission of the author.



Alternity: One

©2018 Sylvan Scott



Relative Date: 3.811.249.768.25 Terra-1; Galactic Coreward Adjust +002.012 1.010; Phase-0; 08:22:04.

Log Begins.

Adjunct to report on the collision between trade vessel Aleph-Dawn and the previously unidentified craft (now known as The Stellae) running parallel to ecliptic from an estimated trajectory of 98:112:3:-22.121.

All hands lost save for, as expected, two David Fosters: one from each ship.

The reality storm preceding the impact was predictive of the disaster but the unknown origins of the new craft made its prevention, impossible. This wasn’t the first time a known ship has been lost coming through the stellar flux but it is the first that a David Foster was on-board. The Aleph-Dawn had docked in the past and, each time, their Foster came and went without incident. Perhaps we should consider that it is not the presence of alternates that causes these space-time catastrophes but, rather, that something about the Fluxx assists the Fosters their survival.

The new Foster has been designated “Copper” due to his artificial biology and metallic skin-tone. I protested on racial insensitivity grounds but was overruled when he confirmed that he had been called “Copper” long before the incident and his arrival at Alternity: One. The appellation, drawn from obvious visible characteristics, appears to be another commonality between our shared, Terran heritages.

The only question is what will we do with Copper? We have six android Fosters, so accommodating an artificial lifeform isn’t a problem. But Copper is different.

He possesses a brain advanced enough to become … depressed. This is by his own diagnosis. He’s been quite forthcoming and frank with us, once he understood Alternity: One and its unique circumstances.

His mental state is understandable considering his recent, traumatic arrival: he lost every colleague and friend from The Stellae. But out of all sixty-three-hundred of us, so far none is a therapist. We have two priests, a rabbi, and a trio of comparative sociology theologians but no psychologists or psychiatrists. I doubt assigning Copper to religious therapy will help, but it’s something to consider if I can’t find another solution.

After all, he can’t go home.

Until then, I’m assigning him to work with Rat; he’s the most empathetic one of us on the station. He, also, has shown periodic signs of depression so maybe that will provide insight.

I seriously hope the next Foster we acquire will have a mental health background.

We all could use some therapy, now and then.

Signed,

Senior Executive Commander David “Prime” Foster, Alternity: One.

Log Ends, 08:25:18.



What’s in a name? I wish I knew. The universe seems to have figured it out, but it isn’t talking. And day after day as I clean up others’ messes, I feel increasingly annoyed by the lack of an answer. A couple of the Fosters in probability forecasts say that we’ll perhaps have our answers within the next few years.

Maybe.

Those guys are such charlatans.

“Maybe” and “perhaps” are synonyms for hope; I don’t have much of that. Not these days. I try to hide it behind doing my job and keeping my head down. That’s probably why Prime sent someone in need of therapy to me. I appear stable.

What can I say? Everyone has their role to play.

Prime’s the commander; keeps getting elected, anyway. It’s probably because no one else wants the stress. Arguably, he’s also the first Foster, so he’s got a certain mystique. His role is “leader”. His role puts him at the head of our ragtag band of p-brane, trans-spatial replicants.

I’m on the other end of the spectrum.

My role’s “custodian”.

Not “janitor”, mind you: “custodian”. There’s a difference.

Originally, I was an engineer. Around here, though, everyone’s the same. We’re lousy with engineers and scientists. We have a disproportionate number of visual artists, too, for some reason. But on this cobbled-together space station located barely a million k-m’s—a million klicks—from the galactic core, we have more people than roles to fill.

So, I get to be custodian.

Most over-qualified custodian you’ve ever seen.

That’s the problem with Alternity: One. Everyone has their quirks but, deep-down, every crewmember is identical. That shouldn’t bother me. I come from a large family; lived in close quarters.

But, damn it, I was the first to get an advanced degree! I was chosen to go to space! I was part of the First Hundred chosen for Terra’s first, extrasolar exploration! Out of billions and billions of people throughout my Terra’s evolutionary history, I’m one of the vanishingly small percentage accepted on the most epic voyage our species ever launched.

I’m one in a billion-billion.

Yet, here I am: mopping up after Dave “Can’t-Hold-His-Liquor” Foster.

“Are you the only janitor on Alternity: One?”

I fixed the android with a black-eyed stare. “That’s ‘custodian’,” I said. “Janitors clean. Custodians maintain.”

Custodians clean, too, of course. Cleaning is crucial to keeping things running.

Copper nodded, but didn’t apologize.

Damn androids.

Why couldn’t we get another rattus sapiens like me? And where in the vast multiverse were the anthropomorphic canines, felines, bovines, and all the rest? Was Terra-based evolution really so heavily biased towards primates like humans?

I doubted my trainee knew the answer.

Copper hadn’t arisen from evolution and probably had the same understanding of it as you would find in any regional database.

He was a fancy machine despite looking more-or-less human.

Damn.

Even a machine has more in common with station crew than me.

He was a pleasant enough machine but he was a machine, nonetheless.

How do you build a “David Foster”, though?

We had been working for a few hours: me showing him the basics around the docking ring. Most physical labor is performed by simple robots. Technically, Alternity: One didn’t need a living and breathing engineer but I got the job anyway.

I didn’t mind. I needed it.

After a while putting Copper through the paces, I started getting hungry.

“So, Copper,” I said, “you up for a break?”

The bronze-colored man didn’t blink. Apparently it wasn’t part of his construction.

“I guess so, Mister Foster. Although, I’m not really tired.”

Do you get tired?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow.

I took his expression to mean “Of course I get tired: are you a moron?” and started leading the way to the habitation area.

I really shouldn’t be so stand-offish. This guy needs help. Unlike me, he had the courage to ask for it, too. I’ll have to put my own existential crisis on-hold and see what I can do to play nice with Mister Artificial, here.

“How many of you live here?” Copper asked.

“Inhabitants?” I searched my brain for the latest number. “Uh, six thousand, three hundred, fifty-two,” I replied. I looked up at him with a nod. “Well, six thousand, three hundred, fifty-three, now.”

He nodded. “So, why can’t I leave the station? None of us on The Stellae even knew it existed when we started exploring the nebula.”

It was a legitimate question but I was still annoyed he had called me “janitor”.

“You think you can? Leave, I mean.” I tried to smile in that way humans and other primates do. It’s hard. They have squashed faces: no muzzles to speak of. “No one’s keeping you but, honestly, it’s a tangled mess of space-time out there. Even if you could trace exactly the path your ship used to arrive, there’s very little chance you could follow it back out to your home reality.” I gave up on the smile and, instead, chose to hold my tail in a traditional “I’m sorry for your loss” posture. I didn’t think he would know how to read my people’s body language but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be polite.

It had been explained to him, before, but I get it: he was still processing his circumstances. Back home, he’d been one in a billion-billion, too. Look where it got him.

I reached up to pat the back of his wrist.

Like a human, he’s about twice my height.

He looked down at my touch, an honest-to-goodness look of “being lost” on his shiny face. “So, what do I do now?”

I didn’t have an answer.

“That’s the billion-credit question, my friend,” I said. “A billion-billion credits, in fact.”

I lead him the rest of the way in silence.

The habitation ring is the most stable part of Alternity: One. Constructed from salvaged bio-domes and life-support systems, it houses and provides for the station crew. Whole crops grow there: arcing around the central shaft as the station spins. It makes up ninety-five percent of Alternity’s volume. The blackened windows reduce the glowing barrage of light blazing from the galactic core to a level slightly brighter than noon back on Terra. The plants love it.

I don’t.

My ancient ancestors, unlike primates, were crepuscular.

Moving spinward, our mobile corridor slowed after I tapped the button for transition to habitation. I made sure he gripped one of the straps by the airlock as simulated gravity faded with our deceleration and re-orientation. We stepped from the corridor and transitioned into the lock and it, in turn, attached itself to the habitation ring’s acceleration track. In no time, we were back on our feet: “down” redefined at a new angle.

I stepped through the air lock’s opposite door into habitation. I squinted. Blazing infinity screamed at us from beyond the windows: more light than darkness. Patches of emptiness, here and there, were mostly black holes or dense cosmic string fragments. I led Copper between individual agricultural chambers. The way was lined by stands of bamboo lining the corridors. They were there for aesthetics as well as atmosphere recycling.

Above the walls, waving fronds of cycads wafted in the warm, circulated air.

“Mister Foster, why do the individual growing rooms not have ceilings?”

“They do,” I say. “Just not now. If habitation loses pressure, each hydroponic bay erects a protective bubble to keep the plants safe. Used to happen more in the old days.”

He looked puzzled. “Why not encase them, permanently?”

“Ventilation,” I explained. “By having the chambers open to the big, central ring, we get simulated weather. Not as complex as on a planet—more predictable; controllable—but excellent for making sure the atmosphere cycles properly. Basic habitation construction, really.”

“Basic?”

I nodded. “Used to be a speciality of mine.”

We walked in silence to the central habitation lift. We passed several biomes: each patrolled by small, pollen-seeking and insect-corralling drones.

Two levels above us, connected to the central shaft, the intersection between private habitation and public recreation areas, connected. Each wing jutted out like branches on an unimaginably huge tree: the hallways reaching from the support column over the biomes, below. Thirty-six such supports spanned the ring with twelve, increasingly small levels.

I hit the button, calling the lift.

“It took us years to build,” I said. “It was mostly done by the time I arrived, though. I only helped out in the final stages.”

“It must have been daunting, Mister Foster.”

“There’s six thousand ‘Fosters’, here; please don’t call me that,” I said. Then, before he could ask more, I continued. “Master engineers came up with the design: I can tell you that much.”

“Is this also … ‘basic’?” he asked.

It took me a moment to get what he was asking.

“The engineering?” I shook my head. “Maybe at a core-level. But on this scale? Much more than ‘basic’, I should think. Designing a dozen rotating and spinning habitat layers around central columns attached to a spinning structure in zero-G, floating in a fixed location near thousands of black holes and quantum fissures: that’s advanced. Even by my world’s standards.”

He nodded.

“Has your world achieved this level of engineering?” I asked.

He furrowed his brow, solid-yellow eyes glancing about. “Not even close.” I think I detected a jaded tone in his response. Maybe that was my unfamiliarity with the nuances of his alien programming providing a bit of pareidolia.

I’m not a damn therapist.

The lift door opened and I got on. Copper joined me.

Clearly, he was from a Terra advanced enough to leave its solar system. All of us, here, could say the same. Still, what one reality viewed as “advanced” others saw as “quaint” or “basic”. And no single reality had achieved everything at identical levels. The command staff was the perfect example of that.

Prime was nearly a-hundred-twenty-four years old; he’d been here for the past eighty of them. He celebrated his birthday a month ago. But the technology that refreshed his biology and kept him young had come from David “Fountain-of-Youth” Foster’s reality.

“Try not to worry about how ‘advanced’ some things are,” I advised. “We live in a polyglot of the best of the best: everything that Terra could possibly come up with gets combined, here, under one roof,” None of the station crew had come from universes in which all of Alternity: One’s technologies were commonplace.

Copper nodded.

Ten meters up and we left the lift. Pink residential quarters to the right, I took a left into blue territory: recreation. Not long after, we came to DarkStar’s.

The walls of DarkStar’s Expanse were seamlessly cobbled together screens scavenged, like the rest of the station, from the millions of ships that had come apart in the Fluxx. Dave “DarkStar” Foster had set them up with constant feeds of the stellar crush and void, outside. Blazing with light and filtered to an even greater degree than the windows feeding the plants, the illumination was dim but striking. My eyes adjusted quickly. Copper’s did so instantly. Their hue dropped several ångströms towards the red end of the spectrum.

Davina greeted us as we entered.

“Hey there, Rat: long time, no see!” She knelt to give me a hug.

Rodents and primates: we love our physical contact.

“Gotta save my credits, Cayenne; can’t be eatin’ out every night.”

“Oh, you know your money’s no good, here.”

“Our money’s no good anywhere,” I replied.

Standard station joke. Old joke. Dumb joke.

We took a table and Davina “Cayenne” Foster brought me a booster seat. I may have been the only non-human David Foster, here, but that didn’t mean there weren’t much smaller and bigger versions of the basic, Terran template.

“Our money’s not real,” I told Copper, explaining my exchange with Cayenne. I tapped the glossy table surface, pulling up the menu. I pointed to the small numbers by each dish. “Crypto-currency; used only when dealing with outsiders who come from some form of cash economy. We’re all paid, here, but for residents on-board, the Alternity Creds never get used.”

“Why?”

I shrugged. “It’s complicated. And, besides: we’re all more-or-less stranded here. Outcasts. Why add money woes to our problems?” I steepled my fingers in front of my muzzle. “Capitalism’s only useful for interactions between societies. Within a society, it just makes people fight and grinds them into paste.”

The android nodded. “I suppose that makes sense.”

Copper’s type of android did eat; he didn’t merely plug-in to a wall socket or replace batteries. Not very much, mind you, but he explained how androids of his lineage consumed matter, broke it down in a small fusion reactor, and used the resulting energy to power themselves.

He could taste things, too. Androids had mustered for their rights on his version of Terra over two centuries, ago. Over time, they had demanded—and received—the same rights as any human. That included rights to sensory inputs such as taste and smell.

“I was particularly fond of Kadishe,” he said. “Do you … know it?”

I shook my head.

“It’s a…” Copper paused, fishing for a word. “It was my creator’s favorite dish. Layers of thinly-sliced root vegetables and spices interspersed with similar layers of dragon fruit, cassava, juuc, and tomato. He liked his mild but I appreciated the spicier versions.”

“Your ‘creator’?” I asked. “I thought androids from your Terra had been, well, emancipated.”

Copper nodded. “My creator was another android. He identified as male but ‘father’ is a specifically human term. We use the word ‘creator’ for android parents.” He paused for a moment. “I miss him,” he said. “I miss all my family but my creator, most of all. He was so proud of me: chosen to be on the maiden voyage of The Stellae. He had created me to be his assistant in developing a new fusion configuration. We completed it after only a few years of work.

“When we were done, he was offered a position on the ship. He didn’t want to leave the Earth so the offer was given to me.” He shook his head, sadly. “They wanted a high-energy physicist and engineer to participate in the mission and I was just as qualified.”

I nodded. “So, androids have families?”

“The same as for rats and humans,” Copper replied. “My creator named me for the first programmer to crack the self-replicating kernel problem in artificial intelligence development.”

I wasn’t sure what that meant but, clearly, the “David Foster” that Copper was named for had contributed heavily to their society.

“Since attaining consciousness, I’ve felt devoted and driven to uphold my namesake’s legacy … as well as that of my creator.”

I nodded. The reasons Copper outlined for having a family seemed utilitarian at first. In the end, though, they possessed the same devotion, love, affection, and bonds every other Terran family I’ve ever heard of.

“None of the other androids on-board come from a world like yours,” I said. “You’re pretty unique.”

He turned to face me and smiled. “As are you. An anthropomorphic rat?” He pondered for a moment, adding, “Or perhaps ‘zoomorphic’? I’m uncertain as to the taxonomy or appropriateness of the terminology in a pan-universal setting.”

I shrugged. “It’s how evolution turned out on my Terra … my Earth,” I said. “When I first got here, they were sure I was no different than any other survivor of catastrophe caused by all those black holes and singularities, out there,” I gestured at the screens. “But when they ran a resonance scan on those of us who survived the fragmentation of our hull, they found that we fit a space-time classification that only Terrans occupied. Plus, we spoke Gabris; ’English’, most call it.”

“And you are—?”

“David Foster,” I said. “But they call me ‘Rat’.”

Copper nodded Then, furrowed brow and all, he fixed me with that solid gaze of his and asked, “Doesn’t that seem … demeaning?”

I smiled. “Nah. Back home, ‘rat’ is part of an ancient language; a majority of the parallel Terras call it ‘Latin’. Rattus sapiens sapiens is what we’re called, scientifically.”

“But to the humans, a ‘rat’ is just—”

I interrupted him, feeling increasingly uncomfortable at the direction of conversation.

“Vermin. I know,” I said. I didn’t meet his eyes. Truth was, it bothered me. Even if my people called themselves “rats” it wasn’t the same when humans did it. The same word meant “disgusting carrier of disease” to them.

Copper was quiet for a long while.

Our food arrived. Hot and steaming from the kitchens, it was a welcome distraction. Prime had asked I look after Copper and help him acclimate but it was getting difficult. The more I spoke with him the more I saw myself through his alien eyes.

“Where are the rest of your people?” he finally asked. “You mentioned that there had been other survivors when your ship crashed, here.”

I nodded. “Our ship was salvageable. Like yours, most that get shredded in the Fluxx, aren’t.” Shrugging, I dug into my pasta. “On Alternity: One, there are only a few rules. One of them kinda seems elitist at first but follows a weird quirk of how the universe seems to work.”

“And that is…?”

“The only permanent residents of Alternity: One are Dave Fosters.” I slurped more noodles. “No one knows why, but it seems that no matter which reality we’re from, no matter our diverse origins, Fosters always survive Fluxx disasters.”

“But not only Fosters.” He was clearly thinking of his own crew.

I shook my head, sadly. “No; not always.” I looked at the screens; at the violent chaos of folded and ripped-wide space-time, outside. “But for some reason, even if there’s only one survivor, it’s always a David Foster.” I paused for a while. “Or the rough equivalent. It’s independent of DNA and seems to have something to do with identity. Why the universe should care how we think about ourselves, though, is beyond us. Maybe consciousness is a part of the universe we’ve yet to fully understand.”

He ate his food quietly. He finished long before I did.

“And the rest of your crew; they left?”

I nodded. “They did.”

“They had the technology to find their native reality?”

Again, I agreed.

“Then … why not go with them? You’re not forced to stay here; you had the ability to leave Alternity: One.”

I sighed and frowned. “Because I screwed up,” I admitted.

“How?”

“I’d rather not—”

“I know that, if I had the chance, I would not choose to live amongst carnival, fun-house mirror versions of myself for the rest of my life.”

“Yes, well—”

“I would depart,” Copper said. “I think I would give anything to return home; to see creator, once more and—”

“I didn’t go with them because I fucked up!”

Copper instantly became quiet.

There weren’t many in the restaurant and those who were looked away.

I frowned and lowered my voice. “I was an engineer in charge of external hull plating and I screwed up.” My food no longer looked appetizing. “My ship, well… The ship buckled, cracked, and fragmented because of me. Even if the rest of the crew had wanted me on board, I … I just couldn't… I mean, I wouldn’t…” This time, his hand covered mine. “Besides,” I said, “they didn’t ask me to come with them.”

There was no shame in telling him. Everyone knew. Some people, I’d heard, had wanted to call me “Fuck-Up David” or “Incompetent David”. Being given the nickname “Rat” had been relatively lucky.

Copper and I stayed silent in the solitude of our thoughts for a long while.

Eventually, Cayenne came by to see how we were doing. She and Copper spoke about food. As expected, most of the plants native to Copper’s Terra weren’t on the menu. Kadishe wouldn’t be an option.

Cayenne had been a botanist, but had marshalled her love of cooking after DarkStar died to take over his restaurant. But I could see the light in her eyes at the mention of the tantalizingly alien vegetation that made up Copper’s favorite dish. She was probably already forumulating replacement ingredients as Copper described kadishe’s flavors and textures.

Cayenne always did her best to make people happy.

We all have our role to play.

Our meal ended as early dinner patrons started filing in. Several waved “hello” to me and I waved back, despite not feeling it.

David “Binary” Foster, one of our existing androids, greeted Copper as we left and the two artificial lifeforms exchanged words before the conversation petered out. Later, Copper told me that Binary hadn’t been very interesting; he seemed to be rather “basic”.

I chuckled at that.

We ran into three more Davinas on our way back to the outer ring. It was strange: trillions of parallel realities, divergent p-branes colliding against one another, as holes ripped open between them by cosmic forces at the galactic core and, yet, all we had on the station were Fosters: most sharing backgrounds and DNA.

I showed Copper the rest of my daily duties and promised to give him the full tour over the next few days. I helped him find various useful tools I used in my work and told him that, until he found his niche, he would be welcome to work with me as a custodian. Doubtless, Prime would soon find a use for his advanced computational mind or high-energy physics knowledge.

He considered this and thanked me.

At shift’s end, I showed him his quarters. Copper thanked me and we parted ways.

I saw him every day for a week afterwards. From what I understood, he was feeling better; well-adjusted. Two days later, though, Prime came to see me in my quarters. He confided in me that he wasn’t sure Copper was going to work out.

“Why?” I asked. “He’s doing better than most, isn’t he?”

Prime shook his head. “Not really. No matter what I’ve offered him, he’s just … not interested.”

“Whatta ya mean? What were your offers? He knows there’s no way home for him. Does he want to find passage on a trade ship, passing through or something?”

“We offered him several high-energy research positions; his brain is the fastest we’ve encountered, yet, and he’s got the experience and programming to be a real asset, here. But this morning, he told me he wants to stay a custodian.”

I didn’t wait long to confront my artificial associate.

The following day, when a low-and-slow air-leak required fixing out by the trade ring, I confronted Copper. One of our regular trading partners had navigated the Fluxx and docked with supplies. Negotiations for stellar maps and information we had gleaned from our observations of the cross-dimensional activities of the Fluxx were underway. He showed up to work on the repairs. A small fleet of maintenance robots did most of the work. Copper and I mostly supervised.

“Why?” I asked. “Why’re you still here? Why’re you asking to be a damn janitor?”

“I did not realize that there was anything wrong with being a janitor.”

I flushed beneath my brown coat of fur. “There isn’t,” I sputtered, “I mean, not for a screw-up like me, but—”

“Mister Foster, you keep this ‘polyglot’ functioning,” Copper said. “You didn’t find a home already waiting for you, here; your people abandoned you, so you created a place to belong. You don’t fit in, perfectly, but you are distinct. You make your own individuality. I envy that.”

I frowned, my buck teeth creating a tiny whistle as I took in an offended breath. “Now you see here,” I sputtered, “I don’t need your sympathy!”

“Perhaps so,” he said, “but I need yours. I just wasn’t sure how to ask for it.”

My whiskers twitched, uncertain as to what he meant. “Hunh?”

“I need you,” he said. “We’re on a station made up of one person, selected by forces no one really seems to understand. We’re all the same but also incredibly different; very cut-off.”

I scowled, trying to parse his meaning.

“I’m adapting,” Copper continued, speaking slowly. “I don’t want to be what I was, before. This is my chance to make myself something new. That’s not common for an android. I’m … exceeding my design parameters.”

“But: a janitor?”

“A custodian,” he clarified. “And as long as I’m stuck here, I think I’d rather be doing anything if it meant being able to spend time with someone who’s more than just a face in the crowd.”

It took several more moments to process.

“You’re trying to fix me,” I accused.

He thought about it and nodded. “Is that so bad, Mister Foster? After all, you’re fixing me, too.”

I stopped, mid-denial, considering his words.

He was right.

“Maybe,” I said. “Just … perhaps.”

We continued overseeing the robotic repairs in the trade dock. Outside, the trillions of bent-space anomalies flexed and fluctuated, forcing space-time to twinkle like stars seen through an atmosphere. Each was the same—a portal, an aperture, into another universe—but each one was also … unique.

They didn’t have roles to play; they just were.

And that was enough.

I patted Copper on the hip. “And, please,” I said, “call me ‘Rat’.”



The End



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