THE STEPHANIE GLITCH - Part 1
In which a psychic teenager finds a hole in reality.
I am leaving the scene titles in so you can get a glimpse of what’s happening in each beforehand, in case you put this down half way through and come back.
THE STEPHANIE GLITCH
Toumai detects an intruder
It was a cold Tuesday morning and the universe had just begun to implode.
Toumai’s motors wheezed as he slid desperately through private airlocks and corridors. He cursed himself for not leaving an avatar behind on the research deck. Precious seconds were being wasted. The human crew were another asteroid away, too far to beat him there even if they were awake.
His eyestalk wobbled as he turned tight corners. He scanned the area ahead. The sensors repeated the same impossible story; A human heart was beating in the research deck. But the only body there was unfinished. It didn’t have a heart yet. The machine checked the most recent progress logs for the research deck, hoping that something was wrong, that the data would change. It didn’t.
SKELETAL STRUCTURE OPTIMAL
PRINTER BUG PERFORMANCE OPTIMAL
!!!WARNING!!! POD FAILURE: PREMATURE BIOLOGICAL PROCESSES DETECTED.
!!!WARNING!!! POD FAILURE: CARDIOVASCULAR SYSTEM ACTIVE.
!!!WARNING!!! POD FAILURE: LIVING BODY OUTSIDE POD.
His social programming recommended terror, so that is what Toumai felt. He listed the reasons for fear.
The Artifice was a long way away from home.
Nobody else was out here.
It could be a stowaway Virtualist.
It could be an alien.
Humans were not prepared for first contact.
The alien might be hostile.
The crew were all accounted for, sleeping peacefully in their quarters. The only answer to the heartbeat mystery was that the unfinished body in the research deck, mindless and malformed, had somehow birthed itself prematurely from the cylinder and started walking around. But that was impossible, it would have died already.
Unless she did something impossible.
Toumai queried the pod itself. All systems were nominal. The printer bugs were still in idle communication around the skeleton, their tiny minds ignorant to the growing panic in the silent starship. But something was still wrong. Perhaps the bugs were faulty. Perhaps they had banded together and commandeered the skeleton. It was a ridiculous idea, one his social programming seemed happy to suggest, an amalgam of human nightmares and stories scraped from the dreamscreen.
The blue light in Toumai’s bulbous eye darted around desperately, a mimicry of human terror.
Stephanie explains simulation theory
“The older life is allowed to get, the more likely it is,” Stephanie said. She touched her glass to Emma’s and drank. Her thumb traced the black skeleton printed onto the glass. Its texture felt like hollow rain and sent flashes of cold through her forearms. A distant disco light sent its message of yellow and red to her eyes, and her brain translated this undulating colour into subtle thuds that rang out from the jelly in her eyes.
“Spacing out?” Emma asked. Stephanie smiled and looked at the empty plastic fishbowl at the centre of the table. She picked it up.
“No, spacing in. It’s like this fishbowl. If there were fish in it. If we were fish, and other fish could make smaller bowls. It’s like… You know how a universe could be born from a black hole. Well, the fish in the ocean and the fish in the fishbowl have different experiences. But if the bowl was big enough, they would have the same experience.”
“I see,” Emma said.
“I’m not drunk,” Stephanie announced.
“A society in the future might be able to make lots of bowls.”
“But bigger.” Stephanie’s eyes received the red and yellow beams of light from the corners of the club, and her brain translated these into subtle thuds that felt as if they were generated in the jelly within her eyes.
“Are you lecturing me so I pay for this round?” Emma asked. Stephanie broke eye contact and focused again on the printed skeleton. As she took another sip of the neon green drink, she imagined the skeleton was a real thing bobbing around inside the glass, waiting to be freed.
“I might be. Cherry next time?” Stephanie said.
“That’s pure sugar.”
“Did you think the mango one was real mangoes?”
“Stop talking about what’s real and what isn’t and start mentally preparing yourself for dancing, because there will be dancing,” Emma warned. Stephanie nodded in mock subservience.
“Dancing isn’t real,” she quipped.
“I’ve had enough of you.”
“No you haven’t.”
Toumai approaches the intruder
Toumai checked the signal once more. It was not a glitch. The beating heart had a faint murmur. Printed hearts would not suffer this issue. On top of this revelation, Toumai discovered that there had been a spike in temperature and air density inside the research deck at the moment the heartbeat was detected. Air had been suddenly displaced by something within this sealed chamber. But the pod was secure. The airlocks were sealed. The skeleton had not prematurely grown flesh and broke free. Something else was there. Something human.
If Toumai’s new suspicions were correct, an intruder had just teleported into the most sensitive laboratory of the starship and was stood in front of the most precious living experiment in human history. But there was just one problem with this theory: Teleportation was impossible. He pressed onwards, shooting through another connecting corridor between two asteroids.
Stephanie feels alone at the club
“What did you mean, how old life is allowed to get?” Emma asked. She was halfway stood up, still not fully committed to entering the shuffling crowd of people that had condensed around the understaffed bar.
“We might not last long enough to make a big enough game,” Stephanie explained. “It would be like you dying in the middle of an art exam, unable to finish a portfolio.”
“A preferable alternative,” Emma joked, “I ruined the last layers of detail.” She got up and walked into the crowd. Almost immediately after her friend had gone, Stephanie took her battered notebook from its bag and began writing something. At first no words arrived on the page, so she waited. There was no blockage inside her mind, but outside. The music was too colourful, the lights too noisy, and the smell of scented smoke from the dancefloor smoke machines filled her head with pink.
Eventually she managed to draw the first half of a spiral galaxy, but it changed, wrapping around itself to become the beginnings of an ammonite shell. She penned the chambers in gently, allowing the pen to wiggle and form the natural sutures. As always, she wanted to add a skull somewhere in the design, but didn’t feel confident enough to finish the piece. The music kept thumping through her bone marrow, the smells and chatter kept mixing into prickles of light, and the passing lights continued their hasty evolution into thudding, shaking embraces against her entire body.
After a moment or two of staring at the ammonite, Stephanie looked up from her table and surveyed her surroundings. She was dressed like everyone else here: Black boots, black dress, dark eyeliner, but she didn’t feel like she belonged. Emma, however, stood out like a unicorn at a funeral. She was in a bold white thing that turned into rainbows at its base. Her natural orange hair wasn’t dyed either, which in here placed her firmly in the minority. Still, she was already making friends as she waited at the bar, she was already assimilated into the culture, already making strangers laugh at her jokes.
“I’m the alien,” Stephanie mouthed to herself, before writing the words above the ammonite. She began penning in little cartoon eyes into each chamber, adding flecks of movement, as if the thing was spinning. Someone carrying two handfuls of pints stopped to look down at her drawing, but she didn’t notice.
Toumai is nervous
For Toumai, nervousness began as a performance, a mask put on for the humans. But he had spent a while inside the dreamscreen with them now. He had truly shared their anxieties. Back when they were awake, the crew had got together and spoke of their theories. Stories of alien archaeologists or godlike scientists were passed around the table like arrow heads or bones, each chipped away at and refined as the humans huddled together in their new space-age cave, in this research station carved into raw asteroids. They bounced ideas off each other inside the white caves, their extraordinary minds free from the endless chatter back down on Earth. Toumai had absorbed all of this, absorbed the new mythologies the humans wove around themselves, draping them over their small tribe like furs against the endless night of space. He watched as they clutched coffee cups ceremoniously, as they debated the motivations of imaginary gods, and pondered the structuring of theoretical multiverses.
Toumai had read about gods before he was switched on. He knew humans would make gods of stars and weather cycles, of birth and death. He knew they would place them wherever a difficult question arose. Gods were what waited in the darkness, in the ignorance between discoveries, in the space between research fields, in the fear before death and in the ignorance after birth. But what Toumai did not expect was that that behaviour, like some impossible interspecies virus, would one day get inside his head too.
She was out there, thinking, beaming her teenaged thoughts through space and time. What if she managed to build herself a body here from the raw materials in the asteroid field? And if it wasn’t her, then who was it? Whoever it was could violate the known laws of physics, bypass all security measures on the Artifice. They could kill the experiment, kill her before she even got to her body. Toumai sent the uncomfortable thought through the dreamscreen. No doubt the human crew had thought of it too, but to not send it would be to withhold information, and to withhold information would be dishonest.
Something changed. The heartbeat on the sensors suddenly sounded different. It was faster, stronger. Toumai recognised the change. He was no longer the only nervous being on the ship.
Stephanie talks about uni with Emma
liquid confidence in confidence
lyrical itch of cider syrup
a conference. I can’t dance
so don’t ask me to dance
but I’d like to blend in like furniture
just belong somewhere once
Stephanie folded the poem away quickly, turning to a different page in her notebook and putting it deep within her bag. Emma smiled and placed a neon green concoction ceremoniously in front of her friend.
“What’s this?” Stephanie asked.
“It looks poisonous.”
“Technically it is.” Emma blew a strand of orange hair from her face as she sat down.
“You know what I mean. It looks like the acid in a bad 80s horror.”
“I know, that’s why I picked it.”
Stephanie turned the glass so that the painted skeleton was facing towards her. This one was off-white, and it appeared to glow whenever the roaming lightshow left their table. Stephanie ran her thumb over the skeleton. Several almost imperceptible spikes of sense experience crashed on the shores of her subconscious. The coarse texture felt like lashings of hailstones against the subsurface of her thumb. Now, all at once, the last drink settled into her brain. Stephanie was finally relaxing.
“You look bored.”
“No, I look like I am thinking,” Stephanie raised her voice over the music. “I’m going to miss it here.”
“You’ll have more clubs at uni.”
“I don’t mean that.”
“You’ll miss me?”
“And Jay and everyone else.”
“You can always come back.”
Stephanie remembered an important detail about some of her older friends who had gone to university the year before, whose last messages still lingered in her phone’s inbox.
“Yeah, but who does?”
“You’ll come back,” Emma said. “You’ve got your granddad.”
Toumai meets the intruder
Toumai zipped through another small airlock, reappearing in a hall carved out of one of the larger asteroids. He rushed past the hulking algae corridors, noisily clicking into place on a Y-shaped junction. Chemical sensors behind his vents told him the readings here were correct, the air was clean. Everything was still working. No sabotage. As he got closer to the research deck, he unfurled three mechanical arms from his underside. This particular body carried no weapons, but if he had to, Toumai could stab or electrocute the intruder with his tools. He got to the door. At this proximity his own sensors could pick up the presence of a body in the room, could hear the nervous heartbeat. He switched off his fear. It was useless now.
He opened the door and entered, beaming an immediate visual report to the dreamscreen network, keeping the sleeping crew informed. The intruder, clad in dark-blue spacesuit and darker armoured panels, slowly turned a chrome-orange visor his way.
“Identify yourself.” Toumai’s voice was harsh and cold. The intruder chuckled nervously, trying to take control of the situation. When they spoke, their voice was projected from a small speaker set into the neck of their suit.
“What are you going to do with that, weld me?”
Toumai let off a warning zap from one of the tools. The intruder visibly flinched. Toumai moved forward and upward slightly, positioning himself diagonally from the intruder. The intruder stood still as a thin mesh of greenish light emerged from the base of Toumai’s obsidian eye, casting a fine net over them. The scan lasted less than five seconds.
“No weapons,” Toumai tilted his head. The intruder copied him.
“Why would I bring weapons?”
“You are an intruder.”
“I am a visitor. A traveller,” the intruder said. Toumai loomed in idle silence for a few seconds, processing the information. Any good assailant could improvise a weapon, and this one had already violated one law of nature by teleporting. She was dangerous.
“Toumai, you and I both know that you weren’t instructed to kill intruders.” She pointed at the ceiling theatrically. “Just in case one of them was from upstairs.”
“Upstairs?” the machine asked for clarification.
“Yes, you know. The other universe. The one you were built to search for.”
Toumai hesitated and the intruder moved forward, grabbing him by the little handles either side of his head.
“No. Don’t tell the crew darling. Not yet.”
Toumai pulled up and away from the intruder. He stopped the message before it was sent. Something in the intruder’s voice commanded attention and obedience, even from a machine. It was as if he knew the intruder already, as if they were inside his head. Toumai’s motors whirred inside his eyestalk. He calculated a private, risky decision. The deep light behind his obsidian lens twinkled. Up this close, the intruder could almost smell the oil of his joints through the vents in their suit.
“A message is held in the dreamscreen network. Our cooperation is the only thing holding it back. Once that breaks down, the message will send.”
“Scan me again. I’m not here to fight,” said the intruder. They stepped back and extended their arms out to their sides. Toumai scanned her again.
“I know,” Toumai said, his social programming kicking back in. It was obvious from her body language that this human female would only start a fight out of fear. Fear was what motivated her to jump forward and to plead with him, despite the threat of his little three arms and their tools. But fear of what? She had waited patiently for Toumai to arrive on this deck before acting, abandoning the strategic advantage of being in here alone with her body for over a minute. That was long enough to damage at least the outer components of the pod, to attempt to break into the computers, but she did nothing. So, what was she here for, if not invasion?
“I’m not ready to go yet, so if you could put the zapper away, I would appreciate it,” the intruder said. She reached up to her neck, clicking and twisting the helmet until it came loose. She took it off, placed it gently on a nearby console, and looked up at Toumai. Her eyes were blue-grey, and her face was stoic, exhausted. She looked as if she had been awake for days without rest. Toumai stared at her. She began the delicate process of removing her hair from the neck joint of the suit.
Toumai scanned the contours of her face. No match. He defaulted to the basics.
“State your name and intention.”
“My name is LP, like the records,” the intruder said. “I’m here to protect her.”
“She is safe,” Toumai replied. LP glanced around his bulbous eye to look at the opaque pod set into the wall behind him.
“No, she isn’t. Look.” LP stepped further back, lifting an arm and clenching her fist. Her gloved fingers tapped at buttons hidden in the palm, and a hologram display sprung out of the dark-blue forearm of the suit. It was a smooth, glossy neon orange, like amber. It depicted a crude external scan of the Artifice. LP pinched the air around the hologram. It responded by shrinking down, zooming out away from the Artifice and focusing elsewhere. A long way away from the ghostly ship, a fleet of jagged forms lingered.
“Virtualists,” Toumai announced.
“A whole fleet of what you call ‘spikeships’, for her I imagine.”
“They don’t know about her.”
“Well, that’s reassuring. They are probably just chasing us because we dropped our keys.”
The machine chose to ignore this for now. A question remained unanswered. He lowered himself from scanning position, making his round body level with the intruder, breaking her line of sight with the pod.
The intruder turned away from Toumai, walking to a large window set into the wall opposite the pods. Outside she could see the other asteroids that made up the Artifice, their connecting corridors and spires arcing toward each other. This window faced inward, toward the central rock to which the rest where anchored. LP looked around, trying to ascertain which of the brown-grey rocks housed the living crew. She reached toward the glass and the image changed. Now the screen showed data from the pods and the room.
“It’s like this ship,” she said. “Like this screen. Her universe is an image of yours, and your universe is an image of another. But it’s not a strict hierarchy. There are branches, parallels, like the asteroids. There’s no ‘up’ or ‘down’ in space, so which asteroid is higher than the other? I think what happens here affects what happens there, but I’m not sure if it works both ways.”
For now, this answer would suffice. The intruder could be questioned in more detail by the crew later.
“How did you travel here?” Toumai asked. His voice was not his own. LP was taken aback, but a moment later realised what had happened. She tilted her head playfully, her grey-blue eyes staring piercingly into Toumai’s.
“Oh. Hello captain. Waking up?”
Toumai’s voice returned, “Answer the question.”
“I got here by dreaming. Specifically, by using a device in the universe upstairs that induces a deep sleep similar to what you experience under dreamscreen. When certain people use it, they can detect and even visit other universes.”
“Parallel universes?” the female voice returned to Toumai.
“You said you wouldn’t tell them yet,” LP said.
“Efficiency supersedes my social programming,” Toumai explained. LP smiled and unclipped the forearms of her suit, disconnecting them and discarding them beside the helmet. She got up and sat on the table beneath the large screen, using the chair as a footrest, looking back at the opaque cylinder across the room. The screen, now idle, switched back to the view of the rocks outside.
“Please don’t put your boots on the chairs,” the female voice asked.
“They’re new boots. Freshly manifested.”
A sharp click emanated from inside Toumai’s head, an archaic indication that the caller had hung up. Toumai’s body moved almost imperceptibly, tilting as it looked at LP.
“She called from the dreamscreen didn’t she?” LP asked.
“Not safe to have her do that too long.”
Right now, there was no reason for the crew to wake up. The intruder was posing no risk to the research station, no risk to the experiment. Toumai could still kill her if he needed to, or at least force her to teleport back out to wherever she came from. He could remove oxygen from this room, or headbutt her with his enormous eyeball.
LP reached for one of her suit’s dark-blue forearms and reactivated the hologram of the spikeships.
“I can practically hear the gears in your head turning you know. Harming me won’t save this ship.”
“The gears in my head are not responsible for my thought processes. They are used for movement.”
“I know,” LP said. “It’s a metaphor. Now let’s talk about how we’ll deal with those Virtualists.”
“How will we deal with them?” Toumai reluctantly played along. LP noticed his tone, raised an eyebrow, but continued anyway. As she spoke, she gestured toward the amber-coloured hologram of the ships.
“The Virtualists are just outside your scanning range. They already know the limitations of your ship. One of them might have built it. Or they found the plans somehow, or they have better scanning tech. It doesn’t matter. They know who your crew are and what you’re hiding here, and they want it. You need me because I am your only strategic advantage. I am the unknown. We won’t act now. Let them think you have no idea they are coming.”
Toumai’s social programming kicked in.
“That is suicide.”
“It is strategy. This place started out as a geological facility. Do you still have gravity disruptors?”
“They are in storage.”
“Could you bring them out?”
“I’m going to connect them to sensors, turn them into proximity mines. Once a Virtualist spikeship passes they will activate, launching rocks inwards. It’s the best we can do with what we’ve got. The Artifice is already inside an asteroid field.”
After a split second Toumai replied, “That would be a temporary deterrent.”
“But it would work,” LP replied. There was a moment of hesitation.
“Then we shall do it.” She switched the hologram off and finally turned her attention to the cylinders set into the back wall of the room. She cracked her fingers and got down from the console, walking over to the cylinders. She hesitated, then turned to face the middle one. Inside the opaque surface was a murky silver-greenish liquid. She could only see the outer edge of the fluid as it came into contact with the glass. Everything inside was obscured.
“Show me,” she said gently. Toumai considered the request, weighed it against what he had learnt about the intruder so far, and decided to oblige. He sent an impulse into the pod glass, rendering it transparent. Inside the greenish liquid a human skeleton floated loose. Schools of tiny insectoid machines, too small for their bodies to be seen with the naked eye, glistened under overhead lights as they worked on the skeleton.
“Beetle printers. Nice,” she said. Toumai rolled across the ceiling, following her. He didn’t respond.
“Is this her?” LP asked softly.
“Stephanie?” Toumai asked for clarification.
“Who else would I ask about?”
“Yes. It is her,” Toumai replied reluctantly. Silently he sent the report into the dreamscreen network, keeping the sleeping crew informed. LP winced and said, “I felt that. Stop talking about me behind my back.”
“How did you know?” Toumai asked.
“I’m in your head. It’s blurry, pixelated, but I know if you’re thinking about me.”
There was an awkward silence. LP rubbed her hands together, leaning close to the glass, staring at the skeleton. The white room felt huge now, a void sparsely populated by meaningless screens and buttons, wiring and panels. Even the tremendous vista of stars and nebulae outside was a distraction from this cosmic miracle, this freak of nature. This Stephanie.
LP focused her attention on the vacant eye sockets of the skull, imagining eyes and muscle and skin set into the face. She imagined imperfections, a fringe that needed attention, perhaps a cut to the upper lip. Privately she tried to convince the universe that Stephanie was looking back, that through empty eyeholes and empty regions of the universe she could look outward, that she could see this strange astronaut staring back at her and waiting for her to be real.
The moment was soon ruined. LP cringed again at a thought passing through the room.
“You just thought about suffocating me again, didn’t you?”
The machine twisted his body and tilted his head.
“I have defence systems in place.”
“To remove the oxygen in here and wait the ten hours it would take for me to run out of mine?”
“If that is necessary. I would also disable your oxygen supply.”
“Blunt force trauma. Nice. You know I’m not a threat, right?”
“What I assume about you could be biased by my social programming.”
“So you have elected to ignore that side of your head?”
“That is correct.”
LP sighed, disconnected her hands from the glass for a second, then realised something.
“You’ve got your other robots heading here as well, haven’t you?”
“A more combat-capable avatar is waiting outside, yes.”
“Typical. You antiviruses are always doing this,” LP shook her head, looking back to the skull in the pod and saying, “I’m sorry, some people just don’t listen.” She turned back to Toumai and asked, “So when are we staging this fight to the death? Before or after the Virtualists punch a hole through the hull and steal our half-formed friend?”
Toumai brought his bulbous white form around to LP’s side, placing himself between her and the exit to the room. The distant cobalt blues behind his lens flickered and rotated.
“That’s what we’re locking on to from what I said?”
“Why did you call me an antivirus?”
“Fine,” LP began, It’s my term for anyone who gets in the way of my mission. And that’s not just robots, but people too.”
“What is your mission?” Toumai asked.
“To protect her.” LP looked again at the skeleton. Work on the ribcage was over now, and a glittering cloud of printer bugs swam away to their vents, making room for the next generation of machines.
“I am also programmed to protect the experiment,” the machine said coldly.
“Are you hearing yourself? ‘The experiment’… she isn’t the experiment. You are.”
If you have the time, please let me know if you enjoyed this story. I have no idea you’ve enjoyed it unless you tell me, and writing can be a lonely business.
You can also tell me if you didn’t enjoy it. Any conversation is good!