Four days passed since River and I were captured by the Unkari. Apparently, our captors wanted to know why humans invaded Unkari space. Whenever they didn’t like the answer, they killed us in countless horrible deaths, only to bring us back to life for some more questioning.
“Video game. We’re in a game.” I thought to River, who, as I just found out, had a top-secret military gadget in her brain allowing Non-Verbal Communication. I thought it was funny how adamant River was that I call it NVC, because telepathy according to her is something you threaten your children with when they hide their grade book, at which point I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded a bit too personal. But then, what do I know about the childhood of a human race entirely made up of genetically enhanced geniuses.
“Video game? Mmm… Not an accurate term, but possibly. It seems that we are being nudged to make certain choices, and whenever we choose wrong, the sequence repeats…” River thought back.
“…We go back to the previous level. When we complete the level correctly, we move on. But River, this is insane! If I understand you correctly, we are not in any Virtual Reality environment. Think about the magnitude of technology that it would take to manipulate human lives!”
“VR can be affirmatively ruled out, Mazula. Our cat suits are integrated with our parameters down to the molecular level. Aging leaves specific trace in the chromosomes. With each cellular division, chromosomes are copied, but the new copied chromosome is shorter then the previous one. There are 46 chromosomes in each cell. Each one of them is like an individual clock. Monitor 10 cells, and you get 460 synchronous measurements. Our cat suits measure millions of cells simultaneously. That’s an impressive degree of reliability and validity, if you ask me.”
“Wait, wouldn’t we age in the VR? You know, every time we take a virtual vacation or watch a movie, we still age.”
“True. But virtual time and real time never match. Say if you take a two-week virtual vacation, you actually spend 5 minutes of real time. Thanks to our atomic chronometers integrated in B5, we know exactly how much we have aged. There is no discrepancy between the real time, measured with he atomic clock, and our cellular age, according to the chromosome measurements. We are not in a simulated environment, trust me on that. I analyzed it since the first loop and checked all the parameters I could think of. It is something else.”
I racked my brain over this puzzle and could not come up with anything. However, if the genetically enhanced genius from the 4th Orbital Colony, Ebony River could not figure it out, why would I even bother.
“Ebony, is it true that all your people have photographic memories?”
Ebony leaned against the wall of our holding cell mulling over something in her B5.
“For the most part.” She said without lifting here eyes.
“What do you mean?”
“We are born with the full standard package. It includes enhanced health, athletic and cognitive capacities. Eidetic memory is part of the package.” She emphasized the ‘eidetic‘. River was really into naming everything properly. “Sometimes, rarely, an individual may choose to switch it off. It’s quite a procedure that can’t be reversed. So my people think carefully before they commit to it.”
“Why would someone decide to switch it off?”
“Personal reasons. Experiencing war would be one of them. You don’t want to perpetually remember every sensory input when you are injured or tortured.”
“Do you remember?”
“Yes.” Ebony finally looked me in the eyes.
“I’m sorry. It must be hard. Now I think I understand why your people stay away from conflicts and the military.”
“Now you do.”
“Did you consider switching off before enlisting?”
“Yes, I have. But the military was explicit that if they were to start a diplomatic conflict over my asylum on Earth Prime, I’d have to be ‘intact‘.”
“Is that what they call it?”
“Sounds ‘dirty‘, isn’t it.”
I smiled faintly. I couldn’t tell why, but somehow it did sound pejorative. I also thought, that Ebony is not such a bad soldier after all, I mean, considering. At first, I thought that she was a whiner. She didn’t deal well with being injured, true. Now that I learned about the price she paid for enlisting, I regretted being so quick to judge. I wasn’t going to ask her, but it was getting apparent that she is on her first field mission. What was Admiral Parietti thinking? I promised myself to never vote for the Sinkor administration again. In fact, I considered leaking everything that went wrong with this mission. All of this would have been avoided if not for the knee-jerk leadership style of one very powerful, paranoid, and xenophobic Admiral delegated to the Earth Nations Congress.
Leaning against the wall, Ebony kept working something out on her wrist monitor.
“Ebony, do you have trees on the 4th Orbital?”
“Have you seen an ebony tree?”
“Ah, no, not really. I know what they look like from pictures. Why?”
“Ebony trees are native to where I am from. They grow all over the West African forests. I take it you haven’t seen a real ebony carving?”
“No, I haven’t.” Ebony was listening intently. I didn’t notice when I started talking audibly, but she didn’t seem to mind this time.
“My grandpa had a collection of antiques carved from ebony that were in his family for over 300 years. Those statues were carefully displayed in his living room, on a book shelf. I imagine, he could become filthy rich if he sold them. Heavy, smooth and black, like roasted coffee grounds, ebony is an incredibly elegant wood. Before the ebony restriction was imposed, people used to cut the trees uncontrollably, especially after the Big Ice came down from the poles. Everyone who didn’t evacuate to the orbital stations, like your ancestors, crowded the area 15 degrees below and above the equator. If you look at the map, it’s mostly Brazil and a number of African countries. Anyway, ebony trees almost went extinct. When the Big Ice melted away, and a lot of people moved out from the tropical longitude, West Africa set out on a mission to preserve the ebony tree, only to find out they could hardly find any left.”
“Isn’t there a famous Ebony park somewhere in Africa?”
“Now there is. It took an effort of the whole continent to find small trees, transport them to Cote d’Ivoire, and plant on acres of reclaimed land.”
“Have you been there?”
“I have, indeed. I proposed there to my to-be wife.”
“I didn’t know you were married.”
“I wasn’t. She died from the flash fever before our wedding.”
“I had no idea, Reinsford.”
“I know. But it’s water under the bridge now. It’s been long time ago. The reason I remembered those trees, obviously, was your name, but there is more to it. Ebony is incredibly strong. It actually feels more like rock than wood. Anyway, my people think that it is pretty special.”
I had a lump in my throat that I couldn’t swallow. I knew that she knew that our chances to get out of this alive were… Heck, math was never my strength, but I am sure she made an impressive probability analysis, and it wasn’t looking good. I had to throw her calculations by adding another factor in: a will to live. Many times in human history it proved to be a wild card, and I was going to bet all my chips on it this time.
“Heck, Ebony, you are named after the strongest tree on Earth! That counts for something! We are going to be ok! I promise!”
“I’ll take your word for it, Mazula.”
And then, the floor of our cell parted in the middle and started retracting to the sides, exposing a chasm with an intimidating hissing of our breathable air escaping into the depressurized area below.
[to be continued]
By Ellie Maloney