It feels like waking from a beautiful dream.
The software boots up, bringing your Ego to life in an expansive simulspace built to look like a Martian paradise. The smell of fresh-cut grass and the feeling of the sun on your skin immediately put you at ease. You stand in a wide canyon between two towering red cliffs, the tops slightly obscured by swirling red dust. In front of you, a red-haired woman with a brown dress with a crimson belt – you guess the AI’s avatar is supposed to resemble Mother Mars – stands between two flags. To her right is the laurels of the Planetary Consortium, and to her left is the red and gold flag of the Tharsis League.
“Let me be the first to welcome you to the planet Mars,” she smiles warmly, “Do you have anything to declare?”
“No. Let me through,” you send the message without bothering to make your avatar mouth the words.
“You have been cleared for a thirty day visitor’s visa,” the AI smile doesn’t crack, “and if you’d like to stay longer, please mesh with our Immigration Office. Please enjoy your stay.”
The simulspace abruptly goes dark, as if the sun set in a second.
It feels like being violently woken from a deep sleep.
As your Morph boots up and your senses come online, you get a painful whiff of bleach and harsh cleaning fluids – you guess the last person to sleeve into a Morph here wasn’t quite able to keep their cookies down. Your limbs feel heavy and slow as you fumble around to pull out the cords stuck at the base of your skull. You hear the clatter of the cords on the ground as a plain AI’s voice states “Morph activated. We know you have many choices of Morph rental, and we thank you for choosing us.” You try to open your eyes, and the bright fluorescent lights of the facility force you to close them again. Taking three more breaths of astringent air, you try again, straining to focus on anything in the bright white room. Your muse chimes in, “Diagnostics complete. Looks like they got it mostly right – they didn’t get the eye colour you ordered, but they are willing to change it now for a modest fee.”
“Don’t bother,” you sit up and sigh, “we’ve got to get to a meeting.”
Within minutes, you are cleaned, dressed, and in a hovercar half way across Elysium. The city is a nest of lights and music at night, trying to live up to its nickname of “New Los Angeles”. The inhabitants’ hair seems to defy gravity, and their clothes are sometimes not much more than strategically-placed holo-tattoos. Your car’s AI weaves through the flyways, eventually stopping on a landing pad sticking out of the side of one of the many downtown skyscrapers. No one is there to greet you, so you casually walk inside.
A Menton Morph in a green leather suit with red LEDs around the collar stands in the waiting area, surrounded by rows of empty red chairs. “Not quite what I was expecting, but it will have to do,” he says more to the walls than to you as he turns to lead you into an adjacent room.
He pulls out an AR clipboard. To you it looks like a glowing piece of red glass, but he runs his finger up and down as if scrolling through a dossier. “I asked for an agent with twenty-three specific skills,” he frowns at clipboard, “of which you have four.”
He taps the clipboard and you are surrounded by a ring of eighteen AR faces. “Agent, you have been chosen to assist me in researching a disturbing series of events,” he flicks his wrist and the holographic faces start rotating around you, “These were the inhabitants of TLF Incorporated’s Research Station Alpha-5. Two days ago, there was an explosion at the station, killing all the inhabitants. TLF retrieved the workers’ cortical stacks and re-sleeved them in fourteen new Morphs, sometimes with generous upgrades.”
“But there are eighteen of them.”
“Observant. Obviously they sent me a top-of-the-line agent,” he sighs, sounding a bit annoyed at the interruption. Fourteen of the faces dissipate, leaving four. “TLF stated that four of the inhabitants’ cortical stacks were too damaged, and had to be re-sleeved from week-old backups.” One of the faces stops in front of you, and you recognize it immediately.
“This was our agent, sent there to infiltrate the TLF compound. Anything that he found out would be on that cortical stack. Damaged or not, we need it back. The compound is about four hours out from Elysium. Since you are traveling as a tourist, I have arranged for a desert tour. Once you get near to the station, simply depart the tour vehicle, and retrieve the cortical stack – or as much of it as you can find. Are you ready to depart, or do you require me to explain it to you again?”
“Nope, all good,” you say as you walk back to the hovercar.
The next morning, you are in a four-person hovercar, speeding along the surface of a never-ending red desert. The dust storms blot out a lot of the morning sun and fill the car with a slight smell of sulphur. Three other Morphs are in the vehicle with you. None of them look like typical tourists.
“Almost there, kids,” the driver’s Ego sounds a bit too happy so early in the morning, “TLF Alpha-5 is just up ahead. I can slow down so you don’t have to jump out.”
Everyone looks a bit surprised. “Who said I was going there?” you stumble.
“Come on, four different bookings – and the only thing you each have in common is that you requested getting as close to these coordinates as possible. You are all going to the same place. So what is it? Treasure hunt? Scavengers? Rival corps looking to pick up the pieces of TLF’s research? What do they research out here anyways? I heard they were testing some alien plants that loved Martian soil. That true? Ah, never mind – here we are. Get out. I’ll keep the meter running for a few hours, but I’ve gotta get back before sundown. Terraforming ain’t stuck yet, so it gets darned cold out here.”
You all strap on your respirators and step out onto the cool red sand.