At first I thought that Psy•Man hadn’t made the cut. We met in the same conference room we had before, a few people fewer. A thin angular man walked in. He had a scruffy little beard, thinning hair, thick glasses, acne scars and clothing that would have been white if he’d bothered to clean them. At this point he’d be better off reclaiming them and printing some new ones. The difference was quite comical and he returned my smirk with a wink as he adopted the same pose he had yesterday in the seat next to mine. Fred joined us soon after and informed us that the moment we’d be waiting for had come.
The first time we walked through the gateway onto the orbiting Hermes space station, I expected it to feel odd. Like I’d get some sense of my particles hurtling through the atmosphere and re-constructed in space. There was no gut-wrenching displacement. No classic sci-fi fantasy light show. It was as simple and uneventful as walking through a normal door. One small step, and I was on Hermes, high above the earth. Exactly like the N•Viron simulation. The spin of the station matched the gravity of earth, though I thought I felt a slight difference. Could be just my imagination though, probably brought on by the awareness that a few layers of metal and plastic was all that separated us from the cold void of space. That may explain why I felt light-headed, but it may also have been the relative distance from the hub between my head and my feet that literally made my head lighter on Hermes.
The entry compartment was small and functional. White panels on the walls that curved as they met the floor and ceiling. This was to help disguise the fact that the angles weren’t 90 degrees. The N•Viron overlaid my vision with details from the schematics I’ve been reviewing all week. Each of these compartments had been moved into position and attached to the ring that span around the central hub housing the Hermes925 AI and the EMv5. We walked through the hatchway on to ring itself to reveal one on the strangest corridors any of us have ever seen. Open hatchways similar to the one we just stepped through were evenly spaced on both walls including one directly opposite, but the upward curve of the floor only allowed you to see the next pair along. Each hatchway led to another compartment, each with it’s own specialised function.
Fred showed us around, allowing each of the technicians and scientists on board to describe what they were doing. Mostly they were helping put the finishing touches on automating their experiments, and helping the on-site conversion of the navigation and propulsion systems. I was excited to get stuck in. Psy•Man was already coordinating with them, making the necessary adjustments to the programming, and helping them upload the data and testing parameters. One of the technicians was busy looking around for a missing test subject. A large white rat that he suspected had gotten pregnant. He was embarrassed enough that he’d failed to notice the pregnancy earlier, but eager to find her before she birthed her litter within the vessel’s bulkheads and cause further problems. I reassured him that I’d be opening up the bulkheads periodically anyway to check the internal systems for maintenance and repair. He seemed relieved, but continued looking, with help from a new recruit with veterinary experience.
I overheard Psy•Man correcting one of the scientists on their procedure. This struck me as more than a little arrogant. This is his first day on the job and he’s already presuming to tell people that have been working on these experiments for months how they should be doing it. I tried my best to shut him out, while I busied myself with re-familiarising myself with Hermes mechanical, electrical and electronic systems. I’d pored over the publically available schematics already, having followed the project ever since the portal gateway simulator went viral. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the publically available schematics overlaid the real systems exactly. Whoever had been responsible for maintaining the Hermes project’s presence in the N•Viron system had done a great job. Some of this must have required coding. Why did they need another programmer? Why did they need Psy•Man? Or me for that matter with Fred on the project?
We still hadn’t found the rogue rat when Fred rounded up us new crew members, and led us back through the gate to earth. They double checked our knowledge of safety procedures in a variety of unlikely disastrous situations. This included hull breaches (exit through the gate quickly and shut down the gateway), getting caught in the event horizon of a black hole (exit through the gate quickly and shut down the gateway), under attack by aliens (exit through the gate quickly and shut down the gateway) which we all laughed at, and gateway failure (activate the emergency gates and launch the shuttle toward earth, taking it in turns to operate it). All of this information had been easy enough to recall via the N•Viron .
The whole group of us new recruits, Helena included, agreed to go out afterwards to a nearby bar called ‘the Launchpad’. Psy•Man came too of course. I really hoped he wouldn’t. Helena and I got a good conversation going. Her field was botany, and we found we had a lot in common. We started by talking about lighting and hydroponics, but quickly moved on to classic sci-fi and fantasy N•Vels. We had a difference of opinion regarding a modern adaptation of a historical classic in which children are conscripted to do battle with an alien race. She objected strongly to the book for romanticizing child abuse, and I pointed out to her that the story is a warning against such treatment, and the psychological trauma it caused. Honestly though, I just think the fully interactive battle games are awesome, and skipped over most of the narrative. She’d clearly researched this much deeper than I, because then she began citing evidence that the original author had a less than healthy personality. She felt that, if he’d been born in our time, the N•Viron would have detected the behavioural anomaly, and he could have received the proper help.
I was almost grateful that Psy•Man interrupted the conversation to deliver one of the most cliched lines on the planet. “Is this guy bothering you?” Helena had gotten a little animated, but the idea that I was actually bothering her, or deliberately upsetting her riled me up and I made some comment like, “Not as much as your face does”. I forget exactly. Long story short we found ourselves outside preparing for a match between our favourite gaming avatars. I know he’s a programmer, but I’d had a few drinks, my avatar was undefeated, and I wanted to make Psy•Man look stupid. I’d put a lot of gaming hours and thrown a lot of Arpies into designing and building an armoured mech suit. As indestructible and intimidating as you can get. A heavily armed and armoured dreadnought. Psy•Man’s chosen avatar surprised me. A wood-elf. No armour at all. In fact if it wasn’t for the warpaint and a loin cloth, the gaming avatar would have been completely naked. The stiff blue hair made the elf look even more ridiculous. Psy•Man, as the wood elf, carried only a pair of elaborate swords.
Once those patrons of the bar who had come out to watch had placed their bets, the N•Viron arena sim counted us down. I opened fire as soon as I could. Psy•Man dodged all the fretting bullets! A wood-elf was faster than a human, so the sim slowed down my bullets and rate of fire to demonstrate this. It was very frustrating watching my explosive rounds sail past his shoulder. My movement was slowed too, so I couldn’t get ahead of him. I managed to get a grazing shot only before he was close enough for me to swing a crushing mechanical fist at him. He dodged it easily, and jammed a slim sword into my mech’s waist. It got between the plates and delivered a magical magical lightning attack. I couldn’t turn! The elf Psy•Man used the sword as a foot hold and climbed up onto the dreadnought suit’s shoulders, the wind causing the loin cloth to flap as he did so. People were laughing at me as he drove the other blade between the plates of my armoured neck. Another jolt of magical lightning went through me as it went in, and the match was all over. My avatar was immobilised, in less than a minute since the match started. I went home without even saying goodbye to Helena. The fact that my gaming avatar had been defeated so easily was embarrassing enough, but having an elf’s digital dick swinging in your face is mortifying.