It all started over twenty years ago. I’d just turned eighteen and was feeling lonely. Susan became my space buddy on FISC, the Friends In Space Cluster. All my mates had higher grades than me, in their GEMS FA – the Global Education and Mentoring System Final Assessment. All but two had transferred to GEMS HA – the High Achievement programmes in sciences, business and historical arts. Future highflyers, all of them, I thought at the time, but only one made it to the top. He proved to be useful, though, because his uncle was the top boffin at the largest manufacturer of interplanetary cruisers. That’s how I got my place aboard one.
Phil was a true boffin, like his uncle, and kept in touch throughout our disparate career paths. When his uncle needed a good second grade propulsions engineer on the maiden flight of a new super cruiser – an IGHSCS 3500 Class, Xenon-Cobalt Fusion Powered monster designed for 20-year non stop trajectories – Phil had a word in his uncle’s ear and I was taken on. And guess where it was headed? You got it: Urmaxion 40. My ticket to see Susan.
Yeah, I had taken the plunge. After three years of messaging and highly personal chitchat, I knew we had to meet up. Now that’s not like buzzing the girl down the street and fixing a date. She was seventeen years away and no place half way to share a film and popcorn. No just hopping on an aerial bus and tripping across country. And no making a quick, surprise visit, even though I knew her address. Yet, a surprise visit it was going to be. It had to be. You can’t just message a girl and say I’m coming over and expect her to wait the seventeen years it takes to get there. So I worked out a strategy to keep us both happy, I hoped.
From all her messages, I knew Susan was single and had had a couple of brief relationships that were never expected to be permanent. I knew the things she liked: music, theatre (she was an amateur actress) and powerful bikes. I learnt that she lived in her own apartment, in a semi-rural township that was self-sufficient from its own, surrounding, agricultural land and the chemical air generators that supplemented the natural biological atmosphere, produced from woodland tracts and beneficial algae filled lakes. She kept trim running around one of the local lakes and the images she had sent me confirmed how fit she was and how fit she looked. No one on Earth appealed to me in the way Susan Parminster did.
She seemed to be attracted to me, too. Was even quite flattering about my physique (I worked out regularly at a local gym), so I remained hopeful that our FISC friendship would one day become more physical than a keyboard and screen romance. I certainly wanted something more than cybersex, not that either of us had suggested that. We’d kept within the guidelines of FISC, which recommended maintaining a discreet distance in our online activity (not that there was much option when you’re over forty trillion kilometres apart).
For those of you that don’t know, FISC was originally set up to enable a cluster of small populations working on distant space projects to maintain friendship contacts back home. As space exploration grew, so did FISC and now there are thousands and thousands of space buddies in hundreds of individual friendship clusters. I joined partly out a selfish whim to replace the friendships I was losing with my peers, who where moving out to GEMS HA institutions, but I also felt for those brave souls that had emigrated to distant locations, from which they were not likely to return, certainly not in their more youthful years. Now, of course, many of them don’t want to, whole families having grown up on some tin satellite or other; or in one of the vast habitation domes on cultured lumps of planetoid rock that wander about the galaxy. Even deep into the third millennia, they are the only ‘extra-terrestrials’ you’ll come across.
I was not going to be the first to bridge the gap, I was sure, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t just as determined. I was already working on the idea when Phil’s uncle came up trumps. There was only one snag. I knew I’d be welcome when I started the journey, but seventeen years, c’mon, that’s one hell of a journey and how would we both feel by the time I arrived. So I said nothing to Susan. I let her think I was plodding along as a second grade propulsions engineer working the small ships on Round the Moon cruises, so popular as short term holidays. You launch out of Earth’s atmosphere day one, get a live planetarium style presentation, day two, flip around the dark side and then land next to a Moondome in the sunlight. Next day, you get to jump around in low gravity recreation and choose between the Starlight Cabaret and tacky Green Cheese Diner for the evening.
The following morning you go on a moon trek, viewing acres of dry dust as you bump through a few craters, like a cheap fairground ride, and finally gather your goodies from the gift shop to take back home. Return journey is a bit of an anti-climax (though there’s on board karaoke for those who have seen all the videos on offer), except for a hover peep at one of the five space stations in Earth orbit. Not that you can see much more than a giant metal capsule with a glint of sun, if it’s not in the Earth’s shadow – or a vague shape and a few pinpoints of light, if it is.
To Susan, that was my working life and hers was no daydream job either. She was a data supervisor for a minerals extraction company, in charge of a small team of inputters and analysts, so rated middle management. And she had a similar education profile to me. That seemed good: certainly comforting that she was not a highflying executive, out of my league. Things between us were steady, with online comms once or twice a week, more if either of us got around to doing something interesting. Always hearing about it five or six days after the event, of course. Not quite a live commentary on our lives, but close. So to keep it this way I maintained my reply interval to Earth measures, during the voyage, even though I received her messages ever quicker as I passed through the comms zones closer and closer to her home.
Five years into the journey, however, I thought I’d blown it. I’d messaged an account of a theatre visit I said I’d been to, though I actually watched the play on video, in the ship. No reply. No Comment. Nothing for over six weeks. My heart sank. I was despondent and irritable, after all I had planned, but at least I had a steady job for another twelve years or more, I reckoned. It wasn’t all bad. Maybe I’d find a soul mate on board?
Then came a verbose apology. She had suffered a virus and only just recovered, she said. She’d got all my messages, though, and everything quickly returned to our normal messaging routine. I still did wonder if that was all it was or if she’d found some other buddy closer to her home, but that didn’t last long and somehow our online relationship remained strong, still more than hopeful, as the super cruiser docked, seventeen years and three days from departure. In the final couple of years, I did drop some veiled hints about how great it would be if we could walk out together in the same place, but I’d never disclosed my secret plan. Now. This was it. Surprise time.
I had three weeks leave to decide if I was to re-join the ship, stay on Urmaxion 40 or find another route home. With Susan? Without her? Well the next few days should provide the answer to that.
I caught a tunnel train to her hometown and came up to street level. I was surprised how Earthlike the general layout of streets and buildings looked. The chance to be really radical and the planners had just thrown up the old faithfuls: perhaps they were homesick when they populated this artificial world. One advantage, though, it meant getting around should be quite easy. I debated whether to message Susan to say where I was, but decided I’d take a look at her place first. Get a feel for what was going on in the locality. I wandered over to a taxi bay, climbed in a hover capsule and tapped in Susan’s address. Offered the choice of direct or visitor’s route, I punched in the latter. Might as well have a short, voice guide tour on the way and see some of the sights.
The direct route would have whisked me to Susan’s door in five minutes flat, but the scenic alternative took twenty minutes, allowing me to gather my thoughts. Would this sudden appearance be too much? What would I discover that she hadn’t told me? Would it all be too intrusive? It’s not often someone turns up on your doorstep from trillions of miles away, unannounced. I sent her a message, brief and to the point. I hadn’t been entirely honest in the last seventeen years. I had been travelling towards her all the time. I was in her hometown. Would she be free to see me? There was no reply. She might be at work or out somewhere – or, worse, with someone. Someone who doesn’t know about me and whom she doesn’t want me to know about.
The taxi pulled up and flashed my arrival on its screen. I looked out: something was wrong. This long building with its single entrance didn’t look like any other apartment block we had passed. All flat grey walls and no windows, just a massive row of air conditioning vents along the roofline. I stepped out and checked the name on the building. A large plastic nameplate proclaimed “The Farmhurst Building.” That’s the one, I thought, so I looked for entry buttons. There was only one, beneath which the words “Information” and “press for service” lit up as I approached. What a welcome, after seventeen years travelling. I pressed and heard two beeps and a synthesised voice politely ask ‘Can I help you. Sir?’ Something must have been seeing me or scanning me from somewhere, but looking around I saw nothing.
I explained I wanted to see Susan, gave her apartment number and waited. Two more beeps. ‘All deliveries for Susan Parminster should be placed in the bay on your right, sir. A receipt will be issued once it has been scanned as acceptable.’ A panel had opened next to me revealing a large cubic bay with a base of rollers. It was big, but not man sized, so I pressed the button again. Beep, beep, ‘Place your delivery in the bay, please, sir.’ In the hope that some AI was at work, if not a real person, I explained that it was me that wanted entry, not some package. The beeps and ‘Scan your pass on the red bar on the left, please, sir.’
I told this disembodied voice I had no pass. Four beeps this time. ‘Wait there, sir and hold your palm on the red bar for at least five seconds.’ A short silence. No beeps. ‘You are unknown sir. You are not of Urmaxion origin. Entry disallowed. A pass may be applied for at Farmhurst Incorporated. Good day, sir.’ I screamed at the wall in front of me that I’d travelled all the way from Earth and had no intention of going away without seeing someone. Maybe it was the pitch of my voice or me thumping the information button repeatedly, but it did the trick. Beep, beep. ‘Security will be with you in a moment, sir,’ was annunciated in an infuriatingly even monotone.
By now the hover taxi had taken the huff and, because I had ignored it and not tapped wait on its screen, it had sidled off to the nearest charge point. Luckily I had noted the operator’s code sign, so I could call another and not be completely isolated. Security, on the other hand, did not seem to be on its toes and it was a full ten minutes before the doorway opened and a uniformed guard stood in the aperture eying me up and down.
I explained what I wanted. Just to visit a friend. He tapped Susan’s name and number into his data watch. No beeps this time just a shrug of the shoulders and ‘I can’t help you sir. She doesn’t have an apartment here and she doesn’t work here, I’m sorry. You’ve wasted your time. Then with a sly smirk, ‘All seventeen years of it, sir.’
I started to protest, reasserting that we’d been messaging for all that time. We’d even exchanged gifts, using each other’s local supply services. I think he thought I was joking, winding him up, and asked if I’d really come all the way from Earth just to meet up on spec and I said yes: it was supposed to be a big surprise.
‘You should have asked her first. It would have saved all this. She would have refused to meet you,’ he said, but I said that was poppycock, how would he know? We had a good relationship going. Even if it went no further, I was sure she would have met up with me.’
‘Not possible sir.’ His demeanour was more consoling, now. ‘Follow me and I’ll explain,’ he said.
The security man was a fit and healthy sixty-year old and not someone to mess with, so I let him lead me forward in to an enclosed hallway and then into a scanning bay. He told me to put my hands on a green panel and look straight towards a soft glowing blue line. I knew the process; we had similar devices on the super cruiser. I was being bio-scanned – fingerprints, palm, iris and retina recognition factors for a visitor pass. I then followed him down two long corridors and up two floors to another, where we stopped halfway down by a smoked glass door. This was no apartment block, unless they were very spacious apartments. There were only four doors per long corridor.
‘This is the one you want,’ he said, pointing at the door, but don’t get your hopes up. Which I had.
‘You found FISC rewarding, obviously,’ he continued. ‘I understand it was a godsend when it was inaugurated. Trouble was so many people responded that they had to turn down some of the Earthside applicants, which led to a bit of a hoo-hah on the selection process. So good old Farmhurst Incorporated came up with a plan that solved the crisis and enhanced the fee income for initial introductions.'
With that, he had swung open the glass door and pointed to the rack of server modules. ‘From her key number, sir, Susan is somewhere in the twenty-third server from the right, on level fourteen. That’s as close as I can get you.’
My expression went blank with shock and disappointment.
‘Once they’d paired off the real folk, Farmhurst developed an AI auto-reply system, using data ported from names and personal details randomly re-matched with a mix of information extrapolated from historic genetic and physical databases. In short, they started making people who would never really exist. The AI system handled all messaging, replying to Earthside buddies, usually delayed a day or so to give greater credibility. Mind you, it nearly went belly up when a virus got into the system a few years back. If gifts were sent, the system contrived a suitable return gift, from information on the original sender’s database. Your gifts to your Susan would have been sold off in the company shop.’
I’m now two years into my journey back, having re-joined the super cruiser after a few days moping around Urmaxion 40 and finding little new or interesting. Only good thing is I’ve been promoted to first grade and with little to spend my extra pay on, I’ll be quite a rich man when I tread Earth’s soil again. As a respectable man in my fifties, maybe I can think about playing the field: perhaps become some young girl’s sugar daddy. Who knows what surprises might await me.