I sat, stunned at what Michael was saying. "Completely… you mean, no data stream?" He nodded. "Sensenet, surely you’re still connected to the Sensenet?" The faint upturn of his lips, the hint of a smile as he again shook his head and repeated.
That one word sent chills down my spine. I poured my vodka down my throat and stared out the window, not glass, but a sheet of pure energy. Hell blazed beneath us. We were far enough down that the corona kissed the underbelly of the ship. The sun wasn’t a giant ball; we were so close that there wasn’t even the suggestion of a curve. A brilliant yellow, flat expanse of hydrogen seethed and fused beneath us.
No matter how impervious our shields made us, the image was still terrifying. I let fly a thought to opaque the windows, cutting out that horrible light.
"All right Michael," I said, standing up, and feeling more than a little unstable. I’d had a considerable amount of vodka and decided I didn’t want to be drunk at this particular moment, and the second I decided, my blood was flooded with millions of enzymes that broke down the alcohol. Less than a minute later, I was stone cold sober.
I resumed, "Cutting yourself out of the Sensenet is probably an act of kindness. I can’t imagine anyone but a pervert wanting to dip into what you’re setting yourself up to experience, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be recorded. At least plug back into the data streams. That way if you get another crazy idea like this, you can just watch it on playback."
Michael walked over to one of the portals and waved his hand in front of it, turning the black pane into a window again. God… he was serious! He’d disconnected from the Link. He had to do things by hand.
I panicked. Who was piloting the ship? If anything went wrong this close to the surface of the sun, he’d have no time to react. I wondered how much of my consciousness would survive an immersion into nuclear fusion? They’d have to reboot me from a backup… and oh God, I hadn’t backed up in over a decade!
Michael smiled, guessing my fear. "Relax Steve. The ship is on full autopilot, with a top of the line AI, and there aren’t any solar flares or extreme solar activity on the weather report."
I felt a little of the tension go out of me, but not all. AI isn’t real intelligence. It is good, uncannily good, but it’s not real. The programming is very sophisticated and mimics self-awareness and free will, but you can always predict what an AI will do if you have the right algorithm. Still, they make very good pilots.
I looked at Michael’s face. It was handsome, in a bland sort of way, but then we all were. Genetics. When you eliminate ugliness, by default beauty vanishes as well. There’s nothing left to compare it against. There are bizarre surgeries and body augmentations, but it’s not the same.
Michael waved his hand again, and the window blacked out. "I mean what I said, Steve. I’m completely offline. No backups for me, and I’ve destroyed any existing ones. It’s the only way to be sure."
Suddenly I wished I was drunk again, but clever though the nanos are, they couldn’t synthesize vodka from nothing. I moved over to the bar and poured myself another drink, signaling my body to adjust blood flow so I could absorb it faster.
"Are you insane? Depressed, sad… what? I’ve got a great endorphin inducing program I’ll upload to you if you need it."
Michael shook his head, a sad smile on his face. "I’m none of those things. I’m just curious, that’s all."
"Curious? People are curious about all sorts of things Michael. They don’t destroy themselves to find the answer."
"They used to, or at least were willing to risk it. How long have we known each other, Steve?"
I shrugged. "Who counts? Five, maybe six thousand years. I don’t remember."
"And how many times have you died, personally?"
"Hell, how should I know? There were years where I’d die five or six times a week, sometimes three or four times a day. It happens."
"So, you’d say you’ve died a lot, then?"
I shrugged again and poured myself more vodka.
"In all those years, those centuries, didn’t you ever wonder about the final death? Didn’t you ever wonder if there was a life after this?"
"Hell no! Look around you man, this is life after death, or life after life." The vodka was beginning to affect me again, thank God.
"We’re sitting on a yacht poised a few thousand miles above the surface of the sun, and it’s a cool, pleasant seventy degrees in here. You have a hundred different drugs that will give you a thousand different experiences, and a veritable brothel of machines to service your every want and desire. You’re a god, Michael. We all are! There’s no need for an afterlife. We’re already in heaven."
He walked over and took the glass from my hand, his eyes locked on mine. Genetics be damned, there were some things you just couldn’t engineer, and Michael’s eyes were two of them. They had the power of mesmerizing, of piercing and stripping a person naked, and then boring past the skin into the soul.
He set my glass down on the bar and shook his head. "No, Steven. We’re not. But if there is a God, I’d very much like to meet him."
"You are insane. You’d give up all this to meet God?" I waved around at the luxurious wood paneling and synthetic silks that filled the room." You don’t know if he even exists, if he’s even a he, or a she, or an it."
"But no backups of yourself. This is permanent, Michael. There’s no coming back from this."
He nodded again. "I know."
We stood staring at each other for a while longer. I don’t know how long. When you measure your life in millennia, hours and seconds blend into one. After a time he stirred. "It’s time to go, Steven."
He led me to the airlock where my ship was docked. Neither of us spoke, but we shook hands, one of those odd ancient customs that had come back into vogue. He turned and walked away, the door closing between us.
I made my way up to my ship’s control room, integrating my mind with its systems. I didn’t want to watch, but Michael had made me promise. There was a slight shudder as our two ships separated. I began to ascend as Michael’s ship, Prometheus Returns, started its descent.
Michael’s ship fell away, becoming smaller and smaller. His shields were visible now, as they fought to protect the hull from the intense heat and radiation. In theory, he should be able to skim the surface of the sun with those shields, but very few people ever went sun diving. Even for us, the immortal, it was dangerous.
There was one last brilliant flare as the shields failed, or Michael switched them off, and Prometheus Returns fell like a comet. Mankind returning fire to the Gods. Suddenly, a long tenuous arm of light reached out, a solar flare thousands of miles long and hundreds of miles across stretched out to touch Michael’s ship… and he was gone.
It’s been years since Michael’s death, but I still dream of it. We all do, for though Michael had gone offline, though there’s no personal record of what happened, I was still fully Linked when he fell to his death, the first of us in ten thousand years to pass beyond. I was there, and what I felt and saw is part of the human consciousness now. We thought we knew everything, had created everything, but Michael’s death taught us the depth of our ignorance.
We began to ask the questions our science couldn’t answer. Why are we here, what is our purpose as a species, and as individuals? Philosophy and religion, once considered ancient superstition, bloomed with new vigor. The universe, which had only been a thing to comprehend, became beautiful again, and life became precious once more.
As for Michael, what is there to say? There shouldn’t have been any solar flares that day. The science of prediction in solar weather patterns is about as perfect as anything gets, and where that flare came from is a source of constant debate. As for myself, I like to think Michael found what he was looking for. Sometimes, when I watch the sun set, I think of Michael, and I wonder what questions he’s asking now.