From the author: What is being human truly like? Maybe only an alien who has never experienced humanity is the best point of view to explore the question.
The problem with running full reality skin shell rentals is that everyone wants to try the vices. You’d think with so many other ways to get the experience of visiting remote archeological sites that booting into a rental wouldn’t hold much attraction, but there are kinds for every kind, as they say, so we keep a stock of fully functioning skin shells. It’s supposed to make the experience more “authentic,” whatever that means, but the real draw, as I said, is the vice.
As one of the curators, I’m booted into a shell semi-permanently, of course. Hands, face, feet, hair, teeth: the whole package. When I’m not interpreting the data the ancients left behind, I run tours and help customers orient themselves to the new equipment. Bipedal locomotion, for example, takes some time to master, and binocular vision with the eyes on top the organism can also be confusing. Why the feet have to be so far from the sensing organs is beyond me, but that’s the way this species worked. No wonder there aren’t any of them around any more.
So, I took the first tour of the day down to the observation deck. What I wanted were questions about how the ancients who left their mark on the airless surface traveled, how they achieved so much in metallurgy and physics without the benefit of groupmeld or infinitely researchable infoquarries. What I wanted were questions about their thinking, about their spirits, and if I thought remnants of the dead lingered, but tourists never asked interesting questions. They came to see the remnants and to abuse the skin shells, and then they left. None of them stayed long enough to learn who I was, and I didn’t care about them. It’s lonely work.
These ancients were first tier primitives, discovering everything on their own, scrambling out of an impressive gravity well in canisters designed to carry the conditions their unmalleable bodies could tolerate. A truly impressive achievement, and although they have long since disappeared, they left footprints in the dust, and their machines mark the possibilities of persistent sentience.
Instead, the dilettantes spent a desultory hour touching each other, stumbling into walls, mangling the language, and occasionally shrieking just to see how much volume the vocal chords could manage. Hard to believe these were the masters of the universe. One, though, a dark-haired woman who had been coming to the lectures for weeks, hearing the same presentations over and over, stood almost comatose on the edge. As always, she caught my attention with stillness. The first time I saw her, I thought that the port hadn’t taken and the body was unoccupied, but she had moved away from a loud man who pulled at his lip, then laughed when it slapped against his teeth.
Ignoring tourist boorishness is easy, though. Except for the dark-haired woman who evidently had decided to be a permanent resident, they come and go. The gallery remains, like the footprints themselves.
I like the setup. In the morning, the perfectly clear floor hangs an inch above the airless surface, exactly duplicating the impressions in the dust, so the customers can study the several million-year old footprints up close. A couple hours later, the observation area is drawn thirty feet up to give a panorama. The ancient landing vessel rests on its four feet, surrounded by the detritus of the expedition. I explain what each piece is for customers who want the full experience of wearing the skin shells. Instead of shooting the info straight into their storage centers, I tell how the main ship they see is just a landing stage, that the primitive explorers detached a second vessel to blast their way back to a meeting with orbiting transport, where the explorers abandoned the second ship to go home.
This took some explaining, and most of the tourists would port the facts later, once they figured out that “listening” to information, and then trying to process the audible signals was an incredibly tedious way to learn anything.
But they wanted the experience. At least that’s what they said.
The vices, though, caught most of their attention. Some drugs, for example, altered the shell’s perceptions in interesting ways. Eating, for others, entertained them for hours, particularly spicy foods or sweets. Part of my job involved purging the skin shells of the unnecessary calories and then exercising them remotely to maintain muscle tone after the tenants evacuated. And, naturally, most of the tourists grew interested in sexual possibilities. Since I had been wearing my skin shell for several years, and had become comfortable in it, tourists often approached me for help.
One of the women shells caught me after the morning tour, a red-haired model, a bit shorter than me. I had, while becoming acquainted with my skin shell in the first months, experimented with its sexual possibilities quite often. This red-haired one hadn’t been a favorite. They all feel slightly different, although, who is animating the skin is more interesting than the skin itself. As stimulating as sex in these shells can be, the personality interaction makes the encounter.
Red Hair said, “I’m only here for a few days, and the rest of my tour group is clumsy in this form, but I hear that procreation activities can be quite pleasant if you’re with someone who knows what they are doing. I have an hour before the next presentation. Would you mind helping?”
See what I mean?
I begged off without explaining to her that if she wanted real authenticity in her skin shell that she should wear the clothes we provided instead of running around the center naked.
After I’d given the second tour of the day, the overview, where I talked to the group about human explorations, and the short, sad history of their species, I went to the observation deck alone. All we had for information about the old explorers came from their space probes and the scattering of landing sites we’d found on what had been their home planet’s moon, but we were able to extract quite a bit about them, including their genetic information which we used to create the shells. Of course, it helped that they were aware enough of space’s preserving qualities to include information about themselves in their probes, but we also could deduce quite a bit by their tracks. They’re eagerness to send records about themselves into the unknown puzzled me for a long time. No other long-dead species whose remnants litter the surface of airless orbs attached plaques or audio records or visual images of themselves. It’s almost as if they knew they couldn’t last. The urgency that pushed them to explore also cut them short. Their energy turned in, turned on them, ending their brief history before it properly started.
The supporting frame for the center gave us flexibility. Two beautiful arches crossed above the landing site from which the viewing deck dangled, allowing me to position the observatory wherever I liked. I moved to the spot directly over the landing craft. With the sun near the horizon, the ancient mess of footprints around the craft stood in sharp relief. Every part of their expedition was written in the dust. We had reconstructed their entire stay: which footprints were first, which explorer made each print, where they went and what they uncovered. They didn’t wander far and they missed more than they found. Evidently they hoped to discover water on their moon, but they went around one of the many craters with ice at the bottom. From where I stood, I could see a line of tracks that bypassed the site. They wondered if they were alone in the universe, but, improbably enough, they just missed finding a mining facility that a much older space-faring species had left, invisible from above, but obvious from the surface. The ridge that hid the evidence from them cast its long shadow almost to the lander’s feet.
A voice startled me.
“Do you think,” said the dark-haired tourist who I thought was inanimate earlier, “that their civilization was doomed because they lived on a double planet?” I hadn’t heard her come into the room. She had never spoken before.
Like many of the tourists, she didn’t wear shoes. Many of them say they want an authentic experience, but they won’t play the part. Her hands were clasped behind her back as she studied the lander below. “I mean, what other species grew up with a monstrosity of a moon like this in their sky? Do you think they felt how it tugged them around?”
She didn’t look at me as she waited for an answer.
“They wouldn’t sense the gravity. It would just be a part of what they knew.” I wondered why she had been silent for so long and why she decided to speak now.
“But it would be huge in their sky. Look at the planet itself.” She glanced up. The home world, its features obscured by the opaque atmosphere, half in the sun and half dark, hovered above. “When they lived on the surface, the air was clear, you said. Wouldn’t they see the moon? Wouldn’t they fear that it would crush them?”
“The moon wouldn’t be as large to them as the planet is to us, but it’s true they would see it. Maybe having a goal so visible drew them into space. It might have caused them to develop technologies before they could handle them.”
She let her gaze wander across the landscape. As I said, the personality behind the shell was more interesting than the shell. Whoever animated this one had layers. “I would be afraid. As I slept, I would feel the moon, bigger than anything in the night. It would be bright, wouldn’t it, like another sun?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. I haven’t seen the moon from a distance.”
She sat on the floor so that she could see the landing site between her spread legs, a surprisingly graceful move for a tourist, but then I remembered she’d had weeks more practice than the rest of them. In fact, after me, she would be the most experienced person at the observatory in her skin shell. She pressed her hands against the smooth surface. “Were they a species that made myths? Did they have explanations for their moon, before they began exploring space, I mean? Many species worshipped their sun when they were young. Maybe they worshipped their sun and their moon, or maybe some of them believed in the god of one but not the other. There could have been wars. What if they came to the moon because they hoped to find a god, and when they didn’t they had no reason to live?”
I wanted suddenly to sit beside her. My normal presentation didn’t cover this material. They were the questions I thought about. “We know some about them, but not what you are asking. The artifacts don’t tell us everything.”
Two more tourists came into the room, two of the male shells. One held the other’s arm. “We were experimenting with durability,” said the first, supporting the weight of the other’s arm in his hands.
“The digits break,” said the second. “And they hurt! It still hurts! Must be a flaw in the design. If the system is damaged, you should get the signal and then be able to turn it off. I’m very uncomfortable!”
“He’s never had an endoskeleton. I told him the little things could snap, but he put them in the door anyway,” said the first one apologetically.
Two of the man’s fingers were bent backwards unnaturally. The knuckles were swollen and purple.
I thought that I was lucky he hadn’t destroyed the shell entirely. On the last tour, a tourist entered an airlock without protection and opened it. When I talked to the angry guest remotely an hour later to explain that he’d lost his damage deposit, he complained that he shouldn’t be responsible for a unit too fragile for a change in environmental conditions. He also complained about the pain. “I was so distracted that I almost stayed with it until it expired. I’ll have to have the experience wiped. Very traumatic,” he said bitterly.
I said to the man with the broken fingers, “We can load you into an undamaged shell.”
“Good,” he said. “I’m going to try the other gender. I understand the experience is different.”
They left, headed for the decanter center where he would transfer his consciousness to an empty shell.
The woman on the floor laughed, an utterance tourists didn’t handle well. “I talked to him earlier. He was mad because they wouldn’t rent him two shells at the same time so he could have sex with himself. I’ll bet he didn’t break his fingers in a door.”
I shook my head, a gesture I’d seen in one of the historical records. I realized she wouldn’t know what it meant. “What a waste. You’d think he could get whatever weird simulated interactions with himself he wanted, without renting real shells.”
She leaned forward, almost folding herself in half on the floor. “I can always tell when it’s a simulation.”
Thirty feet below, every pebble cast a long shadow. Shadows filled the footprints too, shallow as they were. She was right. If this were a simulation, I’d feel the falseness of the information. My senses would bump against the experience. Tech folks called it “perceptional dissonance,” the distance between what the simulation is feeding to your consciousness and what your sensory organs are not telling you. Most beings don’t notice the dissonance, or they don’t care, but, for purists, the real experience is worth the tiny improvement.
“I was here yesterday, before the tour.” She pressed the side of her face against the floor. It would be cool and smooth. “I thought I saw something move next to the lander. That’s why I decided to talk to you.”
My skin prickled, a reaction I’d never felt in this body. “What do you mean?”
“I thought I saw someone in a space suit. Its head was encased. The image only lasted a second.” She sat up, then stood, running her hands up and down her arms. “These shells send so much information. When I touch myself, why do I feel it both with my hand and my skin? It’s redundant. I took a shower my first day; I thought I would fall unconscious with the overload. There were so many sensations, touch, taste, feel, sound, sight. How could these creatures think with their bodies signaling them about everything?”
I’d forgotten what my training days in the shell had been like. Most of the tourists reveled in the sensations, not that these bodies were the most sensitive in the universe. Few rivaled them though.
“Sleep scares me,” she said, “even when I’m tired. In sleep, the shell sends me signals. Strange images. Emotions.”
“I know. The orientation mentioned them, but experiencing them is different.”
I wondered if it was possible that she was new to body porting. Veteran tourists didn’t comment on this level of being in the shells, and veterans wouldn’t stay in the same shell for an extended period. Other shells provided as many or more variations, although none of them combined them like these did. “If you go back to your room, I can send you a drug that will tone down the sensory system. You can build to full engagement gradually.”
“No, I’m getting used to it. I do think I’ll go to my room to rest, though. Turning down the light and shutting away sounds helps. They even have a sense of smell! What a vivid world these creatures lived in.”
I nodded. Most tourists noticed the shell’s limitations. No overmeld capabilities. No tie to universal data. Faulty memory. Odd mental connectivity issues that sometimes strung thoughts together in a peculiar fashion. Physiologically induced emotions. Dreams.
“I have more questions, if you have a moment.” She looked at me for the first time. “But I’m tired. Could you come to my room?”
Normally I would say no. This could be another blatant foray into sex.
I surprised myself. “Yes, if I have time.”
When she left, I moved the observatory back to the surface level. The floor reshaped itself to take on the terrain’s contours, wrapping around the artifacts so they could be inspected up close without actually touching them. I knelt at the lander’s feet to reexamine the ancient explorers’ markings on the ground. Nothing had changed. Whatever the dark-haired woman had seen was in her imagination, but I’d seen movement too on the airless surface once, from the corner of my eye, when I glanced away, for an instant, the flag that stood next to the lander shifted as if a hand was placing it there. The impression was so strong that I checked the playback. I saw my own reaction to the movement—I flinched—but the flag hadn’t moved. Another time I saw a figure.
Some of the information they’d included on their probes mentioned religion. Clearly they believed in an afterlife. As desperately as they flung their machines into the sky (the period where they could escape their planet was vanishingly short), I wondered if they were trying to reach their heaven. Maybe the dark-haired tourist was right about them.
I stood nearly on the dust, in an alien shell, surrounded by warm and nourishing air on the surface of an airless moon. Every seam, every curve in the metal, each crease in the crumpled foil they used to protect the vessel stood in sharp detail in the setting sun. I put my hand on the form-fitting floor that wrapped the lander, only an inch from the actual artifact. What had these beings hoped to find so far from home? Had they been satisfied to reach this inhospitable place?
I put my foot over one of the creased impressions left in the dust, and then stepped into each print for twenty paces so that I retraced the path one explorer took so long ago.
Nothing appeared. No suited figure. I remember the one I saw, its features hidden behind a metallic sheen of faceplate. It had hopped and skipped from the lander to a small solar array, and then vanished. Like the apparition the dark-haired woman had seen, it left no tracks. It might have retraced old footsteps too, as I just did.
A leg that supported our resort stood in the distance, cutting a shadow across the sun. Above me, the bulk of the guest rooms and the rest of the facility blocked the starry sky.
Without making a decision, I found myself at the dark-haired woman’s room. She didn’t speak when she let me in.
“You said you had questions.” I sat on the edge of her bed. The room had no other furniture. Part of a loaf of bread rested on the shelf by the door. We had no idea what the ancients’ food actually tasted like, but we had pictures, descriptions and a good sense of what the shells needed to maintain strength and health. All part of the experience.
She sat next to me. Most tourists don’t wash the shells often enough, and their bodies take on a stench. She smelled of the shower’s cleansing solutions. “Have you done this long?”
“Here?” I said. “Several years. The research is interesting.”
“And none of them are left? They never escaped this sun?”
“There’s no evidence they did. Their planet is tectonically active. All remnants of them and what happened to them has long since been buried. The atmosphere isn’t even the same.”
She turned to me, put her fingers on my arm and squeezed. “They did so much with so little.”
I shrugged, another gesture she wouldn’t understand. “Species come and go. For all I know, the species of my original shell is gone too.”
“You’re very old, aren’t you?”
It was an unexpected question, but how she said it revealed her. “You’re not,” I stated.
“I’m a reconstitute. Who I was broke down—the data corrupted--they said. Sometimes it happens, and out of what was left they made me.”
“How long ago?”
“Twenty years, conscious. There have been several rebuild sessions over time, and they stored me for a while.”
“I’ve never met someone who was young.”
“There’s a lot to see.” I realized she meant there was a lot for her to see, not that there was a lot to see of her.
She turned her back to me. “My skin is irritated. Can you scratch it?” She pulled her shirt off. “Be gentle. It’s all too intense.”
I brushed my fingernails lightly over her back at the shoulder blades.
When I hit the spot she tensed and made a non-speaking sound.
“Is that better?”
“Yes, but please don’t stop.”
I traced circles and zig zags on her skin from the tops of her shoulders to her lower back, redoing the patterns again and again, gradually increasing the pressure. Soon her skin reddened, and I switched from scratching to kneading the muscles.
“That’s good. Can we switch places?”
I nodded. “Yes.” Was she interested in trying the sexual possibilities after all? If so, I had never seen this slower approach. The idea didn’t seem as repellent as it had earlier. I couldn’t tell if my change of attitude was mine or the shell’s, whose physical response showed her attentions had provoked it.
“Can you take your shirt off too?”
She mimicked the actions I’d done to her, barely touching my skin as she circled my shoulder blades or paralleled my backbone from neck to waist. I’d ignored the shell’s possibilities for a long time. It’s true that you can get used to anything, but as I sat on her bed, no longer thinking about shepherding tourists or the difficulties of putting together a coherent story about an eons dead civilization, I became aware again of the shell’s sensory powers. Beside her clean scent, I smelled the bread on the shelf, and the slight chemical tinge that was in the observatory’s air, always. The pervasive but dim light emanating from the walls killed shadows, a welcome change from the starkness of the light on the moon’s surface. My hands rested on my thighs in the soft light. I thought about the oddness of my fingers’ design, but also the cleverness of how they could manipulate tools, their adaptability. And I could hear her breathing, and the sound she made when she shifted behind me, even the whisper her fingernails made against my skin.
Mostly I felt.
I’ve had sex in these shells, and there’s much to recommend the experience, but the action is short, short compared to what the dark-haired woman was doing to my back. She leaned forward, placed her forearms on me, rubbing the skin with her skin, pressing against the muscles, sending signals to me of movement, friction, pressure and warmth.
I made a sound like the one she’d made earlier. For the moment, my universe closed to become focused and small.
The ancients truly were primitives to have so many senses tuned so high. Their lives must have been dangerous and brutal. Why have sensitive spots on their backs, which they would never feel something with, unless they were constantly expecting danger? But if the sense of touch everywhere was to preserve them, why did being touched there feel so good?
I moaned again.
“I can’t groupmeld,” she said. Her hands stopped.
“How is that possible?”
“Limitations in the adaptability of my reconstruct, evidently. I don’t miss it, really. I’ve never known what it is like.” She scratched the small of my back with short, gentle motions. “I thought you might like to know in case you wanted to find me there.”
Her touch floated from spot to spot. My entire back tingled from her ministrations. I said, “I haven’t done a groupmeld for a long time, but it’s a comfort to know I can when I’m ready,” which wasn’t true. I hadn’t integrated my consciousness with the infoquarry since I’d taken over this skin shell, and I didn’t want to. It was the tourists, I think, mistreating the shells, ignoring the import of the artifacts, bumping against anything that would bump back while they were here. They could be in the groupmeld too, adding or taking what they wanted from everyone else. Plus, a groupmeld disoriented me, made me lose a bit of self, at least for a while. Many of the friends I’d had long ago went in and never came out, joining the overmind. The last time I’d melded, I’d sensed for an instant a friend’s familiar thought, like a ghost, but it flittered away, and I couldn’t find it again.
She said, “Sometimes when I get to know someone, they ask to meet me in the groupmeld. I just wanted you to know I couldn’t. I only know what I know, and nothing else, and you can never know me.”
I thought about the lander sitting on the lunar surface and the tracks around it. The ancients left evidence, but I could not talk to them. Being in their bodies wasn’t the same as the groupmeld. I’d never know them either.
She kissed my back, her breath hot and moist. “The skin has a taste,” she said.
I stood. “There are other visitors I should attend to. Will you be at the afternoon session? We’ll do a discussion of the ethics of archeological tourism.”
“I know. I’ve heard it before. Can you come back later?” She sat on the bed with her legs crossed, her shirt on the floor, her face turned toward me, a visual echo of the extinct who’d been here before.
“I have many duties.”
Back on the observation deck, the changeless tableau waited. Since the moon revolved very slowly in relation to the sun, the shadows were nearly the same as when I’d left. I accessed the recordings from the last couple of days, examining them closely for the dark-haired woman. She had come to the deck alone yesterday. The image of her walking slowly to the center of the room captured her grace. Truly, she moved like she’d been born in the shell and not recently taken it on. She stopped, dropped to her knees, stared at the lander as if she’d seen something surprising then shook her head and rubbed her eyes. The recording captured nothing on the Moon’s surface, though. The moon and abandoned equipment were the same as they had been for millions of years. Either her apparition was imagination, or it couldn’t be recorded with our instruments.
She didn’t come to the late presentation. The tourists listened as well as any group of them ever did, which meant barely at all. A few in the front of the group looked attentive, but the rest giggled and coughed and touched themselves during my chat. I suppose if they extended their stay, the skin shell’s novelty would wear off. The red-head who had propositioned me earlier was there, wearing clothes this time, but the pants were on backwards and unzipped. A woman next to her kept mumbling in her ear while I talked, and I realized it was the body we’d given the tourist who’d broken his fingers.
The deck was close to the ground again, so the lander stood taller than my head, as did the flag. I liked this time of day best, when the observatory didn’t cast a shadow on the artifacts. The group stood to the side so we didn’t put our shadows on the lander either.
“We have catalogued the numerous sites for your perusal, including site 423 with the dead explorers in the capsule. If you have signed up for the transport option, a shuttle will take you physically to our observatory there, or you may prefer to transfer directly into their flesh units. I suggest you take the real-time journey, though. We have replicated several of their vessels to give you a more authentic recreation of their technology. You will pass over numerous interesting and historical points on the way.”
As I talked, the dark-haired girl joined the group. At the same time, a figure moved in the background, beyond the observatory’s confines. Startled, I kept the presentation going. I’d spoken it so many times before that the speech required no attention on my part.
A bulky figure shuffled toward one of the experiments, kicking up dust that spayed straight away from its feet and fell in perfect parabolas. The equipment on its back made it top heavy, and looked as if it might tip it over at any point. The suit was white with dark gloves. Tubes dangled from the front, feeding into the huge pack on its back, and on its shoulder was a patch that matched the pattern of the flag by the lander.
The dark-haired woman followed my gaze so that she saw the apparition too. Two of the tourists looked behind them, and then chatted with each other. They had seen nothing. Only the dark-haired woman and myself could see the vision.
“It’s just litter,” said the red-haired woman. The woman next to her, who had now wrapped her arm around her waist, said, “They were children, weren’t they? They never escaped their sun. Their consciousnesses were shipwrecked within them.”
The space-suited figure straightened from its task and gazed at the planet overhead. I tried to imagine what their home looked like when the atmosphere was clear and they could see all the way to the surface. There must have been visible bodies of water. Analysis indicated over half the planet may have been covered, and there could have been water vapor clouds too. What did it look like when their sun caught the water and reflected back like a jewel on fire?
For the longest time, the figure in the space suit looked up without moving, and then it vanished. The dark-haired woman was crying. Although the ancient records mentioned physical manifestations of emotions, I’d never seen a skin shell cry.
“We’re having a going away party in the cafeteria,” said the red-haired woman. “The shells are alcohol sensitive.”
I waited until the tourists had left. The dark-haired woman stayed behind too.
She came close to where I stood, next to the lander. “Do you think we made the skin shells so well that we can see the spirits of their dead? Are we seeing ghosts?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. They were a strange people who started a long trip they couldn’t finish.”
From my point of view, I could see most of the footprints they’d left, the scattering of equipment and tools, the lone flag duplicating the patch on the suited figure’s arm, but beyond the jumble of marks in the dust, the Moon’s surface was trackless. They’d only begun. They didn’t have groupmeld or the infoquarry. They couldn’t know any experience other than their own, each one of them, alone in themselves, working together to get so far.
The Moon’s gray surface was sobering and hopeful. Much could be accomplished by the isolated working together.
“How long will you stay?” I asked.
“If you don’t mind, a long time, I think.”
I took a deep breath. Even breathing produced sensations in the ancients’ shape. “I don’t mind.”
“I have to decide what to do with my life.”
Her voice sounded like it had come to belong to her. Unlike the tourists, she wasn’t borrowing it anymore.. She was becoming herself in this shell, and I would never know more about her than she could share through the imperfections of speech and the limited (but intense!) senses of the skin shells.
And that seemed enough.
This story originally appeared in Footprints: a Hadley-Rille anthology.