Chapter 4: TRILLION – The Betaverse
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Trillion’s mental clock told her it was taking longer than normal. She could tell the atmosphere was gone. The suit had the ridged sticky-moment feel they get when operating in a vacuum. But the airlock door hadn’t automatically opened. Perhaps that was why the men outside looked happy. Did they not realise the outer door could be opened manually?

As if thinking the same thing, Icarus walked over to the outer airlock. “I think they shut the airlock down, hoping to trap us in here. We’ll have to manually operate the door.”

The plan to trap them in there might have worked if they hadn’t already cycled the air out. Airlocks were designed to make it easy for people to get into them. Not out of them.

Angelique joined Icarus at the airlock door. There was a large metal wheel set into the door. It was used to manually wind the door open or shut. It was useful in times of emergencies, like when the power cut off on the mechanical doors. Or, as Trillion thought, when there were five men with guns on the other side.

As they began to turn the wheel, the room glowed a shimmer of blue. It was the blue shimmer that always accompanied a haptic hologram projector coming online. Or hapticgram as its inventor had named it. The blue shimmer was added to signal to, anyone seeing it, that the hologram could interact with the world. Atlas had invented the hapticgram about six months ago. He had installed it on all the airlocks as a safety measure. His words – ‘it’s faster to stream into the airlock to help someone than to run down and open the doors’. Trillion guessed Atlas was regretting being so adamant they were installed.

Unlike normal holograms, hapticgrams look like bubbles rising out from the ground, whereas holograms just appear. Hapticgrams rise into place. They watched as two people emerged, one of them a woman. Possibly in her mid-forties, she had the look of someone who was used to being in control. She stood upright, hands behind her back, the stars on her shoulder showing she was the General of Earth’s Spaceforce. That would make her Sarah Walker. Her hapticgram was large – bigger than the average human. Designed to be larger than the four Beta Explorers.

A man rose up out of the ground. His hand reached out and grabbed hold of the wheel Icarus and Angelique were turning. It froze in place. The hapticgram was strong enough to lift a human; it needed to be if there was ever a problem in the airlock, so stopping the other two from turning the mechanical door was easy. The man had a buzz cut and his lapel showed he was a corporal. Simply there to be the muscle. He was surprisingly shorter than everyone – the hapticgram only had enough material to create two average-sized humans. They must have chosen to make General Walker larger at the cost of the grunt.

“This is Lieutenant General Sarah Walker of the United Earth Spaceforce. You four are to be relocated to Earth. We have an extradition order signed here.” The voice of General Walker beamed through her suit’s headphones.

Atlas wasted no time in replying. “You have no jurisdiction on Mars.”

That line must have gotten under General Walker’s skin. A flash of anger hit her face, which made sense. She had to have been in the Spaceforce before Earth and Mars split. Her head snapped in Atlas’s direction. “This is the betaverse. I have full jurisdiction in the betaverse.”

There was that word again. Trillion hated that word. Once humanity began spending more time in the metaverse and once humans in the metaverse outnumbered those in the real world, they had started calling the real world the betaverse – the beta version of the metaverse.

General Walker wasn’t done with her speech. Like all people of power, long monologues and speeches came easy to her. “You’re all smart people here. You must clearly understand why we haven’t seen any aliens? The Fermi Paradox as it has come to be called.”

She paused for dramatic effect. “The answer is simple. Any sufficiently advanced civilisation chooses to explore the depths of the metaverse. Leaving the betaverse behind.”

 “That’s not true,” Atlas snapped. “It only takes one set of people to go out and explore to destroy your whole argument. We are going to explore now. We’ll prove your argument is wrong.”

General Walker didn’t even look at him when she responded. “Ah, and this is where I know I’m right.” She smiled. “The fact we haven’t seen any aliens is proof you have no chance of succeeding. Civilisation leaders like me must have a one hundred per cent success rate at stopping crazy people like you. Otherwise, you’re right, and we would have seen an alien already.”

Icarus had his turn to argue. Trillion knew he had thought about the Fermi Paradox a lot. They’d had many deep conversations about it, both wondering if they would ever see alien life. Icarus had a fascination with languages and saw translating an alien language as his ultimate goal.

Icarus pointed a finger up at the general. “All alien life somehow coming together and ALL agreeing not to communicate with any other life is a lot of rubbish. It doesn’t make logical sense. It just takes one rogue person in a species to send a message to our system, and boom! They let the cat out of the bag.”

General Walker turned around to face Icarus. He still had one hand on the airlock door.

The general shook her head. “That argument assumes it’s easy. A rogue member of a species would need to. One, have the ability to do it, and Two, have the ability to keep doing it until someone eventually hears them, regardless of who was trying to stop them.”

She turned around facing away from the four of them. The gesture was deliberate, as if she was saying ‘you four are trapped now so she was becoming bored of them. “Let me put it another way. A rogue person could wipe out most of humanity – engineering diseases; sending a relativistic asteroid to all three planets; the list goes on. But the reason it hasn’t and won’t happen is because it is not easy. And there will always be people like myself stopping them.”

Trillion always held her thoughts privately. In a way she could see the general’s point of view.

“The point you four have failed to grasp is that the Fermi Paradox has a solution. It’s quite obvious when you think about it. Our greatest super computers have crunched the numbers thousands of times. And each time they come up with the exact same conclusion.” General Walker took a deep breath.

Trillion wondered why she spoke with so much theatre. They understood Earth’s arguments. They didn’t agree with them, but they understood them.

“Any sufficiently advanced civilisation,” the general continued, “would choose to live in a simulated world because it is infinite. Any sufficiently advanced civilisation would choose to leave other worlds alone because doing so would limit the number of possible outcomes. Humanity is a sufficiently advanced civilisation. We have a moral duty to grow the number of possible outcomes. Not shrink them.”

This is where Trillion lost all sense of logic. How would them exploring the galaxy have any impact in the richness and diversity of experiences possible in the universe?

Trillion could feel her suit getting less stiff. They were re-pressurising the airlock. It wouldn’t be long before the men on the other side of the airlock had her in handcuffs and headed for Earth. She figured she had nothing to lose. She spoke up for the first time during this interaction. Almost like a school kid, she reflexively raised her right hand into the air as if to ask a question. The ease she felt in moving the spacesuit indicated the room was almost fully pressurised.

“I don’t understand. How are we limiting the potential experiences in the universe?” Trillion asked.

General Walker’s head turned to face Trillion. “Is it not true that we can simulate an infinite amount of universes?”

“Yes. But that’s not the point,” Trillion replied.

“No, it’s the point exactly. It’s a mathematical certainty that the number of experiences you can have in the metaverse is greater than the betaverse. The metaverse is infinite. The betaverse is finite.”

“Yeah, but why should that stop us from exploring the ‘betaverse’?” Trillion mimed quotation marks with her fingers. She hated how much that word had grown on her the past several years. But she still hated to say the damn thing. She wondered what prison was like on Earth. Was it in the metaverse or the betaverse?

It was a while before General Walker responded. “Don’t you see? If you go and seed a world, that world could then only evolve life that is compatible with Earth life. That limits the possible evolutionary paths.”

“This isn’t about that. This is about ensuring humanity is around for the next several million years. Having us based in multiple systems guarantees that if anything happens on Sol we will still survive.”

“A million years from now, a colony separate from Sol won’t be humans.”

Trillion was stumped. She hated having arguments with others on the spot. And General Walker was quick. She had answers to everything. Trillion was about to sit down, resigning herself to being captured, when she heard a voice in her ear.

Trillion, it’s Ship.

She still had her earpiece on. She could still communicate with the ship.

When I didn’t see you come out of the airlock, I started checking on you Trillion. I think I know how to get you out of there.”

Trillion didn’t say a thing, afraid she might give up their one trump card.

There is an emergency kill switch to your right. If you pull that down the hapticgram will turn off.

Trillion looked to her right. Sure enough there was a large switch. The words read Hapticgram Engine On.

General Walker was still monologuing. Trillion waited for a distraction. It wasn’t long until Atlas jumped in with a counter argument. Trillion dived for the switch with her right hand and pulled it down.

The whole room suddenly flashed yellow and red. Emergency lights started rotating around the room. Presumably to signal the emergency switch had been flicked. As the lights flashed General Walker and the corporal melted into a sea of marbles. The room was filled with tiny pea-sized marbles which began to bounce off the walls. Flicking the switch had obviously killed the magnets controlling the haptic engine, dropping them to the floor.

 “We need to go now,” Trillion said, almost willing Icarus and Angelique to wind the door airlock door amidst the chaos of tiny balls bouncing around them.

Icarus grabbed the mechanical airlock door and spun it hard. It didn’t budge.

Angelique joined in and it started to move, slightly at first, then more smoothly. It took several turns and a lot of effort, but finally the outer airlock door was opened. Trillion expected to get sucked through the door, but it was more of a strong breeze as the airlock unpressurised.

Millions of tiny balls spilled through the door as the four of them made their escape, trying not to trip over them on the way out.

Atlas grabbed a large rock and shoved it in the airlock door, preventing the men from closing the outside door to repressurise it. Effectively making the closest airlock to the launchpad useless so the gunmen would have to use another airlock.

As the team took off they had a good five hundred metres of red Martian regolith to cross before reaching the first of the launch pads. There were sixteen launch pads in total, all evenly spaced in a grid format hundreds of metres apart.

The Martian gravity made getting around in spacesuits easy. They were all equipped with a smart exoskeleton that made the Martian jump-skip-walk technique so much easier to do. The team began to jump-skip out of the airlock, out towards the launch pads.