P011Y: A Novel Excerpt - Uncharted

P011Y: A Novel Excerpt

By Mathew Lebowitz


They come on the kind of night that Adele would have loved: wind strafing the mountain and pounding the cabin in rainy gusts. I’m in my usual spot in the darkened front room, near the windows, accompanied by my memory cube and Holox, recombining old stills and vids into a misty cone of holographic light. It’s a primitive unit, a child’s toy, but it works, and with enough whiskey and the right amount of squinting, I can imagine she’s still here, with me, head back and eyes closed in a dancing trance. Another crack of lightning breaks the illusion, leaving only my own haunted reflection staring back from the window glass. Adele wouldn’t be indoors on a night like this anyway. She would shrug on a poncho, grab a staff and head up to the nearest ridge to celebrate the storm. For someone so slight, Adele was never one to shrink from an adventure. Then I realize what really pricked at my attention, past the memory models and all the sounds of the storm: the unmistakable sizzle and whine of harnessed ion drives coming over the treetops from the south. I power down the projector, switch off the screens, close my computer, and head out on my porch to meet them.

It’s an executive craft and a small fat delivery pod, chunky CO-Labs branding clearly illuminated on the undercarriage of each. I’m not thrilled about uninvited guests, especially on a night like this, but I guess I can’t begrudge a visit from the company I helped create, where I’m still, marginally, employed.

They come in low, floodlights scouring the grounds as they settle beside my garden. The cockpit of the lead craft opens, an executive emerges, and hurries along the path toward the porch, holding her hat with one hand and some glowing credentials in the other. At the stairs, she stops and looks up, startled to find me blocking her path, rain cascading down her shimmery coat. “Augustus Simms?” The fact that she’s not sure says a lot about my appearance or my extended absence from the office, or both. “We’re from CO-Labs,” she yells, displaying the ID. “We have a delivery. For you?” She still seems uncertain about all of it, checks her tabber again to confirm, then waves back at the huddled crafts. A side panel opens and a couple of lanky utility droids unfold and hop out, controlled by what I can tell, even from this distance, is a very agitated handler. They squat and rotate and emerge holding a fat rectangular box, and they jog with it between them along my walkway, past the rain-slick executive, up the old wooden stairs, and straight through the door of my cabin.


Inside, it’s quieter and warmer, but equally strange and creaky with all the company, where I haven’t had any company for so long: the executive, her security escort, her technician, and the tall elongated transport droids shifting foot to foot, holding their awkward cargo and waiting for instructions.

“Apologies, Mr. Simms,” she says, looking around. From the way she wrinkles her nose, she might be talking about the smell of the place or my whole lamentable circumstances out here in the wilderness. “I’m Jessica.” She removes a glove and offers a hand still furry from a biotech charge. It makes me wonder how old she is. She looks my age, but that’s not much to go on. “That’s Carl,” she says, pointing at the technician who waves shyly from his corner. “And this…” She gestures at the box in a way that still seems dubious. “…is a personalized, hybrid, Juliet SL-12, Transcendí. For you.”

An SL-12. I know I’m expected to be surprised, even shocked by this grand reveal. I had heard that the first beta unit had gone on mesh more than a month ago, cute-named “Katrina,” a companion for Tom Cobalt himself. But I had no idea another was in production, certainly not for me. It takes restraint not to recoil at the idea. But the tactic is obvious, now that it’s out there: spark my curiosity, lure me back to CO-Labs, get the SL program back online and on schedule. The manipulation is annoying but effective. I’m not sure exactly what’s in the box, but I’m pretty sure what’s not. Still, I need to confirm it.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s take a look.”


The droids clear a zone in the front room, dropping the box, clipping and stripping cables, folding back the graphene and structure panels, and tearing off adhesives to reveal a gleaming, black metallic pod. It’s not much different from what I’ve seen before since the SL-6 is egg-shaped and intended to resemble something shot back from the future. But this one is smaller than the others, and in the dim light, in the middle of my floor, I can’t help but think they missed the mark, that more than anything, it resembles a coffin.

“Oh, look,” says Jessica. “There’s something on it.”

Sure enough, a folded note, obviously from Tom. Who else uses paper? I peel it off to find his looping, last-century script: “Saddle-up, Sunshine! Shake out your bedroll and slap leather. It’s a new damned dawn on the ranch!” Fancying himself a maverick of Free Colorado, Tom loves to deploy Western aphorisms. But given that he’s over eighty years old and stewards one of the world’s richest and most influential technology companies, his motives are suspect. But that doesn’t diminish his excitement or the burning urgency that I can feel through these written words, his anxious sapphire eyes glowing at me from beneath the shade of his Stetson. “Be open-minded, Augs,” he appeals, in my mind. “This is bigger than both of us. And remember: sometimes, to get what we need, we have to let go of what we want. Am I right?” My neck prickles with an obscure heat. I know he’s referring to Adele, even in my imagination. Everyone wants me to give up that ghost and move on. But I can’t. Not when we’re so close to bringing her back. I crumple the note into my pocket.

“Fine,” I say, as much to Tom as to anyone. “Let’s do it.”

I find the handle, release it. There’s a click, a whirr, and the lid rises smoothly to reveal a layer of the colorful organic filler, bright as confetti, capable of sustaining a dormant Juliet or Romeo for up to eighteen months. I brush it aside until a face comes into view and then a little more to make sure, and then all the tension of the last half hour drains away like I’ve been punctured straight through by an invisible sword releasing all the built-up pressure of my hopes and passion. It looks nothing like Adele. Of course, it wouldn’t. It couldn’t. I’m disappointed, but mostly I’m relieved. I needed to confirm it, and now I did, so I can cover it back up, close the lid, and send the whole ridiculous contraption back where it came from, return to my memory cube and my bourbon, my darkness and my ruminating. It’s not pretty, but at least it’s real. But another part of me hesitates. The underpinning of the Transcendí program is deep-dive compatibility beyond anyone’s ability to predict or request, not even the host. It’s the domain of the subconscious, unexplored territory, and as an engineer, as a programmer, and as one of the pioneers of the methodology that got us here, I’m curious. Besides, as I look at the face emerging from the shredded flakes, eyes closed in a small, dreamy smile, I feel the rest of the room fade away to the edges, and I have the ironic impression that she and I are the only two real things here. And that everything else is an illusion. 

About the Author

Mathew Lebowitz is a designer, technophile and partner in a digital transformation agency (mindbowser.com) and writer of literary/speculative fiction that explores the shaky relationship between humans and machines. He received an MFA in Fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and his stories have appeared in Press, Pequod, The Baffler, Confrontation, F&SF and other magazines. His alien-spaceship inspired doodles can be found on Instagram - @mathatter.

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