The other-room was quiet this far from civilization, this deep into a project. Somn preferred quiet. A moment's distraction could send 231 of unknown rock through the matter shifter, forcing her to stop and restore geologic strata from backup. On Rivertrap, Somn could focus on her work.
The only sounds came from the world of matter: the guidance tone of the shifter and the chirps of the tiny ryey that would bite her and then die from the taste of her kej blood. Their bodies were a line of specks that evidenced Somn's path down the inclined fault.
The first expedition to Rivertrap had developed sonic lanterns that kept the ryey out of inhabited areas, but the ryey had evolved to ignore them, and now no one cared enough about Rivertrap to design new ones. These poor creatures had their own taxonomy and were unrelated to the ryey of Somn's home planet, but they had vibrating wings and interchangeable mouthparts, so she called them ryey. Evolution was creative, but it wasn't that creative.
"The collection line has vanished," Somn said to the data. "Again! I'll try to pick it up further down the incline." She opened the matter shifter and pulled out the fossil case.
The matter shifter sieved fossils into the case and reconstructed all non-fossil mass back into rock. Fossils found above the collection line were permineralized. Fossils from below the line were casts, formed by seepage since the collection event at -256. Shells, teeth, a small ray-bone, and some tiny biota indistinguishable from dust. There were no new forms in this batch.
The sheer dull continuity between pre- and post-collection fauna on Rivertrap was the mystery that kept Somn interested. Why had a collection event happened on a planet that still supported complex life? Why had the collector left this star system immediately afterwards, and where had it taken the mass? Somn would not be the one to solve this mystery—it would not be solved until long after she gave up field work and joined her ancestors in the other-room—but she could create the planet's definitive phylogenetic tree, and accumulate models for the generation that would unravel the mystery.
Somn pulled the matter shifter up the incline, and as she pulled she saw the other-room was no longer empty. A group of Her's organisms were there, waiting for Somn to notice them. This was not the glider form of Her that Somn and other kej grew up with, but Her in an aquatic form, fluttering in the empty stillness of the other-room, thrashing in virtual water.
"Somn," said Her, once Somn noticed.
"Hi," said Somn.
"As a long-standing member of the Into the Unknown overlay, you have the opportunity to join a contact expedition to a previously uncharted star system."
"I'm on a—" Her did not hear Somn; this was only a recording.
"Please gather information responsibly, and consult with your family and other overlays. If you choose to join, indicate by visiting the staging area at—" Her said a word that was also a map.
"This opportunity will end in 215, as measured from that staging area. Goodbye." Her vanished from the other-room in a way that was very rude, even for a recording, even for Her. Somn was left alone with the ryey and the fossils.
Into the Unknown? Somn couldn't even remember joining that overlay, but, yes, she surely had. Somn had been an idealistic kid, prone to fantasy, drunk on romantic adventure stories of how the kej and other species had been welcomed into the Constellation. Her favorite girl-play had been based on the contact expeditions, whether that meant quietly exchanging languages with other children, or running shrieking through a public port, startling everyone on the other side.
But Somn had grown up, and learned the truth. How you went through that one-way port to find a civilization that was dead, or a planet that looked good through a telescope but had never hosted intelligent life. How 217 contact expeditions had brought 25 new species into the Constellation. How you'd prepare as a contact specialist your entire life and jump through that port to find yourself on Rivertrap, with no one to contact, stranded on a dead planet whose complex life was represented entirely by...
Somn-in-herself said something, quickly, quietly. It was not an original idea, though Somn had never heard anyone else put it forward. It was not a morally praiseworthy statement, but it wasn't evil, either, not really. Still, Somn looked around in sudden guilt, as though the ryey, or the flora that struggled for life on the rim of the fault, might have heard what she-in-herself had said.
239 ago, Rivertrap had been the next great hope of the Constellation. When the contact expedition reported back that the planet had never supported intelligent life, it had been forgotten. Now the beautiful planet was a backwater, populated only by people like Somn and her boyfriends, who worked to complete the research begun by...
The initial expedition. The psychologists and anthropologists who'd found themselves trapped on this world. They'd made the best of things by cataloguing its life and revealing its mysteries, if not the solutions to those mysteries. Everything on Rivertrap was named after those people. Their nicknames and in-jokes had become geologic ages and the scientific names of the ryey. The planet was named from someone's offhand remark: "We might as well start there where the rivers come together."
Without the technology to resituate their minds in the other-room, those people had died. Death was part of the agreement. But Somn thought of them all the time. They had achieved a different kind of persistence. And this persistence is what Somn-in-herself had in mind when she'd said:
"I could go, to this new planet. There will be fossils that no one has ever seen."
The shadowed parts of the cliff face lengthened with the approach of local night. The wind, that fickle paleontologist, pushed gusts of dirt down the side of the cliff.
"Yes, go," said Somn-in-herself. "Start moving now. Go."
The more Somn thought about it, the closer her thoughts would tend to her family, and to Aei and Shlir. Every 20 Somn spent thinking about the decision would make her more timid. If she was going to leave, it would be now.
Somn slammed the fossil case back into the matter shifter. She didn't have time to bring it back to camp. She had at most 211 before Aei and Shlir noticed that she was missing.
"I'm done for the day," she told the data. "Goodbye." That goodbye would have to suffice for her boyfriends and the rest. Somn dropped down the cliff and ran palms-out towards the port that led off Rivertrap, a single kej body lost in the forest.
The staging area was 1559-211, a nowhere planetoid with a near-vacuum atmosphere. Physical sound did not carry, but the other-room was ablaze with shouting and weeping, groups gathering to leave one of their number behind, the sounds of hasty organization and abrupt departure. The center of activity was an interstellar port, 213 in diameter, the largest port Somn had ever seen. It sat like a circular mouth at the bottom of an artificial valley, sucking in people and materials.
Somn stood in the crowd, miniscule, smelling the inside of her fresh vacuum clothing. People of all species jostled past her, resolute, carrying their repertoires and the things they couldn't bear to leave. The products of Somn's civilization were draining into a hole, in the worn-smooth hope that someone would be waiting on the other side.
"What am I doing?" asked Somn-in-herself. "This is idiotic." She was about to turn back, to leave this empty place and return to the camp at Rivertrap, when a kej male in vacuum clothing approached her.
Hovering over the kej's head was a breed of Her that Somn had never seen before: a naked gas-inflated puffball bred for life in this airless interstitial zone. It was a creature that lived in service of the Into the Unknown overlay, without ever going anywhere itself.
"Somn," said the kej in the other-room, and Somn heard in the voice that although the body before her was kej, the mind had had suffered an injury that could not be repaired, and was now part of the Constellation Library.
"Library," said Somn politely, looking for a way around the conversation.
"Where's your family, Somn?" asked the Library.
Her continued the unwelcome thought. "Where are your overlay colleagues? Why haven't they come to express their sorrow at losing you?"
"I didn't tell them," said Somn. "What concern is it of yours?"
"You will not go through that port," said the Library, "until we talk with your family."
"Excuse me?" said Somn. "Are you forbidding me?" Forbidding was something that happened in children's stories.
"Yes," said the Library. "We are forbidding you. See also: security. Loss mitigation."
"Bring your family here, your friends," said Her. "Prove to us that someone is sorry to see you go. I won't have troublemakers in my overlay."
"What...?" said Somn. "What... you won't get away with this." That was what people said in the children's stories, and Somn had nothing else to go on.
The puffball swelled angrily. "On the other side of that port," said Her, "is a zone of extreme scarcity. The inhabitants will have learned to tame that scarcity. You have not."
Inhabitants? Yes, certainly Her had to believe there were inhabitants. She had to convince herself of this, again and again. Nothing else could justify breaking huge parts off of herself every 236.
"Even if the system proves to be uninhabited," said the Library, pressing home the other blade of the probe, "the members of a contact overlay will live in a state of privation unimaginable to the general public."
"I've been doing field work—"
"The first thing that's scarce," said Her, "is the amount of mass that can go through the one-way port before the virtual particles destabilize it. My overlay doesn't have mass to spare for entitled runaways."
"Don't try to confuse me with gibberish," said Somn, who knew nothing about the operation of ports, one-way or otherwise. Behind Her and the Library, an entire live cma was being fed into the port. The cma's plastic casing, its own vacuum clothing, rippled with the wind of soft respiration.
Mass was not the issue here, oh no. Her and the Library had looked at Somn and didn't like what they saw. She wasn't worth sacrificing any amount of mass. And in this topsy-turvy overlay, their personal opinions had consequences.
"Bring your family here, to the staging area," said the Library. "Alternatively, we can talk in the other-room. You will not find another path to the life you want."
Somn could run, make a break for the port, fight coercion with coercion; but Her would also be on the other side of the port, with the same opinions. "I thought—" said Somn. "I thought it would be easier for them if I just left."
"Your easy life is over," said Her.
Somn-in-herself burst. "You've got me confused with some other Somn!" she said in the other-room. "I just spent 224 on a planet you abandoned, living in a tent, operating a matter shifter along a collection line so that your pet data-glutton would have something to chew while it sleeps!"
The Constellation Library looked at her smugly and said nothing. It had been called far worse and had said nothing. It was Her who spoke.
"I know who you are, Somn," said Her. "You're accustomed to heavy work, and you cope with loneliness very well. That's why I'm giving you a chance to come back with some character references.
Somn stared into the inhabited eyes of the formerly-kej librarian. "My overlay," Her had said. "My" was for a pretty rock your boyfriend gave you. An overlay was people.
Somn turned on two palms and walked furious against the crowd, towards the port that led to her home planet. Someone had to take a stand against this.
"Somn, you're filthy and your clothes are filthy. You should get in the pool." Mom-Chnyat looked Somn over and then squinted down her daughter's body, out the door, at the unusual crowd heading towards the local port.
"Somn is back!" squeaked one of Somn's little cousin-nephews in the other-room. 21 later his food-smeared head popped out of a hatch in the ceiling. "Soooomn!" The cousin-nephew—what was his name?—was no older than Somn had been when she'd first joined Into the Unknown.
"Mom, I came to tell you, I am leaving," said Somn.
"You just got here," said Mom-Chnyat. She straddled a longitudinal cushion, polishing a set of poil darts with a rag, smoothing down the hairs along the shaft. "You came just to leave?"
"Leaving, Mom. On a contact overlay. Transplanting my light cone." She gestured behind her with a forehand, at the avenue. "All these people are leaving."
Mom-Chnyat abruptly lost interest in her darts. "Etraaaaaaa!" she screamed in the other-room.
"Yes, I heard, I'm coming," said Mom-Etra, who had long ago earned a reputation as "the one who can talk to Somn."
"Mom, what I need from you—"
"You will die, Somn!" Mom-Chnyat used uro, the word for an animal's death.
"Istcmye, Mom. Istcmye-tar."
"Oh, it makes a difference?" The other-room was swarming, now, and even in the matter-world relatives were pouring from the hallways and the house's apartments, called forth by Mom-Chnyat's panicked scream.
"How can you do this to us?" Mom-Chnyat said, the weight of the entire family coming through in her voice. "What about Tessererre? What's your father going to say when he learns he's never going to see you again because istcmye-nie while he was spun down?"
"Mother, please, you're making a scene."
"I'm making a scene? Istcmye-tyi my daughter, and I'm making a scene?"
"Yes, Chnyat," said Mom-Etra. "You are making a scene." Mom-Etra climbed through a door from the garden, her body smeared with mud.
"Wipe your hands," said Mom-Chnyat. "Our daughter is going to abandon us and istcmye-tyi on some horrible planet with no plumbing."
"That's a little unorthodox," said Mom-Etra.
"I can't believe you think this is about plumbing," said Somn.
"Why don't you tell us what it is about?" said Mom-Etra.
"You're not going to talk me out of this," said Somn, hoping she might be wrong.
"I know, sweetie," said Mom-Etra, "but maybe you can talk us into it."
"Okay, here it is," said Somn. "A contact overlay is happening right now, and I decided to join it. Just like I said I wanted when I was a kid." Nothing about fossils. "But when I got to the staging area, Her forbidded me. Her and the Library literally forbidded me from going, unless they were to talk to my family first.
"That's it, that's the whole story."
"You must have misheard," said Mom-Etra.
"No, they specifically used the word 'forbid.'"
"That doesn't sound like Her," said Mom-Chnyat.
"Well, who are we to know?" said Mom-Etra philosophically. "You know, way back when, people forbidded each other all the time. Maybe she never got it out of her system."
"I think we should reinstate Tessererre," said Mom-Chnyat. "Before he moved to the other-room, I used to fantasize about someone forbidding me, and Tessererre would swoop in and put a stop to it. I don't know how, exactly, but he'd find a way."
"That is extremely gross and I did not need to hear it," said Somn.
"Yes, if this is serious, no question," said Mom-Etra. "Bring him up."
"Moms, he has a Do Not Simulate—"
"Well, I think he'd like to see his daughter again, before she goes off and istcmye-tyi! Tessererreeeee!"
Somn could have ignored the call and stayed on Rivertrap with her boyfriends. On 1559-211, she could have walked away from Her's insults. Even as late as the conversation with Moms, she could have let this become "the time Somn wanted to leave but we convinced her to stay." But as soon as Dad-Tessererre nictitated into the other-room, Somn had to go through with this, just to make it count. You didn't just reinstate someone who'd decided to wait until you were ready to join him.
Dad-Tessererre looked around like a tourist in his own house, exploring the new furnishings. For him, the transition from his uploading must have been instantaneous. He must have been wondering whose copy he was; who was about to make their entry into the other-room.
"Hi, Dad," said Somn. "You have been reinstated to mediate a trivial dispute. Sorry about this."
"Somn, please!" said Mom-Chnyat.
"All right, all right. Let me catch up." Dad-Tessererre nictitated his eyes and allowed knowledge to seep into his mind: the history of the Constellation and the family since he had joined the other-room.
"Oh, Chnyat," said Dad-Tessererre, wincing at a painful osmosis. "I can't believe you hooked up with Ilry, that slob. What were you thinking?"
"You see what is happening?" said Mom-Chnyat. "We are not supposed to copy Dad every 218."
"I am blameless," said Somn. "I didn't say to copy Dad, and I don't hook up with slobs."
"Yes, well, thank goodness for that," said Somn's boyfriend, Aie, in the other-room. Shlir was there too, sending from Rivertrap, from the camp Somn had just abandoned.
"Oh, hello," said Somn.
"Were you going to tell us about this at some point?" said Aie.
"I could have made a clean break," said Somn-in-herself. "I could have spared them this! I could be there by now! But no!"
"Yeah, what does this mean?" asked Shlir. "Are we breaking up?"
"No," said Somn. "We're not breaking up."
"Because I don't think this relationship is going to work if you're causally disconnected from us," said Aie.
"So you're breaking up with me," said Somn. "Is that it?"
"You're leaving!" said Shlir. His muscles shifted in a way Somn found quite distracting. In the matter-world, they must be leaving the campsite, running towards the port Somn had used to leave Rivertrap. "You're throwing your life away for nothing, and you didn't even tell us!"
"I didn't want to hurt you," said Somn.
"You didn't want to see us get hurt!" said Aie.
"Excuse me!" Dad-Tessererre had spots raised in surprise. "Family!" He indicated Aie. "And whoever you are."
"I am Somn's boyfriend," said Aie.
"Yes, well, good thing she still has Shlir. Have you people seen the data on this planetary system? Somn, did you talk Moms through the data?"
Somn hadn't talked to the data herself. What did it matter? Did it matter? In the other-room, Aie and Shlir leapt into the data and ribboned it with their usual skill. (In the matter-world, they were still running towards Somn.)
"Oh, it looks good," said Shlir immediately. "Very very good. There's life on at least the second potential site out. The planet’s atmosphere's out of equilibrium."
"Frequently the result of purely chemical processes," said Aei.
"With excess light on the night side?" said Shlir.
"Bioluminescent biota in the oceans," said Aie. "As we see on Rivertrap."
"No radioactives in the spectrum."
"You fill us all with hope, Shlir."
Mom-Chnyat in the other-room was looking back and forth between Somn's boyfriends. "Somn, what are they saying? I don't understand."
"This... planetary system..." said Somn, "is a very good candidate for intelligent life." A horrible feeling chewed her-in-herself.
"Some kind of life," said Aie.
"People are calling it the best candidate since Nobody's Home," said Shlir.
"Where, as the name implies, there was nobody home," said Aei.
In the other-room, Dad-Tessererre was looking at Somn with a kind of preemptive loneliness. Somn couldn't stand it and flicked her gaze into the matter-world only to see that everyone in the entry hall was attending to her with the same expression.
"Why didn't you tell us this?" said Mom-Etra. "If it's... if it's that good a candidate... well. This changes everything."
"I wanted you to respect my decision," Somn decided to say. Her cousin-nephew padded over to her and gently grabbed a handful of her vacuum clothing, near her tail.
Mom-Chnyat gritted her ridges together. "And what's the problem, exactly?" she said. "Her doesn't want my brilliant daughter on this expedition?"
"This won't do at all," said Dad-Tessererre. Somn's family murmured and plotted. "What are we waiting for? Let's go stop this coercion before it's too late!"
The whole family set out into the crowd outside, towards the port, tails thrashing, Somn in the middle, horrified and helpless.
Mom-Etra set foot on 1559-211 backed up by a swarm: Somn, her other parents, her siblings, her cousins, everone's children, everyone's boyfriends and girlfriends, everyone, everyone. Shlir and Aie brought up the rear, panting from their run off of Rivertrap.
Now Dad-Tessererre was the only one present in the other-room, and although he tried to hide it, he was in pain. The flow of information hadn't stopped once he'd been brought up to date with family developments. The vast history of the Constellation, the minds that lived below 20, were speaking to him, tempting him away from Somn and the matter-world.
The first Dad-Tessererre had answered that call quickly, and so would this copy. He was probably already running his consciousness at 2-2. Once Somn left he would gently apologize to everyone else and shift down to 2-4, 2-8, living faster and faster until the people he'd known became statues, inputs that changed too slowly to be of interest. Worse than the fact that Dad-Tessererre had been copied for no good reason was the fact that Somn would never get to go through this process with him.
Mom-Etra walked up to the nearest of Her's puffball organisms. "Hey, lady!" she yelled from inside her stylish vacuum clothing. The puffball slowly rotated to point at Mom-Etra the 23 slits it used for a face.
"I trust you're not all leaving," said Her laconically. "There'll be no one left on this side."
"I'm back," said Somn.
"So you are," said Her. "Are your parents with you?"
"We're all here," said Mom-Etra.
"I can see that," said Her. "Which of you are Somn's genetic parents?"
"How dare you!" said Mom-Chnyat.
"I usually request that the Library ask these questions, but—ah, here we are." A furry metrase pushed sideways through the crowd converging on the port, and took up a standing position beneath the puffball, its tiny forehands clasped.
"I am going to ask questions which you will find insulting," said the Library, without putting any particular emotion into it.
"Oh, what is this?" whispered Mom-Chnyat in the other-room. "We don't even rate a kej librarian?"
"Mom!" said Somn, scandalized.
"I ask these questions," said the Library, "to understand the population genetics of the contact overlay as it forms. Cross-reference: population bottleneck, founder effect. Somn, who are your genetic parents?"
"Mom-Chnyat," said Somn quietly. "Dad-Aytel." She was so embarrassed she wanted to die.
"Can you lay?" said the Library. Whatever accident had killed its metrase host had also torn off its antennacles—they were regrown prosthetics.
"I don't under—"
"Eggs, eggs!" Her burst in. "Are you fertile? We're not asking if you like boys. If you wanted to, could you lay?"
"I... I had one clutch, with Shlir. We decided we weren't ready." She hadn't been ready. She hadn't been sure about Shlir, or Aie.
"Now, Somn," said the Library. "Here's something I've been wondering about. Do you actually want to meet a new civilization in this star system? Or do you secretly hope it will be uninhabited so that you can excavate its fossils?"
Somn was dumbstruck. Here everything would fall apart. She would be exposed as a fraud before her entire family, Her would permanently forbid her from leaving, and Dad-Tessererre would have been reinstated for nothing. She caught a breath to lie or confess, and then Mom-Etra saved her.
"No," said Mom-Etra. "We should have been ready for this. She's always... ever since she was a little girl she's wanted to go on a contact overlay. We should have expected this."
The Library conversed inaudibly with Her in the other-room. "In that case, I must ask an even less pleasant question," said the Library. "Somn's family: Has Somn ever shown cruelty to animals? Perhaps when she was a child?"
"Somn loves animals!" the little cousin-nephew wailed. "She rescues their little bones!"
Shlir stepped up to Somn's side. "How can you even think this?" he said. "Why are you asking these horrible things?"
"I ask questions to further our knowledge of the universe," said the Library.
"Shut up, Library," said the little Her puffball. "Somn's family, I have seen horrors of which you have the privilege to remain ignorant. Seemingly normal people sweet-talking themselves onto contact missions so they can exploit the natives."
"See also," said the Library. "The Oncrendic cult. Chain-reaction massacres. Ke Stands Before You Radiant!"
"Do not say that name," said Her. "Never say that name! It should be erased from history."
"History remembers," said the Library.
"People like..." said Her. "Sickos. They fantasize about scarcity, because it makes a people desperate. Their thoughts are sludge!
"A few sickos will make it through this port. I am talking to them now, and they are lying well enough to fool me. Soon enough they will fulfill their fantasies of torture and murder, and I will crawl before the families of their victims and beg to spare their worthless lives. I am so, so tired of begging for mercy, Somn's family."
The puffball had been swelling but now relaxed, as if Her had managed to spread the emotional load over a number of other members. "As such," said Her, "I would like to keep the number of sickos in this overlay to a minimum. So when I see someone leaving home with no one to say goodbye, I need to ask a few extra questions. I'm sorry. I try to keep the coercion small."
Somn's family stood around her, gaping with horror. The little cousin-nephew and the other kids whimpered at the adults' reactions.
"If you're done," the Library told Her, "I have one more question for Somn's family."
"Ask the question," said Her.
"Somn's family," said the Library. "Do you want Somn to leave?"
"No," said the little cousin-nephew.
"No," said Shlir.
"No," said Dad-Tessererre.
Mom-Etra was choked up. "I don't want to say it."
"They could coerce me," said Somn-in-herself. "They could tell me I can't go, and I wouldn't go. It would be so easy." Somn dismissed the thought so quickly it didn't matter. Once that started, where would it stop? You couldn't run a whole society on coercion.
The metrase librarian looked up at the puffball, an unspeakably bored expression on hir face.
"All right, Somn," said Her, gesturing at the port with three dangling manipulators. "Welcome to your contact overlay. Please go through the port."
And Somn died.
At the brink of the interstellar port, Somn's family left her alone with Aie and Shlir, to say the last goodbye.
"Well," said Aie, looking down into the hole that accepted light and mass without giving any back. Already writing Somn out of his life, making her the girlfriend who died.
"We had some good times," said Shlir, and nuzzled Somn's pouch through her vacuum clothing.
"Ha ha ha... stop it!" Somn giggled.
"I'll keep a backup for your light cone," said Shlir. "Even if I can't keep one for you. I want to know what you find on the other side."
"It's only 232 away," said Somn. "We'll all find out soon enough.
"Take care of each other," she added gently. "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"It appears there's nothing you wouldn't do," said Aie.
Somn looked back and forth between her boyfriends. "Happy hunting," she said. The phrase paleontologists say when they leave each other.
Shlir touched Somn's face through the vacuum clothing. He would never touch her again. "Don't go," he said. "Don't don't don't go."
Somn died, again. Every step down this path felt the way death was supposed to feel.
"Make each other happy," she said. Aie and Shlir faded back through the crowd as if dismissed, still watching her.
Then Her was there, in the other-room. A single organism of the glider form, standing behind Somn, its wingspan spread around her like a confidante.
"Happy hunting," said Her, in a sardonic tone no one else could hear. "Fossil hunter."
Her knows, said Somn-in-herself.
"You know," said Somn.
"You don't lie well enough to be a sicko," said Her. "Fossil lust was the most likely other possibility."
"I never lied to you," said Somn.
"Yes, I noticed that," said Her.
Somn looked around, at the people pushing past her to drop into the edges of the port below. "But you're not going to coerce me again," she said. "I can go in?"
"I'm filtering out the sickos," said Her. "I don't care about cynics. Anyway, I'll probably need a few paleontologists on the other side, to teach everyone else the proper techniques." It was the first time Somn had heard Her admit that there might be no one on the other end of the port. Somn felt as though she was now in on a conspiracy.
"I'm frightened," said Somn, out loud. "I think I made the wrong decision. I feel already dead."
"You decided to go," said Her in the other-room. "That is always the right decision. That's the decision I make every single time."
"Maybe it's not right for me."
"Lots of people decide to stay when they'd be happier leaving," said Her. "But I set it up so it would be very difficult to make the opposite mistake.
"It's none of my concern either way. But if you-in-yourself says to go, then you should go. The port's right here. Don't block the way for other people."
The port was there. On the other side, there would be fossils, and the feeling of finally seeing something no one else had ever seen. And at the bottom Somn would be dead on the surface of some planet, sucked dry by the local ryey equivalents, creatures too stupid to learn that her sweet blood was poison.
She would never wake up in the other-room, uploaded and infinite. For the first time, her life had an end, and with the end as a focal point, everything else appeared as if magnified.
Somn walked into the port, and then she died. And in between...