They had agreed to meet at 17:15 CET, his shift would be over by then and she would have had ample time to get ready although it wouldn’t exactly be noticeable, but it was something she would do either way.
The light green projection on his wall blinked 17:05 and he was fiddling with the part. He was quietly seething over not having wanted to spend more than 300 Regs on a wireless headset, not to mention one that was pre-built so he wouldn’t have to spend the last few crucial minutes clicking parts into place and getting tangled in a mess of wires.
Lunar gravity did little to make it more bearable as the cables, much like a jellyfish, spread their feelers across his desk and wobbled incessantly; he frowned.
The headset itself was little more than a small visor with a strap and close to 10 wires coming out of it. ‘Who designed this thing?!’ This was the last time he would rely on Reiner’s buying tips.
PLEASE PERFORM A FULL FACIAL SCAN FOR PHOTOREALISTIC AVATAR, the screen flashed in vivid red.
‘Oh right,’ he looked through the box the headset had arrived in, one small marble hidden under sheets of plastic and instruction manuals. He picked it up gingerly and set it down in front of him. It beeped once or twice in acknowledgement that it had paired with the mess of wires sitting on top of his head.
They had finally agreed on VR after much back and forth on the benefits and costs of investing into the proper equipment for such an endeavor. VR servers were at the middle point between Earth and Moon, this meant that real-time transmissions were possible in a fully simulated environment. The loading times were still a hassle though.
Time showed 17:12, he would have to access the lobby they had made for themselves. He couldn’t help but wonder what she would be wearing, which was a silly thought to entertain given that they were meeting in a virtual space. She could be wearing chainmail and beach slippers if she wanted to.
TOTAL TIME REQUIRED FOR FULL PHOTOREALISTIC COMPOSITE RENDER: 2 HOURS AND 5 MINUTES.
‘Right, right,’ he whispered. ‘3rd rate hardware should have 3rd rate loading times, of course.’
With a frown and a sigh, he decided there was nothing to do except find a premade avatar and just go in: time was precious, and he would rather spend it with her even if it meant looking like an idiot.
He put the headset on, plugged in the headphones and, fighting off a slight wave of nausea, he found himself hurled through the app’s overdone loading screen until he saw a door frame on the left of which a tiny astronaut was hovering, doing spins and flips like some kind of tech fairy.
A muffled electronic voice gleefully announced:
‘Hello there, before you head out in the Great Virtual Unknown make sure you have taken all the necessary safety precautio-’ He pressed the skip button. ‘VR is a safe space for every-’ Skip. ‘Health and safety regulations suggest tha-’ Skip. ‘If at any mo-’ Skip. Skip. Skip. He kept tapping the skip key until the tiny astronaut finally went on his way to annoy someone else.
17:17 ‘Shit. Shit. Shit.’
He was in front of a mirror with an exceedingly pompous design. No time to customize things now. He pressed Random. And turned his gaze towards the virtual lobby where he was supposed to have been 2 minutes ago.
The display in front of his eyes went dark and then slowly loaded the room: first the lighting, a lazy sunset, then the room itself, then the geometry of the objects, the textures and finally, her.
‘Callum.’ He heard her voice chime to his right. ‘You’re late. And-’
His better half, looking much like herself, the same way she did 9 months ago, was there to behold, with the slightest smirk and her arms crossed, not before she burst into laughter.
The scene finally loaded completely, and he looked down to see a boxy torso with knobs on it. His arms were some kind of dangling tubes with prongs at their ends.
‘You sure do know how to dress to impress a girl, don’t you?’ She was holding her midriff and laughing; the sound reminded him of wind chimes.
‘Uh’ he stared bewildered at his virtual self. ‘Was in a bit of a rush, chose whatever was available and umm, yeah.’
He could see her hands fumbling with something just beneath her eyes; he wondered if she was actually wiping away tears of laughter. He was also thankful that VR had yet to evolve to the point where you could see the other person blushing as he was closer to a lobster at that point. The headset felt damp and hot on his forehead.
She looked expectantly at him.
‘It’s good to see you again.’ Her render wasn’t nearly as vivid as she was in person, physically, but it would do for now.
‘And it’s good to see you too, propeller head.’
‘Here let me help you out.’ A mirror materialized in her hand and showed his virtual reflection. His head was a perfect square with two glowing lights for eyes and, of course, with a whirling propeller in a jolly spin. A funny little bot, not out-of-place in one of the early sci-fi movies, now a century old.
‘Ever the airhead, aren’t we Mr. Joensuu.’ She smiled her askew smile, the one that he had come to miss, even if this one was tinged with sadness.
‘It tends to come with the territory.’
‘You know Callum, as far as dates are concerned, this really is something new isn’t it. Both of us with screens strapped to our faces, looking like a bunch of idiots from the outside probably. Me in our cozy little apartment and you in-’
‘My cramped and windowless little pod. I swear I can’t even stand properly without knocking something over. I’m guessing the Chinese engineers didn’t expect miners above 1.90 or-’
‘Or weighing double the average Chinese worker.’
Callum fumbled with one of the straps on the headset which had decided to come loose.
‘You can blame that on my mother’s side, not my fault I’m built for carrying rocks.’
‘Or breaking them,’ Ara chimed in.
‘And here I am doing just that, only about 384 000 km away and with machinery bigger and more expensive than our apartment building.’
They both paused, bemused. Callum stared at his prong-like hands and flexed his fingers.
‘And you know what? I just realised; we’re in VR, I don’t even know why I bothered to put on make-up. This stupid thing doesn’t show off the effort I put in.’
He snorted, ‘yeah VR hasn’t reached that level of fidelity yet.’ He smirked ’soon though.’
She made a face and pouted, and looked at her tiny marbled hands.
‘These gloves we have on, do they have...’ He pondered. ‘Does it work if we...’
‘If we were to hold hands you mean?’
‘Uh. Yeah, that.’ It wasn’t that, but he held onto that thought for later.
‘Hah, well we can certainly try.’
Ara’s picture-perfect avatar leaned in and grabbed one of his robot hands with some hesitation. Her expression serious and expectant.
‘Can you… feel that?’
Nothing. He looked down, looked up again.
‘Wait, hold on. I think I forgot to turn them on.’
She was frowning at him, her upper lip slightly raised.
She sighed, slowly.
‘I see being on the Moon hasn’t improved your focus Mr. Joensuu. Take it a bit more seriously.’
He could feel the sweat gathering in the synthetic foam of the headset, glued to his face.
Ara raised her hands, they were smooth and small.
He tried touching them with his pronged hands. His “hands” went through. He tried several times.
Collision lag, of course.
‘Honey, I think the program is lagging.’ The touch of her hands on his while scratching his head in bemusement startled him.
‘Yeah I dunno, you’re looking a bit spazzy there too, bud.’ She tilted her head a bit sideways, the hair on her avatar failing to adjust to gravity and just stuck to her render like a helmet.
‘Light speed connection to other worlds my ass,’ he grumbled.
‘Well it’s the best we have right now, since someone decided to go break rocks in space.’
‘Hey, 3 more months and I’m very much an earthling again.’
‘3. More. Months.’ She repeated his words in staccato and they sounded hollow to him.
‘Worse decisions have been made in history. It’s not exactly rainbows and picnics here either for your information, thank you very much!’
He’d wanted only to say it in a mock sort of way, but it had come out much angrier. This place, the Moon, this lunar mining colony, had certainly turned out to be less glamorous than it was originally made out to be in the “career opportunity of a lifetime.”
After the initial week of adjustment to lunar gravity and the nausea that accompanied it he had to toil in 12 hour shifts with the constant fear of pressure leaks and being sucked out into vast coldness of the lunar landscape. This took its toll on his psyche and he had been having trouble sleeping lately. Moon fever, as it was known amongst the miners, interfered with the sleep cycles of people. Some guessed it was a result of radiation exposure, but that had yet to be proven. He bit his lip, his real lip until he tasted iron.
‘I miss you, you know.’
He could hear a slight ringing noise somewhere at the edge of his hearing. He took a few deep breaths to center himself. The pressure on his ear-drums subsided.
‘The cat misses you too, he keeps staring at the moon more than I remembered him doing.’
‘Cats are weird like that, no other way about it.’ he found himself blurting. ‘Also, I’ll see him and his doting mother again in 3 months.’ His back and overalls were soaked in cold sweat. He was shaking slightly.’ You know, provided I don’t vaporize while re-entering the atmosphere or having any of the thousand things that can go wrong, go wrong then or until then.’
‘Oh when the cat misses you, you react?!’ He could see her eyes glisten. Tears.
‘Listen... Ara. I want to come home more than anything in the world…’ He stopped. ‘The truth is there is a reason why no miner here is recommended to work more than 12 months in one batch.’ He could feel the ringing sounds ebbing at the fringes of his hearing again. ‘It damages people.’
She turned towards him and her movements weren’t as fluid as before. She just appeared in front of him in small successive teleports.
‘I..uh…just want you to come home...please. Every day I-’ Her breathing was ragged, she was weeping, because of him.
He tried to circle her small shoulders with his awkward set of tubes and prongs. The gloves, without much rush, created the imprint of her right shoulder blade and left upper ribs on his palms. His hands went through her, again.
‘What?!’ Her avatar was standing still hands covering her face, cowering, still. He frantically tried to feel her touch, but just swung wildly through her. Their living room was missing bits of furniture and entire chunks of space. This wasn’t right. The simulation was tearing at the seams.
‘Status check! STATUS CHECK!!’
The cheerful miniature astronaut appeared.
‘It looks like you’ve lost connection to the lobby there. Would you like to reconn-’
‘No. NO. NO. DAMN IT ALL!’
He tore off the headset and hurled it against the wall of his pod, with a distinct crack, the lenses cracked and shattered to pieces. He could see small sharp uneven bits falling across his bunk bed.
He clenched his teeth and smashed his fist on the 3d printed desk, its brittle plastic surface too; cracked.
Another fist shot towards the pod wall, and then another, and another until the skin on his knuckles peeled off. He wanted to go on, but a brief glimpse of himself being finally at home, his contract ended
with no events. He sat on his bed, now littered with miniature glass shards, exhausted.
He wished he was somewhere else, away from the regolith that burned your lungs and eyes, away from claustrophobic mining shafts, away from the Sea of Clouds where none had ever been.