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Beth Finds the Palace Beautiful

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I never thought I would make it into space.

All those times when we were little, when Marmee and Father would talk about the day we'd all board the ship and go on an adventure to a new planet, to finally embark on our dream of new lives - my sisters would get so excited and join in with the plans our parents were making and talk about dreams of their own, but not me.

I've always been happy right where I am, at home with my family. I liked keeping the house, and taking care of meals and cleaning and making it a happy place for my parents and sisters. I couldn't imagine leaving our lovely home, all our family and friends, our town and the very world itself to go on to a new planet, where who knows what might be waiting.

But the Earth had been dying for years - even I understood that, and I was never much good at my lessons. But Marmee and Father had explained carefully to us all our lives the problems the Earth faced with pollution and overpopulation, and how the only way the planet would survive would be if many of the people were gone. They had been strong proponents of space exploration and Resettlement since before my sisters and I were born, as opposed to some of the other solutions that the World Government had proposed. Why, some delegates were in favor of releasing a super-virus, designed to kill off the majority of the population!

Marmee and Father had strongly opposed such a terrible thing, arguing instead in favor of Resettlement, and when two suitable planets were finally found, Pax and Domus, both in the same solar system light years away from Earth, they worked tirelessly with the World Government to make sure that the planets were uninhabited, and ready for people from Earth to settle on. Father said it was the only way to give the Earth the space and the time the planet needed to heal, with just enough people left here to help it.

Our family size was quite scandalous in our community - most families had one child, or two at the most. But with Marmee being a brilliant doctor, and Father being a famous Resettlement Theorist and educator (one of the things Father always advocated in Resettlement Theory was large families, so that we’d all have a better chance of surviving to the next generation on a new planet), and both so well-respected in the Resettlement Movement, it was accepted that not only would they have many children, but that we’d be one of the first families to leave to the new planets. When Pax and Domus were deemed ready for Resettlement by the scientists and the military who had gone to explore both, Father and Marmee decided that our family would relocate to Pax, the planet Father had been given the honor of naming.

So Marmee and Father and my sisters prepared to be in the first wave of settlers. I was supposed to be preparing, too, but instead I got sick, from one of the viruses that are so prevalent on Earth (Father always said when we were on a new planet, we’d be a much healthier species). I was very sick. So sick that even Marmee didn’t think I’d get well. And when the time came to board the spaceship with all the others, I was still alive, but just barely, and no one would allow anyone so sick on board the space ship. So Marmee and Father’s plans changed. Father went ahead with the first wave of settlers and worked with them on Pax - building the settlements and cultivating the land, helping to set up the medical facilities and the power stations, and getting ready all the things the settlers needed to live healthily and comfortably on the new planet. And Marmee and my sisters and I stayed on Earth to wait for next year’s scheduled departure, to give me time to get well.

 

*************

 

That was over four years ago. Father left us, and I was quite sure I’d never see him again. I don’t know if you’ve ever been very sick, but if you have, you might know the feeling I had. Aside from all the other symptoms of the virus, my heart wasn’t working right, and I was having such trouble breathing. Even with Marmee as my doctor and my sisters, Meg and Jo, spending all their time taking care of me, dosing me with my medications on a very strict schedule, making hot teas and preparing the meal replacements and the nutrient supplements, I could tell I was getting worse. I just felt like there was no strength left in me, that all I wanted to do was to stop fighting and just rest. And at the same time I worried, because I didn’t want to leave my mother and my sisters. I didn't want to never see Father again. I told you earlier, I could never imagine going to space - leaving my comfortable home and everything I knew. But this was even worse. I didn’t want to die and to leave everyone behind! I would be so lonely without my dear sisters, and so worried about them, out in space and on a new planet. And who would take care of my sweet cats and my poor dolls? My heart ached so, and not just because of my illness, but because of what I was about to lose.

I can’t exactly tell you what happened, because I was far too ill to remember any of it. Jo says I was so sick that my heart stopped working, and I was placed on machines to keep it beating, while Marmee worked day and night to find something to cure the virus. But in the end it was Jo who figured out the solution to my problem.

She went to our neighbor, Mr. Laurence, who had always been so kind and generous to us, paying for Jo and Meg’s schooling, helping Amy get into the art academy, and letting me play on his lovely antique grand piano - can you imagine that! A real piano made of wood and ivory keys, not even an electronic keyboard. Such a wonderful man! And his dear grandson, Laurie, is Jo’s bosom friend, and like a brother to all us girls. He keeps us laughing and is always full of fun and new games and tricks. Laurie was so good to me during my illness, bringing me all kinds of music to listen to, and little treats, like real ice cream, not the freeze-dried stuff that everyone has.

Mr. Laurence is very wealthy, and very smart - Jo says he made his fortune years ago, in computers and robotics and artificial intelligence. Every family on Earth has robotic helpers in their homes, and all their computers’ AI is built on the program Mr. Laurence created. Jo says when she told him that I was dying, and there was no cure to be found, Mr. Laurence decided to make me part of his latest project. He’d been working on a way to transfer a person’s memories into an AI program - to make a person live in a computer.

I know, I’m not explaining it very well, but like I said, I was never very clever at my lessons. Jo understands it all much better than I ever will. But in any case, it worked. I don’t know how he did it, but Mr. Laurence made it so that all my life, all my memories, and, Jo says, my consciousness, were transferred to a computer program. My body died, and I lived on, in my family’s computers, and even on the Worldnet, so I could be with them on any computer, anywhere. But mostly I stayed at home, because I always loved it there best.

I wonder sometimes, though, if I’m still me. Jo said my consciousness transferred to the program, along with all my memories, but I’m not sure how that works - how you could actually take a person and put them into a computer. Mr. Laurence, as always, is very kind and has let me look at all his program files, so I’ll understand the process better. But even though I’m kind of a computer myself now, I’m still not sure I understand it. I wonder if what I am now is just a program, accessing the old Beth’s memories, and creating a personality like hers based on those. I wonder if I really did die, and if that Beth is in Heaven, looking down on all of us here, and laughing over everyone thinking a computer program is the same as a soul.

Jo gets angry when I say such things, and says of course I am her Beth still, and Meg just calls me a dear and tells me not to worry about it, and Marmee always stares at the computer screen, and says she can still see my darling face and hear my sweet voice, and that she’s just grateful she still has all her girls. Amy says I’m a silly goose and that I should help her with her lessons, and then we laugh, because maybe I am being silly. I don’t know, though. I guess I will always wonder if I’m the real Beth, or just a copy. I don’t know what Father will say - he’ll probably be the one who understands it best, as he’s the smartest of us all, and maybe he can explain it to me. I can’t wait to see him - it’s been so long.

 

*************

 

We didn’t leave with the next wave of settlers, after all, even though that was the plan. Once Father had been told what happened to me, he and Marmee decided that we had better wait until the power sources on Pax were more reliable. They were working on solar and water power, but they still had very frequent outages, and no one felt it was worth the risk to possibly lose my program in an outage (even though Mr. Laurence reassured everyone he had backups, and he does, I know, I’ve seen all the files. And of course Mr. Laurence and Laurie would be traveling to the new planet with us, and he could help if anything went wrong). But Father said sometimes there were weeks and even entire months without power, and no one could bear the thought of me being gone for an unpredictable amount of time.

So Marmee and my sisters and I stayed on Earth, and we waited until Father sent word to us that the power sources on Pax were finally stable enough for me, and then we packed up and boarded the spaceship that would take us to Pax, to Father, to our new home.

 

*************

 

So I made it to space after all, and do you know, it’s a much better place than I ever imagined! Marmee and I my sisters and I have a nice suite of rooms all to ourselves, and it feels just like home, especially because all our beloved things (even my dolls!) are with us, and we’re all together. Marmee arranged for us to bring all my cats, and even though I can no longer pet and cuddle them, I can still see them and talk to them, and they play with my mouse, and love sleeping on the keyboard, or on the lap of whoever is using it. I know I don’t really hear them, but the computer's microphone picks up their purring, and it makes me so happy.

It’s a very large ship we’re on! Thousands of people heading out to new lives on Pax, so many we may never even meet them all before the voyage is over. Marmee works with the other doctors on the ship. She’s even delivered several babies! Can you imagine being born in space? It just seems so special, as if those babies are completely new - they don’t belong to Old Earth, but neither will they belong completely to Pax, even after they get there. Space will always be their first home.

My sisters are busy, too. Meg’s a school teacher in the ship’s school, teaching all the younger passengers. And she’s also very busy with John Brooke, who is also a teacher. I overhear them talking (sometimes you can’t help hearing things when you’re part of a computer - it’s not like I actually have to sleep!) and I know they’re planning on getting married. Meg doesn’t really want to wait, but John says they must wait until they arrive on Pax, so they can have both Marmee and Father’s blessing.

Jo keeps busy helping Aunt March, who of course didn’t want to come on the ship to Pax, but who said she’d be damned if all of her family disappeared to another planet without her. I visit with Aunt and Jo sometimes, over the ship’s network, and they bicker all the time, and they each refer to the other as “the trial of my life.” They’re very funny.

Jo doesn’t have a boyfriend like Meg, but she does have Laurie, and the two of them are always having adventures all over the ship, and getting into all kinds of ridiculous scrapes. Jo comes home every night and tells me all about her day, then types up stories of what it’s like to live on this ship (and ever since that time Amy deleted Jo's files in revenge, I've taken great care to keep them private and safe). Jo is such a marvelous writer - I’ve always thought that’s what she should be, but Jo wants to be a pilot. Unfortunately, she missed her chance back on Earth to go to Military Flight Academy, because her slot came up when I was sick, and she gave it up to take care of me. I’ve always felt terrible about that, and Laurie and I have been planning a surprise for Jo - I’ve helped him reserve time on the flight simulators, and the two of them will take lessons with the pilots on board. She will be so pleased!

Amy still goes to lessons herself, and she comes home every day and tells me about all the girls and boys in her class, and all the gossip and who traded limes with whom, and who has the best clothes and newest boots and the most stylish tunics (I will tell you: it’s not Amy). I help her with her homework, which is funny since before I was always the worst at lessons, but being wired into the network, I know so much more now. Amy still does her artwork, and right now she’s very taken with zero-g sculpture, which is quite odd to do, but really produces some lovely pieces. Amy also tags around after Jo and Laurie, which drives Jo quite mad, but Laurie is always kind and makes a place for her, even when Jo gets sulky. They had a close call not too long ago, when Amy was almost lost out the airlock, but luckily Laurie and Jo were able to keep her safe.

So with my mother and sisters off working and having adventures all over the ship, you would think things would get pretty lonely for me, wouldn’t you? But I’m connected to the ship’s network, and I’ve made so many new friends - the captain and all the officers are so wonderful and interesting to talk to; I enjoy hearing about their work, and there is much I can do to help around the ship, not just in my family’s quarters, but real, actual work, transferring files and commands and running programs with the other non-AI computers on the ship.

And I’m not the only AI program here either! After Mr. Laurence had success with transferring me to the computer, other people chose to do the same, and are traveling with their families to Pax, just like me. We’re going to be the first generation of living AI programs on the new planet! And it’s funny, because I was always so shy when I was just a girl before, but somehow being part of the ship, just like the other AIs, I don’t feel quite so strange or alone. They all know how I feel, and sometimes I think it’s so much easier to make friends like this, than in person, face to face. It’s so much easier to talk to people now.

 

*************

 

Our journey is almost over. We’re due to land on Pax in two weeks, and at last, our family will be all together again, starting our new lives on this new planet. I was always so scared before, when I was a girl, about things changing and being left behind by my sisters, but now everything is different. Now I can’t wait for my next adventure, my next chance to do something new on Pax.

I said before that I wondered if the real Beth was in Heaven, looking down on us all. But now I wonder if maybe being in this program is like Heaven too, because it changed my life so much, and not just because I don’t have a body anymore. I’m not like the old Beth, I don’t think, not anymore. I don’t have to worry about being left behind by my sisters, and being separated from Marmee and Father ever again. As long as my program runs, I’ll be with them, in space or on land, forever. And just like my family’s dreams of going to space have come true, I, too, finally have what I always dreamed of.