“Is that your AI?” I asked him.

“Different cave, James, different Pebble!” I looked at him, confused. “Go and sit at the table!”

I walked towards the table and was staring at the back of the character that was sitting there. Cautiously, I walked around and looked to see who it was. Then a nervous laugh crept out from me as I realised who it was. “This has to be your AI right!? Your AI is using Periclum as an avatar?”

“No James, I am Periclum. At least I think I am!”

I just looked at this character sat at the table. “But you were annihilated. Many people blamed me for that!” 

“Ahh, yes, I am sorry about that. I never mean’t for that to happen. It’s just, you understand, I couldn’t make people aware I was in here. Legally, they would have to annihilate me again.” Periclum explained.

“You seem different!” I said to him, noticing how vacant he seemed.

“I never liked The Pebbles. Most of the time, I stayed away from them. I’m sure you feel different as well?”

“Well, when I think about it, I think I do.” I said, as I was still trying to process the fact that I was speaking to Periclum.

“The Pebbles are great at simulating a lot of you. However, it cannot substitute for the real breathing, needy you!”

“I guess so!” 

“James, I am not me. I am a ghost of what I was, trapped in this digital prison!”

“I’m sorry, James, he’s been getting like this. What with the time difference and everything. He has been living here for a very long time,” Elatio explained.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Periclum.”

“No, you’re not! I should be dead or living life. Not in this place in between!”

Periclum stood and walked over to the fireplace, staring into it. I tried to place my hand on his shoulder, he just walked further away and began talking.

“Will you annihilate me, James?” Periclum asked. 

“Periclum, come on!” Elatio interrupted. “There is a way of getting you alive again!”

“Yeah, but you haven’t found a way already, have you?”

“Not due to lack of trying! I’ve been begging the Captain to send me on missions.”

“Why didn’t you ask James?” 

“Periclum, it was hard enough to meet him the first time. I barely gave him The Pebble without his Companion noticing or having someone listen to our conversation!”

“Periclum!” I said.

“Yes… James!” Periclum said.

“Are you able to come and see my house inside my Pebble?” I asked. I do not know where that question came from. Just that I was thinking at the time about how to get Periclum to be his usual adventurous self again. There was only one other place I knew of inside these Pebbles, the thing I spent a long time doing. I thought he would appreciate it.

Periclum seemed taken aback for a moment by the question. He seemed to have been processing everything differently. Then I saw a glimpse of who he used to be. A smile flickered across his eyes. “A house inside your Pebble?” He asked.

“Yeah, my dream house. Could never build it until now! I’d love to show you around!” I said, trying to get out the childlike person I knew.

“Okay!” Elatio began, enthusiastic about this plan. Not because he was interested in my house, but more because he was interested in the welfare of Periclum.

I closed my eyes for a moment, and we had teleported back to my house. “Welcome back, James!” My AI said.

“James, let’s turn your AI avatar off!” said Elatio. 

“Yeah, they kind of irritate me!” Periclum said. 

“Is it okay you turn your avatar off for a while?” I said to the character standing next to us.

“Sure James, just call if you need anything!”

“Will do!” And with that, my AI assistant disappeared.

After that, I was showing Periclum around, and he seemed to cheer up a little. He was excited to see how everything seemed to interact with each other. Also, Periclum helped me decide how the kitchen should operate. He thought of simple things, like having a fridge as an EMC machine, rather than just having a standard EMC machine. 

It was good to see him, however, I was still shocked to see him. I suggested perhaps we should try some human food, and he said he had already tried a lot. He also watched many human shows and felt like he understood me much better than when we first met. He knew a lot about the Rehew but never understood who Humans are.

I could sense that he was still angry with me. I figured he must have been angry at me for the situation he was in. He felt trapped, imprisoned. I felt terrible for him, wishing I knew about his situation earlier. I would have come into The Pebble much sooner if I knew. Apologetically, I told him I was sorry. He accepted the apology, however, I still felt he was angry with me.

He was so different from what I remember. More short-tempered, more unhappy. It turned out that he had been the one protecting me. He warned Elatio to warn me about the fact that someone had deleted my digital copy. Even after death, he was helping me. I did not know how to thank him. 

I felt we should change the situation, do something a little more exciting. I took him out and introduced him to a rare sport that they do in New Zealand. We materialised roller man suits and put them on. We found a large hill and threw ourselves down the road. Periclum loved it and he brightened up a little more. He seemed like a natural. However, me and Elatio ended up crashing frequently. Respawning at the top of the hill, ready to try again.

I must have spent about two days in total in The Pebble. Never feeling tired, never feeling hungry, and never needing the toilet. I felt perhaps it was soon time to go back to Caroline. It was sad to leave, but felt it to be necessary. I needed to figure out a way to take all those designs that I made in The Pebble and pretend to make them in real life. In all honesty, I had so much fun in The Pebble, I wasn’t looking forward to going back.

However, it excited me at the thought of feeling like me again. Even though I felt excitement in The Pebble, a lot of other emotions were numb. I didn’t take pleasure from eating, just a fascination in the taste. I didn’t feel pain, only when I wanted to. There was no empathy with any animals around us and a lot of my emotions were vacant in that virtual world. I felt bad for Periclum not being able to have a choice. 

As soon as I came out of The Pebble. It felt as if some invisible force lifted me off of my feet, straight into the air. I climbed higher and higher, through the clouds and into space. Looking down, I could see the Earth disappear under my feet. The stars started stretching out and it sounded like millions of voices were talking at once. Strings of light intertwining around me as I left. The voices turned into the sound of an old 56k modem and then I was opening my eyes, finding myself lying on the toilet floor.

It all felt like a strange dream. I thought for a moment about whether I should send a message to Elatio and in the end I did. ‘Did that happen?’ It read. I got a quick message back. ‘Yes, James, it did!’ I finished brushing my teeth and everything in the bathroom. Ate something simple to settle my incredible hunger and then went back to bed, laying next to Caroline. 

When I came out of The Pebble, I only had memories of the last hour in The Pebble. I didn’t feel the need to recall anymore. But then, as I laid in bed, the memories flashed in my mind, coming back to me. Feeling like the times I had died and previous memories had come back. But this time, I hadn’t died.

For the first time, Caroline woke me up. Ave was already in the motorhome and they wanted to start the day.

“Come on, James! Let’s make your house!” Caroline said.

I smiled, excited to be building it for real. Thinking on how I can incorporate stuff I had already designed and pretend that I had only just designed it. I had another breakfast, feeling strange about the surrounding reality. But then I was distracted by building and we were soon making the house. 

Ave and Caroline were very supportive, and I could see that they were both relieved once they saw it completed. They considered me a natural with designing the different parts. We did it in a virtual space before we materialised it. Lucky for me, we all designed and choose our own stuff. Ave wanted a room and so I incorporated it into the house. In the end, we had four bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Downstairs was another bathroom, storage room and an open-plan kitchen, opened out into the large space. Sat under the bedrooms. The other half of the apartment was a large open space, two stories high. The tree filled the space along with a sofa and the fireplace. Just like in the virtual version of this.

In this version, however, we didn’t have a swimming pool. Caroline convinced me we could do that later. She wanted me to focus on designing the primary area first because she was desperate to have a proper place to live. After lunch, we all came together to place our selections or creations into the house virtually. I was making sure the materials were right and finishing all the little details. While the women decided on furniture and decoration.

Caroline knew how I wanted the kitchen, so she did a wonderful job of designing it all. It was soon time to materialise. The drones came down and got the land ready for the building. They did it so quickly and before we knew it, there was a hole ready for the foundations. More drones came in and constructed the scaffolding, which was to hold the EMC turrets. They installed all the turrets with a little help from Caroline and then my house was being materialised. 

After which, we celebrated with pizza, cooked in the fireplace oven. The women thought the house was amazing, and I was super happy to be in it in reality.

Ave stayed with us for around a week after that. She helped me choose the best volunteer work, fought for us when we needed fighting for, defended us against the murderers who were still out there and was a good friend for Caroline. She admitted she went to the forest to get away from her mother. The forest gave her confidence and the ability to read minds. It helped her to release herself from her mother’s control. She also still felt a great responsibility for the forest.

We could see that she wanted to stay. She loved our house, our area and the interesting people that were our neighbours. She was always talking to everyone, getting to know about their past lives. Everyone loved her. So it made it hard to see her off and let her go.

“I will be back! I just need to say goodbye and say that I am needed here.”

“There will always be a door open here for you, Ave!” Caroline said.

“I know!” She said, doing her best impression of a human smile and it just looking comical. Caroline laughed and gave her a hug.

“I’m going to miss you!” 

“You too!” Ave said as she released from the hug. “James, you look after her!” 

“I will and look forward to the time when we see each other again!” I said, sad, knowing that may never happen again.

She looked at me and could see what I was thinking. She went in and hugged me. “I will try my best to come back James!”

“I’m glad that we have met!” I said as I hugged her back and then let go of the embrace. 

Ave picked up her bag and once again said her goodbyes. Then headed out, waving as she went. Heading for the pod station. After she disappeared around the corner, me and Caroline went back inside and continued our life together on The Liberty.

For a good few months, I was a normal citizen. Did all the volunteer work I could get my hands on and helped our neighbours with their problems. I looked after alien kids, taught science to people who didn’t understand and assisted in strange sports events. Me and Caroline had many people around ours and would often cook different earth dishes for everyone. 

Some people liked them, others did not. Of course, some couldn’t even eat our food since it was poisonous to them. But everyone enjoyed the house. Later we made the pool, set up all the sustainable features of the house. Then settled, really settled. 

Every night I would go into The Pebble and spend a few hours with Periclum before I slept. He was always worried that I would get addicted to it. It was the reason he never liked to touch it when he was alive. He was always afraid that he would never come out.

I never got addicted. There were always too many people around me that cared for me, for me to ever want to stay permanently in The Pebble. Of course, it always frustrated him after they denied me a return visit to the cargo ship. The Captain considered the mission too dangerous, and it was a big if. ‘If’ the EMC machine didn’t update and what ‘if’ the Myrmekes or the Stilla got to The Liberty? She could not risk it.

I found out earlier that the Myrmekes is a biological ship that ended up producing ant like creatures, the Stilla, inside itself to keep itself repaired. The Stilla are never born conventionally, rather they come out from sacs within the Myremekes itself. They have a symbiotic relationship and communicate through telepathy. But they were never smart and could never figure out how to use technology. It has the Galactic Union and the people of The Liberty worried since these Stilla could adapt technology into the Myremekes. It terrified everyone.

Three months after Ave had left for the dark forest. We were to learn how much terror that Myrmekes could bring.

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