I stared up at the board, looking at the different times available. How long did I want to enter the chamber for? An hour? A day? Maybe even longer?
The robot attendant, a faceless white automaton, was somehow still watching me. I could feel its gaze on me, that kind of implacable patience that can only be fueled by silicon circuits. I ignored it. I was used to being watched by robots. They were only there to serve, after all.
I knew that some people went in longer. My friend Lev had once entered the chamber for an entire week. When he had staggered out, limping and bloody, he insisted deliriously that it was the best experience of his life. But he also had to get immediate attention from the med-bots, fixing up his injuries before he bled out.
Lev was hardcore, there was no doubt about it. I knew that, deep down, I aspired to be like him, but there was no way that I could manage to survive an entire week.
I stepped up to the counter, finally making up my mind as much as I knew I ever would. The robot had its face on me. “Have you made up your mind, sir?” it asked.
All of the robots had a slight but unmistakable British accent. No one really knew why; Lev insisted that it was the quirk of a long-dead programmer. It was a quirk that we were prepared to live with. No one was able to fix it. No one made things any more.
Lev insisted that this was the problem. I didn’t know. I didn’t think that I was ready to make any decisions like that.
“I have,” I replied to the attendant. “One day, please.”
The robot didn’t respond, but there was a slight clicking from behind it, as the electronic circuits in the chamber rerouted themselves to the new pattern. A few second later, the heavy, pressure-sealed door beside the attendant slowly opened with a hiss of released piston steam.
I took a deep breath. The location and the time was always randomized; there was no way to tell where I would pop up. I quickly ran through my preparations, my skills that I had mastered, hoping that they would be enough.
Lev’s lessons once again rang in my head. We realized too late that we were stagnating, he insisted. He loved to give these sermons, stomping around and waving his arms. We didn’t know that, by giving ourselves everything that we wanted, we were stopping our forward momentum!
I wasn’t quite sure what this meant, but Lev was really insistent on this part. We had lost our innovation, he claimed. We were content, and so here we stopped.
And this, he went on, was why our ancestors had built the chambers. It was a way to escape, to get to a time and place where we were no longer protected, no longer cushioned by attendants to provide whatever we needed. It was a chance to return to the fire, the crucible in which we had been forged. I didn’t know what this meant, but Lev loved to repeat it.
I could almost hear his voice now, as I stepped up to the huge, heavy door of the chamber. “Return to the crucible,” he would say, his aged voice cracking slightly. I was returning now, as I had done so many times.
My heart in my throat, I stepped through the door. There was a hiss immediately behind me as it closed. No retreating.
I stared around at my new surroundings. I was on a beach, I saw. There was no sign of man. The surf was gently lapping at the sand, and I could see palm trees nearby. The air smelled of fresh salt.
I grinned. This, I could deal with.
Remember, I thought to myself as I picked up a stick and began sharpening it on a rock. No safety net here. No med-bots. No one to help if I got into trouble.
This made me feel alive in a way that I’d never felt before. And I couldn’t get enough.