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The Next Best Thing to Being There

by Kevin J. Anderson

The immersive view of the rugged mountainside vanished as a white wave of snow and ice swept over them, experienced real time by thousands of spectator-participants worldwide—armchair mountaineers, tourists, schoolchildren.

And Francesca.

The avatar tumbled, rolled, slid with sickening disorientation through the kinesthetic sensors. The optics became a whirlwind of pummeling snow; sensor touches conveyed the pounding pressure before the governing software dampened the input; haptics added a vertigo of falling.

“What happened?” Francesca cried. “What the hell happened?”

Her two young daughters were screaming next to her in the soft chairs of the control lounge. The media representatives connected to the SHERPA avatar flailed their hands against the unexpected avalanche that had struck the climbers on Mount Rainier.

In a separate room, some of the reporters tore off their interface sets, but Francesca maintained her telepresence connection as the rolling roar slowly ground to a halt. The SHERPA synthetic used its reactive software to stop its fall and anchor its polymer body in the sliding ice and snow.

Once stabilized, SHERPA scrubbed powdered snow away to clear its field of view, then used autonomous systems to dig itself free. Francesca experienced every moment through her passive interface, as well as the biting cold on her skin, the pressing weight of the snow.

Under a brilliant blue sky, she could see the breathtaking expanse of the glaciated volcano, the dazzling ice field, the gray rock jutting out of the white sea. Tens of thousands of virtual spectators experienced the same thing. The bright sun, uncommon for the Pacific Northwest, had made for spectacular visuals and a perfect ascent of the mountain, but several days of warmth might have melted just enough snow to make the ice field near Disappointment Cleaver unstable for the crossing.

Dr. Carlos Kingman, the program director, was shouting, and Francesca experienced a disorienting duality—hearing his panic next to her in the control lounge, while her real focus remained high above 13,000 feet. In a subwindow in the upper left corner of her field of view, she saw Kingman run to the summary screens.

“Full assessment—now.” He whirled, his deep brown eyes wild, his coffee-colored skin darkening with urgency. He yelled to his techs: “Use the disconnects, interrupt the educational feed. We don’t want the schoolchildren to see this.”

The participating reporters in the secondary lounge were already uploading commentary filled with questions and speculations, even though they knew nothing. Kingman knew nothing. Francesca knew nothing.

Dizzy and stunned from experiencing the avalanche, she gathered up the two young girls, wrapping her arms around Tanya and Tammy. A separate part of her experienced the avatar climbing out of the fallen snow, recalibrating itself and getting its bearings.

She was too confused in the first minute to understand the implications, but then the realization plunged down like a different kind of avalanche. She peeled off the optic interface and stared at Kingman. She had seen no sign of her husband or the mountain guide accompanying the robotic avatar. “What about Stephen? And James?”

She glanced at James Tobler’s slender wife Nouri, who sat in another lounge chair, her knees drawn up to her chest, huddled in shock. Nouri still hadn’t figured it out.

Francesca raised her voice. “What about Stephen?”

Mount Rainier in Washington State, 14,411 feet high, had always been a bucket list item for her husband Stephen. He was outdoorsy and fit, though he had put on a little weight since the birth of their daughters.

Francesca and Stephen had met through a common love of hiking. Living in Colorado, they had set out to complete all five hundred miles of the Colorado Trail, which they did. Together, they climbed all 58 of the 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado—the Fourteeners. As a young couple, fully in love, they supported each other, learned skills together and ticked the peaks off their list, one by one. Stephen had even dropped to his knee and proposed to her on the summit of Mount Sneffels.

They were both schoolteachers, a career choice with the added advantage of summers off—hiking season, mountain climbing season. After Tanya was born, though, Francesca retired from her teaching duties, while Stephen was promoted to vice principal; the resulting raise allowed her to watch their daughter, and then, a year later, Tammy as well.

They had done so much before they started a family, but Stephen occasionally dreamed of climbing either Everest or Kilimanjaro—admittedly unrealistic goals—as well as Mount Rainier, also difficult, but much more accessible. He and Francesca both knew it wasn’t likely to happen.

Then last year, during a backyard barbecue with a few neighbors, Stephen had waxed poetic about mountain climbing in general and Mount Rainier in particular. Their neighbor, Carlos Kingman, had been intrigued with the conversation.

While Francesca rounded up the girls and let them play an inept but entertaining game of croquet in the backyard, Kingman lounged back in a lawn chair and looked at Stephen. “I bet there are countless people who would love to make the climb, but simply can’t arrange the trip, or who aren’t physically capable. What if you could do it?” Kingman raised his eyebrows. “What if you had the chance to climb Rainier, and tens of thousands of others could join you for the experience?”

“Sounds like an awfully crowded trail,” Stephen joked.

“I meant figuratively. What would it take for you to do the climb?”

“Other than getting in better shape?” Stephen cocked an eyebrow. “There’d be a lot of logistics planning, and I’d need the time off from school. It’s typically a three-day expedition, led by a professional guide. Even from the highest trailhead, the ascent is still nine thousand feet—a lot harder than any Fourteener in Colorado.” He sipped his beer with a wry expression. “Believe me, I’ve looked at all the details. I’ve dreamed. I’ve tried to make it happen. But … family obligations, you know.”

Kingman wore a secretive smile. “I think there’s a way we could make it happen, with the full support of your school. It would be an educational opportunity you could share with the world, and I’ll have the funding. It would be a pilot project, a great demonstration of the Avatar work—a surrogate experience for students all around the world, and an opportunity for as many frustrated mountaineers who would like to subscribe.” He began talking faster. “We have a brand new telepresence unit that would be perfect for this use.”

As she gathered up the croquet balls and made sure the girls didn’t accidentally hit each other with the mallets, Francesca could tell that Stephen was excited by the idea. He tried to cover it up with skepticism. “Using an avatar? You mean, people would sit at home and experience a real, gritty mountain climb without having to lift a muscle?”

“That would be for the subscriber base of spectator-participants,” Kingman said. “But somebody actually has to do it. You and a guide would accompany the avatar. Schoolchildren and paid participants would be connected via the SHERPA synthetic and experience everything you do.” He grinned.

“SHERPA? Is that an acronym for something?”

“Of course it is,” Kingman said with a chuckle, “but don’t ask me what the letters stand for. Somebody was being cute.” He set his own beer aside and stood from the lawn chair. “This would be a wonderful opportunity to show off the remote educational capabilities as well as the virtual tourism aspects the technology offers.”

In the dozen years since the awarding of the Avatar XPRIZE—a bold initiative that encouraged the development of remote operation and experience via sensory technology—various “avatars” had blossomed throughout the industrial, creative, medical, and service worlds. The rapid development and widespread uses were far beyond what had been envisioned by Dr. Harry Kloor, the instigator and lead of the XPRIZE. Now, in 2036, avatars in all their forms were penetrating everyday life. Francesca had been aware of Dr. Kingman’s engineering work, but had not thought much about it. Neither had Stephen, but he was obviously intrigued with this new idea.

SHERPA was a sophisticated unit that would do more than just carry their packs and supplies; the robot was also a climbing partner that allowed Francesca and their daughters to virtually ride along. The plans came together smoothly, generating a great deal of media excitement.

Their experienced guide up Rainier, James Tobler, had summited the mountain more than fifty times. After a year of planning, Stephen and the robot set off from the Paradise trailhead on the first day, starting at an elevation of 5,000 feet in the thick forest. Guided by James, they headed across the Muir snowfield to the Muir Camp hut at 10,000 feet.

Classes tapped in, with thousands of students virtually participating in the climb; Stephen paused to give lectures, turning to face the avatar so he could explain geology, climate, or weather patterns on the mountain. Nearly 40,000 paid spectators worldwide also subscribed, paying a fee to vicariously experience the climb of Mount Rainier.

After a brief sleep in the cold Muir hut, they headed out at midnight under a full moon, ascending the glaciers. Thanks to the specialized permits Kingman had obtained for this project, their group had the normally crowded trail to themselves. James, Stephen, and SHERPA had reached the high point of Columbia Crest just in time for a breathtaking sunrise—all alone on the mountaintop, but silently accompanied by countless spectators and virtual companions, as well as Francesca and the two girls.

It had been glorious. Francesca had reached out, briefly allowed to use SHERPA’s interactive interface. With the avatar’s haptic sensors, she could take Stephen’s hand and share in his victory from the summit.

Kingman had been delighted at the demonstration of SHERPA’s abilities. A complete success, showcasing beneficial aspects of innovative avatar technologies inspired by the XPRIZE competition. The control lounge was filled with shouting celebrations.

But on the descent, while the three traversed the ice field near Disappointment Cleaver, disaster struck … while the whole world watched, and participated.

As SHERPA oriented itself in the broken snow, recovering its bearings on dangerous ground, Francesca remained connected, desperate to help, but she experienced it only as an observer. The two girls were terrified. Tanya was trying to comfort her little sister.

As Kingman barked orders, his staff jacked into the active interfaces. “How much damage did the avatar suffer? Did we lose any physical integrity? Is the first aid suite intact?” He ran to the external readout deck, calling up screens, staring at diagnostics. “I need remote emergency physicians, now! Bring in our team of active medical responders.”

“We have to find the two men first, sir.”

“Then find them!”

Still listening to the diminishing rumble and slide of displaced ice chunks, Francesca asked, “What can I do to help? How can I pitch in?”

Kingman was hyperfocused. “We’re still assessing. We don’t know what’s happening yet.”

Francesca was desperate to do something, but she was too far away. She was just a former teacher, former hiker, and now, a mother. Unwilling to interfere with the avatar team in the crisis, she withdrew to the background. She watched through the optical sensors as SHERPA searched for the two men in the avalanche field.

“Cycle through wavelengths,” Kingman said. “We’ve got to find them. If they’re buried under the snow, we have only a few minutes. We know exactly where they were—run a back projection.”

James Tobler’s wife Nouri shook herself and stood from her own seat. “Where’s James? They’re buried!”

Francesca spoke aloud to the room, even though her eyes saw the silent, bright ice field and the gray comb of rock. “Is Search and Rescue on the way?”

“Full teams from Paradise Base Camp are heading up on foot.”

She knew how many miles that was. “They’ll take most of a day!”

“The weather’s good. We are also trying to launch helicopters. Rescue teams should be able to drop down on ropes—if we can find Stephen and James on the snowfield.”

Francesca watched through artificial eyes as SHERPA cycled through the spectrum, using various E-M windows to search for the two men who had been tossed about on a wave of ice and snow. They would leave a significant thermal trace with their body heat, unless they were buried too deep.

SHERPA scrambled through the loose, cold rubble, scanning along the obvious avalanche path, looking up the slope to where the climbers had been. The avatar projected their drop path based on their precise last-known positions. The technicians jabbered, going over rough calculations.

Francesca felt adrift in the middle of the activity, but she kept looking, then spotted a bright smear in the garish infrared imaging. “Look, over there!” In her mind and ears, she heard countless other participants also identifying the heat signature—a human-shaped lump buried only a few feet beneath the fresh blanket of snow.

SHERPA bounded over on artificial hands and legs, extruding traction crampons. The robot was designed for agility on rough terrain, and during the climb from Paradise and across the glaciers to the summit, it had learned and adapted to the terrain. Now, the avatar raced toward the thermal image. Digging furiously, it used polymer hands to scoop and shove the snow, exposing the head and shoulders of one of the men.

Nouri let out a sudden cry from her chair and, through the optical sensors, Francesca saw that it was James Tobler. The man wasn’t moving, and his head was bloody. Moving gingerly, SHERPA cleared away more debris to free the fallen guide and stabilize him on the uncertain slope.

“Get the emergency surgeons jacked in!” Kingman said. “Use the medical sensor suite to check him out. Is he still breathing?”

“He’s still breathing,” one of the techs said. “Getting vitals now.”

Francesca felt the control shift in the avatar body as medical teams took over the manipulation. She watched its robotic arms move, detected sensors activating, first aid apparatus locking into place from embedded channels in the robotic arms.

SHERPA rapidly pushed through layers of clothing to assess cardiac activity. Simultaneously, the avatar detected breathing with no atypical sounds or gurgling. Airway, check. Breathing, check. The full electrocardiogram revealed no arrhythmias. With one polymer articulated hand, it pulled open James’s eyelids to assess the pupillary response.

In the background audio track, one of the physicians announced, “Both pupils are equal and responsive. If there were stroke or bleed, they’d be different, or they wouldn’t constrict. Brisk—they look good. Good chance there’s just a concussion. What’s the blood pressure?”

The remote doctors used the avatar’s embedded equipment to inflate securing pillows that stabilized his neck, packing quik-clot on the superficial scalp bleed. SHERPA held its hand just above James’s elbow and remained completely still for an eternity of 30 seconds, detecting the sound of the blood flowing as the robot gradually released its hold on the elbow and assessed blood pressure.

“Blood pressure is low, but in the normal range,” the remote physician announced. “Doesn’t seem like he’s lost much blood.”

Francesca was glad to see the guide cared for, but she longed to take control of the avatar and keep searching for Stephen along the avalanche path. He was buried out there somewhere.

Though she remained immersed in the connection, Francesca felt the warmth of a body, two bodies next to her. Her daughters were curled up beside her in the wide, comfortable experiential chair.

“Where’s Daddy?” Tammy asked. “Is he going to be all right?”

Despite the other connections through SHERPA, Francesca used real nerves and skin, a true sense of touch with her daughters, not through any haptic interface. She pulled the girls close and hugged them. “I hope so.”

Kingman touched his ear, listened. “Helicopters are ready to launch soon. We’ll have them on scene as quickly as possible.”

“Will it be fast enough?” Nouri Tobler asked in a rough voice. “Will James survive?”

The physicians took full control, worked to stop the bleeding from the head injury, ran a final check. “He has the best possible chance,” Kingman said.

“But where’s Stephen?” Francesca still attempted to look through the corner of her eyes, SHERPA’s eyes. The optical sensors scanned, and at the periphery she saw another thermal image. “Off to the left. Up on the slope near those three exposed rocks.”

SHERPA’s head swiveled, and all spectators could see the smear of body warmth, and more than that—movement. It was Stephen, clawing free of the snow that had buried him. “He’s alive!” she cried, then squeezed the two girls curled up against her. “Daddy’s alive.”

Stephen got his head and shoulders free. “Over here,” he gasped, his voice weak.

“We have to get to him.” Francesca struggled to move inside the avatar body, but hers was only a passive interface. The physicians had taken full control tending to James.

“If your husband is moving, that’s a good sign,” Kingman said.

Francesca longed to scramble across the ice field and pull Stephen out of the cold, smothering embrace. She would use the robot’s body, the artificial limbs, the haptic sensors, to wrap her arms around Stephen and hold him—use the robot’s waste heat to keep him alive.

Stephen pulled himself farther out of the snow, propping himself up. He brushed ice chips away and coughed. Francesca recoiled to see blood splashing out of his side, a bright red stain on the freshly exposed white snow.

SHERPA’s optical sensors swiveled back to the still-unconscious form of James. Inside the link, the coordinating surgeon said, “That’s good for now. Let’s go check the other patient.”

After ensuring that James was stretched out and in a place where he wouldn’t slip down a slope even if he moved or rolled, SHERPA covered him with a thin thermal film to keep him warm. Then the avatar dug polymer hands and feet into the loose snow to make a cautious ascending traverse across the field to where Stephen struggled to extricate himself.

Suddenly, large chunks of frozen debris slid out from under Stephen’s hips and he began to slide down the slope. He yelled, and Francesca yelled with him. He reached out his gloved hands, flailing, trying to slow his fall. He left more blood on the snow.

The avatar shifted its approach to intercept Stephen, working itself downward and across as snow slid under its textured feet. Stephen spread himself out, increasing his surface area, halting his fall. Finally, the unstable snow chunks caught on a rock ledge, and he came to a stop. He groaned in pain.

SHERPA picked and climbed its way over to him. From where he sat slumped on the ledge, Stephen looked gray, and his face was slack. He panted hard. He managed to sit, then pulled on the rock, trying to drag himself upright, but the effort was too much for him.

Through the eyes of the avatar, Francesca saw a wide maroon patch on his clothing, wet, soaked with blood from an injury in his left mid-torso. A large wicked shard of ice had pierced him like a crystalline spearpoint.

Breathing fast and ragged, Stephen reached out to grip the avatar’s body. “I’m here. I’m okay.”

“Help him!” Francesca shouted into the passive link.

The medical team took over, assuming full fine control of the medical suite in the artificial body. They scanned Stephen’s vitals, assessed his injuries. “We can’t remove the ice shard. Pack gauze around it so we can apply pressure.”

“Traumatic injury, upper quadrant.”

The doctors had been reporting through the speakers in SHERPA’s plastic face, but Francesca said, “Let me talk to him.”

Kingman nodded, gestured to one of his techs. Her audio link became active. “Stephen—it’s Francesca! I’m here.”

“You’re very far away.” He sounded disoriented.

“Not as far as you might think. It’s the next best thing to being there.” She reached out, used SHERPA’s polymer hand to clasp her husband’s arm. “Hold on. Helicopters are on their way, a full rescue crew. It won’t be long.”

“I’m fine,” he said. “I hate to have the whole world watching this. Don’t want to go down in history … as a klutz.”

“Sorry, but we have to do our work,” one of the physicians cut in over her private audio interface. “We need control back.”

She said quickly, “I’m here, Stephen. The doctors have to take over now, but I’m watching. I’m with you.”

“Yeah, a doctor would be a good idea.” He forced a wheezing laugh. The spreading bloodstain in his side was growing ominously larger around the gauze and the ice shard.

Francesca retreated into the avatar’s background as the surgeons took over. She had always been an active person, wanting to participate. She had climbed so many mountains with Stephen, summiting one Fourteener after another. Once, alone on the top of Mount Lindsey after a grueling hike, with the Sangre de Cristo range all around them, they had decided to make love in the rocky windbreak shelter. What could be more romantic? But they had been so sweaty and so exhausted, the experience had left much to be desired. They spent more time gasping for breath than gasping with pleasure.

Once the girls were born, Francesca had become a mother instead of a mountain climber, caretaker and teacher of her own daughters instead of classrooms of students. She had been happy with her life and with herself. She had been proud of Stephen.

But they both jumped at this chance Kingman’s avatar program offered. Stephen could at last climb Mount Rainier, and she could be with him—and Tanya and Tammy had climbed the mountain, too. Connected through SHERPA, they had all stood on top that morning, surrounded by rocks and the sweeping plunge of the crater, the vast fields of the mountain’s multiple glaciers.

As the sun rose on the top of the world, Stephen and James had thrown their arms up, howling into the thin air with excitement, and all those many thousands of spectators and participants linked in through the avatar connection did the same as SHERPA raised its synthetic arms.

The Rainier summit was the highest high … swept away only hours later in a roar and sweep of falling snow.

“Is … James all right?” Stephen gasped to the avatar as the remote physicians poked and prodded at his wound, muttering amongst themselves as to how best to treat the injury. He slumped back to a sitting position against the rough volcanic rock. “I’m dizzy … but I can help. With SHERPA I can work my way over to him.” He pressed a hand against his stomach.

The emergency physicians were using the avatar’s full capabilities. They had a backchatter on their own channel, but Kingman allowed Francesca and Nouri to listen in. One of the doctors spoke through SHERPA. “You need to stay put. Mr. Tobler has a concussion, but he is stabilized. We’re more concerned about you now.”

“I’m better off than he is,” Stephen insisted. “Francesca, are you still there?”

“I’m here. And so are the girls. The helicopters are on their way. They’ll be there soon.”

Kingman signaled to her in the external real-world window in a corner of her field of view. “Two hours,” he mouthed.

“They’ll be there in an hour, Stephen. Just hold on.”

He made a weak sound. “I’ll hold on.” The remote physicians tried to hold him down and keep him still. Their backchatter became ominously quiet.

Francesca continued, “Just relax. Let them tend you.” She could feel Tanya and Tammy snuggling next to her, as if they could get closer to their distant father that way.

Kingman touched her shoulder and signaled for her to drop out of the immersive link. As she came out, disoriented to find herself in the mundane control lounge, his grave expression made her feel sick. “What’s the matter? Everything’s all right now. We’ve got them.”

“I won’t lie to you,” Kingman said. “It’s far worse than it looks. I … I want you to know.”

“But Stephen’s conscious. He’s talking. He wants to go help James.”

The lead scientist swallowed hard. He looked at her, looked away, then with a visible effort turned back to her. “The ice shard, that wound in his side—he has traumatic internal injuries. The physicians think it’s a splenic laceration, but it may have hit the aorta, and there’s no way to block it off. He’s got so much adrenaline he may not feel pain, but he’s bleeding a lot.” Kingman swallowed again. “In fact, his systolic blood pressure has dropped 20 since the first reading, in only a few minutes. That’s a strong indicator he may be bleeding out. SHERPA’s sensors and diagnostics are quite sophisticated, but the medical suite can’t stop internal hemorrhaging on that scale.”

Francesca felt cold, couldn’t formulate a question. Finally, she said, “But you have the very best telepresence doctors. Bring in any specialist to link up to the avatar. They can be right there.”

“We have access to the world’s best expertise, but he’s out on a snowfield. In order to have a hope of saving him, the surgical environment is … is just not there. Best case, the helicopters couldn’t get him to a real hospital in under two hours.” The man shook his head. “Maybe the doctors are misinterpreting the signs, but if the internal injury is what we suspect, it … it may be fast.”

Her world collapsed and broke apart. “How long?”

Kingman just looked at her. “Our experts might be wrong, but prepare yourself. SHERPA has administered epinephrine, but the blood pressure isn’t responding. The remote medics have done everything they possibly can.”

“No, I don’t accept that!” she said. “He’s right there!” That’s when the girls started crying, but she wasn’t sure whether either of them understood what was going on. Her voice hitched, and she struggled to be strong. “Can I talk to him?”

Kingman drew a breath. “I can do more than that. I can let you be with him, through the avatar. SHERPA will project your face, your voice. With haptic sensors, you can hold him.”

Francesca felt cold, a layer of ice around her growing panic. “What about our daughters?”

Kingman didn’t hesitate. “They can be there, too. We’ve deactivated the public connection, and no one else is watching him right now except for the doctors and you. The media is clamoring.”

“I don’t want reporters with my husband as he dies,” she snapped.

“No, it’ll just be you. You, and Tammy and Tanya.”

Tears streamed from her eyes. “Let’s hook up the girls again. We don’t have much time.”

Tanya and Tammy crowded next to her on the padded seat while a technician hurriedly reapplied the contact web to the girls. Kingman said, “I’m going to drop you into avatar mode again. The physicians will back off.”

Francesca braced herself, thought about the summits she and Stephen had achieved, the high points of their lives—and not just on mountains. She thought of the open air, the expansive views, the exhilaration of endorphins, the fresh sense of accomplishment. Now she was so far away … but through the haptic sensors she could feel him so close. SHERPA’s hands were her hands, and she was with Stephen again.

“Something isn’t … right,” Stephen said. He seemed very dizzy and disoriented, lightheaded. “I’m hurt bad, aren’t I?”

She wouldn’t lie. “I’m sorry.”

“I thought so. Helicopters coming?”

“They’re on the way right now.”

When Stephen looked up at her, his expression fell. Through the projected overlay image on the avatar’s face, he could read her real thoughts. “Won’t get here in time.”

“There’s always a chance, Stephen! Always a chance.”

“I see your face. After all these years … I can read you.”

He would not have wanted her to sugarcoat the situation. With so little time left, he deserved to know, to face his fate, to be with them. “They think you have severe internal bleeding.”

“I feel … loopy.”

She squeezed, and SHERPA’s hand clasped his arm. “I wish you were here,” he said.

“Actually, I wish you were here. Just one of the armchair mountaineers letting someone else take the risk.” Her voice cracked.

“I like to do things for myself.” He spoke slowly, as if each word were a heavy weight to be lifted out of his mouth. “Is everyone else watching, too?”

“No, just us … and the girls. Tanya and Tammy are holding you along with me. Can you feel this?” She squeezed again. “They have the touch sensors, too. We’re all here.”

“Good, I’ll take that. Better than dying alone on a mountainside.”

“You’re not alone. We’re here.” Francesca leaned forward in the control lounge chair, and SHERPA’s arms extended on the ice slope, embracing Stephen, wrapping around him and holding him. She could feel his solidity, feel his touch. Through the avatar’s haptic sensors, they were right beside him. The girls felt the same thing.

Francesca was shuddering and trembling as she stifled her sobs so Stephen wouldn’t notice. “I love you.” He grew quieter, but he was smiling, comforted to have them next to him.

Francesca held him. His daughters held him. With a simple adjustment, the whole world could hold him in his last moments, but for now she had him to herself. They were there for him, and Stephen went quietly under the cold, bright sky after summiting a mountaintop he had always wanted to do—with his family.

In the control lounge, the three remained connected to SHERPA long after he was gone. It wasn’t until the audio pickups brought her the sound of approaching helicopters in the high, thin air did she relinquish control so the telepresence physicians and the Search and Rescue teams could save James.

They would also bring Stephen’s body back to her, but through the avatar she already had an experience that was far more meaningful, far more precious to her, and she held onto that, even as she let go of her husband.

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