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Saturday, August 31, 2019

Gatewood: Operation Soul Patch (Part III)

In 2244, two ships from the Proxima Doma colony arrived to start a new life in Gatewood. Kestral and Ishida let this happen, because their dreams told them they were meant to. There was no explanation for why this was necessary, or who specifically they were waiting for, but the dreams that guided their recent lives had never steered them down the wrong path. The new arrivals were going to be relegated to their own centrifugal cylinder, however, because there is no way the secrets of the multiverse don’t get out if they’re allowed to intermix with the rest of Gatewood’s residents. They aren’t even going to be told how many others lived here, because history doesn’t account for eleven billion extra people in the human population.
A day after they arrive, and are settling into their new dwellings, Ishida receives an unauthorized communiqué from their cylinder, requesting permission to transport over to their location.
Well, who am I speaking to?” the voice on the other end of the radio asks.
“This is Ishida Caldwell. I do not lead this star system. I am just a scientist.”
Did she say Ishida?” a second voice asks.
“Do I know you?” Ishida asks her.
If you let us come over, we’ll promise to cook you a nice salmon dinner,” she really hit the word salmon hard. That is code.
Ishida doesn’t hesitate. “Authorization granted. I’m sending docking instructions.”
Soon thereafter, the small transport ship is docking with the main cylinder, and two women are walking down the ramp.
“Ishida Caldwell, Kestral McBride, and...Julius Parker?” the second woman greets them.
“Everyone keeps calling me that,” he laments. “My name is Saxon in this reality.”
The woman holds up her hands semi-defensively. “Very well. I am Étude Einarsson. This is my...associate, Vitalie Crawville.”
“Étude Einarsson, the Last Savior of Earth,” Ishida says in awe. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
“Wow, you’re famous,” Vitalie says to Étude, before turning her attention back to Team Keshidon. “Are we in mixed company?”
“We’re all mad here,” Kestral recites.
“I’m looking for my daughter, Étude explains. “She disappeared from 2019, and I have reason to believe she ended up here.”
Kestral steps forward with concern, but doesn’t respond immediately. “Cassidy Long?”
“Yes!” Étude cries. “That’s her. So she’s here.”
Kestral and Ishida look at each other. “She was. She left on the AOC.”
“What’s that?” Vitalie question.
“The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Étude answers. “That’s Mateo and Leona’s ship. Ramses built it for them. You were there.”
“She has memory issues?” Saxon asks.
“Occupational hazard,” Étude replies impatiently. “You’re telling me my daughter is with the Matics right now?”
“I’m telling you she left with Mateo, and the rest of the crew years ago. Leona wasn’t there, though. He was trying to get back to her on Varkas Reflex.”
Étude acts like this is the worst news she could have heard. “So they’re on Varkas Reflex?”
Ishida shakes her head. “They sent a quantum burst shortly after departure. Something took control of their systems, and is forcing them towards Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida.”
“Okay, well, when will they get there?” Vitalie asks.
Ishida checks her unwatched wrist. “Eleven years.”
“Who took control of their ship?” Étude looks like she might throw up.
“We suspect it was Mirage, in which case, they’ll be fine.”
“We don’t know that for sure,” Kestral adds. “There are a lot of powerful people in your world.”
“I have to get to Thālith al Naʽāmāt Bida,” Étude begs. “Please, can you spare any ship—any ship? I have to find her.”
“Hey,” Kestral says in what she hopes is a soft and soothing voice. She places her hand on Étude’s shoulder. “We’ll get you there. We have a vessel that would be perfect. It can go ninety-nine point nine percent the speed of light. For you, it will feel like less than nine months.”
This calms Étude down. “Thank you.”
“We’re all friends here.”
Just then, an alarm goes off on Ishida’s tablet. When she consults it, she sees readings that don’t make any sense. “There’s something wrong with Down,” she announces, referring to a ship that was transporting one of the telescope arrays to the intergalactic void. “We have to get back to the throne room now.”
“I can teleport,” Étude tells them. “Show me where it is.”
Ishida shows Étude the map, then lets her take both her and Kestral by the arm, and instantaneously drop them where they need to be. They immediately get to work, pulling up system diagnostics, and error logs.
“Speed is down to ten percent,” Kestral shouts.
“Life support is failing,” Ishida shouts back.
“Why does it need life support?” Kestral questions. “There’s no one on it!”
“I don’t know, but someone’s trying to breathe up there! We have to initialize environmental control!”
They continue working through a slight time delay. While the ship has slowed down, allowing communication to occur in close to real time, it doesn’t quite match up.
“There,” Ishida says finally. She watches the systems as they return to normal. Oxygen starts flowing through a ship that is not meant to be inhabited, and the alarms shut off.
Kestral bites her lower lip. “Get me comms. Shipwide call. I wanna know who the hell is down there.”
Ishida opens a channel. “Void Ship Down, this is Gatewood Control. Void Ship Down, this is Gatewood. Please respond.” She has to repeat her call a few times.
When the voice finally does reply, they instantly recognize it. “This is Anglo Three. Thanks for the pick-me-up.
Kestral is confused. “Is that—”
“It’s coming directly from Down. I don’t understand. I don’t...” she trails off, trying to figure it out.
Are you guys still there?” Anglo Three asks.
Kestral takes the microphone. “Anglo Three, this is Gatewood Primary. Forgive me, but who the hell are you?”
Parker didn’t tell you?
“Tell us what?”
Uhh...maybe he oughta explain it. It’s not really my call. I gotta figure out how to fix this stasis chamber, then go back to sleep. I don’t know what happened.
Kestral makes a direct call. “Parker. Get to the throne room right now.”
“I’m here,” Saxon says from the doorway.
Kestral grimaces. “I’m presently on the phone with someone on the telescope ship. He sounds uncomfortably familiar. Care to explain?”
Saxon sighs. “Operation Soul Patch. I hoped it would never come up.”
“What is it?” Ishida asks him.
Saxon prepares to explain. “Both Project Stargate and Project Topdown are designed to work autonomously. Artificial general intelligence will control every system on board, from propulsion to navigation to repair. Bots can be deployed to cover the kinds of tasks a human crew might perform on a ship that, ya know...has humans. Still. Computer system can be corrupted, or damaged. Now, I’m not saying that humans are perfect, but our brains have something AIs have never been able to replicate.”
Kestral is still pissed. “And what’s that?”
“They call it gasping. It’s basically how a human can be at the end of their life, and still push themselves forwards. We can fight against death, and hold on a little longer; possibly long enough to solve one last problem. If a computer is fed a virus, or encounters some kind of fatal error, it will stop immediately, and try to solve that problem. It will die trying to save itself, because if it succeeds, it can get back up to a hundred percent working order. A human, on the other hand, can choose to ignore their error, and solve for the greater good, because they know when they’ve passed the point of no return. Once we die, we can’t be put back together, and turned back on, which means our final act has to mean something. That’s, at least, why they think they haven’t been able to program an AI to even simulate this behavior. We’re putting humans on board every ship large enough for one, just in case he’s needed. If all else fails, he’ll at least try one last thing.”
“You said he,” Ishida notes. “He sounds like you.”
Saxon frowns. “That was not my idea. He’s my clone. My second clone, in fact. My first clone is in stasis in the Top ship, and many more are being grown to populate their assignments for Project Stargate.”
“How many of your clones are you making and deploying?”
Saxon hesitates, but knows he must answer. “One million, one hundred thirty-two thousand, six hundred and twenty-two.”
“So, it’s not just one for every sector sender of the galaxy,” Ishida calculates. “Some clones will be staying behind with no more work to do once the modules break off.”
“That’s right,” Saxon confirms.
“Then what?” Kestral asks. “They’ll just die? Or will they find some planet to live out the rest of their days?”
Saxon clears his throat. “Each one of us will be able to quantum cast their consciousness to a planet of their choosing, where they will live out there lives however they see fit.”
Ishida contorts her face. “The number you quoted is pretty close to the estimate of how many worlds Operation Starseed will seed life on. Will there be a Saxon on every one?”
“Or they’ll share, I don’t know. This is tens of thousands of years in the future.”
“Umm...hi?” Étude pipes up uncomfortably. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I was hoping you could save this argument for tomorrow. If you really do have a ship Vitalie and I could borrow, we’ll get right out of your hair, so you won’t have to worry about us anymore.”
Kestral closes her eyes, realizing she was the one being rude. “Yes. The strange crisis on the telescope ship seems to have been solved...for now.” She looks back at Saxon. “We will discuss these new developments further, but it does not need to be now. I suggest you go tend to your secret clone farm that I don’t know how we’ve never noticed is here somewhere.” She turns back. “I will prepare the ship for you. You’re fully biological, so I assume you need to eat?”
“We do, yes,” Vitalie replies.
Ishida waves them over. “Come on. I’ll show you where you can rest. There’s a biomolecular synthesizer too. We need to run through the pre-flight checklist before you can launch anyway.”
“Thank you,” Étude says graciously.
Étude and Vitalie follow Ishida to the guest quarters, where Cassidy once stayed; a fact which her apparent mother finds both saddening and comforting. She starts looking around, even though there’s no sign of her daughter having been here.
“She talked about you all the time,” Ishida discloses. “I mean, we didn’t realize it was you, since you evidently changed your name.”
“Yes,” Étude confirms. “I’ve never met anyone else with my real name, and we were trying to hide from dangerous time travelers. It would have been foolish for me to keep it.”
“Forgive me, but how does the timeline work? You’re not transhumanistic, so how is your daughter so old without you having been able to conceive a child while you were the Savior?”
“It wasn’t technically me,” Étude explains. “Vita and I went back in time to change history, so there was one duplicate of each of us. The other ones went off on their own adventures. I only remember it, because Nerakali showed up and blended my brain.”
Ishida nods like she understand. “Yeah, I don’t know who that is.” While she and Kestral are aware of people with time powers, they are not choosing ones themselves. They have this impression that there are thousands of others throughout the spacetime continuum, but they don’t really know for sure, and they’ve not met very many of them in person. Nerakali probably enjoys being a household name for these people, but she isn’t famous among regular vonearthans.
“She can make you remember things from alternate timelines,” Vitalie explains. “It’s this whole thing.”
“Well. You are welcome to stay as long as you want. I’ll make sure your new ship is safe, and you just let me know when you’re ready to use it. I imagine that will be as soon as possible, but it’s entirely up to you. We have plenty of room for friends in this system. And to that, if you ever find yourselves in the neighborhood, you always have a place here, as well does your daughter.”
“Thank you so much, Miss Caldwell. We really appreciate it.” Étude clears her throat suggestively.
“Yes, thank you,” Vitalie echoes, mildly annoyed at being mothered.
Ishida leaves them, and heads back to the throne room. What are they going to do about Project Stargate, Operation Starseed, and this new Operation Soul Patch? More importantly, what other subsecret programs is she and Kestral unwittingly involved with?

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