Saturday, September 4, 2021

Extremus: Year 8

It took Valencia, and the other smart people on this ship, nearly five months to double check the math, and draw up a flawless plan. While the micrometeoroid threat was indeed growing larger by the second, they couldn’t screw up the solution, and good solutions require time. The robots constructed extra physical shields to the front of Extremus to better deflect oncoming objects, and this proved to be effective for now. At the moment, they’re only about 18% of the way to the galactic core, where it’s most dense. They still don’t really know if it’s going to get worse than it already is, even worse than they ever imagined possible, or be all fine and dandy. Today is a new launch day. Under Valencia’s supervision, the engineering committee is going to be dispatching a series of mining automators to the nearest celestial bodies. The problem is a lack of data. They are literally in uncharted territory, which means they don’t know what kind of planets and asteroids are floating around out here, or what treasures they bear. So multiple automators have been built, hoping that at least one of them doesn’t fail, and encounters something good.
On a personal note, Omega has been doing all right. Medical tests turned up nothing unusual about his physiology, or neurology. He occasionally catches glimpses of the man who isn’t there, smiling down on him, but he no longer speaks. There is no apparent reason for Omega to be having these hallucinations, but as of yet, they have seen no evidence that they’re doing him any harm, besides causing him to doubt himself. He wants to be there for the launches, so while he isn’t in charge of the special project anymore, he’s being released for the day to witness. The nurse insists they keep him in the hoverchair so he doesn’t overexert himself, but it’s completely unnecessary. She doesn’t know what this project is, though, so she can’t stick around. Halan agrees to assume responsibility for his health while they watch the show.
The rest of the committee is already in the observation room that is overlooking the drones in the cargo bay. Omega regards with wonder, glad that they have been able to pull this off so far, and saddened that he wasn’t a part of it. Halan gets him some cheese and bread bites from the refreshments table while they wait to begin. When it’s time, Valencia moves to stand between the crowd and the windows. She has to gesture for Augustina Voll to follow her. “Well, it’s finally ready. The project is about to begin. For those of you without the requisite education, I’ve asked my First Apprentice to explain to you what’s happening today, and why it’s necessary.”
Augustina clears her throat. “When we first launched, we did so with finite resources, as I’m sure you know. Only so much mass can fit on this vessel. We had more than enough to make it through the entire 216-year journey without ever having to stop. We grow our own food, we make our repairs en route. Sadly, as it turns out, the repairs we had to make a few years ago have proven to be far more involved than we thought we would need. Had this happened near the end of the trip, we probably would have been fine, but now our reserves are too low, and it’s too risky. We need more materials, and for that, we need more time. In order to keep our dream of constant motion alive, we’re going to have to get creative. That means getting resources not just from nearby worlds, but from the past.
“What you see in each of the five designated sections of the cargo bay are five space-capable drones. They’re small, I know, but they’re each fitted with a mini-fusion reactor, and an AI program capable of finding a suitable celestial body, landing, and extracting resources. We have enough power to safely send the drones about thirty years into the past. This should be enough time for them to travel to their star system, mine the resources, and return to the rendezvous position. We could send them back further, but it would cost more. We don’t presently have the materials we would need to fit them with reframe engines either, so relativistic speeds are going to have to do. Slow relativistic speeds, in fact. They max out at point-six-c. If they have to travel five light years away, and five back, that leaves them around thirteen years to mine. They should be able to handle that, but it could be tight, which is why we’ve programmed them to extract the materials, but not build the Frontrunners themselves. We don’t really know how far they’ll have to travel in their search.”
While Valencia is talking, Omega notices a figure in the corner of his eye. Other people are standing there, but this person stands out. He’s afraid to look, because he knows who it is. It’s that hallucination again. He appears to just be enjoying the presentation with everyone else. Omega leans over to Captain Yenant, and whispers, “I’m going to get some water.”
“I’ll get it,” Halan says.
“No, I know all this. You should stay with your people.” Omega flies the chair to the back, and heads for the water. The hallucination man follows him. Omega waits behind the table, ready to start actually getting the water if someone were to look back curiously.
“Are you feeling okay?” the hallucination has the audacity to ask.
“What are you doing here? Who are you?” Omega demands to know.
“I’m a program, and I’m here to make sure the ship runs smoothly.”
“If you were a hologram, other people would be able to see you, and I don’t have any neuro-tech enhancements. I receive life extension treatments, and I have some musculo-skeletal implants. How are we communicating?”
“As a clone, you have advanced neurological capabilities, including techno-psychic communication. You can’t interface with any bit of technology you want, but you’re connected to me, because...”
“Because what? Why are you hesitating?” Omega asks that a little too loud, prompting Head of Security Gideon to look back. Now he reaches for the water.
“Because you are, in terms of security protocols, Elder Caverness.”
“What are you going on about?”
“You altered your DNA to make Old Man’s safe think that you were him, so you could open it.”
“That was temporary.”
The hallucination shook his head. “No, it wasn’t.”
Omega has some control over his own physiology, and even his genetic code, which is what allowed him to break into the DNA safe in the first place. Still, there is only so much he can do, and only so much information about his health status that he can gather in realtime. He looks down at himself like that alone could confirm or refute what the hallucination is claiming.
“Don’t be afraid, it’s a good thing. Now you have me, and I can help with things, like showing you the solution to the micrometeoroid problem, and telling you that one of these drones is about to land on an inhabited planet.”
“So your creator, he knows the future. There is no other way you could possibly know that. Or you’re just lying.”
“My creator, me...what exactly is the difference?”
“Stop speaking in half-explanations, forcing me to ask more questions. Just give me all the answers.” Gideon looks back again, so Omega has to reach over and sample one of the deserts, even though it’s not time for that yet.
“I wasn’t created by Elder Caverness. I am Elder Caverness. I designed a perimortem consciousness transference device.”
“Those are illegal on this ship,” Omega protests.
Up until this point, since no one else can see or hear him, the hallucination has been speaking in an inside voice. He drops to a whisper to mock him. “Then I suppose we won’t want to tell anyone about it, will we? Shh. Hush-hush.”
“What is your purpose?”
“I designed it primarily for the Captain, so this boat can enjoy a little bit of damn continuity. Why hand over power when you can just stay alive throughout the whole journey?”
“That doesn’t make any sense. You were the one who tried to give the Captain the device that would have sent him off to a death in the void.”
“I don’t know anything about that,” the program says. “Obviously I had to test the technology first. The last version of me was uploaded into the computer a few months before the incident. I couldn’t tell you why Corporeal!Me tried to kill Captain Yenant, but I had nothing to do with it. We were two separate people by then.”
The conversation has to end as the speech before them does. The people begin to crowd around the windows. The part that Omega missed was about how the successful missions will appear pretty much instantaneously. Years will have passed for them—though it’s impossible to know how many without first knowing how far they’ll have to travel at relativistic speeds. But they won’t even be the same drones anyway. In order to transport the materials they mine, they’ll also use part of the material to build their own replacements. Those will be the ships that will appear in the cargo bay with the payloads. They’ll be extremely bare, and not even vacuum sealed. They’ll be more like only the framing, with enough space to hold what they need, along with the engines. They call it a gridship.
Omega flies over towards the window, and the crowd separates so he can see better. As Augustina is counting down to the first launch, Omega notices AI!Elder, or whatever it is they should call him, standing in the fourth section. He’s wearing an old timey airport marshaller’s uniform, and making random arm movements, demonstrating the importance of this particular section. He opens his mouth, and rolls his eyes to the back of his head as he pulls at his shirt collar. He’s pantomiming dying. He’s pantomiming dying in section four. For whatever reason, when the gridship rendezvouses with Extremus, people are going to die. And apparently, Omega is the only one who can stop it.
“Go for One!” Augustina declares. The drone disappears. A minute passes, but nothing returns.
“Aww,” the crowd groans, displeased and disappointed.
“Go for Two!” It’s only eight billion miles away from the first one, but it’s heading on a completely different vector, so it should have different candidate objects. It returns with a nice payload of various building materials, which will help them complete their project. The crowd cheers. It’s only about half of what they need to dispatch the Frontrunners, so hopefully one of the others also succeeds.
Augustina waits another five minutes, which gives the third drone about forty billion miles to find something else. “Go for Three!” It comes back with more than enough of what they will need. The crowd cheers again, this time much louder.
The Elder program is still in section four of the main cargo bay. He’s shaking his head. Nothing has changed. This will still end badly. Omega doesn’t know how he knows this, especially with so many variables, but he can’t take the chance. They have the raw materials they need right now. There is no reason to continue. They could always send more missions later on, now that they know it’s possible.
Now the Elder program is pointing at the scorch station. Should a contaminate be loaded into the cargo bay—which is what this program appears to be suggesting will happen—the scorch station is capable of destroying any organic substance in the entire cargo bay. Since this is obviously so dangerous, it’s not like anyone is allowed to just walk up to it, and turn it on. They need authorization. Fortunately for Omega, he is more than qualified to break into it, especially if the Elder program is there to help him out. First, he hacks his chair, and teleports into what’s generally a time power-free zone. He won’t be able to trick the system into believing he’s a senior officer, but he can make it think he’s the cargomaster, who is also authorized to perform this action.
He checks his watch as he’s working, acutely aware that the next scheduled launch is in less than two minutes. He doesn’t absolutely have to get this done before the contaminant shows up. Either the fire prevents the launch from taking place, or it kills what’s already come through. Either way, everyone remains safe. It looks like it’s going to be the second possibility. Just when he’s cracked it, Omega sees the drone disappear, only to be immediately replaced by another vessel, but it’s not a gridship. It’s sealed up with a hull, and the hatchway is opening, which suggests that someone alive is inside. It’s too late. Scorch protocol engages, and overwhelms the cargo bay.

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