Saturday, July 6, 2024

Expelled: Exploited (Part III)

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Elder was able to rig up a holographic bathroom. At first, it was nothing more than a partition that gave the user some much-needed privacy. Over time, with little else to do, he added more and more to the program, including the highly requested feature of a noise-canceling system, as well as some scent-masking. Eventually, it looked like they were in one of those extremely fancy and expensive bathrooms that only the wealthiest of people used. It wasn’t like a holodeck, so they couldn’t touch the double basin sink, or the clawfoot tub, but it made them feel a little less confined. This tactic was quickly expanded to the entirety of the tent, allowing them to pretend that they had more space than they did. They could transition views between a number of different environments. It could look like they were sitting in the middle of a serene forest, against a backdrop of mountains, or even in the middle of outer space. That one wasn’t used very much, but it was there if they wanted it. They could also use this to make the tent appear to be transparent, allowing them to see what the real world outside looked like. The imagery was bleak, and a little depressing, but it was often better than the claustrophobia-inducing opaque walls.
In addition to these cosmetic changes, Elder had a lot of other work to do. In order to transmit objects from inside to the outside, and back again, there was a small built-in airlock. It had to be flexible, so it could collapse into the pack where it was stored, of course, but it was enough in a pinch. He was able to program a tube of starter nanites to head out onto the regolith, and begin building them a larger, and more permanent, living structure. Once it was finished being constructed, they would finally be able to stand up, and walk around. It was hard to get exercise in this thing, so they were desperate for more options, especially since this planet featured fairly low gravity. Bicycle crunches were probably saving their lives, but they were becoming increasingly sick of them.
Bronach Oaksent claimed to be only a few hundred meters away, but he was nowhere to be seen. There were a number of geological features nearby, which could easily conceal him, particularly well if he had built his own shelter mostly underground. He could also be in a very small dimensional generator, which would be incredibly easy to hide. Even before he built the nanofactory, Elder designed a pebble drone, based on the kind of rocks that were present on this planet. Tiny cilia that were invisible to the naked eye pressed against the surface, allowing it to roll along in search of Bronach’s hiding place. It was a very slow process, but it used very little power, and each one could operate autonomously. Indeed, a larger drone design would be easier to spot, so this was the best way to do it if they didn’t want to get caught.
True to his word—in this sense, at least—Bronach never reached out. Elder didn’t detect a single radio signal, so he wasn’t trying to communicate anywhere else either. Elder would even be able to tell if he were using some kind of quantum messenger, which would be difficult to transport with its relatively high mass, or maybe not if his dimensional generator theory were true. There was still so much that they didn’t know, and it still wasn’t priority. Their focus was on survival. What he really needed was a real lab so he could start working on that time machine. Debra had wanted to leave Extremus, but she made it quite clear that she would prefer it to this.
“Don’t worry about the time machine right now,” Debra argued. “Just get me a place to stand up, and then a place to sit down. You are building chairs, right?”
“Of course I am,” Elder replied, “and I’m not worried about the lab right now. I’m just talkin’. The nanites are busy on the structure; me discussing the future doesn’t slow that down.”
“You should have brought more nanites,” she tried to reason.
“The amount of time it takes for them to replicate is negligible compared to the time it takes to actually build what we need. Packing more would not have significantly sped up the process. In fact, it might have slowed it down, because it would have been more difficult to get them through the airlock pocket, and on its way to the worksite.”
“The worksite is right there.” Debra pointed. The tent was pseudotransparent on one side right now, so they could watch the construction progress. The other sides were showing the ocean surrounding an atoll.
“That’s miles away to a nanite. Scaled up, that would be like if you drove around the equator of the Earth,” Elder tried to explain for the upteenth time. He hadn’t had to say that specific thing to her before, but she was one of the least educated people he had ever met. She didn’t listen. She seemed to think that the nanites were magic. If she knew their breakdown rate, she would...well, she wouldn’t understand that number, but if she did, she would throw a fit.
“I’ve never been to Earth.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I really don’t.”
“Stop fighting,” Rita interjected. “This is a stupid conversation, and I’m over it. Elder, how long until we can teleport into the new structure?”
“We’re not teleporting into it,” Elder contended. “We have precious little temporal energy left in the teleporter gun, and we need to save it.”
“If we’re so low, how are we ever going to go back in time?” Debra questioned.
“I will be able to harvest more with greater resources,” Elder clarified. “It would sure help to have some stored to catalyze the process, though, which is why I’m having the nanites build a docking cone. That’s mostly what still needs to be finished. It’s right there.” He pointed to it. A metal cone was gradually materializing towards them.
“And the time until it’s complete?” Rita reiterated.
“Only a few more days,” he answered. “I know what you’re gonna say next, but bear in mind that solar is our only source of power at the moment. The shelter would take even longer if I had the nanites build a fusion reactor at the same time, even though having fusion would eventually make them go faster. Plus, the basalt and sedimentary rocks have to be pulverized and reformulated into a sort of concrete to create the airtight seal that we obviously need. There is not as much metal in the regolith as I would like. But as soon as they’re done, we’ll have nine square meters to spread out in. It will all be worth the wait, I promise you.”
“And a real bathroom?” Rita asked hopefully.
Elder hesitated to answer. “Not quite yet. It’s coming, but think about it, how complicated the fixtures in a real bathroom are. There is a room walled off for it, but we’ll still be using our portable toilet, and rubbing ourselves down with dayfruit...” He trailed off, his mind scattered to a million pieces. Sometimes a keyword would switch his train of thought to the wrong track, even if he was the one who said the word. He went back to contemplating his latest project to solve one of their problems. Each of the five leaves of the dayfruit was packed with its own natural substance. They were using the sugar and salt leaf regularly, programming every other fruit to produce one, and every other fruit the other. The second leaf gave them an alcohol-based sanitizer, which could be used to disinfect wounds in a medical situation, as well as a body cleanser when water was scarce, as it was here. The third leaf was a soap for when water was plentiful enough. The fourth was basically a GMO super-eucalyptus, which had countless benefits, from toothpaste to a moisturizing topical ointment. The fifth and final leaf was a sort of user’s choice. If not programmed for something each time, it would just grow empty. Well, not empty, but layered, so it wasn’t completely useless, since it still functioned as toilet paper, but Elder wanted more out of it. He wanted to program it to produce a certain chemical compound.
Unfortunately, they were stuck with an inert fifth leaf. It was a heavily regulated trait, generationally encrypted by the institution that designed the dayfruit strain in question. In this case, that governing body was part of Extremus. No one here had the authentication factors, not even Lieutenant Suárez. When he had time, Elder had been trying to hack into it, but even geniuses had their limits. These seeds required a password for certain modifications, and if he wanted to subvert them, his only option might be to write his only version of the fruit from scratch. That was not out of the question, but they weren’t there yet. It would demand certain chemicals to even begin anyway. Digital DNA was useless without the organic material to begin the synthesization process. Nothing could come from nothing. Not even their world of temporal manipulators could this maxim be subverted.
“Old Man,” Rita shouted. “You’re in your head again.”
“No, you were telling us to rub dayfruit on our bodies,” Debra clarified.
“Right.” He cleared his throat. “I meant the sanitizer. We’ll have to keep using the sanitizer until we can find a source of oxidane.”
Rita nodded, but Debra was confused, as usual.
“Water. We need water. If we find a significant reservoir, we may be able to stop having to recycle our waste.” They added sugar to their drinking water to get rid of the urine taste, but...they could still taste it.
Rita shook her head. “When we go back in time, and get back on Extremus, I’m going to lobby for a change in policy. Earthan space explorers wear those standardized integrated multipurpose suits all the time. They debated doing that on the Extremus, but it was never our plan to ever go on spacewalks, so they ultimately decided against them. I think that was a mistake. We would be so much better off if we could go outside right now. I should be wearing an IMS. From what I hear, they’re comfortable enough.”
Elder shook his head to mirror her. “I should have packed one in my emergency kit. I guess that’s not why they’re on the recommended list, because the people who need them the most are already wearing them to be prepared at all times.”
“Could you fabricate one now?” Debra asked. She was being genuine this time, not critical or argumentative.
“I don’t have the materials,” Elder replied. “And...I wouldn’t know how to make one. It’s not the library, I don’t think. Do you know how to harvest and contain monopoles? I’m not saying that to mean. It’s just so far above my paygrade.”
“Well, that’s one layer,” Rita began, “but a vacuum suit doesn’t have to have it. The other layers alone would work well enough on their own, unless you think you might get shot out there.”
Elder looked towards the horizon. When Bronach left them, this was the direction he walked, implying that that was where his own shelter was—which was why he was concentrating the pebbledrone search in that region—but that could literally have been a misdirect. “We don’t know that that man doesn’t have projectile weapons. And anyway, no,” he went on. “The nanites aren’t constructing the structure out of the best materials possible, just what they can find. We do not have what we would need for additional clothing of any kind. We never will, not here.”
They all three sighed at around the same time, and went back to watching the docking cone inch towards the tent entrance, one conical section at a time. It really was slow, though, so they eventually broke out of the group trance, and started focusing on their own things. Later that evening, they watched another episode of Sliders together. It was the one where they go to a world that is free from the war because of a virus that only kills Kromaggs. It made Elder uncomfortable, but he tried not to show it. The ladies still didn’t know that much about his past.
A couple of days later, the cone was finished, and they were in the new structure. Rita couldn’t stop breathing a sigh of relief, and Debra teared up a little. Elder sat down on one of the built-in benches against the wall, and didn’t stand up for almost three hours. They didn’t call him Old Man for nothin’. Lying down, sitting up, and crawling were not good for his back in the long-term. Now that they had more space to move around, he was able to get some real work done. Their new airlock still wasn’t big enough for a person to step through, but that wasn’t the point. His hands could move faster than the nanites. He was able to collect building material, and build some larger equipment in here. The progress of their shelter continued to get faster and faster. He cut out some windows, and forged silica glass to protect them. They hadn’t experienced any dust storms, or these might have been too dangerous to consider.
With more space and more time, he was able to build larger drones too, which were able to travel farther from their immediate vicinity, and perform more detailed surveys of the land. They found deposits of magnesium and aluminum, and trace amounts of others, like silver and copper, which were vital components of some desperately needed technology, like better solar panels, and a fusion reactor. It took months, but these drones also found subsurface ice only about forty centimeters under the regolith. For simplicity’s sake, they ignored the first site, and focused on one that was a little farther away, but on higher ground, so a basic aluminum pipe could transport water from the boiler structure, down to them via gravity.
It was starting to feel a little like home, but only a little. They remained firmly in favor of finding a way back to the ship in the past. Debra talked a lot about their ultimate goal of traveling to Bronach’s location, but the other two were hoping to avoid it altogether. Rita was anyway. Elder still had plans for the fifth leaf, though if he never figured it out, he might be able to find a way to synthesize everything he needed in the normal way, especially with this silica for lab supplies. He was no chemist, though, that was the problem. He was counting on the dayfruit’s ability to formulate a programmed compound for him, rather than him having to mix it by hand. This plan wasn’t vital to their survival, but not having the weapon could prove fatal one day. He had relinquished his morals once; he could do it again if it was necessary.
They were on this dead planet for five whole months before Elder was even able to begin manufacturing the time machine, and it was shortly thereafter when he hit a snag. Harvesting temporal energy wasn’t as easy as he thought it would be. He might only have enough for one person for one trip with a smaller design.

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