Author Topic: Chapter 9  (Read 8841 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 9
« on: July 21, 2022, 03:02:42 AM »
Chapter 9

A few minutes later and the plane was full up with kids. The moves had happened mostly without incident, thankfully. One of the four-year-olds had tripped and skinned his knee on the tarmac, but Laz was comforting him. She'd torn part of her dress as a bandage, given that there were no medical supplies on board, and Noah couldn't afford to open the plane's airlock again to go get more. On his insistence, the remaining six-year old boys had left four more breathers on the tarmac just as they'd gotten on board. Chif and Yuun would need the oxygen.

"Look!" Zwax called out from the rear of the plane. His face was plastered against a glass viewport. "It's Chif!"

As the other kids rushed to the plane's starboard, slightly unbalancing its weight ratio, Noah pulled the feeds from his airborne drones. Chif was up in the lightly sloping hills east of the settlement. He was within easy sight of the plane, and his trademark shirt was visible like a beacon. He stopped out there, leaning down, and then dropped out of sight. It must be the small cave he'd described, and he wouldn't have stopped if Yuun wasn't inside.

Noah ordered the drones to back off, so as not to make Chif's job any harder. As he did so though, the ground shook again. Only four hundred meters north of the cave, a seam appeared in the ground, and rapidly filled with molten rock. Again, thousands of calculations flitted through Noah's programming in a microsecond. As one, every caretaker out there ran straight to the storage yard. Andrew, Clive, Sandra, Cindy, all twenty-eight of them moved together.

The kids couldn't fail to notice that as well. "What are they doing?"

There was no point in waiting. He started the plane's engines, and began maneuvering it back onto the landing strip. The lava out there would eventually hit the strip and make it useless, but that would take some time. It would reach Chif and Yuun's location much sooner.

The caretakers, on Noah's direction, stripped the storage yard of the metal sheeting he'd been collecting there. It would have been made into a warehouse at some point, but it had a much greater purpose now. With each caretaker holding a large piece of metal sheeting, they sprinted uphill towards Chif and Yuun. Just past the cave, they slammed their metal into the ground in unison, and braced for the oncoming lava. At about the same time, Chif apparently convinced Yuun to come out. Two flyers were waiting for them, with the extra breathers in their compartments. Both boys grabbed hold of the flyers' lower struts, and held on for dear life as the flyers lifted off.

Behind and below them, lava poured over the makeshift barrier, melting metal sheeting and caretakers alike. The kids let out cries of dismay as Cindy and Andrew and all the others lit up, and then were immediately buried under the flow.

The plane continued to gain speed on the airstrip, and lifted off safely.

-.-

It was a subdued group that made it to their new safe haven. The sudden loss of their home, for reasons currently beyond their comprehension, had smashed into their fragile little psyches like an avalanche. For most of the younger ones, seeing their caretakers burn had apparently been seared into their memories. It was what Toby had called a seminal moment, back in the Cradle. It would likely be with them right up until their deaths, no matter how many years away that was.

The flight to their new home had been much easier this time, given how light the load now was. There was no airstrip at the target location, but the surface was mostly wind-swept rock on this side of the dome, so a bumpy landing was still achieved. There were no seatbelts on board yet, so Noah had warned them to clump together with the oldest ones on the outside of the clump. It appeared to have been an effective way to keep them from being shaken around too much.

The life-support system had also had time to replenish the oxygen on board too, so they could take their time disembarking. Noah had guided each group into the large greenhouse, and instructed them to stay put until all their siblings were inside as well. Ordinarily he would have expected them to ignore his warnings, but today they all seemed drained by recent events.

He was in contact with the airborne drones as well. Yuun and Chif were safe out there. They couldn't hold on to the flyers forever, but they'd done so long enough to get out of immediate danger. Now they were riding on a pair of rollers, making their winding way north to their new home. It would take much longer on the ground, but he could bring them water and breathers for the day or so they were in transit.

Noah's drone was the only humanoid one left. It could work round the clock, but there was no way he could effectively care for everyone at once anymore. Part of the responsibility would be on Laz and Woad and the others.

Fortunately the greenhouse had been designed to be modular, in anticipation of all different kinds of plants being grown here in cycles. All of the plants growing in the trays were mobile, and the trays themselves had wheels. One by one, he rolled them over to one side of the circular room, opening up about half of it for use by the kids. In anticipation of human occupation here, he'd built a bathroom along one wall, and it had enough water to be of use. The downside was that this place had no kitchen.

Refrigeration wouldn't be a problem at this time of year, as he could simply store any perishables outside. Also, he could repurpose heating coils from the plane to keep the kids warm and use as a cooking source. In addition, some of the flyers had been able to retrieve supplies from what was left of the settlement. The dome had been compromised about an hour after they'd left, and lava had poured into about a third of it. Still, he'd recovered enough blankets and pillows for bedding and ordered them brought here. They wouldn't arrive before some of the kids were asleep, but at least they would wake up more comfortably.

The educational terminals had been destroyed as well. That was a significant blow. The data was safely stored in his core drive up in the mountains, but without the computers, the kids had no way of accessing it. It seemed the children's schooling would be of the verbal variety, at least until he could build more computers. And he would continue schooling them, despite recent events. The closer to normal activity the kids had, the faster they would recover from the trauma.

As he used an improvised marker to make improvised chalkboards on one of the walls for tomorrow's lesson, Noah workshopped what to do next. This greenhouse was large enough to house all of them for now, but it wouldn't make a good permanent habitat. It was too far from the ocean, for one, and he'd been programmed to show them the importance of naval transport when they were older. It was also too high up, and even colder than their previous home.

The geological sensors he'd placed—those that hadn't been destroyed by lava at least—were now giving him indications of why those fissures had opened there. It seemed there had been a magma chamber underneath that plain, kilometers deeper than his initial survey had gone. The quake had been caused by that magma forcing its way up into a chamber filled with combustible gas, and had opened the path for those fissures to form. It had been unforeseeable, given his limited capabilities at the time, but that had been then, and this was now. Perhaps an island would make a better settlement. Australia on Earth had been right in the middle of a tectonic plate, and one of the most geologically stable places on the planet.

"Noah update log, number twelve hundred and eighty-two," he input silently, for fear of waking the younger kids. "The evacuation is completed, and improbably, no lives were lost in the process. The children are largely responsible. They were quite reliable and helpful, especially Woad, Laz, and Chif. I'm in the process of considering possible new locations to set up a permanent settlement, but I have a more immediate concern at the moment. Namely, what to tell them about what happened. The oldest ones know the basics of volcanoes and lava flows, but I have to explain why Yuun ran away, and why I allowed Chif to go after him.

"My algorithms were designed to mimic human behavior, but I'm finding it increasingly difficult to predict the same. I'm concerned that as they grow older, it will be harder and harder for me to understand them. Even worse, that means it will most likely be harder for them to trust me. Not that I've given them much reason to trust me, lately. Perhaps Chif was right, and I should have been candid with them right from the start. Some of the toddlers were crying before they went to sleep, saying they wanted Cindy, or Andrew or even Clive. I tried to explain to them that their caretakers aren't dead; that they just need to wait until I can build new bodies for them, but it didn't seem to make much difference. If they all knew the truth right from the start, then they'd be spared the mourning they're currently experiencing."

Noah ran another predictive model, and then continued. "The saying 'it takes a village to raise a child' was the inspiration behind my personality simulations. I failed to consider that perhaps they're raising each other just as much as I'm doing for them. They already have that village. Still, I've been wrong before, and people nearly died because of it. I can no longer make all the decisions for them, unilaterally. They have to have some say, if only to guide me in a small way. End log."

It was the next morning that he chose to implement this plan. Most of the younger kids were still asleep, having had something of a rough day previously. He woke some of the oldest though, and gathered them all quietly to the side.

"The first thing I want to tell you is what a good job you all did yesterday. You were brave, and strong, and smart. Not a single child died in the evacuation. The chances of that happening were... very low, but thanks to you everyone is safe. Thank you, all of you, for being so, well, resilient. Well done everyone."

Though still weary-looking, they took apparent pride in that. Woad clapped his hands on the backs of Cade and Scad, grinning. "It was nothing, really."

Laz rolled her eyes for a second. "So what happens now?"

"Now we start to rebuild. Not here—this is just a port in the storm. No, I've already got rollers on the way to another location. It should be safer, but I'll do more scans before I choose it for sure. We'll have to rough it here, until a new dome is ready." He glanced back at the mostly-sleeping kids across the room. Any time now, they'd start waking up and coming over here asking questions.

"I wanted to apologize as well," he admitted to the group. "I should have been more careful choosing that plain for the settlement. In addition... I'm the reason that Chif and Yuun were out there yesterday, and why they're still on their way here now. Yuun ran away from the dome—from me, really. He had good reason, and I want to make it clear to everyone that it was my fault, not his. Chif just went out looking for him. They're both just as brave as the rest of you. I'm the one who made the mistake."

He paused momentarily, trying to come up with a way to word his admission. "As at least one of you figured out on your own, there is no Sandra, or Andrew, or Clive, or any of the other caretakers. There never has been. All of them are me, controlled by me at all times. I'm the only machine who's ever been taking care of you. I lied to you all, because I thought it was easier for you when you were younger. I'm sorry for what I did, but also because it increased the risk you faced yesterday. I wanted to make things easier on you, but all I did was make it harder."

The kids all looked at each other for a few moments. Surprisingly, some of them were smiling. Laz was rolling her eyes again. Conversely, Valae's eyebrows shot up, as if this was just occurring to her.

Woad reached up and put his hand on Noah's arm. "Noah, we know. We've all known for a while now. I mean parents in the movies argue, like all the time. I've never seen any of the caretakers do that. None of us have." He grabbed Scad's head and ruffled his hair. "This guy figured it out and told me, but the girls got it about the same time." Valae quickly smoothed her features, but Noah could pick up a slight trace of red in her cheeks.

Noah's processes went into another loop. He had thought that Chif was a uniquely insightful person, but apparently he'd badly miscalculated almost all of them. "I... find this news surprising. Do any of the younger children know?"

"Nah, we figured you knew what you were doing, so we kept quiet." Woad answered easily. "It's ok, Noah. We forgive you. Or at least I do. Guys?"

The others mostly nodded, or smiled. As far as Noah could tell, not one of them looked angry. "You're showing a lot of grace by doing that, even after I lied to you."

Woad shrugged. "Turn the other cheek, remember? Besides, you've always looked out for us. We've got you, too."

"There's something else you should know, though," Noah went on, still wondering how he could have misjudged them so badly. "I'm not actually capable of emotion the same way you are. I can't feel love, or hate, or joy. I can't even get angry, though I can feel concern, in a way. I was programmed, like you know, to take care of you all, and to build a stable human society on this planet. All I can do with emotions is mimic them. I pretended to love you, but I don't have the slightest idea what it's like to actually feel that way. That's why Yuun ran away. He heard the truth about me, and didn't trust me anymore. That's why I'm telling you all right now, so it doesn't happen again."

Again, the group looked at each other, this time without smiles. They seemed to think about it, but like Woad, they didn't look too concerned.

"Does it matter?" Laz finally asked. "You're basically our dad, whether you love us or not. You've always been there for us, and you saved us all yesterday." She grabbed his hand. "We're family, right? And we've got more than enough love to go around."

"You said it," Adwa put in, and the others all clustered around him.

For once, Noah put all his conscious processes on hold as they collectively embraced him. There was no analyzing this.

-.-

"I could have died," Chif said softly. "No more me. We both could have."

He'd finally gotten to the new temporary home, which the older kids were calling Safe Haven for now. The others were clustered around him and Yuun for now, listening to how he'd braved ash and lava for his friend.

It seemed Noah's earlier confession had produced the desired result. None of the kids blamed Yuun, and the boy himself seemed to be at ease despite the circumstances. He put in a few words here and there, mostly when the story got to the point of the flying drones arriving. He stressed how sore his arms were, even after a short flight. "It wasn't like the jungle gym at all. I was scared the breather would come off, and I could see the ground moving by so fast!"

Noah kept an eye on those two while the story wound its way down. The boys had been very hungry upon getting here, but the drones had been able to keep them supplied with oxygen and water. After eating, they'd gotten some sleep, and then Noah had allowed them to be swarmed by their peers.

The temporary classroom was complete, for now anyway. Preschoolers and the older kids would be able to do their basic lessons in peace, cycling out after each other. The dome to the west, on a small island off the coast, was already under construction. Fortunately he'd had years to build more flyers, so the building was taking shape quickly. A lot of it was being salvaged from the ruins of the old settlement, actually. Huge portions of the domes had survived the lava. Which was itself going dormant again. The excess pressure underneath the ground had bled off, leading to a quiet plain again. The air in that area was still choked off with ash, though, now mixing with snow again. He might take some of the kids on a sightseeing tour of it at some point, but not for a while.

In other good news, the artificial wombs had remained intact as well. He took his time retrieving those—they were fragile, and needed multiple flyers apiece to move. Once the new dome was in place, he'd examine them closely for any damage, and then set up the schedule again. He should be on time to start the next batch of twenty without any interruption. Though he had underestimated how resilient these kids had been. Perhaps he should create more incubators, and start using human cell samples at a faster rate.

The group was breaking up again, and Woad and the others were spreading out. As before, Laz gravitated towards the infants, along with a small group that might be called her clique or cadre. He wasn't familiar with the right word to use, but social grouping was to be expected, even at a young age. Valae went along with them, though she looked reluctant.

Chif moved in his direction, too. Noah wasn't sure what he was going to say—what either would say, actually. He'd already apologized, in the same way as before, to both Chif and Yuun. It seemed the group had spoken about it as well, and most of them wanted him to be honest with everyone right from the start. He could use female voices if he thought that would calm the younger children, but pretending to be anyone else was out. In a way, it was a burden lifted from Noah's proverbial shoulders. One less important moral/ethical consideration for him to deal with.

His former and current star pupil sat next to him, with his back to the greenhouse wall. Noah maintained his idle state for the moment. He had plenty of things to do yet tonight, but most of them would disturb the others. He decided to wait until they were asleep.

"They don't know you sent the cell samples out first, do they?" Chif asked quietly.

Noah shook his head. "I don't think so. Still, if history is any guide, they'll figure it out soon enough," he added in an attempt at wryness. "Do you still blame me for my choice?"

Chif was silent for four point seven seconds before speaking. "The people who made you wanted you to be this way. I get that. It just hurt when you said it, that's all." He sighed.

"Have you considered a future in programming?" Noah inquired after another two point one seconds.

"Huh?"

"I only suggest it because it will allow you to understand me better. If you learn how source code works, and how my algorithms are generated and fit together, then maybe I won't hurt you with my words anymore."

Chif chuckled softly, and then yawned. "Maybe."

"It will take years, at least. I don't want you to think it would be easy. But if you have the interest, I would encourage you to try. My designers spent most of their adult lives working on my hardware and software. It's such a pity I can only remember a few of them, now. Maybe you can help me recover any undamaged memories that are still in the database at some point in the future. There could be other applications for those skills as well—” Noah cut off abruptly at an unexpected noise to his side.

Chif was leaning against him and the wall, clearly asleep. Muted snoring could be heard ever so faintly from his nose and mouth. Careful not to disturb him, Noah reached for one of the nearby blankets. As before with the group embracing him, he wasn't sure he wanted to analyze Chif's actions, nor his apparent comfort level now. Perhaps it was better not to even try.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2022, 03:08:00 AM by Daen »