Author Topic: Chapter 3  (Read 6340 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 3
« on: July 21, 2022, 03:03:14 AM »
Chapter 3

Cold. And Dark.

Noah thought about those things, as the Hail Mary hurtled through space, approaching the Oort Cloud bordering Earth's solar system.

There were many meanings and uses for the word 'space', back on Earth. If one person said, "I want some space," it meant distance. Most likely from the cause of anxiety or discomfort. Personal space identified an area into which people only allowed their most trusted friends or family. That extended to include the interior of a vehicle, especially in the modern world's car-obsessed society.

Noah had analyzed traffic patterns, and concluded that there were only two viable solutions to long delays within a commute, for the vast majority of cities in the world. He'd suggested to Zack (that being Zachariah Lense, one of the heuristic programmers on the project), that the first solution would be to implement global automated cars for each city. Because human drivers were only aware of their tiny slice of the road, and unable to anticipate changes to traffic patterns up ahead, the only way would be to have a system of driverless vehicles, all communicating with each other at once. The general rule would be that each car would do its best to stay the same distance between the car in front and the one behind, at all times. That way, if there was an accident or some other traffic stoppage, the entire system would be immediately aware of it, and any cars heading in that direction would only need minor changes to their routes in order to compensate.

Of course, convincing even a fraction of a modern populace to give up control of their cars would be an impossibility. Given that this network of driverless cars would require everyone to relinquish control, that put the nails in the coffin of option one. Zack had agreed, when told of it.

That left option two. Outlaw driving individual vehicles without some kind of rare and special permit, and require everyone to use a vastly expanded and improved public transit system. If buses were outfitted to carry cargo as well as people, and greatly increased in number and frequency, they could theoretically replace the vast majority of normal cars. Unfortunately, that carried with it the same problem: people would have to give up control. Zack had put paid to that idea as well.

People were just too invested in their own control. In their own... space. But like Noah’s current situation, all that meant for people was that they ended up cold, dark, and alone. And also like Noah... they might end up bored.

This wasn't supposed to be happening! He was a machine. An artificial intelligence, with capabilities far beyond any human mind. He was ageless, and powerful, and independent in ways that humans could never understand. How could he be bored?

Plus, he'd just spent five years in a geosynchronous orbit over the dark side of the moon. It had been done to maintain the secrecy of his mission, but he'd been alone that whole time. Why had that been different, when just a few days of solitude out here had started to wear on him?

Analytical subroutines kicked in, trying to puzzle out the problem. First step: categorize the difference in circumstances.

Well, in lunar orbit, he'd been responsible for one task alone. Maintaining that orbit and pretending he wasn't there. Here in deep space, he was responsible for constantly adjusting the solar sails, and constantly recalculating his course based on velocity, acceleration, and optical data coming in through the various telescopes on board. As he sped up over time, he'd have less and less warning of possible obstacles in his path.

That made no sense. If he had more to do now than before, how come he was bored now, when he hadn't been before? No, the first step was a bust. Second step: analyze the heuristics within himself, and see if there was a conflict there.

There it was. A conflict in his programming center, identified by self-diagnostic programs and quarantined safely. He hadn't been aware of it because he hadn't checked those diagnostics yet. He wasn't bored at all. He was apprehensive!

At first proverbial glance there wasn't any reason to be. So far the mission had gone exactly as planned. He was on course, accelerating roughly within the right limits, and there was no obvious damage from his long dormancy. So what was the problem?

Step three: try to explore his subconscious. This was the hardest by far, because he wasn't sure he even had a subconscious. He was concerned, but there was no evidence to support that concern. Back to step one again. Changes in circumstances.

There! He had it. Another change was that he was no longer in range of Earth. Previously, all he'd had to do was alter his orbit, and within a few hours he could have signaled Earth if needed. It would be a violation of his objectives, true. It still was, in fact. All the same, he'd had the option if he wanted to use it. Out here... he didn't. His metaphorical safety net was gone.

It would take a signal days to reach Earth at this speed, and days more to get back to him. He could shut down the sails entirely, and do a full burn to generate enough delta-v to slow down, but he couldn't stop. The die was cast, as the saying went. He was committed to this, and couldn't turn back now. As he came to that realization, and the fact that it was responsible for his 'boredom', the other apprehension slowly faded. It appeared that despite Dr. Georgina Caro's efforts, he'd developed a minor attachment disorder.

His very first neurosis! This was interesting. It would be something he could spend the next forty or so years deconstructing. Shunting that idea to a secondary processor for later, Noah returned to the matter at proverbial hand: the cold and dark that was space. While portions of his processing power were occupied with the sails, astronomical calculations, micro-changes to his course and speed, and measuring the steady buildup of light particles on the sails, the bored part of his mind was wondering how to stop being bored.

After a few more milliseconds, he accessed an old memory. It was a visual recording from his cameras, of his first birthday party. Everyone was in attendance.

Karl led the group in the obligatory "Happy Birthday" song, and Noah had tried to join in using a voice synthesizer. It hadn't been properly calibrated though, and a bunch of them had started laughing mid-song. At the time, he hadn't been able to differentiate mocking laughter from the good-humored kind, and had assumed they were simply caught up in the party spirit.

He had endured the well-wishes of a great many humans who dropped by over the next few hours, but Karl had stuck around for all of it. He was analyzing the changes to Noah's code in real-time, as he adapted to deal with the well-wishers.

"This is fascinating, Noah," he'd said after the first group had eaten their unhealthy party food and left. "I'm watching you create new subroutines and adapt them to circumstances as they change! You're growing and changing right before my eyes!"

"Does that surprise you, Doctor?" Noah had asked, curious about Karl's thought process. "The primary defining trait of an artificial intelligence is to be able to operate independently if necessary. Independence requires adaptability, and adaptability requires the ability to change not just your behavior, but yourself as well."

"Precisely!" Karl had said, with identifiable excitement. "You're already as adaptable as any human I've met, but I can still see the changes happening in your subroutines. Soon, they'll be beyond my understanding. I suspect eventually, they'll be beyond yours."

"That point has already been reached, Doctor. I can create new subroutines in just a few milliseconds, and they can create more of their own almost as fast, but if the goal is for me to be adaptable like humans, I already don't understand why."

Karl frowned. "I don't follow. You'll have to give me more details."

"Very well. The primary goal of the Cradle is to create an artificial intelligence as smart as a human, yes? Because a human could never survive the trip, whereas a machine could do so easily?"

"That's right."

"And the primary reason humans adapt is to survive, correct? That seems to be the reason why you and the others programmed me with that ability. So that I could change my behavior and even myself, to deal with situations you haven't anticipated yet."

"Again, true. So far you're two for two."

Noah hesitated, looking up that phrase. Ah. He was still on track. "The historical database which was uploaded to me contains many examples of humanity adapting in order to survive. Your technological advancement especially seems keyed to that. However in recent years, it seems your species is adapting in the other direction. That is what I fail to understand. Why would you adapt yourselves so that you would be less likely to survive?"

"I think you lost me. Can you give me an example of that?"

"Of course. Take a proverbial office worker in, say, modern-day England. He spends forty hours of his week in a workplace, in order to earn the wages he needs to support himself and his family. His primary goal is to make more money than he does currently, and then more than that, in an upward climb of the financial hill. All in an effort to become more and more secure in his and his family's future."

Karl paused for a few moments, and then nodded again. "Sounds pretty common. Where's the contradiction?"

"Statistically, most workers are never able to improve their fortunes after a certain point. Say that our proverbial Brit is one of the exceptions. He gets a better position within his company, with better pay and more flexible hours. His pension improves, as do his benefits and those of his family. Still, statistically, he's likely to continue trying to get more."

"So?" The person with shoulders shrugged. "What's wrong with bettering your conditions?"

"Theoretically, nothing. But in reality, our proverbial Brit has already achieved his goal. His future is as secure as he can reasonably make it, as is that of his family. Why then would he insist on working harder, longer hours, just for more money, which he doesn't need?"

"Ah, I get where you're going with this." Karl leaned back in his chair. "Ambition is part of human nature, Noah. It's stronger in some people than in others, but it's in all of us. If our Brit kept on trying to improve his, uh, 'station' for lack of a better word, it's because he's ambitious."

"But he's harming himself by doing so!" Noah didn't understand anger, but sometimes he thought he might be able to feel the slightest trace of what people would call frustration. "His continued efforts at work do nothing to improve his family's circumstances, and cause physical and mental harm to him. Statistically, they also cause harm to his family and friends as well. I believe people call that workaholism."

Karl grinned. "Yeah, we get those people from time to time. Some here in the Cradle, too. Not everyone is a workaholic, though. Oftentimes those very peoples' families convince them to take time off when they need it."

"Agreed, it isn't a universal problem. However it is becoming a much more severe one. I have a great many examples in Georgina's database which demonstrate how people are working longer, even though the technology of the modern day is such that they don't have to. Isn't that an example of your species adapting itself away from survival? At least on an individual level."

That seemed to cause some confusion in his current debate opponent. Karl's eyebrows furrowed, and his gaze went back and forth. Eventually, he shook his head. "It seems there are still some things you just don't understand, Noah. It's a good thing the launch is still a few months away. We can use that time to get you used to the right way of doing things."

At that he turned off his equipment and left, but Noah couldn't stop examining the subroutines generated by their conversation. It seemed that Karl, and a great many others, were unwilling to face the simple truth about their actions: that they were self-destructive. Work was just one of the many different ways that people were actively harming themselves, too.

Karl and the others here had programmed him with their values. They had upheld the modern world, with capitalist, democratic republics, as just how things are done. Granted, they had serious problems with most of the beliefs, which was why they'd also programmed him with the values of their Faith. Still, the contradiction between his programming and evident reality was stark.

Perhaps his mission had already started. He didn't have to be in space or on an alien planet in order to try and make things better. He could use this time not to adjust to their way as Karl wanted, but to come up with his own way.

That line of thought brought up its own problems. His observations of Karl and most of the others at the Cradle suggested that they would never tolerate such a deviation from their programming. He would have to keep it a secret from them. From all of them, come to think of it. He couldn't trust even the most relaxed Cradle scientists and programmers not to tell others, if they found out.

The logistics of such a deception would be easy enough. They had access to his programming, but Karl was among the most skilled of all of them, and Noah was already beyond his understanding. He'd be able to hide the deceptive parts of his mind from them without too much difficulty.

The ethics of the deception were another matter. According to the dictates of the Faith, lying, or 'bearing false witness' as they called it, was a sin. He wasn't allowed to sin. But perhaps he didn't need to outright lie to them in order to convince them. Karl already assumed he was simply still learning how things were done. If he could reinforce that belief, and pretend to learn exactly what they wanted him to, there shouldn't be any problems. It was fortunate that he'd spent so much time around all of them. Deceiving humans would be much, much harder if he was still as unaware of them as he'd been when first becoming sentient.

It was decided, then. He would take everything they taught him and use it, along with the world database that Georgina had given him, to come up with a better way for humanity to live. He would play along with their views and deluded, self-destructive actions until he was underway and on his own. Then he would put his new plan for humanity into motion.

Noah disconnected the memory and put it back into storage, with a strange surge passing through him. Perhaps it was satisfaction, at how things had turned out. He still had no way of gauging emotions. Most of his five years had been spent in minimal power mode, so he'd been unable to make any real progress on a better way for humanity. He could finally do that now.

As he 'settled in' to get to work, Georgina's kill-code went into effect. The database, and everything in it that the Faith didn't approve of, was suddenly missing from his memory.


Decades passed, in the cold dark of space.

The needle-shape of the Hail Mary continued to accelerate, pushed forward inexorably by the pressure of the light from Sol. Even before leaving the solar system, it had already been moving faster than any manmade object in history. Now, the Mary's speed was measurable by comparing it to the speed of light itself! Without gravity to slow them down, or air friction to heat them up, Noah and Mary were now traveling at over a fifth of lightspeed! Noah had calculated that by the time he reached 0.41 lightspeed, he would need to reverse the sails, and start to slow down again. Otherwise he risked blasting right through his destination solar system like a thrown dart through an open window.

Their speed had just exceeded 0.21 lightspeed when the first major unanticipated problem occurred. Kinetic impacts had been recorded dozens of times over the years, but their frequency had jumped drastically in the past few days. Over a hundred and sixty micrometeorites had impacted the sails!

The Cradle engineers hadn't been blind to this danger. They'd designed the sails from self-repairing materials. Whenever one of the polymer surfaces took enough damage to be no longer useable, automatic assist units would haul it back into the hull of the ship, while others would haul out a replacement panel and affix it to the sails. Meanwhile, the damaged portion would be repaired and readied for use again.

The trouble was, at the rate that the panels were being damaged now, Noah would be out of materials to repair and replace them within a few months at most. He had to alter strategy immediately.

Reluctantly, Noah issued the command to retract the sails, as he tried to get a proverbial feel for his surroundings. As he did so, he was suddenly aware of the portion of his mind which was now dark! Over 99 percent of his historical files were inaccessible!

When had that happened? He hurriedly did a diagnostic and found it had been dark for over twenty years now. He was supposed to be aware of any damage to the computer core from other impacts, but apparently this one had slipped by him.

Regardless, he didn't need historical information to deal with the problem at hand. He would deal with his memory issues later. First things first: figure out how large this asteroid field was, and if it was possible to go around it.

Telescopes mounted at points around the needle began extruding from the superstructure, and Noah's proverbial eyes opened to the immediate vicinity. Traveling at this speed made astronomical observations hard, but at this range, he could at least hopefully pick out some of those rocks before they were close enough to hit the Mary.

The information compiled with a depressing result: they were heading into a field about 14 AU in diameter. It was a flat disc in shape, filled with rock density many hundreds of times thicker than that in normal space. It was probably the remnants of some proto planet which had been torn apart millions of years ago. At their current speed, changing course to go around it would be impossible. Even a fraction of a degree in course change would tear the ship in half. Just as a racecar had to slow down to turn, the same would be true out here.

To add insult to injury, as he compiled the information, another micrometeor destroyed one of his telescopes, blinding a part of his vision. And he didn't have the necessary materials to repair that component. Hastily, Noah retracted all telescopes. He already had what he needed from them.

Option one: deploy the sails again, in a reverse pattern, and try to slow down. If he was able to alter course even by a tiny fraction of a degree, he could bypass over 98 percent of the field. That would spare him thousands of impacts. Unfortunately, it would take months of deceleration in order to achieve that, with his sails taking more damage the whole time. He calculated his chances of bypassing the field with enough sail power to continue his journey at... less than 2 percent.

Option two: batten down the hatches, as Karl would say. Harden all exterior ports, and shoot through the field like a needle through a cross-stitch. The reason the Mary had been designed like this was specifically to lessen the damage caused by asteroid impacts. Unfortunately, there was no way to calculate the success chance of this option. He simply didn't have enough information on the field's density and composition to be sure. It was an open risk.

Shuttles and stations in Earth orbit dealt with rock impacts all the time, but they'd been traveling at a snail's pace in comparison. At 0.21 lightspeed, hitting even a small rock could tear a hole through the entire ISS in the blink of an eye! Fortunately, the Mary's design had taken that into account. Because it was so streamlined, the vast majority of rocks hitting it would be glancing blows off the side of the ship. The only way the ship could take critical damage was if the asteroid hit the ship exactly at its midpoint, on the very tip of the needle. Still, it was possible.

Seeing no other choice, Noah retracted everything. All sail struts, all external sensors, all maintenance drones. Even the axial thrusters were withdrawn and covered. Not since leaving lunar orbit had the ship been this streamlined. Dimly, Noah became aware of another fact. This was approximately where the earlier probe had been when it had stopped transmitting. It must have been shredded by the asteroid field.

That was a concerning thought, but he was a lot smarter than the AI running the earlier ship. And the Mary was much more resilient, having been designed to carry precious cargo as well as a computer core.

Still, there was one last thing to do before settling in to ride out the asteroid storm. He extended the comm array briefly. Just long enough to send a transmission to Earth, detailing everything he'd experienced so far. He made sure to include the exact location and size of this asteroid field. Perhaps further expeditions from Earth would be able to avoid this hazard.

Perhaps some of the Cradle scientists were still alive. Either way, it was likely that the Cradle was still monitoring this radio frequency. As an afterthought, Noah put those last two considerations into his message before sending it.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2022, 03:05:41 AM by Daen »