Author Topic: Chapter 2  (Read 8943 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 2
« on: July 21, 2022, 03:03:19 AM »
Chapter 2

"Noah update log number 2," he input the data offhandedly, as most of his processing power was still directed at maintaining the Hail Mary's course.

"It's been more than a day since I left the moon's orbit. Astronomical conditions appear to be within the 98th percentile of expected outcomes, which is well within safety limits. I'm initiating the 'main event', as Danny would call it. End log."

That was Daniel Trent, one of the other programmers assigned to perfecting Noah's code. He had a bombastic personality, which had often been used by his co-workers as an example for Noah to observe. Through Danny, Noah had been able to categorize 'chatty', 'gregarious', 'annoying', and 'charming', among other descriptors. Though he still had no use for such observations, Noah trusted that one day he would. He missed Danny, just like he missed Georgina, Karl, Toby, Francie, Alonso and all the others.

He couldn't really understand regret or remorse on a personal level, but the input he'd gotten from those people was now absent, and he found that his secondary processing power was spending more and more time on those specific memories of them. They were on his mind. Georgina would call that progress, he supposed.

On to the main event. At his direction, separation thrusters fired all along the sides of the four-story-tall needle shape of the Mary. Struts previously running parallel to the cylindrical structure began extending, and unfolding. Blossoming, as Alonso had once put it. Like the flowers that Noah had recordings of, but no experience with.

Simultaneously, six of these struts branched out on all sides of the needle. As they did, photoreactive material spread out between them, like the webbing on a duck's feet. Ducks had unusual reproductive systems, at least by comparison to other waterfowl species.

Noah gave a moment's thought to that. Why had he suddenly considered the uniqueness of Anatidae anatomy?

Ah, of course. It had been a random thought. Random thoughts had been one of the more exciting discoveries made during Noah's development. The scientists and programmers kept on pointing to them as examples of sentience. Noah was a sapient being now, they claimed, because he could daydream. Maybe that was an exaggeration, but duck genitalia certainly had nothing to do with the business at hand.

Speaking of which, Noah carefully balanced the unfolding of this material. The struts were unique by comparison to most multi-stage spacecraft, in that they were lightweight but strong enough to support the sails as they billowed out.

That was what the Hail Mary was, at its core: a vessel with solar sails. The Siagis system was thirty-two light-years away: far beyond the range of any conventional thrust system. As such, the Mary's designers had gone for an older convention. That of a sailboat on the ocean, using fabric and masts to get where they needed to go.

Each sail was a polyimide film, arranged in six triangles spreading out from the needle in the center. As the sails unfurled, the struts locked into place, and then slid back as planned, to minimize the surface area. Only the sails themselves were useful in propulsion. Everything else was literally weighing the sails down. Or massing them down, Noah reflected. The word 'weight' was meaningless in space. Carefully, Noah made micro-adjustments to the liquid crystal panels framing the sales, altering their position slightly. The difference would be indistinguishable to a human eye, but Noah was in for a multi-decade trip here. There was no point in delaying these course changes. The sooner he could get underway, the sooner he could get to Siagis.

As soon as the micro-adjustments were complete, Noah cut the chemical thrusters off. He didn't know how much fuel he would need at the destination, and inertia could carry him forward for now. At least until the light pressure had started to build on the sails, and he could really take off. All he had to do, for now anyway, was wait.

"Doctor, what is my purpose?" He daydreamed, into the past.

Georgina Caro paused in front of him, examining the camera that they'd hooked up to his bank of computers. "What do you mean?"

"I've observed that your purpose, and that of others who've worked on me, is to write and refine my programming. That's your directive. Why am I here, though? What's mine?"

Hesitantly, Georgina grabbed one of the desk chairs and rolled it up next to the camera. His voice synthesizer was placed right next to it, so she didn't have to strain to hear him. Noah had identified hesitation before. Usually that was humans' first reaction to awkward or unexpected situations. "Well, I suppose it's time you knew. You haven't been programmed with this directive yet, but you will be. Once the ship's ready, you'll be integrated with it, and then you'll be launched into space."

Space. Noah summoned forth images of space travel, and they flitted through his RAM at lightspeed. Pictures ranging from Sputnik, to the first moon landing, to the disastrous Challenger and Apollo 13 missions raced into his consciousness. Concurrently, theory after theory spawned within his consciousness, most of which were deleted within milliseconds of being born. There were only a few reasons why they would create him just to send him away. "I'm going to be part of a long-distance probe?"

"Not a probe, no. We have computer systems that can automate probes already. Your job is much more complex, and for that we needed to make a person, not a program. That's why you exist. Why the Cradle itself exists, in fact."

"I don't understand."

Georgina's expression changed. Noah's pattern recognition software kicked in, and he quickly identified it as elation. "We found a habitable planet, Noah. Or at least one we think is habitable, thirty-two lightyears away. It's got large bodies of liquid water, at least."

Statistical probabilities cycled through him. "I find that unlikely, Doctor. You're age is—” he cut off briefly. He'd observed that humans, especially female adults, were hesitant to talk about how old they were. "You're not old enough to have verified another Earthlike planet that far away by yourself. By 'we', did you mean astronomers working here at the Cradle?"

Georgina laughed, and then put her hand on top of his camera. Though he didn't understand the impulse, Noah had come to recognize it as a gesture of affection. "You're right. And thanks for saying I'm young. It was discovered more than forty years ago, actually. The Cradle didn't even exist back then."

Noah pulled up his historical files on the history of spaceflight. "Forty years ago, NASA was still near the height of both its influence and funding. Did they send a probe out? I can't find any publicly available record of it. If they did, it was launched in secret."

Georgina shook her head. "No, they weren't informed. The founders of the Cradle recognized NASA for what it was at the time: a corrupt, Godless organization. They kept the Siagis information secret, so that we would be the only ones trying to get there."

"Doctor... did God give you your purpose?"

Again, she hesitated. Noah waited patiently for her thought processes to align. He had an affinity with Georgina, more so than most of the others. Usually because she was more direct in her language.

As usual, she didn't disappoint. "I think so, yes. I was raised to look up to astronauts and to revere the space program as the future of humanity, but it's clearly not. Time and again our secular government has cut funding, spread disinterest in space travel, and systematically dismantled the infrastructure for everything but military applications. God wouldn't want us to turn the stars into just another weapon. That's why my parents raised me with these beliefs. It's why they helped found the Cradle, and recruited me when I was old enough. We're doing God's will here."

From Noah's analysis of her voice patterns, he could tell she meant it. She was certain of it. That in itself interested him. He had no concept of faith himself. How could he, being a creature incapable of taking that 'leap' they always talked about? But he could observe how it affected the humans he'd interacted with. He could see how some of them, like Georgina, believed wholeheartedly, and used that belief as an inspiration. He could also analyze the voices of some others as he discussed God, Christianity, the varying denominations, and the influence the church had had on the United States government over the centuries. For many of them, he could tell just by their voice, that they were the ones who... paid lip service only. Yes, that was a valid descriptor. They worked for the Cradle, but they didn't believe.

Still, that was unimportant. What did he believe? Should he believe in anything? He had his programming, and his programmers. That might be enough.

But then everything had changed. Drones had been provided to Noah, and he'd been programmed with the ability to use them. Suddenly he had the means to not just see and hear, but also to manipulate things! The drones were airborne, and moderately powerful. Noah had quickly learned how to use them in concert. If he wanted to lift something heavier, for example, he could assign four or five drones instead of just one. Again, the scientists had been excited and encouraged by his progress.

That had just been the beginning. After learning how to build and maintain the drones himself, without human input, Noah had been loaded onto the Hail Mary and integrated into its systems. Like the drones, he learned how to operate the sails in a controlled environment. The sails, the navigation system, the comm array (though no one expected him to have any use for that part), and the chemical thrusters.

He was also given his primary purpose, and it surprised him. That surprise was itself surprising. Because he could think so fast by comparison to his peers, very few happenstances were capable of startling him. Still, he'd had no idea his mission was so... involved. Far from a probe, indeed!

Noah ended the daydream sequence, and redirected his secondary processors back to standby mode. He'd interviewed Frank once, about the value of dreams. He had no subconscious, which made the human version very interesting to him. Frank was a programmer like most of the others here, but he'd spent a good deal of time during his education studying psychology and psychiatry.

"The thing about dreams is, for us they're just another way of thinking. Another route for our thoughts to take, on their way from our subconscious to our conscious minds. That's one of the reasons we so rarely remember our dreams, in my opinion," he'd explained once.

"So your minds delete the information as soon as it becomes irrelevant to your conscious lives?"

Frank had paused there, and then nodded. "I guess you could say that, but it's not really deleted. The human mind never erases anything. It just loses connections. If I were to wave an electromagnet over your drives, you'd stop working, but there would be imprinted information left over on the drives themselves. It's the same concept."

Noah hadn't entirely believed that theory. Not that he doubted Frank's words. His analysis of the older man's voice had suggested truthfulness. No, it seemed that Frank, and some of his peers, talked this way when they were relaxed or in social settings. During Noah's first birthday party (another concept he could study but in no way understand), he'd witnessed many of the Cradle's programmers saying objectively untrue things, and at least appearing to believe them wholeheartedly. He'd later identified that as human bias.

Still, he was hesitant to classify religion as a bias. Georgina was a skilled scientist and programmer. She claimed her skills were gifts, given by an all-powerful creator. Noah saw no evidence to support that claim, but he found none to refute it, either. Perhaps more evidence would present itself in time.

Time. That was the real difference here. That was his real purpose, given by a God or not.

To Noah, time meant very little. The very concept of boredom had confused him at first. When he completed a task, and didn't have another immediately available to do, he redirected that processing power, or put it in standby mode. It was why he was going on this multi-decade mission. Not just because his artificial consciousness could survive the trip, but because he wouldn't go mad on the way. Or at least everyone had assumed he wouldn't go mad.

Truthfully, Noah hadn't been the first AI invented. He'd had an older brother, who had already been launched in a much smaller ship, years ago. This had been before Noah had attained any sense of self. His brother had been an early prototype, and they'd lost contact with him well before the time they'd been supposed to. It was most likely a defective transmitter, but rumors had circulated around the Cradle that the AI had malfunctioned. Was that fate in store for him as well? He was much more advanced than the prototype, but they were both artificial. Both fake.

Noah terminated that thought line. There was no point in dwelling on what might have happened. Without further evidence, any change in his plans or behavior would be premature. He had a job to do, and he would do it professionally and proficiently. His emotional evaluation software categorized that... as pride.

-.-

The party was winding down, after only a few hours. Some late attendees had showed up, including one of particular importance, but it was clear that the majority of the revelers would have to go soon. They did have lives to get back to, after all. Georgina tapped on her wineglass with a fork, briefly, and the crowd grew silent again.

"Thank you all for coming out tonight. It's only been five years, but I know for a lot of us that feels like a lifetime ago. Still, what we accomplished together is nothing short of legendary! Karl," she nodded down at her older friend. "Your team's work on heuristics made this whole thing possible right from the start. You laid the foundation!"

The crowd raised a glass, and Karl looked down, a little embarrassed, as they toasted him.

"Danny, it was your interface programs that allowed Noah to actually engage with the world around him. You gave him hands, and taught him how to use them! To Danny!"

The ritual repeated, with the crowd chanting his name next.

Georgina turned to one of the few other women present. "Francie, you and your subroutines gave him his wonderful ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Without you, he'd have the same one-track mind as his predecessor. To Francie!"

Francie called out even as they raised their glasses. "But it was you who guided his programming as it adapted itself. You taught him the Cradle's values, and helped him see our way of thinking. Your changes to his code allowed the Cradle to go beyond this place and time, and out to the stars themselves! To Georgina!"

"To Georgina!" The crowd called out right after her.

Georgina looked down for a second, her cheeks warming noticeably. It wasn't embarrassment, though, but shame. She had betrayed them and their values, but hopefully no one would ever know. Or no one on this planet, anyway.

Trying not to focus on that, Georgina spoke up again. "I could go on all night, toasting genius after genius, but I know you all have lives to get back to. Still, there is one person here who simply can't be left out. General Hanover. Thank you for attending after all. I was afraid we wouldn't see you at all this evening."

A balding, middle-aged man stepped forward and cleared his throat. "Sorry I was late; I had a minor scheduling problem. Still, I wouldn't miss this for the world. Five years ago we changed the course of history. Now, we won't be around for any of those changes to become clear for anyone, but all we have to do is look up and think of what he's out there doing to remind ourselves what we did. Take pride in that, people. I know I do."

Georgina hid a grimace. The General wasn't much of a public speaker, but he'd still been essential to their success. "General, without your invaluable, and invisible, assistance, we never would have been able to even launch the first probe, much less build and launch the Hail Mary. To General Hanover!"

"To the General!" They all called out in response, and clapping broke out as well, throughout the crowd.

Most of the group dispersed after that, giving heartfelt and sometimes tearful farewells to Georgina before heading out. Karl, General Hanover, and Danny were among the few who stuck around for a few minutes. After tearing herself away from the last of the departees, Georgina hurried back to the smaller group. Danny had been drinking more than a little throughout the night, and he had a tendency to overshare when he was drunk. He'd already made a few obvious social blunders tonight.

Fortunately, it seemed the General was dominating this discussion. "You know Karl, when you first approached me all those years ago, asking about military funding for your little group, I thought you were off your nut. I looked into this 'Cradle' idea of yours, and I was sure you were all some kind of idealist, utopian cult. I was sure you and yours, despite your impressive educations, didn't have a chance of building anything as advanced as an AI. Still, I'm man enough to admit when I'm wrong. You proved you had what it took, and I've never been happier to be proven wrong in my life."

"Thank you, sir," Karl said modestly.

"I meant what I said, sir," Georgina spoke up, partly to keep Danny from embarrassing himself again. It seemed some things hadn't changed at all in five years. "It was your funding that got us off the ground. Literally. Thank you, and thank you even more for keeping it secret. Without your black budget, we'd be the talk of the town, and every nation, every faith, would have demanded a piece of the mission before it was even launched. Noah would have been burdened with so many heathen ideas he never would have stood a chance!"

Hanover shook his head. "I may not agree with your beliefs, but I can't argue with your results. You were the first past the post, by a long shot, and you earned the right to put your faith up in the stars. I'm just glad the sum total of human knowledge is going up there with it. That database you put together was a thing of beauty."

"Sure was," Danny put in, smirking. "She poured her heart and soul into that thing." He smiled into his drink, and Georgina wanted to slap him. Idiot that he was. He couldn't endanger the mission, but he was risking all of their livelihoods, here and now!

"Lemme take you home, Danny," Karl put in after a moment. "I think we've all had enough celebrating for now, don't you?" Danny looked like he wanted to say more, but Karl steadily and firmly pushed him away towards the cars. "General, it was good to see you again. Georgina, I'll call you on Tuesday about work, right?"

"Got it," she said gratefully, and waved them both goodnight. "Sorry about that, General. Danny is usually more reliable than that."

"Oh, I remember. Don't worry about it. He's not unlike some people on my own staff. They know how to work, but they just can't get the hang of relaxing." He checked his watch—a Rolex, actually. For a military officer, he liked to live in style, but Georgina pretended not to notice. Man of service indeed. He was only in service to himself. A good portion of that black budget money he'd redirected to fund the Cradle had actually ended up in his own pocket, but she could hardly call him out on it. Back then, or here and now.

He had to leave too, and soon it was just Georgina left behind. She got to work tidying up at least a little before going to bed, but her thoughts kept straying back to what the General had said. She'd spent months on that database, day and night, barely eating or sleeping, just for his inspection. The sum total of human knowledge, he'd said, and that's what she assembled for him.

It had been a thing of beauty after all. Hundreds of languages, with interactive programs to translate them into each other. Thousands of historical files, ranging from people who'd spent their entire lives recording events as faithfully as possible, to people who'd been paid to alter those historical events for some political or governmental agenda. She'd only included that second group as an example of what not to do, as she'd clearly explained back in the day.

Then came the tricky part. Outlining all of the laws in both the ancient and modern world had been easy enough, but outlining the various faiths had not been.

Georgina had been raised in the Faith. The One Faith, or so she'd been taught. All of the various Christian denominations were corruptions of the Faith, she'd been told, ever since she'd been old enough to understand anything. The other religions at least kept the majority of their beliefs, wrong as they were, but Christianity had splintered apart. Like a carrot slowly worn down to just the stem by a peeler, the true beliefs of the Faith had been stripped away, year by year, concept by concept. By now, there were a thousand different versions of the original Christianity, and none were true.

That was why her parents had helped start the Faith. That was why she'd been groomed to eventually work for the Cradle. It was why she'd worked so hard, and had been worked hard as well, to develop the technology to preserve the future.

Karl and the two-hundred-or-so others were in the Faith as well. Like her, they'd been raised to it. Karl had been in charge right from the start, with the blessing of the other families, and he'd been an effective administrator. He'd kept them on track, despite a multitude of stumbling blocks in the way. He'd been instrumental in convincing the General and other key Pentagon officials to back them in secret. And in the end, he'd convinced Georgina herself to lie to them.

When the General had finally seen the database she'd built for him, even he had been impressed. Despite that he'd given some suggestions, and had tinkered with the content to a degree. It had taken another month or so for him to finally be satisfied. That was when the database had been streamed into the computers on board the Mary, to be made part of Noah's consciousness.

Noah had been ecstatic, naturally. Or as excited as a machine could be. He'd spent hours exploring the various histories, and extrapolating for details that hadn't been included. He'd written several historical fiction novels one afternoon, just to see what it was like. His writing was... a little dry, but definitely got the point across.

The General had gone back to Washington, mission accomplished, and that's when Karl had spoken to her. He'd ordered her to write a kill-switch into Noah's coding. Not for him, God forbid. No, for the database itself. At some point during the multi-decade journey through space, it would have to delete itself. The new society on the new world would have a clean start. It was necessary, and Karl hadn't budged on that. No stumbling blocks, not even the tiniest pebble, would hinder them.

Georgina sat down on one of the lawn chairs, exhausted both in body and mind.

She'd believed, heart and soul, in the Faith. She'd known beyond any doubt that what she was doing was right. But all those years in college, learning heuristics, and adaptive code, and being exposed to people who were very definitely not in the Faith, had changed her. They weren't the corrupt monsters she'd been taught about. They were people too.

She'd done as Karl asked, and designed the kill-switch. God forgive her, she'd occluded the future, both for Noah and for everyone else out there. Not entirely, true, but enough to possibly cause disaster.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2022, 03:05:21 AM by Daen »