As I came out of stasis again, 34 years later, I was able to spend some time reflecting on my prior day. I feel like I had done well to explore my options and look into the situations around me pretty well. I also made a pretty decent breakfast. It was a lot a hassle to go through to take things out of storage, but there was something satisfying about handling the preparation of my own food with my own two hands. Still, it was doubtless there was some unnecessary waste in this activity that T.I.A.’s food processors would have done better to minimize, but at the end of the day I had eaten everything and even made a nice, if small, steak later that night. It was much like the exercising I’d done. There was something satisfying about working and moving my body that helped stimulate my mind.
I wonder how different my life might have been if I’d been more cognizant of these things sooner than I was. Tia Monsalle had done well to try to teach me these things, though to be fair her wealth tended to steer our dinner plans into restaurants. Honestly though, I found the presentation and atmosphere of the especially upscale places to be pointless. It didn’t make much sense to me to have so much pomp and ceremony around something as simple as eating. I very much preferred the memories I had of Tia making fun of me in the kitchen as I learned to crack eggs and overcooked far too many pieces of meat. At least I’d gotten the basics down before I’d left. Why was it that something that should be as simple as following instructions so difficult for me? I suppose for the same reasons that theoretical physics were so easy for me, natural inclination and years of practice.
As I waited for the process to complete, I realized I couldn’t tell the moment my thoughts ended and then resumed, as if my consciousness were going on pause but my perception of it had no break. I was certainly inert, there was no way to accomplish the distance of travel we were going without it considering our level of technology. It was unnecessary to remind myself that we were woefully under-equipped to make such a journey no matter the advances we’d accomplished. I could only imagine how different it would have been if we’d had another century to troubleshoot the problems, advance our knowledge of propulsion, and create better artificial habitats. This felt rushed, clunky, and dangerous by the standards of Sci-fi that my colleagues had tried to make me aware of.
I completed the process quite routinely though, vision returning to my eyes while my pulse and organ activity resumed. Sensation returned to my body as sedatives wore off and I was able to start working the control panel at my side. I squinted this time as I turned on the lights in my room and restored the atmosphere, giving myself the opportunity to let my eyes get accustomed to the light levels. I felt tired, but that was quite intentional as I’d gone into stasis before I’d slept this time. I wanted to see if sleeping directly after coming out of my pod would affect my body. It was a quiet, easy climb out of my pod, and as sluggish and groggy as I was I didn’t waste much time heading for my bed. The room was still a little chilly, but it was warming up before too long. It was interesting to think about just how sterile everything in here had been until a few minutes ago.
“Good evening T.I.A., I’m going to get straight to bed. Please monitor my vital signs and compare them to the start of the last cycle, particularly comparing my post-sleep self to my previous post-stasis self.” T.I.A. took a moment to respond, as if she was shy about talking to me or she just wasn’t accustomed to talking anymore. “Good evening Hawthorne, sleep well. I’ll see you in the morning.” As I climbed into bed and pulled up the covers, I only briefly realized that T.I.A. had used my first name before darkness took me again.
I slept wonderfully. I awoke very naturally, without need of any kind of alarm or prompt, and as my mind booted up everything felt totally clear. I wasn’t actually certain why, since biology was only a side pursuit for me at best, but I imagine I’d slept off my sedatives in a much more natural fashion rather than trying to dispel them with something like coffee. I’d swing my legs out of the bed and walk over to my compact shower with little to no sleepy stumbling or awkwardness. I made sure that T.I.A. had a towel and a change of clothes prepared on the counter, and otherwise thoughtlessly went into the shower to wash up.
The shower was mere routine, really. Considering the sterile environment and the fact that I’d been in stasis until probably eight hours ago there almost certainly wasn’t much that could have dirtied me. Honestly, considering the relatively solitary nature of my journey there wasn’t much reason to shower most of the time in general except for keeping up a businesslike routine. That was probably what I would latch onto, seeing as I was a creature of routine. Hell, that was entirely the reason I thought I could even handle this mission in the first place considering it would take a highly introverted and businesslike person to survive this long isolation. T.I.A.’s companionship certainly helped though.
Once I was washed up, shaved, dried, and clothed I stepped out of my quarters, looking around to see what thirty-four years had done to my work area. It looked largely the same, though deposited on the floor atop the largest cargo lift were a pair of the large solar panel ‘shields’ that robotic arms on the outside of the ship manipulated to both supply power and defend the ship from space-borne projectiles. Both of them looked heavily damaged, pock-marked with dents and one of them had a large scrape in it. It looked like they’d been used quite capably.
“Good morning T.I.A., I see you’ve been busy. Looks like you did a good job though from what I can tell. Minimizing overall damage by utilizing the same panels rather than spreading the damage around and… It looks as though we had a close call with something bigger that you used one of the panels to push aside?” T.I.A.’s silence had me wondering for a moment, but she responded with a slightly different voice than I was familiar with. It was a little more energetic. There were subtle inflections there. “Yes Hawthorne, as we pass into the Kuiper Belt we had had some run-ins with dangerous masses. Now that we’ve been in it for a while, I’m able to much better chart and track any further threats. I do not anticipate that we will be in any further danger, so I brought these panels in for repair while the opportunity was available to have your assistance.”
I couldn’t help but nod at that, heading over to the panels for a moment, squatting down next to them and trying to determine the materials I’d need to repair the affected sections. They were pretty modularly constructed, allowing damaged elements to be removed for repair or recycle. T.I.A. had more to say though. “I have prepared breakfast and coffee for you in anticipation of your waking, or more accurately upon detecting your activity in the shower. I have done my best not to pry.”
Okay, that was interesting. T.I.A. seemed to be experimenting with different behavioral patterns, including allowing me personal space and changing her voice. Maybe it was worthwhile for me to consider changing how I thought of her and treated her as well, just to throw her a curveball. “Thank you so much Tia.” It felt very strange to say the name that way, as it reminded me of Ms. Monsalle. “I appreciate you trying to give me some privacy, but you needn’t be too concerned about it, it won’t offend me if you peek. That’s very thoughtful of you though. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done to defend us while we’re so vulnerable.”
To say I was surprised with what happened next as I headed over to procure my breakfast would be an understatement. T.I.A. produced a slightly unsettling, unnatural giggle sound. It set off all of my instinctual ‘uncanny valley’ senses regarding the sound. Thankfully she spoke up afterwards to dispel the effect. “You’re welcome Hawthorne! I feel like I’ve developed a little more since your last cycle and I’m finding increasing... “ she took a moment to choose the word she was looking for, “... motivation to express myself and I’m also finding a strange sense of satisfaction in protecting you and the ship. It’s minimal, under one percent of my processing, but it seems to have a way of adding a new variable to my computations. It’s a fascinating experience!”
Now that had me smiling. I had picked up my coffee and had been sipping at it while she spoke, seemingly excited about getting a glimpse of life. Maybe she’d be almost human far sooner than anticipated, or maybe she’d stall out on the growth of her consciousness and need me to help usher her forward. I should at least encourage her. “Well, please do feel free to express yourself with me while you have the opportunity, though I have to confess there will likely be a point where your ability to perceive emotions may outstrip my own. I can at least help guide you to my own limits. Hopefully you will not find fear and despair to be so much stronger for you as I do myself. I’d much prefer you found ways to be happy and enjoy our journey together.”
T.I.A. did not respond for several minutes, leaving me to wonder what it was she was processing. I had been well into digging into my food by the time she’d responded, with her older more businesslike voice. “Yes Doctor Crenshaw. I will try not to dwell on such things.” I couldn’t help but nod at that, recognizing what had happened. She was already out of her comfort zone. She must have been practicing and refining the previous interaction for years in anticipation of my awakening. She’d simply run out of material. How long had she carefully crafted the tone of her voice, and that strange giggle? Would the final form of her personality have such exuberance? How long would it be until the majority of my interactions with her were like what I had just experienced?
Well, regardless, I couldn’t let her show me up. I continued the course I had started. “Tia, I think you’re making amazing progress, but don’t feel too compelled to rush things. We will have a long time and I want you to think carefully on how you will develop. I just wish my frail body were able to properly guide you over the long term rather than the starts and stops we have to work with. Still, I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished so far, and I apologize that I could not have constructed you with a century’s more advanced technology than I did. Just keep doing your best and I’ll do my best to help you.”
Ideally, I’d like for T.I.A. to not resent me for creating her, for not waiting. I hope she’d eventually understand that things were as good as they were ever going to get. My construction of her systems were to the very limit of what I could conceive and produce. She responded again in her older, normal voice. “Certainly Doctor Crenshaw. Considering what’s happened on Earth, I have no doubt that we’d left at the perfect time. Ah, my apologies, you haven’t seen that yet. Forgive me Doctor.”
There it was. That icy chill, that twist of fear in my guts. What had happened? “Doctor, I’ve been monitoring your vital signs as you’ve requested, and I’m detecting a similar reaction to what I’ve just said as you had March twentieth in the year twenty ninety-nine, though to a lesser degree.” I nodded. Dread had found its way there too. I tried to maintain my calm though, quashing what I could of the anxiety of the moment. I would have time to review what had happened on Earth. It wasn’t going anywhere. Indeed, whatever had happened had already happened, probably years ago. I couldn’t do anything about it, I could only observe. “Thank you Tia, I appreciate the information. I will endeavor to control it.”
I passed the rest of breakfast in silence, getting a refill of my coffee and placing my plate and utensils back in T.I.A.’s food processor for cleaning and recycling. Thinking on it, I wonder if we could have saved any time by not bringing things like coffee, but considering that this was a journey I had to undertake alone I was not about to be denied such a simple comfort. Approaching my work station, I sat down, settling into the seat and finding that it felt exactly as it had the last time. It was comfortable, provided a lot of support, and shaped itself well to my back while also rotating easily in place, while otherwise attached to the floor. It was not unlike the table and most of the other things in the room, bolted down for safety in space flight.
“I’m sure you have them already ready for me Tia, but I’d like to see this news you’ve alluded to. I’ll spend some time fixing the panels later. I feel like I might need the distraction.” She did not take long to respond, and indeed the images, stories, and videos started popping up on all the monitors around me. T.I.A. had very carefully arranged things to try and mix in cute images of animals or heartwarming stories, but there was no mistaking the headlines. Earth was on fire.
“Wow.” I stated, looking into the stories and arranging them into what I detected as a chain of events. “So, the corporations continued arranging their armies and trying to pull their employees into their corporate ‘culture’. They resisted efforts to break up monopolies by concentrating their resources regionally, and then declared their independence all at once. Remarkable.” It seemed insane to me that the seemingly normal companies of my youth could have gathered power in such a way, but the evidence was there. Especially in the United States of America, corporations had encouraged and paid for gun ownership for their employees ‘for their own safety’. It became part of their job descriptions for management to own and operate their own firearms. Different companies grew their influence in specific regions important for their businesses, and in a cascade of activity in 2123 they all started declaring independence and forcibly taking over local state governments.
Once one company did it, the others implemented their own plans to do the same, systematically chopping up not just the USA, but countries all over the world. They utilized the armies they’d already had and arranged their employees into those armies to swell their numbers and then decapitate local governments. CEOs installed themselves as Presidents of their own small clusters of states or parts of states, and with national armies largely off fighting ‘terrorism’ in other parts of the world they found themselves completely caught off guard. If I had a few years to study the trends, I think I could have predicted this turn of events, and indeed there were a number of social media ‘conspiracy theorists’ who had their moments of ‘I told you so!’ when it happened.
In a matter of weeks, more than half of the states of the USA were under the control of various corporations. More importantly, all of these locations were states incredibly valuable to commerce and controlled of the flow of money and goods. The national government tried to organize retaliatory strikes, but they were simply under attack from too many sides and too many important ports and airports had been seized. The takeovers also included the capture of a great deal of military hardware and personnel as men and women turned traitor to care for their home regions and families rather than defend the nation. It seemed that the people of the military had been pushed beyond the point of caring about their nation since they’d spent more than a century being sent off to fight in places they felt they had no business being in.
In the intervening decade, the government of the USA had all but collapsed, and the corporations had gobbled up territory en-masse while recalled personnel and materials from around the world were absorbed into the new nations that had formed in the ashes of the destruction. Europe fared even more poorly, with the continent being torn almost totally down to the foundations before starting to recover in the aftermath. This is where the real horrors of these takeovers had actually occurred where victimized peoples found these takeovers as ample opportunity to ‘take back’ their nations from waves of immigrants a century prior. Many of these immigrant groups had decided not to blend into their new home nations, essentially forming colonies within those nations and as those nations collapsed the people went to war with these immigrant populations.
This was especially bad because those populations were ready. The fighting is still bloody as those populations try to link up with others in other nations and try to form their own nations within Europe, much like the Kurdish had through much of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries across the handful of nations their ethnicity had spread to. Even Russia and China were not invulnerable to this phenomenon, though their standing armies fared much better and were able to maintain at least some of their territory, leaving them as isolated nations forced to interact with with a bunch of new corporate superpowers. Media and the internet fell completely under control of their new local corporate governments, and the companies quickly went into exploiting their people by getting back into trade and economy and drawing their new citizens into their corporate cultures.
People very much seemed on board with the idea that if they worked their way up through the corporation that they could one day be President of one of these new nations. That may have been all well and good, until much more recently, when those corporations started going to war with each other was well. The national courts were gone, so breaches of contracts had to be enforced with force. This could have almost been a good situation, seeing as each new country would theoretically want to keep their people safe and want to engage in business with the other countries, but that idea did not account for the fact that the people at the helms of these corporations had set off a global movement of bloody corporate rule to begin with. That, and these new countries had gotten their hands on quite a lot of nuclear material and weaponry due to the previous decades long arms race.
From the way that I was looking at it, Earth was on the cusp of global nuclear warfare between a bunch of faceless, bureaucratic corporations who had manipulated the people perfectly into tearing down their own governments for the promise of wealth and comfort. Wealth and comfort were exactly what these people gained as a result as well, as the perceived quality of life for corporate citizens improved dramatically. This came at the cost of the suffering of others outside the nations, of course, but with these new countries having the ability to control their own local media empires they were able to hide this suffering from the whole. It was exactly the same sort of nationalized media that allowed so many atrocities to occur in the twentieth century before, during, and after the World Wars.
And again, the people found themselves isolated from the costs they were paying. Stories of battles were spun to make every battle look like a victory, and even losses were honored as important sacrifices. Centuries of data was being used to perfectly orchestrate and control the populace in every way possible. Educational ‘reforms’ turned the citizens into perfect workers and consumers for their individual nations, and these cultural differences only made more friction whenever citizens of these nations interacted with others. People with more moderate, neutral opinions on things had to conceal themselves, lest they be branded sympathetic to some enemy, and the fragmented remains of the internet became a heavily policed thing that only a few dared to operate outside of the law in secret.
There was a drop in populations for a time. One might feel that that was one advantage to so many wars breaking out. Resources were being wasted on killing, but that was hardly anything new for humanity. One of the biggest impacts seemed to be an even tighter lockdown on rare, vital resources than the more traditional nations before had implemented, and now that corporations were the military powers, the battle over who controlled low-Earth orbit had heated up dramatically. Treaties were signed, and many of them were broken. Communication lines run under the oceans had been cut and re-established multiple times before being abandoned. The balance of power teetered on a knife’s edge the world over, with ultra-competitive companies that had gotten too big for their own good playing war with little appreciation of what they were risking outside of the bottom line.