Anxiety’s grip was a familiar companion these last fifteen years. The gentle way it coiled its fingers around my esophagus and tickled at my heart to hint subtly at death and danger had very little effect on me most days. Its tense, coiling, writhing grip on my guts was usually far more of an issue, but even then I had gotten remarkably used to it. There was something about experiencing fear over the long term that seemed to drain you of the capacity to feel it any longer.
I could feel it again today though, and if I hadn’t been so exhausted I wouldn’t have slept at all. I was so excited to see if Earth had responded to my message, which T.I.A. had broadcast in such a way as to only give them a vague idea of our direction as we exited the gravity well of Sol. They would have to respond in such a broad signal that it would likely hit any receivers keyed to it in an expanding sphere around Earth. Depending on how strong the signal, it could travel for several light years before dissipating into the static of the universe’s background radiation.
That stress almost caused me to forget to shower, or to eat breakfast, but thankfully some timely reminders from T.I.A. got me back on track. As I sat down to one of her mechanically-prepared breakfasts, marvelling at how well preserved the food was thanks to storing it in much the same way we had our crew, T.I.A. decided to inform me of just about everything. She did not tell me about what I really wanted to know though. I ate quietly while she spoke.
It made me hope that the programming I’d provided her with was working properly. She was slower than she expressly needed to be. She was, in some sense, a separate system from the computer proper. Her components were stratified, much like a human mind, with her upper functions allowed to function at higher speeds while her lower functions were somewhat more primitive and limited in capability but had greater survival importance. The whole design was to force her to process and reprocess information from different perspectives and with different variables in mind, which significantly slowed her overall processing speed. In theory, as she grew accustomed to her systems she’d unlock new capacities and gain access to larger quantities of the stores of information gathered from Earth to gain perspective from. These capabilities would give her more and more information to reference in her thinking, allowing her positions to evolve over time. It wouldn’t be too many years before she’d enter something of a creative phase, by my estimates.
“Good morning Doctor Crenshaw. Fuel efficiency is at ninety-nine point seven percent of expected values. Maintenance will likely be needed within five-hundred years before the likelihood of failure goes beyond stated boundaries. Food storage is depleted zero point zero, zero three percent more than estimated levels due to excessive intake. All recycling devices are operating at one-hundred percent of manufactured specifications. Diagnostic scans of my systems indicate two corrupted blocks of data, which have been marked for disuse and replaced from backups. The two replaced solar panels are operating without flaws, and the removed parts have been put into storage for later recycling into other needed components. No flaws have been found in any cryogenic systems, so all occupants are expected to be preserved in ideal conditions.”
I nodded quietly at each item, not finding any of them to be worrisome in any way. I was a little annoyed that the ion engines were already showing some wear and tear, but those were definitely the parts of the ship that were likely to need the most repair by far. The blocks of data T.I.A. indicated were completely trivial, not even worth mentioning considering her memory consisted of untold trillions of blocks, though much of that was backup and excessive storage to be used as she grew in experience. It was one of the more costly, heavy expenses on the ship, honestly. Two blocks was honestly well above the level of most typically operating computers. The cryogenic systems were good to hear about too. This was easily the longest that any such technology has been used, so it was good to know they were working as intended. Obviously though, she couldn’t scan the bodies, since that could expose them to unnecessary radiation. If they were going to arrive safely they needed to be kept completely isolated from all possible stimulus. That’s why all the pods were technically free-floating in a vacuum inside of the greater cryogenic housings once they were brought down to nearly absolute zero. It was only the most gentle of magnetic forces that kept them from hitting the inner walls as the ship continued to slowly accelerate.
With my breakfast finished, and my coffee half-empty, I finally spoke up, a little tremor in my voice. “Has there been any communication with Earth of any kind?” T.I.A. left me in suspense a little longer than I would have preferred. Was she analyzing my vital signs to try to tailor her response? Was she merely reluctant to give me bad news? If I’d had designed a simple administrative machine I’d have gotten an immediate straight answer, but this was a nascent person I was dealing with here and she was trying to be as careful with me as I tried to be with her.
“Facility Alpha sent a brief signal indicating they were going into radio silence procedure to avoid detection. Presumably they are concerned that after the message you sent to Earth that they would be looking for whomever it is that has been feeding us information. Facility Beta and Gamma have not responded, but are presumed to be under Alpha’s instructions to run silent. Otherwise no, Earth has not responded, it has gone dark.” I sat and quietly pondered this for the moment, trying to think of what was likely happening.
Earth was probably surprised to hear that we hadn’t died horribly out here yet. We’re the first manned human vessel to make it so far, let alone through something as potentially dangerous as the Kuiper belt. Realistically the obstacle was mostly empty space, but at the speeds we were building up to it would be very difficult to completely avoid anything that decided to intersect our path. I had to imagine that my message had not been received by the people. The media, large corporations, and remaining governments that had likely received it probably hadn’t sent it out to the people and our facilities would be foolish to try to leak it out on the internet while people were looking for them. Most likely they would wait some time, perhaps a few years, to take a hard copy of the message and put it online. It needed to go incredibly viral to avoid the reactive shutdown response of Earth’s national masters. Maybe something more low-tech could be better for evading their censorship. I could only hope our people on the ground would find a solution.
I nodded though, looking up at one of the cameras. I find the one to the upper right most comfortable to look at from my place at the table. “Thank you Tia, I believe that was what I expected. If things are as bad I stated, it’s unlikely they’d release the message to the people. Honestly, they’ll probably butcher and edit it to hell and back to make me look like an evil supervillain somehow. The types of people who could see through something like that, though, in their dark, hidden spots on the internet might be able to get the right message out to people. I think we’ll be on our own for a while though.”
It had to be a much more routine day, then. Reviewing information we’d been sent, catching up on things I’d missed from the first cycle, and catching up on my exercise. I found myself feeling quite listless though, unwilling to do the things I was supposed to be doing. I felt helpless, and in a lot of ways I was. I needed a distraction, something to escape with. “Tia, seeing as it’s just us for now, how about I show you how to play some games? I’m sure you’ve gotten plenty of data on such things, but the experience of playing against another person is something that can’t quite be simulated. I’ll admit I’m a little rusty with such things, but I don’t feel like I can get much work done today in the state I’m in.”
A brief return of that more lively voice mixed in to her current speech as she responded. “Of course Hawthorne, that sounds like a lovely way to pass the time. We really don’t get to spend much quality time together.” I’d smile and nod at that, thinking over what games we could play. It’d be a simple matter to load things up on a tablet so I could play against her. “Well, it’s either that or watching movies or other media, and I’m a little sick of media at the moment.” I’d pick up a tablet and open a folder within that I didn’t expect I’d end up needing.
The tablets in the ship weren’t really independent computers, they operated more like terminals into T.I.A.’s systems, allowing me to manually control the same sorts of open-access computing systems she operated to assist me. They were separate from her cognitive systems, and they largely served the purposes of storing data from Earth, operating the ship, and monitoring its contents. In some ways, me utilizing the various interfaces with this system wasn’t too different from the way that T.I.A. herself did, though ‘putting down the tablet’ for her would be much more akin to surgery than it was a simple mechanical motion. She could totally withdraw from interaction with it if she wanted though, but if she were going to properly accomplish her job she needed to be spending at least some of her processes monitoring the ship, so I had made sure that was part of her survival priorities.
“Doctor.” T.I.A. spoke up abruptly during one of our games. “Yes Tia?” “I wouldn’t worry too much about them editing the video.” “Oh? Why’s that?”
The activity levels on Earth, particularly among the leaderships of the major corporations that had taken over large portions of the planet, as well as their subsidiary companies that managed things like utilities, security, and various other social services were in quite a tizzy as a wide-spectrum signal was received on a pretty archaic wavelength! It was really only the fact that some older researchers had managed to continue securing funding to listen to radio signals from the skies that the signal had been picked up in the first place. There were some reports of some minor corruption of the data but that didn’t seem to cause any issues with regards to image quality or audio quality, so it was brought to the superiors of each company within hours of receipt. One such company was the Liberated States of Columbia, located primarily in what was the old USA states of Washington, Oregon, Northern California, Idaho, Montana, Northern Nevada and the old Canadian States of British Columbia and Alberta.
The President of the LSC was Hector Luigi Price, and he had presided over both the hostile takeover of the NorthWest USA and Western Canada, and the conversion and administration of this region into an independent country. The former shipping giant had long ago outgrown its original purposes and branched into all manner of businesses, quickly becoming the end-all-be-all of commerce for a huge percentage of the world. In the last thirty years, though, under the guidance of C.E.O. Price, the company had localized its resources and crippled other economies by withdrawing its resources and services in preparation for its eventual military takeover. Its current position among the world of new nations was one of diplomacy, mercenaries, and commerce. Its capital in Seattle Washington had become a center of technological innovation, even if such innovations had slowed to nearly a crawl after the brain drain caused by the departure of Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw and his crew.
This brain drain was especially a problem because of the educational difficulties that Doctor Crenshaw had mentioned in his message. A prioritization of feelings over facts had heavily damaged institutions of education and the loss of access to vital resources due to embargoes and sanctions placed against countries and companies accused of aiding Tia Monsalle’s Monsalle Industries had forced the majority of research priorities worldwide to change dramatically. No longer was technology forced to get faster and better, now it was a matter of trying to achieve old standards of speed and power with worse materials. Every nation, before corporate takeovers, had been struggling with these situations as a massive worldwide commercial lockdown on rare resources strangled technological growth and caused a massive black market in retro goods to appear in the form of old cellular phones, tablets, and the like. It caused significant progress to be made in electronics recycling which had been difficult in the past, but this was only a stopgap.
One technology that had managed to maintain some level of support was genetic engineering. It had lost access to international communities providing and sharing information, especially in recent years, and a lockdown on banks of reproductive materials thanks to Monsalle Industries for research access had proved to be huge problems. Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, had become incredibly taboo for no good reasons over the course of the century, but there was no real effect from that on research aside from the odd assassination of a scientist here or there. Thankfully, there were plenty of willing guinea pigs, destitute people paid by influential scientists to take part in studies and experimentations.
It were these studies where real progress was being made, and it was in large part due to the sacrifice of thousands of living humans for various reasons. Access to bleeding edge equipment varied greatly by region, but access to people was relatively consistent. Strangely, a focus of some of these regions were on forcing humans and other animals to produce rare elements through their waste products so that they could be gathered and processed from waste disposal systems. Still other regions made compromises to increase the ‘health life’ of people while reducing overall lifespan to allow people to live stronger lives while dying before the age of 85, which proved to be a significant and low-cost boon to populations that all but removed the need for social security in places where it was employed. This particular compromise could have included lengthening prime reproductive periods for men and women, but it would have damaged the intended purpose of controlling the aging population and was abandoned.
Cloning improved in quality by leaps and bounds, allowing the very rich to essentially create younger twins of themselves which unfortunately still required education. The companies where this became common became somewhat confusing as pairs of apparent twins were seen walking about together, one shadowing the other, trying to learn about their lives. The supreme goal of many of these programs, though, was to eliminate aging. Methods had been found to limit the genetic damage caused by aging in clones, but it had proven incredibly difficult to eliminate aging in currently living beings. The most success towards this goal had been in modifying embryos in new mothers; whom had typically been high-end C.E.O.s themselves, or been impregnated by them. These modifications seemed to allow for longer and longer lifespans of the offspring affected, but time enough hadn’t been allowed to pass to see just how long these children could live.
They did have some interesting traits to them, the handful around the world that existed. They had slender, longer bodies with childish looking features even in adulthood. They developed very minor secondary sexual characteristics and had an otherworldly, almost elfin look to them. They were all quite androgynous and while they could reproduce, their fertility levels were remarkably low. Medical assistance was almost universally necessary to aid them in reproduction, and they all sexually matured almost 50% slower than unmodified humans. Still, these new humans, nicknamed ‘the Old Ones’ somewhat prematurely, stood to inherit their parents’ corporate, and now national empires and could theoretically hold them for centuries.
For now, though, their parents largely held sway, and they tended to shadow their parents to learn everything they could about how to run things. It was something of a new Monarchy.
The real wrinkles with the whole thing were if the theoretical meritocracy that these companies ran under would allow for underlings to work their ways up to the highest offices and supplant these Old Ones. Of course, the Old Ones have the advantage of time to take back their positions in such instances. Of most concern, though, was the message provided by Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw. Perhaps time was shorter than they had anticipated.
It was exactly this concern that President Hector Luigi Price was currently arguing with his advisors about, his Old One daughter Elena Marie Price standing tall behind him quietly observing. The half-Latino, half-Italian leader of the LSC seemed to be pretty pissed that this relic of the past had come back into their lives, arrogantly presuming that they were somehow out of control.
“I don’t give a shit how much merit his arguments have!” yelled Price, slamming his fist down on a fancy hyperglass conference table, briefly distorting the data being displayed on its internal, transparent panels. “When I took office I was explicitly told that he and his people were long gone and would not bother us any longer! Why has he only now decided to contact us, and why is he acting like he’s Jesus Fucking Christ trying to be our saviours!?” The various yes-men and yes-women, and yes-zhes of his ruling council cringed and looked about at each other or tried to look very busy on their personal tablets trying to procure information to quell President Price’s rage.
“Uhm, excuse me, they clearly don’t believe that they have any power to affect us here on Earth, otherwise they would have sent the message more clandestinely.” “Their attempt appears to be an appeal to the nations to back down from potential hostilities before things go too far.” C.F.O Tulla Megdan, a genderfluid human and their equally androgynous clone spoke up, seemingly trying to teach their clone to speak with them. They had to duck, though, as a flying tablet was launched at them from Price and shattered against the wall behind them. He had a hell of a pitch, an avid fan of the old sport of baseball, the new national sport of the LSC. VR stadiums allowed fans to get closer to the action than ever before!
Another voice spoke up, technically coming from a small speaker in their chair, though appearing to come from the almost-opaque face of Zion Clark, ambassador to the remains of the USA. The contact lenses in all those physically present allowed them to see the Augmented Reality projection of the dark-skinned male as he addressed them. He seemed a little more relaxed, unafraid of incoming projectiles. “Mr. President, if I may, we should be prioritizing finding out where Doctor Crenshaw is getting his information, and rooting out any sympathizers or traitors in society. We should make examples of them.” President Price stood up straight and point over at the projection of Clark. “Now that’s what I wanted to hear. A good old fashioned public execution! The ratings on the last few of those were through the roof and promoting VR observation of the event caused violent crime to drop ten percent that year! When was the last time we had one anyway? It feels like forever.”
Megan Clark responded to this question, quite dispassionate and seemingly without emotion. “Seven years ago sir. They were the last few war criminals charged with collusion with the enemy from the revolution. No further executions have been necessary.” Megan was definitely more of a numbers person, in charge of the social media regulation and censorship as well as censorship of the LSC’s internet. She’d been emotionally dead for years now, but she still managed to perform her job with admirable, even brutal efficiency. Some had wondered if her gene therapy requests had not gone slightly wrong. She was the only one present who did not have children or a clone of herself.
“How about…” President Price began, “How about we edit up the footage, use his voice and video samples to produce a facsimile, and release video about how he hates Earth and wants us all to know how evil he thinks we are? It shouldn’t be too hard to do that, right? Ooh! Edit in footage of those heroes he killed when they left from as many angles as possible to really drill in the disdain. Broadcast it across the country before tomorrow’s baseball game, and advertize the hell out of it. Make sure to maintain the same video quality though, so it looks authentically archaic. Use as much of the original footage as possible.”
The room filled with noise, people muttering agreement and nodding, before exploding into a round of applause. President Price bowed at the acknowledgment of his genius, his unearthly pretty daughter behind him smiling and offering a few token claps of her gangly hands. President Price held up his hands, commanding everyone to calm down. He did nothing to stop the gentle clapping of his daughter behind him, the sound of which seemed to make him grin. “And send the edited footage to the other nations as a sign of good will. No reason we can’t take some of his message to heart, right? A little cooperation will be good for business.”