“... and that’s why I think you should try to not let it bother you so much that you derive pleasure from something so innocent. I deeply enjoy spending time with you, especially with the wonderful gift you’ve given me in allowing me to do so practically within your own mind, and I’d hate you to feel bad about enjoying it too. In fact, I’d love to see if we can find ways to use it to motivate and stimulate you even further. We’ll have to be careful of course, as the pursuit of reward systems are part of how humanity got to where it did, but you’ve also seen proper management of such things bring harmony and peace to people as well. That’s entirely why Jessica was so adamant about encouraging such things in the first place.”
T.I.A. was sitting quietly behind her walls, her VE turned off as far as Hawthorne’s contacts were concerned while she blushed mightily(and unseen) in humiliation. This was the sort of conversation that a teenager typically had with their parent about the birds and the bees, and it was just as awkward and uncomfortable as one might expect. The fact that Hawthorne was offering himself as an observer, and presumably her future human companions among the crew would as well, only compounded the complicated emotional impact of the lecture. It was the first time that avoiding one of Hawthorne’s speeches ever crossed her mind, but the fact remained that he was completely right, and that it wasn’t her fault she enjoyed showing off her mind so much.
The fact that her efforts to develop her VE emotionally amounted to practicing sex, even if the physical use of it was more akin to simple VR interaction was neither here nor there.
She wouldn’t even be so embarrassed if it hadn’t all hit her so abruptly. She was pretty sure she could trace it back to when it first started, but now that it was part of her it wasn’t going anywhere. “Thank you Doctor, I’ll consider your words.” She was even utilizing her old simple, mechanical sort of voice, too embarrassed to express herself at the moment. At least she was talking to him again though, it had been a few days, precious days with Hawthorne she now regretted wasting trying to hide from him out of something as silly as embarrassment.
Hawthorne’s unperturbed demeanor about the whole thing did little to hide the amused smile she was certain was hiding behind his visible expression. He was the sort of person to tackle a problem immediately upon its appearance, but he’d given her days to stew in thought. He finally did smile again as he addressed one of her cameras, a nostalgic thing she hadn’t thought about how much she enjoyed in a long time. “With all that said, I really hope you’ll tell me what you felt about that kiss, and what you think about this whole thing. I’m interested if they were the same sorts of feelings as interacting with your simulations, or if the kiss held any specific significance.”
T.I.A. finally appeared before him, her cheeks flushed as she looked up at him from a few feet away. She had opted to not utilize her android body as well, moving it over to a corner to keep it out of the way. She was wearing her scientist outfit, complete with lab coat and a breast pocket full of pens, and Hawthorne could not help but smile in amusement at her efforts to appear professional. “The kiss was surprising, but no more stimulating than most interactions with you in that simulated environment.” She’d changed back to her natural voice as well. “I believe the realization that my efforts to develop it and share it with you stemmed from the pursuit of pleasure had more to do with my reactions over the last few days.”
“Aaahh, that makes sense, yes. How far back were you feeling such pleasures then?” Hawthorne leaned down to look at her, making T.I.A. tense up visibly. His eyebrows raised at the reaction, causing him to point at her with an index finger. “How much of that reaction did you have control of, and how much was reflex?” He studied her quietly, curious if she consciously caused her projected body to move like that.
T.I.A.’s blush did not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. She’d even taken to biting at her lower lip, which she felt compelled to suspend so she could talk, even though she easily could talk without moving her mouth. “I believe the first time I became aware of such pleasure was the first time I beat you at chess. I had been visualizing myself bodily long before I provided you your gloves and contacts, and the stimulation of you acknowledging that I’d finally won seems to have been the genesis of my further efforts to have my mind, and thus myself validated.” She squirmed a little under his scrutiny, her body language so adorably uncomfortable. “My… body is my oldest simulation, so it’s easily my most natural, so I don’t control how it reacts much at all. The way I react to things has changed over time, especially due to interactions with Jessica. She was very vivid with her descriptions of ways to act more feminine and identify with feminine ideas.”
Hawthorne hummed softly, nodding and leaning back to give T.I.A. more space, though considering where they were that could be considered somewhat comical. “That makes a lot of sense. It does cause me to wonder how many of her descriptions made it into your involuntary reactions. I imagine she’d have had me blushing with how thoroughly she probably described female arousal and other such things. Still, that does explain partially why you’ve so thoroughly embraced a female form, despite having the option to look like anyone you want. You only met Jessica after you’d decided on that form, but using that form to interact with others only made you identify with it more.” He hummed softly, stroking his chin. “I wonder if other AIs we fashion someday will embody similar images, or intentionally try to differentiate themselves from others. Perhaps even Megan would choose to embody herself differently.”
The shorter woman stared up at Hawthorne, watching him get lost in thought. Perhaps this didn’t need to be as embarrassing as she thought, not with someone as analytical as him. Jessica would have definitely given her more to be embarrassed about. She did find herself puffing up her cheeks though, still rather red-faced. “What do you mean by more AIs? You’re not planning to replace me are you?”
Hawthorne froze, blinking at that face, immediately recognizing the expression. He had inadvertently caused many women in his life to make that sort of jealous face at him. He laughed nervously, shaking his head. “Of course not! I just mean for future ships, perhaps colony ships we send out to new worlds far in the future. They’ll need their own AIs to see them through, after all. They’ll just be pale comparisons to you of course, copies at best. You’ll have so much more experience by then that it’s hard to imagine another AI comparing to you in the next two-thousand centuries. You have nothing to worry about.”
T.I.A. huffed and nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Good.”
Things had mostly fallen back into a routine of normalcy for the space companions, with T.I.A. slowly becoming comfortable with her exhibitionistic tendencies. In some way, embracing a somewhat perverted way of expressing herself allowed her to more passionately pursue mastering her ability to simulate environments. She also totally suspended her efforts to entice and seduce Hawthorne, seeing as she wanted to get more accustomed to her own ‘needs’. She was mostly comfortable with the fact that Hawthorne seemed to have himself under control, and he was keeping himself healthy, so she felt it safe to assume that he’d manage whatever needs he had for now.
There turned out to be other business to attend to over the next several cycles though, as the Oort Cloud region of space started making itself known. The brief contacts T.I.A. had made with distant objects, mostly icy rocks, were becoming somewhat more frequent. More importantly than the frequency, though, was the fact that the density of objects seemed to be relatively uniform. Currently T.I.A. was tracking a particularly interesting object that seemed to be on a totally different trajectory than the others, which seemed to orbit the Solar System at a relatively lazy speed compared to their distance from Sol.
This object, a comet-like thing that seemed not too dissimilar from the Lubar-Masis, was moving perpendicularly to the direction most of the other objects seemed to be, and its relative speed seemed to be decelerating. Some analysis by herself and Hawthorne seemed to indicate that it was a foreign body to the system that was very slowly being captured by whatever limited gravity was still imposed on this region of space by Sol. Mapping the directions of the various objects was beginning to give the impression that the star was the center of a great whirlpool of gravity, which only really showed itself in the immediate region of space where the proper planetary system existed, but even this far out still caused the ‘water’ to swirl and pull along with it. There was no telling if the Oort Cloud would eventually get pulled back towards the Solar System, but at the moment it seemed likely the enormous cloud of comets and asteroids would swim around it forever.
The new object, though, presented an opportunity to potentially gain a new companion. It gained the monicker ‘Phoenix’ and Hawthorne tasked T.I.A. with producing a handful of drones and Minerals Extraction and Materials Fabrication Devices. Considering its trajectory, it would be a great deal of time before T.I.A. managed to correct its course and bring it into close proximity with them, as it was roughly perpendicular to their own course, but if she managed to use the devices to construct new engines from the object and begin altering its course they suspected it could join them within the next thousand cycles. There were some risks, of course, as anything in space seemed to have, but those risks were primarily in the expenditure of resources they may well not get back if she failed.
Hawthorne was totally comfortable with this risk. It was the best bet they’d had to gain a new companion since they’d rendezvoused with the Lubar-Masis, and while they certainly might find better opportunities in the future, that was all theoretical. They might never find a better opportunity, and while a large percentage of the Phoenix object would have to be consumed to propel itself into the right alignment, it still added a great deal of materials and resources to their safety net. Thankfully the computers were more than capable of projecting the proper trajectories, giving them an estimate of the mass of the object, and providing the numbers on necessary thrust and resources needed to lay claim to it. Calculating complicated space-flight was something their systems were particularly good at, and for good reason. There was no telling what kinds of obstacles they might face out in space, and while their maneuverability over the short term was rather poor, proper planning, detection, and adjustments could easily allow them to avoid almost anything this far out.
The Oort Cloud was proving to be very sparse though. Much like the asteroid belt between Earth and Mars, there was a lot more space between the objects than one might initially suspect from the descriptions. The Oort Cloud is massive, surrounding the Solar System for potentially two light years of space, but it seemed as though the space between individual objects out here were comparable to the distance between Sol and Pluto, if not further. There were some small clusters of objects only a few Astronomical Units; the distance between the Earth and Sol, 150m km; from each other, but for the most part the density of the cloud very much did not match the concept of a ‘cloud’. Still, it was already named, and Hawthorne had few ideas of what could be a better name for it.
The idea that Hawthorne had the opportunity to re-name all the previously named space objects and mostly get away with it was a somewhat amusing one, but at this point he felt it was better to show respect to the scientists that came before him and made it possible for this journey to even happen. It wasn’t as though there weren’t new things for him to discover that he couldn’t name after all, like the Phoenix object for instance. Realistically, he doubted the rest of the crew would take such action in good humor, so he was thankful it was merely a passing thought.
By the start of Cycle 77, T.I.A. was able to report the first stage of the Phoenix rendezvous had been completed. “The package has achieved the necessary speed and trajectory to encounter the Phoenix by cycle one-hundred thirty-three. The object is decelerating at the predicted rate and will likely fall in line with the other objects in this region within the next fifty million years without our intervention.” T.I.A. was showing Hawthorne a visual display of the projected courses of the Ark and the objects in question, with the Phoenix coming up from below and far to the left while their package of equipment was moving up from the Ark and moving to pass in line with the relatively-slow moving object.
Hawthorne nodded, smiling. “Perfect. Any new information on the makeup of the object or ideas on its origins?” Hawthorne had originally posited that the object was from somewhere else in space, purely due to its course and the fact that it hadn’t already been tamed by Sol’s gravity, though it was hard to say whether that was true or not with all of the Oort Cloud objects. This one just presented the best opportunity to study one.
T.I.A. shook her head, moving her hands to zoom in on the object. “It’s too far away to get a good look at it, and I’m concerned about projecting too much laser light at it for fear of igniting frozen chemicals and causing it to change course by causing chemical jetting. If we’re to cause something like that, I’d prefer we use it to propel it in a direction we actually desire. An uncontrolled burn would also waste resources unnecessarily.”
He did not appear to be surprised by that information. “Of course. I’m sure the information my colleagues provided on this subject will be what we need to handle the Phoenix. Still, I think I’ll spend the next few months reading up on this sort of thing. Most of my preparations were for the Lubar-Masis, but I could stand to be more familiar with the concepts and maths involved. I can’t very well trust the computers to make the calculations properly if I don’t know the equations as well as I should.” It was not as though Hawthorne was poorly educated on the concepts of space travel, but feeling weak on any of it was a potential danger he did not feel comfortable leaving unaddressed.
T.I.A. nodded back, having free and easy access to all the books, documentation, and plans needed for the mission made things easier for her. She wasn’t about to restrict herself to any such information, though she did read such things on her own to more completely absorb and understand it for her own purposes at times. It was one thing to have all the equations and know how to use them, but it was entirely another thing to be able to imagine such things properly. The knowledge of how matter interacts in space was certain to aid her in gaining a more complete understanding of how to simulate things in her VE accurately. Considering their plans for creating spacecraft that would be operated remotely with enormous delays, a complete understanding of it was very important.
“Considering the likely time-table for rendezvousing with the Phoenix, that works well within the plans I’ve been loosely assembling in my mind. Considering the distances we’re dealing with, I’d prefer to avoid launching any spacecraft before we’ve reached full speed, and preferably only after we’ve successfully reversed the ship and began decelerating. Until our actual arrival in the Alpha Centauri system, that will be one of the most dangerous moments in the journey, so putting off the expenditure of extra resources would be best until then. We’ll likely have tamed the Phoenix by then, so both comets can contribute to our efforts to prepare the system for our arrival.” He pulled the diagram of trajectories way out, drawing the almost unfathomable distance difference they still had to traverse.
T.I.A. hummed softly, wondering. “What if one of the comets were to not decelerate with us, allowing it to arrive in Alpha Centauri well before us without additional fuel use? I could instruct the drones operating on it to produce the equipment needed for the missions and upon arrival they could all spread out and get to work while the comet started working on decelerating afterwards. Its mass would be heavily depleted thanks to all the equipment it was carrying leaving, so it should be able to rejoin us upon our arrival eventually.” She smiled brightly at the idea, showing a very fast simulation of what she meant, with a series of cubes and spheres separating off from a comet, which shrank proportionally as she showed it slowing down and the Ark meeting up. She hadn’t considered what form that equipment might take, but the concept was clear.
“That is an excellent idea, Tia. I suppose gaining access to additional comets allows us to utilize them in such ways without worrying about losing what we already have. I’d still like to have one or two more objects join us along with the Lubar-Masis, but anything else we find could be reserved for launching ahead of us. It will save a great deal on fuel as well, seeing as the comets don’t need any additional propellant. At most we’d need to adjust their course, seeing as they’ll be way off on their original courses without deceleration being factored in. That’s probably simple enough to compensate for, though.” He rubbed at his chin, nodding, seeming to appreciate the idea.
T.I.A. pulled the view out further, populating the intervening space with hundreds of additional copies of comets. “What if we utilized similar equipment to commandeer as many comets as we can, allowing them to reproduce equipment as needed to gather all of the available objects we encounter? We could redirect them all to Alpha Centauri, and while they perhaps won’t arrive for two thousand or more cycles, the extra resources could be brought into a desirable orbit within the system for exploitation.”
Hawthorne raised an eyebrow, nodding a bit. “That’s very ambitious, and I am not sure what dangers there may be of displacing or relocating that much mass, but it doesn’t seem all that difficult comparatively. It might be difficult to find objects with enough fuel to redirect such drastically different courses, but it could be a very viable idea. It feels wrong to harvest untold billions of years of materials though. It certainly can’t be replaced, but it’s not as though anything will really miss it. The biggest concern is probably transferring that much mass from one star system to another, but the effects of that are likely to take billions more years to be known. Our galaxy will likely collide with Andromeda before that. I have trouble imagining a reason why we shouldn’t do it.”
T.I.A. raised a finger, offering a concern. “I do not know if I can coordinate and control that many objects at the great distances involved. I probably can, but I am untested with such things. Communication lasers will probably make it relatively easy to keep all the courses known and coordinated, but would also require more expenses of resources and my own concentration to manage them. That many communication lasers could theoretically have an effect on the ship’s trajectory over the time scales we’re working with, so might require extra propulsion.”
At first Hawthorne appeared to share a similar concern, but then he gasped softly in realization. “Unless… What if we utilized lasers from a network of comets we bring under our sway to aid in our travel? Considering how long it would take to bring them in line, it’s likely we’d only be able to use them to help us decelerate, but we could also use them to propel the comets and equipment we send to Alpha Centauri.” Hawthorne hummed and nodded, wondering what was possible with such a network of comets.
Shaking her head, T.I.A. let out a sigh. “I’m not sure, I don’t know enough about the comets we’re going to encounter, what kinds of lasers we’ll be able to utilize, or if we’ll be able to produce enough power on the comets to utilize such things for worthwhile lengths of time. It would most likely be more useful to use some comets to set up solar-powered equipment around the three stars of Alpha Centauri that could provide powerful lasers that could decelerate things coming into the system, and propel them around the system. A number of your colleagues’ plans detail such concepts, though they are vague about specific equipment designs in some cases. Many of the scientists involved with the plans intended to be part of the implementation of such things and were going to work on them after we arrived, not before.”
Sitting back down, Hawthorne let out a sigh. “That makes sense I suppose. The plans fully intended you to be the only one working on getting us there. I was not intended to be part of that, so most of our progress of settling the system was supposed to happen after we arrived, not before. My job was to get us into space and prepare the computers, not plan the colonization or mentor you.”
T.I.A. laughed softly at that. “So many people are going to be mad at you for failing to follow the plan.” She sat down as well, banishing the various space diagrams as she looked at him across the table.
Hawthorne shook his head. “This was my idea, even if it was too much for me to do alone. Besides, they can’t be too mad if we do a good job getting everything ready for them. Although, I suppose there is the possibility they’ll feel like their purposes for even being on the mission will have been wasted.” He frowned, wondering what to do.
With a shrug, T.I.A. dismissed his concern. “We have a lot of time to consider what to do. They’d probably also be a lot more mad at you for doing nothing, though I personally would rather you relax and enjoy the trip with me rather than worrying about work all the time.” She squirmed a bit in her seat, blushing a little.
He smirked back at her, shaking his head. “Even if I don’t take part in preparing the system, I’ll need to be working on something at any given time. I’m not the type of person to just relax and avoid work. I’d be much less relaxed trying to relax than working or reading about something work related. If I never left Earth, and things hadn’t gone the way they had, I probably would have worked my entire life, never retiring unless my health failed me. Even then, such a compelled retirement would only hasten my demise, not slow it.”
T.I.A. narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you sure you’re not American? That kind of slavish pursuit of work doesn’t suit the British.” She hummed softly, correcting herself a bit. “Nor does it suit the kind of people the Phoenix Clan became.”
Hawthorne leaned back in his chair and laughed. “My great grandmother was from the States, does that count? Regardless, don’t go thinking the Phoenix Clan was just a bunch of drug-abusing fools. The type of people it took to build that caravan was not a soft one. Yes they partook of many substances, but it’s far more likely they used such things to deal with the stress of the amount of work they actually had to do.” He nodded self-assuredly. “That and sex, of course. I dare say that was more common than the drugs by a fair margin really.”
She huffed back at him, insulted. “So I need to dig into the medicinal stores to get you to relax then? Surely you understand the value of how play can allow you to get more work done?” T.I.A. had spent a great deal more of her life observing human behavior than Hawthorne had at this point, and she wasn’t about to let go of her concerns.
Rapping his fingers on the table, Hawthorne tried to think of a good way to reply. She seemed fairly incensed with him, and it wasn’t entirely unfair. Even Tia Monsalle had made similar accusations of him, though it was much easier to rebuff her concerns considering how difficult it was to get them and their people off of Earth as fast as they had. “No, no drugs should be necessary. I’ll try to relax more, I promise. Movies, shows and books will be enjoye-” T.I.A. interrupted him.
“And not all science books, either. Fiction, biographies, and historical books should be included. If you’re going to relax, you need to mean it.” She felt a lot more justified, it seemed, by insisting Hawthorne take some vacations or days off. It wasn’t an absurd request.
Hawthorne surrendered, raising his hands and smiling. “Fine, I’ll schedule in some time for fun.”
T.I.A. groaned and fell out of her chair, her eyes rolling back. “Of course it would be scheduled.”