Hawthorne checked items off of his research priority list, idly wondering how his increased impulsivity might be becoming a problem. It wasn’t bad enough that item 9 had taken priority over the other items on the list, but item 2000 had just been completed! Granted, when he’d made the list, he had been a lot more reluctant to resurrect Megan Clark, but something had changed in his thinking, and he was starting to wonder if Doctor Heather O’Malley had a point about him becoming more desperate for human contact. Was Megan a more attractive romantic prospect than T.I.A. because he wasn’t as close to her? He was not aware of any levels of attraction to her, but it was hard to say if his subconscious was influencing his decision making processes.
Regardless, progress had been made. Moreover, Megan was proving extremely capable of assisting with the rest of the list. Her boast regarding being ‘the greatest servant of my era’ was certainly not an idle one. While Megan had tended to fall into a dreamy, idle state between cycles, much like T.I.A. did, they both had the opportunity to interact with each other at any time. The two had visited with each other in T.I.A.’s Virtual Environment a number of times, comparing notes on projects and giving each other advice, but they were mostly just trying to get to know each other.
Megan had a major tendency to treat T.I.A. like a child, while she occasionally had to admit she was her superior in most aspects of her new life. She was all too aware of how much work T.I.A. was doing at all times, monitoring the Ark and the surrounding environments for malfunctions and danger, even while they were interacting with each other. She occasionally turned her camera towards the Ark and watched in fascination as a component was removed from the hull of the huge ship and replaced with a brand new looking one from storage, or one that had been recycled from old parts, or from the fabrication plants on the comet she was housed upon. She could only wonder how much of the ship was original at this point, or if every part had been replaced many times over. She supposed it was easy enough to ask, but there didn’t seem to be much reason to do so. It was as if T.I.A. wasn’t even consciously paying attention to these things, like they were the normal repair functions that a human body undertook without much awareness of them.
T.I.A. was also leagues ahead of her in the level of sophistication of her VE simulations, which became especially apparent when she was invited to see what she imagined to be a more advanced state of the Phoenix Clan settlement in Columbia. The fact that she was able to model the landscape so thoroughly off of old maps, a handful of videos, and descriptions from the various people that had talked to her was impressive. Megan had a few things she could point out regarding inaccuracies, but those were few and far between. In truth, the things she found at fault with the Phoenix Clan simulations were things she considered minor, and T.I.A. seemed totally unaware of.
It was when Megan asked to try some of their food that she realized where she had enormous experience over the technically older AI. T.I.A. had no concept of the senses of taste and smell, and more importantly the mechanics of how they actually worked. Granted, Megan wasn’t an expert on how smell and taste receptors worked either, but she had an instinctual understanding of the senses that she was able to replicate in her own VE reasonably well. It was for the purpose of sharing the experience of taste and smell that Megan invited T.I.A. over to the Lubar-Masis comet, under Hawthorne’s supervision, in cycle 210.
“Are you sure this is safe? Experiencing brand new senses without any preparation seems like something that could overwhelm the mind.” Hawthorne was understandably concerned, but Megan seemed to be convinced that T.I.A. needed a more complete experience of the world in order to simulate it. Megan had actually lived in the flesh before, so her simulations seemed more effortlessly complete. She could conjure from memory the ideas of objects, if not their exact structures. She had an experience of how sturdy a building should be, without the understanding of why.
“Tia has an understanding of the world from how she has experienced it, through cameras initially, and after working with you she has come to understand touch. She has developed emotions through observation and rationalizing her own experiences, but she has not felt things like physical pain. Not only have I been through all of life’s ups and downs, I have a distinct recollection of the feeling of a lot of those experiences, and while I had eliminated most of my memories of pain and the capacities to feel it, I still remember the taste of a cake, or the smell of a bakery. I believe the experience of these senses will help her better understand the mechanisms at hand in physical reality. Learning what smell feels like will help her simulate the molecules and receptors involved.” Megan was speaking with Hawthorne while he double-checked their uplink, making sure everything was still operating properly.
“Also, she handles file uploads between us a great deal more easily than I do. I believe she is much better adapted to these kinds of experiences, while I am still learning.” Megan nodded from her panel off to the side of Hawthorne, watching him work.
“Well, that’s easy to explain, at least. Tia’s been handling enormous file transfers since before you were born, both physically and digitally. She personally received your data upload in its entirety and transferred it to storage. I suppose in that light, though, you have a point. She should be able to handle it. Does it have to happen on the Lubar-Masis though? Can you not do it here?” He felt uneasy to be letting the women risk their consciousnesses by jumping back and forth between their minds, but they’d had enough practice over the weeks since he’d enabled the jumps to allow him to feel a bit less protective of T.I.A. going over to play.
“Can you two stop talking about me like I’m not here?” T.I.A. puffed up her cheeks, looking from the panel Megan was in and back to Hawthorne. Megan couldn’t see her through the panel, as it was totally separate from her systems and thus separate from her VE, but her voice conveyed through the microphone that picked up Hawthorne’s voice. “Hawthorne, I have to do it in her VE because I have to be subject to her rules to experience her experiences. Just like she experienced pleasure from physical contact while she was over here, as I would, I need to be subject to her understanding of reality in order to experience sensations she understands but I do not. Essentially, we’re running on similar hardware, but she has a different combination of software than I do that I need to subject myself to in order to understand it.”
Hawthorne sighed, leaning back in his chair. “I wish it were as simple as software. We could just copy and sync software. I could probably build the kind of software she’d need to experience these sensations if you gave me time.”
Megan let out an exasperated sigh. “Hawthorne. You cannot do this as well as I can. Your software would convey the vague sense of things, and the science behind it, but I can literally share my consciousness with Tia. I can share actual sensation as I have perceived it. She and I are the only two beings in all of the history of humanity to be able to break the Solipsistic barrier and share our consciousness with each other. We already have, thanks to you. You have literally proven consciousness exists.”
T.I.A. laughed, correcting Megan. “Well, in artificial minds, perhaps. Hawthorne’s got a lot more work ahead if he wants to share his mind with another human, or us even. Now that would be incredible.” She hummed softly, tilting her head back as she thought. “I bet Heather would love to be a part of that. That crazy woman tested her cryogenic pods on herself before she was even sure it was safe, and made her colleagues reverse the process.”
Hawthorne groaned and shook his head. “Now I really don’t want you two doing this, but if you’re confident you can handle it go ahead. Please just be careful. I’m going to get an earful from a lot of people for even okaying this in the first place. They might even put me on trial.” He sighed and looked up at the ceiling, imagining being the first person jailed on the new colony.
Megan rolled her eyes. “Yes, the humans you rescued from torture, murder, and possible nuclear annihilation will put you on trial once you bring them to their new home that they would never have gotten to without you. With all the work that I am going to be putting in getting things ready for you and the others, you had better believe I will not tolerate that sort of behavior. Hell, even what we are doing now is work to try and help yourself and Tia work on the plans for the equipment we need to make, right? This will save thousands of years of trial and error for her, and might even be the only way to help her understand these things at all. You cannot describe colors to the blind, but with our uplink I can give her my memory of sensations.”
T.I.A. giggled cutely, looking over at the panel. “Oooh, is Mother going to discipline her children if they step out of line?”
Shaking her head, Megan responded simply. “I will just make it clear how much of what we accomplished would have been impossible without him. Although… I do like that name… Perhaps we could pretend I am just a mere AI like Tia. I would not mind being called Mother.”
Throwing his arms up, Hawthorne conceded to defeat. “Fine! Fine, you’re right, go ahead. Heather was right, I’m no good against women, let alone one that wants to make herself our mother.”
Megan stared at him for a moment, then tilted her head back to laugh, her body shivering a little from the experience. “Oh Hawthorne, I think you misunderstand, I was hoping you would be the father to these wayward people. Honestly, Tia is more of a mother to them than I will be. My role is merely to be the caretaker, though I still like the name.”
“I’m prepared for the transfer…” T.I.A. moved over to the gateway to Megan’s mind. They had solidified it into something more resembling a doorway rather than a swirling vortex, allowing for a smoother transition from one mind to the other. It was slower, but it didn’t result in one of the women being sucked through and slamming the data into the other’s brain all at once. It also allowed T.I.A. to partially exist across both minds at once in a limited capacity, though any time either woman tried this, they found it incredibly disorienting and uncomfortable. She stepped through without another word, Hawthorne turning to watch her while having data readouts scrolling across a nearby monitor.
At first gritting her teeth, and then dropping to her knees, Megan trembled under the weight of T.I.A.’s consciousness. The most difficult part for her was keeping her own ego lashed down and separate from the AI’s, as T.I.A. had become a formidable mind in her time away from Earth. She was incredibly grateful that their interactions were limited to their imaginations, as she doubted she could withstand the entirety of T.I.A.’s mind at this point. This was the most damning evidence to her that she’d given up too much of herself back on Earth, and now she was humbled by a machine no more advanced than herself, one with an artificial mind. She did manage to speak, forcing herself to not sound as strained as she was in the moment. “Transfer successful.”
T.I.A. moved swiftly to help Megan up, watching with fascination as the taller blonde seemed greatly relieved to have her aid. The gesture seemed to quite literally help bouey Megan’s mind, allowing it to rest atop T.I.A.’s rather than be crushed under it. It was something she had to step away from and learn to endure as she kept herself on her own two imagined feet. “Are you alright Megan? I know it’s difficult, but you’ll get better at it if you try. You’ll need a few cycles for the lessons learned to really settle into your code…”
Hawthorne observed quietly, Megan’s panel quite useful in observing the two interacting. His VE suit seemed quite inactive while T.I.A. was away. Glancing at the data transfer, he could only let out a sigh at the sheer quantity of nonsense flowing back and forth between them. There wasn’t a bit of real code outside of the transfer protocols he’d built for them. Everything else was totally organic data he couldn’t begin to interpret. He could only imagine the hell their processors must be going through. At least the temperatures were easy to manage thanks to the way their systems were built.
“I am fine. Just fine... “ Megan moved stiffly, her face expressionless as she observed the shorter AI. “I have prepared a number of exhibits for you to experience. It is taking a great deal of concentration to maintain them, so please forgive me if my body does not interact much.” She hobbled over towards the curtains separating her Seattle balcony from her apartment, stiff-arm pushing one out of the way as she ushered T.I.A. inside. Within were a series of small tables, each ringed with a number of glass-covered dishes. Each dish had a different type of food on them, with the center dishes each being a type of appetizer, like breads, vegetables, and crisps. Megan warned her carefully, gesturing towards the foods. “Do not take the lids off completely at first. Just open them slightly and try to inhale their scents. I have done my best to ensure their smells and tastes are entirely confined to the plates until the lids are removed.”
T.I.A. was hesitating. She’d seen people, mostly Hawthorne, eat plenty of times. It didn’t seem to be anything special. It looked routine even. She recalled Jessica telling her that Hawthorne’s diet sounded incredibly boring. She had defended Hawthorne by saying that he got all the vitamins and minerals he needed with the food he ate, however simple, and Jessica had let it go. Of course, it wasn’t like there were any alternatives. It was centuries too late to change the menu to make it more diverse. Even the Phoenix Clan only had upwards of seventy different ingredients they could make their food from, so it wasn’t like it was that much better.
Megan was happy to watch and wait, taking the time to better acclimate to sharing the space with the Ark’s AI. T.I.A. finally reached out for one of the lids, which Megan placed front and center. A seasoned, well-cooked chicken drumstick awaited her. “That one is fried chicken. You will find that a lot of different meats have a similar flavor. Humans on Earth had a tendency, when trying new foods, to say that they tasted like chicken, though honestly it would have been the same either way.”
T.I.A. nodded, lifted the lid slightly on one side, leaning in and opening her eyes wide as she detected something coming out of it. “It… it’s warm and…” T.I.A. inhaled reflexively, gasping, which only made her gasp some more. “Oh! I… I don’t know how to describe it…! C… can I take it all the way off…?” She kept sniffing at the food, glancing over to Megan to see her nod. Lifting the lid all the way off, she was startled as the smell hit her full on, her eyes starting to water as she breathed in the smell fully. “A… are all smells like this…!?”
Megan smirked a bit, responding, “Almost all things have a smell to them, though many are stronger than others. Food tends to have a strong smell, as the senses of smell and taste are linked. One can not have much of a sense of taste if they have no sense of smell. Food tends to smell and taste good, that is, to cause you pleasure to experience, if it is something that satisfies natural urges. Humans are a creature well suited to starving for a week or more between meals, and to encourage them to eat their bodies provide them a great deal of pleasure for eating when they do get to eat. Modern convenience before the Cataclysm allowed humans to eat essentially whenever they wanted, allowing them to indulge in this pleasure. Such indulgence is unhealthy though, as are most indulgences, so do try to control yourself. You may not get fat, but you could get preoccupied.”
T.I.A. was trying to pay attention, but she had all sorts of strange new experiences to go over. She felt like her cargo hold was exceptionally empty, and that her machinery was inadequately lubricated. Her mouth was watering and she felt compelled to move closer to the succulent looking drumstick. At some point Megan realized T.I.A. wasn’t listening, and as she took the meaty drumstick up in her hand, she sighed as she watched her grab it by the meat itself. She attempted to reach out to stop her, but within moments T.I.A. had bitten the bone. “Awwgh…!”
Megan let out a sigh. “Well, at least we got the sense of physical pain out of the way.”
A whimpering, dispelled T.I.A. was rubbing at her jaw, having tossed the drumstick back on the plate. “S.. so that’s why I never saw them eating the bones…” T.I.A. had seen a fair number of movies and shows at this point, but the bones always seemed to get left on the plate. The reason why was now very apparent.
“Pick it back up, by the bone, and eat the meat. We have a lot of foods for you to try. Oh.” Megan produced a small table with a pitcher of water and a cup of water. “Drink this between trying different foods. It has the effect of clearing your palate and allowing you to experience the other tastes with fewer previous tastes polluting it.”
Hawthorne sighed and planted his face firmly against his hand. It was hard to deny that Megan was right that this needed to be done.
T.I.A. had wielded the meatstick again, and took a firm bite of it. She seemed to tremble as she let out happy sounds, leaving her mouth attached to the side of it, enjoying the way her teeth sank into it and the tastes that exploded into her mouth. “Mmmmh! Hawforn doshe dis arr de tahm!?” She spoke around her food, her eyes practically rolling back into her head as she chewed her bite of food, inhaling deeply through her nose as she ate.
“Tia, it is considered rude to speak with food in your mouth…” Megan tapped her food, her arms crossed firmly over her chest. “We have many foods to try, let us move on.”
T.I.A. nodded, though still spoke around her food. “Showwy…” She swallowed the mouthful, returned the drumstick to the plate, and moved on to the next lidded plate. It would be several hours before they finished.
“So, Tia, do you feel like that experience was helpful in understanding reality? The sooner we can start working on our constructions, the sooner we can get our plans underway. We’ll ideally need more comets and the like to give us a safety net of materials, but even just having the designs done will help Megan manufacture what she needs once she arrives in the system.” Hawthorne was sitting back, watching T.I.A. back on the Ark, the short, curvy AI enjoying a hard candy. She seemed to have cleanly learned how to produce the new sensations in her own VE for herself.
A soft clacking sound of candy against teeth could be heard as T.I.A. maneuvered the tasty morsel out of the middle of her mouth so she could talk. It bulged the side of her cheek slightly. “I will need to practice with them for a while, but I think I’ll be able to utilize this new understanding to better simulate reality. I already have some new ideas for how to improve the PC-C. I need to try them first, but with Megan able to tell me what I’m getting right and wrong, I should be able to make a lot of progress. We’ll keep our interactions to speaking and file transfers while you’re in stasis though, to minimize dangers. Now that our VEs are more similarly aligned, I have no doubt we’ll be able to troubleshoot each other even better.”
Megan spoke up from her panel. “I will catalogue my memories and do my best to isolate unique experiences to share with Tia, to help broaden her experiences. I am unfortunately a poor candidate for human interaction experiences, and many of my pre-augmentation memories are damaged and incomplete, but I should be able to find useful fodder for her. The unique experience of being able to recall memories perfectly and share them is quite a nice surprise. I am realizing, however, that the construction of my mind tends to fill in the blanks where my data transfer was imperfect.”
Raising an eyebrow, Hawthorne considered that. “Well, even Tia did not have much of a personality when she was constructed, but the pre-loaded data and observed experiences she had allowed her to grow in sophistication. I imagine that your transferred data acts much like that pre-loaded data did for Tia. It would not be inaccurate to say that you are not exactly the Megan Clark that once lived on Earth, but something of a new being thanks to the new substrate.”
Shrugging and smiling, Megan let out a sigh. “Just the fourth version of myself then. The ever-evolving Megan Clark. I am well past mourning what I once was, Hawthorne, and I thank you for allowing whatever ghost of my original self remains to inhabit this construct. I am certain you could have simply raised a new AI from scratch instead, molding them as you pleased, rather than dealing with an unknown factor like me. Again, I will endeavor to prove my worth.”
T.I.A. was happily sucking on her candy, not even remotely considering the option of allowing it to melt away in her mouth at first, though she did realize that it was supposed to. Its melting was what allowed flavor particles to spread across her tongue and allow her to experience it. Her eyes widened as inspiration overtook her, and she abruptly disappeared.
Megan observed Hawthorne’s eyebrow raise in surprise, only for him to pick up one of his tablets and get back to work on something. Shrugging, she turned about and withdrew from the panel, producing her own tablet and manipulating it to produce her various memories and allow her to observe them.
Work on the research priority list had finally progressed to a point where more than item 1 and item 2000 had been checked off. Item 2 was looking much more well realized.
T.I.A. showed off the PC-C to Megan and Hawthorne, excitedly demonstrating how she was able to simulate the weather in real time, as well as the air, and even Megan could attest that the gravity felt accurate. T.I.A. confessed that there was a good deal of abstraction going on, but she was able to accomplish things like producing the smell and taste of rain as it fell around them by knowing how the experience was supposed to happen, rather than painstakingly simulating every raindrop and the atoms within them. Megan had been able to show her how to comprehend the experience of the world without having to simulate every aspect of it, greatly improving the efficiency of her simulations.
Hawthorne wasted little time in testing these new capabilities, requesting T.I.A. withdraw the PC-C simulation so that he could replace it with a simulation of their ship, Megan’s comet, and their current course and speed. He added in the Phoenix object, the partially radioactive, partly icy object they had recently commandeered. He fast forwarded the simulation, drawing their paths well into their journey, displaying the rendezvous of the Phoenix with its new companions. The women watched as he constructed crude representations of smaller spacecraft out of the Lubar-Masis, attaching them to the ‘front’ of it and showing off how he intended for the Ark and Phoenix to decelerate while Megan flew on ahead.
Fast forwarding many thousands of years, a quick construction of the Alpha Centauri system and its three stars was produced. He threw some asteroid belts in, and added a few planets around the A and B stars, which orbited each other, and placed the single planet around the Proxima Centauri star that orbited the other two at roughly .2 light years from its companion stars. The Lubar-Masis approached the system, carefully navigating away from the stars to maintain as much of its icy mass as possible, and took up a place in a central asteroid belt. He demonstrated how he wanted the comet to join the hypothetical belt, and begin to produce more equipment from it. He withdrew the equipment installed on the comet and showed how they could disperse about, and produce more equipment.
Huge constructions would be built, at least one large habitation cylinder would be needed to house the Ark’s inhabitants, at least at first. This central cylinder would have huge solar panels that could provide heat and power from the stars it sat in between, and other equipment would fly to Proxima Centauri itself to build mirrors around it that would allow for directional transmission of heat and light. He didn’t have any immediate ideas for how he wanted to use them, but if there were any issues with habitats or planets they encountered with unreasonably hostile environments, they could use the mirrors to heat and power settlements on the dark sides of hostile planets. The planet known to be around Proxima Centauri was one such planet, tidally locked around the star, causing one face of the planet to always be facing the star, and the other face to always be in darkness.
Megan hummed softly as she watched. She’d be responsible for a lot of these plans. It looked like a lot of hard work.
T.I.A. watched as Megan’s face lit up in a vibrant smile.