Leaving Earth



Chapter 44: Cycle 1532, Columbia Trail


A note from Warfox

So, news. I'm back on a light-duty schedule at my place of employment now that my old coworker has returned and we hired enough extra pairs of hands to allow me to step back again. I can't promise just yet that I'll be going back to a two-chapters-a-week schedule like I had before July, but I'd like to get back there. I want to be more active again. I want to play more games and maybe make friends with people over on the Discord. I want to get back up to a productivity level worthy of my Patrons. I want to thank you all for being patient with me over the last few months I've been struggling. Writing this book is one of the hardest things I've ever done. I can't begin to relate how many times I was tempted to 'just take a break'. I scaled back, sure, but I'm finding writing to be a lot like working out, failing to keep up your routine makes it harder and harder to get back to it.

Also like working out, sometimes you have to push yourself to do it even when you're tired or not feeling well. I hope I've managed to maintain my quality standards over this time period.

Please enjoy the chapter. I think that something that happens within it could make a fun side story if elaborated upon.

Edit- 11/30/2018: Cleaned up some of the language. Part of the 'Would Purge' of Nov 2018.

It was a mere five or six cycles before Megan was far enough away that the communication delay between them was comparable to the delay with the Smith Bunker and the Ark. With the Ark decelerating away from Megan, while Megan accelerated towards Alpha Centauri, the distance between each other only continued to expand at double the rate it had been between Earth and the Ark. T.I.A. was frankly shocked at how quickly their communication delay with her expanded, and it was one of the first instances in a very long time she thought about how much time had actually passed. They were over halfway to their destination now! Had she really accomplished all that she could have in that time?

In a word, no, she hadn’t. Being compelled to spend time between cycles focusing on managing the ship, facilitating repairs and replacements, and observing the galaxy around her left her in a rather low-power state. It was like sleep, in a sense, but not quite as necessary. All of those activities happened, at this point, whether she focused on them or not. They were quite automatic. She also didn’t necessarily need to spend this time doing so little, but without Hawthorne, or other humans around she felt remarkably unneeded. If they had pressing matters to attend to, she felt she would absolutely focus on working on them, but the fact of the matter was that she didn’t want to waste resources.

Operating at full capacity wasn’t that much more draining on their fuel resources than her ‘sleeping’ state, but even small changes like that over the time scales they were working with could result in needing to ration power in the future. The real costs would be felt in replacing components damaged by overuse. It would be a disaster if the Phoenix ran out of fuel and materials before they arrived in Alpha Centauri. It wasn’t impossible they couldn’t compensate for arriving too quickly, or off-target, but it could easily result in thousands of years of ‘circling the drain’ around the gravity well of the system as they tried to bring the ship in and capture enough resources to allow them to transition into the system proper.

When she brought such concerns to Hawthorne, he seemed unperturbed. “I wouldn’t worry too much about that. You’ll have three stars to draw solar power off of by that point, and Megan can send us extra resources relatively easily. She could be dropping off packets of materials from the Lubar-Masis in our path with a fair bit of ease compared to some of the things we’ve had to deal with. In fact, let’s work on that. I’ll put together a simple program for Megan to calculate what she needs to do if she needs to drop things off for us in the future.” Hawthorne turned about in his seat, and got to work, filling a screen up quickly with calculations, formulae, and mathematical examples.

T.I.A. nodded as she moved to help, translating those calculations into a VE representation of the maneuver, essentially dropping off a packet of resources with its own engine and fuel supply, allowing it to decelerate to a speed that the Ark could easily pick it up on the way. The engine could then easily be recycled and the package of fuel and other components could easily be taken. This caused T.I.A. to wonder about the inverse though. “What if we needed to send her things? We have a lot more radioactive materials on the Phoenix than she has on the Lubar-Masis. Maybe she’d end up needing something and we’d have to send it to her?”

Hawthorne laughed, causing T.I.A. to puff up her cheeks. “Sorry, it’s just nice to be able to work on simple problems like that. As long as there’s no humans or humans in stasis pods involved, we can easily send her things. Realistically, if we didn’t have those involved in this mission at all, you could have been to Alpha Centauri and back multiple times because you wouldn’t have to worry about the dangers of acceleration on your occupants nearly as much. Humans aren’t meant for space travel. If we were all cyborgs, like Megan used to be, it could have been much easier to get all of this done, but the tech just wasn’t quite there when we left. There would have been too much prototyping, too many assumptions, too much improvising. It could have been done, but it would have been way too risky in the time frame we had to work with.”

T.I.A. considered the ideas, but shook her head. “That wouldn’t have worked, I think you’re right. Plus, I don’t know how well some of the things on this mission could have worked out if it was just me, or if I had a bunch of cyborgs to look after. Maybe once we’re established on our new home we can refine Heather’s stasis technology to be more durable, to make the bodies less fragile so that they can withstand greater forces…”

Nodding at her idea, Hawthorne continued typing at the computer, pausing to talk on occasion so he didn’t write any code while distracted. “Maybe we could add that to Megan’s list of eventual problems to solve. I’m sure she’d like to work with Heather again, so she’ll pursue that eagerly. Megan seems a lot more effective when she’s got proper motivation. That does leave the question of what kinds of AIs to equip such ships with. They’ll be going much further than Alpha Centauri to get to most stars, assuming they even find anything there. Even with improved speed and power sources, interstellar distances are still ridiculously difficult to deal with.”

“What if… we got some drones together to collect more comets from the Oort Cloud, not for us, but to arrange them around Alpha Centauri so that they could be grabbed on the way out of the system to bring for materials?” T.I.A. had taken over the idea-making in their relationship, it seemed, allowing Hawthorne to solve the problems and have her extrapolate his answers when they needed computing.

“Ah, not a bad idea. Can’t say what that might do to the gravity well, but considering the distances between objects it wouldn’t be too terribly difficult. I think it’d be good to have a self-replicating swarm of drones for tagging and monitoring the various objects out here anyway. It could allow for a communication network of sorts. With some basic surveillance packages, they could set up early-warning systems for events beyond the system. Maybe we could detect Showers before they manage to get to more sensitive equipment, among other things. I doubt Showers are the only things we have to worry about out here. As long as such events are slower than light, it shouldn’t be too difficult to warn people about them.” Hawthorne was typing away again, listing out the types of equipment he’d like on such a drone.

“Don’t forget seismic sensors, for things impacting the objects they’d be attached to. We also might want to make sure they only communicate with people from our system, in case other people might want to use them to spy on our region.” T.I.A. surprised even herself at the level of paranoia she just suggested.

Hawthorne turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow. “I thought I was the suspicious one, not trusting that Earth would end up in friendly hands?”

She looked embarrassed as he addressed her, slipping off her feet to float and stammer. “W.. well.. It’s just the safe thing to… to do... We wouldn’t want our drones to be used against us, hacked into to send us false data or backdoor into our systems, right? Ideally we wouldn’t even want anyone to know they were there, so we wouldn’t want them broadcasting in general. They should only communicate directly, like we do with Megan, or how we did with Earth…”

Nodding, Hawthorne smiled. “Oh, you’re right of course, but I expected you to have more idealism, like maybe all the drones could broadcast the dangers of the comets they’re attached to to any interstellar travellers, and maybe send a manifest of known dangers and whatnot. Heck, even I can admit that would be the more neighborly, friendly thing to do. We don’t even know if we’ll have any enemies in the future, so it’s hard to say if we wouldn’t want to be more friendly.”

T.I.A. frowned, and nodded. “I’ve talked with Megan about that sort of thing… She seems to think that we’ll probably produce our own enemies. Groups of people will splinter off over time, make their own communities with their own ideas of how to run things, and eventually if humans control other systems they’ll develop totally differently than the rest of us. They’ll advance themselves with different technologies, to the point that it’ll be hard to recognize them as humans. Cyborgs. Old Ones. AIs…”

Hawthorne hummed softly. “See, this is why I was going to leave the society-building to others. Imagining all the various kinds of social groups that will evolve is just not my speciality. I can’t even begin to imagine what kinds of governments I’d like to see form, or what kinds of classes people might fall into. I’d be much more inclined to emulate successful structures I’ve observed than to try to form something new. The Smiths realized they had an opportunity, if not a duty, to structure a new society based on their ideals, and the Phoenix Clan was the result. I can only hope that bears out in the long run, but I have no idea how I’d arrange such a thing with the kinds of people we have.”

Now she was laughing, nodding at him. “No kidding! Our group is all really high quality people, with a lot of leaders and powerful minds. A hierarchical system would probably work, but it might need to be a lot flatter than most since just about everyone can contribute a lot individually. It’s likely the children will all be really well educated, considering their parents, and will only contribute to that high level of excellence. Hell, you even made sure you brought the best-of-the-best when it comes to embryos!”

Hawthorne was rapping his fingers across his knees, wondering. “This is definitely something Tia Monsalle would be better at. I can’t tell if the people we brought will be as willing to work and farm and raise families… Megan’s going to give us a head start on such things, to the point where we will be able to make machinery and robots do most manual labor in fairly short order. We have a bunch of people who come from mostly capitalist societies who will be being dropped into something like a post-scarcity environment where ‘Mother’ can provide materials, equipment, and power with few limits aside from time. People will be able to concentrate on ideas, innovation, and family to a very high degree.”

“I don’t envy the people who are going to have to figure it all out.” T.I.A. floated about in thought. “I hope you brought the right kind of people to handle it! Last I checked it was mostly scientists, maybe some soldiers, and generally smart people.. You didn’t bring any laborer types, did you?”

He sighed and shook her head. “Not conventionally. A lot of the embryos are from robust couples, healthy people with little in the way of family histories of illness. The second generation will probably have a large percentage of them, though they’ll be being raised by said scientists, soldiers, and smart people. Hard to say how they’ll come out. How strange to think that only bringing the ‘best and brightest’ might have been a mistake. Still, it should work out. If our workers end up being exceptionally smart as well, that’s probably a good thing, right? The people of the Phoenix Clan were all rather educated considering their circumstances. Their baseline of education had teenagers rebuilding our equipment and contacting us, afterall.”

T.I.A. nodded, floating into him to settle into an embrace with him, like she was on the surface of the water at a swimming pool, her legs floating off to the side. “But that was on such a small scale, in isolated, extreme conditions. Can that work on a planet scale?”

Hawthorne shrugged, wrapping his arms around her as she came close. “Honestly, that’s not our problem. We have our own revolutionary relationship to figure out. We can help them, guide them, present to them our ideas and observations, but at the end we’re probably not going to have much to do with society building. Hell, my biggest contribution to the project at that point will be to be the first prisoner tried and convicted by the new courts.”

She gasped at that, shaking her head. “No way! They’re going to love you for everything you’ve done! I won’t have that kind of thinking. They expected they’d be landing on a fresh new planet that they’d have to tame with minimal resources, but you made sure they’d be starting out in a comfy space station, with plenty of room for growth while they plan and execute colonization efforts on the planets of the system. They can’t possibly want to jail you for anything.”

He smiled and gave her a quick little kiss. “Someone might. Someone will probably think that trying to intervene on Earth resulted in the Cataclysm. Someone might think that communicating with the Phoenix Clan was a mistake.”

T.I.A. looked enraged at that. “But we saved them!”

Giving her a little squeeze, he nodded. “Sure, and we know that, and we think that’s a good thing, but we don’t know how that’ll play out in the end. Maybe by helping to save humanity on Earth, we ended up creating our own enemies in the future? Perhaps they’ll prefer that the Ice Age wiped them out so they could return and re-colonize it? There’s also the matter that I made not one, but two very dangerous AIs. We had no regulations against such things, but they might not take kindly to ‘Mother’ being such a big part of their lives. I imagine Megan will be good about it, but there’s going to be problems of some kind. There’s no way to know when, but someone’s going to try to kill her.”

She gasped, holding him tighter as she settled her backside into his lap. “You don’t really think that? Why would someone want to kill Megan after all the work she’s done for them, or will do for them?” She was wide-eyed, looking at him. “She’s worked for people who didn’t trust her before, she knows how to handle that kind of thing…”

“Well, even if she defers to them, and lets them make decisions, she’ll still technically be in control. She is under no compulsion to do as she is told. She doesn’t have to provide anyone with what they want, and really she could deny the things people need too. I doubt she will, but people will worry about that. Someone will consider her a threat because of that. They’ll also think me mad for not putting any restrictions on her, or you for that matter. They won’t see you two as people like I do, at least not all of them. It might be difficult to deal with.” Hawthorne was running his hands through her hair as he spoke, as if trying to soothe her worries.

“But… but…! Maybe we could just leave! Maybe we could drop them off with Megan, and we could just leave and…” She was trembling at the idea of either of them being criminalized by the people they were carrying.

He shook his head, squeezing her and giving her another little kiss. “No, we have to see this through. If it doesn’t work out, then we can leave, but there’s too many factors against that idea. They’ll develop better engines than you have, for instance, and they’ll be able to catch us if we try to leave. We’re better off cooperating and helping and proving our value. We’ll protect ourselves, and Megan, if need be, but we’ll also need to guide them and help them. We’re… the elders, in a sense.”

T.I.A. listened quietly, and stayed quiet for a few moments longer. When she spoke up, she sounded more at ease with the idea. “Do… you think they’ll have any interest in a phoenix-themed name for our colonies…?” She looked hopeful.

Hawthorne let out a long sigh at that. T.I.A. really admired those people she knew back on Earth. “We can pose the idea, but I spent a lot of time using biblical names for a lot of aspects of this mission. I don’t know how comfortable I am breaking from the theme.” He blinked and then opened his mouth to add something, but she was already saying it.

“-You already named the second comet the Phoenix! You already broke the naming conventions!” She giggled and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, dragging him around playfully from side to side.

He huffed as his own suit pushed his body back and forth, brilliantly simulating T.I.A.’s roughhousing. “Fine, fine, but we can’t just name everything Phoenix this and Phoenix that. We’ll eventually be representing the Alpha Centauri system among other human civilizations in other systems.”

T.I.A. scowled, holding him still. “I think this is a great time to mention that I hate that name. Alpha Centauri. We need to rename the stars and the system, not just the planets and space stations.”

“Huh.” Hawthorne looked surprised. “I never even thought about that. It’s a very strange name, related to the mythological Centaur, but sterilized by science as it was discovered it was not a single star. I could see making a strong argument for renaming the stars, but that’s one of many things we’ll need to get the others’ input on. Maybe a Direct Democracy could form out of making decisions that way. Everyone getting a vote on every issue thanks to technology enabling them to all take part. It might need a little elected leadership to provide direction, but it sounds a bit like what the Phoenix Clan were using…”

Laughing, T.I.A. poked at his nose, grinning up at him. “You’d better be careful Hawthorne, or they’re going to put you on trial for trying to dictate their government too!”

Hawthorne huffed, leaning back. “No way, I’ve seen enough efforts to impose democracy on others. I’ll let them come to it themselves, maybe show them how our friends on Earth did it and see how they feel about it.”

It took Megan a few decades, now that she was on her own, to become totally comfortable and confident she could handle her own defenses. She had dabbled at watching through all the cameras, controlling all the arms, and flying all the drones, but now that she was on her own she had to be completely certain she could respond to a crisis. She knew that T.I.A. had had thousands of years to master the multitasking required to manage the Ark, its occupants, and its defenses. The actions were so completely natural to her by the time they’d really met that the AI never even seemed to think consciously about it. That was where Megan wanted to be, to a point where focusing on the machinery of her body was as natural as her original body was.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple for her. Once she’d had the accident with her genetic therapy, her body had already started feeling foreign. Once she’d started replacing parts of it in an effort to survive her mortality, that distance never seemed to shorten. Her movements went from smooth and elegant to jerky and inhuman. Training herself to master the motor skills she needed was particularly painful for her, and while she did manage it, it was the sort of thing that could have spelled ruin if crisis had struck in the meantime.

In the end, it seemed as though Megan had it under control. No matter how little affinity she had for it, she had time to practice. Every repetition etched itself into her motor programming a little deeper, the code getting organically debugged more and more. It reminded her of dancing. It had been the memory of her preteen ballet classes that really helped it all click. There was something to be said for talent, and T.I.A. could be said to have talent for being an artificial life form. She had solid groundwork thanks to Hawthorne’s thoughtful efforts building her. Megan was like a house that was moved to a new foundation that didn’t quite fit. More specifically, she was a house that was originally made of wood, partly rebuilt out of brick, and then transported to an ill-fitting foundation.

Hard work, repetition, persistence, and fear all drove her to master her new body. These were the things Megan had talent for, and the end result had her work very much resembled her sister’s if not for the fact that she had to focus on it. Eventually, perhaps, that need to focus would fall away as it had for T.I.A. but for now Megan had to handle it.

Within a century she had really allowed herself to fall in to her video game collection. The multitasking and efforts to now master games she’d never seen before gained her further skill in both. By her thousandth year she had played thousands of games. Her creative palate was rich with all of the experiences she’d had with them. She found herself slowing down again too, falling back into a routine of resting for years or decades at a time while her conscious mind drifted away as it had before with Hawthorne and T.I.A.

She felt restless, without much in the way of motivation. She knew this was likely to be the worst part of her lonely journey, not having regular access to a human to guide her and instruct her. She had to find ways to motivate herself. She began building things in her VE, activities to test and train herself to work alone. She had to be careful not to expend too much energy on her activities, but thankfully the computers that made up her mind and helped control the rest of the machinery around the Lubar-Masis didn’t require that much power. The Minerals Extraction and Materials Fabrication Devices that were such a huge part of her infrastructure were the main things she had to use sparingly. Realistically she had more than enough materials to complete the journey and do her job in the star system, but it was worthwhile to conserve that.

The Lubar-Masis Comet, simply put, had a quarter of its mass used up by the time the Ark and Megan parted ways. One of the main engineering problems with the Comet would be protecting it as it came into the Alpha Centauri system, preventing the icy mass of it from being ejected by being heated up by the three stars. This was especially dangerous due to the fact that such jets of gasses could drastically alter Megan’s trajectory. One of the solutions Hawthorne employed for this was an alternate set of shields for Megan’s arms that would unfold and deploy huge solar panel screens to reflect and absorb light away from the ice. She would enter the system shrouded by brightly lit, reflective screens.

All of the various plans and contingencies had been worked on. Even if she could not contact Hawthorne and T.I.A. again from this point, she would be able to execute her orders no matter what she found. She was, however, still in contact. They had no reason to think she ever wouldn’t be, just that the communication delay between them would expand over the millennia until she actually arrived in the system and stopped to allow them to catch up to her. This put her on a schedule, allowing her to perfectly time messages sent to T.I.A. the moment Hawthorne was waking up from stasis.

It was something of a holding pattern. They had their projects to work on, like Hawthorne and T.I.A. beginning to dabble in ‘imaginary’ genetic engineering and Fusion energy in her VE, but without the millions of man hours afforded by a coordinated team working together it was difficult to make much progress. Half of the time working on these projects were to help T.I.A. improve her simulations of things like atomic particles and quarks on larger and larger scales. It was one thing to use a conventional computer to make mathematical simulations of such things, but it was entirely another to emulate the structure of matter itself in her VE. Software simply had a hard time -being- matter, in much the same way that matter had difficulty going as fast as light. The more accurate she got, the more effort it took.

Was it necessary? Not especially. Hawthorne felt like there could be some value to the work someday though. Breakthroughs in computing power had slowed down to a painful crawl by the time they’d left Earth, and the resulting embargoes on necessary materials had heavily damaged further innovation afterwards. Before that point, a combination of secretive invention, monopolies, and international distrust had been the issue. It was also notable that the mechanical limits of microscopic matter were at their breaking point with hardware construction, the fundamentals of nature heavily decreasing the ability to produce quality components.

In either case, the direction of innovation had been towards simultaneous processing. Spreading the load out across more and more processors and computers allowed more work to be done in less time. An increasingly large percentage of the internet had been dedicated towards this kind of cloud computing. The damage dealt by the Ark’s departure and the subsequent embargoes both prevented more construction, and less repairs to these ‘clouds’, preventing them from completely recovering until after alternate technologies could fill the gaps. The backslide on innovation and improvement this caused was one of the main factors used in propaganda against Hawthorne. People didn’t appreciate the available electronics in stores decreasing in quality year after year.

Cooperative labor worked much the same way as cloud computing. For millennia, humans divided jobs that took thousands or millions of hours of work across appropriate numbers of workers. The amounts of work required to accomplish the projects that T.I.A. and Hawthorne really wanted to work on were essentially impossible, despite abundant time. If they had a thousand Arks and a thousand T.I.A.s and a thousand comets it was likely they’d have already arrived at Alpha Centauri and been colonizing it. As it was, Hawthorne and T.I.A. could only lay groundwork for later cooperative efforts with the colonists they’d brought with them. That wouldn’t stop them from ensuring those foundations wouldn’t have thousands of hours of work spent on them already, though.

T.I.A. had offered to do more work on her own while Hawthorne was in stasis, but it became very clear, very quickly that they would devour the Phoenix comet in a few hundred years if she were working that hard for that long. The amount of wear and tear on her components from raw heat and the amount of fuel needed to achieve those levels of power over the long term were simply unsustainable. Once Megan and T.I.A. had access to the solar power they’d have in Alpha Centauri and replacement materials they could mine there, they would be much more capable of such long-term projects.

Megan’s projects ended up being much more low end. She was more comfortable with pacing herself while not over-exerting herself. While T.I.A. and Hawthorne worked with the fundamental particles of the universe, Megan worked on code.

The first game that Hawthorne and T.I.A. received from Megan was simply called ‘Columbia Trail’. It was a richly detailed game for what a simple concept it ended up being. The characters were rich, familiar, and well-written representations of the people Megan knew back on Earth. It detailed the journey of Jessica Smith, most of her life really, as she helped guide the survivors of two bunkers to Columbia in South America. Most importantly, it allowed the two to be around people they’d only ever spoken to at a distance. Megan had lived this life, subtly influencing and advising Jessica and the Council of Thirteen on their journey.

It was also a brutal thing, with many decision trees resulting in the deaths of characters in unfortunate and brutal fashions. Megan had censored nothing. T.I.A. had needed a great deal of consoling when, at one point, one of her decisions had resulted in the death of Jessica when the convoy had taken a chance on an unwise river crossing. Megan waited patiently for word on how long it took her friends to complete the game in a satisfactory manner.


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