An AI and her creator were playing a game built by an AI that used to be a cyborg, who used to be a human back on Earth tens of thousands of years ago that detailed the lives of people on a treacherous journey. It was both a history piece, and a game of remarkable complexity. Hawthorne had wanted to map out the various apparent decision trees to help chart the best courses through the game, but had found several factors that made things very difficult, not the least of which being that a lot of the characters did not always respond in the same ways to the same influences. It was T.I.A. who noticed, after several days of them trying to pick the game apart, that they weren’t the only characters in the game influencing things.
To begin with, the game seemed to take into account the presence of one or two players, and it adjusted the scenarios it presented to them based on whether T.I.A., Hawthorne, or both were playing, making efforts to map out the scenarios difficult. There were also other factors in mind, such as characters who were making power plays and trying to get their way while they tried their best to help get the Caravan to Columbia. Jessica was a known force in this political game, but they came to know the other major players, especially Elena and her assistant Megan. Megan’s influences were subtle, but it was impossible to know whether they were accurate to history as Cyborg Megan encouraged Elena into more cautionary votes in the Council of Thirteen.
Another factor was that, despite the Council’s existence, it was not the end-all be-all power in the Phoenix Clan. Every citizen over the age of twenty-five had the right to speak their mind and have influence over the trajectory of their journey. They did this through their networked tablets and a series of applications facilitating communication and collective voting. It was at this point that Hawthorne was made to realize that the Phoenix Clan operated under a sort of Representative Direct Democracy, where the people could vote on every issue while representatives of their various professions and interests were responsible for leveraging the votes of their constituents and arguing the points brought up by them. It seemed to be a way to condense down the multitude of voices while not allowing them to get drowned out in the noise.
This meant that any efforts to influence the overall course of the Caravan involved either influencing the larger group of humans and Old Ones through their democratic network or influencing the council. Oftentimes it required them to alternate, or deal with both groups. All the while things were moving on in a scripted fashion as the Caravan made its way south. There were so many moving parts to the thing that it made the mind boggle, and Hawthorne couldn’t conceive of how long it must have taken Megan to put the thing together. She must have been occupying herself with building this game with large chunks of the time she typically would have been inert, and it was a wonder of just how much attention she was even putting to that. Realistically, over the course of centuries and millennia, she didn’t have to apply a huge percentage of her time building this thing, despite its complexity.
Far away, pulling ahead of the Ark, Megan was resting herself after her creative efforts, awaiting word of how long it would take for Hawthorne and T.I.A. to unravel the Gordian Knot she’d tied for them.
One thing that seemed consistent was that Hawthorne and T.I.A. tended more often than not to end up married to each other in the game. Very few variations of circumstances seemed to result in them married to others, and those situations seemed to result in their ability to influence others being split enough that they couldn’t make significant enough waves to affect the game, resulting in early game-overs. The only instances where this didn’t end the game prematurely were when T.I.A. ended up married to Jessica’s son Thorne, or Hawthorne ended up married to Jessica’s friend Tammy Bledsoe. Neither course seemed to help them get the kinds of leverage over situations that they’d prefer, but it was interesting that Megan accounted for such abnormal circumstances.
Megan seemed to intend for T.I.A. and Hawthorne to play as a team, and Hawthorne found it easy to get work as an Engineer as he ingratiated himself to the burly female Councilwoman Sherry Aaronson while T.I.A. tended towards taking care of children or managing supply logistics. T.I.A. managed to make more in-roads when she befriended Jessica and Tammy, though ended up getting swept up into their debauched plans to help matchmake people with each other and arrange for other casual sexual antics. Hawthorne’s tendency to get swept up into T.I.A.’s situations resulted in the both of them getting quite an education in the sexual practices of the Phoenix Clan.
Once again, Hawthorne and T.I.A. were struck with realizations as to just how different their society was from what they’d left back on Earth. The Phoenix Clan was rather strange in that they managed to repress some of their impulses, reproductive ones primarily, while they simply had no restrictions at all on other ones. Non-reproductive sex was a common way to control stress, and extra-marital affairs were not uncommon, though they tended to not be random either. Jessica and Tammy, for instance, tended to pair up with each other’s husbands when they did swing, and otherwise they seemed very happy and monogamous. The only people not having regular sex, it seemed, were some of the Old Ones, and Megan.
Megan came off as very strange, if not dangerous, by comparison to the company she kept. She always seemed to be doing something to help others, but when she wasn’t working she was having clandestine meetings with medical personnel, and occasionally seeking engineering expertise from Sherry and Hawthorne as they were asked to check up on her various implants. Hawthorne identified this behavior as part of the lead-up to her eventual mind-uploading to the Ark, and it surprised him at how much of her efforts to this vein turned out to be secret to the majority of the populace. It seemed like the only people who knew about it at all were Teitara Poundstone, the Medical Councilwoman and Elena Price, the Old One Councilwoman.
T.I.A. had her hands full with the children, as she had to deal with the very strange dynamic of teaching and guiding older teens while fresh batches of babies were being born every year as the Phoenix Clan resumed having children after almost a decade of suspension. The age gap between the two groups of kids was difficult to deal with, but she had unexpected help from the older children whom seemed thrilled to have new children about to care for. These extra hands freed up more adults to do other work, especially as demand for food increased with the increased population. She found it remarkably difficult to keep track of the game itself as she sometimes forgot to use her position to influence parents.
After over two hundred failures of a variety of causes, they were seeming to finally make some headway. They were managing to get the caravan to Mexico now, and the military engagements with the Iron Roaches were becoming more and more common, and Hawthorne was getting chances to examine the wreckage and scrap left over when they discovered failed caravans. Encountering such failed caravans really drove home the tenuous nature of the Phoenix Clan’s position, that disaster could befall them at any time and end their escape from the oncoming Ice Age prematurely, particularly as Hawthorne and T.I.A. were responsible for many of the failures of the game’s central caravan.
The Iron Roaches turned out to be more terrifying than they appeared to be in T.I.A.’s typical simulations. They were resilient to damage, intelligent, and prone to terrifying ambushes, and while their overall number of failures decreased, they were finding it harder and harder to keep the population alive and healthy as monthly attacks turned into twice-monthly ones, and later weekly ones. It left their nerves quite on edge, and while Hawthorne and T.I.A. were experiencing compressed versions of the timeline, the level of anxiety was translating over to them very effectively. The cyborg, Megan, could often be found hooked up to one of the railgun mounts on the top of the caravan cars, as well as its adjoining suite of cameras that allowed the operator to identify targets at long range. Megan’s apparent paranoia seemed to infect others on occasion, and nearby people seemed to watch her as she examined their surroundings with the cameras, as if nervous she’d see something.
These camera sweeps were one of the most common ways they had to detect the offending creatures. Megan’s paranoia was consistently proven out as her survival-oriented vigilance drove her to seek out threats so that the Scouts and other defenders could wipe them out. Efforts to communicate with the creatures seemed to largely fail, and while there were some signs that the beasts understood them at times, they certainly didn’t seem interested in anything their preferred prey had to say. T.I.A. had difficulties understanding the creatures, as their preferred food seemed to be rusted iron and steel. Hawthorne had to point out that the centuries had made that food source scarce as erosion reclaimed the fallen cities, and that human blood was one of their best remaining sources for the bulk of their nutrition.
The two were enjoying some quiet time near a campfire early one winter in a courtyard cleared in the center of the circled up caravan cars. There were many fires like it in the area, and other couples and families were cuddled up together while the two players enjoyed each other's’ company, technically on Hawthorne’s bed despite the virtual ground they were laying on. It was a nice resting point after dozens of cycles of effort with the game, though it was hardly the only thing they spent their time on.
“Hawthorne, Jessica told me that they’re having trouble gathering resources from the cities as we go because a lot of them seem to be completely gone. Do you know why that would be? Could they have been destroyed in the Cataclysm’s weapons fire, or could the Roaches have gotten them?” T.I.A. was laying on his chest, drawing lines and circles against his shoulder with a fingertip as she looked up at him. She seemed awfully comfortable, the game having provided them a nice way to pass the time and take their minds off of problems.
Hawthorne hummed softly as he thought, looking up at the stars in the sky. “Were they primarily coastal cities?” He watched for her to respond, and she nodded. “Maybe when the black rain fell and the temperatures rose, it melted enough ice from the smaller ice age that came before that the oceans swelled enough to sweep the cities away. That explains why the Phoenix Clan found so few structures left over near the coast as they travelled. I suppose it’s not impossible some of those cities could also have suffered damage from thermonuclear weapons and the ensuing fires caused by them, depending on what the cities were constructed from. Mexico wasn’t as wealthy as the corporate nations in what was the United States, so their cities tended to be more steel and concrete than wood and brick. It’s entirely possible it all simply burned down and was blasted away.”
T.I.A. sighed softly and nodded as his explanation. “That seems a little sad, even if the results were not too dissimilar. To not even have any relics or ruins left of your civilization must have been awfully depressing for whoever survived in their bunkers. I really can’t help but wonder how many people made it as long as ours did.” She let out a soft ‘eep!’ as Hawthorne poked at her sides, amused with how she thought of them as her people now. “You know what I mean!”
He nodded back at her, smiling and hugging his arms around her tightly. “No, I know, it’s just cute that you want to be a part of them. Still, it’s a good question. Earth is a big planet, and there’s a lot of places people might have survived, particularly along the equator. I think the Americas are probably the sole domain of the Phoenix Clan, but that still leaves large parts of Africa and Asia to potentially have survivors, and it’s not like the Europeans are poorly adapted to winters, though they were some of the hardest hit by the weapons that destroyed the world. I imagine the fires were been particularly devastating in Asia and Africa though, and that’s certainly what ended up doing the most damage to the planet overall.”
“A whole planet of people scoured in fire and then shrouded in frozen darkness, killing animals, plants, and people alike. It doesn’t leave much room for more than the bunker dwellers and deep-sea creatures to have survived centuries of that. It might be the most significant mass extinction the planet’s ever suffered.” She shook her head at the enormity of it, working her face into the crook of Hawthorne’s neck.
He sighed softly and rubbed his chin against the side of her head. “It makes me wonder if we were the first intelligent species on the planet. The previous recorded mass extinctions don’t leave too much evidence that it’s possible, but there’s no way many tools or cities could have survived the erosive forces of millions of years, and only certain circumstances would have resulted in fossils forming. It could be very interesting if it turned out that other expeditions like ours have left Earth in advance of other mass extinctions, and any life we find in the galaxy is all descended from those past Earth civilizations. I can’t imagine that would have happened without some of them coming back to retake the planet though. It is simply too valuable, I think. Seems a lot more likely any such civilizations would have been wiped out before they achieved that kind of technology.”
T.I.A. smiled and nodded against his chin. “Well, if it’s any consolation, if we’d failed to leave somehow, maybe the Phoenix Clan would have still survived and went on to colonize the galaxy after the ice age was over. Of course, us not being there to help them could have resulted in them failing to leave Washington in time, or going to war with Elena’s group or something terrible like that. Fate seems to have decided that Doctor Hawthorne Crenshaw was destined to save life on Earth as well as bring life to new worlds.”
He huffed softly, tickling T.I.A. and smiling as she writhed against him. “I couldn’t have done most of this without help. I might have been at the head of all of this, but nothing could have come of my fear and paranoia if not for the backing of Tia Monsalle and the other scientists and engineers that we worked with. I might conceivably be able to take credit for helping save the Phoenix Clan thanks to you helping me do so, but I’d give more credit to whoever put our communication equipment close enough to a bunker to be discovered and used to contact us. There’s also the fact that the Smiths had their people educated well enough to take all that equipment and information and actually use it to contact us despite centuries of silence. Even that wouldn’t have been possible if not for them being willing to seek us out and trust that we really wanted to help them. I played my part, but I can’t say my destiny is that pivotal. Yours and Megan’s seem more likely to be pivotal in the long run.”
She slapped a hand down on his chest, smiling brightly. “It’s a shame Megan doesn’t have any way to program any of the drug experiences the others are partaking in into the game. It doesn’t seem like she had any of those things while she was travelling with them, though she certainly did watch them a lot when she wasn’t busy. It’s no wonder she was able to make this game so detailed if she was observing the people so much for so long. I suppose she also has all the records that Jessica sent us to work from, but her first-hand experience really makes for an immersive game, doesn’t it?”
“It’s really strange, actually, that she chose to remember all of this. She scoured a lot of her personal experiences that seemed painful.” Hawthorne drummed some fingers against T.I.A.’s side as he tried to put things together. “She seemed to characterize herself as someone detached from the group, alien to them, but she took such loving care in remembering their faces and personalities. It shows a lot of affection for them, I think, that she bothered to maintain so many details. Maybe the altered state, as a cyborg, that she lived in at the time was a little like our place playing the game. We’re distanced from the situations in that we don’t think it’s real, allowing us to watch it from a different perspective. It might be the case that this portion of her life was not unlike her being a player in a game, her existence detached from reality due to her implants and her strange, unaging biology.”
“No wonder she seemed so cold and hostile when we met her. Her perception of reality was more real with us and her Virtual Environment than it had been when she was actually alive on Earth. She had to adjust to being closer to humanity again, and had to put up walls as stronger emotions than she was accustomed to hit her. Maybe her near-death experience during the Shower caused her to embrace her new life more fully, since she seemed kind of different after that…” T.I.A. felt like this game was giving them a much better perspective on the peculiarities of her ‘sister’.
“Of course, that didn’t stop her from making this brutal game. I’ve seen these people die so many times, in so many ways, that I’m having trouble being affected by it as much anymore.” Hawthorne felt, rather than saw, T.I.A. nod at that. “We need to beat this game before we get too desensitized to it. We just have to find the right combination of decisions to repeat history and get them to Columbia. We’ve pruned away lots of dead-end threads, so we just have to keep it up. It’s a little strange how many of our decisions only seemed to have a handful of correct answers though, as though there’s only one rough course that could possibly have been forged.”
She shrugged back at him. “Well, it’s not like she was going to write all kinds of alternate histories about the caravan settling in other places and having different people survive. She watched people die, and thus didn’t get to see what kinds of decisions they may have made if they’d lived, so those stories were cut short just as they were in reality. She only has one version of history she’s experienced, so the fact that she’s elaborated on any alternate paths is really impressive. She might have been drawing off her experiences playing other video games to help her figure out those other dead-ends. A few of them took us days to find the end of them!”
“Right, right… if the game’s to be beaten, there’s obviously only a few, or one true path to follow. She might have had some alternatives, but realistically she can’t fill out all the other branches of decisions to the conclusion of the journey, or she’d never finish making the game in the first place. It’d be simply impossible to have that many plot threads without occasionally pruning them away, like a bush growing from a central stalk, and the branches growing out, only for many of them to terminate and a few to come back and grow back into the central stalk, only to branch out again ahead. It makes sense that this will all end in a central point in the end, with few of our decisions having been all that influential to that final result.” He wondered how many other games back on Earth had followed a similar structure. It seemed perfectly logical.
Megan knew that Hawthorne and T.I.A. would only play the game together, with an off-chance of T.I.A. playing it while he was in stasis. She didn’t expect that was terribly likely, though she had programmed storylines into the game where only one of them could get through to the end. The vast majority of her efforts to provide an elaborate game for them was oriented around them being together. She had a nice little surprise for them at the end, should they complete the game, and she dearly wished she’d had the presence of mind to do it while they were all together. In retrospect, it was a shame that she had to do it this way, but she hoped they’d like her gift.
Megan was enjoying her peaceful boredom otherwise, only occasionally sending status reports back to T.I.A. as the Lubar-Masis comet sped along towards Alpha Centauri. She mapped out Oort Cloud comets, took in thousands of hours of old Earth media and newscasts of times before she was aware of the world, and spent the most time in peaceful silence. It was all too easy for the work-oriented digital woman to simply let herself drift away as time ticked along. Time had given her sufficient mastery of her systems that she grew to operate them without thought, scanning her surroundings and maintaining herself and her comet’s systems with almost no effort.
She realized this was how T.I.A. felt, to a lesser extent. She didn’t have living people inside of her body to care for, but she did have all the equipment she needed to protect that she’d use to take over the Alpha Centauri system. The plans were for her to have at least one habitat built, with more planned or on their way to being constructed by the time the Ark arrived. She was expected to have infrastructure in place, including asteroidial mining operations and systems of solar mirrors designed to direct light from the three stars where it was needed. She would be conducting a ballet of machines and equipment all across the system, building her own little civilization of technology long before people came to inhabit it. It was an exciting idea, to be needed and useful to so many people at once. The group she’d be housing was more than four times the size the Phoenix Clan was, and she would be so much more important to them.
She hoped they didn’t reject her. She wanted to be trusted and looked to for help. She couldn’t be everywhere at once, thanks to communications delays mostly, but she could make sure that dumber computer proxies were at the beck and call for the humans that needed her. She’d be her own internet, her consciousness stretched across computers all across the system. She’d need to be careful not to endanger herself as she had with the linkup she had with T.I.A. during the Shower, but she could reach out to smaller extents now that she’d had those experiences. She’d be extending herself to parts of herself, rather than uploading herself to another person’s mind.
She still looked forward to reuniting with her sister again though. She didn’t know if she’d be able to experience that kind of intimacy with humans, but the life-or-death embrace that T.I.A. had given her had changed everything for her. She hadn’t felt that real since before her genetic engineering back on Earth. She felt really and truly alive because of T.I.A.’s desperate effort to save her. If she could experience even half of that with humans, as T.I.A. did with Hawthorne, as she herself had with Heather, being subservient to them would be completely worth it.