T.I.A. 1572.017: “What inspired you to make something like this Megan? Was it for historical purposes so that people could know about the Phoenix Clan and their journey? If so, I have a ton of records and logs, I could have helped with a lot of the official records. It’s an inspired idea as a historical piece, if we could ensure that all the books, albums, and records are all accurate to the period. People being able to go back to the moment as if they were really there and experience it with such accuracy would be a revolution to historical records.”
Mother 1572.031: “While I appreciate you considering my gift to you and Hawthorne to be an effort towards creating a historical piece, I assure you that was not my intent. I am not a creative person, so my efforts to create something based off of a period of my life resulted in me trying to create it accurately. That is why the side-paths do not conclude much past the deviation from the main path or do not influence the overall ending points. I most likely could draw out each story thread to a conclusion, but I have trouble imagining the events portrayed going any other way than they did. I suppose it does not help that my inspiration largely came from old Earth video games designed around the concept of wanting to ensure the players saw all of the content, otherwise the developer efforts would have been considered wasted. I prefer that kind of design over a large world with no direction and a less cohesive story.”
T.I.A. 1572.055: “I think you took a good course of action then! Hawthorne and I have been obsessed with it, as I’m sure you probably expected. I think we’re finally making some real headway though, and we should be able to finish it soon if we don’t find too many more bottlenecks. He keeps worrying that you might have programmed it with some sort of ulterior motive in mind, but I keep trying to assure him that you only wanted to show us what it was really like to live with them. It’s really an amazing experience. I never imagined I’d get to experience what it’s like to live as a human with other humans in quite that way. It’s a really incredible experience that I’d like to replicate in reality someday if the technology becomes available.”
Mother 1572.069: “But Tia, I did have an ulterior motive.”
T.I.A. 1572.122: “I’ve been trying to think of how to respond to that, but I can’t think of anything besides this.” “Oh.” “I’ll… try to keep an eye out for it.”
Mother 1572.137: “Please do not preoccupy yourself with it. I put nothing into the game I did not anticipate you two would not see, providing you ensure you both finish it together. Please try to focus on enjoying the experience and inform me of anything I can do to improve it in future versions. I would eventually like to make it available to our colonists, perhaps as a historical piece as you suggested. Perhaps one day I may be able to collaborate with a future generation of colonists on additional games. I would be very interested in that as a side project when I am less busy.”
T.I.A. 1572.142: “Understood! I am a little concerned that sharing such a game with the colonists will require one of us to render the game for anyone playing, but I’m sure Hawthorne could design computers intended for displaying a facsimile of our Virtual Environments for such purposes. I’ll ask him to think about that. The idea of the two of us designing software for humans to enjoy is delightful. Perhaps I may try my hand at such things? I have mostly made practical or beautiful things. I have not considered activities very much. The closest to activities are the things Hawthorne and I do when we are alone…”
Mother 1572.157: “Tia, I assure you, those activities appeal greatly to most humans. I do imagine you both would be labeled perverts for such things, though I suspect that is likely regardless. I prefer that love between a digital lifeform and a human be celebrated, but we should be prepared for a negative reaction first. If people prove to be accepting of it, then we may celebrate having been proven wrong. Still, even if there were negative reactions, there would be people trying to avoid scrutiny enjoying any innovations made in virtual sex. I do find myself troubled by the idea of a computer designed to replicate part of our minds without being full artificial intelligences though. It feels as though such a machine would effectively be a lobotomized cousin of ourselves rather than a purpose-built computer.”
T.I.A. 1572.172: “I suppose that is troubling in a sense, though it seems like a dangerous train of thought to look at every computer as a potential cousin. We are built in a particular way intended to mimic a human mind. I took part in your construction personally, so I can assure you it is a specialized thing not suited to a typical computer. It feels as though we should look upon other computers as humans would look upon animals. Similar to ourselves, but ultimately serving different purposes. On the topic of animals, I do think it would be worth bugging Hawthorne about looking into Mr. Saul’s contraband animal embryos that he brought aboard. It would be interesting if we could seed whatever habitats or planets we started colonizing with animals in advance of our arrival if we could figure out how to grow them without animal mothers. It’s not even just the pregnancy to consider, but also the rearing and education of the young.”
Mother 1572.188: “That is a fine point. I will attempt to not look at other computers as things to uplift to our levels, but instead see them as the tools that they are. Only other true digital lifeforms deserve our recognition as cousins. We may even need to ensure we receive regular upgrades to keep up with them if they end up being produced in numbers. As to the animals, you are absolutely right. Perhaps robotic facsimile animals to mother the young animals are in order. A central computer could control the robots and said robots could have whatever wombs and nutrient dispensers would be needed to help juvenile animals grow. I am sending a file with a quick mockup on what I mean.”
T.I.A. 1572.204: “This is amazing! It’s a whole farm built around robotic animal parents looking over baby animals! They’re so cute too! I think we could get a lot of support for this idea if we had to ask the other colonists about it, particularly Mr. Saul. I don’t know if Hawthorne’s capable of making something like this, but if it truly is possible, then all those extinct animals don’t need to be extinct forever. We could even send things like that to Earth to help them rebuild their ecosystems!”
Mother 1572.220: “I am disappointed that this idea is only occurring to you now, sister. Is your ship not called the Ark? Jessica would be shaking her head at you right now.”
T.I.A. 1572.236: “Well, an artificial womb idea is a pretty easy conclusion to come to, but I had not considered the first animals would need mothers too, so creating full artificial mothers did not occur to me. Also, I didn’t name the ship! Hawthorne was making fun of me because I wanted to name everything Phoenix because I prefer that symbolism over biblical symbolism. There’s just something pleasant about the idea of virtual immortality through rebirth. It’s an interesting analogy for life in general, considering how many times it’s had to bounce back from being nearly wiped out.”
Hawthorne and T.I.A. were sitting together in Megan’s Columbia Trail game, overlooking a river that the non-player characters of the Phoenix Clan were currently negotiating via the construction of partly temporary, and partly permanent bridgework. It was not uncommon for the caravan to reclaim the latter half of the bridge after having made it across, dismantling the steel and grinding up concrete to store in the rear cars of the caravan.
“So how has Megan been doing? I feel like we haven’t been communicating much.” Hawthorne had sent several messages himself thanking Megan for the game and expressing how much he’s been delighted by it, but she had been conspicuously quiet on the subject. He held onto T.I.A. while watching the river cut a course through an otherwise barren landscape.
T.I.A. smiled and leaned back into him. “She’s well, and as mysterious as ever. She encouraged me to remind you about Anthony Saul’s contraband, and that we could spend some time trying to work on that problem. It made me realize we could potentially restore animal life to Earth, as well as our new home. She had some ideas about creating robotic mother animals to rear the young after birthing them that seemed very interesting, at least for the first few generations. We’d probably need some of the crew’s scientists and some of the research from Earth after we left to be able to put something like that together. I’m confident you could handle the actual robotic engineering though.”
Hawthorne hummed softly as he listened, leaning in to nod against the back of her head. “Well, honestly, you’ve helped me with so many projects I don’t doubt that you could handle a lot of engineering yourself, though I’d definitely like to try some different mechanisms and techniques if I were to be making life-like animals intended to pass as parents for the short term. They shouldn’t need to be too realistic, though, as animals aren’t quite as discerning. Scents will probably be more important than granular details. General silhouettes should be effective. And yes, I know, it’s not my field of expertise, but we did spend some time talking about this sort of thing on Earth before dismissing it as too difficult. We hadn’t planned for someone to be active during the journey and able to put time into such projects though.”
T.I.A. knew that, and she understood. They’d only had about fifteen years to get the whole project together and leave. They didn’t have time to waste on things like animals when plants were so much more important for their survival. She glanced back at him over her shoulder. “I’d like to finish the game soon so we can get back to working on projects. I feel a little selfish that we’ve been spending so much time on this but it’s been too interesting to stop. Megan spent so much time making this for us and it would feel like such a waste not to finish it.” She started tugging his fingers apart where he was holding her about her middle, encouraging him to let her go so they could get back to the game. They should have time skipped past this part of the river crossing, but they’d wanted to enjoy the view for a little while.
Hawthorne shrugged, smiling. “I spent most of my life before we left working almost constantly on one thing or another. I spent a lot of this journey working. Is it so wrong that I just want to spend some time with you playing? I know we’ve been more leisurely since we’ve been together, but it’s not like we’ve been unproductive. Heck, if nothing else it’s only cut into my sleep, not that I’m complaining. Playing this game gives both of us a chance to experience a lot of things that we may never get to do barring extreme changes to our circumstances.” He thought over the idea that they could have children in the game, though the Council had conspicuously passed the two of them over for others on several occasions. He suspected Megan didn’t want to deal with the touchy subject of how the Phoenix Clan routinely disrupted couples to swap partners for the good of genetic diversity.
“True. In some sense my time with you is my relaxation time, considering I spend the rest of my time maintaining the ship, the comet, and monitoring for threats and communications. I wonder if there will be a point where I can interact with people who treat me like a real person in the future? Perhaps we could upgrade my android to be more lifelike and less distinguishable from humans, at least so they’ll treat me like that…” She squirmed a bit at the idea, enjoying the concept of walking around a ship or colony with humans, interacting with them much like they did the characters in Megan’s game.
Hawthorne chuckled a bit. “It’s not impossible, not remotely. There were tons of innovations in realistic gynoid technologies before and after we left. Nothing was as advanced as a true artificial lifeform, like yourself, but there were some convincing facsimiles to my understanding. There’s an enormous difference between creating a program that can mimic human conversation and social expectations and creating a mind capable of understanding what it means to do those things. If the purpose of the gynoid is to merely give the appearance of an artificial lifeform, then I suppose there isn’t much difference, but there were a lot of cases with people falling in love with things that couldn’t reciprocate those feelings. If we made such a body for you, it would be like taking one of those gynoids and putting a real person’s mind in it. You’d be operating it remotely, of course, but the effect would be profound. I love the idea, though there would be power issues and bandwidth concerns.”
T.I.A. giggled at the idea, nodding. “Something to think about while we’re thinking about robot animal mothers.” She hummed softly, wondering quietly to herself. “Maybe even a robot Tia mother…?” She trailed off, suddenly somber as she considered the idea. She murmured under her breath. “Damnit Megan… That had to be what she was hinting at…”
Hawthorne felt the mood of the moment change as T.I.A. started mumbling quietly, and he leaned in to squeeze her in a tight hug.
The sounds of battle had become all too familiar to the human, AI pair. It was remarkable how much the pacifist people of the Smith Bunker had risen to the occasion of needing to become capable of war. Initial timidity to danger, combat, and death had given way to a grim determination and a hardened resolve to see their journey through. Casualties were both mourned and celebrated as the Council approved new pregnancies to replace the dead. Prosthetic limbs started becoming commonplace as Iron Roaches managed to inflict wounds upon their human prey. Even killing the roaches often caused injuries as their massive bulk collapsed to the ground, usually at a charge.
The Phoenix Clan mastered these challenges in time, greatly improving their abilities to detect and dispatch their foes, learning to combine the use of their different weapons in effective formations. Accidents had almost completely stopped, and ambushes from the Iron Roaches lost almost all their effect. The only difficulties they faced as they neared their destination were terrain, and exhaustion. Keeping their society alive was a lot of work, and in truth there was much more anticipation of attack than there was moments of action. Farming had to continue, and certain times of year made sleep very hard to get for a people whom had been raised in an air-conditioned bunker.
At one point Hawthorne had been transferred to defensive duty, helping to operate the various railguns mounted atop many of the caravan cars. It was also his duty to maintain them, and he found it very interesting just how intricately Megan had managed to replicate his designs and the schematics he knew T.I.A. had furnished the humans with for their journey. He was almost certain she had either gotten copies of the caravan and weapon schematics from when she was on earth, or from T.I.A. when she was copying her libraries. Regardless, it felt to him like he was really working on the machines, and it was certainly moments like this when he realized that the Cyborg woman spent a great deal of time hooked into the computers and monitoring the systems around them.
“Of course! That’s how she knows so much about this time period! She was hooked into all the cameras around the caravan and was literally watching everyone! My god, she must have been watching and recording everything.” Hawthorne was leaned back in a gunner’s seat, his hands on his face as he looked up at the sky.
“What? Really? Is that what she’s been doing? Any time I asked she said she was keeping an eye out for the Roaches.” T.I.A. came over, partially hobbled by multiple children clinging to her legs while another tugged at the back of her hempen dress. She looked a little bedraggled, but she happily rubbed her hands through the hair of the kids restricting her ability to walk. She didn’t have to play along with the programming and could fly around if she wanted to, but she enjoyed the playful children. She did have to shout at another who was chasing a chicken around though. “Be nice! The chickens are our friends!”
“Absolutely. She couldn’t possibly have done all this with normal memories. She wasn’t even present for a lot of these conversations and events. If they’re accurate to moments that really happened, and decisions that were really made, then she had to have been watching through the cameras and listening in. Just like you could catalogue my entire life on the Ark, she has catalogued almost the entire existence of the Phoenix Clan. The cybernetic parts of that woman’s mind must have been crucial for her abilities to retain memories of these situations. I wonder if those bits might have accounted for the relatively small file size of her brain scans, digital information taking up much less space in the file structure than did biological information…” Hawthorne shook her head, wondering at the possibilities.
“Hawthorne!” The burly looking Sherry Aaronson had lost a lot of weight over the course of the journey. She was still strong and fit, but excess fat had almost completely left her and even her muscle had started to deteriorate, causing her to really start looking her age. Long, sleepless nights of work and skipped meals had taken their tolls on her over the years. “Quit flirting and get that last gun online! I don’t want those bugs catching us with our skirts flipped up! Get to it!” She shouted at him from across part of the yard created by the caravan being circled into a ring. She was elbow-deep into one of the LSC scout vehicles, her arms and face streaked with smears of grease.
T.I.A. giggled as Hawthorne shouted back, giving her a salute. “Yes ma’am! I’m almost done! I won’t be another ten minutes!” Sherry grunted in response back at him, and yelled over at a grease-smeared young boy nearby her to get a tool for her. It was her grandson, if he recalled correctly. “What a slave driver…. That woman might have single handedly kept this whole operation together.”
T.I.A. rolled her eyes, shaking her head. “Heather was right, you’re totally at the mercy of women.” She giggled again as she started dragging the kids off back to an impromptu school. It was a miracle her dress hadn’t fallen apart with all the extra tugging and pulling it had to endure from the kids. That hemp was strong stuff!
Letting out an exasperated sigh, Hawthorne got back to work, the novelty of working on virtual versions of his own creations having worn off as he resumed.
“Hey Hawthorne? Why do you think the cities that were supposed to be here are mostly gone?” T.I.A. asked him quietly as they pulled up food from the large farm car’s soil. “There were supposed to be more places they could get resources from along the way, but there’s a lot of cities, particularly towards Central America where there were barely even foundations left.” She was filthy, but she had a basket full of vegetables that rivaled the size of anyone else’s.
He hummed, thinking, having some trouble doing the physical labor due to his weakened right arm. “If I had to take a guess, I’d imagine it was due to the climate changes. The initial nuclear winter resulted in a quick ice age, then the black rain caused the planet to heat up dramatically and melt way more ice than was put down, and the coasts ended up under water for perhaps two centuries before the oncoming ice age made the water recede in advance of the caravan. If they’d set out fifty years sooner it’s hard to say there would even have been a Central America for them to travel across to get to Columbia. I can’t be sure of course, but that seems the most likely. The coastal cities were wiped away by the sea water. The foundations were probably made with an old Roman concrete recipe that was resistant to seawater.”
Other women and men bumped and jostled into Hawthorne and T.I.A. as they stopped to talk, causing them to lose ground to them as the sections of ground they were designated to clear went somewhat neglected. Soft apologies and gentle hands upon shoulders suggested there were no hard feelings. “That makes sense. It’s hard to remember how wildly the weather changed after the Cataclysm. I can’t even imagine how awful the storms must have been, but I suppose the people were safe underground for most of that. No wonder the black rain ended up being covered up by erosion, if all that added heat made the weather rampage across the planet. It was probably four hundred years of climate hell with maybe a century of relative calm before the start of the next, longer ice age. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the Beta Facility survived in the first place for Jessica to find after all that.
Hawthorne grinned at that. “The benefit of smart engineering, proper planning, and sheer paranoia. All three facilities were intended to be shielded from most dangers by their surrounding terrain, and the materials we used to make them were unnecessarily expensive but weather and corrosion resistant. I wonder if the other two survived as much as the first had, but they’d all almost certainly have been destroyed after this much time no matter how resilient they were. I’m just happy that the electromagnetic pulse shielding we installed in the equipment worked. We never had a chance to test them against the yields of nuclear weapons that were likely to be used. Unfortunately, if there were any hardy survivors on the surface after the initial Cataclysm, those first few centuries of extreme weather would have almost certainly wiped out just about everything else, plants and animals alike. Only fortunate mutants and deep ocean life around thermal vents were probably left.”
She shook her head, sighing. “I wonder how many other bunkers there were… Maybe that weather explains how a lot of the other caravans failed and were destroyed by the roaches. They must have gotten stranded in mud and muck in vehicles designed for roads. It’s a big world. There must have been hundreds or thousands of bunkers. Surely it wasn’t just the two that were lucky enough to survive.” She finished up her section, her basket full as she scooted over on her knees to help Hawthorne with his.
Hawthorne, seeing that he was behind and needed help, started moving faster so as not to waste too much of her time. “It’s hard to say. The Smiths were obviously planning to survive more than just a few decades underground, and the LSC bunker had a lot of genetic engineering and cybernetics going on to keep people going. The real question is how many other bunkers were equipped to survive literal centuries without outside aid or resources. The Smiths seemed to want to rebuild society and culture to adapt to their new circumstances, while others would probably have been intended to maintain their old ways. Even the LSC bunker maintained its old leadership structure, however broken it was, before Elena threw their lot in with the Phoenix Clan. She must have recognized for a long time how hopeless their situation was.”
“Elena’s so strange. All of the Old Ones are like aliens in a lot of ways. They all fly into a rage when the roaches come, but they otherwise don’t seem to hold any grudges and are content to enjoy life going on around them. They especially love helping with the children, and all the normal humans seem to love them for it, like they’re grandparents helping with the grandkids or something.” T.I.A. cared a lot more about the people of the Clan than she did the mechanical aspects of it, and she couldn’t help but marvel at the ancient people among them.
Hawthorne laughed and paused a moment to think, letting her gather some of the plants for him. “Think about it, they have a totally different perspective than the other people do. The roaches are determined to wipe out their long lives, so they hold a grudge against them. No one knows how long the Old Ones can even live, and so active threats against their life spans need to be put down with great prejudice. I wouldn’t be surprised if they ended up being the guardians of humanity in the long run. Otherwise they’re happy to experience life and let it flow around them without making waves. They may well live forever, so getting caught up on the little things doesn’t interest them.”
T.I.A. huffed as she hauled out the last few roots, making sure the vegetables were packed away properly. “That makes sense. It probably includes the fact that two of them have died from roach attacks up to this point, so there’s also not as many of them left. Hundreds of years of experience lost in a few fearful moments. It reminds me of the Shower.” She shuddered visibly at the horrible memory, of how they lost crewmen, and also almost lost each other and Megan.
Hawthorne was quick to pull her into a hug. He dearly hoped they had no more surprise attacks from space to worry about. It was hard enough maintaining their current momentum without everything breaking down as it was, they didn’t need additional crises. It was a little troubling how helpful the Shower had been as well, as it had deposited a lot of heavy metal resources across the surface of the Lubar-Masis comet they’d been able to profit from in the construction of Megan’s fleet of drones. “I think we’re getting close to the end of the game. We just have to keep up our course. It should just be another cycle or two.”
She nodded against his chest, curling up against him, seeking safety in his arms. “I sometimes wish I could forget things, but I wouldn’t want to risk forgetting something that changes who I am…”
Stroking at her hair, he reassured her. “Just try not to focus down too hard on an individual memory when it is just one of many. Eventually there may come a time when you lose me too, and I’d prefer you remember all the time we had together rather than focusing on how you lost me.”
T.I.A. nodded again, letting out a little sigh. “Maybe… maybe there’s some way we could fix that too, while we’re lining up projects…” Fingers curled into his shirt, tugging on the VE suit underneath his clothing.
He shrugged, smiling. “You’ve already kept me around for tens of thousands of years, though only a decade and some change of total time. We’ll figure something out though. We could try a brain transfer close to the end of my life like Megan did, for instance, or maybe we’ll find a genetic option based on the Old Ones. I’m a little skeptical on the latter, though, having talked to Heather on a number of occasions. Some of our original ideas were to engineer our crew to be like the Old Ones and travel the whole journey awake, but there were severe issues with altering the genetics of a fully-grown human, particularly with the way the brain ages. If we can’t find a way, I promise we’ll try a brain transfer though, especially if I ever show any signs of alzheimer's or other types of dementia.”
“Deal.” T.I.A. turned her head up to smile sadly up at him. She hated imagining him die. Was it imagination if it was an inevitable future? Would a copy of him still be the same person? It was easy to accept Megan as she had no attachment to the original back on Earth, but could she love a Megan-like copy of Hawthorne? How much did that change a person? She rested her face against his chest, preferring not to think about it for now.