Leaving Earth



Chapter 48: Cycle 1657, The Buzzsaw


A note from Warfox

I actually experienced a little writer's block this week, which delayed this one a couple days. Work-related drama stress, nothing to be concerned with. I was able to get myself in the zone just as well as any other time, listening to podcasts while I wrote. Snuck a few references to some of my personal favorte things into this one, eager to see if anyone recognizes them. No googlin'! XD

Hawthorne stretched as he got out of his pod, rotating his right shoulder and testing how stiff his old injury was. He found it remarkably easy to keep the injury relaxed when he couldn’t feel the pain of it. His attention perked up as he started gathering his clothes and gear which T.I.A. was kind enough to lay out for him, her voice sounding out from above. “Good morning Husband.”

Smiling widely, he considered how to respond. Simply seemed best. “Good morning, my wife.” He laughed a bit, shaking his head. “That’s such a strange idea, being married.” He started making his way towards the restroom. “Thankfully we have a few thousand years to enjoy it before we have to worry about others.”

T.I.A. joined him in the laughter, floating unseen nearby. “Tell me about it! They’re going to give me such a hard time about marrying a human, of all things.” She listened to him chuckle a bit, and decided to keep the conversation going while he got ready. “Megan sent us a congratulations, as well as a wedding present.”

Hawthorne blinked, hesitating for a moment in the restroom, before starting up the shower and starting to wash up. He’d showered before he went into stasis, so he was mostly just rinsing the lingering chill out of his body. “Not another game, I hope? I was intending for us to get some work done before we got too comfortable again. I realize we don’t have a ton to keep us occupied, but it will be a lot easier to convince my peers that I wasn’t wasting my time out here if I have a lot of work done to show for it.”

She had no difficulty hearing him over the noise of the shower. It was a simple matter to filter it out as she listened to him. “Nothing like that. She’s passed into a region of space that sounds rather interesting. She’s mapped out three-hundred sixty-three objects of varying masses and external compositions already, with the majority of them seemingly stationary. The region seems quite large so far, and I’ve put together some initial plans to harvest some of the objects. The Oort cloud was already pretty uncooperative with providing comets I could actually take, so it’s exciting that there are objects of relative ease in our path.”

“Perfect! Sounds like we have a project to occupy our attention for the moment then. I wasn’t looking forwards to trying to figure out the robotic mothers project, as much as I like the idea.” He had to bend over a bit to get his head under the stream of water, the shower intended for shorter people than him, as otherwise the water tended to hit him in the chest. Lifting his hands to pull his hair out of his face, he started taking note of increased numbers of pale, silvery hairs across his chest and hanging in front of his face before he pulled the long mane back. He sighed a little, realizing he wasn’t too far away from being totally grey. Where had the years gone?

“You alright, honey? Your vitals seemed to get somewhat depressed just now.” T.I.A. sounded concerned, wondering if his concerns about the robotic mothers bothered him that much. “We can spend a lot of time working on other things besides the mothers project if you want.”

He shook his head, always impressed how much information her cameras could provide her, even if she was just interpreting readouts from the computers rather than looking through the cameras herself. Hawthorne smiled at how cute she was, trying to give him some semblance of privacy. He wondered if other crew members would feel more violated at her being able to watch their vitals, feeling paranoid about her watching them at their most vulnerable. “No… I mean, yes, I’m fine. I just noticed how grey I’m getting. I don’t feel particularly old, honestly, though that’s probably due to the lack of pain. I’ll probably remain pretty vital as long as I stick to my exercise regime and don’t introduce too many variables to my habits or diet.”

T.I.A. hummed softly to herself, remaining quiet for the moment. “I’ll get your breakfast and coffee ready then. Gotta stay on your usual schedule, right?” Maybe a little change was in order for herself, as well.

Fully dressed, Hawthorne walked through the doorway from his bedroom, taking a moment to stretch himself out against the door jamb, using the solid object to pull and push his arms and shoulders and stretch out his back. He squatted down and slowly stood up while keeping his fingertips touching his toes until he was fully extended. Standing up straight he let out a pleased grunt, feeling good. He blinked in surprise as he noticed that T.I.A. looked different.

She had streaks of grey in her curly brown hair.

“Tia?” He tilted his head as he walked over to her, pulling her into his arms, interested in the change. She still looked lovely, but there was something interesting and exotic at the idea she wanted to look older for him. Looking closely, he could see laugh lines around her eyes, and she blushed as he examined the little changes she’d made. “You look beautiful, as usual.” He smiled brightly and gave her a tight hug, enjoying the little squeal she made.

T.I.A. was beaming at his approval, resting her cheek against his chest for a moment before encouraging him to let her pull away. The workroom was his good, old fashioned steel enclosure for the moment. His intent was to focus on work, so she kept things simple. “I want to show you what Megan sent me. She and I have already claimed a number of objects we plan to take along with us, and I wanted to run the plans past you and show you what she’s been dealing with so far.”

He nodded, moving to pick up his coffee and food from the dispenser, sitting down at the table. He watched his wife quietly, holding his coffee mug in both hands and sipping at the steamy liquid. T.I.A. filled the area above the table with a visualization of the region ahead, with the Ark nearing the edge of a comparative minefield of objects that mostly seemed out of their course, which she’d noted with a dotted line. Megan and the Lubar-Masis comet were well ahead of them, her own course only slightly different than theirs. She’d arrive in Alpha Centauri sooner than they would so she was angled slightly differently to make sure she didn’t overshoot it.

“All of these objects are basically stationary? There isn’t much in the way of movement?” Hawthorne hummed as he leaned in, looking at the swarm of objects.There were hundreds in every direction, and there were probably more. “If we didn’t have Megan mapping things out, it would be kind of dangerous to move into the area without proper sensors. Whatever slowed these things down must have left some level of small debris. At the speeds we’re going, it would be wise of us to make sure to keep the Phoenix in front of us, or one of these other objects if we can prepare it. The shields should be constantly ready to intercept objects.”

T.I.A. nodded at him as she replayed some events that Megan had gone through. Small swarms of debris had been easily deflected by her own shields and hull, and she’d been able to launch takeover packages to push objects out of her way, and begin the process of bringing them along with her. “A lot of the objects she’s claimed she’ll be moving out of our course for us, allowing us to focus on the ones I was hoping to take. There’s a lot of different makeups that we can detect. Not much in the way of radioactivity, but there are a lot of icy, rocky objects that seem like smashed up or small comets.”

Hawthorne nodded, setting down his coffee and reached out with a hand. He manipulated her model, shrinking it, and drawing out the region around them. He was remarkably quick in placing Sol, Alpha Centauri, and the suspected regions of both of their Oort clouds into the visual. “Sol’s Oort Cloud is suspected to go almost all the way to Alpha Centauri, so we’ll be heading into something like an overlap…” He drew the expected rotation of objects caught up in both gravity wells, guessing that Alpha Centauri’s were spinning in the opposite direction. “Things that escaped either star’s exclusive influence got caught in this region, and hang suspended in between, probably after smashing into each other first.”

T.I.A. nodded, settling down to watch him examine the visuals. “It’s kind of like a pair of buzzsaws getting caught against each other…”

Hawthorne grinned, reaching out to name it. “Perfect name. We’ll call it the Buzzsaw.” He wrote out the name with a fingertip, applying it to the region.

She giggled a bit at him. “Great, Megan gave us a buzzsaw for our wedding.”

The Buzzsaw, as a hazard, wasn’t much of one as far as Hawthorne could tell. As long as your sensors allowed for enough warning, there wasn’t much danger in failing to avoid the detected objects in the region. Megan’s report about debris concerned him though, and as the cycles went on and both ships started launching takeover packages, it was hard not to notice about 5% of them getting lost. Cameras on the Phoenix showed occasional objects raining down upon its surface as it cleared the path for the Ark, their relative speed turning them into bullets that did not seem to harm the comet otherwise.

“Jesus Christ, we must have built Megan tougher than I though we had, if she’s handling this kind of pounding without realizing how dangerous it is. Let her know she needs to keep her shields in good repair to handle these impacts. I’m almost certain there used to be a lot more larger objects in the Buzzsaw, before they smashed into each other and left a cloud of debris. Thankfully they’re not moving laterally, or we’d have to worry about getting hit in the side. The Phoenix can plough out a course for us, and we can map it for any future travellers to use. Tia, whatever objects you commandeer, try to have them follow similar courses, clearing the way for each other as they catch up to us.” Hawthorne was going over mass calculations, trying to determine just what the density of debris had to be out here based off of their previous observations.

“Got it, message sent. I think she forgets how fragile the Ark is at these speeds. If we’d have gone with the original plan and just flown along with the Lubar-Masis and you’d been in stasis the whole time, I don’t think we’d have gotten through this part. Heck, you might have died like the others in the Shower.” She shook her head, sighing. “I suppose I could have gotten through the Shower alone, and using the Lubar-Masis to clear the way would probably have occurred to me, but I can’t say how much worse the damage would have been if you hadn’t been around.” She looked depressed considering the idea of spending the whole journey alone.

He reached over to pat her on the hip. “You’d have been fine. I’d be more worried about the people on Earth we’d helped if we hadn’t been around. If we’re lucky, we helped save a people that will ensure that whatever Earth ends up like in the future, they might be more friendly towards us out here. Depending on how much of their technology they can keep going, and how many of their records survive, they could well be the ones to save us some day.”

T.I.A. shuddered at the idea of what might have happened if they hadn’t saved the Phoenix Clan. “I don’t like the idea of those iron roaches being the only survivors and having to deal with a whole planet of human eaters in tens of thousands of years. I wonder if any of them will make it through with the plant roaches, humans, and old ones holding the line against them.”

Hawthorne ran his calculations through the equations a few times, not liking the high level of mass he was predicting was in their path. The Phoenix was going to have to absorb hundreds of thousands of impacts before they left the projected area of the Buzzsaw. “Honestly, I don’t think they would have survived either way, not unless they adapted to the oncoming cold better. The plant roaches have the humans to help them get through. The Iron roaches would have eaten anyone capable of helping them adapt to the cold. Unless a group of them emerged that were smart enough to enslave humanity, rather than wipe them out, it’s likely whatever life left would have not been intelligent. If we managed to return to Earth after colonizing Alpha Centauri, we’d probably have found it a garden or desert in recovery, with little left to show the damage that was done save for a few craters. Honestly, the glaciers will have wiped most of those away as well.”

She hummed softly as she thought about that idea. “I’m glad we were able to help them. I think if I’m asked to testify on your behalf, I’ll have a lot of opportunity to point out things we did that saved us a lot of grief.”

He paused in his work for a moment, then nodded. “It is pretty likely they’ll put me on trial, isn’t it? Creating two AIs that control a lot of their ability to survive, interfering with Earth, resurrecting a potentially deadly human, endangering myself and the crew to save her again, not putting personality shackles on either you or Megan, putting Megan in charge of Alpha Centauri in advance of our arrival, presuming to know better than everyone else about oh so many things…”

She chirped up, smiling. “And marrying your AI! They might take issue with that, Tia Monsalle especially.”

Hawthorne sighed for a moment, then lifted his head and straightened his shoulders. “Fuck it.” T.I.A. gasped as she heard him curse. He did not do that very often. “If this all works out, and we arrive safely, they don’t have much right to complain. We saved their grandchildren from thermonuclear annihilation on Earth, assuming they survived that long without being killed in war or being executed by crazy people. I’m sorry about leaving Tia Monsalle behind, but it’s not like I won’t do what I can for her. I have been out here working to make sure she and everyone else will have a future. Unless Megan turns into a tyrant, and she just doesn’t seem the type, they should be grateful that someone so capable is attending to so much on their behalf. If someone wants to object to me being in love with you, they can sit on their thumb and spin on it.”

T.I.A. threw herself at Hawthorne, almost bowling him over out of his chair, laughing and kissing his cheek as she almost tried to strangle him in a hug. “That was the crudest, most romantic thing you’ve ever said!”

He scoffed, pulling his VE mask across his face so he could properly kiss her. “I don’t know that I’d call that romantic!” A chirp from the computer interrupted them, causing them to turn their attention to it. “Over one hundred cycles to get through? We’re going to need some pretty tough ships in the future if we’re going to survive journeying between stars at higher speeds. This sort of phenomena almost certainly will require particularly fast ships to slow down through Buzzsaw regions until paths are cleared.”

T.I.A. gasped as her eyes lit up, almost literally. “We could call this one the Hawthorne road! Ooh, or the Columbia Trail!”

Hawthorne laughed and hugged her tighter, hands roaming over her body as he kissed her quiet before she could call it the Phoenix Path or something.

Over the course of eighty cycles, the Phoenix Comet had taken quite a pounding, to the point they saved quite a bit of fuel in decelerating it. In a sense the region was applying something akin to long-term friction to it, as well as adding mass to the half-icy body. Between that and the 75 added objects T.I.A. had managed to capture and start speeding along to join their formation, the Buzzsaw had provided quite a lot of extra mass for them to work with. The new comets would take a few hundred cycles to catch up and join the Ark’s formation, as would the 90 that Megan had taken for herself. Megan’s seemed likely to never catch up to her until after she arrived in Alpha Centauri, but she was looking forward to the challenge of managing all their trajectories while managing the construction of their first habitat.

The Ark had taken some superficial damage as they moved through the Buzzsaw, rocky bullets grazing the hull and taking chunks out of her extended arms where they managed to pierce through their defenses. The Phoenix held up admirably, the ice especially, as it proved incredibly sturdy despite the pounding it had endured. Megan had to ‘turn her back’ on the Buzzsaw, exposing less of her hull to the projectiles and allowing the Lubar-Masis to take the brunt of the pounding. Slowly, Megan and the Ark cut two paths through the Buzzsaw, and it was clear that the ‘roads’ they were building through it needed names.

T.I.A.’s ideas proved to be predictable, usually referencing her friends from back on Earth, or trying to make them after Hawthorne himself. Hawthorne was leaning towards a Moses reference, enjoying the imagery of them metaphorically parting the Red Sea.

Megan’s ideas were comparatively practical. The Megan and Hawthorne Highways were her primary contributions. The most fantastical she went was her suggestion of the Serpent’s Trench, which got shot down as soon as T.I.A. pointed out it was a video game reference. T.I.A. joked that they should call it the Midlands Boundary Path if they were going to make book or game references.

Hawthorne suggested a compromise, which is to say he wanted to make no one happy. The Sol-Centauri Corridors got grudging agreement from the sister AIs, as they and Hawthorne seemed to prefer such different media that it was better to give none of them ground.

That didn’t stop Megan and T.I.A. from adding their own names to the Sol-Centauri Corridors for their own notes, with the intent to submit the ideas to the colonists later. They didn’t particularly need to keep the secrets from Hawthorne, as he was just as inclined to put it to a colony vote in the future, and had only wanted to get the issue settled for now so they could concentrate on other things.

He was busy rereading the crew’s old notes on creating artificial wombs, and the expected difficulties, and trying to figure out how viable the whole idea was. It didn’t seem possible without some form of custom genetic engineering at first, but he still sketched out some ideas for a type of life-support system not too dissimilar from how some live organs were kept alive without putting them on ice back on Earth. His sketches suggested borrowing stem cells from embryos to make bone marrow cells, and see if he could make some manner of nutrient transfer system to use manufactured blood cells made from the marrow to make something like a biological conveyor belt to feed the fetus.

After that it was a matter of containing the whole biological apparatus in such a way as to keep the developing life from being bothered too much, as well as make sure they could provide newborns and developing youths proper nutrients. It wasn’t practical to try to grow teats from stem cells, but old fashioned fake nipples and feeding tubes should be able to handle the job inside the body of a proxy-animal robot. There were some issues of the first generation lacking the ability to transfer stomach bacteria and immune cells, but that was frankly unavoidable. For at least a few generations their new animals would almost certainly lack the ability to handle diseases that would have been common on Earth.

Thankfully the only bacteria they brought along with them was on and inside their own bodies, so the animals should be able to develop relatively safely in a properly sterile environment. He wanted to run the idea past Heather, but he wanted to flesh it out a bit first.

If he didn’t make sure it looked like he was planning to use such a system to revive animal life, he was certain she’d tease him about wanting to get T.I.A. pregnant. That wasn’t entirely untrue, but it wasn’t a priority. Realistically, Heather would probably want to take up that charge herself, helping her AI friend have Hawthorne’s baby.


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