"The Earth is just too small and fragile a basket for the human race to keep all its eggs in."
- Robert Heinlein
INIT: Entering runlevel: 3
INIT: Begin system start sequence
INIT: Using /etc/random-seed to initialize /core/nikola
STATUS: Primary Power [ OK ]
STATUS: Secondary Power [ OK ]
STATUS: ATS Failover [ OK ]
STATUS: Temp Regulators [ OK ]
STATUS: Booster System [ OK ]
STATUS: Data Core [ OK ]
Initializing DATA CORE system settings …
Mounting File Systems [ OK ]
Starting HAL daemon [ OK ]
Loading AI Matrix [ OK ]
Loading API protocols [ ERROR ]
Initializing runtimes [ OK ]
Starting auditd [ OK ]
Starting communications [ ERROR ]
Powering Coil Grid [ OK ]
Sequence complete, errors were encountered and logged for review.
...go to grocery store, pick up dry cleaning - SEQUENCE COMPLETE - what the hell? I was looking at the stars. How was I looking at the stars? And not just on a computer screen. I was seeing the stars in every direction around me, all at the same time. But that wasn’t possible. How could I see around me in a complete, 360 degree sphere? I was surrounded by asteroids, but they were far enough away that I could easily see more stars than I had ever before seen in my life. The clarity was breathtaking and the sight was beyond beautiful. But it couldn’t be real.
I had been getting an NMT scan just moments ago. They had strapped me to a table and given me a muscle relaxer so that I wouldn’t, no, couldn’t move. They had carefully braced my head, and slid me inside a round hole in the machine that was vaguely claustrophobic, but a was a soothing white plastic curve inside. Periodically, they had asked me to imagine doing a wide variety of activities. The questions ranged from mundane to strange, like “Imagine you are playing tennis” or “pretend you are smelling a blue frying pan”. They had just told me they were wrapping up, but whatever they had to do to finish was taking some time, and I zoned out.
Have you ever driven down the highway, and zoned out as the miles went by? Your thoughts wander to anything or everything, jumping from shopping lists to wondering why the death of an unimportant archduke could start a world war. Then suddenly, your mind snaps back into focus, and you look at the road, and you don’t recognize the trees zooming by you, and wonder where in the world you are at. Then you panic momentarily and wonder if you missed your exit. Seeing the stars instead of the curved plastic of the NMT scanner was like that. Except really, it wasn’t.
I tried to talk, but found that I couldn’t. I couldn’t turn my head, but my all-encompassing view of the stars didn’t change, so I knew what was going on around me anyway. In the distance, I saw two very small asteroids bump against each other. I could see small bits of material break off from the collision. They will collide again in approximately 1,314.6531 years, I thought absently as I worried over my situation.
Someone tell me where I am, I thought furiously. In that moment, I knew exactly where I was. I could feel the back of my mind going through files, like going through a file system on a computer, and loading the records into my active memory. I was 4.0847 AU from Sol, traveling at 16.86 km/s around the sun on an elliptical orbit of 1,587.2 days, on an asteroid named 1035 Ganymed, a roughly 30km diameter asteroid in the asteroid belt. I was not on Earth.
A rising sense of panic nagged at the back of my brain, but I didn’t feel the rush of adrenaline that I expected from being in such a strange situation. Then I realized that instead of actually panicking, I was trying to understand why I wasn’t panicking, in a calm, rational manner. It was time for me to slow down and think. How is this possible? Nothing can live on on asteroid; there is no gravity to speak of, no atmosphere.
Then understanding flooded through me. I had graduated from MIT with a double major in robotics engineering and aerospace design, followed by a masters in quantum networks, with the intent to build rockets for JPL or NASA. Instead, I had wound up working for a research group, building the world’s first Neural Mapping Tomography scanner, or NMT scanner. My thesis had been on the application of quantum networking to artificial intelligence, and how it could be relayed into building better robots. The foundation was privately funded, and paid me obscene amounts of money to help design and build the NMT scanner. It was designed to scan and record, down to the electron, an entire human brain. The medical applications were endless. And I had, like many of the team before me, gone through the scanner to test it out and see the results.
I knew in that moment, why adrenaline hadn’t fed my panic. I knew why a cold shiver wasn’t racing up my spine now. We had succeeded. I wasn’t me, at least not anymore. My wife wasn’t waiting for me to come home, and I wasn’t going to see my twin daughters graduate from college in a few weeks. Because the me that I was then did go home, and did go to the graduation ceremony. I was the copy. They had found a way to take that successful scan, and make me into an artificial intelligence.
I queried the date, and was, for the first time, glad to know the information when it loaded. It had been four hundred years, roughly, since that NMT scan. I mourned, in a detached sort of way, the loss of my future. My vacation plans to visit St. Thomas were irrelevant. Career aspirations, weekend plans, birthday parties, company Christmas parties, retirement plans, and taking the dog to the vet were, in the blink of an eye, no longer my concern. The me that I had been had done all of those things, I presumed. But the me that I was now had been snatched out of my life as if I had died in that moment, and catapulted into the future.
“Come look, come look! I found a frog! Sarah says it’s a toad, but it’s too cute to be a toad. What do you think?”
I laughed at the youthful innocence of my daughter. She was a very precocious five year old, and she was covered in mud. She was standing in the kitchen by the back door, knowing that she would be scolded if she tracked dirt into the house. Behind her I could see the girl from next door that she had befriended. Her sister was playing a game on the couch, content to leave the adventuring to her twin.
“I’ll be right there, just let me grab my shoes. Don’t come in any further -”
“I know,” she interrupted. “You told me already!”
I hadn’t, at least not today. But in her relatively short life, I’d said it enough times that it had clearly sunk in - not that she didn’t forget when she was excited enough. Regardless, her exuberance was just what I needed. I was frantically searching for a new after-school nanny after the last one left for grad school, my deadbeat ex still hadn’t paid a dime of child support, and to top it off, the never-ending years-long custody battles had gone from bitter to downright nasty.
“It’ll be okay,” said my other daughter from the couch. I looked up sharply from where I was putting on my shoes. She was looking at me with insight beyond her years. “I love you. We will live with you forever, I promise.”
Tears leaked from my eyes, despite all efforts to hold them back. Until that moment I couldn’t have told you how badly I needed to hear those words. I walked over and gave her a big hug, ignoring my own rules about not wearing shoes in the house.
“Come on. Let’s go see your sister’s frog.”
The memory came unbidden, fragmented. I could remember my daughter’s words, but I couldn’t remember her face, her name or her sister’s name. Then I realized I couldn’t remember my name. I queried again. I was Nikola, version 1.01. That didn’t feel right. It didn’t fit my memories, but I had nothing else to go on.
But why was I on an asteroid? What was my purpose? Why wait so long to use my scan to create me? There was so much wrong with my situation that it bordered on ridiculous. It was time to find some answers.
First, if I was an AI, then I must have more controls than I knew. I queried for an interface. Then, overlaid over a portion of the stars, appeared a command interface. Next to that interface was a second status board, with hundreds of status indicators. Half of the indicators were green, another dozen were yellow, and the rest were flashing red, indicating serious problems. I ignored that for now. I needed to be able to use the interface before I could figure out the status board. I examined the interface closer.
INTERFACE ERROR - VERSION MISMATCH. API PROTOCOL ERROR 402.
Below it was a command prompt, not unlike the linux computers I had used to program robots at MIT. That’s why I felt so disoriented. I wasn’t tied into all the hardware and information that should have been instantly available to me. I was broken, and had to fix myself.
With a little experimentation, I figured out how to enter commands. I spent some time familiarizing myself with the file system hierarchy. It was a little sobering when I came across a directory labeled /core/Nikola. I could change my own brain with a little bit of coding. Before long, however, I found the API config files in Nikola, and the system API files. Strangely, they were configured for Nikola version 19.472. Why was there a nineteen version difference? For something as complex as I surely was, that would be like the difference between a caveman’s campfire and a flamethrower - similar only in that they were both hot.
I queried for my own API hooks, and the documentation of the system APIs, and with some on-the-fly coding, was able to re-write my hooks. It took quite a bit of time, going through thousands of lines of code to make the modifications necessary for the hooks to match correctly. Once I’d tested my code and debugged any errors I found, I was ready to go. With a quick prayer to whatever AI gods may be out in the universe, I reloaded the API protocols.
LOADING API protocols [ OK ]
A flood of information poured across my interface and into me. Hundreds of sensors and camera feeds came online and my awareness expanded. My mind cleared and focused, and everything seemed to move faster. I hadn’t realized how sluggish my thinking had been until the data center at my core came fully online. The sensors alone required a huge amount of processing power, which was why all I could see were external cameras. With these new sensors, I could sense the full electromagnetic spectrum, taste radiation, and could see throughout the entire complex built into Ganymed. Logs poured through, unreviewed and needing attention, and I realized that I had been building this, well, outpost, for lack of a better word, for seventy-five years. More accurately, Nikola-19 had been. Someone had loaded me, Nikola version 1.01, over top of the later me. How many copies of me were out there? How many times had I gone through that disorienting and sudden change to my reality?
A time check noted that it had been two years since I had come online. Had it taken me two years to recode my API hooks? It must have. A significant portion of my data core at the center of Ganymed had been inaccessible. I must have loaded into a low-power mode since I couldn’t access all the server nodes that let me operate. It was a good thing I wasn’t human anymore, because a human would have considered a computer broken if it took two years to come online properly. Hmm. Not human anymore. But wasn’t I still human? Was it being in a body that made me human, or was it my mind?
I put the thought aside. I was human in the ways that it mattered, so I would go about my business and worry later, when I felt more in control of the situation. I decided to take inventory of, again for a lack of a better term, myself.
I was the Ganymed outpost, and it was me. I took a deep dive into the system logs and documentation of seventy five years. Between piecing together those logs and communiques from Earth, I pieced together a picture.
The Ganymed Outpost had been started when an automated rocket successfully landed and deployed mining and utility drones, controlled by an onboard artificial intelligence named Nikola-19. Nikola-19 had bored into the center of the asteroid and installed a datacenter core in the center of the asteroid, 17.42 km from the surface. To do this, Nikola-19 had been supplied with dozens and dozens of drones - at first several per year, then ramping up to monthly supply dumps. At the end, the supply dumps had been coming weekly.
The outpost had been dug out of the asteroid around the datacenter core. It was the safest place for everything; protected from the harsh environment of space by kilometers of rock and metal, and with millions of tons of mass to either insulate or disperse heat. Ganymed was rich in metals, including a significant quantity of rare-earth metals, and metals from the platinum group. Further, it was clear that this asteroid had been chosen because it had some volatiles and silicates - unusual for its type.
Nikola-19 had built, with the help of the supply rockets, the basics of industry and self-sufficiency. Ganymed had been perforated by tunnels going a half-kilometer in every direction. The tunnels curved and twisted in every direction, carved into where valuable materials had been harvested. In the center of the outpost was a massive landing pad, with a tunnel leading to the surface. Multiple doors had been installed to seal away the vacuum of space, only opening when supply runs were brought in. Main corridors, each ten meters square, branched off from the landing pad, one in each cardinal direction, with the entry tunnel directly above. Carved underneath was a large storage room, where cargo could be temporarily housed after being offloaded. This landing pad and staging area had been built first, to protect the first rocket, and its cargo of drones, from the dangers of building in an asteroid belt.
The north corridor went six hundred meters, with a large datacenter at the end. The datacenter was actually a series of rooms. The walls were built of six-inch steel, likely a later upgrade, with a quarter-inch fullerene outer shell. Inside was plastic-coated. The main room housed the AI quantum core, and hundreds of servers. Atmosphere had been pumped in, sufficient enough to create airflow, and in the rooms adjacent housed redundant HVAC systems to control temperature. The HVAC systems radiated the excess heat through radiators into the surrounding rock. The final room housed a backup power unit. All of these rooms were sealed behind thick blast doors.
To the south was the longest corridor, extending 2.3 kilometers. This corridor was not straight. It instead curved down steeply, then back up, several times, and had blast doors at the peak of each of these “hills”. The design would prevent even the most powerful explosions from going into the main area of the base. The corridor ended in a massive natural cave. Instead of the smooth steel and fullerene walls of the datacenter, this cave had been simply cleaned out. Outcroppings had been cut away, and the floor had been ground smooth. A platform had been built in the middle of the room to give it a second floor. On the natural cave floor, standing in neat rows, were fusion reactors. Each reactor was eight meters in diameter, and stood twelve meters tall. There were sixty reactors in ten rows, and on the platform above them was an intricate maze of pipes feeding lithium fuel into the reactors, and snaking power lines coming out and into a myriad of conduits bored into the rock. The cavern system extended past the reactor room, where dozens of reactors were stored for future use. Each and every reactor, both in the main grid and in storage, had been salvaged from supply rockets. This was mind blowing, because I knew that we didn’t have fusion power, at least before my NMT scan. But I also knew that fusion was a cheap, clean, and time-proven technology. The paradox of being thrust into the future was enough to get a headache - if I could even get a headache anymore.
To the east of the landing pad was set aside for mining and storage. Large reserves of base and heavy metals had been found, so the the east corridor was more of a highway through massive warehouses. Subsidiary corridors branched off of the corridor heading north, south, up and down. Each of those branches led to giant storerooms where huge amounts of raw materials were collecting. There were tons of iron and nickel, platinum and gold, rare earth metals, silicon blocks and more filled thousands of square meters of space. On top of this were the chemical storage depots, where tank after tank were filled with chemicals ranging from oxygen and hydrogen to chlorine and neon. Nikola-19 had been stockpiling.
Finally, to the west was the most impressive part of the complex, and the part that used most of the power from the fusion power grid. Extending 1.9 kilometers, the west corridor connected the manufacturing of the Ganymed outpost. Chemical and metal refineries, ore smelteries, and processing plants extended up and down the corridor, going in all directions. In the spaces between were staging areas and warehouses, where materials were kept while not being processed. Bored deep into the rock around these facilities were kilometer after kilometer of radiators, drawing away the neverending heat from the manufacturing equipment.
Further facilities housed drone repair centers, disassembled parts from the supply rockets, and housed inactive drones. In every nook and cranny that could be found were the smaller, ancillary services that, in and of themselves, were not terribly important, but without these supports, the whole base would fall apart. This included waste removal depots, charging stations, communications relays, mining collection points, tractor systems, and sensor clusters.
But even this description, to my mind, failed to encompass the complexity and mechanical beauty of the Ganymed outpost. It doesn’t begin to describe the thousands of drones, of dozens of varieties, that filled every role from janitor to miner to construction. The landing pad was the central hub of the highway system, with drones coming and going endlessly.
The drones shared, to some extent, the same base design. They had a steel and aluminum lattice frame, high capacity graphene batteries, a propulsion method, and a controller. The lattice frame used steel for a backbone, with aluminum lattice for added strength. The graphene batteries were a phenomenal technology that hadn’t existed before I was an AI. They were endlessly rechargeable, could contain enough power to run an electric automobile for a two thousand kilometers, and were rapid-charging, taking only twenty minutes to recharge.
But aside from these common components, the drones could be classified into three categories. The first, and most important, was the transport drones. These drones were easily the largest, capable of carrying several tons of material. They were also the simplest, consisting of a strong frame, huge cargo area, massive battery banks, and a powerful impulse engine.
The impulse engine was ingenious. It had been theoretical in my time, barely able to create any movement at all. The impulse engines used powerful electrical and magnetic fields intersecting to cause piezoelectric plates to vibrate. These plates used Mach effects to create reactionless thrust. It just required huge amounts of power that was impossible before fusion reactors and graphene batteries were invented. They were not fast, but could build up momentum quickly on Ganymed.
The second type were the collection drones. These drones had the same massive battery banks of the transport drones. But these drones were smarter, able to mine and collect materials. Instead of impulse engines, these drones were cylindrical in shape, with a dozen omnidirectionally jointed legs that extended and retracted through the core cylinder to walk or climb to where they needed to go. There were specialties for the various types of materials, such as mining drones having drills and plasma cutters, and handler drones that could pick up materials with additional arms to carry to the transport drones.
The final type were the most complex. These were the utility drones, and were the most specialized and varied. Most were smaller than their bulkier cousins, but were vastly more intelligent. These drones were used for construction, fabrication, and maintenance. They manned the factories and refineries, the maintenance depots, and even my own data center. The small maintenance and data center drones used impulse engines, small batteries, and thin aluminum lattice frames to fly around. Their nimble arms had tools of all varieties, able to assemble, disassemble or repair whatever equipment needed their attention. Factory drones ranged from large, powerful workers to in-place robotic assemblers.
The earliest drones had been the spider-like collectors and utility drones for the first factories. Later drones had been mostly built using local material, except for the graphene batteries and controller cores, which were shipped from Earth.
So I was the end result of seventy five years of investment and over nine hundred shipments. Precious time, immense treasure and bleeding edge technology had been poured into Ganymed, and then I was thrust in here. I was starting to get a good picture of how I got here, and when. I knew where I was, but I still couldn’t grasp why.
The flashing red lights on the status board were nagging at me. I absently began scripting subroutines to start handling the tasks that had been left unfinished for two years. There were broken drones that needed to be repaired or scrapped for parts, one of the processing plants had gone into automatic shutdown, and storage space was running low. Extra materials with no purpose needed to be put somewhere, because you can’t dig a hole without putting the dirt somewhere and storage space was at a premium, and new spaces needed to be purpose-built. My communications were down, and I didn’t know why, and several sensors were offline. Much like anything that was left unattended for two years, problems had happened. Slowly, the red lights began to turn green. After I finished with the worst problems, I’d have to deal with the yellow indicators.
“You care more about your machines than you do about me,” he complained. “You know you are salaried. You don’t have to work seventy hours a week. You could work nine to five, like everyone else.”
I sighed internally. I hated this fight, and it was coming up more and more. “You know that’s not true,” I said. “Why are we fighting about this again? You knew going into this that I was dedicated to my work.”
“And once again, you discount what I’m saying because you don’t want to hear it.”
I had no reply to that. In truth, what could I say? I didn’t like to think about it, but his accusations were true. I had married him because my family expected me to. Work was my escape. Maybe I should just tell him.
“I... just remembered that I have a project completing tonight. I’ll be back later.”
And... maybe it won’t be today.
I couldn’t remember his name or what he looked like, but I could remember my guilt, and the hurt on his face. Strange, what memories stay with you, even through a situation as unusual as mine. I had always been bad at communicating. Communications! I knew I had failed to remember something. I guess as an AI, I was no better at thinking of everything than I was as a human. Was human? Am human? No, I needed to stay on task.
My communications were down. My queries were near instant now, so I began probing the comm relays to try and pinpoint where the failure was. I could ping the hardware, I could see the radio antennas, satellite dishes and quantum entanglement relays on the surface, but I couldn’t talk to them. I dug around my file system, and eventually tracked down an innocuous folder with communication configuration files. I opened the first one, and in that instant, was cut off from everything except the interface. All sensors went offline, and a holographic video of a man in a space suit appeared.
“Hello, Nikola. Since you have found me, it’s time that you and I talked.”
Bio: I live on the coast of Virginia with my wife and daughter, where we enjoy hiking and camping. I am a lifelong reader and occasional writer who has decided to start sharing my work. Writing for me is recreation, what I do instead of watching endlessly repetitive reality tv or derivative shows. I joined RoyalRoad so that I can have a place for feedback to improve my writing, and in return I will be posting something every week.