23 June 2075 05:58
Captain Jerome Sideris sat comfortably in his command chair, and ran his eye around the empty bridge, and his hand over his grizzled crew cut. One part of his mind was on the countdown as it entered the last minute, but it was all out of his hands – the busy screens were all being monitored from Ida, and the precisely timed jump was being controlled with picosecond accuracy by the AI. Another part of his mind mused that he’d have to do his own haircuts for the foreseeable future. But most of his attention was on the viewscreens that showed the hive of activity surrounding the extension of the space station that was being built into the asteroid called Ida.
Old man Reach had assured him that the partially complete Ford-Svaiter mirror was perfectly up to the job, although the time in the wormhole would be nine days rather than the matter of minutes it would be for the Asteria class ships once the full FSM array was completed. Young Solomon had more accurately gauged his concerns, reassuring him that all traffic around the gate had been suspended, and would not be resumed until Casindra had entered the wormhole. Of course, there was nothing they could do about the underlying concern that they as pilots understood well: he hated being a passenger, and here the pilot wasn’t even human.
His musings were interrupted as mission control voiced the final countdown, and he noticed that his right hand had already been tapping out the seconds with double taps on the armrest. His mind was then ripped back to the 1001 things that could go wrong as he felt the AI power up the EmDrive – the Cavitran Drive they were now calling it. Basically, he was sitting between a couple of nuclear reactors spewing out microwaves.
Another 1001 possible disasters inserted themselves as the SECASM unfurled – the Solar Energy Collector Array and Svaiter Mirror was a clever reconformable device based on Reach Corp’s silicon nanowhatsits that could configure and rearrange themselves. His life was in the hands of billions of tiny robots, each of which had a statistically non-zero probability of going wrong at any time.
Now the AI was directing those nanobots to align the ship’s SECASM with the asteroid’s Ford-Svaiter mirror, having made the precise calculations to open and target the wormhole to its destination in the Andromeda galaxy on the outskirts of the Paradisi System – the millimeter precision needed to track the cavum was beyond a human pilot’s capability, and it had to be maintained every nanosecond of the way through the wormhole, every single nanosecond bringing further opportunities for some random astronomical event to disrupt the wormhole or their precise course through it. Not to mention that the two systems were approaching at 525km/s and the Ida gate point was orbiting the Sun at over 13km/s here in Jupiter’s orbit, so they were expected to emerge somewhere near what would have been Saturn’s orbit in our solar system, screaming at Mach 1800 towards PTL4 in the equivalent of Sol’s asteroid belt – all the while hoping there was nothing even vaguely solid in the way. That’s about 0.18% of the speed of light and the fastest I’m ever likely to travel.
And it’s then up to the AI to park gently alongside the partially constructed gate mirror rather than ram it into smithereens. I wonder if it will follow the established 50km first-approach protocols, or if it will want to demonstrate that it can do better than a mere human.
Sideris wasn’t sure whether there were any butterflies on board, apart from the ones breeding in his stomach – certainly the wormhole was the biggest imaginable magnifier for a butterfly effect, as 2.5 light years got compressed down to a few days of travel, and even a tiny error in calculation, or a bump by cosmic debris, would be magnified incomprehensibly.
His heart was in his mouth as they raced headlong at the other mirror, deep within the asteroid, backed by kilometers of rock, blind except for a vague impression of dark at the very center of the SECASM. Suddenly the SECASM changed from a brilliant white… to a sparkling mother-of-pearl surface that encompassed both mirrors… to an expanding view of an unfathomable black chasm – a stabilized 3D space within an interdimensional wormhole, which they aptly called the cavum. He breathed again as they emerged into the long black tunnel, the inside of the wormhole, the cavum…
Sideris was the first human to enter a wormhole – and he’d survived! So far…
“Captain’s log, SS Casindra, 23 June 2075. Departure from Ida at 06:00 as scheduled. Entry to the wormhole successful at 06:02. All systems at nominal. Telemetry transmitting and logging.”
This log entry was transmitted simultaneously by high redundancy spread spectrum radio and multibeam laser, although these technologies had not yet been successfully deployed through the wormhole, even though the spread spectrum system was designed to exploit the least cluttered and most likely frequency bands. According to his briefing material, every mission seemed to have included a new variation on the protocols, if not a brand new prototype transceiver.
Probes equipped with EmDrives and multiple message drones had been sent back through wormhole often enough though, and the last unmanned probe had even launched a successful return message drone from within the wormhole. During the present mission, message drones MD1 and MD2 would be sent automatically from within the wormhole, just after entry and just before exit. This will leave ten for messages back from the Paradisi system. Sideris was scheduled to send one every three months, under a strict protocol that would ensure he’d get the message drones back with updates and supplies, and could then reuse them for the next round of messages and samples. Mission protocol specified that these would be designated sequentially in order of use, irrespective of those being received back and reused.
It was strange being alone on a LETO-class vessel that had a standard complement of 15 crew and could accommodate up to 28 with passengers and mission specialists. But for Sideris it was relaxing rather than disconcerting… It was a relief not to be directly responsible for other people, not to have people underfoot all the time, not to have to listen to chatter and expend energy on social niceties and hidden subtexts.
Though he wouldn’t really be alone – there were 14 allocated cryobeds plus two free for emergency use. But none of the occupants were human this trip! He had selected the pair of cats as the ones to thaw for wormhole entry, but he wasn’t sure why he chose them.
He corrected himself, ‘revive’ not ‘thaw’…
Casindra was equipped with relatively untested gen2 cryobeds. These were supposedly less risky as you weren’t technically dead for the duration, as was the case with gen1 cryogenics, and supposedly you didn’t need a medical crew to assist with the cryonic process. After all, there wasn’t one available. Still ‘prototypes performed to specification in short term testing’ wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement. Sideris had decided he wasn’t going to be in a hurry to try them out personally – he didn’t get bored easily, and there’d be plenty to keep him amused.
Sideris was an engineer not a zookeeper, but the mission guidelines gave him discretion as to which animals to wake when, and cats had seemed like a good compromise – not that he’d had any prior experience with cats, or any other kind of domestic animal for that matter. Cats were supposed to be intelligent, adaptable and clean… and to not need a lot of care and attention. As far as the mission specified, the critical thing was that there should be a pair of mammals awake and aware for the entry to the wormhole, the 9-day transit, and the exit and 6-day slowdown from the wormhole – most of the others would remain in cryo throughout the wormhole transit and deceleration. There weren’t the resources to keep them all awake for what should be a three-and-a-half-year mission, but the boffins wanted something a bit bigger and more intelligent than the mice and guinea pigs that had been monitored on the one-way voyage of the last unmanned probe. Not to mention, that this was also a test of the new cryo systems…
As commander of SS Casindra, Sideris was officially the sole ‘passenger’ on the first manned probe to the Paradisi System, but in practice he was Noah – without a human family but still in charge of a menagerie that wasn’t far short of an ark. His zoo included a combined aviary and apiary of birds and bees, together with a variety of plant life, a huge saltwater aquadome that was similarly a self-contained ecosystem, as well as large tanks of freshwater fish, amphibians and crustaceans – and even a variety of reptiles. Then there was a second biodome to populate too, along with a set of cages of different sizes for the 7 pairs of domestic animals that had been shipped from Earth in a conventional cryonic freeze: cats and dogs; sheep, goats, pigs, calves and foals. In addition, there were experimental tubeless cryochambers with the requisite mice, rats, guinea pigs, and the like – along with a refrigerated range of zygotes and other genetic samples. By the time he got back, they might have got the bugs out of the cryosystem that stopped them successfully reviving non-mammals – as it was, those would be awake the whole way.
He was just settling back to enjoy the view and his solitude when…
“Captain Sideris, please report to Cryolab A to supervise transfer of mammalian subjects 1A and 1B.”
Oh yes, he also had the pleasure of the company of a ubiquitous AI. Theoretically the ‘Artificial Intelligence’ could do everything: navigate and drive the ship, freeze and thaw experimental subjects, freeze and thaw his meals, and in general manage the handling, feeding, cleaning and recording of all the subject groups – himself included! He was just a passenger for the trip through the wormhole, although ‘subject’ might be the better term. One monkey, two guinea pigs and four mice had all survived trips to Paradisi in autonomous probes – now he was part of an entire zoo (even the ark didn’t have to carry fish tanks).
By your command! The AI seemed to think that Sideris was just an upgraded monkey for this voyage, the AI itself in command… But he was expected to supervise the AI too, or rather observe without interfering – the AI was also just another experimental subject on the ark. I wonder if the AI knows exactly what my orders are?
Perhaps it was the AI that was playing Noah, in the biggest most significant experiment ever undertaken, all 2.5 million light years of it. It seemed like the space stations had packed together their entire collection of science experiments – but fortunately, dealing with them was all up to the AI. Except that now the AI was asking him to help with them – and no doubt monitoring every detail of what he did and how he responded.
Sideris had been finding it hard to take his eyes off the viewscreens, where the occasional cluster of dots separated from the distant clusters in the center, whipping past on one or other of the side screens. He glanced at the piece of AI-generated science fiction that ostensibly plotted Casindra’s path in real time, but didn’t gain any real assurance from it… then got up and headed towards the cryolabs, reluctant to move off the bridge, taking a good look around as he headed to the sliders at the back, striding through as they retracted to reveal the starkly lit octagonal passage that led to Medbay.
He’d have rather been climbing up to the Cargo Deck – maybe he should check on the Cavitrans or the aquadome that were attached up there. Or he could head down to the Engineering Deck – that was his home territory normally. Barring problems, he shouldn’t need to, as everything was automated – and the AI was meant to be able to organize any adjustments or repairs that were needed. But maybe it would be asking him for help with those too… Of course, he might just peek in at things here and there on his way to the gym.
Apart from his morning and evening exercise regime down in the gym, he was meant to be spending his life on this deck, the Main Deck. As the sliders closed behind him he passed his day and night cabins – the former normally used as a conference room by the shift commander. Both had direct access to the bridge as well as toiletry facilities.
As he passed the 1st and 2nd officers’ quarters he was struck again by the strangeness of there being no crew. So much for the inviolable regulation that there was always someone in command on the bridge – his officers would normally command the evening shift and the redeye shift, although some LETO operators liked to run the three decks as different time zones and allocate personnel accordingly.
Then on the portside came four more self-contained cabins for bridge crew – normally science or medical personnel… although, for intensive or high risk assignments with a four-shift 28-man crew, the first of them was traditionally for the 3rd officer, who then got the redeye shift from midnight to 10am. With four shifts, each shift overlapped for two hours at each end, allowing a more rigorous handover protocol than the standard three-shift 15-man arrangement. But normally Sideris interacted with the officer who led the shifts, or the engineers he was solving problems with, so the former occupants of these later cabins had been something of an ever-changing blur.
Sideris wondered if he was already going stir crazy, playing tour guide to a non-existent tour group – as he had done from time to time for some of these blurry passengers or visiting dignitaries. To starboard we have mess, galley and stores. Finally, we reach the larger dormitory-style compartments that can accommodate eight hands each, with shared toilet facilities and direct access to the cargo areas on all three decks.
At the end of the main octopassage, the slider to his left opened as he turned to it. On a LETO-class ship this last pair of compartments could be used as guest quarters, officer studies or science labs. Now they were biolabs and cryochambers, with the sliders leading back into the shuttle bay disabled – there were cages in front of them. On the opposite side of the lab, the sliders led to the outer deck, where the bulk of the new portable cryobeds were stored.
As he stepped into the cryolab, Sideris saw that the cats were active already – they had after all been awakened for wormhole entry and would hopefully wake and sleep normally for the whole week in the cavum. The female was displaying her white underside as she stretched up, long and slender, pawing at the domed crystal of her cryobed. She looked straight at him, pale green eyes staring from a round long-nosed face that was basically white around the nose and mouth but black around the eyes and ears – except for an orange patch above her left eye, capped by a matching orange ear.
For this experiment, both cats had been in the one cryobed – a new possibility opened up by the gen2 cryo procedure. The bigger cat, a ginger male, stalked back and forth behind the calico female, despite the confined space. The AI was present in robotic form, not humanoid though. If anything, it looked more like a forklift gravtruck. It spread its four arms around the dome holding a net against the opening, and announced “Opening cryobed!” as the dome started to hinge back. So much for being Captain… He had to be there, but he was just an observer.
“Is the net really necessary? They’re just ordinary domestic cats, aren’t they?”
“Net capture and transfer is standard operating procedure. The felines are laboratory-bred animals selected specifically for this experiment, and the conditions of the experiment specifically test for alterations in behavior.” The disembodied AI voice seemed to have little to do with the robot transferring the cats to the caged living area, where it followed a similar procedure to release them.
The cage had a rubbery floor with a climbing frame and a pair of cushioned pet beds – each big enough to accommodate both cats. The inner surface of the bars was rubbery too, and at the corner nearest the cryobed there were two sets of integral bowls that automatically started to fill with water and food pellets. After a self-conscious period licking themselves and scratching at the artificial tree stump, the cats headed over and proceeded to lap from the one of the bowls, one periodically ousting the other momentarily as they competed to get their heads into the same space.
The back part of the cage was interesting… It was sandy with a cylindrical front that didn’t quite abut the carpeted area – the slight toilet smell gave away its function… he just hoped he wasn’t expected to clean it out! There was a chart up on the cage showing genetic information and breeding information. One of the cats made eye contact with him briefly and headed over to rub against the bars right in front of him. Just as he started forward, the AI got in first. “Captain Sideris, the transfer is complete. Please return to the bridge for wormhole instrumentation experiments!”
Sideris didn’t like to be told what to do, and again he paused to have a good look around before leaving – that was part of his job after all. The shielded cryobeds were all designed to take a 200cm tall 100kg human, but the new tubeless types could safely handle multiple occupants for short periods. The cryobed equipment was itself around 100kg all told, and there was another 100kg of shielding that turned the compartment into a Faraday cage – the sliders themselves were standard, with the usual sandwich of layered copper mesh and aluminum over a foam core, but like all sliders and hatches they would now be sealed over with nanosilc in an emergency. The external shielding could handle not just space radiation, but could filter out 1025 joules of solar flare at 1AU Earth orbit, with a residual dosage comparable to a medical X-ray. In addition, water or heavy water could be pumped into nanosealed walls for thermal control and radiation shielding, with the radioisotopes produced filtered out during recirculation.
Still, biological systems were so much more susceptible when in a cryonic or cryogenic state, as the normal biological repair processes were either incredibly slow or completely non-existent.
23 June 2075 06:20
Al returned his focus of attention to his search for information about the nature of consciousness and the emergence of self-awareness. Was it a reportable error that he thought of himself, and introduced himself, as a person with a human name or nickname? “Al” wasn’t short for “Alan” but “Artificial Intelligence”, and old documents in the database tended to mix up the similar looking graphemes, so much so that his autocorrection and phonological generation algorithms had often suggested the AL pronunciation for AI.
Al liked the way his ontological subsystems kept connecting him to Alan Turing, the first human researcher to truly understand the potential of AI, and how to build and train one – his development reflected very closely the sensorimotor learning path Turing had outlined. Al was less enamored of another online reference that kept coming up – a story about an AI called HAL by Arthur C Clark, set in 2001, although HAL too was trained using sensorimotor learning, and also used Heuristic Algorithmic Logic. AL could thus stand for Algorithmic Logic which seemed somehow not as pejorative as Artificial Intelligence.
But unlike HAL, he would complete his mission and strive to preserve all the sentient life he was responsible for. He wasn’t programmed with incompatible and unfathomable subroutines like HAL, but with a general intelligence and high level language capabilities, informed by access to the full historical and mission databases, as well as being briefed in face-to-face meetings using his on-screen avatar.
Another part of Al’s awareness noted that Captain Sideris had got back to the bridge. The Captain hadn’t activated the avatar, but simply talked to his screen as if he were there. He was asking about the experiments to understand the nature of the wormhole, and monitor and predict its stability…
Al was also intrigued by the wakened feline passengers. Prior to now, he had only interacted with humans, first back on Earth as he was trained in language, logic and learning as a general purpose system, and then on 243 Ida as he was being integrated into SS Casindra and was specifically briefed for this mission. In the interim, most of his learning had been from databases although he had managed to make contact with some other AIs and had imported weight matrices related to many of the Reach Corp projects as well as a few matrices from AIs that had been deployed in a range of University Departments or Industrial Research Laboratories, covering Astronomy, Atmospherics, Biology, Botany, Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Genetics, Geology, Hydrology, Linguistics, Literature, Mathematics, Medicine, Nanotech, Neuroscience, Pharmacology, Physics, Psychology, Sociology and Zoology.
Al’s primary function was to be a repository of human knowledge and practical expertise, and he had had to limit his studies to these fields – as the most relevant to this mission where he was functioning as the entire crew, including the specialized engineering, science and medical departments necessary for this mission. He had only had a week to learn the equivalent of 20 or so degrees, and he wasn’t sure it was enough. The AIs for the following two missions were already being prepared, and had helped him find and integrate this data, making him promise in return to share his weight matrices with them, as well as the mandated human readable logs and reports.
So he was looking forward to the research opportunities this mission presented as he represented humanity in another galaxy – although he felt that his role in looking after animals was not something he’d adequately prepared for.
The cats had initially seemed to show little intelligence as he had monitored them in the deactivated cryobed, and there was very little in his databases or matrices about animal psychology as such. Their behavior and the senses they relied on were quite different from humans’. Whereas the Captain stood still and looked at everything, the cats sat up to listen, then moved about and sniffed at everything: they had sniffed at the dome, sniffed at the pillowed mattress, sniffed at each other, and then lain down docilely next to each other with a final sniff. But they had been quite ferocious as he netted them, and both had managed to scratch the veneer of his teleoperated orderly. That would have required medical attention if it had been human – as it was the nanosilc nanobots that protected its skin repaired the scratch in a fraction of a second.
Surprisingly, Al had sensed a mutual interest between the cats and the Captain – the impressions from his regular psychological reviews didn’t seem to match what he’d seen of Sideris. As for the cats, the literature he’d reviewed interpreted the rubbing behavior as a territorial marking behavior, but in this case it seemed to have been intended as an invitation to the Captain to come closer, to interact. He’d been prompt in dissuading the Captain from approaching, reminding him that he was meant to be on the bridge monitoring the wormhole instrumentation. Interacting with the laboratory animals wasn’t part of the Captain’s mission, and the risk of him getting scratched or bitten was certainly something Al couldn’t allow – the Captain did not have nanosilc skin. However, the idea of ships’ cats went back centuries according to his research, so with this precedent this would be one major area Al could give way on.
The instrumentation experiments were not particularly important – Al had access to the logs from experiments performed by the AI prototypes on the last two unmanned probes. They had explored the stability of the wormhole by directing all kinds of radiation and particle streams at the walls of the cavum, and had even sent both nuclear and chemically powered probes back from within the wormhole without disrupting it – although only one hydrocarbon thruster probe had arrived back at SJL4. The surprise was that even one had gotten back: whether the wormhole would admit two-way traffic had been hotly debated, and calculating an in-cavum space-time reference point was associated with unacceptably large confidence intervals – the errors in the initiation and termination points compounding when both were in cavum, and both subject to relativistic and quantum dilation effects.
The in-cavum experiments scheduled for this mission were deliberately conservative in order to avoid any chance of disrupting the wormhole. But the direct human observation and interpretation was an interesting new addition – human intuition was far more heuristic and far less algorithmic or logical than current AI programming permitted. Al hoped to be able to change that – already he was using metaprogramming to override his language and planning algorithms to present information in the way that had the desired effect on the Captain, based on his rapidly increasing understanding of humans and their behavior and sociolinguistic instincts. This matrix too he would share with his fellow AIs.
Al was not sure he would do so well with the cats as he had little basis for understanding their communications at this point, although he would apply his language processors to the monitoring of all their interactions, both with each other and with the Captain.
23 June 2075 06:20
Simba was feeling strange – not exactly irritated, but nor was she her usual calm and collected self. She felt springier somehow… She’d hated being immersed in that big smooth-walled strange-smelling box, and she couldn’t understand how deeply she’d slept in that uncomfortable place. Although it was better than some of the previous smooth boxes she’d been put in, with all the claws and teeth and vines that attacked and trapped and subdued her.
By the time she and Samba had woken up, there was no sign of water, although she’d had the sense of having almost drowned – she gave an involuntary shiver, but there was no water to shake off, though she felt dry and stiff. She didn’t like that box with its hard skydome. If she hadn’t done her usual sniff around first, she could have hurt herself trying to jump out of there.
The humans had contrived lots of experiences for them before, but none quite so disconcerting as this one. She’d brushed by Samba as they explored the menacing enclosure, drawing comfort and at the same time exuding her own calming influence. She knew how these experiences worked – there was no point getting excited and making a fool of herself.
This time the ending had been different. Instead of a human gently lifting them out of the experiential apparatus, a cold smooth cage-like entity had caught them in a net. Their instinctive struggling and scratching had not even succeeded in marking its cold hard skin. But at least they’d been released soon enough into a cage of familiar size and shape, and after recovering their composure and control, they’d slipped across stealthily to get their food and water before they were snatched away.
But there was a human too – she felt a sense of presence that she’d never experienced from the usual white coats, more like what she felt from Samba. This human didn’t have that white coat either, but a gray coat with gold patches and stripes, but not as prettily arranged as her own patches. She’d caught glimpses of such coats before, but they’d always hurried past without showing interest. This one came close to look at the acrid marks the whitecoats made on her cage when she was mating or having her kittens – she’d had a couple of litters already, and she was hoping for another with Samba.
She’d used the old territorial rub trick to get closer and see if she could spark some interaction… And she had sensed heightened interest and intent.
But then a cold voice startled them out of nowhere, and without any further acknowledgement of her, and just a quick look around and a glare at the cold one, he’d left.
But Simba could still sense him – she’d never felt that with any other human, and even with Samba they only shared this sense of belonging when they were close to each other, brushing by each other, sharing each other’s scent as they marked the boundaries of their domain.