I looked over the plant design I was trying to rough out on the back of a placemat whilst dining with my harem.
A paper placemat? In a habitat pod? That was riding on the back of a big cargo ship floating next to an asteroid?
Yes, I'm an engineer. I always want something to write on, so I make sure that meals at the table includes paper placemats. Additionally, I have a replicator make me a new fountain pen along with the usual ink cartridges when I misplace one. I have no idea where the ones I lose keep going. I know my ... companions ... don't know where they go.?
Companions? Well, Slaves ... or Drones ... or Concubines.
Bullshit! In my heart of hearts I felt that I had five wives who I was insufferably happy with ... and not an in-law in sight! I was comforted by their quick comfort with me given my foibles and idiosyncrasies. It wasn't hard to adapt to each of their idiosyncracies. Never step on toes that are attached to a butt you may need to kiss, some day...
... or the same day, for that matter. All of them had delectable little butts, too.
All right, so I am an engineer, which means that aesthetics tend to be less important than for most people. For an engineer, well, form should follow function ... but these women did ask for cosmetic changes I had no problem approving. While their looks may not matter a whole lot to me, their happiness with the bodies they inhabited was important to me. Happy unworried faces and smiles from my companions goes a long way to keeping me happy and productive. Me contributing to their happiness any way I can goes a long way in keeping them happy and productive. The flow of happiness this way qualifies as a feedback loop.
Yes, legally, my five "wives" were effectively slaves, but, with the way I felt about all of them, it could be argued that they each owned an appreciable fraction of my heart. The bonds may be invisible, but, remember, there are always two ends to every chain.
Misery, like happiness, has its own feedback loop. Misery is nowhere near as pleasant to live in. Been there, done that...
While the Confederacy AIs do not consider any of my "wives" to be "citizens", I could not be the man I was, in a job that used more of my creative juices than any of the earth-bound jobs I'd held in years, if it weren't for their support, understanding ... and love. They'd watch over my shoulder and ask questions about my work, and, often, taking up the "I'm making believe that I'm a Blonde" mode, the process of answering questions and, often, explaining the answers, would usually snap a problem into focus for me, suggesting a collection of answers.
There were times I wished that I had skills enough to help them more in their activities.
I had long before learned that questions are often far more valuable than an answer. Why? Because a good question implies multiple answers! Doing any kind of systems or process analysis is often a study in finding the "right" questions to handle various priority schemes. On earth, money always narrowed down the number of "acceptable" answers.
In the Confederacy Space Navy's Construction Corps, the closest thing to the SeaBees, money is no longer the worry it used to be; now, economy was measured in energy consumption and time. For once we engineers had the opportunity to do things right instead of twice!
Like the problem I was fighting at the time this story began. The big replicators I was managing were each digesting metals-rich asteroids and using the materials to extrude new habitat pods. On one end they chewed up the asteroid while the other end gave birth to a pod ... as well as streams of the unused materials present in the raw feedstock. We had to use various tractor and pressor beams to manage this extra "slag" along with stabilizing the extruded pods. I had, just that day, roughed out a job for another replicator to use that slag and assembled ingots of "useful" materials, though I didn't have a "free" replicator to do so.
Don't ask me why the Confederacy replicator-based manufacturing facilities use nanites throughout, from the intake to the pool that extrudes the finished product. It was one "monolithic" device that the AIs managed to make layers of material, over and over, to assemble, using thin slices, the final product.
Our biggest problem was that pod production via the large replicators was slow. It could take almost a day for a single replication unit to extrude a pod as the replicator took in the chunks of asteroid ... and I had ten replicators working at the same time.
Yes, as I implied above, we used replicators for this job. With the shortage of labor—and the additional amount of supervision robots would need—we didn't have a means of assembling pods from subassemblies that would likely be faster to fabricate using the big replicators. Either way, we were short on manpower.
These replicators, though, were "standard" off-the-shelf units from the Confederacy, though, admittedly, these would have required some pretty large shelves. Somehow I do not think these would comfortably fit on any of the shelves that can be found in a Costco or Sam's Club.
Imagine, if you will, a tuna can twenty seven meters in diameter and six meters thick ... with pieces of an asteroid going into one end to bring raw materials in and a new pod budding off from it on the other end. As pods get completed, they get placed onto the outside of the freighter my pod is attached to. This was the seventeenth pod transport I was stocking since I had arrived in-system over a year before, and, when it was fully loaded, my pod would be detached and be left floating until the next empty transport arrived to collect a set of empties. We had one more day and the transport would be leaving my pod floating here, though we would be docked to what I called the "Service Module" which gave us power, gravity, raw materials and more AI compute power. Without that extra support pod we'd have been a lot more anxious. By the time the transport arrived we would usually be thankful for the company and an opportunity to step out of our pod.
I was sketching out—again—a flow-chart of the pod production process, trying, vainly, to find a way to get more pods out of them in a shorter period of time. I had already—with two of my concubines—found a few minor efficiencies that helped productivity which we had passed along to other pod production specialists. You can bet that I wasn't stupid enough to not take advantage of some of their insightful tricks that came our way.
Looking at the problem—again—all I could see was that there was no way we could keep up, over the long term, with the way the diaspora of Earth kept scaling up. We weren't far from falling too far behind and I knew that we were getting close to becoming the critical path holding back the evacuation of the earth.
Engineers, if you don't know already, don't like to be in the critical path for anything.
"Hon," Joanie asked me, "Why are you so tense?"
I sighed. "We're less than two months from falling behind in production of pods. I've seen the schedules for the expanded rate of extractions and the demand for pods needed on the new transports—especially kilopod transports—is going to go up at an incredible rate. We've got less than two months before we can't provide enough pods. I've been trying to push the production rate up but there's only so fast these replicators can work, even with the tweaks we've made through the AIs."
Joanie has been a jewel to me, she always asks good questions. She—and Holly—had been two student interns working with my company when I had been extracted while out for lunch near a construction site. I was sure both of them would get past the 6.5 CAP line on their re-test, when their next birthday came around. While I would miss them when they went off to head their own families, at the same time, I had some pride in both of them. One complicating factor in all of this was that they were both in their third trimester and expecting to deliver within another two months.
Pam and Tam—originally Tammy—had been chosen at the pick-up site. They were an easy choice since both of them were mothers with children. Paula, Pam's thirteen year-old daughter, came with us as a "child", and, on turning fourteen with a 5.8 CAP, became my fifth wife. Paula was due to turn fifteen in another four months but would deliver her first child within the month.
I will admit that being a "daddy" is not something I had felt I would be comfortable with, but, like any project, felt that I was learning to enjoy the process of raising children along with a lot of the duties that came with it.
All right, so I cheated. Working with the AI we developed a much more efficient diaper that would not merely hold larger loads but would better isolate the child from irritation. I later found that my design spread through those in the diaspora like lightning.
With Pam and Tam handling the children like it was first nature (they proved they were far more competent as mothers than wives, but, to be frank, at least they did not mind the exercise required to get pregnant) we had, even being hip deep in children, a happy and pleasant home.
Perhaps it was because we were hip deep in children that we could have a happy and pleasant home, for the children were often a joy to deal with, taking me away from thinking about my job, or, at least, giving me good distractions. Mind you, my mind wandered back to work, on and off, and sometimes got stuck there. Dealing with my children—and the ones I had inherited when I took on Pam and Tam—helped to let my subconscious grind away at the technical problems I spent a lot of time dealing with.
Being a father is odd, too, since, being an engineer, the joke that engineers use their personalities as a contraceptive may have had a lot of truth in it. That I managed to find women who could stand me for more than five minutes at a time seemed, here, like a miracle, especially since we could not get far from each other.
So, back to the flow chart I was scribbling and worrying over. "Actually, why do you have the replicator as one block and the refining and extrusion processes inside that block? Wouldn't it be better if you fed one of the replicators refined feedstock?"
I sat back a bit, looking at the drawing that had kept me from finishing the plate of spaghetti and sausage. "Hmmmm..." This was an interesting thought.
Pam startled me, then, by putting a fork with a piece of sausage in front of my mouth and directing me with "Open wide..." It was easy to humor her as she decided to feed me while I looked at the diagram. I thought about this as I chewed the third fork-full.
Holding up my hand to forestall Pam's next forking of food to me, I said "We would have to get production way up to do that. How do we do that?"
"Hon" Holly jumped in, "The replicators you are managing are a lot wider than the pods being produced, right? Even though the extra ... uh ... slag ... gets extruded with it. How long would it take to replicate a replicator of the correct size?"
Talk about not seeing the forest! The tree just bit me on the ass! Why didn't I try to replicate extra replicators to boost production? Hell, why didn't anyone else handling this job think of it?
I consulted "my" AI and got a reassuring answer of "Approximately six hours and seventeen minutes."
"So", Holly spoke again, "Why don't you make just one of them to start and then tell one of the big cans to just mine and refine the asteroid and turn just the materials needed for pod production to be fed into the smaller replication unit? You've been banging your head on the replicator ... and Joanie and I have been wondering if replicators could be set up to run like an assembly line instead of being the whole line."
Pam returned to feeding me while I closed my eyes and through my subvocalized thoughts flashing to and from the AI, getting visions back in my eyes from the "eyes-up" display the nanites had installed, I worked through the suggested techniques. It didn't take long to work out the "pipelining" of refined materials between tandem replicators. I found removing the job of refining the elements from the raw feed that the smaller replicators could turn out almost three pods a day.
After seeing how that worked out, I wanted to kick myself for paying attention to a small stand of trees lamenting over a lack of a chainsaw rather than paying attention to the whole forest. Obviously Holly and Joanie had had an advantage by not working, like me, "on the line". By not having to monitor and manage the production of pods afforded them, as a team, to consider issues I was too busy—and distracted—to deal with, myself. There were changes I needed to make.
Dinner was done before I returned the rest of the way to reality. Tam spoke up "Hon, I'm over-due to start my next baby. Can I drag you to bed?"
I sure didn't mind and Tam sure kept me busy enough that I didn't think about making any changes to the replicators until we were undocked, again, the transport leaving with a full complement of empty pods. Given how much fun Tam and I had together I was almost hoping that the AIs were fucking with us and that Tam's fertility was not assured. I sure enjoyed the exercise.
When I wasn't busy bouncing on a bed with Tam or cuddling the gravid women in my pod, the AI and I discussed what was needed before we took one replicator off the line after finishing a pod, started to make a new replicator "in a drum". Once the new replicator was ready to go the larger unit was given new marching order to refine chunks of the asteroid we were eating in to the feedstock that the pod production replicator would use ... and nothing extra.
The simulation I had run of production rates was off given that a lot depends upon what the raw feedstock was made of. Instead of the predicted rate of just over eight hours per pod, we were seeing six and three quarter hours per pod. By the end of the second day I had more than caught up with pod production for the replicator I had diverted. The third day I had the AI tell the other nine replicators to follow the programming I had made and create new "finished product" replicators ... and go into the refining business.
On the fifth day I was up to my ass in new pods and was not far from having to start on a new asteroid, so I fabricated extra sets of the smaller replicators, put drive units on them, before setting them to refining the asteroid and forming ingots of metals and encapsulated volatiles.
Speaking of volatiles—hydrogen, nitrogen and the like—we had an automated station in the outer system collecting material from comets. We'd get a package from that station every day with everything needed to stock our production with atmosphere and organics. We had to divert some production capacity to expand the number of collection units so that we could keep up with the demands for volatiles imposed by a need to put water and atmosphere into the pods we were making.
In order to find time to do some of the planning for the future, I had Joanie managing the refinery while Holly handled the allocation of the refined materials so they could be fed to the next stage of pod production while we built up an array of replicators that would allow pod production to be ramped up.
Discussions with my two former interns turned concubines covering all of the productivity issues we still saw indicated that we needed some kind of infrastructure to hold everything in place ... and Joanie commented that we had a shitload of diamond fibers and nanotube material refined from a chondritic rubble-pile asteroid that had, for the most part, been consumed. When Joanie showed me the ship she had sketched in with a ring of pods around the middle of the tall drum, I was pleasantly surprised. A ship one hundred twenty meters in diameter would not qualify as "small" but it was, for the most part, empty space. The drive units went around the outside of the main drum structure, the refinery units could be sent into whatever body was being mined for material with tractor beams to bring the materials to the main set of replicators.
It didn't take me more than a week to see why Joanie and Holly had managed so much—they had not been concentrating on day-to-day operation of our production plant. Given my chance to work out larger problems, I had the two of them operating the existing plant while I worked with the AI to iron out the bugs in Joanie's first cut at a ship.
Well, I called it a ship, but it was more like a mobile manufacturing plant, albeit one composed mostly of replicators.
This new ship was fully designed by the time the next empty transport arrived from Borneo on its way back to Earth. We docked our pod only long enough for Paula to give birth in their medical bay before filling all of the other pod racks on the transport. Paula's birthing of our first child, a daughter, went well, and I had to admit that holding the newborn was calming. The transport, instead of staying the usual week for us to finish making and docking pods, left within a day ... and we were still two transport loads ahead in pod production with thirty two pod extruders running simultaneously. The transport left with our suggested modifications to the production system—and the "ship" design-- for forwarding to other pod production sites as well as the Construction Corps of the Navy.
With thirty two replicators dedicated to producing pods and twenty four keeping them fed with refined materials, I used the original ten we had arrived with to assemble the parts of the ship and replicated, from pre-existing patterns, the "standard industrial assembly" robots needed to put the pieces together for us.
A change I made to Joanie's brilliant first cut to the ship design was to add an extra pod ring around the circumference of the drum to provide for extra pods, including nine fusion pods, three AI pods for maximum capacity to handle replicator workloads, three command and control pods giving me redundant workplaces outside my habitat pod, three medical pods ... and placed enough of the newly produced habitat pods to fill the rest of both rings.
Pam and Tam thought the design, when I showed them the holo, was ugly as sin. This didn't bother me—engineering and aesthetics have never mixed well—but I did get some input from them as to how it would look.
All right, so it was still kind of ugly, from their point of view.
Once built, I have to admit that it was reassuring to have a "ship" to dock our home to so we weren't drifting as a loose pod around in space. Pam pressed us to convert one of the new pods to function as a "rec" pod ... which was easily dealt with. We quickly had a lot more living space so we weren't constantly up each other's ass.
Each of the three command and control pods included a hypercom so we were finally tied back into the interstellar communications network. Having transmat pads was intended to be helpful when colonial transports arrived.
I had made certain, when we passed the new production scheme up the food-chain to the Construction Corps' command, that both Joanie and Holly got credit for their innovations, certain that they would, within six months, get their own ability to start their own families.
When a kilopod transport arrived to get a collection of empty pods the crew were surprised that they didn't get any downtime waiting for pods to be completed. We had, on hand, over twice as many pods available than they needed. It still took four days to get them all docked and I realized we needed more tugs to move them around. I conferred with Joanie and Holly to work out the best "configuration" for a robotic "tug" before we set aside a replicator to turn them out.
We had another kilopod transport arrive a week after the last one left and we found that we were still well ahead of demand, even at this rate of consumption.
Three kilopod loads later, I was working in the primary command pod on the ship I had named the "Reproduction Services" when I got a call in via the hypercomm.
"I have a message coming in from Commodore Humphreys, Moreton colony in the Borneo Naval District" the AI chimed.
"Put him through" I said, waiting for the beep indicating that the connection had been established, and continued "Commodore Humphreys?"
"Commander O'Keefe, I have a report here that you have managed to upgrade your ability to manufacture pods to a much greater degree than we expected. I received this from the Construction Corps headquarters and have talked to people here about what you are doing. Is there any way we can use this technique for weapons assembly?"
I sat back in my chair and put my feet up on my desk. "I see no reason why we can't, all we need are the patterns. Please realize we have little in the way of fissionables in this system so we can't make nuclear or thermonuclear weapons without a lot of lead time, but we can certainly provide missile bodies with propulsion. We could allocate some of our resources to manufacture systems to make antimatter but I'm not sure how much lead time we'd need before we would have adequate quantities."
"Well, Commander, we primarily need kinetic kill missiles, launchers, plasma gun mines, railguns, railgun slugs..."
"Commodore, just get the patterns to us and we'll see what we can do."
I heard the pause. "Us? We? I thought you were operating alone out there."