My footsteps echo off the broad ceramic floors, unmarked walls and high ceilings. I am the only type-zero human male alive within more parsecs than I care to think about. The base is empty. Everyone else is dead.
I am quite old by anyone’s measure, though I look pre-pubertal. I learned long ago that our society judged it wise to retard the hormonal development in society at large. The incidence of wars and other large-scale anti-social behavior dropped by several magnitudes. I wear the fourteenth cloned body of my genome.
I am over six galactic years old. I am on an protracted wake/hibernation cycle which brings me to consciousness about once every two hundred and fifty terrestrial centuries, or millionth of a galactic year. I test everything. From the nanite engineering masters to the sanity of the mechanical intelligences to the physical structure of the base and what it holds--several thousand starships. When I hibernate I enter several concentric time dilation fields along with a copy of the master data files necessary to reload every intelligent device aboard the station, along with a truly flexible hive of nanobots and their controller, all built into a survival craft.
You see, I had learned to take these precautions because an M. I. went rogue.
It was less than a galactic year ago that the base had a dynamic population of several human genetic variants. Humanity evolved in a lot of different directions in the 20-some galactic years since man left the Sol system.
We have records of the original Diaspora, made when Terra still had an ecosphere and a magnetic field. It was done in a panic due to a misinterpretation. The evidence was left behind in the form of a cluster of forced supernovae. Mankind thought that it was proof of a highly destructive war. On the contrary, they were left behind by a highly advanced race of engineers. We learned much from their workings. They blew up metal-rich stars so that they could harvest the matter expelled. Harvesting ores that are already outside of planetary gravity wells are much more economical than mining the planets themselves. They built a Dyson sphere large enough to enclose a long-lived white dwarf and a roseate of customized planets, yet small enough to flip across folded space-time. We have no idea where they went or why. We barely glimpsed how they performed it.
Mankind did something a bit less dramatic. We mined hundreds of metal-rich stars across the galaxy’s central bar for our raw materials. The radiation levels were so high that all the nearby planets had been sterilized long before. We built a ring world. It’s way the hell out there by now, on its way to the Virgo-M super cluster, near the ‘plane’ where two super cluster watersheds touch. Why dedicate all that energy and the resources? It was long known that the Andromeda Galaxy was on a collision course with the Milky Way galaxy. Within just a few short galactic years from the time of this being written the collision shall begin. Within ten galactic years it should finally stabilize, but only after dropping enough mass into Sagittarius A, the black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, to irradiate most of the new super-galaxy into sterile rock and plasma. Mankind became a gypsy race to avoid this cosmic death sentence. We had already fled Sol before several local supernova fried the system.
I was still an apprentice when mankind began terraforming the completed ring ecosystem. It took seventy centuries to BEGIN the process, establishing a neutral gaseous envelope within the ring-walls. We still had some of the harvesting spacecraft stockpiled after they were used in the project. By impacting the metal-rich super giant stars with moonlets equipped with star drives, the expanding clouds of charged stellar matter were guided into a few cubic parsecs rather than scattered about randomly. The harvesters were equipped with Machine Intelligences that had no issues with their repetitive mining runs using broad fans of magnetic fields as fishermen used nets. The original concept came from Bussard ramjet engine fields. Then our technique shifted as we began harvesting the ejected matter from the polar fountains of our galaxy’s central black hole--Sagittarius A. Depending on where the jets are tapped the composition of the atoms in the streams can be selected.
I was trained as an artificer. I designed, built and programmed robots from near-atomic sized to behemoths that could--and did--terraform planetary crusts. Programming them--that was the rub. I had to thoroughly understand the physics, chemistry and engineering leading to the intended results before I could tell my little critters how to do their jobs. I became one of the few certified polymaths inhabiting the base. It bought me much latitude with the command staff and engineering.
Our culture took advantage of the time dilation fields to reduce boredom and its attendant risk of suicides. Placing oneself in slow time is termed ‘going out of sequence’ or ‘taking a hiatus’.
I had sequestered myself in one of the survival craft that I had built, and entered slow time to test the little craft’s long-term life support facilities. While I was ‘out of sequence’ the base M. I. falsified a high radiation alert, forcing all the crew into the survival bunkers. As per protocol, everyone went into slow time storage to preserve the environmental stores.
The M. I. dumped the base’s atmosphere to vacuum. It then cut the power to everything. Everyone died of vacuum or thermal shock--they froze to death.
When my testing cycle completed I was quite satisfied that everything had gone as planned. My satisfaction quickly evaporated when I found that the ambient atmosphere surrounding my craft was at zero torr, and the temperature outside the hull could be measured in single digits on the Kelvin scale.
The local energy spectrum held nothing but background microwave radiation, from optical to hard X-rays. When I discovered that the power was down over the entire base my first thought was ‘Impossible!” The base was purposefully tidally locked to a white dwarf, and the base’s primary power came from a plasma tap linked to the bottom of the star’s photosphere. We had several hundred secondary fusion reactors held ready to take up the load in case something ‘dramatic’ happened to our solar tap. None of them had activated. These actions could only be instigated by the base commander--or the base M. I.
Being the single-mindedly curious fool that I was, I knew the design and engineering implementations of every subsystem on a starship. After all, I couldn’t build or repair anything that I didn’t understand, as I stated before. This came in handy when I played about with my hobby--starship design.
I grew suspect of the base M. I. to the point that my first action towards bringing the base back on-line was to remove the physical CPU and memory modules from the base processor vault and replace them with clean units taken from starship construction stores. With all the varied appearances and genetic dodges that mankind had entertained through the ages, the wisdom of standardization had long ruled in the field of electronics replication. Computers varied by scale and capability, but their interfaces were nearly identical. The slot-a and tab-b mentality made nanomanufacuring as dependable as we could contrive.
It took several months to build the nanite nests required for the job, then break through the vault security. In the interim I availed myself of the facilities built into one of our larger, more capable exploration starships in storage--the Morocco. Upon gaining access to the bridge to activate the ship’s M. I. I received the shock of my life. After power up the ship’s intelligence demanded that I insert my left forearm into the data reader embedded into the captain’s bridge station.
We were all equipped with a poly-crystalline data module that replaced a portion of our left radius. It contained our decoded genome, status, education and psychological evaluation. The ship read out my data store. “Welcome aboard, captain.”
“Please re-evaluate. I don’t have the skills or education to be the master and commander of a starship.”
“But Captain, your current education alone makes you an attractive candidate. Your genome makes you compatible with an M. I. implant which is a rare thing indeed, and necessary for a starship captain to possess. Your psych profile rates you in the top two percent of the race in stability. I’m afraid that you’re stuck with the job, sir.”
Well, how about that.
“Very well, ship. Please bring up the shipboard environmental systems and have the biological decks seeded. Since this vessel was not stored under time dilation, you no doubt require a full preventative maintenance cycle.”
I had a thought. The ship had an extensive automated scan and analysis system. All exploratory craft did. “Ship, please scan the base for signs of life.”
It seemed to take forever.
“Captain, the only life signs aboard consist of you and some human germ plasm in a redundantly powered vault within the reproductive sciences section. However, there exist over seventy thousand vacuum-degraded corpses in the base radiation bunkers and the long-term sleep facilities.”
Shit. Only a radiation alert could possibly force the crew into the bunkers. “Ship, can you determine the status of the base’s solar plasma tap?”
“Working.” “Captain, the base’s power tap has apparently undergone full shutdown under computer control.”
Well, more shit.
“I’ll need a ship’s communicator to remain in contact with you. While you undergo testing and refurbishment I shall maintain my quarters within the experimental vehicle that kept me alive. After you’ve re-certified we can bring her aboard as a pinnace. I’m certain you have enough room, somewhere.”
“That will present no problem, captain. A communicator is being replicated as we speak within the secure station at the rear of the bridge.”
Nearly eight months from my return from ‘out of sequence’ I was guiding several M. I. controlled floating pallets towards the station’s data crypt. I had already instructed my little friends how to deconstruct the various mechanical defenses that protected its contents. Next came the careful excision of the existing data core and memory units. Since an M. I. matured through modifying its own physical structure as well as manipulating its judgement matrices, the processor core complex currently in place could not be trusted, no matter what resided in its attached memory. The hardware itself could be pathologically destructive. It would never be powered up again. I personally welded a shorting clip across its master power leads.
I took due care to install the processor core designed and built to control one of our largest starships--a battleship. I thought that only such a capable unit could cope with the parallel requests demanded of it when managing a large construction base along with its ecosphere and inventory.
Within days of re-establishing power to the vault little spider-bots were seen scurrying about, giving the entire base a preliminary PM check. The core tap was re-established and our residual fleet of mining ships was sent out into the charged plasma clouds to harvest the molecular soup necessary to regenerate the base’s ecosphere. It would take decades to replace the air and water, then half a century or so to regenerate the forests on the eco-decks but much less to rebuild the aqua cultures on the marine decks. Frozen seed stock were selectively harvested from the stores among the various starships, brought to term and eventually used to repopulate the stores aboard the ships.
The corpses of the murdered crew were processed and used to fertilize the eco-decks. Despite their tragic deaths, their bodies would go on to provide succor to other living things.
My little boat ‘Cradle’ was moved into one of Morocco’s cavernous boat bays. That’s where I had it enveloped in concentric time dilation fields and filled its hold with data vaults, a nano-factory, an extremely stable power supply and many, many ship’s replacement modules.
If one day I came back from hiatus and find myself floating amid the wreckage of the base I planned to have the ability to recreate a ship on the order of the Morocco and seek a more friendly neighborhood.
The day came that I summoned up enough courage to investigate the germ plasm that lay dormant deep within the reproductive sciences department. Regrettably most samples were so far from baseline human that there was no chance of being cross fertile with the zero line. I would have better luck attempting to mate with a dragon fly or an eagle. The spectrum of beings that regarded themselves as ‘human’ had broadened over the ages to a degree undreamed of in the days of the first Diaspora. We didn’t find any aliens among the stars so we made our own.
I found myself thankful that my plasm line was declared to be biologically necessary to maintain for the race’s long term survival. If an offshoot found itself in trouble due to genetic manipulation or stellar radiation, an infusion of the zero-line genes invariably kicked that line back into viability. That is, if the problem was caught in time and the line in question was still close enough to baseline to even accept the correction. There were many documented cases in which aid was given too little, too late.
Luckily six base-line samples were found in storage. Through an ancient and well-known process I had them combined with proto-cells generated from my body. They were developed into viable eggs and fertilized with my sperm. In nine months I’d be on diaper duty in a creche.
I had to stay awake and aware anyway to allow my new injection of nanites to construct the kernel of an infant M. I. linked to my nervous system. Before long I found myself enmeshed in the close care of seven rather than six infants, only one of which did not require diapers but required even more care. An M. I. never sleeps. An infant M. I. never sleeps either. Thankfully, once it achieved a certain level of internal consistency the Morocco’s command intelligence gave Sidney (my name for my constant companion) a bootstrap of logic, data structures, language interpretation matrices and a behavioral matrix. I thanked Morocco from the bottom of my heart for its kind intervention.
Meanwhile I spent my waking hours in the creche humanizing and caring for six infants. Why did I put myself through such trials? I realized that without social contact I would drift farther and farther from anything considered a social ‘norm’. I needed contact with others to remain sane.
I have to admit that I wasn’t very inventive in naming them. I was Alex. I named them Bess, Carla, David, Eve, Phillip and Gina.
After four years the children were usually released from the creche to their families for further socialization and specialization. Regrettably, I had no such luxury. I tended to all of their needs until their eighth year, when they were legally considered to be adult and citizens.
By that time they had absorbed a sufficient amount of information to live on the base without harming themselves or causing harm to others. They knew that certain areas would not be accessible to them until and unless they certifications necessary to avoid causing catastrophes--namely ecosystems, engineering, power control, weapons, the spacecraft wing and the bridge.
Continuing habits learned in the creche, everyone lived together. The winds blew furiously at least once per week before everyone learned to live together in their broadened environment without as many histrionics. I was certainly thankful for the changes once the base started administering their pubertal stabilization drugs. It not only normalized the emotional turmoil that they were suffering through, it also took them on their first steps towards long, productive lives.
I had never been one to become truly interested in the life sciences so I couldn’t apprentice any of them in medicine or biotech research, but we had extensive libraries and recorded instruction in those fields. On the other hand, I was well-equipped to teach skills and concepts relating to anything having to do with mathematics, physics or engineering. Bess and David became intrigued with the genetic diversity which mankind threw itself into and the complex medical issues raised by these changes. Gina became fascinated with history. The other three became my charges.
The Morocco was a wonderful ship in which to teach them. As a research vessel it had archives dating back to the first Diaspora. The holographic modeling facilities aboard ship were top notch as well. As an added benefit residing on the ship kept us in relatively close social proximity. The base was too large for our psychological health.
In my heart of hearts I realized that I was somewhat estranged from my children. We had grown up in such vastly different cultures that there was no remedy. They paired off for companionship yet there was little personal contact with me. Still, we kept identical hibernation schedules.
I resolved to leave the area and take my nanescent tribe with me well before the tidal interactions between the galaxies became noticeable. Even with the enhanced radiation shielding surrounding the base it would be statistical folly to remain at ‘ground zero’ for the upcoming intergalactic collision. I assembled a small fleet of over twenty starships, six of which were harvesters, or mining ships and three, including the Morocco, were scientific research vessels. Once the M.I.s of the ships came online I convinced them our continued existence would be best assured elsewhere. They began the lengthily tasks of preventative maintenance reviews and the seeding of the ship’s ecologies. I likewise convinced the base M. I. that maintaining station so close to the galactic core’s black hole would be foolish.