Aphelion Issue 227, Volume 22
April 2018
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His New Unknown

by Stephen M. Davis

Micah was pulling himself along from the "B" sect, while Dinette was doing the same from "A." There was always some danger of collision at the T, for anyone not paying attention, but the whole crew was now out of g-sus and three days away from orbit, so they were mostly dialed in.

"What's the rush?" Micah called to Dinette as she passed over his head at the intersection without acknowledging him.

"No rush, other than the rush," she said, "but Cap wants to see the whole red team in brief in ten." She'd managed to relay all of this to him while only briefly slowing her pull down the tube's rungs.

Micah wasn't Red Team. He was one of the last, in fact, out of g-sus, not critical enough to wear a body mox while the ship went through various high-gee contortions coming down from its high shelf. The modified exoskeletons were needed because even with artificial intelligence, the ship couldn't be trusted to make it off the shelf under its own direction.

Micah knew that his being pulled out of g-sus in the last batch meant that his decision-making was trusted less than anyone else's, including the ship's.

The bipper went off on his hip. "Conf. 5 min. Station to station." That gave him a start. Only ship-wide emergencies called for conferencing with reps from all stations. Still, five minutes was five minutes, so he didn't have time to meditate on it.

He did a somersault in the middle of the tube, put his feet on the next rungs up to take his inertia, and then pushed off like a swimmer coming off the wall of a pool. With a minute to spare, he was in the conference room--really the greenery, but a room with a large open space for assembly and the various mechs that needed to be parked somewhere when not in use.

Cap began checking off. Then he said, "Those of you who got the call late, thanks for the quick response. I'm going to turn things over to Walt, to lay out what brought us here."

Walt, in a blue top, moved next to the captain. He was holding a remote, with his thumb working the buttons.

"Here's what base is supposed to look like." Everyone had of course seen this more times than any could count. For one thing, it was emblazoned on the tube wall outside Central, so people tended to pass it a dozen times a day.

There were rooms above, rooms below, various generators, the nuclear core, and a nifty gizmo for generating a local magnetic shield. The scale was too small to give the human figures in the illustration any real detail, but it was understood that the people shown were happy and tranquil, and would remain so until they died, and death would occur on base, because there was no "going home." Base was home.

"And here," Walt said, continuing, "is what the actual images look like after we came off the shelf at five a.u., roughly three days out."

Almost everything looked the same, minus the people, of course, and robotic construction was always messier than the illustrations created by architectural engineers.

"What is that area there?" Pete Hoskins, a Red, asked from the front.

"Precisely," Walt replied. "What is it? We don't know, and that's worrisome."

"Could it be something that got added at the last minute?" a Green asked.

Walt smiled at what he considered to be completely predictable questions. "It took two years to program the robots for the job. The bots don't have any functional AI. That would have added too many cherries into the pudding, and nobody would have added anything at the last minute. Not to anything with this many moving parts."

"Walt," Micah asked, "is it possible that somebody up the chain added something in that got approved at some level none of us were privy to?"

"It's a possibility, but doubtful. Adding something without our knowledge that they'd have to know we'd spot on the first off-shelf inspection? That seems dubious."

"Well Walt, what do you think it is?" someone asked.

"I don't know. All I have is a theory about how it is, rather than what. You'll remember that the Zero Group took a more dangerous path out here. Everyone always thinks that's because "more dangerous" means "cost-cutting," but it's actually not that. It got put on that path because it could ramp up the gees and take an extra two months off the journey time. It's why if we went down this second, we'd find a comfortable home, rather than having to live out of the cheddar boxes for a month."

Micah shuddered at the mention of the cheddar boxes--self-contained environmental units that could drive even hardened cosmers to madness, with the sense that one was trapped inside a generously-spaced casket.

"That's another story, though," Walt continued. "My working theory is that, as well as everything was shielded, it still got dinked hard by a radiation storm from 79 Flambaeu--aptly named--which is currently working itself up for a supernova. It got dinked hard enough to mutate something in the write-up. I'm saying "mutate" rather than "corrupt" because whatever was changed didn't kill something in the program. It added something in. Don't know what, as I've said, but it's there to look at."

The Next Day

Micah was back in the greenery as a representative of the Browns, along with a Red, a Blue, a Green, and a Yellow. No one was ever entirely sure what the Yellows did, including the Yellows. There were other personnel as well, some of whom were exotic enough that Micah had never even seen them, much less learned their names. The captain had the worried air of someone who is used to being in command of every situation, and who is watching his ship ground herself on an uncharted sandbar. He also had the eyes of a man who is only awake thanks to a generous helping of pharma.

"We have a clearer idea of what the extra construction is," Walt said. He then stepped back so that everyone who wished to could step forward and observe the images that were now being supplied by the planet's on-sat.

"It's a torture chamber," someone volunteered. There were some gasps, but they sounded to Micah more like the gasps of people coming to an unwanted agreement, rather than of disbelief.

It was certainly clear to Micah what he was seeing. Even in the relatively enlightened twenty-fifth century, the devices he was looking at were devices clearly intended to rend, tear, and crush flesh.

"How is this possible?" the captain asked. "These construction bots have no AI built into them. They just follow a very precise plan."

"We're still working on that, " Walt said. "but it's not entirely true that the bots don't have AI. Pretty much everything down there that is large enough has AI. Its functionality just isn't on. There's too much at stake otherwise. For instance, if we get cooked making it here, the folks back home don't want everything down there to grind to a halt after the base is built. At some point, AI would turn on and the robots would do their best to complete our mission."

The Day Penultimate

Rumors of what was being built on the surface of their new home were all over the ship. The group that had met the previous day had decided on secrecy, but friends and lovers being what they are, complete silence was impossible.

Once again, there was a meeting in the greenery. Walt was absent.

"I regret to inform you all," the captain said, "that Walter isn't with us anymore. He overrode some safety protocols and then decompressed his quarters." This news didn't really come as a surprise in a community where everyone had to live in everyone else's space.

"At first, we thought that some random bit of code had been cooked, and that our base had basically just mutated an extra arm, so to speak, but before Walt departed, he'd looked at all the extraneous code that wasn't baked into the octillion lines needed to build a base on another world. What he found was in the annotations. Apparently, two programmers were working on adjacent sections of code, and they got chatty with one another. At some point, one of the coders wrote a note to his or her colleague. When the Zero Group passed through that radiation bucket that Walt was talking about, one of the brackets got cooked off, and what had originally been an annotation was turned into an open-ended primary command.

"What did the note say?" Dinette asked.

"Surprise me," Cap replied.


"Sorry to pull everyone in," the captain said, "especially those of you who just hit the sack after pulling a double. Now that we're in orbit though, we need to come to a decision, and the decision may be a real shock to the system. I'm sorry about that as well.

"Things have managed to get worse than they were yesterday, when we just had the possibility of being tortured to death upon arrival below. I know, some of us were really hoping that because AI wasn't on, we could simply arrive and dismantle the torture chamber. After all, none of us have any desire to engage in a reign of terror. Two things have come to light, though, that have changed my thinking, and I suspect they'll change yours as well.

"First, we have solid evidence that AI on the ground is not off. Red Team has been poring over the pictures, and the bots modified some other structures to take advantage of some topographical features that they wouldn't have modified if AI were off.

"More importantly, a new device got built at some point since our last gathering. The bots built a juvie."

"What's a juvie?" someone asked.

"A juvie," Cap said, "is a real dark-horse bit of work. The military uses them, rarely, and the super-wealthy as well. They're Delacroix Rejuvenators. Basically, you put whatever mangled bit of flesh you have left of someone--provided the brain is still intact--into a rejuvenator and it happily goes about piecing a person together again. You'd think it would be all the rage. After all, it sounds like possible immortality, and it is, in theory. In practice, though, it's not so grand. The juvie will put skin back for you after all of yours has gotten cooked off in whatever accident or bit of warfare you've been in, but for reasons unknown, there's always residual pain from the initial injury that comes along with it.

"We can all learn to block out a certain amount of pain, but the residual pain is cumulative, meaning every time you use a juvie, the amount of pain you have to block out increases, and because the pain exists as some kind of phantom of the real pain, pain-killers are pretty much useless. There aren't any nerve endings anywhere that need to be blocked. The residual pain just is."

"What are our options, Cap?" Pete Hoskins asked.

"Well, I hate to suggest it, and as I said, I know it's a shock to the system, but I see one choice. Let me just recap though for anyone not following. We descend to the base below. We don't have any weapons. We can't decommission the bots. We're in a base that has a torture chamber built for reasons unknown, but which apparently has something to do with our having commanded our AI servants to surprise us and to surprise us as part of their primary directive. Our AI servants, though, also have in their code all sorts of lovely lines about how they should ensure that any injured human is mended. So conceivably, once they've run us through the torture ringer and mangled and crushed us, they can pop us in the Delacroix Rejuvenator and heal us, so that we can start all over again, and because it's a juvie, and the residual pain is cumulative every time they use it on us, we can look forward to being stark-raving mad inside of three cycles. For the record, I should mention that my psych eval states I'm a control freak with a low pain threshold. All of you can imagine how exciting I find the prospect of being tortured nearly to death by robotic subordinates, over and over again.

"We don't have any weapons, and we don't have nearly enough pills in the pharmacy to allow all of us to take a quiet ride off into the sunset. My suggestion is that we kill all the safety protocols, and then we decompress the whole ship. We'll all be dead in seconds. Obviously, this is something that requires a vote. Those of you who would rather take your chances below are welcome to do so, but even if the odds of my being right are only one in five, I'd rather just chalk this voyage up to misadventure. After all, your chances of getting bone cancer from the voyage are about one in thirty, which doesn't sound that bad until you personally turn out to be the one in thirty. Do you really want to take a twenty percent chance that you'll not only be killed horribly, but that you could conceivably be killed horribly through time immemorial?

"We can't stay on the ship. It isn't built for that. It can't be jerry-rigged to get us home. It can't be jerry-rigged to keep us in orbit. Now that we've arrived, everything is set in stone, and we're on the clock. We either descend inside our descent window, or we slowly starve to death up here, and if you're wondering, no, we can't send a scouting party down because no one considered there would ever be any reason for any sort of scouting expedition, and the landing boats are basically all hard-wired to go off together. We don't have any way of changing that.

"For those who are religiously inclined, consider that you are not committing suicide. So, take comfort in knowing that I'd be murdering you, from the Central hub, and that you're a-o.k. with god or gods or goddesses, whatever your taste may be, and know that our chances were roughly one in ten of being killed in our sleep on the journey out here, so you got a couple of days you wouldn't have gotten otherwise."

It took several more days of discussion, protestations, religious conversions, two aborted mutinies, but in the end, the vote was taken. The crew had been chosen for their ability to face certain death with reasonable stoicism, so it was probably unsurprising that almost everyone voted for murder-by-proxy.

Before the three main hatches were blown with the ship venting its load of air, all of the landing boats detonated their explosive bolts, and the occupied one descended to the planet's surface. Micah stepped out of the craft, followed by Dinette and someone from Yellow Team.

A crowd of bots was there to greet them. Three of them wore silly conical paper hats. One of them blew into a noisemaker which unrolled a long paper tube and then made a kind of whistling noise, and one of them came and took Micah by the hand and guided him into his new Unknown.


2017 Stephen M. Davis

Bio: Mr. Davis was a long-time reviewer at various literary magazines and the San Francisco Chronicle.

E-mail: Stephen M. Davis

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