Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Fly Me to the Moon

Copyright 2016
All rights reserved
Mark R. Morris Jr.

Ardy Schaeffer stepped down from the shuttle; the ground was surprisingly familiar, with a pungent spring-like aroma of growing things. She had not expected that. She was on special assignment from the blog desk of the Universal Courier, and Moon Colony Orion would be her home for the next 24 hours. She looked up.

She’d been warned in her briefing, not to expect views of earth from this point, but high above her head; the crystalline carbonite dome did a remarkable impression of an earth sky, lighted evenly from horizon to horizon in a pale blue. She knew, from the vidscenes she’d watched the night before, that just on the other side of that inches-thick, nanobot-constructed shield, the vast gulf of infinite space spread out in all directions.

An officious looking man, just a little shorter than Ardy was moving aggressively up the gangplank, his hand outstretched to shake, about three steps before he arrived. She thought about removing her glove, but decided she shouldn’t take any chances on bringing home a plague of some sort. It was the moon, after all, you never knew.

“Ms. Schaeffer, we are so pleased to have you here, welcome to Orion. Today, we’ll be giving you a tour of our A I labs, and you’ll get to meet a few of the students who are preparing for the next hop. I’m Arthur Funke, headmaster of Deep-Space Academy. I’m in charge of testing new A Is to see where they’ll fall in our training program. I am authorized to provide you with the answers to every question.”

Arthur took her hand, much gentler than she had expected and lifted it just a bit, bowing his head toward her slightly, and for one awkward moment, she though he intended to kiss it, before he let it go and spun on his heel. He looked at her expectantly, her cue to follow; she assumed. Ardy reached into her shoulder bag and pulled out a soft covered notepad and pen. She was hopelessly old fashioned, but she loved the feel of pen on pages.

Truth be told, it was all about crossing things out. It gave her a sense of power to edit with a pen, as if she were issuing death sentences to a sentence or two that didn’t quite meet her very high standard. Then, of course, it would all be digitized, everything was. Had been for almost a hundred years. 

 “Oh, I wasn’t aware that paper was still allowed,” Arthur stammered, looking at her notebook, suspiciously.

This was another reason Ardy preferred paper, harder to make disappear. Through the years more than a few of her stories had turned to so much binary dust before reader's eyes had been laid on them. With paper, they’d at least have to pry it out of her grasp before they could do that.

Ardy smiled, in what she thought was a reassuring way, but came across as slightly smug, “It’s hemp paper, a rapidly renewable byproduct of the medical industry these days.”

Arthur sighed, if not satisfied, he was at least resigned to allow her this little idiosyncrasy. They walked down the ramp and onto a pathway that appeared to be made from modular pads. They reminded Ardy of sidewalks she had seen as a young girl in old cities of the East Coast of what was then the North American States.

Arthur kept up a brisk pace as he led her past a series of low, domelike structures, each with its own path, branching off from the wider one they were on. It gave the impression of walking through the campus of a modern school back on earth, a green lawn, and some infant trees filled the area between buildings, and young students could be seen moving about. As they passed the third dome structure, the path took a turn to the left, and behind the dome and just past the edge of a large rocky outcropping, stood a larger structure, more traditional in its architecture.

Large windows covered the front, stretching up what must have been three stories. A wide set of low stairs, with a large portico above, supported on curving brackets that ran back to the face of the building, shielded the landing at the top of the stairs from the “Sky Light” that Ardy had noticed was decidedly warmer than she had first realized.

Arthur gestured to the building, “This is the hub of our whole operation; the A I birthing center. It started as a lab, but has grown into so much more.” They had reached the bottom step, and he paused, looking up, “It always gives me a rush to come here. I live on the other side of the colony, so I don’t make it over as often as I would like.”

He smiled, small crinkles folding up around his eyes. Ardy also noticed a touch of grey at his temples, something that only the oldest humans had these days, given the nutritional consistency of their diets and genetic rejuvenation regimens that could keep a human healthy for up to 200 years.

When they reached the top of the stairs, a tall glass door slid open silently, and Arthur gestured for her to go ahead of him, then followed into a large atrium, filled with so many plant species, Ardy couldn’t guess how many there were. “This is the most protected space for starting new plants, so, our horticulture teams use this as a sort of greenhouse. A lot of these plants will be moved out into the colony soon. Plants are our most valuable resource. We have enough plant life now to replace about 70% of our oxygen, and we intend to be able to take our oxygen scrubbers offline by sometime next year.”

Arthur crossed the atrium and stepped into a waiting lift. The doors closed and Ardy was surprised to feel the car dropping, instead of the upward motion she had expected. “We’ll start our tour in the embryonics room, which we’ve placed underground. It’s rare, but we do get the occasional meteor shower and having these protected in case of dome breaches is essential. This whole facility is powered by a solar array that stays in orbit above us on a tether. We have a large, bio-diesel generator that hasn’t been run since a year after the colony was launched.”

The lift stopped dropping, and they stepped out into a dimly lighted corridor with glossy white ceiling and floor. The walls were lined with large glass panels, with laboratories and nurseries stretching back behind them.

Arthur stopped before a door just a few steps down the corridor. “Now, I am afraid I will have to insist that you put on a paper gown and booties in these spaces. We can’t be too careful,” he smiled and handed Ardy a plastic wrapped package, containing a simple paper gown and elastic topped paper booties from a box on the wall.

He took an identical package himself and sat on a bench, protruding from the wall, to slip the shoe covers on, then stood and pulled the gown down over his neat suit. Ardy followed his example. They walked through the door into a glass hall, with a glass ceiling that extended back from the main corridor, past another door and into the lab. As they passed each door, cool jets of air pulsed around them to decontaminate their clothing and thin green lines, scanned across their bodies, before the next door opened with a ding.

It was all a part of the elaborate security put in place to provide a sterile environment inside the lab. Ardy was intrigued by all of the technology, although, nothing she hadn’t seen, this much all in one place was a new experience. She wondered if she would be able to get the answer she really came for. She was sure Arthur suspected her ulterior motive, after all, it wasn’t typical for a reporter to come all the way from Allied New Jersey to see all of this first hand. It was common for drones to record these types of interviews remotely, allowing the reporter to see what they needed without making complicated trips to the moon. Even now that it was a daily occurrence, there were still risks involved, not to mention the cost.

“I think you’re going to like this next part. On the left, we have our mech A I unit. On that table, you can see a frame being measured for skin. The mech frames “grow” with the A I, then every four years, they’re brought in to get a larger frame and their cortex is transplanted into a new body, identical to the last one.” Arthur indicated a titanium skeleton, being adjusted by a technician. It was laid out on a stainless steel slab, that hovered, waste high, on an electromagnetic rail system that allowed the table to be moved through the various stages of assembly and finally, into an operating room, where the “brain” from the artificial intelligence bot was transferred into the new body.

“How do you achieve growth in the skeletal system, and why is that necessary?” Ardy asked, busily taking notes on everything she saw. She noticed that as Arthur spoke, he focused on the thing he was talking about, only briefly glancing at Ardy from time to time. The more she could keep him talking, the freer she was to observe things without him noticing.

“That’s a great question. Each major ‘bone’ in our skeletons is designed to expand at a steady, microscopic rate, with an internal piston. It’s set to replicate the growth of a healthy, average human body. The skin, actually generates cells, as it stretches over the skeleton, the muscles grow in much the same way they would in a normal homosapien system, all powered, of course, by an ultra-low voltage battery system. We can then remove the skin, with all of its developed anomalies, such as scars, etc., and install it on the next size skeleton, so that the A I doesn’t really experience any change.”

Arthur looked up and smiled, catching Ardy, curiously staring at a label on a tall, boxed-in cart near the back of the lab. Ardy hastily looked away. The cart was labeled “brain trays” and Ardy’s pulse quickened. She might just have found exactly what she was looking for.

Her mind was busily hatching a plan to return to the lab without an escort. It seemed easy enough. For all the biological protections, there didn’t seem to be any real security protocol to prevent access. Why would there be? After all, anyone approaching Orion could be seen for hours and gaining access to their space port required background and security checks. They felt secure already here.

“Um, yes,” she was flustered, and it was obvious he could see it, “That’s amazing. I had an A I classmate when I was young, but they were much more robotic then. We called her AL; she was an Alpha Ventura, one of the first autonomous A Is. I just get a bit sentimental when I think about it.” She consulted her notes, “So tell me about mem-seeding. I understand that your latest mechs have actual human memory strands implanted in their cortices.”

Arthur watched her more closely now. His eyes narrowed, “Whatever it is you think you’ll find here; it doesn’t exist. I’ll gladly reveal all of our secrets, but I want to state, for the record, you won’t find any of the ‘slave brains’ and other nonsense that gets spread around. Everything here is completely above board. All of our original participants were volunteers.”

“Right, duly noted. You were going to tell me about mem-seeds,” Ardy smiled her most brilliant, disarming smile, “You are by far the cutest tour guide I’ve had in a while, by the way.” It worked, it always worked, a small smile played against the corners of Doctor Arthur Funke’s mouth, then spread to his eyes, “Well, thank you.” He was more than a little flustered. Ardy knew, that even at ninety-five, she still had it. Of course, ninety-five wasn’t what it used to be. She looked more like the fortieth birthday pictures of her grandmother, than those of her great grandmother at the age she was now.

“Mem seeds were my invention. Make sure you include that in your story,” Arthur Funke puffed his chest out just a bit, “We noticed our first generation mechs were having difficulty reconciling their identities as A I. When they eventually discovered that they were, the fact that they had no early childhood memories seemed to be the thing they focused on, and some even attempted to download themselves.”

Ardy’s ears perked up, downloading was the A I equivalent to suicide. There was no real way to shut down an A I cortex, the kernel was nearly indestructible, but their memories could be wiped clean, downloaded into a computer large enough that the various parts of their identity got separated, lost consciousness and the cortex returned to its original blank state.

“We have an incredibly diverse bank of human memories. In the early days of A I development, we were paying anyone that would sit still to download memories. We basically could make a copy of an entire human life, from that person’s perspective in a matter of hours. So, I thought, why not cherry pick a few of those early memories and install them in a mech? It worked wonders. Even once they discovered their mechanical nature, the memories gave them something to hold onto, for them, that memory was just as real as yours or mine.”

Arthur opened the door into another lab, on the right. “Okay, now this is the most exciting part of what we do, right here!” he got excited, like a kid on Christmas. “I’m going to show you something that no one from earth has ever seen.” They walked through a darkened room, through a door labeled simply, 'BIO' and into another, along one wall, were rows of glass panels, each, leading into a tank, filled with a murky fluid. Arthur walked up to the tanks and stood watching.

Ardy joined him and the two stood, staring blankly at the cloudy liquid filled tanks for what felt like minutes, “What am I seeing here?” Ardy finally asked. “Just wait,” Arthur replied. Ardy turned her attention back to the tanks, and as she did, a sudden motion caught her eye, floating up to the glass in a tank eye level with her was what looked like a tiny, human face!

Ardy Schaeffer, who had covered the Abortion Wars of 2052, who had seen every kind of human depravity, from prisons, to the “Super Ghettos” that stretched along the low lands of the lower Mississippi delta, where former Muslim internment camps had turned into an outlaw haven for every kind of racist and bigot imaginable, jumped.

“Oh, wow, is this,” she looked at Arthur, “This is biogenic AI, isn’t it?”

Arthur smiled, “Yes, we call them bios.”

“So, you’ve gotten past the conception stage?”

Ardy turned back to the tank. “Oh, we’ve done much more than that. We have units in every stage of development, you passed some coming in here. Totally autonomous, genetically blank, cortically engineered, artificial intelligence.”

“You mean human cloning?” Ardy said, darkly. Even after all of these years, the idea was still looked on with suspicion.

Arthur Funke looked shocked, “No! We wouldn’t dream of it. Those experiments were a disaster. The human psyche can never be separated from its genetic material on that level. Creating a copy of a living human being is the creation of a monster, pure and simple. No, this is nothing like that. They are not human. They look, breathe, eat, sleep, bleed, even, but they are so much more than human. We discovered that if they grew from embryos and developed naturally, they could develop normal human memories, which made their cortices much more stable. Even the twelve year old units can mentally outperform our most advanced mechs.”

“But, we have proof, and your cart back there, what are ‘brain trays’? We know what you’re up to and I will expose you. We know you’ve been stealing human consciousness and resurrecting the dead's memory, doctor.” Ardy was indignant, she’d caught him and he was still denying it.

“Nonsense, follow me,” Doctor Arthur Funke marched back through the darkened room they had passed, opened the door into the first lab they had observed and straight over to the cart. He unbuckled one side panel and rocked it open on its hinges. As he did, the interior lit up with a soft, blue glow and there, on something that looked like antique baking trays, were row after row of tiny, human brains, all connected by wires and tubes to a bank of circuits and pumps at the rear of the cart.

“These are the brains we use. They’re genetically neutral. They’re grown from a synthetic protein and programmed, just like any computer. This is the ‘horrible’ thing we’ve done. We’ve recreated life, real life.”

Ardy’s polite facade crumbled, “But, we found you out. You were at the bottom of it. Not this, not this, this is amazing, a bit creepy perhaps, but this is not all you’ve been up to,” she laughed, “we have you dead to rights, Doctor Funke, I have hours of recorded interviews with someone that escaped one of your slave ships. And there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of the brightest minds taken from earth under the pretense that the planet was finished. We know what you’re up to, re-engineering the human race on the smartest and best, all without their consent. I have video footage of rows of cryo chambers, all filled with your kidnap victims. What do you have to say about that?”

Arthur Funke stood calmly and listened to Ardy’s rant, then quietly he said, “Ms. Schaeffer, you are welcome to investigate every inch of this colony. Nothing is off limits. I suspect what your friend encountered was a bad reaction to a cryo-sleep experiment, that had nothing to do with me, but was completely volunteer. I was one of those volunteers. It was just as you describe. I was under for six months at one point, all to determine the effects. But, I assure you, none of those people are here and none of them participated against their will or without their knowledge. No one is here against their will and none of what your source shared with you is true. Please, I’ll take you anywhere you want to go, open every door.”

And so he did. Ardy messaged back to earth to extend her stay for two more days. She poked into every broom closet in the colony, certain she would find something. She was allowed full, unaccompanied access to the colony library and digital archives. She spoke with mech and bio Ais, and at every level the story checked out. There was not a single document her security clearance wouldn’t open.

She’d been wrong, for the first time in her life, she’d been so sure about it, so ready to expose this monster, but everything she was turning up confirmed every word of his story. Even her editor, who always pushed for further investigation, was begging her to give up and come home. He promised her the moon colony story would be landing page material, top of the fold.

Finally, after three days without sleep, Ardy Schaeffer conceded. She was exhausted and she felt a horrible burden of guilt for having accused Doctor Funke, who by all accounts may have been developing the science that one day saves the human race. It was time for her to go home and lick her wounds, possibly even consider retirement. The moon was nice, maybe she’d move here, she’d heard there were retirement communities even nicer than Orion.

As Ardy boarded the shuttle, she looked back out onto the peaceful green grass and now budding trees. The even, blue, sky dome, glowed brightly, then, flickered. In a section that appeared to be about twice the size of her head, a crack appeared, the area darkened, momentarily, giving her a glimpse past the dome and there, in that brief instant, as the nano-bot repaired the damage, Ardy Schaeffer saw something that made her blood run cold, it was the moon.

Not the surface of the moon, as might be expected, if a mountain were nearby, an entire moon, and there, behind it, looming large, was a globe she did not recognize. It was mottled brown and green, nothing like the images of earth from space she’d seen throughout her life. Then, just as suddenly, the sky dome returned to its brilliant blue and Ardy’s stomach dropped into a hardened knot as she slipped from consciousness.

“Man, have you been watching the feed from Exxon 349?” George Hamlin, asteroid pilot said, around a bite of synthetic ham sandwich. “That reporter chick has some really crazy visits.”

Phil Miller, pilot’s mate crawled out from beneath a nearby console, deposited a wrench in the hovering tool tray near him and plopped back into his seat, “Naw, but my wife says that was really something.”

The large view-screen above the pilot’s controls gave them a view from their rocket platform, out over the asteroid, across the sky-blue of the Orion colony’s dome toward Zeus, their new home world. George and Phil were Gen3 and both had grown up on the bridge of this rocket platform, learning to steer the asteroid, containing humanity’s last hope across the galaxy, propelled by hemp rocket fuel, the colony had been in route now for over one hundred, twenty years and was scheduled to arrive in just a few weeks.

“So, how does that happen anyway? Aren’t all those old timers down for the count until we get there?” Phil asked.

George snorted, “My mom says they should be. She’s a nurse over there in the cryo-sleep ward bottom side. But, they have to let them out every now and then to stretch their legs and the easiest way to keep them from losing their shit is to feed some story line into their holo-dream generators. I guess it’s like lucid dreaming, they tell them they’re going to Orion, they let them out and play along with whatever, but the sleeper invents the rest. I heard a guy from Mobile 234 commandeered a gun ten years back, in like 2196, blew a hole in the dome and nearly sucked everyone out.”

Phil laughed and popped the top on a cold soda, “Man, I’ll be so glad when we get there and have some real land under our feet. This human cargo is crazy, makes me glad to be bio.”

“Yeah,” George agreed and held out a fist, which Phil bumped, “They’re letting that president guy out for his visit tomorrow. That ought to be good for a few laughs.” George punched a button on the console in front of him and music filled the bridge of the rocket platform. George liked oldies.

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time, ‘til touchdown brings me round again to find, I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh no, no, no, I’m a rocket maaaaaan…

He punched another button and picked up a mic, “This one’s for you mom, over there ‘bottom side’ dealing with the cargo.” And the soothing sounds of Elton John echoed through the cryo-sleep ward as Jody Hamlin, Gen2 charge nurse, adjusted the pressure in the pillow ring surrounding Ardy Schaeffer’s head, reconnected her neural wiring harness and checked her vitals, before closing the pod for the last time. 

She glanced at the date clock, counting down the seconds since Ardy’s initial interment, 123 years, 6 months, 5 days, 7 minutes and 36 seconds. That was a hell of a long time to be held hostage.  Jody walked down the long line of cryo-sleep pods. There were over 600 of them in the Exxon ward and there were seven more wards just like it, all nestled down here on the underside of the asteroid, all filled with the brightest minds that earth, circa 2076 had had to offer.

Rocket man, burning out his fuse up here alone…
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