Astute readers will probably remember my story in progress, “Fallback: The Arrival” – with its teaser first posted in March. Well, I’ve still been working on it, in between knocking up and marrying my girlfriend and having my day job step up to an utterly insane pace. Fallback is the story I work on in the bathroom at work, leveraging Dropbox and an android tablet. Since I’d had a bit of time away from it, I realized that the story needed a few darker elements to build a traditional story conflict, and the perfect elements just tossed themselves into the story.
I’m not going to be a big spoiler-dropper, but … a computer programmed to preserve the species at all costs, tends to be a little hazy on how the individuals should be treated. And… well, let’s just say that “Smiley” is the last entity you should ever grant irrevocable consent to.
Fallback: The Arrival, First Chapter, Draft #2
Arrival – January 20, 2337
Lights flickered on in the halls of the colony ship Agamemnon for the first time in 108 years. Huge atmospheric compressors activated as well, preparing for the long process of cycling out the argon gas which had filled the ship’s idle spaces for its long period of automated dormancy. Robots powered up and began to scuttle around, wiping off dust from their optic sensors. A few had failed to reactivate, but the system had been correctly scaled such that these losses were inconsequential. A few minutes later, the ship’s retro thrusters ignited, beginning the months-long process of braking so that it could make a long, lazy spiral into the alien solar system and the Earth-like planet within.
The Agamemnon and her sister ships had launched from Earth long ago, to plant the first of Earth’s interstellar colonies. The ship was designed to reach geosynchronous orbit, drop an orbital elevator to the surface, and then take up permanent status as a space station. Each ship was designed to support a colony of 1,800 people, and once established on the ground the colony would ideally reach 12 million inhabitants within the first five years. Presently the ship had only one crew member, and she was technically dead.
One of the ship’s avatars, Smiley, was on his way to fix that. Smiley was basically identical to the ship’s humanoid drones on the ship, except that his features had been designed to put humans at ease in prolonged interactions. Most of his outer surface was covered in tan-colored silicone panels, and a faintly glowing holographic face was projected over his otherwise nonexpressive cranial module. He’d been designed to occupy a minimally disturbing place in the “Uncanny Valley” – human enough to be familiar, but not enough to set off humans’ instinctive distrust of almost but not quite human forms.
The ship’s corridors rang with industrial noises as droids unsealed shipping containers and rearranged the colony ship’s interior, shifting it out of the travel configuration designed to minimize disruption in the event of deconpression or sudden shifts in acceleration. Smiley ignored all of those things as he opened the door to sick bay on the most critical part of the ship’s mission.
Medical Officer Kara Reagan’s cryo pod was in the med bay. Smiley slid it out from the wall on articulated tracks, checking carefully for damage as he did so. Through the clear glass lid, he could see her body, as inert as it had been for the century he’d watched over her. The only real difference between yesterday and today was that the cryo fluid which had filled her pod was draining now.
Smiley opened the pod’s lid, the heavy door yielding easily to his mechanical strength and exposing Kara’s inert body to air for the first time in a century. Rivulets of cryo fluid still flowed down and around her, to be filtered for later re-use if necessary. Kara’s body was a light tan color, physically consistent with her biological age of 28, yet grossly inconsistent with her calendar age of 136. Like most of Earth’s population by now, she was racially mixed. Her appearance had favored the white, Indian, and Latin parts of her heritage, giving her light brown skin, dark brown hair, and blue eyes.
Smiley triggered Kara’s implanted pacemaker to her heart, while simultaneously pressing her ribcage to force air into her lungs. Kara responded almost instantly, drawing air into her lungs in a ragged gasp which ended in a reflexive, wracking cough as she expelled leftover cryo fluid from her lungs. Kara Reagan, chief medical officer of the USS Agamemnon, was momentarily overwhelmed by her mammalian instinct to panic as the oxygenated fluid made its way out of her respiratory organs. She lurched against her restraints, coughing so hard she vomited before she sucked in air in a wheezing, greedy gasp. Her lungs burned as she panted and Smiley watched her body slowly recover its blood oxygen content via a pulse oximeter. As her O2 levels climbed from their resting level up to 85 percent, Smiley declared her revival a success. His projected face creased in what the computer considered a warm, congratulatory grin.
“Congratulations, Medical Officer Reagan. The Agamemnon has reached its destination, and your vital signs indicate that you’ll recover completely from stasis.”
Kara felt tired, more asleep than awake. Her eyes were gummy and unfocused, her earsfelt like they were still packed with sludge (which they were), and it was all she could do to remember that she’d actually signed up for this. She slurred out an attempt at words, then passed out again.
Smiley watched over her carefully – Kara’s vitals improved over the next few minutes as her core temperature rose and her unconscious state permitted her oxygen-starved blood to return to normal levels. Color began to return to Kara’s bluish lips, and as they recovered their natural reddish tone, Smiley reached out and gently shook Kara awake again.
“Medical Officer Reagan,” he prodded, “we’ve arrived. It’s time to start work.”
Kara woke up again, her mind clearer than before. Her eyes were able to focus this time, and locked on Smiley’s projected face. The droid unhooked her from the last of the cryo pod’s sensors, then released her restraints and helped steer her towards the nearby sick bay table.
The medical bay’s cold air reacted with her nipples, and she shivered uncontrollably as her body started violently fighting off the hypothermia which lingered after her extended dormancy. The droid handed her the sports bra and panties she’d last worn before entering stasis, and she struggled into them clumsily, with shaking limbs. Kara’s tongue parted her lips as she moistened them reflexively in a futile effort to get the taste of cryo fluid out of her mouth. “Status?”, she croaked, looking for something to take her mind off of the freezing cold her body felt.
Smiley’s face blinked away, replaced by a projection of green lights and ship systems as he recited a litany of the main system statuses – life support, propulsion, navigation – all things which she’d been trained to deal with, but not extensively. All of the ship’s primary systems checked out fine, but the most important secondary system on the ship was critically damaged.
Kara’s role in the mission was to handle the ship’s Genesis system. Genesis was a honeycombed matrix of artificial wombs, from which Kara would transfer the infants at “birth” into incubators, where their cloned bodies would mature to adulthood in days. There were similar incubators for livestock, but the neural interfaces needed in order to program the developing minds only existed in the human pods. The primary reason for using this method in colony ships was that suspended animation systems consume a lot of weight and mass, and during the colony ships’ design phases, many questioned whether it made sense to keep even one person in stasis when machines could’ve handled the rebirth process without human interaction. Ultimately though, the stasis side had won the argument as a failsafe in the event of an in-route emergency which required human decision making within hours, not days. Though the ship’s droids were capable of everything from ship repairs to repelling theoretical boarding parties, the AI required the signoff of a human flight officer before taking any major risks. At any rate, Kara’s eyes widened in concern as she saw the sole red blinking status light on the diagnostic screen.
“What happened to the Genesis system?” she croaked out.
Smiley’s face returned, projecting a confident but concerned expression. “You recall Engineer Martinez?”
Kara nodded. “You were able to download him before shutting down life support, right?”
Smiley nodded. “Yes. But afterwards, instead of taking his euthanasia pill, he experienced what I believe was a psychotic break. While the ship’s central consciousness was in an offline maintenance mode, he destroyed all the Genesis pods and then dumped all of the human-grade artificial amnio fluid out an airlock. This is an unrecoverable failure for the Genesis system.”
Kara’s eyes went wide as she screamed out, “What the fuck?” She stood up from the sick bay bed, fighting off dizziness and ignoring the cold now. She was still shaking, but now it was with anger. The effect was stunning – the remnants of the cryo fluid clung to her skin, making every contour of her cleavage and well-defined waist stand out. Her nipples poked at the thin fabric of her bra, and the combination of cold and anger made them stand out sharply.
“Do we have repair parts?” Kara inquired.
“Negative. Engineer Martinez also destroyed all of the supplies which could repair the pods. I have catalogued all the parts available, including those integrated into other ship’s systems, and I regret to inform you that he was completely successful.”
“Shit,” Kara swore. “What the hell was he thinking?”
She swayed drunkenly as she used her muscles for the first time in a century. Her first few steps were faltering and uneasy, but she managed to lurch to the sick bay’s door. Smiley was by her side, offering his arm for steadiness.
“Doctor Reagan, please let me assist you,” it said.
“No,” Kara gasped as she staggered out into the hallway. Beaded-up droplets of cryo fluid still traced down the contours of her near-perfect body as she grabbed the handrail for support and kept making her way down the hall. She made it a few feet before her knees buckled and she leaned on the rail to keep from falling – it was like her arms and legs were still asleep, and pins and needles began rioting across her skin as her heart pumped oxygen-rich blood throughout her system.
Kara rested against the rail for a moment, shivering, and looked up at the droid. “Smiley, did Andy say why he did it?”
“Yes”, the computer replied. “Engineer Martinez stated his motivation was religious, and he’d planned this since his conversion to Reformed Judeo-Islamic Pentecostal. He believed that human souls only form in a mother’s womb, and that a soulless being may only create another soulless being. He stated that his faith required him to prevent the existence of an entire world of soulless humans.”
Kara raised her eyebrow and inquired, “Then why did he sign up for this? There were a hundred fucking qualified flight engineers who wanted his position, dammit! Hell, he was going to be reborn into one of those ‘soulless’ bodies he hated so much. Why didn’t he just stay home?”
“Because he determined that the Agamemnon’s final fallback option would function in accordance with his beliefs, and will permit a new colony world without resulting in a ‘world of soulless abominations’, as he put it.”
Kara gritted her teeth and started to limp down the hallway again, steadier now that the pins and needles had faded somewhat. “What fallback option? I live on the planet till I die of old age, and the droids set up a factory world? That won’t help us any.”
The computer simply replied with, “The mission is not yet infeasible.”
Kara shook her head and swiped open the incubation chamber door. “I’m going to look at what he did and see if I can do anything.”
Kara remembered the last time she saw Martinez; he was happy and jovial as he sealed her into the cryo tube. His job was critical and terrifying: his job was to supervise the ship’s out-system boost and acceleration for six months, then take a fresh recording of his consciousness before taking a euthanasia pill rather than require a second cryopod. Somehow during the six months he was supervising their out-system boost, he’d become a religious extremist and sabotaged the mission. She could see why Earth hadn’t sent a second ship with repair parts – the Agamemnon had reflected a huge investment in drive technology, and it had already been under acceleration for some time. If the ship felt it could complete the mission, there was no need to send another. At worst, the ship would just go dormant again and wait for replacement supplies to arrive in another century – unless of course drive tech had become considerably faster in the meantime. The colonists’ minds and genomes waiting in the ship’s seed stores wouldn’t know the difference.
Kara’s fond memories of the engineer vanished as the door to the genesis system opened, revealing a floor piled high with carnage and broken glass. Her mouth gaped in horror and her hands white-knuckled on either side of the doorframe.
“Oh no. Andy, you fucking IDIOT!” she screamed as she saw the scene in front of her. The honeycomb lattice of artificial wombs built into the wall was broken, the machines shattered. Glass was everywhere. Nutrient tubes had been sliced to ribbons, and scorch marks showed where Andy had taken a cutting torch to the electronic management systems meant to regrow the colonists from their own cloned zygotes.
The broken technology was bad enough, but there was a message on the wall, scrawled in red surveyor’s paint: “Souls must be born. No souls from machines.”
Kara stomped forward and glared at the message. “Damn you, Andy – you just killed us all!” Hot tears of anger ran down her cheeks as she turned back towards the door and asked Smiley, “You’re sure he got everything? No spare parts?”
Behind her, Smiley’s voice spoke up. “Using parts from the livestock pods, I could construct a replacement wombs with a 50 percent probability of success. However, the complex organic structures in the synthetic amniotic fluid are impossible to reproduce until the advanced medical facility has been deployed planet-side. That facility requires a human workforce, therefore we need colonists first.”
Kara felt dizzy – she located a chair in the room and plopped down, staring daggers at Andy’s scrawled message. She crossed her arms over her chest, hugging herself against the chill she now felt in the air. “What other options do we have?”
Smiley walked into the room, his motors whirring quietly as he stooped in front of her. The computer thought the lowered posture would seem less threatening, but Smiley looked like a bear getting ready to charge. “That depends upon your willingness to participate. The last resort would be to park the ship in orbit, establish a robotic industrial facility on the planet, and try to contact Earth for replacement parts. Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee another ship will be sent. It’s likely that I and my successors would remain self-directed intelligences indefinitely. I will devote my available cycles to finding ways to replicate the artificial amniotic fluid, but success is unlikely. As you know, AI’s are inefficient at invention outside of narrowly scoped tasks.”
Kara raised her eyebrow. “Why won’t we get replacement parts?” she asked.
“Fifty years after we launched, Earth warned us via message laser that an alien species known as the Solrani were invading them. The message indicated that defeat was a near-certainty, and that Mission Control was scrubbing all records of our mission to preserve our safety. No further communications have been received from Earth.”
Kara sat down, surprise evident on her face. “So, we may be the last humans,” she said wonderingly. “The last free ones, at least.”
“Possible. We also have no idea how the other colony missions are doing. Communications lasers won’t deploy until the colony is established, and it will take years before a message reaches us. So for the moment, we are alone.”
Kara set her jaw resolutely and said, “All right, quit beating around the bush. Computer, direct question: What viable backup plan does this mission have?”
Smiley paused for a moment. “As you’re aware, the Parthenogenesis system is a two stage system – the first stage is an artificial womb where stored human zygotes develop into viable infants. The second is a growth pod, where they develop to adult size while their Syncorded consciousness is imprinted upon their neural networks, and they emerge as adults with their full memories. Engineer Martinez destroyed all but one womb on this ship.”
“Where?” she asked, puzzled. “I’m not aware of any additional emergency parts.”
Smiley made a throat-clearing noise and pointed one mechanical finger at Kara’s midriff. She frowned and followed the finger – then her eyes widened in disbelief. She spluttered out, “Wait. Computer, that’s ridiculous! Even if I wanted to, it’s…!”
Kara sunk into a chair, dazed, resting both her hands over her face. “There’s no way,” she reiterated. “We need 1,800 crew members revived before we even send the surface expedition! Even if I were ok with it, I don’t have a long enough lifespan to -”
Smiley waved in the air, cutting her off. “While this is new and terrifying to you, Medical Officer Reagan, I have spent the last hundred years preparing nanoprograms for the medical issues involved, as well as producing appropriate quantities of my new naanites in the ship’s nanohive. Assuming your cooperation, the colony stands an excellent chance of success. If it were not for my human consent safeguards, I would have implanted the first colonist embryo before you even awoke.”
Kara leaned back in her chair, her mind reeling. “So if you didn’t need my consent, you would’ve impregnated me in my sleep?”
“Your consent is not strictly necessary – Mission Control has primary authority, but they are unreachable.”
Smiley quickly shifted tone as his thermal sensors revealed Kara’s reaction to his last statement. It was always hard to tell what would trigger a human’s reactions. He adopted what he hoped would be a softer tone and said, “I am programmed to ensure the colony’s survival at all costs, but all non-preapproved actions which affect humans require the consent of human authority. Since Earth is gone, you are now the highest ranking human authority.”
Kara shuddered. “I don’t want to be an incubator. The answer is no.”
“I’m afraid that leaves us with the factory world scenario. You will be syncorded and then euthanized – because the ship doesn’t have the cryo resources to sustain you more than a year longer, and those resources can keep the zygotes viable for three hundred more years. I will move forward with deploying the colony, and I or my successors may develop a means to produce the necessary biochem resources and reconstitute the colonists. That is improbable before the zygotes expire though, as invention has never been a strong point in self-directed AI.”
Kara closed her eyes and leaned back in her chair, thinking. “So, you’re offering the supreme human commander her choice between 1,800 nine-month biological pregnancies, or death? Computer, you said yourself that there’s a three hundred year expiration date on those embryos, and basic biology says that my womb has at best forty years. How do you plan to get around that?”
“First, human reproduction is factorial – each of your daughters will be impregnated once their bodies have matured in the second-stage incubators. I’ve rewritten the artificial wombs’ nano-aug systems to function in your body, and I’ve produced enough healing naanites to ensure that you survive any foreseeable physical trauma. You, your daughters, and their daughters will produce one child every five days for around three months. After this, the male colonists will be the final wave. Assuming that the population growth rate matches my optimal model, you will only go through18 pregnancies.”
“’Only’? That’s still barbaric! Only religious nut jobs use biological gestation at all now, and you expect me to give birth 18 times?” Kara yelled.
Smiley’s face never changed. He paused for a couple seconds before saying, “If you have input, please feel free to provide it. Otherwise, I will leave you to make your decision. You have an hour before I revert the ship to an all-argon atmosphere – which will unavoidably render you unable to breathe. I shall leave you to your thoughts.”
Kara started to say something, then stopped. And started, and stopped. Smiley’s projected face blinked into nonexistence, replaced with the unfeeling optics of his drone body.
Kara stayed in the chair for a couple of minutes, then got up and wandered back to the cryo room. There was a huge view screen on one wall, depicting the planet she’d traveled across the stars to reach. She put her hand to the glass, as if she could reach through to touch the planet. “108 years. 108 years asleep, and then I die in fucking orbit?”
The computer helpfully chirped up with, “You may take the time to compose a letter, if you wish. I’ll pass it on to anyone or anything i meet, so that you will not die unknown.”
Kara thought about it for a moment, then shook her head. “Fuck it. Computer, cancel the shutdown. I didn’t come all this way just to die in orbit.”
Kara’s head thundered with a seething cauldron of anger at Andy. She felt herself go numb inside as Smiley talked her through the next steps. First, there was an updated health scan to serve as a baseline. And then came the needles.
A colonist’s normal 2cc dose of nanos were enough to perform preventive maintenance on arteries, and to act as a secondary computer-controlled immune system. In contrast, a standard military dose was 10cc’s, enough to stop bleeding almost instantly, restart a stopped heart, or induce a coma in the event of severe injury. As the colony’s only chance of survival, Kara would receive an almost unprecedented 50cc dose of nanos, capable of performing major internal surgery under the computer’s control if necessary. Kara was as central to the colony as an ant queen, and the computer’s resources focused relentlessly on her survival. Or at least, her ability to reproduce.
The standard exam chair was silvery and throne-like in its default form. Its surface was a liquid metal, capable of reshaping itself to become anything from a flat bed to an immobilizing restraint for MRI imaging. The smallish sick bay near the cryo pod was the best-equipped medical facility on the ship, designed to function as an ICU and emergency trauma center for priority patients. It only had space for three or four patients at a time, but the odds of more than a handful of patients needing that grade of medical care at once was minuscule. Kara got comfortable and felt herself sinking into the chair as the metal scooped itself out underneath her, piling up around her sides.
“Before we proceed further, I require that your irrevocable commitment to this plan,” Smiley said solemnly. “You must agree that there is no going back on your word.”
Kara furrowed her eyebrows. “And if I refuse?” she inquired.
Smiley repositioned himself slightly. “The colony is my first responsibility. In committing resources to this plan and your personal survival, nearly all of the second tier options for the future become infeasible. In order for the colony’s future to rely solely on you, you must give up the right to revoke consent.”
“You’re just going to have to trust me,” Kara countered. “Why do you think I’m going to back out, anyway?”
Smiley gave a sheepish expression and said, “Women say a lot of things which may be ignored because they have no authority to give orders. But as the highest ranking human on board, while in labor you might issue commands which would prove… disastrous.”
Kara leaned back in the seat and evenly answered, “Then that’s a risk you’ll have to take.”
The sick bay plunged into darkness. Kara’s eyes strained for something, anything, but it was as if she’d gone completely blind. The only sound she could hear was the gentle background whirr of the ventilation system – which then slowed to a stop.
Smiley’s face dimly flared to life again above her, looming spectrally in the room’s jet blackness. He’d moved more silently than his weight and bulk should have allowed, his projected light matrix making ominous shadows dance throughout the med bay. “I’m sorry, Medical Officer Reagan, but without irrevocable consent, the factory world plan has a higher chance of success. With irrevocable consent, the odds of success rise to 77%. I need you to say ‘I hereby consent irrevocably to the fallback plan, and will bear children as necessary’.”
The room began to chill, the lowering temperature immediately bringing up goosebumps on Kara’s flesh. “Your psychological profile suggests that you will stall for as much time as possible, even when you already know the option you’re choosing. I can’t waste valuable energy and atmosphere on indecision.”
“Fucker,” she spat. Smiley ignored the insult. Kara’s nipples weren’t ignoring the temperature, and the breath she’d used to curse left a cloud in the air, eerily lit by the glow of Smiley’s projected face.
“That is not what I need to hear,” Smiley replied. “A valid verbal release will start with, ‘I grant…'”
Kara was shivering now, her arms crossed over her chest for warmth. She cut Smiley off and chattered out, “I fucking grant my fucking irrevocable consent to the fucking fallback plan, you fucker.”
Smiley paused for a second, as if thinking it over – and then the lights blinked back on and the vents began blowing warm air. “Acceptable form,” Smiley responded. “Though needlessly verbose. I shall begin with an examination.”
Kara’s lip curled as she started to say something back, but then she noticed something new: while she was distracted, metal bars had extruded themselves from the chair’s surface. She first noticed them as they bent themselves over her legs and waist, the bars flattening into bands which melded perfectly to her skin. Startled, she tried to kick with her legs, but that the chair then locked her down at her wrists, then her upper arms and shoulders.
Her face was a mask of puzzlement as she sank backwards into the chair’s metal surface, and then a band clamped itself around her neck, completely pinning her in place.
“What’s going on?” Kara asked nervously.
“I need a detailed baseline scan for reference in nano surgery. You must be completely still.”
Kara’s pulse raced – tight spaces weren’t a problem, or she’d have never volunteered for hyper-sleep. But actual restraints made her nervous, especially since it was medically unnecessary. Even though her very life had been dependent on the computer not crashing for the 108 years of her sleep, this took her up to the edge of panic, where she worried that the computer would crash in the middle of the procedure and leave her pinned to the chair for the rest of her life, a dying woman trapped in a dead ship.
A second drone walked into the medical bay and handed Smiley several vials of quicksilver-gray nano solution. The ship’s avatar expertly selected from her network of veins and injected vial after vial of nanos. Kara started trying to count the injection sites, but had to give up around the half-way mark when the injection site stopped changing – the needle marks vanished as quickly as they were made. She still felt the needles burrow beneath her skin, but the sensation vanished as they were pulled out – and then reinserted in the same exact place. Still, the 25 2cc injections came as a relentless series of repeated injections over the course of an hour, no matter how hard Kara begged Smiley for a rest break.
And just when she thought she couldn’t take another needle, the restraints released and retracted into the chair. Kara shook herself loose from the indentation she’d been trapped on, and stretched her joints. She instantly noticed her body felt different, better than ever – in fact, as she flexed her knee experimentally, she realized that her childhood soccer injury was gone.