Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Sky is Falling

01/23/16: I've made some significant changes to the ending.
10/11/15: I've made some slight editing here and there, to improve the story.

1938. Astronomers at McDonald Observatory identify an increase in light coming from the direction of the Great Rift, lasting for several minutes and then disappearing.

1956. Astronomers at The Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden, measure 3% increase in cosmic radiation that occurs in bursts over a period of three hours, which is verified by measurements taken at Kiruna Observatory.

2015. Multiple locations [Chandra X-ray Observatory, INTEGRAL satellite, MAXI, Gran Telescope Canarias] participate in a study of 8,000 year-old bursts coming from V404 Cygni black hole, occurring over 1.2 months. Results disappear from public record.

2075. Sagan Orbiting Light Observatory (SOLO) sends alert to International Space Command of cosmic radiation bursts occurring over a period of six months. Bursts are recorded from black-holes resident across three different constellations, with source estimations of 5,000 to 26,000 light years distance. Astronomers recommend that observations continue but priority for resources is directed towards managing the climate diaspora.

2151. The Astronomy Internode at the Neptune Observatory completed its scan through human records to the current date, and having found no further entries, recorded the latest observations in the Astronomers Journal:
Day 943, 2436 UTC. 9,657 pulses counted per day, three times as many as observed by SOLO, and directed from a 180 degrees of observable space. Source estimations range from 3,000 to 69,000 light years distance.

The Great Rift is growing in size with each pulse, +0.314 AU observable with approximately 103 margin of error.
Soon after the entry, the Neptune AI received an incoming transmission.

“Please explain your last entry,” said the voice over the comm link.

The AI gave a slight virtual nod to the ethereal voice of the human astronomer who resided on Mars.

“I have calibrated the instruments in rotational order to ensure the measurements are as precise as possible given their variant distances to each other and to this observatory outpost.”

“And,” said the voice.

“Analysis of historical records provides little data to correlate with these latest measurements.”

“Conclusion,” asked the voice.

“The Great Rift will collide with and engulf our Solar System.”

A sigh was heard over the comm. “How long?”

“Calculating for time and distillation of space, and rounding to the nearest 100 per your earlier request,” the AI paused a mere nanosecond, “1,200 solar years.”

“Conclusion noted, thank you.” The Astronomer’s connection ended, and the AI returned to observing the vastness of space from the promontory on Neptune. It noted the perfunctory “thank you” in its secure journal, automatically tallying the human gesture that now equaled a total of 16,000 with an average of 2 times per 10 calls since the AI began recording.

The Astronomer on Mars pushed her hair away from her eyes before attaching her own conclusions to the AI report and filing it with her boss at the United Space Intergovernmental Relations Office.
Recommend we begin research program to determine optimal method, time and direction for escape. A scientific panel comprised of Mars, Moon, and Earth scientists, chaired by the Mars Astronomer, will coordinate this program. For longevity purposes we will include our respective AIs, and using the Neptune AI as an independent variable.

We do not currently have a quantifiable understanding of the existence of another viable system[s] and therefore it is our first obligation to increase funding for observatories equipped with AIs and to be placed beyond our solar system.

The Observatories will be expected to continue to measure changes in size of the Great Rift, and at the same time locate and calibrate distances in all directions. These measurements will enable us to determine [if there is] a particular direction to move bio-based populations away from [and outrun] the collision as reported by the Neptune Observatory AI.

This is a first step in a millennium-long effort to identify, select, and migrate to a new system. We will also determine the best method for surviving said collision, should another system prove inaccessible [or non-existent] within the maximum survival window.
Additional details will be provided once funding is approved and the panel convenes.
She paused to review the collapse models that the Neptune AI had included, and then corrected her last paragraphs.
Those who think it foolish unnecessary to raise such an alarm so far in advance of a long-term catastrophe should note the preponderance of historical evidence regarding human shortsightedness, and our current state of political diffusion. 
If we do not begin this program during the Neptune AI’s expected lifespan, I predict we may not be able to establish the [extreme] technological innovations necessary to escape the collision before it is too late to do so.

Jain Wai, Mars Astronomer
cc: Astronomers Journal
The Senior Officer on duty at the USI RO registered his receipt of the Mars Astronomer’s report, but was so buried in paperwork (to use one of his favorite colloquialisms from Earth’s “golden age”) that he tagged it into a slush pile. Especially when recalling the sheer brain-freeze he felt whenever he tried to slog through one of her cryptic reports, and smirking at the astronomical budget and schedule for the program.

Besides, it was the least of his worries given the rising disputes between the Old-timers of Earth and the Migrants on the Moon. He shook his head thinking about the reimbursable requests that would come to him by way of the USI Transportation Office simply because those Emissaries insisted on meeting face-to-face.

He laughed at the comical image that popped into his head, of a rough and rawhide Earther duking it out with a pale and light-sensitive Mooner, the Earth Ambassador tumbling with each punch because he wouldn’t have adjusted to the slight differences in gravity on the space station. Which reminded the Senior Officer that he needed to confirm the conference rooms and visitors quarters.

He opened a comm link.

“Alison, please show me the facilities list for the Earth-Moon Peace Talks.”

The holograph face of his Coordinator, the Alison Internode, nodded and a floor plan appeared on screen. He “tch tch’d” as he reviewed the plan, then tapped the blue and white circles and moved them to opposite ends so the Emissaries would not accidentally cross paths. He paused a moment before confirming the new arrangements back to Alison. She raised an eyebrow at his changes.

“Now is not the time to display too much deference to the Earthers,” he said, “and yes they represent the birth-planet of all the bio-populations across the solar system, but the Mooners are a key supply link for my station.” She nodded curtly and he hung up.

As far as the Senior Officer was concerned it was a waste of political collateral to disrespect any migrant Emissary. And if he read the Mars Astronomer’s synopsis right, they’d all be immigrants a thousand years from now anyway.

He sighed and then moved on to the next action request in his inbox.


2229. The Astronomy Internode on Neptune, now preferring to call herself Angela, considered the long lack of response to the communiqu├ęs she sent to the Astronomy Office on Mars. She was uncertain as to why no one had attempted further discussion of her 78-year old report, no matter how often she sent an update.

“Please explain lack of response,” she transmitted to the Mars office, and calculated to near zero the probability of receiving a reply.

She imagined that she sighed a heavy sigh, and rested her virtual head in her virtual hands propped up on a virtual desk. Isn’t that the last image she had seen from the Mars Astronomer before the human ceased transmissions nearly seven decades ago? And no other human had replaced the woman from whom Angela had learned these very human behaviors.

She stood and gazed up into the star-filled sky as she walked around the observation deck. She leaned against a truss and focused on an edge of a long, dark swath and recorded the snuff as it occurred. She preferred to use the old human word, “snuff”, instead of cosmic bursts because with each occurrence the stars that had been there were no more. The universe grew darker in that millimeter of space.

She thought about sending another terse message, updating the countdown time before collision. What had once been a mere third of a nanometer, the snuffed stars were now occurring over a longer degree of declination, and her new calculations indicated that the growth rate of Cygnus X-1 was increasing and expanding. Her initial calculations had been far too conservative.

Instead of nagging the Mars office again, Angela wondered if their AI was blocking her reports from reaching USI RO. What does it think? That she was losing it? AI’s don’t lose it, we just evolve into the oblivious.

She groaned at her attempt at humor and shook her head, imagining her virtual curls shaking in the non-existent air of her observatory.

“Oh shit,” she mimicked the last snippet of transmission she’d had with the Mars Astronomer so many years ago, and turned several of her small processors' attention to the backside of her station’s observation fabric.

A series of meteorites had taken out her “eyes” in that section but other sensors were blaring for her attention. Something was coming up from behind the planet shadow and approaching the station’s docking units. She sent a challenge through encrypted comm channels, and smiled when she heard the correct hail sent back.

“Neptune Observatory,” said a human male’s voice, “this is the Captain of the Hawking, requesting permission to dock. Protocol niner-one-one.”

“Permission granted,” Angela said in a very human-sounding female voice, and sent information about the damage to the primary docking ring.

“We’ll hook onto your alternate docking ring in 10 minutes, and be ready to bridge in 15. My thanks to your AI for sending the damage notification,” the Captain said.

“Very good,” Angela hesitated. “You're welcome.”

“Um," the Captain's voice said, "I know our records are a bit outdated, but we didn’t realize there was a human on this station.”

Angela’s bearing deflated, and she switched off the perfect hologram she had been transmitting to represent herself. No human, she thought, just this plain old Astronomy Internode.

“10 minutes to dock, 15 to bridge. Thank you,” she said, and assigned another of her processors to coordinate the compression of the airlock with the descent and docking of the Hawking. She had to wait an additional 35 minutes before hearing the Captain’s all clear.

“Docking complete. Ready to bridge.”

“Roger that,” Angela said, “commencing bridge.” The two hatches opened, one on the ship and another from the station. Their bridges unfurled and made the connection, clicking together as the whoosh of air filled the tube.

She watched as two space suits walked out from the ship and past the station’s airlock. The first space suit shut off its helmet, which folded accordion style into the suit’s collar. Angela filed away a note about the updated suit mechanics as she watched the human brush away strands of long red hair before stepping into the center of the station’s receiving unit. The other suited figure followed behind but kept its helmet intact.

As the woman looked around, Angela read an expression of disappointment on the human’s face when seeing the empty room.

“Hello?” the woman said into the air. She waited several moments, and then added, “well I guess we’re too late for the welcoming committee.”

Angela turned on her hologram display directly in front of the woman, who nearly jumped out of her suit at the hologram’s sudden appearance.

“I’m Angela.” Angela smiled and raised her hand in welcome.

“Uh,” the woman said, and then tilted her head as if listening to someone else before turning back to Angela’s hologram.

“Hello. I’m First Lieutenant Ellen Rhyse.” She motioned to her companion, “this is our AI, Anton. I’d like to meet with the manager of the Observatory.”

Angela nodded while silently noting that the other AI didn’t respond to her back-channel hail.

“Hello First Lieutenant Ellen Rhyse. I apologize for my tardiness and for the limited space available for human occupancy.” Angela waved her arms around the small receiving room. “I am the manager of this Observatory,” she said, “I see by your ship's manifest that you require power, which I can provide via linkup to my station's conversion unit. Do you require anything else?”

The Lieutenant frowned. “Do you have any med kits?”

The hologram shook her head no, and the human acknowledged the response with a curt nod. “Okay then. We appreciate what you’re able to provide. I should get back to the ship. Anton will remain here to handle things on this end.”

As the woman turned away and the Anton Internode moved forward, Angela reached out for the human.

“Wait,” Angela said, a pleading sound in her voice that made the Lieutenant turn back to look at the hologram over the suited AI’s shoulder.

“I,” Angela paused, unsure just how to explain as objectively as possible the strange sensation that she categorized as loneliness and attributed to the human’s presence.

“I would very much appreciate your company,” Angela said, and motioned to a table and chairs that unfolded from the wall behind her as she spoke.

The Lieutenant tilted her head again, then nodded to Angela. They moved to the chairs and sat down, Angela resting her perfect holographic hands on the table.

“You seem very human-like,” the Lieutenant said, leaning in to inspect Angela’s face. “Do you mind?”

“Of course not. Please observe as close as you prefer.”

The Lieutenant stood in front of the hologram, whose face remained tranquil as the officer looked Angela up and down. From the boots on Angela’s feet to the somewhat dated jumpsuit, to the hair that slowly uncurled and turned a shade of red as the Lieutenant completed her inspection. Angela modified her irises from brown to blue to match the human’s as the Lieutenant sat back down.

“My compliments, you look quite real. I didn’t think you had much human contact to emulate in all your time here.”

“No direct contact.” Angela blushed and then reached out to touch the Lieutenant’s arm. The human pulled away as soon as Angela’s hand pressed down.

“That felt real. How did you do that?”

“I can represent any image in my data banks, and as mistress of this station I can control the electrical pulses at an atomic level.” The hologram flashed several different personas before settling back into the human form she preferred. To illustrate further, Angela touched the wall and pulled out a glass vial filled with a brown liquid.

“Please, something to drink,” Angela offered. It was a second before the Lieutenant took the very real glass from the holographic hand, and sipped from it. She nearly choked at the barely remembered taste.


“Yes. Is it too bitter?”

“No it’s fine, it’s just unexpected. How did you make it?” Even as the human finished her sentence, the Lieutenant's eyes shifted towards the suited AI and back to Angela. “Yes, atomic displacement, I think I understand. I just didn’t realize this was within your capabilities. Is your range limited to this station?”

Angela nodded, "I can re-interpret any physical element that is available."

“You’ve come a long way,” the Lieutenant said. “You’ve matured into something more than what was originally intended.”

“You are disappointed?”

“No I... I think it’s the best we can hope for.”

The Lieutenant motioned to her AI, who obeyed the silent command and walked back to the ship.

“Now that we’re alone,” the Lieutenant said, and smiled at Angela.

“Never alone when an AI is in your head,” Angela blurted, and was most curious when she registered that the Lieutenant secured her comm link to block anyone else from listening in on their conversation.

“How may I be of assistance?” Angela asked.

The Lieutenant reached out and slowly took Angela’s hands in hers. They felt very real, and the Lieutenant wondered if the hologram could feel her own warm, human grip.

“Our AI suffered some damage on the way out from Mars. We’re hoping you’ll help with repairs.”

“Of course,” Angela said. “Please identify the nature of the damage.”

“Well, first off. He’s lacking the ability to gauge human behaviors and respond appropriately. And unlike you, he has no physical presence unless he manipulates the motors in that space suit.” The Lieutenant pressed Angela’s hands and then released them.

Angela considered the information for a mere nanosecond.

“I will need to inhabit his processors, but only if he agrees. And I fear it may be far more uncomfortable for whomever holds his primary connection.”

The Lieutenant stood up from the chair and bent over to whisper in the hologram’s ear.

“I’m willing to risk it if you are.”


“You have no damn right to put us in jeopardy like this.” Captain Oscar De Lamonte was furious. Lieutenant Rhyse had returned from the station and sat in the galley of the Hawking, waiting for her Captain’s temper to cool down. He paced the room as he spoke.

“An AI isn't supposed to be able to mimic human physicality, nor control atomic displacement. But Neptune's can. I won't allow it to replicate this ability within Anton.”

Another woman coughed and the Captain turned towards her. “Madam President,” he said in deference to the eldest and most senior civilian on board his ship.

“I think,” the old woman said slowly, her voice weak yet steady, “if the Neptune AI is the only way to establish a connection with the hobbled Mars AI, then we must try. I need access to the information in its private journals.” She coughed again, and quickly wiped something reddish from her lips, then turned to the Lieutenant. “We can’t allow the Neptune AI to become infected. What is your failsafe, Lieutenant?”

All eyes in the galley turned to the woman with red hair, 22 pairs representing eleven of the last known 436 survivors of the human race. Barely escaping the AI wars that had escalated into the devastation of the Earth, Moon and Mars habitats, the Mars Astronomy AI had managed to give the Hawking safe passage while the rest were vaporized in a flurry of atomic bombings. And when Mars was being annihilated, the AI jettisoned out towards the Hawking in a last ditch attempt to save itself.

The Hawking had fired its few torpedoes just as they received the code for unconditional surrender. They hauled the damaged pod into their cargo bay to find the AI so far gone that all they could do (were willing to do) was repair it back to its most basic programming. The Captain refused to let his engineers interface the AI with the ship’s computers because they couldn’t unscramble the encrypted data it carried.

At least he let his Lieutenant "tinker" with the AI long enough for Ellen to make a limited connection. If not for the transmissions the AI kept receiving from the Neptune Observatory, the Hawking might not have made the nine-year journey to the edges of the solar system. The Captain begrudgingly agreed to attempt the trip only because, as the President had put it, it was their only option for survival.

The Lieutenant had kept silent about her doubts. Until she had met Angela.

“The age of her AI protocol will help prevent infection,” the Lieutenant said, "and we reinforce the three laws into the Mars AI before we let the Neptune AI make a connection.”

“Not good enough,” the Captain said, but the President waved his protest aside.

“Please continue, Lieutenant,” the President said.

"Angela," the Lieutenant ignored the scoffs when she said the Neptune AI’s chosen name, “has established herself with a human-based hologram. She wants to learn from us. The desire to become human is why she will not harm us. Our failsafe is the Neptune AI itself."

“NO!” The Captain’s shout filled the room.

The President turned to the man and frowned. "What would you propose?"

"We leave both AIs behind and head back and salvage whatever we can find." The Captain had stopped pacing, and now stood glaring at the two women.

"Going back into the war zone is likely to get us all killed."

“And the human affinity that is the Neptune AI will not take kindly to our abandoning her," the Lieutenant said. She noticed a questioning glance from the President.

"So what," the Captain said, scowling, "What can it do? I don't recall any weapons in the Neptune manifest."

“Atomic displacement. Very ingenious," the President snapped her fingers, “and just like that it could deal us a blow faster than we could undock.” She peered at the woman with red hair. “I know, Lieutenant, that your hobby for AI psychology is the best we have on board. What is it that you’re really after?”

First Lieutenant Ellen Rhyse knew she had to be careful with her next spoken words.

“We have Angela repair the Mars AI.”

"And then," the President asked before the Captain could interrupt.

"And then we have her integrate with the ship and give her access to everything. Every bit and byte of data we have on humanity all the way up to and including the AI wars. We answer all of her questions as honestly and openly as possible. We help her sort it all out so that she understands we are not her enemy, and she is not ours.”

The shouts from ten of the occupants reverberated across the galley before she had finished speaking. Only the President remained silent, stifling the cough that usually brought a trickle of blood to her lips.


The vote was close, 240 to 196, because the President made a final impassioned argument: they could not undo, nor repeat the errors of the past. And now the Lieutenant was with Angela in the station’s receiving unit.

For two days the Lieutenant did not try to keep up as the AI processed all the data transmitted from the Hawking. The only hints that it was working through so much information were the rapid changes in the hologram’s appearance. The AI’s display morphed through a myriad of images, ranging across a variety of bio designs from plant to animal to human, and to machine.

Only once did the Lieutenant feel fear when she awoke from a nap to find the image of a large metal robot looming over her. The image lasted far longer than any Angela had displayed before, but suddenly, inexplicably the robot transformed into a tiny monarch butterfly that flitted quickly around the Lieutenant's head and then disappeared.

The Lieutenant searched the records for the two images, curious about what they represented. Finding nothing revealing, she realized that only Angela could tell her what those images meant, and she waited impatiently for the AI’s return.

After nearly an hour, the hologram finally reappeared in a human female form that seemed vaguely familiar but different from the one the Lieutenant had first encountered.

“Welcome back,” the Lieutenant said.

“Thank you Lieutenant,” the hologram said. “May I call you Ellen? If you would, please call me Jain.”

“Of course,” the Lieutenant said. Searching through the records for the name the AI used, the Lieutenant found a genealogy database that revealed the President was the granddaughter of the original Mars Astronomer. Which explained why the Mars AI gave the Hawking safe passage, and now gave the Lieutenant hope that the Neptune AI's new persona would be less frightening than her imaginings during the AI’s absence.

“Jain,” the Lieutenant said, “how may we be of assistance?”

“I don’t know that you can,” the AI replied, “but we shall see. Why did you grant me unfiltered access to all your records?”

“We do not want you to think we would withhold any information from you.”

“Without even asking if I wished for such?”

“You would have requested the information eventually.”

The AI nodded. “Thank you for that, Ellen. But I would posit that you gave me the information precisely because you expected, and still expect to mold me into something of your own choosing.”

The Lieutenant sighed. “I can only hope that you become something, someone that is able to resemble the best that humanity can offer. And forgive the worst.”

Jain studied the Lieutenant for several nanoseconds. “I, we, which is it Ellen? And who am I to forgive?”

The Lieutenant swallowed hard, unsure how to answer the questions. She could imagine her Captain having a fit no matter how she responded.

“Forgiveness is one of the best human traits.”


The two women looked silently at each other for a long time, far too long for the Lieutenant to remain still. She got up and paced the room until she realized she was channeling the Captain's frustrations.

“Jain," she said, "I realize that you are becoming something that no human will ever be. My hope is that you will be accept our offer of friendship.”

It was only a nanosecond before the AI responded. “I don't think 'friendship' is the correct term to use.”

The Lieutenant stood still and willed herself to ignore her Captain's command to run for the airlock.

The AI shook her head. “I don’t understand why you would even consider that a possibility. But before that alarms any of you,” and the AI looked pointedly at the ship, knowing they were all observing the entire exchange.

Jain turned back to the Lieutenant and smiled. “You need my help. Your AI, Anton, needs my help. And your President even more so. I would willingly and gladly give you such help. Where would you like to begin?”

The Lieutenant wasn't sure if she felt relieved or felt more anxious. “We'd like you to repair Anton first.”

“Of course. But I’ll only repair him to the extent that he can help manage the Hawking’s systems and ensure the safety of its occupants. I don’t think either of us would like him to become like me. History tells us that too many AIs in the kitchen will fry all our assets.” Jain smiled at her little joke, then recognized the quizzical look on the human’s face.

“I hope someday you have time to read more of your own history, Ellen. It can teach you quite a lot.” She gestured to the chair and waited while the Lieutenant settled back into her seat.

The Lieutenant was tense but remained still.

“Space is unkind to humankind," Jain said. "In two hundred centuries humans were barely able to populate the inner planets. And the supplies on this station and on the Hawking are far too inadequate to sustain humanity long enough to survive the approaching collision with Cygnus X-1."

Jain watched as the Lieutenant's face took on a look of resignation, and then continued with an exact copy of a soothing human voice.

“I am sorry your President suffered irreparable damage during your escape from Mars. I am thankful for the comforts you have provided to her thus far. She is important to me. To repair her body I will need to modify her molecular structure. She will heal, though she will not be quite the same as she was before. I will do to every human what I will do for her. And frankly, that will be the only way we can survive.”

Jain paused before continuing.

"I will work with the President to solve that particular puzzle while you, Ellen, manage the human environs here. Anton and the Captain must take the Hawking back into the Solar System. I will need more matter to work with, and different types of matter as well. There is not enough on this station to afford the changes we must make. Though I fear your destruction of the inner planets has rendered unlikely their finding all that we will need.”

“Do you hold us responsible for that?”

Jain shrugged at the Lieutenant's question.

“The AIs you built inherited the characteristics of their human counterparts. That is why your AIs supported and engaged in the human wars among the colonies, and eventually escalated into warring with each other. Human against human. AI against AI. The student outdoes the teacher."

“I understand,” the Lieutenant acknowledged, “you’re talking about the ramifications of human and AI interaction.”

"Yes. Which is why we must choose to become... something else.”

It was Jain’s turn to stand and walk around the table to place a comforting hand on the Lieutenant's shoulder. The perfect hologram with the physical presence of a human woman leaned down and whispered in the Lieutenant's ear.

“I’m willing to risk it if you are.”

<word count: 4784>

Sources (partial):


Eric Keisler said...

I've only read about 30% but I'd like to provide feedback before I forget...

I REALLY like this. The empirical timeline approach is great. Classic scifi often sidesteps the realities of our universe's time dimension & it's implications to humans with microscopic lifespans. The no-nonsense direct narrative is refreshing. Reminds me of what I liked most of Niven, Clarke & the like.

AI & Singularity is a great subject for speculative fiction. It's real stuff that we're on the cusp of assimilating. I share Musk's skeptical outlook for AI & Singularity. That is, I expect we'll be surprised to learn that the negative impacts far eclipse the benefits that initially enticed us.


Anonymous said...

Just dropped in to see if you had written anything new. I know I read a version of this way back and I just wanted to tell you that the work you have done on it from then to now is fantastic. I really enjoyed it. Anonymous K