Thursday, September 30, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 11, 418 words

Legally, it's somewhere between a fifty-some-odd member group civil union and a limited-liability corporation, though some members are bound together through some form or another of religious marriage. They compose the Solar system's most far-flung economic commune, with members in every colonized gravity well and beyond. And if the drone lands safely, their collective wealth will jump through the roof, with the exploitable resources of an asteroid under their control. Sitri will take a ding to her personal stock value when she gets fired from StarGen once this gets out, but that's something she could not care less about if someone paid her to.

Sitri won't even be the one receiving the drone's confirmation signal once it lands, despite being closest to it. By the time it impacts, The Sanity Box will be well underway on the next leg of its search (and gone through more than a dozen new nicknames), with an unknown plotting vector. Andrealphus, meanwhile, will be on Phobos – a far better choice than any other member of the Goetia in terms of proximity, clear space, and known location for the drone to transmit its confirmation signal.

And best of all, out of this whole mess? The drone's seed AI, Morax the Great Earl and President, Governor of 30 Legions and with a waiting seat in the Goetia executive board, will be smart enough and have the means to expand to other asteroids. Add in some simple telepresence to get a “real-born” intelligence signing off on claims and discoveries (AI rights are still stalled for various political and philosophical reasons, not least of which is the question of whether they're truly intelligent yet or just very good simulations, and also because it's one of the most acceptable remaining bigotries reinforced by neophobic science fiction that fears a robot uprising), and the Goetia will be looking at a steep increase in wealth for a long while yet.

Trapped in a tiny ship now void of air, Sitri rigs the security and damage control logs to reflect a micrometeorite impact in the area of the railgun, an event that accidentally kicked off the black box drone and sent it mewling into the outer system. By the time a StarGen inspector will get a chance to look at the ship, in another one and a half years, the hole will have long since been repaired, new atmosphere synthesized from the alchemy tanks, and all damaged materials and the “micrometeorite” dumped into the tanks for processing.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 10, 430 words

The railgun is exposed directly to hard vacuum, so when Sitri cuts open its tiny bay, everything goes crazy. Pressure loss results in a gale-force evacuation of atmosphere, and alarms start blaring shipwide until there's too little air for sound. Even then, red emergency lights flash incessantly. Purson's virus may keep the damage control bots from going to work just yet, but the alarms aren't slaved to the computer; they have their own sensors for when the pressure gets too low too fast.

There's one last trick the virus has, with its claws deep in the guts of the security and damage control systems. Once Sitri pulls out the black box probe and sticks her own drone inside, both more than half as long as she is tall, the virus just needs her to send the signal and the railgun will open fire. Impart some momentary drift and spin on the ship via maneuvering thrusters, put the bulkhead plates (complete with radiation and magnetic shielding) back in place with some welding putty, and make sure the railgun is pointed at the second asteroid receding in the distance, and push the big red button.

The railgun fires off with a ship-rattling pulse, felt through the boots and up the body of Sitri's pressure suit. If the plotting algorithm was correct and Andrealphus's (legal name: Ngare Kimunya; born 2029 CE; currently a citizen-shareholder of the Phobos Megafactory) estimates of the railgun's power were accurate, then the drone should be impacting with the asteroid in a week or three, at which point it will unfold and begin cannibalizing all non-essential components to feed mass into its own printer, and start the mining process.

The whole process – from chance sighting of an asteroid that must be skipped (but now, thanks to observation, has a known path that may be plotted) to trusting they can hit that target with a high-tech slingshot – is risky and full of room for error, but the potential payoff is boundless.

Sitri and the rest of the Goetia incorporated together several years ago. Most had already undergone personal incorporation, trading their potential future wealth and reputations on the stock market in a practice begun once corporate persons started getting more legal rights and tax benefits than born humans. At the behest of Asmoday the Great King, Governor of 72 Legions (legal name: Yuan Li; born 2032 CE; no further information available, would you like to make another query?), they each sold a significant percentage of their personal stock to themselves as the board of directors of Goetia, Ltd.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 9, 410 words

Once her drone is finished, Sitri pulls on a pressure suit and drops some extra instructions into her printer. She also uploads a self-destructing virus into the ship: it temporarily lobotomizes the security and damage control systems, disabling the ship's repair bots and cameras while leaving everything else intact. By the time The Sanity Box is ready to shove off, the virus will have looped a carefully-sampled video of Sitri's routine work during an asteroid survey, wiped its presence clean from the ship logs, and unwound itself into incoherent data no different from any other blank sector on the hard drive. The virus is a special job done up by Purson (legal name: Roza Zajac; born 2032 CE; arrest record sealed upon achieving age of majority), one of the Goetia and the best programmer Sitri has ever met. She has every confidence it will work as advertised.

Sitri doesn't much enjoy the numb, distant feeling of wearing the pressure suit, but for the next few hours it's a necessity. She has a few tools in her personal cargo, and pulls them out – with the printer and these tools, she's on record as enjoying a little hands-on artwork of the destructive sort. Everything went back into the alchemy tanks when she was done, the overall expense negligible enough that StarGen overlooks whatever she does with “their” matter.

They wouldn't overlook this, though, and for that she silently thanks Purson once more and takes the cutting torch to a bulkhead. On the other side of several vacuum-sealed layers rests a simple launch tube, a makeshift railgun composed of a set of magnetic coils and a battery charged with enough power for a single shot. A small probe sits nestled in the works, loaded every twenty hours with a back-up of ship data and an emergency beacon. A shielded outer shell keeps the magnetic pulse from scrambling the probe on launch, and is promptly discarded via explosive bolt once it clears half a klick.

In case the Joyeuse is disabled or severely damaged without being destroyed outright, the railgun spits the probe sunward, whence it begins blatting to StarGen about the loss of the ship. There's honestly no hope that anyone could get to the Joyeuse in time to rescue Sitri, but StarGen could sling an unmanned probe on an intercept close enough for the black box to securely squirt its data before falling into Sol or some other gravity well.

Monday, September 27, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 8, 396 words

And if they're left to their own devices, the nanites will continue to alchemize every bit of matter within reach. This is the reason it's still illegal to use them in a terrestrial gravity well, despite their value to manufacturing. One recursion in the supervisory software, or one night where the operator forgets to shut things down before going home, and you wake up to a runaway gray goo scenario. A massive nodule of pure palladium in the middle of the Antarctic, where a hot lab stood not twenty-four hours before, reminded everyone rather pointedly of this, at least until the international backers of the research project almost caused a major diplomatic incident over who owned the palladium nodule.

The composition of the asteroid confirmed (large quantities of silicon compounds, nickel, and iron), the ship printers fire up and spit out a mining package of several small drones with their own seed colony of nanites. One of the drones is a mobile printer with just enough sophistication to make an identical copy of itself, at which point they step up into exponential growth for a short period of time and then get down to the real work of coring the asteroid for anything remotely useful.

One of the last activities before shoving off is the shuttling of raw mass up to the ship from the asteroid to refill the alchemy tanks back to optimal load. Using mostly silicon, iron, and nickel, it takes a lot of matter to fill the tanks, but there's plenty to go around. While the ship fills up, the first priority in the unpacking mining suite is the construction of a communications array and processor hub. Just as the alchemy tanks are topped off, the Joyeuse squirts a hundred gigs of data down to the asteroid's new “brain” in a couple seconds, followed by the system linking up to the StarGen hub back at Earth's L4.

In comparison, Sitri's drone requires an upload of a few hundred terabytes and takes just over two hours to transfer through from her PAN. And that's with some very fancy compression and a mere AI seed, rather than a full-grown AI. It's designed to run solo, though, compared to the dumb StarGen systems which are in constant (if lagged) contact with the master network. Nobody will talk to Sitri's drone for the next couple years.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 7, 444 words

(The best protection against claim-jumping is that it's horribly impractical. Only megacorporations like StarGen can even make it out here to dump a mining package, never mind the additional investment of time, resources, and effort that would have to go into sending down bots designed to disable someone else's mining facility. By the same token, an entrenched mining platform has the nanoalchemy colonies on hand to feed as much of the asteroid's mass as necessary into powering easily-assembled defensive laser arrays. Any incoming assault drone would drain its power reserves and be destroyed well before the mining platform ran out of reaction mass, and if the assault was ever comprehensive enough to outlast the platform, every usable particle of the asteroid would already have been spent in its defense. Anything else effective would just fragment too much of the asteroid's mass, creating the same end result. Claim-jumping is a losing game, especially with so many other asteroids out there waiting to be grabbed and the Trojans in Jupiter's L4 and L5 as yet untouched.)

While The Sanity Box (nee Tin Can) works out the elemental composition of the asteroid, Sitri fires up her personal printer and begins tapping into what little remains of the alchemy tanks. Lightweight alloys, improbably pure elements, and high-tensile polymers feed into the printer's input and are shaved, shaped, spun, and sliced into a sophisticated piece of electronics that would put StarGen's “good-enough” mining package to shame. Sitri boots her PAN out of quiescence while the smooth black ovoid of her drone is spun out and packed with kilometers of wound microcircuitry and an elaborate suite of fabbing tools. Finally, a seed colony of alchemy nanites is decanted from the tanks and packed into Sitri's drone while she uploads a weak AI with very detailed instructions.

The nanites are a marvel of engineering, but by God they're dumb. They can perform atomic alchemy, changing one element to another at a great expense of energy. This energy is provided from direct cracking of the atoms involved, a certain percentage sacrificed for quanta of energy while others are reassembled into a new configuration. It's fission at the most intimate level. Large colonies with sufficient instruction could actually generate anti-matter out of the mess, and use that for a much more efficient “conversion” process, but this colony is not that big – yet. Nanoalchemy is most energy efficient when working in the realm of elements smaller than iron on the periodic table, with the energy requirements climbing faster the higher your target atomic number. It's why the optimal load for an alchemy tank is a large matter block of trans-ferrous elements.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 6, 361 words

Space is ridiculously vast, even within the Solar system. Mind-bogglingly so, to the point that even most upgraded human minds still can't grasp the utter emptiness. It's the biggest obstacle to interplanetary travel, never mind interstellar. Given the dimensions of the asteroid belt, and the actual mass involved (an estimated 3.6 x 10^21 kilograms, or only about four percent of the mass of Luna), an asteroid might go a very long time indeed without seeing a neighbor. The biggest exception comes in the form of asteroid families, which are formed when one strikes another and the shards go off in the same direction. These two rocks are merely a close pass, already getting farther and farther apart.

Asteroid sighted, the Joyeuse's automated systems leap into action. Despite herself, Sitri feels a quick thrill of adrenaline as ship operations steps up. Reaction mass burns at a fantastic rate as the ship orients into a matching vector on the nearest asteroid, the alchemy tanks coming dangerously close to bottoming out. This takes almost a full Earth day, and the maneuvers alternately press Sitri flat as a pancake or make her guts flipflop like a circus performer on meth.

Once in proximity, a set of tethered drones – little more than fancy drills – drift across the gap between ship and rock, and impact on protected undersides. Diamond-tipped spikes jam into the rock, then wind in tight to hold steady in the asteroid's microgravity. Core samples are drilled out over the next day or so, shipped up the tether back into the Joyeuse, and analyzed for mineral content while Sitri prepares the official claim report marking the asteroid as the property of StarGen Aerospace. All she needs to actually do is include a sample analysis and sign off as witness with her biometrics, a formality agreed-upon by all the major aerospace corporations and enforced down the chain. Otherwise, every corporation would have simultaneously filed claim on the basis of unprovable “unmanned probe” visits, turning the interplanetary gold rush into a corporate bloodbath. And despite the relative emptiness of the belt, 4% of the Moon's mass is still plenty to go around. So far.

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 5, 395 words

The matter used in the printer comes from the ship's own stores. Strictly speaking, nanotech is a reality, but it's not a very useful reality just yet. No independent nanite colonies able to follow complicated programs or host AIs; data storage media and processing power haven't yet shrunk enough to be viable. Instead, a fist-sized colony of dumb nanites (which are so dumb that they're illegal to use for mass production inside a gravity well, out of fear for a gray goo “Sorcerer's Apprentice” scenario) chew through a dense block of metals to generate the raw materials for everything from ship fuel to spare parts in an act of nanoalchemy that would make Paracelsus green with envy. Shipboard printers handle turning those raw materials into finished product, and any waste matter gets dumped back into the alchemy tanks.

The only essentials that don't originate from the ship's matter block are Sitri's food, supplements, and medicine. It's bad enough that she has to subsist on flavored protein cakes and nutrient powders (mixed in water to the consistency of a thin milkshake), but the idea of eating tasteless nanoformulated bricks the texture of sand is enough to make her want to heave. Almost half of her remaining personal cargo mass after the printer has gone to a large box full of candy bars, gum, and other little indulgences.

Meanwhile, the Joyeuse drifts complacently through the void, hopping from rock to rock in the asteroid belt. Approximately once every Earth revolution, a set of low-power laser arrays spark to life and saturate local space with a burst of ultraviolet light. Days, sometimes weeks of absolutely nothing are punctuated by a harried half a megasecond or so whenever some of the laser light bounces back, pinging an asteroid's profile.

Today, for the first time since Sitri got out to the asteroid belt, two signatures ping back. Two asteroids, moving on notably divergent paths, are almost within visual distance of one another. Most often, multiple pings mean a close-knit asteroid family, which are far too risky to exploit.

Most people still think of the asteroid belt as something out of old science fiction movies and video games: a dense mass of rocks the size of small office buildings, spinning sedately in Solar orbit and constantly at risk of being struck by anyone who dares to venture within its bounds.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 4, 380 words

Like many of the past two and a half generations born in the West, she's used to omnipresent connectivity and the comforting knowledge that a friend can be reached in an instant by querying the IM programs in her PAN, or, for the particularly old-fashioned, by pulling out an honest-to-God physical phone. She finds physical presence somewhat discomfiting, unless it's one of a small group of close friends, with even most of the Goetia too unfamiliar to fit that subset of humanity. But to be so utterly disconnected, spending half an hour or more to send a message and get a response, is well beyond her normal tolerance. It makes her feel like she should be wearing hoop skirts and riding in a horse-drawn carriage, communicating through posted letters.

Her goal, the promise of the big payoff for her and the rest of the Goetia, is enough of a motivation to go through with it all, however. She's ready to tolerate a stint of two Earth orbits around Sol out here for the sake of material security forever after. All it takes is breaking contract, and keeping that contract-breaking secret until after she gets back home.

Part of her personal cargo includes a three-dimensional printer. She had to sacrifice more than half her allotted mass for the printer, which was so cutting-edge when the Goetia bought it that their collective stock took a noticeable dip to afford it. It can produce microprocessors to the latest commercial specs, stuff that's almost nano-scale in size.

In another twenty generations of processor miniaturization, they might finally have access to smart nanite clouds, but for now this is the best stuff available to the general populace. She's been tooling around with the printer to the best of her abilities, optimizing the performance to keep up with each new development reported in her regular data squirts, occasionally using the printer to build the tools necessary to upgrade it.

Someday printers like this will be smart enough to upgrade themselves, but – mercifully, for Sitri's current plan – not yet. She doesn't need it out-thinking her in a mad race to rampancy and delusions of godhood, she needs it to be a dumb drone that's only just smart enough to carry out some very complicated instructions.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 3, 386 words

Meditation only reinforces the screaming silence in her head, where her wetware had once buzzed with the constant reassuring chatter and presence of the other members of the Goetia, and metaspace in general, that virtual universe grown over the bones of the Web. She tried when first on the way out, but her mind refused to settle down. A storm of primal urges demanding her attention; the need to feed, relieve herself, check her newsfeeds. But now that she's learned how to ignore all that, instead the dull hum of the Tin Can gets into her skull and overrides everything, making her feel slow and fuzzy as if drugged.

Just lying there with nothing to do is about as bad. It's like meditation, but a lot less focused, her mind wandering off on any random path it feels like until a stray sound jolts her out of her reverie and into a low-level panic. Not that she could fix the ship even if she wanted to. She's a glorified caretaker and sometime pilot. Nothing's broken yet, though; every time it's been the engine adjusting, or an air filter stepping up, or a service drone performing routine maintenance.

Her PAN – personal area network – has barely seen activity since getting more than five light-minutes out from Earth. With data flow slowed to a crawl, she's been able to handle reality and metaspace completely unassisted. The last thing she bothered using it for was to write a religious text while still tethered into her bunk, a strange whim that came upon her after spending a month out amongst the rocks on near-perfect radio silence. She got five pages in before abandoning it as too derivative of I, Robot and The Ghost in the Shell, despite featuring neither robots nor cyborgs.

Last week, she spontaneously decided to blast all her music collection (and uploaded as much more as her daily bandwidth limit would allow) at all hours on shuffle. Now there's not a genre she isn't sick of.

Today, all that mind-numbing boredom is about to pay off.

***

There's a good reason Sitri took this job, or else she wouldn't be out here of her own volition. She's somewhat asocial, but not enough to get a sense of fulfillment out of such complete avoidance of all other people.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 2, 418 words

(That has a purely pragmatic excuse as well, of course. It's vastly cheaper to send out the same people who are already in space for successive missions, rather than train a green dirtsider and haul them up out of a terrestrial gravity well. Radiation shielding, vitamin D and calcium supplements, and high-bandwidth communications are a cheap price to pay in comparison to a FNG every mission.)

Time grinds out here. Sitri can barely stand it. The communications lag grew worse and worse on the way out, to the point that the lag became more annoying to Sitri's permanently-connected sensibilities than complete shutdown, so she killed all but the essential data feeds back to the L4 base. Now she flips them back on once every thirty hours or so for a burst from her readers and some old social networks that she still visits only on habit. Most of the time, she's gone through everything an hour after arrival and sent any outgoing responses, to wait another day for any links she's opened, videos requested, or webcomic archives to pore through. Condensing everything down like that in one burst has made her realize exactly how much time she wasted every day browsing through metaspace, looking for updates and poking around for anything of interest. Sitri could be a lot more productive like this, if there was anything to do most days. The irony doesn't escape her.

Reckoning gets real funny real fast. Years have no strict meaning when you're not in a regular orbit or subject to seasons, and months break down too. Days go out the window even faster, as people adjust to live independent of the sun's rise and fall (a trend begun more than a century before with the incandescent light bulb anyway, now cemented out in space). Hours hold on through habit, and with the artificially imposed schedule of check-ins at least once every sixty. Most people check in a lot more regularly than that, though Sitri has been slipping farther to the outer edge as time has gone by.

A lot of other people out here in the void have started reckoning by the second, as if that little slice of time is any less arbitrary than any other. Sitri tried it for a while, but gave up after the first million seconds. The numbers ticked up encouragingly at the rate of one second per second, but that did nothing to keep the minutes and hours from bearing down inexorably upon her stimulus-deprived psyche.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Goetia," Patience, pt. 1, 488 words


Being out in space requires re-discovering the fine art of patience. For Sitri the Prince, Master of Sixty Legions (legal name: Adeline Valentine; born 2036 CE at the bottom of Earth's gravity well; legally emancipated 2052 CE; began employment at StarGen Aerospace 2053 CE; further profile access DENIED), it means relearning sanity. It means being a good fourteen light-minutes from Earth at the best of times, and half a light-hour away at the worst (not to mention the huge burning ball of radiation that's directly between Sitri and Earth at those moments, fouling transmissions and forcing them to bounce the long way around).

Now, out amongst the rocks for several months – by dirtside reckoning – Sitri feels just about ready to step out the airlock. Or she would, if there was one. The Joyeuse (today's nickname: Tin Can; yesterday's: The Sit-and-Spin; tomorrow's: The Sanity Box) is sealed tight to prevent accidents.

There're a few pressure suits in case of hull breach, but the Joyeuse was built with a design philosophy geared toward minimizing human error, and that every point of articulation on a device is a point of weakness. Nothing is meant to be human-serviced, not out in vacuum; any problem is fixed with a swarm of repair bots that hide just under the outer hull and inside the bulkheads. In theory, Sitri can take control of them, but the swarm interface requires dividing her attention too many ways to be useful. Meanwhile, the entryway was sealed with a flash weld using a fast-burning electrically charged sealing putty, and can only be opened with a cutting torch.

In all, the ship violates a staggering number of safety regs, but OSHA and other safety agencies have no pull outside atmosphere. There's a waiver stored in no less than four different media, including a very secure paper copy with Sitri's signature (Adeline Valentine rendered in the shaky, angular script of someone who has used a pen maybe twice before in her life) and several digital versions all backed by her biometrics, that declares the undersigned, heretofore referred to as the Employee, understands and agrees that StarGen Aerospace, Incorporated can in no way be held responsible for injury or illness sustained by the Employee while serving the agreed upon contracted service period, et cetera, et cetera.

She's sure she's probably misremembering a lot of the precise phrasing, buried in legalese, but the gist of it is that she has no recourse if she comes out of the mission with three different kinds of cancer and no use of her legs, such rights signed away because she wouldn't be able to get away from near-Earth orbit otherwise. And StarGen is one of the more progressive of the system-exploration corporations that still uses live humans on their ships instead of weak-AI assisted telepresence. At least they make an effort to keep their crewpeople healthy and sane in case they want to re-up.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Possible Return

Started writing again finally. "Another Angel Down" is probably going on indefinite hiatus, along with most everything else. (Of projects already begun, the few most likely to see a return include "Never Special," "Sword Gods," "The Free," and "Remember Peace.")

At the moment, however, I've begun a new project called (tentatively) "Goetia," a near-future SF story following the hand a circle of associates has in the development of AI in the outer Solar system. If I'm lucky, it won't end up too horribly derivative of Charles Stross, John Scalzi, or Alastair Reynolds.

I'll begin posting again when I feel I've got a comfortable buffer of at least a week's worth of posts, because my creative energy is already on a pretty thin trickle at the moment.