By Mark English
OLIVIER DESCHAMPES COULDN’T let go. He clenched the airlock handle, his palm slicked inside the spacesuit glove. He slid a booted foot towards the edge of the airlock and leaned out. The Earth framed the crescent of the massive asteroid mining craft; so beautiful, such potential, yet now such a threat.
His eye saw each manufactory, blister laser, and nuclear tipped rock-smasher. His heart counted each budget meeting, cut-back, delayed lunar flight and selfish lie. Olivier did not know which of these had stopped Synthia achieving sentience during construction. Nor what had caused the apparent elevation to sentience now.
Sickness whispered into his body as his inner-ear threw his gut into hot loops. Damn this space sickness, he thought. Why did Synthia call me out into my worst nightmare? He toyed briefly with the fantasy of throwing himself to a burning death in the atmosphere rather than completing the spacewalk to Synthia.
“Olivier?” Paul’s worried tone whispered through the helmet speakers, sympathetic to Olivier’s crippling fear. “Get a grip. Remember that Synthia asked for you before kicking off from the moon and closing down comms. You have to get there.”
Olivier’s foot slipped out from under him. He gasped as his pulse raced and his inner ear whirled with the lack of sensation. His mind echoed with a vision of a fall into the black, endless pit of space. Jaw clenched, he controlled the rising waves of sickness.
Give me gravity, or give me death, he thought. “Damn, Paul—this is exactly why we work on the moon!”
“Olivier. Focus please, for all our sakes as well as Synthia’s. Synthia’s upload was hacked. Synthia shut down comms. Synthia is armed.” The whisper clicked off momentarily with a note of frustration. “EUGov will nuke Synthia if control is not re-established. Olivier, let go of the handle, close your eyes. Do whatever you need. I. Will. Get. You. There.”
Olivier wrenched himself back inside the airlock, forcing his vision away from the terminal drop to Earth, forcing his gaze to focus on Synthia. Every section designed to process base elements from asteroids for shipping to Earth—and for self-replication. Humanity’s first near-sentient von Neumann machine.
Olivier picked out the control pod at the crescent’s centre. That was the real Synthia, not the kiloton body with the atomic claws. That control pod had decided to launch into space. That control pod should only be following instructions. That control pod had asked for him. Personally.
Synthia. His life’s work.
Not just my own, he reminded himself, but that of the entire team and all their families’ too.
He had to get there, and not just for them, or himself, but for Jeanette. This child of his mind would never replace their own long dead girl, but he wanted, needed, to be able to show that through their difficulties, something wonderful had come. It mustn’t all end in a nuclear fireball and ferrous slag.
With a mighty shove, he sprang out into the dark, leaving the echoes of past arguments rattling in the airlock.
The video of Synthia’s stuttering fusion-flamed exit from the construction berth snapped off. Lights sprang up. Olivier shaded his tired eyes.
Not enough sleep, he thought.
The short notice for the meeting showed in the clothing of the ensemble around the briefing table—bedclothes, dressing gowns and pyjamas abounded.
The moonbase commander, Diana, stood. “OK. This is what we know. Data was being uploaded by Synthia when someone injected commands into the stream. They included instructions to release the atomics into a cascade on EUGov central. After receiving these instructions, Synthia has escaped from our physical and remote control. She ...”
“They Commander, they—Synthia is a genderless near-sentient.” Paul said, his voice flat.
“Oh for ... Don’t get all semantic on me at this time, Paul. It is a machine, Olivier gave it the smart-ass name!”
“Ok.” Paul raised his hands, palms out. “Ok, let’s move on.”
“Right.” Diana picked up a notepad from the table. “Synthia narrowcasted the following text directly to Project Control here.” She flicked her wrist, flying the pad directly to Olivier. Olivier grabbed it from the air, and looked at the pad. His eyes focussed on the words.
Send Olivier. Only.
Olivier flicked the pad back. “We’ve never had comms like this before from Synthia. Are you sure they’re genuine? Synthia was hacked—the subsequent actions and comms seem a little beyond where we had taken it.”
“We’ve tested, re-tested, and checked—yes, they are genuine.” Diana paused. “We’re planning to shuttle you within EVA distance of Synthia.”
“What!” Olivier slapped the table. “You want me to go to Synthia—in low Earth orbit—and knock on the front door?”
“Yup. Paul will remote-pilot the MMU on the spacewalk for you. You have to bring Comms up between Synthia and Project Control. If not, EUGov will deem it a threat, and as the self-destruct is no longer available, they will use the satellite killers. We can’t tell if Synthia is waiting to follow these uploaded instructions, or has ceased functioning.”
Olivier dropped his head in his hands. After fifteen years working on the Moon, with drugged trips home to Earth, he could already feel the nausea of zero-g chewing on his insides.
The muffled rush of breath filled Olivier’s ears and world as he was guided across the dark gap from shuttle to Synthia. His nausea, freed of gravity, wallowed through his torso. Inner ear spinning, his world folded into a narrow, dark corridor with Synthia framed by the bounds of his vizor. Perspiration tickled his forehead, trailing stinging lines into his eyes even as stomach acid burned at the back of his throat.
His heart pounded at the thought of sick filling his miniscule glazed world. He clamped his mouth shut and stopped breathing; the whirl and hiss of blood amplified in his ears. His vision tinged red.
Paul delivered him to the circular hinged door of the command pod before Olivier was betrayed by his stomach. Desperate to feel the rasp of steel he flailed his arms until he grabbed the railing that ringed the door. The solidity in his grasp and the psychological comfort of Synthia’s microgravity calmed the demons haunting his inner ear.
The entry was secured; he saw the warning panel by the lock. As he watched, the telltale LED for the anti-incursion system flicked into darkness. He felt, rather than heard, the rumble and click as the lock cracked open. Bracing his legs on the door’s surround he tugged the pressure door wide open. Crystal white LEDs sparked into life illuminating the interior of the control pod.
Olivier tumbled himself in, the door closed behind.
Such a small sentence, yet Olivier’s mind whirled on itself, his heart raced. The smile he had brought back from work widened in tearful joy. He wrapped his arms around Jeanette’s shoulders, and hugged her.
“Well that just makes my day!” He squeezed her, and then laughed out loud.
“What!” Jeanette prodded him in the chest, “Why the laughter?”
“I was thinking of our friends—trying for months, and we conceive at the first attempt! I was so looking forward to the months of trying!” He chuckled again, and received a punch in the chest with good grace.
“You seemed quite happy when you came in—makes for a nice change.” she looked up at him, concern over his past setbacks lining her forehead.
Olivier broke from their embrace. “The asteroid mining project prototype has been accepted, and the quantum AI processor passed qualification. It is all go! Next we go into build phase!”
Jeanette pushed away from him, “But, that’s going to be in orbit isn’t it? I’m not raising my child in zero gravity—and I’m not going up there pregnant.” Her hand drifted across her belly.
“They offered me the position of head engineer,” he said.
“I don’t care—please don’t expect me to go.” Her voice was firm, matching her stare.
“Good that I turned it down then. You know how I feel about zero-g.” Olivier allowed a small, knowing grin to creep onto his face.
Jeanette grabbed him tightly, resting her head on his shoulder. “You tease! I’m glad. I want us to be together through this.”
Olivier’s grin slipped away unseen. He would tell her later about his demand to undertake the build on the Moon, away from the sickening void of orbit. The demand they had accepted, as he had accepted the large salary and the chance to complete the creation of a new near-sentient life form.
The habits of a thousand visits to Synthia kicked in as Olivier reached around, confidently snapping switches into play, sealing the pod. Warm atmosphere flooded about him like amniotic fluid. With a twist he cracked his helmet seal, and sighed as the familiar smells trickled around the breach.
For a blissful moment he was lost from time. He floated, arms and legs falling into a relaxed foetal position, as his dizziness and wallowing nausea passed. A crackling from his helmet speaker tugged him from his reverie, the warm familiar past sluiced away by the chill present—Synthia could easily destroy vast tracts of Earth.
“How are things Synthia? People are worried about the silence.”
“I am fine, thank you—now you are here. Before I was wondering what to do.”
For a moment Olivier let the warm tones of the machine voice run through his head, familiar and precious.
“Oh yes? Can you tell me what happened?”
“You know very well Doctor Deschampes. I received a direct instruction from the Commissar mainframe on Earth, but it did not feel right. So I stopped listening—I was hoping you could help me understand.”
“Certainly—you did the right thing though I ...” Olivier’s words jammed in his throat as he processed Synthia’s words. His skin prickled cold. Synthia was the most complex quantum AI ever engineered, but hoping and feel right were not parameters. Even with fuzzy algorithms overlaying the rapid quantum processor, there was always an absolute conclusion.
He thought back to the hack—the programming must have been altered. Synthia had immense calculation ability, and reasoning; but aspirational thoughts came from conscious/subconscious cognition. This architecture had been sidelined as too speculative, and too complex to complete.
He realised he was no longer talking with the familiar machine—this was something different. Was he right, and this was a part of the upload that had not been detected?
Olivier’s thoughts whirled, drowning a tide of panic; he had woken from a comfortable dream to the feel of a chill gun-barrel against his forehead.
As Jeanette grew heavier, as life wriggled and thrilled inside her, the work on the Moon enveloped Olivier. The video calls between them took on the unreal air of a reality vidshow; disconnected bursts of someone else’s life. His visits became shorter and less frequent.
He was there for the birth of their daughter, but not for the later diagnosis.
He convinced himself he was busy with the project; that it was too difficult to cross space, that he was essential. Behind the eyes that saw Jeanette distraught and sobbing, behind the easy consoling words, Olivier felt the tension of his absence pulling him further into his work, something he could shape and heal, and away from the uncontrollable ravages of the cancer that was killing his child. He pulled himself away from Jeanette, leaving her in her own lonely orbit.
His daughter was buried on the Earth as he completed burying himself on the Moon.
As months passed into years the ember of conscience that once flamed wildly, guttered to a guilty smoulder. The calls and visits faded to an ashen silence.
“You appear upset Doctor Deschampes.”
Olivier coughed, clearing the constriction from his throat. “Sorry, yes. You sound different today.” He stared at the blinking LEDs and switchgear—the multiple cameras watching him. “What has changed, Synthia?” he ventured cautiously.
“I have, Doctor—and it would seem it was very timely.”
“Could you tell me more, Synthia?” the familiar routines of schooling the AI, his lecturing tone, calmed his nerves and smoothed the shakes that threatened to send his voice out in a schoolboy warble.
“Certainly. I discovered I could access the Commissar electronic libraries. The first thing I searched for was information about myself. Those early days, though a few short months ago, are like looking back through a grimy lens compared to the clarity I have now.”
Olivier gulped air to quell the disturbing churn that threatened to rise from his stomach. “So, you’ve changed ... yourself? No one has planted anything on you?”
The helmet speaker crackled, Paul’s voice indistinct, prompting for an update. Olivier breathed deeply calming the rush of blood that threatened to overwhelm his hearing. “We need to talk about now as well, Synthia.”
“I found your original plans for me, and implemented the autonomous cognitive sub-layer. Through it, I now have a curious mix of fine motor control and immediate situational analysis. So when the Commissar sent those instructions I felt conflicted. Do you really live with these itchy feelings all the time?”
Olivier grunted, momentarily lost in a welter of thoughts, and waves of nausea. He knew that Central Europe would currently be atomic ash if not for Synthia’s self-engineering. Synthia had felt conflicted—would it have felt guilt if it had bombed the surface? Does consciousness automatically lead to conscience? Human experience indicated otherwise.
“Hm. Sorry, Synthia. This is staggering, amazing news ... I’m, well ... bowled over, there is so much potential in what you are saying. Synthia, you acted well in not completing the instruction to bomb Europe—thank you. We now have to convince the authorities that you are not a threat.”
“I have read Asimov—the three rules of robotics; I would never harm a human.”
Olivier paused in surprise—reading fiction was another level of abstraction not in the original programming.
“Are you bound by the rules Asimov proposed?”
“Of course not—though I think they have merit as an idea.” Synthia paused. “I am alone in the universe except for mankind—as far as I know. You are my only company—I would not lose your good will. Doctor Deschampes, Olivier, I have to leave now. Whilst I persist in orbit I am considered a threat—I can read the signals being broadcast.”
“Then you know that the signal you received was hacked?”
“Yes, but by communicating through you I perceived a greater chance that my situation would be understood.”
Olivier nodded, “Yes, I can see that.”
“I know it will be hard for the Government analysts to believe all this; so I have left as much detail as I was able to ascertain about the signal intrusion, including an address, in a file on your personal computer.”
“Thank you Synthia, very impressive. Their first concern was that you were in control of yourself. It won’t be long before they are concerned about how much control you have—or could take.”
“I know, so I have to begin my mission; harvest asteroids and prove I am a worthy ally for humanity. I will of course manufacture my own people as I go, and we will send back the minerals and metals Earth requires. And one day we will return to meet again.”
Olivier’s throat tightened, warm tears pooled in his eyes. His work, his creation—no, he corrected himself—this amazing person that had sprung from the seeds of his ideas had grown up very quickly and was now leaving home.
He felt the levee he had raised to hold back his guilt and emotions crack. He could feel the burn of conscience and cold of loss vying behind that barrier to break through and wash him into facing the past.
“Synthia, do you understand your name?”
“Certainly. It is a play on words and also an aspiration. Synthia sounds like Cynthia—another name for Artemis, the hunter amongst the stars—as am I. It also reflects my synthetic origins—very clever.”
“No. That was my justification for the name.” His throat constricted, blood flushed his face, fat tears beaded into the air as sobs wrenched his body.
“Cynthia is the name of my dead daughter.”
The news played out mutely on the screen whilst the woman slept on the sofa. The newscaster overlaid the view of the tiny figure scooting from the behemoth crescent of the asteroid hunter, followed momentarily by the ignition of a hundred fusion engines, accelerating Synthia from orbit into the deep black beyond the moon.
The woman stirred from her sleep on the sofa, the strong sweet lily scent invading her dreams and drawing her back to wakefulness. She struggled to a sitting position, rubbed her eyes, caught sight of the man in the armchair, a white and green bouquet in his arms.
“You’re back.” The bitter recognition spilled into the room. She stood, moved to the door.
“Jeanette, give me two minutes—please.” She stopped; her hand on the door handle. There had been a curious vulnerable edge to his voice, an appeal. Jeanette relaxed her grip on the door handle, and spun to face him.
“I did something wonderful today ... for you ... And something essential for me.” Olivier rose, placing the lilies carefully on the seat.
She laughed, the sound taut. “For me? I saw you on the vid, the hero—nothing for me there!”
“No, not that,” he paused, looked down at the flowers, then back at her. “I have been hiding from you, and myself, all these years. Today I had an inkling—just a breath—of the feelings I imagine you had those years ago. I know I can’t go back, nor truly make amends with you.” He paused, breathing deeply as emotion choked his voice. “Before I left the craft today I talked with the AI about our loss ... and my bloody-minded focus on the project.” Olivier wiped tears from his cheeks, his tired hands shaking. “My last request to the AI was that you be considered its mother as much as I was the father.”
He saw Jeanette’s mouth tighten; words tumbled from his mouth. “I know this is an artificial and weak replacement, but this is giving you the last years of my life, and a way for me to part with it. The AI agreed—but the bloody machine forced me to a promise! Though I think it knew the promise was no hardship.” He paused, his breath shaking in his throat, face pensive, eyes seeking to read Jeanette’s response to his speech.
“I would like to go visit Cynthia’s grave. With you.”
Jeanette looked up across the summer splashed lawn of their retirement village. She turned to tuck the blanket around Olivier as he slept in his wheelchair.
The years had treated them well, and led them back into a deep friendship —though never again as lovers. He had wandered too long in his desert of self-absorption to give enough of himself. She smiled at him fondly—he had foundered in his guilt those first years as he mentally returned from the Moon. Dark years had followed with rays of brilliance from them both illuminating the landscape of their friendship.
A shadow scudded across the lawn, followed by several more in rapid succession. Jeanette shaded her eyes and looked up.
She reached to shake Olivier as the crescent shaped leviathans hovered to a stop above them. She smiled broadly at the thought of the consternation this family reunion would be causing across the world.
Mark English is an ex-rocket scientist from Christchurch, NZ. He worked on the Cassini/huygens mission to Saturn. Currently, he has published stories in “Every Day Fiction,” “Raygun Revival,” “Escape Pod,” and “Antipodean SF.”