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Proxima Centauri B
15 Aug 2018
Five years ago, the semi-automated MoonMax-class freighter Magellan2050 launched from the space station at Lagrange 4. Aboard for the fifteen-year flight were two maintenance men, the barest minimum as a cost saving measure.
"I dreamt of the beach again last night," Cordell said.
"I use learning tapes to inhibit the bad dreams," Nate chuckled.
"But you like that philosophical garbage. It bores me. Some professor drones on about Man and Superman, Situation Ethics, and worst of all, Existentialism. No less a devil for that. It's a miasma of doubt black enough that no sky leaks through. Doesn't help me. Doesn't comfort me," Cordell said. Nate had seen him grow progressively depressive. He wouldn't use the learning tapes, and dangerous psychoses could develop if a human mind didn't have a favorable body image.
"I'd like a be a professor of Philosophy on Centauri B."
"You and what diseased social planner thought Centauri B required a philosopher?" Cordell said. He wanted reason and logic. Nate would have shrugged off Cordell's comment, but this mechanical body didn't shrug.
"Philosophy gives life meaning."
"Philosophy is a ghastly douche-bag filled with god's swill." Cordell sneered, venomously. Nate stopped talking. Together, they wrestled a new hatch into place for Cargo Hold 237. A pea-sized chunk of rock damaged the hatch. Such impacts were rare. Finished, the white tunnel of transference ended the work period, shifting their minds from the maintenance robots back to their human bodies. Maximum ten hours in maintenance robots, minimum two hours in their bodies - - supposedly protected from the dangers of spaceflight.
The Magellan2050 was twelve miles long, five miles wide, and six miles high, packed with building materials and power supplies sufficient for a dozen small cities. There, fifteen hundred engineers and scientists were terraforming the planet into a new earth.
Each work period began the same: The ship's A.I. woke their minds but not their bodies. Repairs and maintenance that required human intellect to perform used anthropomorphic bodies to maintain a psychologically healthy human body-image. This new work period's assignment - - check the alignment and calibration of the radar dishes and sensor arrays along the spine of the cargo ship - - would require the maximum ten hours.
"Motion and balance are good. The servomotors check out, and tactile sensation is better than expected," Cordell said, routinely. The radio carried his voice. His robotic face remained expressionless.
"My readouts look good," replied Nate. They walked across the exterior of the maintenance dock exposed to the vacuum of space. Alignment and calibration of the several hundred radar and sensor arrays required tedious measurements.
Nate started checking the forward-looking long-range sensors. Cordell went aft to analyze the messages received from the Space Station at Lagrange Four. The original designers considered only that dangers existed forward of the freighter and forgot that Space is three dimensional. An asteroid traveling at right angles to the line of flight split The first MoonMax class freighter into two parts. The Magellan2050 was designed to detect and defend against sideways asteroid approaches.
Hours later, Nate and Cordell met at the middle and transmitted their results to Centauri B and Earth.
"These long shifts makes me twitchy," Cordell said.
"Yeah, after days like today, I start to see myself as metal. That's why I learn Philosophy. Try it. Tomorrow is a short workday."
Without warning, radiation alarms sounded from the forward array.
The exterior sensors detected a beam of high energy gamma rays and the accompanying ionizing radiation. The warning satellite died with insufficient time to cover their CPU's with lead shielding.
"What is happening to the advance satellite?" Cordell yelled to the A.I., his electronic voice carrying his fear.
"I theorize a gravity anomaly collimated a gamma ray source. There was a ping from the satellite before it fried," the A.I answered. It provided the Gamma Ray source, direction, and the duration and began isolating the navigation computer for a complete shutdown. If the electronics in their robotic bodies ionized and burnt, they couldn't restart the computers and the ship would be lost to a distant star's gravity well.
Nate and Cordell floated alongside the freighter, exposed and vulnerable.
"We have about ten minutes to get shielded. The only part of the ship with that much lead shielding is the Quantum Drive."
They rocketed along the exterior with their navigation jets blazing. Behind them sacrificial sensors died as the Gamma Ray beam sliced across the freighter, moving relentlessly from bow to stern.
"Damn, either those gamma rays are moving fast, or the ship is." Nate aimed his robot to come alongside the Quantum Drive.
"Doesn't matter who moves. The beam will fry our electronics if it catches us."
They deployed grappling hooks and grabbed for handholds on the side of the Quantum Drive barely ten-seconds before the beam blasted the opposite side. The Gamma Rays lasted five minutes and stopped as suddenly as it began. Only Nate, Cordell and the navigation computer were operative.
"Nothing in the flight manuals describe what to do about a Gamma beam like that, or an A.I. shut down. The ship is dead and so are we if we don't get the sensors, the communications array, and the A.I. up and running," Nate said. Drones could repair the sensors but not their controllers and the data network. Cordell signaled the repair drones; most survived the gamma rays.
"Repairs will take days. Can we afford to be away from our bodies that long?"
"No choice. Work fast. I'll take the forward arrays; you take the aft." Nate aligned the robot's jets and checked his fuel levels.
"Cry stupid and let slip the drones of repair," Cordell said.
"In our case, Rome will be built in one long day, our day. At least until we get this freighter flying again," Nate wanted to wink but the robot body couldn't. He flew to the bow of the ship.
The gamma rays burnt three-quarters of the computer chips in the forward array and melted much of the wiring leading into the controllers. The lead shields must not have had time to deploy. Nate released a second squad of drones to repair the wiring. Half a shift later, two miles of controllers worked as they should. That was enough to protect the front half of the freighter.
He tried to query the status of the forward communications dish on the bowsprit. It didn't reply. He floated to the dish. An asteroid strike destroyed the Low Noise Amplifier. The hole explained the reason for the lack of communications from the advance satellites. He radioed Cordell to finish his portion of the sensor array. Even with the big maintenance drones, replacing the LNA was a full shift for two men. Nate finished it in half the time single-handed. The amount of data he had to store in his internal systems to operate parts of the freighter troubled him, but he had no choice.
Nate and Cordell met amidships at the robot docking station. Rebooting the A.I. took the second shift. Restarting the freighter's internal systems and updating them took a third shift.
"I feel old and tattered. I want to feel a warm bed and listen to soft jazz." Cordell said, leaning on the console, plugging into the A.I., and preparing to dump his data.
"We both need a rest. It's well past time to return to our bodies." Nate plugged into the A.I. and began the download. As the freighter came to life, baseline functions appeared on the control surfaces. Complex systems capable of analyzing routine spaceflight started and lit screens built into the bulkhead. Regular maintenance and repair systems searched the vast bulk of the freighter for additional damage.
"I'm getting hinky readings that we aren't in deep hibernation," Cordell tapped a control panel and activated the cameras in their hibernation chamber. Both bodies were burnt black from gamma irradiation. "What the hell happened to our bodies?" he said.
"A.I. explain what we see on the screen," Nate ordered.
"Shielding insufficient to prevent gamma ray damage."
"That's not what the specifications were. Explain."
The A.I. stayed silent as it searched through the "as-built" data and delivered the explanation without emotion or guilt. "Living quarters shielded on two sides and made rotatable. Insufficient time to rotate the chamber. Death resulted."
"What new Moloch decided that?" Cordell asked not expecting an answer. The A.I., however, did answer.
"Decision to use lead shielding for the human transports and not for freighters made by Construction Manager." An image of the memo ordering the construction gang to skimp on lead in the Magellan2050 appeared on a video screen. It ended with the handwritten message: "tough shit," followed by initials.
"They have killed us," Cordell said. Nate didn't want to give up that easily.
"How can we survive years in artificial units," Nate asked the A.I.?
"Five of ten psychologists consulted recommended anthropomorphizing the mechanical unit and inducing theta wave sleep," the A.I. answered.
"What did the other five recommend?" Cordell asked. The A.I. didn't respond.
Nate commanded: "A.I. Explain further."
"No further information available."
That was the A.I.'s kiss off. Nate and Cordell stepped back from the control consoles, their robotic bodies assuming human positions and mannerisms. Cordell beat a metal fist against the bulkhead. Bits of his robotic hand broke and flew into space.
"They stuck us together with glue and bailing wire and made us disposable and got their dozen more paying passengers on some transport. But, we're dead! Tough shit! We're dead."
Nate didn't share Cordell's verdict.
"I'm not. Because some idiot built this freighter on the cheap isn't my reason to die. As Descartes says: 'I think. Therefore I am,'" Nate said.
"You blithering fool. Ain't nothing like being dead, declared dead, stamped dead, face kicked dead and denying it. You might not think it, but if they didn't kill one man, they killed two. They drove lead stakes into our god damn stupid dead hearts. And now, I know what to do." Cordell's anger came through the electronics.
"Listen to me, there's enough material onboard for new bodies and create new systems to stay sane."
"And make what of me and you? Fake men? Men with a love of computer racks and tiny screws? Men who can't breathe? Boxes on wheels controlling toilets and stop lights? Not me!" Cordell launched his metal body toward the rear of the freighter where the Quantum Drives spewed their atomic fire. Nate followed trying to talk him out of his path. He got no response over several channels.
Cordell slowed as he approached the Quantum Drive. "Tell the bastards, I'm through," he said and flew into the exhaust of the Quantum Drive. His metal body shimmered in the exhaust for a few seconds before it dissolved into ions and dissipated in the emptiness of space.
Nate was alone. Informing Centauri B would do no good. He floated in space and planned how to stay alive for the next ten years.
"A.I. can I add Theta waves to the charging station? If so, do it, and show me the patterns on an oscilloscope." The A.I. complied. Nate added random variations to the Theta wave and stored it in the charging station's electronics. His robotic body wouldn't charge as fast, and his intellect would relax. "Second, did Lagrange Four upload my psychological database? If so, give me access and enable sorting into episodes." Once again, the computer complied. Nate sorted the database and stored it in his private storage area on the computer. He added the circuitry to the charging station that would cover the episodes into dreams as his robotic body slept. Then he rested and recharged his batteries.
In subsequent "days" defined by battery life and charging cycles, he scavenged the freighter and built a robotic model of a human body complete with artificial skin, hair, and facial expressions. Getting the new anthropomorphic body ready took a year of flight time and another year of adjustments. He created a replica of an apartment in a cargo bay and transferred between his robotic body and the human replica. The details kept him sane.
When the Magellan2050 reached the seven and a half year midway point, his metal body functioned much the same as his dead flesh and blood body. He kept the freighter functioning and on course for the duration. When he docked, the colonists of Centauri B welcomed a complete, functional and very metallic new citizen of their world. The first of a new race of man.
2040 words more or less
FUTURES YET UNKNOWN
Ten Stories by Dave Fragments
*An Alien serial murderer and a furry detective with fleas.
*Murder on a world with altered humans.
*Disturbing apocalyptic visions *Monstrous dystopian societies.
*A man on trial for betraying the human race to robots.
*Devils, demons and ghosts.
*Survivors of a plague war.
*Cyborgs trying to be human.
*Six friends in a strange sinkhole.
*The truth about a world drowning in rain, without sun, without hope.
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