“Virtual Parenting” by Tim C. Taylor

Parent, by Robert Sorensen

Cursing the Guardian, Jerrine glanced at the digits counting down the release cycle for airlock CX2. It served no purpose. Nothing she could do would speed up the replacement of argon with nothingness.

The other transcendentals used to mock her impatience as irrational, but she clung to every remaining human trait she possessed, thinking it the last defense against the insanity that had gripped the others.

Locked away from each other in their fantasy worlds, she wondered whether the other transcendentals still considered themselves human at all.

Ten seconds until the cycle completed.

As the AI responsible for the success of the Bona Esperanza‘s mission, Guardian would not permit Jerrine to be physically present in the stores that contained her fellow crewmembers in case she damaged them — she had told Guardian once that she wanted to touch them. Sometimes, Guardian allowed her to see an image of her crewmates.

There wasn’t much to see.

To prepare for the colonizing mission that was planned to last eight centuries, she had stepped into the quantizing chamber; the final act of a sixty-five-year-old human female. Her teeth, hair, internal organs, and mind had been stripped down to an array of quantum functions held within a six-inch tube containing 18nm-edged polymer slices stacked end-on-end.

It was a one-way transformation. The Uncertainty Principle saw to that. The essence of Jerrine Lexu was carried from the quantizing chamber as a thinly-sliced grey salami.

Each of the three Trinary sections housed a nest containing seven of these polymer sandwich tubes, each in a padded, lead-lined box.

“Vacuum attained,” said Guardian through the wall-mounted speaker.

In reality, the speaker moved, but no sound reached the eardrum of her real world interface unit — she was in a vacuum. It was a microwave narrowcast that her RWI heard. Her mind interpreted the communication in the only way it knew how: as pressure waves in a medium that wasn’t there. Terrino always took great delight when she mouthed the words she emitted in microwave packets.

Terrino. Her friend.

Even he had finally locked himself away. Just, he said, to spend a little time by himself.

That had been a decade ago. Two centuries after they reached orbit around the planet New Worlds Corporation had designated Neu Westphalia.

Two centuries after they had refused to start the next phase of the mission. Mutiny.

The external door slid back; she tumbled onto the hull of Trinary C.

Each Trinary met in the forward cone like legs on a milking stool, and contained enough redundancy to operate independently so long as they docked with the cone which housed the folded carbon sail. The only way out of the system was for the Caisimir-Unity engines to fire energy at the sail which would emit thrust continually on their journey home.

Not that Earth felt like home.

She felt the pitting in the hull through sensors in the feet of her RWI. She could barely make out the New Worlds corporate logo, almost erased by lumps of debris that penetrated the ship’s weak magnetosphere when they intersected the orbit of a smashed planetoid every 26 Terran years.

At relativistic speeds, the magnetosphere fed off its own ionizing effect to be strong enough to deflect the pebble-sized missiles. In orbit, they were far more vulnerable. By now, mission planners had expected them to have raised three generations of settlers, and guided them to self-sufficiency. They would have left the thriving colony and traveled 30 light-years homeward, laden with samples of scientific and commercial interest, even if, as she suspected, no one was waiting for them on Earth — they had received no messages for 60 years. None of this was of concern to Guardian who would insist on fulfilling mission the mission plan whatever the crew or logic dictated.

Except the crew had no desire to resume the mission, finding time spent in their virtual worlds more palatable than the hard work of building a colony.

Sudden lightning flashed from the ship to a point several kilometers out. It would be the point-defense x-ray laser breaking up rock that Guardian felt was on a dangerous vector.

At times like this, when she was reminded of the vulnerability of the Bona Esperanza‘s position, Jerrine wanted to carry on the colonization mission, asking Guardian to thaw the embryos and prepare for her second litter of children, five centuries after her first.

But Guardian had declared the crew’s obsession with privacy to be a symptom of insanity and refused to allow embryos to be thawed into such inadequate hands.

If Jerrine contacted Terrino, he might agree to join with her. The two of them together might be able to persuade another crewmember to return to their mission. And another. The children would play in the arms of her RWI.

When Guardian had decided her visual inspection sufficient, she was allowed back inside, passing through airlock CX1 and into Trinary C’s deck for organic crew: command room, science labs, exercise yards, private chambers.

They were empty now. If she recruited Terrino, they would be bristling with all the dramatic events of birth, life and death for generations of explorers.

But talking to another transcendental would be hard, and the life in her private wonderland was so much easier.

It was important, but there was no urgency to do it today. Or the next.

Jerrine resolved to contact Terrino soon, pushing away the nagging realization that she had made the same promise every day for ten years.

Suddenly, there was a thunderous rattling, like an avalanche on a tin roof.

“Guardian?”

“Don’t worry, Jerrine. It is fallout from the rock I destroyed 430 seconds ago. We should be safe this time, but we can’t stay safe forever.”

“I know, I know. We should resume the mission. Can’t you let me raise the organics myself?”

“You know I can’t do that, Jerrine. It is too large a responsibility to trust to one individual.”

“But you could make the others help.”

“I can force their awareness into the real world interface units, but I can’t make them good parents. They have to recover their sanity first.”

So no change. It was the same old answer.

“Jerrine?”

“Yes.”

“I have explained my ruling many times, but I detect something different in your speech modulation. Is there some new variable?”

“No. Just a timely reminder of our mortality. The meteorites, I mean. You said yourself that we can’t stay safe forever. If you don’t let me restart the mission, we will die eventually in orbit.”

“You are correct.”

Jerrine felt her mind racing down a new path. “If we’re going to die, and the mission with it, wouldn’t it make more sense to start building the colony even if you rely too much on one individual?”

“You are correct.”

Jerrine felt an imaginary heart beat faster. Was this a breakthrough?

“So…,” she whispered, “logic demands that you should thaw the clones immediately.”

“You are correct.”

“Will you do it?”

“No. The ratio of organic crewmembers to functioning transcendental crewmembers would exceed mission parameters.”

“Can’t we raise a smaller number of offspring to reduce this ratio?”

“I cannot. Mission parameters state all must be raised in one batch for the greatest chance of survival.”

“So mission failure is inevitable.”

“Correct.”

Jerrine began to panic. There had always been the thought that one day this impasse would be broken. She was doomed to die here, alone. “Isn’t there some way to get the ratio right?”

She waited for the inevitable refusal. It never came. Guardian had never paused in its response before.

A cacophony of sound, strobing light, and other EM emissions engulfed Jerrine.

“What the–?”

“There is an emergency. The coolant system for Trinary B’s reactor has failed. It — it might be that meteorite shower caused more damage than I realized.”

Trinary B. That was Terrino’s berth!

“Shut down the reactor,” shouted Jerrine’s RWI.

“I already have, but that won’t remove the heat already in the reactor.”

“You have to do something.”

“I could jettison Trinary B.”

Terrino! Why had they wasted their time here? She imagined laughing with Terrino at the antics of their children. It was a beautiful thought.

“I need your permission to jettison.”

“I can’t let seven people die. What happens if we don’t jettison?”

“In about — 28 seconds, there will be a radiation leak fatal to all of us.”

Where had they gone wrong? What made them think they were above menial tasks, too good for the humble role of parent?

“Fifteen seconds.”

“All right! All right!” Jerrine thought of the banks of embryos and microbes cosseted in their cryo chamber next to Terrino in Trinary B. Blackbirds, grasses, eels, oaks, zebra, twenty-seven varieties of rice, thousands of other engineered flora and fauna, and one hundred humans — all this potential wasted, killed by parents who didn’t care.

“Five seconds.”

“Do it!”

The judder of separation forced Jerrine to fight for balance.

Jerrine accessed an external image. Trinary B pushed gently away in a dissipating cloud of reaction gas, drifting down towards Neu Westphalia. It took on the slightest end-on-end tumble. Inside, Terrino would be aware of his fatal dance with the planet’s outer atmosphere. He was powerless, probably retreating, thought Jerrine, back to his private virtuality until the heat of burn-up.

Mesmerized, she watched Terrino’s balletic departure.

But Trinary B’s death was more dramatic. She had forgotten the reactor explosion. It ripped the Trinary into tiny fragments, the shockwave throwing her RWI across the chamber, and flicking the remainder of Bona Esperanza into an unstable higher orbit.

Guardian glued Jerrine’s RWI to the nearest surface for safety, and sent her consciousness back to her tube of polymer slices, while stabilizing the orbit with attitude thrusters.

White hot anger seared through Jerrine. Anger amplified by shame and… suspicion. Guardian had said the explosion would be in five seconds. It must have been at least a couple of minutes until Terrino died.

She had to tell the others what had happened. If only Guardian would allow her to break the privacy locks her crewmates had placed on their private worlds.

“Jerrine, the situation has changed.”

Damn right it had.

“If you were the only crewmember to resume our mission,” said Guardian, “it would no longer breach my minimum ratio of transcendentals to organics.”

“You mean–”

“Furthermore, since I no longer rely upon the cooperation of your fellow crewmembers to satisfy mission parameters, I can allow an attempt by unqualified persons to cure their insanity.”

Avatars appeared of Carsten, Marquette, Peters, Niebuhr, and the other nine remaining crew. They looked disoriented, unable to cope with the prospect of interaction. Jerrine was deposited with the others into a neutral virtuality: a cluster of tables and chairs in an infinite white room.

“The first batch of embryos is thawing,” said Guardian.

“My friends,” said Jerrine. “Trinary B showed the truth we’ve denied these past centuries. We have only one route to immortality — so let’s prepare our children for the future.” *

About the Author: Tim C. Taylor lives in the English village of Bromham with his wife, Melia (understanding), and 20-year-old cat, Cat (deaf, but still very hungry). He has had fiction published in the BSFA magazine, Focus, and earns a living in an alternate reality populated by acronyms (SEPG, SQA, RUP, PRINCE2, etc.).
(c) 2005 Tim C. Taylor fiction.tctaylor@ntlworld.com
Web site: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/tctaylor/Index.htm

About the Artist: Robert Sorensen was born in Summit, New Jersey, has lived in Paris, France, and currently resides in Colorado. His education includes studying painting at L’Academie des Beux Arts de Chaville and studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC, followed by professional work in a theatrical touring company and later, work in TV, films, and documentaries. Robert also wrote an SF screenplay about saving planet Earth from an alien invasion in the year 2059, with the title “QUANTEX-Z or ATOMIC VISIONS”. Robert is an avid international voyager whose passion is to visit, contact, and experience the cultures and peoples from all over Planet Earth and has visited most of Europe, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, and most recently Mexico. Robert has exhibited his artwork extensively in Paris, once in London, and several times in the United States. In his artwork, Robert most often takes dream images and bites out of his own life and puts them on canvas, paper, or the computer screen. His themes include the hidden aura-energy within all living and non-living subjects and their surrounding environments..
(c) 2005 Robert Sorensen robertsorensen1@msn.com

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