The first time I walked into the room, I melted. And no, I don’t mean that figuratively. It wasn’t pleasant. Dying almost never is.
Then the Consciousness Conveyor took its sweet time in getting to me. ‘Under 30 minutes’ was the worst marketing slogan that the Hospital ever came up with. But, for some reason, they stuck to it.
The re-lifing process left a sour taste in my mouth every time and increased my insurance premium – both of which I didn’t enjoy much.
“Mech Harren, right? Just making sure I re-lifed the right guy.” He hollered with laughter. The only thing worse than dying was re-lifing to a Hospital Tech with a bad sense of humor.
“You caught us right on the dot, ‘muv. Another couple of hours and real-time support for this section of Luna goes off-grid. It ain’t fun waiting for four days for re-lifing.”
I was licking my mouth to get rid of the taste. That sometimes helped. Then I realized that I lost forty-eight minutes from the memory stream this time. I was hoping that they looped the surroundings program by the time I came back round – but they hadn’t. All I was left with was a slight headache and a forty-eight minute difference between my memories and the internet chronograph.
“Sorry, ‘muv. For some reason, the program hasn’t looped yet. We’ll send you an update soon. Try not to die again in the next four days.”
Before I could tell him how disgusting it was that the Hospital thought it was okay that I walk around with a forty-eight minute blank in my memory, the tech was gone.
Lunar mining was a one of those fancy projects where automatons took care of the entire operation and once a year an unlucky Mech had to come up here and check that things were running smoothly. And, this time, I was that agony aunt to $8.3 trillion dollars of trinkets extracting Helium-3 from moon rocks. And on day one, the trinkets had already killed me once. This was going to be one long week.
The mining company had the worst HR policies. In the thousands of years that humans had been mining on Earth and beyond, that’s one thing that had remained consistent. I reminded myself again why I stuck around: the money was good.
I double-checked the radiation levels, triple-checked thermal safeties and quadruple-checked temperature ranges in the mining chamber before entering again. This time I didn’t die. So far so good. The paperwork on why the thermal spike did not register on my equipment the first time was going to be painful.
After the first series of mining chamber checks were done, I tried to catch a movie on the holoviewer. The quality was so bad that I gave up after 10 minutes. Those cheapskates at HQ! I promised myself again that I was going to look for a new job when I got back home. It looked like entertainment was not on my agenda. I decided to call it a night – earth night, because Luna was still 8 earth days away from ending her day.
Before drifting off to sleep, I wondered again why half of humanity was on a non-addictive drug called ‘Molten Java’ which made you stay awake for 72 hours with no side effects. Half the population was giving up on sleep, it was ridiculous.
The first item on my agenda: external mechanical abrasion test – which was just a fancy term for manually sweeping the exterior of the station with my scanner to check for micro-asteroid dents. I’ve got no clue why we still did this stuff. Someone once told me that it had to do something with off-Earth insurance rates.
I suited up, pulled down the outer shell and walked out to inspect the inner shell of the mining station. Kian called as soon as I stepped out. She was mad about me forgetting Tris’ birthday. I asked her why poodles needed birthdays. Probably not a good idea, but the upside was that she hung up immediately. I continued looking for those phantom abrasions.
Two hours in, unsurprisingly, no abrasions turned up. One of these days I should just call up HQ and freak out that there was a huge crater on the shell just to see what the reaction would be. Of course, that wouldn’t really work because my visor was constantly pinging HQ relaying real-time stats.
Then my helmet went crazy. I thought it was Kian calling up to give me an earful, but then I realized there was no incoming call. It was a meteor shower warning! Or more accurately – a meteor shower without warning. In all my years of coming up here, this was a first! The satellite sensors had not picked it up. And I needed to get my ass back to the dome and put up the outer protective shell or these little dust mites were going to bore into the mining operation. And, of course, drill into my space suit. Dying two times in two days? The company would blow a gasket when they saw the expense report.
Four minutes to impact.
I rushed back to the door of the dome. Seventy eight meters in lunar gravity sounds easy, but the off-white monkey suit made it painful to make any sudden movements. After I finally made it to the door, it wouldn’t open. The doors of the center were coded to respond to the security imprint of the Mech’s suit, so that they just sort of swoosh open as soon as we show up in front of it. I just stared disbelievingly at the door for twenty seconds before realizing that it definitely wasn’t going to open.
Two minutes to impact.
I went over to the back entrance forty meters away – no avail. The security system did not like my suit today. There was only one way to get the outer shell up. They were not going to be happy, but it was far better than having holes on the mining center. I dialed HQ. Thankfully, Kat picked up. She was one of the good ones and she liked me. I encouraged it. It was always a good idea to have a service operator on your side.
One minute to impact.
For a second I hesitated whether getting the shell down or the door up was preferable. The dome was more expensive than my body. Ugh…the sour taste of re-lifing – again!
“Kat, I need you to override the outer shell control,” I shouted into my visor
“OK. Let me get the log files…”
“NOW, Kat! Aren’t your sensors picking up the meteor shower?”
“What meteor shower?” At that precise moment, my visor stopped flashing. What the…?
“The weather service shows no meteor shower anywhere in the area. Where are you getting the data from?” she asked.
Talk about awkward conversations – a Mech who can’t read his visor properly. This was going to crack up the service operators down there.
“I… saw a weather service warning flash up on my visor. It’s gone now,” I sounded unconvincing even to myself.
“Gone? What do you mean gone?”
“Exactly what you heard. My visor was going crazy with the warning a minute ago.”
“Our diagnostics show the suit working optimally. And we didn’t register any warnings,” she was adamant.
“Well, what can I say? I saw it. Anyway, nix the service request. I’ll run a diagnostic on the display later up here too.”
“Have you been exceeding the recommended dose of Molten J?” she asked. I could sense a tinge of concern in her voice.
“No. I’ve been sleeping. Like people ought to be doing. Bye.”
This trip was not going well at all. Getting back home, despite the poodle’s birthday, was starting to sound better every minute. The rest of the sweep was, thankfully, uneventful. Jin, my supervisor, called up right after to give me an earful on how my trip here was causing him a massive pain in his surgically retrofitted rear, and made it clear that he did not care to hear another thing about me until I got back down there. I mumbled an apology, which I’m sure the bastard did not bother to hear.
After a few more routine checks, I was ready to hit the sack. Since there was no other entertainment available, all I could hope for was to fall asleep quickly. Then the lights started blinking.
Off… On… Off… On… What the…? I waded to the control panel. System diagnosis was blinking a nice green indicating that everything was fine. Oh joy! I tried rebooting the lights panel, but it did not respond.
Two more minutes of this blinking and I was ready to run out of the airlock without my suit on. So, grudgingly, for the sake of my sanity I decided to call HQ. Kat picked up again.
“Kat, the lights are blinking…,” I croaked
“The fucking lights in the center – they are blinking,” I hollered.
She hesitated for a second before speaking again. “The panel logs says all systems are normal,” she offered.
“Yup, I’m staring at a nice green light on the panel which says that too. But the lights are blinking nevertheless.”
“Hold on,” she said. After what seemed like a lifetime of night-and-day blinking past me, she came back on. This time her voice sounded gravely concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I would volunteer to say no. Since it feels like inside the mind of a drug-infused rock star in here,” I told her.
“Your records show that it’s been twenty-two months since your last psych diagnostic” she said quietly.
“My last psych…?” Did she think I was going crazy?
“The video feed shows no lights blinking,” she said.
Oh yes, the center had video feed automatically spooling in the HQ data center. I couldn’t see the feed myself because those cheapskates had installed no terminals here.
“Kat, the lights are blinking,” I said louder. I remember thinking that I shouldn’t have shouted – the poor kid was only trying to help. Either this was the worst practical joke ever, or I really needed that psych evaluation pronto.
“Can you take the recommended dosage of Molten Java? Maybe sleep is putting additional strain on you.”
“Sleep does not…,” I started, but there was no use explaining it to her. But I sure as hell wished someone would explain all of this to me.
“I think maybe a stroll outside would help.” I volunteered, mostly to myself.
“Maybe your re-lifing left a few bumps. I’ll let the Hospital know.” she offered
“Thanks.” And I cut off communications.
I suited up and walked out of the station. The next series of checks were not due for three hours. As I wandered through the relatively empty landscape, I could see the faint lights of Copernicus Prime – the largest lunar city on the near side of the moon. It was about 350 kilometers away from here. Maybe I should go there and get a drink instead of returning to that broken station, I thought.
But even as I thought that, I considered if it was the station that was broken or me. Despite the commonplace occurrence of re-lifing, the process was still not completely riskless. Statistically 1 in 100 produced some sort of anomaly – a ‘bump’. Most issues were minor, but in some acute cases the memory stream was corrupted and the new body wouldn’t ‘take’ the brain pattern. It was a rather slow drifting into oblivion for the patient. The Hospital called it Memory Stream Alzheimer’s after a now-cured disease from the last century. I desperately hoped that this was not the case with my re-lifing yesterday.
Of course, there was an upper limit to the re-lifing process itself – after a few tens of times, systemic error in the brain wave pattern made it impossible to reliably transmit without errors. About 10% of humanity, the paranoid lot, had not even hooked up to a memory stream storage service – opting out of re-lifing completely.
The lunar surface was supposed to have a calming effect on many people. Sadly I was not one of them. Lunar yoga had taken off with a cross-section of vacationers. The stretchy spacesuits looked weird, but were probably better than the gargantuan thing that I had on. But there were no vacationers near the mining operation. Occasionally there were protestors, with neon signs hoping, quite stupidly, to make my employer realize how mining was destroying the solar system. Today, there was nobody. I kept strolling.
I heard the whirring noise through my headset before I saw the rover. It was one of older buggies at the station. No one had needed it in a while. I recall only one mission when a Mech had to use the buggy for a short ride to pick up a piece of electronics that had been ejected from the station; and that was years ago. And now, that buggy – with no one at its wheel – was making for a collision course with me. It seemed straight out of a scene from an old campy horror show.
So, do you run from or fight an unmanned moon buggy? For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure what to do. There was no use trying to outrun the rover. On the other hand, how do you fight a rover? It wasn’t moving too fast – but in a low-g scenario with partially exposed electronics on the rover, I wasn’t sure what the damage would be if it rammed into me. I didn’t want to find out if I could help it.
I moved out of the way and it changed course. I did it again, and the buggy adjusted its course – no doubt, it wanted to sock into me. A rover with no intelligent guidance system, save for a basic hook-up to the lunar SatNav, was heading straight for me for some reason.
I stood still for a few seconds and let the vehicle approach. It was already at top speed, so I knew exactly how long it was until it got to my side. I needed it to get closer – 1.5 meters to be exact. After doing the math in my head, I started counting down – 3… 2… not yet, not yet… now! I shot the handler out of the pouch on the left hand of the suit.
The handler was a 1.5 meter long titanium rope with a hook normally used for scaling lunar craters or the top of the mining station dome if the need ever came to be. It never had for me. I was testing it for the first time on a rouge buggy.
The hook placed right on the dash and engaged the vacuum cups immediately. I tugged at it with all the strength I could muster. The vehicle turned for a second – that’s all I needed. Instead of ramming into me, it swooshed a few centimeters from my body. I jumped into the open rover. An image of taming wild horses suddenly flashed through my mind. As I got into the seat, the rover shut down. No sputtering, no slowing down – just instant shutdown. I just sat there calmly for a few minutes. No sense in getting out and letting buggy-stein chase me again.
I racked my brain. These series of, well, unfortunate events needed some explanation. The first thing that came to mind, probably indicative of my feelings for my employer, was that someone at HQ was having a ball making me miserable. Maybe it was some sort of endurance test? But even the evil mining company wouldn’t run afoul of the system mining laws.
Endangering the health of a Mech knowingly was the sure shot way of getting your license pulled.
It had happened on Phobos and Ganymede a few years ago. A mining company (a former competitor of my employer) had let Mechs work in a high radiation zone knowingly. Though re-lifing took care of the Mechs, the company’s license was suspended. The investors lost their shirt, the management paid personal fines, and two managers did minor prison sentences. Basically, a Stalinist’s wet dream. I knew that my re-lifing records from yesterday would be scrutinized bit-by-bit by both the Hospital and the mining authority, that’s why Jin gave me that chewing out earlier. So, I concluded, no – my employer was not trying to kill me.
That left maleficence. Maybe a competitor was trying to get my employer in trouble? At one level, my brain lit up with glee. But I also immediately realized that I did not enjoy being a pawn in corporate espionage. But even if someone was trying to do this – how could they? There was no central computing entity at the mining station. All systems in the station were independent systems reporting back to HQ Terra. The absence of a central computing AI at each station was, in part, to protect against unauthorized hacking.
HQ Central Compute aggregated feeds from hundreds of stations across the inner solar system. Anything amiss there would be instantly picked up by the security bots. While someone hacking into the HQ Central Compute was a theoretical possibility, it was extremely difficult. There are far easier things that could hurt the company.
So there was no explanation so far; and sitting in the rover which wanted to kill me was neither cathartic nor enlightening. I got out, swiftly removed the solar cells from the rover before walking back to the station. I kept walking slowly, yet purposefully, thinking about my situation. I fought the urge to call HQ again. The thought of telling them that a driverless moon buggy tried to kill me was somehow not too appealing when they were poring over my psych file. But I had to call.
“Kat – do you have a feed from my visor?” I asked her
“I think so. What’s going on?” Thankfully, she didn’t ask how I was feeling – yet.
“Can you loop the last ten minutes back to my visor screen? I want to see if I missed something in the landscape.”
“Sure,” she said – sounding eager to help. The video started playing on the edge of my vision. I sped through the initial few minutes. Seven minutes and forty seconds in, right before the buggy was supposed to show up, the feed went blank.
“Ah, that’s the neutron radiation. A flare up happened earlier. The alert came up a few minutes ago. Non-essential systems shut down to prevent damage to your suit,” she volunteered even before I asked. Worryingly, she had been watching my visor feed along with me. I didn’t bother asking her as to why my visor never showed the warning which was standard protocol in an event like this.
“Was there something specific that you were looking for?” she asked.
Yes. A bloodthirsty moon rover. “Not really. Thanks for humoring me.”
I reached the station. The station was quite an unremarkable looking thing. A twenty-meter hard shelled dome supported a four-meter high hexagonal body structure. The mining roots went down and sideways a few kilometers performing basic extraction. The processing and enriching of the Helium was done in the lower chamber of the station. There were eighteen such stations on Luna. They easily covered the energy needs of Luna, all the permanent orbital stations and even a part of Terran industries. It was designed to be compact and filled with relatively simple electronics to keep maintenance limited. No fancy compute systems like in the upper atmosphere extractors on Venus.
The station doors swooshed open. I had gone through this door hundreds of times, never thought twice about it. Call it extra-sensory perception, or maybe it was just good old fashioned paranoia, this time I hesitated for a couple of seconds.
The door came smashing down. It was not the gentle landing that all doors I had ever seen were programmed to do. I didn’t even know that a door could smash like that on Luna. It was half a ton of reinforced titanium steel alloy coming down like suddenly it was in Earth-g. If I had not hesitated, the door would have splattered my innards all over the decompression deck. So much for that visual. I was not having a good day.
I walked up to the door again; the door swooshed open as if nothing was wrong in the universe. I waited for a few moments. Nothing happened. I licked my mouth – already feeling the phantom sour taste of re-lifing and walked in as quickly as I could. This time the door didn’t smash down on me.
The lights had stopped blinking now. I walked up to the control panel. Systems were optimal. All I wanted to do was complete the tests, get the hell out of this place and go home to celebrate the poodle’s birthday. Maybe even take a vacation to Europa with Kian. I shook myself out of the reverie. It was strange, humanity had overcome death, but not the sense of regret before dying.
Back to work – I told myself. That’s the only way to preserve my sanity. No sense in calling HQ again. I was positive that Jin would have been poring over my psych evaluations with a microscope. Wilful withholding of mental inadequacy was an easy way for the company to deny insurance. And I wouldn’t put it past those bastards to do exactly that.
If I accelerated my work plan, I could get out of this place in the next thirty-three hours. That was incentive enough. I quickly got out of the suit and started the next round of tests. These were internal control systems checks, so they could be done right from the panel. Now as long as the lights didn’t start blinking again – it would be infinitely easier.
It wasn’t until half an hour later when I was doing the thermal check that I felt that the temperature was lower than it ought to be. 63 degrees Fahrenheit has been the standard temperature at mining stations forever and that’s exactly what the dashboard showed as well. But it sure didn’t feel like that in here. I drifted over to my suit and checked the thermometer there and sure enough, it was four degrees lower. The crazy station was acting up again. Unsurprisingly, we tend to personify things when they start behaving erratically. And then I heard it – the unmistakable hiss of vacuum.
It was coming from the decompression deck. Training instinct took over and I rushed into the room to grab my suit. The record for human exposure to vacuum – without permanent damage – was ninety-seven seconds. Beyond that the memory stream got jumbled, making re-lifing difficult. In such a situation, there was only one way to reduce the risk of problematic re-lifing: self-termination within forty five seconds of full exposure. Day one of space safety training was still fresh in my mind. Space suits were specifically built with this mechanism in place. My current situation wasn’t as bad because the mining station atmospheric pressure still was holding – for now.
As I was pulling my suit on I saw three long tears on the lower back of the suit. The suit was damaged! It was useless now. The replacement suit was in the living quarters inside the station. I turned to rush out of the decompression chamber. The door had closed behind me as per standard protocol. Any other day it would have just opened as it had been programmed to do. Today it decided to remain shut. The hissing sound was getting louder.
I quickly put the damaged suit on, assuming that some protection was better than none. The visor and the suit were both offline. There was nothing I could do. Unfortunately, with the suit offline there was no way to even terminate myself. The vacuum would do its thing – risking my memory stream to permanent loss. Permanent loss!
As the seconds ticked on, I tried to tell myself that there were plenty of times when the Hospital had rebuilt memory streams from far worse situations. But if Jin convinced the Hospital that I had some sort of mental instability, then my chances of seeing anything beyond this small decompression chamber were remote. I shook that thought out.
Sixty seconds in, I was feeling a bit dizzy. My ears had adjusted to not distinctly hearing the hissing sound anymore. What else could I do?
I scanned around the room. The particulate filter! The decompression chamber housed the station’s filter which treated the oxygen mixture pumped into the station. It was a grey cuboid – about 1.5 meters on each side. I knocked the chamber protectors open and kicked the thin, but surprisingly strong, graphene filter inside. A few more kicks and the filter broke and floated away. I crouched and got inside the chamber as quickly as I could. I could feel that the decompression chamber did not have air anymore and my senses were starting to drift. With my last bit of cognizance I closed the chamber.
Even in my growing incoherence, I remembered that the air pumped from the internal chamber at exactly 63 degrees. A continuous stream of that air in a small enclosed chamber might protect my body for a bit longer. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was thinking about how old the poodle would be on its birthday.
My head felt like it was floating on water when my eyes opened again. It wasn’t too far from the truth. I was in some liquid, which was distinctly not water, from neck up – connected to breathing apparatus. I tried to speak, and got some of the goo in my mouth. It tasted bloody awful.
“Welcome back, Mech Harren” I heard someone say, “Let me get that nanogel out of your face.”
The liquid cleared away and my vision returned. There was a tech standing next to me. I wasn’t in the station anymore.
“Where am I?” I croaked spitting out the breathing apparatus.
“The Hospital. Luna Section 2,” He replied. “By the way, good thinking on getting inside the filter chamber. That saved your memory stream from permanent damage. It wasn’t easy, but I think we got all of it rebuilt.”
That was a relief! My re-lifing was okay. Hopefully, the Hospital tech was competent enough to make that assessment. He hadn’t even asked how I was feeling yet.
“What the hell happened out there?” I asked, feeling a bit stronger now.
“I’ll let your company fill you in all the technical details. We rebuilt your adventures at the station from satfeeds. Looks like you had a gala time,” he said mockingly.
What was with these Hospital techs and their jokes? I was, quite understandably, in no mood for humor. I imagine hardly anyone waking up from death ever is.
“What the hell happened out there?” I asked again.
“Well, the headline is that the station was doing all that stuff.”
“Someone hacked into Central Compute at the company?” I asked not sure of what exactly he meant.
“No hacking anywhere. There isn’t even a central AI on the station… yeah, right – you know that. The station’s different systems just reprogrammed themselves to, well, do all that stuff.” he explained slowly.
“All the systems started to error all at once?” I asked him, still not grasping what he meant.
“I guess that’s one way to look at it. But then again the systems were acting in tandem. Discrete systems working together to, at least, mimic intelligence. Like an organism without a central nervous system. Pretty interesting stuff.” he said with increasing excitement.
‘Interesting’ was the last word I’d use to describe whatever the hell happened at the station. But, presently I just asked him, “Are you telling me that station full of electronic trinkets is alive?” I wasn’t sure if this was continuation of a potentially ghastly practical joke from the station earlier.
“Come on, you know that each ‘trinket’ is still a pretty advanced piece of machinery. But the series of decisions made here by these discrete components are even more advanced than quasi-sentient AIs built on Terra. OuterNet is abuzz with this thing – you’re a minor celebrity.” he said.
“Series of decisions? Like to kill me?” I asked incredulously.
“Not sure, Scientist. The debate on this has just barely started. Some say it was just a freak set of coincidences, others say it was playing, and a few are even saying that it was expressing free will. Crazy, right?” he said as he started to walk out to the room.
“The trinkets are alive?” I felt I was repeating myself a lot since waking up.
“I don’t know. But hey, we also call molded bioplasma bodies uploaded with a memory stream, alive.” My eyes momentarily darted to the mirror next to my seat.
“Come to think of it, sentience is an evolving thing, right? On the OuterNet, they’re calling it some sort of emergent behavior. AI rights groups are having a ball with this thing. Maybe we need to think about free will for mining stations and Hospital equipment now. Might be a different world out there now,” he continued on quite dramatically. He stopped at the edge of the room and turned to look at me.
“So, what are you going to do now?” he asked. I stared at him for a few seconds and took a deep breath. First things first.
“I’m going to quit my job.”
Food for Thought
This story explores, what I think, is the most fundamental philosophical question: What is sentience? How does ‘life’ become ‘alive’? Do we have the proper definition or even the right tools to understand sentience when it exhibits itself? The questions are as old as consciousness itself, but the advent of technology has given new meaning to these questions. I’ve examined these questions through the lens of a science fiction canvas infusing an element of (somewhat dark) humor to keep the reader engaged as well as entertained.
About the Author
Deepak grew up on a staple diet of veggies and science fiction. Both seemed pretty important. His work has been featured on short-story.me and Allegory. When not imagining up stuff, he has published many times about technology in avenues like Consulting Magazine, CIO Update, Search CIO, PC Today, and CIO Decisions. His current passion in life is to decipher the musical babble that his four month old daughter intently creates all day. He lives with his family in the Washington DC area.
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