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A Million Castaways: Chapter One

They weren't nano-replicators in the strictest sense of the word. Vince knew that. Most of what was said about them back at Central had been hype, as he'd guessed when he'd signed up for the potentially one way trip to the freezer. Actually, the tiny machines labouring away at the regolith below him were dumb von Neumann machines, just barely bright enough to process ore, most of them, although a few could self-assemble.

Another failed promise of the post-oil age had been artificial intelligence. The silicon ceiling meant that the largest neural net ever built could barely run a chess game. Without artificial consciousness, with its promised capacity of hundreds of decisions working out of the fuzzy logic necessary for the natural world, the von Neumanns had to be run by a human. That's why Vince was on a spinning ball a hundred million kilometres from Earth. Although that didn't explain why Vince had signed up to be put into a tin can and shot away from everything he knew.

The project was run by a corporation called World Builder. Its name went a long way toward explaining why someone like Vince, a man of average intelligence and even more modest education, could be selected to monitor the most advanced machines in the solar system. World Builder's mandate was to convert the less useful rocks of the solar system first to ore, and then liveable habitats. Earth was increasingly resource-poor, so this had to be done on the cheap. Thus, World Builder's clever spin had convinced expendable people to be the guiding consciousness to hundreds, then thousands, then millions of dumb machines.

More excited by the prospect of building a planetoid than he was the inevitable lawsuit from his disgruntled ex-wife, and knowing Earth had increasingly little to offer him, Vince had volunteered. The payoff was considerable, for anyone he left on Earth-and Vince made sure his sister was the sole beneficiary of the million credits he'd left behind. Vince hadn't made much of himself on Earth, and even as he was fitted with the electrodes and more invasive tubes that would enable the half-sleeping drug-induced state he'd need to be in to survive the two year trip sane, Vince had no regrets.

His childhood had coincided with the first real resource crash, and he'd grown up watching one nation after another, and then corporations, fight for the remaining table scraps of the oil age. By the time Vince was eleven, water was in short supply over Amergo, and he had to leave the sunny southern desert that used to be the Kansas cornfields and migrate with millions of others to the frozen wastelands of the state of Saskatchewan. There life held tenaciously to the broad carpet of mono-crops and water was diverted from wild areas to the fields. His father told him that Saskatchewan was humanity's last stand, and ignoring his mother's sighs and outright disagreement, Vince and his sister Sally had grown up with their father's vision in their heads. Amergo was one of the richest nations outside of the Sino Empire, and nearly had the highest standard of living, but many times on the way to school Vince had to step around the shrivelled limbs of a homeless person maintenance hadn't had time to clean up.

His marks in school had not been stellar, and when the factory beckoned, Vince was enticed. He left school for the factory floor, and finally worked his way up to labour beside his machinist father. They fine-tuned the cutters and presses. When a particularly accurate hand was called for, Vince would watch his father delicately manipulate a lathe bigger than a truck, whose chuck held a two-ton piece of raw steel. In twelve hours, after brief shutdowns for lunch and breaks, his father would have produced the spun bands for rocket motors, or the casing for Stirling heat engines that were currently all the rage in the solar fields that used to grow grain.

At that time, Vince's only aspiration was to be as good a machinist as his father. When the technicians came in and installed computer-assisted, and then controlled, processes, Vince was leery. His feelings turned out to be justified, for the lay-offs began almost immediately. His father took the early retirement package and laid on the couch, sinking further and further into the cushions. Vince learned to operate the computers that had thrown his father, and increasingly many of his friends, out of a job, but he had done so grudgingly.

The computer controlled factories were Amergo's last gasp, the dying attempt of a former empire to compete with the Sinos, who had more of everything and whose toiling millions could live on nothing and work for less. The flood of goods that had once been the birthright of every Amergo citizen had long since ceased to flow from the Sinos, and international shipping had shut down to a tiny trickle. Domestic factories turned out essential goods and every factory that was lost meant a tightening of the industrial belt, which was already cutting into the gut of the once bloated nation.

That history made Vince's situation all the more ironic. Nanos were chewing through the housing of his ship, and there wasn't a thing he could do about it.

 

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