Million Castaways: Chapter One
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.