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Programming for Life: A Machine to Mind a Child


Chapter 1 ~ The Explosion

Mason had no time to grieve. His wife was blasted into fragments like the rest of their tiny crew, so he wiped his face and looked at the damage. He had to concentrate. The stars were spinning, which meant the ship had lost its gyroscopes. That indicated, along with the crew's quarters, they had likely lost the engines. Turning wildly, he toggled switches and checked equipment, and he could almost feel the electron pulses stop at the severed wires. He imagined knots of tangled conduit hanging into space, but that interfered with his ability to get a good reading on how much of the ship remained.

The clang had swept through the ship like a huge hand, and even as the hull screeched open Mason had struck the emergency seal for the bulkheads. That left Amy in the command module with him, and the rest of the crew-if they were still alive-on the other side of an insulated steel door. Next he checked on his daughter, who was even more affected by the concussion wave that had left blood trickling from his nose. She hung loosely in the air as though her bones had been pulverized, since the centrifugal gravity had disappeared with the explosion.

She seemed scarcely to breathe, and he pushed her gently to the bunk Janice had insisted they keep near the main controls. Her heartbeat was so faint he could feel nothing at her wrist but her neck fluttered slightly when he pressed his fingers on her artery. He tried franticly to remember the training Janice had recommended and they all had completed, but his mind was blank. Instead, he held his daughter's hand and watched her face. Her eyelids flickered and her lips were warm when he tried to feel whether she was breathing. He decided those were signs of recovery.

Once he'd confirmed-as much as his poor skills allowed-that his daughter was alive and that none of her bones were broken, he left her tethered to the bunk and turned his mind to the ship. At first he thought they had caught the attention of an Extra Solar Systems Inc. drone. The corp had the gall to claim all of Alpha Centauri as their territory, and had publicly warned other companies away. They referred to potential colonists as opportunists, and promised a stern response to any interference. Like the World Builder Corporation that they had left behind in the Sol system, Extra Solar had been the first to develop the technology that allowed intrepid explorers to follow them to Centauri. That didn't mean Extra was happy with the company, however. Many suspected that they played just as dirty as World Builder, and were intent on claiming the entire Alpha Centauri system for themselves. Although no one had confirmed the rumour, some said they were destroying rival ships.

Mason and his crew weren't trying to compete with Extra Solar for resources. They merely wanted to start a colony, and they had brought the latest in biological equipment in order to make that happen. Janice had wheedled the ship they had christened Scape from her father, and they had fled the biological and intellectual decay of Earth to seek-perhaps foolishly-a more hospitable ecosystem. Janice had been more committed to the project than he, and Mason couldn't help but remember how she had laughed off the chance of an accident.

When he had his third of the ship somewhat functional, the news was grim. The Oxy and methane tanks were gone with the engines they had driven, and he only had what food they kept in the control room for emergencies. They were low on water, which meant he would have to bleed some of the systems for residual moisture, but their CO2 scrubber, which had been located amidships, was gone. They had air for a week, and although it didn't matter, they had water for a few days more. Beyond the upper limit of their air supply, he didn't bother factoring their food stores into his planning.

Mason checked on Amy. Her cheeks were redder-although he didn't know if that was a good sign-and she stirred slightly when he took her wrist. Looking down at her, he knew what he had to do. He hesitated, contemplating starting the procedure while she was still unconscious. Putting off the decision, he turned back to his equipment.

He barely noticed the flicker on the screen that had been bothering him for months. They were low on water and had only six days until the air became noticeably foul and they felt the hydraulic press of slow asphyxiation. He glanced at the bunk, then set to work. He needed to recover as much of the ship as possible. In the explosion each detached piece would have been given a new trajectory, but he concentrated on those pieces which were big enough to loom larger on the radar and close enough that the gravity of his larger portion of the ship might draw them in. If they hadn't been given too much of a shove . . .

In his scan, Mason found drifting objects that were certainly bodies, but he kept his eyes to his task. He also found a puzzling anomaly. There was too much tonnage. The attacking ship must have broken up too, and for a moment he stared hard at the screen, as though he could see through its flicker of magnetic particles to what the images meant. There had been no attack, he finally realized. Instead they had collided with a ship, or it with them, and it had suffered from the encounter as well. Mason knew Extra Solar frequently used empty drones, so he didn't worry about other possible survivors, but if he could get to the remaining ship-he glanced at Amy again-and enough of its equipment was still functional, he might have a chance.

Before Mason had met Janice he'd been a programmer in a robotics plant, making, of all things, robots like the ones used in the plant. Janice had made several jokes about it when they were first going out, about how he lived in a recursive loop, how he was part of a Von Neumann machine, and worse, about how his programming architecture sucked and that's why they needed him to keep tweaking the main controllers.

Mason had taken her advice to heart, and left that job for one in her father's company where he was soon writing command trees for mining machines and installing modules for probes, much like the one he suspected Extra Solar had abandoned just beyond his main port. If what remained of his ship hadn't been too badly damaged, then the barest inkling of a plan, his only hope-he glanced at Amy-might have a slim chance of working.

Mason set one of his logistics tools looking for a planet close enough to serve his purposes, and then began to nudge the altitude jets to push him closer to the debris field. He steadied his spin with the jets, which calmed the oscillating cameras. Although their view was still skewed, they showed that what remained of his cargo hold was heavily damaged. It carried a main engine but that had also suffered from the collision. Only tatters hung from the drive chamber, which meant that the ships must have somehow smashed into each other with their drive quarters. Mason sat with his finger poised over the jets. He needed their tiny reservoirs of fuel still, and didn't want to waste them. They were typically fed by the main tanks, and the small reserve tank had only been installed in obedience of an outmoded safety protocol. For the first time, Mason appreciated the over-engineering that had gone into his ship. Someone sitting at a comfortable design table had decided that a ship shorn of its main tanks might require maneuvering capability, so with a stroke of their pen, they might be saving Mason's, and more importantly, Amy's life. Likewise, the backup airlock in the control room was never used but now would be invaluable.

Mason never realized how tense he was until a droplet of sweat pooled on his forehead and then, when he impatiently dashed his hair out of his face, it hung, a shivering globe, in the air before him. He looked at Amy. She was still on the bunk, tethered to it by a strap. His slow drift to the cargo hold would take a few more minutes and he used the time to check on his daughter. Her breathing was more regular, and he touched her face. She was warm, although not feverish. He brushed the hair from her forehead, wondering what he could tell her about her mother.


"I'm here, honey."

"What happened? I feel sick."

"We crashed into something-" Mason began to explain, but Amy tipped her head and gagged, so he placed a bag over her mouth before the control room became an intolerable swill of globules of vomit.

Amy had been taught well, and she held the bag in place as she filled it, and then waited with Mason for a minute to make sure it was over. "Sorry," she said, when he removed and sealed it.

"That's OK. You were hit by the concussion wave. One of the engines must have exploded on the impact." Mason spoke over the alarms and the absence of the seven other crewmembers.

"Where's Mum? Where is everyone?" Amy jerked, her eyes wild, and Mason reached for her.

"We're all that's left, honey. We lost the rest of the ship. The only reason we're alive is that we were in here."

Amy's blank look was a reflection of his own inability to handle the situation. They had lost everyone they knew in a freak accident four and a half light years from Earth. "It's so loud," Amy said, disentangling herself.

"Some of the alarms are still on." Mason patted her on the arm as reassuringly as he could, although he knew the worst news was yet to come. He turned to shut down the proximity alarms set off by the debris and the approaching pieces of the cargo hold, and the beeping that indicated low fuel pressure and other signals that informed of hull integrity. He kept his back tensed against the question that would not be long in coming.

Amy knew as well as him, and if he admitted the truth, likely even better, the stores on the ship and her capabilities, so before long she would calculate that they only had a few days at the most. Mason's stomach growled as he thought of starvation. I won't wait that long, he grimaced to himself. He glanced to where Amy was floating with her eyes closed. Besides, you might need the biomass.

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