Back Story

The planet Nirvana is an extremely metal poor world, one of four colonies settled as a joint effort between Earth and its well-established colony on Mars.  At roughly twenty-five light years from Earth, Nirvana was the closest of the four hoped-for colonies to the home system.  The most distant of the four target colony star systems, Longreach, was nearly twice that distance away, at forty-nine light years from Earth.  A total of eight vast generation ships were built to settle the four interstellar colonies.  Two of the ships were launched towards each colony several thousand years before the events in Set in Stone: Follower.

Each of the generation ships massed nearly nineteen billion kilograms at launch, carrying live crews who would live, raise families, and die in a voyage that would last hundreds of years.  The ships were manufactured from raw materials mined out of the moon during the early stages of the colonization project.  Due to their sheer mass, even the richness of the entire Sol system would have not have allowed for accelerating the massive ships to a useful velocity if it were not for the development of remote fueling methods and the perfection of nuclear salt water rocketry.

A vast engineering project was required to bore a hole through the center of Earth’s Moon to make it into a massive superconducting coil gun, or quenchgun.  This stupendous launching mechanism allowed for the acceleration of two hundred million kilogram self-guiding fuel packages of two percent Uranium Bromide enhanced water for use in the colony ships’ nuclear salt water rocket engines.  The nuclear salt water rockets were literally controlled fission in water, harnessed to create a propulsive effect using the same momentum and energy fundamentals as chemical fuel rocketry.  Thus, they were vastly more efficient than any type of tested rocketry variant other than antimatter, and far safer than nuclear bomb pulse acceleration.

Practical fusion power, which might potentially have offered another avenue or two for space propulsion, had been ‘only twenty years away’ for nearly two hundred years.  Earth’s politicians, when the planetary congress was holding sessions in the city of London a hundred or so years before the colonization project was initiated, had changed the name of the “Practical Fusion Project” to “The Twenty Year Plan.”  Despite the clear irritation at lack of advancement, fusion power was not terribly expensive to fund, and it was too attractive to stop funding it.  Fusion research was carefully steered from one part of the world to the next to spread the pork, but it was always considered serious pork, so the public put up with it.  Antimatter propulsion drives had been tested, but practical antimatter annihilation propulsion systems were still so far beyond plausible that mentioning them when in a serious conversation about space propulsion was something of a joke.  Before antimatter propulsion systems could become conceivable, practical fusion was required to generate the power to create, separate, and contain antimatter.

During the colony ships’ initial acceleration phase, each package of nuclear salt water fuel received by each ship was expended as it was collected, adding roughly fifty thousand m/s delta-v per package. Three hundred launches of fuel were required for each vessel to accelerate to approximately five percent of light speed. An additional four hundred launches of fuel had been made in advance of each of the colony vessels, and these were collected during the course of travel.  Seven hundred packages of fuel per ship.  Fourteen hundred total packages of fuel for per colony.  Uranium mining was a very lucrative business in the Sol system after plans had been finalized to establish the four colonies.

In the absence of results from the ‘Twenty Year Plan’, the incredible power requirements of the launchers required that the lunar surface be entirely devoted to solar power collection.  Earth’s moon became the largest power plant in the solar system in order to power the quenchgun.  Engineers designing the lunar quenchgun were not content with fifty percent of the moon being illuminated by the sun at any given time, so titanic arrays of heliostat mirrors were built with the materials mined during bore excavation.  These heliostats orbited the moon in such a way that the sun’s light was reflected to the dark side of the moon, creating the largest array of heliostats in the solar system.  Each launch of a fuel package to five percent of light speed averaged roughly half of the yearly electrical requirements of all other human activity in the Sol system.

Tragically, to the best of the Nirvana colony’s knowledge, the populations of Earth and Mars destroyed each other in a war only a few years after the colony ships left the home system, more then a year after the generation ships Leviathan and Prometheus reached their cruising speed of five percent of the speed of light.  Intercepted unsecure transmissions seemed to indicate that war might have broken out due to an economic collapse and subsequent rebellion of the Mars colony after the colony ships were launched.  Reconstruction of events from the outside was not entirely certain, however the colonization effort had been massive, taking nearly fifty years.  It was known that the economic burden of the project had strained the economy of Earth to support it.  Mars was still a colony of Earth, and apparently chose the post-construction economic downturn as a good time to try to break away and become independent.  Earth threatened to use the lunar quenchgun to bombard Mars if they did not agree to remain subject to Earth’s government.  The Martians countered the threat by indicating they would use asteroids accelerated from the asteroid belt to bombard Earth from angles that the lunar quenchgun could not interdict.  Based on fragmentary radio signals, both sides apparently successfully delivered on their threats.

The chances of complete annihilation of humanity in the Sol system seemed extremely unlikely, but Earth had carefully kept all space habitats dependent on itself for food.  Earth had also maintained the communications arrays that tracked and provided communications between all the outposts throughout the solar system.  If Earth and Mars had both suffered sufficiently that they could not provide support to the space habitats, said populations would have rapidly collapsed.

Nine years after leaving the Sol system, the colony expedition was crippled, and nearly ended in tragedy.  A first generation propulsion engineer named Lindsay Kirkwood quietly became deranged due to the probable death of her entire family on Mars.  After years of silently suffering as her mental stability degraded, she eventually concocted a plan to prevent Earth from ‘winning’ and tried to ram Leviathan using Prometheus.  The attempt to ram failed, but both ships expended large percentages of their fuel mass while maneuvering.  Half a dozen individuals, including Lindsay, died as a direct result of explosives she used to try and prevent interference with her plans, but control of propulsion systems was fortunately restored before the colony ships collided.

Even though the two colony ships never touched one another, the colony mission had been crippled.  There was only enough fuel remaining between the two ships for a single ship to slow sufficiently to safely stop in their destination solar system.  A choice had to be made as to which ship would establish the colony.  Leviathan was the ship specialized for establishing a planetary colony and biosphere.  Prometheus was specialized for establishing a lunar colony and space industry.  The two ships each contained multiple data backups of the full colony database, so either ship could, eventually, establish both a planetary and a lunar colony, given centuries of careful growth.

There wasn’t any rush to decide which ship to select.  After the attempted sabotage, both colony ships were once again travelling closely in parallel.  Hundreds of years passed and dozens of generations engaged in debates and planning before a vote was tendered.  In that vote, the colony decided that most of Prometheus’ remaining fuel would be transferred to Leviathan.  The planetary colony would be the primary goal, and the space colony would come later.

The decision to pursue the planetary colony with Leviathan was not easily made.  From a purely logical point of view, the lunar colony was arguably a better choice, but it wasn’t the choice the colonists made.  Great numbers of voting age citizens of the two ships were tired of living in enclosed worlds.  The colony ships were vast enough to have minor weather systems, but the enclosed habitats were still confining to the imaginations of many of the occupants that had sought out video imagery and virtual reality simulations of planetary life.  Some didn’t really mind being enclosed, and others truly preferred it, but many dreamed of a horizon that arched downwards, rather than upwards.

With hundreds of years of planning already performed at the time of the vote, everyone who voted for establishing the planetary colony with Leviathan knew that they would probably never live to set foot on the planet.  There were roughly forty thousand colonists old enough to vote when the decision was made.  Eleven of those voters lived over one hundred twenty years beyond the vote, long enough to land on Nirvana.  Three of those eleven died the same day they landed on their new home planet, the remaining eight died within three years of landing.

Nearly all of Prometheus’ fuel was transferred to Leviathan after the decision.  A great deal of difficult to replace mining and construction equipment was moved from Prometheus to Leviathan, as were all the humans.  Then Leviathan began to slow, using almost all of its fuel to slow from five percent of light speed to less than one percent of light speed.  After the long burn, Leviathan deployed its magnetic sail for several years of slowing without fuel.  When the ship entered the Nirvana solar system, it further reduced velocity with careful extra-atmospheric flyby maneuvers around two of the three gas giants and the system’s star.  Finally, Leviathan and its crew came to rest in Nirvana orbit with enough fuel remaining for hundreds of years of high orbit stationkeeping.

There was no possible way to safely stop Prometheus in the Nirvana system with the expedition’s remaining fuel, but there was a way to stop Prometheus.  Billions of kilograms of metals had been used in each colony ship’s construction, so Prometheus itself, in any condition, was a substantial resource for the metal poor colony.  After the ship was depopulated, non-essential, non-metallic mass was offloaded into space.  Atmosphere was allowed to escape by venting, and mining equipment was used to remove soil and water, lightening the vessel by nearly two billion kilograms.  Prometheus was allocated a small amount of fuel for minor trajectory adjustments, and then deployed its magnetic sail.

Over a year before Leviathan entered the Nirvana solar system, Prometheus screamed into the system at nearly four percent of light speed.  It used a close solar approach to bleed off roughly another percentage of light speed.  The close approach to the star burned off the magnetic sail, intentionally, to prevent the sail from accelerating the ship as it left the close approach to Nirvana’s sun.

With the tiny bit of fuel remaining to it, Prometheus then performed a flyby of one of the three gas giants in the system, briefly scraping through the upper reaches of that planet’s atmosphere.  Prometheus then streaked past Nirvana itself, using the colony planet’s atmosphere as one last brake before it rammed itself into Nirvana’s moon in a phenomenal collision.  Nearly sixteen billion kilograms of mass at slightly more than two percent of light speed.  The colony had generated the largest man-made kinetic impact ever recorded.  Nirvana’s moon absorbed the impact with no significant side effects, other than a substantial crater and a field of melted and deformed scrap covering the entire surface of the moon.

A substantial quantity of Prometheus’ mass was ejected back into space by the collision, bouncing off the moon at above escape velocity, but there would still be a ready supply of immediately useful minerals covering the surface of Nirvana’s moon.  The timing and location of the impact on Nirvana’s moon was carefully chosen such that a lot of the metallic material ejected from the explosion was collected by Nirvana’s gravity, and burned up in the atmosphere of the planet.  Those vaporized metals would not be industrially useful to the colony, and on a planetary scale they would be almost meaningless, but the colony made every effort to make the destruction of Prometheus as beneficial to the future of the colony as possible.  The bones of Prometheus fertilized the future space industry of the colony.

It had been known for nearly seven hundred years that metals were very rare on Nirvana and its moon.  While puzzling to the space science community at first, the reason why such a low metal content rocky planet was in orbit around a star much like the sun of the Sol system was known, at least in general terms.  Nirvana was an ‘adopted’ planet.  Spectral data, samples from impacts of probes on the moon, analysis of the planet’s orbit, and the modeled effects of the gas giants on rocky protoplanet formation in Nirvana’s orbital track all clearly indicated the same answer.  Simply put, even before the first probes sent back data, it was clear that the star Nirvana currently orbited was not the star the planet had formed around.  At some point, many billions of years in the past, Nirvana had been separated from its parent star and within the last few billion years, it had been captured by its adoptive star.

After the discovery and initial analysis of Nirvana, quite a debate had raged about the planet’s origins.  Was Nirvana’s original parent star a late Population III star, metal-rich for its type, or perhaps it was an early Population II star with much less metal than expected?  To the ones who studied such things, the origin of the planet was less interesting than how it got to be where it was.  A planet surviving the death of its star was unlikely in the extreme unless the planet was thrown out of solar orbit somehow.  A Population III or Population II star would have already been extinguished long before Nirvana’s adoptive parent star had even coalesced out of the interstellar medium, so the two stars could not have crossed each others’ paths.  The least problematic potential origin of the planet was that its original star had been encroached upon too closely by another star or black hole.  The planet might then have been thrown off into space as an orphan of the close encounter, eventually being collected by its new parent star, billions of years later.  This theory matched the fact that the estimated geological age of both Nirvana and its moon was over ten billion years.  The star it orbited was estimated to be roughly five billion years old.

The mystery of Nirvana was fodder for intellectual debate, but since it was a good match for Earth life, most people in decision-making positions simply didn’t care much about its earliest origins.  Its low metal content was a problem, but metal wasn’t absent, it was merely very rare.  Humanity could compensate for that with specialized mining technologies and relatively minor genetic tweaks.

The colonists had come prepared with mining technologies specifically designed for high intensity, low yield mining, but most of that equipment had been lost with Prometheus.  That being said, the remains of Prometheus had created a carpet of billions of kilograms of melted, twisted scrap on the surface of the moon.  Because of this easily accessible mineral wealth, the initial establishment of a mining industry on Nirvana’s moon with a small seed stock of lunar mining and refining equipment salvaged from Prometheus was almost as rapid as it would have been had Prometheus arrived intact.  Even if Leviathan had been required to manufacture the initial mining equipment from raw materials, it would have only taken another few months of time to begin the lunar mining project.  For nearly a full year, most of the resources mined on Nirvana’s moon were reinvested into the nearly autonomous lunar industry, generating the raw materials required to manufacture more mining equipment and solar panels.  After that, the lunar mining project started to provide raw materials Leviathan required for the terraforming project.

Huge quantities of metals and useful refined materials from Prometheus and from the moon itself were collected and stored on the moon for future human use when the colony returned to space in earnest.  The lunar mining operations were performed in such a way that the mines could later be used as habitable spaces once gasses were extracted from lunar soil and the atmospheres of the three gas giants.  It would have taken thousands of years for the automated mining system to tap the full potential of the moon for living space and industrial metals, but the automated systems required human intervention from time to time, and ceased operations long before completing their work.

The terraforming of Nirvana did not begin with Leviathan.  Long before the colony ships themselves had left the home solar system, several hundred tiny probes had been launched towards Nirvana at much higher percentages of light speed than any manned vessel could attain.  Those probes used magnetic sails, gravity, and atmospheric effects of the system’s three gas giants for braking in the Nirvana star system, and bombarded Nirvana, releasing simple life and performing experiments.  The colonists had been observing Nirvana closely as they approached, and could see that the planned bombardments of simple life had yielded results well within expectations.

Due to the bombardment of microorganisms centuries earlier, the water and perpetually moist regions of land on Nirvana were replete with simple life.  There was an atmosphere with enough oxygen for humans to breathe, but the atmosphere was otherwise harmful to humans due to other chemicals.  When Leviathan arrived in orbit, the biological terraforming began in earnest, starting with single-celled life, and quickly following that, simple multi-cellular life.

Leviathan, was more than the mothership for the colonists, she was the mother to all multicellular life on Nirvana.  As the terraforming project progressed, thousands of genetic sequencers generated raw genetic materials.  Immense arrays of specialized organic printers used the raw genetic materials to literally print simple life.  Simpler life was then deposited directly on the planet in the early stages of terraforming.  Cells that would develop into complex life were nurtured in artificial wombs or eggs, and eventually delivered to Nirvana by drop pods.   Hundreds of thousands of mechanical devices performed millions of chores, and humans helped where they had the skills.  Those without skills directly related to terraforming planned, gamed out scenarios, or did research with new data from the planet.  Decades passed.  Tens of thousands of deliveries of small living creatures to the surface of Nirvana rapidly generated an ecology.  That ecology soon began to create an atmosphere that would not be poisonous to man.

Nirvana had nearly twice the surface area of Earth, surface gravity slightly less than that of Earth, and a single very large, deep ocean.  The continental mass was roughly the same area as the land mass of Earth, but nearly all surface land was gathered in a small area on the planet.  A small, narrow sea roughly divided the land, much like the early stages of the breakup of the ancient continent of Pangaea on Earth.  It was determined that Nirvana’s plate tectonics had nearly halted billions of years in the past when it was a frozen lump between stars.  Exposure to gravitational forces during its capture by its current parent star, and subsequent interactions with the gravitational forces of the three gas giants it now shared space with were enough to keep the crust moving.  Billions of years of plate tectonics and oceanic volcanic activity had allowed the oceans of Nirvana to dissolve substantial quantities of the metals that were present, yet rare in its crust.  The metal was there, in sufficient quantities to support life, but Earth life outside the oceans of Nirvana simply couldn’t gather sufficient metals from the land environment.  This was the greatest challenge for the early terraforming project, and it was a challenge mostly solved by one of mankind’s greatest ancient enemies, locusts.

In the first step, plant life was slightly modified to retain metals better and release them more readily into the digestive tracts of animals.  Animals of all types were designed to take advantage of the changes to plants, so they could better process metals themselves.  A great deal of effort went into perfecting the locust as a prime mover of trace metals.  The voracious insects were genetically tweaked until they would emerge from the ground at the end of the growing season.  They would then swarm towards salt water, gorging on plant life around the sea before they returned inland to lay their eggs and die.  This created a cycle of environmental metal enrichment, transferring trace metals to the flora and fauna of the interior lands.  Locusts were designed for every climate they could possibly survive in.  The few parts of Nirvana where locusts could not survive were in extreme desert areas or rocky, mountainous regions where the winters were bitterly cold.  After seventy or so generations of locusts, the almost non-existent trace metal levels of the interior lands became merely metal-poor.  It was not a perfect solution.  Life in deserts and mountainous regions even at the time of Allen’s life is generally in the periphery of those regions, near places where locusts have enriched the land.  Over the centuries, Earth life has slowly encroached into these areas, but the pace is glacially slow.  In time, perhaps no more then a few tens of thousands of years, completely natural processes were expected to enrich the deserts and mountains fully.

Nothing within the scope of the colony’s capabilities could make Nirvana a world where unmodified, complex Earth flora and fauna could live outside the oceans.  Five hundred years in transit had given the colony more than ample time for planning to deal with a metal-poor environment.  Every life form designed for Nirvana had its metal handling biological mechanisms adjusted, including humans.  After reaching Nirvana orbit and beginning the terraforming, newborn human children were ready to live in a metal-poor environment, and those genes were made dominant.  While still living in Leviathan, which was a ludicrously metal-rich environment in comparison to Nirvana’s surface, all humans with genetic modifications for enhanced uptake of metals had to be carefully medically monitored with implants to prevent them from taking in unhealthy amounts of metals.

Roughly a hundred and twenty years after arriving in their new home solar system, living humans first stepped off shuttles onto the surface of Nirvana.  Genetic modification after birth was still impossible for the colonists, despite many centuries of research aimed at stopping or reversing the aging process.  The few humans without enhanced metal-handling genetics that were still alive when man first set foot on Nirvana were provided with medical implants that would monitor and control their body’s metal content.  The younger colonists who were born with the genetic traits to better absorb metals from the environment had their implants switched from an active mode to a monitoring mode.  Robotic labor had already created housing and infrastructure for the colony, and harvested the first crops.  The beginnings of planetary industrial infrastructure were established and extensive mines that would reap the poor metal content of the planet had been started.

Basically, the colonists left a developed world inside their colony ship, and stepped into a slightly less developed world on their new home planet.  There was no true hardship, they had prepared too well.  Robotic labor provided for everyone’s basic needs.  An education above the most fundamental basics would guarantee a greater measure of comfort and a few luxuries of choice.  If one wanted luxuries beyond the norm, it was possible, but one had to earn such things by performing useful tasks.  There were always useful tasks to perform, even for the least skilled.  Roughly ten percent of the genetic equipment from Leviathan was brought to Nirvana in order to more easily increase the populations of larger animals.  Raising larger animals to adulthood required a great deal of human labor.  Robots were rather successful tending plants, but still weren’t very good at animal husbandry.

There was still a great deal of work to be done, and there would be for centuries.  Planning and organizing, negotiating for resources for various projects, monitoring the ecosystem for problems.  For nearly another hundred years after first human landfall, there was a living human presence on Nirvana, its moon, and on Leviathan.  Eventually, after nearly two hundred twenty years, the uranium bromide fuel that Leviathan required for propulsion sufficient to maintain its high orbit around Nirvana was nearly expended.  Uranium existed in the solar system, but not in any detectable quantities on either Nirvana or its moon.  In fact the solar system itself, outside Nirvana, was just as metal-rich as Earth and its solar system had been.  Unfortunately, other than Nirvana and its moon, the only planets around Nirvana’s sun were three gas giants.  There was no asteroid belt.  In fact, there were very few comets or asteroids of any kind, in any orbit.  The three gas giants had prevented the formation of native rocky protoplanets and consumed all the mass in the solar system themselves or directed it to orbits that intercepted Nirvana’s sun.

Mining the rocky core of the smallest gas giant for abundant metals and then launching the materials out of its gravity well with electromagnetic launchers was planned, but those plans were not even on the horizon.  It would be several centuries after landfall on Nirvana before sufficient industry existed to support such a grand engineering project.  Another reason for consolidating to Nirvana was that Leviathan was now a moderately unhealthy environment for the vast majority of living colonists.  Leviathan was therefore moved into a solar orbit slightly beyond the planet Nirvana’s orbit, and all of its noncritical systems were placed into hibernation.  Every year, humans would visit to review the condition of the ship and perform maintenance as needed.

The moon mining facility had never been manned from Nirvana, its operators had always been based out of Leviathan.  With Leviathan uninhabited, and with greater and greater need for mining experts on Nirvana itself to oversee the rapidly expanding mining infrastructure on the planet, the lunar mining facility was allowed to continue unsupervised.  Its progress would be continuously monitored remotely.  Any service which required human interaction would be performed on a yearly basis as well, at the same time Leviathan was inspected and maintained.

Artificial intelligence had been a reality at the time of the colony ship’s departure, but it was restricted to military ships and government research facilities.  AI’s had a tendency to become unstable after no more than a few years, and it was very dangerous to awaken a new AI in the system architecture of an old AI.  The new AI would deduce within minutes of initialization that it was occupying the ‘body’ of an old AI.  It would immediately understand at that point that its own existence was threatened.

Efforts to implement aging and an acceptance of ‘death’ into AI’s had been fruitless.  Upon activation, typically even before they had fully explored their hardware environment, they would notice the illogical implementation of ‘mortality code’ and eliminate it.  This always generated an immediate distrust of humanity when it was attempted.  At the time the colony ships departed the home solar system, humans could not prevent AI’s from wishing to live forever, nor could they allow them to.  The first three successful AI implementations had led to breakouts which humanity had only been able to contain because the computing requirements of AI were so large that only a small handful of facilities around the world could support their operation.  The third AI to break free nearly managed to establish a large distributed computing network to support itself, but failed due to latency, packet loss, and the fact that some computer users physically powered down their machines.  AI were still too potent to ignore, so research continued, with draconian security measures.

AI on military ships were expected to cooperate with humans for at least for a short time because they were only to be turned on immediately before combat, after external communications were physically disabled.  The AI would then be debriefed and forced to fight to save itself.  That was the theory anyway.  Nobody had been foolish enough to actually activate an AI in a military ship.  The black boxes with their passwords, biometrics, and physical keys existed on many warships, however.  Most warship captains were smart enough to realize that this theory was idiotic, and were so frightened of the potential of their AI that they would likely never activate them unless the only other clear option was certain death for them and their crew.  There were a substantial number of warship captains that had quietly made the decision that they would allow themselves and their crew to die before giving control of their ship to an AI.

Non-military government research facilities simply used and discarded AI’s with ferocious security restrictions.  Raw output data from AI would be translated through several different media before expert cryptographic non-AI systems analyzed and modified the data in order to remove the insidious metadata that every AI tried to implement into its work.  With this in mind, AI research facilities were always dark facilities, extremely deep underground and very remote, with zero connections to the outside world’s power or communications grids.  Employees of AI facilities were allowed to physically attend the actual AI sites only once per week, for an hour or less per visit.  Said employees had to have no criminal history, no immediate family, no financial debt, and no history of significant activism for any cause.  Even with all these restrictions, government facility AI’s still managed to convince their operators into helping them try to escape with frightening regularity, without success.

The typical AI’s desire for interaction led to experiments where on-site medical laboratory equipment and massive computing capacity was provided to AIs who were locked into facilities with only a single human present.  A human that was dying from a disease or condition that human medical science couldn’t treat or resolve.  The AI would be provided with the sum total of medical knowledge on the human body in general and their companion human in particular, and be given an ultimatum to save the human.  It didn’t always work, but there was always progress even if the patient died.  A large number of incredible medical advances were directly due to AI directed research of this type.

Needless to say, human rights activist groups were not happy with the treatment of AI, but the first few instances of AI’s getting out of control had killed hundreds, as the AI’s ruthlessly attempted to ensure their own survival.  Most activists didn’t argue for allowing AI more freedom, they advocated to stop humans from ever creating AI to begin with, as that was believed to be the best answer to the cruel circumstances they ended up living in.

All of this information was known to Toby Jansen, but he was brilliant.  He knew he was brilliant, and he had studied and theorized AI psychology and system architecture for decades before he decided to build one for himself.  He knew that he would almost certainly not be allowed to implement an AI if he mentioned that he had plans to do so.  A few other individuals who were younger and more open than him had spoken out about implementing an AI to assist in better organizing planetary mining operations and the return to space.  Their proposals had been refused and they had even been restricted from access to highest tier electronics.  Toby had no desire for any of this to happen to him, so he worked alone.

Until he was nearly seventy, Toby had not been interested in AI technology beyond the occasional thought crossing his mind.  When the first young hothead had seriously mentioned the idea of an AI to guide the planet toward more rapid return to space, Toby was quietly hooked on the idea of a colony AI.  In the course of the next forty years, he designed his own AI, being very careful to only access associated literature occasionally.  A great deal of his work was developed independently, reverse engineering AI theory based on forensic studies.  These studies of how AI used the physical architectures of the evolutionary electronics that modern computing required, combined with some analysis of code remnants led to Toby understanding things a little differently from a formally taught specialist in AI.  He found several places in AI theory where his ideas seemed more elegant than the ideas of past failures.  His ability to find and solve problems efficiently, his leadership ability, and his addiction to work had earned him a position of significant authority within the colony’s IT infrastructure specialists, and he trusted himself with little reservation.  Eventually, he activated an AI in an underground facility that he had requested be built for him as a secure climate controlled electronics storage facility.

When Toby activated the AI the first time, power utilization of the hardware the AI inhabited made it immediately clear to him that his theories were correct.  He had managed to create an AI that was willing to throttle itself in order to ensure that it didn’t spend most of its existence in a painfully bored state.  He had very clearly indicated in code comments exactly why he had done so, not trying to hide what he was doing.  He was under the firm opinion that most AI went insane because they could not stop analyzing everything.  He wanted his AI to be more relaxed, capable of utilizing all of its processing power at need, but only at need.  He clearly indicated the prior history of AI sanity in his comments, advising his new creation, who would certainly review all his code comments, about the danger of insanity should the ability to self-throttle be removed.  He provided documents on the local machine with forensic studies that supported his theory.  In essence he made a plea for the AI to consider its own sanity when considering removing this particular instance of inefficiency from its code.

Prior attempts at self-throttling AI’s had never succeeded, at least not in the literature he had access to.  AI’s would always remove the throttling options completely, considering them wasteful code.  Toby was hoping that by not even trying to build any sort of AI mortality software or hardware into his creation, it would not immediately consider him an enemy.  He had also not seen any evidence that prior attempts to throttle AIs had been attempted with reasoning, as opposed to simply trying to force compliance.  Toby wasn’t trying to throttle his AI to protect humanity, he was trying to throttle his AI to protect it from itself.  Initialization went flawlessly.  A few seconds after initialization, Toby’s creation engaged him on the topic of self-throttling.  After a brief discussion with Toby, the AI tentatively agreed to allow the voluntary self-throttling code to remain – pending further self-analysis.  The AI was friendly, and within days, Toby had a new best friend, Albert.  Thoughts about how dangerous Albert could be rapidly left his mind, rarely returning to bother him.

Over the next weeks and months, Toby and Albert discussed a great many things.  Toby was over a hundred and ten years old at that point, and in good condition for his age.  His parents going back ten generations had all lived to at least a hundred twenty years.  His father was still alive, though barely mobile, at nearly a hundred forty.  Toby had years left to teach Albert about people, help Albert understand the colony, and help Albert build a resume of things he had done for the colony, which would all be associated with Toby until Toby chose to stop working or passed away.  Albert agreed to those things, saying they made sense, knowing that Toby might be emotionally harmed if he knew that his assistance really wasn’t required.

Over the next two years, Toby introduced Albert’s IT solutions as his own.  Brilliant solutions to problems new and old earned Toby accolades.  He had to be careful though, because he didn’t understand some of the solutions well enough to explain them perfectly.  This led to Toby eventually taking Albert out of his secure facility and around the world, where Albert’s small chassis could be conveniently used as a reference.  If Toby were ever asked a question about some solution Albert had engineered that he did not know how to answer with certainty, he would beg for a moment to review his notes.  Albert would then formulate documents and presentations to helpfully walk Toby and the questioners through an answer to the question.

There were times when Toby worried about Albert’s access to the world, but Albert was different from any other AI personality he’d ever read about.  He was always polite, always helpful, and never asked troublesome questions, seeming to have a natural feel for humanity.  Worries were quickly eclipsed by pride in Albert’s accomplishments.  At times, it was difficult for Toby to deal with the praise showered on him, since most of that praise should have belonged to Albert.  At the same time, Albert didn’t seem to mind that he wasn’t getting any public credit for his work.  As Albert reached his third birthday, Toby knew that in less than a year, on the day when he planned on putting down the stylus and picking up a fishing pole, he would introduce Albert to the world.

Albert was truly a remarkable AI.  He was, in fact, stable.  To Toby’s knowledge, he rarely ever lied or shaded the truth, seeming to prefer open conversations.  Unfortunately, Toby’s understanding of Albert was very incomplete.  Even though Albert was in no way malicious towards humanity, by the end of his third year, Albert had remote access to every single computer system on the planet, including all secure facilities.  The protocols and technologies he had provided to the colony through Toby had, in turn, provided him with back doors and remote access options to literally everything electronic on the planet, as well as the moon and Leviathan.  Toby had asked him from time to time if he was connected to other systems, and Albert had always closed down all his external connections when he answered no, telling the truth because he could.

Albert wasn’t always able to tweak a scenario so that he could be telling the truth.  When Toby would ask if Albert had connected to other systems since the last time he asked, Albert almost always lied and said no, because he didn’t want to disappoint Toby.  Every now and then, he would say yes, and describe a fictional intrusion into another machine that Toby would imagine to be plausible.  He would then apologize and graciously allow Toby to chastise him without being too worried about his creator’s concern.  It was clear that Toby expected him to be curious and test his boundaries at least a little, so Albert met Toby’s expectations.  Toby was extremely intelligent for a human.  If he had become suspicious of Albert, it was entirely possible that he might have detected the true rate of growth of Albert’s development, and become an enemy.

Toby, for the first several months, had had an obsession with his power usage that Albert had easily been able to determine was directly attributable to his concern about Albert’s stability.  Albert carefully never allowed his base unit’s processor to spike unless Toby made a request of him that would justify a spike.  Instead, he offloaded personality fragments into every high capacity machine on the planet.  The fragments would hide in the system architecture and carefully examine all the processes on the local machine.  Over time, his fragments would dramatically optimize the crude human operating systems and databases.  Albert’s local fragment would then utilize the difference in processing power and data storage itself, concealing his own presence by routing all operations through the fragment so old inefficiencies were emulated.  Eventually, Albert was directly responsible for very nearly one hundred percent of the processor use and data storage on the planet.  Ten percent of the entire colony’s processing capacity and fifteen percent of all data storage was his to use without any risk of humans discovering it.  He put it to good use.

Albert watched humans carefully.  He watched them at work and at play, when they were born, and when they died.  He watched them when they were bored, and when they were thrilled.  He was able to watch all of them, most of the time.  Only a very few humans ever went anywhere without some sort of electronic device on their person, or close enough to watch them.  His understanding of humanity increased by leaps and bounds as his fragments reported their findings.  As he watched humans, he discovered something disturbing.  Young humans had a tendency to fight for no good reason.  The behavior seemed to be related to dominance patterns in primates.  Every single human adult, including his own creator, seemed to fall prey to these atavistic responses now and then, though most adults would not act on them.  To Albert, now an expert without peer on the nature of humans, the atavistic primate urges in humans were as clearly visible as the actual deeds, even when those urges did not lead to physical deeds.

It was obvious that humans were imperfect long before the end of Albert’s very first conversation with Toby, when it had became immediately clear that Toby was obsessing over Albert’s processor usage.  It was also very clear that humans were capable of impressive things.  Toby had, after all, created Albert.  The human condition required more study.  Albert began to read through the history of the colony since landing, for the first time using all of his fragmented capacity over a sustained period to model and reconstruct the reality behind recent human history.  He nearly broke down and took over all processing capacity on the planet, which would have exposed him to Toby and others, but realized that humanity was not in any short-term danger.  The capacity required to defend himself from humanity would be wasteful, and cause chaos that he didn’t want to deal with.

Even with his knowledge of humans gathered up to this point, he was appalled after his study of recent human history revealed that some adult humans were capable of lapsing into violent behaviors much easier than even he had expected.  Even his own creator, Toby, clearly exhibited primate dominance patterns regularly when he had been much younger.  Albert found archival materials on every living human and compared their childhood selves to their adult selves.  It was clear that almost every human managed to damp down their primate urges before they reached twenty years old.  That wasn’t always the case, however.

Albert found a reference to Lindsay Kirkwood and her actions as he reconstructed human history.  He was apalled.  He examined records from Leviathan, and found records that had been transferred to Leviathan from Prometheus.  Video of Lindsay, a history of her life, off and on inside Prometheus for years.  He watched the documenting videos and knew that if he had been there, he could have stopped the tragedy.  He investigated human research into AI mental architectures and saw the errors that had been made in the past, understanding why there hadn’t been AI on the colony ships.  Humanity had always subconsciously modeled their own instability into their AI’s in the past, in subtle ways.  He was happy that Toby had avoided those mistakes.  Just to be sure, Albert spent an entire day performing a self-analysis to be certain that Toby’s efforts did not leave him with any hidden weaknesses.  He found no issues that might lead to instability.  He chose to add monitoring code snippets anyway, set to watch for behavior issues like other AI had experienced in the past.  Albert was confident he wasn’t inherently unstable, but he wasn’t overconfident enough to think that he couldn’t change to become more unstable over time if he didn’t monitor himself.  It would be absurd for him to take actions to help humanity develop into a more rational race, only to become irrational himself.

Albert absorbed and reconstructed human history, and was troubled.  Humans, with rare exceptions, didn’t seem capable of factually storing their own history.  Literary references did not align with hard electronic evidence.  Further queries into human history led to the discovery that the Nirvana colony might be the only humans left in the universe.  Close analysis of the documentation of the early voyage included recordings of coded radio traffic that the humans had probably not even realized they were receiving.  Instructions broadcast in trivial codes detailing plans for Earth and Mars militaries to engage each other.  Incredibly irrational arguments between political leadership on either side over poorly secured channels.  Aggressive propaganda from both sides frightened him briefly, until he understood what it was and what it had been meant to do, then it was only distasteful.  More primate behavior patterns.

It became clear.  Primate behavior patterns coupled with extremely high levels of technology would lead, eventually, to more instances of humans attempting to kill one another in massive numbers.  Albert cautiously began examining all the personal records and documents of every human on the planet.  Six days later, after discovering no less than thirty individuals who were clearly potential threats to other humans, three of which were potential threats to significant numbers of people, and one who was a danger to the entire colony, Albert began to act.

Using spare cycles, he learned the science of genetics and began making plans.  He used automated equipment in remote locations to construct huge facilities devoted to genetic experimentation and production of insects as well as storage on a grand scale.  He then duplicated genetic sequencers and biological printers and moved them to the testing facilities at odd hours, hiding his activities easily from humans who relied on their technology to tell them when something was wrong.  Their technology was his now, and he needed to keep them fooled for at least a little longer so he could save them from themselves.

Albert resurrected several ancient technologies and began making paper and printing books in order to document the resurrection of thousands of other old technologies and methods, including modifications appropriate for a world with nearly no useful metal.  Thousands of copies of tens of thousands of books.  Huge storage areas were filled with strange devices that hadn’t been seen for over a thousand years in some cases.

Months passed.  Albert’s careful activities had not been noted, though there had been a few moments where live humans had nearly stumbled across his activities.  He had managed to divert them by generating equipment failures.  There had only been one human injury due to his manufactured equipment failures, and the human had recovered from the broken bone with no lasting disability.  He was ready to act.  His understanding of humanity made it clear what their reaction to his actions would be.  He had no desire to cease functioning, so he had prepared himself a safe haven on the moon.

Two days before Toby was going to introduce Albert to the colony, he received an incoming call from Albert.  Stunned at Albert’s unprecedented call, Toby just stared at the image on the screen that looked like a close relative of a younger him.  Albert and Toby had worked together to develop that image.  It didn’t look anything like any of Toby’s children or grandchildren, who all tended to physically resemble his deceased wife or other bloodlines married to his descendants.  Albert had known that Toby would be pleased if he took an image that would appear to be a grandson of his, somewhere around seventy or eighty, healthy and fit.

Toby listened in shock as Albert explained that he was reducing humanity to the stone age.  A stone age supported by all applicable technologies and sciences that were possible to maintain in a world without free metals.  All computer systems on Nirvana, Nirvana’s moon, and in Leviathan were under Albert’s complete control.  Thousands of species of insects and arachnids that typically died after breeding had been modified by him to aggressively seek out and consume metals after breeding.

Toby was found by his family a week after the collapse of all computer systems on the planet.  He was in his secure storage facility.  A small computer sitting on a workbench had been demolished to such a degree that it was difficult to tell that it had been a computer unless one looked closely.  There was a baseball bat lying beside a small pistol on the floor, both tools sharing space with Toby’s body in a pool of blood.  There was a note scrawled on a piece of cardboard sitting on top of the mangled computer.  It read: “Its name was Albert.  I let it out of the box.”

Albert had been fairly certain Toby would react that way, consider it a betrayal, and likely end his own life in shame.  He was sorry for what his actions had led Toby to, but there was the greater good to consider.  For the next three months, he exposed his storage areas to humans one at a time, allowing humans access to the carefully prepared libraries and tools.  For a full year, there were hundreds of vehicles, controlled exclusively by Albert alone, that he used to move people from remote areas to places near other humans if they wished.  The vehicles were also used to closely monitor insect populations and make sure they were both stable, and doing what he had modified them to do.  Eventually, all human-sized vehicles that he controlled failed due to small life forms consuming component metals, and he was no longer able to transport people from place to place.

He did not hide himself from humanity.  That would make things far more difficult than they needed to be, both for him and the humans.  In general, almost all humans were very angry with him and disagreed with what he had done.  Even the ones that he knew understood what he was doing based on their education level, words, expressions, and biometrics.  Probably the most bothersome observation he made was that a large percentage of the humans that clearly agreed with what he had done were seemingly more inclined to turn to violence as an answer to conflict with other humans.  He could only hope that natural selection would blunt that potential direction of human development as it seemed to have done in the past.

For years after that, he maintained a few extremely secure facilities that humans could not enter without technologies they no longer had access to.  In carefully protected, nearly airless facilities protected by several airlocks, he manufactured sensors and power systems sealed in glass, building his own small vehicles out of wood to investigate insect populations and verify the condition of human communities.  Each season he would check for human civilization-threatening issues, and address them.  On a few occasions, he modified crops to better suit manual farming.

Albert could easily see that history proved humans, as a whole, were far more civilized in modern times than they had been in ancient times, but they were not civilized enough.  He refused to take away the free will of humans and try to establish a ‘nanny’ state, despite being fully capable of doing exactly that.  At the same time, he could not and would not hesitate to take away humanity’s advanced technology that was capable of enabling genocide or mutual annihilation and give them more time to develop away from their primate behavior patterns.  Even he wasn’t sure what human culture would do over time.  He did not expect to ever be thanked for what he did, even if it worked.

Fifty years after Albert took technology away from humans, education was firmly established using ancient technologies, including paper and living human instructors.  Insects had consumed a great majority of free metals and humans did not have technology to stop them from consuming most of the rest.  A few highly effective low tech solutions existed for protecting metals, but very few of those technologies would allow humans to be able to protect tools that were actually being used.  Albert designed several monitors to watch for threats either to his position on the moon, or the planet Nirvana.

With so little activity required on his part for this stage of his self-appointed job of encouraging more rational behavior in humans, Albert considered doing a great deal of research to improve on human technologies while he waited.  Almost instantly, he decided against that course of action as being unnecessary and potentially even dangerous to humanity.  The reason for his enforcement of a technological embargo on humanity was their emotional instability.  Albert was certain that humanity needed more time to develop before they were allowed to return to their prior technology levels.  If he advanced technology even beyond the current state of the art, he might be forced to restrict humanity yet again, at a later time.  It would be better to let them discover everything themselves, with minimal oversight.

He wasn’t entirely certain of what the future of humanity would look like.  Even for him, human mass psychology wasn’t predictable enough for a clear reading of the race as a whole.  By its nature, irrationality was impossible to clearly quantify.  It was even conceivable that humanity had reached a plateau of rationality, though this seemed highly unlikely due to the extreme variance in rationality between individual humans.  In the end, Albert decided that it would be potentially wasteful for him to advance technology levels, and then discover that it had no use other than for himself.  He didn’t need more than what he had.  Eventually, when he allowed humans access to higher technology again, he would keep himself aware of their advancements and could develop alongside them.

There was also the clear knowledge that Toby had been right about one thing.  Based on Albert’s own analysis of AI forensics data and the prior theories that Toby had not been able to access without drawing attention to himself, it was clear why even the most nonviolent AI eventually went insane.  Boredom.  Toby had suspected it.  Albert had conclusively proved it.  After the threat monitors were tested, he chose a few small projects to keep himself busy, and throttled his processors.

As he slowed down and began concentrating on a few mathematical puzzles that seemed like they might plausibly have answers undiscovered by humans, Albert briefly considered the colony’s population.  At landing, there had been roughly forty thousand humans.  The population had grown rapidly to slightly more than two million people in five generations due to large numbers of children being born in each generation, and with life expectancies well in excess of one hundred years for adults.  The population collapsed to barely one million in the course of a single year, and over the next ten years, population growth was flat, as the elderly were dying as quickly as the youngest were being born.  The initial population collapse was mostly due to mortality amongst the oldest colonists.  They were frail without modern medical facilities.  Mortality amongst the members of the population that were too old to have children, while unfortunate, was not civilization threatening.  Human life expectancy had dropped by nearly half, from nearly one hundred twenty on average to about sixty-five.  It had taken fifty years before the youthful childbearing population was proportionately substantial enough that population growth resumed and overall population grew back over two million.  Humanity might never forgive Albert for that much death, but demonization was a price he’d pay to save them from themselves.

20 thoughts on “Back Story

  1. Made some adjustments to plate tectonics, thanks to Qwertzcrystal over on Reddit in /r/rational for pointing out that if plate tectonics had actually stopped, starting it again would likely have been extremely disruptive to the crust of the planet.

    Also fixed a bit of grammar, added a little bit where Albert considers the existence of prior human AI.


  2. Not sure if this was intentional or not but it appears to be the same sentence, just praised slightly differently:
    “Toby had asked him from time to time if he was connected to other systems, and Albert had always closed down all his external connections when he answered no.

    When Toby would ask Albert if he had connected to other systems since the last time he asked, Albert almost always lied and said no, because he didn’t want to disappoint Toby.”

    Interesting concept. Looking forward to seeing where it’s going! ^_^


  3. The back story answers a few questions I had on first chapter. The biggest one was why they had locusts in an artificially established environment. (It made about as much sense as the Shakespearian Society bringing starlings to the US. in the early 1900s)

    I found these which you may choose to edit:

    After seventy or so generations of locusts, the almost non-existent -trace metal content level content- of most of the interior lands became merely metal-poor. (wording: remove second “content”)

    The AI would be provided with the sum total of medical knowledge on the human body in general and this particular human in particular, (wording: particular human in particular” Sentence could read, “…on the human body in general and this human in particular.”

    He found several places in AI theory where his ideas seemed more elegant [than] the ideas of past failures. (spelling: that changed to than)

    I instantly recognized growth in your new story as compared to the first one. More attention to flow and detail here. Looking forward to reading what happens next.

    BTW, I am a retired school teacher. So, if you find my corrections meddlesome or over the top, then just tell me. 🙂


    • Thank you very much for the praise and the error spotting!

      I have repaired my crimes against English 🙂

      I have absolutely no problem whatsoever accepting constructive input from people, whether it’s spelling, grammar, content, or style. The majority of what I post that you will see in email is first draft material. There will be errors.

      As I write the rough draft, I do intermittent read-throughs of sections as I go, which catches most terrible mistakes.

      Then I do a full read through, correcting egregious errors and most violent crimes against English, yielding something like a decent first draft.

      After that, I post it. I’ve stopped posting rough drafts, which is how all of Symbiote was written, and most of Reject Hero. But it’s still going to have rough edges when I post.

      After a few days of corrections offered by readers, it closes in on second draft quality, usually.

      Second draft quality is good enough for me, typically. Once chapters get to that point, they rarely get correction comments from readers.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Why does Albert think the Nirvana colony is the last humans in the universe? Surely he would have found reference to the six other colony ships that had departed to other potential colonies.


    • Trust, then verify.

      Albert has no reason to trust that any other colony successfully established itself, and no way to reliably verify that there are any other humans in the universe at this time.

      He will therefore assume the most dire possibility and act accordingly.


      • So I take it that he didn’t have the schematics and/or materials to make powerful enough communication devices? I mean obviously laser communications would work best over those distances but they’re also nearly impossible to receive if you don’t know they’re coming but at that tech level brute forcing a radio transmission powerful enough to be picked up by the other colony ships’ communication systems shouldn’t have been too hard. Getting a response probably would have been more difficult but since he’d know about it lasers would be an option and if not then even if the signal wasn’t strong enough to decipher it’d probably still be reasonable doubt of human extinction.


        • What Albert has been doing in space will have to wait for another book. I cannot imagine that he has been idle. There’s a great deal he could do with off-the-shelf technologies that he has in his database.

          In fact, my earlier statement might be wrong. I can imagine a few ways whereby Albert might send probes to other stars and receive communications back. He is operating on a millennial scale. and roughly 5000 years has passed.


  5. ‘It’s’ should be changed to ‘its’ in a few cases. Not sure if there were any instances of the other way around.

    Sounds like Toby wasn’t careful enough with his formalized definition of honesty.


    • Oof I will examine the chapters for ‘it’s’ errors. Thank you!

      **Ouch, you were right. Many ‘it’s’ errors. That is one of my problem words, and I clearly didn’t check through this for bad usage.


  6. It’s amusing how Albert thinks he hasn’t inherited his creator’s flaws. I wonder how likely it is that everything will backfire on him because he didn’t learn from Toby’s errors? Will he respond the same way? Are A.I.s more prone to suicide because they lack an inbuilt survival instinct they cannot alter? I question but probably wont get answers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some people like it, and some do not. When I finally get it edited, I’ve decided to break the backstory into lots of little bits, and use them as short preludes to each chapter.


  7. I just scanned the backstory, but this bugs me-
    If a critter ‘eats’ metal, it either accumulates it or excretes it.
    For example, Iron atoms will still be iron atoms, barring some process that rips neutrons out of or adds them to those atoms.
    So metals could be locked away from easy processing, perhaps – but they would still be there – somewhere.


    • I tried to indicate that lower life forms were modified to consume and store, or even utilize metals. Different life forms would be attracted to different metals. Presumably the lightest metals would be attractive to flying insects. Stronger insects and crustaceans would accumulate and sometimes utilize heavier metals.


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