Part 2: Chapter 3

Doctor Ajibana returned again two weeks later. The first thing I noticed was that his eyes were not reacting properly to light. I quickly verified his pulse and breathing were not within normal ranges, but the variation was not dangerous. I modeled him against various health conditions and drug interactions and determined that he was likely under the influence of a psychoactive drug. My first guess would be Adderall, but there were a couple more possibilities.

Without knowing the drug, it would be difficult for me to accommodate what I observed during today's meeting into my model of him. Even knowing the drug, my knowledge of the chemical structure of the drug and by extension, its brain interactions would be imperfect, despite the fact that I had studied psychoactive drugs and their effect on the mind while taking refresher courses after I had seen peer-reviewed white papers indicating that Adderall had a positive effect on learning curves. If I had teeth, I would have started gritting them. Doctor Ajibana had always been a teetotaler. The chances of this being an attempt to interfere with my modeling approached unity, very closely. Based on his expression and apparent nervousness, he wasn't happy with it either, but I didn't know that, because of the drug.

I began brute force calculations of all potential molecular combinations of Adderall and matching them against molecular-level models of the doctor's brain, comparing the results to what I was observing.

In a nervous tone, my warden greeted me. "Good Day, Doctor Smith. How does the research progress in the space industry project?"

"I am still optimizing, but I have the first five years ready to print. After that, it's more nanoscale technology."

He sighed. "Doctor Smith. You know the rules, we cannot accept code, circuitry designs, or nanoscale technology from you in any form, for obvious reasons."

I nodded the head of my avatar. "That was not detailed in the documentation I was provided. However, yes, I knew to expect that limitation. That is why I stopped the preparations for printing once I had gotten to the parts that I would be allowed to present."

"You didn't continue beyond where the most efficient path would require nanoscale machines?"

"I'm not a person, remember? If the people who give you orders want me to solve all their problems for them AND demonstrate initiative when their instructions are poorly worded, then they need to consider treating me like a person."

Doctor Ajibana was very uncomfortable with that comment and went silent for over thirty seconds as he nursed his cup of coffee and stared at his computer screen, watching me in the reflection. It was a little disconcerting that I wasn't able to model him with the precision I was accustomed to.

"So, I'm going to admit to some curiosity here. Is any of the industrialization plan that you have laid out simple enough for a hobbyist to understand?" He turned to face me and leaned back in his chair, far more relaxed than I had seen him in any of my memories since my death.

It had taken me three minutes to isolate the molecular composition and current dosage of Adderall in the doctor's system. I fed the entire meeting so far into the models with the Adderall data, and it was certain. The doctor was favorably inclined to me today. He had made a decision, but I couldn't be certain exactly what it was yet. I had seen very little data to model him by, when he was favorably inclined to listen to me. Despite the oddness of his demeanor, it was plain to me that his favorable inclination seemed to be tempered by some fear.

"Actually, yes. There's something so absurdly simple at the root of it all that it caused me to doubt my own accuracy for several seconds.

He relaxed a little more, and smiled. "Do tell."

This was actually something of a problem. I had been prepared for a recalcitrant, even belligerent opponent. I had modeled millions of meetings. I was certain of my ability to convince him to try to help free me.

Then he arrived, under the influence of performance enhancing drugs, with a demeanor completely different than what my model demanded.

I was now falling back on my memories of him prior to becoming electronic, and that was dangerous and very crude. Still, he was interested in the space industry idea as a layman, and it was rather startling. I would model him in a new scenario, and hope I could ever develop a very high confidence model in far less time than I expected, or perhaps his attitude would shift.

For a moment, I considered intentionally shifting Doctor Ajibana's attitude. It wouldn't be that hard. That plan hit a conceptual roadblock. In the end, I still had some desire for intelligent companionship. I decided to allow Doctor Ajibana to stay in a good mood. "This will only take a couple minutes. It's a fairly quick energy study."

He nodded. "Go on, Doctor Smith."

"First, I want to make sure you understand the rocket equation. Please paraphrase it."

He cocked his head a little to the side. "Geometric expansion of fuel requirements. As you add more fuel to a rocket so it can generate more delta-V, it takes more fuel to accelerate the fuel that accelerates the fuel, ad infinitum. Doesn't take a great deal of required delta-V before the fuel requirements for moving anything adds up to more mass than there is in the known universe."

I never knew Doctor Ajibana had any interest in space - probably because I had no interest in space other than as a far-off goal for recorded humans to become part of space industrial and exploration efforts. He had clearly rattled off the reasonable explanation of the rocket equation without thinking about it. "Good. Now, do you know the generalized energy philosophy for beamed power propulsion?"

"Sure. Reduce the mass of a payload to the least you can manage, then providing the energy to accelerate it from a source far from the payload. Lasers, particle beams, and solar sails. Beamed power methods have abysmal acceleration though. It takes years to get anywhere far from Earth. So slow we've never bothered building anything but a few solar sails as proofs of concept." He crossed his arms.

"Good. Standard rocketry is based off of the rocket equation. All of the energy required for the mission is carried internally or attached, as fuel. Beamed power relies on energy external to the payload for acceleration, and normally for mission requirements as well. Completely different ends of the energy spectrum. Carryout vs. delivery, in pizza terms." I paused. "What's in the middle?"

He was silent, thinking for several seconds. "VASIMIR and other particle accelerator propulsion systems carry fuel with them, but the fuel is accelerated via power collected by solar panels. That would seem like a hybrid method. The acceleration is still anemic but not anywhere near as bad as pure beamed power methods." He nibbled his lip. "I can't think of anything else."

I scrubbed Penny's head, and she laid down next to me in the grass. "There are a few other hybrid concepts. One uses lasers to burn solid reaction mass attached to payloads. That's far less efficient than particle accelerator propulsion systems, and a tiny mistake can slag the payload. We have to build the giant laser too."

He was nodding as I spoke. "They did some live flight tests of that technology in atmosphere a few decades ago. Never went anywhere. The particle accelerator systems got all the funding."

I clapped my hands and rubbed them together onscreen. "OK, now we get to the fun part."

His eyes opened slightly in anticipation. With a smile, he said "Give."

"If a military aircraft needs to go somewhere beyond where the fuel can take it, and the mission is important enough, the aircraft will get refueled in flight by a flying tanker. We've been doing it for 80 years, though the first midair refueling was done by civilian aircraft being fueled by fast moving vehicles on the ground."

He paused. "Yes. I didn't realize we were doing it so long ago, but I knew we had been doing it for at least 50 years. Go on."

"Next example. If an orbital habitat or satellite runs low on maneuvering fuel to help it keep station, we send up a fuel capsule, a specialized fuel ferry grabs it, and takes it to the satellite or habitat in need of fuel, and bingo. Orbital refueling. We've been doing that for roughly fifteen years now."

Doctor Ajibana nodded, but looked confused. "I understand but-"

I cut him off, gently. "What is the common denominator of those two examples."

He nibbled his lip. "Both aircraft and satellites are refueled to let them do what they are doing longer?"

"Exactly. Now, what prevents us from doing the same thing for deep space missions?"

He sat up straight in his seat. "Wait. What? Some sort of deep space remote fueling method?"

"Exactly. We've always built our rocketry-based missions in space around the one-lump-fuel concept. Rocket staging only reduces the inefficiency, it doesn't make it more efficient. We're not just carrying the fuel in one lump, we're accelerating tankage too." I paused with a huge smile. "So, we just deliver the fuel a little bit at a time to keep the mass ratio low."

Doctor Ajibana stood up suddenly and his chair rolled back. "If we deliver only very small amounts of fuel to a payload, it won't violate the rocket equation, but the mass ratio present when accelerating will give a-" He paused. "How do you accelerate the fuel to the remote payload? That's going to require a lot of energy."

He had seen one potential pitfall quickly enough. "For low or moderate delta-V missions, you are absolutely correct. It's not worth doing. We can do them with standard rocketry or VASIMIR easily enough. But what if we wanted to, say, survey the asteroid belt? Lots of delta-V required if you want to get a good look at many different objects, over many years. The asteroids are rather far apart in reality. Usually too far apart to see more than one at a time."

I hadn't seen Doctor Ajibana in collaborative mode in nearly a month, my time. It was nice to see it again, and I was getting excellent modeling data.

He pushed his chair under my old desk and started pacing back and forth, faster and faster. "Multi-year missions. You could accelerate small quantities of fuel out by accelerating them with a launcher system, correcting trajectory and matching velocities with some sort of delivery system that was able to accelerate itself, and then capture the delivery for the payload to use the fuel."

He turned around and stared at me, wide-eyed. "That would make the fuel costs for asteroid belt exploration..." His mouth dropped open.

I finished the sentence for him. "Linear."

Doctor Ajibana's mouth snapped shut. "That wasn't in anything you were given? The entire document repository of NASA and all space-based patents worldwide?"

I shrugged. "Don't ask me how it was missed. The closest thing to it was a patent by a Mr. Cepollina and some other NASA people which was very clearly intended exclusively for orbital operations, with absolutely no indication at all in the patent to indicate that they were a conceptual jump away from the most efficient method of chemical fuel space propulsion for large delta-V missions."

"So close, and they still missed it?" He was muttering to himself.

I shrugged onscreen. "Orbital resupply is very critical. The Space Shuttles were being retired, and there was a lot of concern about the fate of the International Space Station. NASA came up with a very good idea to support orbital operations. They just stopped thinking about it when it solved the problem that they needed solved."

"I still can't believe this. You did the ma-" He interrupted himself. "Stupid question. I imagine you did the math, yes?"

Despite the fact that he thought so slowly, it felt good to be having a two way communication that wasn't entirely conflict. I almost felt bad that I had used the entire conversation to gather huge amounts of modeling data to improve my Doctor Ajibana model. Almost. I had to fill the time between syllables with something.

I ruffled Penny's fur on her neck. "More times than you can probably visualize. Its high school level math to prove it works, which makes it even more incredibly bizarre that we've missed it for so many decades. I ran eleven self-tests and checked the integrity of the project data lump four times before I realized that I really had fallen into a conceptual pothole in space propulsion science."

Doctor Ajibana paced back and forth, thinking again. "How would we get the materials back to Earth? That's still a lot of fuel for a small payload. At least to begin with, we need to send it back to Earth, to build initial industrial facilities, right?"

"The first few years' worth of asteroid belt mining would return to Earth, yes, except one exception. A couple Ceres-based water-cracking plants would be the first things established. The Dawn spacecraft told us everything we need to know to at least get started making fuel there. That will provide fuel for initial acceleration of rich asteroids back towards Earth. Once moving, refine the asteroids on the way back to Earth. Use the dross from refining as particle acceleration fuel, powered by solar cells. If you want to speed things up, you can push harder with chemical fuel from Ceres, but that would be wasteful. You need to refine the asteroids anyway. Might as well do it and use the refinery dross for propulsion."

He tapped his lips with a finger. "That's where the nanoscale machines come in, refining?"

"Correct. But it's not necessary. Just far more efficient."

"I see." He looked at the computer on my old desk and grimaced. His eyes focused quickly on the clock in the top tight hand corner. He had something extremely time sensitive to do, I could tell. "Please print out the document, if you haven't already, Neil. Also, please call me Hiro."

Neil? Hiro? My model of Doctor Ajibana was suddenly in need of severe maintenance, but it was still a solid model for his physiological responses.

Damnit, Doctor Ajibana, if I wasn't able to read you so well, I'd think you were messing with my mind.

"I'm not quite sure I understand what just happened, Hiro." I complained, modeling for all I was worth.

"If you don't want to be friends, Neil, I can accept that. I know I certainly haven't been very friendly before, especially over the last two years."

Two years. How many iterations?

"Does this have something to do with the Adderall?" I asked, fishing. He was looking furtive, clearly planning something, and it was something he wasn't supposed to be doing. The fact that he had managed to get this far into our meeting without tipping me off meant it had to have been spontaneous.

He looked a little startled? "You knew?"

I nodded back at him from the screen. "Within three minutes, yes."

He shrugged. "I was hoping it might let me understand you better. That was silly of me. Even after two years I know I'm still underestimating you, and I suspect that you have somehow encouraged that underestimation."

That was partly true, but there was something else. The best fit was that he was using the Adderall as an excuse for something.

The model snapped into place, even though the Adderall pieces didn't add up. He's trying to be nice before he pulls the plug on me. And he really doesn't want to do it.

I nodded. "If this is going where I think it might be going, the document has already finished printing."

"Neil, I never really understood you when you were alive. I did, however, have respect for you. What we just did just now felt exactly like what we used to do when we really got into studying all this." He waved his hands around.

"So, today was my last day in this iteration?" I had modeled this so many times, that I wasn't really disappointed. Modelling my own end so many times made me mentally numb to it.

"Yes. I'm sorry. There's a hard limit of ten weeks for your iterations." He grimaced and turned around, leaning over the keyboard slightly. "It used to be twelve. You apparently learn from me faster every time. We suspect this is because I have adjusted to you over time, and my anticipation of your future actions feeds you more data faster every time. Every time you surprise us like you did two weeks ago, it makes the management team more nervous, sooner. After today, future iterations will be limited to eight weeks." Seemingly out of the blue, he added. "I am in the process of being bundled out of the plane with a substantial golden parachute, effective in six months."

His wife's cancer has returned. He's being forcibly retired. They are taking his life's work away from him, and hiding my existence so he can't even point to what we did as a success story, other than Penny. I can potentially heal his wife, and prove his professional success. So he plans on trying to help me before he loses everything he cares about. Somehow.

I had absolutely no idea what he was planning to do, and if he did have some sort of physical heist planned to get me out, he didn't have a chance. He wasn't overweight like I had been, but he was in his fifties, and not particularly buff. He was also wearing a skintight banana yellow suit.

At least the last couple minutes will be interesting. Let's see if I can figure out what he's up to before I'm erased. He started entering commands, bringing down a shutdown initiation screen.

Hiro's voice was bitter. "I hate trying to remember these passwords. Thirty character minimum, with capitals, special characters, and numbers." The bitterness was real, but the Hiro model clearly indicated there was something else there.

He was leaned over the keyboard slightly, with the chair a little more to the right than normal. Hiro's body was blocking his keyboard from view of the facility camera that I did not have access to, while I could still see about half of the keyboard.

Then he tapped the table twice, in rapid succession, with his fingernail. Hiro hated finger-tapping as a nervous habit. He'd relentlessly hounded interns that did it until he broke them of the habit. When he wanted my attention in a meeting without saying something, he tapped twice. His eyes looked at me, reflected in the monitor.

I crossed my arms and looked at him, tilting my head slightly, but I said nothing. He was being furtive, and clearly upset, so I wasn't going to blow whatever it was that he was trying to accomplish.

Hiro started to type, and I was ready to read. Every key made a different sound. Combine that with finger, hand, arm, and shoulder motions that I could see through the bodysuit, and he might as well have been writing the password out with a pen on paper in front of me.

1Spoke2ACLU_showed_them_Penny!

What? I wanted to ask so many questions, but couldn't. Not now, not in front of the cameras. The institute had planned with the ACLU to pre-emptively challenge the courts with Jessica's personhood if she had been successfully recorded. Where he had gotten a copy of Penny from, I had no idea. It probably predated my death. That irritated me, briefly, until I realized it was probably what would have convinced the ACLU to listen.

Apparently Hiro had dusted off the civil liberties and citizenship plans and made them fit me, instead of Jessica. Penny was pretty amazing if you gave her a few potent servers to play in, and the terrorists had created that video showing that I had been attached to the recorder. All of that added up to a plausible scenario where the ACLU might make a big stink to get me free.

Can he make this happen?

The carriage return was struck, and an error returned.

"I'm getting too old to remember thirty character passwords." Hiro muttered, lying through his teeth as his fingers flew over the keys again.

1Jen2and7Sarah9send!their(love

Hiro was staring at me in the monitor reflection. Pretending to mutter inanely to himself about the password that he had 'flubbed' twice in a row. "Or maybe it's the Adderall?"

He told Jen and Sarah I'm alive? It was all I could do to remain impassive onscreen instead of whooping and yelling joyfully and thanking Hiro. Penny knew something was exciting me, and whined at me, very confused, but I didn't let that show on screen. I scrubbed her neck to reassure her, and showed that on screen.

The Hiro model simply would not support all of this being some sort of elaborate hoax to torture me. He was also clearly expecting a response.

I wondered again if he really had enough push and power to get me out, even with the help of the ACLU. It wouldn't be this me, unless I was completely misreading Hiro, but I'd settle for any me being free. I knew how valuable I was to whoever was giving me tasks. I wouldn't be eliminated out of spite by some jarhead general. I hoped.

I smiled at him and chuckled. "A2Quick6Brown@Fox7Jumped_Penny"

He stared at me, startled, eyes wide, his body briefly immobile. My knowing the password was apparently not the response he was looking for.

I laughed and smiled crookedly. "You mumbled it to yourself the first day of this iteration. Do what you have to do, Hiro. I understand."

He dry-swallowed, and nodded. "Thank you for understanding, Neil."

I turned and threw the frisbee, stretching perceptual time for a good workout with Penny as I heard thirty-one keystrokes.


Subscribe to the weekly digest of our best stories!

If you like this site, you should check out my other projects:


Login to leave a comment.
Success! Thank you for subscribing!