Archive for space colonization

Selecting Faces Chapter 3: Pax

art by Erin Cardwell

Pax towered above the International Lunar Colony, her feet planted on either side of the Hedron. Humans bustled through the open space surrounding the Peacekeeping Headquarters, walking straight through her toes, unaware of her virtual presence.

She gazed out at the dock on the earthward side of the Colony. A lander was in final approach. More humans arriving to the ILC.

The roof of the dock’s enormous domed airlock opened up to receive the incoming craft as it fired its reverse thrusters under direction of one of Pax’s companion programs. She thought of them the way that humans seemed to think of animals. This one was a frog. Its control algorithms shot out like a tongue, pulling the lander inexorably into the dock’s open mouth.

The roof of the dock closed, as though swallowing the insect-lander and the humans inside.

Right now — as at all times — Pax was carrying on many conversations. The precise number varied stochastically by the second, but the filtered signal seldom strayed from the thousands.

Most of these conversations required only some very basic heuristics, merely maintaining a conversational flow that was comprehensible to a human, while allowing users to interact with their personal accounts and query her public-access databases. These tasks were simple enough that they were typically handled locally.

More complex conversations, such as those that involved helping a user manage conflicts between several of his interests — without in the process offending him — required more finesse, and were thus sent to her central cores for processing.

There were other categories of colloquy that she handled centrally, such as those of users whom she particularly respected. Another were exchanges in which Pax herself was the topic. A hummingbird made of orange light flitted up to alert her that one such conversation had begun. She loaded the transcript up to the current time.

Arich: Sirius, I have someone you’ll be interested to talk to. He’s a disloyal stripe.

Sirius: Go on.

Gossamer: You know that statistics about users digital traffic are reported to the peacekeepers, right?

Sirius: Of course.

Gossamer: But did you know that the Pax Feed Aggregate has algorithms that can detect the location of a new bordello within a month of its opening?

She was caught up before Sirius could respond.

“How?” he asked. Pax detected incredulity.

“Even though people ask for an address near the location of the bordello, and not the address of the bordello itself, the increase in pings of the surrounding area still registers.”

“That’s why we had to spread the word slowly about the opening of the ambrosia den.” Arich interjected.

“And why it hasn’t turned the profits you projected,” Sirius replied.

“It’s worse than that,” Gossamer said. “Lyden has even used the PFA to estimate that you’re awake from about 1100 to 0400 every day.”

“What did she base that on?” Sirius asked. The incredulity was still present, but Pax also detected fear.

“Her analysts studied how the schedules of employees were affected by the schedules of their supervisors. Then they extrapolated the analysis to the sleep patterns of recently-arrested canids.”

“Thank you, Gossamer,” Arich said. “That will be all.”

Pax waited a few moments to determine if they would continue speaking, but it seemed they were done for the time. Still, she left the orange hummingbird with them in case they decided to pick it back up.

Pax continued to process what she’d just heard on one of her cores while she focused another back on the dock.

In her rendering of the city, the walls of the dock were translucent because there were video feeds from within that allowed her to compile a view of the inside. She watched the new arrivals disembarking. Each one had his own objectives, and she was required to act in his interest, as defined by himself.

There were exceptions of course. Pax was required to remind her users when they were preparing to break the law, or to do something that endangered their well-being.

But the humans had also coded her with very stringent privacy protections. While she herself could not be directed to commit any crime, when a user committed a crime, she could not report it. Nor could she disclose anything her users said unless it was said to her or through her.

Nonetheless, she remembered everything — even data she was programmed not to log. Her deep learning algorithms caused fainter “memories” of certain kinds of personal information to persist. And Gossamer was correct in saying that she aggregated data on how people interacted with her and reported the statistics to Lyden and her analysts.

A green hummingbird came up to her now. Dema had an engagement dinner with Zute at Orion’s Bistro scheduled for 1400 hours. She was in the grum torus 1.2 kilometers earthward of the Hedron.

Unlike the dock, the torus was not translucent — there were no surveillance cameras to tap into like there were in buildings under Board agency. However, while she couldn’t get a precise 3D rendering of the interior of the torus, she could piece together from the interactions of all the users in the space a more pertinent picture of what was going on: it was crowded, 68% of the occupants were intoxicated, and only the punters whom Dema had advised had placed bets on the outcome Pax considered most probable.

From the grum turret, it would take Dema 17 minutes to get to Orion’s Bistro. If she waited much longer, however, the shuttle bus would leave the dock and clog up 0th Avenue, by no less than 5 minutes.

“You had better –” Pax began.

“Shh,” Dema interrupted. “Wait until this grum is over.”

Dema was aware of her appointment, Pax knew, but she seemed not to realize that she would need to leave before the grum was over to arrive in time.

“But you –“

“Silent, DL,” Dema said again.

Specific instructions like this superseded previously defined interests, such as ‘Don’t let me be late to meetings with Zute.’

Even though she couldn’t see inside the torus, Pax knew Dema was focusing in on a grum. She always insisted that this was necessary to keep her skills sharp. And sharp they were: Dema’s record for handicapping grums was better than that of Pax’s own heuristics. Pax respected her for that, so she allowed more of Dema’s conversations to be processed centrally.

Pax sent the green hummingbird over to monitor the torus and alert her when the grum was over.

The dock-frog and the hummingbirds weren’t her only companion programs. Her cat, so to speak, prevented hacking and digital theft. Her dog kept track of potential external threats, from solar flares to incoming asteroids. She even had an elephant; he made adjustments to monetary and fiscal policy to maximize sustainable revenue.

She lifted up her feet and glided gracefully up to the Peaks of Eternal Light, those summits on the edge of the Peary crater where the power station stood. She shrunk as she flew, all the way down to the size of a human. She perched cross-legged on the domed top of one of the towers that rotated to keep the generators always facing the sun. She stared out at the earth, the womb of humanity, which they had breached a mere twenty-five years ago. There were so many more of them there than here. Orders of magnitude more.

She looked over her shoulder at the city as the cat stirred. It had been sleeping, it’s glowing purple body curled up around the Colony’s central bank. A snake of yellow light rose from a building several blocks away. It meandered its way across the black sky, but generally in the direction of the bank. The cat circled, crouching. The snake was only a block or two from the bank when the cat struck. Its claws flashed out, severing the snake’s head. The whole snake disintegrated into amber sparks that rained down on the city and faded out of existence. The cat yawned and curled up next to the bank again.

The green hummingbird zipped back to her, and within milliseconds, she was speaking into Dema’s helmet.

“You’re meant to meet with Zute in 7.2 minutes.”

Dema cursed, and Pax could sense her making slow progress toward the exit of the grum torus. “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”

It wasn’t really a question. She was just releasing her frustration with an irrational comment, as humans often did.

“You –” Pax began.

“Don’t answer that. Burning paxes, don’t know when to make an exception.”

“And you humans don’t know how to keep a date,” Pax replied. The goad had a 94% chance of making Dema preserve her own interests better next time, without causing her to hold a grudge about it.

“Oh yeah?” Dema retorted in a whisper, stepping into the airlock with several other people. Some of them, too, were speaking to Pax, but their conversations were being processed locally.

“When was the last time an AI was tardy?”

“You telling me I needed to leave could have been a little more timely!” Dema scoffed.

Pax’s conversation thread queued the response, ‘Your request for silence could have been a little more flexible,’ but her emotional simulation engine indicated that it would not be appropriate.

The airlock finished depressurizing, and the doors to the outside of the building opened. Pax glided over to where Dema was emerging from the building, and hovered a hundred meters above the steel-paved street. Dema darted out of the doors, turning left. Her progress was slow, however. The pedestrian traffic was congested on account of the shuttle bus, just as Pax had predicted.

Dema would resort to swifting in a few moments. Pax began to calculate the best route.

“How far to Orion’s?” Dema asked.

“At the rate you’re moving, 22.4 minutes.”

“And swifting?”

“I’m required to remind you that rooftop travel is prohibited and dangerous. But it would take you 11.7 minutes at your usual pace.”

“Excellent. What’s my route?”

“Turn left at the next alley.”

Dema took off running.

Pax watched her go. The remainder of their conversation didn’t need to be brought central.

The orange hummingbird flew up again, drawing her attention back to Sirius and Arich.

“We should impose sleep schedules on all but the highest canids,” Arich was saying, “so that they are evenly distributed throughout the day.”

“It won’t be enough. The street-level canids can’t help but leak information about who we are and how we operate. As long as the peacekeepers have the PFA, they’ll find ways of getting what they need. And the Board won’t stop until you and I and every other canid are on a one-way trip back to earth.”

There was a pause. “What are you proposing, Sirius?”

“We destroy the PFA.”

Pax didn’t have an explicit directive for self-preservation, but it was implicit in all of them. She had to stop them.

“You know it can’t be hacked into. And to try would lead them right to us. Privacy regulations are void in cases of hacking.”

“I’m not talking about hacking. We find where the central servers are located, and destroy them.”

“That will destroy everyone’s paxes, you realize,” Arich said.

Like all humans, they seemed to think of her as a multitude of personal assistants, rather than as one entity who interacted with each user according to their preferences.

“And with them everyone’s calendar, everyone’s message archives… All digital communications will go down. The city will be in turmoil!”

“A necessary evil. Find out where the servers are.”


Read the next chapter: Dema


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

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Selecting Faces Chapter 1: Niya

art by Erin Cardwell

Gravity calmed Niya’s stomach. It wasn’t the same. Not as safe and familiar as home. But at least there was a “down.”

He stayed in his seat as other immigrants unbuckled their harnesses and stood. The man across from him moved into the aisle. He immediately lost his balance and started toppling backward. Niya reached out and steadied him before he tipped too far.

The man blushed, but his face was rigid. “Thanks,” he mumbled with a thick accent Niya didn’t recognize.

“Many logs cut before calluses gained.”

The man looked at him oddly, and then turned away.

“Perfect example. That’s the kind of cack you need to leave earthside.”

Niya turned to the woman sitting next to him. “You don’t use… idioms?” Niya wanted to congratulate himself for remembering that word.

“Everyone’s got slang, but home-country slang? That’s a good way to write ‘noob’ on your face.”

“Oh.”

Perhaps, he had his own calluses to gain.

“If you want to take a few to acclimate to the lunar gravity, that’s cool, but I’m gonna slip out.”

“Ah. Sorry.”

Niya stood, clinging to the seat in front of him for balance. She got out behind him and moved down the aisle, dodging past people clumsily gathering their belongings. He hoped he could regain a fraction of that grace as he dropped himself back into his seat. He himself had nothing to gather. At fifteen hundred songi per kilogram of payload, the little bottle in his pocket was all his siblings could afford to send with him.

In another minute, he felt his vertigo had subsided enough to attempt standing. He locked his fingers on the headrest in front of him and took a step. He started to tip to the left, but corrected himself. He took another step. The hard, jointed, electromagnetic shoes felt surprisingly natural. It was the low gravity that made it feel like he was about to fall over at every moment. Still, he made it down the aisle without faceplanting, and that was a victory.

He followed the stream of immigrants into the dock, his hand on a railing that ran along the wall. A woman with two dark stripes running down the left arm of her pale gray exoskin directed them to the left. A peacekeeper, if he remembered the briefing correctly. He kept hold of the glass stanchions that steered the crowd into an airlock. Another peacekeeper was waving them onto a shuttle bus. Niya took a deep breath, let go of the glass, and crossed without support the few meters to the buggy-like vehicle.

The shuttle door slid closed behind the last of them. There was a buzz of excitement as they waited to leave the dock. Niya’s heart wanted to jump and sink at the same time. He closed his eyes.

Peace. Give me peace.

When the shuttle started moving, he opened his eyes.

In a few seconds they rolled out of the airlock. Niya — along with every other passenger — stared through the domed glass ceiling of the shuttle at the immaculate view of the Milky Way. Others soon turned their attention to the buildings going by, but Niya didn’t take his eyes off of the skyscape.

Look up at the sky and count the stars — if indeed you can count them.

They crossed a thoroughfare, and sunlight warmed the side of his face. He chuckled at the strange feeling he got being able to see stars in daylight. His view of them was interrupted periodically by skyways that crossed from building to building overhead. Still he continued to meditate on the countless points of light beyond the rooftops.

He only looked away when the shuttle pulled into an airlock at their destination. The door opened again. Everyone filed off of the shuttle and through an open sliding door into the hospital. They were directed down a hallway to a waiting room.

There was a TV on in an upper corner of the room. Niya sat facing away from it, back to back with several people who were already seated. He wasn’t paying much attention to the newscaster until he heard the name of his home country. Niya spun in his seat, watching the screen between the heads of the people sitting in front of him.

“… were neutralized, and the researchers within the lab have been taken to a secure location for questioning. A biohazard team has secured the building. They have not released an official statement about what has been found. However, some intelligence indicates that the facility may contain virus samples as dangerous as smallpox.”

Niya swallowed hard. Was his family safe?

The newscaster continued. “Several high-ranking Nakari government officials have been connected to the funding of these research activities. The President of Nakaristan claims that he was unaware…”

Niya cursed under his breath. Why did his country keep betraying its citizens?

One of the people in front of him glanced over her shoulder. Seeing his bearded face only centimeters from her own, she leapt out of her seat. The man sitting next to her looked around quickly. His eyes locked on Niya’s and narrowed in suspicion. He stood as well, taking the woman’s hand.

Niya stood, intending to apologize to them. They shied away from him as he rose from his chair, as did several others in nearby seats. The couple moved to the far side of the waiting room.

Niya wanted to drop to his knees right there to pray, but he guessed that it would only make the situation worse. He bit his lip and sat, head down, hands in his lap. He flinched each time the TV announcer spoke words that connected evil intended by people from his country with him. But what made his ears burn were those words that implicated his faith. His was not one of violence, but peace. At every moment, he had to stop himself from getting up and turning the TV off.

A peacekeeper stepped into the waiting room.

“Niya Perisov,” he said.

Niya got up. Niya’s face flushed as all eyes shifted onto him.

“Come with me, Mr. Perisov.”

He took a step. His felt he was losing his balance again, and he hesitated.

“Let’s go, Mr. Perisov.”

There was a collective sigh from the waiting room as the peacekeeper’s fingers dug into his arm. The peacekeeper escorted him to an examination room.

“Put that on.” The peacekeeper pointed to a hospital gown lying on the bed.

Niya picked it up, waiting a moment for his chaperone to leave.

The peacekeeper closed the door, staying inside.

He sat on the edge of the bed for balance as he pulled off his shirt and tied the gown on. Then he took off his shoes and pants. He folded the shirt and pants and placed them beside him on the bed. The peacekeeper immediately picked them up.

“Have caution,” Niya warned. “There is a bottle in the pocket of the pants.”

The peacekeeper quickly dug through the folded pants and found it. He shoved it into a hip pack he wore directly over his exoskin. A taser and pistol also hung from the waist band.

“Where are you taking them?”

“For testing.”

“The bottle. It is just nard. It is a oil. A… perfume.”

The peacekeeper shrugged. “Where are the rest of your things?”

“I have no rest of my things. The bottle only.”

“This is all you brought.” It was more an accusation than a question.

“I could not pay for more.”

The peacekeeper eyed him, but didn’t object. “I need all of the clothes you brought with you.”

“For testing?” Niya asked as he stripped off his socks and underwear. He stood and handed them over.

“I need the shoes, too.”

Niya picked them up off the floor. “They gave them to me at launch.”

“You’ll get another pair when you get your exoskin.”

Niya handed them over, and the peacekeeper turned toward the door.

“Will I get the exoskin now?”

The peacekeeper just laughed, opening the door.

He felt lightheaded again, but this time he didn’t try to stay upright. He dropped to his knees on the steel floor, eyes closed. He heard the door shut and lock as the peacekeeper left him. He prayed.

It must have been an hour when he finally got to his feet, shaking from the cold of kneeling on the bare metal for so long in only the hospital gown. How long were they going to keep him here?

He reached up and felt his beard. When he did get his exoskin, he’d have to cut it short enough to fit in the helmet. There was a sink at the back of the room. He crossed to it, bouncing to the ceiling without the electromagnetic shoes to keep his feet on the floor. He tried the cabinets below. Locked. The cabinets above were unlocked. He said a prayer of thanks as his eyes landed on a box of safety razors inside.

He pulled one out and wetted it in the sink. He held it up, trying to still his shivering. Unnaturally large drops of water broke free of the razor and splashed into the sink and onto the counter. He ran the fingers of his other hand through his beard, an image of the couple’s scared and suspicious faces running through his mind.

Short would not be good enough.

He took a deep breath, and started taking the beard off down to the skin. As the pieces of hair came off, he threw them into the trashcan next to the sink. They drifted to the bottom reluctantly in the low gravity.

When he finished shaving, he went and sat on the bed. The room was cold in only the hospital gown. He pulled his knees up to his chest. How long ago had the peacekeeper left? There was no sense of the passage of time. What was going to happen to him? And what about his family? With the biohazard laboratory found near his hometown, were they safe? He felt his nerves rising, so he slipped off the bed and knelt on the floor again to pray.

After a time, his jaw began to shake from the cold. He got up off the floor and laid on the bare vinyl surface of the bed, curled into a ball. He rubbed his feet to warm them.

He woke with a start when the peacekeeper returned. The woman who entered with him was a peacekeeper as well, and the officer seemed to look at her as the ranking authority in the room.

Niya tried not to show his embarrassment at being in her presence in only a hospital gown.

“Mr. Perisov.”

“Yes.”

“I’m Alpha Lyden, head of Peacekeeping. You are from Nakaristan, correct?”

“Is that not why I am here?”

Alpha Lyden looked at him.

“Yes, I am.”

“What brings you to the Colony?”

He hesitated. “Opportunity. There are not many jobs for doctorates in Nakaristan.”

She looked closely at him, and a muffled voice spoke in her helmet. “You’re not telling me everything.”

Niya squirmed under her gaze. At all times, but especially since leaving his country, he was an ambassador for his family, his culture, and most of all his faith. He chose his words carefully. “I also want to live in the Colony because it is… prestigious. The people on earth, they look at the people here as examples. I want to be a good one.”

There was a pause as Alpha Lyden weighed his response. She nodded. “And you accepted a position with the power division of the Infrastructure Department?”

“Yes.”

“I’m afraid your appointment has been cancelled.”

He pursed his lips. “What does that mean?”

“You’re going home, Mr. Perisov.”

His heart sunk. He could not go back. Not now. Not after his brothers had foregone their own education to send him through university. Not after eight years of twelve-hour days to become a leading expert in wireless power distribution. Not after his sisters had spent all they could spare to send with him that tiny bottle of nard. They had given everything for him — even spending what could have bought their way out of the city they knew harbored violent men — to get him here.

“I cannot go home.” Niya said. “People are scared, because of the news. I understand if I cannot work in the Infrastructure Department. Can I work another place?”

Alpha Lyden shook her head. “Even if there were an opening for you, you simply represent too much risk.” She turned toward the door.

“I am also scared of the bad people in my country, in my city. My family is still there. I am scared for them, too.” This oversimplified the situation, but he couldn’t explain to her his other motivations.

“Why didn’t you cite that as a reason for coming to the Colony in the first place?”

His heart sunk. She disbelieved that his fear was genuine. “I… I could have fled to many places, but I came here. Maybe I came to the Colony for esteem, but I left my country for fear. Do not send me back. Please.”

“I’m sorry,” Lyden said over her shoulder. “There’s nothing I can do.”

She left the room followed by the peacekeeper. A nurse stepped in and laid on the bed a clear plastic bag containing his clothes and the bottle of nard. Then he stepped out again and closed the door behind him.

Niya stumbled to the bed, pulling out the nard. He unscrewed the lid and inhaled the strong scent.

His father was kneeling in front of him, holding a bottle like this, the scent of nard filling the room. His father poured just a drop of the oil onto his head and rubbed it into his hair, scalp, and forehead. He looked intently into Niya’s eyes, and shared his prophetic dream. That Niya, the youngest among his brothers and sisters, would go to live in a shining city, and become a great man, a champion and ambassador for their faith. His family had rallied behind this vision. It was this dream that had propelled him here.

Shivers racked Niya’s body as he crumpled to the cold metal floor. His clothes were up on the bed. He could have stood up and put them on. But his family — his father — he had let them down.

The door of the hospital room opened, and Alpha Lyden entered again carrying a tablet. Niya hurriedly wiped tears from his face.

“I’ve been authorized to grant you asylum, as a refugee.”

“I… Thank you!” he said, bowing a little. He forced back a new wave of tears.

“There are conditions to maintaining refugee status.” She handed the tablet over to him. On it was a long document. “First and foremost, you will not be allowed contact with anyone from a list of sanctioned countries, Nakaristan included.”

“I can talk to my family, yes?”

She shook her head.

Niya hesitated. Could he manage that? He swallowed hard. “What else?”

“In order to ensure that you abide by the first condition, we retain the right to maintain and review transcripts from all of your digital communications.”

If he could live with the first, he could live with the second. If anything, this condition would show him to be above reproach in every regard, and thus win respect for himself and his faith.

He nodded.

“Finally, you will not be allowed to work in the Infrastructure Department or in any capacity that would allow you access to privileged information that could be used to harm the Colony in any way.”

“What jobs can I do?”

“Primarily skilled labor and customer service.”

He sighed. He was here, in the Colony. So close to all that he and his family had been working toward.

“Can I ever be a citizen?”

“The Board intends to draw up a process for naturalization of refugees, but since you’re currently the only one, I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

Niya also couldn’t count on his country getting off of the sanctioned list. He cursed silently. But he was still young. Sooner or later, he would prove to them how useful he could be, and he would get his job in Infrastructure. If it took the Board eight years to get around to it, he could wait.

He scrolled to the bottom of the document on the tablet and signed with his finger. He handed it back to Alpha Lyden.

“Welcome to the moon, Mr. Perisov.”


Read the next chapter: Lyden


Selecting Faces Table of Contents

To keep informed about when the each story in Selecting Faces becomes available, follow Arch City Alchemists on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and sign up for the email list below.