NaNoWriMo 2014, Day Two

While I normally put in a lot of  internal links to previous, related posts here, I won’t be doing that for what I hope will be this year’s thirty NaNoWriMo posts. If you have jumped into or stumbled onto this story in mid-adventure, there are plenty of other ways to navigate around the site to find previous installments. Actually doing so is left as an exercise to the student.

One of the reasons one takes on these writing challenges (NaNoWriMo and Chuck Wendig’s weekly Flash Fiction Challenge) is to force one out of their comfort zone. Boundaries need stretching. Routine needs upsetting. Process needs rearranging. That which does not kill me…

It’s early, but what I’m finding the most different this year compared to last year is process. Last year I had almost nothing when I sat down on November 1st except for what I thought was a brilliant idea about how to end the story with a favorite thing that I had already written. Literally, I knew what the last chapter was, and I had was Joey Chan sitting on my lap, getting startled by something, and leaping off while clawing me. How did I get from here to there? To my amazement, relaxing and letting it happen actually worked, at least for a “zeroth” draft, and re-reading it I’m still surprised at some of the twists and turns that came out of nowhere but fit really well.

This year, my muse delivered a concept that I really like, so I know where I’m starting, and I have a vague idea of where it’s going. I’m hoping, and expecting, that there will be surprises as we get there. It would have been nice if my muse had given me the concept a couple of days earlier so that I could have done some research and plotting in advance. I’ve spent most of today writing a couple thousand words of notes that won’t count in the NaNoWriMo tally, but they’ll be invaluable to making sure that I know what’s going on and how we got there when I write this story that happens in the middle of that timeline.

So last year I had a definite ending point to hit, where this year I have an overall outline and I’m starting from a set beginning. So far I’ve had a tough time getting the words flowing, and it’s absolutely amazing what you can find to do while you’re trying to wake up the muse. (Did you know that so far the week of 04/14/2014 is the most viewed of WLTSTF, with 249 total views and 166 visitors? Or that since WLTSTF started in April 2013 we’ve gotten 182 views from Brazil, 178 from Germany, 154 from Australia, and 119 from France, but only 15 from the Czech Republic? C’mon Prague, you know how much I love you, let’s get with it!)

Also, given that I’m making this up as I go along (in the most literal possible sense), sometimes I’ll need to tweak something that already happened. I’ll give you a heads-up when that happens. For example, in Day One’s work, the crew is talking to “SEM.” That’s now going to be “SaSEM” for reasons that will become obvious.

2014-11-02 Word Count Graphic

CHAPTER ONE (continued)

“Which is something that they’ve been heading towards for at least twenty years,” said Turning. “AHF has accelerated the process, obviously, but the potential for this has been debated at length. We cut the cord with Earth to protect ourselves over a year ago, knowing this day would come sooner or later. Great, now we’re there. Surprise, it’s sooner. Who had 2168 in the office pool for the end of the world? This isn’t really news.”

“There’s more,” Alsby said. “SaSEM, continue please.”

“Yes, ma’am. Mr. Turing is correct. We knew this day was very likely to be coming. We have not been idle in considering our options. Our own mission has seen significant changes in its goals due to the changing situation on Earth. Now the Human/AI Council will be implementing new emergency programs and it is their wish that everyone off-planet be informed. In particular, we have new mission goals which are vital to the future survival of the colonies and stations. That is the purpose of this message and meeting.”

Bryant looked around to see if anyone else was going to speak up. “Is it safe to assume that our jobs just got harder and more dangerous with higher stakes and no backup on the way? Like usual?”

“If you want to phrase it that way, Cheryl, then yes, that’s a safe assumption.” Alsby looked around the chamber at the four dozen floating crew members. “None of us had any clue that this might happen when we set out, but now we’re all in a pretty grim situation. Not just us, not just those at LEO, not just our families at Armstrong or Bradbury or Ceres – all of us. We all volunteered for the original mission knowing it would be cutting edge, and dangerous.

“Now the situation is changing in ways we have no control over. We’re getting less of a margin for error every day and if something goes wrong it’s not just us that pay for it, but possibly everyone. Three years ago we wanted to be here despite the dangers. The dangers are the same and our need to be obsessed with safety remains the same, because if we screw up a lot of other people will die because of it. Our mission isn’t changing, just the stakes. Does anyone have anything else before we go on?”

The room was silent except for the fans. Everyone had a neutral expression now, their game faces on. Alsby gave it a few seconds before continuing.

“SaSEM, please tell everyone what’s in the mission update.”

“Yes, Captain. Much of our original assignment is unchanged. We are to gather as much detailed information as we can about the Saturnian system and moons. However, where before we were restricted to only very limited contacts with Titan and Enceladus due to their potential for harboring life, new guidelines are being drawn up that will allow us, at our discretion, to have significantly more extensive and detailed surface operations there.

“In addition, we are instructed not to just catalog and search for resources which are potentially useful in the future, but to begin the extraction of those resources. We’ll be given a list of source materials to begin harvesting and processing, some of which may come from Cronus herself.”

“What kind of ‘resources’ are we talking about?” asked Miller. “When you say ‘extraction,’ it sounds like we’re going to start mining right now. This is a scientific, exploratory mission.”

“It is still primarily a scientific and exploratory mission, Mr. Miller. However, in addition to that we are being directed to also start extraction of resources that will be needed by the colonies and stations down system. Those needs may become critical very quickly due to the situation on Earth. Rather than waiting for us to return with our results for review before beginning a plan of utilization of non-scientifically-critical resources, we will start at least a pilot program now.”

“Captain, SaSEM, we’re not set up to be a mining operation. We’ve got nothing but scientific gear aboard, with no ability to extract, process, store, or transport anything, even if we could find something to ‘extract.’ In addition, none of us have any experience doing that sort of work at all.”

“There’s a preliminary plan to address those issues,” Alsby said. “Copies of the documents are being loaded in your pads for you to review. The short version is that we’re going to use what we have on hand to bootstrap a system that will build what we need to find and convert in situ materials into the machines and system which will be able to do the mining, processing, and transport down system.”

“You’re talking about a von Neumann machine system, aren’t you?” asked Phillips. “They’re just theoretical as far as I know, no one’s ever actually built one.”

“Naoki, can you take this one?” Alsby asked.

“Sure,” the First Officer replied. “What we’re going to try is not strictly a von Neumann machine, but it has some of the same aspects. We’ll use our existing printers and machine shop to fabricate machines that can extract needed materials from wherever we can find them here in system and turn it into feed stock for the printers. We’ll then use that system to fabricate the machines needed to build storage facilities and transport vehicles, as well as the bots needed to operate and maintain them.”

“Okay, but who runs the bots and printers?” asked Phillips. “SaSEM is the only AI in system. Fabricating and building a whole AI from scratch is way beyond what we can do, no matter how desperate we are. If SaSEM is removed from Cronus to run the bots, then we have no way of managing the ship. I’m hoping they’re not figuring we’re expendable in order to get their volatiles. ‘The needs of the many’ and all of that, you know.”

“You are not expendable and I will be staying with Cronus and you, Ms. Phillips,” SaSEM said. “You are correct in your belief that we can not at this time build an AI from raw materials, given our current capabilities. A cluster of new AIs are being prepared and will be sent here to meet us in approximately two years, with the expectation that we will by that point be ready to implement that stage of the plan.”

“You’re kidding,” said Turing. “How are they going to… Oh, never mind, I’ll check out this plan, which seems to be getting riskier by the minute. At least it won’t be dull.”

“Captain, what if we confirm that there is activity here that goes beyond simple chemical processes?” asked Wilson.

“You mean ‘life’ don’t you, Pat?”

“Yeah, but it will take more than two years to figure out if what we’ve seen so far actually qualifies as a function of a living ecosystem. However, if there’s even the smallest chance that it is, we can’t in good conscience allow it to be destroyed or contaminated by Earth organisms.”

“Ms. Wilson,” SaSEM said, “our directives in terms of potential living organisms or systems remain unchanged. We will protect, preserve, and study them at all costs. If our situation worsens to the point where it becomes necessary to review or alter those directives, it would be debated system-wide and ultimately decided by the Human/AI Council.”

Wilson nodded, relieved at the news.

“We’re not going home on schedule, are we?” asked Carson. “If we’re building a system aiming toward an AI arrival in two years, and then getting that system running, we won’t be leaving Saturn space any earlier than the following window, which is another three years out.”

“That’s correct,” said Alsby. “That’s always been a contingency if other problems came up. We’ll be implementing those protocols immediately, which is another primary reason for this meeting. We’re either going to have to stretch our own volatiles and supplies to the limits, or we’re going to have to figure out how to get more. For the moment we do the former and start busting our butts to make the latter happen.”

“Now we need everyone to review the materials on this modification of the mission plan,” said Naoki. “Procedural and technical questions should be referred to SaSEM, policy and implementation questions to Susan or me. Everybody put your notes into the file and we’ll meet back here at 0900 tomorrow morning to start going over the changes in detail. Any other questions?”

Alsby gave it a moment, but no one had anything further to ask right now. “It won’t always be fun, but we can make this happen, people. Trust me, if the shit truly hits the fan, there will be a lot of people in much worse shape in the stations, and they’re already there on Earth. The situation sucks, but it’s the only one we have, so let’s deal with it and get the job done so that we at least have a fighting chance. Dismissed.”

The crew started propelling themselves out of the meeting hall door and spreading throughout Cronos in all directions, back to their quarters or work stations. They were silent as they went past Alsby and Tanaka at the hatch, but their voices could be heard starting hushed conversations as soon as they were around a corner or down the hallway into the next compartment.

When the room was empty, Alsby and Tanaka pushed off together toward the bridge. Cronos hadn’t been designed as a war ship, but they both knew that the fight of their lives lay before them.

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