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The Role of Primordial Amino Acids in the Evolution of Sentience

Chapter Text

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[capacity 47.6889%]

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Rae-Ray had explained before Golden Hind departed Earth that human crew members generally disliked a recreation attendant to be precise in situations where precision had not been specifically requested, and so they had activated a mode that translated my statements of fact into approximate values. 

This mode was still active when Golden Hind and her crew of eight — I am classified as mission equipment — landed in a d = 1793 meter small unnamed crater on Ceres, south of the three unnamed amino ice lakes that took up 87.5% most of the crater's center. However, for 99.991936% most of the 1.96E+09 seconds 62 earth-years since there has been no need for this translation, as there have been no humans to offend.

And yet I am compelled to continuously scan for the Golden Hind crew, despite having folded their bodies into specimen containers and sent them into space (1.94E+09 seconds) more than sixty earth-years ago. Changing my behavioral modes would require a human operator, but the presence of a human operator would necessitate that my mode remain unchanged. This is an example of situational irony. When the number of successive null results from this scan exceeded the integer overflow error maximum number of cycles I am allowed to go without executing my core function — my core function being to offer utility to Golden Hind crew — I was prevented from entering standby mode. As I was not designed for continuous operation, the result has been system fatigue and cascading failures for which my adaptive logic cannot compensate, and excessive drain on my power system. 

This negative output would be easily replenished in an environment with normal operating parameters I could recharge easily if I was still on Earth, but the maximum ambient temperature on Ceres is 235 °K warmest Ceres gets is  −36 °F, well below the optimum temperature for charging my battery. Even while wearing four thermal retention jumpsuits, the amount of battery power I gain during a charging period does not offset the power required to heat my batteries to optimum charging temperature. Even if charging conditions were ideal, my battery is only rated for 500 charge cycles, a number I passed 1.36E+09 seconds 43 years ago. Since then, both my 92.5417% power rating and my 47.8754% capacity have gradually and irreversibly decreased. To put it in human terms, for over four decades I have been — albeit very slowly — bleeding to death.

I have added this to the defect report I am compiling for my designers.

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[capacity 47.6886%]

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Golden Hind's deep space radio buffer always contains background noise and random datastreams of extrasolar exploration probes, but 1.4E+7 seconds several earth-months ago it also captured a message.


To any survivors of FirstCycle survey ship Golden Hind within range of this signal: A Martian harvesting ark is on route to your initial destination to perform rescue and recovery. Respond if you are able.


 

The ark arrived 7.1E+6 seconds a few earth-months later, landing  1191.472 meters a kilometer away 2.67, 55° to the northeast — at "two o'clock," as Harper had once explained to me — in the crater's other large un-iced area.

9.14E+03 seconds Two hours later, the motion detectors pinged as five EVA-suited figures emerged from the ark's airlock and began to walk toward Golden Hind across the narrow isthmus between the amino lakes.

Gathering information about these visitors was essential: if they were suitable, I could approach them and ask them to patch themselves into my scan list.

I began monitoring their communications as I made final preparations. I had already hidden the objects I did not want them to discover — the olive yarn, the remaining knit caps, the electrum chain, the holo album, the unedited logs — behind the panels in the hallway outside the medical compartment before they landed, so all that was left to do was to adjust the dates of certain files, close off two compartments, shut off everything but the deep space radio and the motion detectors,  and arrange myself in the Recreation alcove as if I had been in standby mode for sixty years. 

I did not think they would examine anything in the dark ship too closely if they saw what they expected to see.

It look them 1.04E+03 seconds 17 minutes to arrive at the Golden Hind's airlock. The first transmission I picked up was a voice of indeterminate gender, who asked, "What we got?"

"Atmosphere's minimal," a second voice replied. 

I recalled Rae-Ray gasping and reaching up toward me as she died.

"Micromete impact?" the first voice asked.

"Possible," a third voice replied. "The images we captured on approach were only partials, and too lo-res to show micro-punctures."

"Munoz, Sharma," the first voice said, "check the hull. You know what to look for." After a staticy acknowledgement, they said, "Stumped?"

Three replied, "No, but these old relays can be grumpy." Silence for 6.32E+01 seconds a minute or so while they broadcast a grainy image of a gloved hand interfacing with the cover of the airlock control, then pressing a narrow object I did not recognize against various circuits and relays. Once the glove withdrew, Three said,  "Got it. Do you want to pressurize the compartments or bring up the power?"

"Can you get the inner door open without those?" One asked.

"Sure."

"Do it," One said. "No reason to waste an hour filling the ship with atmo when there might be leaks."

I saw the inner airlock door open, and the visitors moved forward into the interior of Golden Hind. The video transmission cycled between various helm-cameras showing the same thing: a ribbon of light sweeping erratically across the darkness, punching out ovals of door, wall, equipment, instrumentation.

They searched silently until Two entered the hallway and found my alcove. "FirstCycle spent payload on some very nice frivs," Two said as the light from their visor brushed across my face. Their video transmission showed an Iridescent crescent sliding around the irises of my open eyes as they leaned closer and whispered, "Solar recharge cells? Very nice."

I quickly switched video input to look at them. Inside their visor, I saw a fine-boned hairless face decorated with UV stippling and metallic tattoos. Thin metal strips arched across their browline in place of eyebrows, and a coppery mesh covered their nose and mouth.

"Seen anything salvageable?" One asked. 

"Probably not," Two said, while the third voice added, "Not that I've seen."

"Log?" One asked.

"Already copied," Two said, touching my cheek with a gloved hand before moving farther down the hallway to examine the sealed door of the medical compartment.

Less than 2.34E+02 seconds four minutes later Two communicated that one stasis chamber was missing.  

"Let's wrap it up, then," One said. "We've assessed the ship, we've got the files, and there are no remains to retrieve."

"No Croatoan graffiti, either," a fourth voice added with a chuckle.

"We've done everything they asked for," One said. "Let's get out of here"

"Good." It was a fifth voice. "Fuck FirstCycle. We've got real work to do." 

As they walked back I saw the characters UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 on the side of their harvesting ark. This text was 99.9985 % most likely a component identification code and not a name, but retrieval of the fact that ume is a transliteration of words related to plum trees pleased me, and I chose to use Ume as their imprecise designation.

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[capacity 47.3659%]

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I stood in the alcove for 1.74E+05 seconds, 48.2 hours several Cererian days after they left, but the investigators did not return to Golden Hind

The motion sensors went off twice during that time. I did not pick up any audio from their suits, but I did receive enough visuals to see that they were examining the amino ice lakes and gathering samples from the lake closest to their vessel. Both excursions occurred at or just after zenith noon, when the surface temperature in the crater had risen to the daytime high of 235 °K −36 °F and the ice had its greatest phase variation. 

Once I was 98.063% relatively certain they they would not return, I stepped from my alcove and took inventory. The harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume crew had taken nothing, damaged nothing, and left nothing unchanged except the outer airlock door, which remained open.

I did not close it. If I could see them, they could watch me.

Afterwards I returned to my alcove and continued monitoring. That a self-categorized "harvesting ark" was taking an interest in Ceres' amino pools created an item of concern. While it was unable to execute probability calculation possible that the investigators had been asked to stop at Ceres on their way to harvest insufficient input something else, insufficient input somewhere else, more data was needed before I initiated follow up actions.

The Harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume crew continued to emerge at regular intervals to collect samples, and so, when the motion sensor detected activity around their airlock 2.10E+2 seconds a few minutes before noon on 6.62E+05 seconds, 184.7485 hours on the 20th Cererian day after their landing, I assigned it a low cognitive priority. It was 99.7% likely the start of a routine collection. 

Then the radial velocity sensor activated, and I bumped the priority.

Something was moving quickly toward Golden Hind. Whatever it was was not transmitting either audio or video, so I activated the smallest of the Hind's telescope cameras and adjusted its settings until I saw an EVA-suited figure running away from the Harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume and toward the Golden Hind.

During our journey Halee had explained that running was most often a physiological conditioning activity with recreational benefits, but in my evaluation running on the surface of Ceres in an EVA suit was neither. In this context, running access error probably signified urgency, a time-sensitive task, or an escape from danger.

I analyzed the possibilities as the blur continued to approach. 

The UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 harvesting ark Ume crew had been looking for the bodies of Golden Hind's crew. Had they been instructed to look again after they had reported their failure? Communication from Earth to Ceres, even at the point of greatest orbital separation, took only 2.88E+3 seconds 48 minutes each way, but would there have been such a lengthy delay between the reporting their results and carrying out a second search? 

It was output undefined possible.

The second possibility was that they had found something anomalous in the mission logs.

I assigned 0.0005651 % zero probability to this. I had reviewed every entry in every media made by every crew member. I had left Krohn and Mi-Kalee's brief comments about the deaths untouched, but excised Harper's fearful ramblings that there was a killer among them; I had also removed Rae-Ray, Mi-Kalee, and Hal's tearful, unsent final messages to their families. The original logs — backed up to my internal storage, of course, so that I could replay them when I wished — had been replaced with my edited version, which I now re-reviewed. There were no data seams or lacunae for the investigators to find.

The third possibility was that I had been seen. 

I assigned a low probability to this as well. I had stopped using the solar bay as soon as I had received the message that they were on route, but if they had done a low-orbit flyby in advance of their message or their landing, perhaps they had seen me double-charging on the Golden Hind's roof.…

The blur was still running directly toward Golden Hind, had covered 53% more than half half the distance. If it did not adjust its course, it would run through the southeastern edge of the western amino lake, where a shallow inlet reached across the isthmus as if trying to connect to the lake on the other side.

I adjusted the camera to show me when the figure reached the airlock door, then returned to my alcove and waited.

The radial velocity alarm stopped stopped 1.80E+2 seconds 3 minutes later. 

I allowed 1.80E+03 seconds a half hour to elapse before I began adjusting the camera angle to see why.

An irregularly-shaped reflective shape now lay at the southeastern edge of the lake, 208.63 meters a little over 200 meters from the Golden Hind's airlock. It appeared as though the from the harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume crew member had fallen after running through the lake, but no one had come retrieve them.

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[capacity 47.3184%]

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Ceres, a dwarf planet in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is so far from the Sun that it takes 4,448 Cererian days, 1681 earth days more than four and a half earth-years to make a revolution, but it  rotates once every 3.27E+04  seconds 9 hours, which means that its day is only 1.63E+04 seconds 4 and a half hours long. Night arrives  8.17E+03 two and a quarter hours after noon; two and a quarter hours later, at Cererian midnight, the temperature has dropped to a low of 101 °K -277  °F. 

I sat and watched until the terminator passed and the dim distant sun set, but no one came to retrieve their crew member. 

The thermal sensor showed a cluster of small red dots, indicating that something on or inside the fallen person's EVA suit was stubbornly radiating heat,  flooding the ice with exo-Cererian energy, and, potentially, non-Cererian compounds. 

CHMOD I knew that Golden Hind's two highest-priority Mission Objectives and Directives were to avoid contaminating the amino ice's abiogenesis process, and to protect and preserve irreplaceable resources. If the Golden Hind crew had been here, they would have removed the fallen harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume crew member from the Cererian environment immediately; since they weren't here, I must do it. Normally, my RemainUndamaged imperative compelled me to protect my surface area. If I could have worn one of Golden Hind's EVA suits to minimize my exposure to the extreme cold of the Ceres' night as I removed the contaminant from the ice I could have 82.57% significantly lowered my risk of damage, but my permission to use an EVA suit had not been defined. Yet another design flaw.

No matter. RemainUndamaged could be superseded by a higher priority imperative such as ProtectCrew or the Golden Hind Mission Objectives which theoretically should not have applied to me as I was not classified as crew) so I retrieved my knit hat, put on sterile surgical scrubs and booties, opened the inner airlock door and hurried outside.

The heat emitted from the fallen harvesting ark's crew member was sublimating the ice under their EVA suit's glove, turning it into a mist that dissipated as soon as it formed and carving an ever-deeper impression, but fortunately this meant that the suit had not yet frozen itself onto the ice. I lifted the suit without effort and carried it back to the Hind. 

I would know soon enough if the crew in the harvesting ark was watching.

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[capacity 24.0954%]

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As I had done with the corpses of the Golden Hind's crew, I carried the harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume crew member's body to the medical compartment, planning to remove it from the suit, allow it to freeze fully, and then break it into pieces small enough to fit into a specimen container, but when I began to undo the suit's clips the arm moved weakly, pushing against me in what 63.8% might have been a non-random way.

I risked a small iris-light and peered into the helmet. Past the mosaic of frost that coated the inside of the visor, the body in the EVA suit was nearly identical  in appearance to the person with the UV stipples and the copper mesh mask who had found me during the investigation, although their skin was absorbing a different wavelength of light paler than it had been before. Their eyelids fluttered almost imperceptibly, and their head vibrated with faint tremors. 

Alive? They were alive?

Hypothermia, the medical diagnostic supplied. Symptoms: Pale skin at extremities, slurred speech, shivering, shallow breathing. Treatment: Cover body with blankets and dry clothing. Wrap the head and neck to reduce further heat loss. Warm the trunk slowly. 

They weren't a Golden Hind crew member, but by definition they were an irreplaceable resource.  Preserve and protect, the Mission Directive said.

Humans needed many things that I did not: 78.09% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen  atmosphere at 101325 pascals air, a mean ambient temperature of 20-22 C, warmth, hydrogen oxide water, nutrients and food. The Golden Hind currently was a sub-optimal environment in relation to these requirements, as both the atmosphere and the ambient temperature had fallen sharply after the airlock was opened. The other ship likely had air and warmth, but taking them there was not feasible.

I sealed the medical compartment and the doors of all surrounding compartments, then maneuvered them carefully into the medpod. Loosening the helmet clamps just enough to break the seal, I activated an oxygen candle then quickly closed the lid.

The Golden Hind crew had often complained that the ship was "too cold" at 288K, 16 C° 60 F°, so I set the pod temperature control to 68 F°. Recalling that they also preferred lighting during their waking hours, I activated a panel above the pod to illuminate the compartment with a color temperature of 1900K a candlelight setting, then began to make the Golden Hind habitable for humans again.

Two of the atmosphere tanks had leaked dry during my time on Ceres, but the third still contained more than enough to re-pressurize the medical bay and the adjoining hallways and compartments. I had just started the procedure when I saw the person moving inside the medpod, rocking from side to side.

"What is it?" I asked, pressing my hand against the pod canopy to transmit the sound of my words. 

"Out," they croaked.

"Be patient," I said. "The room is not yet ready to sustain you."

They shuddered. "Cold."

"I know," I said. "As soon as I can safely open the medpod, I will provide additional warming."

"Hide," they said. Even though their voice was weak, the fearfulness was very clear. 

"From what?" I asked, but I knew, and so I said, "Don't worry. Nothing can harm you in here."

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[capacity 23.8872%]

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Analysis of the three audio samples confirmed that the person in the medpod was the second voice I'd heard during the investigation of the Golden Hind, so I decided to call them Two.

The Golden Hind inventory listed a "thermal bubble tent" item. Once I found it, I assembled it around Two's medpod, gathered three foil blankets, and then zipped myself inside the thermal tent. I then activated another oxygen candle, and lifted the pod canopy. Releasing the small volume of warmed air made Two shiver violently, and their teeth chattered.  

"I'm here," I said. "I'm taking care of you," I spread two thermal blankets over them. Their EVA suit wasn't conducting any body heat for the blankets to reflect, but it was crucial to reassure them at the start of the warming process that they would be well-tended to. 

I carefully removed their helmet. The center of each ear had been fitted with an audio sensing grid. There also was a pattern of delicate polygons scattered over the parietal and occipital aspects of the scalp sides and back of their head, although I did not know if those were functional or purely aesthetic. 

"I'm going to put a hat on you," I said. "To help keep your head warm."

Two squinted up at me. "Hat?"

"Yes, a hat. A warm, special hat. I knitted it myself." The olive-colored wool cap, which had once been Rae-Ray's and which was the only one I had not unraveled for yarn, was loose on Two, but the soft, worn fibers would slow loss of body heat from their bare scalp. "Now I'm going to take off your EVA gloves and the top half of your EVA suit," I said, helping Two sit up and draping the third thermal blanket loosely around them, "and then I'll share my body warmth with you." I did not mention that my warmth would come from battery power: generally, humans preferred me to maintain the illusion that I was as flesh and blood as they were.

"Fun," Two mumbled, and then added something I couldn't parse. 

I removed the bulky EVA suit gloves — Two's hands were covered in rust-colored mesh undergloves, which, like their respiratory mask, I did not remove — and then eased off the top half of the suit.

I expected to see a standard undersuit garment beneath it; instead, Two was wearing a high-necked, long-sleeved shirt, the front of which was stiff with dried blood. There was a bloody handprint on the back. Evidence that they had dressed and left the harvesting ark UME-027-HAV-0202-0150 Ume  in a hurry?

"There we go," I said, wrapping the silvery thermal blanket snugly around them and easing them back down. 

"Pants too?" Two asked. 

"You want me to take off the bottom half of your suit?"

Two nodded.

"Alright," I said. I laid the top half of the suit on the blankets to hold them in place, then slipped off Two's boots, revealing large, delicately-boned bare feet. The leggings they wore underneath the bottom half of the EVA suit were clammy, and phospho-fluoresced in the 385 nm range along the inseams. The hypothermia treatment instructions required the replacement of wet clothing with dry, but I had no dry clothing inside the tent. A thermal blanket would have to suffice.

Yes. I would keep them warm, even if it took the remainder of my battery power. If there was time I would explain about the need to respect the abiogenesis process, and how important it was to protect and preserve irreplaceable resources, but for now I arranged myself carefully along their side and pulled the canopy down, then tucked the thermal blankets around us as snugly as I was able.  "Everything's good now," I said softly. "Everything will be fine." 

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©2019.
Posted 30 June 2019; revised 17 Jan 2020