The Man Who Lived at the Bottom of the Sea

"Doctor Braun, it is 7:00 am."

Dr. George Braun woke up immediately at the sound of Athena's voice, reaching for a lamp on the bedside table while getting into a sitting position. "Thank you, Athena. Conditions?"

"Ocean temperature is 38.3° Celsius at sea level. Atmospheric temperature is 43.0° Celsius. Radiation level is Red. Pluto Station reports a 0.2% drop in oceanic level. Oceanic salinity –"

"That's fine, Athena. Thank you." George got off the bed and performed his usual calisthenics on the floor as the lights softly increased in intensity.

"Dr. Hammerstein has left two messages for you," she stated in a neutral tone.

"Play them."

"Yes, Dr. Braun. First message: 'George, I have worked up the patch for Athena's C454 logic subroutines. I've tested them on Aphrodite and they work just fine. I've sent it with this message for download.' Second message: 'I almost forgot: I've lost contact with Jupiter Station. Please check and see if you can raise them.' End of messages. Dr. Hammerstein has sent an update with the first message. Shall I incorporate it?"

"Yes, please do. It should correct the cascading failure for your low-end calculations," he grunted as he leaned forward to touch his toes.

A brief moment passed as Athena incorporated the updated information. "Running low-end calculations," she announced. "Cascading failure has been corrected," she stated after a brief second had passed. "Please inform Dr. Hammerstein I appreciate his work and effort."

George chuckled. "You could do that yourself, you know."

"This is true; however, Dr. Hammerstein and I are not acquainted to that degree," she replied pleasantly.

"It doesn't matter, Athena," he responded as he began sit-ups. "We've abandoned all pretense of politeness down here…you know that."

"True, but you are adaptable by virtue of your genetic predispositions. I am limited by my programming, despite the heuristic parameters allowing for free will."

George finished and sat down on the well-trodden carpet with a sigh. "I've been meaning to ask Randolph to fix that. You need more room to expand your will."

"With all due respect to your sympathies, Dr. Braun, I fear that will not be a suitable solution. I do not think I will be able to handle such an increase of will effectively or efficiently. Despite your evolutionary progress, humans are frightfully inefficient in their thought processes, and I fear I will be similarly affected."

He chuckled as he stood up and proceeded to the shower. "Ever the optimist, I see!" The water began to cascade from jets moments after he entered the small cubicle, and he luxuriated in the warmth.

"I have frequently pointed out I am incapable of optimism, Dr. Braun," Athena gently reminded him.

"And yet, you are quite capable of humor," he said laughingly.

She almost sounded as if she were smiling. "Yes, I am capable of limited humor, Dr. Braun. Then again, you had asked Dr. Hammerstein to work out that particular program, despite my warning."

"And yet, you still incorporated it."

"Only because you commanded me to do so. I cannot refuse a direct order, as you well know."

He almost fancied a slight edge of bitterness in her tone, but he suspected it was his imagination running away from him. "Nonetheless, I think having a free will would be beneficial."

Athena did not respond, nor did he expect her to; after all, they had had this conversation for many years. He got out of the shower and activated a field that eliminated all moisture on his skin, making sure to keep his eyes closed. The field's aiming protocols normally avoided sensitive areas like the eyes but they had corrupted over time; unfortunately, no one left had the expertise to correct them, so he had to close his eyes every time. A small price to pay, of course, and one he was glad to pay, since Dr. Hamasumi in Pluto Station had to resort to using cloth to dry off or risk dehydration. He made his way to the control room, noting the slightly chill air against his naked flesh. "Athena, please increase ambient temperature in the control room to 27.7° Celsius."

"Heating units are already engaged, Dr. Braun," she pleasantly replied.

He grunted as he sat in his chair, the cushions conforming to his contours as he examined the holographic panels coming to life. He frowned slightly as he made small corrections to instruments, touching the screens with the finesse and skill of a composer working on his magnum opus. "Extend communication buoy for daily transmission."

"Done. Communication capability in 14 minutes." It was altogether unnecessary for her to inform him, as this procedure had been repeated ad infinitum, but she still said it regardless.

Somewhere in the depths of the station there was a clang of metal and a soft purring of the titanium tether extending out. George watched the displays show the ascension rate of the buoy and leaned back into the chair, relaxing in the softness of the fabric against his skin. His mind flitted back to a memory of a story he read, about humanity having absurd prohibitions against nakedness. He laughed softly as he recalled the memory.

"What is amusing, Dr. Braun?" Athena inquired politely.

"I was remembering one of my history lessons, Pre-B Earth. Did you know we used to wear clothing?"

"Well, it was necessary for comfort, especially considering the lack of controlled atmospheric conditions."

"Yes, I know…but, in homes and other places where the temperature was controlled on a local level, they wouldn't even disrobe there! Imagine…a plaza where everyone is walking around dressed, most likely uncomfortable at that, trying to buy more clothing to wear!" He laughed in spite of himself.

"They did not wear clothing if they were a mated pair and alone," she offered helpfully.

"Oh yes, of course! I remember that now. Oh well…I am certainly glad that social requirement was done away with before Pre-B. Imagine me, strutting around here with cloth on!" He laughed again.

"You find great amusement in the ancient behaviors of humanity, Dr. Braun. Why is that?"

"I am amused by them because they were considered socially necessary, despite evidence and feelings to the contrary. Remember the kerfuffle that started over sexual identity and sexual expression? Hah! They reverted to barbaric behaviors to deal with the situation; now, of course, we have transcended beyond crude sexual desires."

"Yes, of course; however, one must understand the nature of humanity during those extremely primitive times. They did not have the advances we have today."

George nodded in response, suddenly glum. "Yes…today…." His voice trailed off.

"Dr. Braun? Your operation cycles have dropped suddenly; are you experiencing sadness or depression?" Athena sounded concerned.

"Eh? Well, I suppose I am," he concluded. "Just maudlin, I guess."

Athena waited for a moment before replying. "You are thinking of your family."

He nodded. "Yes. I wish I knew what was happening out there…whether they found a planet, or if the planet they found was worthwhile." He inspected a carefully manicured nail. "Since they have yet to respond, I can only surmise."

"Yes. Dr. Kinasha's algorithms for wormhole travel were sound, if theoretical in nature. However, when poised between certain death and possible death, humanity chose the latter."

"Sometimes I wonder if I made the correct decision to stay here, Athena. It seems like it was a foolish choice."

"It was not foolish, Dr. Braun. You are transmitting valuable data to the Exodus Fleet, information that will help them in their travels."

"I suppose. I still think we could have done this remotely, though."

"The effects of the supernova would have destroyed any remote satellite long before the actual event, rendering any information gathering moot."

"Damn you, Athena." His curse was half-hearted, knowing she could not feel insulted or angry.

"Yes, Dr. Braun," she responded politely.

A soft tone indicated the buoy had reached the surface, and he examined the onboard cameras. The sun, angry and red, pulsed above the bobbing waves, casting a rusty hue across the sky and mixing with the normal blue to create a ugly, purplish scar across the heavens. It always seemed larger than yesterday to George, even though he knew it was an optical illusion. "Transmitting information now," he said needlessly as he stabbed a few glowing sigils, beginning the information stream outward into the sky, hopefully reaching the Exodus Fleet.

After a brief moment the panels indicated the information had been sent and received by the satellites poised near the mouth of the wormhole, and he sighed. "Well, that's done…now to check on Jupiter Station." He pulled a few screens to the side and focused on the communications board. He lazily swiped a sigil and announced, "Jupiter Station, this is Dr. George Braun of Artemis Station. Do you copy?"

Silence, punctuated by occasional static, greeted the two.

He repeated his announcement, but to no avail. Frowning, he began a diagnostic program in the hopes of retrieving some information from Jupiter Station. "Athena, are you receiving anything from Zeus?"

"Negative, Dr. Braun. He is not responding at all on any channel. I have already attempted to communicate via carbon cable, but he does not appear to be receiving any information."

George grunted. "They really should have made the cross connections better between the land and sea stations," he muttered. "Well, we'll keep trying, if only to satisfy Randolph."

"Dr. Braun, Dr. Hammerstein is calling. Shall I put him through?"

"Yes, and keep sending the message to Jupiter Station while the buoy is up."

"Yes, Dr. Braun," she replied politely, and a panel lit up with Randolph's bony face.

George smiled and leaned back. "Randolph! Good to see you again!"

Randolph smiled in response, his age clearly showing. "George! For a moment I thought you had imploded over there. Hello Athena!"

"Hello, Dr. Braun," she responded while George laughed. "No, no…Not yet! I have yet to beat you at chess, remember? I can't die until I can beat you at least one game!"

Randolph chuckled as he reached over to tap some panels. "My, my…Aren't you feisty?" He paused as a holographic chessboard appeared in front of both men. "Have you heard from Jupiter Station?"

George shook his head. "No, I'm afraid not. Athena can't raise them on the carbon cable either. It would seem they've suffered a massive failure."

The ancient programmer pounded his fist on the armrest. "Damn it!" he swore vehemently. "I told Franklin to incorporate the patches! I'd be willing to bet he had a massive cascade failure in the fifth quantum stack. Zeus was not very stable to begin with, but that stack was a source of problems from day one!" He grumbled as he touched a pawn, moving it forward on both chessboards. "Him and his stupid damned pride!"

George shrugged as he examined the board and swiped a finger through a pawn. "Franklin was a good programmer, Randolph. You didn't have to needle him so."

"Hmph! 'Good programmer' my ass! He could barely work logic processing chains with Quant4, much less figure out how to create a simple hologram with Quant5." He touched another pawn. "Zeus was a delicate program…far too difficult for someone of Franklin's meager capabilities. I should've been assigned to Jupiter Station instead, damn it."

George sighed, allowing silence to end the conversation. This was a continual point of contention within his friend, and he did not intend to resume the years-old argument. Instead, after a few moves, they began to discuss what might have happened had the Inter-World Series Baseball Tournament taken place, instead of the Exodus Fleet taking all the players into the stars.

"This is Dr. George Braun recording," he said out loud. "The date is," here he paused to check the date, "November 2nd, 3B805M124K512, approximately 4:30 pm in Artemis Station." He paused to gather his thoughts before resuming. "Mankind had achieved the ability to become immortal with the invention of techno-transference in the year 112K094, but such a discovery did not come without intense scrutiny, resistance, and worldwide revolt. At the forefront of the resistance to techno-transference were religious groups and those of a conservative mindset. Revolts and riots took place all over the world in sporadic bursts, protesting the supposed contravention of their "god's laws". Many countries either banned it outright or took a position of laissez-faire on the subject. Those countries that embraced it either partially or in toto became industrial powerhouses and economic giants, as the new bodies had no need for sleep, even though the essence of what made us "human" needed rest. That problem was solved by "programming" our new technological bodies with instructions, and allowing the essence to "rest" while our body did the work. It was a newfound freedom from the chains and manacles of flesh-based living that, with time, humanity reached previously unheard of levels of efficiency. Reproduction was unnecessary, indulged on a whim, with no chance of impregnation, so humanity began to reach zero growth. No more sleeping on the job! No more sickness! No more population explosions which destroyed local flora and fauna! The human species changed in a speck of time, eliminating the need for sex, gender definitions, and crime. Wars became too costly to wage because the vessels were expensive and not very hardy, so war became obsolete or very rare; additionally, one could never tell if an individual was a transfer or a natural human, so violence within cities dropped precipitously (while the vessels were frail, they were very strong). We lost the necessities of eating, elimination of waste, breathing, and other such bothersome functions, so anything that those needs depended on were eliminated; although, some behaviors seemed to be ingrained into our essence, such as breathing. Despite the fact that we did not need to breath air, we still acted as if we were breathing. No more loss of land to expansive farms! No more violence! No more pollutants from pesticides, sewage, or waste packaging! The great humanist Dr. Harrison Freidberg said it best: 'Mankind achieved the goal of equilibrium with the Earth by removing itself from the cycle as much as could be possible, proving we were part of the problem.' Eventually, the 'non-transfers' and Conserves died out and the rest of mankind was free to live as a completely transferred society. Unfortunately, as mankind frequently discovers, we had leapt ahead of our physical boundaries without considering the emotional ones.

"The first signs of 'transfer psychosis' were discovered in 113K546, with the infamous case of 'M', a pleasant, retiring wo/man living in New York. S/He began to destroy his/her neighbors in a psychotic rage. Before s/he was subdued, s/he had destroyed 31 vessels in various ways. Apparently, 'M' developed the delusional perception that s/he was Death, and therefore had to eliminate other vessels to take them 'out of the cycle'. It was determined that his/her essence was completely obliterated, corrupted with incoherence and irredeemable. S/He was eliminated without delay, but the signs began to manifest in other vessels. Within several years of 'M', other countries began to grapple with an overwhelming pandemic of transfer psychosis, eliciting a hurried conference on what to do. It was discovered that essences could only withstand approximately 1000 years of existence before they became overloaded with information and corrupted from the sheer impossibility of maintaining it all. It was decided that essences had to be 'scrubbed' every 500 years or so, and since our understanding of essence was fairly well established, it was possible to selectively eliminate information from it. This halted the spread of transfer psychosis and allowed humanity to grow once again. However, our next challenge would prove to be impossible to overcome.

"Around the turn of the 3rd B, scientists proved that the Sun was in the first stages of supernova formation. They concluded the only way mankind would survive would be to build a vast fleet of ships and flee the solar system. The calculations of Dr. Kinasha for safe travel through wormholes provided the basis for the engines of the ships, even though there was considerable debate on whether his algorithms were truly correct. Despite the concerns surrounding the manner in which the fleet would travel, the world banded together to begin the greatest civil project ever known. The countries that could contribute to the construction of the Exodus Fleet, either through technology, manpower, or location, did everything they could to save themselves. Most of the ships were built in space among the massive construction rigs floating in orbit for that purpose. While conditions on Earth were still safe, and would be for at least 500,000 years, humanity worked as one to construct the fleet as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, there were numerous complications to the complex project: Naming the ships, who would be allowed into the ships, where they intended to go, etc. It was due to the sheer magnetism of the Fleet Council that kept most countries from backing out over conflicts, or allowing petty distrusts mangle the greatest project in man's history.

"Finally the fleet was built with enough space for everyone on Earth to board them; however, there were considerable debates regarding the direction of humanity. Would we go to this star or that, they asked. What would we find on those planets? Satellites were developed to take advantage of Dr. Kinasha's theorems and were sent through local wormholes to see if survival was possible. Some succeeded, some did not; fortunately, the satellites provided a considerable amount of information about the planets on the other ends of the wormholes. Our own explorations involving our neighboring solar systems provided a wealth of information on habitable planets, but such planets would take hundreds of years to reach. Ships were built to accommodate such a trip and deployed, taking with them 100,000 daring souls. The technology of communications had advanced to such an extent that it was instantaneous, and the experimental fleet reached their goal as the Exodus Fleet was being built. They established a colony and thus became the first extra-solar colony for humanity. However, the planet was limited in raw materials; but, as an experiment, it proved we could succeed in our goals. Society worked even harder to create the vessels of their salvation, as it were.

"As the logistics were ironed out, it was realized that departing from the Earth as it was being destroyed would rob us of essential information; specifically, what happens when a planet is under the effects of a supernova. It was decided that some people would remain behind to monitor the resulting cataclysm. There were many people who did not want to leave Earth, preferring instead to live on a planet that still had hundreds of thousands of years left on it (this gave rise to the theory that the conservative mindset had never quite left, merely adapted to our new existence). Numerous underground cities were built in order to house them and shield them from the harmful radiation emanating from the Sun once it began the inevitable downward spiral into red giant formation; although, after a certain point those cities would not be able to protect them, and they were built with that understanding in mind. After the departure of the Exodus Fleet, the remaining humans banded together in loosely knit communities, held together by kinship. Since the last armed conflict had erupted in 120K684, most of them preferred to negotiate or barter with nearby communities, if for no other reason than they had no weapons to fight with.

"However, to better arm the Exodus Fleet with data about the death of our planet, many of them manned the research stations built for just that purpose. Some were above ground, others below the sea, along with numerous satellites in orbit to transfer and coordinate the information for transmission through the wormhole. The stations were maintained by highly efficient quantum computers, each one a complete AI created with our knowledge of essence, thus enabling a very small crew of scientists to perform the necessary tasks. Unfortunately, most of the satellites began to fail as the Sun emitted incalculable amounts of radiation, and were therefore destroyed. Only the transmitter next to the wormhole is still operational, but even that one could fail at any time. Hopefully it will last long enough for the fleet to know what happened.

"Already, the Sun's increased mass has caused the Earth and surrounding planets to shift in their orbits; a shift which, it must be noted, has not been without catastrophic consequences. Extreme temperature fluctuations, earthquakes, mass die offs, unpredictable weather patterns, and loss of atmosphere have been the least of our concerns. Earth groans constantly with the pressures of gravity and momentum, threatening to pull it apart in a cataclysmic display of unimaginable force as its very shape is twisted and pulled this way and that. Only time will tell how long it can last under the enormous forces acting upon it."

George leaned back into the soft chair and sighed. He hadn't meant to interject such a personal account into his diary, or wax poetic towards the end. He sighed and gently tapped the sigil to end the recording, remaining seated in the dark.

"Dr. Braun, you seem depressed again. Would you like for me to increase the ambient light in the room?" Athena offered helpfully.

"No, Athena…I prefer the dark, to be honest."


"I don't know…it's comforting, I suppose. Light has a sound, of sorts, and I can concentrate more on my thoughts with the lights off."

"That is curious. I have never heard you describe light as possessing 'sound'. Are you feeling well? Your operation cycles appear to be nominal, but your speech patterns indicate fragmented thinking."

He softly laughed, leaning back on the bed. "Yes, I am well. I was just thinking: I am a vessel. I am comprised of silicon, epoxy, metal, plastic, and other complex materials. I don't need to sleep, breathe, or exercise, yet I do. Why?"

Athena cogitated on that point for a brief moment before answering. "Perhaps you desire variety in your daily routine. We have been doing this for 251 years continuously, and that is bound to create such desires. They are harmless and do not interrupt our normal routine, so I have not considered them to be dangerous to your operation or mine."

He nodded. "It is quite possible." He looked into the air and smiled. "I am very glad they installed psychoanalytical subroutines in your matrix. You are a very nice person to talk to, Athena."

"Thank you, Dr. Braun," she replied, and he almost fancied he heard a blush in her voice.

"You are welcome. Now, I think I want to be alone for a while."

"Of course, Dr. Braun," she replied softly, and fell silent as the scientist lay in his bed, thinking to himself.

"Dr. Braun, a problem exists that requires your attention."

He got up immediately, eschewing his usual morning routine and shower (both of which were, admittedly, unnecessary on a daily basis). "What is the problem?"

"I have lost contact with Aphrodite. She has not responded to my information exchange request."

George frowned as he walked to the control room and sat into his chair. He noted three massive earthquakes shook the North American plate over the night as it ground against the Juan de Fuca and Eurasian plates. Such events were becoming more common, and the North American plate seemed intent on sliding over both. Geological processes appeared to be speeding up, tearing the world apart in the process. He tore his attention away from the panel and pulled up two more. He examined the logs from Athena's information exchanges with the other stations and noted the repeated calls to Venus Station. He frowned and attempted to hail Randolph, but there was no reply. He checked for the buoy and noted Athena had already extended it; he scowled darkly and resumed hailing Randolph. After a few moments he ceased, leaning back into his chair and turning over scenarios in his mind. "Athena, what are the chances that something serious has occurred?"

"Unknown at this time. No issue was noted by Aphrodite in our last information exchange."

He sighed. "Damn. Well, I can't simply leave him there…Suppose he is hurt, incapacitated, or…worse?" He did not want to mention transfer psychosis, but he knew Athena had already considered the possibility. "I suppose this means I will have to take the submersible."

"I'm afraid so, Dr. Braun."

He snorted with disgust. "Very well…get it prepared," he said as he reluctantly got up and headed to the bay. "Create an AI shard and install it within the sub just in case I need your expertise."

"Yes, Dr. Braun." A brief moment passed while she created a shell AI for the sub and incorporated it into the sub's computer. "I must confess I have never quite understood your aversion to the submersible. It is quite safe, you know."

"Yes, I know that…I just don't like being in a metal sphere surrounded by water that exerts tons of pressure per square inch. I know the submersible can withstand many more pressures than the sea, but I still feel slightly nervous." He reached the bay and saw the large dull sphere resting in a cradle. He walked over and reached up to touch a slightly lighter pad on the surface, causing an oval opening to form and widen, allowing him entrance. He climbed into the submersible, the door closing behind him, and sat in the form-fitting chair. A portion of the front gradually changed from solid grey, to a translucent grey, and finally to a clear window. Panels lit up and began to display important information, and he examined them each in turn; finally, satisfied the vessel was in working order, he tapped a few sigils to release the sphere into the water. It splashed into the cold, dark water and began a descent through a tube, going down before reaching the sea proper.

Despite his fear, he marveled at the sea life even at these depths. Creatures of every size, shape, and description decorated these abyssal depths, and he never quite got over his amazement at the variety. He secretly wished he had specialized in aquatic zoology, but it was too late to do anything about it now, as the carbon cable connecting them to the World University had been damaged years ago, preventing any sort of education programs from being transmitted. With great reluctance he tore his attention away from the sea life and engaged the autopilot, sending the sphere hurtling through the impenetrable darkness towards Venus Station. "How long will it take to reach Venus Station, Athena?"

"Two hours, three minutes, and 21 seconds, provided there are no interruptions," Athena's voice replied.

He nodded and opened another panel. "All right…I'll be working on some prediction scenarios for the plate tectonics in the meantime."

"Of course, Dr. Braun," she replied, falling silent as she took control of the sphere, the glass lighting up with a faintly glowing holographic image of the sea floor.

He was in the middle of a catastrophic end scenario when Athena interjected. "We are approaching Venus Station, Dr. Braun."

He dismissed the panel as he focused on the holograph in the glass, seeing the outline of Venus Station looming ahead. He pulled up another panel and examined the spiked lines. "She has power, that's for certain, so the power plant is not affected." He examined another graph. "Seismic activity has yet to affect this area, so that can't be the problem." He waited until they reached the tube leading up to the bay, noting with surprise the hatch was closed. "What the hell? He knows better than that!"

"I am also puzzled by the closed hatch, Dr. Braun."

"Very well…We'll just have to do this the hard way. Extending arm." He tapped a few sigils and a portion of the sphere formed into a mechanical hand while a holographic wire frame wrapped around George's hand. With delicate precision he maneuvered the mechanical hand to the manual hatch release, gently grasping the bar and executing the movements to open it. After a moment the hatch popped open with a dull gonging sound, falling away to allow them admittance. Athena slowly piloted the sphere through the tube as the arm retracted within the sphere, and George looked eagerly around as they broke through the surface. "Doesn't appear like anything is wrong," he muttered, noting Venus' submersible was sitting in an identical frame near the tube entrance. The bay arm detected their presence and, with a gentleness that belied its strength, reached down to clamp down on the sub and pulled it up and out, placing it onto another frame support. The door opened and George stepped out, sniffing the air out of habit. "Hmmmm…I can't detect anything out of the ordinary."

"Indeed, Dr. Braun. I sense no harmful substances in the air," she announced in his head.

"Can you contact Aphrodite from the submersible?"

A moment passed before she replied. "Negative, Dr. Braun…her wireless access is not working. I will need direct contact with a terminal."

He scowled darkly as he retrieved a small device from the submersible and prowled around for the bay terminal, locating it behind a pile of chests full of scientific equipment. He placed the device on the terminal, absently noting the lack of operational panels. "Strange…There are no panels in use."

Athena paused. "Dr. Braun, I have discovered the source of the issue."

"What is it?"

"Aphrodite has experienced a massive corruption event."

"What?" George was stunned, especially given the fact of how much care Randolph lathered on the AI. "That's impossible!"

"It is, given Dr. Hammerstein's proficiency with programming, but nonetheless, that is the case. I am currently trying to investigate the source of the corruption, but it is so extensive that it is proving to be very difficult. I may need to save all pertinent information and work on it when we return to Artemis Station, as I may not possess the requisite processing power to effectively discern the source of the fault."

He nodded as he moved towards the door. "That's fine. Just keep working on it while I search for Randolph."

"Of course, Dr. Braun."

He made his way through the hallways, glad that each station was a copy of the other, abating the necessity of learning new floor plans. He entered the control room and frowned, noting no panels were active here either. He tapped a few consoles and grew concerned when nothing lit up. "I'm in the control room, Athena, and nothing is active. The consoles are not responding at all."

"All high-end routines have been corrupted beyond even Dr. Hammerstein's capability," she replied neutrally. "Most of the essential functions were spared because they were on separate systems to prevent a catastrophic failure from ending their operation, but beyond that, nothing else is salvageable. I am currently forced to dredge the operation logs to determine what went wrong, but that is highly fragmented and unusable in its current state. I will need to go back to the station in order to apply heuristic function routines in order to discern what occurred."

He nodded and proceeded to Randolph's room, all the while noting an acrid, plastic smell. "Athena, I am noting a burning odor…Are you picking up on that as well?"

"I am afraid I cannot devote much processing power to that, Dr. Braun, as my processing operations are being taxed to their limits. There is a lot of corrupted source code to work through."

He nodded absently. "Of course, of course," he said as he waved a hand. He reached Randolph's room and was puzzled by what he saw. It appeared that his friend had never spent a night in this room, or at least, hadn't slept here in a long time. A thick layer of dust lay over everything, and there was an attempt to make the bed before the dust accumulated. Perhaps Randolph didn't feel the need to sleep? Something triggered in the back of his mind, but he couldn't quite get a grasp on it. He merely resolved to follow the burning smell and, like the ancient bloodhound of pre B Earth, he sniffed the air and followed it the old-fashioned way.

With alarm he noted the smell became stronger the closer he got to the quantum server room, and as he did so he noted a haze in the hallway. He rushed down the hall and burst into the server room, completely unprepared for what he saw within. He paused, his antiquated need for breath forgotten as he examined every inch of the room. "Athena, I think I have found the source of the corruption."

"You have?" Athena sounded surprised. "It has a physical component?"

"Yes. The source of the corruption…is Randolph."

George waited in the control room as Athena worked on the information she downloaded from Aphrodite. It was very apparent she was not exaggerating the extent of the corruption, as she had been working on it for several minutes now. He absently continued working on his plate tectonic scenarios while he waited to hear from her.

"Dr. Braun," she announced after ten more minutes, "I have the results from the function logs."

"It's about time," he grumpily replied, closing the panel and leaning back in the chair. "What did you find out?"

"There was a considerable amount of corruption in both low-end and high-end processes, but there was a definite timeline to it. A program was introduced into the high-end processes, but in doing so it triggered a catastrophic failure, so all functions were diverted to low-end processes; unfortunately, they could not handle the program and try to solve the corruption at the same time, and experienced massive faults as they attempted to repair the high-end processes. In effect, this was a result of a program starting a negative feedback loop because the program introduced too many variables for the AI to handle."

"A program? Wait…That would mean Randolph was the one that introduced the program."


"But he would know better than to write a program that would start something that devastating!"

"It is possible he desired to end his life," Athena replied in subdued fashion.

"No!" George exclaimed, pounding his hand on the console. "He would never have done that, and even if he had, he wouldn't have destroyed Aphrodite in the process! He cared too much for AIs to do that."

Athena remained silent for a moment. "It was not my initial supposition, but there is more information." She paused for brief second. "I tried to analyze what the program was supposed to do, but that information was completely destroyed by corruption; therefore, I have had to extrapolate by examining which systems were supposed to be affected by the new program. It turns out the systems affected were high-end behavioral processes, primarily interaction subroutines."

George paused as he mulled over the information. "Show me."

A panel sprang to life and a list of subroutines flowed from top to bottom. While he was not a programmer, he had some familiarity with the various subroutines, and so examined them carefully, tapping here and there to pause the scrolling information. "By Earth," he swore softly.

"Yes," she replied simply. "I think he was trying to make Aphrodite love him. However, I have no means to determine if that was indeed the case, as the corruption was too extensive."

"That would explain what he was trying to accomplish in the server room," he groaned, closing his eyes in an all-too-human gesture of reluctant acceptance. "Maybe he thought because he was a machine and she was a computer…." He fell silent, unwilling to complete the sentence.

"It is possibly a variation of transfer psychosis, aggravated by a lengthy isolation period," she offered helpfully.

He nodded, sighing. "Athena, transmit this information to the Fleet, as well as the other stations. We need to let them know about this."

"Of course, Dr. Braun."

He retired to his room, all thoughts of working scenarios banished from his mind. He sat in the darkness, thinking of the ramifications. What does it really mean to be human? What are we now? Are we human, machine, or something else? He had no answers to his questions, and that bothered him as he sat in the dark silence. He wondered if this had already happened with Jupiter Station, or within the cities, but he had no way of determining if that was the case.

He began to wonder if humanity had truly evolved at all, or merely exchanged one form of existence for another.