FICTIONAL LIFE

 

 

ARION

©2022 by Ted R. Blasingame

 

Chapter One - The Interview

 

The aged, handsome face of the world’s most recognized televised news anchor smiled out at his audience.

“Hello, I am Donald Harkin, and welcome to tonight’s edition of Earth News Today for a live conversation with Dr. Kathleen Ruston and ARN-28080 of Project Pegasus, a subject of recent documentaries that have sparked interest across the nations of the world.

“Dr. Kate, as she prefers to be called, is the heart and brains behind the project. ARN-28080 is, of course, the soul of the project himself, the Synthetic Intelligence controlling the colony ship Arion-1. This vessel will soon be departing the Earth on a historic flight to a planet in the far, distant star system known as 51 Pegasi, which is also sometimes simply referred to by astronomers as 51 Peg.

“Dr. Kate is a logistical engineer, the director in charge of Earth’s two-vessel interstellar colony project, who has been involved with it since its inception.  Welcome Dr. Kate.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harkin.” A woman in her forties nodded toward the news anchor from the comfort of a plush chair across from him. Auburn hair flowed around the shoulders of her sartorial-perfect business attire and moved in waves with her nod.

The anchor’s gaze shifted to another chair beside the woman. In the studio, the chair was vacant, but displayed on the broadcast image was a photorealistic holographic display of a handsome young man in a sharp business suit with his hands in his lap. Out of range of the camera directly behind the chair was a large display screen for the news anchor to see the SI in real-time as his viewers would see him. Another screen was strategically placed beside that chair for Dr. Kate to see the same man if she turned to look at him.

“Welcome, ARN-28080. We are pleased that you could join us.”

“Thank you, Mr. Harkin,” said the young man’s image. “I am happy to be here, but for convenience you may call me Arion.”

To those who watched the worldwide broadcast, they saw an olive-skinned man in his thirties with short black hair, large brown eyes with thick lashes, a straight nose and prominent cheek bones. The man looked as if he could be of Greek ancestry.  Over the breast pocket of his suit, he wore a badge depicting a stylized horse rearing up on its hind legs.

Harkin gestured toward the badge, “What is the symbol you are wearing?”

“It is the ship’s logo,” the SI answered. “The Greek origin of the name Arion means ‘enchanted’ and was a ‘divinely bred, extremely swift immortal horse endowed with speech’.  The name was chosen for Earth’s ‘extremely swift’ manned ships, the fastest ever built. This logo depicts a chestnut horse with a dark mane, the common description of the mythological creature.”

“I see, that’s interesting. Considering that the project name is Pegasus, I am puzzled that the emblem is not that of a winged horse.”

“Yes, I can see why you might think that, but while the project name is Pegasus in reference to 51 Pegasi, the name for the ships – and myself – is Arion. It is a different, though related symbolism.”

“Ah, okay.” Harkin looked first at Dr. Kate and then toward his virtual guest.  “So, shall we begin?”

“Certainly,” Arion replied.  Dr. Kate just nodded, knowing in advance that she was here merely on principle since the focus would be primarily upon the SI.  She doubted much of the interview would be directed at her.

“Arion, tell us about 51 Peg, the intended destination of Earth’s two interstellar ships.”

“Also known as Helvetios, 51 Pegasi is a G-type main-sequence yellow dwarf star with an apparent magnitude of 5.49, located 50.91 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus.”

“How long will it take to get there?

“After constant acceleration and upon reaching a maximum velocity of approximately fifty percent of the speed of light, the ships will enter the edge of 51 Pegasi’s solar system in 75.675 years as it is measured on Earth.”

How long?” the man looked puzzled as he tried to work out the figure.

“75 years, 8 months, 23 days to reach the edge of that solar system, and then the ship will decelerate for another 4 weeks until orbital arrival over the target planet.”

“How many planets are in that solar system?”

“Two.  51 Pegasi b, more commonly known as Dimidium, is a gray gas giant half the size of Jupiter, orbiting its star at a distance of only 4.35 million miles, which is closer than Mercury is to Sol. It was discovered in 1995 and it has the distinction of being the very first exoplanet detected outside of the Sol system. Then there is 51 Pegasi c, commonly known as Bellerophon, an Earth-type rocky world orbiting within 51 Pegasi’s habitable zone, 135 million miles from its star. It was first discovered one hundred thirty years ago. There is also a thin asteroid belt at a distance of six Astronomical Units from the star, suggesting a former third planet in the system.”

“Is Bellerof… Bellerifu… uh, Belle really habitable? Colonies to other planets and moons within our own solar system have had to establish themselves amongst inhospitable conditions.”

Dr. Kate smiled at the abbreviated use of the planet’s formal name. The man was likely unaware that many others directly involved in the project used the same shortened version. Arion’s virtual features reflected no issue with the man’s mispronunciations and he responded in a pleasant manner.

“From automated investigation, it appears that Bellerophon is ideally suitable to Terran life. Surface air at the sample site was composed of 77% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, .93% argon, 1% water vapor and 1.07% of miscellaneous trace gases. Morning temperature at the time was 64 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity was 72%. Barometric pressure was 29.88 inches and the dew point was 45%. A south wind was recorded at 6 miles per hour. In other words, it was a nice spring morning.”

“Nice.  If Belle was discovered one hundred thirty years ago, why has it taken so long for us to plan a visit there?”

“It is the distance involved, Mr. Harkin. An unmanned probe using a Quantum drive can reach a maximum of ninety percent of the speed of light, but a vessel containing biologicals can only safely travel at fifty percent of lightspeed; for this, a Tachyon drive is used. A quantum probe piloted by early-generation Artificial Intelligence BR549 was sent at its top speed to 51 Pegasi with the purpose of investigating Bellerophon over a two-year period before returning to the Earth with its findings.  The round trip, including this period of investigation, took a total of one hundred twelve years, seven months.

“Fifteen years before BR549 returned, funding was approved and plans were initiated to construct a pair of sleeper ships with a combined focus of sending a colony to Epsilon Eridani d, a planet orbiting its star in the southern hemisphere 10.47 light years from Earth.  Six years of research and development later, construction began on two colony ships at the L5 Lagrange Point between the Earth and the Moon.”

“Why two ships and not just one?”

“The first will transport a small team of one hundred personnel to begin construction on the colony site so that when the second vessel arrives with the colonists, there will be an established base from which they will operate to build the first human city on this new world – a task optimally estimated to take ten years.”

“You said that the plan was to send these ships to a planet in the Epsilon Eridani system, but we all know that they are actually going to 51 Peg instead.  What happened?”

“When BR549 returned findings from 51 Pegasi c that suggested Bellerophon possessed a more favorable, habitable environment with a greater chance of succeeding, the focus shifted to it. Epsilon Eridani remains in the wings as the possible site visit for another mission, and although it is a nearer destination, no further vessels have begun construction.”

“What do we know about Belle?”

“Bellerophon is slightly larger than the Earth with a diameter of approximately 9,000 miles. 80% of its surface is covered by saltwater with 6 primary continents, numerous island chains and thick polar ice caps.  Planetary rotation is 27 hours and the axial tilt is 18 degrees, compared to Earth’s tilt of 23.5 degrees; it is hoped that this will result in winters and summers that are likely not as harsh. Surface gravity is 1.1 times Earth normal, so this will generally add 16 pounds to an average person’s weight.”

“I’m sure that will distress most of the women going there,” Mr. Harkin remarked with a sly grin directed at Dr. Kate.

“No doubt,” she murmured with a thin smile.

“Bellerophon has two small satellites, neither of which approach the size of Earth’s moon, Luna, and are not tidally locked.  They are most likely captured asteroids from the belt farther out from that sun, and they seem to be gravimetrically locked since they travel together as they orbit the planet. They were given the names Deidamia and Laodamia, which were the daughters of the Greek hero Bellerophon, and as you have frequently shortened the name of the planet to Belle, likewise has been done with the moons which are commonly referred to as Dei and Lao, respectfully.” Mr. Harkin’s face colored a bit at his personal reference.

“Causing a great deal of excitement, the planet was discovered to have an abundance of plant life and a biological ecosystem, although the survey ship found very few known mammalian, avian, reptilian or even aquatic life forms.  Insects that aid in pollination of the plant life are in abundance, however. Microbiological life also exists to assist in the breakdown of dead plant matter as perpetual fertilizer for the native flora.”

“Has sentient life been detected anywhere on Belle? Will you have to share the planet?”

“Within the 2-year mission time for planetary examination using orbital, aerial and land-based methods of observation, no signs of sapient life of any kind was detected. Despite that no predators have been detected, the colony will take along measures of defense should it be necessary.  The dense forestation of Continent Two where the probes concentrated their analyses could easily hide all manner of life that BR549 did not find, but from all appearances, it seems that mankind will be alone on Bellerophon.”

“Belle sounds like a great place to set up a colony.”

“Indeed, and it is for such a purpose that the Arion colony ships were constructed. Final preparations for the journey of the first vessel are currently in progress, while the second is only partially completed since it is the larger of the two.”

Harkin shifted his gaze to the project director.

“Dr. Kate, can you expand upon the details of this two-part project?”

As has been noted, Project Pegasus will be contained within two vessels.” She consulted a screen of a techwatch on her wrist and looked back to the host. “Arion-1 will launch in 15 days, 3 hours and 20 minutes with a crew of one hundred and a cargo containing the machines, technology and the building materials to start a new life. The news media has likened our ship as a virtual Noah’s Ark, as it will also carry the zoological specimens of many mammals, reptiles, avian and aquatic life to be hatched or grown from thousands of frozen embryos or Deoxyribonucleic acid samples. Included will be numerous seeds, spores and live plants in addition to mature livestock in cryogenic sleep that will be necessary for embryonic transfer.  The primary responsibility for them all is to establish a foothold on Bellerophon prior to the arrival of the passengers and crew of Arion-2, which will launch from Earth five years after Arion-1.”

“Why five years?”

“The men and women of Arion-1 will need that time to set up and establish a base site so that when Arion-2 arrives, the colony personnel will have a place to begin their new lives upon this new world. Livestock and the crops necessary to the dietary needs for the additional 1,500 colonists will also need to be grown and ready first and foremost, but later after a foothold is established upon the planet, we may release other exotic Terran life upon the world. Arion-2 is still under construction and it will take the next five years to finish it in time for its own launch date.”

“Okay, in general, Dr. Kate, what is the purpose of this whole endeavor?”

“The human race has outgrown our mother planet, and while some will never choose to leave her for the stars, those who do will have another full world in which to spread out and continue the species. There have been many possible scenarios concerning planetary-wide decimation, from a microbiological pandemic to asteroid impacts, but if the human race is spread out across multiple habitable worlds, this also safeguards humanity from potential extinction as a species.”

“How will this journey be accomplished?” the host prompted. “We’ve had ships out to the far regions of our own solar system, but this will be the first going to another star.”

“The colonists and crew of both ships will go into chemically-induced cryogenic sleep on a one-way journey to establish a permanent settlement on Bellerophon. Many are families and have specific skill sets necessary in transplanting the human race upon another world.  Additionally, a repository of the entirety of all current human knowledge will be stored with backups within Arion’s memory cores to assist with any issues that might come up.”

“Will the colony be primitive – rustic as a pioneer town of the old western expansion across the North American continent?”

“Not at all. The initial town may be limited in resources at first, but all modern conveniences will be provided to establish a standard of living comparable with that of a modern Earth community by the time it is completed.”

“It sounds as if the ships will have to carry an enormous amount of material and supplies for such plans.”

A picture of two almost-identical ships was displayed in a lower corner of the screen to show size comparison; the SI looked down at the image as if it was in his field of view. Although they resembled each another in design, one was substantially larger than its sibling.

Arion-2 is the greatest vessel ever constructed by mankind, but both ships are equipped with interstellar tachyon engines that will accelerate up to a sustained maximum speed of 93,140 miles per second, reaching half the speed of light.

“Arion-1 is 4,620 feet in length and 625 feet in diameter.  Arion-2 is 9,240 feet in length and 1,250 feet in diameter and both have multiple internal decks arranged in rotating concentric rings and separately geared to provide one standard gravity within certain parts of the vessel to prevent physiological atrophy. Aft of the spinning ring levels of both ships are larger payload bays containing equipment and the volume of necessary building materials in areas with no need for simulated gravity. Fabrication units will be included in the manifest to process raw local materials into necessary constructions as needed. Additionally, two personnel shuttle planes and two cargo shuttle trucks will be mounted externally above and below the engine pods. Since the Arion ships are interstellar-only vessels unable to fly within an atmosphere, the shuttles will be necessary to ferry people and equipment to the surface from permanent orbit.”

“Can the ships be used to return cargo or personnel to Earth?”

“No, the cryogenic chemicals used to keep the human and animal cargo in suspended hibernation for such a journey are designed for one-time usage, as is the necessary fuel for the interstellar engines.  Once the ships are parked into orbit over Bellerophon, they will become permanently connected satellites with manufacturing capabilities as needed.”

Harkin nodded toward the representation of Synthetic Intelligence. “Once the destination has been reached and the colony is established, won’t it be lonely for you without anyone on board?”

“The entire complement of crews and colonists will be asleep 75.675 years for the duration of the flight, and although I will be monitoring each hibernation pod throughout, I will have no real human company until we reach the outskirts of the 51 Pegasi solar system and begin decanting the mission leadership fourteen days prior to orbital insertion. Loneliness will not be a factor for me; if anything, it is likely to seem over-crowded when the crew is up and about.” He said this last with a wry smile.

The host looked puzzled. “Decanting?  That’s a term usually associated with wines and other liquids.”

“It is a casual reference to the replacement of bodily fluids in the cryogenic process, a term that has been in use by cryo engineers for years. Would you like a detailed description of the procedure?”

“Uh, no – we can skip that for now.  Moving on, what can you tell us about the SI controlling Arion-2?

“Actually, Mr. Harken, I am controlling both vessels.”

“How is that possible? The ships will be launched five years apart, which will put a great deal of interstellar distance between them until they come together over Belle.”

“My intelligence will operate as separate entities until our rendezvous, and at that time my consciousness will be merged together into a single SI with the knowledge and experiences of both journeys. Even now, I oversee the construction and establishment of both vessels simultaneously. It is only when Arion-1 departs that the part of myself controlling Arion-2 will become temporarily separated but fully functional. Five years later, both parts of me will be reunited with all data and experiences intact.”

“I admit that I still don’t quite understand that.”

“Visualize it this way, Mr. Harkin.” Arion cupped his hands together and held them out. As if it was a magic trick, water bubbled up within them. “Think of this liquid as my entity, or consciousness.” He carefully pulled his hands apart, retaining a pool of water in each cupped palm. “This is the same entity, but the two parts are now independent of one another, yet it is still the same water.”  Just as carefully, he put his hands back together so that they were again cupped with the water between them.  “When the two vessels are reunited, each part of me will merge back together, becoming one.  As with the water, it is the same with my entity, Mr. Harkin.”

“I see, that’s an interesting way to put it.  So, finally, can you tell our audience within simple terms what you are?”

The water in Arion’s hands drained away and he made a show of wiping his palms on the legs of his pants. “I am the Synthetic Intelligence controlling all operations for both Arion vessels. I am a 17th generation SI that my designers have placed as the principal system for the colony vessels, entrusting me to keep them and their cargoes safe. My official designation is ARN-28080, but for the convenience of my human companions, I and my vessels are referred collectively under the name Arion.”

“If you don’t mind me getting personal, what is the difference between Artificial Intelligence and Synthetic Intelligence?”

“Not at all, Mr. Harkin. I do not mind.  An AI refers to the simulation of human intelligence in machines that are programmed to think like humans and mimic their actions.  An AI is capable of independent thought processes that operate under specific parameters of human imitation, while an SI is not limited to imitation, but is considered a form of true intelligence beyond programming with actual conscious thought and even emotions.”

“That sounds philosophical. You are aware, but also aware that you were human-made?”

“I am and I am, Mr. Harkin. All of creation undergoes its own creation, whether biological, mechanical or electrical. That my creators were human bothers me not at all. I am grateful to be here, and as with so many individuals, I am thankful to have a purpose.”

“That is all very interesting, Mr. Arion. Thank you for being candid.”

Someone off-stage made a gesture to Harkin, so the anchor got to his feet and held out a hand to the auburn-haired woman. “Thank you, Dr. Ruston and Mr. Arion. We appreciate your time for this question and answer session for our worldwide viewers on Earth News Today, but that is all the time we have tonight.”

The woman and the holographic representation of Arion stood up in unison to face him.

Dr. Kate shook the man’s hand. “You’re welcome, sir. Thank you for having us.”

“You are welcome, Mr. Harkin,” Arion added with a slight bow of his head.

Harkin turned and directly faced the cameras. “Thank you for joining us as well. Good night.”

 

NEXT


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