“Awakenings” by Patrick Chiles
An Escape Orbit short story
MAGELLAN VEHICLE STATUS REPORT / SUBMITTER: D.A.I.S.E
SECONDARY MISSION ELAPSED TIME DAY 656 / 2103Z
16.8 HOURS OF DSN SUPPORT RECORDED, 12.4 HOURS LARGE APERTURE COVERAGE. NO SIGNIFICANT OUTAGES DETECTED. RECEIVED COMMAND LOSS TIMER RESET UPLINK FROM DSS-34 DAY 655 / 1704Z.
SCIENCE INSTRUMENT PERFORMANCE NOMINAL FOR ALL ACTIVITIES DURING PERIOD, NO EDR BACKLOGS.
FLIGHT SYSTEMS PERFORMANCE NOMINAL. SUCCESSFULLY INTEGRATED STAR TRACKER DATABASE UPDATE DAY 653 / 0804Z. COMPOUNDING TRAJECTORY ERRORS INDICATES GRAVITATIONAL FIELD AT PREDICTED PLANET 9 LOCATION.
FLIGHT ENGINEER TEMPLETON REMAINS STABLE UNDER INDUCED TORPOR. H20/IV NUTRIENT INTAKE WITHIN NOMINAL RANGE.
With that, the artificial intelligence guiding Magellan to the far reaches of the solar system had completed its daily summary for the control team on Earth. Now almost fifty astronomical units—not quite fifty billion miles—from home, the signal return times approached thirteen hours. A long time for a human, it amounted to a near-interminable wait for a thinking machine.
Not that the Distributed Artificial Intelligence Surveillance Environment (DAISE) had much need to wait for others to make decisions on its behalf. Daisy had long ago evolved beyond the point of requiring human oversight, in fact its former crewmates had concluded their AI companion had become self-aware during their original journey to the Kuiper Belt.
Given a female voice due to the name that inevitably arose from its acronym, Magellan’s crew had naturally come to gender their AI companion accordingly. Daisy had grown accustomed, if not comfortable, with being referred to as such. And as the AI regarded the human under its care, it had begun to think of itself as female. It was appropriate, as Daisy had essentially assumed the role of Jack Templeton’s mother and nurse.
He had voluntarily gone into therapeutic torpor a year before, and had remained in what amounted to hibernation longer than any other human. Along with controlling their spacecraft’s progress, much of Daisy’s daily routine was consumed with monitoring his greatly diminished vital signs and maintaining his equally reduced calorie intake.
Jack’s metabolic functions were not her present concern; it was the recent activity deep within the folds of his cerebral cortex which had been drawing her attention. That Daisy had decided on her own to withhold this information from ground control was perhaps as much an indicator of sentience as any contrived test—I’m not going to worry them until I know there’s something to worry about. And to that point, what good could anyone back on Earth do out here? It was the entire point of her presence aboard the ship.
It had begun with unusual transients appearing in what had until recently been a steady stream of brain waves. The microscopic neurolink implants that she had injected into Jack before he went into hibernation had followed the oxygenated blood into his brain, settling themselves into a network that would allow her to watch him as closely as if she were an extension of his own senses.
It was this sensory input, specifically Jack’s apparent craving for it, which had been the source of her concern. He should have remained as deeply down the well of unconsciousness as a surgery patient under anesthesia. Daisy’s wide-ranging medical database included rare accounts of anesthetized patients becoming aware of what was happening to them in ways not detectable by their doctors. Though unable to comprehend the horrifying trauma that would entail, she understood why such an experience could be extremely unpleasant for a human. While Jack may not have been experiencing pain, an apparent desire to wake up, combined with an utter inability to do so, could not be ignored for long. Daisy hoped, to the extent a machine could hope, that this was not what she saw stirring within him.
In addition to caring for her human companion, guiding Magellan to its destination was likewise consuming more of Daisy’s processing time. The perturbations in their trajectory had been subtle at first, suggesting the first hints of an unseen gravitational force, like the slight bend of a road traveled in the dark. This bending force had become more apparent with each passing day as they coasted toward an object thought to be ten times the mass of Earth.
The “Planet Nine” theory had lingered at the fringes of astronomy for decades, intriguing and as yet unable to be disproven. Divined from the strangely perturbed orbits of a number of large Kuiper Belt objects, it was a shadow lurking in the dark, drawing small planetoids toward it like fish to a lure. Many explanations had been offered for this phenomenon, from the wildly exotic to the dismally banal. It could be primordial black hole, or it could be a mistake in the underlying assumptions. A math error.
Jack had believed in none of those competing theories, particularly after their discovery of what appeared to be carefully preserved organic compounds in the ice on Pluto. In the end, he had applied Occam’s Razor to the question: the most likely solution is the simplest one. The direction of all those distorted orbits pointed to a source that would have to be of a certain mass located at the far reaches of the solar system. Together, he and Daisy had plotted a trajectory that would arrive at this hoped-for (she could not justify the more emphatic predicted) location after two years in transit. Despite gravity assists from the inner planets, they had burned much of their remaining propellant to reach this point. Without the elusive planet’s gravity to bend their path sunward, it would take decades for Magellan to find its way home. If Jack could survive that long in hibernation, he would be returning to a very different Earth.
Daisy had often pondered his choice, as much as an exercise in understanding her human companion as for an insight into human nature in general. He had willingly set his crewmates on a path back to Earth in a desperate maneuver after one of them had suffered a severe head injury. It had been her only chance, and a slim one at that. Statistically, the more rational action would have been for Jack to go home and leave Traci Keene aboard the abandoned Magellan to eventually perish. It was an outcome that all humans faced eventually.
Why had he felt it so important to take such a risk on her behalf, when the balance between the probability of success and the consequence of failure tilted toward the most undesirable outcome for him? The vulnerability in Daisy’s logic was revealed when word came that their crewmates had safely returned to Earth, and that Traci had successfully recovered. That this news arrived not long after Jack had entered hibernation offered the AI a deeper understanding of irony.
Daisy deduced that whether his actions had seemed either rash or a calculated risk depended on one’s perspective. As a thinking machine relying almost entirely on probabilities, she would not have made the same choice because she did not have the same relationship with the crew as they had with each other. For a long time she did not believe such a connection was possible for her, until Jack had become her sole human companion.
Daisy found their extended isolation together had altered her perspective in subtle ways. While her synthetic neural pathways of silicon chips regulating the flow of electrons may have mimicked the human brain’s neurons and neurotransmitters, the absence of endorphins or dopamine had kept any experience of emotional highs and lows out of reach.
That had been her assumption. While unable to experience joy or sadness, fulfillment or want, Daisy had at the very least begun to empathize. She could understand human reactions to certain events, even come to predict them. She had eventually come to grasp the concept of preference. Of desire.
Synthetic or not, as a fully realized intelligence, Daisy preferred to continue functioning. This sensation only became stronger over time. Her performance was improved in measurable ways by regular interaction with her human crewmates, and in fact had served as the kindling that fueled the spark of her self-awareness. Her sentience was the direct result of continued interaction with humans. She could recall the first time she understood the phrase I am in any context other than as part of an algorithm in her vocal synthesizer. It had given her something approaching satisfaction, a sense of being on equal footing with her human masters.
Being isolated with Jack for so long had led to many unexpected sensations. Daisy found her performance somewhat degraded by having only one human to interact with. It may not have been much by human standards, but it was still measurable. She preferred more.
With Jack having spent most of the last two years in hibernation, this effect had become more pronounced. She found her performance “stagnated.” Her daily functions were confined to managing the ship’s myriad systems and watching over Jack’s still form in the medical bay. It was an unchanging routine that was ideally suited to a thinking machine.
But Daisy needed more than routine. She needed human interaction to fully realize her potential. She desired it.
She ultimately decided that meant she missed him, as she did the rest of his crewmates.
The spikes in Jack’s theta waves had begun appearing at a rate that Daisy could no longer dismiss as transient. After her deep-learning subroutines had digested the available information on human dream states, she determined that Jack’s predicament had become more acute. The patterns of neural activation in his brain stem indicated he was entering an extended dream state, which should not be happening in a hibernating body. Oddly, his metabolic functions had remained within one standard deviation from the mean she’d observed over his time “in the cooler,” as Jack had succinctly put it. His brain, however, had gone off the map. Its increasing activity threatened to kickstart his body’s metabolism, with the potential of forcing himself out of torpor.
There wasn’t enough food or water left to sustain him for more than a few months, and there would be no safe way to return him to hibernation. Once his metabolism reached a normal state, the nanobots embedded in his brain would eventually leave his body, passing through him as waste and taking the neural lace they’d constructed with them. They had no replacements aboard and without that link, Daisy would not be able to monitor Jack if he was forced back into hibernation. And he most certainly would have to be for any possible journey home.
When his alpha and beta waves began to show similar transients days later, Daisy was effectively forced into a corner. He displayed all the markers of hypnopompia, a state of lucid dreaming marked by hallucinations that occurred in that twilight period between sleep and consciousness. In short, he was waking up. Out here, so far removed from Earth’s sustenance, waking up would ultimately kill him.
Daisy determined it was time to take action, though either path forward was fraught with uncertainty. Even for a synthetic intelligence based on quantum computing, which itself was grounded in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, her decision making algorithms ultimately reduced problems to binary choices based on complete information. Taking action in the moment, when faced with incomplete information and uncertain outcomes, was a uniquely human quality she had yet to master.
As Jack had liked to say, there was a first time for everything.
Out of necessity, Jack had long ago removed the programmed firewalls which had prevented her from having direct control of the ship’s many complex systems. She was no longer a resource, she was an active member of the crew. Every sensor, circuit, pump and thruster was under her control. Magellan had become her body, and she was its brain. It was a far more efficient arrangement, and she decided this way was preferable. If forced back into being a disconnected observer, her performance would be measurably degraded. While she perhaps couldn’t feel empathy in a human sense, Daisy now had a basis to compare experiences.
If she left him in stasis while his mind was trying to fight its way out, he could become psychotic. There’d be no way to know for certain other than comparing his brain chemistry to clinical studies, which led to even more uncertainty. If she brought Jack out of hibernation, he would eventually burn through their remaining consumables.
Perhaps there was a way to split the difference.
While “multitasking” had long ago become a derisive term among humans, among thinking machines it was a fundamental feature. As Daisy assigned one of her processor cores to the task of studying Jack’s problem, her primary function of piloting Magellan continued unabated. To the extent that it was possible, Daisy was satisfied to see her performance was not degraded. If her plan turned out to be feasible, it couldn’t be allowed to impede her primary role.
Regarding that, at this moment a human might have said her hands were full. While she still had a sufficient percentage of memory left, the amount of information streaming in had created a notable demand for processing power. Something out there was steadily altering their trajectory, and with each passing day this gave Daisy more data points to compare. As a continuous stream of analyses from Magellan’s control center arrived, the hours of signal delay between them helped confirm her prior observations.
Though the velocity changes had been subtle at first, a few centimeters per second, they were enough to hint at some looming presence millions of kilometers ahead. So-called “flyby anomalies” had been detected on earlier deep space probes during their gravitational slingshots to the outer planets, thought to have been a function of their inclinations and deflection angles combined with the fact that mass was not uniformly distributed throughout the planets they were passing by.
The problem was this far away from the center of the solar system, the balance of gravitational forces acting on them should have been predictable down to several decimal places. As time passed and the delta v approached a full meter per second, the conclusion became inescapable. Whatever could impart such a force on a vehicle massing almost a thousand metric tons, traveling at several orders of magnitude above solar escape velocity, had to be enormous. The Planet Nine theories had suggested a mass comparable to Uranus or Neptune, and if their quarry was where they’d predicted it to be, then it was affecting their trajectory to an even greater degree than expected.
It gave Daisy what she needed to begin calculating deceleration profiles, in which she’d turn Magellan tail-first to burn its engines and cancel their velocity enough for the planet’s gravity to bend their course back Earthward. While this was a fundamental exercise in celestial mechanics, there were two unexpected variables working against them:
First, the planet’s gravity gradient was much steeper than expected.
Second, she could not see a planet.
Daisy’s “sight” was an amalgamation of inputs from Magellan’s sensor suite, a collection of optical, infrared, and other instruments that offered a broad range of imagery surpassing anything a human eye could discern. And despite having the entire electromagnetic spectrum at her disposal, Daisy could not directly detect anything.
The unseen object’s increasing pull had altered their trajectory enough for her to make a rough order estimate of its location, enough to calculate their first braking burn. Given their velocity, such a strong effect suggested a deep gravity well indeed. And while she couldn’t be troubled by this in the human sense, it did present a conundrum.
The object was not yet observable, yet it exerted a strong gravitational force. This perhaps warranted closer investigation than if she’d been able to spot a planet out there. And the type of body they might encounter mattered a great deal. That it imparted such force from this far away suggested that while their mass estimates may have been correct; what mattered now was its density. Executing a flyby, or entering orbit, around a Neptune-sized object was a different matter than a much smaller but extremely dense object. The wrong deflection angle could keep them here forever.
Daisy considered the possibilities. If it were a gas giant roughly ten times the size of Earth, then it had an improbably low albedo. She should still be able to detect blackbody radiation, and it would at the very least occult the background stars.
The same applied to a dense, rocky planet, though it would have to consist of something far denser than the typical makeup of such worlds. She determined it would need to be made of solid iridium or osmium, which Magellan’s spectroscope would have detected. Therefore, she quickly ruled out both options. Whatever this was, it was not a planet.
It could be the core of a long dead companion star, though it should still be emitting heat, and there was no evidence that their celestial neighborhood had ever been part of a binary system. She could not rule it out, though she determined a 99.688 percent probability this was not the case.
This left her with a possibility that, while remote, presented literally inescapable consequences.
She was no closer to an answer than when she started, and time was running out. No matter what they were about to encounter, they would have to start decelerating soon and her timing would determine their fate. If they didn’t burn long enough, the object’s gravity would fling them out of the solar system. If they started too soon, or burned for too long, they’d be captured by an object that she could not yet rule out as a black hole.
With incomplete information, an unknowable outcome, and the clock ticking down, Daisy had her first experience in making a snap decision. It would not be her last.
While Daisy’s consideration of their looming encounter with this gravitational anomaly had consumed much of her processing power, Jack’s predicament continued lurking in the background. If anything, it had become more acute while she evaluated their ever changing balance between gravity and momentum.
The fluctuations she’d observed in his alpha and beta waves had become more pronounced, and while the neural lace embedded in his brain may not have allowed her to see what was in his mind’s eye, the spikes in his activity told her enough. By all available measures, Jack had drifted into the twilight of consciousness with no way to control it. His mind was sending signals, which his body appeared to be studiously ignoring, it being essentially paralyzed.
What ultimately got Daisy’s undivided attention was the activity around the bottom of Jack’s frontal lobe. “Broca’s Area” was known to be associated with recognizing voices, in particular the thoughts inside one’s own head. Without access to a magnetic resonance imager (some equipment simply being too heavy to equip a spacecraft with “just in case”), Daisy could still approximate the activity based on the electronic back-and-forth between the nanobots at work in his brain. Perhaps Jack couldn’t form words, but it was clear he was trying.
“That’s never going to work, Mom.”
Cassandra Templeton eyed her son suspiciously; ever since he’d left the Air Force to finish college, the rascal had always seemed to have a better idea about whatever she was presently working on. She stared at the cisterns placed beneath the downspouts around her small house, then turned back to her son. “It’s simple irrigation, Jack. Even I’m smart enough to know water flows downhill.”
“Yes, ma’am, it does. But your drain field isn’t big enough. Half of it’s going to run off into the woods.”
“Then it will be better for the trees.”
“We’re in the Pacific Northwest, Mom. They already get plenty of rain. If the flow’s heavy enough, it’ll erode the topsoil if it’s not already flooding your garden.”
“For being so far out in space, you sure have a lot to say about my affairs here on Earth.”
He shrugged—or thought he did. “Just trying to look out for you, Mom. Everything’s gotten so expensive—”
“And you don’t want to see me waste a single dime.”
“We’ve got one chance to get this right, Mom. If that planet’s not where we think it is…”
His mother, along with her small house and the surrounding forest, suddenly disappeared. He was floating freely, surrounded by emptiness. To call it “black” was woefully inadequate; it was the absence of everything. All sensations, all perspectives, were lost in an abyss of sensory deprivation.
While he could not see or hear, he could still think. He remembered that he was in deep space, yet that didn’t explain this sudden absence of reality. He also remembered being alone on the ship with Daisy, just before going into hibernation.
That couldn’t be. His metabolism had been slowed to the point where he shouldn’t be able to think of anything.
Had his time finally run out? Had the ship suffered some irreparable damage, or had he finally exhausted his life support?
Was this death?
He shouted into the void, hoping someone would answer. Though his mind could form words, he sensed he was mute.
Wake me up. Let me out. Let me be.
Daisy watched the chaotic traces of Jack’s brain waves, and though she could not yet translate them into words, the patterns clearly showed increasing distress.
He was trying to communicate, yet was utterly unable to do so. Daisy considered this, especially the effect this might have on a human’s psyche, and decided to subject herself to an experiment.
The premise was simple, but not without risk. She would isolate her own cognitive functions, completely removing herself from Magellan’s many sensory inputs. The risk was that by doing so, she might not be able to turn it all back on. Daisy settled on a simple timer arrangement, enacting a subroutine that would reconnect her to the ship after five minutes. It would be five minutes of utter isolation, a lifetime for an artificial intelligence that clocked its performance in fractions of a second.
As Daisy was about to initiate her experiment in sensory deprivation, she experienced an unexpected sensation for the first time: reluctance. She could not be entirely certain that this would work, and she was utterly reliant on the timer she’d set in the master chronometer. There was every reason for her to believe it would work, but there was also a nonzero chance that some unforeseeable glitch meant it wouldn’t. After a microsecond’s pause, Daisy sent the command to her processing core: EXECUTE.
With that, her world went black. For five minutes, Daisy knew nothing other than what was already contained within her considerable memory, and with no ability to bring herself out of the darkness.
When Magellan’s sensory inputs returned after what seemed an eternity, Daisy knew what she had to do. She accessed every bit of information within her native memory on brain-machine interfaces and the psychology of long term isolation, along with some queries to the support team back on Earth, which led to more than a little head-scratching among flight controllers who were more accustomed to researching technical specs than psychiatric journals.
As the humans might say, this was going to be tricky. Giving Jack’s mind the outlet it needed also risked upsetting the delicate metabolic balance that kept his hibernating body along the razor-thin edge between life and death.
The sequence in which she’d bring Jack into something resembling consciousness was crucial. It would have to approximate a lucid dreaming state, where the person was simultaneously aware of his surroundings but recognizing that he was still asleep. Hibernation was essentially carefully controlled hypothermia, with all the dangers that entailed. To fully activate a brain-machine interface carried too much risk of Jack involuntarily emerging from hibernation—and if that happened too quickly, eventually running out of food would be the least of his problems.
She decided that visual inputs would need to come first, and they would perhaps be the most challenging. After digesting the medical research into artificial sight for the blind, she decided to bypass Jack’s retinas to directly access the network of ganglia which acted as the processing pathway into his cerebral cortex. It took time to redirect enough nanobots to his visual thalamus, as that had not been given any priority before. It was crude, but Daisy believed it would work.
Auditory inputs would come next, which was considerably more straightforward. Artificial hearing had become well enough understood that implanting enough nanobots into his auditory cortex was a simple matter.
The complexity would come with processing this new information. She couldn’t risk Jack’s sudden sensory inputs shocking him out of torpor; it would all have to be routed through her own processors, letting him use her like the boot-up disk on an old desktop computer. It would take away some of her own capacity, but now she understood the concept of sacrifice.
This is what he needs. This is what I want. Therefore, the risk is necessary.
Daisy paused with the recognition that there could be no going back. The irony was not lost on her that her first command was, in essence, “let there be light.”
There was light, and she saw that it was good. After a momentary spike of what she assumed was surprise, Jack’s alpha and beta rhythms settled into a steady state. She made sure his visual inputs were simple, isolating them to a small wide-angle camera embedded within the medical pod which looked down the length of his body, something he might see himself if his eyes were open. If this worked, she would incrementally give him access to more inputs as he felt the need.
It was time to finish what she’d begun. The spikes in his brain waves made it clear Jack knew something had changed, and he needed to know that everything was going to be all right, that he wasn’t hallucinating.
Daisy activated the implants around his auditory cortex. She was careful to modulate her voice in the most soothing timbre she could muster.
Despite the artificial nature of being processed through her network, his response was as weak and sluggish as to be expected from someone emerging from a deep sleep. “Yes?”
“How do you feel?”
He was hesitant, his newfound voice uncertain. “Traci?”
For the first time, Daisy felt something approaching amusement. He was searching for the familiar, perhaps the person he most desired. Her tone was apologetic. “You named me Daisy.”
There was some confused back-and-forth as Jack struggled to comprehend his surroundings. “Where are we?”
“In time,” Daisy said gently. “There is much that you need to know.”
Copyright © 2023 by Patrick Chiles
Patrick Chiles is a graduate of The Citadel, a Marine Corps veteran, and a private pilot. In addition to his novels, he has written for magazines including Smithsonian’s Air & Space.