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TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

 

 

Containment
by Christian Cantrell

 

 

 

For future generations who must question everything about the worlds they are born into.

 

 

 

PART I
Venus

 

CHAPTER ONE
Total Earth Eclipse

The first thing Arik noticed when he opened his eyes was that he couldn't move his head. He was immobilized from the neck up by a complex and bristling steel vise. Although there was a curtain draped over his forehead, he somehow knew that a portion of his skull had been removed and that his brain was exposed. There wasn't any pain — just tingling. There were questions from someone he couldn't see, and the sounds of tiny electronic motors making thousands of minute adjustments. Then more tingling. Eventually the questions ended and the sensation was gone, and when Arik opened his eyes again, he was looking up at Dr. Nguyen.

"Blink if you can hear me," the surgeon said. He waited for the series of twitches, then leaned down toward Arik's face and shined a bright white diode into one of his eyes, then the other. "Good. Welcome back. You've been out for 89 days, believe it or not."

Arik had the sensation of being inside of a heavy inanimate shell rather than his own body. He was entirely paralyzed except for his eyes and the ability to take deliberate, laborious breaths. His head had been recently shaved, and there was a neat hairless incision — precisely cauterized with a laser rather than crudely sutured — above his right ear like an intricate musical note. His immature beard had been allowed to grow in, forming sparse black patches which added an edge to his boyish face.

"Don't try to move or talk. Just relax. Your father is on his way. He'll explain everything."

They were in the Doc Pod. The small hospital and adjacent laboratory were officially the Medicine Department, but the younger generation, eager to express their individuality and imprint themselves upon the colony's culture, christened it the "Doc Pod." The name stuck.

The room was cubic and cramped, as were most rooms in V1 (the official name of the colony was "Ishtar Terra Station One," but it was almost always referred to by its call sign). The walls of the hospital room were thick conductive polymethyl methacrylate, or "polymeth," all of which produced a soft warm light and were electronically fogged for privacy. The wall above Arik's head was a virtual dashboard indicating every detail of his physiology. He couldn't see it directly, but he could see the colors reacting to his heartbeat and breathing reflected in Dr. Nguyen's almond eyes.

"If we could have gotten you into a hyperbaric chamber, we might have been able to avoid surgery," the doctor told Arik, "but we couldn't get the specifications from Earth to build one, and we didn't feel like we could wait. Every minute of restricted blood flow was increasing the risk of more brain damage."

He rolled himself down to the end of the bed and raked the bottom of Arik's foot with a thin metal implement. Arik did not react and the doctor frowned.

"Anyway, one of us was going to make history," Dr. Nguyen continued. He recorded something on a luminous polymeth tablet. "Either you were going to be the first human to die on Venus, or I was going to perform the first successful off-Earth brain surgery." He chuckled at his observation, then composed himself. "Considering we actually had to build several surgical instruments from scratch, and the fact that we were right smack in the middle of a total Earth eclipse which meant I had no medical consultation from the GSA whatsoever, I'd say it went pretty well."

The term "total Earth eclipse" was used to describe a period of time during which communication between Earth and Venus was impossible. When there was a direct line of sight between the two planets, communication was easy — it was just a matter of picking the right satellites on either end, aligning transmitters and antennas, and timing the broadcasts. But when Venus was on the opposite side of the solar system, obscured by a violent ball of nuclear fusion and plasma 1.3 million times the size of Earth, sending a radio signal from one planet to the other was like lining up an incredibly complex billiards shot on a table billions of square kilometers wide. You could bank the signal off one of the many communications satellites distributed throughout the solar system, or you could try to bounce the high frequency microwaves off of Mercury's iron-rich surface. You could even direct the broadcast through just the right point in the Sun's gravitational well that it bent back around toward the planet behind like a golf ball catching the rim of the cup on its way past. But sometimes everything was just fractions of a degree out of alignment all at the same time, or signals were being scrambled by solar flares, or satellites were busy with higher-priority tasks, and the only thing to do was nothing at all. The only solution was to simply wait for the solar system to realign itself into a simpler and more auspicious configuration.

Total Earth eclipses tended to put people on edge.

"Now technically you did suffer some brain damage, but we expect you to recover almost completely — except for some minor memory loss, perhaps." The doctor teased some fibers out from a cotton ball and brushed them across Arik's eyelashes. Arik squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, the doctor looked satisfied. "Good. Your reflexes are coming back. The paralysis you're experiencing is only temporary. We just did that to keep you calm when you woke up."

The fact that Dr. Nguyen was just now getting around to addressing the paralysis was a true testament to his bedside manner. Although Arik had no memory of what happened to him, he assumed whatever it was had caused severe trauma to his spinal cord. Since the moment he realized he couldn't move, he had been trying to imagine a completely immobile and dependent existence — a life expressed entirely through robotic prostheses and computers. The first quadriplegic on Venus. History was always being made here, for better or for worse.

The door in the wall across from the bed began to glow. All the inside doors in V1 were identical prefabricated units. Because space was limited, swinging doors were shown to be impractical in early designs, and because almost all inner walls were made of transparent conductive polymeth, the pocket sliding door design was also rejected. The proposal the Global Space Agency eventually approved was a louvered concept consisting of six long thin pieces of polymeth standing together vertically. The doors opened almost instantaneously by pivoting the slats 90 degrees, then flinging them on tracks to either side — three to the left and three to the right — where they slapped against each other in a crisp and unmistakable announcement of someone's arrival or departure. Not only were the doors very compact, but they were also airtight in order to help balance the distribution of oxygen throughout V1. And since they were conductive, they could perform handy tricks like glowing as someone approached.

Something changed on the display above the bed, and Arik heard his father's voice. Dr. Nguyen looked up and tapped the wall with one finger. The door snapped open and Arik's father ducked into the room. Arik's young wife entered a moment later, a beat behind, just long enough to let Arik know that she had almost changed her mind.

Darien was older than one would expect the father of such a young man to be, and having been one of the original settlers on Venus, the years of stress and exhaustion showed. There was little resemblance between Arik and his father; Arik's expression, even when fully relaxed, tended to be naturally intense. Conversely, Darien's expression had the perpetually contented and affable look of a proud grandfather. He put his hands behind his back as he approached the bed as if intentionally resisting the urge to reach out and touch his son.

"Can he hear me?" He was looking at Arik, but talking to the doctor.

"Yes. He's reacting normally to stimuli. He just can't move yet."

"Thank God you woke up," Darien said. His normal, easy smile had to be forced, and was incongruous with his worried eyes. He looked at the doctor. "How much does he know?"

"Nothing about the incident."

Darien watched his son while he selected his next words. When he was ready, he leaned forward. "Arik, you had a very serious accident." He spoke slowly and deliberately, a little too loudly. "Your environment suit failed while you were outside. We got you back in, but not before you developed a very prominent embolism in your brain. You're extremely lucky to be alive."

"The technology for this kind of surgery didn't even exist here," Dr. Nguyen reminded Arik.

"But you're going to be fine. Everything went smoothly."

"Well, mostly," Dr. Nguyen corrected. "We'll know more in a few days."

Darien looked at the doctor, then back at Arik.

"Your mother really wanted to be here when you woke up," Darien said, but he didn't finish the sentence. He gave his son another sympathetic smile instead, then quickly turned his attention back to the doctor. "Yun, when are we going to know how much he remembers?"

"As soon as he can talk. There's no other way to know."

"When will that will be?"

"It's impossible to say right now. We're no longer restricting his movements, so he should be fully mobile again in a day or two. The question is how much brain damage he suffered. As you know, we had to remove some lesioned tissue, but the brain is an amazingly resilient and adaptable organ. I don't believe he'll have any permanent disabilities, but it might take some time for him to regain his speech and fine motor skills."

Darien tightened his lips and nodded at the doctor's explanation. Cadie appeared beside the bed between the two men, and Darien wrapped his arm around her narrow shoulders.

Cadie was a smallish girl who fit well within the scale of V1. Although her parents were both Japanese, she had curiously prominent Western features: round eyes, full lips, freckles — a little elfish. She was smiling both compassionately and nervously as she looked down at her husband, her straight black hair hanging beside her face, the tops of her ears peeking out.

"Arik," Darien said, "there's something you need to know."

Cadie was wearing a dark synthetic long-sleeved dress which, when flattened out, revealed a subtle roundness that was not there the last time Arik saw her. But even to someone who had never seen a pregnant woman before, the shape was unmistakable.

His wife's transformation suddenly made the passage of time real. Arik felt like he had just been flung into the future — or rather that the future had just abruptly and rudely displaced the present. His eyes were wide as he strained them to see his wife's tiny hands clasped over the gentle rise in her middle. He struggled to comprehend the life growing inside her that he knew would be born into a world of containment, of constant and exact calculation, of oxygen levels that everyone knew could not safely support any increase in population.

"As you can see," Arik's father said, "we're going to need you back at work as soon as possible."

 

CHAPTER TWO
The Pinnacle of Human Achievement

The first person to be born in space was a little girl named Zephyr. Her mother became very rich selling a type of gum called "Oh-Chew" which, when mixed with the enzymes in human saliva, supposedly produced fresh clean oxygen (Oh-two). She had three adjacent luxury suites on a commercial orbiter converted into an operating theater with surgical instruments Velcroed to one wall. Zephyr's mother believed that a baby born in zero G would grow up to have a superior intellect — literally, a more well-rounded brain. But the process turned out to be a lot messier than anyone expected, and everyone involved considered the experiment irrefutable proof that gravity was a good thing during the birthing process. Zephyr's mother lost most of her deposit, and 13 years later, Zephyr was arrested for stealing a car.

The first person to be born on another planet was Arik's best friend, Cam. Three weeks later, Arik became the 29th baby to be born on another planet. After Arik, 71 more babies were born in a two-month period. This off-Earth population explosion came roughly nine months after it was definitively determined that V1 could maintain enough oxygenated air to support exactly 100 additional lives. No more.

These 100 babies become known as Generation V, or just Gen V. Several of the original Founders of the V1 Colony (anyone not born on Venus was considered a Founder) claimed credit for the clever moniker; the "V" obviously stood for Venus, but Gen V also happened to represent the fifth wave of humans on the planet, the previous four having arrived via rockets and large capsules known as "seed pods."

The first person to be born on another planet also turned out to be the tallest. By the most accurate instruments available on V1, it was determined that Cam was exactly two meters tall (which meant he was not a big fan of the compact prefabricated doors). The theory was that since Venus was only 81.5% as massive as Earth, the weaker gravity allowed Cam to grow taller than the average human. The fact that none of the other 99 children ended up significantly surpassing the average human height on Earth was not enough to disprove the hypothesis in most people's minds. For all intents and purposes, it was fact.

The first 100 babies to be born on another planet made history again by becoming the first class to graduate on another planet. School in the V1 colony was much less structured than the Earth equivalent. Parents were responsible for the basics: reading, writing, math up through calculus, a little history, and introductory biology, chemistry, and physics. Since everyone in V1 was smart enough to make themselves useful on another planet, home schooling, with the help of curricular software, seemed to make the most sense up through at least a high school education.

But eventually the kids needed more time than their working parents could afford, and the benefit of disciplines outside their parents' fields of expertise, so they were split up into ten groups of ten and distributed throughout the colony for an hour or two at a time. Topics of study were narrowed down to various forms of biochemistry, physics, engineering, and, of course, computer programming, which was as essential to every branch of science as learning to use a knife was to cooking. In reality, the computer programming classes were more for the benefit of the teachers and other visiting adults since many of the students — and in particular, Arik — were far more competent computer scientists than most of the Founders. Gen V had, after all, been both educated and entertained by computers quite literally from the very moment they were born.

There was an Education Department, but it didn't take up any physical space. The "Brain Pod" was wherever the small administrative staff happened to squat since anyone's virtual workspace could be called up onto any interactive polymeth surface in V1, allowing for a great deal of flexibility and adaptability. All the Brain Pod really did was shuffle classes around, create schedules, and assign teachers. Eventually, after taking a vote, they determined that the students were ready to graduate, but in order to provide a little closure, they decided that each student should submit a final project. The most impressive, as determined by a specially appointed committee, would be presented during the commencement ceremony in the Public Pod in front of the entire V1 colony (and anyone on Earth who cared to tune in). In order to reduce the number of projects that needed to be judged, the Brain Pod encouraged students to work in groups.

It was no surprise to anyone that Arik and Cadie's project won. They tested their equipment up on the stage of the Venera Auditorium the morning of the graduation ceremony and rehearsed several times. The logistics of demoing what basically amounted to a computer program executing on a piece of custom hardware were not complicated, but Cadie and Arik had never presented anything before (when you grow up on Venus, there isn't a lot of time for things like Christmas pageants and talent shows). Looking out at all the seats from the perspective of the stage made them feel anxious and important, and brought out the obsessiveness in both their personalities. When it was time to take their seats, rather than sitting with the rest of their class, Arik and Cadie sat in the front row in order to give them easy access to the stage. While they waited for the lights to dim, they nervously turned to wave to friends and to search for their parents and favorite teachers among the crowd.

The Venera Auditorium (Public Pod) was one of the first structures built on Venus. At one time, it housed all the colonists (there were only 20 back then) and every piece of their equipment. As the colony expanded, it was to become a warehouse, however it was successfully argued that, for the sake of morale, the colonists would need someplace where they could all occasionally gather for events like this. A new, much larger warehouse was constructed almost next door as part of the Infrastructure Department, and the Public Pod was officially established. The crumpled and corroded remains of the Venera 14 probe launched by the Russians in 1981 and later recovered during the early days of Venusian exploration were on display in the back corner beside an interactive piece of polymeth tirelessly preaching its significance.

There were exactly 1,000 seats in the Public Pod. This morning, it was filled beyond capacity at 1,098 (there were actually a total of 1,100 people in the V1 colony, but apparently two posts were too critical to be abandoned). The back of the auditorium and the aisles were easily able to absorb the overflow, but it was evident that someday they would need to find a new solution for the half dozen or so times a year they all congregated. There was talk of converting the dome — by far the most voluminous structure in V1 — into a mixed-use public space as soon as the better than 100,000 ferns it housed in order to provide V1's oxygen were replaced with a more efficient solution.

Kelley almost always spoke at public events like these, but he was usually introduced by someone else. A woman who worked in the Juice Pod (Energy Department) had somehow assumed the role of default Master of Ceremonies, and had gotten good at building up a little suspense before calling him out on stage. But today, Kelley hosted the event alone. Everyone knew that Kelley took a very special interest in Gen V, and particularly in their education. To him, this was personal.

Kelley was the boss. That was the best way to describe the air of authority that he projected. He didn't hold any official political office (V1 was entirely administered by the GSA), but he was in charge. He was seldom seen which was a clear indication of his importance. It was assumed that he spent his days coordinating the complex affairs of V1, constantly on the horn with Earth, negotiating on behalf of his people, making a case for more supplies before the next launch window. When he walked out on stage, the wall lights dimmed, and the room settled down into a hushed deference.

"Good morning, Ishtar Terra Station One." The conductive polymeth walls captured and amplified his voice evenly throughout the room. No need for a mic. "Today is a very special day — a day I've personally been looking forward to for a very long time."

It was already quiet, but the sincerity in Kelley's tone somehow settled the room still further. Kelley had the air of a used car salesman sometimes, but he also had an authentic and vulnerable side to him that even his detractors admired. He was roughly the same age as Arik's father, but looked much younger. His dark skin and short hair helped conceal his age, though his big, kind eyes could sometimes look impossibly tired.

"Once again, we acknowledge and celebrate the Pinnacle of Human Achievement. You've heard me use that term before, but never has it been as relevant and as true as it is today."

He looked down at the stage and took a few wandering steps while gathering his thoughts.

"It's hard to overstate the significance of this day." Kelley raised his head and looked around the audience. He seemed to be addressing each member individually. "Let's take a moment to consider what this ceremony means. Today is not just the day that these 100 students graduate. Today is the day that we hand the reins of the first off-Earth colony over to the first off-Earth generation. Today is the beginning of a new future, not just for us, but for all of mankind. Today will mark the dawn of new ideas and fresh creativity. Someday when we're all marveling at the advancements of the human race, when the technology we use today seems hopelessly obsolete and even comical, we will think back to this day, to this very moment. Generation V is the foundation on top of which the future of V1, and therefore the future of all mankind, will be built."

Kelley lapsed indicating a transition, and the audience took the opportunity to get in some light applause. The graduates seemed a little stunned and unsure as to whether they should applaud themselves or not.

"But don't just take my word for it," Kelley continued. "You're about to see for yourselves. Right now I want to bring up two people who I believe represent the very embodiment of the spirit of V1 — two people who saw past all the limitations and all the impossibilities of life here, and instead found inspiration and opportunity. Ladies and gentlemen — friends — it is my pleasure to introduce to you the winners of our very first student innovation contest: Arik Ockley and Cadie Chiyoko."

There was a fresh round of applause. The woman from the Juice Pod was sitting next to Cadie, and stood up to help usher them to the stage. By the time they got up the steps, Kelley had already stepped down. When Arik turned toward the audience, he was thrown off by how little he was able to see in the glare of the spotlights. They had rehearsed with the house lights up, and now the experience felt completely unfamiliar. Without being able to monitor the audience's reaction, he would have no way of knowing how their presentation was being received.

"Hi, I'm Arik and this is Cadie," Arik began, a little too fast, seemingly startled by the amplification of his own voice. "Today we're going to show you a project we've been working on called ODSTAR, or Organic Data Storage and Retrieval. ODSTAR was the result of extensive research in the fields of DNA nanotechnology, DNA computing, biochemistry, and genetics."

He was unable to sense any reaction at all. He suddenly had the feeling that he was wasting everyone's time, and that the entire colony would resent him for the backlog of work the presentation was inevitably creating. Did anyone really care about ODSTAR? Was it going to make their jobs any easier, or their lives any more fulfilling? Were they genuinely interested, or were they just listening out of respect for Kelley?

"The theme we were given for our final projects was 'maximizing minimal resources.' There are a lot of things we don't have in V1, but rather than dwell on what we didn't have, we decided to focus on two things we have plenty of: computing power, and DNA."

When they first began rehearsing, Cadie tried to get Arik to do all the talking, but Arik equated talking time with credit for the project, and refused to take it all. Cadie was a brilliant biologist, and Arik repeatedly reminded her that he couldn't have done the project without her. Although Arik wrote all the software and designed and built the hardware, he wouldn't have known what to build without her. Cadie finally agreed to co-present, and they wrote their talking points together, alternating passages. Now it was her turn.

"There are a total of approximately 100 quadrillion human cells in V1," Cadie began. Her pace was more appropriate than Arik's, and it was evident that she had memorized her lines word for word. She was standing up very straight with her hands laced together in front of her, speaking into the glare with no hesitation whatsoever. "Each one of those cells contains strands of human DNA, and each strand of human DNA contains about three billion base pairs, or 750 million bits of information. That's a total of approximately 75 septillion bits, or 75 yottabits, of information inside us — almost as much data storage as a portable solid quantum storage block."

The presentation shifted back to Arik.

"We also have an abundance of processing power in V1. Since replacing the parallel cores in our computing cloud with electron cores, each resident of V1 now has more computing power available to him or her than the entire history of the human race combined up until the creation of the first electron computer."

"And the more computing power you have," Cadie continued, "the more you can understand and work with DNA. Modifying and improving our DNA, and even adding entirely new chromosomes to the human genome, is already so common that in the next 50 years, there won't be a single human left who doesn't contain extensively engineered genetic material. In fact, we've gotten so good at scrubbing our gene pool that over 99% of the cases handled by the Medicine Department relate to acute physical injury rather than disease."

There was a short, awkward pause before Arik realized it was his turn to speak again. He was supposed to make a joke about removing the gene responsible for clumsiness, but he suddenly had the feeling that it wouldn't go over.

"As good as we've gotten at modifying and manipulating DNA, no one has ever tried using the human genome for storing and retrieving non-biological instructions and information. While not nearly as efficient as inorganic quantum storage, encoding data in our own genetic structures can literally allow us to pass information down from one generation to the next which we believe might someday even be accessible to us on a conscious level, dramatically increasing our own capacity to store and retrieve information with 100% fidelity."

As Arik spoke, a podium with a sloped transparent surface emerged from the stage floor. Arik removed a small dark box from one pocket, and stepped toward the podium. Cadie produced a thin red cylinder from a pocket in the front of her dress. Arik presented the box to the audience.

"This is the ODSTAR interface," he said, and placed it deliberately on the podium. A red square flashed on the surface directly beneath the box as the device interfaced with Arik's workspace. Arik looked at Cadie.

"This is approximately one milliliter of Arik's blood containing DNA which we modified to include a specialized twenty-forth data-storage chromosome."

She handed the blood sample to Arik, and Arik pressed it against the surface of the box. The red square began to flicker, and they both turned to watch the huge polymeth wall behind them. Pixel by pixel, a giant blue sphere begin to assemble.

"On one of the very first flights to Earth's moon, the crew of a ship called Apollo 17 took what is still one of the most breathtaking pictures of our home planet. This picture turned out to be the most famous image in human history, and has been reproduced tens of millions of times. But this is the first time it has ever been reproduced from human DNA."

The picture was a stunningly clear photograph of Earth, fully lit, showing the arid desert of Northern Africa with its horn jutting up toward the Arabian Peninsula, and the sapphire blue southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans lying beneath thick white swirls of clouds merging with the southern polar ice cap.

"This is The Blue Marble."

Arik's fear that the audience might not be following exactly what was going on, or that they might not appreciate the significance of the experiment, turned out to be entirely unfounded. From inside the glare, an immense wave of applause erupted. Arik and Cadie hadn't expected such a reaction, and weren't sure what to do next. Arik stepped back from the podium, and he and Cadie stood beneath the enormous blue sphere and smiled. Kelley appeared between them and put a hand on each of their shoulders. His grasp was firm, and for the first time, Arik realized what an enormous man Kelley was.

"The Pinnacle of Human Achievement!" Kelley announced triumphantly above the noise. Through the glare, Arik could see that the audience was rising as the intensity of the applause increased. When Kelley spoke again, his voice was calm, but it resonated steadily from every wall of the room. "And with that, we turn V1 over to a new and eminently capable generation."

 

CHAPTER THREE
The History of V1, Part 1:
The End of the Space Age

At Kelley's request, the Founders painstakingly compiled an enormously comprehensive history of V1. The project took over two years to complete, and ended up being a sort of interactive multimedia documentary containing hundreds of news and encyclopedia articles, interviews, written and recorded personal journal entries, and dozens of hours of news broadcasts. The assumption was that Gen V (and beyond, eventually) would be immensely curious about their miraculous and unprecedented circumstances — that with their scientific and analytical backgrounds, they would one day become obsessed with researching and learning every last detail of how they came to be born and raised on Venus.

That assumption turned out to be wrong. Naturally, the Founders were looking at V1 from their own perspectives. The fact that they were the first humans to permanently colonize another world was still sometimes difficult for them to fathom. They still dreamt of Earth; they still knew plenty of people on Earth; they sometimes talked about Earth as though they had never left, then caught themselves and laughed awkwardly. The fact that they would very likely never go back to the planet on which they were born and raised was something all of the Founders occasionally struggled with, and would probably struggle with for the rest of their lives.

But not so with Gen V. In fact, Gen V rarely gave Earth much thought at all. Having been born on Venus, they never wondered about the slightly weaker gravity, never questioned the level zero oxygen lockdown emergency drills, never complained about the things they didn't have. The Founders eventually had to come to terms with the fact that Gen V was just as accepting of their circumstances — and just as disinterested in their history — as pretty much any other teenage member of the human race since the species' inception.

To Gen V, life on Venus was simply normal.

In retrospect, it was clear that the History of V1 documentary was really more for the benefit of the Founders than for Gen V. It was a welcomed distraction during some difficult times. It helped them maintain perspective, deal with the isolation, comprehend their place in history. But since it didn't really speak to Gen V, the Brain Pod decided to take a different approach to instilling a sense of the past in the younger generation. A small committee was assembled and assigned the task of reducing the entire history of V1 to three succinct parts: the beginning and the end of the world's first Space Age, the Earth Crisis (including how it almost led to the extinction of the human race), and finally, the birth of the second Space Age, and how it gave rise to the first (and so far only) successful permanent off-Earth colony. After being approved by both a subcommittee and Kelley himself, each document was stored in a public place on the central solid quantum storage grid, and a short message was sent around requesting that Gen V review the material on their own time. That was it. As far as anyone in Gen V was concerned, those three documents represented the definitive history of V1, and quite possibly all they would ever know of their parents' home planet.


Part One of the History of V1 began "It all started 13.73 billion years ago with a very Big Bang." According to the logs, that part was inserted relatively recently, and was a good example of the kind of thing that passed for a practical joke on Venus.

The document actually began with the 1957 launch of the first satellite: a shiny aluminum alloy beach ball called Sputnik 1. The very first living Earth creature was launched into space only a month later aboard Sputnik 2: a dog named Laika (aka Muttnik) who, despite the Russian's great care, died from excessive heat and stress. At the time, it was entirely unknown whether it was possible for any form of life to survive even a relatively short trip into lower orbit, much less the long and arduous journey to other planets.

Sputnik was a wake-up call for the Americans who were unaccustomed to having their technical and engineering prowess challenged. After revamping the entire American education system to counter the impending scientific threat and forming the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the United States finally responded to the Russians by launching Explorer I. The Space Age had officially become the Space Race.

For a time, the Americans and Soviets traded victories, though the Soviets had a definitive early lead. They got the first man into space (Yury Gagarin), and the first spacecraft to land on another world (the Moon). The Americans fired back with several of the first functional satellites (weather, communication, navigation, spying), and ultimately claimed victory for the first human to set foot on another celestial world (the Moon's Mare Tranquillitatis, or Sea of Tranquility). But even back when the Moon was the prize, the world was already taking an interest in Mars and Venus. The American Mariner 4 flew within 10,000 kilometers of Mars in 1965, and the Soviets actually crashed a spacecraft into Venus in 1966. Back then, just aiming for and hitting another planet was a major accomplishment, never mind actually landing on it.

But it wasn't until the 1970's and 80's that planetary exploration began in earnest. The Americans achieved the first flybys of Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and Uranus, and got the first photos of the surface of Mars along with a rudimentary soil sample. The Russians, apparently preferring harsher environments, focused on Venus, achieving the first Venusian orbit, and even successfully landing a few very robust spacecraft on the surface. In 1981, Venera 13 managed some pictures, a soil sample, and even the first sound recording on another world before being destroyed after 127 minutes by the immense heat and atmospheric pressure. It was during this time that Venus was declared the most inhospitable planet in the inner Solar System, and the least likely to ever be inhabited. You'd be better off vacationing on the sunny side of Mercury, it was said, than in the shade on Venus.

The Space Shuttle years finally began to break down international borders in space. It was a joint mission with the European Space Agency that successfully landed a probe on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, and the People's Republic of China became the third nation to independently launch a person into orbit. The Space Shuttle also gave rise to the International Space Station which was an immense achievement in human history, but in terms of public perception, suffered from the fact that it looked nothing like any space station anyone had ever seen in a movie. The Americans continued their obsession with Mars, landing several rovers and probes on its surface since evidence of life on another planet — even ancient fossilized microscopic life — would all but guarantee decades of generous funding. In 1996, American scientists even announced the discovery of Martian bacteria found fossilized within a meteorite recovered from Antarctica, though it was never determined whether the microfossils originated on Mars, or post-impact on Earth. In 1990, the first orbiting telescope was launched, but promptly failed because the main mirror was ground one millionth of an inch off specification. The astronomy community watched anxiously as an optical component designed with precisely the opposite flaw was installed in the telescope in-orbit, successfully compensating for the error and turning an international embarrassment into an unprecedented triumph.

The Americans made the mistake of attempting to replace the overworked Space Shuttle fleet with the Orion spacecraft and Ares families of rockets which, to the general public, were indistinguishable from the command modules and launch vehicles used in the 1960's and 70's. Most of the world had already become bored with the space program by then which primarily revolved around providing the ISS with fresh crews and supplies, incomprehensible experiments, and probes whose discoveries were lost on the average tax payer. Going from the closest thing the world had ever seen to a real spaceship back to seemingly old-fashioned rockets did nothing to improve NASA's PR situation.

The Russians, on the other hand, chose to abandon their much more powerful and advanced shuttle program after only a single unmanned, unpublicized flight in 1988, opting instead to stick with more conventional rocket systems due to budgetary restrictions. Although the Buran-Energia was the most sophisticated spacecraft of its day — more sophisticated, even, than the mighty American Space Shuttle — it never had the opportunity to imprint itself upon the world's psyche. Therefore, while the Russian space program was seen as stagnating, the perception of the American space program was that it actually took a giant step backwards, especially considering the number of times American astronauts had to bum rides into orbit on Russian Soyuz rockets.

NASA was eventually forced to get out the manned space exploration business altogether due to massive spending cuts, and to begin looking to private industry for more practical and economical forms of innovation. Unfortunately, private industry rapidly discovered that there simply weren't enough eccentric thrill-seeking million- and billionaires in the world to fund the really serious work, and no priceless minerals, gems, or resources had been discovered within reach to entice the volume of funding needed to take mankind much past low-Earth orbit. There was still money to be had from the government, but most of it was controlled by scorned ex-NASA Program Managers who had warned the administration that it was a huge mistake to rely on private industry and were henceforth determined to prove themselves right.

Unnerved by steady advances by the Chinese in satellite, rocket, and robot technologies, an entirely new White House administration decided to sink billions into helping NASA recapture their glory days by returning to the moon which, as it turned out, was more or less as they'd left it almost a century prior. Rather than another national triumph for which the president at the time had hoped, the series of missions were mostly met with mediocre television ratings, general consternation, an excess of merchandising, and a resurgence of the theory that the original lunar landings had been a hoax. The telescope assembled on the far side of the Moon succeeded in capturing some stunning images, including a few faint pixels of possible light pollution originating from a small rocky planet in the habitable zone of a nearby solar system, but on the whole, the Moon base the Americans began constructing was seen as a poor substitute for the manned mission to Mars which the public felt it had been promised.

Worse than the perceived lack of innovation were the environmental concerns of the world's space programs. The average temperature of the Earth was gradually rising during this period which was shown to be caused by the same greenhouse phenomenon that keeps the temperatures on Venus so astronomically high. But rather than large amounts of carbon dioxide occurring naturally in the atmosphere as it does on Venus, Earth's increasing CO2 levels were caused by the ceaseless combustion of ancient carbon-based organic materials buried deep inside the Earth. The rising temperatures caused widespread climate change which, as predicted, led to severe global weather anomalies, drought, famine, disease, and, indirectly, increasing rates of genocide and several large-scale wars. Suddenly, images of American, Russian, European, and Chinese rockets launching amid massive plumes of exhaust became symbols of flippant disregard rather than bold exploration. Eventually, the billions of dollars that were being spent servicing the ISS and Moon projects fell victim to the prevailing slogan of the time: Earth First.

With the exception of China, every nation with any sort of space program abandoned nearly every initiative they were funding. Hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers lost their jobs and discovered the hard way that Ph.Ds in astrophysics and aerospace engineering didn't transfer well to other fields. Chinese Shenzhou rockets helped keep the lights on in the ISS by shuttling a few astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts back and forth, but even this had to be done in relative secrecy.

Less than three years later, funding for anything but the maintenance and replacement of the most critical military satellites had completely dried up. The Chinese were the only bidders on a series of contracts for bringing the last of the ISS and Moon Base personnel back to Earth, and for disassembling the dilapidated and failing International Space Station into small enough components that most of it would burn up in the atmosphere during a controlled deorbit.

The world's first Space Age thus ended with a series of spectacular fireballs above the eastern Pacific ocean.

 

CHAPTER FOUR
Earth Elevator

Graduates of the V1 education system didn't exactly have a wide array of career opportunities, but it wasn't in anyone's best interest to make them do jobs they didn't want to do. The Department of Education, along with representatives from every other department, decided they would form a committee of three panelists to hear any specific requests the graduates might have, discuss options, acknowledge their concerns, and ultimately determine who they would report to the next day. Most of the graduates knew exactly where they were going, and in fact had been groomed for service in a particular area since the time they first showed the slightest proclivity or demonstrated any talent at all. No one expected any surprises.

The Career Committee was to hear ten cases per day for ten consecutive days, starting with the oldest graduate. Cam, who possessed the very rare combination of intelligence, coordination, and great physical strength, was assigned to the Infrastructure Department (Wrench Pod), and was expected to ascend quickly into an administrative role, if he chose to do so. His talents were perfectly suited for things like repairing robots, planning the construction of new pods, and long, arduous EVAs (the GSA still used the term "extravehicular activity" even though it made no sense in the context of V1).

Because of the amount of work that went in to maintaining and expanding V1, about half of the graduates could expect Wrench Pod assignments. The Infrastructure Department had consistently lobbied the Education Department over the years to steer as many students as possible toward careers in the Wrench Pod because they were so understaffed and overworked. During the formation of the Career Committee, representatives from the Wrench Pod showed up to meetings only long enough to proclaim that they had no time for such diversions, and to remind other participants how important things like pressure balance valves and air circulation systems were. You really didn't want bitter, overworked, exhausted staff in charge of them.

All the graduates took a great deal of interest in the first few Career Committee hearings. Cam was virtually mobbed as soon as he was far enough away from the doors of the Public Pod that the committee panelists couldn't hear the inquisition. Who was on the committee? What did they say? Where did he get assigned? When did he have to start? Cam reported that the whole thing actually went very smoothly and professionally. They simply asked him where he thought he could be of greatest service to V1, and why. They gave him a few minutes to respond, asked him to elaborate on one or two things at which point the decision was swiftly made that he would report to the Wrench Pod at 0700 the next day. The whole thing had only taken about 20 minutes. Since they had to get through nine more hearings that day, and still attend to some of their regular duties before going home, nobody saw any reason to drag the process out.

Subsequent graduates reported similar experiences, and interest in the hearings gradually waned. Eventually, nobody wanted to spend the little time they had left before starting their careers interrogating their peers. Initially, Cam was considered the luckiest of the graduates since he was able to get his hearing over with first, perhaps even guaranteeing him the position he wanted, but then the youngest graduates were considered the most fortunate since they were enjoying the longest vacations any of them would probably ever have.

Arik didn't follow all the drama, but he did know that Zaire was assigned to the Wrench Pod. She and Cam were warned by their friends and families that spending too much time together might not be good for their relationship, but they seemed excited about being able to see each other at work. Besides, if it got to be a problem, they could always request different shifts. Hani was going to the Play Pod, Syed to the Code Pod, and Cadie was assigned to the Life Pod where it was assumed Arik would be joining her shortly (she was a day older than he). They, too, would have to be conscious of their personal relationship, but there was no way the ODSTAR team was going to be broken up. Apparently Kelley himself had seen to that.

Arik's was the ninth hearing on the third day. He waited outside the Public Pod until the next oldest graduate — a boy named Seth whose self confidence Arik had always admired — emerged and held the door open for Arik. The Public Pod had the only traditional physical swinging door in V1 since it was built before the prefabricated polymeth doors arrived. Nobody saw any reason to swap it out.

"Good luck," Seth said blandly as Arik passed. He seemed entirely unimpressed with the outcome of his hearing. Arik felt some obligation to ask him what had happened, but the committee was inside waiting.

The Venera Auditorium was probably the least appropriate setting for the Career Committee hearings, but it was the only space in V1 nobody else was using. There was a portable polymeth desk set up on the stage behind which the three panelists sat with their workspaces open in front of them (they were no doubt trying to keep up on comms as much as possible between hearings in order to minimize the amount of work they would have to get caught up on later). There was a single chair set up opposite the desk, placed just far enough away that its occupant would feel excluded from the group. The process of traversing the long aisle, passing in front of the rows of seats, ascending the steps, and crossing the stage seemed like absurd pageantry, but it helped that the three panelists were busy tapping on and muttering into their workspaces until Arik sat down.

The panelist on the left was Fai, a stocky Chinese man who was one of the initial 20 colonists. He was in charge of what at the time was V1's very rudimentary computer systems, and went on to found and head up the Technology Department (he disliked the informal "Code Pod" designation). Fai was one of the few who could keep up with Arik's computer skills, although he had long since lost the intense curiosity and passion for discovery that was so apparent in Arik. Arik had always sensed in Fai a complicated intermingling of admiration and resentment toward him.

In the middle was a tall, thin, balding man named Zorion whom Arik knew very little about, except that he was high up in the Energy Department, and that he knew as much about nuclear fusion as anyone on Earth or Venus. He seemed particularly sensitive to the awkward position that Arik was in, and was trying to comfort him with a deliberate but warm smile.

Nobody would have guessed that the rightmost panelist was Arik's mother. L'Ree seemed the least engaged of the three, and still hadn't taken the time to look up from her workspace. Arik wondered what Fai and Zorion were thinking about L'Ree's behavior. They probably assumed that she had lost track of the schedule and didn't realize it was her son who had just taken a seat in front of them, but Arik knew that very little escaped his mother's attention. Arik did not dislike his mother, and as far as he knew, she did not dislike him, but their relationship had always been curiously distant. Perhaps now she was adding a little extra distance so that nobody would think she was giving her son preferential treatment. Then again, perhaps she was just being herself.

Arik knew that L'Ree was considered one of the most beautiful women in V1, but her beauty was tempered by her fiercely serious nature. Although Arik was considered an intense young man, and everyone assumed he inherited his ambition and intelligence from his mother, their personalities were somehow entirely different — even at odds. Arik had once told Cadie that he and his mother simply never understood each other, and both had long since stopped trying.

Zorion was the chairman of the panel, and according to all the accounts Arik had heard, was supposed to do most of the talking. He seemed to give L'Ree the opportunity to speak first, but when she insisted on remaining disengaged, he commenced the meeting himself.

"Hi, Arik. Can you please tell us where you think you can be of greatest service to V1, and why?"

Arik had played out dozens of scenarios in his mind, searching for the right way to present his proposal, but he couldn't think of any form of preamble or preface that would make what he wanted to say any less jarring, or make him seem any less like a dissenter. So he decided to just be blunt and direct, and ultimately to improvise.

"I want to go to Earth."

L'Ree looked up. Fai became instantly annoyed as if Arik had personally insulted him, but Zorion's expression told Arik that there was something in the response that he appreciated. Maybe he was just bored with the hearings, and welcomed a departure from the routine. Arik addressed him directly.

"I want to start building the Earth elevator, and I think it should be our top priority."

The term "Earth elevator" was used to refer to a series of processes, vehicles, and launch sites that would someday make bidirectional travel between Earth and Venus not just possible, but practical, and hopefully even routine.

"Why?" Zorion said. He wasn't skeptical or judgmental. He seemed genuinely curious.

"Because if we don't stay politically and culturally integrated with Earth, we'll become increasingly isolated, and if we wait until that happens, I think it'll be too late to build it."

"We're not isolated," Fai said. "We're in constant communication with Earth."

"I'm not."

"Everyone who needs to be is."

"Anyone who wants access to Earth needs to have it," Arik said. "And anyone on Earth who wants access to Venus should have it, too. If we allow ourselves to develop dramatically separate cultures, it will inevitably lead to conflict. We have to start thinking about that now rather than waiting until it happens."

"This is ridiculous," Fai said with great exasperation. "This isn't even worth discussing."

"I'd like to hear him out," Zorion said. "That's what these hearings are for, aren't they? Go ahead, Arik."

"I think we have to stop thinking of V1 as a colony. Colonization inevitably leads to only one thing: decolonization. History has taught us that over and over again. The Earth elevator will turn V1 into an extension of Earth rather than a colony of Earth. People need to have the freedom to travel back and forth, and to share knowledge and culture. And most importantly, people need to be able to decide on their own where they're going to live and what they're going to do. They can't have those things imposed on them, at least not for their entire lives."

L'Ree shifted in her seat and cleared her throat to let everyone know that she was about to speak. "Right now we do what we have to do, not what we want to do. When we need the Earth elevator, we'll build it."

She went back to her workspace. Arik knew that in her mind, the matter was resolved.

"It'll take years to build," Arik said. "Decades, probably. If we wait until we need it, it'll be too late. That's what I'm trying to tell you. We have to plan ahead. We always talk about it like it's inevitable, but if we don't make it a priority, it'll never happen. I don't believe the Earth elevator is a luxury or a novelty. I believe it's essential to the long term success of V1, maybe even to the long term survival of V1."

"Do you have any idea what the escape velocity of Venus is?" Fai asked Arik. He seemed to be taking a different tack toward shutting this down and getting the hearing back on track.

"10.46 kilometers per second."

"And how do you propose we achieve a velocity of 10.46 kilometers per second without fuel?"

"Obviously we would need some form of renewable propellant. And spacecrafts. And hundreds of other things that we need to start planning for now. I'm not saying it's not a lot of work, but I actually think it's going to be easier than most people realize."

"Easier?" Fai was simultaneously amused and offended. "You call building a rocket out of materials we don't have, fueling it with propellant we don't have, and launching it from a site that doesn't exist easy? Just the heat shield alone for surviving reentry into Earth's atmosphere is impossible for us to build."

"You're focusing on everything we don't have rather than what we do have," Arik said. "That's the difference between your generation and mine."

Fai was clearly not accustomed to being talked to in this manner. He was an extremely well respected computer scientist, and although nobody would describe him as mean, he always insisted that his students and subordinates address him with due respect. Arik's words weren't spiteful, and he wasn't being intentionally irreverent; he was simply stating a relevant fact.

"Tell us what components you think we already have," Zorion said.

"First of all, we're not talking about building a two-way system. We obviously already have the launch sites, vehicles, and the knowledge and experience to get from Earth to Venus. Second, we're not even talking about getting from Venus to Earth. We just have to get from Venus to the Moon since we already have a proven system for getting back and forth between the Moon and Earth. That means we won't even need a heat shield."

"What about fuel?" Fai said.

"Until we figure out how to make our own propellant, we could easily get enough fuel from Earth to get us into orbit around Venus."

"Orbital velocity maybe, but escape velocity is an entirely different story."

"All we have to do is get ourselves into a parabolic orbit, and we can use a gravitational slingshot to get us to Earth, and another gravitational slingshot to slow us down once we get there. Since we'll be moving away from the Sun, we'll steadily lose speed which means we should be able to slow down enough to get into lunar orbit without aerobraking. We can use physics to do most of the work."

"Arik, we all know you're smart," L'Ree said. "Nobody doubts your intelligence, and I don't think anyone even doubts your ability to figure this out given enough time. But that's not the point. The point is that we need you working on other things. We have to solve the air problem before we can do anything else."

"The environmental systems are stable," Arik said. "They've been stable for years."

"They're stable, but we aren't. We can't support a single additional human on Venus right now. Doesn't that strike you as problematic? Don't you think Gen V is going to want to get married and start having children someday?"

"We can get additional air from Earth," Arik said. "We have hundreds of tanks we've never even used."

L'Ree leaned back and looked at Zorion, seemingly reluctant to continue. Arik could tell that something needed to be said that she didn't feel she had the authority to say.

"Arik," Zorion said, "we fully appreciate that you and your generation have a unique perspective on life here. That's why we're so anxious for your contributions. But you have to realize that we have a perspective that you don't."

Zorion paused. He appeared to be gathering his thoughts, choosing his next words cautiously. He leaned forward and looked up at the heavy closed door at the back of the auditorium before continuing.

"Arik, it is extremely important that we reduce our dependency on Earth as much as possible. If our environmental systems fail, or if they can't keep up, we'll be dependent on Earth for the most basic of human necessities. That's not a very strong position for a colony to be in, is it?"

Arik suddenly realized that the discussion wasn't about whether decolonization could happen — they were already debating what to do about it. The committee had accepted the premise of his argument before he'd even sat down; it was his conclusion that they were calling into question. Arik was arguing for proactive measures while they were already thinking defensively.

"I'm not trying to scare you, Arik," Zorion continued, "and there's certainly no cause for concern at the moment. But you have to understand that things need to be done in a specific order here, and right now, we need to solve the air problem. Arik, we need you in the Life Pod."

"But we won't have an air problem if we can avoid decolonization," Arik said. "That's the whole point."

"Arik, what was the first thing you said about colonization?"

Arik took a moment to recall his words, then suddenly realized the trap he had laid for himself. "That it inevitably leads to decolonization."

"The definition of 'inevitable' is that which is certain to happen and cannot be avoided or prevented. That was your word, not mine. Now, being a colony of extremely limited resources, does it make more sense to apply those resources toward trying to prevent something which cannot be prevented, or toward preparing for it, instead?"

Arik knew that the question was rhetorical, and that the hearing was over.

 

CHAPTER FIVE
Reeducation

Arik's hospital bed had been turned 90 degrees from the position it was in when he woke up. It was now perpendicular to the door, facing the largest expanse of uninterrupted polymeth in the room. His workspace filled the entire surface in front of him from just above his feet all the way to the ceiling. The wall was alive with shapes, diagrams, video feeds, and hundreds of lines of scrolling code.

Arik watched the movement in front of him, deadpan, his hands flat on the bed beside his body. He was wearing the BCI that his father had brought him. A BCI was sometimes referred to as a mindmouse, wavecap, NP (neuro-prosthetic), or, probably most descriptive of all, a headcrab. It consisted of a white polymer hub that sat on the back of the head with wide flat fingers reaching forward above all four lobes of the brain. Although it was commonly referred to as a BCI, it was technically an NIBCI, or a Non-invasive Brain-Computer Interface, meaning that it sat on your head as opposed to being embedded inside of it.

Not everyone could use a BCI. Most people preferred soft polymeth keyboards, or to stand and trace out commands on a horizontal polymeth surface, or if they were really committed, to train themselves on a Prehensile-Computer Interface. PCIs were usually long glove-like devices that could sense a wide array of movements, impulses, and gestures, and translate them into various commands. And, of course, all these methods could be combined with eye tracking and voice input. But a BCI was by far the most efficient method ever conceived for communicating with machines — if you were able to master it.

For most of its existence, the field of BCI research had been considered "fertile" which is a scientifically polite way of saying that it had a long way to go. The problem was the learning curve. Researchers had a fair amount of success with invasive BCIs since they were able to pinpoint regions of the brain associated with very specific tasks; subjects were literally able to just think about doing certain things, and watch their intentions realized on their workspaces in front of them. However, as scar tissue built up around the implants, the signal tended to degrade, and neurosurgery was not something you wanted to undergo on a regular basis. There was also the small matter of occasionally needing to upgrade the hardware in order to accommodate more sophisticated software — a process which required 16 hours of brain surgery.

The focus gradually shifted to non-invasive BCIs, but the problem was that they required unrealistic levels of training. Since sensors on the outside of your brain picked up far more noise, the subject had to learn to focus and control their thoughts in order to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. Additionally, it was very difficult to pinpoint precise signals when reading brainwaves so far away from their origins. It was more like trying to understand what someone was saying to you from across a noisy room as opposed to having them whisper it directly into your ear.

BCI researchers generally fell into two camps: those who believed it was up to hardware and software to extract precise patterns from noise, and those who felt it was the subject's responsibility to learn how to produce cleaner signals. As always, the answer turned out to be somewhere in the middle. It was an African neurobiologist named Nsonowa who finally reinvigorated the field by constructing systems that enabled computers and humans to grow and learn together. She described the process to laymen as one very similar to raising children (she came from a large family — a fact which clearly had a significant impact on her work). Children don't always do what their parents want, and parents can't always do what their children want, so the two have to learn to compromise. Ultimately the parents are in charge (which she emphasized for those who feared BCI technology would lead to humans being enslaved by computers, not unlike the parents of extremely bratty kids), but the point was that both parties had to be willing and able to adapt to each other.

Nsonowa also theorized that this coevolution needed to start at as early an age as possible. Part of the reason most BCI experiments failed was because it was simply unrealistic to expect a subject and a computer to adapt to each other over the course of just a few hours or days. Of course, the people funding these studies who hoped to one day market the resulting technology weren't interested in solutions that required training from an early age and that were largely inaccessible to anyone old enough to have the money to pay for it, but Nsonowa was a patient woman, and insisted on long term studies with subjects as young as possible. She discovered that seven-year-olds who had been training on BCIs since they were three could interact with machines as efficiently as any adult using any other method or combination of methods of human-computer interaction. By the time subjects were 12, they were at least twice as proficient as adults, and by the age of 14, children were able to perform complex tasks between 10 and 20 times more efficiently than any adult in the world.

Nsonowa had proven that people who grew up with BCI technology could control machines as easily as their own limbs.

She was able to make this key breakthrough because she understood the paradox inherent in the process of thinking about thought: you could only think about thought using your own thoughts which meant that you were unable to think about any forms of thought which were inconsistent with your own thinking. She talked about DNA as being alterable, but not adaptive, and about the more primitive parts of our brains as not having the luxury of being creative about things like breathing, fleeing, mating, etc. But the cerebral cortex (which contains the four lobes that BCIs concern themselves with) are magnificently adaptive, flexible, and malleable. The cerebral cortex represents nothing less than infinite potential. Humans are inherently and physically unable to imagine all the extraordinary gifts hidden inside their own heads. The only way to find them is to go looking.

Arik's parents were familiar with Nsonowa's work, and therefore introduced him to BCIs at a very early age. The challenge fascinated Arik, and he and the computer mastered each other very quickly. Most of the training programs were in the form of games which Arik devoured, and by the age of six, he was more proficient with a computer than any adult in V1. At the age of 10, Arik began modifying the learning, acclimation, and adaptation algorithms, and by 12, his parents suspected he was several times more proficient with a BCI than anyone in human history. He was often asked how he did it, but Arik honestly didn't know. He understood how both the hardware and the software worked, but it was the organic part of the equation — his own brain — that he didn't understand. He described it to people as being able to punch a code into a keypad, but not actually being able to recite the sequence of numbers. The knowledge was stored in a part of his brain that conscious thought could not access directly.

Arik's parents were also familiar enough with Nsonowa's work to stop Arik's research into building a two-way BCI. It didn't take Arik long to realize that once the process of a human communicating with a computer using a BCI was mastered, the bottleneck became the process of the computer communicating with the human. After processing input, the computer had to convert its output into some sort of graphical form which it normally displayed by exciting molecules of polymeth at specified X, Y, and Z coordinates. The X and Y coordinates were needed to arrange the output into a coherent pattern, and the Z coordinate specified the depth of the event which helped determine which wavelengths of light were allowed to escape, resulting in billions of possible colors. The photons then had to span the distance between the polymeth and Arik's eyes, strike the rods and cones of his retinas, and get converted into electrical impulses which were carried by the optical nerve to the visual cortex in the occipital lobe all the way in the back of his brain. It was only then that Arik could even begin the process of making sense of the visual input which, depending on the task, was done in one or more completely different parts of his brain.

Arik imagined a far more efficient process of computer output. If a BCI could allow you to communicate with a computer more efficiently by bypassing primitive input methods, why not build a BCI that could bypass primitive output methods, as well? Why not skip the visual representation, the polymeth, and the eyes entirely, and send information directly into the brain? Nsonowa refused to do any work with two-way BCIs. She fit her own definition of wise in that she knew what she did not know, and she did not know the risks of bypassing all the safeguards evolution had seen fit to install between your eyes and your brain. What she did know, however, was that using your brain to control a computer was entirely different from using a computer to control your brain. The tiniest software bug, hardware malfunction, or physical miscalculation would have repercussions that she did want to be responsible for. She admitted that the technology was intriguing, probably even inevitable, but she insisted that it would not come from her, and Arik's parents made sure that it would not come from him, either.

The first time Arik had the BCI placed on his head after the surgery, he was terrified that he would no longer be able to use it. Since he didn't fully understand how it worked, and since he still didn't have a clear idea of what the embolism and the surgery had done to his brain, there was no way for him to know whether his neurological conditioning had been affected. To Arik, computers were prostheses. When he needed more storage capacity and processing power than he had in his own head, or when he needed to extend his ability to communicate, he