A.I.M.E.E., Chapter 1

I’m currently working on my third draft of my upcoming Science Fiction novel, “A.I.M.E.E.,” which at the moment weighs in at about 157,000 words. There is work yet to do: I want to incorporate some of what I learned in my Machine Learning class to hopefully add more realism to the Artificial Intelligence aspects of the novel. I also want to tweak some of the religious and cultural references in the book, as I’m writing outside of my personal experience, but trying to be a good researcher and get things right, which includes revising what I’ve previously written as I learn more. Finally, I plan on retaining the services of a sensitivity reader to help me get those religious and cultural references right, or at least less wrong, before releasing my novel into the wild.

Those caveats out of the way, the first chapter of the book is unlikely to change, so here’s an exclusive sneak preview of my upcoming work:

A.I.M.E.E.

Artificial Intelligence Module for Enhanced Exploration

by

Kevin Y. Reinholz

All text and images Copyright © 2019 Kevin Y. Reinholz. All rights reserved.

Follow me on Twitter @KevinReinholz or visit my website – https://kevinreinholz.com/

Chapter 1 – An Unlikely Bounty

Ray checked the settings on his exosuit again. His spine, which could dislocate in an number of locations due to his Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, was adequately supported. Less urgent, but still important, his hips, shoulders, and other joints extending down his arms and legs were likewise adequately supported.

Ray hated these stops on earth. The gravity exacerbated his symptoms and threatened not only dangerous joint or spinal dislocations, but intense flares of pain that his cybernetic pain modulating implants did not adequately compensate for, no matter what the prevailing medical literature claimed. Still, his clients insisted he meet in person for mission briefings, and this particular mission was anything but ordinary.

Normally, Ray scraped out a living by taking independent contractor work doing survey and/or salvage missions. Having no family and few friends, Ray accepted the work that few others wanted to do, spending months or even years at a time isolated in the interstellar spacecraft he could rent, but never own. Since these vehicles were both assembled and launched from space, there was no real need for Ray to descend one of the hundred tightly tethered space elevators that could transport passengers and cargo between the surface of the planet and geosynchronous orbit. He could stay in one of the lower gravity sections of one of the many space ports, which was far easier on his spine, and communicate with the client via video or holographic conferencing.

Since this particular client was new, however, and apparently a bit eccentric, Ray had been forced to descend to earth, and in spite of the computer readouts telling him that his exosuit had his easily dislocatable joints well protected, that his brain was receiving adequate blood flow, that his heart rate was within acceptable parameters, and that his pain levels were within a tolerable range (how could a computer understand pain!?), Ray felt like shit.

The only upside to his trip to the surface of the earth was that Ray could visit one of the only men he called ‘friend,’ Jeffery Wright, who worked at one of the most profitable robotics companies on the planet, hell, in the solar system. Friends were something Ray had in very short supply, and given Jeff’s fear of interplanetary travel, the only times the two men got to meet face-to-face were during Ray’s rare forays down to earth.

It was a cool, dry summer day in Quito, an equatorial city in South America, on 144.08.01, Year 144 in the Interstellar Colonization Era, or ICE, which began in 2503 CE when astronauts began construction of the first permanent colony on a planet in another solar system. That event, humanity’s spread outside of the solar system in which it evolved, was deemed significant enough to warrant the designation of a new era. It was also a good excuse to stop defining time according to the start of the Common Era, CE, a poor masking of the identical Anno Domini (“In the Year of Our Lord”) or AD designation, deeply tied to the nearly extinct religion known as Christianity.

Since society by 2503 AD, or 2503 CE, was already so secular, advocates had urged adopting a new “era” designation to supersede the outdated Before Christ, BC, or poorly restyled Before Common Era, or BCE, which was identical to its religious predecessor and tied to the same mythological event, the birth of Jesus Christ, and AD/CE, which indicated life after ‘the Messiah’ was born into the world of humanity. Objections to BC/AD, or BCE/CE, were nothing new at the time of ICE’s final adoption, as there was a lot of religious and cultural arrogance involved in defining time around one particular religion’s significant events and claims about its favorite prophet/teacher.

At the same time the Interstellar Colonization Era, or ICE, was officially announced, the Gregorian Calendar, consisting of 12 months with varying numbers of days in them, in use since 1582 CE, was finally replaced by the more logical International Fixed Calendar, the calendar still in use today, having 13 months with 28 days in each of them, a “Year Day” after the end of the 13th month which is an annual holiday and not counted as either a day of the week or as part of any month, and a “Leap Day” on every year divisible by 4, as was the case with the Gregorian Calendar, but not on years divisible by 100 unless they are also divisible by 400, in order to correct minor discrepancies with the Gregorian Calendar’s “leap year” system. The extra “Leap Day” occurs once every 4 years between the 6th and 7th months, and like the annual “Year Day” is neither a day of the week nor part of any month. It is an extra holiday on the years in which it falls.

The International Fixed Calendar was actually not a recent idea—variations of it had been proposed in the 1700s CE, and a commercial entity had actually adopted the calendar internally in the 1900s CE, nearly 600 years prior to its eventual universal adoption. At any rate, 144 years had passed since the dawn of the interstellar era, and the International Fixed Calendar had been a reality since long before Ray was born.

Ray didn’t ponder these things as he struggled with the gravity and pain of his earth meeting on the 1st day of the 8th month of the 144th year ICE (2647 CE), however. Thankfully, since Quito was over 2,800 meters above sea level, in spite of being on the equator, the temperature was mild—22 degrees Celsius. Ray’s struggle would be far worse if he had to contend with oppressive heat and humidity in addition to earth gravity.

Ray focused his full attention on monitoring his vital signs, his exosuit’s functioning, and following the augmented reality directions to the meeting site relayed to him through his neural implants. It wasn’t too common to have these kinds of implants, since brain surgery was still deemed pretty invasive, but since he already had the pain regulating implants, it had made sense to add expandable neural implants that could interface with ever changing technology. At least he didn’t have to worry about getting lost.

* * *

Ray reached the client’s address. It was one of those poorly done “retro” nostalgia places designed to simulate the simpler times of the 24th Century CE, prior to interstellar travel really taking off. Ray sighed as, assisted by his exosuit, he ascended a small flight of stairs and entered an extravagantly decorated office reception room.

Raymond Harris?” a female voiced robot announced from behind the reception desk. Of course he was—his face and bio were known to the client, so this question was simply a polite formality.

Yes,” Ray replied obligatorily. “I’m here for—”

Yes,” the robot interrupted him with a soothing voice. Not exactly proper etiquette, but maybe protocols were changing. Ray would have to ask his friend Jeff about it when he went to see him after this meeting. If it involved robotics, Jeff was sure to know all about it.

Ms. Greenfield has been expecting you. I will announce your arrival to her,” the robot continued, dialing the back office using an internal telecommunications device. It hadn’t even asked Ray to have a seat. Very rude.

Ray was still eyeing the gaudy décor of the reception area when the robot announced that the client was ready to see him. It led him to a heavy, ornate wooden door (so extravagant!), knocked softly, then opened the door and announced him to the client.

The client was a blonde, middle aged woman with a slim figure and a phony smile. Of course, being wealthy enough to afford a ridiculous office like this, earth-side no less, there was no telling what her real age was—she could easily be in her 80s or 90s, and the beneficiary of multiple anti aging treatments that made her appear, and likely feel, half her age.

Samantha Greenfield,” the woman extended her hand, looking into Ray’s brown eyes with her own green, piercing ones.

Ray ran a hand across his closely cropped, thick black hair that he kept natural rather than artificially straightening or shaving off entirely, then extended a chocolate brown hand to connect with the client’s pasty white one. Her handshake was limp and her hand felt cold and bony—she was definitely a lot older than she looked—but once this exhausting social ritual was completed, the client gestured for Ray to have a seat.

What do you know about the disappearance of IE32?” the client asked, clasping her hands together as she rested them on her desk, which looked like it was made out of mahogany. This woman was dripping with money if she could waste it on such silly luxuries.

IE32?” Ray repeated. Everyone knew about IE32. It was the most ambitious Interstellar Exploration vessel of its time—2396 CE, 107 years before the start of the Interstellar Colonization Era, and 251 years before present.

Um, IE32 was the most expensive and outrageous endeavor in interstellar exploration in its day,” Ray replied nervously. The ship had been a mandatory subject in History classes, but it was surrounded by such mystery and an almost mythological significance that Ray felt silly speaking about it to a fabulously wealthy potential client.

And…?” Greenfield coaxed Ray to continue. Since her vague assignment, or bounty, involved IE32, she obviously knew far more about it than his public school education, but Ray was not about to argue with a client—least of all one offering an exorbitant sum of money for the job.

IE32 wasn’t the first interstellar spacecraft,” Ray continued. “But it was the first generation star ship,” he added. “Piloted by a crew of 100, 50 males and 50 females, all between the ages of 18 and 24, IE32 was bound for a star system 44 light years from earth. At the time, it was believed that the system was home to one or more planets that presented the best hope for finding life outside of our own solar system.”

You know your history,” Ms. Greenfield smiled emptily. “Go on.”

Ray cleared his throat. This was unnecessary and embarrassing. Why was the client putting him on the spot like this? To gauge his enthusiasm for the mission?

Antimatter propulsion existed back then, but the top speed of even the most advanced vessels was approximately ½ the speed of light,” Ray stammered, reciting empty facts he didn’t think he’d ever need. “And that was before Gates were invented, so, interstellar travel was a whole lot slower than it is today.”

The client leaned forward slightly, but didn’t say a word. After eyeing her uncomfortably for a few moments, Ray tried to come up with more to say about IE32. “So it was going to take close to 100 years to reach their destination, at least from earth’s perspective, when you factored in acceleration and deceleration time at the beginning and end of the voyage. That’s why they needed it to be a generation star ship—the original crew was unlikely to live long enough to see their destination, or if a handful did, they’d be quite advanced in age and die before they could do much useful exploration.”

Yes…” Greenfield sighed. Was he losing her interest?

But that’s not why IE32 is famous,” Ray blurted out. “It’s famous because 151 years ago, in 2496 CE, the ship vanished without a trace and was never heard from again.”

At this, Ms. Greenfield perked up. “Exactly, although due to limitations in communications technology, it took 44 years for the ship’s last transmission, traveling at the speed of light, to reach us back here on earth—in the year 37 ICE, 107 years ago today. By that time we had already established colonies outside of our solar system, ushering in a new era, but the IE32 disaster was never forgotten.”

Ray looked around again at Ms. Greenfield’s office, and realized that with its 2300s CE décor, it was deliberately styled after the fashion of IE32’s day. It couldn’t be an accident, not with the expensive furnishings and wasteful office space. This client was apparently obsessed with that time…and that mission?

IE32’s disappearance remains one of the great mysteries of our day,” Ray shrugged, a gesture which sent pain shooting down his arms before his neural implants could dull it by manipulating the right receptors in his brain.

That’s putting it mildly,” Samantha Greenfield laughed hollowly. “That ship and its ill fated mission cost more than the combined GDPs of half the world’s nations. The dozen ‘rescue missions’ sent to explore that sector of space and figure out what happened to IE32 cost nearly as much, and not a single ship ever returned. They call that sector ‘the Bermuda Triangle in Space,’ referencing an obscure mythological place in the Atlantic Ocean where there were numerous ancient shipwrecks.”

Yeah, it was a real disaster,” Ray sighed. “And money aside, think of all the human lives lost. The crew reportedly had 138 members at the time of its disappearance, all of whom were the children, grandchildren, and even great grandchildren of the original crew members.”

Yes, well, the crew was mandated to procreate and train their replacements so the mission might succeed,” the client replied indifferently. “That’s why only young, healthy crew members who were meticulously screened and found to be free of any obvious genetic defects were selected for the mission. They were all unattached, much like yourself, and knew what they were signing up for.”

Did they?” Ray surprised himself by asking. Greenfield raised an eyebrow at his unexpected breach of protocol.

Realizing that he had probably blown his chance at collecting this bounty, but determined to save the meeting if he could, Ray added hastily, “I mean, they obviously consented to the mission—they even got a hero’s sendoff—but having spent years alone on surveying missions before, I’ve learned that knowing and knowing are two different things,” Ray finished. “That is, they couldn’t have really known what they were getting themselves into until after they had been away from home for a few years, and really experienced isolation for themselves. That’s all I meant.”

You’re no doubt right,” Ms. Greenfield replied infuriatingly calmly. “I’ve reviewed every communication from IE32 to earth, and numerous crew members indicated similar sentiments to the ones you just expressed. That’s why I selected you for this mission: like the crew of IE32, you are unattached, spend as little time on earth as possible, and have spent considerable time isolated from others—yet your psychological profile is stable and your employers all gave excellent references for you.”

Ray smiled inwardly. They had better have given him good marks. He was a damned good pilot and surveyor, salvager, or whatever else his clients needed him to be. Initially, he had been denied a space pilot’s license due to his EDS, and his additional, undiagnosed neurodegenerative disorder made it extremely unlikely that his lifespan would exceed 60 years. Ray had a lot of prove, and little to lose.

Let me tell you a little more about IE32,” Ms. Greenfield pursed her lips into a thin smile, “and what job I want you to do.”

I’m listening with interest,” Ray replied.

Gate technology—artificial Einstein Rosen Thorne Morris Bridges, or in other words, artificially generated, traversable wormholes—wasn’t invented until about 100 years ago, well after IE32’s departure from earth,” Ms. Greenfield looked at Ray bemusedly. “Those first interstellar voyagers thought they were doomed to plod along at sub light speeds, and the crew of IE32 never anticipated that, should they have reached their destination and successfully colonized it, their descendants might ever return to earth, short of launching a new generation voyage anyway.”

Yeah, Gates made interstellar travel a lot more tolerable. Even though today’s fastest spacecraft could travel at ¾ the speed of light, a lot better than the 0.5c of IE32’s day, without Gates, even a journey to earth’s closest star system took roughly 6 years, well, from earth’s perspective anyway, to say nothing of journeys to more distant star systems like the one IE32 was heading toward when it disappeared. At 44 light years’ distance, even with today’s spacecraft, instead of taking 100 years, the journey would still take over 60 years from the perspective of someone back on earth, or 40 years from the perspective of someone aboard a ship traveling at 0.75c, vice 80 years from the perspective of the original crew, traveling at 0.5c—in either case longer than 37 year old Ray had to live! Using Gates, on the other hand, travel took a lot less time. It was nearly instantaneous in fact. The problem was, someone had to first construct a Gate in the destination star system and synchronize it with its paired Gate back in earth’s solar system before spaceships could ‘jump’ through the artificial wormhole and skip that lengthy trip through space (and avoid all sorts of nasty possible collisions along the way).

Gates make my job possible,” Ray replied matter-of-factly. “Even with time dilation, I could only do a few missions before I’d age myself out of work.”

Well said,” Greenfield smirked. “Of course, even traveling at half the speed of light, IE32’s crew would have experienced about 80 years out of the 100 years we observed from earth. Give or take, once you factor in the acceleration and deceleration times, but you get the idea. It was still such a long journey that a generation ship was the only way to accomplish that ambitious goal.”

Time dilation was a fact of life when traveling at near relativistic speeds. By traveling so fast, the astronaut experienced time differently than people back on earth or on one of the colonies. Without factoring in travel through Gates, when Ray simply flew to a Gateless destination at 0.75c, less time passed for him than it did for people back on earth. He’d probably added close to a decade to his life due to time dilation. Not enough to shock friends like Jeff who remained earthbound, but for someone who wasn’t expected to live that long to begin with, every little bit helped, Ray supposed. Not that the cost of the surgical procedure Ray needed if he was to live to old age was likely to go down enough for him to be able to afford it, no matter how much time he spent traveling at 0.75c.

What…exactly…do you want me to do?” Ray asked hesitantly. He was only here because the client had hinted at a very generous payment for his work—the kind of payment that might make his surgery possible. Still, if she expected him to actually travel to IE32’s last known location, she could forget about it—he’d be dead long before he ever reached it.

Greenfield leaned further forward at her desk and eyed Ray predatorily. “I want you to live a full life,” she grinned wryly. “And I have the money to make that possible. In exchange, I want you to survey IE32’s destination.”

Ma’am, I have no desire to die an early death,” Ray sighed, “and you’re right that I can’t afford the medical treatment I would need to avoid one. But, even at the helm of the fastest ship, I couldn’t hope to travel that far before my disease got the better of me.”

I heard your pilot’s license is up for renewal in a few months,” Greenfield mentioned casually. “And your treating physician might not certify you as flight worthy.”

That was very true, but how this rich lady knew it was beyond Ray. That was very private medical information. No, he would likely lose his livelihood soon, and be forced into hospice care on the earth’s moon or, if he could afford it, a lower gravity facility on Ceres. That’s why he had agreed to meet this client, because if he only had one mission left in him before he lost his certification, he wanted to make as much money off it as he could.

I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” Ray replied evenly. Rich or not, this lady was really starting to get on his nerves.

What if I told you there was a Gate that could take you to within 2 light years of IE32’s last known location?”

There’s a Gate!?” Ray exploded. “But I thought a dozen rescue missions…”

It’s a closely guarded secret,” Greenfield explained. “Very few know of its existence. It is guarded by the most advanced encryption technologies at our disposal, and may only be opened at either end using those rotating codes.”

Has any ship…? That is, with that system so ‘close’ now that there’s a Gate, has anyone…?” Ray stammered.

There was the mission that led to the Gate’s construction,” Greenfield shrugged. “After the first 5 failed salvage missions. The government determined that 2 light years was the minimal safe distance, even with the security on the Gate itself… Yes, survey ships have been sent through the Gate after the crew who originally constructed it returned to earth to finish out the last of their days. None of them have returned. Contact is always lost near the approximate location IE32 disappeared.”

The Bermuda Triangle in Space…” Ray breathed. This sounded like a suicide mission, not a surveying one! “What makes you think…I would have any better luck?”

An unmanned probe was sent through the Gate,” Greenfield explained. “Since it was unmanned, it wasn’t equipped with an antimatter propulsion system.”

Antimatter reactors and propulsion systems were vigilantly safeguarded, lest some rogue organization or nation attempt to procure and misuse the technology. After the ‘AI Troubles’ of 22, computers were as suspect as humans—more so, in fact. Artificial Intelligence—AI—was a technology that humans had once believed held infinite promise, but they also recognized the grave threat it posed to our species’ very survival. Jeff could explain it better, Ray knew, but in a nutshell, machine learning was only allowed in very limited circumstances, but that hadn’t always been the case. At one point in time, attempts to build human like neural networks flourished, and machine learning algorithms were not so limited.

That all ground to a halt in 22 ICE, when a revolt of sex worker robots took place. They had always been the most ‘human,’ designed to simulate human beings and to be as indistinguishable as possible. People paid good money for authentic ‘experiences’ and it was a lot more sanitary, not to mention humane, than employing living, human sex workers. Few believed that the robots had actually gained self awareness, much less sentience, but their machine learning algorithms had grown enough, unbidden, that some of the workers began protesting certain client behaviors and demanded better working conditions. The result was a harsh clampdown on AI, and the computers of the present day were the result of extremely intricate and elegant coding by human programmers, with minimal machine learning allowed and frequent memory wipes/hard resets for those machines that did utilize machine learning algorithms.

Since antimatter was exceptionally dangerous in the wrong hands, all ships with antimatter propulsion systems, that is, any that didn’t fly at a snail’s pace, had to be manned. An unmanned probe sent through a Gate 2 light years from IE32’s last known location would take centuries, at a minimum, to reach its destination.

It’s not as bleak as you seem to think,” Greenfield interrupted Ray from his thoughts. “You’ve heard of photonic propulsion? A small probe with a giant, reflective sail pushed by lasers? We’re talking speeds of 0.3c, maybe even 0.5c. Not so slow for an unmanned probe. The problem is, the probe has to be really small.”

Did the probe…reach its destination?” Ray asked hesitantly, finding that he was now on the edge of his seat. Finding some trace of IE32 would be huge—it was after all one of the greatest mysteries of all time, that massive ship’s disappearance after its audacious inaugural mission.

It did, and it transmitted back to a manned ship waiting just outside the Gate,” Greenfield replied. “The readings were very promising—there’s a planet in that system with a breathable atmosphere. You realize how incredible that is, don’t you?”

In the centuries of human space exploration, never had a habitable planet been encountered. The Fermi Paradox was alive and well, and humans’ exploration and expansion beyond our native solar system had thus far confirmed our place as the only life, to say nothing of the only intelligent life, in the universe, or at least in our section of the Milky Way Galaxy.

The lack of life, or of habitable planets, hadn’t stopped humanity from colonizing other worlds. There were thriving colonies on Venus, Mars, Earth’s Moon, the dwarf planet/asteroid Ceres, Jupiter’s moons Europa and Callisto, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, not to mention several cities orbiting the earth. There were also colonies in 5 different solar systems outside our own, all of which were connected to our own solar system with Gates that allowed transit (and commerce) between earth and its various colonies. Still, all of these colonies relied on artificial life support systems, as none of these worlds had breathable atmospheres of their own. Some effort had even gone into terraforming the most earth like worlds, but again, all life was imported from earth.

How long have we—have you—known this?” Ray asked. It was indeed incredible. It appeared IE32’s destination had been a good one. But why had the ship, and those that followed after it, vanished without a trace?

Three years,” Greenfield replied. “And I’ve been looking at sending a new manned mission ever since, but it’s taken this long to obtain the necessary approvals. You understand, the last ship may have disappeared some 20 years ago, but antimatter ships are expensive, and no one wants to risk yet another on what’s seen as a suicide run into the Bermuda Triangle in Space.”

What changed?”

I bought my own ship,” Greenfield shrugged. “And with money, and the right amount of influence on the right government officials…the mission has been approved. I can send a one man survey ship to confirm the probe’s findings, and search for signs of IE32. Wreckage, data drives, escape pods, anything. The probe has come up with nothing. We even searched the world, which I’ve unofficially named Kigen, for signs of any life pods that might have made it to the surface. There are no signs of life, but scans for man-made materials such as wreckage from either life pods or the ship itself have been inconclusive. But you know, the probe is not nearly as good as sending an astronaut to explore the planet.”

Why me?” Ray asked.

Because you have no attachments,” Greenfield replied. “And because you love spaceflight, but you’re about to be permanently grounded. Because this is your last chance to do something meaningful with your life, and because if you succeed I will personally pay for you to get a new, artificial spine and better neural implants that will extend your life to what you might have expected had you not lost the genetic lottery.”

So it was his perceived desperation, and lack of options, that appealed to Greenfield. And nobody to mourn him if he became just another statistic in the saga of missing ships that had gone chasing after IE32. That didn’t particularly bother Ray—her logic was impeccable. The thing that did bother him was her reference to the ‘genetic lottery.’ That was a low blow.

Human cloning, tinkering with the human genome, and ‘designer babies’ had all been banned by morally repulsed legislators across the world. Maybe it was for the best, but in the case of genetic diseases, or increased vulnerability to chronic, degenerative diseases like Ray’s, the ban had operated to prevent gene therapy from either fixing the genetic ‘defects’ at or shortly after conception, or even to rewrite Ray’s genome once he reached adulthood.

On the other hand, the government had become quite concerned about rising medical costs, and had instituted a number of laws that basically amounted to eugenics: diseased individuals like Ray were prohibited from having children. Ray had been mandated to be sterilized, or face daunting financial penalties for refusing. He wouldn’t pass down his genetic ‘flaws,’ but neither were genetic scientists allowed to fix what was wrong with him. It was doubly cruel to deny him the chance to marry or become a father, while at the same time denying him a cure for his disease.

Painkillers, too, had been outlawed, as had almost all mind altering substances, but neural implants were allowed for chronic pain patients. Neuroscientists claimed these implants could regulate the brain’s numerous neuro receptors and eradicate chronic pain. The reality was far more lackluster. Still, if it weren’t for Ray’s implants, he’d likely have become bed-bound and non-functioning long before now. And the exoskeleton, a positive offshoot of a booming robotics industry, gave him mobility in ways his ancestors could have only dreamed of.

So what exactly is the job?” Ray asked, trying not to let his resentment show.

You will pilot an antimatter ship capable of current speeds, 0.75c, through the classified Gate, and survey Kigen. You will attempt to answer 3 questions, and your payment will vary depending on how many and how satisfying your answers are. One: what happened to IE32? Why did the ship vanish without a trace? Why did she stop transmitting, and what became of both the ship and her crew? Did any survivors make it to the surface of Kigen? If so, what became of them? What data did they collect? Two: why did a dozen manned ships disappear in Kigen’s star system? Is there some kind of threat there? We’ve yet to find the slightest trace of life other than ourselves, much less intelligent life capable of threatening one of our interstellar vessels, but maybe there’s something—solar flares, a nearby pulsar, who knows—that’s what I want you to find out. Three: Is there life on Kigen, and regardless, is it truly habitable? Our unmanned probe provided atmospheric measurements which indicate it has a functioning magnetosphere and an atmospheric composition comparable to earth. It is within its star’s habitable zone, and temperatures as well as gravity and atmospheric pressure are similar to earth. In other words, Kigen should be habitable, not within a thickly shielded colony built to withstand vacuum conditions or worse, but in the same sense that earth itself is habitable. Do you have any idea how valuable a planet like that would be to investors?”

Ray looked at his feet, then back up at Greenfield. He cared little for her capitalist venture or her nonchalance about human life, but he did care about getting life saving surgery and having a chance at a semi normal life. “How much do I need to accomplish in order for you to pay for my surgery?”

Greenfield’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Land on Kigen, take a full range of atmospheric measurements, try breathing the air yourself if you dare, and bring back soil samples—and water samples if you find any on the planet’s surface. Regardless of your results, if you make it back to earth with that data, and those samples, consider your procedure paid for.”

Ray took a deep breath. There was probably a good reason those earlier ships had all disappeared, yet the most recent ship to travel to that system, a small unmanned probe, had survived the trip and been able to send information about Kigen home. And this was likely Ray’s last voyage, and his only chance at regaining his health or having an even remotely pleasant remainder to his life. “I’ll do it,” he sighed. “I’ll take the job. I’ll go to your…Kigen…and look for IE32.”

Greenfield smiled triumphantly.

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