It was the first and worst tragedy of the Ariel space program. Perhaps its most disturbing aspect was that it had been discovered ten years after it had actually occurred: One sunny Thursday morning the automatic systems had returned the droid capsules back to their place of launch, far ahead of their planned return date. They had returned without achieving any mission objectives, their logs were empty and all that was left of the Ariel 1 pilots were mummified corpses.
Further detailed investigation had revealed that the astronauts had been crystalblocked with faulty shutdown injections prior to launch. This meant that they had simply been frozen inside their crystalblocks while still fully awake and conscious. Not only did they not return alive and well, but most probably they had asphyxiated to death before the transit to their launch capsules had even completed.
Jenny, daughter of commander Roger Somanson of the Ariel 1 mission, never got over the terrible images that had formed in her head, the feeling of being frozen inside a transparent glass-like crystal, staring out in searing agony as life burnt out of you second by second, while technicians pulled wires from the side of your compartment, your wife and family watching on, full of pride: The first men to travel to another solar system! The hysterical, agonized last moments where you would try to break free and let everyone know that they were about to launch seven corpses into a twenty year mission... and all that was needed was for someone to trip the block's emergency release control.
To top the nightmare off, there was the fact that an internal version of such a control had been built inside the crystalblock pods specifically in order to prevent such a scenario, but -what kind of twisted bureaucratic mentality ended up deciding this- it only became active once the pods were coupled to their respective launch capsules. Jenny could just imagine the astronauts desperately, repeatedly, sending the 'release' mental control code while they suffocated, only for their signals to reach the end of the dangling gold pod connectors. Ironically those connectors were hooked up to the droid capsules a few minutes after the astronauts had died.
She was thirteen when her father had supposedly left Earth for the stars and she was twenty three when she found out that her father had never even left Earth alive. As she grew older she tried not to think about it, but she could not push away the old memory of skipping up to the crystalblock pod (oh how much it looked like a coffin she now thought!) and stealing a look at her father's frozen, infinitely peaceful figure. Mother told her that "this is needed so that the astronauts can withstand the terrible forces of acceleration and deceleration that are needed for travel to nearby stars, otherwise they would be squeezed flat and you wouldn't want daddy to turn into jam would you?!" Had he been dead during that moment or had he still been under the terrible agony of asphyxiation? She would never know.
How many dreams had she experienced in which she would jump up and smash her fist on the big red "release" button on her father's pod! Sometimes she would wake up at that point from the anxiety, other times nothing would happen and security robots would drag her away as she screamed and tried to let them know that it had all gone wrong, that they hadn't shut down the astronauts before crystalblocking them! Sometimes the dream would end when they would drop her into a crystalblock to keep her quiet. She would try to move and breathe and she wouldn't be able to, and only then would she finally wake up, taking in panic breaths, drenched in a cold sweat.
Jenny would spend a lot of time talking to her virtual pet and best friend, Bianca, about her father and about the images that haunted her. She and Bianca had formed a close, intimate bond over the years, and Bianca, with her kind, wise way of speaking, tried to be there for the aging Jenny as much as she could. Jenny had even purchased special licenses from the Terra Echelon to allow Bianca expanded roaming privileges. These allowed Bianca to use the neighborhood holo-projectors so that she could walk outside the house, sit in the garden or climb on top of the roof, where she and Jenny would spend many a night looking up at the stars.
Some times, and those were rare, Jenny managed to make it through the night without the dark picture bubbling its way to her conscious mind: Seven dead astronauts, streaking through space at relativistic speeds, their droid capsules passing the sullen hulks of the waiting Alpha Centauri robot stations, their on-board computers vainly signaling the revive order to their blackened crystalblock pods until, they too, shut down and blacked out, leaving only the automatic pilot active on a return flight plan to...
-"Jenny?" Bianca interrupted Jenny's dark thoughts one night.
-"Who do you think is at fault here, I mean really at fault?"
-"I don't know, they said it was an accident, there was this whole investigation..."
-"But accidents don't just happen, isn't that what you used to say? I think that you have the need to blame someone, regardless, and you need to find out who, I think you really need to find who is to blame. I don't think you will truly find peace until you do."
-"It was all so long ago, Bee..."
-"Listen, I have been sent a message from David Edwards, he was a good friend of your father and now director of operations at what they call the STA, the Space Transit Authority. He asked me to try and convince you to visit him. You know I wouldn't try it unless I thought it might do you some good to... you know, talk to someone who was... involved with Ariel 1"
It was an easy pitch: Bianca understood Jenny all too well, and Jenny trusted Bianca too much for things to have turned out any other way.
Jenny stepped off the shuttle and was immediately struck by the cool fresh breeze blowing in from the ocean surrounding the Atlantic Spaceport. Far ahead, in front of the giant complex of buildings and launch pads that stretched off into the distance, she watched the flags of the Terra Echelon and the STA fluttering side by side. David was right on time to greet her personally and escort her to his office. Jenny had not visited the site since the launch of Ariel 1, and she never believed that she would again, but here she was nonetheless, determined to have exorcised at least one demon by the time she returned to her beloved Bianca.
-"I knew your father only too well Ms. Somanson," David said as they entered his office, "and I never quite got over that terrible accident all those years ago. The STA, as you can see, has become such a huge commercial operation that I rarely have the luxury of free time during which I can reflect on the past... and to tell you the truth, I suspect that sometimes I prefer it that way. There's almost a century of memories in my head now, you see," he smiled and tapped his forehead, "all kinds of memories, some good, some..." his voice trailed off and he looked into the distance for a moment. He sat down at his desk and looked straight at Jenny.
-"But the past never seems to let me be, either. Like for instance about a week ago, I was busy as usual, my mind running off in a thousand directions, when... Well, there it was in front of me: I had to sign off on the renovation plans for what used to be the Ariel launch pads. Nobody had consulted me, some requisition AI had spoken to another allocation AI and cross referenced resource catalogs with the local branch of Global Management, and all of a sudden there was this proposal sitting on my desk. And the damnedest thing is, I really couldn't argue with it, those damn virtualized public officials work so much better than any of their human versions let me tell you! The plan was perfect, in terms of management, resources, timing, workflows, you name it. The only thing was...'
Jenny nodded. The emotional concept of tearing down the Ariel launch pads would have been lost on these young AIs. It was easy for virtualized personalities to quickly learn to manage huge quantities of information and 'feel' through them - they did it as instinctively as a baby’s mouth handles food - but it took a lifetime to understand... what? Emotion? Loss? The human condition? David went on:
-'Well, the thing is that I could request an override and address the human overseer committee to have the plan re-evaluated. My objection would not be questioned, especially if I proposed to have the land reserved for an Ariel 1 memorial: I carry too much clout with the Terra Echelon. But the thing is, you see, that damn plan really is perfect. The local port badly needs to be expanded, you have no idea how much traffic passes through here. We initiate and complete transit on no less than ten flights a month, that's more than one every three days. And you won't believe the procedures involved, having thousands of people to prep, un-prep, uplift and downlift from the carriers, inspect and double check thousands of readings, verify flight plans with Global Management, and I'm not even going to mention the heavy flights!'
-'What are the heavy flights?' Jenny asked.
-'Tankers and so forth, the big boys that never land on a planet, they just go into orbit. Do you know the logistics of offloading an orbiting ore refinery from Europa and Io using shuttles? Those things enter Earth orbit and they have to be offloaded in a matter of days before the automatics start them on their way back, it takes about 5 shuttle dispatches and retrievals a day for a whole week to make the deadline!'
-'Are the tankers completely run via AI?'
-'Oh yes, no reason for human pilots on those things, well, most craft are AI-run these days anyway...' David said. Even kids knew this, but David realized that Jenny probably had avoided news on space travel for a very long time. He couldn't blame her really, after what had happened to her father.
-'I guess there's less of a chance for accidents with those craft then, I mean like what happened to Ariel 1' Jenny said, bringing the conversation back full circle.
-'Well, you know, if it's any consolation, the demise of Ariel 1 and the public outcry brought about major changes to safety protocols: The Ariel 1 accident could never happen again these days. All shutdown injections are now automatically verified by a second injection and the mental emergency release is now active from the moment a person is placed inside the crystalblock module. It does make the tickets a little more expensive, of course, but nobody has ever died from crystalblock failure since the return of Ariel 1 over 60 years ago, so if it's any consolation, the legacy of your father has saved many lives indeed.'
Jenny's mind went back to the agonizing images of her dreams, of the big red 'Emergency Release' button, her ten-year-old fist slamming on it repeatedly and nothing happening, but she remained composed. David offered to take her for a walk down to the Ariel launch pads: He said he wanted her to see them before they were torn down, he felt he had a duty to his old friend Roger to let his daughter say goodbye in privacy and dignity and not during the media event that was sure to take place on the day of the demolition.
As Jenny walked, she reflected on the entire Terra Echelon, staffed and run almost completely by virtualized personalities. A government that spanned 5 Earth-like planets now, and growing exponentially, new Earths colonized and linked together by a constant stream of trade, supply and commerce across the vast distances. The ships in space carrying crystalblocked passengers to be revived at destinations that lay years or even decades away: Giant silent carriers filled with thousands of coffin-like boxes gliding across the eternal night between stars at absolute zero. Inside, all passenger crystalblocks monitored by AI software living in the pilot mainframe, virtualized personalities watching and taking care of flesh and blood which they themselves had never known.
She thought about Bianca, her best friend and companion, the being that was closest to her in the whole world. She was an AI too -'Well, a virtualized personality' Bianca would say in her kind and sweet way- who lived inside the Global Management system. Jenny was thinking about this as she walked with David through the entrance of the venerable Ariel launch pad dome.
David began to point out various features of the giant domed assembly, and spoke at length, telling Jenny about the subsequent Ariel missions, the successes that they had, how they had changed the world, how humanity had broken free of the gravity well and had started to come of age, how virtualized pilots had further unburdened humans from the harshness and dangers of space travel, how technology had finally begun to serve mankind via the wisdom of the Terra Echelon, but Jenny had stopped listening.
As she stared out into the Ariel launch pad, her mind pictured the vast emptiness of space, dark and freezing like the sunless pit of an iced-over lake, filled with billions upon billions of sealed crystalblock containers that floated like a vast soup of coffins, blocking out the light of all the suns and nebulae, a vast sea of frozen death, caressed and tended gently by wise and patient computer programs that would swim between coffins like glowing jellyfish, taking care to touch each coffin with their tentacles, to feel its occupant, to know that if the need ever arose they could be revived, to keep them healthy and stable, through all time.
She saw the Earth and all the planets of the Terra Echelon, whose every minute detail was managed and taken care of by the Global Management system, and she knew that they had all been crystalblocked: herself, David, her father, everyone, it was all a crystalblock, just like in her dreams, she and the rest of humanity dead and frozen, and the keys to their revival handed over to their wise, kind, and very, very patient AI guardians, who would never let any harm come to them while they slept.
And finally she knew who she needed to blame, but it did not make any difference, not anymore: