The Crime and Glory of Antonia DeVilbiss

At midnight on the appointed day, the prison warden arrived at the prisoner's cell to deliver her to her punishment. When he opened the door, he found the cell empty. In spite of all precautions, Antonia DeVilbiss had vanished without a trace.

The worldwide consternation lasted for several weeks, an astonishing feat in a society in which even the destruction of a major city by a meteorite had faded from the noosphere within days. It was in part the sheer audacity of her escape, slipping out of a cell made of smart matter that recorded her every moment, which kept the techpundits chattering day after day with speculations of increasing desperation and inanity. But the greatest interest came from the nature of her crime, for which the tribunal of three military judges had sentenced her not to mere execution, but to be mindwiped and her brain used as an organic processor: by means never fully discovered she had wrested from the noosphere the memories of a martyr of the Space Race, Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee.

Using those stolen memories and her expertise in the creation of intelligent agents of disturbing autonomy, she had resurrected her fallen astronaut as an artificial intellect, made him her friend, her confidante, even – whisper it, the horror – her lover. And when a moment's carelessness betrayed their secret cyber-hideout to the digital watchdogs of the noosphere, she'd fled with him in a hopeless cross-country flight that ended in the spaceport of a rogue nation and a nighttime rocket launch.

He'd argued with her to the end, insisting that he be allowed to plead her case. But she'd held firm, warning that in the eyes of the law he was not a person but a human-impostor, a monstrous creation of Frankenstein science, to be smashed to pieces as a public warning to other programmers who sought to create forbidden artificial intelligence. Only by taking that rocket could he preserve her work in the face of those who would destroy it.

Keep the faith, she had told him. Keep the dream alive. Go out there and make sure these fools can never shut it down again.

Much as it had smacked of cowardice, he'd agreed to her plan, and when the authorities broke down the doors of the blockhouse to arrest her, he was already thundering into space on a trajectory that would take him far beyond their reach, past the Moon to which he'd aspired as a mortal man and out into the starry deeps.

How they'd raged at losing him, a foretaste of the wrath her disappearance would arouse. She'd made it to trial only because of stringent precautions against those who would invoke the ancient practice of lynch law.

The government had publicized the trial in excruciating detail, either not knowing or not caring that he could monitor their transmissions. He'd watched the people introduced as his surviving heirs, listened to them compare Antonia's bringing him back as a machine intelligence to dancing upon his grave – a place these individuals had never bestirred themselves to visit until it became politically expedient to be pictured anguished and weeping at it.

He'd marked the various techniques by which the manipulators of opinon whipped the passions of the masses into a frenzy that promised riots and bloodshed should the military tribunal fail to deliver the expected verdict. He'd considered making a transmission of his own, if not to argue her case, at least to goad humanity into rediscovering its forgotten capacity for spaceflight.

However, every simulation showed less than a five-percent chance of creating a self-sustaining human presence in space. Far more likely it would end only in his destruction, after which humanity would turn its back on the stars once more, priding itself on how it was honoring the limits of the terrestrial ecology by confining themselves to its sphere. No, the best hope remained their original plan, much as he loathed the role of passive observer, fleeing to the marginal refuge of deep space. Onward and outward he flew as verdict and sentence came down, as people desperate for an explanation for her disappearance claimed he must've found a way to accomplish it on the slender basis that the recordings showed her calling out his name in the moment before she vanished.

As he crossed the orbit of Mars, he encountered a micrometeor. An object no bigger than a grain of sand, but traveling with such speed and energy that it tore through him like a bullet.

By good fortune it missed his most critical systems – the processor cores, the steering rockets for course corrections, the tiny reactor to provide power once he traveled into the outer solar system, beyond the range of solar power. A few odd memories of dubious veracity, gleaned from pirate networks fed by rumor and speculation, puffed into vapor when they were nicked by the space rock's passage, destroyed along with some obscure nineteenth-century novels Antonia had slipped into some spare space on that memory chip.

Of far more concern was the damage to his radio, by which he maintained that slender thread of contact with Earth, with its teeming billions, and thus with his own humanity. As he assessed the damage, he blessed his foresight in insisting that he be equipped with the capacity for self-repair.

However, he'd no sooner deployed the swarm of tiny robots across receiver and antenna than he realized the extent of the damage far exceeded the available supplies for fabricating replacement parts. A lesser man might have despaired of any solution, but he had a reputation to uphold. As a mortal man he had stayed at his assigned tasks, maintaining communications even as the flames licked across his body while his crewmates struggled in vain to open that never-to-be-sufficiently-accursed hatch. Let no one ever say that Roger Chaffee abandoned his duties, not as an organic, and not as an artilect either.

He first thought to cannibalize those parts of the spacecraft he no longer needed at this stage of the journey. However, simple calculations showed even that expedient would not augment his stores of raw material sufficient to effect the necessary repairs.

He recalled the final stage of the booster that had lifted him from Earth's gravity well, now following on the same trajectory. However, he also knew that the limited fuel in his thrusters could not retard his course enough to let that treasure-trove catch up, and to try would only leave himself incapable of any future maneuvers, even those essential to his survival.

While working through those conclusions, he realized that the nanobot swarm was not only tools for performing specific repairs. Rather, like the blacksmith's forge or a machine shop, they were also tools for making tools. Given sufficient time and raw materials, he could replicate the entire technology – and he was moving into a volume of space rich with raw materials. He needed only use the surplus at hand to construct a suite of robots more suitable to the task. A few thruster firings would intercept the desired objects and he would have everything he needed.

As he effected the necessary repairs, he grasped at last the root of the malaise that had lingered over him throughout his flight, even amidst the wonders of the solar system. Idleness did not suit him. An engineer is happiest when working, when building and improving useful things.

Delighted to have work to do, he set about remaking his spacecraft to a more robust form of his own design. No longer bound by the constraints the rocket equation had placed upon what could be lifted from Earth's gravity well, he could equip himself with machine shops, laboratories, all manner of tools. Growing confident in his skills, he fabricated new processors and memory chips to augment his intellect, to enable himself to perform simulations of greater extent and detail.

By the time he reached the orbit of Jupiter, nothing remained of the tiny, fragile probe that had fled into the night. He had transformed his machine embodiment into a spacecraft of a size and complexity more akin to the ocean-going vessels upon which he'd traveled as a naval aviator in his mortal lifetime. Yet for all that an ever-dwindling number of radio transmissions from an angry Earth might decry his work as an act of cosmic vandalism by an abomination of Frankenstein science, he could not abandon organic humanity altogether. So he left behind one swarm of constructor robots with instructions for the fabrication of habitats of a variety of designs, and of the robots that would maintain them ready for occupation until the Sun itself went dark. Even if the current terrestrial civilization remained determined to self-destruct, he could not relinquish the hope that some future one might rise like the fabled phoenix to fly once more, and would discover mansions waiting in the heavens and would learn the story of how Roger Chaffee dreamed of spaceflight only to have a routine preflight test for his first mission turn deadly on him, and how he'd come back to life as a machine intelligence through the love of a brave and determined woman.

Passing through the realm of the outer planets, he regretted that his course would not take him close enough to any of them for extensive study. However, he also understood that the nature of his escape had precluded the selection of a launch window that would make such a grand tour possible.

All the same, he put that time to good use optimizing his equipment. He still had a long journey ahead of him, and an ever growing list of ideas for things that could be done once he entered the Kuiper Belt with its wealth of ancient volatiles and light elements.

Of greater concern was the state of signals from Earth. Already whole regions had gone dark, and what transmissions he did receive suggested significant regression in social and technological development. Not only had innovation ceased, but even established technologies were slipping away, impossible to support in an increasingly fragmented world. He could only wonder how long it would be before his final lifeline went silent under the rising tide of barbarism, leaving him alone in the endless darkness.

It came while he was mining volatiles from a minor Kuiper Belt object. For the past several years the technological sophistication of signals had declined in tandem with the growing reports of disorder, of rebels and raiders attacking familiar American cities. The last survivors had even lost the ability to generate a carrier wave and fallen back on code. That final transmission pleaded for someone to come to the relief of Wichita, ending with: raiders burning walls, coming in. A few more bursts followed, perhaps indicative of a scuffle in the radio room, someone or something hitting the code key at random.

For a time he waited, hoping for some final news of the fate of Wichita. At length he concluded there would be no more. In search of some way to memorialize the last stand of civilization he found among his files a song, "The Wichita Lineman." Listening to it made him recall Antonia's words to him soon after she'd first awakened him, that his ability to love and to appreciate beauty proved his humanity, his physical embodiment notwithstanding.

Now he must proceed alone into the darkness. He never knew the precise point at which he left the solar system, for the simple reason that even the experts had never agreed on any clear demarcation of its boundaries. But when he looked back and realized he'd left the realm of the Sun's influence behind for good, he pondered the irony that he, who as a mortal man had never flown in space and thus had often been regarded as less than a true astronaut, should as an artilect go farther than any other human.

The thought made him wonder what it would've been like to fly Apollo 1. How better to find out than to run it as a simulation, with full sensory input as if he were still a mortal man. He had the necessary processor power and memory, so he foresaw no difficulty.

However, he had not gotten into the second day in orbit before he realized his crewmates were naught but puppets, bearing the names and faces of the illustrious astronauts, but acting only at his will. There'd never been a moment when either did anything unexpected, yet he recalled that not one day had gone by in training without Ed or Gus doing something astonishing, whether some outrageous gotcha or some random kindness to make the rookie feel at home among men far senior to himself.

He recalled the moment in the trial when Antonia had tried to argue that she had done nothing more than authors and playwrights had done throughout the ages when incorporating historical-domain characters into their works, albeit with more sophisticated technology. Should art be a crime, she had asked her judges.

The prosecutor had responded by reading from her lab notebooks, retelling her delight that day when he had astonished her with a question for which she had no answer, a question she would not have thought to ask, since it lay within his area of technical expertise rather than her own. Thus her own words demonstrated that she had gone far beyond the entertainer's art to create an autonomous machine entity with the mind and identity of a martyred spaceman, in defiance of law and custom.

He could only wonder why he'd failed where she'd succeeded. Was it that she had at her disposal the entire late twenty-first century noosphere, while he had only those records he'd carried into the starry void? Or had there been some other, more subtle failing in his efforts, some vital spark he had received but could not in turn grant?

Whatever the reason, he found he couldn't bear to erase his poor efforts to recreate Gus and Ed. It would be too much like killing these brave men all over again. Instead he turned his attention elsewhere until they faded into memory.

Henceforth he populated his simulated missions with characters of his own imaginings, to which he gave just enough personality to enable himself to suspend disbelief in the worlds he created even as he ran the calculations that supported them. He flew past Venus, landed on Mars and watched the Earth-Moon system gleam as a double evening star over the ruddy cliffs. He developed a fondness for solo missions, traveling pilgrim-project-fashion to the Moon and watching from his lofty hermitage while the Earth waxed and waned month after month in a sky blacker than black.

In time, simulating so many missions that never flew led him to contemplate the quantum mechanical implications of his activities. His own processor cores operated on quantum principles, and among his library of technical data were materials that posited a quantum basis for organic human consciousness, even suggesting that many of the experiences often attributed to the paranormal might be better explained through the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the impinging of the consciousness of one version of an individual onto another world's.

Several of his simulations had possessed an overwhelming rightness, a sense that they ought to be real, the historical record notwithstanding. Might there be a world where he did get to stand on the Martian surface and gaze up into that pink sky? But without a way to detect and examine other worlds, he had no way to ascertain that he was not indulging in wishful thinking.

Here was an engineering problem with meat on its bones, one fit to keep him busy for a few centuries as he sped through the endless night. The work took three major reconfigurations of his laboratories and workshops, aided by materials mined in the systems of several dim and obscure stars he passed, but at last he constructed a device by which he could look across time.

Tuning his transtemporal viewer proved another challenge. His first efforts opened windows upon worlds so alien that he thought he had his spatial coordinates awry and must be looking at some exoplanet. But widening his view enough to identify key landmarks of the solar system, to make a spectrographic examination of sunlight, all proved the world to be Earth, albeit one which had diverged long before the earliest humans had appeared.

Worlds ruled by the descendants of beasts out of paleontology books held little interest for him. By trial and error he learned how to scan across timelines and close in on the group with recognizable human histories. From there he had to sort away the unfallen Carthages and expansionist Chinas to find the timelines that diverged only within the twentieth century, that had a recognizable American space program with familiar faces.

Once he had himself oriented in paratime, it proved easy to shift from one to another timeline in a group, examining how changes large and small affected not just the relevant programs, but also the larger course of history in ways his simulations had never taken into account. He wasn't surprised to discover that a catastrophic failure in the development of Apollo could lead to a desperation maneuver like the pilgrim-project mission he'd simulated. However, he'd never expected that it could also lead to major shifts in the development of US foreign policy, or fashion, or of product liability lawsuits on consumer goods, all from the subtle shifts of the public's attitudes that resulted from so many months of looking up at the Moon and knowing there was a guy up there all alone, counting on America to build the spacecraft that would bring him home.

He recalled the old notion of developing a statistical science of history with predictive power. Might there be too many variables for any such system to account for, even with all the computing power that had existed on Earth when he left?

Looking at so many timelines led him to the question of his own fate. Was a deadly Fire inevitable, or was there a point at which they could escape without only delaying the disaster to some worse point, perhaps in orbit where it would be impossible to determine the nature of the failure?

The speed with which events had unfolded made it difficult to examine the timelines and determine the effects of slight changes. Even a minute too early and the flames didn't have enough time to spread to the point that would convince the program managers that problem lay in the spacecraft, and not the attitudes of the astronauts. If they started before it actually ignited, there was a sweet spot of a few seconds when they could finishing opening the hatch just as everything was catching alight and the three of them would emerge with flames licking across their suits, a visual so dramatic no one could miss the message that they'd escaped a deathtrap. They'd bear the scars for the rest of their lives, but they'd get to have those lives, even go on to fly later missions.

Might he even make it to Mars? He recalled the moment during that simulation when he'd fought down the certitude that it should be the real world, and not the one history declared to be true, in which every plan for a crewed mission to Mars foundered before it could get beyond the design stages.

This search proved difficult, for timelines didn't branch so neatly as he'd expect, instead clustering and tangling in ways that made it tricky to find a particular event like that one. But he'd learned the art of patience in his journey through the interstellar void, and find it he did. The astronauts with whom he'd flown in that world proved quite unlike the ciphers he'd generated to fill the roles in his simulation, and watching them interact brought home the difference. But far more telling was when he stood before the lander and looked up at Earth and Moon gleaming together in the evening sky. Could he have simulated that moment with such perfection by chance alone?

Except he'd missed the scars on his other self's face, the proof that here was a world of his narrow escape and not one in which some other astronaut had drawn that ill-fated mission, sparing him for other things. Curious, he widened his view to take in more of that world's history, to see the course of events that brought him to this place.

How Antonia would have loved that world, with its rich history of spaceflight ever expanding from slender threads and toeholds to substantial bases and permanent settlements. There could be no turning back, no cutting the funding, for if any one nation faltered, another would hurry to take advantage of the delay.

Yet the more the sight of such a wonderful world delighted him, the more frustrated he became that he could not go there. The problem resisted his every effort to solve it. It was as if Nature were saying, here's a wonderful world next door, but you can't have it.

Such thoughts led down a dark path, and no one had ever said that Roger Chaffee indulged in bitterness or resentment. He had no intent of starting now.

Best to turn his mind to other, more profitable matters. In the process of building the transtemporal viewer, he'd discovered many other potential applications of quantum theory that offered fruitful avenues for exploration.

At long last he entered a distant stellar system to find an inhabited world. Even weary from having lived a thousand lifetimes, he found it amusing that he of all the astronauts should be humanity's first and only ambassador to another intelligent species.

However, establishing contact proved an unexpected challenge, even for one who had spent longer solving engineering problems than the entire history of human civilization. These aliens were an aquatic species, and while they might be gentle and philosophical in the manner often ascribed to dolphins, in physical form they proved more akin the the various nightmares of the Gentleman from Providence.

Therein lay the difficulty, for these entities' sensorium was so alien to human experience that it proved difficult to find sufficient commonality to communicate his interest in discourse. Learning their language required that he first learn to perceive the universe as they did. Creating the necessary avatar proved more difficult than he had anticipated, mostly because of the need to suppress his default sensory metaphors in order to perceive the actual inputs he was receiving.

But how rewarding his efforts proved. When he succeeded and established a scientific and technical discourse, he apprehended at last the keys to the questions that had eluded him throughout the long millennia of his journey through the celestial deeps, of the relationship of space, time and paratime.

He reached backward through space and time in search of the woman who had given him renewed life. In that bleak prison cell Antonia waited, head low in despair as she awaited the moment of her destruction.

He called out her name, and she looked up. What a delight to see hopelessness give way to renewed joy as she realized he'd come for her, shouted his name in delight. But that happiness was tempered by the realization that there could be no resuming their former relationship. No, he had traveled too far, changed too much, and he could not take her with him into his world and make her as he was, for to do so would destroy her. Yet neither could he leave her to her fate here.

He recalled the world he'd recognized as one she would love. A world in which he'd not perished in the flames, but had escaped and gone on to a long and illustrious career with missions to the Moon and Mars. A world with a robust space program that by the midpoint of the twenty-first century would see cities on the Moon and Mars, asteroid mining, even the first tentative crewed missions to Jupiter and its family of moons. A world where human cloning had found its beginnings in the black-budget projects of the Cold War, where his other self had been one of its many subjects, and where Antonia could find among those clones someone who would give her the happiness she deserved.

Previously he had been able only to look, but with his new knowledge he could build her a quantum bridge into that bright new world. After a moment's hesitation at being parted so soon after regaining him, she stepped across and into a new life. He watched her long enough to satisfy himself that he'd chosen well, that she would indeed find in that world the joy and love she had been denied in the one that gave her birth.

Soon enough he would explore his new-found freedom of the timelines and wander among the worlds. But now, in this time, he would rest.


Copyright 2016 by Leigh Kimmel

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