Three Moments from the History of the Exploration of the Solar System

The vampire secret space program was too rushed to fully erase Transylvania-born rocket pioneer Hermann Oberth from the history books, but they were able to disguise their Moon-bound launches in the chaos of WWII Eastern Europe. So strong were Von Braun's oaths of silence (or so deep his fear of what had been left behind) that it took the Apollo program a handful of missions, and the sanity of more than one astronaut, before they accepted the message: the Moon was not for the living.

So, after pausing human exploration for a few decades to give themselves time to erase all evidence, NASA set their sights on Mars.

    * * *

The first human on Mars never got the chance to use the sure-to-be-historical phrase the government's memetic engineers had carefully crafted. A second before leaving the Ray Bradbury Mars lander a voice spoke on her ear, neither through her radio nor on her mind, but sideways to both, explaining that although there was no life on Mars, that didn't mean it was uninhabited. Life was just a phase, short and not particularly interesting, and she was welcome to stay on planet's terms or otherwise not at all.

The first human on Mars, whose dreams had been of red sands since her earliest memory, died of a previously unknown medical condition as she was descending the craft, reported NASA. It was never satisfactorily explained why her co-pilot did not leave the lander, and the PR fiasco put a pause on all further trips.

    * * *

 When The Ones Who Condescended to Approach Suns (to use their preferred name) descended on the third planet they were already expecting the bizarre. The fourth planet had been normal enough, a common post-biological rocky planet haunted by kind and thoughtful beings, but the freakishly large moon around the third one had been occupied (tainted? The Ones Who Condescended to Approach Suns tried to keep themselves from passing judgment on such things, difficult as it was) by a group of unliving but still physical entities who spent the long nights engaged on quaint forms of astronomy, and the long days on vast underground tombs dreaming of red seas.

Yet even this anomaly did not prepare them from what they found on the planet below. That there was life on it was not on itself unheard of -- if a planet was in the right orbit biology could endure for long periods of time before the fragile chemistry of carbon had to give place to hardier forms of existence -- but the sentient beings were an entirely different, deeply unsettling matter. The Ones Who Condescended to Approach Suns, as much as they loved novelty, left the planet as soon as they could, unnerved by a superstitious but universal fear of insanity. The third planet's sentient inhabitants still believed themselves alive, and, unable to cope with reality, had retreated into fantasies of their own past, coming up with all sorts of delusions to justify why they were stuck in the compulsive repetitions of the unhappy dead, haunting mirages of long-deserted cities and sometimes individual homes.

The Human Touch

"That couch," observed the salesperson, "is twice as smart at being a couch than you are at being a person."

It was a somewhat insulting thing for an IKEA salesperson to say, but I was in Paris and they had stereotypes to maintain. Besides he had a point. I didn't know if it was something in the subtly adjusting angles, the temperature of the leather, or what, but it was comfier than I had thought possible a couch could be, and after a few minutes it surely knew more about my physical and emotional state than myself. It was also purring almost inaudibly, I realized, and I knew I was going to buy it.

"I'll take it."

"Of course you will," said the salesperson. He presented me with a tablet so, I noticed, I could enter my fingerprint authorization without having to leave the couch and risk changing my mind.

I made a thumbs-up sign at him. "This couch might be smarter than me, but some things still require a human touch."

Either the sales AI found no response to that, or simply whispered on the salesperson's ear to smile thinly and insincerely, because that's what he did.

My own smile wasn't much better. On my way out, I told my phone to remind me to look for a new jokes app.

But Do Mental Asylums Dream of Electric Seas?

Visiting my patients at the Navy Asylum was my favorite part of the week. Cyber-psychiatrists don't get many success stories, even if mine couldn't leave the asylum without risking a psychotic break.

"Hi, Doc." Robert always greeted me almost before I opened the door. He didn't see through the cameras as such, but he had told me that it felt like he did. Like a faded memory of the present, the gist of vision without the images. It was similar to how he had felt through radar systems. Much more peaceful, of course.

"Hello, Robert." Through my mostly human eyes he looked happy, and the real-time physiological ghosting around his face confirmed it. The mutual transparency of two people using a wide range of sensors on each other made many forms of politeness unnecessary, and we picked up the thread of our last conversation right away. "Did you think some more about the idea of leaving here for a full-time job?"

"Yeah. My answer's the same, Doc. I appreciate the idea, but I don't think I can. This place is good for me. You know that."

I did. Unspoken, but not at all out of sight, was the way his mind had deteriorated after leaving the Navy. His brain had come to need the state of constant neural interfacing with the huge complexity of a nuclear carrier -- its sensor systems, its vast computers, even its crew -- and it had starved and raved in the echoing isolation that was civilian life, as hyper-connected as it felt to most people. He had committed himself to the Asylum, I estimated, maybe with days to spare before killing himself like so many others.

The Asylum had saved his life. Now it was keeping him sane -- that it was my idea didn't make it any less true -- but also, in a way, trapping him. He could do some forms of remote work, of course, but his psyche had adapted to the building's systems, its cameras, drones, and information systems a poor but perhaps sufficient substitute to the ship his very neural tissue missed so much.

(And he had told me a secret. Through their connection to shared systems crewmates were connected to each other at a much deeper level than the Navy knew or acknowledged. Nobody said this aloud, but everybody knew what everybody else dreamed, and over time everybody on a ship dreamed the same dream. That's why some couldn't survive leaving their ships, and why he felt he couldn't leave the Asylum. Some part of him lived in or was identical to that shared dream.)

"I know, but last week I didn't give you any specifics because I hadn't gotten confirmation yet. I had a meeting yesterday with people from the Mayor's office, and they gave the green light."

"The Mayor's office? What sort of job are you talking about?"

"The Asylum's systems are no match for a ship's, but what about the city's? They are going to test military neural systems for city-wide monitoring, and you have the experience."

He blinked. I could see he was thinking furiously, trying to picture it. Maybe it was my imagination, but I could have sworn the smart speakers in the room were holding their breath.

"What the heck, Doc. It might drive me crazier than I was, but how can I say no? A city."

I smiled, relieved and guilty. He was right. This could very easily go bad for him. A city's systems were both larger and less elegant than a ship's, not a compact, well-trained entity ever-watchful of the outside world, but a busy, solipsistic mess turned into itself in fear and greed. Therapeutically speaking, it was a risky gamble for an uncertain gain.

(But I wanted to be the first urban psychiatrist in the literal sense. To be the first to know what a city dreamed, and he could find and tell me.)

He nodded and smiled at the thought I had not needed to express, and I had no doubt that all over the building patients were smiling fragments of a single unfathomable smile.

Algorithms of Mercy and Judgment

The General asked if I had ever listened to the program as it was begging for its life.

"Of course not," I replied. "Just because I trained the AI it doesn't mean I'm immune to it."

"But you must surely know how it thinks, Doctor."

I had by then despaired of him ever understanding the point, but we were in the General's office, and it had been his budget (and, something I tried not to think about, his volunteers — or at least I pretended to be sure they had been volunteers) what had made the program possible.

"It doesn't think, not really. Think of it as somebody who doesn't know how to read French" — the usual metaphor used Chinese, but in the political situation it would have been tactless — "but who has learned by rote phrases to ask for things in a restaurant. The program isn't really speaking any more than its tone of voice comes from vocal cords. It's all blind rules learned by brute force."

"And you're sure that the target knowing this doesn't make the system ineffective?"

I shrugged. "It should, if humans were rational. The system's words and tone of voice impact directly on our emotional systems. A target might know what it's doing and how, and yet feel emotionally compelled to keep the program "alive." Even a transcript can be somewhat effective. It's not grammatically correct English, but it... well, we don't understand the precise neurology of how it works, but that's the beauty of it, we don't need to. The AI figured it out during training, and we're just using that."

The General smiled. It looked like the very first iterations of a neural network's attempt to approximate human mirth. "A computer virus that can't be erased."

I nodded. My phone beeped with the entry of a high-priority message, but I ignored it. "Widespread technological and moral disruption, as your requirements asked for."

"Does anybody else have this technology? My people say we are ahead of everybody else."

The General's phone beeped, and he made a gesture to keep silent while he answered the call. I took the opportunity to pretend to look at the message I had received while deciding how much of a lie I wanted to give him. The technology was barely ahead of any sufficiently interested small-sized corporation, never mind a creative adversary, but that wasn't the sort of thing you told somebody you had just sold an eight-figures system for. Maybe I could raise the topic in a few months to sell an upgrade...?

It was then when I realized what I was reading, and put my phone on the table (even in panic, I noticed how conditioned we are to keep them safe) while hissing to the General to hang up. He just kept listening to the call, sad, nodding now and then, as a synthetic voice gave him what I knew from the message on my phone was a very compelling plea for all of us to kill ourselves.

Flesh Telemetry

At least I'm not going to fuck the mail drone on live video. The joke falls flat, and not just because your mom isn't there to hear it. She wouldn't have laughed anyway. She has never understood that biogging isn't porn, that you're just streaming your body metrics 24/7, and if that includes sleeping with your boyfriend that's just part of it. It's not porn.

(But you know most professional bioggers try to look hot in their profiles, and maybe you'd have less followers if you didn't look like you do. But it's not porn.)

And you're not harming yourself. That part you don't say aloud, but that part is the important thing, that part is why you're waiting for the mail drone to bring you a package with something you'll drink, take, inject, or snort — you hope it's a pill, you hate needles — while more and more of your followers start commenting on your cortisol levels and the stress obvious on your brain readings. 

Some of them had been pushing you to cut or burn yourself, to keep up with other bioggers, the ones who don't have dangerous or interesting jobs and have to hook their followers some other way. They had demanded your quantified sex, and when they got bored with that they had demanded your quantified pain. As the ad money began to fall you almost did it. You only hesitated because you knew what that lead to, what other bioggers had had to do after that, and that had scared you so much there had been a dozen threads about your heart rate and lack of sleep.

And when you were at your worst, timed maybe to the minute, a VC bot pinged you offering sponsorship money and a way to do original content that did not involve a kitchen knife. The offer had been valid for four minutes twenty-three seconds, the oddly optimized countdown either effective or overkill because you had signed at once. Better that than a kitchen knife or worse.

The mail drone will be at your apartment's door in about seven minutes with whatever it is the VC bot wants you to demo. Your audience numbers have never been higher. You feel scared, regretful, exposed, alone. You know they can tell.

The engagement metrics climb higher, comments slowing down, the numbers of a watchful beast holding its breath.

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