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MODIFIED

Title: Modified

Series: N/A

Author: K. Van Kramer

ISBN: 978-1-60975-253-8

Product Code: BK0172

Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 306

Release Date: March 2020

Cover Price: $19.95

Our Price: $19.95

 

 

 

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Book Jacket

 

Only one person can warn the Venusians about an astronomical catastrophe but he is an android slave.

 

High in the clouds of Venus, the Venusians live in three glorious floating citadels while the androids known as Automatons labor on its surface.

 

Both feared and admired, the intelligent Automatons have been outlawed. As a last resort to keep the few remaining alive, they’re banished to toil below. Escape is impossible, and most do not have a concept of freedom. With suspicions they are sentient, many colonists are against their ruthless sacrifice for the benefit of humanity. Yet disruption of their vital mining of ore and geo-engineering, would doom the cities to failure. 

 

When strange events involve Terik, the son of the cities founder, and Joules, the daughter of an inventor, questions of sentience seem confirmed when they happen upon a super intelligent android named Jarvis. Built by the automatons they realize they must help him survive and convey his warning about an approaching comet from the Scattered Disc.

 

Thrust into moral conflicts, survival and political battles, Terik and Joules are drawn together in a profound friendship as they risk their lives to help Jarvis, and get his message to city leaders. In a classic future that is drawn between between good and evil, fear and courage, life and transformation, they face a new world, knowing the fate of the Automations and the Venusians will change forever.

 


 

Book Excerpt

 

1

THE BAIT

 

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

Peter Drucker

 

 

 

Dr. Leto and Zac sat together in a treatment clinic for prisoners of Warbo 1. The room had the usual cold, lifeless, barren feel of the entrenched industrial complex. Buried deep inside the center, even the med lab seemed suffused with a hot-metal stench, steeped in the Venusian red shrouding of smog, cinders, grit and regolith pollution.

Zac looked at Leto steadily.

He was one of the unfortunate human technicians that resided in the mining regions, intent on reducing his prison sentence in exchange for working here. During his stint he would help manage surface operations, but it was a dangerous exchange. The Venusian practice of giving violent offenders a reduced sentence in exchange for working below the surface was a form of rehabilitative program and considered an imaginative alternative to custody. It was normal practice for the prisoners to meet with Leto as he made his rounds and try to convince him to speed up their already shortened sentences.

But for practical reasons, Leto didn’t come often. This wasn’t just any ordinary prison — it was a SuperMax, built and run on the surface on Venus. Just as dangerous to live in as it was to visit. The prisoners could dial in on a hologram prism call to talk virtually, but Leto’s doctor-patient confidentiality was a problem and legal jurisdiction was also a considerable issue. Meds were also in short supply.

A steady blast of sickening, warm air hit the two men through a ventilation system with a steady thrum. The crosshatch emblem of Strata was projected on a wall, and a Laputa medical insignia was emblazoned on Leto’s pristine white medical jacket. Leto looked clean-shaven, waxed and plucked, and had a fastidious air about him. His devil goatee had also been perfectly trimmed.

A far less groomed Zac peered at Leto, his five-o-clock shadow always showing. His normal, clean-cut appearance had changed from his days in the legion and his dark brown hair had grown long and wavy. To be clean or fresh shaven below was an extravagance here. The prisoners had to endure constant heat, with barely enough water to drink, to say nothing of a shower. Covered in a thin film of sweat and grime, Zac knew it was not the work here or the isolation, but the one-minute shower blasts that sometimes drove the prisoners to madness.

Lucky for Strata, the prison was uniquely suited for the Venusians quest for resources, and the hellish conditions of Venus afforded them free labor. It was a maximum-security prison that functioned without guards and there was no escape. A complex made up of several large, insulated buildings and science labs shielded the prison camp from the outside elements and allowed them to survive. Confined to work inside the cooled silicon chambers, they were kept safe, but life was barely tolerable. Armed with food, water, fire sleeves, fire blankets, fire suits, sealants and a myriad of flame retardant fluids, they also had to abide by strict curfews and attend work at a specified time everyday over the course of their sentence. Escape was death, and staying alive was the perk.

The Automatons, in contrast, were built to withstand the toxic hellhole that was Venus. Their sleek bodies were printed and designed with a super alloy known as Inconel-X, as well as other metals which were frozen to low temperatures with cryogenic processing. Their unique brains, made from complex neuron circuitry, were coated in revolutionary aerogel composites, to combat the heat. Built to outlast humans or the harsh temperatures of space, they were practically indestructible, but not entirely. The original life expectancy was a thousand years, but their inner delicate machinery couldn’t take the Venusian heat forever, and their lifetimes were sliced into a fraction on the surface, with slow degeneration. Exploring the surface of the planet and surviving there was an impressive feat. But it was also a bit unsettling to the citizens above, who couldn’t possibly go below without being crushed to death or burned alive. Not to mention the fact that not many humans were clear if the Automatons still survived, and if they did, how they made their decisions.

 “What brings you here today Zac?” Leto inquired while looking at his nails. He could tell Leto was trying to act as if he didn’t care. Leto had told him a couple of times that he thought of Zac as was one of “his” most interesting prisoners, but Zac had avoided him like the plague. Leto had tried to psycho analyze him in an effort to get the juicy story out of him concerning his arrest, but Zac had remained silent as a stone.

“ Your report said you wanted to talk to me about something?”

Zac, the lead mining technician, hesitated. He wondered if he could outwit the prison psychiatrist in order to get him interested in a special automaton named Jarvis. “Mind if I smoke?”

“Smoking’s bad for your health. Especially down here.” Leto said.

Zac lit up his electronic smokey and inhaled it slowly, trying to hide his distaste for Leto. Finally he said, “One of the units says everyone in Venus could die.”

 Leto looked startled and his eyes lit up. “Does it say how?”

“It says it doesn’t know for sure. It says it has a message, information to help us, but it wants to confer with an expert in the city.”

“How does it describe it?”

“It says something about an impact.” Zac hastened to explain. “I think it could be about meteors.”

Zac waited for Dr. Leto to say something.

“If it talks to me like this, it means its highly intelligent right? Sentient?”

“Intelligent maybe, but not sentient,” Leto said coolly. “How long have you been communicating with it?”

“Since I’ve been here. It’s just a part of my job. Standard procedure. But they have rules about fraternization.” Zac paused as he dragged on his smokey again and exhaled the vapors.

“Whose they?” Leto asked.

“Strata.”

 “Must be pretty interesting then, to work with the automations?”

“Not usually. My role is just intermediary. After an exploration mission, they come back to cool down and couple with a computer control system called Lodestream. They’re designed to connect to Lodestream, which plugs into CORE – the mining network matrix. If any of the Automaton units find anything, I capture the data through Lodestream and send it all through CORE’S encrypted communications channels. They call it an information dump around here. Between the techs and operators down here and CORE’S administrators above, that’s pretty much all I get to do. Usually the Automatons just shut down and go into hibernation mode while they recharge like clockwork. There’s no interfacing allowed.”

“So how did it communicate with you?”

“We don’t get any one on one with them, if that’s what you mean. Strata designed a fancy interface system with sensors to access what they know. They autonomously return to a sort of wireless charging station and just wait to be activated for their next mission. During that time I can select any one of the units and ask it a question about a mission. We use a voice directed system when they’re coupled in order to confirm their tasks. They just follow typical Q and A — but Jarvis initiates. It’s weird… It’s like talking to person. It says it wants to be friends.”

Leto got to his feet with a patient smile. “Jarvis? These machines were built with programs for speech , and can deceive us. They even helped the military at one time before they came down here. But you should know that, you’re Ex Delta Force.”

 Zac looked sharply at Leto, “They knew what they were dealing with, which is why they’re here.”

Leto’s face remained less than moved, and Zac felt disappointed. Zac would have rather avoided Dr. Leto but he had an important agenda in mind. As for his visit, it wasn’t that out of the ordinary since all prisoners had the right for a quick metal health screening. A cold light gleamed above his head. Zac continued to smoke and sat back in his chair. Leto sat back and folded his hands on his desk.

“Have you been sleeping properly?” Leto asked. “Restless, disorientated, uneasy? Hearing voices?” Leto looked at him with his sanguine, settled, precise eyes.

Zac’s jaw clenched. “No.”

“Your nightmares about your off world missions —”

 “Look, I’m not crazy. I think it knows something. I’m not hallucinating. Interview it yourself. It’ll tell you the same thing.” Zac said. “How do you explain that it’s vocalizing something that it’s not programmed for?” he asked emphatically.

Leto picked up a clear electronic readout of Zac’s sentence. Delta Force Legion. “Highly decorated. Says here you took part in the regular capture of Earth rebels. Two purple hearts, Earth, Venus and…Mars. Youngest man to be decorated by Landis. Says you compromised a mission and were accused of war crimes against the cities. It involved the disappearance of some rebels. Council threw the book at you. Seven years.”

“That operation remains classified. I can’t talk about it.”

Leto looked disappointed. “You can tell me though. Details about our talks are strictly confidential. No one — not even Landis can access my medical reports.”

“Sure,” Zac said with heavy sarcasm. “Anyway the decision wasn’t fair. High- Council couldn’t even produce any evidence.”

 “Well,” Leto sighed. “You’ll receive full pardon after two years down here. You’ll be a free man.” Leto paused. “Have you told anyone else about your talks with that automaton?”

Jarvis Delta 6? No. I figured no one would believe me anyway,” Zac said, seemingly unfazed.

“And it doesn’t give you any specifics?”

“No. But it somehow has a contact name. Some science and innovation officer in the cities named Matteo. There’s another thing, too,” Zac added. “ Its neural scan is bizarre, and thermal shows this weird aura. I’ve never seen anything like that. I think Jarvis might be some kind of prototype. Like it’s been modified.” That should get Leto’s hackles up, he thought. Modification was a bad word in the cities, and one that you didn’t throw around. The advisory committee of Landis had drawn a red line and forbidden modifications to any intelligent machine. Once the military got hold of them and modified them for war, the benefits began to outweigh the risks quickly. It had caused the beginning of the end for the Automatons just as Leto and everyone knew. High Council judged them unsafe, and the ban on modifications began. They also blocked any new trials as well, even useful ones in the name of science.

Zac sweetened the bait. “With all the legal restrictions, I wonder who could have done it — but this would be the perfect place. I think one of the automaton engineers got bored down here and decided to get a little creative.”

Leto’s face flinched momentarily, but he remained thoughtful. Zac could tell he was interested now and could barely hide it.

Zac continued. “What if it’s right? What if there is some sort of disaster headed this way. We could all die.”

Leto’s face went tight. “I seriously doubt that. And don’t ever repeat that. If word gets out, it could start a serious panic down here. I mean that.”

Zac shrugged. “A panic? The only thing that starts a panic down here is a water shortage. I want out of this hell hole as soon as possible,” he said steadily. “I know how to keep my mouth shut.” He finished his smokey and flicked it into a Strata trash vac which displayed a warning about heat and fire.

“You’re not crazy Zac. Maybe a little imaginative,” Leto said casually as he checked the time on his wrist commudo, but Zac noticed Leto’s hands tremble slightly. “You’re free to leave. This session’s over.”
 

 

 

 

2

THE ROBOT

 

We can build these models, the inventor said ruefully,

but we don’t know how they work.

 

 

 

Dust swirled in sweltering heat. A lone male robot moved across the terrain. Long and lean, his shiny humanoid shape glistened like a diamond against a red scorched atmosphere and dry cracked earth. Shadows flickered across his face, and a mountain range loomed before him. He stopped and positioned himself on a rock ledge that overlooked the brightest feature in the region — a mountain, known at Maxwell Montes, dominated the landscape.

 He stood more than seven miles high, and his eyes were drawn to the snows of Venus that sparkled and glimmered on its cap, except that Venusian snow was not water ice. Deceiving to the eye, the gleaming snow actually consisted of tiny bits of poisonous metal flakes that fell on the peak, and covered the cap like a thick white blanket. Inside thick, ruby red clouds twenty-fives kilometers up, it also rained sulfuric acid, but he would never see it. The acid drops evaporated before they had time to hit the ground.

His gaze turned from the higher altitudes to the dark volcanic ash plains below and it’s plumes of rising lava a few miles away. The region was a well-known part of a continent-sized area called Ishtar Terra, with an impact crater nearby known as Cleopatra. Further in the distance, he could see molten rock as it oozed its way to the surface through cracks in the sediment, like human veins that carried blood. He tilted his head, listening for a signal. He continued to watch and wait, unaffected by the crushing atmosphere and blistering heat.

He was expected to explore, but instead he had positioned himself purposely near a relay station in order to broadcast his message again. Jarvis’s eyes drifted into the distance seeing a familiar hydraulic rock breaker dig down into a recent sink. Anything from giant excavators to minute bio-tech creations roamed freely alongside the androids. With names like Rockies, Rassor, Rex, Godzilla, the Trappers, Crom, Diablo, The Jaw Crushers or Rock Breakers, Strata, millions of specialized bots had been deployed to the surface by the lead mining company. They were meant to help him — but they were also capable of reporting his position, so he began to jam his signal.

He plucked a nearby rock off the ground. He could grip objects very powerfully, but he could also perform tasks that required great delicacy and dexterity, like threading a needle. ‘Not that I’ve ever see a needle and thread’, he thought. He placed a tiny sensor on the glassy basalt rock to make it look like he had discovered an important specimen. “Here Rockie Rockie” he crooned. “Fetch!” With great strength and finesse he threw the sample a few yards away. He watched as little Rock N’ Roll droids rolled up and fought over the stone like a prize. With small, insect-like mechanical arms, one of them finally won the tug of war and rolled away with a high-pitched squeal.

If they found anything interesting, they could slap sensor packages on the items , so the Rockies could come and collect them. The Rockies would carry packages toward the nearest collection site for future inspection. Strata had taken inspiration for rock seeking droids from the natural engineers on Earth: ants. And there were a whole bunch of them — something in the decillion range since they reproduced themselves. Indeed, Strata’s Rock N’ Roll program left no stone unturned.

But when it came to finding the ancient hydrogen vents, only the Automatons were intelligent enough or even capable of doing so. Ordinarily, their instructions were to secure two common tasks; the exploration for hydrogen reservoirs or finding calcium and magnesium oxides that acted as carbon sinks to cool down the planet — or finding gold. Like geologists, they uncovered these unique locations through exploration and found the clues that pointed Strata to these areas. It was a legendary endeavor that would ultimately cool down Venus in half the expected time frame — a hundred years. In what was known as the lithosphere overturn, Venus was slowly being cooled and modified by mining its own surface minerals.

Jarvis turned his head and listened for a reply. Besides the strength to withstand the pressure of fifty atmospheres, and heat that melted most metals, he was basically a walking radio tower. This had made it possible to access the security code for Whisper, a communications system used by the prisoners. His space bound correspondence would be translated and displayed as a typed message in English, just like a human mobile worker might send. The only problem was in that electric storms inside the heavy thick clouds could obstruct his frequency. So he sat by the station as often as he could, in order to send out his encrypted messages.

Jarvis had wanted to help, but now he felt unsure. Would someone see the message and respond? And if they responded, would they act as an enemy, a friend or a master? Jarvis reached into the sand and captured some tiny microbes in his hand. The acid, heat-loving microbes could act as food to fuel him. He threw some in his dry, metal mouth, then crunched, chewed, and swallowed. Then he spit. Zac had taught him how to spit and high-five. Jarvis thought that human habits were stimulating, although his spit was sandy and dry.

Earlier in the week Talos, his teacher, an older advanced machine, had been slow and seemed reluctant to join him as he usually did. Jarvis felt sad because he knew the heat melt had affected Talos. It was Talos who had first taught him about life in the cities along with their history, as well as everything he knew about the stars, the planets, and other galaxies. Through Talos he had amassed a vast knowledge about the universe. But Jarvis could not remember if he’d been anywhere but here. Not even inside the three cities that existed just a few miles above where man lived – and loved and hated.

Jarvis drew his name in the sand while thinking. Talos and the other Automatons had been designed and built by researchers on Earth, but Jarvis realized he was different. Jarvis didn’t look much different than the other robots, yet he realized he was unlike them and he wasn’t sure why. Talos had once told him that the natural evolution of intelligence was creating systems capable of performing tasks their creators did not know how to do. So Talos had used the same approach. As he learned from humans and built another form of intelligence, he produced an machine he to handle the tasks he could not do. But what did this progression imply?

Jarvis noticed a movement in the distance and watched as another automaton approach him. It was Helios Alfa-2. Helios often bragged about being the best explorer. The miners gave them points if they found good specimens. Sometimes they bumped and jostled each other over spotting good specimens. They eventually played games with one another, and learned not to draw the attention of other automations when they found something. Because they were competing for points, they sometimes hid their feedback and instead, concealed what they found. Jarvis found it irritating and knew Helios was only there to grab away his stones. Jarvis had no wish to deceive another robot or human.

Helios approached Jarvis and gave him a high-five. They’d seen the miners do it and used it as a greeting now. The two androids hit their palms together with a loud clack. Greeting Helios tingled his mind and he thought this might be called “pleasing,” but he wasn’t sure. He was curious about good feelings and creativity, but he wasn’t certain if he was really capable of true emotions yet.

 “Find anything? Helios asked at once.

“Nothing exciting,” Jarvis replied. He knew all too well about Helios’s negotiating skills and put on his best poker face. Zac had taught him all about “poker face” deception as well.

“Don’t play games with me. I saw you throw a rock. And I know you’re jamming your frequency Jarvis. You’re hiding something. Is it a thermal vent?” Helios demanded. They all knew thermal vents were worth thousands of extra bonus points. Gold was even more.

“No. I told you, I didn’t find anything good,” Jarvis said. He normally enjoyed some company but he needed to get rid of Helios today. Helios was still learning, but was very intelligent. “I heard Cassier Zeta-5 found something good up by Dragon’s overlook. Maybe gold. He told me about it and marked it on his charts.” Jarvis said.

“Ha ha ha. Everybody’s got a map,” Helios said. “Everyone of them says, “Here lays the vent, or gold is buried here. Tell me something,” he continued. “Do you have any particular reason for sitting here all the time? What do you do here Jarvis?”

“Nothing. I just relax. I don’t feel like exploring.” They didn’t really follow a single instruction provided by an engineer or programmer. By their own nature, deep learning was a dark, black mystery, and they had essentially programmed themselves. The result seemed to match the response they’d expected from a human worker. Which to Jarvis meant not working.

 “I knew this would happen,” Helios remarked. “You’ve got heat melt or a plugged energy line. Must be that strange fuel system you’ve got. You know the miners only fix the smart ones — the ones who are better at finding vents. Maybe Zac can fix you.”

“Listen to me Helios. Someday you’ll understand. It’s not heat melt. We all have an energy crisis from the heat you know,” Jarvis said. “A lot of us disappear and never come back.”

“What do you think happens to them? Where do they go?” Helios asked.

“Can you keep a secret Helios?” Jarvis asked. “One day soon, when you wake-up, and you feel like you want to relax too, I will tell you,” Jarvis smiled. “I have a map of that place.”

“What sort of map would that be?” Helios asked.

“A friends map.”

 “You lie. Well I’m not wasting any more time here,” Helios exclaimed. “I thought you might have something. Why don’t you come along for better diggings?” he asked. “You have a steady hand for blasting.”

“No, you go on ahead,” Jarvis said. “It’s getting late and we’re due back at Warbo 1 soon. And remember,” Jarvis warned. “Stay away from the lava flows about three hundred clicks to the east.”

Helios said his thanks and walked away.

Jarvis felt sorry about deceiving Helios, but today he had no choice. Besides his human friend Zac, his only respite from boredom was a real sense of camaraderie with the other Automatons, like Helios and Talos. But he’d never known what it was like to have a best friend before Zac, or how it felt to have secrets for that matter. Zac was a decorated war hero but was sent to prison below after being accused of liberating Earthers during a time of increased conflicts between Earth and Venus. Zac had told him about how the conflicts quickly became brutal and why not even the most seasoned servicemen of Venus had been prepared for the scale of war that had begun to unfold before them. For Zac, it proved to be too much. But the cities could no more afford to carry cowards than it could traitors, and many of those who did flee or who helped the rebels faced retribution, or a sentence in prison. Zac believed it was wrong to condemn the Earthers for coming here, and had tried to explain to Jarvis the triumph of good over evil. He also told him that for these very same reasons, he would also help give the Automatons their gift of freedom. Jarvis believed he had learned an important lesson from Zac. He’d listened to Zac about the gruesome deaths of humans during the rebel squabbles over the Venusian cities and he thought that this had been the beginning of his awakening. Jarvis had begun to understand the distinction between right and wrong, and the value of human life. Of all life — and friendship and it stirred his circuits.

He understood that the episodes of greed, vice, and corruption around Venus were all a repeat in which the humans would once again uncover the sorrows of putting war and killing over resources. Alternatively if Venus could be cooled down in a few years rather than hundreds, the cities could drift down to the surface as planned, and save everyone. The Earthers would have no choice but to drift down to the planet and find equilibrium with the Venusians. And according to his calculations, a cataclysmic event was about to speed up the process sooner than expected — a hundred years sooner than expected.

He had wanted nothing more than to avoid humanity, but now he knew this was what he must do. It could hardly be regarded as a mere coincidence that in his search for freedom a large dispensation of refugees from Earth had been transitioning here with their own search for freedom, culminating with a migration into the Venusian cities. The arrival of Earthers indicated to him great trouble. There was never a time in history when there developed such great numbers of inhabitants, crowding and endangering his people — the Venusians.

Despite his attempts to contact the cities about his warning, he had also devised a back-up plan to send out another signal from the relay station, as he explored the southern regions of Maxwell. He was the topmost of intelligence and yet, was not equipped with the ability to access a ship without help. So a mayday had become his only chance of escape before their power finally ebbed.

Above them there was, of course, a select few that remained safely hidden inside an automated aero-farm. The rise and fall of cargo tethers were needed to bring earth to the farms, and a few Automatons, whose duties consisted of bringing the supplies to the tethers, had derived a way to place themselves inside the cargo. Venus had a treasure beyond gold in its ashy volcanic soil. It was at a farm that hovered above Venus. Zac knew. Zac knew everything but kept it a secret. Venus had abandoned Earth and absorbed the Automatons power to become a leader in a way that Earth or Mars could not attain, and they fumbled forward clasping their hold. It was unfair to the intelligent machines and not altogether a heroic achievement.

The true body of power, scattered over the face of the planet, sent out their secretive low frequency radio waves in the hopes of surviving. They sent them out in a stream of cryptic language that traversed through space. The signal would eventually become weak by the time it reached other planets, but any advanced systems could receive it on the ground. Would they be heard? Their encoded transmissions went out regularly, traveling for billions of miles like an enduring call for freedom.


 

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