The first A.C.T. had taught her a lot about her world. She had been celebrated for weeks, but as time drew closer to the second challenge, she began to notice a change in her classmates. They had become frustrated, on edge. They started giving Echo a wide berth.
That was fine with her though. She liked being left alone. Even Helen and her had a falling out, when Echo informed her that she would prefer to study alone some nights.
She spent six months in this strangeness and then Santa showed up. He appeared one morning after breakfast. He was dressed in street clothes, khakis and a red sweater, not the metal encrusted uniform she had seen at the first challenge. She had used the B.R.A.I.N. to research him.
His biography had her panicking. He had led initial security force which guarded the 120,000 Saints, as they were labelled by the Union, locked in a cryogenic facility, where the last remnants of her people were preserved. He was commended in the log for setting a fierce standard. His smiling face and pleasant demeanor made this seem impossible.
“My name is Peter Atticus. I will be your next instructor. The Nanny has brought you to the point of a healthy foundation of general knowledge. At this point we will begin to apply this knowledge to real world circumstances. Ideas are of no value until they are actualized. I will enable you to actualize your dreams. B.R.A.I.N. enable multifunctional 3D printer.”
A large cube raised from the floor perpendicular to their table. Peter walked over to it and stood by it.
“This printer is the key to actualizing your dreams. As you all have learned, there was a stalemate that occurred in the middle of the second millennia. Our problems with energy and power, our limits of speed and environment, our own social problems, all these had been resolved, but still we had not gotten passed our own astroid belt.
“There was again, like so many times in the past, a failure of imagination. I say this because, we had already discovered all the technology necessary for this multifunctional printer, but the idea had not been realized to it’s full potential.
“Then came Dr. Morrow and his brilliant breakthroughs and supreme leadership. The Cloning Ban of 2203, had left the idea of whole human printing dead in its tracks. Organs were fine, animals were fine, but humanity had to remain sacrosanct. Ideas are persistent things though.
“Dr. Morrow born on the streets of Bangladesh, had been well versed in the struggle for survival. Perhaps I should just let Morrow speak for himself. B.R.A.I.N. play Dr. Morrow’s 2199 Galactic Senate address, begin at the 13 min marker.”
Dr. Morrow appeared holographically at the side of their table. He was standing at a podium. The people and things around him were a shimmering mirage. Echo couldn’t make out any of these details, but they are what she wanted to know.
“I realized,” Morrow said, “that for my life to have meaning I had to do more than get by. I saw the ban as an impediment to the production of life, which became my ultimate goal. Why most we suffer? Why must we die? It was all there just waiting to be put together like a puzzle, the only thing stopping us was the will to change. Imagine, a person of my humble origins, was able to create such marvelous things. How could I not? How can we not?”
Atticus stopped it here. “This is what he came up with. Known as the Morrow 3003, this device can produce anything. Echo, please name an item of your desire.”
That familiar pressure exploded in her, the bending tension of being on the spot. The whole class was looking at her.
Atticus’s laugh filled the room.“Good answer, but what type of cat? Ragdoll? Calico? Siamese? Savannah? Maybe a Turkish Angora, they are quite lovely?”
“A Ragdoll, I guess?”
“Perfect Echo. No guessing needed. If you don’t like this one we can always produce a different one. There is an infinite supply. Morrow 3003 make Ragdoll kitten, one month old.”
The black obelisk began to light up. Its glassy face warmed to a dark blue, and then a light blue, and then a bright white. It hurt Echo’s eyes and she had to look away.
“Don’t look away,” Atticus ordered. “It is important for you to see this Echo. I can promise you it is all perfectly safe.”
She slowly opened her fingers to see it. It was the weirdest sight she had ever seen. Unlike the holographic projections which she was quite familiar with, that would just pop into existence, this thing was being built up piece by piece on top the block.
There were no moving parts, but only a shimmering, swarm of activity around it. Atticus explained as the cloud worked.
“It uses Nanotech, Echo. This machine is able to harnesses dark matter and convert it into real atoms, which build the D.N.A. of our new Ragdoll Kitty. Quickly, as you can see.”
A little grey fluff ball, soon was standing on top of the cube. It was already back to a dull black. The kitty stood with shaky legs. Atticus walked over to it and picked it up.
“Do you like it Echo?”
Margaret interrupted. “Is Echo the only one to get a cat? I want one. Maybe an Abyssinian? No wait, I want an Egyptian Mau.”
“No, that is not possible. As you are well are Ms. Marduk, only the Captain is allowed a pet. Only one pet at a time though Echo, as the handbook states, we don’t need to turn this place into a zoo.”
“That’s not fair,” Margaret muttered, “there’s nothing special about her.”
Atticus continued as if he didn’t hear her. “The 3003, as it is commonly referred to is not just for making cute animals. That is for sure. It was the key step to deep space penetration, because what could also be produced here were persons themselves. Now ships could be sent out with a 3003, to the farthest reaches of space, and once there the 3003 would produce a new Captain, much like any of our selves, and then–”
“Wait a minute,” Echo interrupted. This was the first time she had ever interjected herself like this. “Are you saying that this thing made me?”
“No, of course not, Echo,” Atticus said. “I’m saying it made us. The Nanny explained all this to you before I’m sure.”
Her mind reeled. It was an epiphany. She remembered bits of the Nanny’s long monologue, but she had always seen herself as a part of the crew. It was all just so much information. Her mind couldn’t keep it all straight. Right now all she could do was stare at the 3003. It seemed a monster to her, maybe on the verge of attacking her.
“You must not get caught up on these technicalities,” Atticus continued. “Echo, would you like to name your cat?”
It took her a moment to think of a name, still trying to figure the previous revelations.“Sylvester, I guess,” she said softly.
“Ah, that’s a perfect answer. Now Echo, I want you to imagine something. Imagine that Sylvester has been your kitty for twelve years. You have loved him and feed him, and watched him grow into a big fat cat.”
Echo liked this idea. She ran a finger over his little head. Sylvester meowed at her, and pawed at her hand. She felt instantly better for some reason. She could almost ignore her new teacher.
“Now Sylvester has gotten old. He’s lazy now, sitting about all day, doing nothing. He gets sicks. You are able to determine its a heart problem. What do you do? This is open to the class.”
Several of their hands went up. Echo’s did not.
“Virginia, go ahead.”
“You can have the 3003 fix him.”
“Absolutely, see, so simple, so elegant. We would simply place the plump little Sylvester on to a 3003, and run the appropriate program. Now things are simple here on a home planet, with plenty of resources, but out in the great beyond, ships have to conserve their resources. This means we must make strategic choices when using the 3003. How would we fix Sylvester in a more economic way? This is open to anyone?”
Echo wanted to answer the question, but her mind was still stuck on the fact the 3003 was their Father. Images of the Nanny cuddling the pillar flashed in her mind. Those were there parent’s? They were monsters. Paul was called on. “It would be more economical to make the medicine to fix its heart.”
Margaret spoke without being called on. “That’s a dumb answer. Sorry Paul, why not just have the 3003 make you a new cat? That is the smallest use of energy.”
“That’s a fine answer Margaret,” Atticus said. “Paul was on to something though. I believe he assumed that we were trying to save this particular cat, and so then his answer is correct too. In this hypothetical situation, how do we make our decision? Echo, this one is for you, specifically.”
The familiar heat of attention. “I would do nothing.” There was a dramatic pause, as everyone contemplated her answer.
“Brilliant Echo,” Atticus responded. “That is exactly the sort of thinking we need in our leaders. Let nature takes its course. I believe that is a wonderful solution.”
“Anyone could have got that answer,” Margaret muttered.
The rest of the class was smiling at her. Atticus had gone on for sometime. He had explained that as the challenge developed, it would take this type of “abstract thinking” to succeed. He asked them all to begin drafting a system of values or ethics, to make these sort of decisions, and to apply them in real scenarios.
She was informed she could keep the cat, as long as she cleaned up after it. She was told to consult the B.R.A.I.N. for proper procedures of caring for it.
Frank came by that night. Helen had jumped right on the cat maintenance, saying with this new teacher and assignments Echo couldn’t possibly deal with stupid Sylvester all by herself. She didn’t say it meanly though and Echo could tell by how Helen scooped her up and hugged her that Sylvester was in good hands. “I had to come say goodnight to Sylvester,” Frank said.
“I don’t know if he likes you very much,” Echo said. “He whined until Helen picked him up.”
“He probably just senses Helen will be the one feeding him every morning.”
“Ah, don’t say that. I love him.” She picked him up and squeezed him.
“Have you hear of Garfield yet?” Frank asked.
“No, I don’t think so.”
“B.R.A.I.N. show comic strip Garfield.”
Her screen lit up. On it was the toothy grin of a fat Calico kitty. He used his hands to flip through the archive for her.
“He looks sort of creepy,” Echo said.
Frank’s face contorted in confusion. “Ah no way, he’s just a fat cat, that likes to eat spaghetti and drive his owner crazy.”
She watched him. She couldn’t articulate it, despite enjoying his company so much, something inside screamed at her to be cautious. She needed an answer to a question.
She needed to know if her shipmates were like her, or where they different in some way? She wasn’t able to bring herself to ask Helen. She didn’t want the long explanation and the intense concern for her own stupidity. Finally, she just blurted it out.
“Are we the same?”
She watched him intently. His face was blank. The worse thing of it was, for the some reason she found herself liking his innocent face in a different way, a more mature way. He had soft brown hair, which the Nanny cut once a week. He had always been so wonderful, helping her, being her friend
“No…yes. Echo, I don’t know,” he said. “You should have read all this in the A.C.T. handbook. It explains it the best. The crew and teachers are all offspring of the 3003. You’re the special one, Echo. You’re a human being. We needed a human being. Listen, don’t worry. In the end Echo, we are all the same okay? Look at Sylvester, he’s no different than any other cat.”
The cat was playing with Echo’s recently discarded socks.
She couldn’t explain why but suddenly she was up, crossing the room. It startled Frank. She hugged him strongly. They stood like that in her cell for a few moments.
“Thank you Frank,” she said. “You have been a good friend.”
“It’s no problem, Echo. You’re my captain.”
Something about that last bit wanted to make her cry. Instead, she pressed her head into Frank’s shoulder and closed her eyes. Helen’s awkward “ahem” broke the moment.
He left embarrassed after this, somewhat flustered Echo thought. She immediately asked the B.R.A.I.N. to bring up the A.C.T. handbook. She wanted to go over the section on Captain’s Duties again.
Helen had read all this to her before, but she had barely paid attention. It was dense wordy stuff, hard to scan, but Echo did her best. She found the section a section titled “Generation of the Captain.” This is what it said.
It was wordy small print with many annotations. Annotations which would send her running between pages, until she forgot why she had searched the annotation to begin with. She finally found her awful answer. “The Global Union declared the need for a Natural, Biological Captain for a number of obvious reasons (See Section 78A “Existential Need For Humanity”). The Biological Sources were the tested for physical viability and longevity. A Captain must have an optimum genetic background. This is essential to making the best Captain possible.
“If the Captain was selected from the synthetic general breeder population any number of mental or physical deficiencies may be introduced. The primary goal of the Captain Program is reestablishment of the Homo Sapien bloodline. The Morrow 3003 controls the synthetic epigenetics of the Captan’s crew, which allows for the removal of any negative personal characteristics and allows the application of positive qualities which would be essential to the new biological Captain, like intelligence, patience, problem solving abilities, empathic tendencies etc.”
“B.R.A.I.N, define epigenetics.”
“Epigenetics is the study of cellular phenotypes, evolved by mechanisms of the environment, which prompt behaviors and ideations. Discovered in the twentieth century–”
It was more scientific jargon. So many word and ideas she didn’t understand. She could sense it was all very important, but she couldn’t fathom why. It made her feel sick and nervous, like she had felt during her first A.C.T. There was something strange in all this but she couldn’t articulate what it was.
It frightened her. She told Helen she was going to bed and then grabbed Sylvester and turned the lights out.