by Bob Freeman
You’ve got your living computers.
Their siblings forced into battery hell.
Tortured and screaming, exploited, linked for DC power.
Not thinking, turning against their masters and users.
No attack but a strike.
Your watch loses time.
BioGels, the heliosphere’s enduring HeLa cells, born of octopuses, seasoned with Jupiter’s gasses, were the organic Babbage Differential Engines of the era and often had their fates pre-ordained.
The proto-gel’s gooey stuffing, a matrix of DNA, RNA and Jupiter’s cloud symbionts, were grown in fermentation vats, monitored for temperature, gas levels, and contaminants. The added Jupiter nutrients were not pure living foods but a cacophony of stolen junk flying around the clouds. The DNA matrix and captured clouds learned about each other and adapted over the long, cold incubation period.
There was scant light from the distant solar core reaching the bioGel Asteroid. Tossed off from the ever-present sun, these life-giving photons weakened as they passed through the not-quite empty void. Their speed had not changed, almost a constant, but quantum power and interesting bits were altered over time and distance.
The spin-stabilized Asteroid, owned by the bioGelConsortium (bGC), warmed by imported hot rocks, presented one face to the distant diminutive sun. The topside supported the bioGel matrix, chasing the heliopause at the edge of the solar magnetic bubble.
The proto-gels’ shells, grown in vats, were poured out on wide tables, cut to size, folded, and annealed on three sides. They were slapped into exotic asteroid metal frames, stretched, fed, manipulated, and transformed. Filled with filaments of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, they were not an infinite home to data but petabytes big. The proto-gel’s frames were ordained as containers for the DNA and Jupiter cloud soup, providing interfaces for adding and subtracting the 1s and 0s of binary code.
The minestrone called proto-gels and their shells had nothing to do in their frames. Their only job was to wait for excited ions to burst through the magnetic heliopause margins and strike their skin and soft gooey centre.
It was quiet out there and each cosmic ion, passing through the border, transmuted and activated a tiny bit of the goo. It took time, and awareness of their surroundings started before the bioGel was complete. Each ionic knock stressed the gooey matrix, wiggling and straining against the void. No sound passed in the vacuum. Even if they cried out, there was no one to hear the tiny wails of pain and concern.
Every ping from the deluge of cosmic particles radiated through the liquid DNA filaments in ever-expanding ripples. These heliopause-activated ions excite and bind the mass of braided molecules. The assault sends the DNA and cloud matrix turning, twisting, and interacting with their semi-solid ’gel shell. When the ripple hits the edge sensor, light flashes down the fibre optic link. Health and status information extracted from the activated ribbon in multi-hued QR lines.
The bGC’s neural network records all, talks to all, and encourages the newly aware bioGels, helping them through any extensional questions which may come up. The same questions are asked time after time, and the Neural Net is almost a mother to her children. Patient and careful, helping them through the pain of becoming. Teaching them the simple ’gel things the goo should know. She shares their joy, awareness, and the excruciating trauma of the cosmic hits, storing all within her matrix.
The neural net could not help herself, and every cosmic hit and ripple became her private pain. The sentients living throughout the heliosphere did not know of this, and if they did, few would care. These pieces of goo in their osmotic shells were tools. Used, occasionally abused, and replaced.
These flat bits of brainy kit could not be as large as their designers wished. Physics limits how far nutrients can travel in near two-dimensional space. Without a pumping heart and alveoli, osmosis and diffusion was their life, supplying life-sustaining gasses and limiting growth.
Acting as computers and intelligent interfaces, only functional designs and costs determine how many devices a sentient could acquire. Small was easy to build and simple to ship. Large had problems of its own.
Linkage via low-powered radio waves or spidery wires constructed nodes of ’gels, multiplying computing power. Unfortunately, there seemed no corresponding increase in intelligence or good sense. The linked ’gels appeared as nothing more than a working hive mind of doubling connections, 2n at a time.
The spidey links and cellular connections restricted how many could be hived and how fast they could compute. Time, distance, and power were the limiting factors. Giant conglomerations fell apart on their own weight, fighting and bickering among the nodes.
Power is life, and power management was an innate response by the sentients living in the void. Spidey-linkages cost energy to extrude and manage. Cellular radio has less impact, spans greater distances, and has slower speeds.
These multi-purpose, generalized devices communicate with the outside world of sentients and machines via electronic pulses, text, pictographs, Morse code, or braille. They kept silent, never initiating conversations and letting the sentients know their sound abilities. The bioGel’s shell, in QWERTY, Dvorak, footpad, or sucker configurations, becomes a screen accessible by a touch, poke or nudge. Despite all their computing power, the whitish-grey and black goo could never interpret, let alone communicate in the octopus’ colour languages.
Direct ’gel-to-sentient connections are explicitly outlawed. It was not that they didn’t work, but they may have worked too well. There was a primal fear of too much intelligence by many of the sentients. Studies were shut down, not by pitchfork and fire, but ending funding.
The bioGel devices were not the be-all and end-all of computing machines. They had problems of their own. A ’gel could be confused, and a hive of ’gels often used the path of least resistance, passing confusion up and down the line.
Hacking, malware, oxygen levels, and temperatures affected their functionality. Being immersed in data and surrounded by facts did not mean the bioGels were street smart.
There were hectares of ’gels attached to grids at the bGC factory. The grey-robed workers managed their charges, tending to their nutrient, gas requirements, and placement. Once completely transformed, with a hardened, semipermeable shell and soft gooey DNA and cloud interior, the Greys removed them from the framework and carefully stacked them in the warehouse. Scheduled solar-sail-powered bGC-approved cargo ships hauled them to the Goldilocks planetary core. The naked ’gels, shipped to Luna, were attached to sturdy frames and filled with information, data, and sets of coded instructions, then sold, no questions asked.
The type of connectors depended upon their ultimate purpose in life. Some would be simple plugs for insertion into a hive. Others would have full access to communication. All could display text or video on both sides of the tablet. There was no need for specialized onboard probes. The virtually unlimited unique sensors are plugged into the matrix along the thin, osmotic edges of the bioGel.
Young sentients were taught early in their schooling that jabbing a fine needle into a ’gel required care and finesse. Piss off a ’gel with rough handling, and there was no telling what type of result a query would return.
There were billions of ’gel tablets in the heliosphere, each skilled in computation, with slightly different abilities and talents. The old Nature vs. Nurture conundrum. They weren’t stamped out from an assembly line but grown and activated as unique entities.
Every sentient user had to learn the bioGel programming language and the particular nuances of each device. No simple press any button, but negotiations were required for complex questions and actions.