The Director called me into a meeting, and that's never a good sign. Subordinates give good news. The Director only gets involved when there's a life to be ruined. Fifteen minutes later, and my lab access is revoked, only a few dozen kilos left in the bank, my pet project cancelled as a waste of resources. The future of humanity, a waste of resources? Where would we be now if we hadn't used retrofitted Soyuz spacecraft to colonize the moon in 2006? We've all seen the projections - humanity would have been gone by 2015. Without room to expand, new lands both physical and mental, humanity inevitably turns on itself. The reasons for off-planet colonies sounded good, but humanity's destructive capacity has kept pace with its territorial size - outpaced, even. Practically, we either fight frontiers or each other, ideally a little of both.
And for every war fought over honor or religion there was one fought over mass - animals herds, iron ore, gold, water, land. And, finally, after the invention of transmutation and fabrication technology, over any kind of mass at all. They always predicted that this level of nanotech would result in a golden age of universal wealth, but all it did was change the definition of wealth. There's only so much mass to go around, after all. Even with cheap energy to process it all, the wealthy and the poor haven't changed all that much.
With colonies on the moon and Mars, and scientists able to fabricate anything they could dream of, it was only a few years before we'd cracked that old standby - FTL travel. But when we did, it seemed as if the universe was playing a joke on us. You can go anywhere you've already been - FTL only worked with equipment in place at both ends. With current propulsion tech it would still take us centuries and centuries to reach the nearest star the first time; the second time would take seconds, as best we could predict.
We'd only colonized through the asteroid belt or so; the gas giants ahead promised endless wealth. It would be decades, possibly a century or more, before we'd exhausted them. After that there were more rocky satellites, the Oort Cloud, and... well, no one really talked about after that, because there wasn't an after that. The ultimate joke: decades and trillions of people later, and we were still ignoring the looming limits of our expansion, and the end of plenty. Humanity is the ultimate procrastinator. My proposal was to start sending probes with FTL gate equipment to our nearest stellar neighbors, getting a head start on the next end of the world. Was ignoring peak mass shortsightedness or the ultimate expression of faith in humanity?
I'd lost faith a long time ago. The probes had to be sent. I still lived on Earth, but in a cheap neighborhood - houses of wood and brick had all been refinanced into carbon lattice, stronger with far less mass. It was still a nice enough area that housing was only one layer deep - the government caught any rain, of course, but at least you could see the sky. Otherwise, you might as well be living in orbit somewhere. I began working as soon I was home. You're not supposed to be able to make a new transfab using a home transfab. It's not an imposed limitation thing, it's a technological issue.
Killing technological issues is my job.
Building progressively larger transfabs in the previous model, I was up to the right scale after a week or so. My house was pretty much bare, furniture and personal effects having been fed into each fab to produce the next bigger model. I was going to need a lot more mass for the probes themselves, and my bank statement wasn't worth the mass it was printed on (not that I didn't owe the bank that mass back, anyway.) Throwing together a few specialized - and vastly illegal - tools together, I started moving.
It was easy to tell when I was moving into the richer areas - more solid constructions, fewer space-age supermaterials. That and the public restrooms, of course, sparkling clean as always. For all they tried to lure in the drunk, the poor planners, the digestively challenged, only the rich could afford to shit anywhere other than where they ate - that was valuable mass, of course. This time on a Sunday, everyone was golfing, taking the kids to soccer, or nailing the poolboy. It was easy to slip past security and start my machines working. I needed lots of mass. This was a neighborhood of stone and wood, metal pipes and heavy ceramic artwork.
The Director's house towered over them all for only a few moments longer.
My prize transmuted into denser materials, I loaded it up on a mass sled. This was the riskier half of the trip - the tools I carried on the way here were evidence of intent, but if I were caught on the way back, my own mass would be forfeit. I returned to my house, safely, with a sigh of relief, and began the fabrication process. I had to move quickly - I would be the prime suspect in this crime, and even if not, sooner or later sensors would pick up unusual concentrations of mass for the neighborhood.
I finished the probes without incident, and quickly loaded up the mass sled with the five completed units - each about 3 meters long, but dense with equipment. The nearest gate was a brisk walk, and I spent most of my last half a kilo on the fare to a station on the outer edges of colonization. Moving ever quicker, I made my way to the nearest unoccupied vacuum observation area. As I set up the probes, a station alarm went off, as the hard ceiling rolled in and the doors locked down. They'd caught up with me.
By now, I was too caught up in the task at hand to even be angry. The ceiling was tough but thin; I could pierce it but I'd need mass. All I had on me was a lightweight vacuum suit, a small transfab for last-minute emergencies, and the probes. There was no guarantee that all, or any, would arrive in one piece. Would it be so bad to sacrifice a fifth of humanity's future? Did the fools pursuing me deserve even that much hope? I looked down at my legs. Maybe I hadn't lost quite all of my faith, yet. Sitting up, I fabricated a local anesthetic, two tourniquets, and a lightweight saw with the last of my available mass.
I looked down at my legs once more.