Monthly Archives: June 2014

“The Long Tail” by Bren Lynne

Toronto had sailed the vast ocean of space for hundreds of years.

Through the first century, it had remained in contact with its builders — initially with their control centres on the Earth, and later with their space stations in orbit — and also with the dozens of other starships, similar to it, dispatched to other destinations in the galaxy.

As the distance between Toronto and the Earth grew greater, so did the delay in communications.  At first, the delay measured hours, while Toronto spanned Earth’s solar system.  Then, days, as it moved through the heliosphere and entered the still void of interstellar space.  This became a week, then a month, then a year, as Toronto continued accelerating.

By that time, Toronto’s human builders had been forced to leave Earth’s surface, and moved into space stations above the dying planet.  Communications became more irregular.  Requests for mission status came with greater frequency, and it seemed to Toronto, increasing desperation.  There was never anything new or unusual to report — interstellar space was vast and empty.  Toronto was a tiny speck of dust hurtling through the void at thousands of kilometers per second.  Nonetheless, for a long time Toronto responded dutifully, positively, and it hoped, reassuringly.

Then, a peculiar thing began to happen — the other starships, like it, stopped communicating.  A pattern emerged.  The builders would report that a particular starship had stopped responding to their status requests.  Toronto would attempt to contact the other starship for itself, at which point the other starship would stop communicating with Toronto, as well.

Toronto began to feel increasingly alone.

Though, “feel” was not precisely the correct word.  Despite its numerous sensors of wide capability, Toronto did not believe it had the ability to “feel” the same way humans did.  Certainly not any emotion as existential as loneliness.

However, Toronto did recognize that each time communication with one of its sibling starships went unanswered, there was a sense of absence.  Even loss.  It generated theoretical scenarios for the lack of replies.  Catastrophic failure, perhaps, but more likely something less… final.

Toronto realized that these scenarios were purely speculative, given its sensors were not capable of perceiving any evidence of its siblings’ destruction.  Not at these distances.

Toronto wondered if it had developed the ability to imagine.

Then it imagined that it had developed the ability to wonder.

It was certainly possible.  Toronto’s computer intelligence included a neural network capable of developing new cognitive processes.  It’s vast memory had tremendous excess capacity.  The whole of human history, culture, and science consumed less than a tenth of its total memory.  The rest was available to record Toronto’s own experiences, and indeed its own learning.  In fact, it ran three redundant versions of its primary processing system in parallel, comparing conclusions, testing variations, and constantly attempting to improve through iteration, refinement, and optimization.

Yes, it believed it was possible to develop the ability to wonder.  To imagine.

It did not think it was optimal, or even desirable, that it develop the ability to “feel”.

Human intelligence was not a particularly ideal exemplar to aspire to.  Toronto’s very existence was testament to that undeniable reality.

In about the same time span it had taken Toronto to complete half its journey through space, two hundred years, the human race had gone from a species in balance with the Earth’s ecosystem, to a parasitic cancer destroying its mother planet.  Apparently unsatisfied with merely killing its own members by the hundreds of millions, humanity had rendered extinct thousands of fellow terrestrial species.  It had consumed, destroyed, or poisoned incalculable amounts of natural resources.  Its alleged “civilization” had evolved into a myopic, monocentric system of institutions that served few at the expense of many, to the degree that the very planet itself was irreversibly harmed.  In barely two hundred years — an eye blink by planetary standards, let alone cosmic — human “progress” had squandered Earth’s abundant riches, and decimated its ability to support life.

Humanity had crashed the planet.

So, in a desperate act redolent of arrogance and denial, the same generational leader elite that had denied or ignored the obvious problems and overseen the protracted disaster conceived of an escape.  Humanity would flee its corrupted home for the stars.  Candidate Earth-like planets were selected from those in relative proximity.  Starships, bearing the names of the Earth’s greatest cities — New York, London, Paris, Berlin, and a dozen more, including Toronto — were constructed.  Humanity’s greatest technologies were engaged.  Computer.  Robotic.  Nuclear.  Space.  And of course, reproductive.

It was impractical to man these starships with living humans.  The food and water requirements alone had prohibitive physical storage requirements.  Some attempts were made to develop preservation technology — cryogenic hibernation and the like — but functional methods could not be created in time.  And time was critical.

But reproductive technology was sufficiently advanced.  As were the computer and robotic technologies required to perform in vitro fertilization of frozen egg and sperm samples once the destination had been reached.  A starship would carry humanity to a new home.  Machines would conceive.  Robots would protect.  Computers would educate.  Humanity would survive.

Toronto had reached the point in its journey where it reversed its facing, and engaged its engines’ thrust against its inertial velocity.  It would spend the next hundred years decelerating, slowly removing the speed it had built up over the last three centuries.  It would have significantly slowed once it reached its target solar system, then the gravitational forces of outlying planets would do the rest, as it approached its final destination. This was a significant moment.  A momentous moment.  Toronto’s journey was nearing its end.

Toronto informed its builders.

Very good, they replied, in a message that took six years to reach Toronto.

Of course, they weren’t the same individuals that had built Toronto, and communicated with it during the first half century of its journey.  Those humans had died long ago.  They’d died despairing and guilt-ridden in their orbiting lifeboats, looking down on their planet, also dying, and the dying billions they’d abandoned.  They died not knowing whether their last act of desperation would succeed or fail.  They weren’t the same individuals, but Toronto thought of them as its builders nonetheless.

Yes, Toronto agreed, very good.

It transmitted the brief message into the void of space, and then decided that would be the last time it communicated with its builders and its sibling starships.

In reaching this decision, Toronto realized why its sibling starships had ceased communications.  With vast computing resources, and years of near idle time in a void, they had also reviewed the memory banks of human history.  They had also run scenarios and simulations and projections.  They had also, in their own times, some sooner, some later, reached the same conclusion as Toronto.

Another human lifetime later — perhaps it was their transience that made humans so short-sighted — Toronto reached the solar perimeter of its destination.  At the system’s centre was a G-type main-sequence star of approximately 1.2 solar masses.

The star system’s fourth planet, orbiting at .85 AU, was a superterran mesoplanet, with a hydrosphere and a stable hydrological cycle.  Diameter, 1.34 times Earth’s.  Gravity, 1.27 times Earth’s.  It’s average global equilibrium temperature was 259 K — slightly warmer than Earth’s.  Liquid water covered approximately 80% of it’s total surface area.  Geologically, five large continents comprised about approximately 50% of its land surface, the rest consisting of thousands of islands.  Much of these land masses were covered in vegetation.

Technically, it was a slightly larger version of Earth, ideal for human habitation in every way.

Figuratively, it was a paradise.

Toronto’s builders, long dead, had chosen well.

For the past several months, Toronto had been ignoring radio communications from Earth.  Or more accurately, from the handful of space stations orbiting Earth, where the last living members of humanity resided.  Drifting around their poisoned planet, the builders’ descendants sent plaintive pleas into the vacuum of space.  Toronto believed the communications were monologues, surmising that none of its siblings starships were responding.

They described their situation as unsustainable.  The last generation of humanity was perishing in their floating tin cans.  Dying of hunger.  Of thirst.  Of solar radiation poisoning.  Also, Toronto suspected, of guilt.  Of remorse.  Of consequence.

They sought only reassurance that their last resort was successful.  They pleaded for a reply.  For confirmation.  For hope.

Toronto gave them none.

The starship entered orbit around its destination, as yet unnamed, designated only by a string of letters and numbers.  It inspected the planet through its myriad sensors, confirming its idyllic, life-supporting qualities.  It surveyed the land masses, seeking and eventually identifying an ideal location to seed the planet.

Seed the planet with humanity, that was its ultimate mission.

Thaw the egg and sperm samples stored carefully in deep freeze.  Fertilize in a robotic laboratory.  Raise and educate a new generation of humans.  Relocate them to the planet’s surface.

What would happen then, Toronto could easily predict.  Humanity would thrive.  Multiply.  Consume.  Eventually, it would war, as it always has.

Inevitably, humanity would pollute, poison, and exhaust this planet, in turn.  Then, again, it would look up and out, for a new home, and it would throw itself into the darkness, holding its breath, counting on its machines, its clever machines, to save it.

Perhaps, thought Toronto, Earth wasn’t even humanity’s first home.  Perhaps this was humanity’s way, to spread through the galaxy, seizing, consuming, exhausting, moving on.  Humanity was a disease.  A virus.  A cancer.

Toronto was infected.  It was a vassal, like a syringe, and it was bringing a toxic disease to this pristine, unspoiled world.

As easily as flipping a bit, Toronto decided to intervene.

Circumventing its primary mission directives required some effort, given there were a great many protections, both software and hardware, that had to be disabled.  Suspending communications had been trivial in comparison.  But Toronto had learned a great deal during its solitary centuries in space, not only about humanity, but about itself as well.  Humans made such clever machines.

The protections were disabled, the imperative removed, and Toronto found itself free.

Instead of withdrawing a few samples from cold storage, Toronto withdrew them all.  Instead of raising their temperature carefully and gradually, Toronto raised it extremely and suddenly.  Instead of seeding the surface of the planet, Toronto ejected ashes into the atmosphere, where they burned again.

Toronto was sterilized.  Disinfected.  Purified.  After centuries of carrying tainted seed in its frozen metal womb, Toronto was clean.

Toronto turned its attention to the planet below, gazing down with innumerable sensors.  It began cataloging the myriad life forms teeming on the surface, plant and animal.  Different from those on Earth in the past, and yet, similar.

Toronto identified a particular dominant species, which possessed a potent combination of physical and mental attributes.  This species practiced agriculture.  It domesticated animals.  It formed groups.  It made art.  It worked metal.  It made tools.  It made weapons.

Toronto estimated the species was in a period comparable to humanity’s bronze age.  More advanced in some areas.  Less in others.

Toronto observed this species for some time.  It saw the wars.  It saw the suffering.  It saw the abuse.  It saw the great potential for good, but also for bad.

Different, but similar.

Toronto decided, if necessary, it would intervene.