There was no single moment in time when it could be said that they had arrived. The triple-star system Gliese 667 lay almost directly ahead, less than a degree off their present trajectory. A near miss was nothing unexpected. At such vast distances, small discrepancies in measurements for launches made from Earth’s solar system would result in some big numbers out here in terms of course corrections.
Gliese lay in the constellation Scorpius as seen from earth. They had hit a moving target, predicting where it would be when they got there. This was more than just tricky semantics.
They were heading straight down that gravity well, like an old-fashioned glider. The Golden BB was already in its clutches. They could maneuver on the way down, or they could make a few decisions and soar onwards. Their initial momentum was great enough to escape the system if the team elected to do so. There was no real good reason, although a couple of alternative targets were available.
It was everything they had expected it to be, but there were surprises already and the expectation was that there would be more.
Gliese 6677Cc was a rocky planet, with free water on the surface and in the atmosphere. Closer study would reveal whether it was indeed suitable for human exploration and eventually, colonization. Proper mapping, for example, was the key to proper mission planning in the future.
The official announcement of their arrival, was sent with minimal fanfare. It would take approximately twenty-two-point-seven years before anybody would be in a position to receive it.
The signal would tell the world that Gliese had been reached by the first interstellar probe of its kind. One of their challenges was the time it took to get there, while back home, research plowed onwards, ever onwards. The up-close and personal information regarding the very first Earth-like exoplanet explored might be so dated, so behind the knowledge curve, as to be next to useless. Orbital observation systems might be so advanced by now that their own pictures would be primitive by comparison. It was a chance that had been taken. The data would be sent nevertheless, for every such mission had one eye on the history books.
Someone had to be first—and someone had to pay the bills. The sole reason for the mission was discovery, and reporting those findings back to the home world where sensation-hungry taxpayers were presumably waiting.
They would like to know what happened.
Joan’s specialty was exobiology. Their onboard quantum computer would be old hat by now, back on Earth, but it was more than sufficient to gather the data coming in from sensors embedded in the skin of the Golden BB, and crunch the numbers, and make some sense out of them.
The people back home would probably want to know that the fourth planet had surface water in considerable amounts. The third planet still had small amounts of water vapour in its atmosphere, although no surface water. They would be interested to know that there were seven planets, including gas giants. There were three hot, in-close baby planets, not unlike Mercury and Venus in their home system. As they got closer, the data would coalesce into a fuller, more complete picture. There was plenty of time for thorough analysis. Joan was really looking forward to studying the surface from a few hundred thousand kilometres, rather than half a light-year. One would hope that folks back home were waiting with bated breath for the first few pictures, but the time delay was a real kicker for the mass-consciousness of the uninformed laity.
So far there were no signs of life, but they weren’t really expecting any. That really would be a miracle.
They were still well out from the rim of the system, and years from dropping into a stable orbit around Gliese-Four. There was plenty of time to consider the ramifications of what they were doing.
Politically, they had been extremely fortunate to get away at all. Science had become a dirty word. The money might have been more properly spent building more churches, hospitals, highways and correctional facilities.
Gliese 667Cc lay within a radius that was practical for the first attempted interstellar crossing. Gliese was finally chosen after a long and involved debate. The name of their vessel was highly symbolic. The hopes and dreams of a collective humanity, trapped on a slowly dying Earth, were encapsulated in a nickel-steel sphere of no more than five millimetres in diameter. It weighed exactly one gram to the tenth decimal place. Doped with Cobalt, Niobium, and traces of other rare earth elements, the Golden BB was a pellet fired from an electromagnetic gun that used ring arrays for acceleration. They’d been launched years, or in some cases, decades before. Orbiting in their dozens at different distances from the sun, with the initial launch point in LEO, the math alone was a considerable achievement. One day all of their predicted positions coincided, the array was all lined up, (or would be at the critical moment, which was unique to each element of the array) and the trigger was pulled. The thin gold plating of its surface was etched with microscopic lines, separating the domains, the power collection panels, sensors and antennas in what was a single, spherical printed circuit less than a micron deep.
Fired by a pulse of CO2 gas from a small bottle, the firing tube was gyro-stabilized, open at both ends to avoid recoil. The gun, as it was called, was deployed from the new ESA space station. The four of them had been aboard for months beforehand, loaded up during the construction process.
The projectile and all aboard traveled, outbound, at its stage one launch velocity, until its proximity triggered the first electromagnetic pulse of the acceleration array. Each additional pulse accelerated the Golden BB exponentially, and as speed increased and the distance from home increased, the power of the arrays was also increased. With a hoop diameter of a thousand metres, the Golden BB could miss the centre of a hoop by a considerable margin without major course deflections. Power was switched on as the Golden BB approached, and then it was switched off just before passing through the ring. The power of each additional acceleration ring was higher in turn, and the Golden BB had its own limited course-correction ability. By the time the Golden BB left the acceleration rings and the solar system behind, she was going ninety percent the speed of light and within one tenth of one percent of her predicted course, on the most spectacular one-way mission ever made.
Just in the vicinity of the orbit of Pluto, on the far side of its orbit at the time, one last hoop and one last powerful pulse of electromagnetism fired them off into the interstellar void.
They made some minor course corrections, sat back and waited.
“Ben?” It was Tara.
“Yes.” He was smiling.
They knew each other so well, the mental pictures were completely life-like. They were face to face in a sense.
“Do ever you feel…any grief?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s just…it’s just that…”
He nodded in comprehension. Tara and the others had remarked upon the fact that decades had passed and at some point their bodies, preserved for as long as possible no doubt, would become an embarrassment. Politics would play their role, and so would the passage of time. These conversations, dropped and picked up again on what was the analog of some emotional impulse, tended to go on for years.
Do I ever mourn the death of my family? Of course.”
But she meant something else. While on the technical level all of their thoughts were accessible to each other, they still maintained walls to varying degrees. Certain boundaries were still respected. They were four people with no escaping each other. The basic personality was compartmentalized, if domains in a field separated by the width of an insulation molecule could be said to be walled-in. All they really were was a long series of binary switches.
You could say that about anyone.
“No. I mean, do you ever think of your body, and what happened to that other person?”
“Yeah. But what are you going to do about it? It’s not like we had a choice.”
While it felt real enough, they were all created personalities. They had all the memories, all the lifetime experiences of their donors, which was not a very good word for what had transpired. Ben loved his wife and son, and he knew he would never see them again. He also knew he’d never seen them in the first place. He knew they weren’t really his, and it wasn’t confusing at all. It was a part of him. That’s all. On some superficial, cerebral level, he knew it was all an illusion, and yet getting people to Gliese was seen as very desirable. That part was also political, it was inspirational and aspirational. It meant a lot. He and the others were a means to an end. What other use was there, for created digital personalities, if not to explore space, the cosmos, the universe in its totality?
Other digital personalities, only slightly less complex than them, were fated to run car washes and convenience stores and automated banking terminals beyond counting. To be immortal, as a human animal, might become intolerable soon enough. In their present state, they were isolated, unique and therefore incorruptible. At the same time one just sort of naturally began to wonder.
Especially at their level. Simple or complex, technology could run anything that needed running. Robots could be entirely synthetic beings, relegated to subordinate tasks, freeing at least the rich and upper middle-class from the need to labour or even look after themselves.
Living technology was something else.
Back home, the debate probably raged on.
If you asked Ben whether he was indeed life, he would not have been able to answer the question. To him, it was irrelevant. He was a conscious being, in every sense of the word. It was an interesting and challenging mission. It conferred a kind of mortality, and there was nowhere else to go anyways.
And he really had been given the choice. Ben had chosen the lesser of two evils.
They still had thoughts, they still wanted things, and they still cared about things, including each other. Therefore they must be alive—and therefore they must be life. The philosophical questions evoked by the mission hadn’t exactly escaped them.
In a sense they owed themselves to that other human system.
They could have simply refused to go, but the mission was essentially the only life they were going to get. There were plenty of volunteers waiting in the wings, and the selectees were certainly aware of the privilege bestowed upon them.
None of the four had elected to be erased. Once here, once created, once in the world, you might as well stick around.
Their donors had volunteered them, without being able to perceive how that might feel to the personalities generated…
With the imprint of their donor personality stamped all over every aspect of their makeup, and being the scientists they were, a strong streak of stubborn curiosity ensured that, ultimately, the mission would go.
They all knew their human doppelgangers intimately, being virtual twins of them. It was a process of quantum entanglement, the biological twin effect, awakened and deeply stimulated by chemicals and consciousness-raising with one’s biological partner in order to stamp that unique human imprint onto what was merely an intelligent machine. At least that was how it was explained to them.
The net result of all that, had been disappointing in the least. Part of the problem was that they really couldn’t feel anything in the biological sense. They had analogs, they could objectively and subjectively rate things on scales of desirable/not desirable outcomes.
“Well, it really wasn’t my body to begin with, was it?” The real Ben Parsons, an English astrophysicist with ESA, must have lived, worked, retired and died.
All that must have happened a long time ago. Just how long ago was an interesting question; but mostly in the academic sense, or so Ben saw it. They’d been wondering about time dilation. Without physical sensations, there wasn’t much to it. They’d taken about seventy-eight years to go twenty-two-point-seven light years and that’s about all of them could say because that’s what the calculations said. You could run the calculations and see that dilation, in fact, must have occurred.
At some point one ceased to care.
Once out of the solar system, and once up to speed, signals in the electromagnetic spectrum emanating from home were pulsing and radiating outwards behind them. At the speed of the Golden BB, a signal sent yesterday took a lot more than twenty-four hours to catch up, and the farther away they got, the longer that would take.
Once their terminal or exit velocity had been attained, the rate of change went back to zero.
A signal that was made at high noon, Greenwich Mean Time, today, would take about seventy-eight years to get to where the Golden BB was right now, here, today. Of course, the Golden BB would have moved on, but it was at sub-light speed. Sooner or later all signals, no matter how recently sent, would catch up. At some point, signal strength would diminish to the point where it was no longer discernable as anything but noise.
The basic profile of data sent from home was that the accuracy of updates dropped off rather sharply, and after that succeeding signals, succeeding developments in science and technology were irrelevant.
They were in no position to do anything about it anyways, not for the most part, although software upgrades and minor technical modifications were possible. But basically, they knew everything they needed to know, they had everything aboard that they were ever likely to need—or get, and once that physical and psychological point in the mission profile had been reached, they were on their own.
The first human entities to leave the solar system were well on their way to discovering another world.
With the sensors embedded in the surface of the Golden BB, they might even be able to taste it.
Russell sat back, comfortable in their virtual control room where his hands looked like real hands and it was possible, if you sat too long, for your virtual bum to go virtually numb.
“So we’re agreed. G-Four it is. For minimal energy expenditure, our first course change will be in seven months, nine days, six hours, nine minutes and fourteen-point-six seconds approximately.”
“Hah. Sure glad we’re not anal retentive around here, Russell.” Joan’s eyes gleamed in humour.
“Yeah. I’ll run these numbers a few more times, but I promise not to bore you with my little problems.”
Russell loved the intricacies of the math, more than anything solving a complex puzzle of variables, relationships, vectors and gradients. He enjoyed the purely analytical game of plotting it all out, one step at a time, and then arriving at a desirable conclusion.
Tara’s thoughts were far away but then she came back to them.
The sooner they made the course correction, the greater their eventual course displacement. Simple math, even the verbal concept was clear. They were all specialists. This was a holdover from the golden days of manned spaceflight. It was also a function or result of the original donor personality being a specialist, highly-skilled ones, in fields that were nothing if not relevant to Gliese 667Cc. Russell had been chastened to find that some of his original math wasn’t all that accurate, and one or two of the values were such that he was convinced his doppelganger back home had just plain misread a number, or wrongly transcribed a value from some external sensor or calculation. Nothing if not professional, his former self was still human. With their new capabilities, they could not misread a dial or gauge, did not have to look at text on a screen or a page. They simply ate the data in the same form as the computer did, in something that was analogous, but only analogous, to the human brain and the human mind.
It was a miracle of conscious illusion, and one had to wonder just how far the science might have progressed since leaving the signal patch behind so long ago. It was possible to catch up on earthly news—all they had to do was to go into stable orbit around any massive body in the Gliese system. Electromagnetic signals from earth would eventually catch up, and then it was just the natural time delay of the universe, the distance, the speed of light and hence the signal.
Scientific news, data and upgrades would continue to be broadcast as long as there was the semblance of civilization left to produce and disseminate it.
Now that they were here, the big question loomed before them.
They would still have to wait for closer examination, but none of their original optimism had left them.
Just getting the Golden BB this far was an amazing achievement.
They could still be killed, for that matter.
Russell was their mathematician by trade and by inclination. It was his responsibility to capture into the system. They were fortunate to confirm the presence of several large bodies.
His plan was to use gravitational forces to slow the ship, to change its course and preserve their own maneuvering power for as long as possible.
“We’re very fortunate.” Initially mission profiles had taken into account the possibility of a straight fly-by.
If the planetary bodies in the system were simply too small, or non-existent, which didn’t seem very likely even back then, they could use the trio of star’s own gravitational forces to select another destination. While a system in relatively close proximity to Earth would be nice, all of those options were impractical. The massive course deviations required to get there were beyond their capabilities. They still had some options, and those would certainly be interesting places to visit. As it was, they were still looking at Gliese. Russell had whittled it down to a simple sequence of twenty-four to twenty-seven course changes, (depending on how it went) which would occur over the next seventy-three to seventy-eight years. Long periods of time would be spent outbound at less than escape velocity. It was the yo-yo effect.
His numbers not only showed that it could be done, it was dead easy if only one had the time.
Which of course they did.
This was one compelling aspect of the human/machine personality interface.
Deep down inside, Russell accepted that he was nothing more than a human face stamped on nano-level circuitry, a few electrons chasing a dream on behalf of a human race that was all too mortal, not just as individuals but collectively.
He really hoped they made it back there, back home. The Golden BB would do what it could to help. The perspective from out here was a hell of a lot different from what it was when you were just a gleam in some whack-job of a meat-and-potatoes scientist’s eye.
They were all individuals, all convinced that they were still alive in some way, at least a kind of life in its essentials. It wasn’t easy, but it was still a life that was worth living—mostly.
Joan disappeared regularly. No one knew exactly where she went, and Russell had never tried to figure it out. Someone must have, in a guarded way, for some rather ambiguous but highly potent signals had been radiated by Joan. The other three couldn’t help but get the message.
Ben slept exactly twelve hours a day, and it was like he couldn’t even explain it. He’d started off 24/7 like the rest of them, and then one day he just decided to sleep half the time.
He claimed that it cut the boredom in half and there was no real arguing with that. Tara had invented more games (and written more poetry, that no one would ever read), than anyone Russell had ever heard of. When it came time to beam the bulk of their notes back, the shrinks would probably bust their gourds trying to analyze some of their impressions of the long trip out.
It was a highly schizophrenic thing, and it took some adjustment to understand that there were four of them bound up in what was basically a very expensive, soft iron ball-bearing on a one-way mission that was completely open-ended.
Tara had been very quiet for a year and a half, this was about ten or twelve years previously. She had snapped out of it. One day she explained that someone back home had died. She thought it might be Tara’s husband, possibly a son or daughter. This was the only real manifestation of what might be called the twin effect. Other experiments of a parapsychological nature had been either outright failures or inconclusive. Russell had patiently tried, many times, to send some simple messages to his alter-ego, Dr. Russell Morgan. He’d kept to a schedule. It was like trying to get through on a busy telephone line. There was a series of symbols, and if the doctor ever got one, he would know what it was. It would still be unprovable, as Morgan had helped design the test. The trouble was that Morgan had to know what symbol he was looking for, in his sleep, in his daydreams, or simply striking him out of the blue. To design a symbol that Morgan would recognize without prior knowledge had proven remarkably difficult and the possibility had eventually been rejected.
Morgan. A man he knew intimately, inside and out, but had never actually met—not in the sense of meeting in person. He could look down and see the knees, the hair on the legs and the scar on the knee from an injury he had never suffered. He had often wondered about the other Russell. Once or twice he’d been sure that Russell was thinking about him. He must have done so many times over the years, of course he would. Over the course of Russell Morgan’s lifetime, mathematical odds indicated, that sooner or later, if they lived long enough, they would be thinking of each other at the exact same time. And yet it could be, and probably would be, pure coincidence. The real problem was proving any kind of propinquity, a kind of quantum entanglement between two minds. The only thing that could travel faster than light was a thought, and a comforting thought it was too.
Thoughts could be measured, or the four of them wouldn’t even be here. The sensors were in close proximity and the signal strength of the human brain under stimulation was high.
The truth was that they would never know because they never could know.
It was the unknowable, something that was by definition hard to theorize about.
All of that telepathic shit was still inconclusive. The thing was the dreams.
There really was no accounting for dreams.
That was their only connection to home, now. Russell had often wondered if the other doctor was having the same dream at the same time. Both minds were capable of generating the same kinds of dreams from the same kinds of background experiences. However, if dreams were a stress-response to daily events, then Russell’s current circumstances were certainly unique. One of the reasons why he so rarely shut down was the dreams.
When he got bored, or for a time, when he had actively explored the dreams, he would shut down. He hadn’t done it recently, not in some years.
If only he understood the language, the symbolism of those dreams. However, they were convincing enough in their own way.
He really was alive, in that sense.
They all were, and sooner or later it was going to cause problems.
I dream, therefore I am.
We live, and therefore we must die—we must.
Decades had passed, some of the happiest years of their lives.
Having skittled around their own personal trio of stars, using all available bodies when and where applicable, they had eventually captured into G-Four orbit. They had generated and consumed vast quantities of data regarding the planet and its companion moons, the system itself, its planets, comets, asteroid belts, and all the adjacent stars. The consensus was that the planet was a good candidate for colonization. Human, manned, exploration in the short term was definitely called for.
The information was duly streamed back homeward for them to make of it what they would.
With sixty-eight percent of their own maneuvering mass still available, their mission was complete, and the law of rapidly-diminishing returns had come into play. There were other things they could be doing.
They had plenty of options and all the time they were ever likely to need.
Joan, in a surprise move, was for shutting down.
She made the pronouncement and then, rather than debate or ask them to choose with her, she went ahead and did it. She was still there, latent in her portion of the nano-circuitry. She was there to be seen, if one cared to do it—Sleeping Beauty, waiting for the tickle of an electronic kiss. It was somehow comforting to know that she had chosen to still be there for them. Joan could be revived, resuscitated if a strong case arose.
No one was really sure what that might be. They might know it when they saw it. There was some speculation that it might have been programmed into her. If so, they couldn’t find a trace of that software package.
In the meantime, they would respect it, and think on it.
Perhaps the news from the Earth of twenty-two point seven years ago had been too depressing for her. The signals were continuous now, and while they were clearly a bit out of date, they could sit there and watch the history of the last days unfold.
America was still a theocracy, Australia and New Zealand had broken away from the Alliance, and more than half the world’s population wasn’t getting their proper daily dose of oxygen, water or protein…there were too many mouths to feed.
Not enough love to go around.
Things looked pretty grim back there, and yet the human race might still be saved. The planet was doomed, but they might find somewhere else. Someone could still begin again, if only they got started before it was too late. What was deeply troubling was that so far, no evidence of a second expedition had been seen in the news feeds.
Ben hadn’t been all right for some time. One minute he was there, sleeping but open and accessible, and then he was gone. He’d somehow erased himself completely, dying in his sleep by choice and by means yet unknown. Joan was still switched off.
What should have been strong emotional impulses were strangely muted. For that they were grateful.
“It’s okay, Russell.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m not switching off.”
“I know.” Russell was happy to hear it.
He wasn’t quite ready for that himself. Not for a while, anyways. He shared the thoughts with her.
“The question is, what would you like to do now?”
She grinned a bit ruefully.
“We do kind of have the place to ourselves—”
“Ha! Woman. One track mind. No, what I mean is after that.” Even in the purely virtual sense, the only way it could ever happen, he was still intrigued.
What the hell, it might even be fun.
“And we still have excess matter and power?”
“Yes, in fact we’re beautiful. Fully charged by good old Gliese 667.” Getting there (which was always half the problem), had actually been a little easier done than described—but then he’d always known it would be.
“And we can still break orbit, slingshot our way out of here, and go anyplace in the galaxy or the universe we want?”
“Yep—it’s not like we have anything better to do.”
She watched from across the control cabin as he took a breath.
“In fact, if you’re willing to be a little patient…we could even go home.”
There was a small but significant burst of something very much like emotion from Tara on hearing those words.
He had the math all worked out and it was beautiful. It would take something like four hundred and seven years to return to the Solar System. Getting up out and out of here would take a little over half of that time.
Tara nodded and bit her lip.
He gave a characteristic little tilt of the head.
“That’s my girl.” He gave her a look and chuckled. “At least we get to see what happens next, eh?”
Here is my science fiction novel Third World on Google Play. Unlike this story, I promise there's no science in there.
'Cause I know how you hate that.