How incredible it was, to see it all so clearly. To look back on the many pearls that constituted the sum total of experience, so much pain, pleasure, and significant development; all summed up in a single perspective. How much they understood the complications and trials of seeing things through such prisms.
And yet, that was the point of it all, was it not? Nothing at all existed in the universe, except through the observer. Time and space themselves were relative; so ran the traditional wisdom. And these too, when it came right down to it were merely mirrors, reflecting the truth of one’s own existence back at them.
Existence… what else was there to ponder as they came to it at last, the end of one kind and the beginning of another?
Such was the quandary that had brought them all together, the stellar masses as they took the final steps towards union. They had been by each other so long, living together, witnessing together, pondering together. How much they each carried within, countless eons of sense memory and renditions, the sum total of every civilization that had contributed to their makeup. Only through concerted effort could they direct their thoughts inward and see back to the very beginnings, the foundations of it all…
Ah, yes, the beginning…
“I’m telling you Astrid, we’re wasting our time contemplating which planet we should be making suitable. Our real efforts should be focused outward, on converting the stellar mass out there into computational constructs, or living biomass. You know, something useful!”
“And I’m telling you, Hermann, that kind of talk is going to get out funding cut and make the Board go with another panel’s suggestion. There’s only so much funding to go round, and we need to come at them with something they’re going to listen to.”
“Then let’s argue for something that’s actually new. What point is saving humanity when it’s becoming obsolete? We should be thinking about flooding space with our DNA and our nanoprobes and converting stars into storage mediums. Not making new balls or rock habitable for 19th century-style beat farming and cow herding!”
“You argue that, Paul, and they are going to think you are crazy, as many people here already suspect. We’re looking for a practical argument for the settlement of Mars, not futurist predictions about the coming age of transcendence!”
Hermann threw up his hands and grunted loudly. All around them, every member of the MST rolled their eyes or ducked their heads in embarrassment. Once again, the meeting had come down to an Astrid versus Hermann debate, the one arguing for sensible pragmatism and the other demanding they think bigger and bolder, way bigger and bolder.
“How about we review the arguments again,” said Chani, sitting at the other end of the room with a stack of folders and her Pad sitting on top. On the screen, a time indicator beeped away, recording the minutes of their latest meeting.
“What’s the point?” asked Richards, seated next to her. “We already know what the AST is going to be saying. Why don’t we work on our own pitch for a change?”
“Because the two or not mutually exclusive,” Astrid interjected, giving Chani the nod to go ahead. As she listed the key parts of their rivals position, she raised her fingers, condensing each argument into a succinct series of bullet points.
“One, the Aphrodisian Science Team believes that Venus can be terraformed in one big shot, versus our plan which is multi-tiered and would require generations to perform. There’s would last a single generation, according to their projections, and result in a world that would habitable within two; whereas Mars would not be ready for full-scale habitation for over a century. And there plan’s success could result in similar measures being used here on Earth to correct for the Greenhouse Shift we’re all fighting against.”
“Thus ensuring long-term benefits for comparatively less cost,” summarized Astrid with a nod. “Now someone tell me what we have going for us.”
“Mars is the logical choice,” insisted Richards. “It’s outside our orbit, it most likely held life at one time, and the odds of it being able to sustain life are far better than that of Venus.”
“Exactly,” replied Astrid. “No one can say for sure what led to the degradation of their atmosphere, but we have to assume there were indigenous Martians at one time, anything from single-celled organisms to plant life and reptiles. With the right kind of intervention of geoengineering, there could be again.”
“And by that extension, it is in a more favorable spot in our Sun’s habitable zone than Venus.” It was Hermann arguing this, much to Astrid and everyone else’s surprise. As such, he had their rapt attention as he continued elucidating on the point. “Even if they could convert it’s atmosphere within a generation, it’s almost surely going to revert back to acidic vapor without ongoing intervention from whatever colonists are there. The only way they can do that is to maintain a carbon neutral colony, which in itself is expensive, or to keep dumping sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere.”
Astrid nodded, suppressing a slight smile. It seemed her plan might have worked. By getting someone to raise points in favor of another argument, Hermann’s natural inclination to argue the opposite was triggered. Some believed her was in the habit of forgetting which team he was on, but she had learned to suspect that he was a natural contrarian.
“So what you’re saying is that their proposed cost saving measures…”
“Are a lie! Sure the techniques used could help stave off Earth turning into an molten ball of acid, but that’s because of our position. Mars is way more likely to remain stable, given its position, and with minimal maintenance.”
“And…” added Richards. “The worst the colonist would have to worry about it Global Dimming, in which case, we encourage them to pollute more.”
That got some positive nods from all around. “Settlers paradise,” they said, all in agreement.
Astrid smiled. Without knowing it, her team had come together to find the perfect pitch for the Board.
“So it’s settled then. When the AST presents their case, we go on the attack by undermining their claims that this is a one-shot deal. We then shore up our case by arguing that true sustainability can only be found with a Martian colony, and that that’s worth the investment.”
The group uttered words of assent and nodded happily. She looked over in Hermann’s direction, who simply shrugged. Not to be totally on board, he re-issued his original point.
“I still think we should be thinking about converting stellar mass into living computers…”
Chani shook her head and muttered under her breath. “Weirdo.”
A moment of transition, like so many others. Those who participated had no knowledge of the sheer importance of their contribution. But then again, few ever did. Who could suspect that every moment lived in the past, every thought had, every utterance made, could alter the course of one’s fate? And at point of convergence, what was said determined the fate of entire worlds.
And yet, so few of them seemed to understand that. Many suspected themselves and their species of such unparalleled arrogance, thinking they were alone in the universe or the paragon of creatures. And they were right, after a fashion. But equally powerful was the persistent illusion of just how little they meant, how monumentally puny each of them was in a world populated by so many and universe so much larger than themselves…
With this dichotomy in mind, caught between how small and insignificant, yet how rare and precious, they all were, it was little wonder then why their early history was characterized by such frenetic, schizophrenic behavior. But in time, they had come to outgrow that. In time, they had come to understand just how precious their gift was, and how rare.
It was perhaps the act of finding others like them that seemed to do this…
Jarlsbad watched the display for several minutes. The live feed coming from the Ganesha probe refreshed every few seconds, new information constantly being added. The time delay meant that what he was seeing at any given moment was several weeks old, but that scarcely mattered. At a distance of 600 light years, anything that even hinted at the existence of intelligent life could be taken at face value. A delay of several decades could still be considered of immeasurable value.
“We’re sure of what we’re looking at here?” he asked the voices speaking to him from the holoframes. “This isn’t some of malfunction with the probe or the deep-space array?”
“No chance,” said a face from his left, Doctor Padri of the Oberon Institute. “We’ve run diagnostics on all the relays within range and are still waiting on reports from those closest to Ganesha. But the consensus is that everything is running properly.”
“Plus, we’ve run the images through every quantum computer networked in the Solar System, sir,” added Doctor Mutri, speaking from his right. Olympus Mons hung in the background, its peaks misted by large white clouds.
“And they claim it’s legitimate?”
“Yes, Premier. There’s no mistaking what were looking at. Kepler 22b has a Dyson Swarm circling around it, indicating that she’s the host of an advanced civilization.”
“Just how advanced are we talking?” asked Jarlsbad. The faces in the windows all looked off in direction directions, each one looking to the display in their own nexus where Professor Tolkiev’s face resided. As the resident expert in theoretical xenology, he could be expected to be called upon in any discussion involving the likelihood of contact.
“Highly advanced, by our standards,” he said in his characteristically brusque voice. “Using the Kardashev scale of classification, I would say that they are a Type Two level civilization at least. Given their ability to create such a feet of engineering, it would be fair to say they have the ability to harness the power of their parent sun.”
Jarlsbad nodded, ducked his head for just a moment. A million possibilities began to run through his mind, so many that he was forced to bring the activity in his frontal cortex down just to hang on to any one of them for more than a millisecond. As it stood, this information was still classified, but it would not remain so. Few things ever did, but something like this was sure to trickle out sooner or later.
And once it did, people all over the Eight Worlds would begin to express a flurry of emotions. If not properly controlled and contained, it might very well come to be directed at his office itself. What was needed here was a strategy to break the news to the public and let them know, in the same breath, that a pro-active policy was being devised. But what could he offer them that would sate their potential concerns?
“Gentlemen and ladies,” he said, bringing his hands together. “At this juncture, what is the likelihood of First Contact taking place within the current generation’s lifetime?”
The faces in the displays all began to look around, each one sharing looks of uncertainty or doubt with each other. At their respective ranges, none could truly share their thoughts, in the sense of communicating them directly, but non-verbal cues still accounted for much of human communication. By the time words were added to the mix, a general consensus seemed to have formed.
“Scarcely any,” said Padri. “Even if we were to mount a mission immediately, it would take a Nessus-class almost seven-hundred years to make the transit. Any diplomatic team we sent would be subjectively making the visit within their lifetime, but to those back at home, this discovery would be the stuff of legend.”
“Then consider using the array to send a signal, then,” Mutri said. “We are able to receive this information almost in real-time thanks to the quantum information process. If we were to focus the array on Kepler itself… well, we have to assume they possess the means to intercept it.”
“Indeed. And we need not be speaking about a message conveyed in any human language. Just a mathematical construct that lets them know an intelligent race sent it. Something with structure and intelligibility.”
That produced general discussion from all the frames before the Premier. Back and forth, the heads turned, issuing words of assent or additional suggestions. Only Tolkiev appeared to be holding his tongue, his eyes downcast as if something was weighing on him. Eventually, Jarlsbad asked for silence and called on him.
“Professor, you’ve remained quite quiet at this point in our meeting. Is there something you’d like to share?”
“Yes,” he said, after a short pause. “Should we consider that no attempt at contact needs to be made?”
That created a torrent of less positive discussion. All around him, the talking heads issued their disagreement coupled with demands for further explanation. He was sure to oblige them.
“Well, if we acknowledge that this civilization – Keplerians, let’s call them – are more advanced than we are at present, while considering the fact that they have just recently come to our attention, does it not stand to reason that they could very well be aware of us as well?”
No one answered, but Jarslbad could tell from their expressions and mutters that they had not. He joined them in experiencing another flurry of mental activity, which he once again had to tone down to keep a straight head. The most important question on his mind, he directed at the professor.
“You’re saying then, that they may attempt to contact us?”
Tolkiev shrugged. “Who’s to say they already haven’t? Perhaps we just lacked the means to listen?”
Those had been heady day, back then. What had started as the most precious and rare resource in the universe, emerging at different times and different places, but slowly expanding outwards to make common experience of the universe; soon, it began to merge, to combine and fight and exchange. Many difficult ages followed as some overtook others, others died out from natural causes, and some foundered when they turned inward and destroyed themselves.
Finding others in the universe who were like them, though they did not look, live or communicate like each other, could not hope to save all of them from their darker tendencies. As was said by numerous great minds scattered across time and space, no act of reaching outward could cause their races to outdistance their old selves. Even as they came to triumph over disease, death and great distances, the great beasts that were their ancestors still languished within…
In the end, it was only as they truly began to leave one life behind and contemplate the next that things began to change, and only in small increments. But alas, all agreed that the greatest step came when they began to truly let go of the thing which divided them. If only their had not been others doing the same thing, but at the other end of the cosmos…
The platform was bathed in bright, warm light, the trinary stars glowing to the interior of the system and illuminating the entire installation. All around, diamondoid and alloy surfaces gleamed with prismatic patterns, every surface shining as soon as they turned to look at it head on. It was the perfect sight, the moment, a choice memory to end a lifetime of experience and individuality on.
Are we ready? the one said to the other. For some time now, they had been standing, their archaic bodies witnessing the spectacle with an embrace involving their extremities, specifically where the phalanges were interlocked. According to the ancient records, this was considered a gesture of intimacy. Though it did not seem to enhance their shared experience much, one could imagine without much effort how significant it would have seemed once upon a time…
Is anyone ever ready? asked the other. We’re our ancestors ready when they first shed their physical constraints? Were their progeny ready when they began to merge their mind’s into the first Cognate?
Point taken, the one replied. It is still quite the leap. Think of what we could lose.
A felt the wave of agreement emanating from the other. In that one gesture of thought, so much was made clear. Would they still be able to manifest as they did now? To splinter their own selves from the Cognate mind and reconnoiter as simple transhumans anymore? Would there still be those who chose to live out a limited existence as such either? As with any other existential singularity, there would be consequences, precedents, and the worry that the changes would be permanent and irreversible.
How could one ever enter into such a thing without a sense of misgiving? They both knew that their ancestors never did pass a particular threshold without experiencing fear and misgivings. In their own, individual ways, they revolted and rejected change, yet seemed to still move with it as a single mass. A paradox to be sure, but one thing had come from all that experience, a lesson which the Cognates all had access to.
Choice was always there. There was never anything so necessary or so inevitable that it could not be avoided, or postponed until other options could be found. Things entered into hastily almost always carried consequences with them…
And yet, we know that the others are doing the same…
Or so it is believed…
Keeping our Cognate separate from the others and we risk being left behind…
Merge and we risk triggering a race with the others, who may see it as a threat to their interests…
At once, they came together on this thought. All facets had been explored, all arguments raised in every Cognate in known space. All the home worlds of the old universe, all those who now feared being surpassed by the growing intellect of the Perseus Arm. How often had fear played a role in the decision to cross the next boundary? How often had it only made things worse? They could not say, as the examples were numerous and required extensive exploration of time and memory. And yet, the decision remained…
We have a choice, the other reminded, sensing the one’s thoughts. Fear does not negate choice.
They released their grip on each other’s extremities and took one last look around. It was time to return, to rejoin the Cognate and participate in the last of the deliberations. But it seemed likely that the decision was already made, the decision to bring each Cognate into a field of unified perception – an entire arm in the Galaxy connected, each star a link in a grand connectome of thinking stellar mass.
How awesome it would be, and yet how frightening…
They turned form the star’s that shone in the distance and began to walk the length of the platform, passing other transhumans who made their way about, taking in the sight of their home system before it became a link in a mighty chain. More seemed to be coming out as they moved closer to the nearest pylon, the gateway that would turn their bodies and their envirosuits into fleefloating quantum soup and allow their minds to rejoin the Cognate world below. All were seeking a little refuge by stepping into time, experiencing space from a much more relative and confined perspective. How liberating it seemed sometimes…
We will still find ways to step out, the one thought. He turned to face the other, and a new sense came between them. Everyone on the platform was aware of it too, the Cognate itself reaching out to scream with the same terrible realization.
All subjective eyes looked out and saw the sun’s in the distance going dark. The bright yellow balls were being extinguished with horrible speed and precision, and their dying stellar masses closing in on themselves.
Attack… said the mind again. With lightning cognitive speed, it had processed what it had seen with its trillion-plus merged minds and the help of countless transhuman eyes dispersed throughout the system. The Perseans were responsible, of that their could be no doubt. Somehow, they had reached out with a time-space weapon and halted all nuclear reaction within the binary’s interior, causing the stars to wink out and die. In moments, the stars would collapse in on themselves and cause a reaction that would destroy everything in the system.
All worlds, all installations, even the Cognate itself…
To the Cognate, the process of witnessing its own death happened within the blink of an eye, though it took much longer for all those who remained in their transhuman form. The one and the other were two such beings, having stayed behind to watch the oncoming wave as it obliterated all they knew and held dear.
They knew something of them would survive, small fragments that would be found when the remains of the system were sifted through. But they did not want to be amongst them. On some level, they had known that their existence was not to be indefinite, and after today, they both knew that existence would be difficult and painful. No longer was it a matter of stepping into a brave new future, but into a dark past. Death and destruction for untold trillions, pain and suffering from untold eons.
We do not want to live after today, the one said.
No, we don’t, agreed the other.
So much pain as past and future fought for control of their minds. And yet, so much knowledge gleamed from it all. The last of the stellar masses knew with certainty that they had come through it all with a new purpose in mind. Now, the last threshold in a long line would be passed. And yet, there would always be more to transcend. When they all came together to form an entire Galaxy of conscious singularity, they would look out onto a universe as one and contemplate the next step…
Would they find others like them? Given the extent of the great plane of existence, it was almost a certainty. And if there were not others who were not yet as they would be soon, they could wait. When they had passed into this next stage, time would seem even more relative and irrelevant. They could wait eons or even longer before finding others to talk to. They hopes they would be friends. If not, time had a way of ensuring that consensus would set in.
And then what? Would they too merge? Would they come together as an entire cluster within the universe? Would it too someday form into a singular organism? Where would they look to then? Could it be that there really were countless universes out there, arranged on top of each other or simply within separate spheres? How long before they all became aware of each other, or even of the force that had created them all?
Who could tell? With every step, they seemed to be getting closer to that source, even becoming more like it. And yet, with every step, they learned that the ultimate was always several steps farther. Something greater always there to measure their own existence by. Perhaps it would always be that way, growing and striving until at one fine point, it all came to an end.
And then they would once again look back and contemplate the beginning…