Systematic Destiny

Dr. Joel Green is a Project Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. StScI is a research institute of astronomers, engineers, software developers, and staff that operate the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA. Firaxis had the opportunity to have Joel Green in to discuss his research and how it relates to the sci-fi world of Beyond Earth. Inspired by the conversation, Joel and members of the Civ dev team went off and wrote a series of blog posts set in the Beyond Earth universe.

The gray-streaked older man handed a teacup to me as I sat in the comfortable, if overly dusty chair.

"Tell me, my son. Presume that we survive the present, trials of modernity, and humankind comes of age in the Universe. The far future is ahead but achievable. Which do you consider more likely, and which is mere mythology: that we would achieve faster-than-light travel, or that we will master the secret of life and death, bringing back those who are gone?"

I snorted derisively. "A simple question, and a simple answer. One day we shall travel the stars, but death is the ultimate barrier, a one-way journey to the abyss. Watch any futurist film; Galaxy-wide empires loom larger, but to bring back the dead is to become gods, which we are not."

"Fascinating," the older man murmured. "You would agree that both seem unachievable today?"

"Of course."

"Why?"

"They violate our current understanding of physics."

My father nodded, absently adjusting the time on his pocketwatch. "Physics: the laws that govern the Universe; based on the two basic postulates: that the laws of physics do not change with time, or with place. That the laws are the same regardless of where or when I stand."

I agreed. "What is your point?"

"So to travel faster than the speed of light would require new physics that we do not even suspect today? No evidence for faster-than-light travel exists, and in fact would cause several contradictions in causality: the simple idea that if something 'happens' for one viewer, it must 'happen' for all viewers. If two spaceships crash, no matter what vantage point or speed we take to observe, we must observe the collision."

"Agreed. Faster-than-light travel is likely impossible, unless there is new physics, like wormholes or some such."

"Now let us consider the second possibility: life and death."

I frowned. "We do not resuscitate the dead."

"Do we not? We can create machines that resemble life in many respects; fix broken pipes to former glory. I see you do not apply this reasoning to machines," he added hastily, seeing my frown deepen. "We can even mend bones, cure diseases, and prevent many lethal ailments in humans."

"Yes, but once dead, there is nothing we can do."

"And yet, we bring the dead to life all the time, in a womb. Materials collected from soils, nutrients, genetic material, zygotes, all combine to form new self-replicating genomes, the basis of life. And yet, what was once not alive becomes alive. Is this impossible?"

"That is plant matter and simple animals. Can we bring humans back to life?"

The older man nodded. "With complete understanding of the brain and body, perhaps fully. Of the two, I put to you that the sacrosanct boundary of life itself is less of an imposition to our grasp than the vast gulfs between the stars."

I spared my father a long, silent stare. "How can you believe that?"

"Because you are me. You are life from unlife." He uttered the phrase with such a strange cadence that my heartbeat quickened.

"What do you mean?" I demanded.

"You are not only my son, but my twin. My clone. You are me, rebooted. I have but to instill my memories in you, and you will carry me to the new world after I die."

"I'm a copy? Of you?" My head spun.

"Yes. But you will carry me across light years, eons, to a distant future world, never to return to this world while civilization as we know it survives."

I turned, and staggered out of the tent. Cries from behind me: "Wait! My son! We must do the transfer tonight!"

I left, never to return.

------

“Don’t you want to know why?” Father shouted after me as I left.

I spun around in my tracks. “Yes, ‘Father’,” I spat venomously. “Why did you clone yourself, against all the laws of humankind and nature? Is your ego that great?”

“In a sense, perhaps, but not for the conceit of my own work.” He sipped the tea quietly for a moment. He stared off into the middle distance, seeing memories:

“When I was young myself, I took a mentorship with one of the few remaining astrophysicists. She was a glorious throwback to the older times, and her explanations of physics seemed more like a historian recounting a great drama.

‘We began this experiment as NASA, back in the early 21st century,’ she murmured. ‘The search for planets was in its infancy – did you know that they knew of only a few thousand in the whole of the galaxy? And a mere twenty years before that, none save our familiar solar system?’

“I gasped. ‘How could they not have suspected?’

‘Oh, they did suspect there were other worlds. There was much science fiction speculating about other worlds, containing life, advanced civilizations, and threats we could never imagine. An outward-facing time. But,’ she eyed me sternly, ‘with your knowledge of mathematics you should be able to determine for yourself how limited their detection ability was. The largest space telescope in the year 2020 was the Webb Telescope, a mere 6.4 meters in diameter, and the largest spaced-based optical telescope was the famous Hubble, a mere 2.4 meters across. Back then, all the telescopes were named after scientists or NASA heroes.’

“I scribbled notes onto the electronic pad, and made a few order-of-magnitude estimates. ‘So they launched telescopes into space because of the water vapor in the atmosphere?’

‘Yes,’ she nodded approvingly. “Because they couldn’t afford to send huge telescopes into space, they were forced to develop special techniques to account for the atmosphere and the water vapor in particular. These heroic efforts led to the discovery of a few dozen giant Jupiters, at great distances from their blindingly bright host stars, but ultimately they needed bigger space instruments if we were to see, in an image, a true Earth-like world, around a Sunlike star.’

“She was ramping up now.” ‘Our nearest neighbors, Alpha Centauri B, Barnard’s Star, and a handful of others, were tantalizingly close. Could we see planets around those stars? With decreasing budgets and difficulties mounting here on Earth, would it be possible to make this discovery?’

“I thought carefully about my answer.” ‘Yes, if the planet were rotating about a very close star in a nearly face-on orbit, it would only require a modest telescope, and…’

‘Time,’ she finished for me. ‘We tried the nearest stars, and as we failed to detect such a planet, our support weakened further. At last, our final Explorer class mission could detect such a planet around only one target, and we have waited for years to see the signs of rotation.’ She tapped a key. ‘Do you see it?’

“I looked at the image, trying in vain to see a telltale smudge that would indicate a target for our study, continuation for our declining race.

‘It’s possible,’ I said awkwardly, ‘but we need…’

“Time,” I said. “Time was what you needed.”

Father studied me. “Yes. And the computers had long since locked their secrets from us, keyed only to individual users. I needed to wait a lifetime, but I wasn’t sure I had one.”

“And you needed a genetic clone, someone the computer would recognize even after you are gone.”

The old man nodded gently. “And so you see, my son, you cannot leave.”

-------

“Father,” I intoned darkly, stirring my tea once more, “I see a dot on a page.”

The simple monochromatic plot revealed a tiny orb, barely visible above the fuzz of the background.

He smiled, “It is so much more than that. This just one frequency of light. The spectrum reveals so much more.” He picked up a pebble from the dirt inside the tent. “Forsterite crystals – peridot – resonate in the infrared. Our Earth is built on this. The disk that formed this ‘dot’ was rich in it. Shocks stirred the icy dust, drifting in rapidly rotating gas, agglomerating into bigger and bigger rocks, until finally the planet was made whole.”

“But how do we know it’s not a big ball of gas, like Jupiter?”

“The shadow.”

“I don’t follow.”

My father paused. “The planet passed in front its host star. The shadow of the planet dimmed the star by shading a tiny portion of it, here,” he indicated a dip of datapoints on the unremarkable chart, “here, and here. Three orbits. Not a starspot masquerading as a planet.”

“But how does that tell us the planet is solid?”

“The time. The time it took for the shadow to fully diminish the starlight. Like an eclipse. The shadow moves slowly across the surface, and from the time to reach a full eclipse…”

“…we can deduce the size of the eclipsing object, the planet.” I finished. “And because we know how massive the planet is, by its orbit and its mass ratio with the host star, we can figure out the density. Rock is denser than gas. I understand now.”

My father watched my excitement build. “What else can we learn?”

I pondered. “The atmosphere of the planet?”

“How?”

“When the shadow of the planet passes in front of the star, its atmosphere blocks part of the starlight – so we can figure out the atmosphere by contrasting it with the unblocked starlight.”

“Which would tell us…”

“The gases in the atmosphere are changed by denizens of the planet. Could we detect life that way? Is that planet inhabited?”

“With enough time and a big enough telescope, we could.” His eyes fell. “But we cannot afford that now.”

I felt cold, and pulled the blanket over my chair, brushing off the collected dust. “But if this planet is not inhabitable, we will all perish. There can be no other places to go, only one habitable zone.”

“Not necessarily. What is the key ingredient for life?”

“Water,” I answered unhesitatingly.

“Why?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Water flows.” He stirred his cup. “Water facilitates chemistry; it bring molecules and ancient rocks in contact with each other. Water may have been the first protocell.”

“And only in the liquid state, the ‘habitable zone’, is this possible. Only one place here and we’ve nearly run out.”

“How many oceans are there in the Solar System?”

I stared. “One.”

“No.”

“Surely you don’t mean the ancient Mars riverbed…”

“I mean currently.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Moons.” He rose up. “We need not be in a temperate zone to have an ocean, under the layers of ice. Europa, with its great ice sheet and ocean just beneath, powered by convective currents, like the primordial Earth ocean. Ganymede, explored by the Hubble Space Telescope, with a 100 mile deep ocean locked deep beneath the surface. Enceladus, with its outgassing plumes of water vapor. And even Titan, with its methane lakes. Not just water, but any liquid may yield the reactions we need.”

“So you’re saying that the gas giants we spotted in the data, farther out, may harbor miniature solar systems of their own?”

“It’s possible. Life is endlessly varied. And it is this flexibility that must keep us here.”

I stopped drinking my tea. “Here? What’s the point? Earth is dead.”

“It’s not dead yet. Dying, yes, but we have time to fix this. To find a new home for our people is why I’m here. It’s why you’re here. To leave this world with our kind is not our purpose.

“What are you saying? If WE find a new planet, then WE should get to live on it. There’s nothing for us here after that. We should be allowed to escape.”

“A part of us must escape. Our knowledge, our representatives of humanity reaching out to the Galaxy to embrace what is out there. But we must try to regain the homeworld.”

“I don’t understand.”

“We can only watch and imagine the future.” He stretched out his hand. “We cannot give up on our home, no matter how it punishes us.”

I batted the hand away and turned to leave.

-------

I’m not sure if it is because of, or in spite of being chosen and synthesized, that I feel like I have a true purpose. I am more than those who were simply born. I am a perfect human-being.

And so is he.

“Dad,” he calls from outside where his tiny thin legs carry him through the grass. “Watch me!”

I glance up from my desk and out the open window to see my boy carrying on through the yard. It’s like looking into a mirror. I pick up a small mug and take a sip of the lukewarm Earl Grey and lose myself in the present for a brief moment. But time is a precious commodity, and I cannot waste it. After all, time is why I’m here.

It was my father, the third generation copied from an original, who discovered the first planet with the possibility of sustaining our species. Despite the excitement that brought, we had to continue to remind ourselves that the new planet was only a prospect, not a certainty. Work had to continue here. And despite the most unknown of unknowns, our glorious leader announced that a private vessel would be leaving in just a few years with a carefully chosen few to begin a new chapter in humanity’s story on a new world.

I had to be a part of it. Somehow.

And the time has come.

The front door slams shut, rattling the windows of the tiny house, and I look up from the low dim of my computer screen to see my son. My clone. He grins wide up at me and I place a firm hand on his head and tousle his hair. “Go get ready for supper,” I say.

He runs up the crooked wooden staircase and I can hear him banging around upstairs. Water rushes through the exposed pipes above my head as he turns on a faucet. I resign from my work for the night and pull foil wrapped dishes from the fridge. The front door creaks open again.

“You’ve got to stop living like this,” a husky voice murmurs from behind me. It’s my old friend and colleague, Rayner, a revered member of the scientific community. He is one of two people on the planet that I would trust with my life.

We joke about old times, and how much things have changed - how much I have changed – and silence only falls between us after the 8 year old boy appears at the top of the staircase.

We sit down at the table together and I can see that Rayner is still unused to children – clones or otherwise. He stares awkwardly at the little boy playing with his spaghetti.

It was going to be hard for each of them.

“Rayner,” I say. “This is my son,” a very slight twitch of his mouth betrays his knowledge, “and I think it’s very important that you get to know each other.”

“Why, dad?” My son looks at me, the corners of his mouth red with pasta sauce.

“Rayner is going to take you on a trip.” I lean forward and put on my most excited smile for the boy. “Into the stars.”

“Are you coming, too?”

The Corporation would never allow a known clone on their ship, and just the thought of it could put me in prison.

“Daddy has a lot to do here. But one day,” I lie, “I’ll join you.”

He slurps a noodle. Rayner shifts uneasily; I’m not sure if its discomfort with the wooden chair or the conversation. He was taking the biggest risk of all of us.

“We’ve fought for generations to try to find somewhere to start over. We’ve lost so much in such a short period of time. Cattle. Wheat. Even our physical space is dwindling.” I watch my son carefully, to make sure that he understands me. “If we had planned better in the beginning - rationed our resources and protected the animals we cared for – we wouldn’t need to leave. We wouldn’t need to take this risk.”

“But if it’s bad here, you should come, too,” my son says.

I smile, and hope he can’t sense my doubt. “But there’s hope for earth. I’m going to continue to fight for it with every day that I have left. But you’re the future, my son. On this new world, you will be a part of the foundation. Adapt to what it has to offer. Never forget what happened here.”

I saw a gleam of understanding in my son’s eyes. “I’ll miss you.”

Rayner put his hand on the young boy’s shoulder. “It’s going to be a beautiful world,” he said. “And it’s going to be ours.”

-------

The twins were born a week after the computers died. Their mother chose the names Caleb and Aaron. She is not their biological mother of course, they are both clones of me through and through, but she is my wife and she will help me raise them with the strange traditions of our little society.

Decades ago my great grandfather, the fifth generation, had a massive heart attack and nearly died at his desk. It was a sober reminder that genetics were not everything. Life and fate still held their sway over us. His genes – my genes – were supposed to be impeccably immune to heart disease. One broken link in the chain would mean the end of our mission: the genetically-locked computer system, our search for planets that could support life, and our stewardship of science on a dying Earth. Beginning with the seventh generation, our society maintained multiple clones for redundancy and safety. My father was one of three, just as I am. Birthing us as twins or triplets eased the strangeness of our clone identities in the early years, before we reached the age of fifteen and were told officially.

All that careful planning and adaptation seems pointless now. The computers have failed, eroded by time and isolation, and our search for exoplanets cannot continue. Perhaps it is just as well. The last expedition of the Seeding fled Earth when I was five years old. The long-dreaded Inflection Point has come and gone. Fossil fuels are utterly spent, and there will never again be enough raw power to reach escape velocity and flee this doomed rock. We sorry few who are left face a lukewarm apocalypse. There is food, and shelter, and even cooperation, but all overshadowed by raids and struggles over the remaining sources of energy. It was only with our solar cells that the Institute was able to continue as it had, and even those caught the eyes of roaming bandits that we had to buy off. Humanity slouches back to an earlier age, and we are left to watch it rot.

The night after the twins are born, I sneak into their nursery, careful not to make much noise. The room is dark and windowless and their faces are serene with sleep. They know nothing of our purpose here. Maybe it would be best to keep it that way. I think back to my fifteenth birthday. There were soycakes and candles for me and my brothers. My father discussed astronomy with the three of us, then told us who we really were. I remember the stale smell of candle smoke.

The next day, I call an emergency meeting of the Institute leadership. Except for my resting wife, everyone is in attendance. I serve the tea and we begin.

Nobody speaks at first. My brother Joseph looks to his wife, then breaks the silence. “We need to get the computers back online.” Everybody nods in agreement.

“We will certainly try,” I say. “But it does not look good. We have to be prepared for the event that they are lost.”

Hector, my other brother, crosses his arms. “So what then? Our purpose is expired?”

Joseph grabs his wife’s hand. “No, we will find a way.”

Hector chuckles, then frowns. “The scavengers haven’t come around in a few months now. They should be back soon.”

“Good thinking,” I say. “Maybe they have some parts or expertise that we could barter for.”

“Or at the very least, we could sell the junk,” Hector says.

I interject. “You must be joking.”

Hector shrugs. “This mission is just as important to me as it is to you.

But we have worked long and hard, and there is no more use for our knowledge.”

“There is always use for our knowledge,” Joseph says.

Hector nods, but he does not seem convinced. I realize suddenly that neither am I.

-------

The heat-haze blurs the shape of lizards as they retreat to the cracks in the wall where they will spend the mid-day. Above me circle the vultures, looking down on the Instut as they always have, as they always will, on this circle of sterile, scarred concrete. I push the trolley into the middle of the forecourt and gently unfold the PV panels in the way my father-brother taught me, and begin the count.

“You must say the names of the first twelve systems,” Father-brother said. “That gives the batteries enough time to charge.”

I park the trolley, raise my morning tea, and salute the plains beyond: “Alpha Centauri Bb. Kepler 438b. Kepler 296e. Golf Juliet 667Cc… “

When I was younger, I could hear the whine of the battery charging.

“Kepler 442blessed. Kepler 62e. Golf Juliet 832c…”

I have not heard the whine for many years, but I take it on faith that it still happens. Usually the batteries manage to boot the Indexer, and then I wheel it back to the observatory to get a few hours of time synced to whatever telescope might be working that day. Last week, the Indexer recorded a new entry, so the work is not entirely futile.

“Epic 2013 June d, Spitzer 728blessed…”

The father-brothers will welcome me in due time, because I kept the charge. The Aunts tell me they are close to creating my son-brother. It is incumbent on them to complete their charge before I die. They still have some time, so their work is not futile, either.

It is important to have faith, and to remain devoted to the work, I believe.

“Koi 4427b, Webb 909c…”

There is a whine. This is not the whine of the batteries charging. It is not an animal, or a vehicle, or a sensory aberration. The sound is coming up through the ground, through my bones. I can feel it in my teeth and my sinuses. The dust of the forecourt dances before rising into tiny whirlwinds. The tea in the cup forms standing waves.

The air above the plain shimmers, and then the sky opens up. There is light, and a blast of wind, and the smell of ozone, the fleeting sense of an object of infinitesimal size rushing towards the Instut and blossoming into endlessness. A hole appears in air above the plain, a discontinuous continuity, the avatar of a tesseract.

The edges of the hole are the most beautiful thing I have seen, all light and motion, more turbulent than heat-haze, more reflective than mercury mirrors. The whine is now a drone, its lowest resonances visible in the dance of dust.

I know what this hole is. This is a cave connecting two points of the universe. Father-brother described it once, long ago, and now it is made real before my eyes.

There is someone coming towards me through the cave. The edges of the hole are turbulent, chaotic, hypnotic, but they are not as hypnotic as the steady pace of the person approaching. I think it is a woman. She is taller than I am. Her pace is measured and steady. She is clad in an environmental suit, and her helmet obscures her features, but she is tall and lithe and fearless, and she has seen me.

This woman exudes power and the confidence of the strong, and fear is rising within me. The Instut has never been strong. We survive on the sufferance of the forces that vie in the world around us. Our little Instut is too poor, too strange, and too old to be a prize. We make the work available to any who ask, although who now wants the names and locations of habitable exoplanets?

Who is she? Where does she come from? These are important questions, questions that the father-brothers would want me to ask, I am sure. But right now, they are academic matters. The question pounding out in my pulse is: Will you do me harm, stranger? One who can make a hole in the universe has strength to spare.

She stops, a dozen paces away, and she raises her right hand. She says a brief sentence that I don’t comprehend, pauses, and repeats it more slowly, her articulation precise.

What to reply? My mind returns to the well-worn ruts of ritual, and I begin the daily chant again. “Alpha Centarui Bb,” I mutter, and her head locks.

“Rhigil Khantarus,” she says. The old synonym, a name used rarely. She points to the ground beneath her feet, says two syllables, hard and spare. She turns her body towards the wormhole, points with her whole hand, gesturing. “Rhigil Khantarus.”

I fall to my knees, the teacup crashing to the ground. “Woman-distant-sister!” I call to her. “Have you come back to us? What do you bring?”

But she has no interest in what I am saying. She is gesturing towards the wormhole, her hands guiding immense machines that are now broaching that doorway, monoliths of metal that throb and hover, and unfold limbs to land on the plain. More of them by the moment, now people moving with purpose and precision, some with weapons.

First Father! I have kept your charge! We son-brothers saved humanity, guiding it as it Seeded distant worlds! But who is this returning?