Systematic Destiny (Part 2)

This story is part of our series inspired by our conversation with Dr. Joel Green of the Space Telescope Science Institute and set in the sci-fi universe of Beyond Earth. For part 1 of this story, click here - and return next week as we continue!

“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.”