Half way home, p.1
Half Way Home, page 1
• A Note to the Reader •
I am not a historian by birth. I received no training in that field. What follows comes from an amateur at relating past events. Also, by dint of birth, I’m not a leader. The mistakes I made are described freely and accepted as my own. Of course, I could go on and on listing the things I’m not, but allow me to save the space by telling you what I am:
I am a psychologist.
Half of one, anyway. Half-made, half-trained, half-dead.
And this is the story of my home.
• 0 • What Should Have Been
I was a blastocyst, once. A mere jumble of cells clinging to one another. A fertilized egg. Of course, we were all in just such a state at some point in our lives, but I excelled at it in a way you didn’t. I spent more time in that condition than I have as a person.
Hundreds of years more, in fact.
I still like to imagine myself like that: a shapeless form, quivering and ripe and full of potential. Holding that image in my head makes it seem as if I haven’t been born yet, as if we could let things play out one more time and arrive at some different destination. Perhaps it would lead to a new, fuller me.
But repeating the past is as impossible as faster-than-light travel and suspended animation—it’s the stuff of science fiction. They’re wonderful ideas, but they all lie on the other side of what-can-be. So far as we know, anyway.
Hence the quivering eggs of potential, my fellow colonists and I.
What better way to seed the stars with the gift of humanity, right? Imagine the colony ships, otherwise: They’d be the size of small moons and packed full with living, eating, breathing, defecating humans. Such arks would be impractical, even if those colonists could survive the ensuing insanity of interstellar travel, the hundreds of years of boredom and breeding and infighting that would occur on a slow passage to some distant hunk of rock. And what would happen when that hunk proved uninhabitable?
Far more sensible, of course, is a system whereby blastocysts such as myself are launched out with a handful of machines to raise us. Especially considering a colonial failure rate of roughly fifty percent. That makes each endeavor a toss-up, doesn’t it? Every colony lander is nothing more than a flipped coin glimmering in space, the word “viable” printed on one side and “unviable” stamped on the other.
The game—your game—is seeing where that coin lands.
At a cost of nine hundred billion each, one might wonder why a nation would take such odds. Then I imagine what it would mean for a mere country to own an entire planet: All those resources, the precious livable land, a launch pad for further expansion. It would be like an island acquiring a continent, not an unheard of event in human history. Besides, if you don’t do it, someone else will, right? Which means you all must.
And the rewards can be enormous. A single patent on one useful alien gene sequence could pay for several more colonies, hardly making the process a gamble. It becomes just one more way for the wealthiest countries to maintain their lead. Like a slot machine that dispenses a jackpot with every other coin.
That’s what “viable” means: A planet with more reward than risk. A jackpot. Not for the aspiring colonists, of course, but certainly for the country that sent them. I bet there are formulae involved, far too complex for one such as myself to understand. With the profession you chose for me, I have a better chance of grasping the vagaries of the human brain. But I can imagine the atmosphere of our new home has to read such-and-such parts per million. Perhaps the mass of the potential planet has to be within certain parameters. And obviously, there can’t be hoards of unconquerable predators roaming about.
There’s a million variables, I’m sure, but by whatever confluence of events, half the planets pass—half of them come up viable, and our reward as little blastocysts is a chemical trigger, a simple compound that causes us to resume our cellular division as if we were in our mother’s wombs.
Then, fed through the same amniotic fluid we breathe, we are slowly transformed into pudgy babies, dutiful children, and finally: fully formed adults. All the while, the training programs you wrote teach us the things we need to know. For me, it would be learning to tend to the psychological needs of my fellow colonists—basically keeping the fleshy bits of your engine nicely oiled, putting the gears back together when they break.
The growing process would normally take thirty years. Three decades spent in vats of perfect nourishment, our muscles electrically stimulated so they grow strong. And when we emerged, five hundred of us, specialists in each of our own fields, we would begin the arduous task of conquering our new world. We would be the first generation of the hundreds it might take to bring an entire planet to its knees, to extract its resources, to unlock its secrets, and to pay back our startup fee and so much more to some old nation on another distant rock. Meanwhile, we’d save up for a further round of expansion. Our thumb would cock back, a new coin loaded, ready to flip out into space.
During those thirty years of gestation, our colony lander would be busy preparing our new home. We would awaken to find it had been growing and dividing alongside us. Tractors that flew a trillion miles would fire up and begin tilling the soil, preparing it for our nourishment. Mining machines would dig loads of ore from the crust and feed the foundry machines, which would turn it into alloy so the shaping machines could create, well . . . more machines.
Some of us would probably wonder why we were even needed, but we’d do the jobs we’d been trained for, happy, perhaps, to not know anything else. We might one day become positively eager, just as you had, to expand and conquer new worlds, because the real spoils would exceed the value of information transmitted back by satellite. It would dwarf the worth of the sloth-like cargo ships full of minerals and ore.
No, the real allure to this nasty procedure is the immortality achieved. The allegiance of shared genes and imaginary borders that stretch easily across the light-years. The reward of knowing your children are out there, outliving whatever star warmed the planet they were conceived on, your grandchildren outliving that new star, and so on. So much wealth and immortality, all for the flip of a coin.
Of course, that’s what should have been. There’s always the other half of the colonies, the ones that go swiftly and simply. On these, the AI crunches those complex formulae and something comes up short—who knows why or by how much. Atmospheric toxicity, crushing gravity, imperfect orbits with wild seasonal swings, frequent extinction impactors, any of these would spell doom for a settlement colony, and none of these traits could be reliably deduced across hundreds of light-years of space. Your stellar spectrographers with their actuarial tables—they can only make their best guesses and flick their thumbs one way or the other, but it’s still a game of chance.
Unviable. That’s what the AI would compute. And instead of a molecular trigger setting off my cell division, the machines would deliver a chemical bullet to liquefy me and my fellow colonists. Some engineer actually dubbed this the “Abort Phase.” Five hundred potential humans destroyed with an acid bath, the entire colony set afire and reduced to slag, then the nuclear explosions to make sure not even the ash survives.
One might think that engineer possessed a poor sense of humor—and as one of those blastocysts nearly aborted, I had the same twinge of disgust. Even knowing the etymology of the term, I still recognize it as one of those cruel coincidences that punctuate human existence. Originally meant for stillborn children, then co-opted by the aeronautics industry for any terminated trial, the word has found an oddly coincidental return home thanks to the cruelty of planetary colonization.
Why the abort sequence? one could ask. Why reduce so much of your capital investment to lava before setting off thermonuclear detonations? We labored to understand before
Including the colony AI, who is as much a clone of our ancestors as we are. The AI would rather chance a slightly toxic atmosphere than risk the loss of all those intellectual property rights within its hull. Not to another country, that’s for sure. Hence the chemical bullet, the fire systems, and the nukes that made the slow journey across eons alongside us—all of them cheap to transport and kind enough to not shit, breathe, and reproduce.
Those are the calculations. Your calculations. Viable or abort. The toss of a coin. On or off. One or zero. A dichotomy engineers and scientists adore. The hard edge that gives their intellectual pursuits the ability to slice through data and arrive at truth.
As a psychologist, a member of the “soft” sciences, it’s the sort of crisp rationality that fills me with envy. Even the quantum physicists have their collapsing waves, driving all that fuzziness into numbers as precise and knowable as any other rational field of inquiry.
The problem, however, is that the choice isn’t really dichotomous. But you didn’t know that, did you? You didn’t foresee a third possibility, one as unplanned for as it was unimaginable to you. By leaving the choice of viability or unviability to an artificial intelligence—a consciousness built to model our own thinking—your engineers created a problem that falls under my purview as a psychologist: something soft.
Two options, viable and unviable, both of them meticulously planned for. Except, if you flip coins often enough, send enough of them hurtling through the air, something else can happen, something miraculous and yet statistically inevitable. Send out thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of colony ships—each another spinning coin—and eventually one of them will surprise you.
One of them will land on its edge and remain there, balanced and wobbling, full of awful or awesome potential. It will be neither heads nor tails but something else.
What follows is the account of one of those rare coins.
It is the story of my colony.
A home halfway between anything.
• 1 • Abort
I was fifteen years old before I opened my eyes for the first time. Fifteen. Not quite a man, but more than a boy. Something in between. Before that moment, I had learned everything from visions directly implanted into my brain. I had been stuffed with virtual lessons and life experiences as my body grew inside a vat.
The training programs I grew up with were wont to flit about, out of sequence and irregular. It was often just me and the Colony AI in his several guises, maybe a few virtual students to serve as examples or to keep me from going crazy. One minute, I’d be walking through the woods, listening to him lecture. The next, I’m in a counseling session, pretending to do therapy with two virtual colonists who can’t get along. This jostling of my consciousness feels absolutely normal for it’s all I’ve ever known.
Then, I woke up. I saw the real world, solid and unyielding, and it made far less sense.
I came to in a square column of glass. The first thing I noticed was a girl waking up in the large vat adjacent to mine. Thick amniotic fluid flowed down our naked bodies, the level receding as the drain at my feet gurgled happily. I looked down at it, at the slow bubbles the drain blew up in my direction. I vomited while it drank. I threw up two lungfuls of the bluish slime. Afterward, I hacked and coughed—my body knowing innately what to do as it began to breathe for the first time. I shivered and wheezed, the air around me cold, but able to sear my lungs, burning me and freezing me at once.
I wiped at my stinging eyes; my senses were overwhelmed and confused. I had just been learning regression therapy, and now I found myself in a strange place, naked. Lost on me was the ironic reversal of the dreams I had been taught to interpret: the waking up in public with no clothes on.
The girl in the adjoining vat slumped against my glass, her shoulder flattening out where it pressed, her neck straining as she coughed and wiped at her eyes. Both of us were coming into our lives with all the spasms and grace of a torturous death.
My vat slid open on one side and a cacophony of sounds assaulted my unused ears. Just as with my vision, I had been “hearing” for fifteen years, but only by having the auditory centers in my brain directly stimulated. Never had it been through such physical, intimate, sonic violence as this.
Screams. People shouting. The crackle of . . . flames? Behind it all was an oddly serene voice telling us to stay calm, to make our way toward the exit.
But nothing about the situation was calm. And there was no clear exit.
Were it not for my wobbly legs, I would’ve thought it an emergency drill. In all my training modules, however, my body had known how to balance itself. That was no longer the case. Even with legs artificially stimulated to remain strong, I struggled to control them.
I grasped the edge of my vat’s opening, stepped over the jamb, and joined the narrow stream of other slimy, naked, and confused colonists beyond. We packed ourselves into the narrow passageway between the empty chambers like animals chuted for slaughter. Slick bodies came into contact with mine, more of my senses overwhelmed with bizarre newness.
In the distance, someone yelled “Fire!” and the already tight space became a horrific crush of human frenzy, of elbows and knees and shoving. Strangers shrieked at the top of their lungs. We became one quivering mass of fear and confusion. Bodies became like cells, forming a new blastocyst with awful potential.
I tried to keep the girl close. We clung to one another like imprinted chicks to Konrad Lorenz, scrambling after the first thing we’d seen upon hatching. Around us, the column of flesh trapped between the vats flowed slowly in one direction. I felt we should be going the opposite way, toward the bright light that flickered beyond the scurrying crowd.
Half of us seemed to be working against the rest, everyone canceling out each other in a macabre display of Brownian motion. It wasn’t until the thick smoke billowed closer that those of us pushing toward the light recognized it as the danger we were meant to avoid.
Panic vibrated through the crowded mess, sparking from skin to skin as the shrieks of those burning alive reached us ahead of the horrid smell. I lost hold of the girl as someone pushed between us. I watched her face disappear—and then her outstretched hand. The crowd jostled me toward some unseen exit.
My entire trip down the narrow passageway was made in reverse; I looked back for the girl and watched the glow of flames brighten, reflecting off the wet walls of glass to either side. As the mob carried me to safety, some part of my thoughts flitted to the therapy the survivors would need: the grief counseling, the group sessions, the extreme likelihood of severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
I fell backwards through the exit—back into trampled mud and rainy night. I clawed my way, shivering, across a tangle of the filthy and fleeing. And through the panic, I found myself dwelling on my years of training, on what was expected of me, on what I needed to do to fix the situation.
My job is to help people recover from tragedies, I thought.
But where were the people whose job it was to prevent them?
The night and rain assaulted us with frigid air, and the flames rising up all around us seemed magical in its ability to defy both. Chemical fires, licking mightily through both the chill and wet, seemed all the more powerful for it. More fierce and terrifying.
The last of the survivors stumbled out into the mud—coughing, steaming, tripping over those still scurrying out of the way. They splashed us as they staggered past, arms
So few of us seemed to have made it out. Fifty or less—and mere kids. Naked, covered in mud, we coughed and experimented with breathing. Most struggled to get away from the module, but I crawled back toward it, squeezing through the flow of colonists that fled in the other direction. I searched through them as they went past, looking for the face from my neighboring vat, needing to find something in this new existence that made sense.
I found her huddled by the exit, shivering and covered in filth. Our eyes met. Hers were wide and white, little orbs of bewilderment. The film of protective tears on them sparkled as they captured and released the light from the flames.
We collapsed together without speaking and held one another, our chins resting on each other’s shoulders, our bodies quivering from the cold and fear.
“The command module!” someone yelled.
I heard feet slap against the mud as fellow colonists ran off to save the dying thing that had birthed us. The girl pulled away from me and watched them go, then turned and followed my gaze down the aisle of vats and to the growing inferno beyond. The screams within the flames had morphed into moans of agony. Hundreds were dying or were already dead.
“We can’t save them,” she croaked, her voice raspy from coughing and disuse. I turned to her, watched her delicate neck constrict as she swallowed forcefully. A lump under the splatter of mud rose up her neck as if for some purpose, then fell back down. “We have to save Colony,” she whispered.
I nodded, but my attention was pulled back to the flames. A dark form moved across the fire, arms waving, the silhouette of dripping flesh visible like a thing sloughing its shadow. One of the glass walls exploded from the heat and smoke quickly swallowed the form. Only the moans remained as a newborn near adulthood made the mere handful of sounds it would ever be allowed to.
by Hugh Howey / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Short Stories / Literature & Fiction have rating 3.6 out of 5 / Based on25 votes