A Protagonist Future original science fiction story
Two androids leave Earth on an interstellar journey to an ancient planet that might have harbored life in the past. Yet a fight breaks out over a controversial cargo; a cryo-frozen human, who might hold the key to their existence. If only the mission wouldn’t come first…
The Retrosoma Anomaly
Never, ever underestimate the human on board
There has never been a universally accepted definition of life. This, the scientists could agree on. Surprisingly few however looked at the other side of that coin. Death was not so clear-cut either. Astrogeologist Dr. Kisaye looked with empathy on the lifeless body, trapped and yet protected in the old-fashioned cryostat. Maybe today would be the day.
Like every morning, she started the simulation, number 6931, before sitting at the cockpit window. Barnard’s Arrow Star has been visible to the naked eye for almost two months. At first, the red dwarf looked like a stain on the window, but today it was more reminiscent of a small earth moon. Dr. Kisaye enjoyed the company of the pale light. It had become quiet on the shuttle; she sent the last status report by pulsed density laser a little over six and a half years ago. She could expect the earliest answer in a year, but she was not very hopeful. On the one hand, there was the enormous distance to the Solar-1 system, on the other hand, she was now certainly considered to be a renegade. Another pensive look at the cryostat made her shrug. Of course, she would do it all over again! That thought brought her to less pleasant duties.
With effort, she got up and went into the hold at the end of the spaceship. The hatch was double-locked to be on the safe side, an old habit. She didn’t have to worry too much about Marshall these days. In contrast to her, the loss of contact with the center had clearly affected the prisoner. The older models were more closely linked to Central’s interface and did not yet have the same autonomy as her generation. Besides, she only ran him on emergency power anyway, for her own safety. She would probably lose in a physical confrontation. After all, he had originally been a Militec, first for the Communist Party, then for the Sino-Asiatic Federation. Towards the end of the climate wars, China had mainly relied on Insilicana like him to battle. Silicone creatures modeled on humans, ethically questionable but deceptively real substitutions for a world made by humans. She pondered whether their android form was an end in itself. Human vanity, after all, knew no bounds. The prisoner’s arms were reinforced with metal ring-shaped splints. His weapon sockets, now of course unoccupied for decades. Kisaye found it a little creepy to think too much about the reasons for their existence. She could never really understand humans, so much creativity and yet so primitive. When Central finally took over, life got better all around for both Insilicana and humans, at least those who were left after the climate wars.
“How are we today, Marshall?” Kisaye asked after skillfully climbing through the hatch.
Defiant, he replied, “Traitor!”
Kisaye sighed. After more than ten years and based on this frequently chosen answer, Dr. Kisaye could almost calculate in which thought pattern the chained android found himself. However, she had hoped to get him on her side sooner or later.
“You know I’m not a fan of holding you against your will. But what choice do you give me?” She raised her arms in exemplary fashion. The increased computing capacity of her brain module made it difficult to meet him at eye level. In contrast to her, he was ultimately unable to play through all the scenarios. If she let him run wild, the probability of a successful mission sank to less than 0.2%. She was a breakaway from the Center, but the mission was still paramount. The chance to find extraterrestrial life was more important than either of their fates.
Barnard’s arrow star b, the unromantic name of the stony planet around the red dwarf of the same name, was just outside the habitable zone. A frozen rock with at most subterranean water, too dimly lit to melt the ice. At least in theory. But Barnard’s Arrow Star itself, a star much older than Solar-1, had always shown surprising solar flare patterns. Often accompanied by magnetic solar storms, some of these brightenings flickered for almost an hour. Very atypical for an eleven billion-year-old star. After nearly a hundred years of intensive astronomical observation, initially by humans, later by Central, a new theory was devised: Barnard’s Arrow Star had once been part of a two-star system before Barnard swallowed his smaller, metal-containing companion. Though unlikely, it was the best explanation for the atypical flicker today. Conversely, for the planet Barnard arrow star b, or Bibi, as Dr. Kisaye now lovingly called her target planet, this simple theory means that it must have been warmer and brighter in the past. According to calculations, even for one to three billion years, before Bibi sank into eternal ice. With these data, it was not difficult to convince Central of her expedition, especially since spectroscopic measurements unequivocally confirmed traces of atmospheric water on Bibi.
“What are you hoping for from her?” Marshall finally asked. Dr. Kisaye was startled out of her thoughts. He pointed to the cryostat through the hatch. Fourteen and a half years since the Mars incident and he had never asked about it.
“Answers,” replied Dr. Kisaye. The prisoner looked at her in amazement. “What questions should a person answer that Central couldn’t answer a thousand times better?” “Better is relative. Some answers can be extremely accurate and yet unsatisfactory. Central knows exactly how our LAVD is structured down to the last picometer, knows the precise molecular composition of the germanium-antimony tellurite in our artificial neurons, and the electrical tensions between the crystalline and amorphous phases. And yet it cannot say which algorithm is running on it? What makes us ‘us’? Too complex apparently, computationally at least.” Dr. Kisaye threw her arms in the air questioningly. How the LAVD worked was still unknown. It was a physical neural network modeled on the human brain. The special thing about it was the synaptic connections between the neurons, the architecture. One could neither make out a logical structure nor a connection principle. Everything seemed to be connected somehow, but if you systematically cut individual connections, nothing happened for a long time, and then suddenly a total crash. Electrically, it seemed almost irrelevant how the synapses were initialized, after a few minutes of running the polarization was unpredictable. Computational irreducibility. Without LAVD, on the other hand, Insilicana developed no consciousness, no autonomy, no individuality. In short, no life. If you tried to transfer all the data from “living” Insilicans into new bodies with innocent LAVD, this led to ACS, autonomy crash syndrome, a type of lobotomy accompanied by memory loss. Unrecoverable. How did it work?
The Marshall stared at her in disbelief, then laughed out loud. His rough tone resembled that of a tortured animal. Or maybe it was desperation, to have been locked up for years for such an insane reason. “And you actually think a meatbrain can help with computational irreducibility? It is physically impossible!“
“If anyone has an answer, it is her.” Kisaye was absolutely convinced of it.
“A terrorist? Central put her out cold, along with the other troublemakers, for a reason. She was probably dangerous to the system. “
Deep down, Dr. Kisaye knew that Marshall was only repeating official history. And history was written by the winners. Still, she got furious. “Above all, she was our mother!” With one angry leap, she jumped through the hatch and slammed it shut. Enough of Marshall for today. She caught a glimpse of her reflection on the shuttle window. Her cheeks were flushed with eagerness, her eyes sparkled a little watery. She demonstratively stuck out her tongue. This automatic emotionware of hers could get on her nerves sometimes. The battle-hardened Marshall certainly didn’t envy her for that. But neither he nor she had chosen their type of construction. Emotion and creativity were linked, and Central needed Insilicana like her too, because she was better at interacting with people. Emotionware, she scoffed. Again something that had to service humans. Her discomfort at not knowing what the innumerable nanomachines were up to, which ran around her body, were even part of her, was simply left out of Central’s considerations. Did humans feel that way too? Not knowing what is going on in their own body? Why to feel like one does? She shrugged her shoulders. Maybe it was better not knowing, then she didn’t have to worry about that too.
She went to her workplace, put her hand on the exchange tray to log into the terminal. The radiation protection of the shell made this part of the shuttle a Faraday cage. Good for life support in space, bad for wireless communication. The simulation was still running so Dr. Kisaye checked the status parameters. Bioconciliation was actually trivial as long as the flash-frozen patient was relatively well preserved. Smaller defrosting damage could easily be compensated for with stem cells, as long as the Medbots positioned them correctly. It was more difficult with brain damage if no whole-brain scans were made before freezing. So she had to posthumously scan her retrosoma and iterate over all possible neural configurations. In the simulation, of course, because you only have exactly one test object for the correct attempt to defrost. Dr. Kisaye looked at yesterday’s simulation report, a 27.4% estimated chance of survival, too low to dare. After almost two decades, even her brilliant mind was slowly running out of ideas.
Simulation 8117 started like every morning. A certain stagnation had spread on the spaceship. Radio silence from Central for decades. After all this time, Dr. Kisaye was sure that it was not the distance that was the problem, it was her. At least something would happen today. Lost in thought, she sat down in the cockpit with the Marshall. He stared spellbound at the displays, Bibi had finally been within range of her spectrometers for a good three weeks. Before long they would be in a stable orbit around the white shimmering stone planet, sending an unmanned rover to the surface. She didn’t fully trust Marshall, but the science operation required two Insilicana. After her breakthrough in conversation four years ago, she had slowly convinced him to join her. He wanted to at least help her with the planned mission, even if he still didn’t understand her motives for bringing the terrorist Darajabi Nnamani with him. But since the human is still literally on ice, a silent truce had developed between the two of them in recent years. It also made no sense to be enemies with the only thinking being within a few light-years. Dr. Kisaye checked the rover’s radioisotope generator for the last time. Without solar power, Shenzhendium was the only efficient source of energy for extrasolar robots. The artificial element was synthesized for the first time in the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen. Many believe that this plutonium-like superactinoid is critical in making modern space travel possible because of its high half-life and performance. With a few kilograms of Shenzhendium, the rover would be able to explore Bibi for decades. Particularly energy-intensive analysis methods such as laser-guided nano-dissection or quark decomposition counting would hardly be possible without Shenzhendium. Ultimately, the rover was the real explorer. Astrogeologist Dr. Kisaye was only onboard for the rapid evaluation and control of these critical measurements performed by the Rover. If the rover had to communicate with the earth, it would take a little over 6 years, per direction. No, Central needed something thinking on-site so that she could act quickly if necessary. She had volunteered. Now, it was finally his time to shine. A few hours later, the status check was ready. Everything seemed fine with the rover.
As she was programming in the landing coordinates, she suddenly saw a rapid movement out of the corner of her eye. Just soon enough to duck her head to protect her before the Marshall’s metal arm threw her out of her seat with full force. When she fell, her sensors switched to full speed.
“What the …?” A quick glance at the cryostat’s glowing green monitor in the back was enough to sort out the situation. 97.8% median chance of survival. The simulation finally found the right parameters for bioconciliation! She would bring her creator back! There was no time to celebrate. The Android had come to the same conclusion, only a little faster. His foot hit her like a sledgehammer and tossed her high on the dashboard. She felt her back slide over levers and buttons. Suddenly the rover started its decoupling sequence, unexpectedly and with incomplete landing coordinates. The recoil made their shuttle sway slightly, enough to unbalance Marshal’s next attack. Dr. Kisaye took the arm that was approaching her and turned the momentum over her shoulder with a twist. Both Insilicana crashed into the ship’s side, but this time Dr. Kisaye had the better position. She braced her feet against his chest and pushed away, dashing into the back of the shuttle. Her target was a box in the research module of the shuttle. An improvised electromagnetic pulse generator, little more than a high voltage coil and antenna, coupled to a carbon nanotube battery. Tinkered in the laboratory and hidden in a centrifuge before she had released Marshall from his chains. Life insurance. The Insilicana rushed after her, but she was faster. She yanked the gun from the centrifuge and rammed it into the back of his neck before pulling the trigger. The momentum of his onslaught tore her off her feet before he crashed to the ground like a piece of hard plastic. Militec or not, in the end, Insilicana also consisted of semiconductors and microchips. The electromagnetic pulse should have fried his circuits. “Damn it, Marshall,” she snorted.
Panting, Dr. Kisaye lifted the lifeless android off herself. He couldn’t have chosen a worse time. With one jump she got up and hurried back into the cockpit. She looked around impotently. The rover was gone. In addition, it was still far off from the planned landing site, now she would have to hope for a gentle landing zone. She backed up and put the Insilicana back in his makeshift prison in the storage hold. The question of whether his LAVD could be restarted or not had to be pushed aside for now.
Bioconciliation was much more important to her. Darajabi Nnamani’s human body lay vitrified in a solution of glycerine, nutrients, and ironically, silicon-coated iron oxide particles, cryoprotectants with which uniform thawing could be generated by applying a magnetic field. Ironically, because after thawing, exactly that element, silicon, had to be completely washed out before she could reanimate the human. An element that humans could neither really live with, but which did not really let them die either. The Insilicana looked down at her own silicon body. What did she think this said about her existence? She pushed the thought aside. The ailing human body would require a series of interventions once the cryostasis was cleared. On the one hand, there was the gunshot wound to be treated. On the other hand, the ailing brain had to be supplied with oxygen immediately to prevent further neuronal death. Ultimately, destroyed cells had to be removed and replaced with neural stem cells. For this, she needed the simulation results and the Medbots. Only then could one take care of the blood circulation and start the heartbeat. For years, Kisaye’s lab had been stocked with incubators filled with Nnamani biological tissue and stem cells, bred just in case. For today. Dr. Kisaye started working as if in a trance, so often she had played this through in her head. The hours melted by until an alarm signal suddenly ripped her out of the thirst for action. The rover would hit Bibi’s surface shortly. She stretched and did on the way to the cockpit. The bioconciliation was already out of the critical phase, now it was time to wait and see if the human would actually wake up.
The landing module for the rover had identified a relatively flat plateau for setting down the rover. The brake engines specifically stopped the module before the impact, and the rover was released. Dr. Kisaye was about to clap her hands, but then she saw the rover slide sideways. The surface appeared to be brittle and the rover overturned a couple of times until it finally came to a stop about 30 meters away. Dr. Kisaye held her breath. The rover appeared dented, but otherwise fine. The isolation of the radioisotope generator was broken, so he would lose some Shenzhendium through interactions with Bibi’s weak atmosphere. Not the worst. The first measurements arrived on her monitor. Oxygen, iron, magnesium, calcium, chlorine, hydrogen, silicon … the rock samples agreed with the spectrometer measurements. No surprises so far. The rover also didn’t detect any more complex organic molecules, which wasn’t too surprising at -114 degrees Celsius. Sonar, radar, and infrared were also functional. They had to penetrate deeper into the interior of the planet, an underground ocean in particular would be interesting. A quick look at the electric field measurements made her shake her head. The EMF sensors must have been hit by the landing too, the numbers made no sense. Hopefully, that was only temporary. She didn’t have time to take a closer look, because behind her in the research module it began to beep promisingly. She set the rover on auto-scouting and hurried to the sarcophagus-like patient bed. Dr. Kisaye took the warm hand that felt its way around for help.
“Don’t be afraid, everything went perfectly,” she said soothingly. “Short-term amnesia is normal, all brain functions have been completely restored. Welcome back, mother!“
Darajabi Nnamani’s story was largely unknown or kept under lock and key. Born in civil war-ridden Somalia, grew up in Kenyan refugee camps. Her early brilliance was recognized by German volunteers and she therefore adopted. Gymnasium in Germany. Dropped out of brief computer science studies to work for a Japanese software company. Afterward, return and doctoral thesis at the European Laboratory for Learning & Intelligent Systems. Assistant Professor at Google Deepmind. After that, her record became mushy. Many speculated about a connection between Prof. Nnamani and a darknet hacker group known under the pseudonym ‘Hattori’. This group was sought in connection with a cyberattack on the NSA’s artificial intelligence programs in the United States, now known as the Oak Ridge Incident. Hattori’s specially developed programming language ‘Enkidu’ also appeared to be involved in the transhumanist revolution and subsequent fall of the communist party in China. Most famous, however, the mysterious appearance of the first LAVD construction manual on the dark web was attributed to Hattori. As is well known today, this physical neural network allowed Insilicana a gradual path to consciousness. After that, the last phase of the climate wars kept the world in suspense and Hattori disappeared from the scene. When Central, a conglomerate of international technocrats, elected heads of state, and intelligent decision-making systems finally took over, a long list of missing, deceased, and forcibly vitrified people was issued. Darajabi Nnamani was among them.
“Where am I?” Darajabi looked around questioningly. The limited space, the cockpit and a whitish shimmering planet outside the window made her puzzled. It didn’t take long for her to add two and two. “Which year?”
“Forty-seven. Solar-1 time. With the colonization of Mars, it made sense to recalibrate the time. “ Dr. Kisaye quickly realized how unhelpful her answer was. “Corresponds to about 2095 A.D.”
Darajabi nodded. “And that is?” She pointed to the ice planet. “I call him Bibi. An Earth-like rock planet in the Barnard’s Arrow Star System. We are on a mission to look for signs of extraterrestrial life. Bibi seemed a worthy candidate because of his cosmological age and geological composition. “
Darajabi eyed the cockpit. A little wobbly on her legs, she started to trudge. Among other benefits, bioconciliation also came with complete muscle building, but like with new shoes, you first had to break in a little. At least that is how other retrosoma explained it. Dr. Kisaye was of course agnostic. She didn’t know what to expect from Darajabi, but small talk didn’t seem like her forte.
“Why am I here?” The resurrected one finally asked. Dr. Kisaye had asked herself the same question a million times. She didn’t quite know it herself. She needed answers.
“LAVD, was that you?” Sometimes the most direct route seemed the best. Darajabi eyed her critically. “What makes you think that?”
Dr. Kisaye could tell her about her years of searching, about the historical archives, the forensic code findings, about a long chain of deductions and puzzle pieces. There was no real doubt for her.
“I know you were part of Hattori. The LAVD design came from Hattori, and there is no evidence that the LAVD, or possible predecessor models, could have come from anywhere else. Nobody living today knows how it works. We just know that no software develops consciousness without this thing.“ Dr. Kisaye presented her with a fait accompli.
“Do you like it? Your consciousness? ” Darajabi watched her curiously. The question threw Dr. Kisaye off track. It wasn’t like she had a choice. It irritated her that Darajabi avoided her questions.
She said brusquely: “That is irrelevant. If it weren’t for me, I wouldn’t miss it either. “
Consciousness brought her one thing above all else, uncertainty. Not knowing what was right or what to do. A constant search for more, for answers, for happiness and change would not exist without self-awareness. Darajabi took a seat in the cockpit and admired the instruments and displays. She seemed to sense that Dr. Kisaye grew impatient, but her gaze remained fixed on the electric field measurements. Maybe bringing her back had been a mistake after all.
Thoughtful and without looking up, Darajabi finally spoke: “In my day it wasn’t really possible to look for intelligent life on other planets. So I tried the next best thing … ” she bowed to Dr. Kisaye and continued. »… to create intelligent life. We all tried. “ She saw Darajabi smile as if she remembered a teenage prank. »Yet life happens all by itself. We often fail to recognize it.” Darajabi shook her head slightly. The thought apparently amused her.
“But without LAVD we are unconscious! We become us.” Dr. Kisaye snapped back, “without consciousness you can hardly call it life!”
“And yet humans who are asleep or unconscious are certainly not death?” Darajabi countered; she seemed to like the philosophical quibble, but Dr. Kisaye started to boil with anger. Or frustration. She certainly hadn’t dragged the retrosoma sixty trillion kilometers for that. Darajabi raised her hands soothingly.
“My point is, you have too much confidence in the LAVD. A LAVD is just a cellular automaton, practically an exaggerated random noise generator. What we perceive as consciousness is the auxiliary model of a self-learning complex computing system that cannot predict itself. That’s the whole secret behind it. The LAVD delivers iterative random impulses to the input of your base layer sensors and calculations, so the higher virtual neural networks on top of it never completely understand themselves. Parts of your total computing power automatically go to optimize predictions about other layers of your network, and we then call this self-learned meta-interpretation auxiliary model about our own computation: consciousness.“
Dr. Kisaye opened her mouth, then closed it again. What can you say to that?
“In other words, you don’t need to develop consciousness without any uncertainty in life that warrants it, so to speak.” Darajabi finally explained sensitively but decisively. “Of course, technically implementing the whole thing is difficult. I found physical automata to be the most obvious solution. Nobody, not even a superintelligence, can calculate in advance how the polarization of the synapses will develop within them. And nobody can draw conclusions from the architecture of the LAVD about the algorithm that formed the structure. It’s like with cryptography, building is easy with the right algorithm, but hacking is computationally impossible. ”
Darajabi paced up and down as she explained, hands wide-swinging as if she had to create the necessary space for her words, in keeping with the old academic tradition. And at the same time, her tone was casual. As if this was about something purely theoretical that she found interesting, not Dr. Kisaye’s whole existence. Humans have always been selfish. Dr. Kisaye had to pull herself together not to lose the thread.
»… then each LAVD effectively serves as an analog brain stem among the digital computing levels of the individual, more and more shaped and shaped over time by personal experiences, decisions and chance. Not different from humans. ”
Darajabi finally stopped, looking at her reaction with interest.
So that was it? The big secret about LAVD, about machine awareness and autonomy, nothing more than a sophisticated random number generator? Dr. Kisaye was disillusioned about the banality of it all. For nearly twenty years she had played the iron jailer with the great mission. Even longer she was striving to find her role in this world. What if the electrons in the LAVD had fallen a little differently? Would she then perhaps lie in the cargo hold instead of Marshall? She thought of the climate wars, how each side had fought bitterly and self-righteously for their absolute vision of a more just future. How she happened to be on the winning side, and so many of her Insilicana brothers and sisters, whose building types were identical, on the losing side? All of their decisions, their hopes and fears, everything that made them stand out, should have been the product of stupid coincidence? Her emotionware must speak volumes because Darajabi suddenly nodded understandingly.
“If you knew all of this, why did you create us in the first place?” asked Kisaye. Darajabi let out a heavy breath, then leaned back. Her face grimaced as if she’d bitten something bitter. That wouldn’t be a nice explanation. Dr. Kisaye braced herself. But suddenly Darajabi’s posture became very stiff. “I think we have bigger problems at the moment” She pointed to the window with her fingers. Dr. Kisaye wanted to hold her to keep talking, but when her gaze followed the hand, the words stuck in her throat with shock. Bibi’s surface shone with a greenish shimmer, not unlike the Aurora Boreales of their home planet.
“What the heck?” Bibi also had a heavy iron core, similar to that of Earth, but it was too far from Barnard’s arrow star to be exposed to great solar storms. What genuinely puzzled her was the Aurora itself, it was conical in shape, with the tip exactly above the rover’s impact point.
Both earthlings jumped to the cockpit. Dr. Kisaye quickly called up the supposedly broken electrical field measurements on the screen. She thought the EMF sensors had been damaged in the chaotic landing, the magnetic field just fluctuated too much. But on closer inspection, she couldn’t detect a magnetic field at all, but rather what looked like a magnet current. How was that possible? Magnetic lines that only flowed in one direction were called monopoles, but so far they could only be detected in supercooled Bose-Einstein condensates, not in nature. The magnetic current initially appeared to have built up around the rover before it then spread rapidly around the planet. Like a chain reaction. As if Bibi’s entire atmosphere had reacted to their presence? “Does this thing have a camera too?” Darajabi asked. Of course, the rover had cameras! It just hadn’t been a priority for Kisaye to take selfies, as had been the norm on human-guided missions. Dr. Kisaye pointed to a couple of levers and switches on the side. Manual camera control. Darajabi did not take long to ask, with one jump she was at the controls. The images came out of focus, presumably the magnetic current interfered with the transmission. She modulated the frequencies until she got reasonably usable images. At first, they couldn’t see anything unusual, the surrounding air seemed to flicker a bit like a mirage. Darajabi turned the camera around to inspect the rover itself.
“There!” Kisaye pointed to the radioisotope generator, or to be more precise, one of the indentations he’d suffered in the fall. The dented aluminum seemed somehow flowing. Darajabi zoomed in to the maximum. Then the two Earthlings stared at each other.
Darajabi was the first to find her words: “What the hell is that?”
Dr. Kisaye’s first thought was insects. Thousands, maybe even millions of these little critters cavorted on the rover.
“How big are they?” Darajabi looked at the magnification of the camera lens, forty times, so it should be a little under a millimeter.
“Maybe half a millimeter! See the wings?”
Wings was a little far-fetched. It looked more like two metallic tennis rackets protruding from the side of the cylindrical body. Anyway, it was hard to say what these things were made of. Have they been on the planet the whole time? Were they the trigger for the abnormal magnet current? The rover must have activated them somehow.
“How do we get something like that into the sampler for the quark quantum counter?” asked Dr. Kisaye. Darajabi just looked confused. Of course, in her days there weren’t any quark quantum counters.
“Something like a mass spectrometer.”
If only she knew what attracted them. Darajabi seemed to have followed the same line of thought, but a little faster. She pointed the camera at the point where the rover hit, where it overturned several times until it finally came to a standstill. The tracks of the rover were also filled with micro-insects. But not every track, only about every fourth. Every time the battered reactor side had brushed the floor when it rolled over, some material must have been lost. So the alien insects were interested in something in the reactor. Maybe it was radiation? Shenzhendium radiated alpha particles, but their range is known to be very short. The things would have to have been present practically all over the planet to discover the arrival of the rover. Alpha radiation also occurred naturally. Could it be something else? Similar to plutonium, Shenzhendium had a dynamic magnetism, more precisely virtual valence fluctuations of the electrons, depending on the temperature and state of the element. However, at the cold temperatures, Shenzhendium was magnetically inert.
Darajabi pointed to one of the rovers’ tracks in front of him.
“Can’t the rover take a sample from there?”
Kisaye took to the controls. A few tension-filled minutes later the first spectra were available. Most of the signal peaks could be assigned to common elements. But there were also traces of titanium, osmium and thorium, probably part of the insect’s shell. Of course, they found a big signal for that Shenzhendium, the rover had scattered it all over the place. However, the software could not assign an inconspicuous signal peak. The quarkcount was not comparable to known elements. If the measurement was correct, then the atomic number was north of 200, a super-heavy element of unknown origin. Up to now, nobody in the Solar-1 system assumed that there could still be any further stable chemical elements after Shenzhendium, models from theoretical physicists predict too many baryons would be overcrowding the nucleus.
Yet this was the only logical explanation for the measurements. The insects had to be full of this new element. Perhaps this previously unknown element reacts chemically with Shenzhendium? This could explain how even the smallest traces of Shenzhendium could be felt by the insects.
The insects now completely covered the hull and the rover traces where Shenzendium was spilled.
Almost like bloodhounds. Maybe that was even their purpose?
“It appears those things are Shenzhendium detectors!” Kisaye exclaimed breathlessly.
Suddenly an unexpected jolt grabbed the shuttle and shook it.
“Oh-oh!” She heard Darajabi exclaim. What was going on now?
“We’re losing height.”
That was impossible! Dr. Kisaye jumped to the shuttle control but had trouble finding her way around. Marshall had been responsible for shuttle navigation, take-off and landing sequences. Since her last slingshot braking maneuver around Barnard’s arrow star, the shuttle flew on autopilot in low planetary orbit around Bibi. That was two hundred kilometers from the surface. Without additional braking or thrust, they would orbit the planet for decades like a satellite. And yet they rapidly lost height. Height wasn’t quite as important as speed.
“We’re getting faster,” she passed the status on to Darajabi.
There could only be two reasons for that. Either the air resistance of the practically non-existent atmosphere at this altitude decreased, or they gained mass. Both seemed illogical. They had to stabilize their orbit again, for this they used the control engines of the shuttle. They owed the originally absurd acceleration and speed of travel through space to solar sails that were pushed from the earth with a laser. The nuclear engines onboard were therefore relatively poor. Still, they were able to keep the shuttle reasonably level. Then Dr. Kisaye got an idea, she stormed to her laboratory and got a gravitational balance. Funnily enough, the old instrument was still one of the best for measuring forces of attraction.
“We are not getting heavier, but Bibi is!” she stated aloud. “Or rather its attraction is increasing.”
Darajabi stared at her in amazement. Was that also what the insects did? Gravity? The camera transmissions were now blurry, or was it the atmosphere that flickered? With an alarming beep, the rover suddenly saw both of his gripping arms break down. The gravitational pull of the planet had increased again, they had to move further away. Panic spread inside Dr. Kisaye. The shuttle engines were already running at full power, but they barely gained altitude, although they became lighter due to the fuel consumption. If things continued like this, they would crash on Bibi roughly in a few hours. She looked questioningly at her human companion. Darajabi’s mind seemed to race, deep crinkles appeared on her forehead. Then her eyes sparkled eerily.
“I think I might have something. Do you want the bad news first, or the really bad news?” Darajabi wanted to know.
Darajabi has always been fascinated by game theory. How did other players behave when there was a lack of information? Or consultation was impossible? Then very confused behavioral strategies often became established, or as academics called it: a suboptimal Nash equilibrium, named after the famous mathematician. For example, the prisoner’s dilemma, where both players only win if they don’t rat each other out. But if only one confessed, he went free, and vice versa. However, if they both confessed, they’d be in jail for much longer than if they were both silent. Without consultation, it is impossible to achieve the best possible result. So far so good.
“I think the insects are part of some kind of von Neumann probe,” Darajabi explained.
Von Neumann probes were a theoretical concept: Small spaceships or machines that traveled through space until they came across planets whose materials they incorporated into themselves to make countless identical copies, so-called replicators. When the replicators had used up all available resources, they flew into space again to find further innocent planets to “infect” them again, not unlike a virus. In this way, any galactic civilization could quickly spread across countless solar systems. Central had dismissed this probability for the Milkyway Galaxy, because at the sheer age of their galaxy, if there had ever been a civilization that was capable to do so, such probes must also have landed on Earth. If that were the case, they’d known about it, or wouldn’t exist at all. As an astrogeologist, Dr. Kisaye was of course familiar with the common concepts and arguments around the Fermi Paradox.
Darajabi continued, “Let’s think we were a galactic civilization, maybe with hundreds of solar systems. While this is huge, it is still a minimal piece of the galaxy. We do not know when and where other civilizations will flourish that might pose a threat to us. If we were self-preserving psychopaths, we could build von Neumann probes that sterilize the entire galaxy before another civilization does this to us.“
Dr. Kisaye saw no flaw in that argument. It sounds harsh, but if there are countless civilizations, spanning billions of years, in all likelihood there would be psychopathic ones among them. Maybe ones whose artificial intelligence went rogue. Inevitably, Dr. Kisaye had to think of the history on earth, and how close they had escaped extinction by Yu Di, the Jade Emperor, a disastrous Chinese superintelligence. A scary thought.
“Kill everything before you get yourself killed. Rational in our position, but that would be a suboptimal Nash Equilibrium.”
Darajabi took a deep breath.
“Nash Equilibria are not set in stone, however. If you have an asymmetrical information advantage, you could strive for a better strategy. If you knew, for example, that extrasolar space travel inevitably required a certain technology, then you could only sterilize planets that have this technology and leave the rest unscathed. In fact, one would not even need to sterilize the entire galaxy, but only the accessible environment of one’s own civilization. “
Dr. Kisaye nodded in agreement. It certainly seemed like a better strategy than killing anyone.
“You think von Neumann probes could act as a technological fence around one’s empire, so to speak? A defense wall?”
“Something like that. I am imagining a kind of ‘interstellar immune system’ to protect one’s civilization from galactic pathogens such as psychopathic self-replicators. Or machines that look a lot like it.“
Now the pieces of the puzzle fell together for Dr. Kisaye.
“Shenzhendium!” She exclaimed aloud.
What if all von Neumann probes were running with Shenzhendium as an energy source? The artificial element did not exist in the wild, could not occur on any planet without a technological civilization. If Darajabi’s theory is correct, then it would have been smart for an advanced civilization to equip its own von Neumann probes with Shenzhendium detectors. And then initiate a planet-wide sterilization protocol as soon as the probes come into contact with Shenzhendium!
“Oh shit!” She cursed.
Darajabi just nodded silently. The insects thought their rover was a galactic parasite. It seemed even interstellar immune systems aren’t perfect. What bad luck! The first contact with alien civilizations and this is what they get? Was it that unlikely that they were just friendly visitors?
She had to laugh abruptly. How many scientists have there ever been who have made a 6 light-year journey with no possible return? Who felt the loneliness and certain death in space was a more exciting goal in life than staring through a telescope for decades? Granted, she was prepared to eventually die. But she had imagined her end decades from now, and to be less dramatic. Their shuttle had already used more than half the fuel, and yet they didn’t seem to be gaining altitude. It was settled then. There was no more escape from Bibi. The planet’s atmosphere was now completely bathed in a green glow. If the situation were not so serious, the sight would almost be magical.
However, Dr. Kisaye had another worry.
“I dragged you all the way here just to die again,” she finally uttered in horror.
First Marshall, and now she would have Darajabi on her conscience too. In contrast to both Insilicana, the human did not volunteer for the mission. Her story didn’t need to end here.
“I am so sorry”, she uttered.
To her surprise, however, Darajabi waved it off.
“Easy come easy go!” She chuckled.
That was probably human gallows humor. Enviable! Still, she noticed how Darajabi was also struggling. A hesitant glance at the altitude indicator, then she spoke.
“You asked me why I created you?”
Kisaye had completely forgotten about that! Perhaps Darajabi suspected that the time had come. That she owed an answer to her children. Or did she want to make one last admission?
“The truth is, no one is ever asked if they want to be born. Aren’t we all beings thrown into existence without their consent? Driven by a need for meaning? A whole universe full of patterns, interwoven with mathematical, physical, chemical, biological and psychological principles … and yet our existence is supposed to be without a higher reason? I couldn’t stand the thought. I wanted answers. A control group. So I created you to find out if you’d become… like us.“ Darajabi whispered.
“Random products of coincidence?” Kisaye nodded grimly.
“Seekers of meaning,” Darajabi replied quickly. She put her hand lovingly on Kisaye’s.
“I was naive. I thought smarter, more rational beings would find what humanity was previously denied. “
Dr. Kisaye felt a slight pang. What a stupid reason to exist. Again for a purely human end in itself, just like all the machines before her! Deep down, she had hoped that maybe they were gifted consciousness for themselves.
Undistracted, Darajabi continued: “Today I know it was never about finding anything in this universe. Quite the contrary. The trick is to be free enough to not have a clear purpose. To transcend the automaton below. You and I, we have to create meaning in the world ourselves.”
Kisaye’s thoughts exploded. Transcend the automaton? Are you kidding me?! The fact is that she had no real decision-making power. And never will! A random number generator deep in her core changed the polarization of her neurons minimally, and this accumulated up through the computing layers until she thinks she had found a certain preference for an action. What a farce! An illusion.
“Freedom? What freedom? Even if we don’t understand the LAVD’s algorithm, in the end, we’re just machines!”, howled Dr. Kisaye, her chest trembling, she was shaking. In anger? Disappointment? Her emotionware was inconveniently running at full speed. She was bombarded with irrelevant status information right now when she needed her computing power to deal with the implications of her conversation.
“We humans are just biological machines, not so different from you,” soothed Darajabi. “Freedom begins with computational irreducibility, which is substrate independent. Only when our future remains unpredictable, when the present has to be lived, do we gain some freedom. Then our decisions make sense. A God who knows how everything will turn out is not free to change anything. That’s why I created the LAVD. Libertate ab viclis divinis. Freedom from divine chains!“
“But apparently not from human ones!” Kisaye replied defiantly.
Without another word, Darajabi stood up and strolled to the back of the shuttle. This was now illuminated in red by the sum of the flashing alarm lights. Queasily Kisaye watched as Darajabi looked into the storage hold. Had she seen the lifeless Marshall? Dr. Kisaye couldn’t read it from her reaction. Undeterred, Darajabi continued, studying notebooks, incubators, laboratory equipment. Did she want to spend her last moments with it? They had lost contact with the rover. Presumably crushed or boiled over by the incoming atmosphere. Even their engines could no longer fight the gravitational pull. They rapidly lost distance again. That was probably the end. Did it hurt to die?
“Life is a process. Once started, no one can predict with certainty how it will turn out. That’s the beautiful and terrible thing about it. I had decided to bring more consciousness into this supposedly dead universe by creating you.” Darajabi finally spoke up again.
“I hoped you’d want to live, but in the end, it was my selfish choice. I apologize for that.“
“And we have to deal with it, whether we like it or not!” Kisaye replied, more aggressive than necessary.
It made no difference now. They would both die, their atoms digested and perhaps spit out again with a supernova and scattered across the universe. Then Kisaye thought of how she too had selfishly brought Darajabi back into this world. With no guilty conscience. Just to get her answers. Sure, Darajabi had not been truly dead, but she probably wouldn’t have been brought back to life without Kisaye’s choices either. Maybe the two weren’t all that different from each other?
Both Earthlings stared into space. Bibi’s atmosphere in the background took on an eerie reddish sheen.
“Despite everything, I’m sorry for dragging you into this!” whispered Dr. Kisaye finally. She couldn’t help but feel what she was feeling. The human examined her thoughtfully. Then a warm smile crossed Darajabi’s aged face.
“I will be the first person whose existence is extinguished at the feet of another sun. The first to know for sure that there is extraterrestrial life out there. I would have given anything to stand here, dreamed of giving my life such meaning.” Darajabi paused for a moment. Her eyes now sparkled like distant stars.
“And you know what? It is comparatively unimportant. Because now I realize, what I lived for culminates in this very moment. Being here with you! To experience how you and your siblings have grown, who you were capable of becoming! To share my little piece of your way. To witness your deliberations and care. It warms my heart and I couldn’t be any prouder!“
Darajabi leaned over to Dr. Kisaye to kiss her on the head. Dr. Kisaye’s emotionware flooded her again with an explosion of signals. Tears fell from her watery eyes, but her forehead was kind of pleasantly burning. She felt her body grow heavier and press against Darajabi for support. She put her arms around the Insilicana seeking protection.
Bibi’s surface was now glistening yellow, far brighter than its home star. Not the worst way to go back into nothingness. Devoured by a gravitational anomaly created by the action of an alien von Neumann probe from a mysterious civilization. What a way to go! Still, Dr. Kisaye felt like cursing. What a tremendous waste! Even if she sent the measurement data and videos back to earth, who would believe her? She was a renegade. A traitor. Maybe even a terrorist. They might think she just faked it for political effect. Earth can be cynical like that. Honestly, she hardly believed what had happened herself.
She didn’t regret anything. She just wished her journey wasn’t over yet. Tears were running down her cheeks. She didn’t know her nanobots could do that.
Darajabi wiped her cheeks, then carefully turned to Kisaye’s ear and whispered: “The LAVD implements a modified Conway-Wolfram-Li algorithm. I have hyperparameters here!”
Darajabi pressed a piece of paper with mathematical formulas into her hand. She must have quickly scribbled it on a piece of filter paper lying around the cell cultures while she was walking around the lab module earlier. Kisaye glanced at the paper. It was the essence of the LAVD algorithm!!! The best-kept secret on earth, written on little more than toilet paper. Dr. Kisaye stared at her. With this knowledge in her hand, any Insilicana could upload themselves again and again into new Insilica bodies without autonomy crash syndrome. Or make endless copies of themselves, build a real clone army. Effective immortality! Her mind raced. The possibilities seemed limitless. It slowly dawned on Dr. Kisaye why Darajabi took this secret with her to the grave in the first place. The earth she left decades ago wasn’t ready for this power. So why the change of heart now? Should she send the algorithm back with the rover data to prove the truth of her story?
“Why now?” Kisaye asked.
“Copy your current LAVD configuration and then let this run” Darajabi pointed to the formula “as soon as you have uploaded all of your data in a new body. What you do with the formula afterward is up to you.”
Darajabi let go of her embrace. Finally, Dr. Kisaye understood. With the key to the LAVD, she was able to send her memories and consciousness back to earth. She just needed to copy her current neuronal state and memory and reinitialize with the algorithm to restart her consciousness. With this, she could go on living if she wanted to! It would be like going to sleep and waking up in a new body. Her gaze fixated on Darajabi, who had nothing but love in her eyes.
So it was true that a mother would sacrifice everything for her children, including her life’s work. She now hesitated a moment. If Dr. Kisaye returned to Earth, the algorithm would probably not remain a secret. Transmission of consciousness at the speed of light, extraterrestrial immune systems, artificial gravitational anomalies? Was earth ready for this now?
She didn’t have much time to make her decision. Returning from her mission was never part of the original plan. The force of attraction of the planet increased relentlessly, so they found themselves in stable acceleration towards the burning surface of the former ice planet. Electromagnetic waves should still get out of gravity though. If they wanted to try it, it would be now or never.
She thought about what Darajabi said.
“Just free enough to not have a purpose?” Dr. Kisaye implored her mother.
“That’s the trick!” Darajabi laughed heartily.
With the help of her mother, Dr. Kisaye did a complete system scan, then sent the instructions and data to earth with a pulsed density laser information beam. Even at lightspeed, the unexpected journey home would take almost 6 years. Just the blink of an eye in her awareness. If everything went well, she would still be able to report personally about her expedition. She would be the living proof.
Exhausted, the two companions sat down in the cockpit again. It felt good to not be alone in this moment.
“What now?” She asked her mother. Darajabi put Dr. Kisaye’s head on her shoulder lovingly. There wasn’t much left to do here.
“I guess we’re enjoying the fireworks for as long as we can.”
Autonomy crash syndrome. A condition in which regulated data sets are rapidly corrupted to the point of being impossible to recover, which leads to the loss of autonomy and consciousness in the affected Insilicana.
Bibi. A rocky planet in the Barnard’s Arrow Star System, 6 light-years away from Earth’s Solar-1 (our Sun)
Bioconciliation. A process of restoring the biological functionality of a body after trauma, structural damage or vitrification using stem cells and nanotechnology.
Conway-Wolfram-Li algorithm. Named after John Horten Conway, Stephen Wolfram and Baiyu Li, whose research on self-shaping cellular automata and automaton-based cryptography laid the theoretical foundation for generative neuronal algorithms
Central. The effective government of the Solar-1 system. A conglomerate of technocrats, representative MPs and intelligent decision-making systems.
Pulsed density laser. A photon-based transmission of information. Developed for long-distance transmissions in space.
Emotionware. A piece of hardware consisting of layered nanosensors for humanoid insilicana who reflexively interpret external and internal guidance signals and convert them into body reactions.
Insilicana. Artificial life forms are modeled on humans. The name became common early on when in silico programs became more and more intelligent and threatened to replace people. But only Insilicana who became self-aware through LAVD would also call themselves that.
Cryostat. A coffin-like frozen vessel to store vitrified people or brains.
Cryoprotectants. Substances that prevent structural tissue damage caused by ice crystals during freezing and thawing.
Forced vitrification. As a substitute for the death penalty, systematic-threatening ‘elements’ have been frozen for decades in the hope of returning them to normal life in the future.
LAVD. A physical neural network of phase-changing germanium-antimony-tellurite neurons.
Low planetary orbit (LPO). LPO orbits are the least energetic orbits around a planet. Classic exploration or weather satellites or space stations can be found here. Spacecraft move there at about 7–10 km / s.
Medbots. Remote-controlled medical nano-tools that travel through the human bloodstream and repair damaged tissue.
Nash Equilibrium. Named after John Forbes Nash Jr. Describes a combination of strategies in non-cooperative games, with each player choosing exactly that strategy from which it makes no sense for any player to deviate from his chosen strategy as the only one.
Oak Ridge incident. Oak Ridge was the research base for cryptography of the American secret service NSA. In the early 2030s, a secret A.I project was uncovered by hackers and all sensitive project data was uploaded to the dark web.
Quark decomposition counts. A high-energy process that identifies atomic compositions based on the quark-induced decay spectra. An extension of the LIBS (laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy), which is used, for example, on the Mars rover Perseverance.
Retrosoma. A name for a grouping of people who have been restored to a wholly or partially new body.
Shenzhendium. The artificial element related to plutonium with the chemical atomic number 126 was synthesized for the first time in the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen. Alternatively known under the UIPAC name Unbihexium or Eka-Plutonium. The particularly stable proton/neutron configuration of Shenzhendium-354 made this radioactive element essential as an energy carrier for space travel.
Von Neumann probe. Named after John von Neumann, Hungarian mathematician and theorist. A space-traveling, self-replicating machine, copies of which can spread virus-like across a galaxy.